Some of us are coming up to our first major break of the year, after a busy flurry of January, February and March. The nice long spring break, when email slows down a little and our work obligations are put on temporary hold with our out-of-office messages, creates a welcome breathing space which encourages us to reflect on what has happened so far and what we might want to strengthen or do differently in the coming months to make 2019 overall a productive year.

First of all, how are your New Year’s Resolutions going? It’s April! Whether you believe in New Year Resolutions or are someone who just thinks about the “clean slate” that a new year provides, you might ask yourself how its going. Are you successfully doing-it-yourself or do you need to get some help?

I have been enjoying reading Marshall Goldsmith’s book Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be which offers some easy-to-implement tools for behavior change including Daily Questions. These are questions that you create and ask yourself every day. To get started he has a set of interesting initial questions (e.g. Did I do my best to set clear goals?) and advocates using the “Did I do my best….” stem for each question rather than asking yourself how well you performed so that you are measuring effort rather than performance. Doing this daily helps keep your goals – the most important things you want to engrain as habits – front of mind, and helps you see trends. Although you can set up an accountability “buddy” for this process (and of course there’s always an app), you can effectively do this yourself.

Another way to go about this is to get some help. This might include engaging a coach – peer (e.g. in your workplace) or external. If getting a coach sounds good, its helpful before you start to think through your motivations for engaging outside support and your own commitment level to the doing the work that comes along with it (yes, this too involves work!)

Here are some considerations we can offer from our experience with coaching that might help think through what’s best:

    • Start with your own reflection about the coaching process: It is tempting to think mostly about what you want to change about your behavior – be a better team leader, manage your time or productivity more effectively etc. – but don’t forget to think about the coaching process itself. Ask yourself some questions about this such as: What individual challenges will I face in this coaching process? What should my coach know about me as a partner in the coaching process? How will I embed this coaching process into my current work (both the sessions and the practice)? Write this down somewhere.
    • Prepare to work outside the coaching sessions: For coaching to be most effective, you will need to do some work in between the coaching sessions and you will need to agree with your coach what you will do and honour your commitments to yourself. This work might include reflections on past behaviours, observations in situ, testing new tools or approaches, videoing a demonstration, etc. This takes us back to question 1 – are you already over committed? Will you have time to focus on this?
    • You will be getting some feedback, is that ok? As a part of the coaching, there will be some diagnostic elements, this might come from you, your coach or others (for example 360 degree feedback). As you try things, you will also get feedback. The questions asked to you can be highly appreciative and based on what is working and what you could be doing differently, and still, this might challenge in unexpected ways your current paradigm of yourself in your workplace. Your coach will work to create a safe environment, and still, think about this – will it be ok? Prepare to share some of your thinking about how you respond to feedback with your coach and what you might want/need to make sure this is effective.
    • Things will be changing, so write things down: In coaching processes, many things are changing simultaneously. You will be trying new approaches, as a result your external environment might change, and therefore what you need to do next in your coaching might change. This can be a very dynamic process, and probably not linear. Even with a good outline for your coaching process, the process needs to be responsive to your needs and in the end might look very different to what you or even your coach expected. This also depends on the period of time over which you have your coaching – if it is a longer period then it is more likely that this change will occur. How and where will you record your thinking, new ideas, and plans? Your coach might give you a manual or journal, or you might set up one of your own. It is helpful to try to keep things in one place so that you can look back at the changes, and see the trends. A blank book can work, but you might also consider making yourself some templates that you can use in all situations. These could ask questions like: What exercise did we do this week? What did I get from this/what were the key points? What will I do for my homework? When will I do this? Your coach might keep a similar record and use that to engage with you. It’s worth writing things down as these processes often produce subtle changes that are hard to pick out and remember in the sometimes deafening thrum of our daily work.

Whether you do-it-yourself or engage a coach, both have the potential to be incredibly instrumental for helping you make the changes you want to see in the future. Both do take effort on your part and at the same time aim to ultimately make things better, more effective, and more enjoyable. As you take your first steps up this ladder of change, looking out at the rest of your year, keep the vision firmly in mind of this next version of you!


I just finished From Ideas to Action: Bring ideas to life through Ideation and Prototyping – my first of two courses with IDEO U for the IDEO Foundations in Design Thinking Certificate.

The final project for this online course, run over 5 weeks with hundreds of participants from all over the world, was to create a pitch for a product or process that you had worked on through the Design Thinking steps of ideation, rapid prototyping, and iteration – and to reflect on your learning.

We use elements of Design Thinking (DT) in our Bright Green Learning work regularly, from different visual brainstorming techniques (lots of cards and post-its), to prototyping ideas through approaches such as the  LEGO Serious Play method (see my blog post What’s in a Brick? Using LEGO® for Serious Stuff“) and drawing/storyboarding, so I was eager to follow the IDEO Design Thinking courses to get additional ideas and tools, and a vision of their whole DT process.

I found the course to be excellent, video- and assignment-based, with ample feedback from other participants (built into the course requirements). I did get some useful new tools and a better understanding of the elements of each step. And some of the most profound insights came by observing and reflecting on myself in my role as a facilitator in these human-centred processes.

One big aha was to step out of my own way!

What I noticed? For the most innovative ideas to be generated, I needed to pay attention to some very subtle constraints that I might be putting on the process myself!  This is not the grumbly participant who doesn’t want to draw, the person on their phone all the time, or the person who already has the best idea and is completely certain of that. No, these constraints take the form of unecessary parameters that I build into the process that are based on my own mental model of how things should roll out to get results. These very subtle decisions that I am making as a facilitator and process leader might be inhibiting those participating, limiting the number of ideas and the innovation that emerges. Whew, that’s tough to accept!

Here are 4 obervations I had about self-imposed constraints in the Ideation process (generating initial ideas):

Unecessary Limit 1: The “right” ideas

In “brainstorming” sessions in the past I have not actively encouraged wild ideas from participants, but only realistic ideas, or at least I didn’t proactively encourage people to think of things that were really out there. In my testing of different ideation techniques, including some that I already use, I saw that wild ideas can spark others to have ideas that are a stretch, and that usefully fill the gap between boring and too far out. Now I will give people permission and encourage them to try to throw out some crazy ideas. There is always a prioritisation step next that will see the idea “everyone wears panda onsies” move down on the list (maybe, or who knows, maybe not!)

Unecessary Limit 2: Stopping short of great

I saw in my ideation testing that there are cycles to ideas generation. The first cycle squeezes out all the easy ideas, a veritable flurry of things that are already on the tops of people’s minds. The second cycle gets the crazy ideas. And then if you can pause long enough, even when people seem a little bored (when I as the facilitator would notice this, get nervous, and say, “OK, done, let’s move on”), with some prompting, you can get some really great, further honed and synthesized ideas. It was my observation that in each cycle you get less ideas in number, but the quality/innovation increases.

Unecessary Limit 3: Who’s invited

The third observation was around who you ideate with. For my product (unlike my normal professional work), I worked with a mixed demographic – that is, older and younger people (even very young people) from 8 to 55 years old. Of course your group depends on your ultimate product/process users, but how can you expand this past the usual suspects? I should not have been amazed at how creative the responses of the younger people were. They were not usually the final answers, but they certainly informed them and they expanded the continuum of possibility and fun factor considerably. (If you can’t have younger people in the room, then perhaps using the “Putting yourself in other people’s shoes” ideation method could help people tap into their inner teenager!)

Unecessary Limit 4: One thing at a time

Finally, the last observation is a very small thing, but could potentially have considerable impact on what is produced during an ideation session. Normally I would ask people to stop writing and listen while others are presenting their ideas, making a clear distinction between these two steps of generating and sharing. I might have enforced this with a look or a mention (very teacherly of me!) In these tests, I did not say that; in fact, I said that if someone’s idea gave them a new idea, they should quickly note it down before it was forgotten.  I noticed that people listened differently to report-backs of their peers’ ideas, and that these ideas in turn sparked further new ideas in the listeners. Allowing people to continue to write and think during the report backs, in addition to listening, produced some additional great ideas to work with.

