Tonight I spoke at the Geneva Forum for Social Change on a panel called, “The Power of One: Individual Choices Affecting Environmental Change.” It followed and riffed off of a film which was shown just prior to the panel discussion called, Garbage Warrior, about Mike Reynolds decades long fight to give architecture and building a space to innovate towards more sustainable living. I started my introduction with one of Mike’s quotes from early on in his film…

“Mike Reynolds said that ‘progress is made by making mistakes’. I would say rather that progress is not made by making mistakes, but progress is made by learning from our mistakes (and our successes for that matter.) Learning is not necessarily implicit in making mistakes. People make the same mistakes over and over again. So does society, we see it all around us.

Just two days ago, I filled up my diesel car’s tank with unleaded petrol, from empty, right to the top. And that is not the first time that has happened. How did this happen? I was simply not thinking about my actions or the results, I was not fully present, I was thinking about what I was going to be doing in the future and not what I was doing at that moment.

For the last 19 years I have been working as a learning practitioner within the sustainability community, most recently as the Head of Learning and Leadership with IUCN. From this experience I know that learning takes work; it actually rarely just happens. They say you “Learn Something New Every Day”, and you probably do, but don’t notice it, its passive rather than active learning, and therefore don’t necessarily deeply learn. To deeply learn you need to deliberately close your learning loop, particularly through building reflective practice.

Over the years, I have seen a shifting paradigm in adult learning from more centralised teaching, to facilitated learning which includes an important component on reflection: noticing, naming, capturing, sharing your learning, in order to embed it and make it more accessible for future use (for yourself and others) -so that you can really learn from your mistakes, and successes, and help others learn from yours and their own too. Can we be more present around our choices as consumers, voters, (petrol buyers)? Can we start to more deliberately learn our way towards more sustainable development?

When engaging a facilitator to contribute to a critical process you’re developing, you want to have one of the following: 1) A very strong recommendation from someone you completely trust, or 2) To have participated in/witnessed/appreciated that facilitator’s work personally.

Well, our unit is able to give strong recommendations for people we know well, but even we are limited in the number of people we are able to recommend. Because we normally work together, Lizzie and I, we don’t often get to work directly with many other facilitators. We may know people who belong to our local or international networks, but don’t often get to fully experience people’s work in order to be able to give a nuanced impression of it. So how can we increase our own, and our colleagues, exposure to great facilitation and the many styles and forms that that takes all in one go? We bring the facilitators to us!

Next week we are organizing a Facilitation Demonstration and Learning Day in our office.

This is a full day session, featuring 8 local facilitators, each of whom have 45 minutes to show us their personalised approach, tools and style. There are no wrong answers here; within a rubrique of 5 broad categories, we have asked them to facilitate a group of us (20+) through a short process, so we can get to know them better as potential facilitators. To help guide the day, we gave the facilitators 5 categories from which to choose: strategic planning and review, multi-stakeholder dialogue, partnership building, leveraging networks, and team development. This will help them get to know us better – we picked processes that are common for our organization, the substance and texture of which our audience will provide, giving good insight to our visiting facilitators into the kinds of issues and challenges we deal with every day in our organization (and that they would be dealing with when working with us).

The audience is us – we are the market, the demand, that is smart future buyers of good facilitation expertise. We invited our colleagues to participate so that they can see these facilitators work themselves. And they can then also recommend them to other absent colleagues, or at least help them triangulate opinions.

We had a great response to our invitation within the facilitation “supply” in the Geneva area. So much that we had to choose, and then were able to invite the others and a few guests to participate as observers. In this case, each of the 8 facilitators gets to decide how they would like the observers to participate – actively or silently. We will make a “fourth wall” behind which a gallery of observers can sit, or they can break through it and actively participate, if the facilitator has an approach that works with a larger group of diverse people and so chooses.

We will also be making a list of local talent, so that facilitators who could not attend can still be featured as potential providers of this service in the future. We have already had requests for that list.

We did not have a budget for this and didn’t want to ask people to pay to participate, but we did not want that to stop us. So we are running this event at nearly zero cost, well, our unit is sponsoring coffee breaks for the group. We are using one of our institution’s onsite meeting rooms, will use our self-service cafeteria for lunch, and both our colleagues and our facilitators are donating their time to this joint learning day.

We’ll learn more about them, they’ll learn more about us, and hopefully this day will herald some interesting collaboration in the future from matches between the local supply and demand that might not have otherwise occurred.

I wonder if Harrison Owen knew, back in 1989 when Open Space Technology “escaped” (as its put in the Open Space history), that it would become a facilitator’s favorite? Not only because it helps groups identify the most meaningful topics at the moment (rather than speculating on that weeks in advance without the main beneficiaries in the room), to take ownership and responsibility for the running of those salient conversations (and implementing any outputs), and also gives time for facilitators to take a long break and think about the next steps in their programme.

We used Open Space Technology yesterday, as a part of a 2-day workshop focused on peer learning and workplanning. We picked OST (as it is called in short hand) for a few important reasons, which had to do with timing in the workshop and the kind of results needed.

First, it was the morning of the second day of the workshop and we had invited 6 external partners to come into this particular session. Each came in with a variety of viewpoints and ideas on how this team could interact with their agencies, and suggestions for the team’s future work. We could have had them make detailed presentations and then have a traditional plenary Q&A.

However, the core team members came from all over the world and their contexts and length of experience in implementing the shared programme were incredibly diverse. In order to foster this diversity of interests and needs in the room, we wanted to take the discussion out of a plenary session, where only a few quick people would get their issues heard sequentially, and into a format where people (participants and speakers) could tailor their own discussions. And because there would be a lot of these, we needed to be able to cover a lot of ground and get many questions answered and themes discussed in a short period of time. So for both efficiency and respect to the multiple objectives in the room, OST was good choice.

Second, because this was the last day of this group’s work together, we needed to start to put this back into the group’s hands. The final hours of any facilitated intervention is time in a group’s process when they need to take back the content, as well as the responsibility for follow-up. No longer do they need or want a loud facilitator’s voice mediating their every action. While this might be appropriate when the group is just forming, and many people are quiet and finding their voice and role in the group, this external direction is not necessary or even particularly helpful when the team needs its internal leadership to (re-)emerge, and to take full commitment for outputs and next steps. OST is a good choice for this situation as the structure is set up front, and after that there is no intervention needed by an outside facilitator.

For anyone who might be tempted to try this interesting technique, here is how we set up and ran our Open Space Technology session, which we adapted as a part of a longer workshop, and what we learned.

Getting Some Input: Normally OST sessions are not preceded by presentations, they start with the people in the room, they identify their own questions around the announced theme and the agenda is set based on these topics. For us, we needed to integrate some new information that people could use as a part of their conversations, so our 6 invitees were each invited to make focused 5-minute presentations using only 5 slides, on their priorities, how and where they work, opportunities for collaboration and some questions for the group. In spite of the immediate reaction prior to the workshop to a 5 minute rule (what can you say in 5 min??) we found that the speakers did an excellent job synthesizing and keeping the background to a minimum, and easily made it within their 5 minutes (which we strictly enforced by tight timekeeping from the back.) We did not take any questions at the time, instead we then invited the participants, AND the speakers, to put their questions and areas to further explore on cards, which we then clustered and popped into our time schedule.

Make Time for Scheduling: We ended up having many ideas for parallel discussions, some of which seemed to go logically together. We scheduled theme collection just prior to a coffee break and then while participants were out we did the clustering exercise, grouping like questions, and then when there was more than one question, we assigned two hosts for that discussion. In our coffee break we programmed a series of twelve conversations; three sessions of four parallel conversations for 30 minutes each. This clustering process produced some additional learning – scheduling on your feet takes time. In the agenda we didn’t commit to the length or number of sessions, giving only approximations (e.g. 30 min or 40 min sessions, with either 2, 3, or 4 in parallel), as we were not sure how many suggestions of topics we might get. Allowing ourselves this flexibility enabled us to see the number and diversity of questions submitted and decide on our feet how many conversations we would need to schedule, and whether we would achieve this by adjusting the session length and or number of parallel conversations.

Adding value through grouping: You often get more questions/themes than you have time or slots for, so you’ll need to cluster these. This takes time. We made 12 slots available and received 20 questions. We used 25 minutes to cluster and make the schedule (this was 10 more than the coffee break, but we let people come back late!) We found it useful to have someone familiar on/hand to validate our clustering, as we were not content experts. And next time we would schedule a long (30 minute) coffee break between collecting the questions and beginning the Open Space Technology session. This extra time could be used to clarify the meaning of any questions with the writers if necessary. For this reason we had everyone write their name on their cards.

Inviting self-facilitation: We find this process useful as it distributes responsibility for balanced participation to all members of the group. In an OST process, the small group conversations don’t come with a facilitator, although each session might have a host (the question-raiser), so everyone is invited to ensure time is spent listening to everyone present who wishes to contribute. The context is conducive to this: people are seated at tables (in our case) and there are no flipcharts (though we did provide “graffiti sheets” on the tables – paper and markers). This produced nice conversation circles with people speaking to one another, instead of group orientation towards a flipchart and someone tasked with writing or leading

And also welcome from the Facilitator’s point of view…

Refreshing yourself: OST provides a nice opportunity as the Facilitator to take a few moments to relax and grab a tea, croissant and some precious fresh air. In this process, participants come up with the questions (not you or the client), so they in their conversations can answer clarifying questions about these. They are also free to determine the desired outcomes of the conversation, even the length of time. The posted schedule helps them even take control of the time and close one conversation and open new conversations according to the designated time. We found we could easily leave them to it and take the opportunity to refresh ourselves, eat our croissant, and think strategically into the next steps and stages in our workshop process.

Note: We found some useful tips from the OST website on openings and closings which would be useful for framing and wrapping up a session.

“Oh, Paperwork!” was the answer my new colleague Barbara gave at our weekly team meeting to the following question: “When you think of performance assessments what comes to mind?”

However, for the last 2 years our team has decided to make performance assessments all about team learning. And in doing so, we have used them to build up our noticing skills, our understanding of the situations in which our team members work best, and what we all need from each other to operate as much as possible in this productive zone. I wrote a blog post a few months ago on the 360 degrees process we use called: Practice Note: Helping Performance Assessments Be About Both Individual and Team Learning.

