Category Archives: Facilitation

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?

Messiness or order?

I found this after seeing a similar clip on Facebook. I find it mesmerising.

There are times when I see only a mess, and then you see order. The transitions can be breathtaking. When I watch it again, I seem to see more patterns and less mess. Feels like a metaphor for a lot of the best kinds of meetings. At the time they are often frustrating just before they become interesting. And with hindsight bias, we see less mess any more order.

Maybe it’s all order, all the way down?

Thanks to Anne McCrossan for helping me find a clip outside Facebook.

News as sugar…

Alejandra Quintero suggests that the news is bad for us, quoting Ralf Dobelli:

“The fortunate among us have recognized the hazards of living with an overabundance of food and have started to shift our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body.”

I tend to agree. I was then really struck by this graphic…


..and her suggestion that too much news leaves us informed but not knowledgeable. Knowledge is relational, and a lot of news coverage feels atomising.

It also reminded me of this little diagram:

This originated at the Rand Corporation. They are thinking of energy grids, but it carries over to other networks. I apply it to meetings, where people often stick to A or B and avoid C, but C can often be the most engaging because it’s more human and more relational – though easily dismissed as mere gossip by those who prefer a more hierarchical form.

Are we learning, or just grinding?

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.


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…