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The Great January Clear Out: Managing Stuff

It’s January again and I find myself compulsively clearing my desk and going through my cupboards and drawers. Reaching the bottom of piles of papers, looking in the backs of deep shelves and under things, I unroll tubes of flip chart papers, and sort through piles of “filing” that hasn’t yet been done. I archive five years of my GTD files of past projects, and test a huge collection of markers, retiring those that don’t work. I ask myself seriously how many of those conference bags I will use again in the future? And on and on.

I start with my office, then this urge spreads to other parts of my house – storage cupboards, camping equipment, clothes, Christmas decorations… it takes days, and weeks to look through, sort and triage everything. I do it carefully and thoughtfully. Marie Kondo would be proud. David Allen would smile. Eventually I collapse into my own thoughts – who needs all this stuff? Why do I keep so much stuff?

This annual clear out isn’t just rearranging and putting back into place systems that are there to corral the paper and loose items of life that find their way into our offices and living spaces. As I move through these places, I have my three-box system for things to keep, things to rehome and things to recycle/throw away. I am a frequent flyer at our local recycling centre, and practically have my own parking space at the Salvation Army. It pains me to put things into the throw away box. This continuous item-by-item decision-making is perhaps why it takes so long. This and the memories that all the items bring back when you are reaching the deep recesses of storage space and are trying to decide if you will keep something in your three ring circus of life for another year or send it out into the circular economy.

I imagine that for some people this process of clearing is easy and quick. I envy my friends and those de-cluttering experts in YouTube videos who can just look at something and immediately toss it, with no attachment. I can attribute deep ecological feelings to my agony at getting rid of things (this widget is after all still useful!) and to why I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking who could use it and where it could go next on its journey of ownership and use. (But paradoxically, these feelings aren’t always able to keep me from acquiring things in the first place.)

Ultimately it feels good to move things on. It clears up space on shelves and in cupboards, in filing cabinets and materials drawers that are now easier on the eye and mind, and provide the opening for new things. This new idea or project or hobby is now not just another thing to squeeze into an already crowded space. As the new year starts, this feels necessary yet it takes so much time, herculean effort and in some cases courage. In a thoughtful moment, I ask myself, do certain lifestyles and life situations make it more likely to keep things around? Do expats keep more that reminds them of home and family in far away places? Do parents keep more of their growing children’s things as they anticipate them leaving home? Do knowledge workers keep more of the physical as their work is often virtual? Do independent workers keep more evidence of their past work as their future work is not always certain?

Is being all of these things a recipe to keep way too much? Let me grab a cup of tea and sit down for a moment, but not too long, I have some new ideas for this year and I need the space…

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Holiday Craft for Facilitators, Moderators and Speakers: DIY Speaking Cards

You are speaking, facilitating, moderating, or MCing at a BIG event.

You are in front of dozens, hundreds, a thousand people, and you are introducing people with big names and long titles.

The lights are bright, the video camera rolling, surrounded by a buzzing room full of eager participants. Can you remember all those names, important titles, their honours and awards, and in the right sequence up there on stage?

You need some notes! But you don’t want to hold those crinkly printed white papers, or a handful of index cards that might accidentally flutter down to the floor like snowflakes, mixing themselves gleefully all around your feet.

Here’s an easy DIY craft for the holidays (she said only partly kidding, because when you really need them you might not have the time or patience to make them, or the right materials, so think ahead!)

You need just a few simple supplies:

Materials:

  • Rectangular facilitation cards in the color of your choice – maybe a different colour every day, one that matches your clothes, or the branding of the event?
  • White paper to cut to size.
  • Scissors
  • Glue stick
  • Hole punch
  • Pen
  • Ring (that opens, I bought a pack of these in an office store)
Make your cards: 
  1. Cut the papers to size so they fit into the middle of the card and don’t leave too much extra space, but a nice frame (remember people will see this in your hands).
  2. With the glue stick, stick the white paper on the card on one side (leave the back blank OR put your logo or the event logo on the back.) I think a plain colour back looks less fussy.
  3. Punch a hole in the upper left hand corner – try to put the hole in the same place for every card so they aren’t uneven in your hands.
  4. Put the ring through. Click!
  5. Number the cards (still helpful so you know where you are.)
  6. Write your notes on one side of each of the cards.
  7. Feel happy that your notes look good, they won’t get out of order, and you will remember everything to make things run smoothly and give you peace of mind!

Happy Holidays and Happy Facilitating from Bright Green Learning!!

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How Do You Organize Your To-Do’s, Tasks and Work Flow? A Blog Post for Productivity Geeks Only

It is always interesting and fun to swap personal productivity systems tips and techniques with others. How do other professionals organize themselves, their information and workflow? How do they keep their tasks and “to do’s” up to date? Do they combine home with work projects?  All great questions that we have all pondered at one time or another.

Today I got to share some of my tools, and a central piece of this is my GTD-inspired notebook that corrals all my work and home processes. For years I have been a devotee of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) and have implemented a number of these techniques over time, and adapted them for my own purposes. The result is not 100% GTD, but warmly inspired by it (See this blog’s other tags for GTD to read more about how I use this interesting system). On today’s call, I offered to share my Tasks Notebook table of contents, and instead of writing an email I thought I would blog this –  Linda, this is for you!

Getting Started: Hardware

I use an A5 notebook that has removable pages so that when pages get full I can simply replace them.

I have plastified tabs that separate major sections (see first photo). These are labelled as follows:

  1. Next Actions – the immediate next action on a project or task, organized by context
  2. Waiting – Things I am waiting for
  3. Projects – Activities that have more than one task (these can be work or home)
  4. Agendas – Pages for people that I talk to or work with regularly
  5. Someday/Maybe – Things that I don’t want to do now, but don’t want to forget
  6. Checklists – Lists that I have made once but will use again 
Within each of the tabs there are a number of individual pages, These are described in more detail, tab by tab, below…  
Next Actions Tab: Organized by Context
  • Email Work – Time Sensitive: These are emails that need to be sent quickly, their deadlines also show up on my calendar.
  • Email Work: These are emails that need to be sent, but have more flexibility in terms of time, but are not in the Someday/Maybe category – yet…
  • Computer Work – Time Sensitive: These are things that need to be done on my computer (writing, reading online documents, checking websites, signing up for things online, etc. in a time sensitive manner)
  • Computer Work: Again less time sensitive but still needs my computer, including things I need to do online
  • Office: Things that I can do in my office that don’t involve my computer. This can be reading hard copy, scanning a file, finding a business card, practicing my next toastmasters speech, etc.
  • Write Blogs: I have a separate page for this to record my blog ideas, they were clogging up my Computer Work page, so I made a separate page for them. 
  • Email Home – Time Sensitive: Any email I need to write quickly that is home-related – like send an email to an internal listserve to find a pet sitter for my dog for vacation, etc.
  • Email Home: Not time sensitive but again not on the Someday/Maybe list – for example, thank Grandparents for present (this should be on my son’s To Do list, but somehow is on mine).
  • Computer Home – Time Sensitive: Fill in that accident form, rent a car for holiday, etc. Things that need to be done on the computer asap.
  • Computer Home: These are online and computer-assisted tasks that are not as time sensitive – such as find the baseball schedule for spring, sign up for half-marathon in October, etc.
  • (Note that when I am travelling I might start a page called Computer Plane/Train – which includes things that I need to do on my computer that I don’t need to be online to do)
  • Home – Indoors: Things I need to do in my house (change light bulbs, make a list of household repairs, find the cabin key, organize the loft, etc.)
  • Home – Outdoors: Things I need to do outside the house – like trim branches, put up the hammock, etc. These may be seasonal in which case I might write them on a paper and put them in my tickler file for that month. (My tickler file is a major life-hack for me, couldn’t live without it! Google it, there’s lots of ways to set it up.)
  • Calls: Phone calls I need to make WITH the telephone numbers (no good just saying ‘call the orthodontist’ – then you should put it on your “Computer” list as you need to find the number before you call.)
  • Errands: These are things I need to go out to do – buy slippers, turn in something to the lost and found, buy a baseball glove, etc. I organize these by place which can be shop (department store, grocery store, garden store) or the town where I need to go to get them. 

Waiting Tab: Things I’m Waiting For

This tab only has two pages:

  • Waiting for Work – Things I am waiting for comments on, things I asked people to do, things people promised to send me, things I lent that I am waiting to get back, payments for invoices sent, contracts promised, etc. 
  • Waiting for Home – Things I ordered online, money my sons owe me, phone numbers I asked for, dates for weddings, school photos delivery, etc. 
Projects Tab: Current Projects
This tab has a master list of projects first, with little boxes that I can tick when they are finished, and then a list beside it of pending – these are projects that are potential but not yet settled. Once they are settled they go into the master list. I keep this by year, so I am working on my 2015 list now. Once a year passes, I take the list and put it at the back of this tab, so that I can keep in mind the projects that have been completed.
After the master projects list, I have one page for each project, organized alphabetically. They have the next actions listed and create some redundancy with the Next Actions Tab, but give me an overview of the project and its steps and activities.  
Once a project is done, I take out the page and toss it (unless it is useful to keep the steps, then I keep it in the Project file. These are for any physical artifacts – meeting notes taken by hand, printouts, brochures, etc – that I need for my project. They are all kept in pink paper folders (all the same colour and style for added neat factor) and have a label (label maker essential – same reason) and kept in alphabetical order on the side of my desk so when I get a call or go to a meeting, I can grab it easily.
Agendas Tab: For People I Deal With Regularly
This tab has a page for each of the people that I deal with on a regular basis, husband, kids, colleagues, etc. The page has their name at the top, and then anything that I need to talk to them about I write there (from “can you help me find my lost file” – husband being software engineer  – to “you owe me 32 francs” – son (the former might also be on Email Home – Time Sensitive and the latter would also be on Waiting – Home.) I don’t think redundancy is a problem, whatever it takes to get it done. With the Agendas lists, when you are sitting down in front of someone, you can just work through it quickly and get answers efficiently. 
Someday/Maybe Tab: For Things I Might Want to Do Someday
This set of lists was very liberating. So many things sat on my To Do lists for ages, I just kept copying them and not doing them for one reason or another. This set of lists – which are Someday/Maybe Work and Someday/Maybe Home include all those things that I don’t want or need to do now but that I don’t want to forget. There might be a reason why the time is not quite right, so I write them here and I review this regularly and occasionally they move up to the Next Actions Lists because the time is right. Or else they stay there (forever). Sometimes I have wildly ambitious ideas – Write a book, Listen to the Reith lectures, Do a PhD, Buy a trampoline, Take all the photos off my SD cards, Get a dog (well this latter I finally did), etc.  
Checklists Tab: Never Make These Lists Twice
This final tab is a useful one. If there are things you do over and over again, why not make a Checklist and keep it for the next time? For work I have a mobile working checklist – all the things I need to take when I am travelling with work, a venue checklist when I am looking at a workshop venue, a Webinar Facilitator’s Checklist that helps me prepare for online webinars, and for home a ski checklist – I don’t go often but I always take along the same things, etc. Make these generic and reusable and findable, keep them on the web and/or keep them under this tab. 
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At the end of my Notebook I keep some blank pages, so that when I have some time and am doing my review (going through all the tabs and updating, checking off, moving things around etc.) I can rewrite my lists if they are full or mainly completed and pop these pages into the appropriate places. 
You need to review this system regularly (David Allen calls it a “weekly review” but I think I do it with less regularity.) When things are super busy, I set my pomodoro and do it almost daily, and when things are less busy I might do it on my next flight or train trip. Either way it is a pleasure to do. 
And even more fun is talking about and sharing those tips and techniques with others who are also productivity geeks – and you know who you are!
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Looking for a Productivity Gadget that’s Low Tech for a Change? Try a Nu Board

I saw this first last year at the Balaton Group Meeting where Junko Edahiro, a fellow life-long learner and enthusiast in the field of productivity, was using her “nu board” to take notes during the meeting. I usually use my iPad and Penultimate to take photos, written notes with my stylus etc, etc. and they sync to my Evernote account so I can search them later.  (See our blog post “Fast and Easy Workshop Reports with Penultimate“.) But as soon as I saw the nu board, I knew I had to have one! (Thanks to my Japanese Balaton Group friends for their kind gift – they are made in Japan!)

If you were sitting next to me in The School of Life gathering in London (on the timely topic of keeping New Year’s Resolutions) last week, you would have seen me taking notes in my small nu board with a thin black marker, filling a page with notes, taking a photo of the page with my phone (I was actually putting it into my mobile Evernote app), then erasing the whole page with the top of my pen (a mini white board eraser), and start writing again. I did this again and again throughout the 2-hour event.

The nu board (available in A4 and A5 size), is effectively a bound book of thin white boards. In between each board is a transparent page that you can either write on to overlay additional text/drawings, or use it to protect your previous page from wrist smears.  You simply write with the nice thin marker (the board comes with the white one below, and the blue nu board pens, available separately, have a harder and thinner nib for even crisper writing)…

Then you take a photo of your page (as I mentioned I put mine into Evernote, but you might keep photos in a different database system) and then simply use the top of the marker that comes with your nu board to erase the page (its very easy to erase if you do it right away, if you wait you need to use some elbow grease)…

…and you start writing again. There are 4 whiteboard pages in each nu board, so you can take 8 pages of notes before you need to take your photos if you want. I had just cleared one page when I was at the School of Life, as I had not yet processed the other pages (which were from the terrific TEDxPlaceDesNations I wrote about in the previous post), but the pace of the TSoL event made that fine.