Now we’re preparing our individual work plans for 2009 – the agreements upon which our performance assessments are based – and we took some time to reflect on what we’re learning and why we think team assessment and work planning, rather than the traditional 1-to-1 meetings with your managers, presents a richer and more useful experience for everyone involved.

Here’s why we think performance assessment and individual work planning (agreements) should be done as a Team:

  • Focus the team on the team: There are not that many opportunities (unless you create them) for a team to talk about its own performance. Regular team meetings are usually task oriented and focused on getting things done. Discussions around performance assessments however are focused more on how we get things done, individually and as a team.
  • Create a safer space: Team discussions can help tone down the anxiety that some people might face in a one-on-one assessment or evaluation situation (for both the staff member and the manager – we think this is one of the main reasons why performance assessments inspire masterful procrastination.)
  • Strengthen accuracy and utility of reporting at all levels: When using a team approach for everyone, including the manager (who in our case only needs to be assessed by his/her line manager), the team approach helps provide more useful and accurate information on daily work practice for everyone and from everyone’s perspective.
  • Form the bigger picture: Knowing what everyone is doing helps piece together that larger picture of the goals and vision of the unit, and how each team member is contributing to these. It gives the rich context that some people need and helps make meaningful links between individual pieces of work and that of the team. This understanding of individual contributions to a larger goals also helps with engagement and motivation.
  • Help more people identify change opportunities: With a sense of the overall results desired, it is easier to identify places in the team’s work where a change of practice can produce the most benefit. It also helps people understand potential trade-offs that might be needed for such change to happen. That work becomes a task of the team, rather than simply the manager, when the overall picture is shared.
  • Create Ambassadors: When everyone understands the vision of the team, how their work fits, and how these aggregated efforts contribute to the overall institution’s goals, then each member can share that understanding in the many informal learning situations in which they find themselves each day.
  • Provide professional and personal development opportunities: In a time when bonuses are not really an option to reward good work, team acknowledgement can be an internal metric to help people assess their own growth, development and improvement.

We generated these thoughts as a team. And we think these are compelling reasons to put people at the centre of performance assessments, and take the focus off the paper that they’re written on.

Workshops can produce walls full of flipcharts, if they are designed to create these artifacts from the various discussions and group work. We rarely run an activity that does not have a capture element as we find it helps groups make their thinking explicit, creates an external object (the flipchart, slide, drawing) that they can discuss and debate, and keeps people clear on the topic or question of the discussion. These flipcharts also help the reporting process and help people recognize their own words in the final record of their work together.

It’s on the reporting process that I want to focus in this post. We’re starting to work with a new partner this week with whom we’re doing the design, and will eventually deliver, a two-day workshop at the end of the month. We were asked if we would also write up the report at the end of the meeting. This particular request we had to decline.

Writing up the final report from a workshop or discussion is one of the deep learning opportunities that these kinds of events provide. To externalise this learning to an outside team means that part of the value of the event goes with them when they leave. Quite apart from structuring the report content (much of which is done with a logical workshop design), thinking into the concepts, identifying patterns, unearthing potential contradictions or differences in understanding, can all be used to go back to the team to continue the learning and conversation on the topic. It gives the host or manager (or someone in his/her team) a feeling for the nuances of the discussion that simply reading the report would not necessarily provide. It also puts their fingerprints and style on the report, and the act of synthesizing content and repackaging it into narrative form (like writing a blog post), helps them remember it.

Reporting might seem like a part of the workshop process that you want to outsource, but think again. This parts really embeds the learning so it can be used later, which presumably is one of the reasons to hold the event in the first place!

(Warning: very long post. You can grab a coffee, or be entirely forgiven for moving on to your daily Dilbert email…)

Thursday as I was going to the airport to catch my flight to New York, I heard an economist on BBC talking about the Madoff Affair and the breaking news about the Satyam chief who disappeared $1b. He and the reporter had a discussion about greed. And the economist said that society now realises that there are limits to economic growth, and that this observation has been influenced by the growing social acceptance over the last few years of the ecological limits that we find ourselves bumping up against from climate change.

Now here’s the part that made me smile, the economist then said that people have a drive towards growth, but that they have to find different ways to better themselves, and not just in economic terms. What music for the rather small group of people that have been humming this tune for years.

Many engaging options for achieving this state of “betterment” have been proffered over the last decade or so. Below I am going to share some of the great ideas and the people behind them that I have heard about. I would also like to add learning something new, or relearning something, to this solutions list. Learning has always been an implicit part of this desired exchange – the trade off between materials goods (or perhaps the feelings of satisfaction/achievement/competition derived from them), for the same feelings derived from non-material activities and their impacts, which are hopefully less costly, less resource intensive, and less polluting.

So, I’m going to champion learning explicitly as an option or an ingredient for obtaining that different feeling of betterment that the economist was talking about. But before that, as I mentioned, people have been working on this. Who’s been on the case?

For years the sustainable development community has not only been talking about limits, a notion initially sparked by the famous book Limits to Growth first published in 1972, but also what society can do differently. These SD practitioners have long promoted replacing material rewards with quality of life rewards, or at least trying it. For example, for the last 5 years, Japan for Sustainability (JfS) and its Chief Executive, Junko Edahiro, has promoted Candle Night on the summer solstice. Candle Night has become a global phenomenon which aims, in a way, to get people to practice an alternative. It’s a “voluntary, participatory, and creative cultural campaign that suggests that people share “alternative ways of spending time” and “more diverse scales of affluence” by temporarily turning away from goods and information as an experience shared by society as a whole.” The campaign creates awareness, dialogue, initiative around these lifestyle alternatives, and JfS is behind it with its deep well of expertise and information when people want to go further.

“More fun and less stuff!” has been a rally cry of the Center for the New American Dream since its founding in 1997. This consumption-focused organization runs effective long-term campaigns including stopping junk mail, parenting in a commercial culture, green procurement, and says about itself, “The Center for a New American Dream is dedicated to helping support and nurture an American dream that upholds the spirit of the traditional dream—but with a new emphasis on sustainability and a celebration of non-material values. We envision a society that values not just “more” but more of what matters.”

Vicki Robin and her partner Joe Dominguez, originally wrote Your Money or Your Life in 1992 to help people “change their lifestyle and transform their relationship with money…” This book has just been re-released in its second edition, and updated “for the 21st century”. Vicki made a lasting impression on me many years ago at a workshop when, just prior to her presentation, she asked the group if they liked how she was dressed. Elegant and colourful, she delighted in telling the group that her entire ensemble cost her just over 3 US dollars, due to clever repurposing, thrift shopping and exchange.

Vicki and her work are backed in part by the Simple Living Network, which provides tools and resources for people who are interested in “conscious, simple, healthy and restorative living.” This links up with the Voluntary Simplicity movement and leaders such as the author Duane Elgin , who wrote “Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich” in 1998. This as you can imagine is a community which goes way back.

For many people today, these are ideas whose time has come. They now fit together more comfortably with the Ebay culture, which is ultimately about repurposing and recycling. And thankfully as people dive further into this there are great resources available, which the people and institutions mentioned here, and many others, have been working to produce and refine for well over a decade. After all, it was in the 1990s that the term “Affluenza” was coined, with its definition including “…the bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses,” and “…an unsustainable addiction to economic growth.” There are serious messages and there is also humour involved – listen to Stockholm-based sustainability practitioner and writer Alan AtKisson sing his 1997 song, “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On.”

And I think we need to be very careful about messaging. Leisure activities, more quality time spent with families, more consciousness, simplicity, back to basics – all of these things do resonate increasingly with the wider society in this time of economic turmoil. For the last 10 years or so, however, the sustainable development community has dealt with reactions of unpalatability (is that a word?) to their messages, with sustainable development perceived as being about giving up things, or loss of a certain lifestyle. Maybe when the words recession, or depression, are tossed about in the media, doing with less seems more plausible, although I think that most people hope it is a short term thing. I am not sure these changes can afford to be short term, so maybe now is the time to aggressively promote those options, or aspects of these options, that add things of value to people’s lives.

The current financial situation has created a global dialogue around alternatives to economic growth but it has not taken away that very human desire for betterment and progress. Maybe developing more internal, individual metrics of development will help, and learning something new – whether the motivation is re-skilling for a career change, investing in management abilities that keep your team flexible and highly productive, seriously introducing DIY beyond the odd paintjob, or deciding to plant your vegetable patch entirely from seeds (not as easy as it sounds), learning may be both a good option, have good results, and be a good message for many.

It is that time of year – time for reflection on many levels, not least in the form of … Performance Assessments. These two words elicit all kinds of emotions in managers and their teams. If we want those emotions to include curiosity, discovery, courage, appreciation, compassion, inspiration, pride, and respect, how might we structure these annual opportunities to help them achieve this and produce real learning about not only the individual’s, but also the team’s work?

We have tried a couple of different things over the last two years to build on the traditional process that each team member follows which includes, a) filling in her/his own Performance Assessment form, b) discussing it individually in a meeting with the line manager, c) making any tweaks, and then, d) submitting it. This year we decided to experiment with a way to run these to see if we could get into some even deeper learning both for the individuals and the team.

We all started by filling in our forms individually, then we took a 2 hour time block and structured it like this:

  • (60 min) Assessment Form Carousel: The team is seated together around a table, each with their own completed Assessment Form and a different colour pen or marker. To start, every member passes his/her form to the left. The new recipient reads the form through and in their own colour marker, makes comments, asks questions, fills in gaps, adds examples, challenges points/marks (whether they think they are too high or too low), etc. After 5-7 minutes (depending on how long the form is), every one passes this form again to the left. The process is repeated with people adding, commenting, etc. as it goes around he group. The Carousel continues until each person gets back their own Assessment Form. The group takes a few minutes to read through the many coloured comments. Then there is about 10 minutes of open discussion, questions, and so on about what people read and are noticing.
  • (60 min) 360 Degree Inquiry: The Carousel provides a good reminder for everyone about what people’s goals and achievements were for the year. In this next stage of the Assessment, each person gets to ask for some additional personalised feedback of their choice. To begin, every person thinks about one question on which he/she would like to ask the group for feedback (2 minutes). Then a volunteer goes first and asks his/her question to the group. Again the group can reflect for a moment, and then when they are ready give their responses in random order, with a total of about 5-7 minutes of comments. During the feedback, the person receiving it should listen, take some notes (because you simply do not remember what people said afterwards, or you vastly reframe/paraphrase it), and don’t enter into a discussion at that point. If after everyone has given their feedback the receiver wants to make a few comments they can do so. Then you move to the next person, and next, until each team member has received the feedback from everyone on the question of their choice.
  • Revision: The final step for each individual is to look again at their Performance Assessment form, and consider how it might be changed to reflect some of this learning, then it goes to the line manager in a 1:1 for final discussion and sign-off.

