Category Archives: The little book of action storming

Theory is clean, practice is messy

Eric Zimmerman has a great post based on his experience of teaching design. A lot of this resonates with my own practice doing training/facilitation. He puts a big emphasis on practice and craft. Actually making things rather than just talking about making things. Models and frames are useful but not the truth:

The “truth” of a concept in game design is its utility – its value in solving a problem. Some concepts are more useful for some designers than others, or for solving problems in certain kinds of games more than others. As Marvin Minsky has put it, a concept is “a thing to think with.” The measure of whether a game design concept is “true” for you is whether or not it helps you solve a problem.

I love his phrase that “theory in clean, practice is messy.” When I’m doing the process I call action storming, we do many iterations of very short scenes taken from real life, usually “difficult conversations”. I encourage people to have a go, rather than just sitting there and trying to work it out. I’ll often jump in myself and try something a bit crazy just to open the space for what’s possible/permissible.

It reminded me of Jim Manzi’s picking out “smooth words for rough action” in a different context.

In many organisations, it’s the smooth words that help gain status. Reality is different… maybe a bit scarier, but way more interesting.

Difficult conversations. The clue is in the title.

Chris Rodgers writes:

Life in organisations is unavoidably messier and more uncertain than the formal strategies, structures, systems and processes imply. And yet most discussions of organisational management and leadership practice remain firmly rooted in mainstream presumptions of certainty, predictability and control.

And this is all too apparent when you look at many approaches to training. People are tempted to reduce complex challenges to a set of ideas and guidelines. So we get seven steps to… insert whatever grand sounding idea you like here. The trainer produces a deck or manual and proceeds to demonstrate each of these principles to participants. And there’s often a nice test built in somewhere to reassure everyone that they really have learnt something. It’s all very tempting and it has its uses.

I’ve noticed, however, that workshops seem to get a lot more interesting when I am not teaching some predetermined set of ideas. When we get to things like how to deal with difficult people, it’s much more interesting to set up a miniature role play and then rapidly experiment to see what actually works. Without trying hard to get it right, or to prove some allegedly general principle. People get to experience some uncertainty and frustration… but they also have a chance to make real discoveries of their own.

And we all get to acknowledge the reality that some conversations really are just difficult. Without the patronising and quite disempowering notion that they are simple really, if you just learn the rules. As Chris puts it:

Most managers find it highly liberating to discover why there is a mismatch between their everyday lived reality and what conventional management ‘wisdom’ suggests should be happening.

When not to give people the answer

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea – St Exupery

Do you remember those early days of the internet when people claimed, “content is king”? A lot of money was wasted worshipping at that altar. In a network, connectedness is more important than the stuff being pushed. As Roland put it, conversations, then relationships, then transactions. I think that puts transactions in their proper place.

I think that in the world of corporate training, this lesson has still to be learnt. A lot of value gets attributed to content. People, so we’re led to believe, want the course notes and the attractive binder and to be let in on the inevitable seven secrets.

I think this way of thinking betrays a pretty depressing view of the people to be trained. I think it assumes they are lazy and incurious. For almost any topic you want to learn about, the net makes a huge raft of content available and a plethora of ways to access well-curated versions of it. If people really want to learn about a piece of established knowledge, they’ll go find it for themselves.

So why would you offer training at all? Well, I can think of two broad reasons. The first is that you aren’t really after people making exciting discoveries for themselves; instead you just want them to be obedient and compliant. Fair enough, standard procedures have their place in organisational life. When I was a bumbling amateur pilot I preferred other pilots to stick to the rules when I was in the neighbourhood. Where this goes awry is when it’s not done straightforwardly. When the boss wants people to do things without exposing himself to the risk of actually flat out asking for them. So it’s dressed up as training to make it seem more palatable. Thus the subtext of many training briefs is: “can you train these people for me to be more assertive?”