There is also a separate unbound, single page A4 nu board that I was told could be used, for example, during workshops or conferences to keep time for speakers (e.g, writing up 5 MINUTES), or give instructions to people at a distance (CLAP! – just kidding). I look forward to thinking up interesting ways to use that too.

Nu board is a very clever and simple idea. It is a paper-free solution that takes away the problem of having a bunch of handwritten notes after a workshop or meeting that you need to store somewhere (of course you can take a photo of those too, but then why use the paper?) The improvement on my iPad is that the pen is thinner and I can take denser notes on the paper (the stylus I have for Penultimate is thicker so your writing is bigger, thus less words on each page – fine in some contexts, less so in others).

The mobile photo archiving is high tech, but the nu board is wonderfully tangible and low tech in your hands, giving you the satisfaction of writing, drawing and decorating your notes page, just like you did at school – but you don’t ever have to torment yourself about whether or not to throw those old school notebooks away. Presto! with a swipe, its all gone into your digital archive…

(If you want another reason to try something like this, have a look at this LifeHack article Here’s Why You Should Take Notes By Hand (instead of with a laptop) which discusses a new Princeton/University of California study that shows that those who hand write their notes learn more than those who take notes on their laptops!)

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Holiday Greetings from Bright Green Learning (and How To DIY e-cards with Penultimate)

Lizzie and I from Bright Green Learning wish you a very happy holiday season!

Want to learn something new and make your own holiday e-card in 5 min? I enjoyed using Penultimate to make these two holiday cards – how to? 1) Grab your ipad; 2) Open the free app Penultimate; 3) Start a new notebook and upload a photo from your photostream or take a new one (I used this photo taken at the Women’s Forum photo booth); 4) Place it where you want it on your page and draw on your message (and/or silly hat); 5) Send the page to yourself by email (using the sharing icon on the app), it comes back in .jpg format; 6) Send out or post it on your blog! Happy Holidays!

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Productivity and Walking Desks: Combining Work With Workout

Does this look familiar?

It wouldn’t have to me before today.

It’s my treadmill screen and my laptop screen (notice Zero Inbox!) because I just made myself a Walking Desk.

Impressed by the recent New Yorker article, “The Walking Alive” by Susan Orlean, gently informing all us knowledge workers that we are shortening our lives when we sit at our desks for so many hours a day, I decided to get out the saw (sic) and convert a treadmill over to a workstation myself. (If you want to know more, there is also a nice NPR Interview with her –Treadmill Desks and the Benefits of Walking Alive.)

I have lamented again recently on my slow down in blogging over the last year. That has been in part due to lots of work (common to us all), but also to the fact that I started to get up from my desk and go out of my office for some kind of exercise every day thanks to last year’s sticky New Year’s resolution. And as we all know, time is a finite resource. So at least one-hour a day (plus transaction time) almost every day is gone from work hours, and this was definitely part of my blogging time.

But today, I am writing this blog while walking 1.7 km per hour at my treadmill desk. It sounds slow, but I have been on here for 2.5 hours now (probably too long, first time over ambition) and covered some fair ground.

I didn’t buy a treadmill desk, although there are some snazzy ones available, but converted a regular treadmill by simply putting a board horizontally through hole in the two “arms” of this Kettler Track Experience. The board gives me room for my laptop, phone, agenda, and some files (and probably a cup of coffee if I am careful).

It still took me a while to get it to the right work position. I immediately noticed that my laptop was too low when it was on the board to be comfortable for more than 5 minutes. So I put a stack of printer paper blocks under it to raise it to the right height. Even at this level I can still see my screen (as in the photo) so can motivate myself by time, distance or calories, if my email is less than inspirational.

It is surprisingly easy to work on my feet – I have already made phone calls, scheduled a meeting, zeroed my In-box, created a word document, filled in an online registration form, and read and commented on a paper (and wrote this blog). All at 1.7 km per hour.

All perfect? Not yet. I have to figure out how to keep the treadmill programme on manual, otherwise I will have the situation I had on my first call when the machine sped up at seemingly random times and had me huffing before I could get it back down to my comfortable pace (giving a whole new meaning to “Thinking, Fast and Slow”). I also need to get use to working without a mouse, or make my desk elevation (aka blocks of paper) wider.

I see that I might get addicted to this as it seems to take multi-tasking and productivity at your desk to a new level. And for home office workers to note: It doesn’t really work in slippers (although pajamas are probably ok if they’re loose enough). Finally, don’t plan on walking at your desk right until the minute before you zip out to a meeting, because after a couple of hours on the treadmill, even at that slow pace, you’ll be a little dizzy and disoriented when you step down on terra firma again. (So, no power tools either.)

In the time it has taken me to write this blog -exactly 44 minutes, 1.05 kilometers and 108 calories, I have kept moving, and still achieved something work related – my first standing blog post, and I hope the first of many on my feet.

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Domesticating Learning: Helping Trainers Appropriate New Materials Quickly in ToT Environments

If you’re like me, you have a drawer somewhere of gadgets that just didn’t quite make it into your daily routine. Or you have some apps on your iPhone that you tried but never got into the habit of using and now you are not exactly sure what to do with them.

I wrote a blog post a while ago about “Domesticating Your Facilitator” which used the theory of domestication (how innovations are tamed or appropriated by their users) to think about how to onboard a facilitator in an organisation which has not used one before. (I also had to laugh because in that blog I mentioned a  previous post I wrote in 2006 called “New Technology: It’s Not Just for Christmas” where I talk again about domesticating a new video ipod (sic) that I received for Christmas and unfortunately I am pretty sure that this toy has indeed ended up in that drawer.)

I am very curious about the process of appropriating new things, so that they become useful to us and not just paper weights or pretty icons or interesting titles on our e-bookshelves, and this includes new learning.

This is on my mind in particular this week because I’m in Bangkok running a Training-of-Trainers (ToT) workshop where a group of smart trainers from around the region are being introduced to a new set of training modules on ecosystems for business that includes hundreds of slides, dozens of pages of facilitation notes, and a new sequence of presentations and activities, quizzes, case studies, icebreakers, discussions, group work etc.

All in 3 days.

And the last day of this three is a demonstration of one module that they will run themselves with a new group of interested and eager learners from outside our ToT group. So my role is to set them up for success and to help them appropriate this information so that they can use it immediately on Friday, and especially thereafter.

For me that is a part of the domestication process. Like my video ipod, receiving it and letting it get dusty in my desk after an initial burst of enthusiasm makes it much harder to use. For trainers, participating in a ToT, where you hear and work through some of the material and then go home and put that enormous binder on a shelf in your office until weeks or months later when you deliver the training (the likelihood diminishing as each week passes) is akin to putting that gadget in a drawer for “future use”.

When you have an opportunity to deliver that material on your own, you will take it off the shelf, open it up and probably in the middle of the night the evening before your training (but let’s hope not) and at least on your own without the ToT trainers and your peers in the room, you will have to learn it all again by yourself. At that point, unsupported except by strong coffee and Google, you will try to domesticate the material out of sheer necessity.

So how can a ToT programme change that pattern and help trainers move that process up to during the ToT (and not afterwards)?  How can you precipitate that moment when someone moves beyond passively accepting the material to making it their own?  Turning it into a tool that actually works for them, and domesticates it so it is a part of their life.

Here are a couple of things that we have built into the design of our ToT to help do this:

1) Let people read the materials
This might sound glaringly obvious, but it’s not. We often try all kinds of things to get our learners into that big manual. We send it electronically in advance, or portions of it. We hand it out in hard copy the night before and ask people to leaf through it (after the opening dinner and reception and on top of their jet lag). We page through the manual with them in plenary and tell them what’s in it. We do an exercise from it on page 13 etc. All these things are good of course, but it is actually amazing what happens when you block out a half hour or an hour in the ToT agenda early on (like the first morning after introductions and context setting inputs) and just give people time in the workshop room to read through the materials- to see how they are organised, the logic of presentation, and the content itself.

2) Have learners identify for themselves areas where they want more inputs
I combine this reading exercise with a job aid (a worksheet) that asks the trainers to note down the topics on which they feel they would need more support and information, and where they have specific questions (e.g. Day 1, Session 3 of the training, I have question X.) Their questions are organised on my worksheet into content questions and process questions so they think about the materials from both of these points of view.

This action gets them even closer to the materials because it asks them to imagine using it and identifying aspects where they have a level of comfort already and where they don’t at the moment. Thus narrowing down where they want more (as opposed to me deciding this for them and probably getting it totally wrong). Testing the content against their existing competencies shows them that actually they know some of this already, and that there are spots where they could usefully learn more in order to use it effectively.

3) Have learners share their “learning edges” with peers
Once people have identified the areas where they want to learn more, their “learning edges” (because not everyone wants to admit where they don’t know something), I send them on a “Pairs Walk”outside the room. On this walk, they use their worksheet and materials to share the questions they have with one other person in the safe environment of a comfy chair in another part of the venue or outside in the grass. It is often at this point that your partner can answer some of your questions – point to a place in the manual with the answer, or share an experience they have had that speaks to your question. This peer learning exercise has many merits in addition to getting some answers to your questions; it demonstrates the value of the peer network for support (so even months down the road, you might shoot an email to one of the other trainers to answer your questions), it shows you even more about what resources are in the material, and gives you and your peer the opportunity to “display ownership and competence of the materials” (which is a part of the “conversion” stage of domestication.)

4) Aggregate the remaining questions and answer them together in Open Space
Now that some of the questions are answered, what remains are the trickier or less obvious ones. Now back in our ToT room, I collect the remaining questions from the Pairs on cards and we cluster them to see what categories of questions trainers have left. The categories that emerge lend themselves beautifully to Open Space Technology (OST) sessions which can now be scheduled and run to discuss and answer these questions. (I have written a lot on this blog about applications of OST: Opening Space for Conversation (and Eating Croissants), and Training Camp: An Un-ToT Design as it remains for me an incredibly useful framework for learner-centred workshops.)

Anyone can host one of the OST discussion sessions. It can be one of the ToT “master” trainers, or can be one of the participants if they feel comfortable to do that. Running three or so in parallel means that the learners can choose which to attend and customise their learning to exactly what they need. They can stay with one group or move around, giving them complete control over how to use their learning time.

5) Follow up with group and individual learning capture
For each of the Open Space conversations I create an RLO (reusable learning objects) template – which is flipchart template that invites the group or conversation host to record resusable learning. This is not a running record of the discussion, the aims is to pull out things for people to remember and (as in the name) reuse. It also means that people who were not in the discussion, because there are several in parallel, can benefit from the useful nuggets that come out of the discussion. You can post these templates for a Gallery Walk which can be done in pairs again, or use them for a very brief highlights report back the next morning.

I usually run the above sequence, or something similar, about three times in a ToT, because as one question is answered others crop up, as people really dig deeply into the materials. And of course as the demonstration course with the outside participants starts to loom on the horizon (offering another important “conversion” opportunity to participants.)

Participants at our ToT yesterday were delighted with this sequence. It feels different. It feels like they are coming to the materials, rather than the materials coming to them when they get to decide what they want to learn rather than a ToT trainer deciding what people should learn. Even if the two match up pretty well, the level of engagement and active appropriation of the materials is completely different. Participants are given, and take, responsibility for their learning in this kind of process. 

We still have 2 days to go on our ToT, and will have another two OST sessions today. By Friday when our 25 new external participants walk into the room and the trainers deliver Module 1 of our series to them, we should have made good progress in helping the trainers domesticate this new material for themselves – making it more familiar, more useful and personal, so that it doesn’t get stuck in that drawer (like that ipod) forever.

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Learning to Use Evernote: Two Examples from a Learning Practitioner

I use Evernote (“Remember Everything”) for many things from tracking my kids’ football schedules to contacts for my favorite conference centres, but the most useful things for my learning and facilitation work include:

1. Keeping track of photos that I take at my workshops, including all the flipchart templates, job aids, handouts, game descriptions. I use these both for reporting purposes, but also so these materials become reusable (thus I don’t have to think again about how to frame this or that activity, or can write over a formatted job aid etc.)

I also have a great set of individual visual facilitation icons in there that I created for myself during a training course I took. Now I can scan that archive to remind myself how to draw those little star people holding trophies. The great thing about Evernote is that you can search text in photos, so I can find things easily again (even more so if I write the client’s name or session key word on the flipchart itself before I photo it).

2. Keeping track of articles that are useful to my work. I had an enormous stack of printed articles that I could not part with sitting on the floor of my office for years. One Saturday I went through them all and either found them on the internet and copied them into Evernote, or took a photo of them (you can also scan them) and put them there.   I recycled my paper stack (which I could not search) and now have both a clean office floor and a great archive of articles (which I can search). Some were from as far back as 1984! Almost everything is on the internet these days – even 2002 editions of Water Resources Impact Newsletter which featured a special issue way back then on Distance Learning and E-Learning in Water Resources Education, interesting from a historical perspective on this fast moving field.

I wrote about this process in a post called What to Do With a Stack of Reading? Create a Personal Knowledge Management System. I could always google, but with my personal archive, I can be sure that every one of the 269 article there is relevant for something I am doing.

