Singing our way in…

Back in 2006 I was a participant in a remarkable gathering called the Evolutionary Salon. It was  an intense soup of ideas, feelings and energy. In these contexts a lot of that can overwhelm me. Luckily, I was not alone. Chris Corrigan and Kenoli Oleari and I were doing a little music jamming and a response to all that energy was born. We called it Euphoric Bullshit, a gentle jab at our own sense of self importance. Originally it was just for us, but our four fearless hosts decided it might help shift the  energy on the third and final day.

Ashley Cooper (who, by the way has restarted her coaching practice if you are thinking about getting a coach), reminded me of all this with a link back to  the debrief the PoP facilitators did.  All of a sudden I vividly remember the moment (and almost the tune!)

I have always found that gentle humor, music, visual arts and dance can open up different channels of connection, communication and meaning making. So literally we can sing our way into better work together. (Speaking of singing, if you haven’t seen this, take a peek.) I need to make sure I keep weaving them in.

Digging around in an old thread in the Open Space email list, I found the lyrics. Um, impolite language warning… but know this was joyously and lovingly sung.

Euphoric Bullshit  by Nancy White, Kenoli Oleari and Chris Corrigan and 90 amused muses

We come into the circle with our passions and resolve
We each have a lot of issues that we really want to solve
But we all start a talkin’, and things get out of hand
So take a little breath (breath) and settle down and we’ll ease into the plan

CHORUS:
Euphoric bullshit is the name of the game
We take the sacred and we make it profane
You can’t come in, unless you bear your pain
Euphoric bullshit is the name of the game

We’re calling a lot of sessions, with various intents
Some get a little bit impatient as we sit upon the fence
But emergence growing edges will carry us all along
We are but one great voice in the universal song

Chorus
Instrumental break

Now the time has come for us to go out into the world
And throw our great intentions into the cosmic swirl
Hey you don’t need to worry that these things will come to pass
Because evolution’s arrow will kick you in the ass

Source: Re: open space poetry

Liberating Learning: Building Muscles for Application at UdG

Knowledge, its creation, evolution and application, is rooted in social practice as described in social learning theory. In education, tradition may dictate the professor or the institution as the source of knowledge and the learners as recipients. Practice and application may come after the course is over, out of sight of the institutional in time and place. For some topics this can limit sense making and stunt the application and evolution of knowledge in the field. We need to build these sense making and application muscles while still in the classroom. My experience in the UdG Agora project and elsewhere shows me that Liberating Structures can support this muscle building.

Tannis Morgan at the Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) invited me to join her team designing and implementing the UdG Agora project they were developing with the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. Here is the brief description of the project:

The UdG Agora is a project of the University of Guadalajara (UdG) Student Centred and Mobile Learning Diploma. The goal of this faculty development program is for UdG professors to confidently integrate student centred and mobile learning strategies and activities in their courses.

Through the use of practical examples, challenges and experiential learning, the program will provide learners with the tools they need to meaningfully plan, design, implement and share student centred and mobile learning in their courses. Learners will collaborate, share, and contribute openly to a community of practice that fosters the enrichment of student centred learning experiences with the use of mobile learning technologies (iPads).

The program adopts the Agora as a metaphor for an open, collaborative, community space where learning happens through interaction and engagement with others. The Agora for this program are both face-to-face (f2f) and online spaces.

My role was to bring Liberating Structures as a learner engagement strategies along with some visual thinking/doing skills. Most of the team focused on the mobile learning elements.

Liberating Structures in Teaching and Learning

I was introduced to Liberating Structures some 6 years ago. As a process geek, my first glance led me to conclude that co-founders  Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz had elicited a template and set of principles around a group of fairly familiar group processes. My first thought was “yeah, this is a really useful way of packaging some existing knowledge and practices.” Liberating Structures, at their simplest, are handy, useful practices. Anyone can pick a structure up and begin to apply it. Their primary strength is getting everyone unleashed and engaged in the group’s purpose which well aligns with my values. The key insight that I gained in this first exposure was the value and power of working with the duality of freedom and responsibility. Power is distributed with just enough constraints and pow, the action happens.

But there is more to Liberating Structures than a set of well described practices. There is the microstructure described through the design elements of invitation, distribution of participation, configuration of groups, arrangement of space, and the sequencing and allocation of time. It is a bit of a pattern language. This makes it easy to learn, select, sequence or “string” them together for different purposes. This is the “second level” of value of Liberating Structures. Once you know and are comfortable with a subset of structures, you can quickly plan, and adaptively apply LS to the work at hand. When you know the pattern of a microstructure, you can pay attention to things that support or block inclusion, such as the distribution of power which is otherwise left implicit or ignored. There is speed and flexibility, freedom and sufficient control/constraints. The rapid cycling through different thinking and doing modes unleashes people and helps them step out of their ruts.

But there is more to Liberating Structures than practices and (micro)structure. There are the 10 principles. This is where both the real disconnect and potential of of social learning in higher education shows up for me. Recently, LS practitioner Astrid Pruitt wrote about LS in higher education and noted that three of the 10 principles have a particular importance to her.  I found her experiences resonant to mine. (Read her whole story – there are some great practical insights!)

Here is a quote from Astrid that is worth quoting in whole. I’ve added a few thoughts in parentheses.

“Now, when I look at these (her educational) experiences and use my LS lenses to discern them, it becomes clear to me that my conventional educational experiences violated three vital LS principles. They did not:

Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions There was one expert whose knowledge and solutions were valued above all others. The collective experience of the class was ignored. (This is particularly true when we are looking to transfer knowledge, skills and approaches in fields such as international development where the imposition of the “academic” or “Northern” perspectives can foil even the best researched and documented interventions by assuming the expert approach is right and therefore should be “owned and implemented” locally, with little local participation in the process.)

