Our family is into it’s 3rd week of 20 weeks on the ‘off-roads’ of Australia’s North West. As a family unit, we have only just found our rhythm with the set-up/pack-down of the tent, 4WD navigation and the discipline needed for home-schooling 3 young boys. You can read about our adventures over here at Camping Feet.
I awoke this morning (at a remote beach under Goulet Bluff just south of Monkey Mia) with a renewed focus after a few days of unsettling (gale force) winds and lack of sleep. It’s taken time to adjust to the change and uncertainty that comes from leaving behind a life of work and school, a house, 2 dogs, a car and a community of friends and family. We have slowly found our roles that contribute to a well oiled camping machine. The kids are learning what they can do (that’s useful) and we parents are learning to let-go of control.
As I reflect on the time it has taken me (and us) to settle into a gentler pattern of living off-road, I started to think about the groups and teams that I work with. Here are some first cut thoughts (as I sit in our 4WD heading north to Carnarvan) …
I’ve spent my life working with groups and I’ve learned that it takes time – days of ‘doing stuff’ together – for a group to find it’s mojo. Time for conversations, playing games, relationship building and time for individuals to get in touch with their own inner game. Time is needed for a group to build a shared understanding of the world (as it is now and how it could be in the future) and co-discover what needs attention … all whilst practicing the art of suspending judgement.
At some point (and not all groups get there) groups/teams naturally start to experiment with solutions and test their ideas for actions. They find a core purpose that builds energy and keeps them on track when the going gets tough. Individuals have a sense of their role and need a high degree of autonomy in order to thrive. They learn to improvise together and they begin to realise the potential of group genius. Collective action toward something bigger than the group may then follow.
These groups may have started as loose networks of people with a shared interest scattered across a community. They might be a newly formed committee or a new team within an organisation. Whatever the context, groups begin to look outside of themselves and serve the greater good. The conversations about themselves and their own practice become a broader conversation with communities and stakeholders around them.
Of course none of this group stuff is linear … it’s messy. How long does it take? Well, it all depends … there are no hard and fast rules, only broad principles and practices as a guide-beside. Questions of leadership crop up everywhere and groups have to face up to their fears and struggle with the questions that keep them up at night. “How do we proceed amid such uncertainty?” … “How do we make sound decisions in such change and complexity?”.
I think I’ve learned to sit more comfortably in that space of “not knowing” … and to trust and be present to whatever emerges next. On this 5 month family journey, we are learning to gently push our adventurous edge, whilst remaining safe. Everyday we are faced with countless choices, decisions and opportunities. Everyday we grow stronger and closer as a family.
Being an active contributor in a small community is a fascinating subject! You could write a book about it!!
Over the past 12 months I’ve dived into the Parent Committee at our local primary school (aka Parent Club) and taken a co-lead role with 3 mums. As with much of my working life, I find myself the only man actively involved in the community building space.
Last year our new committee found our feet, tightened up some policies and, like in previous years, took the lead on some important initiatives and fund raising activities. The co-leadership idea that I pushed hard for worked really well. There was always 1 person to step and lead when others became too busy with life. We did good … without being great. We changed some stuff, and as you’d expect, copped some flack from others in the community. As Seth Godin says in one of my favorite posts … “If you are not being criticized, then you are not leading!” Criticism and leadership are intertwined like innovation and failure.
One area of intense criticism and community ‘rumor-milling’ that I did not expect was our effort to set up an After School Care (ASC) Profram. Identified as the #1 need by large parts of the school community, a small group within Parent Club (and others) worked tirelessly to broker a deal with Camp Australia, the Surf Coast Shire and the Aireys Community Hall. After more than 1/3 of families at the school ‘showed up’ late year to a registration session, it starts next Monday!
So why is school care needed in Aireys Inlet – a small, coastal village nearly an hour from the nearest big town (Geelong)? And why has ASC created rumor, innuendo and dissent in our community? I don’t have answers, but I have a few opinions.
So why is ASC needed down here? Ok, imagine you are a young mum with 2 children in prep and grade 2. You are desperate to gain a university qualification so that you can have a career in your 30′s and beyond. Your husband works and school pickup (at 3pm) 2 days a week is not possible with your study timetable. Or imagine you are a single mum struggling to make ends meet. You’ve got one child and have an opportunity to work 3 days a week in Geelong to help make ends meet. But your job finishes at 5pm. Without a reliable and accountable ASC Program, neither woman can pursue their goals.
