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Come with me to Istanbul!

June 23rd, 2011 No comments

Come with me to Istanbul!

ImprovI’m running a workshop on ‘Improvisation for facilitators’, as part of the  International Association of Facilitators Europe Conference 2011. The workshop will run from 9:30am – 4:30pm on Thursday 13 October 2011, in a conference venue in central Istanbul.

The skills that improvisers use to create scenes and stories can also be used by facilitators to bring their work to life. This workshop uses improvisation games from the world of theatre to help you relax more when working in the moment with your clients, connect more quickly with the groups you work with, and actually enjoy re-writing your plans on the spur of the moment!

You need no performance skills for this workshop – it is suitable for absolute beginners. You can relax as you are guided through a selection of specially chosen improvisation games and exercises.

The workshop will be limited to a maximum of 12 participants, so book now to guarantee your place. An early bird rate of €165 is available for bookings made before 31 July 2011. Bookings after that date will be at the rate of €200. Further details – and a booking form to secure your place – are available on a dedicated page on my website [edit: link removed as closing date has passed].

Sharing lessons learned between projects

May 24th, 2010 No comments

Agenda for post-project reviewI frequently run ‘post-project reviews’ or ‘after-action reviews’. These events bring together teams who have recently completed a project, so that they can learn lessons for the future. The lessons could be ones that the participants will personally take forward with them into their future work, and can also be lessons that colleagues elsewhere in their organisation or partnership need to learn.

I have developed my own approach to running these events, drawing a lot on the ideas of Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell in their excellent book Learning to Fly, and also influenced by Nick Milton. I am quite pleased with the process I have developed, and at the same time I am dissatisfied with how effective it is overall – I think it is effective in helping individuals to learn their own lessons, but not very effective in sharing lessons across projects.

Reading a recent blog post by Nancy Dixon helped me to see where and why my current approach is falling short.

Nancy identifies three stages in the process of learning lessons across projects:

1. Sensemaking: The members of the project team jointly make sense of what they have learned.
2. Formatting: Designers assemble, translate, aggregate, and mine projects lessons in such a way that they are useful to different groups in the organization
3. Moving: KM professionals create both pull and push mechanism so that lessons are accessible to those who need them.

My post-project reviews focus on the first stage, and I feel that they have become effective in helping team members to identify the real issues, discuss openly what went well and not so well and why. But they could be more effective in stages 2 and 3.

The typical output from a post-project review that I run is a set of PowerPoint slides, which include photos I have taken of all the outputs from the review – these are usually a picture of the project timeline, with comments hand-written by the team; boards with hand-written cards showing what the team thought went well and not so well; and more detailed boards probing the key things that went well/not so well, identifying why and pulling out lessons learned. By including photos of the materials produced by the participants, rather than typing up their outputs, I reduce the amount of interpreting or processing of their thoughts – the idea is that the participants will recognise the outputs as their own.

What happens to these sets of PowerPoint slides? They may be read by the participants after the review (or just filed). They may also be discussed by the management team of the organisation that commissioned me to carry out the review (or more likely, the team may look at a formal paper based on the slides I produced). But there may be no other ‘formatting’ (stage 2 in Nancy’s process), and possibly no ‘moving’ at all (stage 3). The likelihood is that most of the learning will stay in the heads of the people who took part in the review.

While it is true that

If knowledge transfer went no farther than sensemaking, a considerable amount of transfer across the organization would have been achieved.

I still have a sense of missed opportunities – that more could be achieved.

What are the implications for me as a facilitator?

I do not think that I want to take on responsibility for stages 2 and 3. My skills as a facilitator are in helping the project team have the conversation during which they identify the learning. I have produced learning materials in the past, but instructional design is not my main area of expertise (nor is it where I want to spend my time). And I do not work within organisations as a KM professional to create systems to push and pull knowledge around.

I do think I have a responsibility when contracting with a client to raise these issues and ask how they think the lessons can and should be taken forward and shared – how do they see it happening? And I could share what I have learned from Nancy’s blog post.

