The Fence of Fear

donkeyFear has played an interesting role in my life. Or better said, confronting my fears has given me the opportunity to do things I would have never done before. For example I was afraid to go to Brazil as a 16 year old exchange student for a year, but it was a life changing experience – for the better. I have been afraid to be “unknowing” and vulnerable when facilitating groups, but those have often been pivotal moments. (By the way, the picture is of me there, many many moons ago!)

But fear within groups and between members has never shown up  generatively. It seems to create tight fences between individuals in the group. Then I read Shawn Callahan (of Anecdote) recent post  about An indicator of group fear in organisations and a wee insight arrived.

First of all, click away and read the post AND take the time to view the video. Do the little exercise. It is worth the 30 seconds of cogitation.

Shawn’s conclusion is that fear is killing creativity. He writes:

Ed Catmull, the CEO and co-founder of Pixar made this point clear in his recent book, Creativity Inc., that this biggest killer of creativity is fear.

I’d say that fear blocks more than creativity. It blocks aspects of collaboration, cooperation, knowledge sharing, learning and even the simple pleasures we CAN have working with each other.

I’ve worked with a number of organizations where fear is palpable. Sometimes it is in the more day to day relationships between team members. Sometimes it is hierarchical, but not always. It isn’t always “the boss” we fear. It may be someone on the team who is bullying or harassing (consciously or unconsciously – most the latter in my observation.) Sometimes it is the very culture of the organization, often from the top, that permeates everywhere.

Slight side note: I want to make a clear distinction that I do not equate fear directly with dissent, diversity or critical thinking. They may show up together. But the absence of fear is not necessarily bland indifference, ok?  In fact, when fear is not present, I think we can better use our disagreements and diversity. So I don’t want to fall into the false trap of surface “niceness.” That kind of niceness can be a response to fear to cover it up and that doesn’t work well either! I’ll also state for the record that being “nice” as in using compassion and respect is something I’m all for. The word “nice” is a tricky one.

What really interests me are the people who seem to be resilient to fear. They don’t let fear of being dismissed, or not “liked” keep them from their own personal brand of excellence.

I find it hard to combat top down fear, so maybe I should pay more attention to those “positive deviants” who seem resilient. Have any clues on why they are that way? How we can nurture more of the resilience?



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.

Beyond the Webinar

The earthLet me confess right up front: I really don’t like webinars. Too often they feel “done unto me.” I am powerless, at the mercy of the organizers. I may have access to a chat room (Thank Goodness!) But more often than not, these are content delivery mechanisms with token participant interaction in the form of crowded Q&A segments or polls with varying degrees of relevance. What is worse is that I have been a perpetrator of these practices so I continue to try and change my evil ways.

Changing ingrained habits requires some reflection – of self and of the state of the practice of these so-called “webinars.”  Recently I had the chance to offer feedback on a webinar I experienced as a recording.  I’ve edited/generalized my thoughts to share. In a follow up post I’ll reflect on my own practice — this is where I need to cut to the bone!
1. Us/Them: It is logical for an organizer or organizing agency to want to  appear well prepared for sharing their work. We all like folks to know we “did our homework.” We get our slides spiffed up and appropriately formatted for the webinar tool we are given. We time our remarks. We practice speaking clearly and at an appropriate pace.

The challenge this presents is that the end product puts the speaker and/or the organization at the center. We create an us/them dynamic before the event even starts. Think about set ups where the only ones who can use the voice tool to communicate are the organizers. Those who bear the presentation file are in control of the message. The tool administrator(s) control the process (i.e determining that they speak for 60 minutes, then there is Q&A.)

The use of a one way style of presentation reinforces the power dynamics of the speaker/expert/organization as central, and everyone else as “audience.” All too often, the audience is never heard. Is that a good use of precious synchronous time? Why not send out a video or narrated PowerPoint? An online gathering is time better spent as a multi-directional mode of “being together” — even online. This does NOT diminish the importance and value of content we “deliver” to others. Here are some options to consider.


