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.

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.

How my bad French made me a better facilitator

Let Your Magic Happen

I recently went on a mission to Cameroon, where one of my tasks was to facilitate a workshop with about 100 participants. Cameroon is a bilingual country – but that doesn’t mean all Cameroonians are bilingual. It rather means, there are some regions that are predominately francophone (the majority) and some that are anglophone (the rest). And, in my experience, in a room full of 100 people from all over the country, you have maybe 5-10 who prefer speaking English… and who are very used to working in French. Then you have about 90-95 who prefer speaking French… and who understand English better than if you were in a purely francophone country – but who have a strong preference for working in French.

My French on the other hand… well… I understand most of what people say. And I can survive very well. What I cannot do in French is sound clever. Or express delicate matters delicately. Or explain complex processes clearly, so that everyone can easily follow. You’ve guessed it: What I cannot do in French is facilitate a participatory workshop with 100 participants.

How on earth did that make me a better facilitator, you wonder?

Well, a facilitator is someone who provides structure and processes and then gets out of the way to let the magic happen. In the case of Cameroon, like in a lot of my work, we are working with local facilitators who are there not just for the workshops during out field visits but to support the project throughout implementation.

My typical approach to a workshop like this would be to be the lead facilitator and have the local facilitators facilitate small group work and other less challenging, less complex and less visible work. During this workshop however I did not hold a microphone or say a public word even once. I had prepared very well with our local facilitators, we knew what the process was, then I handed over to them and spent the day listening, observing, preparing flip charts, handing out post-its, checking in with the facilitators, feeling the room, keeping eye contact and trying to get out of the way to let the magic happen.

All the while the local facilitators had space to show their value, get visibility, develop contacts and prepare for the implementation work which started once we left.

From this experience I gained two insights:

  • Running the show and dancing on stage might not be the best idea for a visiting mission – even if we know the language well. Because it can easily send the message: The international team consists of superheroes, flown in to save the day. The local team is just second-best – you have to bear with them until the superheroes come back.
  • You are more likely to learn, adapt and innovate in a situation of scarcity and constraints than in a situation of abundance: If everything I wanted had been there (e.g. my perfect command of French) I would have done things like I always do them, without a second thought.

How about you, how have your limitations led you to do your work better?

(image credit: http://www.ourspiritedlife.com/)

Involuntarily airborne dog explains complexity

In a recent discussion on the marvelous Knowledge Management for Development email list, Ueli Scheuermeier recounted this great explanation of the difference between complicated and complex, which he had first heard from Irving Borwick:

“If you put a football on the penalty point and then have a guy kick it towards the goal, that is a complicated process whereby through the application of knowledge of physics etc. you can actually predict the trajectory of the football. But there are many variables that make it a rather complicated data-collection and calculation. But it’s still complicated not complex.
If, however, you put a dog there on the penalty point and a guy comes along and kicks it, you can never predict what will happen next. All you know is the general environment and the framework in which something will happen, but what exactly will happen you don’t know. That’s complexity. It usually comes up when living people (in this case an animal) and their decisions and reactions are involved and influence an outcome. When humans are involved, outcomes are never predictable. That’s complexity”.

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.

Make your own oracle – or just use mine

RWS_Tarot_02_High_Priestess

I am fascinated with card decks that help you think, discover, work in groups, get unstuck. I have talked with some amazing people about their cards: Keith McCandless one of the creators of liberating structures,  Dave Pollard of the team behind group works deck, Tom  Wambke who is in the process of turning the compass online facilitation resources into a card deck – in an great google hangout facilitated and convened by Nancy White of full circle associates.

What brought this conversation on is a card deck on network structures that can be helpful or harmful to the success of a project, which I am working on the moment. An unintended effect came a few nights after the hangout, when I had one of those moments of inspiration (of the “rainy season in Namibia type“) and created a daily question deck. It’s extremely simple and – as I am observing my first guinea pigs – quite powerful all the same. Each card has a question for you to ponder. That’s it. The way I am using it at the moment is: Every morning you draw a card and that is your question of the day. You put it in your pocket, on your desk, on your kitchen table and while you are going through your day as you normally would, the question is there, sitting there patiently, waiting for answers to bubble up. These are a whole range of questions, such as:

  • Who has your back?
  • What would happen if you said the truth?
  • What would a 4 year old recommend?
  • What would you do if you knew the answer?
  • What don’t you see?

I have formatted them so you can download them here (daily question cards) and print them on standard pre-perforated business cards and start playing right away. Go ahead: Print and play. Add your own. Tell me how you use them. What you learned. Do you work with other facilitation card decks that you find inspiring? I’d love to hear from you.