Weblog Entries for October 2012
October 31, 2012
I really hate panel sessions
I hardly ever go to meetings that promise a panel format. I was recently reminded why.
It seems to me that as humans we are hugely programmed to play together, and conversation can be a very satisfying form of play. Somewhere in school or church, we all got indoctrinated with the idea that it's good to sit and just listen to some authority figure going on and on. If we are very lucky, after being bored to death for an indefinite time, we might get to ask a question if we try to be polite and as long as someone else doesn't leap in first.
I suppose the idea of a panel is to provide more variety than some version of death by powerpoint but I think it can be even worse. Generally the killer-by-powerpoint might experience some motivation to prepare something mildly interesting but panellists usually show up hoping for the best. And the format of being on stage has the impact on most of them of inhibiting the spontaneity that might usually be the byproduct of less preparation.
And in the audience, I think it's excruciating to have watch other people have the opportunity for the give-and-take conversation that we are naturally hungry to be part of ourselves. It's bad enough to be hungry, but to hungry and forced to watch others eat, and usually eat carelessly?
Thank heavens that with things like twitter there is at least a backchannel where we can have some kind of interaction. But having gone to the massive trouble of putting human beings in the room, why use a format that so misses out an opportunity for real peer-to-peer engagement?
I suppose when the panel is on TV, at least I feel I can shout at the screen or go make a coffee... but when you're mired in the audience that's harder to do.
The other thing I strongly suspect is that a lot of people hate these sessions but feel it's better to be polite afterwards and claim to have found them interesting. And so we get mired in an endless loop of this dreary format.
I wonder how it is I've never come across Otto Rank before. He was a close associate of Freud but they fell out when Rank started to question some of Freud's doctrines. Amongst other things, Rank challenged the prevailing view that reduced all emotion to an expression of sexuality and saw it as something to be excluded in the analyst's relationship with parents. Rock's questioning of this emotional coldness sowed the seeds for all sorts of things that followed, including the growth of gestalt psychotherapy.
I was very struck by what Rank said here:
Life in itself is a mere succession of separations. Beginning with birth, going through several weaning periods and the development of the individual personality, and finally culminating in death – which represents the final separation. At birth, the individual experiences the first shock of separation, which throughout his life he strives to overcome. In the process of adaptation, man persistently separates from his old self, or at least from those segments off his old self that are now outlived. Like a child who has outgrown a toy, he discards the old parts of himself for which he has no further use ….The ego continually breaks away from its worn-out parts, which were of value in the past but have no value in the present. The neurotic [who cannot unlearn, and, therefore, lacks creativity] is unable to accomplish this normal detachment process … Owing to fear and guilt generated in the assertion of his own autonomy, he is unable to free himself, and instead remains suspended upon some primitive level of his evolution.
This bit of the wikipedia entry also caught my eye:
The most creative artists, such as Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Leonardo, know how to separate even from their own greatest public successes, from earlier artistic incarnations of themselves. Their “greatness consists precisely in this reaching out beyond themselves, beyond the ideology which they have themselves fostered,” according to Art and Artist (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 368). Through the lens of Otto Rank’s work on understanding art and artists, action learning can be seen as the never-completed process of learning how to “step out of the frame” of the ruling mindset, whether one’s own or the culture’s – in other words, of learning how to unlearn.I love this thought; any practitioner who gets too attached to their process is in danger of cutting off their aliveness to what is really possible.
Rank appears to have had a significant influence on the development of drama therapy and I immediately see connections to the "problem theatre" approach I blogged about yesterday. That could be framed as a way of socialising experiments in generating new versions of ourselves to respond to difficult situations. We can't get rid of the kind of existential fear that goes with creating something new, but we can perhaps create spaces in which that need not feel so scary or lonely?
More to follow...
Hat tip to Andreas Manuth whose tweet set me the path to finding Rank.
October 30, 2012
Problem theatre/Action Storming
I recently did some work with David Simoes-Brown and the team at 100% Open. He came up with a catchy name for one of the activities I shared. This is an approach to training that I've developed with my friends Viv McWaters and Simo Routarrine. David christened it "problem theatre". Viv and I have also called in Action Storming.
