One of the hardest things about using LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method (LSP) is just getting people to try it!

Imagine walking into the workshop room and sitting down at  your spot to see, with your water glass, pen and paper, a small mixed bag of 48 LEGO® bricks – a LEGO® Exploration Kit. What’s running through your mind?

You might fall into two categories of people, the first one who says “Cool! Let’s play! No PPT – finally, not your ordinary workshop!” or the other one who says, “What? This is serious business, and time is scarce. Skip this silly stuff and let’s get to work!”

But before you even get into the room, there is a whole discussion that needs to happen with the workshop host in advance, where the Facilitator might get one or the other of those reactions after proposing LSP. During this conversation the Facilitator will need to explain the benefits, and give a little of its background…

Whose idea was it?

In the late 90’s, confronted by the tidal wave of video games that were taking kids away from their bricks, it was LEGO® itself who founded the LSP process, with a couple of IMD business school professors, to help the company think creatively and re-imagine itself.

The method worked, beautifully. Today LSP has a growing community of certified LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® method facilitators connected together in an Association of Master Trainers, of which I am proud to be one!

Who’s using LSP and why?

I would say that LSP is becoming fairly well known in the private sector, many of the facilitators I met at the recent LSP community meeting in Billund, Denmark – the home of LEGO – worked with businesses, but not all. It seems to be just beginning in the NGO and inter-governmental/United Nations world, where I find myself working most. I’ve run LSP processes now with a number of first-time user groups, here are three illustrative examples of the organizations and what they wanted to achieve:

  • a large international conservation NGO’s resctructured leadership team was undertaking a visioning process, and wanted to understand the features of a successful team in the future structure;
  • a global reproductive health supplies team wanted to identify organizational priorities and explore efficiency and effectiveness in delivery;
  • a small sustainability Think Tank wanted to focus on building excellent internal and external communications, and identify capacity and skills needed to do this.

The applications of LSP are vast, from strategic planning, design thinking, product development and marketing, rapid prototyping ideas, work process re-engineering, prioritization, as well as softer goals such as identifying what makes a good team member, how to build trust, and how to resolve conflict.

How can you do THAT with LEGO®? Thinking with your hands

The basic LSP process involves four steps:

  1. Asking a question
  2. Building a model (with the bricks)
  3. Sharing and explaining your model
  4. Reflecting on meaning

This four-step process happens over and over in an LSP session, with various other rules and parameters sometimes added. The process provides the builder the opportunity to think about her/his answer to the question (and the questions can be incredibly complex or blissfully simple), and then to use their hands and the bricks to build a metaphor that illustrates their answer (not a literal answer, but a metaphorical answer). Often people build as they think, they re-build, they explore their answer as they think and layer meaning onto the bricks. This process, of turning thoughts that might have started out rather vague, into 3D objects, helps people become more concrete about their thinking.

This nuanced work would be hard with a pile of only the traditional rectangular and square bricks, so the LSP brick sets are full of metaphorical pieces in addition to these – flags, mini figures, animals, flowers, propellers, etc. – to release the creativity of the builder. You still have to get familiar again with how things snap together, and even working with metaphor, so a skills building component is always included in an LSP session.

A number of Core LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® application techniques have been developed by the Association of Master Trainers. These are illustrative of some of the most commonly used and thus most documented applications, and build on one another:

  1. Building individual models and stories
  2. Building shared models and stories
  3. Creating a landscape
  4. Making connections
  5. Building a system
  6. Playing emergence and decisions
  7. Extracting simple guiding principles

These generic techniques can be applied widely to different team and organizational goals, and are customised through the framing and question that is asked (What are our blind spots? What will our organization look like in 5 years? What does a perfect co-worker look like?), and normally involves some sequencing, where models are built and deconstructed (also a good lesson in letting multiple ideas come and go) with a strategic set of relevant, thoughtfully framed questions.

What changes in the individual? 

There is some nice research underway exploring the value of LSP in working settings, and the changes that can occur in the individuals and teams participating. Some that we heard about and discussed at the LSP Community Meeting included:

  • helping people enter a more reflective and thoughtful state, rather than getting off-the-cuff answers that might be the first ideas that pop into your head, thus the easiest ones, and perhaps not the most creative ones;
  • helping people appreciate other perspectives – building the different models individually and sharing them helps people see what other people see (literally);
  • helping people explore sensitive issues – building a model and using the model as a metaphor, even holding it or pointing to it as one speaks, helps to externalise the issue from the builder, making it easier to explain and less risky. The thinking has already been done, so people are not trying to think and talk at the same time;
  • helping people develop more creative confidence – to feel more confident being creative in the workplace, especially in a rapidly changing environment where innovation is needed, both at the organizational level, as well as in terms of products and services.



It definitely takes courage to try something new, but I can report that all the groups that I’ve worked with using LSP have loved it, for the uniqueness of the process, the fun and engagement it provides, and ultimately for the deeper insights and creative results it produces.


It’s 05:30 in the morning and a loud “bing!” wakes you. It’s a text message from your colleague. She has come down with the flu and has been up with it all night. And there is simply no way, in 2 and a half hours she is going to be able to stand up in front of 20 people who have flown in from all over the world, for the second day of their strategic planning workshop. Can you please take over?

What do you do?

Well, if humanly possible, you say “Yes!”.

