The Great January Clear Out: Managing Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thumbwrestling Game Rules and Lessons from an Appreciative Inquiry Makeover

A while ago I wrote a blog post about how I reframed the learning from a game called Thumbwrestling using an Appreciative Inquiry approach. The blog post was called “Activity Makeover using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART.”

This game gives insights about collaboration versus competition and bases the debriefing on what makes people naturally take a more competitive approach to such a game (and lose). In the meantime I have had numerous people write to me and ask me for the rules of the Thumbwrestling game itself, so I promised to write it up in the way that I play it.

I have been playing this particular game in teambuilding workshops for many years and if you want a very thorough description, you can go to the Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows, which features this game. It doesn’t have the debriefing that I describe in my blog post, although it has evolved out of the same game mechanic and lessons.  I am sure that the first time I played it was with Dennis.

Here are the basic instructions:

  1. Ask everyone to pick a partner with whom they will thumbwrestle (people play in pairs);
  2. Tell them to lock hands with their partner by clasping the fingers of their right hands (with thumbs pointing up) – they can do this standing or sitting – standing is more fun! (Note: If you have never Thumbwrestled as a kid, then there are plenty of amusing how-to videos on YouTube! This is the same basic game with some new parameters.)
  3. Demonstrate with another person a very physical and aggressive way to play and tell people not to pinch hard and cause any pain or injury;
  4. Explain that they get a point by pinching the thumb of their opponent;
  5. Tell them they have 1 minute to get as many points as they can; 
  6. Shout “go!” 
  7. Time them and then shout “Stop!”
  8. Ask who got 1 or more point (raise their hand), 2 or more, and go up until you have the winner(s) (most people will only have won 1 or 2 points);
  9. At least one or two pairs generally have gotten 30 or 40 points by collaborating rather than taking a competitive approach – have them demonstrate their technique.

Now you go into the blog post to debrief  (Activity Makeover Using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART) and discuss what motivates people to take on a more competitive approach when collaboration clearly gets them many more points. Ask them where they see this in their workplaces and in real life. The activity makeover and the game helps them think about how to notice a system that makes people behave in a STUPID way to thinking about one that is much SMARTer…

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Overcoming Your Fear of Public Skiing

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!

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How is a Course Calendar like a Restaurant Menu?

I wrote this text (below) in the context of a Strategic Review I conducted for the Training Department of a big international development NGO. They wanted to explore ways to transform their existing training practice into a more contemporary “learning” model.

I pulled this text out again today because I am writing a manual for a facilitation learning programme that we are developing for a partner right now. I wanted to remind myself of this and thought I would share it.


A Learning Programme calendar, course description, or even agenda, is an intervention opportunity not to be missed. In a world of choice, it is a perfect way to communicate and feature your learning product(s) to potential learners, whether in-house or external.

Imagine that your learning programme was an excellent quality restaurant and the learners were valued diners. What is on the menu for your selective learning customers? Does it look good? Does it sound like something that the diner would enjoy? Would it satisfy her? Will the final product deliver what it promises on the menu?

How can learning providers (or facilitators) write their programme calendars, descriptions and agendas like a menu at a great restaurant and mean it? People need to read the course description and say, I want to take that course!

Consider testing course titles and descriptions on colleagues and potential learners first. Bear in mind, these tantalizing descriptions must also be true, nothing is worse than ordering a delicious sounding dish and having it turn out to not be as good as it looks on the menu!


The Big Slow Down: Facilitation Design Considerations When Partially Abled

Last week in an insanely busy airport of holiday travellers, an extremely tight connection found me jumping up and down, wildly waving at the large window beside the closed gate trying to get the pilots’ attention – I could see them in the cockpit fiddling with their papers, the plane on the tarmac, the gate still connected, so I thought no hurt in trying.

I was getting nowhere when a passing security guard with some holiday spirit took pity on me and called down; they miraculously opened the door and I flew down that ramp – focused on that little open plane door at the bottom, the two anxious flight attendants holding it open, and not the big seam in the ramp floor in front of me.  My magnificent trip over that seam produced a lateral movement that only ninjas and some desert snakes can make safely, not being either of those I managed to tear the anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee.

