Archive for the 'learning' Category

Nov 18 2014

Good Suggestions for “Fixing the Q&A” Session

whatsyourstoryerealitiesThere is a useful post on the HBR blog by  that is a good follow-on to yesterday’s post about webinars. Thomas talks about the mismatch between the intention for interaction with the audience, and the poor design of most Q&A sessions that happen after keynotes or talks. Here is a snippet, then I have some amplifications below.

Some solutions to the Q&A dysfunction already exist. Some hire a professional moderator or use software tools to crowdsource the questions. Others experiment with radically new ways to run events, such as the unconference movement. However, those solutions are often expensive or time-consuming to deploy, making them infeasible for many types of events. Here are four techniques that I’ve used with great results, and that can be deployed without any kind of preparation:

  1. Do an inverse Q&A. An inverse Q&A is when I the speaker pose a question to the audience, asking them to discuss it with the person sitting next to them. A good question is, “For you, what was a key take-away from this session? What might you do differently going forward?” People love the opportunity to voice their thoughts to someone and unlike the traditional Q&A, this approach allows everybody to have their say. It also helps them network with each other in a natural manner, which is something many conferences don’t really cater to.
  2. Ask for reactions, not just questions. When you debrief on the small-group discussion, insisting on the question format makes it awkward for the people who just want to share something. As you open the floor, specifically say “What are your reactions to all this? Questions are great, but you are also welcome to just share an observation, it doesn’t have to be in the form of a question.”
  3. Have people vet the questions in groups. An alternative to the inverse Q&A is to ask people to find good questions in groups. Simply say, “Please spend a minute or two in small groups, and try to find a good question or a reflection you think is relevant for everybody.” Then walk around the room and listen as people talk. If you hear an interesting reflection, ask them to bring it up during the joint discussion, or bring it up yourself.
  4. Share a final story after the Q&A. Given that even the best-run Q&A session is unpredictable, it is best to have the Q&A as the second-to-last element. I always stop the Q&A part a few minutes before the end, so I have time to share one final example before getting off the stage. That way, even if the Q&A part falls flat, you can still end your session with a bang instead of a fizzle.The above methods can help you turn any keynote into a better experience. What other techniques — ideally simple ones — have you seen or used?

via 4 Ways to Fix the Q&A Session – Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg – Harvard Business Review.

The first thing I really want to amplify is the focus on questions – thinking about them and forming them more intentionally, both from the presenter and from the people formerly known as the audience.  Crap questions generate crap responses. People seeking to be heard often respond in kind with crap responses because they were so busy getting ready to speak, they weren’t listening. So we also see a relationship between crap questions and poor listening. As a speaker, it is your/mine/our job to bring value by offering good questions and to both role model good listening when we hand off the mic, and to make it easier for people to listen well.

How do we make it easier for people to listen well?

  • Present well. This is covered well other places, but if we are rambly (spell check suggested “brambly” which also fits!), unclear or just off point, we will have lost the audience well before the Q&A. Why not aim for having people SO EXCITED by the time you finish speaking…
  • that the only solution is to let them have a conversation. Start with table or pair conversations so this energy can be unleashed, rather than squelched by passing a single mic and constricting/controlling that energy?
  • Harvest. The presenter’s job is then to harvest what was generated out of all that energy, and Thomas’ suggestions are spot on. You can also do post it note harvests, capture visually, among many options. The point here is you steward, you become of service.

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Nov 10 2014

Ask Me Anything: Knowledge Sharing Through Peer Interviews

This is the third post in a series about how we learn from our work. The first one is here and the second here.

The popular Internet discussion site, has a practice called “Ask Me Anything.”( It is a discussion thread where either some notable is invited in or a member offers their expertise and the other members can ask them, well, anything! It is so popular it even has a mobile app so you can follow the AMAs. Some of the AMA’s are amazing… the insights that emerge when someone asks us a question seem to leap over anything we can prepare. I’ve done a ton of keynote talks, and the best ones have been when someone interviews me. They pull out things I had no idea I knew, and I was able to express them naturally and easily.

What is it about someone asking us questions that surfaces great, sharable knowledge?

This is the question that is part of the second of two experiments we are running with the of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grantees of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program. (Read about the first one here.)We have started interviewing ourselves on the KM team, and have offered to interview any grantee to help tease out and share their insights with other grantees and stakeholders. It is a simple, low risk experiment to learn together and share knowledge

Our hypothesis, or Theory of Change, for the peer interviews is fourfold.

