When do you feel competent?

Do you feel competent when you stand on your head and play the guitar? Add it to your list (copyright by ibm4381 on flickr)

I love making lists. Especially when I am sitting somewhere waiting, e.g. on the Metro. It might be alphabetical lists of just about anything to entertain myself and occupy my brain (e.g. “things that stink” or “things that make me happy” from A to Z) or to-do-lists to organize my next steps. Yesterday I experienced the power of making a list of: “When do I feel competent / What makes me feel competent?” Try it out. And feel free to add whatever small or big thing it is, not just professional skills. I feel very competent when baking and cooking with my toddler daughter. It makes me feel competent both as a mother and as a cook/baker. And that has just as much value and beauty as feeling competent when a stranger from the other side of the world sends me a tricky question about how to best implement Net-Map to understand human rights abuses. Or when a friend asks about advice on how to deal with an unclear situation at her workplace or how to find out what she really wants to do and be in this world.

I guess to answer this last question: “What do I want to do, who do I want to be?” I would recommend that she makes a list of the situations in which she really feels competent and takes it from there. Not: What kinds of certificates do you have, what does the outside world tell you? But what are the kinds of situations in which you feel strong and confident and useful and very much like you are living up to your potential? Have a look at your list and see if you can find common threads. Analyze it with a rational, structured focus, looking for categories etc. But also see what it makes you feel like. Enjoy and connect to the good feeling that you have when you read this beautiful list of everything you are good at and enjoy doing. Put it away for now and have another look at it next Sunday. See if this ever growing and changing list can guide you towards spending more time doing things you feel competent and content with and less that the make you feel like you are just not the right fit.

Be rich in obligations (by Paolo Brunello)

I’m doing my PhD research here in Burundi right now, using net-map as my favourite investigation method.

I’m interested in understanding the complex relational dynamics occuring in a bilateral cooperation project in which I was directly involved with a managing role.
While running a net-map interview with one very experienced, highly placed French project manager, who lived and worked in international development in Burundi for 28 years and is married to a Burundian, I was struck by one of his comments. I asked: “What is the most important gain this Burundian ministry officer wants to get out this project?” He answered: “He wants to become richer in obligations.” At first I didn’t really get what he was meaning and I was clearly puzzled, so he continued: “You see, the real currency here is not the Burundian Franc, it’s finer than that. Sure, money is important to them, but what really counts is the favours someone can do and consequently the credits that these constitute for the future. That is to be powerful: to know that you have plenty of people that owe you something and that you can draw on that “bank” when you need.” No big news – you may say – this is true everywhere, not just in Burundi! Yes indeed, I may agree, and yet it was an eye opener for me, something I hadn’t really understood that clearly in my 5 years living here. In fact I hadn’t realised the adaptive potential of such strategy that, in my view, is much more than solidarity. Obligations do not expire and in a world where everything is still quite uncertain and precarious, and even more so after 15 years long ethnic war has quaked all landmarks, where the right of law is not assured and a minister today can become a taxi driver tomorrow, you may well prefer to invest time and effort in strenghtening your social relationships, so that they can be loaded with obligations, like savoury Parma hams hanging in an Italian Delicatessen, seasoning for the right moment to pick them down. This is their priority – increasing resilience through social bonds – rather than implementing project activities timely, according to the blueprint, as we expats expect. Call me naïve, I hadn’t gotten it, and I suspect many other development agents haven’t either, as the mainstream tendency is to focus on the content of what is done or has to be done and to neglect the importance of the impalbable web of social networks (which has little to do with the social networks on the web ;-).

Thinking alone – crowd sourcing – tapping into the group brain?

The body is more than a pile of sticks - group brain is more than a pile of brains (picture copyright by perpetualplum on flickr)

I love reading books by great thinkers, who (that’s how I imagine it) sit in their cabin in the forest, have amazing ideas that they slowly work through (or that hit them like lightening) and that they put on paper in solitary contemplation. And while most of us might not be at that level of genius, there is something to be said for solitary, in-depth thinking within the confines of your own brain. No matter how difficult that is getting with the increasing disturbance through social media (and social friends…).

Now crowd sourcing seems to be at the other end of the spectrum, solving problems by tapping into the minds of millions, letting everyone who wants contribute and improve the outcome. That makes it possible to integrate more diverging views, knowledge from more different domains and something we vaguely call collective wisdom.

But then, a lot of crowd sourcing is actually facilitated by mechanisms that help us pile our individual thoughts on top of each other, compiling contributions of single minds in front of computers (or cell phones or whatever). That is great for developing and maintaining something like Wikipedia, where we need a compilation of the true and tested knowledge of all known phenomena of the world, based on some kind of majority agreement.

But I wonder: Is it also the best approach to solving messy unclear problems, finding amazing innovations and unusual leaps forward? Or: How can you help a group of people not just pile their thoughts on top of each other but actually multiply what one person can come up with by helping them truely think together and (at least for a few hours) tap into their combined group brain?

