Weblog Entries for September 2010
September 29, 2010
links for 2010-09-29
Popular science journalism well satirised
Interesting pushback to Malcolm Gladwell's take on social networks. There are lots of layers to this discussion.
"When we are faced with intractable problems, complex scenarios or mysterious situations, conversations open us to edges that would otherwise remain invisible, and therefore increase the possibility of finding a new and usefaul way through. Talk IS action."
I'm still working through Bill Isaacs' Dialogue. He tells a good story about the practice of voicing - giving expression to what it is we are really feeling, wanting, needing.
A jazz pianist friend - who will later turn professional with great success - fits in a bit of performing during meeting breaks as part of his day job doing consulting. During one of these musical interludes, an audience member asks what he's been playing. He explains it was an arrangement of Moon River. "No," says the audience member, "before that." The pianist says, "oh, that was one of my own compositions."
The audience member replies: "You're wasting your time with Moon River. If you don't play your own music, who will?"
September 26, 2010
links for 2010-09-26
"Your BA is not a ticket to a job. Your loan is an anchor not a sail."
The allure of improv
I thought Adam Bright's article about improv - and what it demands of performers - was brilliant. As well as evoking what is so alluring about improv, I think it also glances at what might be called a shadow side of the addiction to the process.
This snippet evokes some of what is so remarkable about "the zone" improv can sometimes access:
If there is a secret, none of us knows what it is. Good shows are elusive. You’re never sure whether they happened because you let go or because you tried especially hard. In fact, one of the paradoxes of improv is that you have to try very hard in order to let go. This involves relaxing the mental muscles that control the automatic functioning of personality. When you’re in front of an audience and you can do this, or when it happens to you (it’s something in between), you experience a kind of freedom I’m tempted to call transpersonal.... It’s one of the most elemental states of satisfaction I’ve ever known.
Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan
September 25, 2010
Where (and when) ideas happen
Steven Johnson's TED talk explores where ideas happen.
He focusses on two ways innovation successes are misreported and misunderstood.
First, people simplify their ideas as solitary, Eureka moments, whereas ideas often happen in social environments
They also tend to abbreviate their stories of how ideas happened, whereas in fact lot of ideas have very long incubation periods ("the slow hunch").
Darwin, for example, presented his theory of natural selection as one of these sudden insights, whereas researchers show he had the idea for months before his reported epiphany. He also explains how those dabbling on a side project to measure satellite trajectories evolves into what is now GPS. It's a long term, non-linear story.
He also argues that these misconceptions partly justify ideas of intellectual property whereas perhaps we should be more interested in connecting ideas than protecting them.
The whites of their eyes
Roland Harwood talks about the range of innovation projects made possible by the net, from global to hyper-local. He includes this view
What they miss is the power of people connecting face to face, so they can literally seeing the whites of each other’s eyes. And whilst I can’t deny that I am a huge fan of the web and social media, I also see a gap in building trusted innovation networks and bringing diverse groups of people together in a room together and seeing what they can create together.I resonate with this and I like to work real live human beings in a space more than trying to "leverage" them technologically - much as I love the contact the web makes possible. It's a bugbear of mine that we often go to the expense of getting bodies in a room only to do to them what could easily be done online - eg download information - rather than work with magic that is possible when humans gather together.
I loved this TED talk by Sugata Mitra. He presents a series of stories where children are provided with computers and a problem and develop a whole series of learnings, many unexpected. The highlight for me is that the main intervention is for the "adult" to leave the room and not supervise - although there is a role for a "granny" whose brief is to
stand behind them and admire them all the timeIt's a profoundly social experience; it's not the same if a child sits in front of a computer alone.
So much for the importance of the teacher structuring the experience for them. And where lies the wisdom in all the "lesson plans" which they're all expected to compile in British schools?
education is a self-organising system where learning is an emergent outcomeAlthough he focusses on younger children, I think there are significant ramifications for learners of all ages. If he's only partially right in his extrapolations, he presents a real challenge to conventional thought about learning (and check out the comments at TED to see people struggling with this). I've argued for some time that universities in particular are vulnerable to a massive shift in how students wish to learn, akin to the paradigm shift which has confronted the music industry.
