Weblog Entries for August 2011
August 31, 2011
Connections and chaos
Poorly connected organizations always end up with simple dynamics and repetitive patterns. Highly interconnected organizations may exhibit patterns that can be described mathematically as edge of chaos dynamics.I think this is why some people react with anxiety to the early stages of processes like Open Space: it doesn't play out the simple patterns of the conventional hierarchy.
August 30, 2011
links for 2011-08-30
"A single bee lives 6 weeks, so a memory of several years is impossible, but that's how long a hive of individual bees can remember. Humanity is migrating towards its hive mind. Most of what "everybody knows" about us is based on the human individual. Collectively, connected humans will be capable of things we cannot imagine right now. These future phenomenon will rightly seem impossible. What's coming is so unimaginable that the impossibility of wikipedia will recede into outright obviousness." HT @jonhusband
August 29, 2011
links for 2011-08-29
A bottom-up insurgency against the establishment, no doubt with its flaws, but triggering classic elitist bluster from those in power. HT @DavidAllenGreen
Simple ideas, lightly held
A few years back I contributed a chapter to the More Space project. I had a look at it again recently and thought it still stood up pretty well.
Here's the pdf: Simple Ideas, Lightly Held. (The title is a nod towards David Weinberger's elegant theme of small pieces, loosely joined.) In part, it's an exploration of how to deal with the challenge of complexity without falling into the trap of being simplistic or complicated. Enjoy!
Group intelligence and small cues
Aaron Saenz reports research from MIT into collective intelligence. They studied the effectiveness of a series of groups of varying sizes and performing a number of different tasks. Then they attempted to pin down the key factors that led to group success.
Interestingly, the IQ of group members was correlated with group performance, but only weakly. So what was strongly correlated? Two things: social sensitivity, and turn taking (ie allowing everyone in the group time to contribute).
Although media have focussed on a third (women members), it turns out that this is really about social sensitivity.
I got sidetracked into the online social sensitivity test mentioned in the article. I can't speak for its academic value, but it was a good reminder of how much meaning (correct or not) we can make from fragmentary visual information - in this case, another person's eyes.
I think this kind of sensitivity is easily mocked or despised. I like to stick up for the value of the small connections and push back against the grandiosity of big ideas. I occasionally add things to my Crumbs! category which reflect this.
When doing actiivities for facilitators to explore how they work, Viv and I often play with small differences. We might get people to play a status exchange, inviting them to see if they can shift status just with their eyes. These little games often give us a glimpse of the richness of small cues.
Hat tip: jascharohr
August 28, 2011
Term papers and gobbledegook
Another part of Cathy Davidson's article that caught my eye was her discussion of term papers in college. She asks a question I've been asking for a while now:
What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in college—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student's natural writing style or thought process? I hadn't thought of that until I read my students' lengthy, weekly blogs and saw the difference in quality. If students are trying to figure out what kind of writing we want in order to get a good grade, communication is secondary. What if "research paper" is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?I know where my prejudices lie. And Cathy's answer resonates for me:
Research indicates that, at every age level, people take their writing more seriously when it will be evaluated by peers than when it is to be judged by teachers. Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers. Longitudinal studies of student writers conducted by Stanford University's Andrea Lunsford, a professor of English, assessed student writing at Stanford year after year. Lunsford surprised everyone with her findings that students were becoming more literate, rhetorically dexterous, and fluent—not less, as many feared. The Internet, she discovered, had allowed them to develop their writing.It's not only in education that I think we've become way too reverent of long form writing. Government so often tackles difficult issues by inviting someone, either a judge or a TV star, to write a long report. The length of the report often belies the quality of the thinking. Social workers, teachers and policemen often seem bogged down in report-writing instead of being in contact with their communities. Having a book to your name appears to confer mystical powers.
Collaboration by difference
Cathy Davidson writes about Collaborative Learning, drawing on her book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. It's a lively discussion of her experiments in redesigning education for the internet age, and some of the old school resistance to it - including some of her own.
This bit in particular caught my eye. She describes the now-famous spot-the-gorilla experiment to illustrate human attention blindness. She then talks about a way of seeing collaboration:
We used a method that I call "collaboration by difference." Collaboration by difference is an antidote to attention blindness. It signifies that the complex and interconnected problems of our time cannot be solved by anyone alone, and that those who think they can act in an entirely focused, solitary fashion are undoubtedly missing the main point that is right there in front of them, thumping its chest and staring them in the face.In the world of meetings, there are usually lots and lots of gorillas. What easily happens is that different people spot different ones and find it hard to credit that others have different views. People become impatient in the "groan zone" and assume that if only everyone would admit to the superiority of their perspective, things could all move forward in an orderly manner.