There may also be some learning for me about the lessons learned process. When the team has identified a lesson, I could ask them to identify specifically who that lesson may be useful for – it could be a named individual or individuals, it could be people in a particular role (eg project managers). This would at least help to target the lesson more effectively.

And I could also ask the team to review all the lessons they have identified in a particular post-project review, and identify the top 2 or 3 they think have most value for other people.

What else could I do while still remaining in what Nancy refers to as the ‘sensemaking’ stage of transferring lessons learned?

* The image at the top of the post is from a post-project review that I ran in 2009

What can you learn from a glass of water?

December 6th, 2009 No comments

Glass of water

I attended a corporate awayday on Thursday, as a participant rather than a facilitator (for a change). It was a pretty good day, made better by the fact that the agenda was not too packed (only 4 main sessions), and time was allowed for networking and chatting. Not enough time for my taste, but then my preference now is for the Open Space model, which essentially turns an awayday into one long coffee break.

Guy Browning of Smokehouse led an entertaining session on creativity. He told some good stories, and encouraged us to try out some good techniques, one of which struck a particular chord with me.

What can you learn from a glass of water?

Standing at the front of the room in front of the 60 or so participants, Guy held up a clear glass of water. He asked us each to take the viewpoint of the glass of water, and write down what the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing at that moment.

My thoughts were:

  • seeing: a room of people, a hand very close, windows and greyness outside
  • feeling: anticipation, fear, curiosity
  • experiencing: feeling new-born, just been taken to a new vantage point

Guy made the point that the exercise allowed us to project ourselves onto something as plain and unfeeling as a glass of water. And what we had each come up with told us something about ourselves – what we thought the glass of water was seeing, feeling and experiencing was connected with how we ourselves were at that moment. “You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are”. And I can see some links between my thoughts about the glass of water, and how I was feeling at that time.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. The first is because these kinds of projective techniques can be useful to facilitators, coaches or mediators. Rather than asking people directly to describe how they are feeling or what they are experiencing (when they may censor themselves, or say what they think you want to hear), you can use a technique like this to help people find other ways to reveal how they are – drawing, choosing a postcard from set of 50 postcards, taking an imaginary walk and describing what they can see, and so on.

The other reason this is of interest to me is that it is connected with bringing about change. We may be acutely aware of what we are unhappy with in the external world – what we would like to change. But we are often unaware of how our own actions are bringing about the outcomes we so dislike. For example, I blogged recently about how our desire for security and control may actually make us less secure.

If you’re not part of the problem…

Adam Kahane touches on this in his book on mediation Solving Tough Problems. He takes issue with the slogan “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem”. Kahane says that this slogan

actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be…”If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution”. If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, for changing the way things are – except from the oustside, by persuasion or force.

This is a really important point for anyone who wants to bring about change. It would be easy to see ‘being part of the problem’ as itself a problem for a change-maker, but Kahane encourages us to see it as an opportunity. Being inside a problem makes it easier, not harder, for us to have empathy with the other ‘problem people’ – they are more similar to us than we may care to admit. And it gives us an insight into how they (we) are creating the problem, how difficult it is to make personal change, and what we can do to make it easier for others to change – often by taking the first steps ourselves.

Your body is always in the present

November 8th, 2009 No comments

Noticing

Noticing

Steve Davis has some good advice for speakers who want to really engage their audiences. Rather than treat people as passive listeners, Steve identifies ways to involve them instead.

One phrase in Steve’s post particularly caught my eye:

Your body is always in the present moment. It can’t be elsewhere.

This is not just true for presenters and trainers, but is also helpful advice for mediators.

As a mediator I will sometimes be aware of a tension in my body, or a sudden coldness, or a feeling of fatigue. When I notice this, for a short while I will take my main focus away from the parties in the mediation and be curious and interested in what I have noticed.

Is something happening in the mediation that is reminding me of a past experience of mine (something from childhood, or as recent as the row I had with my partner this morning?) Am I feeling tired and bored right now because that is how the parties are also feeling? How is this feeling affecting my ability to mediate right now and to serve the interests of the parties? Do I need to do anything about it, or just notice that it’s there and let it go?