On the articles, just a tip, after the first push to input existing hard copy, now it is easier –  I have installed a button on my browser which will let me instantly clip an article and automatically put it into Evernote. Because I can have certain notebooks synced so that I can access them offline, I can do my research on the plane if needed.

So enough about me, I wanted to write this post to point to a set of daily tips that are being written on using Evernote. The first two are linked below, and you can follow the others on Damian’s Blog: .net from Geneva, Switzerland:

Evernote Tip 1 is: You say: “I like Evernote, but I’m not sure I’m using it correctly” – I say “don’t worry, there is no one ‘right way’ “

Evernote Tip 2 is: What is an Evernote Notebook? So what if I have 80 notebooks?

Apparently there will be 31 of these being written daily this month (but timeless). By the way Evernote is free, and for inspiration you can check out the Evernote Trunk for cool examples of how people are using it, like with IdeaPaint which you can use on your wall to turn it into a giant whiteboard, then take photos of your drawings and ideas with your phone and store them in Evernote, which you can then search.

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18 Presentations in a Row? What Can You Do?

I recently facilitated a workshop where 18 country teams participated and needed to present their progress and work for the year. They felt they needed to do this to foster peer learning among the countries and to gain an overview of what was happening globally. However, it is hard to imagine any one person listening actively to that many presentations in a row, although for pattern spotting, for good practice ideas and to see who are your resources in the group, it would behoove every one to listen without falling asleep.

So here is what we did…

Preparation:

  1. Expectation Management: We gave each country 7 minutes for their presentation, we told them we would time them; 
  2. Making Inputs Parallel and Comparable: We gave everyone a PPT template of the key questions to fill in which was made up of 6 slides with headings (Frankly I think 4 would have been easier for them to stay in time);
  3. Split Them Up:  I created four sessions over 2 days to spread them out, continuity was created using other tracking and memory tools (below).

Delivery:

  1. Time Keeping: I timed each presentation with my Iphone using the Doorbell sound to signal time up. I also gave 2 minute warnings with two fingers and walked around the room until I could catch the speaker’s eye (if they were strategically avoiding me). Everyone but one speaker stopped within 30 seconds of hearing that doorbell ring twice into my hand held microphone (note that if you have interpreters, then don’t put the phone right up to the microphone, it apparently drives them crazy, which I can well understand);
  2. Keep it Equal: Why the Iphone is great is that no one imagines that you are judging the time yourself subjectively, the time is up when the timer goes off. This was accepted by the speakers, only one person challenged me, but then I let her watch my phone for the following speaker and that was that.

Listeners as Learners:

  1. Helping Learners Stay Concentrated: Find as many ways as possible to help the people listening to stay engaged: I did three things:
  2. Use the Bell to Set Pace: Once the crisp pace is set, then people can endure presentations that might not be as strong as others, because they know it is for exactly 7 minutes.
  3. Count Down Visually: I created a flipchart checklist (above) at the front of the room of the 18 country presentations in alphabetical order and made a big flourish when checking them off as a presentation was completed. This helped people keep track of who was on and who was next, but also how many presentations there were to go:
  4. Make a Job Aid: As we didn’t have time to have a discussion or even take questions between the 18 presentations,  I created a Job Aid (handout) that asked the listener a couple of questions about each presentation – first to reflect on the presentation and identify, “What ideas did I appreciate most from the presentation?” – that was a appreciative frame that assumes that you will get ideas and appreciate them! At least it gets people listening to them to see if they can identify this. The second question asked for “Ideas to follow up on with the team members” – e.g. further questions. By capturing these in real time, they could go find the speaker in the coffee break and follow up on their questions (or ask them in plenary if time). This Job Aid had the benefit of tracking progress too for the individual, and letting them customise their follow up one-on-one with the presenters during coffee/lunch/evenings, rather than having one or two people hijack the plenary after each.

After the Presentations:

  1. Pattern Spotting: Rather than rushing on into the next thing, we built in a good amount of time to discuss the meta-level findings from all the presentations once they were completed – what similarities did participants hear and what diversity? Were there any messages or learning points coming through loud and clear in many of them?  As people used the Job Aid to capture their thoughts and organize them, when it came to the pattern spotting, it was easier for people to thoughtfully contribute.

In the end, we did it – people made it through all of them – both presenters and listeners, and identified some fascinating interconnections and good practice. And although it seemed easy, it took quite a bit of work to design it so that, in spite of 18 presentations, people can stay engaged and learning throughout the whole event.

What facilitation and learning tips do you have when dealing with a slew of presentations?

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The Cost of Being Late

I have observed in an organization where I frequently give training that 25% of the people in the course are on time regularly. The rest of the people come later, and usually by 15 minutes after the start time of the course, everyone is there and we can begin.

In this organization, meetings are the main space for collaborative work, and people can have up to 4 or more meetings a day.

In this case, for the 25% of the people who are on time to meetings (which start 15 minutes late), they lose 1 hour a day of waiting around for people to arrive and for their meetings to start.

If your staff is 200 people, then 50 people are losing 1 hour a day to late starts. If 50 person hours of work per day is being lost, that makes 250 hours a week lost in waiting for meetings to start due to late arrivals.

250 hours a week is effectively 6 staff members whose complete time is being spent sub-optimally, they could go home and get paid to do nothing.

That’s 1000 hours/month, or 12000 hours per year, which is 250 work weeks, or over 6 person years of work lost to an organization every calendar year from people who are 15 minutes late for meetings…

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A Facilitator’s Nightmare (Literally)

Every single page of the first pad of flipchart paper had been written on, with marker was so dark that it was clearly legible on both sides. The second pad, with no cardboard backing, was shiny and slick and had been rolled and then stepped on, lining it with deep wavy creases. Another was on a roll and had the consistency and colour of toilet paper on a old French train. Three clean sheets of paper could be found left over – but the Facilitator needed six. Finding no scissors in the materials box, she drew a wavy line down the middle of each sheet so that the tear marks would not need to be so even.

It had been 5 minutes before the event was due to start when she finally found the venue, a highrise building which had its main conference room on the ground floor and the registration set up on the top. She took the lift up to help register people, all of whom were already there, and then zoomed back down the steps to prepare the room. By the time she started room prep, the event should have started too.

After half an hour of moving chairs out of the classroom set up, drawing up the flipchart sheets, and worrying about what the participants were doing up there (no coffee had yet been delivered), the opening sequence was ready. She went up sheepishly to collect people, through an exhibition that was noisily being set up outside the room for the event which followed. She would finish the preparation for the next part at coffee break (if coffee had shown up by then.)

Thankfully at this point I woke up, so completely surprised that my subconscious had thrown up such a detailed set of facilitation challenges in my sleep. If you can really learn something in any context, then the big message here for me must certainly be PREPARATION.  I cannot always anticipate/do anything about everything as the facilitator (although the buck often stops with me), but finding a venue so I can be there early, getting the sheets done in advance, going thoroughly through the materials and equipment list with the partner, or having an “icebreaker” in my pocket in case of a delay are some that I can. With some of these out of the way, all the other random things that life (or your dreams) can throw up can get your full attention.

Gee whiz, OK, I’m awake now…

I have three workshops/conferences in just over a week, let me go back to my prep now (and daydream about that vacation on the horizon)…

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By-the-Numbers: The Power of Math in Group Processes

Sometimes the math behind learning and collaborative events and processes is pretty impressive. For example, I used the slide above in my intro at a recent multi-Stakeholder event.

  • 198 was the number of people who had registered to attend.
  • 12 was the number of hours each of us would spend in session over the two-day workshop.
  • 5.5 was the number of hours that we would be on breaks (coffee breaks, lunch and receptions) prime time for informal networking (about 30% of the total, not too bad).
  • 2,376 was the number of person hours in total that we would be working together – which adds up to roughly 59 person weeks/or over a year of work (with no holidays!) 
  • 16.5 is the number of hours that it would take if everyone spoke for 5 minutes in the plenary, one after the other with no breaks (and no podium/panel speakers).

The last point is especially provocative from a group process point of view, and interesting to point out – if the group is large, and the format is plenary, and if you want to hear from everyone (because for example its a stakeholder dialogue), and everyone feels they have to speak in the plenary to be heard, it is a zero sum game.

With the math it becomes quite clear and a powerful rationale for both (a) design decisions such as adding into the agenda all kinds of small group discussions, pairs discussions, talks to your neighbour after a speaker or before a plenary discussion (and maybe some good capture tools if you want to collect these thoughts). There simply are not enough hours available for everyone to speak in plenary; and (b) on-the-spot facilitation decisions such as helping people understand that they need to be brief and concise in their interventions from the floor and also from the front (panel, podium or other). This way if the facilitator selects someone new instead of someone who has already spoken, even if they are literally jumping up and down, an understanding of the math may help foster some understanding and patience with the process.

Invoking the math can also help people gain a greater understanding of what is being invested (e.g. 2,376 person hours) and also what that might cost if it was monetized. It also speaks to what can be accomplished if that time is used most productively (design again – do you want it to be spent listening to speakers?)

Do the math, it can be a powerful intervention for all – participants, organizers and learning/process designers!

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If You Give a Productivity Fan an Invoice to Write, She’ll… (A Cautionary Tale of Productivity)

(With apologies, or perhaps thanks to “If You Give a Moose a Muffin“)

This is a cautionary tale about why you need to take extra steps to stay productive and focused in a home office.

If you give a Gillian an invoice to write, she’ll write the invoice and then she’ll want to complete the project properly so she’ll sit down with her GTD manila file and notebook and separate out things that need to be kept and tossed;

Then she’ll remember while she’s taking apart the notebook, that she wanted to write a blog post about how the notebook was put together so that she could remember how she did it for next time.

So she’ll sit down and write the blog post. After the blog post she will want to tell people about it so she will go to Tiny URL and shrink the url so that she can Tweet about it.

Once she has tinied the URL, she’ll log on to Twitter and send out a Tweet telling people about the blog post, and then she’ll want to glance at the recent Tweets, and check any messages or @mentions (because we all do don’t we). She doesn’t do this too often to avoid too much distraction.

When she looks at the @mentions she’ll notice that another facilitator, LynnWalsh, has recently highlighted  some tempting articles on her site, The Facilitation Daily, which is a cool paper.li site.

While scanning the interesting articles and marveling at Lynn’s site, she’ll notice the live Twitter stream, and one particular Tweet pops up from @Nicatnight saying he had discovered the joys of Moleskine hacking (?). She’ll notice that he uses a #GTD hashtag for his post, which she also used.

When she sees the #GTD hashtag, she will curiously google “Moleskine hacking” and get a 43Folders wiki article about how to hack a moleskine notebook in many helpful GTD-complementary ways. Seeing that was written by Merlin Mann of Zero-Inbox fame (which she has written alot about on this blog), she will decide to go to the 43 folders website to see what’s going on.

While reading through the 43Folders website (“Time, Attention and Creative Work”), she’ll notice that her pomodoro for preparing the invoice, and follow-up GTD filing, went off 2 hours ago.

And when she notices that, she will want to go back to her invoices and filing…
(I am literally afraid to post this on Twitter)

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Complex Event? Anatomy of a Facilitator’s Notebook

I recently facilitated an enormously complex 2-day event, with over 100 people (numbers shifted hourly), multiple process owners, and a continuously evolving agenda. The more exciting things got, the more interventions were sought (e.g. seat on a panel, announcement, chair role, changing speakers, changing titles, etc.) The nature of the event meant that each request needed to be accommodated if possible without jeopardizing the overall coherence.

AND this was an incredibly important international environmental governance event, and I needed to be able to turn down the volume on the pulsating process enough so that I could listen, and be most effective in helping guide the discussions.

I knew it would be like this, this was a preparatory event for a much larger week-long political conference (600+ participants), with high stakes and even more moving parts. So in going into this exhilarating environment as the main process holder, I needed to make sure that I had a hand on everything possible and could find it quickly. Being awake, well rested, and centred in my appreciative frame, was necessary but not sufficient. I had a stack of paper, emails, and last minutes instructions and changes that made up the body of input materials.

What I am about to write might seem totally basic, and still I wanted to record this, as often I go into events with my pink labelled GTD manila folder with papers loose inside. Once at the event, I just use my Facilitator’s Agenda and my loose process notes, prepared session-by-session. I write them on a rectangular coloured Facilitation card, one per session. I use it to prepare notes for three fields: Preparation, Materials, and Script.

This time there was just too much stuff and it was still coming in fast and furious. It took me about 3 hours – I put together a Facilitator’s Notebook for myself to help me avoid shuffling through papers or worse, forgetting something critical while standing in front of a hundred people.

