Category Archives: Facilitation

Five Ps

I am wary of management formulae… seven habits, five steps, three rules. For any complex challenge, these inevitably end up simplifying what’s needed.  They appear to offer a way to make things easy, but often they bewilder smart people, making them think “gosh, this should be easy” when it isn’t.

So when Viv and I came up with a list for our recent creative workshop, I had mixed feelings. I find this list quite helpful as a set of pegs on which to hang ideas. But I reassured people that they didn’t have to take this too seriously. They could have fewer or more Ps if they wanted, or add other letters of their choosing.

That said, this little list says something about how we like to help people work together creatively.


According to legend, at the age of 93 Pablo Casals was asked why he continued to practice on the cello. He replied, “because I’m beginning to notice some improvement.” Instead of idealising leadership, we see it as something that requires constant practice.


We learn by performing into new roles. There’s an element of risk and a willingness to accept the attention of others. Leadership is not done in writing, but as a three dimensional performance. We can act our way into new ways of thinking, rather than the other way round..


Instead of commanding from above, we aim for everyone to feel involved and to have agency. Human organisations flourish as networks of peers. We work with formal systems but see that humans create much richer connections.


Change happens at the edges of our comfort zones, where we realise we don’t have total control but do feel secure enough to experiment. We aim to find the wiggle room in stuck places, however stressful or serious the challenge.


No-one wants to be a two-legged, talking version of the management textbook. Showing up as a human can be the best part of leading, whatever role you play.

These appear on our experimental creative leadership website. (I feel the same way about leadership as I do about lists, but we had to call it something.)

They’ve seen it before…

Everyone is used to being sold to. And they’re also used to being facilitated. They often feel the same way about both.

I keep reminding myself of this, to inoculate myself about getting attached to any method or process.

For instance, one of the simple ways I used to get attention when large groups of people are in loud conversations, is to raise a hand and say, “If you can hear my voice, raise your hand”. It usually works quite well, each time you say it, more hands go up and a wave of silence soon takes over the room.

For a time, this seemed to be a novelty; you’d often recognise a laugh of surprise.

And then recently, a participant confessed that they’d seen it before countless times and had come to hate it. It had gone from being a light intervention to a cliche.

You need to stay alert to the signs that your schtick has become predictable and over-familiar. Because the more you lapse into what participants see as routine, the more dissonance you create. If they think you are plodding along in a trance, if you’re lucky they might tell you; or more often they’ll suppress their boredom, play along, but actually be in a bit of trance themselves.

I try to be alert to the signs of creeping boredom in groups so that I can catch those kind of plodding trances. And I practice enjoying when things go a bit wrong as it’s normally the sign of a trance breaking and a chance for everyone to get back to spontaneity.

Not chasing outcomes

One of the joys of working with Viv is seeing how she can strip back processes to what feel like essentials. It’s not often I work with someone who can match me for wanting to simplify things – I think we both believe we should let the participants do complex things rather than being the guardians of some complicated technique.

I recently watched her run what she calls World Cafe Lite. It’s World Cafe stripped of what most people think is one of its key features: namely that people sit at small tables with flipchart paper for tablecloths, on which they are encouraged to write or draw their thoughts as they talk.  The contents of these cloths are often subsequently subjected to further elaborate processing involving the shuffling of post-it notes and a general reverential search for meaning. Sure, that can have its uses, but often it can feel like an empty ritual, as if the conversations aren’t really valid unless we can make things out of them.

So it was fun to see Viv just have people sit and talk and not be encouraged to write things down. Her one rather brilliant intervention was to ask people to sit so that their knees were touching. People did so, a bit reluctantly at first, but what an impact it had on the conversations.  There was emotional connection. So often I find that this is what people feel starved of in organisations. And generating lots of action points and outcomes easily perpetuates that starvation.

Bonus link: A post I wrote about Richard Farson which relates to this: we think management is about skills when it really may be more about sharing vulnerability.

Throwing away

Chris Corrigan highlights two quotations on writing. The first is from Jeanette Winterston:

Creativity is inexhaustible. Experiment, play, throw away. Above all be confident enough about creativity to throw stuff out. If it isn’t working, don’t cut and paste – scrap it and begin again.

This really lands with me. I think being willing to just throw stuff away is a great part of being creative. I think of times I’ve written something that’s taken what feels like days, and then some IT error wipes it. I panic, assuming it will take days to reproduce it. Once I’ve calmed down, I find I can do it again in maybe a couple of hours, and usually it’s better than the lost draft. Making films, I find it’s better to just do lots of takes and keep going until it feels right, cheerfully abandoning the ones that don’t feel quite right. A lot of learning happens out of the rational mind, we’re getting better all the time without noticing. If we get stuck in analysis, we’re often just getting in our own way.

This is how I use performance activities when exploring difficult conversations. If we stop trying to get them right, we can have more fun just playing with possibilities. And that greatly increases our likelihood of discovering things that just work. These days, I’ve become more ruthless about avoiding analysis of what’s happening as we iterate, instead aiming to just up our productivity.

Chris’ second quote is from Naomi Alderman:

Remind yourself, every day, that you’re doing this to try to find something out about yourself, about the world, about words and how they fit together. Writing is investigation. Just keep seeking

And this is another way to reframe what we’re doing when we play: we’re investigating the world. And ourselves.