My take away: Make sure you, as the facilitator, are not creating rules that subtly inhibit your ideation process! Ah, even after so many years of practice, the learning never stops…

I had the great honour and pleasure to be the process steward for a multi-stakeholder consultation recently around a complex new idea (which is exactly when you want and need a multi-stakeholder consultation) in the sustainable development field. The issue was one that had significant potential environmental, social, economic and political implications that people and their organizations felt very strongly about. In the room were representatives from a number of sectors – multi-national corporations, government officials, NGO and civil society actors, etc.-, and the potential for a good deal of power asymmetry to be expressed.

Pre-work for the consultation had shown a diversity of opinion on our topic. This 2-day face-to-face meeting needed to surface all the reactions, opposition, ideas, and suggestions from this diverse group of experts in order to make the idea more robust, more applicable and have more chance of success. Among our desired outcomes, we wanted to be able to anticipate and address the wants and needs of the sectors and organizations that could be implementing it in the future. We were clearly discussing a good idea with a lot of potential, thus the good turnout to the invitation to join, and the high level of attention and engagement of the people in the room.

The consultation process was designed to maximise the contribution that every individual participant could make, their opportunities to provide comments to each aspect of the idea, and the time they would have to explain the rationale behind their input. The focus for the committee presenting the idea was to listen deeply, be curious and ask good probing questions to further their understanding. At the foundation of this consultation was the firm belief that any question, input, challenge from the group could only make the idea better, more appropriate and more applicable in its second iteration. So we needed maximum authenticity and a safe space to share what might be opposing views.

This post isn’t actually about the process that we used to do this – that’s another article that I will write at some point. This post focuses on an observation that provided some powerful learning for me about the assumptions we all hold and bring into our processes and work with other people.

The first day of our consultation went very smoothly. The group was high-level, well prepared and worked together diligently to provide comments, document them – discussing, analysing and developing some very useful key messages from their small group analysis. There was laughter periodically in the room in spite of the seriousness of the topic, great questions were asked, the wall templates were filling up with colourful nuggets of incredibly useful and thoughtful contributions. Everything looked rosy.

I was getting very nice feedback from people at the end of the day and during our group dinner. And then the question came.  A member of the idea committee asked earnestly, are people being too nice?

Where’s the clash? Where’s the conflict? Are people giving their real opinions? This took me a little aback. I would say in a very useful way. It gave me the opportunity to think about assumptions (which I always enjoy) – all the different assumptions that people hold that are creating the reality we are sharing. Including me.

I could see that the assumption on the part of the person earnestly questioning if we were getting what we needed, was that difference in opinion in their experience was signaled by overt public disagreement, which can lead to passionate speeches, high emotion and possibly visible conflict in a face-to-face meeting of minds. This was clearly absent in our process so it caused a question mark to pop up for this person and then a desire to go around and check with people to see how they felt about the environment we had created to provide inputs. Hmmm, interesting.  I felt my face – was I wearing rose-coloured glasses?

For me, as the process steward and facilitator, my assumption was that people were happy because they were able to provide their viewpoints in a structured and constructive way. So the absence of open conflict was a sign that the process was providing them this opportunity, and so they were satisfied and comfortable, able to both provide their views and get to know each other and laugh from time to time. I actually very rarely have any kind of open conflict in my workshops and processes because I try to use different methodologies that aim to capture all inputs (rather than those of the loudest or most persistent), provide anonymity when needed, value inputs through multiple levels of discussion and analysis that allows people to work with ideas rather than refute them. I use Appreciative Inquiry to inform my question articulation and keep the pace moving and visually stimulating, and mostly out of long, open, unstructured plenary sessions where speechifying and checking your email is tempting, and the feeling that you are not making progress is tiring.

So the question made me usefully pause and notice again my assumptions and gave me an opportunity to check in with the group. This was a good idea for all – it would help me understand if the process was providing space to capture opposition to our central ideas (rather than being designed  for harmony at the cost of good input), it would help the person who feared that the lack of open and vociferous dissent meant that people were being too nice (and that nice meant no opposition); it would reinforce our principle for participants that all views were appreciated – the good, the bad and the ugly. We wanted them all!

I decided not to just ask the BIG question to the group in plenary at the beginning of Day 1, as that would be a risky format to do it and in that situation people might not feel comfortable to single themselves out and speak up in the awkward silence after such a question so early in the morning. So instead for the next set of discussions around the inputs, which were a little higher level and bigger picture, we asked for the “elephant in the room” (things that have not been spoken but need to be spoken) as well as key messages from their analysis and small group discussion.

The addition of that little question worked very well. It was an unexpected visual, amusing and energising question at that moment in the consultation (we were talking about biodiversity and had already spoken about elephants once in a more realistic context). Groups could identify one big elephant or a herd of small elephants. It invited everyone to think about what might be some of the underlying and potentially unspoken or softly spoken issues, at any level, of our consultation.

It also gave another way to analyse the patterns of the contributions, and it allowed us to see if there was anything new that we had not heard rumbling up before, or if the elephants identified now were more thought-through conceptualisations of things that had been emerging but perhaps not yet fully formed in all the different discussion activities as we went along. We found more of the latter which was heartening and also found it to be a valuable way, towards the end of our consultation, to help summarise and crystalise collectively the most important action areas for the idea moving forward.

It’s not often that you get a stop-and-think-question like, “Is this going too well?” that helps you test your assumptions (and those of others) while you still have everyone in the room. In the end, the consultation went well, the energy in the room was high, and we got those comments, ideas, gaps and elephants, with and without my rose-coloured glasses.

I have been working for the last few years as the Learning Expert on a very interesting partnership project called the Learning and Knowledge Development Facility (LKDF). This project focuses on “promoting green industrial skills among young people in developing countries”.  The focus is on developing Public Private Development Partnerships (PPDPs) in selected Vocational Training Centres (VTC) in a number of countries, and promoting multi-level learning within and among them in innovative ways, as well as capturing this  learning and reintroducing it back into the different projects and into new PPDPs.

In addition to developing the learning elements and designing and facilitating the peer-learning components, I have had the great pleasure this year to write a number of “How-To” Guides – four in all. They have taken two different approaches to development, described below. But there is something critically important that must come first…

The first question to answer when writing a How-To Guide is “Who will use this?” Who is the audience? If you are crystal clear about that, then it makes it much easier to write with those people firmly in mind. Our audience for these Guides was project managers who are developing and implementing PPDPs and those who might be interested to do so in the future.

Approach 1: Interview-based 

The first How-To Guide was based on a co-generated set of “Learning Opportunities”. This set of questions, combined into one document, was effectively what the different partners wanted to learn from their participation in the different PPDPs and the LKDF. In our Learning Opportunities document each partner has its own set of questions under each agreed heading – one for the UN partner, the donor, the private sector partner, and the VTC. This took a question format and formed the basis of ongoing query throughout the project. We use these questions in our face-to-face learning workshops (self-reflection and group reflection) as well as for the interviews that provided the input to this particular “How-To” document, which was titled, How-To Guide: Developing and Implementing a Vocational Training PPDP.

The Learning Opportunities – that is, what we wanted to learn – included 5 main headings, paraphrased here: How is the PPDP different than a more traditional project of a similar kind; What steps make up an effective PPDP project development process, and an effective implementation process; What is the value added of the learning platform; and how can policy-makers be most effectively engaged and policy change supported.

Each Learning Opportunity had a number of assumptions that we were making, and then related sub-questions identified per partner (exploring their experience, their role, their learning both internally in their organizations and as a part of a multi-stakeholder partnership, what was working and what could be different and better in the future).

This document was used to create a one-page interview questionnaire tailored to each of the Partners. The interview was timed to take 30-45 minutes (it tended to take 45-60 minutes) and was administered by telephone or Skype. After the interview the notes were recorded under each question to create a set of response forms that ranged from 4-6 pages in length. For our How-To Guide we undertook 13 interviews (some had 2 people on the call).