If I decide I need to do something about it, I may just centre myself, breathe in and out and let the feeling wash away as I return my attention to the parties. Or I may choose to mention out loud how I’m feeling and ask whether the parties are feeling something similar.

This checking in and responding to a feeling usually takes just a few seconds, and is also something I do as a facilitator. If I’m feeling puzzled, tired, confused, excited or angry while I’m facilitating, it might just be me, or that feeling might be telling me something that’s going on in the room. I can choose to check out these clues, but I have to notice them first and pay attention to them before they can help me.

Holding ideas lightly

November 1st, 2009 No comments

Bird on a wire

Bird on a wire

Johnnie Moore offered a good post today about the dangers of being too certain in the context of making decisions. He quotes Jonah Lehrer as saying

Being certain means you’re not worried about being wrong.

Certainty is also one of the things that drives conflicts – certainty that I am right and you are wrong, certainty that I am seeing things clearly and you are confused, or certainty that I am acting rationally and you are acting emotionally (heaven forbid).

When I am training mediators, one of the skills I help them to develop is the ability to give reflective summaries – to summarise back to the parties in a conflict what they have said, in a way that helps everyone to hear. Mediators try to make these summaries in a tentative way – open to correction if they miss something out or misinterpret what was said. They can not be certain that they have got the summary right, and need the speaker to help them to make a good summary.

One year after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, but while the apartheid regime was still in place, Adam Kahane helped facilitate discussions between the main groups in South Africa. These included groups opposed to the regime (including the ANC, the National Union of Mineworkers, and the South African Communist Party). But the discussions also included representatives of the white business community and academia.

In his book Solving Tough Problems, Adam describes how, over a series of meetings, the individuals were able to better understand each others’ points of view. The group was able to agree on four different possible futures for South Africa. These scenarios influenced the views of the then government, and the government-to-be in the form of the ANC, and made a direct contribution to the way in which power was transferred from the white minority to a democratically-elected government.

Adam attributes much of the success of this process to the tentative way in which the participants held their ideas:

They held their ideas lightly; they noticed and questioned their own thinking; they separated themselves from their ideas (“I am not my ideas, and so you and I can reject them without rejecting me”). They “suspended” their ideas, as if on strings from the ceiling, and walked around and looked at these ideas from different perspectives.

I love the idea of holding ideas lightly, and distancing ourselves from our own ideas by ‘walking around them’ to inspect them. This idea has applications not just in mediation or conflict resolution, but in facilitation and coaching too. For example, in an effective post-project review, the participants will hold their ideas lightly, open to the idea that there are things they do not know, and open to the possibility that their own views will change as a result of what they hear.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

A cafe conversation

October 31st, 2009 No comments

CoffeeJohn Inman has run strategic planning processes for 15 years. This week he tried a new way of doing it, adding a World Cafe session early in the process.

World Cafe is a way of hosting small group discussions around cafe-style tables; the participants move from table to table, with hosts staying where they are, so that ideas spread around the room and grow and develop. The person running the World Cafe may try to recreate the look, feel (and smell!) of a real cafe, with tablecloths and flowers on the tables, freshly brewed coffee, and background music.

The end result? The strategic planning session achieved more, and in less time, than the process John has been using for fifteen years.

It was the most productive planning session I have ever had and I believe that is in no small part due to driving them into conversation early and the power of conversation transformed the session.

Hat tip to Chris Corrigan for spotting John’s post. Chris writes about his own similar experience with Open Space

These participatory processes are far more than “just talk” and with wise planning and focused harvests, they are a very fast way to make headway on what can otherwise be tedious planning processes.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

The ripple effect

October 30th, 2009 No comments

Poncho wearer jumping for joy

The joy of ponchos...

As facilitators, trainers or coaches, we sometimes know that we have made a positive difference to the people we have worked with. But we can also have positive effects which we have no idea about – what we do can have a ripple effect that can continue long after we have packed up and gone home.