Amplify Freedom and Responsibility Invitations to students to shape aspects of how the subject would be explored were sparse and awarded to a select few. Progress was tracked intermittently and failures were kept private. (In the introduction of LS at UdG, if the professors had no freedom and responsibility, everything we did would dissipate after the project was over. Freedom to choose, adapt and responsibility for the results desired was critical.)

Practice Self-Discovery Within a Group Student relationships with the subject matter was directed by the teacher and diversity of perspectives controlled. Limited peer-to-peer learning. Conversations substituted with powerpoints.” (We worry often about “wheel reinvention,” but my experience has shown that when people discover and learn themselves, there is a greater likelihood for adoption and evolution of what was learned.)

Co-founder Lipmanowicz notes that all 10 principles are regularly violated in many classrooms creating an even more compelling case for LS in education.

But there is more to Liberating Structures than practices, (micro)structure and principles. This is where the the deeper and long lasting value proposition emerged for me as I practiced more and dug deeper into LS through LS practice groups and immersion workshops. Liberating Structures work across many context. The real sweet spot for me is that they create conditions that wonderfully support real work in complex contexts. Have you ever have a moment when you don’t know the answer? Didn’t know exactly WHAT to do, but knew SOMETHING must be done? When you are asked to do a strategic plan in uncertain times, and knew instinctively you could not fall back on practices that result in stilted and abandoned plans that were outdated upon publication? Are you are wanting to do more than deliver content in a classroom, and instead want to equip your learners to apply and expand their own knowledge, teaching and learning that will last far outside of the course, classroom or degree? Do you look for bridges between seemingly contradictory challenges? When you are trying to step out of the deep ruts we have gotten ourselves into? LS are brilliant as we push new boundaries and have to sense, probe and prototype our way into the next steps. They don’t assume a single possibility, and help us see what we are trying to discern to move forward.

There is a reason for this brilliance that amplifies on first two strengths of practices and structure. It is the powerful combination of just enough structure and just enough freedom that allows us to work and push at boundaries of complex, complicated and even chaotic work. (CITATION) McCandless often pointed this out as the wonderful space like this:

Liberating [verb]: to set free from imposed, controlling structures

Structures [noun]: simple rules that specify how people are included and participate

LS gives us a way to describe, probe and challenge our assumptions, our patterns and even ourselves. This is essential in complex and emergent work. It supports what many of my colleagues have called for years “creative abrasion,”  which helps us see and jump out of our ruts, to evolve thinking and practice in real time. For most work in higher education, both the domains and the application are in complex contexts, making LS in higher education a “muscle” for sense making and application.

Liberating Structures at the UdG Agora

The Agora project kicked off with a 5 day face to face event on campus (3 days in the second iteration), followed by a 4 month planning and application phase where professors had to apply what they learned in three experiments or “challenges.” This was capped off with  a final face to face reflection event on campus in the 6th month. You can read more about the Agora here, and here, and here. The initial F2F was framed around a series of mandatory and elective 75-90 minute hands-on studios bracketed with plenaries to introduce, socialize and make sense of the whole.

LS in plenaries

Initially Liberating Structures were simply going to be the focus of one of the elective studios. As we began to design the agenda, we realized we could use LS throughout the days to “walk our talk” of learner engagement and steer clear of simple content dissemination. These professors knew their domains and generally experienced teachers, so we were not so much teaching, but irresistibly inviting them into a new way of engaging with us and their students. So not only were they exposed to a focused session on LS, they were experiencing and practicing throughout our time together.

In the plenaries, instead of starting with a lectures, we used Impromptu Networking  to jumpstart relationships between professors, since phase two would require both triad groups (Troika Consulting) and larger communities of interest to support the project work.  In the very first plenary, LS facilitated an “each one teach one” approach to immediately begin learning iPad skills, even with people who had not even opened the box yet. This is often referred to as “learn, pair, share” in education circles.

From the start, knowledge in the room was made visible and accessible.We frequently deployed 1-2-4-All to check understanding and sensemaking, both because the topics were new, but we were also working across two languages (Spanish and English). When debriefing, identifying and sharing learning, we used Users Experience Fishbowls, Shift and Share and Conversation Cafe.

Liberating Structures helped us get creative when conditions changed. When we had a large, open meeting space, we used only chairs, not tables, allowing us to quickly reconfigure group sizes. People did not end up sitting next to the same person all day, and bonds were created that lasted through the 6 month project. When our event was interrupted by an earthquake (yes, which eventually called for ending the day early as the campus closed), we could redesign and quickly recover. Sometimes we were packed into crowded lecture halls and 1-2-4-All  facilitated social interaction, even in packed lecture halls when we could not get a big, open space. Engagement was high, naps were rare!

The Liberating Structures studio

The LS studio started with Mad Tea to surface interests, possibilities and fears, introduced LS with a brief 10 minute presentation. Then professors selected from a range of “challenges” to practice and debrief one LS. The challenges offered three levels of difficulty and could be completed and debriefed during the studio.

At the end of the studio we used What, So What, Now What to reflect on what was happening in the studio, and to dive into how we support learners’ observational and critical thinking skills on a day to day basis, and 1-2-4-All to brainstorm how LS might be applied in each of their classrooms. In 90 minutes they used at least three structures as a whole group and one they designed and led or actively participated in themselves. This was capped with draft designs for classroom deployment, should they choose to do a LS challenge implementation. Interestingly, some of the other members of our team started using LS in their own studios!

Application in the classroom and final debrief

During the 4 month implementation phase professors worked in their own institutions and courses. One of their options was to apply LS in their classrooms alone, or with any of the other mobile and engaged learning strategies they learned in the phase 1 studios. Periodically through the second phase we held online meetings where people could share what they were doing, ask questions and generally support each other.

When we reconvened face to face to debrief and share lessons learned, we again used Liberating Structures as we did in the first face to face. By now, the professors were expecting this, not surprised. Engagement was deep, friendly and fun. Yes, fun!