I have found that a lot of group facilitation techniques are exactly about this, getting groups to the point where their sum is more than just a collection of the individual parts. And if you have ever suffered through a boring meeting of intelligent people, you know that just putting all the experts in a room and hoping they will come up with something amazing, will not lead you far. So what are the things that help you tap into the group brain?

1. Combine structure and freedom. In Net-Map we have a very simple structure of 4 steps (write actors on cards, draw links, write goals next to actors, set up influence towers) that moves the discussion forward and helps participants focus on the issues of interest. But beyond these steps there are very few limitations with regards to what people can discuss and it is this discussion around the map drawing in which the most interesting discoveries are made.

2. Don’t stay on the surface – explore your assumptions. The most frustrating group discussions are those where every participant assumes that the others share their assumptions while that is not the case. Talking about influence for example, let’s say I assume influence comes from being rich and you assume influence comes from having the best ideas. If we try to develop a strategy for becoming more influential together without ever looking at these assumptions, I will find your approaches unbearably naive and you will find me terribly cynical and all we get out of this is increased frustration and disrespect for each other. When we set up influence towers while doing a Net-Map, group members often have the most heated debate around the question of “What makes someone influential”. But these debates are heated in a good way, they are engaged because they point to the heart of the matter. And as participants unearth their assumptions, they show “where they are coming from” and start connecting to each others way of thinking in a more constructive way.

3. The fact that I am right doesn’t mean that you are wrong. Now this is the most difficult and the most rewarding challenge of developing a group brain. It means achieving true inspiration by breaking down the boundaries between my way and your way of thinking. We are trained in the kind of debate where we want to win, where, while I listen to you I make a list of counter arguments in my head to see how I can beat you. Try holding this thought in your brain instead: “We can disagree and both be right.” Feels a bit painful? Especially if this is about an issue you deeply care about… Sure, because what you feel is the crumbling of walls between you and the person you disagree with, and walls give you such a great sense of security.You know who you are and what you stand for. But they are also really in the way if you want to see what the world looks like.

In the groups I work with people tend to have very strong assumptions about what makes someone influential over a certain issue. Alone each of them will focus on one strategy and gather more money, learning, connections, black-mail material or whatever they think makes them influential. And they will tend to form coalitions with people who follow the same strategies, built on the same assumptions because this is just so comfortable (Isn’t it funny how we think a person is so clever when what we actually observe is just that they share our assumptions about the world?). If a group can learn to entertain the thought that I can be right and you can be right even though we disagree, they can start seeing that different people in their system gained their power through different means. And that an influencer coalition that combines these different influence sources can be so much more powerful than one that only includes one and fights with everyone else. Sure, you have to see where your boundaries are and maybe you don’t want to start collecting black-mail material… not because it doesn’t make you influential but because you don’t agree with it on ethical grounds.

4. Don’t force agreement, encourage respectful exploration. In the end, a group of diverse inspired thinkers will not (and should not) agree on everything. If you want to use the group brain to the fullest, don’t restrict it by the pre-condition that afterward everyone has to hold hands around the camp-fire and sing Kumbaja, don’t force people to end up with one common story if that is not where they are. Your goal (as a facilitator or participant) is rather to be connected with respect, trust and insight while staying diverse. You want the individuals to continue doing in their own brains what is best done in solitary thinking while trusting that they can share even their craziest ideas with the group and they will together cook a great meal out of this. Some things sweet, others bitter. Some pure, others mixed and spicy.

O.k., this is it for today. A friend of mine once said that reading my posts is like hearing me think, and this post is truely one of those, my attempt of making sense of what I see by writing it down and sharing it with you. It would be great to hear what you think, does this relate to your experience? Are there other things that are crucial when trying to activate the group brain? What are the things you should by all means avoid?

If you want more participants, invite less people!

Sometimes a one-man-show is all you want (copyright by Eu-Motion on flickr) - just don't call it participatory

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Well, that might be because the word “participants” has been overstretched and overused to mean everyone who sits in a room where something is happening. So if you do a participatory activity (e.g. draw a Net-Map with a group) and there are 30 people in the room, they are all participants, right?

Well, not really. In my experience, if you try to squeeze 30 people around one table you end up with at least two rows of chairs and with a few very active participants in the front row and a large audience of people who just watch and listen to what is happening.

My numbers are based on experience and it can vary according to activity, culture (national and group culture) and facilitator skills, but as a general rule of tumb I would say: If 4-8 people sit around the table, an organic discussion can develop in which people choose their level of involvement according to what they have to say and with just a little guidance of the facilitator to encourage quiet ones and dampen the domineering ones. Let 9-12 people draw a Net-Map together and you will have to facilitate more assertively and be one of these people who can listen to two different things with your two ears, see two different things with your two eyes to make sure that everyone and every view has the chance to be heard. Above that number, you are likely to loose the ability to see and feel the whole group all the time, there will be more and more side conversations or just a quiet group of people who feel disempowered to speak because they don’t feel they have enough status, knowledge or their opinion doesn’t reflect the perceived mainstream of the group.