The surprise the audience feels at Mitra's remarkable successes reminds me of the surprise participants often express at the end of an Open Space: they didn't realise people were capable of this degree of self-organisation. And that surprise is worthy of some serious reflection on how else we limit our hopes and expectations of what groups can do and how much supervision they really need.
Hat tip Viv McWaters for emailing it to me
September 24, 2010
I'm reading Bill Isaacs' Dialogue, for about the fourth time. And I'm probably getting more out of this reading than the previous three.
It's a densely written, thought provoking book that attempts to describe some of the practices that contribute to more profound conversations. It's tricky because getting to a space of deep conversation is not something you achieve by following a formula. As Isaacs says
The method for dialogue that I describe in this book... turns out to be the kind that points you to certain experiences and abilities that, once understood, must be let go of completely in order to experience things for yourself.He acknowledges the difficulty of trying to make explicit a process that is subjective and by its nature steeped in paradox but argues we need to do something to try to rescue our discourse from the banality it can easily slide into.
He suggests that in many of our conversations we are still thinking alone, rather than thinking together, and points to several of the organisational cliches about action and decision-making that keep us alone. And this remark resonates too:
Beneath the reluctance to let go of our beliefs is the fear that there will be nothing underneath - a kind of anxiety about existence itself. Perhaps we cling to our certainties because we believe this is all we may have.I have had some experience of aiming for dialogue in groups, often using a talking stick, and have been pretty amazed at what can happen when we succeed in suspending our normal rules of engagment for conversations (interrupting; debating; arguing corners).
September 23, 2010
links for 2010-09-23
Geoff Brown talks about his original training in occupational therapy and how the "model of human occupation" he struggled with their took on more meaning in his later life as a facilitator. It's interesting to think how Open Space work attempts to activate volition and perhaps messes with habituation among delegates...
September 22, 2010
links for 2010-09-22
At least some people are trying to take a positive view of the opportunities for journalism in a networked world
I so often facilitate alone and it's my intention to do more work with friends. So it was lovely to have Viv come with me on a gig yesterday. Especially when she wrote this very flattering (and, obviously, perceptive) post about it. There's so much to learn from watching each other work.
We can't go on meeting like this - part two
The next We can't go on meeting like this will be on October 6th, 6pm to 8.30pm.
At our first event, Oli Barrett said this presented the challenge of the difficult second album. Well, I guess we'll see.
As before, our aim is to experiment with different ways for people to meet at an evening event. Last time we played some fairly high energy improv games, and this time we're going for something different. Here's the essential blurb:
We're offering a conversation in a circle, with some simple rules of engagement - essentially allowing people to speak without obligation, but also without fear of interruption. The idea is to create a different, some might say deeper, kind of conversation which can be challenging as well as engaging. And yes, we'll be using some form of talking stick....The subject of conversation will be introduced on the evening. It will be one that will allow everyone to share their own experiences.We're limiting this one to 15 people and you can register here. It's free, so in the words of the immortal Fred Pontin: book early.
September 19, 2010
links for 2010-09-19
Quotes a 2005 BCG study saying “It is in the interstices of the human network – rather than in the minds of a few wunderkinder – that most real innovations are born. And so it is the transaction costs that constrain innovation by constraining opportunities to share different and conflicting ideas, skills, and prejudices.”
Sounds like a case of the mobile companies demonstrating the Shirky Principle
Interesting fact-check on the traditional story that Giletter sold razors cheap and blades expensive. With insights on how patents may actually limit their owners' capacity to succeed
Comes to a similar conclusion as my friend Matt Moore: Myers-Briggs might be a good way to start a conversation but a terrible way to end one.
Rambling thoughts on models
I went down to Surrey on Friday for long walk and pub lunch with Neil Perkin. We'd originally planned to run a workshop about agile managenent that day. But as there were no takers, we thought we'd have an agile ramble. It was great, and a reminder that meetings don't have to be linear, or round a boardroom table, to be productive. Rather the opposite, I'd say.