It is worth mentioning that allowing people to ask their own question is a great way to create a challenge-by-choice environment for people to participate in such an exercise. The Carousel will have given general feedback on the annual personal goals; the 360 degree question however, allows people to focus their inquiry on a particular project or some behaviour they have been working on. They can choose to explore with the group some areas of improvement, or to ask only for warm fuzzies, affirmations – whatever people want at that moment. My question for example was, “If I could work on 1 or 2 areas for improvement as a manager next year, what would they be from your perspective?” I held my breath. And then as expected from my team I got some incredibly considered, thoughtful and useful responses. Even surprising. And they were appreciative, honest and meant with good will and good intent – I could tell – and I really valued what, in the hustle of an office environment, may often be a very rare opportunity for this kind of sharing.

In retrospect, there were a few other things I found might be useful to consider when using such a process, largely related to the overall context:

1) Timing is important – these things take time and rushing can affect the atmosphere and dynamic. Timing is also important vis-a-vis when people are leaving for holidays, and other events around this the group unforming. It is always an intense experience to give and receive feedback, and it needs some individual time for assimilation of the information and respite time, followed by some community time afterwards for re-entry into the normally less intimate workplace environment. So early in the day, rather than late in the day seemed to be better, so people don’t leave straight away, but have the chance to talk further, even 1:1 as they consider and think about how to apply what they heard.

2) Venue is important. We started our feedback in our office around a round table. We put a sign on our door that basically said “Team Performance Assessment in Progress – see you later”. We were uninterrupted at that point. However, we then went out to a team lunch and continued the final 360 degrees at lunch, and it was not as easy to recreate the familiar, gentle atmosphere we had had in our own office. Continuity and calm are good for this kind of reflection.

3) Intentions are important. Performance Assessments can provide a valuable tool for team, as well as individual learning, when there is the genuine intention of being helpful and caring and when the focus is on giving feedback as a gift.

Last week in our Beyond Facilitation course we ended with a thoughtful quote from Moms Mabely, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” I guess this is true for both individuals and teams. Performance Assessments can help us think about what we might do differently.

Monday was an exhausting day. By the end of it we (and four other candidates) had each undergone two intensive 30-minute interviews, conducted a 30-minute facilitation demonstration (that had to achieve concrete results within that brief time frame), and participated actively in 5 other such demonstration workshops. By the end of that very long day, a team of four assessors took into consideration these elements plus a previously submitted three part, 15-page written application and a preparatory telephone “client” interview and email exchange (with one of our assessors to prepare for our demo), and then decided, based on a set of 18 competencies, if we would become Certified Professional Facilitators (C.P.F.) Whew!

This certification process is conducted by the International Association of Facilitators, a global network of facilitation professionals with national and local chapters worldwide. Their certification programme aims to peer assess and test facilitators’ knowledge and experience in both design and delivery of facilitation services, as well as maintaining a professional knowledge base about the field (our blog helped us here). As the basis of this process, IAF has developed as a community their Core Facilitation Competencies that are grouped under headings such as: “Creating Collaborative Client Relationships”, “Planning Appropriate Group Processes”, and “Creating and Sustaining a Participatory Environment”. Within these categories are 18 sub-items such as: demonstrating collaborative values in processes, engaging those with varying and different learning/thinking styles, and recognizing conflict and its role with group learning/maturity, and so on.

And in undergoing this process, we realised that is so challenging to assess these things in general, and in particular in a “laboratory” environment. So much of the work we do is highly contextual, and our practice very individualised, based on hours, days, months of relationship building with our “clients”. Whether we sit down when a group works, or lightly participate in a group activity, decide to ignore collegial bantering, or focus on visual rather than analytical tools, there is no clear right or wrong in facilitation. That’s what makes certification of his field so challenging, and why this assessment process is so heavy. For 6 facilitator candidates, five peer assessors were needed for a whole day (not to mention preparation and follow-up reporting), working as a group and in pairs to find evidence of all 18 of those competencies, in many different ways and in their many inflections. Thankfully, in the end, these assessors are peers and know very well how challenging it can be to demonstrate in a day, skills that often have taken years to develop.

It was an intense and thought-provoking process, and especially fascinating to understand what this international body finds to be important capabilities for people to have to join their ranks of Certified Professional Facilitators. For us, who use facilitation as one of our learning tools, along with many others, it is nice to know what is at the top of this game for the IAF, and to be acknowledged as a part of that group. We were very happy to pass through. Lizzie and Gillian, C.P.F.

OK, so you are running your event and you have an audience in front of you – what are they doing? Are they: leaving, sleeping, doing their email, sitting in rapt attention, talking, laughing, voting, writing, singing (well, so far I have not seen any audience singing, but I have seen all the other ones).

So now go and sit in those seats (figuratively at least) and stay there for more than 10 minutes. How does that feel? At the end of your 10 minutes (and remember that ours were 90 min) were you: excited, bored, energised, frustrated, motivated, moved, or a million miles away?

Now make the connection – If you want your audience to feel X (e.g. like running up after the event and asking for your card, or engaging their brains and giving you some excellent ideas on how you could improve your approach, or getting motivated to go home and do something differently, or getting excited and telling other people about what you are doing), then you need to deliberately structure your event to help them get there.

It’s a great exercise for a communicator (and if you have an event you are in this role) to put yourself in other people’s seats. If you do this upfront “sitting” (and thinking), both you and your audience will get more of what you want.

At the World Conservation Congress this week, there were 7,900 registered participants from 178 countries, and 972 events – from knowledge cafes to skills building workshops to conservation cinema. In this veritable souk of activity, how could you and your event avoid getting lost? People had a lot of great ideas about how to get attention and be memorable.

An innovation at this Congress was the creation of 12 thematic “Journeys“, which helped to organize some of the hundreds of offerings. These provided direction to the Congress traveller who might choose to follow the Islands Journey (In the Mood for an Island Get-Away?) or Marine Journey (Protecting Planet Ocean), or that of Protected Areas (Protected Areas for Life’s Sake!), Energy (The Nature of Energy) or Markets and Business among others. By following a Journey people had signposts to events that dealt with key issues and related social networking gatherings that put them in the pathway of other people interested in the same issue. All information on each Journey was collected into a short Journey guidebook, which in itself provided a useful synthetic resource of key words, related issues, institutions and experts working in each Journey field.

Even within the Journeys there were many overlapping events, from which people chose their favorites based on titles and short abstracts. How provocatively people worded their titles and abstracts and for some the promise for audience engagement helped people pick where they spent their precious time. The “Beyond Jargon” workshop title and short description promised and delivered the many innovative ways conservationists are getting their messages across through ideas and campaigns as unusual as a crocheting a coral reef , through developing a horticultural moss growing programme in prisons to prevent moss gathering in forests. A Learning Opportunity workshop with the provocative title of 3D Virtual Worlds: The possibilities of promoting global environmental awareness was held at which the Save Our Seas Foundation took participants to their Second Life Island and talked about how they use Second Life to educate youth about marine issues, as well as how YouTube has impacted their communication media choices and design, as exemplified in this powerful 1 minute Rethink the Shark Campaign video.

And every event had many speakers (it seemed). Who won the competition for attention and space in people’s long term memories? In the thousands of presentations that were made, many speakers used combined techniques to capture and keep people’s attention. By far the most effective combined great imagery with storytelling. The ones that touched us most were personal accounts and provided places to go for more resources and ways to follow up. For example, a speaker from Virunga National Park in the DR Congo set up the blog for the park rangers to share stories of their often perilous work to protect mountain gorillas, and invite other bloggers to be campaigners for their in-park team. Other speakers used video imagery embedded within their presentations to get a diversity of voices into their presentation, to take the audience out of the room to other parts of the world; they used music as a audio sub-titles to their presentations to make the participants’ experience fuller, or included other language translations of their text. Presentations that had images, stories, new ideas, and ways to act were by far the most memorable. Speakers who challenged the audience, asked them questions and pitched it above introductory level added to the appeal.

With such choice, we needed some help to see the trees for the forest – thanks to those who helped make themselves and their messages most memorable.

(I have written about this before, see this January 2007 post, written as I sat in my first planning meeting for this Congress: “Bottoms on Seats: How do you make that memorable?”)

At the moment I am working with six fantastic consultants who operate in some of the same areas as we do including facilitation and training in sustainable development. This is a wildly international bunch, they are from Ghana, UK, Mexico, Switzerland and Mauritius, and have all kinds of different sector experiences, from government to private. We have been working together now for a couple of months, each one is linked to 6 or 7 of my colleagues in different parts of the world, supporting the development of workshops and sessions they will run at our upcoming Congress.

And it is fascinating to reflect on their practice and see what kinds of things they are each doing that gives me the best user experience. Companies refine their products based on user experience reports. What if I pulled out all the things that I like best and created the super consultant? What would that consultant do?

1. Be responsive: My Zero-Inbox propensity means I am not usually a fan of little emails, but somehow working in a distributed team, with people around the world, in different time zones, and with variable internet access, I delight with the short email saying “Thanks I got it” or “I am working on this tomorrow”. Rather this than no news and then wondering if the three emails sent are stacked up in an in-box or have been routed accidentally into a spam folder. I love getting voicemail from these consultant, a skype chat message, or an inpromptu call, just to know that things are ticking away. Responsiveness includes attention to deadlines of course, and even when they need to slide, advance notice, and a new proposed firm deadline makes this easier to work with.

2. Have a system: When you give over a project you would love to do yourself to someone sles, you are happy when you know it is in good hands. Evidence of a system builds confidence. I am happy to get an email back with a summary of the six work items in progress and their status, or great follow-up on a query I had last month that was not yet ready to be answered (and had not been forgotten). I am comforted when I know that things are not getting lost, that as the coordinator my overviews, matrices, job aids, and tables are being used as they guides they were meant to be, and not buried or forgotten in the email blur.

