Author Archives: Johnnie Moore

Getting out of our heads

Here’s another extract from Viv‘s and my forthcoming little book, which presents a few of our favourite ideas about working with people as facilitators and trainers.

image-0014Getting out of our heads

Many of the challenges we face are complex and will not yield to mere analysis.

Meeting them has more in common with learning to ride a bike than solving a puzzle. You don’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book. You need practice and a willingness to explore.

As the saying goes, it’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.

This is brilliantly demonstrated in Tom Wujec’s Marshmallow Challenge. Tom goes round the world with a set of sticks and marshmallows. He dishes these out to all sorts of groups of people. The challenge is to build the tallest structure possible with these materials. Typical managers spend their time in a talkfest, trying to work out the answer. Kindergarten kids just get stuck in, trying building stuff. The kids usually get taller and more creative structures.

It’s tempting to favour clever-sounding analysis over practical action. Trainers who fall in love with explaining things risk falling into the trap.

Many challenges need to be explored in three dimensions, not in analysis. Explore what’s possible through action and experiment.

Nothing is Written, Learning is an Adventure

image-0001Viv and I have written a new, small book.  Here’s the opening page. We’ll publish the whole thing in a day or two…

In the film Lawrence of Arabia, there’s a scene where Lawrence is crossing the desert. One of his group, Gasim, has fallen from his camel and is lost. The tribesmen tell Lawrence that to return for him would lead to certain death under the unforgiving sun – “it is written”.

It’s a common human response to stress. Rather than admit to anxiety or doubt, we double down on vehemently held beliefs. We seek to tame the unknown and the complex by eliminating any talk of risk or possibility. We feel safer talking about the state of the world than admitting a humbler truth about our fears and uncertainties.

Rather than admit to sadness for Gasim, or fear for themselves, they talk about “the way things are”. In so many work situations, people would rather say, “that won’t work” or “this is how we’ve always done it” than admit, “I don’t know”

Unwilling to leave Gasim to die, Lawrence defies this wisdom and vanishes into the sands in search of him. He subsequently returns, with Gasim alive, and tells the bedouin, “nothing is written”.

Life is unruly and unpredictable – our best approach is to remain open, curious and flexible. Rather than giving people reassuring “right answers” we may do better to model experimentation, curiosity and openness.

Enough keynotes, already

100_1There’s a well-known experiment, which led to the idea of “The Curse of Knowledge”. People were paired up. The first person had to think of a tune and tap it out with their fingers. The second had to guess. The guessers were pretty bad, whilst the tappers grew more frustrated. The tune was obvious to the tappers, and they couldn’t understand how the guessers were not getting it.

I think this “curse” goes way beyond knowledge. Leaders, trainers etc easily slide into articulating their views and think those who don’t “get it” are idiots. They then either give up, or think the solution is to repeat themselves, with increasing vehemence. It’s rather like the archetypal Englishman who think he can overcome the language barrier with foreigners by just speaking English really loudly and patronisingly.

Part of the problem is that the speaker is prioritising their ideas, their content, and forgetting about relationship. They are out of sync with their audience, something that happens very easily, especially when the audience is large and diverse.

There’s a big industry in training people to give better speeches, but I increasingly suspect this is not solving the right problem. A lot of the time, it would be better for people to stop giving speeches, and instead get better at conversations. Get away from keynotes that lay down the law, and engage in the messier business of conversing with people. It’s harder work and it doesn’t “scale”, at least not in some effortless way.

(Thanks to Ryan McGuire for the picture)

Unhurried Swimming

I’ve been working on the idea of Unhurried things with Antony Quinn. I posted the other day about Unhurried Conversations. (There are now MeetUps for Cambridge, Walthamstow, the rest of London and Torquay, Australia.)

And we’ve been working on quite a few other Unhurried ideas…at our own pace. And chatting last night, I realised my current swimming training is a great example of unhurried.

I’ve started lessons in total immersion swimming. It’s an approach which rethinks much of the standard thinking on how to propel a human being through water. Instead of focussing on strength and power, it aims to shape the body to be as aquadynamic as possible.

In my first lesson, the trainer filmed my default freestyle. Watching back was funny. In my brain, my legs were working hard to drive me up and down the pool. But in the playback, I could see that my imagined propulsion was more like flailing, and most of the time my legs were dangling down, more like an anchor than any kind of propellor. So there was a lot of effort for not much result.

The drills in training aim to gradually rewire muscle memory so that I can glide much more effectively. Shape and balance come to the fore. Like yoga in the water. Developing the new approach takes time and attention and reflects much of the value of an unhurried approach – more satisfaction and much less turbulence.

Unhurried Conversation

Over the past year, I’ve been hosting a series of Unhurried Conversations. Here are a few reflections on what I’ve learned.

I came up with the idea with my friend Antony Quinn. We both really like the idea of practicing an unhurried approach to things. Originally, we applied it to improv theatre, which we both dabble in from time to time.  When improv becomes manic, it seems to lead to absurd scenes of marshmallow motorbikes. When the pace is right, things connect and wonderful things emerge spontaneously.

When things are unhurried, we don’t necessarily go slow, but we create enough space for connection to happen. So our aim with our series of unhurried conversations has been to do that. We’ve hosted a dozen or so in Cambridge, and a couple in London.

We invite up to 12 people via MeetUp. We don’t specify a topic, rather letting people talk about whatever they want. Apart from briefly describing our idea, we use one very simple device to support the conversation.