I found out more about his plans to organise a team as part of The Great Football Giveaway. Apart from anything else, it's a good example of an idea taking off, taking its orginator on an adventure he wasn't necessarily expecting.
We talked a lot about the kinds of cultural blocks that stop organisations from being agile (and Neil's blog has lots of good stuff on that topic). I think organisations easily slide into language and conventions that are meant to increase collaboration but end up constipating it. Sometimes, even the championing of things like "design thinking" might be getting in the way, making being creative something special that you must learn, instead of seeing it as innate.
Leadership theories in PowerPoint formatIt would be hard to come up with five words more more likely to start me on a rant. It links to a massive page of management models and jargon. Although the authors have sensible caveats about the limits of models, they can't resist emblazoning this mantra as a kind of headline:
knowledge>>>understanding>>>actionIt sort of encapsulates the desperately rational notion that underlines so much of this kind of thing.
I was reminiscing about student days on the ramble. I thought of all the extraordinary things we got up at at university, all the things we organised fuelled mostly or wholly by enthusaism, from parties to dinners to debates to protests to opera productions. It was pretty much an orgy of ceativity and action. And hardly ever did anyone refer to any of these complicated/simplistic models. There was little time spent on management theory, things just got done.
I truly wonder if this stuff has much at all to do with the real work that gets done in the world... and I fear being expert in it has quite a lot to do with how you might rise to the top of hierarchies.
Noticing how we talk
Oli Barrett talks about an entrepreneurs forum with a simple ground rule: speak only from experience.
Entrepreneurs love to give advice, and all too often, they quite literally don’t know what they are talking about. During ‘Forum’ meetings, the principle is followed. Afterwards, perhaps at the bar, members are welcome to tell each other what they ‘really think’ someone should do, what their ‘hunch’ is, or what they would do in the same situation. But during Forum, experience beats guesswork every time.I think guidelines like this relatively minor one can have an amazing impact. Anything that disrupts our default mode for conversation is going to change our perspective and make us pay attention to a process we otherwise take for granted.
I've noticed that I'm retelling this story a lot at the moment. We easily lose sight of how our thinking shapes our experience, and conversation is one of the ways we think together. It's easy to miss the many ways in which unquestioned rituals of conversation shape, and limit, our experience.
I guess I'm more aware of this as someone who goes to meetings for a living. I see meetings in all sorts of organisations in all sorts of places... and I think I become more conscious of the cliches we can slip into. Among the habits I think people don't notice are interruption, giving advice, unconsciously trying to top other people's stories and many other forms of "talking or reloading".
I've done some work recently asking groups to suspend the normal patterns of interruption, and it takes a bit of getting used to. But the effect can be profound in terms of creating a different, and I would say deeper, sense of connection. People start to realise that many of the little interruptions that they suspend turn out to quite unnecessary to their understanding of and connection to the story being told.
September 16, 2010
On interesting meetings, and doing "nothing"
Chris Corrigan writes about running a very interesting meeting. As a fully paid up Englishman, for me "interesting" is one of those great code words that can mean all sorts of things, including painful, difficult and confusing.
And I suspect I'd have felt all those things had I been standing in Chris' shoes at this one, because things were clearly not going according to plan. For a facilitator in these moments, it's easy for all that great theory about flexibility, improvisation and "getting out of delegates' way" to go flying out the window... and for each challenge to process to feel like a thinly veiled personal attack. You can stand there mouthing the words, "of course I'm not attached to this approach" while some inflamed part of your personality is clinging to it for dear life, desperately shrieking, "but I'm a good facilitator".
There's some paradoxical contract at the heart of facilitation where we talk about empowering the group but nevertheless are getting paid to bear responsibility for what happens. Sometimes that's a engaging paradox, and sometimes it just hurts to sit there feeling real or imagined pressure to "do something" when doing nothing feels like the right thing to do.