Many facilitators and trainers work independently or in very small groups. As such we are all a little vulnerable at this time of the year (and in general I would say, see my blog post on “Facilitators: To Your Health!“)

So what can you do to help make sure that this emergency hand over goes as smoothly as possible? Here are a few things you can do both in advance to prepare for this possibility and on the day itself:

1) Prepare a Facilitation Agenda, Always

I think this is just good practice, but in situations like these it’s a life saver. We always prepare two versions of the same agenda for any event – a Facilitation Agenda and a Participant Agenda. The participant version has the information that is most important for their participation – the start time, location, break times, session titles, and some details on what will be the focus and task of each session. That is to give confidence that their time will be well spent, the issues covered are the right ones and that if they need to take a call etc, they know when it is safe to do so. It turns out to be one or two pages and easy to read at a glance.

A Facilitation Agenda however will be 3-5 times longer depending on the complexity of your process. It has all that the participant agenda has and much more detail on the dynamic and process of each activity. It includes part of the script or key words you will say to transition from one exercise to another, the materials you will need and what you will do with them for the activities, and all the timings (how long does that speaker have, how long is that group work, etc.) It provides complete process picture and all the decisions made by the facilitator of how that workshop will run.

With that in place, handing it over to another facilitator is much much easier. They might still tweak the agenda to their own style, but at least you can hand over a water tight design for them to follow (not to mention the important fact that the client had a role in developing it, so it matches their expectations and needs already).

2) Cultivate Some Colleagues 

Do you have a few facilitators who know what you do and how you do it (and vice versa)? We all have our favourite techniques and methods. Can you take the opportunity in network meetings to share these so that other facilitators are familiar with them too? Or can you write a blog post describing these in detail so that you can refer to that on your hand over?

There might be other facilitators with whom you co-facilitate from time to time, or you have seen them in action and they have seen you. Have a discussion at some point when you are both healthy and see if you want to agree in principle that in case one or the other falls ill or is incapacitated for whatever reason there is willingness to act as stand in if possible.

So those two things are things you can do in advance to help make any last minute handover go more smoothly. Having someone who understands your style, combined with a good facilitation agenda, some forwarded critical correspondence and a short chat from your sick bed, can go a long way to ensuring that your stand in can do a great job. Then what might you do, as either the sick facilitator, or the stand in, on the day itself?

3. Help Prepare Materials for Your Stand In (or Do It Yourself if That’s You)

This might sound odd, but we did this recently and it really worked. Part of the very time consuming set up each morning for a very interactive workshop is preparing all the job aids, flipchart templates, etc. However, for a stand-in facilitator, that precious pre-workshop hour when you should be flying around the workshop room making and putting up those groupwork templates, will probably be spent trying to calm down a nervous workshop host who just went from the comfort of a known quantity to a new facilitator mid-process. So anything that can be done to help get the materials prep time reduced is extremely helpful.

Instead of writing directly on flipcharts which you have to do in situ, smaller cards can be prepared in advance that can be stuck on blank flipcharts with the instructions. Those coloured facilitation cards in different shapes work well, and if you have a self-stick pack then they can just be whacked up on a blank flipchart and help guide the group’s work. If the ill facilitator can manage it and get them dropped off (or picked up) that is great (that’s what we did recently.) If the ill facilitator can’t do this, then you can do this at home, so that when you are at the venue you can have more time to work with the organizer. Do this at least for the first session or two.

Also on materials, if you are the stand-in facilitator, look at the agenda and plan in when you will make the remaining materials. Write into your Facilitation Agenda in the breaks or during quiet times when the group is working on something else, exactly what you will be doing to prepare for the sessions that will follow (e.g. make flipcharts for Session 4, count out cards, cut sticky dots for prioritisation, etc). That way you don’t have to do every thing in advance (because you still have to take a shower, dress properly, eat breakfast and get there in one piece, all looking very calm and in control, in a very short period of time. ) This takes me to the next point…

4) Take Your Own Food

This is important because you will never, ever be able to make the coffee break or lunch. You will be using this time to prepare materials or talk to the organizer, who will no doubt decide that the next session needs to be slightly different (even though perhaps there was a 2 hour conversation with the other facilitator about that session already.) So you need to pack a healthy lunch, some snacks, and a thermos of tea if you can do it.

Along these lines, I also take my own materials, even if I have been told that everything is there. You just never know, a conscientious custodian could have cleared that messy materials table, or a participant took home something to work on over night and then forgot to bring it back. You don’t want to have to spend precious time running around the venue looking for a pair of scissors.

This is indeed flu season; it hit us hard in Europe this year reaching epidemic proportions in Switzerland, and apparently it’s not over yet. And there is no reason why, if it can hit our workshop participants, it can’t also hit us. Think in advance about what might make it easier for someone to replace you, and if there is any possible way, say “yes” to that sick colleague, even at 05:30 in a morning when you were dreaming about finally catching up on your billing and administration that day.

We all know that what goes around comes around – that works for both good deeds, and the flu!

I wrote in a past blog post about using Appreciative Inquiry to “makeover” the lessons from a great team game called Thumbwrestling. The post was called: Activity Makeover Using Appreciative Inquiry: From STUPID to SMART.

In that blog post I go through in some detail the debriefing, after the action happens (see that post for this info). But I didn’t describe the main set up, briefing and steps of play. I had a request recently to describe the game administration, so I post them here for information.