It's influenced by all sorts of things, like forum theatre, psychodrama and constellations, with a big dose of improv on top.
Although we build up to it in a variety of ways, the central idea is to explore dilemmas presented by participants through improvised drama. If the theme of a workshop is dealing with difficult people/relationships, we ask someone to give us a real world examples of situations they have struggled with. I'll be calling that person the client for the purpose of this post. And then we re-enact the situation, using fellow participants to play the various characters.
So although we're going to apply some improv ideas, we are working with a real world situation, not an imagined one.
We typically create a scene with a very few lines of dialogue and kick off setting it up to be as realistic as possible. Usually this means we get it so that it really fires the hot buttons of the client, who starts by playing him/herself in the scene.
After this, we replay the same short scene again, with all those playing being asked to retain the same lines and character except for the client, who is invited to try anything different. I usually encourage them to try something crazy that would never work, as a way of loosening up the creative synapses.
We'll play the same scene lots of times. There may be a little debrief between scenes but not too much. We are trying to downplay the role of analysis in favour of plenty of experimentation.
We also introduce the idea of tagging, so that our client can be tagged out by someone who wants to have a go at dealing with the difficult situation. As coach, I will quite often step in myself and do something crazy to encourage experimenting, and to undermine the limiting belief that I'm the expert with the answer. That's a training pitfall that I think can be oppressive. (I think my job is about helping to create a field in which people can make discoveries for themselves).
When I'm coaching it, I discourage observers from analysing what they see; it's so easy to lapse into apparently expert commentary and it quickly saps the energy. My view is, if you can see a better way to play this, then step in. Like they say about TV quiz shows, it's quite a different matter to be in the spotlight.
Quite often we may seem to just flail around for a while, and as coach I have to manage my own anxiety that it might not go anywhere. Usually what happens is that there seem to be sudden little breakthroughs, where people come up variations that have a noticeable impact - often something sensed by the whole group. Many of these are not much like solutions but they could be part of a solution. There are no guarantees but eventually someone will assemble some of the fragments into what feels like a breakthrough response.
As coach, I try to curb the temptation when I think I spot one of these fragments, to get excited and point out what it is. I'm trying to discourage that kind of analysis, and I reckon if there really is an insight in the performance, people will get it without me pointing it out. (This post on the pitfalls of explicit learning gives some clues as to what I'm thinking here.) I am not a fan of the notion that we must start with a theory before we engage in experiments; my own experience is that the premature theorising stifles the ability of groups to experiment.
This whole approach seeks to avoid the temptation of teaching five rules for dealing with X, and it avoids teaching theory in favour of practice. In this way, it's pretty different from a lot of training. It values discovery and surprise over the comfort of predicting what people will learn. As such it may not go down well with some HR departments.
But it does really engage participants and usually leaves them with a lot to talk about. I also think it demonstrates that in all these situations, where may feel stuck, there are actually all sorts of choices available to us. And that's something that gets easily stymied by the false comfort of "proven approaches" to what are generally reassuringly complex and wicked problems. As Viv and I are fond of saying, the clue about those difficult relationships is in the name. They are difficult and require us to try new things. It's really tiresome to pretend they are so easy as to lend themselves to a rule-based solution.
(There is probably more to be said about how this fits with ideas about informal learning and what it owes to Tim Gallwey's inner game insights about coaching... but I'll save it for another day. I could also add a footnote about the use of the problem-solution frame here but I'll trust you can see what I'm driving at.)
October 29, 2012
It ain't that simple
Chris Rodgers pours cold water on the idea of evidence-based practice when managing people.
Organizations are complex social processes, not rational scientific endeavours. As such, they are not amenable to the research and testing protocols needed to provide rigorous 'evidence' of the merit of a particular practice. Or to justify claims that what is perceived to be successful practice in one context can be generalized to others.Instead he argues for "practice-based evidence" - describing something that relates closely to my experience of improvisation: try things out and pay attention to what happens.
