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

2 responses so far

Oct 08 2014

Where is the Cooperation in International Development and Cooperation

Warning: The following was written in haste, has repetition and can very much stand a good edit. But if I don’t hit post, this won’t go out. Life is busy.

Earlier today my friend and respected KM/KS practitioner Ian Thorpe Tweeted a link to a consultancy announcement.


I blithely responded:

Now, I was pretty tough on Ian and did not offer any context. Later this morning he posted a really thoughtful blog post on the thinking behind his organization’s desire to have their own internal Knowledge Exchange Toolbox. I started to post a comment, but the comment grew so large I decided a post here was called for.

I’m going to quote a sizable chunk of his post and then my response. But if this interests you, please go read the whole thing.

But, I think there are actually a few good reasons to reinvent or at least adapt.

People working in an organization tend to have more trust, and are thus more likely to use something that has been specifically created for them and has some form of official endorsement. This sounds like “not invented here syndrome” – but it’s not quite that.

The advantages of developing your own toolkit (or platform, strategy, bibliography, taxonomy etc.) include:

  • It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand
  • It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context.
  • The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better.
  • The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects.
  • The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.

Overall these points mean that there is a sense of organizational ownership of the toolbox meaning not only is it officially sanctioned, but also officially supported and adapted to what the organization needs.

Thanks for adding really useful context, Ian. I find your reasoning totally logical. I have also heard it many times at other organizations.

First, can we connect usage to the factors you noted above in the context of ownership? Has anyone objectively looked at how usage of such a tool matters if it is internal or external?

I strongly suspect usage is driven by other, less visible, more informal things like seeing other peers use the tools, having colleagues they value endorse or role model, etc. I don’t have data. But in considering this,  I wonder about our assumptions about

  1. the use of these toolkits in general, and
  2. the importance of the points you make toward use (and improvements going forward).

Or are we just masking or missing the deeper, underlying issues? I really don’t know and I’d really LIKE to know.

I confess, I get totally frustrated when my own clients hire me to do things that are already done. The KS Toolkit came out of that frustration after three separate clients asked for the SAME thing and the differentiating factor was not whether the tool was on a private intranet or public, but branding. Yes, branding. Does that change the value of the toolkit? Should it?  Now, that said, over time the existing Toolkit product needs improvement. And your focus on adaptation is to me SUPER IMPORTANT. The issue of how to create and improve cooperatively sourced products alone deserves another blog post. (Note to self). But lets go back to rationale for internal vs. cooperative, shared resources.

I think a lot of the points you make are right on, but I also worry about some of the underlying causes that make these ideas of “needing internal validation,” “our language” and stuff so important in a field like international development and cooperation. From where I sit, I thought our field has shared goals.   So why do we have these counterproductive insider, invented here, not invented here, we are different from everyone else, etc attitudes? What do they represent? Control? Power? Fear? Territoriality? Reliance on the status quo?

Do we really understand if and why we need our unique products? Or is our vision too limited to see both the value and possibility for, and the mechanisms to cooperatively create, use, and improve resources?

Let me get more specific and look at each of Ian’s reasons for a customized product.

  • It can be written in the kind of language (and jargon and buzzwords) people in the organization understand. Having a sense of identity and ownership is important. But reinforcing organizational buzzwords and jargon does not help wider cooperation in the development field, no? Why might we want to reinforce this behavior? Think of the “beneficiaries” as well. Doesn’t our insider language and jargon distance us from them? 
  • It can include tools selected to meet the specific needs of the organization, and the tools selected (even when sourced from elsewhere) can be adapted and tailored to the organizational context. This is a compelling argument for internal platforms. Curation, adaptation and tailoring are really useful “value added” to a toolkit. But why not do that adaptation in a public, cooperative platform where others can learn from what you do, particularly those closest to your organizational domains. Why not do it WITH those others? Hm, as I write this, I wonder about shifting from “organizational” context to “practice” or “domain” context. So if tool X is more useful in working with Y population, lets make sure all of us working with Y population have access to that tool adaptation and can contribute towards its ongoing improvement?
  • The tools can be tested on real organizational problems and the feedback obtained can be used to improve them and help communicate them better. I can’t figure out the value of this being internal to an organization. Again, it relates to the practice, no? The global public good here is pretty darn high…
  • The tools can go through a quality review and sign off process that the organization understands and respects. Why can’t this happen in a cooperative platform? Heck, it might even contribute to better interorganization practices as a whole? And who is the arbiter of quality at the tool level when we rarely seem to care or pay attention at the application level where the IMPACT happens, right?
  • The fact that the toolbox is developed together with internal as well as external expertise means that staff know who they can follow-up with for advice and support on when and how to use them.  Again, I can imagine this same value on a public/cooperative platform.