Then the exercise was to take the inputs from the interviews and write the How-To Guide. For this I used the following process:

  1. Divided the questionnaires by Partner (UN, Business, Donor, and VTC)
  2. I did a first read through of those in each sector to get a general overview of the key messages, and to see what themes were repeatedly arising among them members of the same sector.
  3. As I used the 5 Learning Opportunities roughly as the chapter titles for the How-To Guide,  I went a second time through all the interviews (still clustered by sector) in more detail, picking out key words that were repeated under each Learning Opportunity 1-5, and I wrote those key words in the margins of the questionnaires (so I could see them at a glance). I was especially looking for success areas/things working well and why, challenges being experience and actions that partners had taken to mitigate the challenges (or try to), and learning and advice for the future.
  4. I then put aside the Interview questionnaires and created the overall Table of Contents for the How-To Guide, and blocked out sections with titles and placeholders to write into. Creating a Table of Contents is a great way to see if there is overall flow to the Guide. The Chapter headings I chose (and changed a few times) became: What Makes the PPDP Approach to Vocational Training Successful; How to Develop the PPDP Concept and Project Document; How to Implement a Vocational Training PPDP Project; How to Form a Dialogue with Policy Makers During Vocational Training PPDPs; and How the LKD Facility Fosters Learning. The Chapter titles were based on the Learning Opportunities, the interview questions and what had emerged from the interviews (some questions produced rich responses, others not so much).  I found it very useful to have the framework set up before writing the main body of content.
  5. I then wrote the Introductory sections of the How-To Guide: About the project; About the Guide, Useful definitions (what is a PPDP?), Who is involved, etc.
  6. Next I went back to the Interview Questionnaires. I wrote bullet points into my Guide framework under the right headings, amalgamating and summarising the text from Questionnaires. I used the key word reminders that I had written in the margins that repeated, drafting them into more generic lessons. If it was a sector specific comment or a general comment, then I noted that.
  7. I organized these bullet points into sub-sections that were emerging based on content from the questionnaires such as: Reported benefits; General considerations; What to watch out for; Steps to take; 10 things that have worked so far. I also included some observations and tips by and for specific partners (e.g. The Business Perspective or The Donor Perspective).   Each chapter was organized differently depending on the kind of inputs Partners gave in their interviews, but always with the Guide user/reader, and the questions they might have, in mind.
  8. The rest of the exercise was writing the bullet points into narrative, making them parallel, reorganizing for flow and logic, and editing for readability.
  9. This was then sent out for feedback to the Partners who gave suggestions and questions and sent the document back through an editing cycle before finalisation (formatting and printing).

This produced a 27-page How-To Guide: Developing and Implementing a Vocational Training Public Private Development Partnership which had quite a lot of practical detail. To give the high points from this, I created a 7-page Executive Summary from this document (which was almost harder than the longer version!) This whole process as you can imagine, took weeks!

The next three How-To Guides followed a very different process.

Approach 2: Process and project documentation-based

Learning is everywhere in a project like this, and the astute project manager identified some good reusable learning content in the project and process documentation that had been written in the early set-up stages of project development. Experts on M&E and learning (like me) had written a number of longer documents proposing M&E systems, learning processes, management training programmes etc. for the project. These included interesting rationale, research, substantiation of what was proposed and support from good practice, expert opinion, etc. How could the re-usable learning be extracted from these early documents? (Processes which had now been tested for a couple of years!)

It was an interesting exercise for me to sit down with the proposal for the M&E system, the Management Training Programme, etc. and work with the text to identify what was generic and what could be used by other managers undertaking the same or similar processes. Again we needed to be clear on our target, and we enlarged it a little for these three How-To Guides to not only those who would be working in vocational training PPDPs, but would also be useful for those setting up and managing PPDPs in general.

Here are the steps I followed to turn specific project-related documentation into something that others could be interested to use:

  1. An initial read through of the document provided some obvious sections to cut out – details of our specific context (a little was left in the section About this Guide and the PPDP Approach to give people an idea of where we were starting), excerpts from our Project Document, references to specific partners and their roles, etc. All this could be neatly cut out immediately.
  2. A second read through provided the opportunity to take things out that we didn’t do, hadn’t done yet, or didn’t work in the way it was planned. In some cases, it was interesting to refer to this and talk about what happened (or didn’t) and why. This also provided a good learning back and forth with the project management team and some ideas of what to do in the future.
  3. At this point a number of things were also identified to add in, links to other knowledge products that had been produced along the way, videos, examples from different country experiences, and samples of agendas for events and questionnaires that had been developed since the original project documentation had been produced. This greatly enriched the learning shared.
  4. Then an overview was needed – so I wrote the table of contents and framework for the How-To Guide based on what was there now (and this also identified a gap or two, and in some cases where there was too much information – more to cut!)
  5. The final steps included writing transitional text so the sections were logical and would read smoothly, filling in explanations for an external audience, footnotes for other resources, revising charts and tables so that they were accurate (I needed to remake a number of images so they fit the new context and language of the How-To Guide).
  6. A final review by the project managers completed this exercise (this approach had more back and forth during the process than the interview approach). Then a final edit, and off for formatting and printing.

This approach took a few days of work per How-To Guide, as the existing content was mainly there and the main work for a learning practitioner was to identify what is most interesting and reusable from the original documentation (which took weeks to write and was an investment already made, additional value added through this How-To Guide development process). The resulting How-To documents were:

How-To Guide: How to Set up a Monitoring and Evaluation System for a Vocational Training PPDP
How-To Guide: How to Develop and Manage Knowledge in Vocational Training PPDPs
How to Guide: How to Set up a PPDP Management Training Programme

I think that both of these two approaches work well together. The first approach above is highly participatory and involves all partners in an iterative learning exercise. It can easily be repeated annually and additional updates to the How-To Guide can be written as learning continues and deepens. New questions could be added and new Guides produced.

The second approach maximises existing investments made in project and process documentation. Rather than keeping these proprietary internal documents and on shelves here and there, it aims to draw out the reusable learning from these to share internally and with outside learners. This exercise also provides a valuable moment for reflection about what was done based on the original plan, why or why not, and might also point out what is yet to be done.  With this reflection, the result is a more accurate How-To document produced based on real learning from experience. These How-To Guides also tend to be more specific as the project documentation is more focused on specific parts of the project (e.g. the M&E system, the learning platform, etc.).

And taking the last-mile steps to create the How-To Guide out of the project documentation, rather than just releasing the original project documents, which go out of date and are often long and rather dry, gives the material new life. It does the work of identifying that learning which is most useful to others, rather than letting this work of pulling out the lessons to be done by the reader (and who has time for that!)

In the last few months I have been an interviewer and an interviewee, I have sat on selection panels for jobs, moderated conference plenary panels, guided a “Fireside Chat” and been asked questions myself by reporters. In every case, the best thing you can do for yourself when you are answering questions, is KEEP IT SHORT.

The recruitment panel has a long list of questions to ask, always longer than the time available, but they really really want to know the answers. If you go on and on and on they will not get the data they need in order to consider your candidacy most effectively. Keep it short and content rich, and let them ask further probing questions if they want more.

That TV, or radio interviewer, journalist or panel moderator also has a list of questions, and like the recruiter they want to ask them all. The question sequence has been designed to get somewhere, to tell a story or make some essential points in a way that aims to generate a dialogue that is also interesting to listeners than a straight Q&A. If you get stuck with long responses on the first two questions, that moderator or journalist is not going to get where they want to go, the story won’t be unfold and be told, the essential points potentially missed, and again you will not have gotten the best opportunity to share what you think.

Note to self: I guess the same goes for blog posts, let me stop here, enough said!

What makes some people look down a steep and slippery mountain and say to themselves, “Weee heee, I can get down this slope REALLY FAST!” and yet fill other people with absolute terror?

What makes some people approach a public speaking event, standing on a stage in front of 900 people, with excitement and anticipation, and give other people the cold sweats several months in advance of the event?

Part could be fear of the unknown (although for my son, he approaches every ski-able mountain with the same glee, whether he has been down it already or not). Certainly some certainty about what is around the corner, or down the hill, or some familiarity with my audience, is helpful. You can check out the plan, get some local knowledge (who’s been down that hill or worked with that group before?), do what you need to to inform yourself about what is coming.

Part could be confidence in your ability to handle new and unexpected things. This could come from a great deal of practice, so taking hours of lessons, clocking hours of snow time, and getting back up over and over again can help (if you don’t hit a tree and break your arm one of those times, which can set you back both physically and mentally, let me assure you).

This also works with public speaking and facilitation – after I have done a run of workshops, I feel like I start from a position of confidence in front of a group. And even after a dud workshop session or presentation for whatever reason (and we have all had them -my first Toastmasters Table topic was a real blooper), you need to reflect on that and try to remember more of what you learned next time (lean forward, dig in those edges, prepare yourself, keep cool). Learning from more experienced speakers and facilitators (as well as skiers) is a great way to learn – be it in lessons or from mentoring/shadowing/keen observation.