We are not talking here about products and practices that can be tested meticulously in advance, and replicated precisely in design, development and application. We are talking about the complex social processes that we call organization. And, whilst the dynamics of organization are the same in each case (the self-organized patterning of local, conversational interactions), the ways in which these play out in each situation are unique - and unpredictable in all but the most limited sense.I usually feel like an outsider reading management books and theories; as if there is some missing script that I haven't been given. They reduce the complexity of human life to something lacking real texture. I agree with Richard Farson who argues that in doing so they actually undermine managers by creating quite false expectations of what can be achieved. It leads to all sorts of dubious managment BS.
I have been following the US elections fairly closely. It's interesting to see how partisan they are, and how people can take the same data point and reach quite opposite conclusions. People claim their views are based on values but it seems that what these values mean varies enormously.
My hunch that this amount of difference is actually quite natural and normal. And it makes me doubt very strongly much of what is said about organisations getting their people aligned around values.
October 25, 2012
Creativity and intimacy
I've been rereading this great post by Gary Schwartz: The Trouble with Yes, And. It's written with experienced improvisers in mind, but I think it has some really interesting perspectives for anyone interested in creativity.
Gary looks at the improv principle of saying "Yes, and" which is essentially the idea that when we consider what others offer, we try to build on them. It's not a bad idea and it will be familiar to most folks who've been to brainstorming sessions. I think Gary puts his finger on how it can be limiting, with this quote from his mentor, Viola Spolin:
Creativity is not the clever rearranging of the knownIf we get stuck in politely trying to build a wall where my brick is politely added to your brick we appear to be doing something together, but we're not really in flow. Gary argues that we get stuck in our heads, exchanging information... but Spolin says that
information is a weak form of communicationGary talks about his improv exercises based on "following the follower" which I have found can create quite surprising moments of intimacy and uncertainty. Players are tempted to escape that experience, but it offers the opportunity to enter genuinely new territory together. Here's what Gary argues:
There needs to be a way to transcend the bounds of information and enter into the theatrical and inspired. That can only be found in the intuitive connection between players. Intuitive connection is not as easy to create as one would think. It can certainly not be willed into being... When true flow occurs, all the participants happily enter into the exploration of the unknown, unencumbered by judgment, premeditation, and old frames of reference. Only then can true improvisation occur.Sometimes I think people talk about innovation as if all the vulnerability and intimacy can be squeezed out, to make it a nice safe activity for alpha males. Events billed as a "battle of ideas" come to mind: on one level they sound daring and adventurous, but I wonder if really they keep as all very safe arguing intellectually with each other. They seem to me to reinforce our sense of separation. The notion of creativity involving intimacy and vulnerabilty, and being inherently relational, is - for me - much more interesting.
October 22, 2012
Beyond the flipped classroom
Shelley Wright explains how she "flipped" her classoom teaching.
The flipped classroom essentially reverses traditional teaching. Instead of lectures occurring in the classroom and assignments being done at home, the opposite occurs. Lectures are viewed at home by students, via videos or podcasts (found online or created by the teacher), and class time is devoted to assignments or projects based on this knowledge.The interesting thing is, she found after a while that the students went beyond the flip.
As this new way of learning played out over time, my students found they didn’t need me to locate or create videos for them. Instead, they learned how to learn.. our classroom had become a place where students discovered and shared their own resources, while engaging in projects with each other. There was no need for me to assign video homework or create portable lectures. It all happened during class.I also liked her reasons for not wanting to revert to a flipped classroom (and I assume there writ large for conventional teaching). For instance, she dislikes giving homework and "a lecture by video is still a lecture".
Corporate trainers, take note.
Hat tip: David Gurteen
Evaluation vs creativity
Peter Gray highlights the downsides of evaluation for creativity
In experiment after experiment, the participants who made the most creative products were those who did not know that their products would be evaluated. They were the ones just playing, not concerned about judgments or rewards.
October 21, 2012
Watching online fighting
I have been following some fierce online arguments about complexity lately and recognising how easy it is for these things to get very heated. There is something about understanding the subtleties of complex systems that seems, paradoxically, to trigger our more animal passions. In may case, these include anxiety (if I were to join in, would I end up getting metaphorically punched in the face by these guys) but also amusement. I bet I'm not the only one that finds these slugfests fun to watch from a safe distance, with the attendant unjustified sense of superiority.
