Category Archives: Facilitation

Forthcoming Unhurried Events

We’ve got a few Unhurried events coming up…

Our new group in Olympia, Washington, is having its first Conversation on Friday April 17th

The next Unhurried Santa Cruz is on Sunday April 23rd (waitlisting)

I’m hosting Unhurried Conversations in Sydney on Friday April 28th and Saturday April 29th

Unhurried Cambridge meets again on Thursday May 11th

I’m also hosting a webinar about Unhurried on Monday April 10th at 11am GMT and again on Thursday May 11th at 20.00 GMT

And coming soon, we’re hoping to offer unhurried conversations in Auckland and Melbourne.

An update on unhurried at work…

Three years ago I first blogged about the idea of Unhurried. It emerged from a series of conversations with my friend Antony Quinn. We share an interest in improv theatre and were reflecting on scenes that were satisfying to take part in and watch – and those that weren’t. We realised that the best improv has an unhurried quality – the players seem to relate to each other and build the scene together without panic.

As in improv, so in life: I think this quality has a huge impact on how people work together. I’ve been experimenting with a number of ways of exploring how unhurried can guide creativity, collaboration and leadership.

One way I’ve applied this is in hosting unhurried conversations, using a simple talking piece format. I’ve now run over 50 of these in Cambridge. They’re advertised on meet up and open to the public. I’m now doing them in London too, and friends have started unhurried groups in Mallorca and Santa Cruz. I’m planning to kickstart a group in Sydney after Easter. Several people are talking to me about getting conversations started in other cities around the world.  I’ve also used a similar format in my work as facilitator in organisations, sometimes with remarkable results.

Of course, this particular conversation process is just one way applying the idea of unhurried to work. But it has certainly helped me to flesh out what I think are the elements of unhurried as an approach. I’ve summarised them here on the unhurried website. As you’ll see, I don’t see unhurried as necessarily slowing down, although that is often the case. It’s really a mindset of being open to the possibilities of any given moment and being alive to them. And getting comfortable with both the anxiety and excitement that this brings.

It’s an approach that brings new insights to all kinds of things, from how we run meetings, to how we create new products, to how we lead organisations.

I’m hosting a free webinar about unhurried at work, on March 13th with two alternative times – full details here.

11.00 GMT (07.00 New York; 12.00 Paris; 19.00 Hong Kong; 22.00 Melbourne)
20.00 GMT (16.00 New York; 13.00 San Francisco; 21.00 Paris; 07.00 Tuesday Melbourne)

I’ll be sharing more ideas about unhurried in facilitation at my workshop in Cambridge on May 8 and 9.  And when Viv and I run our three-day residential this year, we’re going to explore unhurried facilitation in lots of different ways.

Navigating a post-modern economy

Roland Harwood at 100% Open describes five vectors of our postmodern economy. We do seem to be living in confusing if interesting times, where the benefits of hyper-connectedness are coming into question. Roland refers to Tom Friedman’s division of web people and wall people, and offers five guiding ideas for how we cope with uncertainty. They are at the least a great jumping off point for a conversation.

Much of what Roland says aligns with what I’ve been assembling under the heading of unhurried. We have to get better at living with uncertainty – which doesn’t mean despising experts but being willing to listen to them but still reach our own conclusions, among other things. As computers appear to get better and better at doing things many of us earn our living from, we need to think carefully about what it is that humans can do that the machines can’t.

Roland quips that

If you are not living on the edge you are taking up too much space. The future has always revealed itself from the peripheral so we all need to surround ourselves with independent and diverse perspectives with a mechanism to turn that into collective decisions in spite of imperfect data.

Being alive in uncertainty means getting better at sitting with discomfort, and we need lots of practice at that. Without it, we risk getting drawn into destructive battles between vehemently held but incoherent fake certainties.

I’m very much in agreement with Roland about the need for reciprocal relationships. And in workshops, I keep noticing how even tiny signals of connection and reciprocity can have a  profound impact on relationships,

Bohm and dialogue

I spent Friday at a meeting experimenting with holding a Dialogue, based on the ideas of David Bohm. I was invited by Peter Kajtar who has dedicated a large part of his life to exploring Bohm’s ideas.