Part could be sheer bravado, but I am not sure how I can map that over to public speaking or facilitation – except that if you believe it enough there might be some self-fulfilling prophecy there. This might relate to just that instinctive feeling that you can do something; that you have the right tools and equipment and muscles, and master them, you have good general awareness, and feel that normally when you try something and give it your best, it works out. (This could be a pre-tree collision feeling, but can come back with some additional effort and if you don’t give up, I am assured.)

All I can say at this point, is that I look at an audience at a workshop, or in an auditorium with much less trepidation than I do that mountain slope and I’m doing my best to apply my learning from one to the other!

It is that time of year when, if you have time, you review the past year and think about what you learned; what you would like to continue to do; and what you might like to do more of, or do differently.

I took on  a part-time project last June which, if it had been half time (although what even is half time for an independent worker?) would have had a manageable effect on my overall time allocation. I could organize myself for that. But by the end of a rather frazzled year I was left feeling like I didn’t have a minute for anything non-obligatory. What happened to fun time, or reading time, or even lunch time?

I was given an excellent exercise at the very end of last year by a wise advisor – so simple, yet powerful in its help in thinking about this issue of time, and the choices that we make in spending it. Here it is, try it for yourself:

You have 168 hours each week (7 days x 24 hours each day) (this is, sadly, non-negotiable)

1. How many hours do you want to sleep each day? (x 7, calculate and subtract)
(Bear in mind that this is not necessarily what you do, but what you want to commit yourself to doing because you, in this case, value your health – think sustainability, not getting over the next major project deadline.)

2. How many hours do you spend eating each day (x 7, calculate and subtract)

3. How many hours do you want to spend together with your family each day? (x 7, calculate and subtract)
(If this some of this is built into eating, then add the additional non-sitting-at-the-table time)

4. How many hours a day on average do you want to spend alone with your partner or spouse? (x 7, calculate and subtract)

5. How many hours a day do you want to spend on personal care (showers, brushing your teeth, you get the idea) (x 7, calculate and subtract)

You see where this is going.  Here are a few more categories to consider and calculate, and you can add your own:

6. Personal development and balance? (reading, yoga, exercise, blogging)
7. Travel or commuting?
8. Time with friends?
9. Time in the garden or with important hobbies?
10. Time spent doing menial housework and picking up after other people (I added “housework” to my list – you might be lucky enough not to have to add that, or have usefully reframed that into “balance”, but not me)

Do the math. What you have left is time for WORK.

You might be surprised by what you get. Do you (choose to) do more than that “work” stuff than you have time allocated, and if so, what is “paying for” that time – is it sleep, eating, time with friends/family, etc.? I tried to be realistic about what I could spend and still stick to my personal values, and priorities. This exercise gives you the opportunity to think through those again and be clear about your commitments and choices, in terms of how you spend the hours of your day, week and life.

What I came up with when I did the math was exactly 39 hours available for work. If I divide that between my independent work and my new project, then I do have 20 good hours a week for the latter, which is exactly what I had agreed to do – half time. So now it is up to me to spend that time, and not more, or at least as an exception and not as a rule, in order to keep myself on track in the New Year. This little exercise makes those time decisions much clearer.

What about you? How are you spending your time?

(I have written quite a few blog posts about time – from time in big blocks to tiny increments – it is clearly a topic that holds curiosity for me. No wonder I liked this exercise! Here are a few I like: The Work at Home Field Guide to Time, The Time it Takes: A Learning Practitioner’s Lessons on Time, and  Time to Reflect: Cooking Up Your Weekly GTD Review)

We are currently running a Facilitation learning programme with a large organization here in Geneva that is focused not so much on tools and techniques, but more on the design of facilitated learning processes, and what it means to be the person leading them. Overall we are working to help people use facilitation in a very nuanced, thoughtful way rather than as a blunt instrument.

We have a session that is focused on ourselves as facilitators and for that we use any and all information that people have generated over the years (their choice) using diagnostic tools such as MBTI, Strengthsfinder, FIRO-B, etc. They can also talk to friends and family to get some inputs. The objective is to reflect on how our behavioural preferences might manifest themselves in our facilitation and group process leadership work.

It has been a very interesting thought exercise to try to identify times when our individual behavioural preferences might really help our processes, or might get in the way. Just asking the question – How might my behavioural preferences manifest themselves in my facilitation work – is an intervention in itself as it is something most of us don’t consider or consider very often.

We both give examples of where we see our own preferences at work, and take the exercise one step further to talk about how, once we are aware of them, we manage these. We are both very different facilitators, Lizzie and I, and it is interesting to see what we both actively do to make sure that the best outcome is achieved.

I grappled with one of my behavioural preferences recently during a large group facilitation exercise in Mali. My FIRO-B results in inclusion are rather high (expressed and wanted). This is a good thing, of course, when it comes to working successfully with groups, and at the same time it gives me a challenge when ownership by the group is one of the soft outcomes desired of a facilitated process. This might be the case for a network building meeting, one generating an action plan or campaign, or a Youth Call to Action – as was the case in the Mali event.

For any facilitator high in inclusion, turning over the process, standing back and letting the group take over takes deliberate thought and action and can really work against that behavioural preference to be in the middle of everything until the very end. But that ownership outcome demands it. In Mali, at the end of our process, that hand over needed to occur and did occur, but it was a little messy and felt for some as though the process was listing to starboard. As easy as it would have been for me to step in (my inclusion was ready to jump), I didn’t. I was present, I helped from the floor, I gave advice when needed, but the group representatives and the process we had set up took over, and they finished the work, and could revel in their success in doing it themselves.

That was hard for me personally, but very good for the process.  Lots of additional relationship building, deeper perspective sharing, and considered decision-making might have been lost if I had run that process myself right to the very end. And these outcomes can be used as social capital when this group meets again.

We use other examples of how our behaviour preferences map over to our facilitation work, and we talk about what we do to manage these, whether it is to design in specific things (like a handover point), to working with a co-facilitator that balances them out, to contracting differently with the group. We all have preferences that both make us good at being facilitators and that also might get in the way. Being mindful of these, and frequently asking the question – How might my behavioural preferences be showing up in my facilitation work? – is a good way to constantly be learning when I’m the Facilitator.

Related blog posts:
What Did You Say? Building a group’s capacity to deal with its own issues
A sampling of good intervention statements to use when you are trying to help a group work through its issues, take control of the process and lead its own development.

You Have the Right to Remain Silent
Reflections on dealing with a group that has different inclusion needs – just because someone is not talking doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she is not engaged. Watch jumping up that Ladder of Inference!

Understanding What We are Bringing to the Party: Group Process Consultation Resources
A list of tools and resources that facilitators and Group Process Consultation practitioners can use to explore their own impacts on a group.

In doing the research for a participants’ guide for the Facilitation learning programme we’re launching with a partner next week, I found a nice “greatest hits” collection that we made of some of our blogging reflections on the topic of making the most of internal meetings.  These posts were written from inside a large organization’s learning department and give some insight into the internal dialogues, learning and engagement processes (all kinds of meetings and gatherings) that institutions convene to help work through issues and generally get things done.

I am delighted now that we captured our learning at the time in this format – a blog- and wrote it with the spirit of creating “reusable learning objects” (I was always banging on about RLOs in the organization, now that I am actually reusing them I am delighted!)

This collection of 18 posts is organized below (with summaries and links) into the following categories that explore aspects of how to Make Meetings Meaningful:

  1. Purpose
  2. Positioning, and
  3. Process (e.g. design, implementation, reflection) 

1) What’s the Purpose?

Are we having conversations that matter?
How are the conversations our organization is having changing the nature of relationships and the way people, groups and societies around the world are thinking and behaving? In other words, to what extent are our conversations bringing about the change we seek and helping achieve our objectives? And how can we continue to improve the quality of our conversations to better ensure that they matter?


What Is the Purpose of ‘Free Coffee Mornings’?
What value do weekly free coffee mornings have in fostering staff networking and informal learning in our organization? We decided to explore the opinions of others in our organization on this topic, through a short questionnaire. Many staff commented on the exercise itself, pointing out learning about how to make the most of free coffee mornings in the future to engage with staff, about how enthusiastic staff are to express their opinions, and the importance of ‘social spaces’ and time for team-building and collaboration across ‘silos’.