Lessons Learned from LS at the UdG Agora

Liberating Structures was not a central element to supporting student engagement through mobile learning strategies. It was an elective, not a core studio. But it began to permeate the project leading to some initial lessons.

LS is easy to learn and do

Even in a super short period of time, and as one tiny slice of an incredibly busy week, the professors were  open to consider and incorporate LS into their practice. There was fast uptake of the LS basics. We used the microstructures to debrief, so the deeper LS literacy and the idea of stringing was planted right from the start. Few professors expressed concern that the LS gave too much control and power to the students and they clung to their “sage on the stage” stances. That said, when choosing which of the new things they learned to implement in their classrooms, many of them very fun and interactive mobile technologies, my sense was that it was the professors who were most engaged in improving how they taught who were the ones attracted to using LS for their implementation challenge.

When we went online during the implementation phase, we focused on LS for one of our weekly live hangout online meetings and some enthusiastic participants shared their LS stories. Because the structures are well documented and described (and, thanks to one of our participants, many translated into Spanish!) the professors did not appear to fear “looking stupid” in trying them. Interestingly, some of their students were initially skeptical of this “new” approach of their professors.

One of the hallmarks of LS is that as a new practitioner you can use one and get pretty good results on the first try. What is remarkable is that as you gain deeper mastery, you get even better results! It would be very interesting to go back 12, 18 and 24 months to see how much LS has permeated their teaching. We know that some are still using it as they report via Twitter with the hashtag #UdGAgora and #liberatingstructures.

LS Supports both the domain and relational aspects of learning

The UdG Agora project was focused on increasing student engagement through mobile learning and engaged teaching practices. Engagement does not sit just with the learner, but also with the professor. LS moves the power from “teacher as expert, student as learner” to a field where all are learning, and domain expertise is supported by the teacher. This is a result of “engaging and unleashing” everyone – not just the learners. And through this, teachers and students engage in a reciprocal learning relationship. Engaged professors seem to light up their students and vica versa.

Another aspect I’ve been thinking about in terms of learning and applying LS is the data emerging from  neurobiology related to “brain based” approaches.  Dan Siegel writes how neurobiology might inform our teaching practices.He talks about the unity of the “triume brain” of cerebral cortex (rational brain), the limbic system (emotional brain) and the stem (reptilian brain). Siegel “envisions the brain as a social organ,” and “the emotional system that develops in relationship.” One of the consistent threads across all the UdG Agora studios and experiences was engagement between professors and students and between students.This highlights the social and relational aspects of learning and doing.

Siegel describes a “sixth sense” as “mindsight,” and links this to mirror neurons. He suggests that “What fires together, wires together,” is how we learn by what we observe. If we observer our teachers functioning as learners, will we be better learners? If we work to expand practice in the field, will it work better if we can operate from the mindset of a practitioner, not just an expert? If we can try out our ideas in a place of constructive support, can we begin to solve the tough challenges?. My Liberating Structures experiences at UdG and elsewhere suggests the answer is YES, particularly when we not only talk about something, but we model and practice it – even if the conditions are not exactly like the conditions the professors face in their classrooms. Siegel talks about the power of associations that people make in order to make sense of the world. Positive and uplifting associations can be more meaningful, encouraging, and benefit change. LS gives us those experiences quickly and simply. For some related reflections, see http://www.fullcirc.com/2015/11/27/relationship-centric-teaching-part-3-of-iss-fellowship/

LS can support and strengthen existing pedagogies

The University of Guadalajara is a huge university (100,000+ enrollment) with an immense public education mandate. There are many vestiges of formal lecture based approaches in some of the programs and professors are hired and rewarded for their subject matter expertise. Many are not deeply versed in pedagogical approaches and options. There is pressure to serve many students and our sense was that professors are stretched thin. Thus ALL the studios we offered on student engagement and mobile learning had to work with the existing classroom and program contexts. So before leaving a studio, we always asked for specific examples of how they could apply what they learned in the studio in their classroom. In the LS studio, professors could immediately identify specific opportunities that fit with their subject matter and pedagogical approaches. From the person who was primary a lecturer, to the hands-on professor – there were plenty of real, actionable applications.  The early ideas focused on beginning of term activities to create and support relationships between students and between students and professors. This gives everyone a “toehold” regardless of where they are starting.

LS supports student achievement

The value became visible in the third phase as we reconvened to share what was learned. I remember the words of a professor of dental hygiene who talked about how she totally restructured her introductory course, which had a history of a very high drop out rate and in this first implementation, so obliterated the dropout rate.  I heard stories of very light incorporation of LS in the opening weeks of the semester, and how it changed the social-relational dynamics of their classrooms. I heard stories of twists and innovations on the LS they chose to use, and what the professors were learning about their own practice by switching it up, and challenging themselves. And the words that came in the feedback conversations were words like “engaged,” “alive” and even when some students initially resisted or were skeptical, they too were unleashed and liberated. When compared to feedback in other contexts, such as global meetings and team work, the responses are very resonant.

Application Beyond the Classroom and Moment

Liberating Structures is a wonderful set of tools to use in the classroom, training space and in meetings. But the lasting value is how it changes us and our practices once we leave these formalized spaces and moments. As we revisit the brain science insight about mirror neurons, we can again reflect on how the patterns that allow us to unleash and engage ourselves in a meeting can be carried out into the world. With the brain as “the emotional system that develops in relationship,” we recognize how the LS principles support that development through things such as Practice Deep Respect for People and Local Solutions, Amplify Freedom and Responsibility and Practice Self-Discovery Within a Group. As we practice, we become. As we become, we must practice the respect and amplification of freedom and responsibility.

