For innovation: Amplify the low signal

10-Crow-whispers-in-ear-sm

Crow brings the daylight, by Ruth Meharg

My work often involves getting familiar with a new country and sector in a short amount of time, discussing challenges with many different stakeholders and together developing and implementing strategies for change.

One skill which is crucial for this is the ability to detect patterns quickly, understand what the common themes are, the issues, people, strategies and conflicts which are mentioned again and again. What is the shared story on which we can build our planning? What are the loudest and most consistent signals?

However, one great risk when listening for the common pattern is that you distill the story that everybody knows already and focus on the issues that everybody agrees are THE issues. If you want to help people discover new possibilities, experiment with new solutions, discover the positive deviants that exist already, you have to grow a third ear which listens for things that are only said in passing (or not at all), for ideas that people laugh about or don’t dare believe in, for challenges that cannot be discussed out in the open and sometimes you have to be the one who mentions that the emperor might have forgotten to get dressed…

But how do you know what is an interesting low signal and what is just plain noise?

I tend to pick up a number of different half-sentence ideas as I travel through the system and then I try them out when I talk to the next person. Many of the ideas don’t make it to the third or forth discussion but every once in a while, the next person says: “Well, I hadn’t thought about that but now that you say it…” and they start adding weight, color, texture and context to this idea.  And slowly a new door opens, a different approach emerges or we develop a clearer understanding of a long overlooked risk.

Amplifying a low signal is something I could never do alone, it is rather that I start bouncing these signals off other people and see if they disappear or become stronger.

Identifying international knowledge partnerships

With my colleagues Kerstin Tebbe and Bruno Laporte I just had an interesting design conversation for a session in which they want to help the members of a water basin commission better understand with whom they have knowledge exchange partnerships. We realized soon that this is not going to be a Net-Map session or a session of some squeezed out, shrunk down little cousin of Net-Map. So the proposed steps are the following:

  1. All 20 participants (individually) write the names of the commission’s most important and reliable knowledge partners on index cards (with thick marker and great handwriting). The cards are color-coded by categories, e.g. government on green cards, civil society on red.
  2. They put all cards on a large table and start looking for duplicates – if both of us wrote University of XYZ, we stack these cards to reduce the number of cards we are dealing with.
  3. Depending on the number of remaining cards (judgment call in the situation), they instruct the group to get up and take all cards (or only those of actors that have been mentioned at least twice), and walk to a large, sketched  map on the floor of the 5 countries involved. They distribute the actor cards on the map, according to the country the actor is located in.
  4. As this very rough geographical actor map emerges, the participants consider a number of questions: Do we have stronger networks in some countries than others? Are some colors (i.e. actor categories) overrepresented on the map – or in some countries? Who is missing? What is the difference between the stack of cards I produced on my own and the map that emerged as we started putting it all together? How can we, as a group, access this whole richness, instead of just our own little corners?

This activity is located at the start of a longer engagement to improve the knowledge exchange and management of this organization, so they don’t have to answer all the questions in the world, the goal is rather to get the conversation started, to invite the complexity into the room without being overwhelmed.

I am curious to hear what you think about this? Would it work in your context? Can you think of something which would even sharpen or further enrich the activity? Have we overlooked a critical risk? And, don’t you love the artwork above, which Tara Donovan (picture credit) created out of thousands and thousands of index cards?

Can you make it more playful and more serious?

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child) http://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/430791/

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child) http://abstract.desktopnexus.com/wallpaper/430791/

What? Everything.

Keith McCandles of Liberating Structures asked me this question when I shared my instructions for the use of network pattern cards with him. He proposed to make it more serious by inviting a group to explore a shared problem and to make it more playful by asking: “What is the pattern you would need to choose if you really wanted to mess this up?” And only after that the group would pick the pattern they think will make them succeed. This follows the idea of the liberating structure TRIZ.