The examples above are fiction, but very close to some local truths. The fact is, very few families down here have family support for the 1 or 2 days they need their kids picked up from school – those that have family support are blessed. And this is a community that, more than most, sees friends step up and look after each other’s kids when needed. I love that local support about this community and I’ve written plenty about it in the past. However (and this is my opinion), you simply can’t rely on friends 2 days a week, 40 weeks of a year so that you can work or study.
As for the rumor mill and criticism … it comes with the territory and I’m not going to even share my opinions because they are probably wrong and based on false assumptions! In Parent Club last year, it is clear that we did not communicate clearly enough or often enough. The program funding model evolved and underwent many iterations … and met its share of roadblocks going through school council. It’s re-taught me how tough communicating something new like this is. On the surface it seems simple, but it is complex and felt like a journey of 3 steps forward and then 3 steps back. Little by little, with perseverance and commitment from a select few, ASC is now a reality for this little community.
So, as the Parent Club AGM approaches and I put my hand up to co-lead once again, my 2012 experience of success and failure makes me a little wiser. One thing is for sure, I’ll be sticking to my main principle for working in committees – learned by working alongside the wonderful Viv Mcwaters – “By working together and supporting each other in this committee, we will have fun, make each other look good and we all end up closer friends at end than when we started.” Now that a principle to live into!!
How well do you listen? It’s a practice that I have to continually work on in all aspects of life – as a parent, partner, friend, family and consultant. Like with most of us, my attention tends to drift toward my thoughts, ideas and next thing I want to say. With discipline and practice I have learned to really listen when facilitating groups. Here are some other people and ideas who have taught me about the art of listening:
Chris Corrigan and listening – I have developed some habits and techniques that turn my attention toward the group. Lately I’ve been practicing this simple breathing technique that Chris Corrigan writes about here. Chris’ technique helps me to tune into the “sound” of the group conversation and provides another way of reading the dynamics between people in the room.
Herman Hesse and listening – I have just read Hermanne Hesse’s Siddhartha. A character named Vasudeva the Ferryman teaches Siddhartha the art of listening. Siddhartha feels the joy and connection that comes from being listened to. I just love Hesse’s words in this passage …
“Vasudeva listened with great attentiveness. He took in everything as he listened, origins and childhood, all the learning, all the searching, all the joy, all the suffering. This was one of the greatest amoung the ferryman’s virtues: He had mastered the art of listening. Although Vasudeva himself did not utter a word, it was clear to the one speaking that each of his words was being allowed to enter into his listener, who sat there quietly, openly, waiting: not a single word was disregarded or met with impatience: Vasudeva attached neither praise nor blame to what he heard but merely listened. Siddhartha felt what a joy it was to be able to confide in such a listener, to entrust his life, his searching, his sorrow, to this welcoming heart” p. 88
Theodore Zeldin and listening – I have been learning a lot about listening by applying a principle to every conversation I’m in. The principle is this … “I am willing to emerge a slightly different person from this conversation with you”. When you start a conversation with this principle in mind, it is amazing what you hear from the other person. This mindset helps me to be still, quiet and attentive. There is a richness to the conversation that is lacking when I am swept up by my own thoughts and inner voice. I learned this principle in working alongside David Gurteen who shared this quote by historian Theodore Zeldin …
”The kind of conversation I’m interested in is one in which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person.” Theodore Zeldin.
Johnnie Moore and listening – A few years ago friend and co-conspirator Johnnie Moore taught me a phrase that has stuck with me … Notice More, Change Less. It’s the idea if limiting your interventions and not playing the role of outside expert in trying to make stuff happen. Johnnie has taught me to simply “support what is emerging from within the system, not operating on it as the cold outsider.” In his Change This manifesto with James Cherkoff, he builds on this idea of a willingness to be changed in our interactions …
“In the world of improvised theatre, which inspires a lot of our thinking, the player who tries too hard to drive the narrative is accused of scriptwriting. The one who tries to tell jokes is encouraged to stop gagging. The real skill in performance is to fully take on the offers of the other players and be changed by them. Then what you offer back is likely to develop the drama.”
