Category Archives: facilitation

Corporations Need More Right Brain

Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk is pretty astounding. It’s an inspiring story that she tells very well. If anyone is looking for a bit of a “how-to” on presenting, check out her talk. I’m pretty sure it would have the Heath brothers’ seal of approval.

But rather than write about her presentation, I thought I would mention one of the points from her talk. In short, she is a neuro-scientist and she says that the “right” side of the brain, which is normally associated with creativity, is the side of the brain that sees big pictures, gestalts, overall patterns. The right side of the brain is also responsible for imagining possibilities, combining things in novel ways, modeling, seeing things with the mind’s eye, etc.

The left side of the brain is the analytical side. It’s linear and is responsible for vertical thinking, which tends to select, while in the process of decision making, one option to the exclusion of others. The left side is responsible for absorbing the data that it is constantly collecting and assigning it into the bigger categories that the brain is so good at creating. This saves time so that we aren’t constantly evaluating each new piece of information that comes into us but we can pick little pieces of data and draw conclusions based on our past experience.

So, what Taylor says is that the right side of the brain is responsible for the past and the future and the left side of the brain is responsible for the present. What’s the connection to corporations?

One leading management thinker (the name escapes me now) said that corporate strategy is simply a series of predictions. If that’s true, executives should be thinking a whole lot more time in right brain intensive activities than they are. More serious play, more work with images, more work with divergent sets of knowledge and experience, more work with looking for weak signals and imagining those signals being amplified 5 years from now….but this isn’t happening. It seems as though the higher up the food chain they get, execs are more and more concerned with the present rather than learning from the past and making better predictions about the future.

Working with 3D, Physical Models

If we think of common business concepts as models (eg. financial models, organization charts, strategies, etc.) then those models can be represented/displayed/constructed. They can be represented in a spreadsheet, a Visio diagram or a PowerPoint slide. By their very nature, models contain less information than the things they represent. That is, in fact, the definition of a model.

Part of what I do in my line of work is to get people to compare models and surface the assumptions that went into the creation of their models. When the model was created SOME assumptions had to be made. Sometimes those assumptions are explicit, sometimes not. By learning about what other people are thinking and what makes their perspective unique, greater understanding of the models can occur, changes can be made and ideally two or more models can be combined in novel, innovative ways.

All of that to say…by having people create physical (3d) representations of their models, such as having them build a representation of a supply chain out of pipe cleaners and Styrofoam balls, more information about the model and its underlying assumptions begin to emerge. There can literally be different perspectives on the 3d model as you’ll have people clustered around a table and they each see it slightly differently as its constructed. As well, people tend to learn and retain more effectively when they are actually moving parts and pieces around. This process of co-creation and retention can result in what is commonly known as “buy in”. Actually, I would go so far as to say that this process of co-creation goes beyond “buy in” and moves into the realm of “believe in”. Believing in something is much more powerful than simply agreeing to it.

When I was leading a workshop at the VizThink conference in San Francisco I had the group quickly go through an exercise where they built 3d models of some basic business processes. Here are some photos from that workshop.

Introducing the Global Collaboration Cue Card Project

I had an opportunity to present for 60 minutes as part of the Council for Communication Management conference in Toronto on May 1st. The CCM brings communication professionals together to brainstorm, share best practices, network, etc. I think I stretched some of the participants’ minds a little bit, talking about Wicked Problems, Collaborative Event Design, Graphic Facilitation. My presentation was a bit off the beaten path but I hope that it was engaging for most of the crowd.

The way in which I started my presentation was to give each person in the room (about 60) a blank, unruled cue card and asked them to illustrate, without the use of words, how they would communicate the notion of “collaboration” to a person who couldn’t speak their language. I gave them a minute to do that and when they were done, asked them to find a partner and on a third cue card create an illustration that combined each partner’s work.

I then dissected the exercise a little bit and talked about how words are in fact models that are loaded with assumptions and values and how communicating with graphics is an effective method for conveying underlying and unspoken meaning.

The Global Collaboration Cue Card Project

As a result of this exercise, I am now endeavoring to spearhead….drumroll please…The Global Collaboration Cue Card Project. With the length of this title and all of the capital letters, I feel as though I should be announcing this at TED or some such conference. It’s not that impressive. All I’m doing is posting all of the cue cards that I get on a Flickr group and I hope that others will copy the activity and add to the set. It would be very cool to see how many different interpretations of collaboration can be created and what common visual themes exist. And it’s all done without words!

Looking at the “ins” & “cons”

When designing large collaborative sessions with complex topics it is almost always the case that there is a big variance between the few people who know a lot about the topic and a few who have little to no context and everyone else falls somewhere in between. Sponsors are generally very anxious to do a lot of “education” around the project so that everyone gets up to speed. Usually this results in a desire to do a 3 hour PowerPoint presentation. This makes me cringe. (I don’t understand how the same people who complain about sitting through 3 hour presentations end up with a desire to present one.) I try to explain that people don’t learn well this way and the information will not stick. 

I started reading a book recently that has really helped me hammer my argument home. Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams by Mitchel Resnick of MIT talks about the difference between instructional learning and constructional learning. He argues that by telling people what you think they need to know, the results are mediocre at best. By having people create something on their own (or with small groups), the concepts are much more likely to stick. It’s a learn-by-doing approach.