3. Add value: Maybe those matrices I’m sending aren’t perfect – how wonderful it is when the consultant changes them around so they are more user friendly. Or sends through tips to everyone else, or asks that great aggregator question that prompts me to put together a better job aid or solve a general problem for the whole group, all this on top of the work at hand. I love it when people input ideas and questions that help everyone do a better job…

4. Give feedback: …including me. What feedback can be offered on the overall process, what are we noticing about how things are running more generally, and what would make this smoother and easier to implement and manage for everyone? What do people need from me as a coordinator to help them do great work, and can this input be provided mid-process and not afterwards when my ability to act is limited.

5. Be nice: This goes without saying and in stressful situations, this goes a long way. Its easy, its free, and it shows others that their user experience is important. I wrote another blog post on this one (The Golden Rule).

This last one is just a nice to have – for the amazing consultant, I want to spread the word:

6. Have excellent communication materials: A terrific simple website, a folder with a short brochure, an excellent 100 word bio, a neat short CV, a couple of good photos. All ready to go by reply button. That helps me spread the word.

Overall quality of work of course is a given, these other things help to make sure that the word-of-mouth works, and ensures repeat business based on a great user experience. We can all learn something here – from time to time our Unit also works in a consulting-type frame when we are doing projects with other programmes and units in house. Also, these lessons might be useful for people working in distributed teams, technology-mediated or mobile work situations (e.g. working from home). Finally, if I know what I like, I can ask for it (just like those I-Phone users)- I see a radical revision to TORs coming…

I received a wonderful present in the post today – a whole set of Getting Things Done (GTD) products -a fond memory of David Allen’s visit to our organization earlier this year. I am a bit of an organization and productivity freak – so this was like a kid getting candy in the mail. Of course there was only one of everything, should I keep it all for myself?

I had been using the GTD system at home for about a year when I changed over my office, set up my folders, swapped my bound notebooks for tear-off note pads, and so on. That process worked, combined with Merlin Mann’s Zero-In box (make sure to watch the video), and then even my email started to make me happy. No longer do 600+ half-read emails wait for me on Monday mornings. Of course, I fall out of step from time to time (especially when I travel), but for the most part I can keep my email in-box at zero, and manage all the little pieces of paper and notes that magically turn up. I do my weekly monitoring (a la GTD), I don’t lose anything (I might of course choose to ignore it), and I am finally in control of all the stuff that comes in and out of my office every day.

It is a little frightening knowing exactly what you need to do, you get very calm. Too calm. People think you don’t have enough to do because you are not running around looking harried and overwhelmed. On Step 1 (logical stuff containment system) and Step 2 (taming email dragon) of my plan to boost productivity and achieve a zen-like relationship with the workplace – mission accomplished. Ah, but like any good learning process, this is not the end of the story, even if it is where the books and videos end.

Once you get your act together, Step 3 is to find tolerance, for others and yourself. Now other people’s email and information overload becomes very obvious. You can almost immediately tell who has a system and who doesn’t. However, because your situation is now so different it is very hard to remember what it was like to literally swim (or drown) in email and paper. Of course, when you do have a system, procrastination becomes deliberate and transparent, and you can tell what you don’t want to do or can’t really get your head around (so figuratively, your management underpants are showing.) In Step 3, to further lower stress levels, you are desparately seeking tolerance – nobody’s perfect.

Finally (at least finally for now), Step 4 is to spread the word. As evangelical as that might sound, this is indeed the next logical step. At one point in the acid rain problem of the 1980s, Sweden decided that it would have more impact in Sweden with its anti-pollution investments if it would simply send the money and technology to Poland. When my “Waiting for” folder has more items than my “Action” folder, then I need to step out of my bubble and change tactics. I can send reminders, I can call, I can chase, but that just adds back in work to a process that, if I was the Master of my Universe, would have been done.

I can get my things done, but ultimately most of my things depend on other people getting their things done. So, on to Steps 3 and 4 and those unwritten chapters. Aaaah, life in a system.

My previous blog post on this topic was ridiculously long, especially for the topic. So I am trying again:

Micro-Lit is the latest trend – the ultimate in pithy reductive literature. Why write a book when 6 words will do?

What ideas might this trend give us for our learning work? What about asking for thoughtful abbreviated responses to feedback questions? Avoid long qualitative anwers and boost creativity. Introduce synthesizing exercises for useful skills building. E.g. Pick one word that summarises how you’re feeling right now? Or let small groups create a 1 sentence review of a speaker’s presentation, rather than a 10 min summary report back. Recapitulate the previous day with a haiku. You get the idea: Multiply meaning and minimize words.

Think short and come up with the perfect triple entendre.

I just spent my Saturday morning filling in a 6-page questionnaire sent by UNESCO as a part of their global monitoring and evaluation of the Decade for Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014). They want to know what organizations and networks are doing to contribute to the Decade, here at the mid-decade mark.

The question I appreciated the most was: What is Education for Sustainable Development for you? (Give your perception of ESD in 50 words.) It was the 50 words that got me, now that was a challenge! Because the Decade is a United Nations process (it is a UN Decade), with all the reams of paperwork, pages and column inches that brings, I found this question both refreshing and intriguing. It was an exercise that tapped into to my right brain creativity that was not unlike writing a poem or a haiku. It generated a little spark of energy where before there was only a 6-page questionnaire. And it was the last question – good thinking on someone’s part!

Here was my response:

ESD is the process of helping individuals and groups deliberately define their own SD journeys, supporting this through learning tools, collaborative opportunities and reflective processes. ESD shapes people’s viewpoint on their personal and professional experiences so that decisions that favour sustainability become a part of their habitual and desired practice.

Want to try one of your own? See if thinking about it this way, like a puzzle, ignites some renewed energy – after all we have 5 years to go!

Lizzie and I recently ran a 2.5 day visioning workshop using systems thinking tools in Meso-America in Spanish (see recent blog post: Want more amplification: Don’t call it training) without ever formally taking the floor. We did the design work and preparation, consulted pre-event with our local partners, and attended the workshop, and left the on stage facilitation to two fantastic regional experts. The workshop ran beautifully – it popped out, perfectly formed (to participants).

Of course, behind the scenes it took lots of work. Having a terrific delivery team is obviously the first big step, and we had that with our remarkable Mexican and Argentinian bi-lingual facilitators (you would never have imagined that they first met only the day before the workshop). The second is airtight preparation and process documentation. It’s on this latter that I want to expand a bit.

You can imagine that a workshop using systems tools would have emergent properties that we would want to take into consideration as the process unfolded. As a result, we took our very detailed agenda, and put Day 1 into the format of a Facilitators Guide, for discussion on our pre-workshop briefing day with the Facilitation Team and organizers. This Guide had the following components:

  • The overview agenda (to see the flow and build of the workshop)
  • The detailed day-to-day agenda
  • Session-by-session descriptions

Each session was described for the Facilitation team and included the following information:

  • Time schedule: Where it fits in the overall workshop schedule and what comes next
  • Goals for the session: What’s the overall objective of this session
  • Materials required: Any equipment or materials needs (aggregated later into a master materials list)
  • Preparation: What speaker briefings, flipcharts prepared (including an image of these for copying), room set up, worksheets or templates to have on hand
  • Process: Script for facilitator and process flow (timed out within the session), images of the PowerPoint slides to use and how to brief them, activity sequence withn session.
  • Facilitator Notes: Tips, and what to watch out for, and things that might happen and what to do about that (Plan B ideas).

This level of detail helped us to discuss the overall goals, flow, and individual roles of each of the Facilitators for the whole first day. It helped make everything completely explicit so that we could explore and potentially change it, which we did in our briefing, we tightened the questions, shifted things around a bit so that they made sense to everyone and then attributed the sessions to each of the Facilitators so that their preparation that night could be focused.

During Day 1, our role was to check the Facilitators Guide against what actually happened. Checking that our time allocations were close to reality, that our instructions were clear (or if not, what needed to be said in the end to make them clearer), and noted the questions that participants asked. From the day and our end-of-day debriefing with the team, we added a section to the Facilitators Guide for each session called:

  • Notes from the Meso-America workshop: Ideas and items added, and learning captured from this pilot

Also during Day 1, I wrote the Facilitators Guide for Day 2, tweaking it where possible to match the language and any learning from Day 1. We used this to allocate roles and prepare that night for Day 2. We followed the same system for the next 2 days, using the Guide for briefing, and capturing learning in our debriefing. At the end of the workshop, we had a nearly completed Facilitators Guide. The day after our workshop we had a Reflection Meeting amongst the full team of partners and facilitators. Our discussion around learning about the preparation and coordination of the meeting added the following sections before (Pre-session Preparation)and after (Annexes) the session detail:

Pre-session Preparation:

  • Selecting a workshop venue: Space needs, light needs, wall space, breaks and meals
  • Invitations: What people need to know to attend
  • Choosing 2 Facilitators: Background and roles
  • Master materials/equipment list: Aggregated from session lists for sourcing
  • Rapporteuring and reporting: Getting people and set up for lots of information
  • Onsite briefing: How to structure this
  • First day prcess pre-opening: Engineering first impressions


  • Reporting framework: To use as a template (2 options)
  • Opening speech: This will probably be the similar each time
  • Feedback form (in session): The simple form to capture participant’s reflections
  • Postworkshop participants feedback: The form to send 1 month after to capture impacts
  • General comments on design: Larger ideas for evolution of the workshop
  • Participants comments: Some quotes from the feedback forms

So, we ended up with the whole workshop, literally, in a box! One of the plans for this workshop was that it would be repeated in three regions (it is a visioning and strategic planning workshop for a major global programme within our institution, that has regional implementation particularities). This “box” is a terrific learning tool – a useful Reusable Learning Object (RLO) – that can be sent ahead to the next partners (with the output report of the workshop) to prepare more effeciently the next iteration. It provides a place to capture learning from each subsequent workshop, so that at the end it serves as a collection of learning about this methodology, for further change. It also documents the process comprehensively enough that others who are interested in the methodology, but who did not participate, can potentially replicate all or part of the process.

All this was done just prior to and during the workshop and produced an unexpectedly useful process product that literally popped up alongside the final report.

In the old days at workshops, there was a person up front speaking and everyone listened attentively. If they were not listening they were thinking about something else (a.k.a. daydreaming).

Today at workshops, there is a person up front speaking and everyone not listening is typing madly on their computer doing email.

Should we care?

Some people do care – they think that it is completely unacceptable that people are not paying attention and doing something else (a.k.a. multi-tasking). Perhaps I used to be one of those people – but not any more.

