What’s it worth if it doesn’t make money?

Don't dismiss these fish just because they can't fly (copyright by torbakhopper on flickr)

Don’t dismiss these fish just because they can’t fly (copyright by torbakhopper on flickr)

The new year comes with a lot of questions about where I want to go, how I want to live and love in the year to come and who I am. As my friends feel the same way, I have had a lot of interesting and inspiring conversations in the past days and here is one tought I want to share.

I was having lunch with a friend who is free-lancing and we were talking about the project that fills his heart with joy but doesn’t fill his pockets with money. As long as you are one of us, who have to work for a living, that’s a tough place to be in. Rent has to be paid. Bacon (or tofu) has to be brought home.

So, when you are in a situation like this, people may ask you: “What’s it worth if it doesn’t make money? Nice that you have a passion, but if it doesn’t pay the rent, it’s just a hobby!” Really? What do you want to be remembered for? What is going to be your little or great legacy? Maybe this burning passion of yours will change the world. Or make your neighborhood, family, dinner table a better place. It might lead you to do the most meaningful valuable things. And just because it cannot pay rent, you dismiss it?

You could make a long list of people with “hobbies” (things that didn’t pay the rent) whose passions led to legacies that long outlasted their physical existence and made the world a different place… Start with Jesus, Ghandi, Mandela, add most artists, authors and many famous scientists…

Sometimes we are in the lucky circumstances that there is a great overlap between what we are passionate about and what pays the rent. That doesn’t make our passions more valid, it just means we are lucky. If you are not in this space right now, how about uncoupling the two: Find something that is bearable enough that pays the rent. And give your passion all the respect it deserves. Instead of ridiculing it like a fish that can’t fly.

What is the one little thing you can do?

Want to eat an elephant? Take it one bite at a time (picture copyright by Phil and Pam on flickr)

Have grand New Year’s resolutions? Good for you. Had grand New Year’s resolutions last year too and abandonned them mid-January? Don’t beat yourself up, because you are not alone. But if you want to do better this year, ask yourself: What is the one little thing I can do to move toward my goal? Do that one thing and allow yourself to be proud of yourself. Whether it is: always take the stairs at the office (while your grand resolution was to become a triathlete) or try meatless Mondays once a month (while your grand resolution was to become a vegetarian and loose 50 pounds). Once you see that you can do it, ask yourself: What is the next one little thing I can do?

I recently learned how looking for the one little thing can help you from being overwhelmed if the challenges seem too large to tackle. I guided a colleague through drawing a personal happiness Net-Map, mapping out who influences her personal happiness. Then, as we looked at a messy network of friends, family and colleagues who provided support or sucked energy, it felt like this was too much to even start taking doing anything. By asking for the one little thing we understood that you can eat an elephant one bite at a time. As long as you get started (if eating an elephant is your goal you might skip the meatless Mondays though…)

5 ways how drawing helps you think better

5 ways visual thinking complete

In the past year I have taken a deep dive into visual thinking and finally, seven years after developing Net-Map in the hot, dusty North of Ghana, I understood why it leads to the insights and transformations it facilitates. And that is because there is something special about visualizing what you know – as compared to merely saying or writing it down.

So how – and why – is drawing different from using words alone to work through problems?

1. When drawing, you work with all you have

5 ways visual thinking heart

This means: you answer your questions not only with your rational brain, but ad what your heart and hands have to say as well. This allows you to tap into your intuitive and tacit knowledge in a way that is difficult to reach with words alone. Often the greatest insights happen when teams look at the network picture afterward and realize they drew things they didn’t even know they knew.

2.  Drawing helps you see the forest and the trees

5 ways visual thinking trees

When you use words to talk about an issue you normally have to choose the level of detail at which you want to describe it. Looking at a picture you can step back and come closer in a second, taking in both, the forest and the trees. When dealing with complex, multistakeholder issues, it is important to be able to see the detail (What does this mean for one of my stakeholders?) and the big picture (What are the larger, political implications?).

3.  Words are sequential, pictures can show everything at once

5 ways visual thinking big picture

When you use words you start with the first sentence, then the next and the next, one after another. While this has the benefit of clearly guiding your listener through the story, this linear way of looking at a problem can keep you from seeing the big picture. And, because you cannot see everything at once, you won’t see larger patterns or connections that are not obvious. This is what a picture allows you to do.