With the type of work that I’m in, this concept wasn’t new to me, but the fact that I can now summarize the concept in a framework that clients really seem to get, was a valuable insight for me. I think most people know this as well, but with a lack of a better tool than PowerPoint to use for “education”, it seems to be the default. Suggesting the “instructional/constructional” framework to clients seems to introduce the contrast between socratic methods and constructional methods. They suddenly see “the other side”. By giving the other side a name, it’s easier to convince them of the benefits of giving it a try. Like the old saying goes, “A fish doesn’t understand water until it experiences air.”

I’m curious to know if anyone else has had this type of experience; where you don’t necessarily learn a new concept, but learn a new way to express it that seems to have a lot of resonance. Please comment!

Metronauts Event #1

After much planning, discussion, speculating and sweating, the first face to face Metronauts event took place on Saturday at MaRS. In case you weren’t there, you can absorb all of the fascinating content on the wiki page. Based on the spirit of BarCamp, or the Open Space Technology model, Metronauts is an offline/online community that is committed to using the spirit of the community powered unconference to help inform and shape the Regional Transportation Plan that Metrolinx is responsible for producing.

Check out some pictures from the event.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the idea of Open Space, it’s a cool methodology that simply introduces a question or broad statement to a group of passionate people, and people can volunteer to lead a 1 hour discussion on a topic of their choosing, so each 1 hour time period has a bunch of conversations occurring in parallel. And that’s how the agenda gets set. 

One thing that I found of interest during the planning process with Metrolinx is how they referred to a typical public consultation event as a “formal” consultation and the events that we were proposing as “informal”. However as the day unfolded, I noticed that the jargon seemed to be making a switch to “traditional” vs. “non-traditional”. I like this switch because I personally feel that “informal” seems to connote “less important”, whereas “non-traditional” seems to imply “different” as opposed to better or worse. Hopefully this perceived shift is true, pervasive and sustained.

My hope is that after the community begins to really take off in an online and offline way that there will be additional richness and perspectives offered to the policy makers and planners within Metrolinx and the Regional Transportation Plan will reflect the conversations in some way. Rob MacIsaac, Chair of Metrolinx, made it pretty clear that they won’t be able to integrate every single recommendation.  And of course they can’t. I think the challenge that Metrolinx has is listening to all of the conversations that are occurring and being able to recognize high level themes and trends and being able to shape their plan accordingly.

It seems to have potential for a classic “Wisdom of Crowds” scenario where nobody in the community has the one right answer, but if Metrolinx can pull of the wisdom together and come up with something that is greater than the sum of the conversations, they will have done their job as a (arms length) government agency. (Take a look at “The Scorpion” example in James Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds“.)

All in all, the effort to engage the citizenry in a “solutions” environment rather than an adversarial dynamic is an important shift in how government engages with people.  Here’s hoping today’s “non-traditional” is tomorrow’s tradition.

Check out VisualsSpeak!

While at VizThink, I had the pleasure of seeing Christine Martell in action. Christine is a facilitator who uses photographs to initiative and inspire conversations about a specific organizational challenge and uses the data from her exercises to uncover patterns and assumptions.

At VizThink the first general session of the 2nd day was to use a few different techniques, including Christine’s, to help a not-for-profit called Artrain work through some of their issues. The results of the exercise are posted on Christine’s blog. Very cool stuff! Check it out.

Frank Gehry, Collaboration and the Creative Process

As a consultant, facilitator and event designer what can I learn from an architect? What can any of us learn from the creative process?

When I am approached by a client to do some work, it’s entirely possible that I can draw upon my 5 years and 150+ engagements worth of experience and do some work for them that is pretty close to what I’ve done for a past client. It would be relatively simple to do that. But I don’t.

There is something in the creative process of coming up with a new solution to a new problem that is intoxicating. As Frank Gehry talks about in this interview from TED, if he goes in to a project with a preconceived notion of how he’s going to do it, he’ll start again or avoid the project entirely.

From around five minutes into the conversation, he says this (roughly):

Every day is a new thing. I approach each project with a new insecurity almost like the first project that I ever did . I get the sweats. I go in, start working, not sure where I’m going. If I knew whereI was going, I wouldn’t do it. If I can predict it or plan it, I discard it.

I believe that this is a true characteristic of the creative process. It’s envisioning an end goal and having no idea how to accomplish it. This concept ties in very closely with the work of Robert Fritz, who writes that “creative types” don’t simply follow the Path of Least Resistance but carve new paths to realize their vision, despite the fact that the journey is bumpy and uncertain.

This approach to consulting and event design, even after 5+ years, causes sleepless nights, constant design iteration, occasional frenzied research and reassurance from my colleagues (and you know who you are) but in the end, it’s the most fulfilling and rewarding approach to collaborative work for us and the client. Part of the value that I bring to the client is this approach to work. I guide them through the process and their work is better off for it, even if it’s a bit messy in the beginning and middle stages of an event.

Once I have gained the trust of a client during an event, I will often reveal that I don’t know what the group should do next and that I’m figuring it out on the fly. I am engaging them in the improvisational creative process and they tend to enjoy the energy that the process often generates.

It’s living on the edge, but with a good team and a firm eye on the objectives, I haven’t fallen off yet!