You’ve Just Been to a Great Staff Meeting – What Happened?
What are some of the different purposes of a Staff Meeting?

-To update and inform staff members of activities in the institution
-To profile people who have done good work and let them share their reflections
-To maintain transparency and an open environment for sharing
-To bring staff together for a shared experience once and a while
Have you ever been to a great staff meeting? What was it about the meeting that made it useful, interesting, and made you excited to go to the next staff meeting?

Post: You’ve Just Been to a Great Staff Meeting – What Happened?

Networking – In or Out of Your Comfort Zone?
Monday afternoon, a two hour session was held titled, ‘Learn Something New: People and Networking’. The objective was to not to provide a taught course on Networking, but do create an environment where people can share and exchange about networking, and do it at the same time. … Some suggestions were offered about how we can do more networking, and how we can help create work environments where networking and interaction is one of the key objectives. Longer coffee/lunch breaks? Open spaces in the agenda for interaction? Introductory sessions which serve to connect people and help them build relationships?

2. Can Meetings be Used for Positioning?

In our day to day conversations, how do we “talk the walk”?
We’ve all heard of “walking the talk” – but what of “talking the walk”? In our day to day conversations, how do we “talk the walk” and reflect the core values employed in our work?… Our conversations can serve to enforce or discredit our messages and ourselves in powerful and lasting ways. Walking the talk is imperative. Talking the walk is so important too. People notice.

No Such Thing as a Pointless Question: The Impact of Simply Asking
The act of asking questions of an organization or group influences the group in some way. With our questions we get people to focus on something – what is that thing? What is our purpose of the question we are asking and what impact will it have on the way that person and the room think and feel? If people go in the direction you question them, where do you want them to go?

Me and My Multiple Intelligences. We and Ours.
In our organizations, what are we doing to make sure we interact in ways that address diversity of intelligences and learning styles? And how can we engage the multiple intelligences of our colleagues to best answer this question?

3) How Effective is our Meeting Process?

a) Design and preparation

How Old is Your Knowledge?
Workplace learning is 20% formal and 80% informal. Informal learning is an interesting combination of reading, internet surfing and search, audio-visual inputs, speeches and presentations, meetings, and conversations in the cafeteria, corridors, and on the bus. For the most part in these activities learning is quite accidental and not a deliberate objective. There are learning opportunities around every corner. What are you doing to structure your informal learning?

What Kind of a Discussion do You Want?
It is thought-provoking to hear people come away from discussions that they have lead and say, “Why do you think people reacted that way to my ideas?” Another question they could ask might be, “What could I have done differently to develop a generative discussion rather than a debate?” … If one sets up an academic situation, then people will be happy to react as though they are in one! Rarely do people throw a professor or a keynote speaker for that matter a soft ball…

A Courtroom or a Concert?
If I was going to run an important meeting, which environment would I want to create? How would I want my participants and speakers to feel when they left the room? What would I want people to get out of it? Would it be a zero sum gain, or would it be a step of a creative, hopeful process? When I sent out my next invitation for the group to meet again, what would be people’s reactions? Would they be excited that their favorite group was holding a concert again? Or would they dread the eyes of the jury?

Bottoms on Seats – How Do You Make That Memorable?
People travel to the venue, they walk into a bustling and colourful conference venue (exhibitions, restaurants, meeting spaces, and all), then they walk into their first of many small workshop rooms and basically sit there (different small rooms of course) for 75% of the conference… We spend a lot of energy thinking about communication to conference participants and the media around the event to make it colourful, interesting and engaging; how can we make sure that this does not stop at the workshop door?

Leveraging the Wisdom of Crowds in our Organization
Next week, our organization is hosting a week of meetings, bringing together in headquarters senior staff from our offices around the world. During these meetings, how smart will our crowd(s) be? How smart could it/they be? As session organizers, what can we do to make our crowds as smart as possible – better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future?

Lights, Camera, Action: Working with Star Speakers
Here is a lesson that I absolutely need to learn as a workshop facilitator: No matter how well you brief a plenary speaker who is a subject matter expert, they will go over the time. … Plan for it in as many ways as possible, especially by allocating substantial discussion times (even after they get cut down) so that this critical part of the learning process is always there to help people follow your star.


b) Implementation

Using Storytelling to Generate Ideas: We Just Went to a Great Staff Meeting – What

Happened? (Reprise)

We decided to use our own communications unit meeting to generate additional creative ideas, and then to share them with the team who is responsible for our staff meetings… Here was our question: You just went to a great staff meeting – you left excited, energised and hopeful. Tell us – what happened? We first worked in pairs to create our stories, then shared them with each other. Here are some of the ideas that emerged.

Ballroom Learning and Large Groups: Using Socratic Questioning
I am sitting in a hotel ballroom with 140 people at a conference titled, “Capacity Development Strategies: Let the evidence speak” and the level of some of the participants has dictated a certain room layout and format – we have a head table with four speakers and 140+ people sitting shoulder to shoulder behind tables in the room… If learning is the goal, and this formal room layout is a given, how might we best work with this format for optimal exchange?

What Exactly Are You Facilitating?
I have had a few people ask me about the value of facilitating other people’s workshops. What does that contribute to the grand scheme of things? The overall goal is not to just to move people around a room for a day. A good Facilitator is a process person with their eye on outcomes and learning – there is reason for every interaction, what is it and how can a process be designed that makes those conversations easier, smoother, and more productive? After all, facilitation comes from the Latin word “facil” which means to make something easy. Good facilitation means making group dialogue, decision-making, information sharing, and learning processes easier and more effective for everyone: your workshop hosts, your participants, and yourself.

c) Reflection and follow-up

Helping Other People Do Great Work
How transferable was my experience last week and what can it prompt me to learn about how to help our guest speakers do great work for us at the upcoming workshop? What more could I do in the next few days that could make all the difference for a first-timer, to create an environment where people are proud of their contributions, others appreciate it, and generally helps everyone do great work?

Dialoguing about dialogue
“Listen to one another with your full attention. Think about what is said, how it is said and the intent behind this. How does it make you feel – physically, intellectually and emotionally – as a participant in this dialogue process? How does it make others feel?” There is still much to explore and emerge about the role of dialogue in change processes. Along the way, how can we replicate such experiential approaches in our own institutions for collective learning about the important role of dialogue in change?

I found it interesting to look back, now that I am working from the outside and don’t always have seamless, day-to-day contact with such micro-learning processes, to remember how valuable it was to capture this nuanced process learning through a blog. Even after some time I find the learning very clearly reusable.  

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

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)

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…

It’s the end of another year, and whether a leg cast, or just office closings give you some extra time to think, it is undeniably a great opportunity to go back over your year and see what worked in 2010, and what you would like to do more of, or differently, in 2011. When are you having that conversation with yourself?

The last 2 years have seen major changes for many knowledge workers in terms of work mode and even flow in some cases. Knock-on effects from financial contractions in most organizations have brought changes in staff composition, mandates, activity budgets, work modalities (from decentralisation of team members to outsourcing workstreams entirely), and more. With all of this movement and activity, now in its second year, how is it going? And what are we learning?

I can explore that question for myself, as I sit in my office with my coffee.  I have also been interested in a different, more collective, approach that some other professionals are taking to answer that question for themselves.

I recently received an email invitation from another working facilitator/trainer in my area asking me to have a coffee and discussion with her around some informal research she is doing to better understand organizational motivations in this new financial climate. She sent me a nice, short email giving me some information about her work, what she was learning about her offer (which has some similarities to mine) and her hypothesis about what is changing in organizations around learning and training (and what that means for her offer). She set up an interesting debate!

She asked if I would be happy to explore this with her, and then told me why she wanted to speak to me about that (she knew or renewed her understanding of my background and personalised her request.) Finally she said she would write up her findings from this series of interviews and share it with everyone who contributed.