Facilitator’s Notebook

Hardware:
Two ring notebook
12 Dividers

Additional Materials: 
Hole punch (which I took with me so I could add things on the spot)
Label machine (mine is a Brother P-touch 65)
Day-glow post-its
Facilitators rectangular cards (different colours)

Steps:
1. I labelled the folder and then all the tabs, so they would be easy to read and look good to me and others (thanks to David Allen for my addiction to labelling things);
2. For tabs I used the following fields:

  • Agenda: This was first as it was my main guide. This included my Facilitation agenda, and also the Participants agenda so I could see how things were framed for participants (and how much info they had on each session) I also made for myself a one page snapshot agenda – which was essentially a matrix overview of the 2 days with the timing, and session titles, so I could see the overall logic and flow and communicate that to participants (hard to do from a 13-page Facilitators Agenda). I also included it in a blank page for notes, to include any last minute changes to the agenda.
  • Session-by-Session tabs: I had one called “Open”, then Sessions 1-5, then “Close”. Behind each of these I extracted that appropriate section of the Facilitators Agenda and reprinted it, so I could see the coherence of that particular session to introduce it. After that I had the bios of the speakers (if there were any, and there almost always were from 1 to 7!) After that I included the background papers that were being used and referred to in that session. I printed them 2 pages per sheet recto-verso so they wouldn’t take up so much space. I used this on the plane to prepare myself, so the papers were marked up with my own notes and highlighted with essential points pulled out again for briefing purposes. I also included copies of any templates or job aids that we would be using in that session.
  • Participants: Here I had the composition of the participants groups in numbers, as well as the Participants List.
  • Notes: Under this section I had 5 pages of blank lined paper and I used it to take process notes under headings like: “For next time” and “overall”, as I needed to write a short report afterwards with suggestions on what worked and what could be different. I didn’t want to have to sift through everything to find those, and there were plenty of free moments during the event when I could jot down ideas here.
  • Logistics: This section had filed all the logistics information I had been given, everything from my own flight and hotel details, participants logistics information note, to the layout of the room. Again more was added to this section once I arrived.
  • TOR: In this section I included my own TOR and a copy of the contract, for reference.

3. On site, I used the rectangular Facilitators cards to write my script for each session. I actually used different colours for each session so I could grab them and not mix them up as there were so many of them. I also had a blank one of that colour to keep in my hand to write notes, such as the speakers list and announcements etc. I used the hole punch to put them in the right section before using them, and then put them back in the book when I was done so they were not flying around in my bag.

Finally, the post-it notes came in handy for last minute notes and reminders, which I could stick anywhere and make sure they stuck out of the edges of the book so I could find them again quickly.

The whole idea was to minimise the “noise” of extraneous paper, notes etc. by organizing it in a logical way so that I can listen and help the group most effectively. It also helps me to have a system that can grow organically (thus the hole punch in my bag),  and helps me not lose important information and changes (e.g. writing them on a slip of paper and forgetting it in my pocket). I simply had the book open on my designated desk and could walk back and get anything I needed or add things as they came up.

So simple, and perhaps you do something this already and have some learning to share? I have been making these Facilitator’s Notebooks too for some time, I dissect them (sorry, perhaps pushing this metaphor a bit too far there) after the event which is what I was doing just now, when I thought I would pause and look again at the anatomy of my notebook…

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What to Do With the Stack of “Reading”? Creating A Personal Knowledge Management System

Confronting Your Reading Pile

I have been writing about my spring office cleaning exercise, and that has included much frustration about what to do with an enormous stack of great articles in a “Reading” pile. Do you have one of those?

I pawed through it; it is really excellent stuff, titles from David Stroh’s “Leveraging Change: The Power of Systems Thinking in Action” to  “5 Insightful TED Talks on Social Media” from the Mashable blog– all great information that I want, but I just don’t want it right now (and especially don’t want it taking up prime real estate in my tiny office).

Information is a Flow

Of course when I do need it, realistically, the last thing I will do is paw through that stack to find the most appropriate articles. Even putting them in topical files (like in the old days) seems like dooming them to the dark corners of my filing cabinet – and so many of them would have multiple filing locations, so I would have to go through many files anyways. Enough to put me off of that.

There is a limit, and a kind of perverse unintended consequence in this type of system in that the larger the pile grows the more good information that is there, true, but the more time it would take to go through it and therefore lessening the likelihood that I will spend the time to “query” the pile for information. Plus, let’s be super realistic, in the face of that I would probably just Google anyways. Information is now a flow and not a stock.

The Search Revolution

However, Google has its limits too. Some work has been done to filter out good stuff, say, from the 8.7 million results that you get when you put “informal learning” into Google. We are now using our Friends as filters, whether real friends or the mavens  in the topics we care about. To use this new Search system cleverly we just need to  know who knows what and who is doing what. So I follow the leaders, and they throw up good tidbits of information that are useful and interesting, but again too much and often not what I need at the moment when I find it.

So I do need some type of personal knowledge management system that I can query, that is between “I’m Feeling Lucky” of Google, and my former OCD response of printing and carefully “filing” by placing on top of the stack of reading under the table in my office.

Personal Knowledge Management System – Building for Scale

Please do not do the math (as in how long would it have taken me to just read that stack), I just spent some hours (still in the single digits) putting every single still-interesting article in my stack into Evernote (as in “Remember Everything”).

I will admit that this whole process of converting paper to online links took me longer than needed as I first linked the sources through my Delicious account (thinking it would be great to share this good work with others – still a good attitude I think). Only to be informed by my husband, a tech news devotee and generally up on all this stuff, that the talk on the street is that Yahoo (owner) will soon close Delicious. So, I went to Evernote. After I got the hang of it, it was pretty easy to just open the Delicious links in new tabs and copy the content of the article with the URL into Evernote, adding a tag called “Articles”. Although it took time, the system now is built to scale  -as in, it can get as big as needed and is still as useful as it would be if it was a small resource – unlike that pile of papers, which can only get as big as the table top, or the ceiling if I wanted to live like that. It’s useful because it is searchable by content, not just tags (like Delicious) or titles (like in a paper file I would skim).

Filtered Resources On Demand

It is also more useful as the content of the articles will be stored locally in Evernote on my devices (laptop, iPad) as well as on the cloud, so I can read them on the plane (yes, I could also read paper, but I would have to carry that around, and still have to do something with it afterwards to be able to refer to it later – choke up my GTD files, or back to fire hazard under table).

Now I can recycle those papers, and still query them electronically by any word I want through my Evernote interface. And I can add more as interesting things come in from the people who know. This is just one part of a greater Personal Knowledge Management system, as there are lots of other go-to places for knowledge. However, I am feeling good now about managing those articles and other resources that really stand out. And I rest easier knowing that this was an initial set up investment of time, and that upkeep will be faster.

Did you hear that? That was the sound of an enormous pile of reading hitting the recycling bin!

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More Efficiencies For Techie Facilitators and Trainers: Evernote and Irisnotes

When I am preparing a workshop, in the day(s) before, I go carefully through the Facilitator’s Agenda (which has more process detail than the Participant’s Agenda) and make detailed notes for myself. For each numbered session (without session numbers the workshop blocks are impossible to keep track of), I write down: 1) what needs to be done for preparation; 2) what materials I need, and 3)  an outline of my “script” – what I am saying to the participants to brief, run and debrief each session.

(A “session” for me, is a thematic block, normally an hour or two in length – the time it takes to introduce something, work through it, and come up with an intended output.)

I normally go one step further with this session preparation, and prepare any Job Aids, handouts, or design the flipcharts that I need to make on site to use in each session (for briefing, debriefing, a group work template, whatever.)

I do this because I need to have thought through as much as possible BEFORE I get into the workshop room, because once I am there anything can happen.

When I’m preparing my flipcharts or whatever needs to be done on the spot in the precious moments just prior to the workshop’s start each day, I really cannot be thinking deeply about what I am doing (as strange as that sounds). I can’t be designing things, wordsmithing, or wondering about the best way to phrase a group work question, as I can be interrupted at any moment, repeatedly, by practically anyone for practically anything – calls for directions to the venue, catering staff with questions, lost luggage, changing name tags, taking feedback, new ideas and opinions, greetings and more greetings – and you want to be available for all of these very important pre-meeting tasks.

Of course, I could write up my flipcharts in my home office before I go, I do have my own dangerous flipchart (see: Reframing Falling Flipcharts – hmm, there seems to be a recurring theme here.) But then you might have a last minute change, they might get mangled, you might forget them at home or on the bus. So I usually write up the flipcharts as a draft on cards and then recreate them on site using those as a guide.

This is all well and good, but what happens to those cards? If I keep them, they sit in my files, they get misplaced or out of sequence; rarely do I go digging into my files to find and reuse them. What if I could draw each flipchart model once quickly by hand, use it as a model to prepare the real thing in the room, and at the same time keep it electronically? Wouldn’t that save me time and from recreating the wheel?

I do now take photos with my iPhone of all my “best” or most useful flipcharts after the workshop and save them in Evernote where I can search for and find them again. I have been doing this for about a year now, and have some 500+ notes which are entirely workshop templates, flipcharts, activities, game descriptions, systems diagrams, good results of group work etc. Why I like Evernote is that its text recognition feature lets me go into my Evernote database and search for a word that is embedded in an image (rather than for a tag or a title). I take so many photos after a workshop that I don’t always have time to tag them, and the tags are rather generic anyways, so I can simply search for a word written in the photo of the flipchart and find the image.

I am interested in the possibility now, with my new Irisnotes (a digital pen) (thanks to my friend Lorenzo for this Christmas gift and tutorial!), to actually write up my flipchart “draft” in advance and keep it electronically for use again. I drew the above image with my Irisnotes pen on an A4 paper in 1 minute and when I connected to my PC simply saved it as a jpeg and then uploaded it to this blog, and also saved it on my PC.

This can also be helpful for collaboration. With Irisnotes I can also send the flipchart picture I have just hand drawn as an email. For example, if I was working with Lizzie as my co-facilitator, I could send her all the flipchart drafts in advance for her comments before we get to our venue,without having to type them all up and nicely format them (not one of my strengths).  We could even co-develop them in real time through a process that I used today for another discussion.

This was for a client telephone call focused on agenda development for an upcoming facilitated event. For this call I used Irisnotes while connected to my PC (by a small USB cable), which meant I could see my writing on the screen as I wrote my notes. As I was on a Skype call, I shared my screen  (cool new Skype feature), as we discussed a draft agenda and a set of group exercises (make sure you don’t have other files open or Hello Kitty “wallpaper” that you don’t want shared as well).

While we were talking, I drew examples of the group work matrices that I was proposing for the meeting in real time. I also captured the steps that we would take as we worked through the flipchart template I was proposing. Because he could see me drawing as I spoke, he could easily follow the logic, question it, help me improve it so the final drawing was more or less agreed. At the end of the conversation I immediately emailed him the file. And with Irisnotes, I could either send the file in my handwriting or convert it to text (accurate, if you write in straight lines, but still expect some minutes of work tidying things up. Lined paper to start with would help this.) Because I was drawing matrices I just sent him the file in handwriting as an aide memoire of our discussion, which I then typed up into a more formal proposal later.

Stick all that into Evernote, so I could find the above notes by searching for “Introductions” or “Group work templates” for example, and the next time I wanted an example or exercise for a workshop, I could find my flipcharts already “made”. With the help of some handy technology, I can make my preparation time more efficient, and be prepared for even more of anything.

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Time to Reflect: Cooking Up Your GTD Weekly Review

As many of my friends and acquaintances know I am a big fan of Getting Things Done (see the blog’s GTD tag on this, and also the tag on Productivity). One of the GTD tenets is the “Weekly Review” and there are some great resources for this – from the GTD Times article The GTD Weekly Review to videos of David Allen on YouTube talking you through it in 2 minutes.

I was always rather apprehensive about starting the Weekly Review because it seemed like a potentially never ending task and completely absorbing. What has helped considerably, psychologically getting over that barrier to starting, is using one of two incredibly simple and rather obvious things – one, an Online Alarm Clock that you can set for 30 minutes (or however long you want to invest) and which goes off sounding like a bullfrog impersonating a police siren.

The other is using the Pomodoro Technique (a simple technique that involves a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato and 25 minutes chunks of your life). This helps you cut up the task into bitesize pieces, gives you a break in between and helps you plan exactly how much time you want to devote. You will get over the loud ticking (or find a cozy home for it under a chair in a far corner of the room).

Now I set my online clock, or wind up my tomato and get reviewing.

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Learning from Best Practice: What Can You Do With That?

(Note from me: This (rather long) post was inspired by my partner in this exercise who challenged me to try to blog about our own process reflections. It seemed congruent to frame it as a “How To” – so this is my learning about learning!)

In many project documents and programme concept notes you see mention of building on or using learning from best practice. But how exactly do you go about collecting this, and in what form can you use it?

Identifying Patterns

We recently finished a 6-month learning exercise at a large international NGO which explored this issue. It focused on learning from a number of experiences in the last 10 years in a newly developing area of partnership work for the organization – providing independent advice for businesses on biodiversity conservation in their operations. The HQ programme manager saw some patterns developing that she thought would be interesting to capture, organize and make available for other colleagues around the world who were interested in adding this kind of work to their portfolio of projects.

We were also curious to see if there was a way to describe some of the common components of the processes that were being used as models that made them more easily transferable. And we wanted to learn from the Project Managers living and breathing these experiences about what worked and what they might change, if they did this again, in the different stages of their process. These included areas like governance, communication, contracting, etc.

Don’t Shelve It! (Why to Collect It in the First Place)

In this case, there were several reasons for collecting best practices:

  1. To help understand more about staff member’s work in this new field and to make it visible;
  2. To provide Project Managers doing this innovative work with an opportunity to reflect on their process and what they are learning, and to document this;
  3. To provide interested staff members with some basic “how to'” information, as well as to connect them with a set of experienced colleagues to whom they can go for advice; 
  4. To develop a set of models – in the form of diagrams, generic steps, and actionable insights –  that help to lightly organize the experiences (which developed organically in many cases). These model descriptions can help staff and potential partners more strategically choose from amongst them when a collaboration opportunity arises, and also help this new practice be more effectively communicated internally and externally.