Now I think this is fine for a number of reasons, mostly because I see it as a sign that the paradigm of learning – as centred on the choice of the individual learner – has really shifted. Imagine that I am in a workshop which has speakers who are imparting information to me. If I am interested (and if they are interesting), and if I can use this information, (and they help me understand that I can use this information), then I will tune in long enough to see if I can learn something. If I decide to tune out, I may dip back in to check up to see if my original decision (to do email) was correct or not, or if I should start listening again. Overall, I am in charge of my learning and I can choose what information is useful to me right now. Of course, I need to keep an open mind, and I will always START by listening, and then reassess at some point. This is opposed to a centrally taught system whereby everyone needs to listen (or appear to be listening) to everything.

Now of course, for an organizer and a speaker, it is preferable if everyone listens to everything, and finds everything useful. This is, afterall, why you organized this workshop – YOU think that everything is valuable. What can you do to make sure that the audience agrees?

The number of people typing emails is an interesting indicator of how well the speaker is doing, and how useful the focus of their intervention is. It is also an indicator of interactivity. You cannot type and speak, play a game, answer questions, or have a powerful, thought-provoking question capture your attention. How refreshing would this be: The Facilitator says to the participants, “You are welcome to tune in and out of any of these presentations as you find useful. We ask that you please give each presentation a chance first. If you do decide to tune out, please notice the time elapsed (was it after 2 minutes, 5, 10 minutes) and please give us the feedback. It will be useful for future programming.” Viola, permission to choose your learning yourself.

That way people would still be in control of their learning, and speakers and organizers would get more data on what people want to learn and the best way of reaching them. It would also be a powerful motivation for speakers to make their presentations meaningful.

I have been working in my organization for almost five years. How much do I know about the work of my + 1’000 colleagues in different technical programmes and offices around the world? I would say more than most (thanks to the designing diverse workshops with a variety of teams) and still much less than I might like.

I just watched a couple of great episodes of Nature Inc. For some time I’ve been hoping to view these (having missed many when aired on TV; luckily now they are downloadable by episode as MP4s. I digress.) Anyway sat at my office desk, watching these in search of inspiration about the important links between business and biodiversity, I learned much. And, to my delight, much of what I learned was about what my own organization is doing in different parts of the world! I will be following up with my colleagues and seeing what lessons we can learn from creative and compelling communication channels like Nature Inc in helping us spread the word, outside and in! What others stones should I unturn. Where did you last learn something about your organization when you least expected it?

I have mentioned in previous posts the 12 month assessment and learning process we are undertaking for our upcoming World Conservation Congress (October 2008). An internal evaluation team is asking a question each month or so to a sample of staff working across functions in preparation (and delivery) of this major quadrennial event. Their aim is to capture more iterative and detailed reflection on learning over time, rather than doing a huge debriefing the day or week AFTER the event. The result should be information that we can strategically use, rather than the more generic (self-) congratulatory “smile sheet” responses that both participants and conference workers alike generate in the glow and relief of the end of such a huge event.

The question this month asks us to describe what we have learned since our last World Conservation Congress (Bangkok 2003), and what we are doing differently as a result.

I really like this question for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is an intervention in itself. Just the act of asking this question gets people to reflect on the past process and identify their learning, and think about how they are applying it now – effectively helping us to complete our learning cycles through application. If we have not already done so (connect our efforts last time with this new event), this question will get us to start, and potentially open up a whole box of useful know-how that has been parked in the dusty corridor of our brains. Secondly, the question is appreciative, in that is assumes that people have learned something from their past experience, and they just need to write it down to share with other people. Thirdly, I remember reading recently that people remember not so much what happened but what they TOLD people happened at an event. So by getting people to document their learning (even if it is 3 years later), the chances are greater that they will remember it longer (thus have the knowledge available to pull into service) by having had to analyse, process, and then craft a “story” for sharing.

I would say that one of the first things that we learned from our last World Conservation Congress is how to run an assessment of the event that is focused on learning, rather than on writing an evaluation report for funders. Now that will help make our next event even better.

Of course, 3 years later, people might not remember the detail strongly, but have feelings or impressions. Another good thing about this learning assessment is that you can share in what ever format you like. My impressions from the last Congress were strong, perhaps I will choose expressionistic painting or interpretative dance – how would the evaluation team work with that?

Did I answer the question?

I see this pattern over and over and over again. What can one do about it? One potential intervention point is to set a standard/policy on the “attention per project” so that when there is not enough time to do it properly, you do not accept it, thus maintaining quality work and therefore reputation (so in theory the project pipeline never dries up). GTD gives us more time to squeeze more in. Zero-in box helps us comfortably manage our email blizzard. Systems helps us identify problematic patterns and potential leverage points for change. Where can one go to learn “How to Say NO” ?

What do you see when you go to the circus? You see the amazing daredevil acrobatic teams, the perilously high tight rope walkers, the perfectly synchronized performing ducks… What you don’t necessarily see is the lifetime of concentrated training the acrobats have undergone, the many hours a day the jugglers practice, and the fact that the lion tamer is actually missing a thumb.

The incredible amount of preparation that it takes to pull off a thrilling, memorable and meaningful performance is what my organization is experiencing right now in the preparation of its quadrennial global Congress. Expectations of 8,000-10,000 attendees have raised the stakes for putting on a really exceptional event. What that means for us is not only getting the logistics right, but also engaging the audience – our colleagues, partners and visitors – in many different, exciting ways.

Some people might be born with the ability to juggle flaming torches while standing bareback on a cantering horse (in sequins no less.) For others, it takes some practice, preparation and a good deal of help. The same is true for our events. So, for the first time at a Congress, we have engaged an international team of professional facilitators as advisors, who will work with 54 of our colleagues leading on different Secretariat sessions. This facilitation team will help the leads to think through their events and make suggestions as to interactive tools and techniques that they might use to get their messages across and novel ways to engage the audience. Whether it is Open Space Technology, Conversation Cafes, or newly designed large group games, the goal is to see how we can break through the fourth wall between those on stage and those in the bleachers, to reach them, touch them, challenge them, learn from them, and engage them in our work.

Because this is rather experimental, we are going to capture our learning throughout the preparation as a part of the M&E process. So more will appear on this blog on the Congress Facilitation Advisory Team and its work to help us prepare our Greatest Show on Earth -suddenly I’m craving popcorn.

Apparently the biggest impediment to effective communication is knowing too much.

This is according to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck (they have a fantastic blog as well). They cite an experiment in their book conducted at Standford in the 90s. The experiment took pairs of people, one designated to be a “tapper” and the other a “listener.” The tapper tapped out common songs (like Happy Birthday) on a table and the listener had to guess the song. Success rates were very low, but more significant was the result when the tapper had to guess whether or not the listener would be able to guess the song. It turned out that the tapper got the message across 1 out of 40 times, but they thought they were geting it across 1 in 2. They had the song going through their heads so clearly that they could not imagine that the other person could not guess it.

This would make a great communications game, to show why, sometimes, scientists don’t get their messages across in presentations; or why technical people don’t always make the best trainers.

Last week I attended a workshop on Systems Modelling, a basic course. It tooks us from the basic concepts and diagrams to simple modelling (simple I would say is a bit of a misnomer here). I have been conducting training in systems thinking for over 10 years now and thought it would be useful to actually take it through to the computer modelling part. I realise that my past success as a system thinking trainer could be partly due to the fact that I have been rather unburdened by a lot of in-depth knowledge of mathematical models and systems dynamics. Systems thinking diagramming tools like reference mode diagrams (or Behaviour Over Time graphs), and causal loop diagrams, are wonderfully useful all by themselves.

Well, one day into my course, I had learned a couple of new diagramming conventions and did my best to model ipod purchasing, wolf re-introduction into Scotland, and household budgeting. Not too hard when the instructor gives you the figures and units (like wolf/month) and you just pop them into the programme, I managed to keep my head above water. However, Day 2 was an eye opener in complexity (and a lot of digging around in the far back of your brain for mathematical logic). The instructor explained things as though everyone in the world would intuitively know how to normalise their variables so their units would work out and avoid unit errors. And he would add variables in a minute to make sure this happened and his units would be A.O.K.

The curse of knowledge implies that you can’t unlearn something, so you cannot easily put yourself in someone else’s uninitiated shoes. However, I think one can work on this – on tapping into the pre-expert knowledge state – through constantly embarking on new learning endeavours. If you think about it, you probably do learn something new every day, (perhaps not as new as modelling the population dynamics of Scottish wolves.) That experience gave me hours to tap into what it feels like to be in a pre-knowledge state.

In some ways, being a constant learner can help you be a better communicator and trainer, because no matter how much knowledge you have in some areas, you have a recent experience being on the other side of that knowledge exchange, and can apply that experience to the delivery of your message. Noticing your learning and what it feels like should be able to help us fight the curse of knowledge.

We were working on a one-page proposal this week, the kind that is going into a board meeting for a yes/no answer, and tinkering around with the text. Wanting it to be minimal, I remembered a presentation I heard by Interact, a UK-based management training group that uses theatre techniques and real actors for training. They gave a demonstration workshop to the Geneva Learning Community a few weeks ago.

The lead trainer, Ian Jessop, a director and producer himself, spoke to us about linguistic audits, that is analysing the language we use and being mindful of how we use words and what they say to people. Here is what he told the group. Nouns are facts, they are not emotional. They are most appreciated by accountants, doctors and biologists who deal in things – dollars, ulnas and rattlesnakes. Verbs however are action oriented, future oriented and have movement and motivation. Activators like verbs.

Adjectives are about emotions. They help to define, tell stories and paint pictures and help people understand and follow. Adjectives are the things we buy. People don’t buy a car, they buy a fast, candy apple red sportscar, or a safe car. They don’t buy chocolate, they buy the richest creamiest, darkest chocolate.

So we decided, we were no longer talking about a workshop where participants would talk together and identify solutions. Now we were talking about an interactive, outcomes-oriented workshop that would feature peer-learning and generative dialogue, and build relationships among motivated, committed people working towards long-lasting outcomes. It’s all still true. Hopefully that sells.

I had a tough day today, but since I am a Learner, I am going to see what I can get out of it…

One of the most famous zero-sum games is the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It explores cooperation, trust, and negotiation between two parties to a situation (two prisoner’s in separate cells decide if they are independently going to confess or not confess to a crime they jointly committed). One of the key messages of the Prisoner’s dilemma is that when each prisoner pursues his self-interest, both end up worse off.

