Jan 08 2015

Conversations With a Wonderful Client

Sometimes you just get lucky. I get lucky quite a bit with my wonderful clients. As a wrap up to some work last year, Simone Staiger of CIAT and I decided to do a little text based conversational reflection on the work we did. This is posted at Conversations with Nancy White around the implementation of CIAT’s internal communications strategy and reposted here for sharing!

Conversations with Nancy White around the implementation of CIAT’s internal communications strategy

Nancy, when I contacted you at the beginning of 2014, I was looking for support, through regular conversations (monthly one hour Skype calls), to discuss, and evaluate the implementation of CIAT’s internal communications strategy.

NancyWhat a treat! Wow, that you will a) take the time for reflective and action oriented conversations and, b) pay me for it is WONDERFUL. I love working with you, Simone. This reaffirms my belief that there is tremendous value in working with wonderful people and cultivating those relationships beyond the formality of contracted work. I know some would say this isn’t very smart, but I think friendship adds to a working relationships – as long as we can stay open and frank with each other. We do a good job of that!

SimoneThe strategy intends to increasingly create spaces for dialogue among staff, foster team work & learning in teams, and communicate consistently to create among all staff a better understanding of key developments in CIAT’s work and institutional environment. The document was the result of a series of analysis and exercises to identify the real underlying issues that need to be worked on and to lift internal communications up to a level that goes beyond improving instruments and media.

This theme of “space” and “spaces” is showing up in many places in my work. Is this something real, or am I just paying attention differently. People seem more time-pressed, hurried and stressed. The focus on getting tasks done, hitting one’s list of deliverables and “efficiency” seems to becoming a “false god.” So this idea of creating space for dialog is a good way to test if paying attention to hearing, listening, and understanding – particularly around shared goals and issues – can be of benefit. Intuitively I believe it is, but taking a more analytical stance is useful.

CIAT’s communications and knowledge management team in collaboration with Human Resources Management had identified a whole series of products and activities that could bring us closer to our objectives. What we did not do is to identify a series of indicators – qualitative or quantitative – that could help us evaluate progress, and which we are deeply missing now.

Simone, you asked me hard questions about monitoring and evaluation that help that stance. I appreciate being pushed in this direction. I am paying close attention to how these indicators can not only help us understand if we are meeting our intentions and goals, but if they can also help us identify what to “stop doing” to make space for the stuff that really matters. We talk about this, but how to we discern and validate these choices beyond a guess – or simply losing what we cannot make time for.

For one example, it was extremely easy to come up and finalize, with your help, a set of indicators that will help us in 2016 to measure progress on the effects of our new intranet, to be launched End of January. How easy it is to go through an exercise like this, when you talk about a concrete product and its usage!

Just nodding about the difference between talking about something generically, and talking about it in a specific, concrete context!

In my initial talks with you I was interested in ways to increase knowledge sharing between different stakeholder groups within CIAT: Management Team – The program and theme leaders, which represent around 12 staff – The 80 or so who I call the influential people, some being real opinion leaders – All CIAT staff. It seemed to me that we needed to create effective bridges to connect those four “populations”. How can we involve different stakeholder groups, and create incentivize for engagement? Well that is a very general and tough question, which in addition is not new but still so unresolved… In the conversations with you we explored many possibilities, and interventions at different levels – individual, groups or teams, all staff – and through different means: pilot projects, personalized team discussions, or institutional campaigns.

Reflecting back on this, I have to revisit one of my “now that I’m over 50 years old curmudgeon” opinions. I am interested in early adopters. I am VERY interested in second wave adopters. And I will not waste time on resistors. Is this an effective strategy in organizations? If we think of the “80 or so” as early adopters or leading edge second wave adopters, I don’t think we can consider everyone else as resistors. But I suspect there are informal leaders whose resistance can affect the rest of the early adopters. AND, it is important to not confound resistors from people who see the world differently and have useful dissenting views that can help us learn and grow. What differentiates these two types of people? If we could figure this out, we might be able to more generatively interact with those innovative thinkers who we might otherwise miss and misinterpret simply as resistors. Your question, Simone, about how to move past those 80 people has resonated with me since you mentioned it.