The other day a delegate from an open space asked me, quite politely, how I justify my role. I think he was struggling with the sense that I wasn't doing much a lot of the time. There are various possible answers to his question. One of them is that I'm sometimes paid to occupy a position of leadership and then not lead. Chris says this about part of his meeting:
They are doing their own work and even though I didn’t technically “facilitate” anything today, I held space. Sometimes to wisdom not to intervene is what is required to keep space open.And then there's the insight of Dan Millman's peaceful warrior: there is never nothing happening.
September 15, 2010
We're all talk radio hosts now...
Jonah Lehrer suggests thinking can often serve to confuse us. He reports research where students had to rate different jams. They managed to come out with similar preferences to expert jam tasters. Then a similar group got the same exercise, but with questionnaires to complete so they had to explain their decisions. They came out with a quite different set of preferences, the worst jam suddenly coming first. Apparently this effect is repeated with many other preference tests. Our capacity for confabulation - basically inventing rational explanations of our behaviour that have little to do with reality - is one of the most remarkable things about humans. I loved this comment by Lehrer:
We like to believe that the gift of human reason lets us think like scientists, so that our conscious thoughts lead us closer to the truth. But here’s the paradox: all that reasoning and confabulation can often lead us astray, so that we end up knowing less about what jams/cars/jelly beans we actually prefer. So here’s my new metaphor for human reason: our rational faculty isn’t a scientist – it’s a talk radio host.As I've said before, we're really rationalising rather than rational creatures. Of course it would just be confirmation bias for me to cite this in support of my view that far too many bits of coporate process exhibit far too much of this over-cleverness. (Don't get me started on procurement processes).
Large tip of hat to Katie Chatfield who is becoming one of my favourite aggregators of novelty.
links for 2010-09-15
"Atwood uses the clip as an analogy to make the point that you don’t have to release a perfect product first thing, you just need to improve faster than anyone else. In other words, you can win through out-experimenting and out-iterating your competition. His examples are Chrome and Android from Google. Chrome put out 6 versions in the time it took Microsoft to get from Internet Explorer 7 to IE8. In the course of those iterations, Chrome has gone from an adequate browser to a pretty excellent one. Same with Android."
I'm a fan of Ivan Illich so I tend to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that schools constrain children's creativity. But Keith Sawyer offers some useful pushback on this.
"While hackers and open source tinkerers like nothing more than linking technical systems or pooling data swamps, most of the world see the walls around them as comforting and reassuring. Not just inconvenient barriers that need to be smashed down to accelerate disruption." I think that how we experience boundaries, as comforting or blocking, is more rich and diverse than we often realise.
Meetings as maps of the system
I lke Chris Corrigan's suggestion that meetings reflect the basic operating system of a group of people. He reflects on the perils of trying too hard to change it too suddenly.
Systemic change does just happen because you have a good theory and some smart ideas. It happens because you have sensed the timing and offered the right things at the right time. I’m not saying that we should shortchange people either and simply offer them comfortable options, not by any means. But a system’s tolerance for challenge is a sensitive thing and walking the edge comes with high stakes.I know I'm in generalising territory, but I'm increasingly suspecting that some apparently rigid systems are nothing like as immune to change as they may seem... but Chris is spot on that we have to take risks to see if that notion is true in practice.
In the shadow of networks
On the eve of the only other comparable national convulsion -- the lead-up to the Civil War - a strenuous public debate was able to focus on the salient question of the day, namely whether human slavery would continue in this country. Lincoln and Douglas parried for hours in the hot sun, arguing unscripted in complete sentences without the aid of teleprompters or offstage spin doctors. Yet no one above age of nine failed to understand what was at issue... Note the diminishing returns of technology at work in our time, making it impossible for us to think straight, despite the proliferation of snazzy devices, programs, networks, blog-clouds, and the pervasive, non-stop spewage of so-called information all intended to enhance communication. What did Lincoln have to work with? A pencil.Earl reflects
The issue is not how cool are our tools, the issue is what we use them for and I have long said that ICT is a huge accerlerator. It wont change who you are or how you or your organisation wporks at first, but it will massively amplify everything about the information environment you inhabit.This has been coming up a lot lately in my casual conversations with bloggy friends. We've been, still are, excited by what networking technology makes possible... but there's also this sense of disappointment. I get a big hit of stimulus from social media but there's a shadow side that maybe we need to talk about some more.