Adaptation is an important thing we ignore very often in KM. There is too much sense that replication and scaling are the solution. So I deeply respect this aspect of adaptation that I sense in Ian’s response.

My “yes, and” perspective  is that what you learn/do through adaptation is of value beyond your org. And insights come from beyond your org. And your org exists for public good, right? Why not build more nuanced structures that facilitate open, public, crowdsourced resources, ones that add that layers of adaptation – for example there are other orgs sharing UNICEF’s targets and goals who might also benefit from this need to improve tools.

I fully know that what I’m suggesting is not easy. We have learned through the KSToolkit.org that people DO have different needs, need the material organized or expressed differently. But those reasons don’t appear to be organizational. They appear to be driven by the users context and practice. And that these contexts and practices vary WITHIN organizations, and are often shared ACROSS organizations. And cooperatively creating and supporting a shared resource doesn’t fit into most organizational process or budgeting parameters, so when we see things like the KSToolkit.org we are seeing the work of committed individuals who make things happen, often in spite of their organizations. (And deep bow to all of you, including Ian who has been a toolkit supporter.)

I think there is a much larger, more valuable proposition of opening up some of this work across organizations and getting off the  focus on our organizations. Lets focus on our goals and the ultimate reason we are doing this. So every human being has the right to and access to food, clean water, housing, education and human dignity.

So what are the barriers? What is it we are really avoiding by sharing this “knowledge infrastructure?” Is it convenience? When we work for global public good, what is the cost of this “convenience?” What is keeping us from shifting towards more cooperative and networked structures which can tap a potentially broader and more diverse set of expertise, share the burden of refinement, adaptation, improvement and just simply reduce this recreation? We all need and benefit from the process of adapting and improving tools.  Many of the tools in a Knowledge Exchange toolkit will have relevance to wider audiences. At the same time, so much of what is in these toolkits is not rocket science. What IS rocket sciences is the organizational shifts and changes that actually enable people to USE this stuff. Toolkits are just a resource. And this opens another Pandora’s box for another blog post!

I’ll say it. Lets start breaking down more walls instead of using what is convenient and conventional to maintain the status quo. And a little starting point like KM and KS toolkits seems like an ideal laboratory to find new, cooperative, networked ways to maximize value and minimize waste. Let’s recreate and improve together. Otherwise we are supporting wheel reinvention.

And Ian, thanks for lighting me up to write about this today. You have helped me clarify my thinking. The next two things we need to consider is what it takes to cooperatively create global public goods (and a lot of good people have been doing some great work in other domains from which we can learn), and how to move the tools from toolboxes into practice!

via Why we sometimes need to reinvent the wheel | KM on a dollar a day.

22 responses so far

Sep 29 2014

Liberating Structures Online

I was bummed to miss the September Liberating Structures Seattle User Group meeting as it was about using LS online.  (If you don’t know what LS is, click that first link!)

I am passionately interested in this. Today, I had a chance to see the notes and a “minimum specs” document in the works and was VERY HAPPY. (I uploaded it to GoogleDrive so we can all play with it together! I hope that is OK with Keith McCandless, Jim Best, Alex Dunne and Fisher Qua. Guys, ok?

I first want to share the notes. I’m adding my comments in bold.

User Group members got a good start on Min Specs for bringing virtual meetings back to life.

1. Distributing information must not be the purpose of convening a virtual meeting. Firmly invite participants read the material in advance–no ifs, ands, or buts.  Stop the madness of long-boring-stifling-ineffective PPT presentations. AMEN. True online and offline, but I think even more toxic online. People multitask themselves into oblivion. This is also one of the challenging points to convey to “meeting” sponsors. So thinking more about how to engage positively and proactively on this set up issue is on my mind.

2. Asking questions that invite participants to explore a shared challenge must be part of the virtual meeting purpose.  For example, if the topic is “what can we do about poor employee engagement scores?,” a set of productive questions could include:  How do you know when people are not engaged?  What do you do to maintain your own focus?  How do you help others do the same?  What makes it difficult to maintain a positive and engaged attitude? Do you know anyone or any group who is able to maintain high engagement consistently or effortlessly?  How??  Are any good ideas coming to mind? Any 15% Solutions?  What first steps could we take together? [Adapted from Discovery and Action Dialogue]  This set of questions sparks both self-discovery and action to move forward together.  Ahhhhh.  For me this is true online and offline. So the online elements are how people respond (voice, text, group size — i.e. 1-2.4-all) and what type of design and facilitation enables coherence if we cross different communication forms. Some people type. Some need to talk, etc. 

3. Contributing ideas must be very simple and safe for every participant.  More coming… This builds on my last note from an operational perspective. I also think that sometimes the anonymity or semi-anonymity of the online space can actually make it “safer” than F2F.

via Liberating Structures – User Group Startup.