What I mostly took away from the conversations, as well as from previous explorations, is strongly related to something that Peter Senge insisted on in a leadership course I took with him in 2013: The need to go away from symptomatic solutions to fix an issue or solve a problem quickly, and to shift towards fundamental solutions that for sure take longer, and have a delay in having an impact, but produce longer-term lasting positive effects.

What I build on to your reflection, Simone, is that people are always part of fundamental solutions, so maybe we need to consider how we are or might be understanding, relating to and interacting with people?

Now: there are many, many tools and methods out there to facilitate deeper thinking in groups and organizations that help to identify the roots of a problem and design fundamental solutions. You pointed to a series of tools and emerging perspectives and possibly “Liberating Structures” is one of those emerging pools of possibilities to “include and unleash everyone”.

Learning more about and practicing Liberating Structures was a strong thread for me in 2014 and will continue this year. One fundamental lesson is that as a facilitator, I need to have a diverse range of approaches, I must understand why I choose any one at any one time, and that there is potency in how we sequence and combine ways of engaging and interacting. So LS is helping me become a more conscious facilitator. When I take this in context of the type of facilitation training and capacity development I see in organizations like the CGIAR and others, it reminds me that we must always be leveling up. Yes, we start at the mechanical stage, but if we don’t build towards better understanding of those mechanism, and towards being able to “read” a room full of people and adjust (plan and then be prepared to improvise), we are not moving the facilitation practice deeper and forward. So for 2015, I want to challenge my own ideas of how to support facilitation capacity development in myself and others, for just the kinds of challenges you face, Simone.

One thing that helped us go into that direction is to work increasingly at the team level. It is probably a useful consideration to identify when you actually have to include everyone (meaning the whole organization), which leads too often at CIAT to intensive information diffusion that convince some and are rejected by others, and when it is appropriate to do so at a team or group level, trying to have inclusive dialogues. The socialization of the CIAT strategy with 20 teams and almost 300 staff was certainly a time consuming exercise, but probably the most meaningful, trust-building and symptomatic-looking one.

This focus on teams resonates with me, and then leads to the next challenge: the fact that so many of these teams are distributed under the CRP structure of the CGIAR, and that many people have “multiple bosses.” They have their geographically situated managers. They have their distributed managers, many times people outside of their own center. I wonder how the CGIAR is paying attention to this power issue, and what they are or might do with it. Things could fracture around “loyalty lines” of many sorts. Moving towards a truly networked way of working presents many challenges for established institutions.

You and I also discussed the possibility to use the new corporate values which have been developed in a very inclusive process, as a means of achieving integration, dialogue and team cohesion. The Human Resources Management Team with whom we have regular conversations and undertake joined actions believes a lot in the “value approach” based on strong support of a united Management. My concern is the danger of getting into the lecturer mode and not to find the right tone to feel staff comfortable and available to discuss required attitude changes.

This is something else I’ve been learning about from other Liberating Structures practitioners. The values themselves are not much, in reality. It is how they are lived within the work we do. So I suspect we can’t just preach them, as you noted, Simone. Instead we need to examine our work through the lenses of our values. There was a very interesting thread on KM4Dev in late 2014 asking about this (https://dgroups.org/groups/km4dev-l/discussions/4db7bb98). Two particular Liberating Structures might be useful: Integrated-Autonomy (http://www.liberatingstructures.com/29-integrated-autonomy/) and Generative Relationships STAR (http://www.liberatingstructures.com/26-generative-relationships-st/) .

After one year of using the strategy as a guide when it comes to decide what we do and how, I take way the following: We are on the right track. We know what fundamental situations need to be improved or resolved, but we can only be successful if internal communications is aligned and – more importantly- involved with ongoing organizational changes, if we find the right solutions for the different situations / target groups and if we receive increased support that allows us to avoid symptomatic quick fixes.