This collaborative approach to reflection and learning appeals to me, and I also think it is very clever, for a number of reasons. First, just in her email she told me more about what she is doing and wants to do. I do know this fellow facilitator, but it has been quite a while since I have spoken to her substantively about her work, and I wouldn’t have known that she is shifting her focus, expanding her offer, and how she wants to engage with organizations. And now I do. She also gave me all of her new contact information in this message. As an independent worker, I frequently have requests that I cannot fill (for content or availability reasons); she is much more on my radar screen now, even if I don’t or am not able meet her (although I probably will because I enjoy her company and also for the next few reasons). After the meeting, this will be even more true, for both of us actually.

Second, her line of questioning and framing intrigued me. These are also questions that I have. I may or many not entirely agree with her hypothesis, and by giving me questions she wants to explore, rather than just topic headings to discuss, she is already getting me thinking, and more eager to engage in this discussion with her. By using this approach I see that we will be doing some peer learning here, not just a straight brain picking, as she shares her own ideas about what is happening in the kinds of organizations with which we are working. Again interesting for independent workers who don’t always have the opportunity to do this.

Finally, she intends to give something synthetic back, to report on her learning across these conversations, and to help me answer some of my shared questions through her informal research. I might even be able to blog about it, so multiple benefits (sharing it with all of you!) Of course, she will really have to do this final step of the process as promised, and I assume that she will and look forward to her results (especially if I have been able to contribute to them too). Overall it sounds like a useful learning project that I would like to do, but probably won’t, and I am happy that she will do it and share her findings.

I hear from a number of independent workers that their traditional stomping grounds are shifting with the changing times, with new financial parameters in institutions, with new technology sources of information and expertise (and marketing), with new types of constellations of internal and external workers. It is an interesting time to reflect on what you are doing, how you are doing it, and how it is working. And either you can do that yourself or you can find a way to do that with others. Either way, ……. (add in tag line from international sports shoe company here – sorry, couldn’t resist.)  Happy Learning!

(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.

It is far too easy to fall out of reflective practice when you get extremely busy. Like funding for learning, it might be one of the first things to go when resources get tight (at both the institutional and individual level).

Then you don’t take the time to stop and think how you can do things better (not to mention why you are doing them and even if you should be doing them.) This can result in incredible ineffeciencies, not to mention actions that can create even more work and take more time because they have not been carefully considered. I queried this in a former post (Is Progress Made By Making Mistakes) because in addition to creating ineffeciencies, errors can come from not taking the time to think through your actions (e.g. putting petrol in your diesal car tank). These can in turn create more work for you, making you even more busy in the long run, with even less time available to think.

When we get busy we sometimes think that we can make progress by brute force, by throwing all our weight and muscle into something. If we want it enough we can just work as hard and as long as we can to make it happen. Then you get stuck in “doing mode” and can’t stop.

The smart alternative, of course, is to stop and create space for reflection to help us identify those ineffeciencies and change our behaviour, change our surroundings, change the rules, change our system, so we can achieve our goals with less effort. But you cannot identify those points of leverage unless you can stop long enough and get up high enough to see the patterns.

You might need some tools to do that. This can be quite personal. Writing this blog helps me organize my thoughts, and when I get busy I really have to make myself write (asking myself “What am I learning?” or “What am I noticing?” or any number of other start questions, and then recording my response.) Other people write in physical journals, or they create images, stories or even songs that synthesize; tools from systems thinking can also help people reflect on dynamics and explore change scenarios when looking for guidance on what to do differently. There are also many kinesthetic techniques to support reflection. It doesn’t really matter which, just pick one.

You can get too busy to think. And if you stick to that too long, you will even get too tired to think. And then, watch that car at your next fill-up.

Tonight I went to a network meeting at 2, place du Chateau in Nyon. I had made plans at 20:30 to see Lizzie (my co-blogger) afterwards and was a little stressed when at 21:15 the speaker asked the group if he could go over by another 15 minutes. I surreptitiously texted Lizzie under my chair to see if this delay was going to be ok. When we finally gave the speaker his well-deserved round of applause, I ran down the steps out into the courtyard and hustled towards the lift to the car park.

As I dug around for my keys down the dark pathway, I passed an older couple walking. As I got closer, the woman quietly said to her companion in English, “Look. Isn’t that beautiful.”

Because it was English, and perhaps the tone of her voice, it made me pause and look up.

I stopped. What was in front of me was panoramic. And absolutely breath-taking.

An enormous full moon broke the clouds with broad bright bands that crossed the full span of Lake Geneva, from the far shore of France’s sharp outlines of the Alps, to where I was standing on the cobblestone pathway in front of the Chateau of Nyon. I was so surprised at this I gaped for a moment. I took out my phone to take a picture that would never, ever, do it justice. Then I walked slowly to the elevator to go down the three floors into the car park. At that point the couple had caught up with me.

As the door to the lift opened I turned to them and said, “Thank you so much for saying that. I would never have noticed.” They were surprised and responded, “You sound like you’re from the States.” I told them I was, indeed, from Ohio. And they asked me if I lived here. I confirmed that with a gesture towards the next small village along the lake.

“How long have you been here?” the couple then asked. “Seventeen years” I said. Seventeen years and I couldn’t believe that I had nearly missed that – that spectacular scene in my own backyard and I had not even noticed. I left them at the next floor shaking my head, “I’m taking this for granted; seventeen years and I’m taking this for granted.”

And the kicker is, I had just spent a full 2 hours at a meeting of the Swiss branch of the International Coaching Federation about Coaching Presence – smugly practicing the ability to be fully conscious, being present, slowing down and connecting with the moment and what’s around you. And then I walked out into the most beautiful night scene and I didn’t even notice it! I was simply shocked. How else can I be practicing presence? For heaven’s sake, what else am I missing? What a powerful intervention those two tourists made.

Drawn on a napkin during a recent dinner I had with a systems expert, you might have to look closely to see what this Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) advises. It considers some of the dynamics involved in working independently and wishing to balance work with family life. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

It connects incoming work and project outputs, time for promotion and what you charge, and the rate of acceptance and completion of jobs. Central to this CLD is the link between reflection rate and number of jobs on your desk – the advice: make sure you always have enough time per job for reflection, and use that time frame as a filter to accept or decline a job (circled link in the centre of the diagram). It is tempting to be flexible on this when you are independent, but the knock-on effects of not paying attention to this important aspect can affect your quality, offer rate, time for family and happiness. A big conversation for a very small napkin…

Like cobblers kids, do Knowledge Workers kids get no time?

(This rather bleak thought has been haunting me since I Tweeted it last week, I’m hoping posting will exorcise it – or maybe it’s better as a New Year’s resolution not to work so much!)

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.

I wrote a post in March about learning through repetition, versus intense bursts of learning – so the benefits of 15 minutes of Spanish a day for 2 years versus the same amount of time in a one-month intensive each summer. This apparently deepens your neural grooves and helps you really learn something (See para 2 of Golden Nuggets from the GTD Summit – notice also Michael Randel’s comments about the timing piece).

Well, I checked that recently when I did two things that I have not done for over 25 years. I picked up my silver Stradivarius Bach trumpet and played a high school fight song, and caught four nice largemouth bass on a rooster tail spinner (albeit not at the same sitting, or standing, as it were).

I had no idea that this intrinsic knowledge was still there. It made me wonder what else there is still sitting in there waiting to be used, or re-used?

Indeed, 25 years ago, I played my trumpet nearly every day over a seven year period. I was in the marching band, orchestra and in a jazz band. I even got to leave school from time to time to play taps for military funerals in our small town. (Because I was paid for this I got a lifetime of confounding responses to the workshop icebreaker game “2 Truths and a Lie” -no one ever believes that I was a Professional Trumpet Player – it almost made standing in the snow behind a tombstone half a mile upwind from a 21 gun salute worthwhile.)

I probably played that particular fight song thousands of times. Any one Friday night football game, win or lose, would have produced dozens of opportunities to do so, not to mention the practice drills, and the end of every single, daily 45 minute band practice. I picked up the music for that song two weeks ago, looked through it and played it without hesitation, the second time from memory. My kids were amazed, they couldn’t even get a non-frog sound out of the instrument and they’d never seen me and a trumpet in the same room together.

Bass fishing was a similar experience. Over the years I have had a few opportunities to drop a worm on a hook into a farm pond and pull up a few bluegills. However, casting for large mouth bass with a spinner takes a little more than watching the bobber go under in shallow water and pulling up the fish. Although I found bass fishing again – getting the lure just where you want it and reeling in at the right pace – after decades of not casting, nearly as easy as that. I could even strike so that the bass were lip caught and could be happily released instead of having to practically surgically extract the hook, which never bodes well for their continued longevity as anything other than turtle bait.