First of all, I was delighted to find that Thumb Wrestling (aka ThumbWar) is really well described here in Wikipedia. I was interested to read that in some of the chants that are used (by children I guess, I have never heard them in my workshops) the phrase “You are stupid and I am great” is used. It is interesting that we often used (in the past) STUPID as a mnemonic to help understand what structure creates the behaviour of competition (Small goals, Time pressure, Untrusting partners, etc.). In the blog post mentioned above, we used an Appreciative Inquiry approach to make that over into then new mnemonic of SMART or SMARTS.

Thumbwrestling Game

To set the game up, the Game Operator announces that “We will engage in a simple competition called Thumb Wrestling. Everyone needs to find a partner to play”. At that point the Game Operator also finds a partner to do a quick demonstration; someone who has been briefed to demonstrate a rather aggressive style of play. In the demo, you lock hands with your demo partner and tell people that their goal is to “Get as many points as you can.” You inform people that they will have 15 seconds to do this, and then you demo how to make a point by elaborately struggling to pin the thumb of your opponent, warning people not to hurt each other. Ask everyone to keep track of their own points. You then shout “Go!” and time out the 15 seconds, shout out a 2 second warning.

In the debriefing, you can survey how many points people got, and then have the pair with the highest points demonstrate their style, which is bound to be collaborative, based on trust and their ability to ignore norms, models, language, time pressure, and small goals which normally influence people to play this game in a highly competitive way. Now the blog post on debriefing kicks in – so see that for more!

The description above should be enough to help anyone run the game as a team building exercise (again see the previous post for debriefing). If you want a better description with the systems thinking frame, with more precise timing and briefing/debriefing questions, Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows have written them up in the Systems Thinking Playbook, which also includes a DVD of someone running all the games so you can see exactly how to administer them.

Happy wrestling!



Next week, I’m coordinating a Facilitation team working at a 2-day conference of some 400 people. We are 5 Facilitators working for the event, sometimes together in a large plenary hall, and at times in parallel in breakout rooms spread over the vast conference venue.

The organizers will provide all the materials we need for the conference work planned, and in my experience there are still some things that you want to have for yourself, in your back pocket, just in case…

This is the message I sent out today to the team, coming in from Switzerland, the UK and the USA, about this:

Dear all,

I’m packing for the Conference today and am bringing the following for myself (the organizers will be providing overall conference materials for participants), you might want also to consider this:

  • Markers (small set for myself in different colours – that work – including extra thick for making templates);Pack of office materials: scissors, tape, white out (for covering up mistakes on charts), stapler, paper clips (for loose things people give you – when you need them, you really need them);
  • Pack of facilitation materials: ball, deck of cards, bell, set of sticky dots – you probably have favorite materials you might draw on in case of a last minute/impromptu exercises, prioritisation, group dividing, calling time etc. and to liven things up/personalize activities to your style;
  • Water bottle (in case we work through breaks);
  • Business cards (who knows?)
  • (Also don’t forget your chargers – phone etc, and converters for UK/USA/Swiss gadgets. I am bringing my IPAD and Iphone – we will share numbers/skype contacts in another message for those who have phones that will work there (e.g. for texting or skype chat).

You of course are welcome to borrow any of my materials (if you can find me!) This is a big venue and we will be working individually for some sessions. I have asked the organizers already if we have wifi in the venue and will let you know. If you can think of anything else to add to this list, please share it with the rest of us!

I am sure there will be a big box of materials waiting for us when we arrive. And it is still comforting to know that the basics will be in your own bag in case you need them (or need to share them), or if a few of you need to work in parallel with the one pair of scissors in the box provided. Plus, you never know until you get there what will actually be in that box that the organizers are providing…

I just had a suggestion come in to help make job interviews more informative, and therefore increase the potential of finding a match between the candidate, the position, and team within which it sits. How do you learn enough about someone (and help them learn enough about you) to make this important match successful?

Traditional interviews often start with “Tell us a little about yourself” and end with asking the candidate a series of standard questions that have been developed to give some insights on how people will approach the task being advertised. The sampling of information about the interpersonal elements comes during a 30-60 minute timeframe, during which everyone on both sides (supply and demand) are in an entirely artificial and often rather awkward situation. If you wanted more information, and a different kind of information, why not play a game?

What an interesting interview, from the candidate’s perspective, if you were asked to play a problem-solving game with the whole team – it could explore notions of team development, communication, trust, leadership or any other number of important team elements. It could also feature some good debriefing questions (What metaphor does this exercise bring to mind? When have you seen these dynamics/behaviours before? What did you do? etc.) which would help people share a bit more (all around) and with a great deal of nuance about their paradigm of team work and their approach to work more generally.

If you were hiring a trainer or facilitator, you could even ask them to bring in the game and run it for you (we did this at LEAD when we were hiring the next Director of Capacity Development). We actually looked forward to the interviews and could see people in a familiar and comfortable role (than sitting in a chair on the other side of a long table!)

An added benefit for the recruiting team is that it is more fun to play a game than simply sitting in interviews all day and asking the same questions (change the game each time to keep them on their toes), and it provides a team development opportunity that is valuable whatever the outcome of the interview.

Thanks, Andy, for the idea!

Trainitation, Facilitaining?

When Lizzie and I went through the Certified Professional Facilitator process, there was a Trainer (with a capital T) in our group who didn’t get through (e.g. didn’t get certified). There was a clear division between training and facilitating to which the assessors were incredibly sensitive. I remember myself, in one of the oral interviews, getting caught out providing a rationale for a facilitation choice that was more about learning than about strictly moving the process to its product end. The IAF facilitation competency is to “minimize the influence on group outcomes”.