Bohm’s writing is dense and often hard to understand but I have always sensed his wisdom; the experience of reading is a mixture of moments of clear insight alternating with frustration. The same is true of participating in a Dialogue using his framework.  Peter has a great gift for helping to navigate that experience.

Peter shared the Nasrudim parable, where our hero is searching for his keys under a street light. He explains to a friend that the keys are not there, but he wants to look where he can see and not in the darkness. Many of our arguments end up with us all staring in the pools of light created by each other’s mental torches. Dialogue is, in part, an attempt to increase our awareness of what is in shadow. When the dialogue hits a conflict, we may take the opportunity to look beyond the content (which is in the light). Instead we can explore the structure – our deep unquestioned assumptions about thought and language (which is in shadow).

It’s hard to explain, and this may not really do justice to the process: you had to be there.

Reflecting over the weekend, I went back to Donald Factor’s comments about frustration and how we normally avoid or transform it, rather than enquire deeply into it. And I also took comfort from this post by Chris Corrigan on accepting, rather than denying, when we don’t know what we are doing.

Although Unhurried Conversations don’t use Bohm’s framework, and follow a simpler explicit process, I think they often also create opportunities to at least sense that there is that shadow, and that in it lies enormous potential if we can create some kind of intelligent relationship with it.

Fast, slow or unhurried?

Neil Perkin describes two contrasting talks about Fast and Slow in Marketing. Adam Morgan shares some interesting examples of businesses that thrive on speed:

a 2014 Harris Poll.. found that 90% of respondents… expected real-time customer service from brands and as many as 48% expect that services will be delivered before they order them. ‘Uber’s children’, said Adam, have different expectations, wanting everything at the speed of Prime. Speed is, increasingly, money. A tenth of a second delay in page load time on Amazon is equivalent to a 1% sales decline. Organisations are focused on doing more with less.

Fast can be great, but an awful lot of organisations seem in a permanent state of “doing more with less” and I feel a lot of concern about that. Morgan goes on to explore the ups and downs of creating speed and, as he puts it, reducing drag.

The second talk was from Martin Weigel, expanding on his post about kicking the marketing crack habit with some great examples of the toxic effects of rush and short-termism in planning.

He began by talking about how we live in impatient times, and how we’re naturally biased to favour short-term gain over long-term (what psychologists call ‘temporal discounting’). This happens not only at an individual level, but an organisational one. Whilst management is pre-occupied with what is happening over the next three months, McKinsey has shown that between 70 and 90 percent of a company’s value is related to cash flow which expected three or more years out. The tenure of CEOs is becoming ever-shorter (in 1995 it was just under ten years amongst the world’s largest corporations, in 2009 it was just six). 95% of S & P company profits are spent on share buy-backs and dividends according to Forbes. The average agency-client tenure has reduced to around 3 years. The average tenure of a football manager in the premier league is heading towards a single season. Half of video viewers stop waiting for a video to load after 10 seconds.

Weigel goes on to look at some longer term, more sustainable principles for business, worth checking out.

I think a side-effect of living with the internet, building on an existing culture of high stimulation, is that we are in danger of becoming so anxious that our actions are driven increasingly by panic and short-termism. We end up operating at the pace of computers rather than the very different capacities for changing speed in our biological heritage.

Part of what gets lost is the value of changes of pace, and fluency in acceleration and deceleration. I keep coming back to unhurried as my personal mantra, to capture the flow state we can reach when our pacing and synchrony with others is most satisfying. It’s not always slow; a well tuned Formula team servicing a car in a few seconds is going fast but is also, in its way, unhurried, everything is timed to co-ordinate.

Unhurried is not about being laid back and ignoring the deep fears and problems our world presents. It is about finding a way to meet them that is serious but not rooted in panic.

Hat tip to Lee Ryan for steering me to this.


Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves — Adam Phillips

Many of us complain that work meetings are predictable, frustrating and — most of all — a terrible drain on our limited time. In theory, organisations want their meetings to be full of life. In practice, not so much.

In fact, frustration may be the most common thing meeting attendees have in common, but they rarely speak about openly. They prefer to play safe, keep emotions at bay, and pay the price for politeness in boredom. And save our grumbling for the water cooler, or long suffering friends and family.

And our stuck meetings feel even more stuck as a result. Indeed, the surfaceappearance is that nothing can change.

Yet with a bit of play, we may find that just below the rigid surface lies a whole brew of emotion and feeling. This is where the real aliveness is, just below the surface. If we’re brave enough to meet it, the ground doesn’t usually swallow us up — and we get a chance to bring the meeting, and ourselves, back to life.

Bringing meetings to life

Many of us dread meetings at work. Too often they’re dull: they follow predictable patterns, and people struggle to stay engaged.

After regular meetings, the gossip by the water cooler afterwards is usually more interesting, and honest, than the meeting itself.

The best part of many conferences is the coffee break, when suddenly the whole audience comes to life and conversations and ideas start sparking?

What if we could bring all that energy into our meetings instead of squeezing it out?

Meetings for human beings

We are social creatures, fundamentally wired for socialising, playing and creating together. To release that energy into our meetings, we need to disrupt some conventions.

  • We need to have fewer presentations and more conversations.
  • We need to free people to move around, rather than remaining pinned to their chairs.
  • We need to give participants autonomy: instead of telling them what to do, we create choices for them about how to participate and collaborate.
  • We need to create a more level playing field in meetings, a space in which everyone feels able to contribute, so we don’t just get stuck listening to the usual suspects.

How to have better meetings

I’ve spent the last 20 years going around the world helping organisations have meetings that command attention and generate fun and excitement. There’s no big secret to what I do, it comes down to two things: using creative processes that allow people to really participate, and showing up as a facilitator that people feel able to trust.

I’m going to share all this experience in a two-day workshop in Cambridge in January. We’ll explore how to:

  • Get more out of every meeting — for you, attendees and the organisation.
  • Learn new techniques for creating engagement
  • Build your presence and performance as a facilitator

Not training-as-usual

I don’t believe in facilitation-as-usual and this won’t be training-as-usual. There will be no powerpoint, little use of a flip chart and certainly no “turn-to-page-94-of-the-manual”.

There will be movement, surprise, emotion, engagement and fun. We learn our most powerful lessons from experience, not from lectures. The greatest value in workshops comes from sharing experiences, rather than taking notes from the “sage on the stage”

There will be two threads over the two days: techniques and performance.


I’ll share a simple model of networks to show how you can shift the way you think about your meetings. Move away from hierarchy towards more creative, peer-to-peer engagement

I’ll share methods I’ve learnt and created over the years to bring that model to life, including:

  • Cafe processes for connecting and conversation
  • Open Space — a brilliant participatory process — and the pitfalls to avoid when hosting it
  • Full circle and other methods to speed up feedback and avoid the agony of “creeping death” reporting from breakouts
  • Bringing scenarios to life in three dimensions
  • Line ups — a simple but brilliant way to add movement and surprise to finding out more about what people think and feel about topics and each other
  • Playful approaches to serious topics, situations and people


When you facilitate a meeting you are on stage, and people are watching. The pressure to perform is high. If you can stay present and spontaneous, the chances are you will set the tone for the whole event, bringing it to life. If you can’t do this, even the best processes in the world won’t save you.

We’ll use a range of activities and challenges to enable you become more aware of your performance and to become a more engaging version of yourself.

We’ll explore:

  • Presence: how it’s not about showing off or making yourself the centre of attention.
  • Avoiding ‘teaching trance’ and ‘plenary vortex’ — the factors that most easily kill the atmosphere in meetings
  • Getting braver and more creative managing difficult conversations and people
  • Embracing surprise: some of the best things I’ve done when facilitating have been spontaneous, often in response to mistakes and curve-balls. The ability to respond well is a muscle we can build with practice.