Fish filleting also came with the memory package (the bluegills my boys caught), as I got to bring back those specific skills to create lunch. This was not like buying fish in the supermarket and taking off the skin, this was like taking the shiny excited fish out of the bucket of water and making it into tiny lunchable boneless, skinless filets. Something that as I get older and perhaps more sympathetic to vegetarianism, I find harder mentally to do, although I could do it almost mechanically and of course did it all the time without hesitation when I was younger and living in a rural community.

It seemed so easy, it took so little time and those abilities were back. It made me want to remember what else I have really learned in the past, perhaps long forgotten, that I could bring into service now. And somehow reapply – my guess is that trumpet playing and bass fishing might be hard to integrate into my current line of work. Although if one of my goals was to meet some new people in my local area, and perhaps work more at the community level, I can assure you that I never thought of joining the fanfare (local village bands notorious in Switzerland for playing long sets after speeches at national celebrations, and before the drinking starts.) But maybe I should.

And I’m sure that I could come up with multiple parallels between bass fishing and leadership learning if I tried, it might make for some good learning anecdotes – at least for me.

It is ok to be intolerant of intolerance?

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

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

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

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

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

I think I have finally achieved “reflection” as a habit. How do I know that?

When I’ve not had the time to pause and think about what I’m doing, write up some learning in our blog, or do my weekly review, it feels like I have not brushed my teeth. And then all I can think of and all I want to do is that. This week has been a blur of doing doing doing, and it really feels like I have had 3 days without brushing my teeth. Ugh!

You’ve got to try to get there, if you really want to embed something like reflection into your professional and personal practice. To get to the feeling of compulsion that having a habit brings – the little rush of endorphins from doing it, and all the unwanted things (from missing important things to bad breath) from not.

It’s getting better now. Writing this blog post is like finding my toothbrush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pegasus Conference 2008 kicked off last night with a World Café session led by co/founder David Isaacs. Joining newcomers and regulars to the conference, we took seats at small, round, red gingham cloth–covered tables, each with red carnation, accompanied by a duo of Novascotian musicians and visual artists decorating our surroundings.

Using the well-known World Café dynamic, in three rounds we inquired into three questions –

1. What do we hope to learn during this conference?
2. What we do hope to contribute, give, share?
3. And what is the question we need to ask connecting what we hope to learn and what we hope to contribute?

My answer to the concluding question came to this –

What will we do to (en)courage ourselves to more fully and consistently apply the thinking and tools with which we coach others, to create the highest performance in our own work?

Who coaches the coaches? Who is the psychotherapist’s psychotherapist? These were the questions my café table friends contributed, understanding my plight. Well, attending this conference is our first step and over the next few days we hope that, following engagement with this community, we will return to our work place (en)couraged for our highest performance!

We spent the last 20 minutes of our organizational development retreat yesterday coming up with words that describe our organizational culture in 4 years at the “end” of our formal organizational development and change process. The words were wonderful, and we were able to go around our circle three times before we ran out of them. We came up with adjectives that we wanted to be true about the institution and all of us at that time, and that we would be working towards now. We noticed that many of them we would also use today, and perhaps we simply wished to be more prevalent, or more consistently a descriptor. These were words like: optimistic, trusting, creative, accountable, reliable, and even fizzy. There were 3 pages of these and they were wonderful.

The retreat was over in a hail of applause 10 minutes later, and I walked across the hallway into my office and was confronted with a situation where my first reaction was surprisingly not optimistic, not trusting, and not particularly creative. It was like I had left that part of me in the conference room momentarily (and it took about 10 hours for it to catch up with me and remind me that that half of myself should wait until the other half gets there to speak.)

I guess we all have this duplicity (the charm of our species), and luckily we get the opportunity to choose which side acts/talks first. We also get to reflect on how congruence between what we say we do and what we actually do can strengthen our participation in a collective and trust in our contribution, and how the inverse may also true.

This all takes some reflection and a certain deliberateness of action. Today I will join my reflection again.

What kind of creative process produces ideas like a Treetop Barbie, a doll that models adventurousness, being outside and active for children? Or a programme like Canopy Confluence that mixes artists with scientists and takes them to the forest canopy to create art (even rap music) that touches people with more than data and diagrams? Or starts a Moss in Prisons project to explore different ways to sustainably grow moss for horticultural use (apparently moss grows very slowly). Or takes policy makers up into the trees with ropes and harnesses to get conservation messages directly to decision-makers in a Legislators Aloft project?

These are all Outreach Projects of the Research Ambassador Programme at Evergreen State College (Olympia, Washington, USA). At our World Conservation Congress, we heard Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, from Evergreen, speak about all these ideas in our “Beyond Jargon” workshop. All incredibly creative, what I really wanted to know was – what kind of a creative process produced these ideas?

It is easy to gather explicit knowledge on the internet – a quick google gave me a good description of all these activities and told me more about their goals and outcomes. Tacit knowledge (know how as opposed to know what or know why)- can be an even more valuable source of learning, especially for innovation processes. I was able to ask Nalini Nadkarni about her creative process – what confluence of events, steps or practices produces these incredibly innovative projects? She shared some thoughts on what is working for her and the team at Evergreen, which I synthesized into these three headings:

1. Accept no boundaries (or at least question them relentlessly): This condition may be part DNA and part deliberate. For Nalini growing up in a dual culture home gave her simultaneous insight to two worlds and an innate breadth of perspective. Her choice to be both a dancer and a professor of environmental science again provided multiple reference points and opportunities for bringing together diverse traditions and communities, such as the arts and sciences. Evergreen State College itself is a unique learning environment where professors of different subjects have offices in the same hallway, not departments in different buildings, and this maps over into the interdisciplinary and team-taught nature of its interest-based curriculum. For innovation, breadth of view and perspective seems to foster new ideas. Multi-everything is the word that comes to mind.

2. Find time to listen to the smallest inner voices: In the confluence of stimuli, how do you notice, sort, select and develop the ideas that will become the next great one? Time outdoors alone seems to work for Nalimi, who takes long runs and hikes to tap into what’s happening around her, to make connections and meaning from it. It strikes me that there are many ways to undertake this kind of reflective practice, it could be the long run, or 20 minutes on the eliptical trainer, or an off-peak-hour bus ride, or a cat nap in the sunshine, or any other opportunity to quiet your mind and ask yourself to think deeply on some interesting questions.

3. Braving the creative collision space: Once you have the ideas can you let them go so they be developed further by others, formally or informally? In this case, Nalimi has Monday lunches with students and other faculty which provide great opportunities to throw a new notion out and get people’s feedback. Ideas build on ideas and quickly you have a better prototype, richer with the inputs of people you trust and respect. This might take a little courage, and a willingness to let go of some of your earlier conceptions in the creative jam around your idea.

These three things seem to be a part of the creative process at Evergreen State University’s Forest Canopy Lab – it’s definitely working for them. Maybe some sequence like this could or does work for you. Think about your own great ideas. What kind of conditions have been present when you had them? Are there any patterns you can identify? Why not note them down and share them. Learning can happen anywhere, not just from what you accomplished, but how you accomplished it – think about tapping into your own creative process, it’s probably quite replicable.

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…

You’ve heard of reading tea leaves – well, look what tea bags can do. It’s going to be a good week!

(10 min later) Ok, apparently it is not immediately obvious (to my husband at least) what this is – it’s a smiley face! Can you see it? If this was a Rorschach blot, I hope it would say good things about me.

We have just driven out of Yellowstone National Park, past herds of bison and grazing elk, through Shoshone National Forest along the Buffalo Bill Highway into Cody, Wyoming. My husband remarked that this had been the longest time he had been away from an internet or telephone connection in his professional life (he is a software engineer with a PDA). And I too cannot remember the last time I had five days with absolutely no way of reading my email or checking into the office.