Viv McWaters and listening – A willingness to “emerge a slightly different person” opens up learning possibilities in every interaction. It’s not about agreeing with everything either … sometimes the lesson is simply that other people hold a different point of view to me. In Applied Improvisation we apply the principle of Accepting Offers. Saying ‘Yes And’ builds on what the other person offers. It means that others walk away from conversations knowing they have been heard and understood. This “knowing I’ve been heard” outcome is critically important in building relationships and trust. Viv McWaters writes about this principle here and says …
“Adopting a ‘yes, and…’ mindset is all about accepting offers. You don’t need to like the offer, or even follow-through. It’s about the initial moment of acceptance rather than rejection. It’s about seeing that there’s more to making a choice than it’s either this or it’s either that. It’s about noticing the offer in what others say and do. Sometimes it’s hard to notice an offer – it’s a small offer, or it’s tentative, or it’s hidden amongst a whole lot of noise. Make big offers yourself. Notice the offer in what others say and do.
To accept is such a gift. To be accepted is such an honour.” Viv McWaters
So, here’s my offer to you and reminder for me … during the next conversation you have with someone (anyone), experiment with these listening principles. I’d love to hear what you notice and learn from this!
If we embrace the idea that an organisation is a living ecosystem, rather than a mechanistic model, how would we work with that larger consciousness? Paul Plsek likens this difference to that between throwing a stone and throwing a live bird (1). The trajectory of the stone can be calculated precisely using the mechanical laws of physics. The trajectory of the bird is emergent and far less predictable! The question is whether we can genuinely embrace this shift in perspective and add a layer of living tissue to the organisational machine.
(1) T.Bentley and J.Wilsdon 2003, ‘Introduction:The Adaptive State’, in T.Bentley and J.Wilsdon (eds) – The Adaptive State— Strategies for Personalising the Public Realm, Demos, London, p. 26.
The good news is that we don’t need to abandon everything we currently do. When dealing with technical problems, we still need efficient management, expertise and best practice processes. But on their own, rational, linear and individually-generated solutions are not up to the task. It’s not enough to just bring our brains to work. We need to access and apply our whole intelligence to problem-solving, creativity and innovation, especially in the face of global and local social and environmental issues.
The premise of this conference is that Applied Improvisation is a key driver for business and organisational success during times of uncertainty and change. Ironically, we all know how to improvise, but most of us spend too much time planning and never get to the improvisation part! And when you look at the cutting edge of business today, the most pioneering and successful companies are moving in exactly that direction. Their leaders know that innovation comes from a careful balance of planning and improvisation. By applying improv, their people are cultivating strong relationships and are being creative with limited resources. These organisations are deeply fulfilling to work with, enrich the communities they serve and are able to thrive in uncertainty.
Since being introduced to Applied Improv 5 years ago, it’s principles have reshaped the way I facilitate, parent and live life. In practice, applying improv has connected me to a deeper self, an authentic part of me that I never knew existed.
Some of my clients have joined me on this learning journey and a couple are coming to Thriving in Uncertainty on July 12 & 13. This gathering will bring together leaders, executives and managers, entrepreneurs, learning and development facilitators, trainers and educators, consultants and coaches – I can’t think of a better way to discover our inherent leadership capacities and go to the edges of our learning and development.
I invite you to learning laboratory that explores questions like:
What if we think of organisations as living ecosystems? How would that change what we do and how we lead?
How can we learn from each other and our own experiences?
What can applied improv offer us as we try new ways of thinking and interacting?
These same questions are being explored in Montreal (Canada) in June this year. Thrivability Montreal brings together business leaders to explore new ways of thinking about and working in organisations. Our group will learn directly from the Montreal conversations. In fact, the design of this workshop is a collaboration between me and the Thrivability Montreal Network. I will integrate the key insights and examples of how organisations are applying improv to thrive in uncertainty and change.
Belina Raffy (below left) and Michelle Holliday are the hosts of the Thrivability Montreal Camp next month. I recently interviewed them and recorded this podcast. In the 3rd part of the podcast, we talk about the links between Thrivability Montreal and Thriving in Uncertainty. The key insights from Montreal will filter down to this workshop in Melbourne.