The blooper reel

There’s a lot of creative energy in failure, if you don’t take it too seriously. Here are some of the out-takes from our recent video shoot. In some ways it tells you more about how Viv and I work than the official version. Quite a lot of of our training work uses rapid, playful failure as way to learn – a much richer experience than giving out right answers.


The end of ugly

(cross-posted from Medium)

I’m planning a new workshop with my friend Alan Moore, inspired by his new book: Do Design: Why Beauty is Key to Everything

We’ll be asking: could your business be beautiful? And if so, what would it look like? How would it work?

You might at first baulk at this: surely in the rough and tumble of business, wouldn’t beauty be a rather namby-pamby affectation?

Well, we suspect not. Here’s what Emerson said:

Beauty gets us out of surfaces and into the foundation of things.

Pursuing beauty is not an escape from reality, but an intimate embrace of it. When you ask what would make your organisation beautiful, it’s not some fantasy exercise. You immediately notice what’s ugly… often seeing flaws that have gone unacknowledged before, but which are slowing things down, or scaring customers away.

It doesn’t matter if people disagree about exactly what they find beautiful: the process of debating and discussing it will lift our collective sights and help us strive for better things.

Alan and I want this workshop to be beautiful too. We’re using one of my favourite venues, St Ethelburga’s Church in Bishopsgate. It’s almost hidden among the acres of harsh skyscrapers in the city. It barely survived the great fire of London, and was almost destroyed by a terrorist bomb in 1993. Yet it remains an oasis of beauty, a symbol for unexpected finds in unlikely places.

We’re hoping to make this a workshop of delights and surprises. We’ll draw on Alan’s lifetime’s knowledge of craft and design — and my work creating events that allow everyone to create together.

We like The End of Ugly as a subtitle, not because we nurture some idealised view of the perfect future. We offer it as a down-to-earth statement of optimistic intent: as Alan puts it in his book, we want to live off the coast of Utopia. If you’d like to spend a day there with us, you’d be most welcome.

More details and booking information here. Registration is £300 plus VAT. Tell your friends!

Failure and learning

Donald Clark has a useful post on the role of failure in learning.

He contrasts the airline industry, which scrutinises and learns from failure to create safety, with HR convention:

We wallow in the world of gifted programmes, summative assessment for selection, lectures, essays, talent management…. The world of learning is a failure factory, not in the positive sense of learning from failure, second chances and progress but one of selection, road blocks, disappointment, discouragement and real failure. As professionals, we seem to have lost our critical faculties, stuck in a time warp of old theory and models that were never verified in the first place; lectures, hands-up anyone, Maslow, Myers-Briggs, Learning Styles, Piaget, NLP,Kirkpatrick. This is not good enough. It introduces certainty where there is nothing but ideological belief and unverified theory and practice. We need to think critically and see failure as part of what it is to learn.

Many training programmes I’ve seen aim to create efficiency by avoiding failure, but relying on best practice and teaching from a position of certainty. Sadly, this almost inevitably leads to placing faith in models and instruments that turn out to be at best half-truths and as worst fads and cults.

We create five-steps and ten-rules to create a kind of dull safety, that takes the visceral energy that accompanies real learning. I think there’s a different kind of safety which embraces risk and failure, instead of effectively stigmatising it.

When Viv and I are training facilitators, a lot of what we do is to create lots of opportunities to practice, try and fail safely and learn by direct experience. Yeah, we have a book about our work, but in our training we often literally tear it up, to put it in its place.

The process we currently call Action Storming (it needs a better name) embodies several of the principles Donald articulates – failure recognition, focus on tiny steps, lots of repetition to tease out what works and what doesn’t. It builds in ways of having “catastrophic failure” in a safe way – that means setting up realistic simulations of difficult situations in which it’s possible to try things out that may not work. This way we get to explore what works without doubts being left as shadows in the darkness.


Michelangelo to Motorbikes


I’m running a new workshop with my friend Alan Moore. Crafting Beautiful Businesses is on 27 September in London.

The words beauty and business sound an unlikely pairing. Business is about hard facts, isn’t it? And beauty, that’s for artists and aesthetes isn’t it? How could the idea of beauty have much to do with success in the rough and tumble of business? Leave Michelangelo in Rome, we’ve got work to do, right?

But as we say in the event blurb

The search for beauty challenges you to see more deeply. By focusing on beauty you are not being soft or touchy-feely; on the contrary, you are demanding rigour and discipline. As philosopher poet Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Beauty gets us out of surfaces and into the foundation of things”. It’s not an escape from reality, but an intimate embrace of it.

Alan’s new book, Why beauty is the key to everything explores how the idea of beauty can be seen at the heart of many thriving businesses – because it’s close to the heart of things that motivate and inspire us.

One of the many examples Alan uses is Blitz Motorcycles in Paris. A thriving workshop that makes new bikes from old. Nothing namby pamby about that. When you use beauty as a filter for your business, you’re might be surprised what you discover.

seasonedjune323064We’re using one my favourite venues, an old church in Bishopsgate, and we’re intending this to be a workshop that isn’t business-as-usual. Alan’s bringing his lifetime’s experience of creativity at work, and I’ll be focussed on facilitating an engaging, inspiring day.

Full details are here on Eventbrite. The early bird rate is £250 plus VAT until 15 August. After that it’s £300 plus VAT.