Of course this is highly contextual and I can completely understand the need for complete neutrality in facilitation. And at the same time, what an opportunity a face-to-face get-together provides to help a group develop – to learn to work together and make them better, stronger, faster in their tasks. Especially if the group will be working together again in the future. And if people go to many meetings (and so many people do), and they get enough of this “learning” through their facilitated events, they will become Super Team Members, versed on group process, and practically emerging facilitators themselves.

Building learning into facilitation seems an excellent way to build the capacity of a group to handle its own dialogues, discussions and processes in the future. And it takes some directed learning built in to do it. I definitely observe in colleagues that we have worked with repeatedly in this way develop, over the years, an increased attention to process detail, to interactivity, relationship building, and to the design part of a meeting.

This does eventually put you out of a job as the facilitator, and I think that is fine. It depends on your goal of course – if your goal is to help advance the community generally, then adding learning into your facilitation is a good way to optimise investments made in meetings. And it still takes a while, and gives you an interesting metric (slightly counterintuitive). If you are watching closely and notice that one of your partners is gradually bringing their process design and facilitation in-house, and you are getting less call-outs, or perhaps get drawn in more for coaching team facilitators, then this is a sign that your facilitation is building capacity. As long as the team knows you are there for them and can always come back to support their process as needed. This development can only be a good sign, if you are a Capacitator.

(click on the arrow below to see what I mean…)

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!

Some top tips for managers from my first day:

• Invite her to a ‘welcome back’ one-to-one meeting with you and brief her on key ‘must know’ information before she delves into the delighting deluge that is her inbox

• Present her with prioritized objectives and actions to get stuck into… things that you just can’t wait to get her tackling with her unique and much missed talents! (No mother wants to leave her child to be at work twiddling her thumbs.)

• And offer chocolates, biscuits, balloons and beaming smiles (helping her realize that there is still a heart beating in her chest even if it feels like she left it in the crèche)

What tips do you have for the powers that be… and me?

We wrote a blog post recently called Don’t Outsource It! Learning from Reporting, which talked about why the facilitation design team should NOT take on the reporting role in a workshop. Keeping the role in the contracting team helps internalise rather than externalise the learning from the event and process. We wanted to follow up with a practical design on how to do that. Below is a description of a sequence that we used recently at a retreat, which was designed also as a team activity to further support the group development objective of our event. Reporting was not an add-on, but a session in our workshop.

The 2-day retreat had 20 people from a distributed team (people located in 3 geographical locations), that had not worked together as a Group before. So practice doing that, in a way that promoted good intra-Group communication, sharing roles, and co-creation would be a great way to model the desired behaviour of the Group in the future. This reporting task could help do that if we structured it with this outcome in mind. The process design would be important: We needed a way to distribute the roles so that it was equitable, showed the contribution of everyone to the final group product, and produced a useful and internally-owned synthesis of the discussions and outputs generated during the retreat. Here is a description of the sequence designed:

First, identify the key outputs/report sections: Our first step was to take the agenda and identify the sessions which would have outputs that would need to be collected (think quality, not quantity). We lettered these (A-Z) and wrote them up on a flipchart matrix, with the Session numbers and titles of the topics upon which the lucky person would report, and leaving a space for a name. The reason we used letters for the outputs was so it would not get confused with the sessions numbers. Some sessions had multiple outputs, so to share the load, these sessions would have more than one rapporteur for different identified pieces.

Second, prepare your materials and space: Next we created a set of cards with A-P (in our case, as we had 16 inputs to the report) written on them. We prepared our flipchart matrix(as above), and we cleared an open space in our room where the group could make a circle. Finally, in our set up, we picked a number from 1-21 (the number of participants), and wrote it on a small card which we put in our pocket.

Third, brief and set up the reporting exercise: We told people that we would practice creating a group product by sharing the rapporteuring role among the team to create a product from our meeting that would be useful for the Group’s future work together.

Fourth, run the activity: Then we went into our activity sequence, described below…

  1. To begin, we asked people to join us in the open space, and then to self-organize themselves into a circle chronologically by their Birthday (months and days, not years). We found the person with the birthday closest to 1 January, and we asked them to start there and go clockwise to make a circle. Once the group self-organized, we checked the order by sharing the birthdays to see if we had it right. Some interesting and amusing patterns always seem to emerge.
  2. Once the circle was complete, starting with that first January person again, we asked each person in order to say a number between 1-21, noting that we had already picked a number and it was in our pocket, and that we would stop once the number was picked. We went around the circle until someone guessed that number (people could not duplicate numbers already said, and the group kindly helped people to remember what was already picked). We showed them the number in our pocket to verify the winner.
  3. At this point, we showed the group the flipchart matrix with the reporting tasks lettered from A-P, and said that now we would be drawing role cards. That lucky guesser was then the first person to draw from the A-P lettered set of cards, each of which corresponded to a reporting task, which were turned to their blank back so the selection was random. People continued to pick a card around the circle until each of the A-P cards had been selected. Now the 16 reporting roles were distributed completely randomly. And there were 5 people left. Those people were asked to get together in a corner and decide who amongst them (or which two people) would be the Report Compiler(s). That is, the person(s) who would receive all the inputs from the 16 rapporteurs and create the final report for the group. This group went off for a few minutes to decide on this.
  4. Just before breaking up the circle, we wrote the names of the people who had drawn the A-P cards on the “roles” flipchart, so that the Compiler had a record of who was doing what. We all agreed on a date to get the inputs in, and then the process was set, and simply ran by itself.