There is a community of practice in the larger LS community about how to spread LS in the world. It is a true CoP in every sense of the word as we improvise, test, rethink, re-practice into ways to spread LS. While we try to reflect and debrief in our work across contexts, we probably could do a bit more – and more sharing of what we learn. But it is clear:

  • Talking about LS is not enough.
  • Demonstrating them in the abstract has value, but is not enough.
  • Doing them, again and again, in similar and different strings and configurations, with riffs and variations, we build a literacy of engagement that helps us engage, work productively in complex contexts, have fun and DO GOOD!

References 

UDG

LS in Higher Ed (sorry, I have not sorted these out yet – an ongoing project!)

LS in Other Contexts

 

Group Process Design Principles in Times of Turbulence

Ready for a thinking ramble? Payoff isn’t until the end. Fair warning!

I have found myself pointing to Donella Meadows’ “Leverage Places: Where to Intervene in a System” more and more these days.  First surfaced in the Whole Earth Catalog in 1997, and expanded in 1999, the essay resonated with me then and continues today. Read the whole thing, but if you just want to scan the leverage points, check out the Wikipedia article. When I mention the article, everyone starts pulling out their pens, phones or electronic note taking devices. People are hungry for clues about where to intervene in the complex systems within which they work and live. Here are her leverage points:

PLACES TO INTERVENE IN A SYSTEM (in increasing order of effectiveness)

9. Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
8. Regulating negative feedback loops.
7. Driving positive feedback loops.
6. Material flows and nodes of material intersection.
5. Information flows.
4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints).
3. The distribution of power over the rules of the system.
2. The goals of the system.
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, its culture — arises.

Her number one leverage place: 1. The power to transcend paradigms. From the Wikipedia article:

Transcending paradigms may go beyond challenging fundamental assumptions, into the realm of changing the values and priorities that lead to the assumptions, and being able to choose among value sets at will.

Many today see Nature as a stock of resources to be converted to human purpose. Many Native Americans see Nature as a living god, to be loved, worshipped, and lived with. These views are incompatible, but perhaps another viewpoint could incorporate them both, along with others.

A bit more from Meadows’ essay on #1 and worth savoring, slowly:

There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that NO paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension. It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing, into what the Buddhists call enlightenment.

People who cling to paradigms (which means just about all of us) take one look at the spacious possibility that everything they think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, no understanding, not even a reason for being, much less acting, in the notion or experience that there is no certainty in any worldview. But, in fact, everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it to be the basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose whatever one will help to achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe (or put in the name of your favorite deity here) and do his, her, its will, which is probably a lot better informed than your will.

It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.

Hold that thought for a moment.
A while back I happened on The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas – Evonomics, and another in the Atlantic about US post election responses, both of which resonated with my reading of Meadow’s essay. First, the snippet about Ostrom (another one of my compass points, like Meadows!)

“Evolutionary theory’s individualistic turn coincided with individualistic turns in other areas of thought. Economics in the postwar decades was dominated by rational choice theory, which used individual self-interest as a grand explanatory principle. The social sciences were dominated by a position known as methodological individualism, which treated all social phenomena as reducible to individual-level phenomena, as if groups were not legitimate units of analysis in their own right (Campbell 1990). And UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher became notorious for saying during a speech in 1987 that “there is no such thing as society; only individuals and families.” It was as if the entire culture had become individualistic and the formal scientific theories were obediently following suit.

Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009.”

Notice Ostrom’s core design principles. See any relation to Meadows’ leverage points?

Now switch to the Atlantic  article titled “Americans Don’t Need Reconciliation—They Need to Get Better at Arguing” by Eri Liu. Commenting on the need for work in the social sphere following our divisive presidential election, Liu suggested we needed three things:

  • Listen more to each other (in listening circles”)
  • Work more together (national service)
  • Argue more. But do it well (“We don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones.”)

Liu gives us three concrete ways of unlocking the patterns and leverage points.

My work has clearly been situated in ever increasing turbulence. Traditional strategic planning? Throw it out the window. Focusing on mission and vision? Unless tied to concrete, actionable purpose, throw it out the window. It is too easy to be lost in our own abstractions and old/stale paradigms. (Thank you Donella!) Building knowledge management systems to capture everything? Fuggedabout it if we aren’t listening to each other (Thank you, Eric!) Trying to work just top down and with existing, rigid governance systems? Do you have all the time in the world? NO, ditch it! (Thank you, Elinor!)

So how am I designing now? Quickly, iteratively, and ruthlessly reflective. My group process practices in the last 18 months reveal a pattern where groups are getting more traction into creating insights on their work, and slightly increased  traction on acting on those insights.  I attribute this two two things: the application of Liberating Structures and other group processes that are informed by complexity sciences, and the use of emergent visuals to help show the path of thinking, understanding and action. The processes devolve power and responsibility to, as LS says, “unleash and include” everyone. They focus on immediate steps rather than waiting for certainty and perfection. They ask us to question our assumptions, measure our experiments and understand negative and positive feedback loops (Meadows again!) They seek to sidestep the barriers of traditional governance as much as possible without rejecting the participation of those institutions.

People get it. Quickly. The visual practices help bookmark the moments of insight and support telling the story to others.

The traction for action is still a bit elusive. Our reward systems punish many of the behaviors of emergent practices. Power is challenged. And just getting a grip on all the working parts can serve as an excuse to throw one’s arms up and give up. But we won’t give up. Nope. Sadly, Meadows and Ostrom died too young. But their words continue to feed us.

Stay tuned. Share your thoughts!

Edit: See this great post by Chris Corrigan on Prototyping and Strategic Planning. I had THOUGHT I had linked it in, but clearly that was in my dreams! Dave Pollard also recommends the work of Nora Bateson.

Responding to Clark Quinn: Technology or preparation? 

Clark Quinn has a great provocation on his blog today. I ‘ll share a quote, then reply.

So, many of the things we’re doing are driven by bad implementation. And that’s what I started wondering: are we using smart technology to enhance an optimized workforce, or to make up for a lack of adequate preparation?  We could be putting in technology to make up for what we’ve been unsuccessful at doing through training and elearning (because we’re not doing that well).

