This article on how the brain learns rounds up evidence suggesting conventional ideas of study aren’t really that conducive to learning. School primed my generation with all sorts of questionable ideas about how to learn, favouring the linear, the laborious and the highly structured. It reminds me of grinding from the days when I was addicted to World of Warcraft: laborious, repetitive and motivated by extrinsic rewards with little in the way of discovery.
I think organisations default to running their meetings in the same way, with too much faith in fixed agendas, the delivery of information and a general desire for compliance rather than being open to surprise. Longer breaks, variety, changes of pace, going for walks… these ideas are resisted as if they are indulgent or inefficient; I suggest they are quite reasonable efforts to support genuine learning.
Some meetings may quite rightly be about co-ordination and compliance, but often what’s needed is a spirit of enquiry and discovery. For that, we need to shed our school day habits.
Tony Goodson found this article and Facebooked it: Terrorism, Trauma and the Search for Redemption. It’s the remarkable story of Silke Maier-Witt, her traumatic upbringing, how she ended up in the Baader-Meinhof gang – and how she now devotes her life to working with victims of trauma in Serbia.
Trying to regain some kind of control over life in these circumstances is tough. I think it stands in stark contrast to so many of the formulae we see put forward for changing whole organisations, as if somehow that is easier than just person changing.
This idea particularly caught my eye.
Maier-Witt explains that according to trauma psychology, people tell three stories to explain their lives and make sense of their experience. There’s the victim story, which is the favorite. People love to see themselves as victims. There is the hero story. But trauma sufferers seldom cast themselves in the role of someone who has triumphed over adversity. And there is the epic, which is the healthiest story.
In an epic tale, life unfolds as an adventure. Every day you make the choice to accept your fate without trying to change everything about it. Your role is not to fight or to fix; it is to see and to experience. The goal is to become more aware and more sensitive. You change things by the example of how you live each day.
This makes enormous sense to me. We tend to use the word “epic” as if it’s a synonym for marvellous. Clearly that’s not what Maier-Witt has in mind here. It’s really about dealing with reality, day-by-day, without overdramatising, however tempting.
Another little video about organisational life…
inspired by this Python classic:
Here’s the next video in my series reflecting on working with people and groups:
It’s about the way we sometimes talk about Talk and Action as if they are separate, even opposite, things. It’s inspired by this classic Monty Python clip:
I’ve been doing some coaching work with facilitators lately and I found myself talking about group size. The short version is that I often find groups of over five people tend to have relatively stilted conversations, which at their worst become what I call a plenary vortex: the fight for attention starts to diminish the quality of conversation.
David Gurteen dug out a piece of research related to this, contrasting the conversations in five-person groups with the serial monologues in ten-person groups. It doesn’t prove that five is a threshold, but it helps make the general point about larger groups.
It’s also worth six minutes to hear Chris Corrigan on this topic, as captured by Nancy Dixon. He points to the value of groups of one as well as pairs and threes. Not sure about his ideas about odds and even sizes but worth thinking about. He also makes some points at the end about how smaller group conversations create a more active kind of engagement than just shoving ideas up on post its.
This shades into a wider point about the value of allowing lots of social interaction between people and not over-controlling or rushing it. For more on that, check out Keith de la Rue‘s article on the art of conversation.
Finally, I think that some really amazing things can happen in larger group conversations… but this usually requires breaking out of some fairly well-ingrained habits, and that’s a post for another day…
Chris Mowles has a great post about his experience at a strategy presentation. He highlights the contrast between the presenter’s idealised abstractions and what is actually going on in the room. This bit captures that distinction:
As he proceeded to explain in rather Jesuitical fashion how he and his team had worried about the order of the words in the vision statement, whether it should be ‘internationally renowned for being the leading X’, or rather ‘renowned internationally for being the leading X’ he failed to notice how many people in the audience, either literally or metaphorically, were sitting with their heads in their hands.
The whole thing is well worth your time. This is not so much a post about a dull presentation – we all know about those. The deeper point is about how management so easily gets caught up in abstraction and misses the actual life going on before it.
I feel another video coming on…
Geoff Brown looks at a model for getting people engaged (or not) in meetings or movements. It’s called SCARF, standing for…
Status – a lot of trouble is caused when people feel the need to defend their status.
Certainty – people like to have some!
Autonomy – people like to feel they have choices
Relatedness – balancing autonomy, people like to feel connected to others
Fairness – trouble brews if people sense this ain’t happening.
Geoff thinks of a few interpretations. I’d say status has a pretty big impact on meetings. Set ups that confer high status on some particpants (chairs, panels, keynotes…) set up for some fairly dysfunctional exchanges, either of pseudo-compliance or aggressive acting out.
Relatedness is worth thinking about too. You can support it in all sorts of ways. One of the best ideas I had on a two day workshop was to suggest a self-cooked barbeque on the middle evening. I had to fend off hotel staff to stop them helping… by cooking the meal together, people got related better. They tended to break their organisational status too… there’s something primal about the act of cooking and eating together than can be powerful. It can help create relatedness even when people have huge disagreements elsewhere.
I wonder if I’d go for the word “agency” over autonomy…. the latter sometimes suggests a kind of isolation, whereas agency is more about feeling connected to action. Again, cooking a meal together gives everyone a bit of agency…
My next reflections video is about the difference between Big M Meetings and little m meetings. I hope you enjoy it.
Chris Rodgers has written a couple of related posts, on management as “muddling through” and the “beautiful ugly truth” of management. As usual, I find myself nodding in agreement.
I’ve been thinking lately about the status we play when we use different kinds of language. In management, there’s a tendency to favour high status language because it sounds more important. This creates the kind of jargon most of us secretly dislike. So on the whole, I’m in favour of more of the lower status language. In my own line of work I often realise there’s a lot of muddling through or “making it up as I go along”.
But supposedly low status language carries its own baggage too.
I may think by saying I make it up as I go along, I am merely being honest and not making myself seem too important. However, it can be interpreted as suggesting more than this.. perhaps suggesting I am just carefree, or flippant, or disrespectful of the participants and what is at stake. When I am muddling through as a facilitator, I hope I am not just being casual, but doing something sensible and considered in the light of all the information I am receiving.
It’s a tricky business, describing what you do…
So in the next reflections video, I talk a bit more about the wisdom of Monty Python when working with organisations…
And here are the two clips I refer to. Blessed are the Cheesemakers…
And Romanes Eunt Domus…