Belina’s Pecha Kucha presentation is also a good one to watch. In 6 minutes and 40 seconds, she describes her provocative proposition that Improv Can Save the World!
There is lot’s happening in my local community and that’s where my energy has been directed lately. It feels like there has been an explosion of local, community issues. Wonderful ideas have also emerged and I have noticed a great deal of leadership from within our community – I have been working at the edges in whatever way I can.
Tomorrow night it’s my turn to play a lead role. I am co-hosting a conversation that is centred on a question of Need – “What does our school community need from the Parent Club in 2012?” The other question I like is this one – “What is the need that Parent Club can uniquely meet?”. Beyond the questions, we have invited this conversation to take place at the newly opened local pub. There will be no butchers paper or post it notes or marker pens. I am hoping it will feel like a conversation amoung friends. Whoever come are the right people and whatever happens …
Hosting these conversations whilst inside the content, with my own points of view, will be challenging. I am sure to learn a lot … Just like I did a couple of months ago when I was a participant at a government lead workshop. That experience lead to this post called ‘When facilitation is insulting‘.
I spent some precious time with my dad yesterday, he is very unwell and we shared some memories and stories. We looked through photos of my 3 boys and reflected on family holidays when I was a boy.
Afterwards, I reflected on some of dad’s words and counsel. In his own way, he reminded me that my own boys are always watching me. Learning from me. Imitating my own behaviour and reactions to events – the good, bad and the ugly. We all have a blind spot when it comes to the influence that our actions, no matter how small, have on those around us.
Lee Lefeever pointed this Western Australian road safety advert yesterday (see below). For most of us, there nothing new here but a very timely reminder. We have just come back from 3 glorious weeks away in Fiji. They have something called ‘Fiji Time’ … which is slow, happy and welcoming. We have been home for a week, and I am noticing everything quicken – my thoughts, actions, speech, eating. Rushing here, rushing there. Losing sight of those small moments when my son asks me a question or points to something he has achieved. What does he see in me and my response?
So here are some questions to hold for fathers, mothers, leaders and friends …
Who is watching, learning and imitating you?
What is one behaviour (particularly those automated responses to certain situations) that you are not proud of? One that you wish to change so that those around you see the real you – I can think of plenty.
How do we remember to breathe deeply even when events are spinning around us?
And from Fijian culture … Smile, welcome others and slow down.
Imagine a world where most people think that life’s events are largely predictable. A world where people believe that planning, expert analysis, centralized control and risk assessments will smooth out the bumps of unpredictability … and ensure that predetermined targets are hit. Sound familiar?
Now imagine a world where the universal human tendency is to ‘be prepared for the unexpected’ … because that’s life! In this world, planning is still done, but is balanced by the formation of improvisational teams – teams that emerge in response to what is happening in the moment.
In this world, the term ‘script think’ existed last century … simply because most people and moved on and understand the complexity of life! This universal human mindset creates the conditions (and permission) for experimentation, inefficiencies and duplication. In this world, mistakes are made often and are more common than the hits … but the hits can be exceptional and groundbreaking.
Creative organizations, communities and government agencies are everywhere and society is thriving. When people gather to talk about stuff that matters, they know how to listen to each other and they invite dissent into the room. People know that the best ideas emerge over time and come from diverse groups … and not from clever individuals.
When ideas emerge, groups are happy to act on them even if they are not fully understood. As a result, these groups value the surprising questions that come from inquiry and experimentation. In this world, conferences that discover new questions and problems are highly valued … even if consensus and a clear action plan doesn’t happen.
In this world, BIG, hairy and complex problems remain. The uncertainty of the future is as alive as the world that I write from. Despite the ‘seriousness’
So BEAM ME UP SCOTTY … to a world where improvisation and innovation reign. To a world where authors like Keith Sawyer are household names. Where books like Group Genius have been built upon by a generation of writers, academics and practitioners.
“Lunch was next on the schedule and as with the rest of TEDxEdmonton it was anything but ordinary. Instead of individual lunches, groups of five or six people were given a wooden box filled with sandwiches, salads, drinks, and treats and were encouraged to eat together. Most groups ended up outside where the sun was shining and the streets were packed for the Edmonton Pride Parade. It was great to see discussions happening all over the place. Kudos to Elm Café andDuchess Bake Shop for the delicious food and the creative presentation!”