Throughout the event, we wrote the names of the rapporteurs at the top of any flipcharts or artifacts that the group created. At the end of the event, people took their materials from the sessions for which they were responsable (so room clean-up was extra easy!), and we reminded people of the deadline in the final session. A week later, the report was finished (probably much faster than if one poor person had to write up all those flipcharts).

A great group product was created, and many more people got to think about and put their fingerprints on the different outputs and ideas that the team retreat created. Rather than a report that sits on a shelf, a learning output and process was designed that lets the group practice working and creating together, just like they will be doing from that point on. (Nice design Lizzie!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

During this week’s workshop (see previous post) we have been acting as Developmental Facilitators, that is facilitators who have as one of their main goals building the group’s capacity to deal with its own issues. As such, the interventions made are aimed at helping the group deal with task and maintenance (group dynamic) issues. These interventions are often made in the form of declarative statements rather than questions, so that the group does not necessarily feel the need to answer to the facilitator, thus drawing him/her into their discussion. But rather considering the interjection and then deciding together if they want to act on it or not (apparently 50% of the time, these interventions are appropriate and useful to the group.)

I captured a number of good intervention statements made this week during our work and thought it would be useful to post them…Imagine that you are with a group that is working on an important project, and you have someone sitting with you observing your work, and they say the following, what would you do?

  • You might find it useful to summarise the objectives and outcomes you expect from this meeting.
  • I see a difference among team members in engagement and ownership of the results of this workshop.
  • Everyone’s putting out ideas, but no one is linking them together.
  • You stated your set of objectives at the beginning of the meeting. Are the behaviours we are seeing going to help you get there, or will they get in the way?
  • It seems that you need your team’s support to make this project work. You might want to find out what support they need from you to participate.
  • You sound defensive to me. You might consider how your own attitude about the proposed change is filtering down to your team.
  • This specific issue seems to be coming up repeatedly and may signal some underlying concerns. If you ignore them now, will you really be able to function effectively as a group on other tasks?
  • A moment ago the group decided to go in this direction and you agreed. Are you going to reverse that decision now, and if so what’s the implication for what you want to get done today?
  • You might want to change chairs and paraphrase what you heard the other person saying.
  • There’s clearly a lot of emotion in the room.
  • I sense some fear in the group around dealing openly with interpersonal issues and wonder if that is blocking progress on the task in this group.
  • When you speak to each other rather than me (the facilitator) I notice that you have more clarity on the task.

These kinds of statements are interesting to keep in mind to tickle the memory about different ways to intervene in groups. They go from safe to very risky and always need to be chosen and crafted thoughtfully. Having said that, these kinds of interventions can be useful whether you are a facilitator, leader or team member – anyone interested in getting a group to think about how it is working and what the members could consider to help them move to a higher level of awareness and performance.

How counterintuitive is that? Practicing how you can create conflict in a group process? Most people, and certainly most facilitators, go to great lengths to avoid conflict, seeing it as counterproductive to achieving some task.

Just imagine for a moment that exactly the opposite was true…

This week we are holding a workshop called “Beyond Facilitation: Intervention Skills for Strengthening Groups and Teams.” This is our second year to hold an adapted version of a Group Process Consultation training workshop. I wrote about the first one held last year at our institution in a post called “You have the right to remain silent“.

Playing with creating conflict has become a leitmotiv today, the third of a four-day training course. We started with an organizational simulation called Lego Man. What may look on paper like a simple team building game, actually does a good job of simulating in 90 minutes a full production process, from conception, understanding the task, defining roles and deliverables, creating a strategy for the process and delivery, making some decisions, and then actually assembling the final product (the Lego man) with some standards to adhere to. Interestingly, one of the learning points from this simulation, noted by our lead trainer Chuck Phillips, is that the teams who provoke conflict among their members are the highest performers (measured by time to construct the Lego man).

But what do people think about this notion of precipitating conflict? For the most part, people’s immediate assumptions about conflict is that it is bad – that it is fighting, and it’s personal, and to be avoided at all cost. Because of this, the standard reaction to mounting conflict is to smooth it over, calm it down, or simply ignore it. Team leaders may do this, team members may do this, and facilitators may do this. Everyone may actively take a part in suppressing conflict. But what that response does, it’s suggested, is to rob from a group an opportunity to confront and consider a difference in opinion, approach, or methodology that may in fact be the key to moving successfully to a higher level of performance or understanding.

Of course there are different kinds of conflict. The kind we would want to precipitate would be from bumping up against people’s assumptions and ideas. This is where conflict can get a team to a new and different level, test assumptions, create new options, and as a result potentially come up with a faster, more effective result.

So we practiced today some of the skills needed to start an ideas conflict – to keep it from becoming a fight – and then to help the group guide it to that moment where paradigms shift and new possibilities arrive. That is what we have been doing today – our best to not let our working groups stay too polite.

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.

It strikes me as particularly fitting that the organizers chose Ile La Reunion (reunion is actually “meeting” in French) for a big conference that is being held this week on the topic of the European Overseas Territory islands and climate change adaptation. This beautiful volcanic island in the middle of the Indian Ocean is as far away from Brussels as you can get (at least contextually if not geographically-it is delightful to see the Brussels-based diplomatic crew in flipflops).