The second reason you might go for training is for stuff where the established, explicit answers don’t seem to work. Because the learning required isn’t just intellectual. For example, one of my favourite topics: dealing with difficult people.  If that would succumb to just following a series of right answers, we’d all buy book like this and do what it says.

That doesn’t work because this is complex stuff and doesn’t yield to a best-practice approach. Handing a difficult conversations is a full-on physical performance and has more in common with riding a bicycle than solving a crossword puzzle. In that case, you need practice and exploration, hopefully with the support of others. That’s the kind of training I’m most interested in.

It needs to be designed on the assumption that people are smart and inquisitive… which means avoiding the standard training props and pretending there are explicit answers. And it means training for a network rather than a hierarchy; the trainer is more of a facilitator and he needs to resist the lure of the teacher trance. Instead, it’s really about embracing more interesting questions…

Trusting learning will emerge

Re-reading The Inner Game of Work, I really resonate with what Gallwey has to say about trusting that learning will emerge. He explains how his approach to tennis coaching evolved away from being an expert making diagnoses and offering criticisms, towards a more experimental and playful approach:

Perhaps the most difficult thing about this new learning process was that both the coach and the student had to learn to trust the natural learning process. For me as coach, this meant I had to stop my conditioned response to make a corrective comment each time I saw a fault in the student’s swing. For the student it meant not depending on technical instructions to improve his strokes… The coach’s actions could either support the student’s self-trust or undermine it. Time and again when I was patient enough to let go of my desire to control the learning, it would take place at its own pace and in a much more elegant and effective way than ever could have happened using a teacher-centred command-and-control methodology.

This makes lots of sense and is very aligned with the approach I take in Action Storming. It’s so tempting to offer too much advice to people and inadvertently stir their inner critic, spoiling the chance for real experimentation and learning. When coaching, it’s easy to panic when things are not apparently resolving around a way forward and then to impose some solution to deal with it. Keeping that panic under some form of supervision is probably where you justify your presence.

I also know as a learner, how easily a critique can trigger an orgy of silent self-flaggelation. Teachers/coaches can often kid themselves that they’ve sugar coated their comments to be constructive… my own experience is that can easily be delusional.

Sharing the learning

I like coaching and facilitating more than teaching. I’ve written before about the perils of teacher trance. So I like this quote from Claude Bernard:

It’s what we know already that prevents us from learning.

I think the sense of shared discovery and surprise is one the best of human experiences. It might be what love is. Of course it’s fine for one person to teach another something, but it can soon lead to narrow emotional bandwidth and boredom for both. In Action Storming it’s useful to suspend the urge to teach people things by telling them, authoritatively, what to do. It’s better to join in the process of discovery by trying something new and different and seeing what comes of it.

HT: This tweet from Patrick Mayfield

Talk is Action

I’ve blogged before my concerns about the idea that action is superior to talk. I can understand people getting frustrated when conversations seem to loop in circles that don’t lead anywhere. And I get more impatient than most with pedantic, over-academic discussions that seem to keep us stuck lobbing conversational grenades at each other.

But if we decry talk and demand action, I think we chuck out the baby with the bathwater. What might be more useful – if more challenging – is to discriminate between different kinds of talk. Some talk seems to go nowhere; other kinds of talk feel deeply connected to action.

Viv is fond of saying that talk IS action. That becomes clearer during action storming. We often use action storming for helping people practice new ways to hold difficult conversations. It shows how the impact of any given string of words is modulated massively by our physcial actions. We may think we are just saying something, but there’s always a physical performance. That element, that action, can be the difference between “stop” meaning “stop!” or meaning “I’m really scared of you” or “please carry right ahead”. Lots of times, a particpant will suggest a script idea with great confidence, only to see it go awry when they actually have to perform it.

So we get past the false dichotomy of talk vs action and into more rich and potentially powerful territory.

Turning anxiety into action

Antony Mayfield writes about the psychological benefits of running.