For me, it's not that social media is failing in some way, but that it can't replace us taking risks, talking (on and offline) with more courage and depth about what really matters.
September 13, 2010
Are we having fun yet?
The brilliant Bernie de Koeven has posted a poem about fun, and about what sort of fun we want. This bit particularly caught my eye:
Like the kinds of fun we can find in games that are inclusive and not exclusive, games that turn us all into players, games that keep us all in play.When we did some improv games at the "We can't go on meeting like this" gig the other day, this was something Stephen Wrentmore talked about: are we playing this to "win" or are we trying to find a way to include everyone? That strikes me as a great question about games.
For instance, I pretty much love improv games so it's easy to glibly assume that everyone will enjoy them and silently persecute those who don't. I then need to recall games at school, which were fun for others and miserable for ectomorphic me. When others are having fun, and you're not, that's a miserable experience. People having fun can be quite unbearable to those who aren't having fun. How can we all have enjoy the game, those who are "good" at it and those who aren't good?
It's a great question, not least because asking it surfaces all sorts of stuff about how we engage with others and assumptions we make about abundance or scarcity, winning or losing. Incidentally, this is something Bernie has spent his life thinking about.
links for 2010-09-13
Tom suggests the way we democracy needs to change if we're to tackle climate change. I think changing our understanding of democracy is a vital project - with the caveat that nothing about this is going to be linear.
"A group’s ritualistic adherence to meeting procedures and idealized rules of behaviour may create a false justification of the decisions made."
September 12, 2010
links for 2010-09-12
I've managed to stay out of World of Warcraft for a year now. This is a pretty useful guide to the multiple game mechanics that kept me hooked for so long...
"Collectively there was something in the order of 1000 work days at the conference, which if it was a research grant would have been in the order of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of staff buy out. Even if just a fraction of that had been harnessed in a more focused way, we could have done something amazing together."
" Social curation does not mean the end of editorial curation, it means the opportunity to combine them to make an even better product."
I like to think I write without slavishly chasing linkage. That's partly because I'm usually hopeless at guessing what will and won't be popular. So I found this little analysis interesting, though I hope it doesn't make us all into tricksy copywriters...
Ton Zijlstra describes his recent presentation on Open Data and Government.
His slideshare on this struck me as a brilliant, insightful explanation of the whole issue and why it really matters. And a terrific example of weaving together very specific personal stories into the bigger narrative... such as how Open Data could help a fireman save lives (and how in another century, its principles helped to uncover the true cause of cholera.
And here's the video version:
September 10, 2010
links for 2010-09-10
As if we need more things to read, this is a list of popular stories from Instapaper..
The radical value of stories and where numbers can fail us
An oldie but goodie post on the flaws of the coporate model
via Precccupations' delicious feed
Reclaiming/reinventing physical spaces
fascinating site, heard usman haque speak this morning at PFSK conference
September 9, 2010
links for 2010-09-09
Some interesting pushback on the recent story in HuffPo
September 8, 2010
links for 2010-09-08
Rob has been exposing himself to lots and lots of conversations about immigration. And doing a lot of serious listening. And now he's writing a series of really excellent reflections on the matter. Top blogging.
What do I or you or we want?
I've been doing a few Open Space events lately, either as host or participant, and I'm mostly thinking about this aspect: the challenge of giving expression to what we really want. When the marketplace for conversations is opened, there's this huge opportunity to put anything you want on the agenda and, thankfully, many people seize it. As a result, you get a huge range of interesting conversations. People ask for what they want, or see someone else's offer and say, I want to join that.
Then again, I sense that a lot of people experience frustration, at least early in the process. I think that's largely because in our over-stimulated world, there are lots of overt and coded messages telling us what to do. So when we're invited to decide for ourselves, it's harder than we might think. Often I'll have side conversations where people express a vague sense of frustration with the process... and often I think at the bottom of that is something they really want but haven't quite got round to asking for.