4. Drawing and sharing pictures helps you clarify

5 ways visual thinking clarify

When drawing it is much more difficult to get lost in buzz words. When our teams struggle to agree on how the arrows flow between actors on their Net-Map, they are forced to be specific and explicit. In the process, they often unearth areas of confusion or disagreement.

5.  Drawing helps groups think together out of the box

 5 ways visual thinking outside box

When we do things the way we always do them (e.g. writing a plan) we tend to think what we always think. Our brain is happy to follow the routine and produce the same old and familiar solutions. As we start doing things differently (e.g. drawing a network instead of writing a list) we start discovering new ideas and solutions together.

If you want to learn more about the power of visual thinking, Dan Roam’s book “Blahblahblah, What to do when words don’t work” is a great introduction. And if you are convinced you cannot draw, this explanation to  drawing a stick figure can get you started.

The gift of doubt


Albert O. Hirschman

When reviewing my colleagues’ experience in improving the water and sewerage system in Baghdad, using the Outcome Mapping method, I realized one thing: The really big learnings, changes, breakthroughs happened when something went wrong, when people made mistakes, not when everyone was doing things perfectly. For example only the bad reactions of the public to initial newspaper articles made the team understand that they had to listen more than preach. If the initial communication had been o.k. – though not great – and no one would have even noticed or complained, there would have been little learning.

Today I read an inspiring article which shows me that aparently I am not the first to see this – the literary economist (who prefered to quote Kafka to doing math) Albert O. Hirschman made a science out of researching this. His biography is out, and this New Yorker article gives you a first flavor:

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

“Developing countries required more than capital. They needed practice in making difficult economic decisions. Economic progress was the product of successful habits—and there is no better teacher, Hirschman felt, than a little adversity. He would rather encourage settlers and entrepreneurs at the grass-roots level—and make them learn how to cope with those impediments themselves—than run the risk that aid might infantilize its recipient.”

Own it – with a smile


(Picture by Alan Cleaver on flickr)

How do you deal with situations you are not 100% comfortable with? How do you approach your work and your family life when it gets stressful? Are you quick to blame others for whatever goes wrong? Are you inclined to focus on all the different ways that you have messed it up?

How about owning it with a smile?

What does that mean? I started thinking about this last week, attending an amazing creative facilitation training by Retreats that Work (or, more specifically, Merianne Liteman and Sheila Campbell). They highlighted the power of an honest smile, how it can light up the room, make the most difficult group processes more bearable and convey to participants that you approach them in a positive, inviting manner. As a German I come from a culture where you only smile if you have a reason – and even then, you often don’t. My German friends think I have become Americanized… I am not sure my American friends would agree. There is still a lot of room for adding more smiles, with or without concrete reason. So I just started trying it out: What would happen if I smiled more? Not a “I’m sorry I’m in your way” kind of smile but rather a “I own my own space and invite you to join me here” smile.

At the end of the training I realized that “owning it – with a smile” is a powerful guidance for dealing with things beyond group facilitation. So I have looked at a number of issues both in my professional and private life and asked myself: What would happen if you didn’t blame others or yourself for this, but own it with a smile? If feels like breathing in – in a way that makes your lungs expand and fills you with fresh spring air. Now I’m curious where it will get me. And I’d love to hear from you: Do you own it with a smile? What does that mean to you? And what happens if you do?

Are you we? Or are you I?

And she said WHAT?

Working in an international organization, I see that we have a strange mixed relationship to our awareness of cultural differences. We think about them when we go to the field, especially if the field is an actual field (as in “rural”). But we try to forget that they exist when we’re at headquarters, interacting with our colleagues from all over the world.

I was reminded of that today when a small group of colleagues disagreed about how you best frame a problem you have with how the team does things. Do you say: “I don’t like this.” or rather “As a group we could achieve so much more if we changed this.” If you come from a culture that puts a high value on individual responsibility and ownership, you probably think telling what you don’t like is honest, you are taking ownership and you leave it to the others to decide what they will do about it. And you feel that talking about how the group could benefit from changing is just trying to hide what you want behind some politically correct, unclear diffusion of your own agenda.