At September’s European conference of the International Association of Facilitators I attended a session run by a lively fellow facilitator from Spain, Sonsoles Morales in the main lecture theatre. During her session, she shared a very effective ice-breaker that had a much bigger effect on me than I had expected.

I’m putting on my poncho…

Sonsoles invited the 25 or so people in her workshop to take a piece of flipchart paper each, and a marker pen. She then asked us to fold the flipchart paper in half, and position the paper so that the fold was at the top. Using the marker pen, we each then wrote something on the front of the flipchart that we felt best described ourselves. Some people chose to write keywords, some wrote sentences. I chose to draw some pictures that showed different parts of my life.

We then tore a half-moon-shaped hole in the top folded edge of the flipchart, creating our very own personalised ponchos.

My poncho from the front

My poncho from the front

Sonsoles led us outside into a garden area in bright autumn sunshine. I put on my poncho for the first time, wearing what I had written at the front, and wondered a little nervously what would come next.

What do you see?

Unexpectedly, Sonsoles asked us not to focus on what other people had written on the front of their ponchos, but instead to walk around the group, find people we did not know, and just look at them as people. We were then to walk behind them, and write briefly on the back of the poncho something that had struck us about the person we had just looked at – their physical appearance, or how they seemed to us as people. Sonsoles encouraged us to seek out people who did not have much written on their backs, and write a few words.

As the exercise went on, I became very curious about what other people had written on my back. I was also aware that I didn’t really know who in the group had written on my poncho – most of my attention was on the people I was looking at, rather than the people who were looking at me.

Once everyone had some comments on their ponchos, Sonsoles led us back inside. Only then were we allowed to remove the ponchos and turn them over to reveal what the strangers we had met thought about us.

Our survey said…

My poncho from the back

My poncho from the back

The words written on my back were very simple and straightforward, including:

  • Fun
  • Nice Beard
  • Funny
  • Library & books
  • Beautiful eyes
  • Love your drawing

I was surprised to find tears coming to my eyes as I read the words on the back of my poncho. A group of complete strangers had chosen to say nice things to me – someone they barely knew. I realised how rare it is for us to give or receive heartfelt, simple compliments to people we do not already know well.

For myself, I know it is much easier and safer for me to keep barriers up in a social situation where I am among people I don’t know, to manage my own anxiety. Opening up and being direct makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable – it raises the risk of being ignored, misunderstood or rejected. I can avoid that risk by playing safe, and not giving away what I am thinking or feeling. But having experienced how it feels to receive a heartfelt compliment has made me more willing to take the first step of paying those compliments to others.

The ripple effect

So what effect has this had on me?

One immediate effect was that I decided to give some positive feedback to a fellow facilitator at the conference who had deeply impressed me the previous day. And I have blogged about the conversation this led to, which has stayed with me since.

A second effect was a more general one – to make more of an effort to tell people what I like about them – strangers I talk to, friends and family, shop assistants, anyone I come into contact with. This effect has faded a bit since the conference – I’ve slipped back to my self-protecting old ways – but writing about it today has brought it back to the front of my mind.

Using this activity as an icebreaker

The effect the activity had on me was not one that Sonsoles could have predicted, and it will not have this effect on everyone. Nevertheless, one reason the activity works is because it does encourage people to be direct with each other in a way that builds trust. It would work particularly well for a group that does not know each other very well to start with, and could accelerate the process of getting to know each other.

Sonsoles also added a further step to the exercise, which I left out of the description above. After writing on each other’s backs, we walked around as a group again, but this time looking at the front of our colleagues’ ponchos for connections and similarities. Some of the other comments on the back of my poncho – about having two sons, and having a link to Scotland – were the result of similarities I found to other members of the group. This makes use of what is on the front of the poncho, and helps build connections between individuals in the group.

Conversations for change

October 22nd, 2009 2 comments

Conversation

Talking with passion, listening attentively

I recently had an unexpected, powerful conversation which has had a lasting impact on me. It has also helped me to see more clearly what I am doing when a coaching session or facilitated meeting goes really well.