  1. HSLWe are often unconscious about what we know (see Dave Snowden’s great piece on “we know more than we can say and we say more than we can write.”) When someone asks us to “tell them a story” about our work, we are able to on the spot reflect, surface and share insights that might otherwise just stay stuck in our heads.
  2. We are short on time so we are reluctant or unable to stop, reflect, write and share. For whatever reasons. If someone can ask us and even help us write it up, we may be able to jump over that barrier.
  3. Pithy write ups of the insights can be valuable ways to cross pollinate learning in a grant portfolio, particularly if they come in small bites in greater frequency than the formal knowledge sharing instruments of regular reports and journal articles.
  4. Interviewing each other is a generative practice. This is because people like to know they have been heard. Not to freak out my dear science brethren and sisters, but the Dalai Lama once said that human beings “need to be heard, seen and loved, and in that order.” (As quoted in a story from Mark Jones, told to Peggy Holman and noted in her book, “Engaging Emergence.”) In the work world, we often swap in “respected” for loved, because talking about love at work seems taboo in many of our cultures. ;-) All the same, when we take the time to interview each other, to listen and to capture the insights, two things happen. One is the person who speaks often makes concrete, as they speak, thinking that was not yet fully formed or articulated. The second is that when people are heard, they are more likely to offer their knowledge in the future. So interviewing becomes a generative practice.

So far I have interviewed our KM team leader, Pete Cranston. On my to do list is to interview our client, the BDS portfolio lead (who is a pretty freaking amazingly open guy, so I look forward to this), and, after our last call (see blog post 2) I want to follow up with one of the grantees who is asking this same question: how do we surface and share our learnings more effectively. He calls it “process learning.” Some folks call it “working out loud.”

So another experiment has begun. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, do you have any stories or insights about peer interviewing as a learning and knowledge sharing method? Please, share them in the comments!

11 responses so far

Nov 06 2014

Why The ____ Would I Wake Up at 4am for a Hangout? Project Community – CogDogBlog

Why The ____ Would I Wake Up at 4am for a Hangout? Project Community 

Alan shared a great blog post about the final Project Community Hangout – it is wonderful so I’m being a lazy blogger and pointing you towards it. I’ll have a final reflective blog on this… but later! I need to catch up on my sleep first!

Of course, I also have to share the great pic Alan found…

Why The ____ Would I Wake Up at 4am for a Hangout? Project Community - CogDogBlog

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Nov 03 2014

You Can Observe a Lot By Watching – Yogi Berra

watchingbyAliaQunhuaFlickrCCThis is the second post in a series about how we learn from our work. The first one can be found here.

The great American baseball player/philosopher Yogi Berra, said “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

That quote popped into my mind when I was on a phone call with a group of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grantees of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program. We were on a great 90 minute call with those working on projects in Africa when one participant shared this story. The following is a total paraphrase!

I received this drawing of a septic tank from one of our colleagues in India. Looking at it, I saw it was a great design, but I closed the email and moved on. A few months later I visited and saw the remarkable tank and realized what a breakthrough it was and thought, why did I just close that email a few months ago? Why didn’t I share it with a colleague in Africa who I knew would be interested? What was it about that face to face moment that crystallized the learning for me?

“You can observe a lot just by watching.” All humor aside, I’d like to greet that with a rousing “Yes, AND…” The AND is that we are getting so programmed for efficiency, and addressing every little blip on the radar screen that we miss the importance of the things we are ostensibly “watching.” When we go into the field, many of those distractions are electronically de-tethered. We focus, focus, focus on what we actually see in front of us. We ARE watching with all of our attention and thus can reflect on the importance of what we are seeing.

So is the solution to simply go into the field? Well, not so practical. Not so sustainable. Sometimes not even possible, especially for anyone lower on the project hierarchy. It is not equitable.

So what do we do?

We are currently initiating two experiments to try and solve this problem. I’ll share the first here, and save the second for a follow up post. (Focus, focus, focus!)

Shared, Open-Topic Conversations

One is the semi-regular, open agenda telephone calls with subgroups of BDS grantees. The calls were initiated by the portfolio leader, as a response to working with the KM team and hearing needs from grantees. By walking the talk, our client is using his leadership position to invite conversation, versus disseminate requirements or content.

So far it feels like having between 8-12 people on the call is a good size. There is enough diversity, but not too many voices so everyone can have some air time and attention. We use a telephone bridge line and a shared note taking/chatting space. (Our “community technology configuration.”) Currently we’ve been experimenting with Meeting Words (

We do a quick check in, then each person is invited to share some insight about their current work. People use chat or voice to ask questions, answer, look for possible collaboration opportunities, but more importantly, pay attention for 90 minutes to thinking across the portfolio, not just within their project.

Because there are others there “listening” to us, we speak and pay attention differently than a quick scan of an email. My sense is that the more we can recreate the sense that we are together, the more this behavior shows up, rather than paying attention with half an ear whilst doing email and reading a note someone in the office just set in front of us. The shared note taking space helps focus attention and offer different means of engagement. We didn’t have it the first call and I personally felt less coherence. (That could just be me.) When we added it for the second call, people did not have to wait for “airtime” to talk – they could type. In addition, I did live note taking in the wiki side of the page and invited others to improve my note taking. In when the links! In went the correct spelling of a report. And we had very useful, collaborative notes ready by the end of the call. Boom!

The turn taking helps stimulate our past experience of being in a room, in a circle together sharing a beer or coffee, and simply talking with each other.  It helps the shyer people know there will be a space for them, even if they want to pass. It evens out some of the inevitable power dynamics of funder/grantee, boss/team member.

At the end of the second call we asked ourselves if we found value in the call and the meeting words and the quick informal feedback was very positive. I was even surprised at how positive. What did we do right? What could be improved? We still need to answer these questions.

