Tim Kastelle explores the idea of busting the distinction between innovating as a gardener or as an architect.
Ian Fitpatrick’s Five Provocations is a good read.
This bit really leapt out at me:
Ben Durrell, who’s now with Artists for Humanity, but spent years heading up exhibit and experience design at the Boston Children’s Museum, gave a talk at this year’s Planning-ness summit in which he asked people to draw the place they played as children. He later related that almost no one draws pictures of playgrounds.
Playgrounds are adult constructs of idealized child play: safe, repeatable, easily constructed from component parts, requiring that the child bring little of their own to the experience — these are my words, not Ben’s. They serve a parental need, clearly — give the children a place to play outside, in clean air — but they’re not designed purely for children, who often prefer a made up game in an open field.
I bring this up because I think that we, as marketers and advertisers, build a lot of playgrounds. We bandy about references to ‘user-centrism’, but frequently we find ourselves in the business of creating safe, repeatable, componentized experiences designed largely to bathe people in brand juice. I think we can do better.
It’s a mistake made by designers and managers of all kinds, and a serious pitfall for facilitators.
Hat tip: TIm Kastelle’s tweet
My friend Jon Husband writes about the turbulence caused to traditional ways of managing by networked people: Knowledge, power, and an historic shift in work and organizational design
I was struck this morning by his citing of some of the established management models, for example the Hay one for job evaluation:
1. Know-how (input) – knowledge and skills acquired through education and experience.
2. Problem-solving (throughput) – the application of the said knowledge to problems encountered in the process of doing the work.
3. Accountability (output)- the level and type of responsibility a given job has for coordinating, managing or otherwise having impact on an organization’s objectives.
I always feel discomfort when I see these things. They have a superficial logic to them, that initially makes me think I must be stupid not to see these deep truths about even this simple aspect of work. And then after a pause, I just gasp at the dreadful banality. Management literature is just awash with these lists and they contribute to a whole way of talking that strips life of its eccentricity and richness. At its worst, it is the language of the abusive bureaucrat – you just know that for all the protocols they spout, there will be a whole shadow side of their personality acting out all sorts of strangeness.
Jon articulates part of the problem here:
These methods set out a fundamental, foundational assumption about the nature of knowledge. They assume that knowledge and its acquisition, development and use is relatively quite stable, that it evolves quite slowly and carefully and that knowledge is based on an official, accepted taxonomy – a vertical arrangement of information and skills that are derived from the official institutions of our society
He goes on to show how flawed those assumptions are. Makes lots of sense to me.
Hat tip: Harold Jarche
Alex Sternick has some great insights on the value of absurdity, including the arresting thought the nonsense can be a path to meaning.
it includes a reference to a little study that suggested reading an absurd story increases our mental capacity for recognising patterns.
He also suggests that developing a greater capacity to accept absurdity as part of life might be linked to greater resilience.
He is interested in the value of speaking gibberish. I have sometimes found in workshops that doing serious scenes in gibberish can really unlock more of participants’ potential. For example, I remember working with a group in the Solomon Islands where they seemed to be struggling with performing in front of an audience. I asked them to repeat their performance in gibberish which they did with humour and what looked liked confidence. And then they did it again in English, and you could see the step change straight away.
I also know when I’m doing improvisation around difficult conversations, it often helps to run a couple of absurdist versions to open up more possibilities.
Reminds me too of my favourite management writer, Richard Farson.
Hat tip and hug to Viv for skyping me the link.
Euan writes about organisations apparently embracing a slow and willing death.
Realising that we are in a trance, and breaking out of it, might be the essence of creativity.
In our trances, we worship idols. And some pretty ridiculous ones at that. I find it frustrating and hilarious how organisations will sometimes refuse to contemplate rearranging chairs or removing tables for meetings as if this is a tremendously dangerous idea.
Or how meeting organisers pay top dollar to hold meetings in basements with no natural light. And then turn even the artificial lights down so we can worship at the shrine of powerpoint, panel and keynote. And then bemoan the passivity of the audience. (Which of course justifies the choice to practically anaesthetise them in the first place).
The mythology here is that of the vampire. That light will destroy us!
Actually, it’s just a cargo cult.
Viv has posted some good ideas here: So you want to be a facilitator? Advice for the uninitiated. She has some good things to say about process, like this:
There’s no formulae or golden rule as long as whatever you do gets the participants working with each other, connecting to each other and to the purpose of the session.