To put it another way, would we get better returns applying what’s known about how we think, work, and learn than bringing in technology? Would adequate preparation be a more effective approach than throwing technology at the problem, at least in some of the cases? There are strong reasons to use technology to do things we struggle at doing well, and in particular to augment us. But perhaps a better investment, at least in some cases, would be to appropriately distribute tasks between the things our brains do well and what technology does better.

Let me be clear; there are technologies that will do things more reliably than humans, and do things humans would prefer not to. I’m all for the latter, at least ;). And we should optimize both technology and people. I’m a fan of technology to augment us in ways we want to be augmented. So my point is more to consider are we doing enough to prepare people and support them working together. Your thoughts?

Source: LearnletsTechnology or preparation? – Learnlets

While Clark’s question is in the context of workplace learning, it is resonant in far wider contexts. I see it when I’m asked to design group process and gatherings. We are constantly putting “band aids” on instead of addressing underlying issues. We don’t really “prepare people and support them working together.” Why is that? Is it the continued desire for a quick fix, or the deep denial that how we work together matters and making it work more effectively might challenge too many things: power, status quo, cost?

The observation of this problem is neither new nor unique… it is how things often work. So the question  is how do we better shine a light on the underlying issues and take immediate steps — however small – for remediation? Rather than throw up our hands and say it is too messy, hard or difficult?

This is where complexity-informed practices come in. From the deep dives into understanding what is happening with sense-making tools like Cognitive Edge’s Sensemaker, to simple, reproducible group practices like Liberating Structures, we can stop shrugging our shoulders and saying “that’s out of my scope of work” or “I can’t do anything about that.” The point is we have to do SOMETHING. Not just plow on from tech innovation to tech innovation. Here are four possible sets of practices that could help us go deeper and do better. Here are four possible sets of actions.

 Creative Destruction to Make Space

What one thing, no matter how tiny, can we stop doing to make space for the things we want to try? Before we add a new technology, do we stop using another one? Before we seek a solution to an efficiency problem, can we find out what to stop doing that caused the problem? Cue up Ecocycle or TRIZ, and make some of these now-useless activities visible. So often we strive to manage and scale when we have either grown past the things we are scaling, or they are no longer fit for purpose. We operate in mostly dynamic environments, yet we try and shoehorn everything into an ordered domain. (The complicated and simple in the Cynefin framework. In an ordered domain “cause and effect are known or can be discovered.” Complex and chaotic domains are understood as unordered, where ” cause and effect can be deduced only with hindsight or not at all.”).

Space for Uncertainty and Experimentation

Maybe certainty and obsession with technical fixes is overrated. Earlier this week I participated in an online gathering hosted by Johnnie Moore on Unhurried Conversations. He offered five principles to support unhurried conversations and one was The wisdom of uncertainty. We can use uncertainty to experiment our way into useful solutions, rather than coming up with a “brilliant idea” that may inadvertently build on past weakness. We may miss the underlying preparation. We can use Improv Prototyping to “act our way into knowing.” We can use Helping Heuristics to strengthen our listening before we pounce with our own (half baked?) ideas, giving space to considerations that are lost for those of us who “think by talking.”

Leadership for Spotting and Picking Up Promising Experiments

When we start getting seduced by technological innovation, it reminds me that there are people who see the world differently and can look within and beyond the tech itself and spot the ideas for promising experimentation. Not everyone has these skills to imagine things. We want solutions and we tend to foreclose on them too quickly, or fail to do, as Dave Snowden loves to say, “safe fail” experimentation to test our assumptions and asses the complexity (or not) of a situation. Sometimes that means we are smart enough to notice others with these strengths, and not try and be the “solution maker” ourselves. Approaches such as Wicked Questions , Discovery and Action Dialog, and Critical Uncertainties can help us spot the things we might otherwise rush by.

Right Management of the Right Things

I do not want to dismiss the Ecocycle domain of “maturity.” When there is a useful technical application, we want to bring it productively into the work. Same for process issues. Not everything is uncertain and shifting. The critical issue is HOW we manage these things into maturity, and how do we ensure we don’t repeat the cycle of “getting stuck” when that thing ceases to add value. And how leaders and managers can both work in this quadrant of maturity while at the same time supporting the other three areas of creative destruction, networking and birth. Great leaders and managers do their magic in the maturity quadrant AND support others to deploy their strengths in the unordered domains. Keep a critical eye on what must be destroyed, reimagined/imagined and birthed, even if it is not their own area of expertise and comfort.

What are your ideas?

See also:

Lessons from a Crazy MAFN Multi-Sensory Webinar

Warning: Long post suitable for process geeks and lovers of detail. The rest of you might want to skip to the bottom and download the annotated slides PDF!

For the last few years I’ve enjoyed presenting a 90 minute synchronous session for the Mid Atlantic Facilitators Network, or MAFN. The hosting team is top notch, more organized and supportive than any other I’ve experienced, so it is easy to say yes when they invite me back. (This is worth a blog post of its own!)

Each year I use the opportunity to push my own borders. One year I introduced Liberating Structures (2014). Another year Any Lenzo, Nancy Settle-Murphy and I co-led a session about technology and facilitation (2015).  I think there was something in 2016, but alas, memory fails!

This January I said yes again and decided to really push the boundaries of experiential co-learning in a synchronous online environment and play with what happens when we switch up sensory modalities. I positioned this ENTIRELY as an experiment, not a talk given by someone who is certain about something. That alone is an unusual twist. People expect experts. I arrive as a practitioner, and I love claiming this identity.

The title was Fingerpainting Online: Experiments in Synchronous Multimodality. The experiments I proposed included adding music, creating physical objects as interaction prompts, physical movement, taste/smell, vocalization and creation/destruction/recreation. I used the first modality of music by introducing a piece of music – a fugue – and riffing off the structure of fugues. That was probably taking my metaphoric imagination a bit too far, but it was fun. At the bottom of the post you can see pictures of the slides as well as an annotated PDF of the deck which include my notes and some of the anonymized feedback that happened in the group chat.