The learning exercise therefore had two target audiences – staff members (both running these partnership projects or interested in starting them); and potential new partners. The first was considered to be more important at this stage as a focus of the learning exercise. As these are very different audiences, two separate products were designed as vehicles for the best practice information collected – a “How To” learning document for staff, and a promotional brochure for potential new partners.  The first one took 6 months to write, and the second took 1 day.

Do It in Steps: How We Collected Best Practice

A. What Makes for Best Practice? Identifying the Cases
One of the first steps in the exercise was to identify the cases that would become a part of the learning and analysis. We found that we did not need to worry about how to categorise “best” cases (by anyone’s subjective standard) as in every case Project Managers could pick out aspects that were working very well, and could also always pinpoint things that could usefully change or had changed for various reasons. Good practice was a better frame as it exhibited itself in every case we analysed, whether in setting up the project Advisory Board, how stakeholders were integrated, developing strategic reporting time lines, or using formal team building. Each Project Manager had innovated in interesting ways, and also had naturally come up against challenges. In some cases, they had effectively solved them for each other, but prior to this exercise no format existed to capture and exchange on these items.

We started with 10 cases and ended up using 7 of them for various reasons. We tried to get a variety of experiences from different parts of the world that were well established (i.e. had been going for some years, or were nearly completed) and for the most part well-documented. Each however had something in common, they worked with a new business partner with a specific goal of providing independent advice for biodiversity conservation.

B. Creating an Opportunity for Reflection: Gathering Information
For each case, although for most cases there was lots of descriptive documentation on the web, it often did not include process information. It was mostly framed as reporting details and quantitative data. We did use that as background, but our main input was conversation based, using Appreciative Inquiry stems for questions (e.g. focusing on what is working). So Skype or face-to-face interviews with the Project Managers and, in many cases, other delivery team members external to the organization, were built centrally into the process.  We focused in the interviews on what people thought worked very well and what could be different to make the experience even more successful. Creating an opportunity for reflection, we asked about learning along the different stages of the process, from preparation/set up through delivery, to reporting. And, because this was a newer area of work for an well-established organization, we explored perceptions of risk. We specifically asked for Tips for future project managers who might be running a similar exercise, and on the qualities that Project Managers needed to have make the project successful.

C. What’s Bubbling Up to the Surface? Developing the Model
It was only after all the cases had been written up, that we could step back and try to understand what some of the commonalities might produce in the form of a generic model or structure. In the stories of the Project Managers there were definitely repeating elements, process steps, even challenges. Some features were shared across all the cases, for example, all had some similarities in sequencing of process steps, all had a governance component – an external Panel or Steering Board that helped the advice given be truly independent, all were set up with some form of formal agreement between two organizations even if a larger number were involved. Across these common elements much good practice was exhibited.

Other things in the cases were clearly different, and what became apparent as we looked deeper, was a framework model that included the goal of the process, especially the depth of outcome desired – was the change on which the project focused a remedial action (e.g. trying to fix something in a specific location like a lake, harbour or protected area?) Or was it aimed at much broader social change? This was linked to the level of intervention – a field operation, a company, sector, supply chain or society. Each of these in turn had an optimal level of stakeholder involvement. We plotted the categories of projects and the individual cases along these lines to see what we would get.

What this analysis produced was a useful tool, a diagram, which collected the different kinds of experiences in one place, based on their key features. It effectively organized the diverse experiences in a visually interesting way and could be used as an aid to guide an exploratory discussion with new staff member or with a potential business counterpart.

D. Pulling it All Together: Producing the Best Practices Product
The “How To” Learning document was an exercise in synthesis. Although we had collected a binder full of data, and held hours of interviews, the result had to be a crystallisation of the learning. In the end, the main body of the document was 22 pages of text with diagrams which included an overview of the main categories we identified, each with a set of steps for implementation, tips for setting up and managing the processes, communication lessons, and a discussion of potential risks and management options. It was in the Conclusions section that we introduced the model that situated all the experiences into relationship with one another based on the features mentioned above (depth of outcome desired, stakeholder involvement, and scope of intervention). The case studies and resource documents were alphabetised in the Annex, along with a matrix snapshot of the cases in terms of their exact cost, time frame, managers, and level of public disclosure. The cases studies were also referenced throughout the document in the form of a three letter code, set up as a key at the beginning, so that for any tip or process step, readers could refer back to a real example in one of the case studies.

A Challenge We Faced in Developing Best Practice Advice

Even though the framework model was a key intellectual input into the learning exercise, we chose to put it in the Conclusion. This decision was based on what we found as one of our key challenges in this overall best practices process.

Innovation in organizations can happen in many different ways. A new idea or practice can be developed centrally and then tested in different locations/conditions to see how it works. The lessons can be gathered and analysed. This more top-down process exhibits a certain amount of standardisation at the onset, although different contexts will see practice gradually diverge from the first model. Another way, however, is more bottom-up. Some internal or external opening or trigger (policy change, global change, etc.) sparks new practices start to occur organically in different places and these experiences start cropping up in parallel to one another with very little horizontal interaction. They each understandably develop their own vocabulary, labels, and a proliferation of process peculiarities. If at this point you decide to undertake a learning or best practices process that includes some sort of meta-model development – which need a certain level of harmonisation of labels and a set of common concepts – then you might find this a little more challenging. You can still find incredibly useful best practices, and will get to be creative about the categorization and labelling of these.

In the end, each case we explored was indeed unique, and at the same time, their goals were very compatible, which made for a rich value-adding exercise to look across them and understand what makes for best practices, so that they can be shared, communicated, and used for continual improvement through learning in the future.

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Domesticating Your Facilitator: Mashing Up Technology Adoption with Onboarding a New Facilitator

It is always exciting when you get to work with a new organization as a facilitator or learning practitioner. And at the same time you know that every group has its own everything: processes, policies, values, vocabulary, leadership style, secret handshake. So what can you do to understand that as soon as possible? And what can the organization do to help this unaccustomed Facilitator feel comfortable with her new (albeit temporary) home?

If I wanted to build on a theory of domestication that has been developed around technology (e.g. how does an iPhone go from something you have only heard about to an essential part of your life in 3 months or less – I wrote a previous blog post on this titled, “New Technology: It’s Not Just for Christmas“), how might that inform how organizations can work with new Facilitators? This goes both for groups who have never worked with Facilitators and those who are “breaking in” a new one.

The often-cited steps to domestication (which I have converted over to onboarding a new Facilitator) are:

1. Commodification: Preparing the ground for initial appropriation of a new Facilitator. This might include clearing it with the Executive Director, or the Board, and certainly the staff with whom the Facilitator will work. This includes the “design” and “marketing” of what kind of Facilitator you want, and what you expect that Facilitator to do. Do you need someone who has a background in your field, what are their Terms of Reference? How will these Terms fit into the existing tasks of the current team members. How will you tell your participants about the Facilitator, and how will this person be described? And when the term Commodification is taken in its original meaning, that is assigning an economic value to something not previously considered as such, you need to be able to put the tasks and time of this new Facilitator into financial terms. For example, is there a budget line for a Facilitator?

This step of Commodification helps to start to integrate the new Facilitator into the daily life of the organization. Although some of this will happen before the Facilitator is engaged, it is important that the Facilitator is also included in much of this, from being asked to comment on the Terms of Reference, to being introduced to the team, and their individual roles and responsabilities. And, as the Facilitator is a person and not an iPhone, she will most certainly have questions to ask!

2. Objectification: In the technology theory, this step means that the new item is positioned in the workplace and integrated into daily life, that is, it turns up in your environment consistently. This might mean that the Facilitator has a regular meeting with the team, or a regular conference call during the planning stage of your event. Hier email address and website are shared, along with all the necessary contact information, and put on the internal knowledge network where you can easily find it. Maybe a Skype invitation is sent, the Facilitator features in your Contacts list. The Facilitator becomes a part of the daily conversations around the event or meeting.

3. Incorporation: This the third stage of domestication, which means that the Facilitator just becomes a part of daily life (for the life of your event). At this point, you don’t have to try to remember to copy things to your new Facilitator. She is just on the cc line of every email that is sent out about the event. You remember to ask when decisions are being taken that might affect a dynamic, preparation or the results of a session. And the Facilitator is in the room when new aspects of the design, set up or delivery are being considered.  You are comfortable with the Facilitator, and the Facilitator is comfortable with you. Once this stage is reached, the Facilitator can continue to listen deeply around the process, to dynamics, power asymmetries, to learning from past events, and is now able to contextualise descriptions of scenarios, biographical details, and the hopes and dreams of individual team members and participants for the outcomes.

4. Conversion: And this is the fourth stage in domesticating your Facilitator. One of the well-known writers on domestication, Professor Roger Silverstone, wrote that in this final stage users want the perfect fit and an enhancement of their life and work without destabilisation. In the end, if this process goes smoothly, you will have a Facilitator that understands your organization, the internal processes and unique personalities, and shares your view of what progress looks like.

Once you get to this last stage you have a domesticated Facilitator. The investment made to domesticate can help you again in the future when you need him or her to help you reach your goals with a little updating, but overall without much additional effort.

I have been domesticated by a few organizations now, and I have seen real benefits to this – in terms of finer and more nuanced understanding of topics, quicker connections with participants through the use of their own vocabulary (read: jargon), less real time spent in session by participants trying to explain “how things are done around here” to the Facilitator, greater ability to identify negotiating points, better more provocative questions to focus discussions, and of course a reduction in preparation time needed (which equals lower budget lines to cover Facilitation). I have seen some preparation processes go from needing many days to read, meet, discuss, revise agendas, etc., to just an initial in-depth meeting, one or two agenda revisions, a pre-meeting walk through and delivery.

It is worth putting in the effort to domesticate your Facilitator; it helps them do a better job for you, and helps you get productivity enhancements and adds real value when it is done well. And with a Facilitator, you always get a full battery…

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The Time it Takes: A Learning Practitioner’s Lessons on Time

When I worked in an NGO environment, we didn’t ever really notice how long it took to do things. We experimented very briefly with time sheets (about a month) and found that tricky and even a bit boring to note down how every 15 minutes was spent, mostly because there was no real incentive to do so. We did do some internal billing, so on a project basis from time to time we kept track. But even in these projects it seemed that planning meetings were so frequent and long and often multi-topic, that after a while, it didn’t make sense to try to allocate that time. So we never got a good sense of how long it took to do things.

Now that I am working independently I have all kind of incentive and a direct imperative to be scrupulous about the time it takes me to do things. I now have a very elaborate system that I use to keep track of time and the result of this kind of observation is very useful. Not only is it essential for billing, but it starts to show patterns that help immensely to make more accurate projections about how long things will take (useful both in the proposal and negotiation stage of projects). That of course doesn’t mean that the other party has the same belief in your figures that you have, but at least you will know how close the time allocation is to what it will actually take you, and how much you might potentially be doing pro-bono.

I feel like I am prudent in how I use my time; indeed, many simultaneous commitments (work and home) and multiple ongoing projects force me to be most economic with it. Plus I have been very deliberate in my collection of reusable learning objects (RLOs-templates, activity briefs, job aids, games, etc.) which help me pass on this benefit in time savings from past investment in documenting things. Since I started keeping records nearly a year ago, and 26 projects later, this is a sample of what I am noticing about how long things take:

  • Writing a blog post (from first letter to final publish): 1 hour
  • Writing a proposal with a budget: 2 hours
  • Developing from scratch a 90-minute “training” session (part presentation/part group activity- including consultation, revisions, preparation, & delivery): 10.5 hours
  • Preparing an individual coaching programme (design, preparing/holding 6 sessions): 25 hours (3+ days)
  • Collaboratively developing a training programme curriculum (multiple events with companion 370-page participant’s handbook – writing through to final proofing for printing, with some inputs coming from other sources): 172.5 hours (21.5 days)
  • Developing a 1-day facilitated planning workshop for a new client (design, consultation, and fully briefing the facilitator who delivered it): 16.75 hours (2+days)
  • Developing a 1-day facilitated training workshop for a university client (with a separate content expert providing central input, including delivery): 17.5 hours (2+ days)
  • Developing and delivering a 4-day facilitated partnership-building workshop (with multiple presenters, generative dialogue and strategy component): 64.25 hours (8+ days)
  • Design input for a 3-day conference for 300 people (including 2 parallel workshop designs and delivery, plenary activity design, coaching for other workshop presenters, plenary moderation and delivery): 80 hours (10 days)
  • Strategic Review and Advisory Report for a large training department (consultation, 6 day site visit for interviews with travel, online survey, web2.0 query and social media scan, preparation of 70-page report of feedback and recommendations, all original writing): 128 hours (16 days)


I could go on. What I notice is that time expands a little for new clients (trust building, multiple revisions, many conference calls), and for developing new materials or new approaches for known topics. Collaborative work obviously takes longer as there are many more partners and opinions to take into consideration, and more revisions as a result. Larger scale of an event also means more time as there are more delivery agents that need coordinated, coaching, briefing, etc.