I have used a game version of this in many negotiation training courses I have run in the past; interactive versions are called “Win As Much As You Can” or “Get As Much As You Can” (I think the latter is a version from the Consensus Building Institute at MIT in Cambridge, MA.) The game players use Ys and Xs to signal cooperation or defection (respectively), and scores are given to each player based on both what they play and what the other person plays. You think you would have an incentive to cooperate (both parties play a Y card), but if your aim is to “win” (whatever that means to you) actually in the short term non-cooperation can get you more points (as long as the other player is still cooperative or trusting). So you play an X card and the other player plays a Y card; that gets you lots of points and your partner just looks gullible – for a round. Of course as soon as they figure out that you are not to be trusted, they stop trusting you too, and play their X card, then both of you lose, or at least come up with a sub-optimal result (and that is definitely not winning).

Researchers have enjoyed playing this game thousands of times to understand the best strategy. It turns out that the best strategy is called “Tit for Tat”, (Anatol Rapoport). Here is what says about that strategy, “The strategy is simply to cooperate on the first iteration of the game; after that, the player does what his opponent did on the previous move. Depending on the situation, a slightly better strategy can be “Tit for Tat with forgiveness”. When the opponent defects, on the next move, the player sometimes cooperates anyway. This allows for occasional recovery from getting trapped in a cycle of defections.

So what does this have to do with my day? Well, I found myself yesterday in a discussion in which I felt like I had played a trusting card, a Y card, in a conversation about a dilemma that could be usefully solved. I felt that the other player played a Y card too, an open an trusting response, and we seemed on our way to getting a good score in this game. However, this morning, feeling good about my Y card, I entered quite positively into round 2 of the game where I played another Y card, when all of a sudden my partner played an X card. That put the game into non-cooperation. The other player got loads of points on that round. Here is where games become real life – what did I do on the next round? Did I play a Y card, to reinforce my cooperation? Or did I play my X card, to show that I was not too happy about the other player’s X card? Maybe if I had played a Y card here, then in round 3, my partner might have reconsidered, seen my cooperation, and played a Y card back to me, breaking the cycle of non-cooperation.

However, I did not. I was taken a bit by surprise by my partner’s move and I played what I think is an uncharacteristic-for-me X card back. Negative points in that round for both of us. Now we have a choice. If Tit-for-Tat with forgiveness really works, then an X card was perhaps the right card to play there, it signalled that there are repercussions for non-cooperation (even though it hurts a bit to play that card.) However, if I play a Y card tomorrow in round 3 (the forgiveness part), then there still might be a way to break the cycle. But that will only happen if my partner plays a Y card back. If another X card is played, then I have to decide – if I play another Y card, the economists would say I am a push-over. If I play an X card, then the downward spiral continues until the other player plays a Y card. Then I can play one back in tit-for-tat. But that might take a long time, and it would probably be by email. Hmmm…

How hard is it to apply this kind of theoretical learning to real life situations? This is frankly the first time I have tried. However, I am still a bit upset by playing my X card today; I think I should be a bit above it. Trying to apply the Prisoner’s Dilemma to the situation has helped me think through it a bit. The truth is, these situations are very wonderfully, imperfectly and often irrationally human. It also helps if your partner knows about game theory – but who else is reading and thinking about the Prisoner’s Dilemma right now but me?

Before you read this post, grab a pencil and piece of paper.

Now without thinking too much about it write down the first thing that comes into your head when you read these words:


What did you write down? Well, I did this exercise, which is called Mind Grooving (from The Systems Thinking Playbook by Dennis Meadows and Linda Booth-Sweeney) with a group of 21 people in a systems workshop last week. Here is what they came up with, out of 21 responses:

Colour: 10 people wrote “Red”, 8 people wrote “Blue”. (Only three people wrote a different colour)
Furniture: 12 people wrote “Chair”, with 4 people writing “Table”, (2 “Beds” and three others)
Flower: We had 6 “Roses”, 5 “Daisys”, and 5 “Tulips” (5 other flowers turned up on this list of 21)

When I first considered this exercise, I did not imagine that a group would actually display such consistency in answers. Years of associations and experience have created deep neurological pathways for people, shared habitual patterns of thinking. In spite of our individualist culture, socialization might be stronger than we realise. How can we notice and potentially challenge our own mental models? Or find those people whose “grooves” are not as deep as our own for insights and learning.

So when you say “Leader,” how many people expect to see someone get up and walk to the front of the room?

Sudoku, crossword puzzles, Brain Training, Scrabble, all of these ways to keep your brain exercising and in top form. Here is another one. Try to think about process (how) as well as what you are doing all the time. Every time you do something – a project, proposal, a conversation – consider what you are saying and how you are saying it; who is hearing you and what they are thinking about what you are saying (both implicitly and explicitly). What is the big picture and how does this activity fit into our strategy? What are we talking about and how does this fit into our ground rules for discussions?

Complicated enough to keep your brain in tip top condition!

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to Frits Hesselink, who has recently completed a Toolkit on Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA) for the Convention on Biological Diversity. Toolkits are very much the fashion right now and we were interested hear more about what Frits had learned in his process, which featured over 100 inputs from members of an international, distributed expert Commission linked to my organization (the Commission on Education and Communication, for which I act as the staff Focal Point). From our conversation three things struck me as particularly relevant to further Toolkitting activities: Time, Technology and Tangibility.

Time: For Frits, time was a major issue, and a resource need that had been wholly underestimated by all parties. The deeper the consultation, the better the product, and the more time this takes. For this toolkit, Frits did not simply request a group of editors to prepare set chapters or send out a prepared document for comments. He sent out web-based surveys which needed in many cases follow-up interviews with longer discussons to develop fully. He found that he needed to follow up with people quickly, within 10 days or less, to keep momentum and to keep people from forgetting the nuance of their survey responses. This created bursts of intensive time allocations. In addition, as this is a large network which was queried for the project, to keep his request from falling through the cracks and to attract people’s immediate attention, the personal connection was important; so in many cases, Frits used his personal links with experts that he knew were working in the field of CEPA to encourage a concrete and timely response. This involved many individual messages, responses and person-to-person linkages rather than the typical all-network broadcast. Time, time, time.

Technology: For the final toolkit authors/editors group, Frits, and one of our IT colleagues, set up a technology platform for collaboration; a bespoke tool to upload documents, share commentary, etc. However, in the end it simply did not work. Frits was the only one who took the time to learn how to use it (the project started 2 years ago and the tool was a little too clunky), and other authors never had the time or enough incentive/need to get on top of it. Frits learned that technology must be easy, intuitive, and people need a strong incentive to learn a new system, rather than falling back on usual technologies like email. (We spun off here on an interesting tangent on age; perhaps our network needs that injection of young people for whom these new technology tools are second nature. We faced the possibility that our network is “too old” for some of these new tools, and that a little reverse mentoring through a cross-generational “Buddy system” could go a long way).

Tangibility: The final point that we talked about was how to make a Toolkit more than a book. We saw the proofs for the hard copy of the CEPA toolkit last week and indeed it looks like a book. It was first a website, then a CD-ROM, and now it is a book. There are of course good reasons for the hard copy, but these days it could perhaps be more useful for longer as a living social site, where people could upload more tools, experiment with them and share their results and questions. That would make it a real toolkit. But there is still, in some corners, the expectation to have a physical object as a product. Something you can hold in your hands, pass around, send in the mail. It also perhaps gives the sense to the partners that the project is “completed”, and that the toolkit is “done”. But perhaps it is more interesting these days, to never actually “complete” a toolkit project; not to freeze the knowledge at any point, but let it flow, go on percolating, updating itself, and spinning off into new areas when needed. This Web 2.0 option however demands monitoring and perhaps some facilitation at the onset to keep the quality, which takes not only money, but time – and that takes us right back to where we started from…

The last time you did an interesting project, did you learn something new? How did you share your learning with others?

Here’s a puzzle, what do the following things have in common?

  • Analysis of green areas per person in the Metropolitan Area of Mexico City 1950-2000
  • Description of a process (1994-1997) for capacity building to promote multi-stakeholder dialogue on the environmental problems in a peri-urban hot spot and the capacity needed for its management
  • Report on the status in 1996 of Biosphere Reserves in Arab Countries and perspectives for an Arab Network of Biosphere Reserves
  • Empirical studies from 1997 of the role of gaming/simulations in policy development and organizational change

I could go on. What these things have in common is that they joined several thousand other such interesting pieces of paper in a journey to the recycling centre last week as I cleared out at least half of my “archived” material at home over the holidays.

It was hard – every piece of paper had interesting data and information in it, it had memories, places, faces, experiences – little parts of life. I had to struggle with myself to let go of it – what would it mean when it was gone? Was this stuff me? After hours of looking through it (ostensibly to recuperate paper clips but mostly procrastinating tossing it) I decided that the answer was Yes and No. Yes, this composite of knowledge and information somehow reflects my own personal and professional experience and gives some indicator of who I have become through my work.

No, because this stack of stuff has way too much detail, frozen information that has shifted and changed over time. It does not reflect the progression of my understanding of these themes nor even necessarily what I actually learned through these experiences. For example, that particular Mexico trip took us from Mexico City to the Yucatan Peninsula. I don’t actually remember the figures for green area per person in Mexico City (I guess the trend was going down.) However, I do vividly remember watching fishermen near Progresso catch octopus during the day with bait of live crabs that the women would catch at night. This was a fantastic example of gender roles and natural resource management that I will never forget, but I didn’t have any report or papers in my files on that.

I did notice that there were many papers, events, trips etc. where I did not recall much – a missed opportunity for learning. Most of these situations seemed to include classroom case studies, powerpoint, activities that I did not engage in (simulations that I watched but did not take part in). There seems to be an inverse correlation between interactivity and background documentation. Even more reason to get rid of the paper tower, much of it did not sink in. But I kept it for a reason, it helped me to track my experiences, and to a certain extent reflects me. But I guess it will do that anyways, either in my basement, or in my head – and perhaps as a part of a newly recycled paper document that I get on my next trip. How’s that for a learning cycle?

Happy New Year!

According to the research of Professor Sugata Mitra, Newcastle University, and the main researcher behind the famous “Hole in the Wall” projects held in India in the last decade, Tamil children in rural communities can learn biotechnology in English on their own. How can this be possible?