One manifestation of this attitude is the person with some clever process for getting "alignment". This process typically involves lots of multicoloured post-it notes being clustered, with the person herself playing a leading role in that organisation, usually holding forth on complexity theory and looking very pleased with herself at the end, insincerely congratulating the audience on her achievement.
I get more interested in ways to hold the similarities and differences and not needing it all tidied up so quickly.
Hat tip: @timekord
Holding uncertainty, living forwards
I've been thinking about robust uncertainty a lot lately. Viv said something in an email recently that struck this chord. The gist of it was, confidence is not certainty but the willingness to act even when we're not certain.
Chaordic confidence describes the ability to stay in chaos and trust that order will emerge. It's a subtle art, but it is essential to working with groups who are themselves confronting chaos.This also reminded me of a recent chat with Anne McCrossan, where she talked about (if I remember this correctly) the wisdom of cocktails. With the benefit of the odd cocktail, our world is slightly destabilised in an interesting way that admits new possibilities. Whatever your views on cocktails as a method, there's something vital about a bit of instability.
I throw out a lot of loose thinking on twitter, but I noticed this one got a little bit of retweet action, perhaps because it struck the same chord: meetings often have to break down to break through.
Kirkegaard famously said that life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. It occurs to me that the choice to move forwards physically involves introducing a little instablity. That's what infants are playing with as they learn to walk. Parents supporting those infants try to make that process of falling over safe enough to be fun but not so safe that there's no learning.
I've done quite a bit of facilitation training this year, loads of it with Viv. We've pushed to get the sponsors to accept less emphasis on learning lots of techniques and tips in favour of lots of activities where participants try stuff out. One area where we play around a lot is the "difficult people" situation.
We resist offering standard tricks for this. So we don't offer formulaic models for managing difficult people, however comprehensively researched. Instead, we ask people to recall or imagine their encounters with the inevitable impossible participant and then recreate it as an improv scene, and ask them to play it out. And then we play around, asking them to try and play it in different ways. Or we introduce "tagging" where other participants step into the scene to try different responses.
If anyone in the audience comes up with a clever analysis, we tend to stop them and say, great, go play that idea out. Funnily, their first response is mild panic - as they realise it's one thing to do the theory and another to do the the practice.
What this play encourages, I believe, is a growing willingness to try stuff and realise nothing is written.
That feels a lot closer to learning a "core skill" than being able to recite any seven-part formula. Improv often reminds me that to be human is to be able to sense life's infinite possibilities but often feeling completely stuck.
For me the difficult people are often those who advocate passionately for black-and-white positions. Examples:
- We shouldn't break into groups, it's vital that everyone hears everything that's said!
- Obviously, you should have made sure the coffee was ready before we took a break!
- We could have sorted this out much sooner if you'd used my technique!
These statements often throw me a little. In the moment, the vehemence of the speaker makes me doubt myself. It's easy to then have an inner demon tell me I've been a fool and everyone now thinks I'm an idiot. The trap for me is that I may either collapse and feel ashamed, or push back inelegantly - slipping into my own black-or-white world.
Such challenges, and such discomforts, will never go away - but they will continue to give another chance to try out holding uncertainty with robustness, and possibly grace.
August 26, 2011
Tried and trusted?
I agree with Viv:
Facilitation isn’t just about taking a tried and true process and using it yet again, because it worked just fine last time. It’s about connecting dots, it’s about seeing a way a group can relate to each other and to a problem in a way they might not have considered before.I tire quite quickly of debates about processess for this reason. The best moments in facilitation are the ones where there is a surprise, and something unexpected emerges.
August 25, 2011
links for 2011-08-25
" the main point of this book may seem obvious to some readers, but if you listen to most management gurus and fancy consulting firms, the approach that the authors suggest is actually radically different. The broad sweep of strategy and radical change and big hairy goals is where much of modern management advice focuses, yet the finding from this book that it is relentless attention to the little things and the seemingly trivial moments in organizational life that really makes for greatness is not something that most leaders and their advisers get, yet it is the hallmark of our most creative companies like Pixar, Apple, Google, IDEO and the like"
"When disturbed, most of us would rather hunker down someplace safe. This attitude kills creativity. Negativity and despair are all around. When you hear them, it’s a great opportunity to creatively engage. Ask a question of possibility. Take a stand for connection in a time of separation." Yeah.