Report writing is harder to judge, and it takes longer than you imagine, not only for creative delivery but for editing and layout. For a project that includes part original writing and part working with other sources, like creating a participant’s manual, my past experience shows I can produce about 18 pages a day (as a ratio, that includes all the consultation, revision, proofing, etc.). For completely original writing much less: about 4 pages a day, depending on how much data collection is needed. I am doing a project right now that included 16 interviews to produce a 25 page highly synthetic how-to document plus annexes, and this is going to take more like 15 days (or 2 pages per day ratio.)

These things take time, and the more accurate you can be in capturing this data, and learning what makes creates divergence from your standard ratios, the clearer and more accurate you can be in your discussions with partners. Then you can choose your options, based on experience and learning about the way you work.

What are you learning about the time it takes? (and indeed, this blog post took exactly 1 hour, practically on the dot!)

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11 Ways to Build More Learning Into Your Work Life

Learning can be a useful accelerator for the work you do. It can help keep you motivated, let you experience your progress in a different way, keep you engaged with wider processes. So how can you build more learning into your work life? As a learning practitioner, I asked myself this question, and here is what I came up with:

1. Ask great questions
It is surprising how many people don’t ask any questions, or only ask rhetorical, obvious or yes/no questions. Try to ask engagement questions that people want to answer, questions that ask people to think and share. Ask questions of yourself (like I just did). For all of your questions, consider how you ask them – an approach like Appreciative Inquiry can help you refine your questioning practice (it even works on yourself).

2. Listen for learning
Listening is a companion to number 1: How often do you ask yourself as you go into a listening or a conversation opportunity, “What do I want to learn?” Answering this question can help you listen very differently and more deliberately. You can also ask yourself, “How am I listening to this?” This can help you explore your openness to learning at that moment, and to notice when you are most receptive to new ideas and messages (and when you are not).

3. Be a better storyteller
Storytelling has so many contributions to make to learning, as we have written about so many times. It helps take you through the process of packaging your learning for better recall and resuse, makes it easier to repeat/retell (thus further embedding it), and makes your learning more useful not only to you, but also to others, as you do the work for them to distill the most meaningful parts of some experience or learning.

4. Start a blog/vlog
For so many reasons, blogs help you be a part of the conversation (even if you are only talking to yourself). They provide an opportunity to notice your experience and a provide a virtual place to record it. Because it’s public, it asks for some quality control (through, say, number 3 above.) Its chronological organization and tagging helps structure your experience, so it can be used as a knowledge management tool. And I personally use it to strengthen my reflective practice, more on this below.

5. Join a community of practice
These can be physical, virtual or both. They can help you share and be shared with, providing rich opportunities for peer learning. They can be even more useful if you use them to practice some of these other learning tools, like asking great questions, and listening for learning. If you don’t find a community of practice that fits, can you start one? (Ning makes this easy for virtual CoPs.)

6. Practice it
Find opportunities to try something again. Maybe you went to a great visual facilitation workshop – how can you continue to practice that even if you are a beginner? As you sit in on a conference call, or in a meeting, can you doodle icons of the conversation process ?

7. Move your learning into a different side of your brain
Can you add an image to the theory, or link your learning to a physical experience that makes the point visceral? Can you draw a diagram that explains your thinking in addition to writing a paragraph about it? Can you move your learning from knowledge to behaviour change, from left brain to right?

8. Notice/Map your personal knowledge management system
If knowledge is a flow, how are you tracking the flows? What kinds of tools are you using to manage this flow – google is good of course, and what other kind of nets are you throwing out in the ocean of information to help you get the quality of inputs you need when you need them? In effect, what are you using as your personal knowledge management system? For example, do you have a list of the gurus in your field whose blogs or tweets you follow? Do you tag useful incoming content in your gmail or in a delicious account? Can you improve your email management system (e.g. through something like Inbox Zero?) Plenty of opportunities exist in the Web2.0 world of today.

9. Be deliberate about reflection
People use different means for this, and generally agree that they are more fully present for learning when they are actively reflecting on their experience. Capture, whatever your tool – journaling, blogging, songwriting, slam poetry – is helpful for many reasons that can be found in the points above. The choices you make about what to record helps to prioritise information, makes it more reusable and, depending on your tool, makes it available on demand for both yourself and others.

10. Help other people learn
In addition to the obvious social value of this, learning through teaching (with a small “t”, thus not necessaily in a formal learning setting) is a well known way to embed learning. How can you volunteer your learning to others and in doing so practice and progress your own? Every conversation is an opportunity to exchange, so you don’t need to have a classroom environment to help other people learn.

11. Know your own learning preferences
There are of course diagnostics around this, and I think one of the simplest ways to identify your learning preferences is to ask yourself some questions (and voila we’re back to point 1): “When was the last time I learned something new? What were the conditions that helped me learn? What was I doing? What were the people around me doing to help me learn? In what situations do I learn the best?”

Learning happens continually, and still there are always opportunities to integrate it more powerfully into personal practice and team practice, even without a training budget. For example, just writing this blog post gave me an opportunity for learning, which combined many of the above. Once you get out of the formal learning environment it’s free for the most part, it’s relatively easy, and still, it takes a little thought, and perhaps a change in daily practice. The rewards, however, can be great – a boost in productivity, satisfaction, direct engagement with your topic, as well as an opportunity to strengthen yourself as a practitioner and further increase the value of your contribution to your community(ies) of choice.

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The Work-From-Home Field Guide to Time

Time is like snow. It’s all made of the same stuff – minutes for time, or water in the snow case – but it takes so many different forms. Did you know there was a Field Guide to Snowflakes? (over 35 different kinds!) I want to write the Field Guide to Time.

I never noticed what kind of time I had until I had a different kind of time. And now that I have made this observation I’ve started to look more closely at the nature of my time, at the individual forms of time, to see how different they really are. In my Field Guide to Time I would have both Office Work Time and Home Work Time.

In the office I saw different kinds of time floating around me:
  • Desk Time – Perceived blocks of time for working on documents/reports/proposals, often interrupted by all of the following. What you tend to get hired to do.
  • Email Time – Chunks of time for zeroing in-box and working on action file. Should be linked to “Desk Time”, but can include many other extraneous things.
  • Meeting Time – Hours of time (and sometimes whole days or weeks of time) for collaborative discussion that can sometimes also count as working, and sometimes not.
  • Corridor Meeting Time – Minutes of time to gather information that is not found elsewhere.
  • Pop-in Meeting Time – Usually happens when you are at “Desk Time”, longer or shorter depending on the pop-in person’s place in institutional hierarchy, and/or desire to procrastinate.
  • Phone Time – Answering calls that I miss while I was at Meeting and Corridor Meeting Time.
  • Negotiation Time – Very brief moments providing windows of opportunity to change things.
  • Talk to Your Colleagues Time – This time expands when procrastinating and can often lead to “Coffee Time”.
  • Coffee Time – Self-explanatory
  • Cleaning Your Office Time – Time so called when you can’t or don’t want to concentrate on anything else. Could also be called “Procrastination Time” except nobody would ever pay you for that.
If you were lucky, you could get useful things done in all of these times (including needed mental rest and processing time from the last one). And if you needed to, you could theoretically shift around the time so that you had more Desk Time when you needed it, and less of the other kinds of time in your day.

Now that I am working at home, I am getting to identify some different kinds of work-related time, some are the same, many are different. At home, for example, I find I can subtract “Corridor Meeting Time” (for obvious reasons) and “Pop-In Meeting Time” has reduced (or at least now there is a warning phone call since I live outside of town). And some new specimens of time have been added:
  • Car Time – This could also be called “Thinking Time” for return trips when car is empty.
  • Judo Time/Circus Time/Football Time – Highly fragmented minutes of calm during children’s flurry of activities – could also be called “Checking Iphone Time”.
  • Car Park Time – This time only occurs in daytime or in carparks where the space near the light is free. Includes much balancing of papers on knees.
  • Skype Time – Occurs more because now I am paying the phone bills myself.
  • Google and Social Networking Time – This time increases, as guilt decreases about surfing when someone else is paying for your time.
  • Cafe Time – This is different than “Coffee Time”, although they can overlap. Cafe Time is more about working around people (as opposed to working with them).
  • Making Dinner Time – This would have previously been called “Phone Time”, now all the most important calls come when you are making dinner.
I’m sure there are more, feel free to add some!

These latter kinds of time take forms that I am not yet used to using productively, although I am getting better at it. I do notice that they crowd out a lot of “Desk Time”, which means that I need to be clever about the kind of projects I take on. No longer do I seem to have long stretches, day after day of “Desk Time” when I can work on a big writing project, for example, or any task that demands hours back-to-back of stationary, uninterrupted concentration. This seemed to be an easier environment to organize in a workplace office rather than a home office. Now every work day is an aggregation, a collection of kinds of time, a veritable snow bank of the many different, often fleeting forms of Time that make up my day.

Being productive in this kind of environment must be like choosing the right shovel or wearing the right clothes – noticing the kind of work that fits the quality of your time. Being able to identify the kind of time you have, in your own Field Guide to Time, must be a first step.
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Embedded Learning and Making the Bed

Last night I participated in an excellent webinar run by Chief Learning Officer Magazine called “Metrics of the Modern CLO: Measuring Formal and Informal Learning“.

(CLO offers a great series of free learning webinars, by the way, see the archived version of this webinar here.)

The speaker was Josh Bersin, and he spoke about three kinds of workplace informal learning and how to measure them:

1) On-Demand Learning
2) Social Learning, and
3) Embedded Learning

He said businesses report that informal learning gives the greatest business value, with 72% of learning coming from on-the-job experience (stretch assigments, etc); on-the-job mentoring/projects/rotations; and coaching and peer learning. Only some 28% comes from formal training. He noted that informal learning was not fad, it was an evolution in workplace learning. Yet only 1/3 of organizations have learning and development programmes that reflect future talent needs (and that is in the private sector, I wonder what the percentage is in the other sectors – higher? lower?)

This morning I woke up thinking about the third kind of informal learning. I am not used to seeing or hearing the words “embedded learning” and I needed a way to remember this, and here is the learning anecdote I came up with.

Embedded Learning is the invisible learning on the job, feedback from managers, performance support from mentors and peers, and so on. It helps you on the job to learn as you go, in the context of your working community, rather than noticing something you need to learn and then going out to search for it yourself (this is on-demand learning).

From June I started working from home. So that is my workplace, and at the moment I work primarily alone. Of course I have many virtual partners, and occasionally meetings in my home office. However, one person I do see weekly during my working day is the nice lady who comes in to help for a few hours. She just started just over a month ago, and we already appreciate her as a masterful mentor in her approach to family order.

The first week she was here, the house was a jumble, and when she left the house was perfect. Everything that had been out on any flat surface was gone. Some things are still not found (library book, football socks, telephone list). The second week, it happened again. The third week, again, although slightly less was exposed. After a few weeks I noticed that just a few days prior to her arrival, things started to get put away. Now, the day before she arrives, everyone reminds one another of her imminent arrival. And like magic, order gets restored even before she comes. She set us on this learning pathway and it is working through embedded learning.

This woman is a household manager and she is clearly giving us feedback. When she doesn’t like where something is, she shows us what she wants by putting it where it belongs (in her estimation). She models the kind of (workplace in my case) environment she wants us to maintain. It’s happening over time, and she is helping us make the change ourselves. This is embedded learning. There is no job aid or checklist on how to maintain this productive learning/working environment (on-demand learning) or no wiki where we are writing down where we are putting things (social learning). Although both of these kinds of learning might also be useful in the future.

Today when my husband left the house he reminded me very seriously that it was Friday (implicitly, anything you don’t want to disappear needs to be moved now) – and this from someone who has not traditionally noticed anything below 1 meter. The mere mention of her name and my 8-year old is scouring his bedroom floor for precious items. This order mentor and household coach has been like magic. She has embedded new practices at the smallest unit of organization, although not through formal training, or setting formal systems into place. If she stays long enough, dare I say, this might be permanent; and eventually she could leave quietly and move to another family, like Mary Poppins, her work done.

Once you start to think about it, you might notice embedded learning in other places around you. Today’s high turnover in organizations might provide an opportunity for embedded-learning spotting. In a workplace where someone has moved on, you might notice habits and practices that have changed as a result of someone’s influence, coaching, modelling, mentoring. That is, if they happened to be in tune with embedding learning, overtly or not (I am not sure the nice lady in my house is actively thinking about her household learning programme, although I may be wrong about that.) Not everyone operates that way of course.

How you get people to operate like that is one of the keys to a learning organization. Then people can move in and out, and the learning is embedded, it stays and just keeps building and growing.

Even if it is not the original person, with successful embedded learning, someone keeps making the bed.

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Create a Facilitator Role for Your Conference Calls and Webinars

Last week I was asked to facilitate a conference call. Sound odd?

Well, originally it was supposed to be a face-to-face meeting on sustainability reporting for a high-level company review panel. In its first iteration it had two people conferencing in from distant time zones. That meant we had to design activities that the participants physically present could do, as well as meaningfully engage the people who were virtual. We created a design and it seemed like it would work, using in part the interactivity of an internal webinar platform. However, before the meeting occurred, the format changed again.