I might offer a slightly different perspective, Simone. It may not always be about alignment, per se, but clarity of what alignment means (shared goals) and what it means when we are not in alignment. What we do depends on this kind of clarity. Lack of alignment is not always about “you and I need to agree.” It can also point us to something emergent that may offer us new insight. But if we aren’t aware of this misalignment, we never get to that generative conversation.

Yes, Nancy. Thanks for this important different perspective. I agree now that I read my point again, that your take on it is so important for CIAT. We must be able to make the different views, motivations, and strategies of and within our research areas more explicit and use it increasingly as an opportunity to expand, grow and learn.

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Jan 06 2015

Graphic Facilitation and Sense Making > The Sum of its Arts

What follows is a mish-mashed report on an online event from December 2014. I know better than to procrastinate this long…

Last month Laurie Webster invited me to do a web gathering with her as part of a free series she has been offering. She is a pro with all sorts of quantitative processes and particularly the use of Sense-Maker ®. I like the way she thinks/does and she was totally open to a wild-hair experiment. I was not offering to share what I KNOW, I wanted to think together about what is tickling my brain.

Our pitch was simple: come play and think out loud with us.

Join me and Nancy for a fast-paced event that promises to be both practical and playful. Nancy will begin by describing how she uses visual methods in a variety of facilitative settings. Then we will discuss how these methods can both supplement and complement sensemaking and the use of SenseMaker®. The real fun will begin when registrants are invited to join Nancy in the sandbox for a real-time, “safe-to-fail” experiment using a shared online drawing tool.

Her clever partner, Stephen DeLong came up with the most imaginative title, Sensemaking + Graphic Facilitation > The Sum of its Arts. I bow down to this cleverness, and it well expresses the idea that Laurie and I had been wondering about: what is the role of visuals in the sensemaking process.

We started by introducing our fields – graphic facilitation, and sensemaking. Of course, I was being a goofball as usual. This is deliberate. Low status body language with high status verbal language = people listen differently. They can’t quite pin things down from past experience, so they are open. Thank you, Viv McWaters! That insight you shared a few years back at the Applied Improvisation conference has borne much fruit!

I’m a huge fan of graphic recording and graphic facilitation. Visuals are powerful tools. By that I mean all those wonderful things like pictures can initiate great conversations, they aren’t so explicit that we can assume we understand so we ask each other questions, “tell me the story” here, etc. Visuals are openers.

At the same time I have become increasingly troubled when I sense that MY drawing is actually taking sensemaking agency away from the people I’m supporting. My drawing, as hard as I try to be a faithful, neutral reporter, still carries my interpretation. It is what I hear and how I make sense of that. Sometimes my interpretation and synthesis can be useful. But when the drawing (or other visual approaches such as photo cards, collage, Draw With Me, etc.) is in the hands of everyone, we can both take advantage of the power of visuals, and disintermediate the sensemaking. Tracy Kelly picked up on this topic and posted a very thoughtful blog post on “Graphic Recording: how to disintermediate.” Do hop over and read it!

Combine this with the work that Laurie and her colleagues have been doing with sensemaking through the use of narrative fragments, we start getting some interesting “science fair experiments.” We started wondering out loud if people can draw their narrative fragments and if we could apply sensemaking processes to those visual fragments.

The jumping off point is we have to be comfortable drawing our silly little stick figure pictures. Oh, how repressed we are about drawing in public. So we dumped everyone into a drawing environment. No hiding!

The real fun started at about 30 minutes in. You can see a video of the whole process here, but you must register and log in. There is a 1 minute teaser for those of you who don’t want to register. (I understand!) We left the “webinar” environment and moved to BoardThing, a wonderful invention of Dave Gray and friends. We accidentally erased all the drawing we did, but I’ll share a few screenshots below. I wanted to not just TALK about participant-generated visuals, but to DO them.

First we introduced some of the functionality of Boardthing, which is a wonderful mash up of online card sorting, a shared whiteboard and a chat room. (The chat of the event is attached for your reading pleasure. ChatFromDecVizSensemakingWebinar ) We did a wee bit of card sorting (on the left of the screen shots). Then I invited a group of 9 people to start drawing on the whiteboard. We then debriefed from both the drawers’ and observers’ perspective. If you peek at the transcript, you will see that this first round was not particularly comfortable for those drawing, and a bit hard to make sense of by the observers. Then I sketched in a grid and gave a second, more focused drawing prompt. The images came faster and were easier to use to engage in the sensemaking process. We then chatted about the power of constraints!