His question stuck with me – way beyond the concrete discussion of how to facilitate a group experience. Now it has a place of honor on a post-it on my office wall: “Can I make it more playful and more serious?” How would my life and work be, if I made it more playful and serious.

When I am with my kids, could I have more playful openness and laugh more about things that just aren’t that important AND have the mindful focus of someone who knows that this is serious, that these few years of closeness run by quicker than you think and that every moment matters.

At my work, what would happen if I played and improvised more freely, inviting myself, my colleagues, our clients to use play for experiencing the changes we aim for in an nonthreatening environment – it’s only play after all. And what if at the same time I was much more serious about my aspiration, much braver about naming and claiming the changes I really care about, allowing myself to really care about them?

What are the things in your life that could be transformed by being more playful and more serious? Are you taking steps in that direction already?

Maybe they get annoyed because you are more successful than you look

Cancer Survivor’s Artwork Travels the World as an Inspiration to Others

Someone who looks like you should not be invading our space (image by Cindy Faust)

I just had an interesting conversation with a friend about a very specific kind of uncomfortable interaction we experience as we move forward in our career and become more successful. And that’s the push-back you get for being more successful than you look. What do I mean? Well, she described a number of very impolite encounters as a younger looking African American woman (three status reducers in a row… wow – how lucky that she is also extremely bright and resilient). And I had to think of a friend who got into a leadership position in a large organization before growing any grey hair.

As long as you are among your supposed peers (in terms of external visual factors as in age, gender, race, social background) and filling a role that is similar to other people in this group, you might rarely experience these behaviors. People are decently nice to you, you feel like we have arrived in the 21st century, achievements are based on merit, not external factors… And then, all of a sudden, just as you are feeling like everything is going right professionally and you are moving from one success to the next, you get all these reactions from people that look and feel like racism, sexism, any kind of -ism and all they are saying is: “Someone who looks like you should not be here. We are people of status and success and what on earth do you think you are doing here.”

What I found interesting in this conversation was to understand that it is easy to go through experiences like this and completely misunderstand them: Instead of thinking: “How come that all of a sudden society has become much more backward and hostile than it was a few years ago?” You might be thinking (once you can let go of the pain and disappointment): “This pushback is a sign of my success – of the fact that I am moving far beyond what others would expect of someone who looks like me and that makes them nervous. They feel like I am getting in their space and are insecure, fearing what would happen if there was an invasion of their space of privilege by people who look like me.”

While the second thought also doesn’t change the fact that you are having annoying encounters, you can feel the power. And you are not a victim.

Oh the sheer beauty of networks…

I could spend days surfing the 777 different projects that the visualcomplexity project has gathered, some of them amaze me because of what they are about, more of them just because they are so beautiful. Some examples, just to get you started

Nike city runs NYC

“Nike+ involves the placement of a sensor underneath the foot bed of your Nike running shoe in order to collect data about where you’ve run, how long it took and where you can improve over time – since each individual run becomes part of a collective historical database. Even though Nike+ website already gives individual users a variety of features to make sense of their personal data, the collective analysis of this growing database is remarkably promising.

The interactive collective YesYesNo developed an installation for Nike’s retail stores to visualize a year’s worth of runs uploaded to the Nike+ website. With custom software, the installation plays back runs throughout three cities: New York, London and Tokyo. The runs showed tens of thousands of peoples’ runs animating the city and bringing it to life. The software visualizes and follows individual runs, as well as showing the collective energy of all the runners, defining the city by the constantly changing paths of the people running in it.”

Visualizing Databases Stanford
“Using the visualization tool Gephi, Elijah Meeks has produced a series of experiments depicting databases in diverse styles. The images show here are mapping the top contributors to the Catalogue of Life and their associated species, references and databases.