For financial reasons, for time reasons, and for environmental reasons, the organizers decided to hold the meeting entirely virtually, and yet, they still wanted interactivity and a facilitator. Why a facilitator for something that would end up as a modified conference call? Surely someone from the team could convene the call and walk the group through the agenda? It turned out to be a good idea to have a facilitator. Here is what we learned…

First, having someone facilitating the call helped the team hosting it to concentrate entirely on what people were saying (the content), rather than focus on process -and I can tell you that it is hard to do both for a virtual event. In the end, we decided on a blended format – we used a webinar platform to show a Powerpoint slide set which we could control in our HQ office. Then we added a phone-based conference call so that we could talk to one another, as we went through the slides. So my facilitation included managing the telephone (calling on people, mute button, helping people come in and out, getting technical advice), as well as paying attention to the webinar slide show questions and the transitions (thankfully I had someone else changing slides, I just called them and facilitated their content.) I was surrounded by technology, and still it took just a few minutes to get used to it so it would run smoothly. (Note: We did a thorough test of the system a week before the event.)

Second, having a facilitator also meant that another layer of structure could be incorporated into the virtual meeting and there would be someone there to handle that extra complexity. Rather than asking the question to the group and then opening for comments -thus having people jump in at the same time and potentially speak over top one another (the case in both conference calls and in meeting rooms), I managed the inputs by having a list of participants beside me and calling on people by name. I varied the order so it wouldn’t get too monotonous, and each person got the chance to comment on each question without fail, or say “Pass”. And I could go back to people if someone built on their answer in a way that might change their comment. This way there was no stress on the part of participants about how and when to jump into a conversation, as it is in open conference calls, and no fear of interrupting people. We set some norms at the beginning around brevity and conciseness and people seemed to be happy to support these. Because they were called by name each time, they always knew who was saying what.

Third, we added another interesting facilitating feature of this virtual meeting. We took the decision to send out the slide set in advance, and to design it as a job aid. Instead of just descriptive information, we used the slide format and made it more instructional, guiding participants through the agenda. We included the various questions for discussion and formatted them into something that could be used as a preparatory worksheet for participants with places to fill in answers, and visuals (matrices, scales) to capture responses to different questions. For example, one question included a continuum, which we put on a slide, numbered the options along the continuum (1 to 5), and asked people to place themselves along it in advance with a cross. When we got to the call, we showed the continuum on the webinar and asked people to tell us where they were using the numbers as a guide for precision puroses. We collected these orally and made an aggregated visual continuum for the group and report.

Having the slide set also meant that the few people who for some reason (firewall, etc) could not access the webinar, could follow along on their printed slideset, using the page numbers. Because it was a worksheet, everyone had been able to think about their answers to the questions in advance and have a place to record them for use during our call. We got brief, considered responses and the participants got a practical way to prepare. Because people knew they would be asked each question they could hold their comments/questions and elaborate on their previous answers in the next question.

On final reflection, we are not sure that a face-to-face meeting would have produced very different results. Certainly it would have taken more time for a number of reasons. We probably wouldn’t have sent through a worksheet in advance with the exact questions, and as a result, people might not have prepared as much. Also the quick feedback (supportive/opposition) and the spontaneity of facilitated face-to-face meetings might have encouraged people to speak longer as they took the cue from the group to define their points of view as well as their role/value in the group. Our virtual meeting took exactly 2 hours, and I think it would have been twice that at least for F2F meeting. And we still had good interaction, with people listening to each other (that might also have been because I was calling on them in different order, so as to not miss your turn you had to pay attention and not just lurk and do your email in the background- although I didn’t do that on purpose!)

Conference calls and webinars are getting more and more popular for the reasons cited here. Consider establishing a facilitator role, and some facilitation structure to help your meeting be te most productive learning environment possible.

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Gold Nuggets from the GTD Summit

The last panel I went to at the GTD Summit in San Francisco was called “Best Practices to Good Habits: Can I Make GTD Stick?” The panelists were GTD coaches and very experienced practitioners. As can be expected the discussion produced some gold nuggets in the form of tips to making GTD a habit.

A panel the previous day featured a cognitive theory expert, Frank Sopper, who explained that the two numbers you need to know for large scale behaviour change are: 2 years and 15 minutes. It takes 2 years apparently from initiation to competency (that you can see and measure), for any new thing you want to learn – whether it’s learning a new language, the trumpet, or getting really fit. 15 minutes was the other important number in behaviour change: Once you pick the thing you want to master, spending 15 minutes a day can be transformative – not one hour a week, or a month-long intensive per year. Only 15 minutes a day is needed, because it’s the repetition of doing something 700+ times (e.g. daily), rather than 104 times (weekly) that makes the behaviour stick. The repetition of the desired behaviour deepens those neural grooves.

The panelists gave us lot of tips and tricks, many in the black-belt category (for nuanced users of GTD.) So what was some of the gold the panelists had for us?

  • Making your Project and Context lists work: Look over your project lists and make sure there is a verb in each entry. These verbs could be: complete, finalise, ensure, maximise, etc. If you don’t see a verb then you will have to think about what “done” looks like every time you look at your list. As a result it will take you more time to do your review. Your Context or Next Actions (e.g. @Calls, @Computer, etc.) lists should also have verbs. You want to have done all the thinking before you review to make these more useful lists. The time savings adds up – one panelists even advocated getting a Mac because the start up time is much faster!
  • Use your Projects list for scoping: For each project, write three sentences – 1) Why you are doing this; 2) A set of 3 principles (I can do anything I want as long as I…); and 3) What does wild success look like?
  • Dump anything that creates drag on the system: Be ruthless and get rid of anything that takes time, or creates drag. For example, if you don’t like some of your equipment, change it to something you do like (e.g. get rid of psychic drag) – like the file folders, or filing cabinet, or your notebook or pen (one panelist got rid of all his different pens and replaced them with one kind of pen so he would never have to hesitate when picking a pen). Cull you lists too from time to time to take off things that you don’t want to do, and put them on your Someday/Maybe List. Having stop to choose between x and y, or between things you aren’t ready to do can create drag, so eliminate the choices if you can, save time there, and have a system that engages you, rather than repels you.
  • Managing your in-box: Some people find their in-box distracting during the day (when they are not processing, but doing), if so you can put it behind you, or use a closed box with a lid as an in-box, from which you can take one piece of paper at a time to process when you get back to that stage.
  • Review your folders from time to time: If you are keeping an A-Z filing system, you can put a tick on the folder you use, each time you pull it. That way you can see over time which folders you are using frequently and which are not being used. Check the un-useful ones and see if they are mis-labelled, or maybe could be eliminated. Also notice where you look for something, if you always look one place, and then repeatedly locate the file on your second or third try – then its not in the right place so re-label it.
  • Use multiple A-Z systems if needed: If you have more than half drawer of folders on the same subject you might want to make a separate A-Z system on that topic. For example, if you have a large ongoing project, or if you are an avid gardener and have many folders on that topic, that project might need its own sub-system.
  • If your Lists are too long: If you have too many items on your lists (e.g. more than 60-100 Next Actions), see if there are multiple lists that can be made. Maybe your contexts are too broad (e.g. if you just have a Tasks list, consider the different place the Tasks can happen and create lists for @Indoor, @Outdoors/Garden, @Spouse etc. You can also consider having multiple Someday/Maybe lists if you have big projects. Instead of putting everything under one, create Someday/Maybe lists for (e.g.) household renovations, project ideas for work, fundraising, etc. You can even add timing to your Someday/Maybe lists, such as weekly, quarterly, yearly, depending on how often you want to be reviewing them. All these things can shorten your lists if you are feeling uncomfortable with the length.
  • Do your Weekly Review: This was considered one of the most important things to making GTD stick. Some people schedule it, others do it when they need it (like brushing your teeth, when they feel scuzzy, you brush them.) And perhaps, as in David’s new book, the process will no longer be called the Weekly Review, but instead Time to Reflect. As overall this is the time to ask yourself what does this action mean to me, in order to prioritize, defer or get rid of it.

It was useful to hear these GTD experts and their tips and advice. It helps you sift through the detail, the gravel and the sand, and find that gold.

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Blackbelts in the Game of Life

I spoke on two panels yesterday where I gave presentations on using GTD in our workplace, and what we are learning about that integration process. One was on the challenges and opportunities for the NGO sector of using GTD. The other was on using informal learning approaches (rather than formal training approaches) to help people learn how to use the GTD methodology for productivity enhancement.

What surprised me about the discussions that followed the panelists contributions (and I was joined, for example, in the second panel by a brain specialist, a Canadian mayor, and a software entrepreneur) was that they had a strong focus on what people do at home.

The integration of work and life practices was what people wanted to explore. How these top performers, executives, innovators and entrepreneurs are using GTD across their work and home lives as a way to be the most effecient, and to make time for the creativity that is putting them at the top of their games.

I wasn’t exactly prepared for that, nor for the final question of my testimonial interview that I gave, filmed at the end of the day, which was, “Has GTD made you a better mother?” But when I thought about it, I could come up with some good reasons why bringing together work systems with home systems might make for overall more effeciencies and more time with a clear mind to spend with my family. At the moment I have two distinct GTD systems, but one of my next actions is going to be to explore how to merge them into one and see if it gives me the same productivity boost, and the aikido “mind like water”, that it seems to be giving these other “blackbelts in the game of life”.

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Open for Business: Thinking about Productivity

In his Zero-In box video, Merlin Mann likens knowledge work to working in a diner. You take orders and you make sandwiches. However, what can happen for many reasons – like many meetings and not enough time to process the results, or not having a good overview of your inventory of obligations – is that you take too many orders and you don’t have time to make sandwiches. Or you keep taking orders and you don’t make time to make sandwiches.

What that results in is a lot of hungry people, and potentially irate customers, who are sitting there waiting for their sandwiches to get back to what they need to be doing.

Yesterday afternoon, Lizzie and I, after a week of intense meetings, are feeling like we are continually taking orders and not having the time to make the sandwiches. We are taking time to make the ingredients at least, the tuna salad and roast beef is there and ready to go. We have done the design work for our upcoming retreats, we have brainstormed the questions for our World Cafe next week. But the final steps are not yet done. We have not had a moment, or more truthfully, made the time to sit down, and finish making our sandwiches and get them back to our patient customers.

That is what I am doing here here at my desk at 6am on a Friday, getting ready to make some sandwiches. This blog post is like turning around that Open for Business sign. Hopefully there will be no new customers at this hour of the day…

(If you get so organized that you have some surfing time today: 43 Folders is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.)

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The 100% User Experience-Generated Super Consultant

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…

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Next Steps for GTD and Zero In-Box: Learning About Life in (or with) a System

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.

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Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?

My hopeful answer to this is “well, maybe.” I get my evidence from a recent experiment that I conducted quite by accident.

Two month ago I took the Meyers-Briggs test and felt the results were accurate (self-validated). The instrument I thought had captured fairly my preferences on the four dichotomies. One of my preferences at that time was “P” – Perceiving rather than Judging. Perceivers are spontaneous, go with the flow, they make lists and lose them, they complete tasks at the last minute or late rather than well in advance.

Well, in today’s world with no speed limits on the information highway, this particular species is likely to get run over. So I have been working on this. One month ago we invited David Allen to come and address our staff on Getting Things Done, an approach which (check previous GTD tags) provides a system to help you keep alive in the organizational jungle. Many of us after his seminar have adoped this appoach and it appears to be working.

Now back to my experiment, yesterday I went to an MBTI training course and for that I had to take the instrument again, just a few months after my first test. I was amazed at the change. Everything was the same, except that my preference on the “outerworld orientation” dichotomy moved from Perceiving to Judging – with unfamiliar words like planned, structured, decisive, scheduled, makes lists and uses them, as descriptors.

I can only imagine that this difference in such a short period of time could be influenced by the GTD experience, which is still very fresh. Hopefully this change will last. I wouldn’t want to lose any of my spontaneity, and at the same time a little more structured follow-up and information management would not go amiss. Maybe just half of the spots could change? Would I then become a GMO? (GTD-Modified Organism?)

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The Peak of Productivity: GTD

When do you have a burning desire at 9pm on a Sunday to go into your office and sort through your mountan of paperwork for 3 hours? When you feel like you are, for the first time, actually Getting Thing Done.

After a visit and full day seminar from David Allen last week, creator of this popular approach to personal productivity, our office has been hit by the intense need to Collect, Process, Organize, Review and Do. When I started my organizing streak last night, I didn’t have to create my own categories of lists, I simply copied my colleague’s, who had spent all day Thursday and Friday setting up her own system. We had 54 staff members attend the seminar – I heard that there was a run on folders, and that people were scouring the basement for old in-trays and bits of filing cabinets the rest of the week.

Now I have my own mind sweep nearly complete; that is, getting all of those undone things that David refers to as work on a set of next action lists, from performance assessments to paying my cafeteria tab. And when I can get over the intense sense of urgency of doing all of those things that I had actually forgotten, I hope that my weekly review will free up some physic ram so that I can get on with some of the creative things on my Someday/Maybe list.

Sound like a new language? It might be for some, but it’s not a foreign one and not hard to learn. It’s based on practices you do regularly, but puts them together in a more effecient, and systemic way. And it seems to really appeal to people. One of my colleagues said that in the first 30 minutes of his seminar she had decided to adopt the GTD approach, because it was simply better than the one she was currently using. Another colleague worried about the extra time investment asked David at the end of his seminar, “Doesn’t using GTD take a lot of discipline?” David responded with “Yes, absolutely, but anything takes discipline before it becomes a habit. Brushing your teeth and taking a shower regularly took enormous discipline (or disciplining) when you were a kid. Until it became a habit. Now it feels bad not doing it. You need to get to that stage with this practice as well. “

Feeling on top of things is the peak of work/life balance. I can just about see the top of my paper mountain. It’s bright and beautiful up there. When I get there I am going to shout from the top of it, “It works! Labelmaker anyone!?”