Let me tell you, it is easier than you think. Day 1 is full of anxiety and intruding thoughts about what you left to do while on holiday (when you thought you could check in from time to time). On Day 2 those thoughts are fleeting and gradually give way to resignation about no possible signal (after walking around the campground to see if there is anything secretly emitting a signal that you can jump onto). Then by Day 3, it is the blissful, restful return to the pre-1989 (even 1889) state of NO EMAIL CONTACT. Then you just are where you are, with those you are with, and doing what you are doing at the moment. Fishing for cutthroat trout on a boat in Yellowstone lake. Watching a grizzly bear amble down the roadside. Counting how many colours of wildflowers there are along the trail. Trying to identify all the types of animal skat. Getting ready to go to the rodeo.

There’s a whole other world out there that has nothing to do with technology. It’s amazing how quickly you can go back…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

We have been on the giving and receiving end of feedback recently and that has inspired us to think a bit more about this artful communication process. How can we give feedback that people can actually hear, and even potentially use as a part of their learning process?

A couple of questions come to mind when thinking about this often delicate transaction: First of all, why am I giving this feedback? What are my motivations? Is it to help the person do something differently, to improve a process, to establish myself as an expert in the area, to register my reaction to some behaviour? Or a combination of these things? How close can you come to the core reason for giving the feedback in the first place, and can that help you package your feedback in a way that helps the person understand your motivations, and therefore make your feedback welcome?

The second question is how can I give my feedback? We asked this question to our group of trainee facilitators two weeks ago during our course. Many responses came up, and fundamental to the means they picked (writing, orally, face-to-face, etc.) was the question of trusting the giver to provide the feedback in a way that was appreciative and balanced (so what worked and what could be different).

Ultimately, the best result of giving feedback is that the relationship between you and the recipient is ever better than it was before. After all, you care enough about her/him (the process, the work, your relationship) to think carefully and share your reflections, and genuinely work together towards constant improvement. Think about the last time you gave someone feedback, would you say that your relationship is even better now? If not, then you could have had a communication misfire. Thankfully, feedback is not necessarily a one-off event, if you really want to help, think about it and try again.

Today we are celebrating – in the last 7 months we have written 100 blog posts! What is this practice contributing to our work? Here are some of the things that we have identified…

Making Space for Reflective Practice – Many people say they are too busy to think or be creative. For us blogging has created a space for reflection, and reflection is an essential part of our learning process (see Kolb’s Learning Model). In writing our blog posts, we are not skipping that essential step: taking an experience, reflecting on it, then applying our learning to new experiences. Our blog helps us map our learning on a daily basis, which encourages us and focuses us on constant improvement. No learning gets lost or goes unnoticed!

Capturing our Knowledge as it Develops – Our blog is a way to synthesize and record our knowledge and ideas as they develop. It is a way to capture and create new knowledge and meaning for ourselves. It is a means of analysis (in a most non-scientific way.) And it organizes these ideas for us so that we can track them and refer back to them later.

Fostering Creative Thinking and Writing – Our blog helps prepare us for conversations where we need to articulate new ideas. It helps commit our learning to memory, helps us develop our story, and practice telling it (albeit in writing) as the message is already “chewed over” in our heads.

Developing our Personal Knowledge Management Systems – Through exploring blogging and the theories behind it, it has introduced us to new thinking about personal knowledge management while at the same time providing a new tool in our personal knowledge management tool box. It also helps us practice what we preach in terms of experimentation and creativity.

Connecting Us for Quality Inputs – Our blog has enabled valuable comment from others in the blogosphere through a self-selecting mechanism (comments are opt-in) which in our experience been about quality versus quantity.

Even now, writing this 100th blog post has given us an opportunity to reflect again on what we are learning to help us consider what we can change, do more of, or explore further to improve our learning with this tool.

Today I did not follow this sequence in the right order. I was in a hurry, I had tasks queued up, very little time between them, and lots of people depending on me to deliver and get to the next meeting place on time. So what did I do?

I put a full tank of unleaded petrol in my diesel car.

Then I zoomed out of the petrol station, drove about 500 meters and then stopped. There I sat for about 2 hours waiting for a tow truck. Now I don’t have a car and I have plenty of time to think, no way to act, and am well and truly stopped (for at least two days).

I can think of less expensive examples of this happening in the office. Sending an email before properly considering the tone (and getting a surprisingly surly reply), walking into a meeting without having time to carefully read the agenda and seeing my name on it as I walk through the door and not making a great intervention, forgetting to submit my travel authorization in a rush and then having a bureacratic tangle to deal with on my return (all my own doing).

Stop, think and then act. Being “too busy” for reflection does not pay. Next time, I will get the order right.

Information is a Flow. Like electricity or water in your house, it is constantly available, you know where to get it, and you can turn it off or on whenever you like. You would never keep buckets and buckets of water around, all over your house, just in case you need it…

This was a thought-provoking comment by Teemu Arina at the Educa Online Conference in his presentation on Blogs as Reflective Practice.

If information flows, then why do people keep so much of it around? Why do I keep every newsletter or email that I receive, carefully filed, when the information is constantly being updated on some portal or another, changing or becoming obsolete?

Corporate learning experts carried this notion a step further with the advice that structured workplace learning should be less about giving staff the information than about giving them the skills to find it – to know where to go, whom to go to, and what to do with it when you finally get it. How might that change the way learning is approached in institutions?

How can we let go of that need to keep those buckets around us, just in case we need them?

Anyone who organizes learning events and meetings knows that often intermingling in the same room are some people who know each other well, and some first-time guests, who are there to contribute new insights, generate some inspired discussion, and generally help enrich the group’s learning about a specific issue.

The meeting we are holding at the end of this week which will focus on change processes has this composition, as did the meeting I went to last week (see blog entry on Thursday, 2 November “A Courtroom or a Concert?”) The difference is that at this week’s meeting I will be one of the existing group members, whereas last week I was the guest.

So how transferable was my experience last week and what can it prompt me to learn about how to help our guest speakers do great work for us at the upcoming workshop?

When I have made useful contributions into other people’s meetings here are a few things that have helped:
* I joined the group several hours before my intervention, so that I could get to know the group and how they interact;
* I had a very clear idea of the goals of my session and the organizers helped me get specific on the desired outcomes;
* The session was introduced by an “insider” and they linked my contribution directly to the rationale of their meeting, and linked it again with a summary at the end;
* The session was well placed in the agenda for its purpose, i.e. if it was a brainstorming session, it happened when people were fresh and creative (first thing in the morning). A reflective discussion was after a sequence of inputs, etc. (later in the day);
* I had numerous exchanges with the organizers prior to my intervention to craft the key messages.

I see from the above, that none of these actions are things that I could do alone. In every case, there was a partner or counterpart in the insider group that provided necessary guidance that helped me do great work.

Now I am the insider in our meeting starting on Friday, how many of these things have I done so far? What more could I do in the next few days that could make all the difference for a first-timer, to create an environment where people are proud of their contributions, others appreciate it, and generally helps everyone do great work?

I think I need to pick up the phone…

Some days so much happens that it is a challenge to put your finger on a few things that you usefully learned throughout the day. Today was one of those days. Five different meetings of various lengths, all around the building, up and down the stairs. At the end of the day, tired, yet wanting to keep up my reflective practice (rather than simply giving in to the BBC) and not wanting this day to slip away without thinking about it for a few minutes, I ask myself, what could I say that I learned today?

* Once you have a “story” in your head about someone it is very hard to change it, even if they do something that is in direct contradiction to what you are expecting. How can you let someone break away from the story that you have built around them and pleasantly surprise you? (Email 9:00)

* Ditto AND What are some of the ways one can create opportunities to build trust with people that you only meet in the workplace? (Meeting 1)

* Sometimes people just want you to listen, and that is the best possible intervention that you can make at that time. How can you pay attention to this kind of need and be quiet for a change? (Meeting 2)

* I actually was stood up for Meeting 3 – my learning was that if you are reading a newspaper in the cafeteria, people will not want to bother you and so will not sit with you. However, most of the time people are reading a newspaper because they do not have anyone to sit with and talk to. (Non-meeting 3)

* Interest and enthusiasm can rub off on others. The two women I had my meeting with were clearly excited about their project, and so I was too.(Meeting 4)

* You don’t have to be a content expert to ask good questions and be a valuable contributor to a process. Bringing a different perspective, being curious and wanting to be helpful is often enough. (My husband the computer engineer asked me if I thought the technical guys who were in the meeting with me would agree with this…) (Meeting 5)