With 586 people descending on the island from all parts of the world, this is turning into a very large gathering of incredibly passionate opionions and a diversity of perspectives. As a result, this week might serve as a not-so-dry run for our upcoming Congress in October and produce some good learning for the most process aware. This could however be a luxury that only I will have, as this meeting has many of the same hallmarks as our Congress – most notably a small organising team made of primarily of content experts who have also been given the task to make it happen (from stuffing the conference bags to delivering one of the keynote speeches). It can be an incredible team building exercise which lets people step out of daily roles and showcase their abilities to stretch into new situations; it can also create situations where the transferability of competencies to different and completely new tasks is not so easy or obvious. The reactions will be very individual and can provide an amazing laboratory for the conscient manager.

Ostensibly I am here in La Reunion to work with the coordinators of a set of 11 workshops on the results-orientation of their workshop designs, and to help deliver a few of these with a second, Mauritian, facilitator. And I am not sure I can resist shining the spotlight from time to time on our overall process here, and what the delivery team is learning. We will see what the appetite is for this simultaneous task and team maintenance conversation. It may also help identify some strategic interventions for more individual and institutional capacity building around these critical convening skills and collaborative processes.

With hundreds of people coming from all parts of the world, from the largest European bureaucracies, and the smallest island administrations, from local civil society to official representatives of the United Nations, La Reunion will no doubt be a creative collision space, both for the participants, and for us.

Earlier this week we ran a two day team retreat for one of our largest distributed teams. Attending the retreat was both the technical and admin staff, as well as HQ and outposted staff. That was objective 1 – giving people a sense of interconnectedness in a non-intact team, and at the same time explore the team’s diversity.

The retreat also needed to bring up and sensitively deal with issues of growth and managing a larger team. In the last few years, due to their successes, the size of the group has more than doubled, with little turnover. As a result, some of the team practices (communication, decisionmaking, trust building, everyone doing everything him/herself) that worked before with a small, tightly knit team, are no longer as effective with a larger, more functionally diversified group. That was objective 2 – air some growth and management challenges in a way that everyone can feel heard and then make some decisions about how to change them.

Finally, the group needed to think together about what’s next. So they needed to tap back into their goals, and also explore together what they needed to add or significantly strengthen in their current practice. This was more programmatic, however, they needed to bring the admin side of the team along so that any decisions made were completely operational. That was objective 3 – consider how to add some functionality to the group, but do so in a way that was realistic and feasible, and fit within the operational system they had and were building (or change it to fit).

With a mandate like that, and two days to work with, we had our work cut out for us. However, we did it, and the team was very happy with the results. Here are a few things we learned that worked:

  • We used systems thinking tools to help to guide and structure the discussions. People were delighted to use these new tools, which when applied to the operational aspects of the team’s work, were able to integrate and value the inputs of everyone there, from both the technical and administrative parts of the team.
  • The systems tools created a safe space. The diagrams helped to externalise the conversations, so that people were able to focus on an object, diagram, that depersonalised issues. People discussed trends and cause and effect: pointing their finger at the flipchart diagram and not each other.
  • The tools are iterative, so they break down what seems like a process about everything into a set of logical steps and bitesize pieces. Also because of this structure, there was no anxiety from what might otherwise be a messy process. The tools gave clear boundaries to the discussion.
  • Finally, the format of working in parallel on a number of different operational issues allowed people to focus on the ones for which they had the most passion, yet still contribute through the summaries and sharing to the work of other groups.

The report that resulted from the event included the diagrams and captured the creativity of the process for next steps. It was actually a good read, a quality that all workshop reports should have. And it has spawned a number of processes around the outcomes that is making this team one of the leaders of change in our institution.

We had a very productive retreat last week and at the end of it, there was a palpable sense of identity as a team. That was one of our goals, to build this team, along with the imperative of the design task that precipitated the idea of a retreat in the first place. When a retreat was first suggested a few weeks ago, it was met with nervous laughter, and comments which conjured images of a group hug (teambuilding seems to have become a bit of a punchline). So one challenge was to structure the retreat in a way that built the team, but did not have any recognizable “teambuilding” element.

Of course, teams that have worked together for a while are more comfortable with activities that explicitly explore the personal and behavioural side of team members and their inter-relationsips. With teams that are at an early stage, perhaps teams in name only, then a gentler approach seems to be more appropriate while trust is built.

I have read recently some revisionist teambuildng literature by McKinsey which argues against the touchy-feely kind of teambuilding front-loaded onto a retreat or meeting (the Gordian Knot or Squaring the Circle type activity – the titles speak for themselves). Instead they find that the teambuilding effect is greater when the work comes first and then space is opened at the end of the retreat to discuss how the group worked together. Therefore, reflection on how the team works and how it could improve its performance is based on a real work experience, rather than a simulated experience. We used this approach in the retreat and it seemed to work well, aside from the fact that time and attention at the end of any event are scarce resources. I found that people were much more willing to explore the process of working together after having had two days of structured work and some unstructured discussions, rather than having that group maintenance conversation in abstract at the beginning.