" These days, especially since I've started work on Dodgem Logic, I am becoming fanatically local. I used to be just local in the ordinary inbred sense but these days I'm seeing it more as a political position. A socio-economic position. I was reading something by a futurologist who said that some years ago he'd greatly upset a convention of futurologists by suggesting that politics and economics in the future were more likely to be localized than globalized but this was before the great financial melt down and nowadays people were tending to agree with him more. I think that's where it's going." via @redmedicine
Mention your pet frog
I am huge believer that little details can make bid differences, and I'm enjoying Richard Wiseman's little book, 59 Seconds for its curation of some. Here's one good one: In an experiment on negotiation, researchers compared the effectiveness of two versions of a final offer on a piece of art.
In one version, the seller offers to accept $6000. In the other, he makes the same financial offer but with added humour - "my final offer is $6000 and I'll throw in my pet frog". Apparently,
Those few moments of attempted humour had a big effect, with particpants making a much greater compromise in their purchase price whenever they heard about the frog.
August 24, 2011
links for 2011-08-24
More good analysis from Keith Sawyer: how our memories appear to change to support social conformity. Suggest the value of solo, reflective work and feedback as part of group work.
August 23, 2011
links for 2011-08-23
Too often organsiations try to do creativity as if it's all about being "positive". Engaging the shadow feels scary but can be amazingly productive. Roy's video explores one way of doing this.
Matt Moore has a nice post on Tetlock's work exposing experts predcitions, made even better by weaving in a classic Woody Allen clip.
August 22, 2011
August 21, 2011
links for 2011-08-21
I agree. Conversations about innovation are usually about power. And those with it will defend it.
"Mr Christensen and his colleagues list five habits of mind that characterise disruptive innovators: associating, questioning, observing, networking and experimenting." Can't help wondering if we could hang facilitation on similar pegs
Tim Kastelle introduces me to Sturgeon's Law, which states that Nothing is always absolutely so. He also sums up why it's tempting to ignore it.
Now, that’s a really bad point to try to build a blog post around. It’s always a lot harder to explain why there are exceptions to every rule. It’s easier to make big categorical statements. It’s more fun, it’s easier to make lists out of them, they get more tweets, and +1s, etc.Generally speaking, on the whole, I largely agree, all else being equal, subject to contract, your mileage may vary.
Solar panels based on trees
Gizmodo reports how a 13-year-old boosts the effectiveness of solar panels by adapting the structure of trees.
Did you hear that? All of the smart-guys in the country who spent their time trying to make solar power more efficient were just outsmarted by a thirteen-year-old and a tree.I love this!
1. The idea emerges not from brainstorming about solar cells, but from reflecting on something seen in nature. Classically, looking at something we all see (trees) and seeing something more.
2. Change can come from anywhere, anytime. Even in the most everyday situation, we may be only separated from a breakthrough but our habitual thinking.
3. For years, solar panels have been flat... and of course that was sensible, wasn't it. Linear thinking only gets you so far.
Hat tip: @RoyBlumenthal
UPDATE: Though I may be getting overexcited, if this is true, pointed to by @ninefish
August 20, 2011
links for 2011-08-20
I think we're seeing how some people's response to the riots embodies the very qualities they saw in the riots.
Could coaching, "content delivery" and assessment be split up? Interesting.
August 19, 2011
Neil Perkin examines the success of the New York Times paywall. In a nutshell, it works because it's porous.
Problems and solutions
Dwight Towers has a short, entertaining and provocative video: the problem solution ratio.
He makes great points on how easy it is to wallow in indignation, the dangers of experts and how meetings lure in those who like to lecture us and play status games, rather than converse.
I'm a bit cautious about setting a problem-solution ratio. We can admire the principle but I doubt people can agree on what's a problem and what's a solution. For example, the man suggesting National Service as a response to riots think he's in solution territory. Others will think he's actually making the problem worse.
We're familiar with the axiom if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. But it's easily arguable that if we can't acknowledge our own part in any dysfunctional system, there may be no progress. As someone tweeted a while ago, in this case, if you're not part of the problem, you're not part of the solution.
In fact, we might do better to loosen our hold on this binary idea of problems and solutions.
Crime and punishment
Alexander Lee reminds us of Thomas Paine's wisdom - something I'm fearful we ae short of at the moment.
For Paine, even the most heinous crimes must be punished with justice and moderation, and with more regard for liberty than revenge. Similarly, since a shared goodness underpinned liberty itself, punishment must not further corrupt the fallen, but augment their better nature so that they might respect and enjoy freedom the better.Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan
August 17, 2011
links for 2011-08-17
Hat tip: @jaggeree
"If you study any trivial thing with persistence you will find complexity." Hat tip: @ralph_orr
Just a tweet
This tweet from Assistant Chief Constable Garry Shewan caught my eye.