Prior to the session, participants were emailed a list of preparations which included downloading and making a small paper foldable animal of their choice, having a snack near by, and printing out a note taking template I drew for them.

Listen

The first modality was aural. Before I started even talking, we put on a clip of contemporary classical music. My camera was on so they saw my face as I listened, but I did not talk for a good 120 seconds. An eternity online. During this time I showed three slides, one a brief prompt asking people to think of the 90 minutes together as a piece of music, a quote from Donella Meadows on “getting the beat” of a system, and a definition of a fugue.

I want to explicitly share the Meadows’ quote here as it has value on its own. This idea that we observe, before we disturb. A great process tip!

  1. Get the beat.

Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened. If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system. Peoples’ memories are not always reliable when it comes to timing.

Donella Meadows

http://donellameadows.org/archives/dancing-with-systems/

When I finally talked, I offered the invitation into this experiment, confessing I had experiences as a practitioner, but no definitive expertise around the experiment. We then talked about the music. Some of the points I raised included:

  • How we carry stress in our bodies, and how that influences group process as facilitators and participants. Music can begin to release some of that stress (or, in moments of uncertainty, create more.)
  • Icebreakers were originally about creating somatic awareness, listening and connection. How does music break ice?
  • Adults react to music based on their experience with that music. Our memory of a particular kind of music will influence the effect. Children tend to just jump into it and be with it. Dance, sing, listen.
  • In my practice, I often use music that reflects context, domain, desired energy level. If I’m working overseas, I use a mix with local music – a subtle honoring of local context.
  • I am often mixing things up, selecting music and language that is familiar enough, but has some unfamiliarity. This bit of dissonance serves to break entrained thinking patterns, and causes us to sit up and pay attention differently.

In the chat room, the comments resonated with some of these observations.

  • It did not resonate with me
  • I was curious. Wondering where this was going.
  • I felt relaxed.
  • It helped focus and ground me to the session
  • curious
  • Relaxed; soothing; all working together
  • engages my right brain, which helps me access creativity (when we start discussing something)
  • Calm, not thinking : )
  • I was not concerned about where this was going. (thinking)
  • relaxing and getting ready
  • Felt lighter. Was thinking “this is different”
  • Actually thinking about past experience of a client very liner which was uncomfortable with anything different.
  • helps slow down the runaway train thinking…
  • I think there’s a question in this for us as facilitators re. our role: are we sage on stage? are we simply facilitating their energy, so they own the process?
  • Nancy White: Yes yes yes… hold that thought . When you change modalities, you change how people notice and pay attention. I’m going to take you on a sensory adventure. Music as conviviality and sociality. Music in complement to visual practices.

We were off and running. In the spirit of the three parts of a fugue, exposition, development and return, we did a bit more exposition and I reviewed the visual note taking template. The central part of the invitation was to treat this experience with curiosity, withholding swift judgement for each modality and then reflection. I warned them some of the parts of the experiment would be down-right weird, and some would be limited by the limits of the technology itself, and I was NOT aiming for some sort of perfect experience. It was EXPERIMENT!

Touch

The next modality was the physicality of touch. Each person had picked, downloaded and built a small foldable animal. The animal they picked determined which chat breakout room they would go to and reflect on a prompt about the artifact they created. There were the elephants, the lions, alligators, rhinos and giraffes.

I asked them to download, print and build an animal based on something I learned years ago from Lisa Kimball. She was my first guide in online conferencing, back in the almost entirely asynchronous, discussion board days. When she hosted an event, she would send out a packet of printed materials (shocking!) which included something to print out, construct and keep by your computer. The agenda was printed on the different faces of the object we assembled. When we were online, one of the prompts was to hold the object when reading other people’s text comments. The kinesthetic experience in the conference, where we were all disembodied, help us feel a connection.

It was a great set up in Adobe Connect because while people chatted in their respective chatrooms, they could see all of the rooms and look “across” the experience. All the Rhinos are holding the same object, working on the same thing.  Then we debriefed. Right off the bat one participant noted it was a “metaphoric opportunity” that helped us become present in a different way through the mere act of touching something. I smiled. Here are a few of the chat observations (beyond the riffing of animal jokes!):

  • A tremendous amount of diversity of thought!
  • Could be in multiple breakouts at the same time — and see what was happening in all of them at the same time.
  • OK to not follow the rules – that in itself is a great intervention, encouraging people to speak up, and to take some ownership. (I told them they did not have to follow the rules I offered!)
  • Metaphoric opportunity for application to real issues
  • My lion just bit me!!
  • Creating connection – all the rhinos, all the giraffes – I think that’s brilliant in a D&I context – we connect with other people around shared whatever; it creates an affinity that I might not feel for you because I don’t know you.
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Seem likes the object needs to be relevant to the to the group work at least as much as ice breakers

Move

Our conversation was moving us from the fugue’s exposition to development. We wrapped this section up by me asking them to take their hands off the keyboard, hold their animals, then imagine the other people in the group who had selected the same animal. A shared, somatic experience. And we moved right into the main somatic experience of moving. I invited people to stand up, move about for a few minutes. To release the tension in their hands, arms, neck and shoulders. To breathe. (See Linda Stone’s work on email apnea!)

Chat Notes after standing up and moving:

  • I seemed to have greater energy . I was able to be more focused
  • It’s fun to freak people out sometimes! : ) (reflecting on the fact that people in the office wondered what this person was doing!)
  • I move more as I work
  • relaxed me a bit
  • it just occurred to me.. we should do this whole thing using xbox!! I’d love to see snapshots of people’s moves : )
  • True! VR is the future and coming soon!