Who should attend?

Anyone responsible for organising and leading meetings — whether that’s internally, with stakeholders or clients, or for consultation, feedback or generating ideas. Anyone who is frustrated by boring, uneventful, and time-wasting meetings.

Creative Facilitation: Bringing Meetings To Life

January 9th and 10th 2017 9.30am to 4.30pm King’s College Cambridge

My partner, Viv McWaters is offering a one-day version in Melbourne on November 18th

Organisational culture and its pitfalls

Keith Sawyer says you should avoid recruiting people who “fit your culture” if you want to support innovation.

We know from creativity research that the most innovative teams have cognitive diversity. That means that each person has a different set of ideas, practices, and knowledge. This drives innovation, because the most creative ideas combine very different ideas. If everyone in the group has the same cognitive material inside their skull, they won’t make those “distant combinations” that result in breakthrough creativity.

I’d add that it’s easy to talk about an organisation’s culture as if it’s some fixed thing, creating the comforting illusion that if we act on it in a certain way, it can be controlled. A lot energy gets wasted on cultural change programmes.

I prefer Nancy Dixon’s notion that culture is localised: individual groups within the organisation create their own cultures. The culture of the whole organisation, if it can be said to be a thing at all, emerges from those. Perhaps the best way to influence culture is to notice the little opportunities for change in each little conversation we have.


The perils of abstraction

Charles Scalfini gives a concise explanation of a way experts often make bad teachers.  As their experience in a subject grows, they are able to form more and more useful abstractions.

But they then attempt to teach their students these abstractions in ways that bypass the experiences on which they are based. If we add to this the high status ascribed to experts, the problem is increased, as students feel they need to act like they understand, still deprived of the underlying experiences from which we truly learn.

And this leaves out the possibility that expert abstractions can be mistaken – which I explored here.

Many training courses are made attractive by offering high-status abstractions, suggesting things like emotional intelligence can be taught by the transfer of dense, expert content.

But many of the most powerful experiences in training come from experimentation and practice, not explanation. (I’ll be exploring this in my January workshop in Cambridge – details here.)

Hat tip: Tweet from Sunil Malhotra

Having fun yet?

Viv spotted this New Scientist article: The paradox of fun. It’s a review of Ian Bogost’s new book, Play Anything. Its subtitle conveys something of its depth: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. Bogost argues that we’ve come to think of fun as enjoyment without effort, leading us down a series of unhelpful paths, where we’re trying to achieve results without any effort.

Bogost invites us to celebrate strip malls, household chores and ready meals. Finding fun in these things involves work, he says – but it’s work in the same way that carpentry or exercise is.

Along the way, he picks a fight with Mary Poppins, arguing that “that renowned philosopher of fun” had it all wrong. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but as a maxim for dealing with the drudgery of everyday life her song was a sham. It is a mistake to dress things up as something they are not.

One definition of work is “the expenditure of energy against resistance”. And perhaps play is a way to describe a way of doing so that is satisfying.

If I think about the weight training I do, the satisfaction comes less from setting personal bests, and more from discovering the subtleties of attention and posture that allow the lift to feel clean and effective, rather than pained and strained. It nearly always takes a set or two to find that zone. I’m just lifting weights, on the face of it a boring and possibly vain enterprise. But I find the play, the fun in it. Not fun as in goofy or the spoonful of sugar.

Yoga fans sometimes talk about “effortless effort”, pointing to the same territory.

And this guides my practice as a facilitator. I’m constantly noticing and ruminating about how participants are engaging and how I’m engaging with them. And searching for the subtle tweaks that might improve things. Sometimes the work is invisible, as it’s a conscious choice not to interfere, where I’m expending energy on impulse control. And sometimes it leads me to intervene to change things.

Essentially, I’m in a state of play with the group all the time: arguably for me this is the process, rather than the formal activity, the overt process (e.g. open space, world cafe whatever) that I am running. I am often happy to change the overt process so that we’re not following a ritual in a trance, but are actually alive to the moment.