With respect I am unsure what the Home Secretary thinks that she told GMP to do different. She listened but said nothing. Tactics were ours!I think twitter so lowers the threshold for "publishing" that we start putting into the record things more spontaneously. I think it's one of the ways it subverts more rigid hierarchy and eats away at the power of those at the top.
Thought for the day
@PhilosophyQuotz tweeted this:
If a victory is told in detail, one can no longer distinguish it from a defeat. - Sartre
Ah, but what are they talking about?
Mr @johnniemoore getting people talking at Surrey CouncilI saw the tweet and idly wondered if people might feel a bit sceptical: who does this guy think he is, posturing as some kind of insightful catalyst. So when @TomSprints tweeted back as follows...
@dominiccampbell @johnniemoore Ah, but what are they talking about?I could well understand the scepticism. To be a facilitator is to be constantly tempted into grandiose ideas about your importance, and (in my case anyway) to get regular reminders not to sustain them.
As it happens, I generally don't go earwigging on group conversations. For one thing, it feels intrusive, almost supervisory. In a lot of contexts it's also quite useful not to get too caught up in content.
But on a broader point, I generally think it's up to participants to manage their own conversations. I guess that Tom's concern is that these conversations might have been in some way purposeless or inefficient... but I think it's hard to be really sure what makes a conversation purposeful. Apparently idle small talk can easily be a prelude to a riskier more challenging conversation; apparently intense conversations related to the matter in hand might lead nowhere.
Later that morning I suggested a particular way for groups to feedback. I wasn't sure it was a good format and several groups opted out of my plan and did their own thing. I'm glad they pushed back... I take it as a healthy sign of people taking care of themselves.
Margaret Heffernan has a powerful analysis of the many delusions that go with having high office in an organisation. John of Gaunt (in Richard II) summed it up in his rebuke to the king: a thousand flatterers sit within thy crown.
Dave Snowden nods to Shakespeare too (Hamlet and Henry V) as he talks about ways that people in power can get more realistic challenge.
I think play can be a good way to disrupt the status games of hierarchy. This doesn't mean (necessarily) the cliche-ridden games of corporate awaydays which can easily create their own rigid hierarchies. I mean just trying out different perspectives and ways of looking at issues. If you ask someone to play a difficult customer, or a noxious journalist, it gives them a bit of licence to make observations they might not venture in a more solemn format. Dave talks about multiple online identities for CEOs which is another way of disrupting excessive reverence for the leader.
I've also found that if you get people to draw pictures or even just choose a picture from a random collection, and then ask them how it relates to the issue at hand, it often opens up very different comments and ideas than you get in a more conventional discussion.
We don't have to go overboard; even small tilts can change the power dynamics in meetings.
August 15, 2011
links for 2011-08-15
It's been a looong time since I heard someone talking about the labour theory of value. I share John Willshire's nostalgia for it.
Somewhat dispiriting but worth reflecting on.
I've been thinking of what to say about the recent UK riots. You'll get clues to my more spontaneous responses in my twitter feed.
There's been a fair bit of discussion around the value of seeing the riots through the lens of complexity... and the challenge to keep an open mind rather than simply seeing all events as merely further confirmation of our existing prejudices about society. It's a tough gig being a human, trying hard to maintain our rational dignity when much of our brain is more evolved for fight-or-flight responses.
I struggle with this: what do I do about the contempt I feel gripped by when judging those whose actions appear to be driven by contempt. Debates so easily slide into fights for status where we attempt to preserve our dignity by attacking that of others. The riots, and what came before and after, seem to be a series of cycles of such attacks on dignity.
Then I saw this analysis of Obama's political style quoted on Andrew Sullivan's blog. Whatever you may think of Obama at the moment, I find these principles cast some light for me on how not to get stuck in a contempt auction. Here's a snippet:
Obama acts entirely within the tradition of mainstream African American political strategy and tactics. The epitome of that tradition was the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement, but goes back much further in time. It recognizes the inequality of power between whites and blacks. Number one: maintain your dignity. Number two: call your adversaries to the highest principles they hold. Number three: Seize the moral high ground and Number four: Win by winning over your adversaries, by revealing the contradiction between their own ideals and their actions. It is one way that a oppressed people struggle.