I am sitting in the corner of the room whilst a workshop makes it’s way to a close. These people represent the polarity of an organization – people in strategy, others at the edge working with community and others who cut across the 2. Their intent is to build strategy that has a clear purpose, is co-owned and provides a framework that is flexible enough to cope with the unexpected. In this line of work we are dealing with community and natural systems, so the unexpected will happen … Often!
They are building this strategy in both a top-down and bottom-up way. There’s also a bit of side to side integration happening here. At the beginning of the week, we (me as facilitator and the hosting team) entered this series of 6 workshops with a clear purpose. Workshop 1 was a real struggle because we had no idea how our suite of processes would work – they were untested prototypes. We struggled to articulate the purpose and in some ways, the clarity emerged from getting on with the task.
On day 2, the workshop ran much more smoothly and we changed loads of things. We also removed a lot of noise. There were less frowns and groans from the group but the task remained hard work … it was a stretch. Building a shared understand about the greedy and depth of their work takes dedication and listening.
My role has been to build the capacity of the hosting team to design processes and host conversations within their organization and with their community stakeholders. So, on day 3 I was absent … over to the hosting team to take the lead.
I walked in this morning and something had shifted. The hosting team suggested more changes based on their experience the day before. In fact, they thought of things that I had neglected in supporting the group. It is clear to me know, that my job here is done.
“A business where everyone blogs. Everyone thinks about what they are doing and writes about what they are doing. From the top to the bottom, the edges to the middle. Everyone awake and bouncing off each other intellectually as they get more and more effective at whatever they do.”
Just imagine any organisation, field or community of practice. Now imagine everyone openly sharing their observations, thoughts and ideas. Where everyone’s input is valued in a culture of saying yes more than no.
“You’ve either started a company or you haven’t.” he starts off.
Euan has me thinking of a different ’2 types of people in this world’ … People who blog and those who don’t. Now, I could get all high and mighty about the virtues of blogging, but I’ll resist and expand in the same way Chris did about those who have started a company.
“Blogging” doesn’t mean that you just have a blog, it means that your blog is an extension of what you are thinking, learning and practicing. When you stop blogging you might even start to feel disconnected from your own mind (I know I do). It’s a living, growing, emerging space that allows you to share ‘stuff that matters’ with the world. Even though blog posts come from the individual mind, your ideas, in reality, emerge from a network of connected minds. Having a ‘living’ blog connects you to others and the space between the blogs contains all of the life and magic.
A blog is a space where you might just start somewhere and start writing … about something. Posts are often first-cut ideas that are unrefined and feel like a draft. And it’s those offerings that often resonate with the field and spark off new ideas somewhere else. Bloggers might hear comments from others (those who don’t write & publish) like “How do you find the time?” … “Isn’t it just an egotistical repository of self admiration?” Those ideas that come to us when walking or sleeping have a place to be born. The act of writing helps bring unformed ideas to life.
Importantly, your blog allows you to publish ‘edgy’ stuff that will get criticized by some and applauded by others. You put your ideas on the line with your heart of your sleeve.
William Ury offers an elegant way of looking at world peace and the role we can all play. He offers both tangible stories of ‘how’ it is being done … and a model to support it. He calls it the 3rd Side and it’s also the role of the facilitator – known in some circles as the 3rd Communication Position.
The 3rd side, in the context of war, is us … all of us. As the 1st and 2nd side argue, disagree and battle with each other with a loss of perspective, ‘we’ on the 3rd side surround them and can “take them to the balcony” with us. On the 3rd side, as friends, family members and colleagues, we can remind the waring parties of what’s at stake and remind them of ‘purpose’. And like Toke Moeller says … “purpose is the invisible leader”.
Ury also helps me to build a visual image of the connectedness that we strive for in moving from Communities of Practice to Systems of Influence – this is where the big, seismic shifts in human endeavour can occur … just as new systems emerge in nature. I liked his final quote (an African Proverb) …
“When spider webs unite, they can halt even the Lion” and …
“If we are able to unite our 3rd Side webs of peace, we can even halt the Lion of War”