And lying in bed this morning, I realised that lies underneath a lot of the vague sense of anxiety I sometimes feel. Often, that can get in channelled into general complaints and rants about the state of the world. So maybe Harrison Owen is dead right in suggesting all of life is open space... and I need to keep practising finding ways to identify what I want and give respectful expression to it.
Just thinking out loud.
It turns out that perhaps we can...
So on Monday I helped to host We Can't Go On Meeting Like This. It was a little experiment in creating a different kind of evening meeting.
A little over 20 people showed up in the basement of the Adam Street club. They did so with very little idea of what they were letting themselves in for. And we as hosts hadn't entirely decided either.
After Oli Barrett did the welcome, I introduced a few improv games around a theme of throwing imaginary balls and bits of information or noises around the room. Ok, you had to be there. But I thought it was fun and there are lots of things we can learn about ourselves and each other from these apparently simple or pointless games. I say it was fun, but perhaps not for one or two people and it was interesting to explore why.
Stephen Wrentmore picked up the the theme and then Trish Stevenson changed the tempo with an activity exploring what questions everyone in the room was asking in their lives at the moment. And various other things happened, including a process for almost everyone to end up on the floor having pretended to die.
I think we established it could be really engaging to meet people without ever having to ask, or find out, "what do you do?". And I think most, but not all, enjoyed it a lot.
From which I think we concluded we should do it again. And next time aim for something altogether different.
If this sounds remotely intriguing, you sign up here for updates on future "We Can't Go On events.
Oh and if you're not in the London area and feel like you might want to stage one of your own, I'd be very happy to share ideas with you...
September 7, 2010
links for 2010-09-07
Some deep thinking about America's attitudes to immigration, looking at how the issue is connected with the structure of the economy and the profound flaws in the "Big Food" system
Anecdote Circles... and seeing the trees.
I've been doing a little work lately using Anecdote Circles. I found this Ultimate Guide (pdf) an excellent reflection on the process and how to use it. The guys at Anecdote have clearly done a lot of work not just to give lots of information and advice, but also to make it accessible in design. I found lots of useful nuggets in there.
Perhaps the top tip is the suggestion of posing an emotional question to participants focussed on actualy personal experiences. For instance, if you were working with trainers, you might ask: what training room experiences have most delighted, surprised or frustrated you? Just by including the emo words, I find you provoke a very different level of engagement.
I think even with the prompt, people often struggle to tell stories of specific incidents. It's valuable, but hard, to suspend the urge to generalise and to analyse each other's tales. It's easy to slide off into dicussions about trends etc. There's a place for that, but it can miss the power of getting to actual stories of specific things that happened.
I think it's a case of not seeing the trees for the wood. We slide into comfortable generalities and fail to explore the source data afresh. In fact, I'm also tempted to suggest focussing on twigs.
And if you're into fractals, you might go one further and see the wood in the twig...
September 6, 2010
links for 2010-09-06
"organizing a self organizing system is a questionable undertaking involving a great deal of unnecessary work"
September 5, 2010
links for 2010-09-05
Robert Brook reflects on crises and preparedness. And the idea that we'd better get ready for more of both.
I liked this post by Dan Burgess at The Pipeline Project: Learning to Unlearn.
He talks about his experience of reverting to almost-barefoot running, eschewing years of being, in effect, trained by his trainers. And it's a metaphor for the challenge of any kind of letting go of ideas about the world that entrance us - particularly because we don't even realise they do. (Which is why I bookmarked this story by Douglas Adams.)
Here's a snippet but read the whole thing.
Open-ness and vulnerability I think are key in learning to unlearn, because challenging our assumptions, acknowledging and accepting that much of what we have learnt in our career's and what we know about the world is no longer that relevant is at times extremely tough to accept. It requires honesty and trust, compassion, the ability to really listen to others, to examine and be open about our own behaviours and beliefs... But openness and vulnerability are also the sort of behaviours rarely encouraged in organisations.
September 4, 2010
links for 2010-09-04
Short and fascinating. Recipients of aid are asked to tell stories about the experience and then tag them according to their central theme. Turns out, biggest concern is social relations. Experts weren't expecting that.