I keep waffling between the approach – find and adapt a tool and grow from there the practices, or use whatever is at hand and adapt the practices. The practical me says the latter. What do you think? (See more of our collective thinking here and here.)


P.S. I know, it has been a LONG time since I blogged. Longest gap ever. And this is a fast post, but I figured better fast than never!

One response so far

May 27 2014

“Things We Need in Order to Do Our Jobs and Make the World Better Dammit” (TWNODOJMWBD)

From 2004 Hero's Journey WorkshopI strongly recommend all of you who (still!) read this blog and who work in nonprofits, care about the role of service in our communities, have been served or have served a non profit, (etc. etc. etc.) to read Vu Le’s post, General operating funds, admin expenses, and why we nonprofits are our own worst enemies . So that means ALL of you who are readers from the US. And this applies to NGOs as well, so that probably means ALL of you.

I have worked for non profits as staff, consultant and/or volunteer most of my adult life and all I can say to Vu is AMEN! The farce of fundraising language used to drive me crazy as a non profit staffer. The way we fund and account for money in US non profits is insane, and take that in the context of the proliferation of non profits, the whole thing starts sinking. And if you think the US is crazy, look into large NGOs and UN agencies. Mama mia!

And at whose expense is this farce? Those we seek to serve. So get our your checkbook, bitcoin, credit card or even cash. Walk over to your favorite non profit and give them money with no strings.

Accountability you say? Here is the magic sauce. After you fork over your money, fork over your time. Pay attention to what’s happening around you. Then you become part of the real accountability process. Is something good happening that the organization with and for its constituency? Is there learning happening through both successes and failures? Are more people talking about and aware of the organization and its mission, bringing in more support?

Vu also outlined 7 ways non profit staff can help shift towards more honest funding and accountability. I’m putting in some snippets here:

  1. Stop saying “100% (or 98%, or 95% or whatever) of your donations go into programming.” …The next time you attend a fundraising event that says “100% of your donations…,” forward them this blog post. Or, raise your paddle and then loudly proclaim, “I want my donations to support administrative expenses!”

  2. Publicly recognize funders who support general operating funds. …These are our strongest allies, like Unmi Song of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation or Paul Shoemaker of Social Venture Partners. 

  3. Stop using the term “overhead” or “indirect.” We need to change these crappy words and phrases with all the negative connotations. …From now on, in all our annual reports and in general, let’s call it “critical infrastructure” or “core support” or “Things We Need in Order to Do Our Jobs and Make the World Better Dammit” (TWNODOJMWBD)

  4. Stop artificially deflating numbers and apologizing for percentage spent on critical infrastructure….“There is no standardized way to calculate admin expenses, so the comparison is meaningless. Plus, we strongly believe that investing in critical infrastructure like staff development leads to much better outcomes.”

  5. Stop seeking the approval of charity watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and Better Business Bureau/Wise Giving Alliance. …until they figure out a way to accurately measure organizations’ effectiveness, their rankings are misleading and distracting.

  6. Write in a line-item for reserve funds in your organization’s operating budget. … Build in a line for reserves, and if anyone whines about it, explain why it’s important and ask them to support it or else to stop asking about sustainability.

  7. Push back, and be willing to lose a funder. …Sometimes, telling the truth or refusing to break down our expenses and forcing people to focus on outcomes, or refusing to accept funds to do things that would ultimately cost us more than it brings in revenues, may cost us a funder or donor, but this short-term sacrifice may be far better for our organization and for our sector in the long run.

I’ve forked over my money. Now I have to hold ME accountable and return to forking over time.

A confession: A few years ago I did some work for Social Venture Partners here in Seattle. I was deeply impressed with how they operated at every level and their strong intentions to see and work at a systems level. I almost became an investor, but personally felt outside of the culture of the other investors so I shied away. But as I read Vu’s comments about the value and importance of how SVP invests in its communities with both money and time, I am reminded how important these approaches are. Whether I join an SVP, or I find a kindred approach, I reconfirm my intention that it is not just what we do to support our communities, but how we do. And funding all facets of the work is critical.

Comments Off

May 14 2014

Puddle Jumping @ the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education Conference

DSC_0013~2Well, it is on the schedule for tomorrow morning, so I had better be ready for my keynote at the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education Conference. This is a placeholder blog where I’ll post the talk artifacts (song lyrics, visuals, and whatever else we create) and resources. The resources below are placeholder for now, so stand by until tomorrow night! I’m talking without slides, with uke and probably (as usual) trying to pack too much in. But hey, if you aren’t learning, why do a keynote, right? Wish me luck


Related and Interesting Stuff

6 responses so far

Next »

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States.
%d bloggers like this: