Weblog Entries for November 2012
November 30, 2012
Jasper Fox gives an interesting presentation on his experience of flipping the classroom. There are some great ideas in here and you get a real sense of his dedication to his work.
He kicks off by contrasting tradional education - all students doing the same thing at the same time - with asynchronous - each student doing different things at their own pace. It's a simple idea and was desperately lacking in the classrooms I grew up in. It's also lacking in a huge number of corporate trainings, where the ghastly phrase, "If you'll all turn to page 94 in your manual" tends to prevail.
I also recall how a psychotherapist told me that a huge proportion of relationship difficulties come down to differences of pace. If you miss that difference, you end up thinking the issue is something else, and end up pursuing red herrings.
I think what makes working with groups interesting and frustrating is to be reminded that although we assume people are alike, they are in many ways different. Again and again, someone in a group will say confidently that this is how we should do things, or this is how we actually did things, only to to be surprised to find not everyone agrees. (See this post on the game One to Twenty for a bit more on that).
Pardoxically, I think there's an aspect of being on the same beat that can also be very satisfying to people, and still compatible with learning. We can have a shared experience, even though we get to make very different meanings of it.
Balancing these needs for beloning and feeling connected, with those for difference, is an interesting and continuing challenge.
Hat tip: David Gurteen for this tweet
On writing a book
People have often told me, "there's a book in you." I have always suspected that is a polite way of trying to stop me going on about something for too long.
I've always felt that even if there is a book in me, it would be agony to get it out. I know that just writing a chapter for a book felt like the worst kind of homework... you know the dreaded summer project created especially to ruin the last days of August.
The worst part of this is the linearity of the book form, which always feels at odds with my non-very-linear mind.
And quite apart from writing it, I've always felt a bit wary of the effect of being the person with a book to promote. Which is, sadly, the stage I am about to reach.
This is entirely the fault of Viv McWaters. A year or two ago, recovering from ankle surgery, she drafted a manual to go along with some training for facilitators we were doing in some exotic destinations. She invited to me to help and thereby share in the promised glory.
It's taken us a long time and endless re-edits but we're just about ready to release it into the wild as a book, called (imaginatively) Creative Facilitation. In a parallel universe, there is punchier version called We Can't Go On Meeting Like This.
I think it survives my limited writing skills thanks to Viv's incredible persistence and some really nice design from Mary Campbell.
We're just tinkering with final details but our plan is to make it free as a pdf file and find some print options too.
Embrace the boring until you find it interesting
This idea from Bernie de Koven got me thinking.
I opine that work is, in fact, already fun. That attempts to make it more fun through the use of awards and rewards, parties and dress-down days lead to something significantly less than fun. And that rather than finding ways to make work more fun, we should be looking for the things in the corporate culture that are standing in the way of the fun that is available to people who spend their days truly engaged in their work.I think it's a very easy trap for anyone working with groups to see their role as bringing some fun into organisations. I have been on both ends of that error, more than once.
It reminded me of a conversation I had earlier this week with Huw Sayer. The gist is that ad agencies often see their job as adding some much needed glamour to products, services and organisations that are, obviously, dull. A lot of marketing directors, flitting as they do from one company to the next, operate on the same glib assumption.
It would be better to show more respect for everyone working in the company to dig down for what is worthwhile and interesting in what they do, and work with that.
A pet peeve of mine, for example, is how Nationwide Building Society would lazily sponsor football. Here is an organisation that - especially as a mutual not obsessed with shareholder value - that could exemplify responsible, imaginative financial advice. Instead, it aligns itself with the most spendthrift, financially incontinent industry possible. It was as if they were ashamed of what they really did for a living and needed to change the subject. Even now, they seem to just claim to be a slightly cuddlier version of the high street banks. I've always thought there is far more exciting territory available to them, or any other mutual, that is all about what they are, or should be, experts in. Goodness knows there are millions of people in the country in need of better financial support and advice, currently pray to loan sharks and payday companies. Surely Nationwide could tackle that instead of emptily and narcissistically slapping the advertising glamour on?
I used to work in financial advertising. Sadly, nowhere were agencies more certain of how boring the services were and how much they were in need of Ade Edmondson or Ridley Scott's talents to glam them up. I'm not sure things are any better these days.
Which maybe why this is the first time in just ages I've written a post with the Branding category.
Incidentally, Viv and I have lately got quite interested in playing improv games until they feel like they've become quite boring... and then consciously commiting to carrying on. At which point, they usually become really interesting surprisingly fast.
November 28, 2012
There's always a shadow
I pretty much always enjoy management writers/gurus when they are dismantling other gurus' signature achievements. This from Steve Denning is a thoroughly well argued debunking of the whole ghastly "shareholder value" mindset: Can the dumbest idea in the world be saved. No prizes for guessing the answer is no, but the whole thing is an inspired well-informed takedown of an all too prevalent management myth.
