Blog > Nick Owen keynote at the improv conference, Portland Oregon

November 15, 2009

Thought I’d try some live blogging. I’m at the Applied Improv Conference in Portland Oregon with about 100 other people. It’s day two – and Nick is our only keynote. The title of his session is called Touching the Heart: Exploring Core Values through Personal Storytelling.

He’s doing some introductory stuff – building rapport with the audience (that’s us). He’s doing that by telling personal stories – and he has some ppt slides that support, rather than distract. He’s now telling a fable – 17 camels – and you can hear a pin drop.

Leadership themes that emerged from the story – generosity, saving face, give it away and it comes back, noticing more, being grateful for the smallest things, imparting knowledge. Now he’s linked the fable, and the themes back to improvisation. Nice incorporation.

The more we give out the more we get back. It’s not about denying fear but facing our fear – improv provides a way to do that. A gift is loving what you do – many people don’t have this. Generally, improvisers love what they do.

In the corporate world – learning and development is mostly about skills and competency, but we know what’s really important is relationships.

Now it’s time for another story. He uses story well to punctuate the presentation and reinforce key messages. And it’s tied back to leadership.

A bit of theory now – and tied back to the story to make it more accessible – Ken Wilbur’s 4 fields of action – professional (It), personal (I), cultural (You + I = We), infrastructure (Its): inner/outer – self/others. Learning a lot about how to structure a keynote presentations by doing this live blogging. Use of metaphor and reincorporation.

Most businesses work in the professional and infrastructure realm because it’s safe and measurable. Improvisation has so much to offer because it brings in the personal and cultural. We have to start with ourselves. So now we’re doing a Bio-poem. Here’s how to do it.

First line: Your name

Second line: 3 adjectives alliterated

Third line: Who has loved…

Fourth line: Who wanted…

Fifth line: Always… (and includes) never…

Your name…

And here’s the thing – the structure gives us, well, structure. At the other end of the spectrum is chaos. There’s a tension between structure and chaos, and the tension is the field of form, action and innovation. Creative artists know this and lean towards the chaos end (too much leads to disintegration). Businesses generally want to hang on to the structure (too much leads to stuckness). Neither is good. We need a dance between structure and chaos. We all operate in the field of uncertainty.

What gives us the confidence to operate this way – how can we connect with our values and be true to ourselves, and show up authentically in the world?

Now he’s exploring Otto Scharmer’s U theory.

1. Intending: What is life calling me to do?

2. Sensing: Observe, observe, observe. Listen, really listen. Take time to notice what I know.

3. Presencing: Connect to source: From a place of deep quiet allow inner knowing to emerge.

4. Executing: Test. Apply new ideas in real contexts and notice effects.

(“Business is the only group I know that don’t know what rehearsal means.”)

5. Evolving: Embody the new in sustainable eco-system.

This is an intuitive model. Business has a huge over-reliance on the rational, says Nick. Business is stuck in rationality.

Scharma also talks about 4 types of listening:

1. Downloading – I alreday know that – closed mind

2. Scientific inquiry – how interesting , let me explore that, open-minded

3. Conversational enquiry – empathy, let me REALLy listen to what you have to say, so as I can listen with an open mind and an open heart

4. Generative – resonating with the whole field around me

Bringing it together now: I like the way Nick weaves story and models.

Now introducing spiral dynamics : 8 codes that drive development.

8. Turquoise: Deep Human Code – an integrated, systemic way

7. Yellow: Complexity Code

6. Green: Inclusion Code: everyone has a place, a contribution – awakening of understanding; paradox is that nothing gets done because we’re too busy listening to everyone, whether they have something to say or not

5. Orange: Achievement Code: Looking at now – technology, material success, but asking what life is all about

4. Blue: Obedience Code: look outside selves to give structure and order and hierarchy eg religion, organisational command and control structure

3. Red: Power Code eg teenagers, how can I get what I need in a scarce world, about me, me, me – blame outside themselves

2. Purple: Tribal code eg fighting, fleeing, fornicating

1. Beige: Survival Code eg post-disaster

We all show up in all these – and the values in each are different. Has caused a bit of frission in the group. Spiral dynamics tends to do that. Often some pushback and a sense of hierarchy. As Chris Corrigan jsut whispered in my ear: “It’s hard to do a quick overview of spiral dynamics!” True.

Now Nick is talking about the application of the model – that is, how hard it is to take people from one level to another, especially if we skip levels. I guess that’s why it’s called ‘spiral dynamics’ – it’s not linear, and it’s dynamic. From my own perspective, I can slip between the codes depending on the circumstances, safety, my mood and of course, my values.

Applying this to AIN, Yael is talking about where we are at as an organisation – the green code, inclusion? Mostly. There’s also a bit of blue and green in there too, I think. Lots of implications.

Now we’re returning to leadership strategies. POA: Politeness, Openness and Accountabily…connect with all levels.

And finishing with an activity. Sharing personal stories – the same story but with different people. My story went deeper and the other person’s response influenced the story. Our lives are so full of so many stories – many that we have lost track of. Our stories are inside of us, when we tell each other’s stories we reconnect with each other.

Telling personal stories reveal our vulnerabilities. When I share my vulnerability with you, and you with me – we open up to possibility.

Nick’s description of mid-life: “When you stop counting the time since you were born, and start wondering how long it will be till you need an exit strategy.”

Courage – to embody and live our values.

Further reading:

Nick Owen, More Magic of Metaphor, Crownhouse, UK, 2004 and The Salmon of Knowledge, Crownhouse, UK 2009.

Chan Kim W, Blue Ocean Strategy, Harvard Business School Press, USA 2005

Jim Collins, Good to Great, London, Random House, 2001

and more at

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