Think about the movement towards standing desks? (3+ participants said they had one, one didn’t know what a stand up desk was). How many walk with their phone during phone calls? We are learning that we are killing ourselves prematurely by sitting too much. There is a stream of work aroundwalking meetings” and redesigned work environments.

But  what do we know about the value of movement in group process? We then explored the connection between moving, attention and how body position can impact attention and prevent more computer based multitasking. Stretch breaks.

Dancing is a metaphor used in our work, just like music (“Its like Jazz!”) Movement and kinesthetic experience has long been incorporated into K-12 pedagogy. The link between math and balance board activities, the association of certain sports activities with areas of studies such as music and math, and the emerging consensus of the value of recess, particularly the physical play aspects, are visible and most of us are aware of them.

If you do a general analysis of group processes, looking at their underlying patterns, there are strong movement components. Large/Small/Large group alternation. “Stand up” meetings.  Visual practitioners talk about the power of people getting up to a wall and making a mark (expressive arts) . The body, my friends, is powerful… Trios in walking tasks improve the quality of thinking and conversation.But we don’t find a lot of results with a Google search about physical aspects of online group facilitation. Building the kinesthetic experience into F2F is fairly common (mode choice), but not very often online. The most frequent thing you hear is to take physical breaks in online events every 40 minutes.

What might technologies like virtual reality help us do? How can our use of metaphors of movement (like dancing)  stimulate the somatic memory. Donella Meadows talked about “dancing with systems.” There are ways of doing strategic planning that are about building resilience, flow and action versus a static plan. We need to build kinesthetic metaphors into our vocabulary and moving methods into our process. I move tables out of the room for more physicality (tables are for eating!), use the human spectrogram to tease out positions and avoid people getting trapped next to the two people they sat down between at the start. What does this look like online?

Different technologies influence our design.  The invitation to engage in these things is important – the language we use.  “This is too childish… we are adults.”  If we have a clear purpose, the activity has to have a direct link to purpose. Talking about facilitation ideas in the abstract is less powerful, because their use towards purpose is what matters. The connection to the purpose: that is the integrity of the design.

Here are some of the ideas the group shared in the chat room: :

  • Instead of having people sitting at breakout tables, have the groups gather around chart paper on the walls around the room
  • I have people stand for exercises all the time . My purpose is to get them focused on the task and get their energy up
  • Love the idea of walking breakout groups
  • I have conference centers give us breakout rooms without tables and chairs. Only flipcharts
  • If folks have cell phones, you can use the Adobe app, etc.
  • How about hololens? An augmented reality headset. Like a next gen Google Glass
  • when working from home, I walk around with my laptop
  • Who says they all have that capability?How to get around the fact that people will sign in with diff technology that prohibits
  • We breakout participants in groups at the end of a day’s session and ask them to produce a skit of their summary of key takeaways from the day. I am always surprised at how much adults love to produce and act! …we can geek out 🙂
  • Love the language change suggestion!
  • there’s a fun platform, MURAL, that allows you to do fun things on the computer that you would do in person – like creating and posting sticky notes with ideas.  https://mural.co/
  • A group of children is almost always more creative than a group of adults. So being “childish” may mean more creative.

Taste/Smell

It was about half way through the 90 minutes when we moved on to taste and smell. Snack time! We’ve heard the line: “Wake up and smell the coffee.” or “That is a tasty idea.” smell and taste metaphors are rich and common. They are one of my favorites because as a chocoholic, I often invoke it in many ways. I shared a picture using chocolate as a metaphor for coming together via  a chocolate mandala at a retreat. Here was a bit of my rap:

Can you smell the chocolate? Does it remind you of something beyond the act of eating chocolate?  Smell memories are some of the most powerful. Smell and taste are powerful parts of the limbic system. Associated with memory and feeling. They can trigger something almost Pavolovian.

Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously. “ (HowStuffWorks) When I smell “Love’s Baby Soft” perfume, my year as an exchange student in Brazil as a high school student rises up in all its detail, when otherwise I simply remember the stories I retold the most after my return. Rice cakes make me think of my pregnancies.

I invited you to bring something yummy to eat or drink. Take a sip or a bite right now, if anything is left. Pay attention to your body. What is happening?

While they were munching, I mentioned the work of a client at the CITA program who have introduced good nutrition before family court hearings. and how this simple act of providing protein is shifting court experiences and outcomes. Yes, our bodies are in this with our minds.

Immediately someone asked about the relevance of an experiment like this – the relevance to the purpose and the relevance of the group. Sometimes I step a bit away from purpose and look at creating or holding the space or conditions for working on a purpose. Punctuation – not the main meal, but things that help the main meal go well. But it can’t divert or detract from purpose. Our role is not entertainment – it has to be purposeful. But food has strong social connotations and it evokes memories. So how can we use this in online facilitation?

Chat Notes:

  • Dark chocolate over coconut – the taste and smell is heaven!
  • Wondering about the realistic application of this during an actual on-line session with people that use diff tech to participate and have diff ability and comfort level with any specific tech. Examples of your use of this ??
  • Nancy: This is exactly my question, I don’t know the answer! 🙂 But I want to hear ideas!
  • Does Adobe allow all of us to connect our cameras and audios for 30seconds?
  • I like what you set up… inviting everyone to bring food / drink and even to eat/drink at the same time. And then… ask to share and go to impact or application??
  • What are you eating? You can eat and type, but hard to eat and talk at the same time.
  • coffee and almonds, here in Philly
  • that was my point 😉 sharing everyone’s eating and drinking 🙂
  • @ZZ, we can turn cameras on, but one person at a time. Anyone want to go on video for a bit?
  • a smell that holds memory for you? and the feeling accompanying it/ and …?
  • we have had ‘celebratory’ online meetings with colleagues around the world — the meeting was to celebrate the group’s work and get feedback on the process,
  • Cranky if we aren’t experiencing good nutrition
  • The same issue with nutrition happens with people with dementia or cognitive impairments
  • I certainly agree that food is good for in person meetings, but it is interesting that I don’t want to be watching people eat on-line. Interesting. Is it just because it is different? Or am I impatient because I see it as taking up time?
  • brain & thinking impact from chronic stress… ACES study.
  • Appreciate the question and exploration of ideas for how to do this. At the end of the day does it not need to be relevantly useful for the group’s work?
  • @YY agreed. But I’m finding myself enjoying seeing the coffee drinking.
  • I’m with XX – don’t want to watch people eat 😉 adverse childhood experiences…

Sing/Vocalize

Next was the experiment that, in a previous setting, was the most challenging for people: shared vocalization in the form of singing. Now I know that when we open up multiple mics there will be a sound mess. Things won’t synch up, so I warned everyone in advance. Then we sang Happy Birthday together.