If, on the other hand, you come from a group oriented culture, “I don’t like this” may feel like watching a screaming toddler who wants everyone to jump to their likes and dislikes, taking no responsibility for the larger good. And framing a change you advocate for in the light of the group’s benefit is the natural way to show how you care and that your own desires only really matter if they are aligned with the benefit of the bigger group.

And if we choose to ignore our cultural differences, it is very possible to have a conversation between two well meaning colleagues where one thinks the other is pushing a hidden agenda while the other thinks their colleague is a pushy egomaniac. While both feel very confident they are being responsible and communicating to the highest standards (of their respective cultures).

(Disclaimer: Our team discussion got to the point of making the differences explicit so everyone left with renewed respect for the other person’s good intentions…)

Big picture: Look at every feather of every bird…

then take a step back and ask yourself: What does this mean?

The research of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) played a pivotal role in developing the theory of natural selection. But over time, Charles Darwin became almost universally thought of as the father of evolution.

On the way to work today I listened to a story on NPR radio about Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist who died 100 years ago and who was the co-author of Darwin’s revolutionary first paper on the evolution of species. What struck me when listening: To get to his insights about the very very big picture, Wallace did not start by looking at large trends and aggregate data. He sailed out to the furtherest ends of the known world and looked at every feather of every bird. In his lifetime he collected more than 100 000 insect, bird and mamal speciemens. And while he was traveling for years, doing the backbreaking, fever inducing work of looking at every detail of the world around him, in the back of his mind, he couldn’t stop asking “Why?”. Why do I find this species here but not on the next island over. Why are there similar species in far away places – while I don’t find them close by?

I don’t think it  is a fluke that he had his greatest insight, that animals evolve adapting to their environments, after years of dealing with the details, when he lay in fever. Because in this half-concious state the mind allows itself to wander, and connect areas that are normally disconnected by our concious control.

So, if you want to discover evolution and tectonic shelfs by looking at bird feet (or have any other big insights in the field that is your passion), this is what I recommend:

Become obsessed with understanding every detail in your field, even if it is not obvious to anyone else how they might be related to a bigger question. Follow your gut and sail to the ends of the known world. With your eyes wide open, never stop asking: “Why?” While you collect the details, you will feel something growing inside of you that is bigger than just a pile of details, the individual dots will slowly fall in place. Every once in a while, step back, step way back. See if a picture evolves. And make sure you are there, you are listening that day when you think your one great thought, maybe under the shower, maybe in a fever or a dream. Don’t let it pass, hold onto it, write it down, let it rest a bit and then go back to work. Apply your concious mind to your fever thought and see what you can do with it.

And, you may wonder, why does this touch my heart? Because when listening to this story I realized that, on a much smaller scale, no tropical fever involved, this is what I do when I Net-Map. I loose myself in the details, listen to every story about everyone on the maps, chew and chew on the network data afterward till I have a stale taste in my mouth and hope, sometimes in desparation, that something will bubble up from that place deep inside of me and that this something will be bigger than the details on the maps. It’s a painful process at times, a tight-rope dance. Because you have to do the detail work even if it feels like all you can come up with is dry dust. But then, on a walk, under the shower, and sometimes even, big surprise, in front of my computer, the big storyline comes to me that holds everything together and I smile. Relieved more than anything, that there is a safe platform at the other end of the tight rope…

The participant who drives you crazy is not you at all!

What can I learn from someone so different? (picture copyright by Temari 09 on flickr)

So, you read my post about the participant who drives you crazy because you feel like looking in a mirror with bad lighting. And you are thinking about a recent experience when a participant really didn’t work for you… but try as you may, you cannot find yourself in their behavior. Maybe they are of the other kind, the participants who drive you crazy because they are not you at all.

I don’t know you, maybe you love jumping into new experiences and this participant who drove you crazy was hesitant and caught up in analysis paralysis.

Maybe you need to think things through step-by-step and love having a clear, well organized session and they brought in chaos, the unexpected, the urgent problem you didn’t prepare for.