I was going to say that the fierceness of the language means the signal to noise ratio gets worse. So much emotional heat, not so much light.
But then I got to thinking, actually even the noise is really a signal. The argument about complexity is itself a complex system, full of unexpected consequences and chain reactions. We can talk about having sophisticated understandings of complexity but we'd better be realistic about the likelihood of getting much agreement about them if we try to capture them in language.
Practice being comfortable with discomfort
We had a substitute teacher in our yoga class yesterday and I was fascinated by the experience. I noticed the little differences in the way she taught and realised that even small details pushed me a little outside my comfort zone... and quickly realised how great that was. That edge of the comfort zone is where some of the best learning happens and I try to spot the opportunities to practice being comfortable with discomfort.
She shared the Iyengar paradox of "effortless effort" so it was a good morning for paradox.
Facilitators can lapse into thinking it's our job to make sure no-one is confused, but I think at least some degree of confusion is a really healthy thing. At the blurry uncertain edge, we are more likely to pay attention and discover something new.
Climbing and dialogue
I'm fascinated by the ideas of David Bohm, and especially his work on Dialogue. Bohm argues that we are blind to the impact that thought itself has on our experience of the world. This story of the woman unwittingly strangling herself helps to illustrate his point.
There is a great paradox in talking about dialogue. If language is thinking out loud, then in dialogue we try to use this faulty tool to see what is wrong with it. As I understand Bohm's argument, thought is inherently reductionist and we keep missing how it reduces our experience.
Antonio Dias' recent post, Conclusions, is a great exploration of what Bohm's notion of dialogue is about. Tony opens with this metaphor:
Dialogue is an opportunity to proceed as climbers do. We are tied together and are able to alternately anchor each other as we move into precarious territory. We can rely on each other to warn us of dangers beyond our own views. Within dialogue we can go where it is impossible to go any other way.This points to the social nature of dialogue - I also think it is a powerful way to think about many less esoteric occasions when we try to collaborate. The interdependency of climbers is a far cry from the sage-on-a-stage format of so many learning environments and attempts to work together. Many of my more memorable experiences have contained that factor of shared peril or shared purpose and, if you will, shared authority.
I read Tony's post on a day when I was tweeting about the dangers of premature encapsulation so this bit also leapt out at me:
Jumping to conclusions is at the heart of how we perceive... We sample the world with agendas at the ready even at the most quantum level of perception – that’s using the term quantum to mean the smallest known integer of a phenomenon. That neurologically we are dealing with discreet jumps and not a smooth “analog” signal without steps.
October 5, 2012
Big birds, shiny shoes
It's kinda funny that of all the things said in the Presidential debate, the one with the most traction relates to Big Bird. Reminds me of my friend's interest in shiny shoes.
It's always worth remembering this kind of randomness at work when listening to experts who seem very sure they know the future.
Equity leading to excellence, not the other way
Steven Downes highlights what he says Americans constantly ignore when studying Finland's educational success:
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.
- Pasi Sahkberg in this book
Hat tip: David Gurteen on twitter
Pushing ideas, especially big ideas, is a high-status play.
It sounds more important and macho than worrying about fluffy, icky things like relationships. I am sitting writing this in an IdeaSpace which sounds much more business like than a RelationshipSpace. That's where you'd go for marriage guidance, right?
Of course, if you want to one-up the guys talking about ideas, the easy play is to bang on about the importance of execution. So if you want to trump a think tank, you offer a do tank. Well done.
But I get bored at a lot of meetings when they descend into what I call propositioning. There are often heated arguments about ideas, where people interrupt each other a lot usually to put each other right on a certain point, or to forcefully put forward a personal experience. On the surface, it seems all very grown up but I can't help feeling there's a lot of semi-conscious hurt feelings and foot stomping going on.
So although it seems like we're having an exciting clash of ideas, I suspect we're often screwing up relating and undermining collaboration.