Sadly, with equal consistency I end up disappointed when they turn from dismantling to putting forward their alternatives. Thus Denning offers "The Key to the Solution". The "solution" word is usually a red flag for me; it's a sign of a wicked problem or predicament being reduced to something that can be solved. Denning rejects the idea that businesses have to somehow placate multiple stakeholders (which feels to me close to the messy reality of real world human relationships everywhere). Instead he says this:
The key to solving the dilemma lies, as Richard Straub, President of the Drucker Society Europe, has noted, in the 1973 insight of Peter Drucker: the only valid purpose of a firm is to create a customer. That was true in 1973 and even relevant today when the power in the marketplace has shifted decisively from seller to buyer.I find this in its own way as simplistic as shareholder value as a sole thing for a business to do. It's one of those nostrums that can only be true if it's interpreted so blandly as to be, essentially meaningless. In reality, it seems to me all sorts of businesses start as the slightly crazed idea of individuals, some of which luck out and some of find enough customers to carry on.
Anyway, as with all these slightly zealously argued nostrums, they make out that business and life is simple when it's usual really complex, rich and challenging.
I have chosen Steve Denning as the most recent example to cross my path but I could have picked many others. I fear that all halfway celebrated management gurus get overattached to their solutions, processes and techniques. You can see it in their tweets admiring the good judgement of those agreeing with them, and their bristling defensiveness in the face of criticism.
I was a bit harsh on twitter in describing Denning arguing the "create a customer" idea and used the word "glib". In hindsight, I was probably a bit glib myself is saying so. But I notice Denning's response was to tell me to read the article (as if I hadn't) and something along the lines of "if necessary all the links". I don't know about you but anyone who argues with me by saying "read Wittgenstein" or whatever is pulling a status ploy rather than trying to enlighten me.
Goodness knows I fall in love with various games, activities and processes from time to time. But we should all keep in mind that every single nostrum, process or technique will have unintended, unforeseeable consquences. A shadow if you will. The staff will likely go through the motions of respecting authority for a while, while quietly subverting it behind the scenes until the time comes to directly challenge it.
The nearest I come to overconfident championing of a single solution would be to watch Monty Python's Life of Brian. And tonight the scene above comes to mind as a good illustration of my point.
November 16, 2012
Complexity vs Lean
I thought this slideshare on complexity and lean thinking and kanban was fascinating. I learnt a lot. Jurgen Appelo does a good job pointing to the downsides of various manufacturing models when working in complex systems. (And any system involving working with humans is likely to be complex.)
I especially liked the link to Rob Cross on the Hidden Power of Social Networks, with the maxim that connectivity has more effect than knowledge. I will probably try to use that next time I'm trying to persuade conference organisers to cut down on the expert presentations and increase the informal conversations.
Hat tip: John Tropea's comment on Chris Rodgers blog
Conversations, panels, status
Communication is a relational practice. And no amount of staging – whether through crafting the content, polishing the presentation or perfecting the performance - can create the conditions for this to take place. And so, as regards leadership communion... the conversations are the work.A big part of the problem is that in many organisations, mere "conversation" is seen as low status, whereas "keynoting" is almost universally regarded as high status. Much of what goes on in tired old Q and A sessions is also a battle for status.
I've thought for some time that ideas don't like to travel uphill, and that these high status habits are pretty toxic to innovation and change. Hence my wariness of labels like "head of innovation".
November 14, 2012
Schank on learning
Donald Clark has a great post about the failings of conventional education. It's a quick guide to the thinking of Roger Schank: Only two things wrong with education: 1) What we teach; 2) How we teach
The whole thing is worth a read but here's one snippet which rings very true for me:
he wants to abandon lectures, memorisation and tests. Start to learn by doing and practice, not theory. Stop lecturing and delivering dollops of theory. Stop building and sitting in classrooms. We need to teach cognitive processes and acquire skills through the application of these processes, not fearing failureAnd this too:
He rejects the idea that we have to fill people up with knowledge they’ll never use. Too much education and training tries, and fails, to do this. We need to identify why someone wants to learn then teach it. In this sense he puts motivation and skills before factual knowledge. One can pull in knowledge when required.This chimes in with some of the thinking of Timothy Gallwey on the Inner Game, with his emphasis on practice and feedback over instruction and the power game of coach-as-guru.
Hat tip: Viv's tweet
November 10, 2012
I was reading Dave Snowden's latest post on western cultures preference for thinking in categories rather than relationships. I associate this with a liking for the reductionism of lists.
It reminded me of the old story of someone walking down the street in Oxford. He heard only the tiniest snippet of the conversation going on between two elderly men in front of him. It was, "...and ninthly."
I guess that counts as a spirit of place?
November 9, 2012
I was in a Waterstones the other day, surveying the shelves full of business books and thinking: if these books really did have the answers, how come things aren't closer to excellence in the world? Content is not king, as Hugh points out.
Viv and I have put up this little slideshare about Action Storming (or Problem Theatre as David Simoes-Brown christened it.) I wrote a post describing it in a bit more detail here and Viv talks about it here.