Now in a leg cast for 6 weeks, I can walk but that snake and most people would leave me in the dust. And I am thinking about what I need to do to modify my facilitation work to take into consideration the fact that I am incredibly slow and only partially able. I cannot run up and down steps, or from room to room, in 2-minute intervals.   And I cannot be carrying around 50 kilos of workshop materials, can’t bring that extra flip chart, or move the tables and chairs in the rooms from a U-shape to cabaret style in the 30 minutes before we start (because we asked but for some reason the venue didn’t do it). Even getting back and forth to events must obligatorily be done on public transport or with the private chauffeur, also known as a full-time working husband.

My first event in the New Year is mid-January and we are working on the interactivity and activity design now. We will have around 400 people in Paris at a planning event for an international water forum happening next year. What do I need to do differently now, so that when I get there, cast and all, I will still be able to do a great job? This is a good thought experiment in its own right – this might be a temporary condition for me (hopefully!) but for others it might be status quo, both for facilitators and potentially for some of the participants.

Here is a list of what I think I need to know and do to facilitate with my leg in a cast (and probably should know anyways!):

Transport: Slow and Virtually Hands Free

  • Can I get there by public transport? How long will that take? What changes do I need to make (train to tram to bus)? Where are there steps or lifts or long walks? I am usually in the venue at least 60-90 minutes in advance for set up, can I get there in time? Can the day start a little later, and go later – what is the flexibility with the start and stop time if needed?
  • If I need to be driven, can we park close enough so that I can carry the materials to the venue? Can I offer someone else from the team a lift to help carry?

Venue: Steps and Who Can Help

  • Occasionally I look at the floor plan for the venue if it is large (and available) but normally I don’t. Now I would like to know – how far is the room from the entrance, how far apart are the breakout rooms, how far is coffee and lunch from the workspace?
  • If I am working in a plenary auditorium space, is there a stage area with steps? Can I either start and stop up there, or can I do all the talking from the floor (better)? Is there a wireless mike I can use?
  • I won’t be able to fix or move things myself, or run for more this or that. Who is in charge in the partner organization just in case, do I have her/his mobile phone number? Who is in charge for the venue, do I have that contact information? 

Agenda: A Little More Leisurely Than Usual

  • Is the agenda perhaps a little too tight, are breaks and transitions short? Can the pacing in the design be a little slower and less choppy in terms of rooms changes – more gastropod and less hummingbird? (This reminded me of one of my own blog posts recently about not overdoing interaction: Too Much of a Good Thing.)
  • Where do I need to be when? Can I minimize my own running around by putting other people in charge of certain rooms and spaces? (For the mid-January event, I will be working with 4 other Facilitators, can I assign them the furthest rooms? Are they happy with these extra “fitness” benefits?) 

Workshop Rooms: Where Can I Sit? 

  • How is the room set up? Do I need to reserve a seat in the auditorium for myself at the front by the microphone so I don’t have to walk up and down the steps to speak?
  • In the workshop rooms, can single chairs be put here and there to sit on while I am not facilitating? This is a funny one, I noticed at a recent workshop there were exactly enough chairs for the participants and not one extra, so I spent the whole day standing (until the participants were standing -then I was sitting in their seats!) Make sure to have more than one extra chair around the walls, as late comers (both at the start, but also after each break and lunch) will always take the single chairs in the back/side rather than moving people to sit in the middle.  

Communicate: Tell People

  • I need to tell people, especially the other facilitators asap about the fact that I will be wandering around, slowly, in a full leg cast. They will have good ideas how to be as efficient as possible with a partially able team member.
  • Communicating about how it is going during the event will also help people understand why I might opt out of the group dinner, dragging a leg and cast up and down the steps all day will probably be incredibly tiring.
  •  At the same time I need to be as self-sufficient as possible, believe me I will be wearing something with as many pockets as possible, stuffed with pens, markers, etc. things I normally have to continually walk around to find when I need them!

I’m sure in the end it will be fine. And this situation will give me the opportunity to think even more creatively about many aspects of my event. It will get me to put in the advance preparation time that is needed, the thinking through of choreography, materials, and movement, now even more crucial than ever. And it will certainly give “team” an additional dimension.  It is good to be mindful of these things anyways, and will be a good real life reminder of what it’s like to work with and pay attention to mobility and other very human conditions in a workshop setting.