Maybe you are polite and inclusive and love giving space to everyone and this one person just took all the space there was and didn’t stop talking.

You migh be a natural born skeptic, seeing possible pitfalls wherever you go and this participant just drove you crazy with unbearable blue-eyed optimism.

Or maybe it was the other way round. But this participant who drove you crazy did everything the way you would never do it, they did it all WRONG! The rational part of you may admit that there are many different ways to sucessfully participate in a workshop. But there is a part of you that just feels that your way is the right way, so this opposite of you has to be wrong.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: Listen to your gut. But don’t do everything it tells you.

You are feeling friction and frustration because by doing things so differently, your participant challenges your belief that your way is the right way and the only one. You have two options: Learn something from this or refuse to learn.

Refuse to learn: Push participant to act more like you. If they refuse, push harder. If they still refuse, find a way to silence or neutralize them so you can continue without obstruction, working with the part of the group that is just like you. In a certain limited way, this strategy can be successful (for you and those group members who are like you), you will be able to get from the beginning to the end of your planned session and do the activities that you promised would be done. And you might even feel clever for the way that you put the annoying participant on the eternal parking lot. But you will continue being stuck in the narrow-minded assessment that your way is the best. No learning. So what is the other option?

Learn: Listen to your gut while it complains about what a pain this participant is. Step away and take a deep breath and ask yourself: So what is the real problem here? And: Can I see this opposite behavior as my missing half? What is the most positive view you can have of their behavior? Do they bring something to the table that you don’t have? If they are your missing half, how can integrating their views and personality lead to a more rounded experience? How can you facilitate an experience that works for the other half as well, not just for those who are like you? And: Can you learn something from them that will broaden your own horizon, expand your personality? Maybe you even want to experiment with trying out their behavior to see how it feels and if it gets you places you have never been to before…

Let me warn you: This is really difficult, and most likely you will not be able to do all this thinking in the middle of facilitating a busy workshop. So go as far as you can. And do the rest of the thinking after the action is over, so that you can be more prepared for this the next time you meet the other half of your personality. If you can recognize why the participant drives you crazy (too similar or too different?), take a deep breath and not snap at them, that’s an important first step. Congratulations, you are on the road to learning. If you can embrace the thought that their being different actually enriches and deepens the workshop instead of thinking that it is a pain and they are a distraction that you need to neutralize, wonderful, you are getting there…

Teams: Together we do 139 % of the work

We know the sound of two hands clapping - what is the sound that one hand contributes... (picture by rs snaps on flickr)

We know the sound of two hands clapping – what is the sound that one hand contributes… (picture by rs snaps on flickr)

I don’t remember where I read it but there was this study where they interviewed team members to find out what percentage of work they thought they had contributed to the team effort. When they took all the numbers and added them up, they ended up with 139 %. If you have ever worked in a team, shared your household with someone or raised a family, I am sure you can relate. For me this was a real eye opener. So from now on, whenever I feel like I am pulling more than my own weight, I want to stop and remember:  The others probably feel the same. I’m not contributing more than they are, this whole beast is just heavier to pull than we all realize. The great thing is that his moves my mind from being resentful (Why I am working so much more than everyone else?) to being appreciative (Wow, everyone is working so hard, and they are not even complaining!).

Ghost stakeholders

ghostbuster-logoGhost stakeholders are those stakeholders who are not really on the net-map, but who were mentioned in interviews or informal talk as having a great influence on the mapped actors, yet are too embarassing to be mentioned during the net-map exercise. Mistresses, wives, children, siblings, same party members, business partners and close friends, may not have an official role in the project, yet they systematically condition the choices of the “official” actors. For example, in a bilateral cooperation project I was working in – in Burundi – the Art School received special attention compared to the other targeted schools because the project manager’s wife was an art teacher when they were living Europe. Similarly, trainees will not accept contributing a share of their per diem to a common fund which would reinforced the long term sustainability of their project because their wives had already made plans on how to spend the relatively conspicuous allowance. And their friends too were aware that each day of training is worth X.000 in local currency, so they felt socially compelled – more or less overtly – to pay them a beer. Next time you run a net-map, have a close look around your actors: you may find some traces of ectoplasm slime…