We paired this final process discussion with the StrengthsFinder, which people took in the breaks during the retreat (it takes about 30 minutes to take the online questionnaire and the results are instantly delivered). We each shared our top strength and how we felt that this strength had manifested itself in our contributions and behaviour during the retreat. We made a few joint comments to people, appreciating their specific roles in some of the key change moments in the meeting, and then generally discussed how we had worked together to achieve our goals. The discussion from next steps and task passed smoothly through to our process, in spite of having had limited focus in the past on what makes us all tick, separately and together. We even used a ball at the end so the group could self-facilitate the discussion. At that point, this was no issue. I could not have imagined introducing that at the beginning of the meeting when the urgency of the task, the tentativeness of group cohesion, and my reputation as an interactive facilitator were clearly in the “wait and see”category.

I still think there is a place for some of the more game-based teambuilding activities, perhaps with teams who are already formed and have specific issues or new ways of working that they want to explore. But with newly forming teams, and teams that are perhaps allergic to agendas with mysterious activity titles, I think that the get to work, and then talk deeply about how you did it approach is the way to go.

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.

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

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

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

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

(This post was inspired by a conversation I had a few days ago about the possibility of holding a major Congress in Second Life as opposed to F2F. There were worries that people would not be themselves and that that would affect the quality of discussions.)

We all have a Second Life. Every time we walk into the doors of our office that is effectively a completely different world than the one we just left. We look different (at least one makes a heroic 10 minute effort to look better), we do very different things, and the details of our behaviour in our workplace and the place we just left are completly up to us to expose or not.

Some people at work, as in Second Life, are perfectly happy to share at length the details of our Home Life, to plaster our office walls with photos of our families, and to personalise our spaces. Others keep these two worlds strictly apart. Some people make friends in Work Life that become friends in Home Life, and some people cultivate other kinds of friends and relationships in each. In either world, it is up to us to be accountable, and to be comfortable with our actions in both of these lives. I guess it would be as hard to be a creep in Second Life as it would be to be a creep in Work Life or Home Life (or as easy, for some people). So I guess I don’t see the big deal about Second Life being a place where people can be more or less transparent about themselves, people can do that anyways.

Now if only we could teleport ourselves to international meetings, that would be great.

Earlier this week we ran an interesting activity in our Staff Meeting. Staff Meetings have changed in the last month, with the request from the Director General (formerly in charge of staff meetings) that they be facilitated by Communications and Learning. ( Perhaps this falls into the Be Careful What You Wish For category – See blog post on “We Just Went to a Great Staff Meeting“, November 2006) Actually we are having good fun thinking of ways to animate the staff meetings and getting them to focus, in a sometimes light manner, on serious issues within our institution.

The activity I am referring to was a type of social network analysis which we did as a group. We adapted a systems game called “Triangles” into an exercise which would show the interconnections between staff at the meeting. We asked each person, silently, to look around the room and select two people that really facilitated their work, that were always responsive, and helpful to them. Then we asked people to quietly move and stand equidistant between those two people, without identifying them.

Well, the room began to move as people tried to find and keep their places, and it took a few minutes to this large system to settle down and stop. Then we started to change the system. We moved the most senior person in the room back about 8 meters and told people that they had to continue to follow the rules and stand equidistant between their two helpful reference people, even if it meant that they had to move again. Not much adjustment happened. Then we moved a middle manager, some movement followed and a little shifting about. Then we began to move people in service units, in Finance, Assistants, and other support people, and we saw much more movement. In some cases, we would move someone, and a few people would shift to maintain their connection and position, and then their shifting would set into place even more movement, and then everyone was moving again.

This exercise really set the notion of the value chain of the organization on its head. The people who were most valuable in influencing the quality of people’s work the most, who helped and facilitated their tasks, were not always the people in the highest positions, sometimes on the contrary.

Do we really notice how many people it takes for us to do a good job? All those people up and down the activity chain who help us deliver and be productive. Who often gets the credit for the good work that happens? How can we highlight more of the processes that make us effective as well as the outputs and products that are produced? How do we notice and value all of those interactions that get things done?

So who gets my Award for Most Valuable Team Member?

  • Cecilia: For being able to combine absolute attention to detail and follow-through, with perpetual good mood and great sensitivity to people’s feelings;
  • Lizzie: For being a maximiser and taking something that is pretty good and making it excellent, and for being able to see very subtle things in people that I simply cannot see;
  • Caroline: For being incredibly pragmatic and clear thinking, and always being willing to volunteer to do something substantial, even when it sounds like quite hard work.

In our institution, it takes a team to get things done.

At the GAN-Net workshop in any one conversation we manage to go from the personal level (even cellular sometimes) to the global level. Yesterday in our group we had a thought-provoking discussion about teams which did just that.

Overall we are looking at how to improve the impacts of these Global Action Networks in the world, and an optimal way of organizing them to achieve greater social change. One question we were exploring was: How do individual team member limits, limit the team’s impact? How do these limitations affect the quality of the team’s work and “product” movement in their institutions and beyond? Using a more appreciative frame perhaps the question could be: What are the links between personal development issues and the development and work of the team?

We have written quite a bit in this blog about change processes and our theories of change. This takes that one step further by adding the micro-application of change processes into the scope of the discussion. We have our own theories of change within our institutions (explicit or not) and we also have our own theories of change for us as individuals. What’s possible when we put these together for experimentation purposes and learning?

How can we deepen our team’s discussions about this? One participant spoke of the “objectification” of the interior life of a team – just getting this stuff out there to be noticed and discussed. That is not always so easy. How can we articulate and make explicit our own intentions and how they relate to our intentions as a team, and how can we talk about our own fears and how these relate to our fears as a team? (and then link the team to our institution and our institution in the world?) If we think there is a mirror effect, how can we get that out there to look at and discuss?