I’m With The Brand

I just spent a worthwhile 30 minutes reading Brenda Bence’s, “The Top 10 Branding Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make”. Since I went independent in June this year I’m still getting my head around many aspects of what it means to work independently. I thought this was a useful set of points for newly independent workers to consider – it works almost like a checklist, if you turned it around with an appreciative frame (I am not too fond of thinking in mistakes, I rather prefer opportunities to do things differently, which is a little easier on my ego.)

One of the first things that struck me among those 10 points was the second one (the first one about company names I felt pretty good about). The second point is: Forgetting that you are your brand. I type this as I sit on the Heathrow Express on my way to an afternoon meeting in a multi-national’s corporate Headquarters in London with a purple and black backpack and jeans. I am definitely going to change for my meeting this afternoon, and what if I bump into the whole group in the lobby before I even get there?

I would like to hope that my brand is more than just the aesthetics, and at the same time some branding expert/communication specialist/marketing guru might disagree with me, at least partially.

Before I became independent I worked for a string of sustainable development institutions, from small to large – an academic institute, a leadership training foundation, a conservation organization/NGO. The larger they got, the more people who were holding up the brand, and perhaps the stronger the corporate branding (and thus the lighter the individual brand within in.) When you turned up at meetings you were a person from that INSTITUTION, and although you obviously had to sound and look ok, the reputation of the institution made up for any shortfalls (e.g. from lost luggage, thus the tennis shoes at the conference, on down.)

And now I’m independent, and at least for the moment, it’s just me.

Of course I have a certain persona/reputation within my networks, with people who have known me and worked with me for years. But what about the new people, those that I am meeting for the first time? I can always quote my CV to them, if I get the opportunity, and still, the further I get from being an ex-staffer, hiding behind a great big brand, the more I need to build my own.

(Later) So, I made it to my hotel and managed to check in and get up to my room undetected, and of course, the electronic key didn’t work. On my second pass through the lobby I was not as lucky. That rather embarassed greeting of new colleagues from around the world firmed up my resolve to start thinking a bit more about what I want my brand to say about me, all the time, and what I want to say about my brand. After all, I’m not with the brand anymore, like Brenda Bence says, I am the brand.

(Next action: Reframe to make this sound less frightening and more exciting…)

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“They Threw Out My Exercise!”

All week I have been working with a mixed Private Sector/ Not-for-Profit group (the latter from one conservation organization) in a joint learning exercise about partnerships between these two different sectors. It was structured in an interesting way, the first two days were internal to the conservation organization, with headquarters staff joined with their regional and national office counterparts. The third day invited a wide range of interesting and interested multi-nationals, and the final day featured a more intimate meeting between those private sector partners with a more formalised relationship with the NGO, and the relationship managers from both organizations.

This was a marathon meeting for some, and almost more so because of the highly interactive nature of it – no sitting and vegging out during hours of plenary presentations. At the same time, this intense interactivity in a workshop – working in pairs, individual reflection with Job Aids, trio Peer Consult walks, Learning Cafes, Graffiti Boards, Carousel discussions – all has accelerating affects on the group development process. And if you succeed and get far enough in developing trust, open communication and comfort around authenticity in the group, what that often means is that at one point in the agenda, the group kicks out one of the exercises. I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

That happened in our meeting, and while my counterpart (who had picked that session to facilitate) was a little distressed by this, I saw it as a strong indicator of success.

How can it be successful if a group decides to not play along with an exercise, but instead tells you that this is not the right question or activity, and proposes another one? That sounds scary from a facilitator’s point of view, and this might sound counter-intuitive: if you are a good facilitator you need to be ready for that.

When a group kicks out a session, it can be a sign that the group, the network or team that you are building, is making its own decisions. It knows where it needs to go, and is comfortable enough with the relationship they are building together, and with the facilitator, to articulate that (in the nicest possible way as we experienced). The group exerts its independence and drives the conversation in another direction. Potentially this new direction involves the Elephant-in-the-Room question – that might have been perceived to be uncomfortable or unsafe early on in the relationship building process – and for which resolution is critical to overall long-term success.