Quite often facilitators support each other with the mantra trust the process. That can be good advice, especially when things are a getting a bit sticky and you’re tempted to panic.
On the other hand, it’s sometimes quite a good idea not to trust the process. I often see meeting hosts get stuck championing their process as if it’s got magic powers. I would say that no process can ever match the amazing capacities of us humans for creativity, inspiration, confusion, misunderstanding and all other manifestations of our complexity. I often describe a process to people and then accept that they won’t follow it rigidly… there’s a choice to make, moment by moment, what do about that. I think that’s where I earn my money – by seeing it as a choice I make and not just rigidly labouring the rules.
I think it’s good practice to look at your favourite process and look for it’s drawbacks and limits. Not with the aim of perfecting it, but in order to avoid it becoming some kind of magic shield behind which you hide your own vulnerability.
On a tangential note, when I’m a participant, one phrase that puts me on guard is when the host tells me there is a team of facilitators for the process. I’m all for teamwork, but usually this is a clue that the process is too complicated and we can’t be trusted to follow it without a lot of supervision.
I use that as the starting point for an article for Learning Technologies about some of the pitfalls I see in organisational training.
The temptation to take our anxieties and render them as certainties is not confined to deserts and camel rides. We seek to tame the unknown and the complex by eliminating doubt and – so we believe – risk… Real learning takes place at the edges of our comfort zones. Neither at the point where we are so bound up with fear that we lose control of our bladder, nor at the point where everything is safe and predictable.
I look at things like the tyranny of the explicit, with a few inputs from A General Theory of Love and St Exupery, as well as my nephew peeing on a bonfire, to illustrate my argument. I touch on things like what Viv and I call the teacher trance – the sorts of things that push training towards David Brent levels of awkwardness.
The piece appears in Learning Technologies’ latest magazine. It shows up in an online viewer but you can get the whole thing as a pdf. And here’s just my article in pdf form, a bit easier to read I find.
The guys at PSFK are running an article by me about what I call action theatre. Meetings often get trapped into empty rituals that appear to be about generating action, but actually get in its way. Often in the middle of lively conversations, someone will say something like “Well all this talk is great, but it won’t mean anything if we don’t have some actions!”.
It sounds sensible enough, but abstract talk about the importance of action can be really unhelpful. As the article says
It seems as though someone cares about action, but really, it’s just theater. Just urging action is like entering a room, rolling your eyes, telling everyone how untidy it is (by which you really mean, how untidy they are), and then leaving without picking up any litter.
You can read more here
For every high-profile project there are ten better versions quietly getting on with it
which strikes me as poetically true, if not always literally so. I see a lot of this in the world of innovation where shiny grandiosity replaces the lower status tinkering that more likely yields results. It reminds me of Donald Clarks distinction:
First, there’s what I call MOSQUITO projects, that sound buzzy but lack leadership, real substance, scalability and sustainability, and they’re short-lived, often dying as soon as the funding runs out or academic paper is published. Then there’s TURTLES, sometimes duller but with substance, scalability and sustainability, and they’re long-lived
Every formal project will have its shadow side, and the bigger and more grand the more likely you are to find interesting stuff happening away from the spotlight.
(I’ve written before about how this applies to any process we use in meetings or organisations.)
I sometimes feel a bit weary of the commencement speech genre, but I did enjoy many moments from this one by Tim Minchin.
Here’s the Youtube version:
He kicks off with a well-observed dig at the cliché of the “inspirational speaker” at sales conferences:
It was weird. Software salespeople need to hear from someone who has had a long, successful and happy career in software sales, not from an overly-optimistic, ex-mountaineer.
And then he has this to say about focussing on what you’re doing now, being micro-ambitious:
I never really had one of these big dreams. And so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you… you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye. Right?
I like that word. I keep relearning that on small scales and large, so many of the dreams and fantasies I have about future events just turn out as I expect. For good or ill. And holding on to them, whilst superficially a source of inspiration easily becomes a distraction. There’s something very satisfying about bring attention into the present and finding satisfaction in what I’m doing right now. And when I’m working with people experimenting with new ways of behaving, it’s fascinating how even small tilts in the moment have unlooked for, often rather startling, impacts.