It happened like this…

I attended the European Conference of the International Association of Facilitators in Oxford in mid September. It was a good conference, well organised with some interesting sessions, and in the beautiful setting of Keble College. But like many events I go to these days, some of the best discussions I had were in the breaks between sessions, or over dinner or a drink with other participants.

One of those conversations took place on the Friday night, when I spent a good part of the evening talking to a facilitator from Finland. She told me a lot about what mattered to her in her life, about big changes she had made and challenges she had overcome. I learned a lot about her in a very short time.

When I reflected on our conversation the next day, I realised that I had done what I normally do. I pride myself on being a good listener, reflecting back and asking questions that help others to open up, and being comfortable when people are showing strong emotions. These are some of the core skills I use in my work, and I had used them in our conversation.

But what I hadn’t done is give anything of myself; I hadn’t told her what I really thought, and hadn’t really revealed much about me.

Opening up

So at the close of the conference, with my bags packed, I made a point of seeking her out, and sharing with her how she had struck me – as a beautiful, strong, confident person, and as someone I admired for the difficult changes she had made in her life. We agreed to walk together into Oxford on my way to the station, and we continued our earlier conversation. As we talked half an hour became an hour, we took a detour to visit my old college and sat on a bench to talk, we went for a coffee and continued the conversation. In the end we spoke for 4 or 5 hours.

As we talked our conversation deepened and became more two-way, as I opened up and talked a bit more about my own life and my experiences. I learned things about myself and my own hopes and fears that I hadn’t been aware of before. And what had started as a farewell became a conversation that has stayed with me and continues to affect me now.

A powerful conversation

So what made this conversation different?

  • There was some emotional content to it. Most conversations, certainly all important ones, have an emotional element. But in this conversation we named the emotions and talked about them directly.
  • Connected to this was an honesty and openness – rather than hiding behind my professional skills as a listener, I chose to also talk and voice my own experiences, and be changed. It felt like I was taking a risk, but a risk I was willing to take because there was already an openness from the person I was talking to.
  • Deep listening – both of us sat and listened to the other talking, and gave each other the space to speak. There were occasional silences where nothing needed to be said.
  • Being in the moment – we both chose to be present in the conversation and make that the main thing we were doing; the time flew past quickly.

Soon afterwards I came across this quotation from Conversation by Theodore Zeldin:

…talking does not necessarily change one’s own or other people’s feelings or ideas…Real conversation catches fire. It involves more than sending and receiving information…

..conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet they don’t just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn’t just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards.

And I realised that this is what happens when I am doing my best work – when I am mediating well, or when we make real progress in a coaching session, or when I am really ‘in the moment’ as a facilitator and aware of what is happening in the room. What connects all of my work at its best is this type of conversation – where emotions are engaged, there is an honesty and directness, where people truly listen and allow themselves to be changed by what they hear. Experiencing this personally has helped me to realise that this is what the people I work with sometimes experience as a result of the conversations I take part in.

So what next?

So what has happened since? Now that I am thinking this way, I’m seeing references to conversation everywhere (in the language of improvisation, I’m accepting an offer):

  • By chance, I recently met a former colleague I haven’t seen for three years, Cliodhna Mulhearn. Cliodhna is doing very powerful work using conversation to bring about change, focusing on Appreciative Inquiry.
  • Cliodhna recommended Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management to me; chapter 6 of this book is about the power of conversation, and describes exactly the kind of powerful conversation I had.
  • I talked about these ideas with my own coach, who directed me to a group of academics and practitioners who are using and writing about this approach to change, not just on a personal level, but at a team and organisational level as well.

This has also given me the incentive I needed to start this blog. I know that I usually find out what I think by opening my mouth and starting to speak 😉 So the blog is partly a conversation with myself, and writing these posts may well change what I think, as well as record my existing thoughts. But of course a blog is an open space, so maybe there will be others out there who will join in this conversation, and I’ll learn from them too? If you’re there, it would be nice to hear from you.