That’s what Mitra has learned after spending the last decade observing children using computers embedded in building walls in safe, public play areas around India. He observed that with a simple computer, keypad and browser, groups of children could teach themselves remarkable things, from a foreign language to the anatomy of the human body.

Through these experiments he found something that was not previously taken very seriously in educational theory – children can learn anything when the right emotions are triggered. These include curiosity, challenge, and pride (like not wanting to be called a fool by other children). The context was also important – the hole in the wall computer was not in the classroom, where learning was more associated with routine and examinations (which he intimated took all the fun out of it), but in a “play area” with no rules.

Does this hold for adults too? Can we really learn anything when our emotions are engaged and context is right? How often do we take these two things into consideration when designing our learning interventions? I have written before about creating physical memories for learning, which is working with both the mind and emotions in learning situations, as well as taking it out of the traditional “training space”. Maybe it is also about knowing what your own triggers are. Certainly mine include novelty and a steep learning curve (thus my great consternation about how to use Facebook and Second Life for learning, see my previous post about this). However, for some people neither of those tools has much novelty left; they might push all the right emotional triggers for me, but not necessarily for others.

I imagine those learning triggers are very personal, and for those of us in the learning trade this is another reminder about the value of individualized, learner-centred approaches with lots of choice. It doesn’t mean that we should not explore and experiment – that, in many cases for both adults and children is our main pathway to learning.

Imagine that you need to inform people in a workshop setting about your organization (or another topic for that matter.) Option A: You can make a PowerPoint presentation for 20 minutes and have a Q&A discussion after it for another 10 minutes. But how much will people learn about your subject and how much will stick with this “information push” approach? Here is an Option B for this more traditional method.

Last week we ran a workshop with our organization and an external partner which had as one of its aims getting to know better the two organizations and the people working there. We had our slot in the opening session to introduce the partners and we considered Option A for a moment and decided that it did not really optimise our time, nor give the sense of interactivity and co-learning that we wanted to be representative of the partnership. So instead, we decided to take the same amount of time (perhaps add 10 minutes) and run a quiz.

We asked both partners to come up with a set of questions that made the points that they wanted to come across in their introduction. From our side, we wanted to share our special network structure, our decision-making process, the global nature of our staff and partners, how many of our resolutions deal with the particular sector that this partner belonged to, etc. From their side they wanted to share some key points of their mandate, their sustainability goals, the number of years that our organization had collaborated with them on smaller activities, and more. We structured a quiz of 18 questions (multiple choice, simple fill in and Yes/No) that only a mixed team from both organizations could possibly complete. So five tables of evenly mixed teams each took the quiz.

What happened was a wonderful peer-learning exchange table by table that transferred much more information between participants than we could have ever hoped to give in a centrally run PPT presentation. And people wanted the information, they discussed it, colleagues from the same organization debated the answers, added anecdotes, and shared their insight about the two organizations. That took 20 minutes, the same amount of time as our Option A input. And it was a lot easier for us to present (we literally just handed it out and the participants did all the work.)

The most entertainment came with the “scoring” of the quiz – we went through each question at a good pace (we had the answers in advance) and for each one asked the tables or specific people for their answers. Then we had some open debate, complete with shouting from across the room and good-humoured disagreement. We had prepped one person (the key organizer) from each team to be the final authority – they could point to location of the answers (website, by-laws, mandate, etc.) Bonus points were given for extra information, more detail was added for some questions, and at the end, points were tallied (very loosely) and the winning table got the prize. Well, every table got a prize (a bag of chocolates to share) as it was hard to be very accurate with the final scores, and that was not really the point. Total time for Option B – about 40 min. Every table got almost every question correct so they learned our key points, people got to know each other much better, and to have a real experience (in a compressesd time) working together to accomplish something that neither group could do entirely alone. In this activity, everyone was the “expert” not just the presenter, and it set a great atmosphere of informality and sharing for the rest of our workshop. For the extra 10 minutes between Option A and B the return was worth it.

This is the new corporate ad that our organization has developed – I was so excited to see that out of the 8 words chosen so carefully to profile our organization, “Learning” was one! The tagline at the bottom is also interesting: “Bringing experts together to help solve our most pressing sustainable development challenges”.

Earlier this week we had a programme planning session in which we explored our theory of change, visioned our unit in 5 years, and discussed the needs that we saw for learning and leadership within our organization, the greater union of partners and members, and externally. At the end of the day, we worked very hard to try to draw together the many strands of thoughts, ideas and goals, and we came up with the simple (in words if not in action) phrase that will help give our work direction: “Learning – Leading – Convening” (perhaps drawn as a feedback loop diagram). And that was before we saw the corporate ad…

What do you think? Too simple? Too narrow? How do you think learning and leadership go together? We would love to have your feedback!

Last week we went to a fantastic workshop on gaming given by one of the gurus in this field, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, whom we have mentioned before in a previous blog post (“Bingo!”) . His website on Improving Performance Playfully, is a wealth of free games, interactive training exercises and ideas for trainers and facilitators.

At one point in our workshop, we were taught a card trick. Well, actually we were taught two card tricks – one we were taught directly by Thiagi, and one we were taught by someone else (who had been taught by Thiagi).

What did we learn from a card trick? Well, there is an incredible difference between understanding how something is done and actually being able to do it yourself (let alone being able to teach it to someone else).

When Thiagi first did the card trick, many people could not immediately see the “trick” part. So he showed us the trick and then how to do it in detail. He then handed us each a pack of cards and instructed us to practice and in 5 minutes we would do it for someone else, and then show them how to do the trick.

Let me tell you, it is very hard to turn explicit knowledge (knowing how the trick works) into implicit knowledge (being able to actually do the trick). And it is even harder to then teach it to someone else (explaining it to make it explicit again.) And that was just a card trick, imagine if it was leadership or environmental management. It is not that it is impossible to do. But often when we teach or train, we leave people with explicit knowledge (knowing how the tool, methodology, practice works) and don’t go much further than that.

I came away from that exercise with one card trick that I can do acceptably well after lots of practice (at least to the delight of my 6 year old) and a much better appreciation of why watching someone use games will not necessarily make us better gamers, and reading all kinds of articles on leadership will not make us better leaders, and why saying “I know how that works” will not necessarily mean that I can actually do it myself.

This post was contributed by Caroline, a member of our Learning Team, and today our guest blogger. She writes about a recent strategic planning meeting we held to develop our main programme goals for the next four years. She writes…

In the first morning of our 3-day meeting, 25 people gathered for the first time in several years. So many updates, so little time! To have formal presentations of the work done and ongoing activities from all participants and all parts of the world would takes hours (if not days!), yet in one hour all people were updated sufficiently for the time being, and equipped with the knowledge of who to go to find out more. How? Speed Up-Dating! To prepare for the activity, everyone wrote a few words about what they wanted to discuss on their name badge. Then, the hour was divided into eight segments (15, 10, 10, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5 minutes) which the facilitator timed, and in those time periods people were invited to find other people with similar discussion themes, or ones they wanted to hear more about.

What happened? Once the activity officially started, half the group went straight to one place – there was an obvious lead speaker who initiated discussion, but questions were soon being fired and the group reached a discussion stage a lot earlier than if it had been a formal presentation. People started offering their own experiences (potentially feeling more comfortable about this than if they were in a formal presentation setting). The conversation was rich, and there was input from nearly all participants. Elsewhere three people had found a computer and logged on for a 1-to-1 tutorial about an online toolkit, given by the author to someone really keen to learn how to use it. The two could engage in a productive conversation about it, tailor the explanation directly to the learner’s needs, and both got much more value out of the session than if it had been in a larger group.

These were just 2 examples of groups that formed in the group … the room was buzzing with activity in other group formations as well.

So why did it work? Everyone was given a role as learner – rather than changing roles back and forth between learner and presenter, the responsibility was put onto all learners to identify what they wanted to discover, to decide how best to do this, and to source their own learning opportunity themselves. As soon as someone feels ownership or responsibility over something they are part of, they invest in it more, and are more keen to see success. Basically the learners are actively investing in what they take away, and choosing to learn – two recipes for success that were proven in this occasion!

We are just about to move our Learning Team into a new office space in the building and are determined not to keep any (or the absolute minimum) of paper files and documents. If we really believe that information is a flow then how can we focus our energies on building our capacities finding just-in-time/up-to-date information and knowledge, rather than keeping hard copy “reference material” stacked up all around us? (See our 3 December 2006 blog post “How is information like electricity or water?”)

This is not just a problem of paper data storage, but also refers to electronic files. I read some interesting figures in the Financial Times Digital Business supplement today, “Once data are 90 days old, the chance that you will ever look at them again is less than 20 percent. When the data are a year old, that chance falls to less than 2 per cent. In most organizations, 60 per cent of corporate data could be deleted tomorrow and nobody would notice.” The result of keeping so much information around us, which is growing exponentially, is that the IT world is now talking about storage in terms of yottabytes (a one follow by 24 zeros – and I was excited about my gigabyte memory stick!)

In our team’s office space we have already tried to stop keeping paper files; however, the shift to electronic saving does not change the fact that the amount of information we are keeping is getting increasingly and unmanageably large. We really need to make that paradigm shift in the way we see information – not as a stock (paper or electronic) but as a flow. If we can, that should make for a nice, clean new office space. People might come in, look around, see our big round table, comfy chairs, workstations, empty bookcase and wonder, “What do these people do?” and that’s ok — we’re learning…

Which is more sustainable?

* A cotton diaper (nappy) OR a disposable nappy?
* A diesel compact car OR a Prius?

* A compact fluorescent light bulb OR a regular light bulb?

The answer is…we don’t know – it depends on what you do with them.

Nothing is intrinsically sustainable or not. You can easily leave an energy-saving bulb on 24 hours a day every day and have to change it all the time, or you can turn off a regular bulb when you are not using it and make it last much longer. You can drive your Prius to the corner shop 10 times a day, or you can drive your diesel rarely and car pool and take the bus most of the time. You can use cotton diapers, but if you throw them away as soon as they get soiled and buy new ones, you are not too much better off.

This thought exercise was introduced to me by Dennis Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth, who spoke at our institution on Friday. His candor about the state of the world, the imminent impacts of climate change, and the consequences of the global oil peak tended towards the terrifying. Coupled with this is the notion that within our current political structures politicians cannot make the kinds of decisions that they need to for radical change.