It is hard to run. To get yourself out the door is hard. To run the first mile in cold, in rain, in the dark is hard. To keep going after mile four and take the road that heads away from home instead of closer to it – that’s hard… The trick is to have a kind of indecision-busting heuristic. An automated response that kicks in whenever you notice that you are undecided, dithering about whether to run or not. That response is: “If in doubt – run”.

He links this to wider thoughts about overcoming inertia and Marc Stevenson’s ideas about pragmatic optimism.

This made sense to me. Last year I really had to confront my tendency to overthink things and end up mired in anxiety. My own mantra was about turning anxiety into action. I had many experiences of dragging myself to the gym, much like Antony’s running response. I’ve added yoga to my routine as well and that has had a tremendous impact too, getting me out of my head and into my body.

It’s a theme that’s going into the Action Storming book. That process emphasises treating problems not as intellectual ones to be worked out in our heads, but as physical ones to be practiced using our bodies. For instance, I often find coaching clients start off talking in quite abstract terms about strategic differences or failures of management. If we can narrow this down to a specific, concrete example of a conversation with, say, one particularly vexing colleague, then we can start to try out lots of variations of how to converse with that individual.

Because there’s the element of performance, we play a lot with the physical ways we engage with someone – there’s a lot more to it than finding a clever script. Conversation is a dance, it’s about much more than just the words we use. By moving this apparently analytic problem to something embodied, we can engage a lot of creativity.

The problem with advice

Edith Zimmerman has some wise things to say about advice:

After editing an advice column for two years, I’ve decided that there is no such thing as advice. There are only problems and the ways people handle them. Advice, on the other hand, is when you hear a description of someone else’s problem and then tell the person something about yourself. Hopefully whatever you say is funny or interesting, but it has little to do with actually helping anyone. It may seem or feel like it does, but there are always more variables than we’ll ever be able to see or understand, and best case scenario you’re pressing on the problem a little bit in a way that engages the problem-haver.

One of the things I like about Action Storming is that it pushes out advice in favour of people owning their ideas and trying them out rather than trying to write scripts for others.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Small gestures…

Years ago I was at a fascinating workshop exploring the drama triangle. That’s an idea from transactional analysis, that sees people playing one of three postions when in conflict: persecutor, victim or rescuer.

The trainer asked us to play out little scenes in which we tried out the various roles. She offered this sidecoach: see if you can persecute someone with just your eyes.

This is fun to try. I have such a hopelessly mobile face that I find it almost impossible. When I try to change the nature of my eye-contact, all sorts of other bits of my body move as well.

Still, it did teach me that even very slight shifts can have major emotional impact.

More recently, I was in Helsinki running a workshop with Viv and Simo. He was showing us some status games and I shared this training exercise with him. He loved it (Simo is one of the world’s most enthusiastic people) and we played with it a lot. His enthusiasm got me excited.

Later that day, the three of us were doing some problem-solving type work with people. (This was a workshop for facilitators). We came up with what we laughingly called The Helsinki Method, but which we’re now calling Action Storming.

Illusions of strategy

Mark Earls makes a point worth repeating: The thing thing and the people thing.

One of the most unhelpful assumptions I come across most when I’m talking about how things spread is this: our assumption that the thing is the thing… In other words, that in order to spread, a thing (or idea or word) must have something special about it; that it must be something about the thing that makes it spreadable (or “sticky”) if you prefer that term.

It’s a short post, worth reading the whole thing. I think the tendency to invest objects with magical properties is pretty much innate. We don’t really see what’s going on. I blogged a concrete example here.

Of course we make people into things, in Mark’s context. So we assume that famous people have the X factor and spend our days trying to work out what it is. We confuse the captain with the storm.

It’s very easy to get discouraged when your idea doesn’t take off. Most bloggers know that the posts they think are brilliant seem to get no traction, and then things they think of as trivial get retweeted like mad. Thinking is great but it can be over-rated. We deceive ourselves that if we really understand the system we will come up with the answer. Sometimes it’s better to try stuff out, put things into action and see what happens.

Hat tip to Tim Kastelle for his and spotting this post before I did.