For the facilitator, the right reaction, like in good improv theatre, is to say “Yes!” and go with it. Seeing a decline in dependence on the facilitator at the end of a workshop is always a good thing, and can even be built into the agenda, as the group will continue on its own afterwards, and manage its own processes. So it is an excellent thing if this independence can occur and be practiced in the safe, face-to-face environment of the workshop.

So if a group throws out your exercise, think about it, it might be a sign of a job well done!

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Don’t Outsource It! Learning from Reporting

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

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

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

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

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What’s Winning? Check Your Assumptions

Did you know that in unicycle races, it is the last person that crosses the finish line that wins? That is because it is much harder, and takes more skill to ride a unicycle slowly.

Sound counter-culture? What is it about our social norms that make us assume that bigger, faster, and more, is better than smaller, slower and less?

The sustainability community asks a similar question – why are high growth rates and GNP standard indicators of success? How can we help society see growing more skillfully, and possibly even more slowly, as akin to winning?

Even at work, winning sometimes seems to be about having the largest team, largest project portfolio and the most money – this can set up unhelpful competition among people with shared overall goals. Maybe we could flip “winning” to the team that collaborates most and generates more work and resources for other teams. Let’s follow those unicyclists. Let’s change the rules.

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Email During Workshops: Bad Manners or Proof of a New Paradigm in Learning

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

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

Should we care?

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

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

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

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

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

Reframing Our Big Dig

For the next 18 months, our organization has a Big Dig going on outside our office windows. This enormous excavation started last week with a ground breaking ceremony that launched our new building, one of the greenest in Europe. A hard hat zone, the roar of big machines, the sound of crunching as tons of cement blocks get pulverised into bite sized pieces for carrying away (and giving away), and an absolutely enormous hole. What will they find? Roman coins, medieval dumping grounds, dinosaur bones??? (We are after all located in the foothills of the Jura mountains, home of the original Jurassic Park!)

Of course the intense noise, clouds of dust, and soul shaking vibrations are different than we are used to in our work at headquarters, located in a quiet Swiss town on the banks of Lake Geneva, so this situation is ripe for reframing. If I think about some of the workplaces of our colleagues around the world – on storm-tossed boats in the ocean as they collect specimens in marine biosphere reserves, in deep field offices with dodgy water and intermittent electricity, in work sites near war areas and oil spills, and on and on; I guess this experience helps us imagine some of what our colleagues in the field and other parts of the world get to integrate as a part of their work for our organization. Flexibility, resilience, keeping our sense of humour? All useful workplace survival skills!

Of course, it’s easy for me to see things differently, I write this blog post from Australia where I am on a work trip, half way across the world from our Big Dig. And still on Monday, when I was last in the office, I got to feel the thrill what it might have been like to work beside a Tyrannosaurus Rex feeding ground!

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Applying the Prisoner’s Dilemma

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 Answers.com 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?

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Better Than Sudoku

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

Complicated enough to keep your brain in tip top condition!


It’s OK to Be Invisible

Blogs are great because they can be used for so many things. This is an exercise in reframing…

There are many professions that have as a feature of their creative work, being rather invisible in the final product. Editors find this, ghost writers certainly, even advisors to high level people have the opportunity to provide discreet guidance, direction and ideas to leaders which might make a major change in the world. Every President and Prime Minister has a team of people who are consulted and once in a while may be the source of their next great idea or provide insight for the solution to a particularly sticky problem.

These people clearly enjoy their influential jobs, and rightly so. Let’s explore that enjoyment a little. What might be some of the incentives, in the absence of public recognition, that motivate them? Of course there might still be some public recognition, if they have the title as Advisor to the President, or Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper. But what if they don’t actually have that title?

Does it take a specific personality type to be satisfied with the knowledge that you are helping someone else do a great job? Does it take a longer term viewpoint, or the belief in good karma, that what goes around comes around and if you are helpful to someone then eventually someone will be helpful to you? My first professional boss some 18 years ago was a busy man who always had time for people, who would freely give advice, try to be helpful, brainstorm with people for programmatic ideas or even ideas that would help them navigate the incredible bureaucracy that was the UN. He even wrote a major report for the CEO that people still refer to today, and his name did not appear on it anywhere. He was an excellent networker, built strong personal relationships with people, and generally, in spite of the politics and hassles, enjoyed his work. He didn’t get to the top of the organization, but he had lots of people at his retirement party. I think eventually he did get a title that spoke of his important advisory role, but I am not even sure about that. I don’t think that bothered him too much, he seemed to have a bigger picture in mind.