My friend Steve Crandall mentioned a while back some research about the role of singing and social bonding. (Two here and here.) This got me thinking about singing together. I did a little experiment last year at the Sketching in Practice conference in Vancouver, BC with groups using different modalities F2F and the group that had to sing to communicate was, well, not happy. They rebelled. Singing is not a shared public practice, it seems. 😉 We need to figure out how to USE it!

If you look at the development of shared communication, singing has played  role. But we have often excluded in business as “not appropriate.” They create moments of discomfort, regardless of online or offline. Can we use these moments productively? Can we access the value of shared vocalization more deeply?

I’m not suggesting singing Kumbaya and holding hands, but thinking about the value of shared vocalization, in neurostimulation. As we work in a complex world with different people and contexts, shouldn’t we be calling about these things as part of our process? Shouldn’t we be asking these questions? Maybe just playing music alone is not enough, but need something purpose driven around shared vocalization.

“We show that although singers and non-singers felt equally connected by timepoint 3, singers experienced much faster bonding: singers demonstrated a significantly greater increase in closeness at timepoint 1, but the more gradual increase shown by non-singers caught up over time. This represents the first evidence for an ‘ice-breaker effect’ of singing in promoting fast cohesion between unfamiliar individuals, which bypasses the need for personal knowledge of group members gained through prolonged interaction. We argue that singing may have evolved to quickly bond large human groups of relative strangers, potentially through encouraging willingness to coordinate by enhancing positive affect.” http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/2/10/150221

The online technology is not friendly to us today, but we should be asking questions about how we can improve the experience. Maybe virtual reality will help us.

Create/Destroy/Recreate

And with that, we moved on to “create/destry/re-create” which is an experiment I’ve run many times in online meetings. This is the “finger painting online” bit – actually mouse-painting for most people, working on a shared white board and using images instead of words. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll move right into the debrief, as this post has grown to gargantuan proportions. Oops!

The debrief of the open drawing of the first round:

  • started to look like jackson pollack by the end!
  • it got messy!
  • incites curiosity
  • looks like Guernica
  • Depends what we are trying to do.
  • confused
  • LOL
  • For this kind of exercise it felt right
  • overwriting each other’s pictures could get in the way of purpose, or not!
  • I greatly improved other peoples drawings…
  • connection, another way to hi
  • the idea of an exercise of building off others’ work if interesting
  • This is a self selected group of people willing to experiment

The second round where a grid and specific instructions were provided:

  • started to look like jackson pollack by the end!
  • it got messy!
  • incites curiosity
  • looks like Guernica
  • Depends what we are trying to do.
  • confused
  • LOL
  • For this kind of exercise it felt right
  • overwriting each other’s pictures could get in the way of purpose, or not!
  • I greatly improved other peoples drawings…
  • connection, another way to hi
  • the idea of an exercise of building off others’ work if interesting
  • This is a self selected group of people willing to experiment

And the third round where we opened things back up to a more emergent creative practice:

  • This is an awesome exercise… here’s what it looks like in a room as part of a world cafe: http://lizardbrainsolutions.com/zwixnxzvcauu2d39y9ijr7kbumu9y1
  • Lol. Love the gump!
  • Ah, I see Forrest Gump
  • ha ha….ha
  • shared purpose
  • more like the first time
  • tower of babel tasking
  • felt more like intentional collaboration I looked for places to add, elaborate
  • jointly effort because we have a theme
  • it felt like we were all contributing to an agreed end product
  • It seems the drawings appeared at the same time.
  • more detail possible but still does not resemble tree
  • surprise, but shared purpose — yielded unexpected results you could build on
  • some people dominating?
  • a cactus would have been nice.
  • After creating several trees, I looked for open spaces. Trying to work together.
  • its difficult to control the stroke sometimes – inadvertently infringed on people’s space
  • would love to have the drawing exercise with music in the background!

Look at the progression: We had no constraints, then constraints, and then between the two we find the space to work together. We built awareness of intentionality and purpose, of our own acts and the acts of our colleagues. Fisher Qua has been doing a group drawing on large paper that starts with individual drawings on the perimeter of the paper and then work collaboratively towards the center. In a space of unfamiliarity, we act differently into the experience.

World Café table clothes where large white paper is set on each table with a range of colored pens for spontaneous doodling and drawing  are a very good example of this F2F. So too with drawing on whiteboards — we have a subtle negotiation of visual space and an easy place to play in the online space.

The Return

Our time was coming to an end. We reached the “return” stage of our metaphorical fugue. We started easy with aural and ended with easy with visual. We explored how to pay attention together and work together.  Individually. Collectively. At a distance and yet really together. We concluded with a “What? So What? Now What?” debrief which you can read in the PDF below.

For me, the insights were these:

  • We need to actively understand and experiment with including more modalities and approaches in our online work if we truly want to learn and work and play together online.
  • Switching helps us out of our thinking ruts and into new, productive spaces for engagement.
  • Discomfort is ok. Let’s use it productively.
  • We have a lot more work to do!

MAFN FingerP ainting Together Online Jan 2017 Annotated

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