SensevizExp1SensevizExp2SensevizExp3

 

 

 

 

 

The hour flew by and we did not come to any momentous insights, but based on page views of the video and followup emails Laurie has received, I think we hit on something resonant. I’m not sure what to do with it next, but I plan to think/play/experiment some more. There is some distance to travel between the whole “getting people drawing” thing, and the more sophisticated sensemaking processes. My main conclusion is that using the drawings helps prevent people from prematurely coming to interpretations and conclusions. There is sufficient ambiguity to stimulate us to learn more and dive deeper, and sufficient novelty to shake us out of our “thinking ruts.” That’s good stuff. The question now is how to apply these insights usefully. For sure, it will be fun.

Finally, Susan Stewart recently started a Facebook group about webinars and reflected a bit on the process. She said it was OK to share here!

 Susan Stewart’s reflections

Just finished the webinar with Nancy White … she’s such a willing risk-taker. (We used two platforms: GoToWebinar and BoardThing (in Beta) – BoardThing for drawing together.) Many take-aways from the webinar, I will share two and I hope others who participated will share some, too!

1. TRY DRAWING: I have used white boards for things like having folks write their thoughts, plot the intersection of their previous learning experiences and their comfort with current content, dragging their name to a chair as a way of taking role and letting them claim a space in the conversation (Thanks, LaDonna Coy!)… I have not invited folks to draw…but I think I will try giving them a prompt and some instruction on how to use the tools, then invite observations by those not drawing and also by those who have done the drawing.

Interestingly, this is not about high quality art, but about iconic scrawls. Even the most rudimentary images can represent some profound understandings.

Nancy noted that drawing sometimes allows things to emerge that otherwise might not have – even the drawer may not be cognizant of what is coming forth until it is there. She did share that this can be quite powerful and suggests setting up the situation with much thought and being prepared with how to respond if strong emotions are triggered.

I think we had 47 people on the webinar from all over the world. Nancy, what is your take on the level of engagement by all participants…those drawing, those commenting and those observing? (That last group is hard to assess.) I know we had two groups of about 9 each drawing.

2. TAKE RISKS: Nancy made a comfortable environment for us to explore in. She took risks with us and was willing to deal with surprises. That spoke volumes to me about how important it is in online meetings and participatory webinars to step away from the presentation and allow time and room for mucking about together with the participants.

My experience in learning about online meetings and webinars has been mostly about exploring and risk taking. That’s one of the reasons I started this group. I learned by getting in the sandbox with others and trying things out. I’m glad that Nancy invited us into her sandbox today and I hope you’ll feel comfortable asking us to take risks with you. I feel confident that as a group we will continue to find ways to engage with participants that are creative and meaningful.

The invitation to the sandbox is open!

No responses yet

Dec 15 2014

Art, Brains and Awe

Stephen Downes posted this link in his OLDaily today. Take a moment out of a busy day and look at the images that Greg Dunn has created from images of the human brain. This quote says it all:

Image from Gregg Dunn

Through his art, Dunn hopes to give voice to scientists whose work usually isn’t appreciated by the general public, he said. “Art has the power to capture people’s emotions and inspire awe [in a way] that a lot of charts and graphs don’t have.” Credit: Greg Dunn

via Dazzling Images of the Brain Created by Neuroscientist-Artist.

6 responses so far

Dec 09 2014

Are All American Nancy’s Close to My Age?

Published by under Full Circ-Us

Yes, I think so. Including the Nancy White’s whose email I often get! So in the spirit of work avoidance, which I’m avidly practing today, I send this out to all my fellow Nancys. We are in our prime, right?

The Name Chart

How to Tell Someone’s Age When All You Know Is Her Name | FiveThirtyEight.

3 responses so far

Nov 24 2014

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?

 

 

9 responses so far

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