The final piece of these calls is just starting up – following up with sharing of mentioned resources, setting up follow up actions for pairs with shared needs or interests, and development of asynchronous discussion threads of topics identified as useful for more depth.

My key questions going forward on this include:

  • How often do these calls need to be to build sufficient trust and practice to be, and be perceived as valuable and worth the time spent? In other words, what is the heartbeat of this practice? Time is always the scarce resource, so value MUST exceed time spent. This raises the question of what metrics help us understand received and perceived value. Is it important to have metrics or is informal feedback enough?
  • How will the proposed follow up items emerge and how will we discern the value of these experiments? Will we succeed in sustaining asynchronous interaction or is that even another step away from the “face to face attention.” Again, what are our metrics?
  • Finally, if these calls continue to provide value, who else would benefit from/want to attend? How far away from those in charge of the grants should we go? I personally think we miss a LOT by not having these conversations with front line staff, but it becomes increasingly logistically challenging and time is that darn choke point.

Have you done informal, regular knowledge sharing calls? What have you learned about convening them? Measuring their value? Let me know and I’ll share it back around! Because, after all, you can observe a lot by watching, right? J

10 responses so far

Oct 20 2014

Mirror Mirror, On the Wall: Learning in a Crowded Life

mirrorbyPhotoComiXonFlickrCC14 years ago I did my first overseas gig in Central Asia. I stayed with the project over three years including a number of trips to Armenia to work with the team on the ground. (See White-2005-Little) Ostensibly I was there to help facilitate learning around using online tools for community development, particularly in rural towns being connected via a school connectivity project. But in the end, what I realized was that my role was as a mirror for the team to see itself.

As we had our final closing circle for an After Action Review before the project began its transition away from the organization to the Ministry of Education, we started with the first question “What did we intend to do?” That was pretty easy. The project had a clear mandate, goals, and measurable intermediate outputs. We transitioned quickly into “What did we actually do.” There were the things we had dealt with, change, reformations of assumptions and operating conditions, etc. No big surprises.

When we got to the third question, “What did we learn?” we sat for a moment in silence, pondering. You could feel something change in the room. The concern that the Ministry would muck it all up, unspoken, but present. The acknowledgement of grief of having to let the program grow was palpable. Maybe even a sense of failure, fearing the transition was untenable.

Then one of the amazing women of the program opened her mouth and helped us begin. She said something to the effect of “Nancy Jan, you have helped me realize how much we have grown in our ability to really support change in our communities.” Then it began to flow, and the group unearthed first changes in themselves, the lessons they learned. From there insights about structural and environmental factors emerged in ways that were constructive for subsequent work – for the Ministry’s and their own. Something broke open. It was no longer a laundry list of things done.

The ability to learn lessons about projects, to surface them and analyze them with sufficient clarity starts with the ability to learn about ourselves. To reflect on our ways of working, of perceiving the work we do, of our assumptions and blind spots. This team had started with little appreciation of their own skills, their ability to influence their partners and stakeholders, and their deep creativity sprung from their even deeper commitment to their work. If anything, they hid their own light.

I’m currently working on two projects that are, in essence, about how we learn from our work. One is the development of a self-paced eLearning module on Experience Capitalization, which is a process for describing project work, extracting lessons and recommendations, creating communications products and channels for those lessons so they can be seen, adapted and used by others with similar interests and goals. How do we build our individual and organizational capacity to do that? My mirror role is to try and understand and interpret the content created by subject matter experts, and see it through novice eyes.

The second project is as a very peripheral participant helping a knowledge management initiative pick up clues to what is being learned about the learning in the project. How do we notice useful bits, pick them up, reflect on them and share them? The team leader has expressed a very open willingness to start with himself, which is rare and wonderful. So mirrors up!

I keep going back to that moment in Armenia, and the same element emerges. We often don’t (or can’t) see what is right in front of us, mostly because we are too busy, working too fast, and can’t seem to find the “mirror” to stop and look ourselves in the eye and reflect. We may lack some basic structure or affordances TO reflect. What if we took time to reinsert reflection and these affordances into our work? Would something change?

Is it that simple?

I don’t think it is that simple, or that learning from doing IS simple. But this pattern of finding a moment to “be heard” – even if by our own selves, is critical to both identifying and internalizing/applying learning. It is that moment of taking a breath before we do something new, something technical or challenging. Focus. Attention.

So back to the mirror. When you ask someone, heck, when you pay someone else to help you learn, you take the time to learn. One of those odd incentives that seem silly because of course we want to learn. But we don’t. That’s when the mirror role comes in very handy.

As much as I LOVE being the mirror (it is a fantastic role), it is not a sustainable strategy when learning becomes a matter of importance as it is in my work in international development. Think of the learning that is, or SHOULD be going on now with the Ebola epidemic.

I am going to write about this a few more times in the coming weeks and months to try and whittle down one or two things that are actionable, doable and can be motivated from within to leverage more learning from our work, and helping it connect with others who may be able to use our learning.

Image by PhotoComIX on Flickr, Creative Commons

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