As Elijah states: “While it could be argued that all databases can be devolved into graph databases, and as such all databases are graphs and therefore networks in the most pure sense, I think that there’s something more practical at play here: the importance of network visualization for database aesthetics. Summaries and statistics drawn from within the structure of the database are not enough. If there is to be any real grappling with the database as an culturally-embedded construct, then it has to be done in a manner that reveals the data, the model and the population simultaneously.”

Stephanie Posavec Writing without words Kerouac
“Writing Without Words, by Stephanie Posavec is a series of striking visualizations exploring the differences in writing style between authors of various modern classics. The images shown here are a visualization of Part One from the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In this piece, entitled Literary Organism, each literary component was divided hierarchically into even smaller parts – Part, Chapters, Paragraphs, Sentences, and ultimately Words, the smallest branch in the diagram. Stephanie also created different colors to distinguish the eleven thematic categories she created for the entirety of On the Road. Some categories include: Social Events & Interaction, Travel, Work & Survival, and Character Sketches, among others.

This is how NOTCOT describes Stephanie’s work:”The maps visually represent the rhythm and structure of Kerouac’s literary space, creating works that are not only gorgeous from the point of view of graphic design, but also exhibit scientific rigor and precision in their formulation: meticulous scouring the surface of the text, highlighting and noting sentence length, prosody and themes, Posavec’s approach to the text is not unlike that of a surveyor. And similarly, the act is near reverential in its approach and the results are stunning graphical displays of the nature of the subject. The literary organism, rhythm textures and sentence drawings are truly gorgeous pieces.”

Saving travel cost by Net-Mapping before you go

No-Fly-ZoneSaving cost and reducing travel are a big thing at the World Bank at the moment – as in many organizations. So while it was always requested to do your homework before going on a scoping mission, now this homework really has to be much more in-depth, everything you can squeeze out of your desk (research), do squeeze… It has to produce tangible outputs and prepare you as best you can to use your brief and costly time in the field wisely.

So we will pilot using Net-Map for this, sitting down with the project leader (based in DC) and maybe one or two colleagues who know the country and the sector well and to help them draw a map of the stakeholder situation as they see it. This will be a 3-4 hour meeting in our office – no plane ticket involved – a day or two of rough data analysis and visualization, then sharing the results (highlighting pain points and open questions) with colleagues on the ground in an online discussion.

It’s not a replacement for going to the field but it will help us get an in-depth first impression of the politics involved, help the project leader and experts structure their knowledge and share it and have something concrete to start the discussion with the people on the ground.

I will share how it goes and am curious if you have tried simmilar approaches. If you have, how have you dealt with the possible bias of the central perspective? How have you made the results easily approachable for the people on the ground and avoided that the first map was seen as the gospel? How have you dealt with open questions and guesswork?

Network Mapping for personal development – a retreat for women

 

If you allow the wind to lift you up, you can fly (picture by Dan Markeye)

If you allow the wind to lift you up, you can fly (picture by Dan Markeye)

I have been exploring the power of Net-Map for personal development and happiness for a few years now. Because I am convinced: When it comes to living life fully, the network you are embedded in plays a great role, both supporting you and holding you back at times.

So, it is with a big smile on my face that I can announce: I have found two wonderful ladies who will take this to the next level with me and we will be offering our first personal development and network mapping retreat this fall.

Merianne Liteman

Merianne Liteman

Merianne Liteman is a seasoned facilitator, whose creative facilitation training changed my life (but that is a different story).

Paulina Escobar

Paulina Escobar

Paulina Escobar is a transformational life coach, who is most attuned to the energy in the room. And both of them are the cheerful, warm people who I was waiting to meet to make this retreat come true.

Participants will map out their personal development Net-Maps (ConnectionsMaps), explore their meaning and dig deeper with creative exercises, mind-body work, conversation and quiet introspection. This will prepare them for the next step of drawing a new map, charting their future path to healthier and more supportive networks.

We will hold this first retreat on October 24-26 at the Loyola Retreat Center in Baltimore, MD in a beautiful light-filled space. Please find more detail and sign up information here.