In our team we try to talk about our strengths and our individual goals and how we can help each other achieve them (we just had our Performance Evaluations, so this is a fresh conversation). However, these things cover mostly the way we wish things to be, rather than the way things are now. It would be interesting to have these conversations together and see how our process for achieving our individual goals link to the process for achieving our team’s goals, and how we can potentially harness those two sources of energy and movement to speed both processes up.

What are your talents and your key strengths? And what are you doing to maximize these day-to-day?

I recently received a fascinating book for my birthday, written by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton: Now, Discover Your Strengths. Refreshingly, this book sets out to dispel the “pervasive myth” that excellent performers must be well-rounded. It asserts instead that “you will only excel by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses.”

To what extent are we maximizing our strengths, versus taking the traditional ‘problem-solving’ approach and expending our energies on fixing our weaknesses?

“Benjamin Franklin called wasted strengths “Sundials in the Shade”. Too many organizations, teams and individuals unknowingly hide their sundials in the shade,” write Buckingham and Clifton. Their book seeks to help us shed light on our “sundials”, for “the real tragedy of life is not that each of us doesn’t have enough strengths, it’s that we fail to use the ones we have.” Shedding some light on our sundials, we can then make sure they are aligned (parallel with the earth’s axis) and angled (depending on their latitude) for consistent, near-perfect performance.

What we can do to make sure we shed light on our “sundials”, building on our talents and maximizing our strengths? How can we work individually, in our teams and throughout our organization to identify and describe our talents? – For, if Buckingham and Clifton are right (and I like to believe that they are) we can then work together to find ways to maximize our strengths and really excel.

In the next week or so, we’re going to be following some of the authors’ advice and testing their tools. I’m very keen to see what they have to offer, and hope to be soon turning my talents into greater strengths. I’ll also be speaking with Gillian about her reflections on the work of these authors… after all, she was the one who started me on this path having looked into her own strengths with them some years ago. I have a sneaking suspicion she may have the “maximizer” talent 🙂

* A team retreat to do strategic planning for the next 5 years;
* A one-day meeting of partners to contribute to an upcoming summit;
* A co-development process for the design of a leadership programme with a colleague a country away;

What do these things have in common?

Each one of them will be more successful when there are good relationships existing or being built among the participating people that support the interaction, the dialogue and decision-making.

We have spent time recently with colleagues who are engaging in design and development work for ambitious upcoming activities that have as a central need good relationships amongst the participating people; one of trust, openness, honesty and a genuine desire to be a positive contributor to the discussions. When these relationships exist, you have a context where amazing things can happen – you have the foundation for a highly performing team, and a team whose abilities will not stop at the end of this activity. Those good relationships will continue to exist.

And, if they don’t yet exist, what kinds of things can you do to help build them?

Ginka Tchavdarova from the National Association of Ministries in Bulgaria spoke at the Conference “Capacity Strategies: Let the Evidence Speak” about the conditions for decentralised development. She gave the case of Bulgaria where initially responsibilities were transferred to communities and leaders, and later (10 years later), the rights associated with the responsibilities were transferred. She used the analogy of “swimming in a half-empty pool” to describe that long interim period.

Sometimes we are working in situations where the enabling environment is not quite there, it is somehow missing a couple of feet of water, and you can splash around a great deal but you cannot really swim. To take this analogy a little further…

When do we see cases where responsibilities are given, and rights are not there? Perhaps the titles are not there in addition to the associated rights, or maybe these are Acting swimmers. What kind of enabling environment is created for those people to do good work?

If you really want to swim that might be frustrating. At the same time, is there another way to see it? Can the swimmer see the pool as half full (it’s not empty, right?) Can the swimmer use that time to practice her/his strokes so that when the water does come, they can swim even faster? At the same time, the water needs to come in good time, otherwise the swimmer will be so tired from practising that when the water does come…

You derailed a conversation in a meeting;
You made an unfair comment;
You spoke with too much emotion and not enough forethought;
Was that me?
What’s that all about?

What was it about those conversations that made me react like that?

What does the team leader think of this situation?

“Soon, reality sets in and your team moves into a “Storming” phase. Your authority may be challenged as others jockey for position as their roles are clarified. The ways of working start to be defined, and as leader you must be aware that some members may feel overwhelmed by how much there is to do, or uncomfortable with the approach being used. Some react by questioning how worthwhile the goal of the team is and resist taking on tasks. This is the stage when many teams fail…”

This is a passage I took from psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 description of the development process that teams go through (Norming, Storming, Forming and Performing). This is really resonating with me right now.

The storming stage makes me feel uncomfortable. At the same time, it is a new team, we don’t know each other very well, and we are getting familiar enough now with one another to start to express a diversity of opinions even about very fundamental principles.

That could be the basis for an open conversation with the team leader. I can also apologize. What can I do right now to help us move through this stage and on to the norming and performing stages?

If this is the storming stage, I look forward to what comes next…

Today the new Director General greeted the staff for the first time (she begins officially in January 2007). People filled the cafeteria with a little trepidation perhaps, a new boss after all… However, a couple of good jokes later, you could feel the mood lighten and energy fill the room:

New DG: How many people work in this organization?
Senior Staff Member: About half.
New DG: Which half are you?

That worked, a quick fire response and a big smile – you never get a second chance to make a good first impression!