Training courses so often promise certainty about what you will learn. I'm much less interested in offering people content in this way. I generally don't like reading instruction books and prefer to learn in a more experiential way. I like processes that support playful exploration, trusting participants to find out the stuff that works for them. I'm very wary of what I call the teacher trance, where groups appear to vest power in the expert and actually stop learning. It's safe, but it's boring.
November 3, 2012
And another thing re problem theatre...
It's physical. How people think and behave is massively bound up with how they move and hold themselves. I think more of the brain, and certainly different parts of it, get engaged when we have to move and do things than when we write them down.
Not being an expert
Another reason I like the problem theatre/action storming approach is it's good example of moving to a peer-to-peer model of working with groups. If I'm the coach/trainer, I do play a role holding space, but I am absolutely not cast as an expert with the answers. As I said in an earlier post, I will often volunteer wacky solutions partly to reinforce that I am not the authority figure here.
There is a big financial incentive for trainers to peddle top-down content-led training. It makes them the star and helps justify a fat fee. Fancy manuals and proven theories are very reassuring for buyers. But I don't think it's the cutting edge for the really difficult challenges. For those, you need to find ways to really engage people and get them collaborating, during and after any workshop, in an exploration of what's possible.
Rapid prototyping of behaviour
Borrowing ideas from the maker movement and agile processes, we see this a way of doing rapid prototyping for training. We take the emphasis off theorising and analysing, and shift it to practice and trying things out. When a group gets its pace, it gets to experiment with lots of different approaches, and can use both conscious and less-conscious ways to evaluate what works. And unlike so much training, we aren't wasting valuable group time for a top down content dump.
There is plenty of content out there for every subject under the sun... but I think it's a terrible waste of group time to plod through a book or manual. If participants like the book, let them read it at their own pace. If they don't like it, then why make them pretend to engage with it at all. I would quite like to ban the whole "turn to page 94 of your manual" schtick and the fetishisation of binders of processes. Especially for the complex, intractable problems which most concern people.
November 1, 2012
Signal, noise and gibberish
Incidentally, if you want to explore non-verbal signalling, I really recommend gibberish games from improv. Viv and I use them quite a lot in training (described here). I find that if you get people to practice setting up an activity in gibberish and then in normal language, they create a lot more engagement.
What is signal, what is noise?
In my rant yesterday, I suggested that we humans are predisposed to interaction with each other and that panel sessions cheat the audience of it.
I'm fascinated by the idea that language emerged as an extension of the social grooming we see among apes. When we are talking to each other we are not merely exchanging information. If you watch meetings with the sound turned off, you can see all the play that is going on, consciously or unconsciously.
The other day I watched a group arguing. It was heated, and you could see participants flinching, their faces reddening, their volume rising, as it went on. They were showing physical responses of fight or flee.
I suggest that people are often quite blind to the emotional content of their engagement, as if the rational content is the only thing that matters. It goes with the whole championing of vigorous debate, battle of ideas schtick.
People may argue that that stuff is noise, and the vital thing is the signal, the actual ideas.
For example, at the end of that argument, one participant said, "that was really good". This struck me as a somewhat inadequate description of what was clearly a big emotional experience.
Many psychotherapists will argue that an important part of their work is identify what they call incongruence in their clients. For example, a client will describe a painful experience and not be aware that they are smiling as the describe it. They are saying one thing but their bodies are saying something else. I think that debater's description of a debate where he was showing the physiology of being attacked as "good" was veering to incongruent.
The "noise" is actually signal, and we dismiss it at our peril.
Quite apart from what we are saying, we are flirting, teasing, prodding, poking, attacking each other. Whatever content gets written up later, a whole series of social interactions are happening that are going to have an impact on whatever we go on to do together.
Look around at most panel sessions and I think you will see a lot of yawning, distraction, boredom and frustration in the room.
Discussing my post on twitter, Sarah Hesketh argued
But I'm paying to hear experts, not listen to an often unknowledgable/agenda driven audience.and
I think he's giving audiences more credit than they deserve.
I absolutely see where Sarah's coming from. The audience participation in panel sessions, by the time we get to it, is often more exasperating than the panel itself. Not least because it stands in the way of me getting the drink I now desperately crave in lieu of actual social contact. So it's understandable that the audience appears more tiresome than the panel.
But I contend that this is not because the audience members are inadequate but because the terrible format sets them up to act out. We are not naturally predisposed to sit still and just watch other humans groom each other. We want some grooming too. Some speakers and good actors can enthrall us, but most panels don't.
When we get to Q and A people are tired and fidgety and want to make some noise. They have had to sit on their ideas, objections and questions for a long time and are bursting. They are not in the best place to be reasonable or polite. They probably deep down want conversation, but the whole format deprives them of it. Starved of relationship, of course they struggle to relate successfully to others in the room.
I'll go a bit further with this. The panellists themselves probably want a conversation too, but are onstage and self-consicous, so they give a performance of a conversation instead of having a real one. This contributes to an atmosphere of falsity. Everyone ends up pretending to have a conversation and it's not satisfying.
When finally we break for drinks and the ability to converse in small groups, the energy level just shoots up.
That, I suspect, is what a lot of us are here for anyway.
Related post: Clippinger on collaboration