  • Move away from meetings that are primarily broadcast which holds control with the presenter. Sharing information is essential, but synchronous time should always have significant multi directional interaction. For my colleagues in international development, I think everyone has values of inclusiveness and shared participation. We have to “walk this talk” in webinars as well.
  • Small things can create or break down us/them.  For example don’t just show where you are on a map at the start of a webinar, add dots for all the participants and their locations. Better yet, use a tool that allows them to add their own dots. Help the group see not only you,  but “we” – all the people working together about something we all care deeply about.
  • Because we lack body  language online, it is useful to really scrutinize our language.From the wording in the slides and by the speaker, consider changes in language so that it is more inclusive of the participants.


2. Strive for  good practices for learning/engaging online. Webinars in general run the risk of being even less engaging than a dark room face to face with a long PowerPoint. There is a saying in the online facilitation world “A bad meeting F2F is a terrible meeting online.” So we need to be even more attentive to how we structure online engagements to reflect a) how adults learn b) the high risk of losing attention (especially due to multi tasking) and c) the cultural and power diversity inherent in your group. Quality content is important, but it alone is not a reason to use an interactive platform — you can deliver content in many ways. Choosing a synchronous mode, to me,  implies interaction.


  • Consider keeping online meetings to 60 minutes. If not, do a stretch break every at 30 and 60 minutes. Say “let’s take a 60 second break.” Stand up, stretch, look away from the screen and give your body a moment of respite. We’ll call you back in 60 (90-120) seconds (sometimes a bio break is useful!)
  • A useful rule of thumb is to break up information presentation with some means of audience engagement/participation every 7-15 minutes. Use polls, chat, “red/green/yellow” feedback mechanisms, hand raising, checking for understanding, etc. This may mean you have someone facilitating these other channels if it is too distracting for the host and speakers. (Over time it does get easier, but practice is critical!)
  • Take questions approximately every 15 minutes vs holding at end. People stop listening carefully and are thus less prepared to ask questions after longer periods of time. (They are also more prone to multitasking, etc.)
  • Don’t just deliver information – use narrative. Stories hold our attention better than a series of bullet points. In fact, ditch those boring slides unless you are using the printed information to make it easier for people coming from a different first language.
  • Deliver the useful content in a different manner and use the webmeeting entirely for questions and interactions. Send a recording introducing the team. Send a narrated PowerPoint about the topic. Keep these content packages smaller. For example, if you were trying to give an overview of a portfolio of projects, you could break it up into some sub packages. 1) about the team 2) strategy, 3) project descriptions, 4) monitoring and evaluation strategy, etc.
  • Secondary tip: Do not think of these information products as polished products — don’t waste energy overproducing. That sucks the human element out of it. Imperfection is a door to engagement… seriously. Moments of uncertainty, tough questions — these engage the participants.
  • Stay relaxed as a narrator and speak at useful pace for understanding, particularly for those who have English as a second (or third, fourth) language. Keep that human touch. Add little bits of personal information and affect. Be human.
  • Let participants ask question verbally, not just in chat if possible. While there are many technical complications and sometimes the burden of accents on unclear audio channels, voice brings again brings in that human element. (Video does too, but there are bandwidth considerations. When you can, consider using it.)
  • Encourage collective note taking in the chat room or with complementary tool. When people share this task, they listen more carefully and the begin to learn about each others strengths and insights as people add additional information or annotations.
  • When someone asks a question, note who asked the question. This helps everyone see that people are heard, even if the audio option is not practical (for various reasons, no mic, etc. )  At the end of the call, specifically thank by name those who asked questions to encourage the behavior for future interactions.
  • In Q&A sections, consider a visual to help people pay attention. Use the whiteboard for noting the questions, answers, links that refer to what has been spoken about, etc.

There are a few ideas. What are yours?

Also, here are some previous posts about similar issues:

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!

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