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Better Than Sudoku

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!

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Focus AND Perspective in One Hour or Less?

Some days go by in a blur. Meetings interspersed with small chunks of desk time, interrupted by phone calls, nature breaks, and impromptu visits by interesting colleagues, an SMS from home, the background bing of email dropping into your in-box. Interruptions, as welcome as they might be, unweave the fabric of your day. The focus you had when you walked into your office slowly unravels, as your attention is simultaneously sought all around you. Over the course of this day your task completion rate dips – the trees appear and the forest recedes into a fuzzy background. Presuming you notice this, what can you do to regain your focus and perspective?

Here’s an idea…colour in a mandala.

I laughed when the art therapist briefed our group on this activity last Saturday in a workshop I attended. I have mandalas all over the house that my sons have made. They seem to be popular projects in first grade. Now I see why. A mandala is described as an “integrated structure around a unified centre”; they represent wholeness, and the integration of macro and micro perspectives. Although they originally come from Eastern religions, they are now found in many cultures and have come to represent the unity and flow of life. Most of all, creating them (even just colouring them in) can help you relax and improve concentration (no wonder they are popular with teachers of 6 year olds, and harried adults).

When you take on a mandala, your process starts with picking one that you will be happy spending an hour of your life on, out of an infinite variety of designs. Then you need to think for a while and begin to make a series of decisions about colour and pattern. You tap into yourself – how do I feel and what combination of colours will portray the perspective I have or want to have? This is a thoughtful reflective process. There is nothing random about a mandala. Whenever you make a decision, it implicates many other parts of the mandala (sound familiar?) As you make your decisions about colour and intensity, you explore the intricacies of the pattern, you gradually see the impact of these decisions on the whole, unfolding design.

After a while, as you settle into this creative process, you start to bring in other ideas and influences, you might question your earlier choices, you go down another level to see where you are going with this. Everything in your head translates into your design, unspoken; you are completely focused and uninterrupted. I was surprised, in a room of 15 people, with more coming and going, no one could distract me from completing my mandala. There is no intermediate stopping place on this circular design, once you get started, you are compelled to finish. Completion, what a nice feeling.

If you decide to try this, and take it seriously, you will feel the benefits. It lifts the mood, it refreshes you; you can think and connect while using your creativity to make something new. There is a satisfying end to the task. All that in one hour or less… If your day is spinning, take an hour, some felt tip pens and a mandala, and restore your focus and perspective. It really can be that easy.

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No “Thanks” Needed

Every time I watch Merlin Mann’s Google video on Inbox Zero, I get a little more out of it and gradually the idea of a Zero Inbox is capturing people’s imagination in our institution. We have now run two 60 minute staff sessions where we projected the video, had some stories from current users, and then had a Q&A discussion to explore some of people’s ideas and concerns around this notion.

Our last week’s session produced a nice, concise list of principles for emailing. It seemed different than the usual list of DON’Ts, as it was linked to specific strategies for helping people more efficiently process their email. Most lists aim to do that, and with the rationale right up front it seems to make even more sense. It also serves to remind people of their responsibility to help the receivers on the other end (or at least think about them when they shoot out their mail). Linked to this, we are getting ready for David Allen’s visit to our institution in April for a day seminar with our staff on “Getting Things Done“. I think that all of these discussions about pesonal productivity also help us see more clearly how, by getting our own stuff done most efficiently, we can actually help other people get their stuff done too (a.k.a. Teamwork).

Below is our list:

9 Principles for Email Good Practice

To facilitate SEARCH and ARCHIVING:

  • Put an accurate title in the “SUBJECT” line (and please don’t leave it blank)
  • If possible, use one email for one topic, action or decision needed

To facilitate NEXT ACTION and TIMELY RESPONSE:

  • Use the “TO” field for those persons from whom you need a response, use the “CC” field for people’s information only (no response needed)
  • Put any deadlines at the top of the email in bold (consider putting them in the “SUBJECT” line)
  • If you can identify the next action and prominently include it in the email, it will reduce processing time for the recipient.
  • If it is really URGENT, and the turnaround is very short, then call the recipient if possible to see if they received it (don’t assume that they have read their email in a short time period)

To minimize VOLUME:

  • CC only those people who really need copies of the correspondence
  • Ask for responses or acknowledgements if needed, otherwise do not expect/do not send “thanks” responses to signal receipt
  • Do not automatically REPLY TO ALL

The hardest part of this exercise was writing the email to staff signalling this discussion (an email code of conduct had been formally requested by the senior management team). It had to be completely congruent. I ended up sending it to one person for their direct response, and ccing everyone else to give them the option to comment or DELETE.

Most institutions have these rules or guidelines, developed a couple of years ago when email started to become the way you run your life. I hear that we do too somewhere. And I guess it never hurts to repeat this exercise. Perhaps renewing the discussion will get more people interested in analysing, and where necessary changing, their email practice – with the goal of helping themselves and others spend a little less time fiddling with email and creating a little more time to do other interesting stuff.

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A Day is a Thousand Social Contracts

Many years ago I was a part of a distributed project team designing a workshop that combined teambuilding, with systems thinking and sustainable development. It was lead by Dennis Meadows, one of my mentors, and at one early point in our process where we were taking on individual roles and responsibilties, he asked us to distinguish between “wish to do” and “will do”. At that time, I am not sure I fully appreciated his request. It really does have to do with teamwork and the systems in which we work.

Committing yourself to do something already demonstrates good intent and some level of trust on your part, however, actually delivering on your commitment starts to build it within the team. Social contracts, the promises we make to others every day, when they are honoured (as the norm) help to build trust around us and creates an environment which supports achievement, where we might be able to take some risk and try new and innovative things. The inverse is also true, non-delivery on commitments starts to chip it away. One way to build trust is to be clear about the difference between what you want to do/intend to do/hope you have time to do and what you will do. And then to absolutely do it.

This question of trust building is not just about being nice. It is also about getting things done. When I trust you to do something, I am taking risk to build my productivity and outputs on the inputs of others. The quality of my work and effectively my reputation, then becomes more collectively based on the contributions of many other people. In order to do this I need to trust that others will honour their commitments to me, so that I can do a good job. The alternative to this is that I base my outputs solely on my own work (or that of an immediate team that I control with financial or other strong incentives like performance assessments) . What more might I accomplish if I opened myself to the diverse inputs and talents of a much larger “team”?

The theory in teambuilding is that a high performing team (trust comes in here) can accomplish things that it is difficult or impossible for an individual to do alone. In systems, one goal is to find the interrelationships that already exist and leverage those in order to help achieve a much larger collective goal. And to get people to work beyond their immediate functional units (sometimes called “silos”) takes trust. One place to start building trust is making good on social contracts so people can count on you. It is also about knowing when to say “I can’t do this right now”; which of course is another essential team skill (for some an even harder one).

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News Flash: Team has Zero In-box for One Month

In the past, doing email has never been a source of energy and delight for our team. Now it is. We use to spend hours a day sifting through hundreds of messages looking for actionable items, or scrolling down a long, complicated taxonomy of folders trying to accurately file something. Going away on a holiday or even a short work trip brought the dread of a whole day spent trying to get back on top of our email. Not anymore… Our team of four has now had a zero in-box for a month!

A zero in-box doesn’t mean that you have no email at all to do, but it means that you have made a decision about every single item that has come into your in-box and moved it to its next action (Action Needed, Reply, Follow-up, Explore, Archive). We delete more, we are more careful what we send, and a few of us have adopted the five.sentenc.es promise and added it to our electronic signature. I find now that I am able to keep to five sentence responses now most of the time (I would be happy to graduate to four.sentenc.es sometime this year.)

Now we talk about email to anyone who will listen with the energy and enthusiasm of people who have mastered a new technique which we feel has increased our productivity, as well as boosted our sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. This feeling of success at the end of each day, I believe, is what keeps me on top of this new system. And the fact that I was able to learn a new way of working that has replaced an entrenched behaviour that I have had for over 10 years. I have noticed that I am getting more things done now, I certainly feel more organized and less a slave to my computer.

We plan to hold a short workshop in house in the next months to share with people what we are learning about zero-in box. How we have adapted it to our own needs, and where we still see some room for improvement and innovation (like how do you get yourself to go back to the “Explore” folder!) Productivity is satisfying and of course there are many different ways to improve this in the workplace – the Onion had another suggestion about how to do this yesterday…

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Embedding New Ideas in the Workplace – Carbon Care and Home Work


It is not always easy to get new ideas and practice embedded into an established work environment. How can we use existing “energy” flows to promote new ideas as well, and in the process help us change the current system?

We recently had a competition with a neighbouring institution, a large international conservation NGO, to reduce our institutional carbon emissions from transportation over a week as a part of a national awareness raising campaign. Our internal Green Team did the math and calculated how much carbon we all emit from our weekly commute to work, the other organization did the same. Then for a designated week, we did everything we could to reduce this. People carpooled, they took the train or bus, they rode their bikes, they walked. We did very well, but sadly we did not win the competition this time, although we really wanted to win.

If we do it again next year I have an idea how we might win. I wrote a post a few months back on technology enhanced mobility in the workplace of the future. I think it would be a great thing to experiment with for many of the reasons that are discussed in that post, however, there seems to be no immediately compelling reason to try it out. Maybe this is one that connects the existing interest of the institution to cut carbon and to win this competition in the future, with an interest to explore new ways of working. We could test it out first with a few “Work At Home” days where everyone possible works from home, to get used to this new work modality, and then we could launch a “Work At Home Week” that would coincide with this competition. If we did that, we could explore a more flexible work environment, get our technology tools in place to support it, and win that carbon emissions competition! (unless of course someone from WWF also reads this post…)

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Walking Around with Nothing in Your Head: Getting Things Done

This was the goal set forth by David Allen at his seminar in London last Friday, addressing the 120 knowledge workers in the room (from IT companies, banks, company HR departments, and so on – mostly men, by the way) – how can you get all your tasks and projects out of your head and into a trusted system, and walk around with nothing in your head. He described this state as “Mind like water” (and showed us some martial arts moves to demonstrate his point) where you are able to make a perfectly appropriate response to and engagement with what is present.

Several things surprised me about the day long seminar on Getting Things Done (or GTD as the adherents call it). First was how incredibly popular it is among the private sector, especially in IT companies. I knew that David Allen was a consultant to many silicon valley enterprises, but I had no idea that Belgian companies would have GTD support staff, and software engineers worldwide were developing GTD compliant add-ons to various office packages. There are bloggers devoted to making GTD work, even Microsoft Office 2007 has functions that were designed to work with GTD organizing systems. Who would have known?

The second, related thing that surprised me was how completely absorbed the audience was. This was a full day, 8 hour seminar with a packed ballroom, and David Allen spoke for the whole time. There was very limited interactivity (he said at one point, “I don’t do interactive stuff, this seminar is basically me talking to you.” (only slightly paraphrased)) And the audience was rapt, the questions were incredibly detailed, “what is the average time to spend on your weekly review?” And this predominantly male, corporate British audience didn’t even flinch when he stated that appropriately managing your commitments frees up attention for higher-level thinking and creativity and opens up psychic space.

The final thing that surprised me is how excited I got about this approach. I have already used it for about a year, and I learned many new ways to make it more efficient. Many of the tips and tools are very familiar, but the way to put them together, from the “runway” or day-today tasks to those which sit at the visionary “50,000 feet” level, this method aims to take in it all, organize it, and engage with it when the time is right – not all the time- so that most of the time you can walk around with absolutely nothing on your mind – open and ready for that next great idea.

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Zero Your In-Box? You Never Thought it Was Possible!

I can’t believe it, but I have ZERO messages in my in-box right now. Not only do I have zero messages in my personal email account, but I also have zero in my work email. On Sunday I had hundreds and hundreds in each. Now I have zero -what’s the secret? Watch this fascinating google video and see…

This is a video of a 58 minute presentation (including Q&A) called In-box Zero by productivity guru Merlin Mann that he gave at the Google HQ in July. I watched it, I tried it, and I now feel completely different about email. It no longer rules (me). Mann’s advice is based on David Allen’s method and book called, “Getting Things Done” (or GTD for short). It seems that Allen’s method has been heartily embraced by IT companies where knowledge workers, who are supposed to be creating new and innovative things, are apt to get swamped by endless everyday email and tasks. His method is about getting your to-do list out of your head, or your email in-box, and into a system that works to organize and manage it for higher productivity.

I have now read the book (bought the label maker), watched the video, implemented the systems now both at home and at work for both email and paper-based tasks. I am surprised to say that it works (you need to keep your maintenance up), and it is refreshing not to see those piles of paper on the desk, or hundreds of emails. I’m sure there are still plenty of tips that passed me by the first time. By sheer luck, I have a free pass to a David Allen full-day seminar in London tomorrow and will get to hear more about the method right from Allen himself. I will blog my learning when I get back.

What am I going to do with all that spare time if I ever do get completely organized?