Then this simple thought experiment. We talk about the need for behaviour change. We hope for new technologies. And actually what we need is both. We need people to use their Prius for car pooling, and to turn off their energy efficient bulbs when they are not in the room. We might say that anyone who cares enough to buy that Compact Fluorescent Light Bulb, would probably be good enough not to leave it on all the time. But do they? Do you?

Since we already have lots of nifty technology (improvements could always be made) we probably could use a lot more understanding of the behaviour change side of this equation. Technology takes a long time to develop and embed in current processes/systems, but behaviour change can in theory happen over night. Eveyone knows someone who has quit smoking, lost lots of weight, became passionate about a new hobby, or quit a good job and moved to a new city to start a new life. We are capable of radical change. (Of course there is a lot of psychology in here, and it is not so easy – see the previous post on What Do Change and Strip Poker Have in Common.)

Then we need to bring these things together. Learning sits at the heart of this dynamic process. We could usefully strengthen the knowledge to action links for all of us; even for (or even especially for) those of us working in the sustainable development field. Dennis Meadows ended his presentation with a game called the “Sound of one hand clapping” which made the powerful (and even a little painful) point that actions speak louder than words.

If you could design your perfect Learnscape, what would it look like?

We are in the process of putting together plans for a new building for our institution. We would love to have a purpose-built learnscape included in these plans. This would be a flexible learning space that would represent our institution’s learning and sustainability goals and be a physical representation of the way people will learn and work together in the future. We would be delighted to have your ideas on this.

Here are some of the principles and features we are suggesting:

Principle 1: Bringing people closer to nature – the Learning Lab would include indoor and outdoor learning. Glass doors on the main rooms would not only bring the external environment into the room visually, it would also allow learners to move their formal and informal discussions outdoors onto a patio area. There would also be an outdoor learning space for 10 people, and a green space for outdoor experiential learning activities.

Principle 2: Supporting diversity – Adult learners have diverse learning preferences that are built upon culture, past educational experience, and their degree of openness to new ways of working and learning. The Learning Lab would include two main training rooms that could be merged for large group work. It would also feature a small informal room (Sandbox) with comfortable arm chairs and wall workspace for more intimate discussions. It would also have individual areas for more personalized work and reflection in the Blog Spot (IT space).

Principle 3: Encouraging multiculturalism – The Learning Lab would draw on educational traditions from different cultures, linked with its goals to support diversity. It would include in its outdoor space, a Yurt (10 persons) for more intimate (fireside-type) discussions, a Stamptisch in the open meeting space for debate and sharing, and some flexible spaces that could either reflect more traditional learning environments, or be spaces for circles and storytelling.

Principle 4: Convening, creativity and co-creation – Features of the Learning Lab would be designed to encourage convening, innovation, dialogue and co-creation of new ideas and actions. Here are a few of the ways that design would encourage these practices:

* All the tables in the Lab would be round tables,
* All rooms would be painted different warm, bright colours,
* The chairs in the main training rooms would be different colours,
* One entire wall of each room would be a white board,
* No wall clocks would put pressure on participants or facilitators,
* Learning spaces would be personalized with art from around the world,
* More intimate spaces would have soft furnishing and carpets,
* Different communication media would be available for participants to use – from the Blog spot IT space, to the equipment in the main learning rooms.

Our goal for the Learning Lab is to create a learning space that promotes our goals in the world, that supports a diversity of learning styles and preferences, and is consistent with the needs of a learning organization devoted to sustainability. It would integrally link the internal world of the learner, to her/his colleagues, workplace, and to the wider world.

What do you think? What can we add? What would you add/change to make your perfect Learnscape?

I had a powerful reframing opportunity today as I sat for 7 hours in the Emergency Room waiting to see the doctor that would eventually give me 6 injections and as many stitches in my big toe due to a freak flipchart accident in my home today.

Trying to put a new flipchart together, with meager instructions, for my home office this morning created the situation which put me in the ER all day. A serial optimist, what could I do to reframe that? How could I go in to see the Doctor positive instead of p.o.’ed that I had to wait 7 hours for treatment of a squashed toe? Well, let me tell you…

For the last 8 months or more I have carried around Peter Senge’s “Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society”. It is a book about systems, living organizations, reactive versus deeper learning, stories and more. All of which sound very relevant to my work, so, I have taken it back and forth on trips to the States twice, to Madrid, even to Bangkok, and I have never gotten past the Introduction (which I have read many times now).

Today, I grabbed it again, and in the no mobile/no laptop zone of the hospital waiting room devoured half of it. With the complete concentration you can only get when you have absolutely nothing else to do (or anyone to interrupt you), I dove into that book and am really enjoying it. It is dense at times, and some of the points are very subtle and need to be applied (put the book down and think “how does this resonate with my experience?”) before going on to read the next part, and therefore takes the kind of time commitment that I cannot easily find these days. But I am in it now; I can even say (almost) that I am glad to have had that flipchart create the time for me to read this book properly…

This is the sentence from the book that is tickling around in my mind at the moment (and keeping it off the incredible throbbing pain in my toe):

The next great opening of an ecological worldview will have to be an internal one.

I agree – I would love to discuss this with anyone – have you read it? I still have half of it to read and am a bit worried about what has to happen to give me the quality time I need to read the rest of it…

After some Skype chat earlier in the week, it was great to hear the voice of Harold Jarche this evening. The Skype call service wasn’t up to scratch – clipping one in every few of Harold’s words – but no worries. Within minutes Harold had guided me through setting up a Google Talk account and ‘hey presto!’ – now we’re talking (or should I say Unworkshop-ing).

What did I learn? That the first question I need to address is: What is my personal knowledge management system (PKM)?

There is a wealth of interesting stuff out there and a wealth of great information sharing, knowledge generation and learning taking place. Yet, we are often faced with information overload and an overwhelming diversity of channels. How do we sort and filter that to which we give our time and attention? And how do we move from “this is interesting stuff” to “I think that…”?

“Learning – The Link Between Knowledge and Change” is the tag-line Gillian and I will be using in a communication piece within our organization about the work the Learning Team will be doing in the coming years. At the organizational level, we are look at how we need to manage knowledge in ways that facilitate the learning necessary to bring about change. At the personal level, how are we doing this?

I don’t expect to figure out my personal knowledge management system overnight, but I will start thinking about it. And then I’ll start thinking about how I can improve it, and how the use of software such as bloglines, and others can help – at least with the web-based component.

Thankfully Harold’s already shared some great, evolving ideas about his PKM system on his blog, and others have shared their ideas through comments too. It’s a good place to start.

I recently heard a wonderful story retold from a book called “Landmarks” by Margaret Silf. In this story a woman is hiking late one afternon in the Welsh hill country when a storm blows in upon her. As she nears a barren peak, the wind starts to gale and storm clouds begin to boil in the dark sky. She continues to climb higher and at the very top she finds a solitary triangulation stone, a landmark that marks the highest point of her walk. As the wind gains intensity, she finds it hard to stand upright in the increasing gale, and she ducks behind the tall flat stone for shelter. The wind whips around it, gathers strength, and gusts furiously. There on the top of that rocky point, pushed dangerously from all directions by the gale force wind, she finds it hard to keep her balance, crouched down behind the stone.

Then it occurs to her, that her position behind the stone is not the best place to weather that storm. So she moves in front of the stone and lies on it, with her back against its flat, smooth surface. As the wind blows harder and harder into her face, it only blows her more firmly onto that stable stone, and she can watch the storm come in and pass with the confidence that she will not be swept off that peak by the wind and not be harmed by it.

Margaret Silf asks ‘what is that stone?’ For some people it might be faith, or truth, or maybe it could be learning. What gives us confidence when things are unpredictable around us? What do we use as our triangulation stone? And is it something that we hide behind or that we lean against as we face whatever our environment blows towards us? When it comes to our learning, we are the experts; that can only give confidence when we know how to apply it in many different and sometimes unpredictable situations.

I have the pleasure to work and interact with a group of young professionals in our organization, and sometimes they want for support from other levels of management, and they are curious about how they can weather the changes they see all around them (aren’t we all?) Yet, we are learning so much about how to manage our environments (both natural and institutional). Can we notice this more, value it more, apply it more? Can this be our triangulation stone – can we find confidence in learning?

Imagine that you were going to develop a new Learning Programme for your organization – what would be its purpose? What features would it have? Who would it target and what would it like to help them achieve? (Is it all about Them or is it all about Us? Or maybe we want to learn together?)

Learning needs to be owned by the individual or the organization (which in fact is made up of individuals.) It is the people side of knowledge and education. It is through the learner’s lens and experience that knowledge becomes useful or not. If you consider yourself a knowledge producer, and want to change the world, how can you find out more about what learners want and need in order to do things differently? And how can you find out more about their learning preferences – the ways they like to learn?

There is a fundamental transaction between knowledge and action that is all about learning. We know that it is not enough to get the information out there to see change in the world. The knowledge exists in libraries, universities, and the minds of our great thinkers. However, the path between the sources of knowledge and information, and the people who need to use it to do something differently, is an interesting process to explore. How do people gain understanding that helps them modify their attitudes and behaviours?

Whether this is learning within an institution, or between an institution and its chosen constituency, this is what a Learning Programme can contribute – the people side of knowledge. The side of the transaction that puts knowledge to work.

Yesterday afternoon we had a workshop on a new leadership initiative within our organization in order to bring renewed energy to the idea and generate some useful information which could be used for the next stage of programme design. In the opening activity we each interviewed a partner about how they like to learn, and then the partners introduced each other to the group. The responses were incredibly diverse!

We share so many similarities (all committed to our organization, working people, interested in sustainability issues) and yet we had a vast range of preferred learning styles – from more formal settings in classrooms and workshops, and hearing from experts; to completely non-formal, learning by doing, learning from examples, and learning from other people’s and our own experiences. One person even felt they learned better on a full stomach!

This was very useful information for the future designers of this leadership programme – it must feature many different methods for learning, and a variety of ways for people to personalise their learning process, so that it works effectively for everyone in the programme.

This is also useful insight for all of our colleagues generally. We work for a knowledge organization that aims to support people moving from knowledge to action within the conservation and sustainability field. If we learn in many different ways, then our partners and constituencies certainly do too. How can we vary the way we share our knowledge so that people can learn most effectively? And shouldn’t we ask our counterparts how they like to learn, so we can produce our knowledge in formats, and embed them in learning processes, that are most useful to them?