Everyone needs some recognition and feedback to keep them motivated. This can come in different forms and forums. It might also be more or less important based on the stage of their career. The public-ness of this recognition might also have a link with how much they want to be included in things (see Firo-B discussions), or how much self-esteem they have. Personally, I struggle a bit with invisibility for many different reasons. At the same time, I do believe in a strong service culture, and value being a part of many “teams” no matter how ephemeral or informal. I need to keep coming back to the big picture idea; how is this process contributing to an overall goal, and what is the best way for me to help achieve it? Then it is also up to me to create the story for myself that captures my role in that change process, and to be able to repeat it to myself and perhaps others from time to time. I think its OK to be invisible, sometimes.


Reframing Falling Flipcharts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jumping in Front of the Bus

Why do people sometimes find learning so frightening?

Even me – last weekend I was offered the opportunity to organize a 4-day meeting of senior scientists, systems thinkers and sustainability practitioners on the topic of climate change and behaviour change. My response – no way! I have worked in the sustainable development field for over 20 years now, but I have never worked directly on the climate issue and am certainly not a SME (subject matter expert) in that complex field – I work in capacity development and learning.

Then I thought more about this – what was it about the meeting that caused me to react like that? In retrospect, it was probably being acutely aware of the enormous body of knowledge that already exists, the proliferation of different opinions about what to do about it, and a bit of fear about providing a quality event to a very high calibre audience. Overall it represented to me a very steep learning curve and a great sense of responsibility. How many other people react like this to a) big learning generally and b) the climate issue in particular?

I fortunately got to sleep on it, and the next morning I reframed this for myself. I need to learn more about this issue (as do some other 6 billion people on the planet), so I needed to embrace this opportunity to work on the climate issue. I needed to put myself in the way of learning – to jump in front of the bus, so to speak – not sit there on the sidewalk and watch it go by because it is going too fast, is too big, and seems unstoppable.

I found this analogy useful to give me the energy to take on this challenge. However, my friend Valdis, who works in climate change policy for one of the Baltic governments, usefully pointed out that by “jumping in front of a bus” you could get squashed. He observed that thinking about learning like that can take people from their comfort zone, through their eustress (or good stress zone) into distress. I think that was my case when I was first confronted with organizing a meeting about climate change. He suggested that instead of telling people to embrace new learning by “jumping in front of the bus”, to encourage them to push themselves or take risks in a safer way.

So I took the challenge to organize that meeting, I am going to learn alot more about climate change in the next year, and, with the help of my very knowledgeable friends, will not get squashed in front of the bus, but will do a little learning bungee jumping instead.


Why Do They Call Them Bullet Points?

The facilitator of our discussion asked the group to give her bullet points, but the man from Rwanda told her he would only give her stars…

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Our Story, Our Choice

In the next few days no doubt we will be writing a lot about a recent meeting we held on “Exploring Deep Change Processes: Learning from Around the World”. As I work through my reflections, I thought I would start with the discussion about how much choice we really have about how we see our own past, present and future.

One of our speakers was Ulrich Goluke, from blue-way, who is a scenarios and systems practitioner. He urged us to think about the future in a deliberate way and to have the courage to choose and develop for ourselves a set of possible scenarios for our futures. He prefaced his contribution with a short game, described below:

In pairs, take two minutes each to tell the story of your life to your partner as though it was a heroic one.

In the same pairs, take two minutes each to tell the story of your life to your partner as though you were a victim.

For many of the participants, this exercise was a “Wow” (we collected “wows” at the end of the workshop.) Why did this short exercise mean so much to people? It was incredible that with the one data set (our lives) we could frame the same sequence of life experiences so convincingly and so truthfully as both a heroic endeavour, and as a victim. Where one moment we were proud of where we were and our future, and four minutes later, we lamented the fact that we had only come this far due to events that kept us from living to our full potential.

This really showed how much choice we have in how we project ourselves into the world in the present and in the future; how we tell ourselves stories that can either celebrate a life, or despair it. Ultimately, we can choose the story we want to tell, and it can lift us up, or bring us down. It’s our choice…