It’s a talking piece. We pick an object and whoever holds it gets to talk. And everyone else listens. Which means the speaker won’t get interrupted. (And I add that you can hold the object and not speak… you can hold silence until you’re ready to speak.)

Some people using talking pieces like to use some deeply significant object with a history of use. We deliberately go for something mundane, like a sugar bowl. We don’t want to create too much reverence, especially for an object. It can become a bit portentous and create a pressure on people to be “deep”.

In fact, the longer we’ve run the process, the less I worry about whether the experience is deep or not. The conversations often move between light topics and more personal and profound ones. And in the end, I often find that all these are connected.

For instance, in one conversation, someone started by saying he liked the design of the teapot. On the face of it, small talk and trivial. But it led to a series of thoughts about design, and in the end to a whole series of observations about how our humanity is or isn’t supported by our work and organisations. In the end, we find depth without trying.

And trying to be deep can lead to all sorts of dead ends and frustrations.

There are sometimes concerns expressed at the start of the process. “What if someone grabs the bowl and talks for an hour about politics I don’t agree with?” Well, I have to say that has never actually happened. But I’d be relaxed even if it did. When people talk for a long time we have lots of choices about how to respond. We could, if we liked, see it as a kind of Alan Bennett monologue.

(One of our regular participants described our conversations as Pinteresque. He meant it as a compliment.)

In fact, what we find is that by suppressing interruptions we actually support greater succinctness of expression. When people know they aren’t going to be interrupted, they worry less and think, and express themselves, more clearly. Also, when people really feel listened to, it seems to increase their focus and the sense that their speech has meaning. They can slow down, and they tend not to repeat themselves.

Sometimes there are long silences, sometimes not. The silences are always fascinating. People worry about not being able to get a word in edgewise, and then we find no one speaks for quite long chunks of time.

I think in those silences we become aware of more connections that exist between us than appear in everyday conversations. That awareness can be a bit uncomfortable at first, but then it can be truly companionable.

After lots of these conversations, I am appreciating more and more how surprising people can be, given a bit of space to think and express themselves. Conversations are rich and complex, with much less of the battling for attention we often experience.

I love processes that are simple, but which stimulate human complexity. I think we need more of that. And less of the overelaborate and complicated ways we sometimes try to make things efficient. Simple devices promote complexity; complicated ones often squash it.

On not knowing and not blogging

2015-02-22 09.48.57I’m enjoying Not Knowing, an interesting book by Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner. It’s got some great quotes and sound bites – I really like the one pictured, about the shadow created by knowledge. They do a good job of naming all the difficult emotions that come with not knowing, and especially with feeling that we ought to know, or need to fake knowledge to maintain our status.

Yet some of the most interesting things happen at the boundaries of our knowledge.. the region they call Finisterre, where the land gives way to the ocean.

I made a promise to myself not to do much “blogging about blogging” but I’ll make an exception today. I notice I’ve fallen almost completely silent on this blog for the last few weeks. It wasn’t a policy decision, but I think I’ve been through a period of not feeling I want to put too much in words. The internet is awash with words and information, I get a bit weary of it and I’m not sure I want to keep adding to the excess.

There’s more aliveness in the space at the edge of the known. When I slip into a “teacher trance” this easily diminishes the energy of groups. Now there’s money to be made in the repacking and retailing of the known, in playing the expert. Divesting yourself of that mantle is to risk being naked. With all the associated risks and excitements, I guess.


In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort attempts to attain immortality by creating horcruxes. He splits off a fragment of his soul and stores it in an object or person. The idea is that he can be reconstituted from a horcrux in the event of his death.

In the real world, I think we’re often tempted to create horcruxes of our own. We take our ideas, desires and qualities, and invest them in things. Houses, cars, relationships, ideas.  We don’t notice that by investing in them, we sort of split off a part of ourselves and give it to an object.

I think one of the biggest horcruxes I ever made was a Mercedes Roadster. This was at a time when I was earning big bucks in advertising and I was especially prone to believing in marketing mythology. I imagined if I bought this hot car, I’d be driving to the French riviera every weekend. When I bought the car, what actually happened was I slept very badly for three months, worrying if someone was going to jealousy-scratch it outside my flat.

We can make horcruxes out of anything. Facilitators easily make them out of their favoured processes. We need to watch out for what we lose when we do this.

Idea Zoos vs Idea Habitats

Thinking some more about my previous post, and this common metaphor of “capturing” ideas and knowledge.

It makes me think of how wild animals are captured and put in zoos. The desire to provide the public with an amusing spectacle sits uneasily with claims about protection and preservation. Same with capturing ideas in brainstorms… are we really trying to protect and support these ideas, or are we really trying to keep other people reassured and entertained?

Maintaining the natural habitat for species is more challenging and doesn’t provide as much short term gratification. Similarly, supporting the kind of working relationships in which ideas naturally flourish is much more challenging to hierarchical organisations than creating brainstorms and innovation incubators and hubs. The urge to have something organised, and centralised may distract us from what really allows ideas to flourish.


What if we focus on the ideas that are so sticky, they don’t need a post-it note?

How often do we leave meetings where the walls are festooned with post-its? But do we really believe they are the sign of real productivity?

If we let go of this urgent need to “capture” knowledge, would we perhaps notice some more interesting things that are going on?