Can you make it more playful and more serious?

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child)

picture by Donald Zolan (and, by the way, not my child)

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.

Can a high school drop-out find a job with Net-Map?


(Picture copyright Lydia on flickr)

Karen is an 18 year old high school drop-out with a criminal record for shop-lifting, some limited work experience at McDonald’s, a boyfriend she rarely talks to and no idea how she can start earning enough money to move out of her mother’s place and start a more independent life. Will drawing a Net-Map help her understand who can help her make the next step, who she needs to avoid, what issues she has to tackle next and where some unexplored opportunities lie?

It seems like the answer is yes. Well, kind-of… Because Karen is the role one of our Net-Map training participants played, she isn’t a real teenager, but rather the aggregate of a number of girls our colleague has worked with. To figure out if this method could possibly work in untangling the web of family, friends, parole officers, minimum wage employers etc. that may influence the next step forward for a girl like Karen. As the role play went on it became more and more involved and somehow felt real. The most powerful part of it came at the end, when “Karen” started considering how to change the influence of different actors in the network. What it would feel like if some of the influence was taken away from her boyfriend and transferred to her. What would it take? Could you make it happen? What is stopping you?

I am excited to see that we, as a community of practice, are expanding what Net-Map can do, working with it as a tool for personal counselling and working with younger audiences. As some regular readers might know, my youngest Net-Mapper was my daughter, at age three, when we mapped out “Who loves who in the family.” And I am convinced that understanding the power of your networks, both positive and negative, can be a game changer for teenagers at the cross-roads. So, if you do have a teenager at hand who is willing to try it out, it would be wonderful if you could Net-Map their future with them. Not the whole wide expanse of all of their future. But a challenging and concrete next step that they need to master. And please, share your experience.


How can your business grow without loosing that great start-up energy?

That’s a question I Net-Mapped with a friend yesterday, whose consultancy business grew from 3 to 25 people in the last 5 years (congrats!). He still remembers how it felt in the beginning when there was that strong shared feeling of “We’re in this together!”, “We will succeed against all odds!” and “We will give our whole hearts to get there.” He was able to maintain a lot of this spirit over the years and keep this feeling of community or even family alive… But… what was a spontaneous feeling that just reproduced itself because of the situation they were in, more and more turns into a company spirit that needs to be nurtured and created and he spends a lot of time being the company gardener, interacting with everyone to get a feeling for what’s happening, if they are still on board, how he can help them maintain the spirit.

He feels that it is worth it because his staff are exceptionally motivated and loyal in a fast moving field and he enjoys knowing what’s going one and nurturing his staff not only in strictly work-task oriented ways (e.g. looking at long term development). But what’s going to happen if he keeps being successful? How is he going to expand this management style to a staff of 50, 100 or 200?

When we drew his Net-Map we saw that they had done a rather good job at distributing the authority over project reporting. So this formal management workload was shared by a number of people, a model that would grow (either add more levels or more sub-units on the same level) as the organization grows. But the gardening or mentoring links were mainly a hub and spokes network, my friend being the hub and everyone, down to the maintenance guy being directly linked to him, getting face-to-face interaction and encouragement every once in a while.

I have written about this before and I will write about it again, because it is one structural issue that I see in so many exciting young projects and companies: Hub and spoke networks are a great way to get things started, you are the mover and shaker and assemble everyone you around you, turn them from a crowd into an organization/movement. But if you don’t want that exhaustion heart-attack and burn-out or if you want that your idea/company/movement survives even after you leave, there is a time when you have to let go and foster that your spokes develop inter-connections, nurture some of your trusted colleagues to become sub-centers, develop what is called redundant links (so if one link fails another one can hold) and anchor your movement in a bigger community. If not, you are preparing your company to be one of these endeavors that as soon as the founder leaves crumble to dust or your development project will be one of the many that ceases to have any impact as soon as the funding runs out. The important thing to realize is: What worked for you in the past (start-up phase) will not work equally well in the future (consolidation).

One colleague of mine in Ghana was really passionate about starting things from scratch and getting them going. He worked for the government and, knowing what made him tick, he once said to me: “When this multi-stakeholder board is up and running I will help them find a good manager, train him or her and leave for the next new project. Managing existing structures is too boring for me.” That really impressed me, to have such an understanding of who you are and what you are good at that you shape your work life in a way that you can do exactly that without risking long term sustainability. It helped that his underlying motivation was leaving a legacy / changing the world to become a better place irrespective of whether his name (or bank account) was connected to his achievements.

But if you are that manager of a former start-up and you don’t want to sell it and start another one, how do you move forward? I think one important thing is to realize that most people can only strongly relate to a rather small group of people. So as soon as you grow beyond a certain number, it will cost you a lot of extra energy to maintain a personal feeling in everyone in your organization towards everybody else of “We are in this boat together.” And the question is: “Is this personal connection to everyone really necessary for people to be extremely hard working and loyal and happy at their work place?” I would say that maybe it’s enough to have this strong emotional bond to a smaller group of co-workers in the same division or field. That feeling of “I don’t want to let my guys down” can develop out of the work process without a lot of extra energy poured in from a gardener/mentor/leader. What he could focus on more is developing and maintaining the bigger ideas, visions and codes of conduct that his staff can relate to and feel proud of. So in a way my recommendation would be to think bigger and smaller at the same time: Think bigger: Instead of relating to a group of individuals try uniting everyone under a common vision. And think smaller: Foster the development of local villages within your organization in which people relate to and feel loyalty for their neighbors.

And then, as a cherry on the top, continue going to your maintenance guy or junior programmer every once in a while to connect and see how the company is doing from the inside. But don’t feel pressured to continue with full energy using a strategy that was great for 12 staff members once you hit 100. And yes, some of the start-up energy will go. It’s because you are not a start-up any more, there is a reason why we called this energy “start-up energy”. But even at a bigger size you can have a company with a great spirit and loyal, hard working staff.