And the interesting thing is: The bigger the group, the smaller the number of active participants becomes. Not just in relative but in absolute terms. So, in a group of 7 you might have 7 active contributors. In a group of 20, most likely there will be 1-3 really active contributors and then some who say something every once in a while but most will not say a thing (unless they wisper it in their neighbors ear). One of the reasons is that saying something in a small group feels like engaging with your peers. Saying something in a large group feels like being on stage.

So, if you are looking for active participants and not just a quiet audience to a 2-man-Net-Map show, invite less people. And make sure they represent all the different views you want to learn about. Or invite more people but split them up into smaller groups.

Being a leader without being the boss

... and what lights your fire? (copyright by Neils Photography on flickr)

… or: responsibility without authority.

We’ve all been there and maybe you are there today: You feel responsible for the success of an initiative, change process or project but have little or no formal authority to tell people what to do. Or maybe you just have a passion for making something happen (in your organization, neighborhood, family) but you are not the boss who can order people to do it. Well, whether ordering people to do stuff actually leads to sustainable change is a different question. But today I want to talk about affecting change if you don’t have formal authority.

Some of the most amazing organizational changes and innovations come from the belly and not the head of organizations. And some of the most amazing potential changes just live a sad life in the heads of people who never manage to infect their surroundings with them. So, what do you need to do to lead without being the boss?

I think the first thing to do is to give yourself permission. A lot of people censor what they even try, because they think it is not in their job description to rock the boat. It might not be in your formal job description for this specific position in this organization, but it’s in your job description as a human being to try and make your little corner of the world as better place. Or, to look at it more pragmatically: If you ever want to get into a position of authority, you want to be noticed as someone who goes beyond the narrow letters of the job description and achieves amazing things, no matter what your position in the organization.

Discover what you burn for. The most powerful force in leading without formal authority is your own passion. It will guide you, sustain you when it looks like nothing is working out and draw people to you and your goals. Remember, people can freely choose to support your initiative (as you have no formal authority), so being engaging is one of your strongest assets. Achieving things that go beyond your formal authority can take a lot of energy and be exhausting. So focus on one or two things you really burn for.

Understand how influence works in this system. Every system (organization, neighborhood, family) has different ways how members can gain influence. Some typical ones would be: formal authority, seniority, being an expert, having new ideas, being likeable and engaging, bringing in money, being grumpy, being manipulative, being connected to influential people (inside or outside the system), being of the preferred gender, age group, race etc. Study your system, think about the people who seem to be influential, how are they doing it? What makes them powerful? Don’t narrow your mind when your think about this: In each system different people succeed to gain influence with different strategies.

Understand your own influencer profile. Look at your personality, background and position in the system: Which ones of the above  attributes of an influencer do you have already? Which ones can you realistically develop (changing your race or gender are obviously less likely than changing your level of expertise or grumpieness)? What influencer personalities do you admire and connect to? Don’t try to become someone else, rather become your best and most influential self by developing those parts of your personality and position which will allow you to lead.

Understand and develop your influence network. If you haven’t drawn a Net-Map around this issue yet, now is the time. Ask yourself: “Who are all the people, groups and organizations that can influence whether I achieve the goal I am passionate about?” And map all actors, formal and informal links, their goals with regards to your goal and their level of influence. Reflect on what you see: Where do the movers and shakers in this map get their influence from (see above)? Who are you linked to already? What links are missing? What actors or links hold you back?

If you are like most people, you will be connected to a lot of others who are similar to you and few who are different. Let’s say you are a young white male and your  influence comes from being an expert on the issue. I would take a bet that most of the people you go for lunch with are equally young white males and experts, while you have fever connections to people whose influence comes from seniority, bringing in money or making the rules. It’s nice and comfortable to have a peer group of friends of the same kind who share the same ideas. But to become a leader even though you don’t have authority, it is crucial to connect with those who don’t just share your influencer strategy but can bring the missing pieces to the table. Look at your map again: Who has the most different influencer assets from yours? Don’t pick someone whose values you don’t share (like the greatest back-stabber) but just someone who has a different role and personality. Could this person develop a passion for your goals? Or do your goals have a side effect that would be great for this person? Explore. Form coalitions accross organizational or social boundaries.

Connect and share. Now you better understand who you want to join forces with, connect and share with them. Sharing is crucial if you want to have a long term impact: Share responsibility and ownership, access to other network partners and maybe most importantly, generously and publicly share praise once you achieve something amazing.

And finally: Wherever you go, don’t leave your passion at home. Leading without being a boss is a much messier and less predictable process than giving orders. Serendipity is your best friend. Don’t lecture everyone you meet about your goals till they are bored to tears. But be ready to talk about your passion outside of formal work meetings, connect it to other people’s interest in the coffee break, with a stranger on the plane, with a fellow parent at the playground (that’s how I ended up giving a brown bag seminar at Deloitte Consulting, but that is a different story alltogether…) and be in it for the long haul. This leads me back to “discovering what you burn for”. Because that is the only way you will really want to carry it with you all the time.