August 14, 2011
links for 2011-08-14
August 7, 2011
links for 2011-08-07
Challenging bribery (and other social ills) by making it more visible
"It’s not about “work” at all. Real coworking is about the “co-” part, about being together. Pride. Like-mindedness. About avoiding the risks and vicissitudes of sitting at work by yourself, not being exposed to the externalities of real life by yourself, about not reinventing the wheel by yourself every time a computer acts weird or a contract gets confusing or a lawsuit pops up or your dog needs a play date or you have too much work." via Dave Pollard
August 6, 2011
links for 2011-08-06
I am a big fan of simple formats that let people "just" talk. Just in sneer quotes because I think talk has the potential for richness and complexity that most black bock processes can only dream of. David's running this workshop to share his own particular flavour of cafe style meetings.
"The most surprising aspect of the results is how basic the expressed needs were, and yet how profoundly unmet many of these needs went. Asked what would have helped them with their grief, the survey-takers talked again and again about acknowledgement of their grief. They wanted recognition of their loss and its uniqueness; they wanted help with practical matters; they wanted active emotional support. What they didn't want was to be offered false comfort in the form of empty platitudes. Acknowledgement, love, a receptive ear, help with the cooking, company—these were the basic supports that mourning rituals once provided.."
" whilst innovation is of course our bread and butter, I increasingly dislike the word in many ways, because it is something that everyone wants without quite knowing what it is. " Amen
August 5, 2011
links for 2011-08-05
"Action without intention, or the suspension of striving is not non-action. It is not “passivity.” It does not preclude any particular path of action at all. What it does require is a profound shift in attitude."
August 4, 2011
Improv to Performance
This is the best improv course I've ever done.
You go for a series of evening sessions where you play with your fellow participants, and then on the last evening, you put on a performance together. For a real audience.
Slightly scary in prospect, brilliant in practice.
I'm thinking of doing it again, and I highly recommend it - if you're in the London area and can free up Monday evenings starting in October.
Facilitation for participants
Steve Davis makes a great point:
Given that in any given group there are, on average, eight times more participants than there are meeting leaders, targeting meeting leaders alone in our efforts to improve meetings may be missing the mark.I've been thinking on similar lines; it's quite tempting to write stuff about faciliation to guide the "leader"... but maybe it would be more powerful to write for the participants. Steve, in fact, goes ahead and does this, suggesting 12 Acts of Courage to Change Meetings for Good. This is good food for thought, especially as Viv and I have been working on a draft on similar lines.
I especially agree with this thought:
People underestimate the complexity of group thought.Yes, indeed. And almost every effort to explore it risks falling into the trap of oversimplifying (including, arguably, lists of steps!). A lot of frustration in meetings seems to arise when people think they understand what is happening, or what should be, and then announce it to the group as if it's obvious... only to discover that not everyone thinks the same way.
Hat tip: Dwight Towers sent me an email that prompted this post.
August 3, 2011
Who is responsible for meetings succeeding?
Chris Corrigan has a great post on objections to participation in conferences. I've learnt a lot from conversations with Chris over the years and what he says here is spot on.
One thing he said a while ago that has always stuck with me is the question: what sort of assumptions about participants are we making when we design this event? This is worth talking about, as I find a lot of processes are basically designed out of fear, as if most or all participants will be disruptive, difficult and obstructive. Needless to say, if you design this way, you're hardly setting up to create a positive, participatory event.
In this post, Chris reinforces the point. He challenges the assumption that
The responsibility for the experience rests with the organizers, not the participants.He points out the pitfalls of this approach:
This is to some extent true although it does a great disservice to most conference design. Assuming that you as a planning committee have to deliver a great experience for everyone is neither possible nor productive. You are never going to make everyone happy, so leave that idea behind. And you aren’t going to get all the content right. The best traditional conferences meet some of the expectations of participants most of the time, meaning that there are large blocks of time that don’t meet people’s expectations. And so the default setting for most participants is to spend thousands of dollars on a passive experience, taking some interest in workshops or speeches and spending the rest of the time self-organizing dinners, coffee breaks and other chances to connect with friends old and new. Another word for a conference that takes thousands of your dollars and leaves you finding your own way is “a racket.”
August 1, 2011
links for 2011-08-01
Scabrous takedown of blue sky thinking. ""Nudge unit". "Big society". "Hug a hoodie". They sound like the titles of nauseating business-psychobabble books: the sort of timewasting Who Moved My Cheese? groovy CEO bullshit routinely found cluttering the shelves of every airport bookshop in the world. As well as being a pallid substitute for actual creativity – a device for making grey business wonks mistake themselves for David Bowie at his experimental peak – these books are the direct suit-and-tie office-dick equivalent of those embarrassing motivational self-help tomes that prey on the insecure, promising to turn their life around before dissolving into a blancmange of "strategies" and "systems" and above all excruciating metaphors."
Good stuff from Geoff Brown