Of ‘healthy human systems’ beyond ‘the field’ and facilitating conversations that change the world: an interview with Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes


Wearing my 'Suspend your judgment' suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

Wearing my ‘Suspend your judgment’ suspenders provided by Community at Work (Credits: EIB)

I can gladly say I am now one of the 4500 or so people that have been privileged to be formally trained by Sam Kaner and Nelli Noakes of Community at work on ‘Group facilitation skills – Putting participatory values into practice’. And it was a hell of an experience!

So what a fantastic opportunity for me to interview them on what they see as ‘facilitation’ and how they see it evolve, as well as the connections they see with knowledge management. 

No more word from me now, just enjoy… 

Do you see some fundamental trends in facilitation practice over the recent past?

Sam Kaner (SK) When “group facilitation” originated, it was one component in a deeper insight about the powerful role of face-to-face groups as a transformative medium for changing the culture of the organization or community.  The skills of facilitation were aimed at strengthening the individuals in a group, by helping everyone participate more fully, and by helping people pay more attention to alternative points of view and become capable of understanding one another.  These strengthened capabilities, in turn, allow the individuals to operate as a high-functioning group, or team, that can share responsibility, develop inclusive solutions, and reach sustainable agreements that accrue large benefits over time. Thus, group facilitation was part of a larger, deeper system — the operational aspect of a philosophy of empowerment.

When these ideas were introduced to mainstream organizations from the late 1960s through 1980s, the skills of facilitation were impressively effective but entirely mysterious, and the arrival of a neutral third party into a work context was perceived as somewhat magical, not as a learnable discipline.

Then, as participatory groups, with facilitators, became clearly more productive than non-facilitated groups, interest in the role itself became steadily greater.  More and more people have wanted to be trained in the tools and techniques of facilitation, even as the role has been to some extent divorced from the core philosophy.   Thus, in the past 15 years or so, many training programs have developed to cater to people who believe that tools and techniques are the essence of facilitation, and its goal is “effective meetings.”

This trend bothers me quite a bit. I would be excited if these two currents — the original focus on philosophy, and the more recent focus on method — were being integrated, in teaching and in practice. But over the past several years, I have been witnessing the emergence of a rather slavish adherence to tools and technique aimed at “getting things done,” while the goals of participatory values, which aim at building stronger people, stronger groups, and stronger thinking, have been to some extent eclipsed. In our own workshops, (and in our writing) we go out of our way to address this predicament. Not by preaching about it (as I’m doing in this interview) but by linking the many facilitation skills we teach to the inclusive, “both/and” principles on which collaborative aspirations are grounded.

Nelli Noakes (NN) I’ve observed other trends in other parts of the world. I agree with Sam on the way training is packaged, and often the very practice of facilitation follows this same scheme.  We have all seen facilitators flown into organizations, especially located in developing countries, arriving with a bag of tricks but not actually focused on supporting long-term change.  Even so, there are also many thinkers and practitioners reaching for progressive new ideas, both in North America and in the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) around the world.  My own observation, as a past regional director of IAF Oceania, is that other regions outside of North America are not yet so commodified.  Among practitioners internationally, there’s more optimism that the involvement of facilitation can be a lever — both for culture change in specific organizations and for social change more broadly Thus, in my view this more aspirational perspective — that facilitation is a vehicle to help people to work together for serious gains — rubs up against, and co-exists with, the commodified, ‘packaged’ approach to facilitation that Sam has mentioned.

Do you have any idea where it is headed (as a field of practice) and where is your personal interest (your ‘next frontier’) when it comes to facilitation?

(SK) Yes, and this is where my own thinking overlaps with what Nelli just said.

In my observation, there is still plenty of genuine new thinking about the power of collaboration, but this thinking no longer appears in books with titles that focus on facilitation per se.  For example, Roger Schwatz’s current book is titled, Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams.  For new insight now, I follow the work of such organizations as the “National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation” (NCDD), the “Collective Impact Forum” and the “Stanford Social Innovation Review.”  To be sure, the new thinking and applications such as cross-sector collaboration, participatory budgeting, innovation platforms, etc. all respect the need to employ good facilitation skills as a necessary element for productive outcomes.  But these thinkers perceive  facilitation not as a field but as a skill-set and a value-set for social change.  If we consider the possibility that the real field of work, the real body of thought, is social change (or as we have been calling it since the 1990s “supporting and promoting healthy human systems”) then the skills of facilitation, take their place alongside those of coaching, project management mediation, virtual communication, negotiation, problem-solving and other important third party, process-oriented skill-sets that are necessary to enable diverse collections of people to collaborate effectively.

Incidentally, to round out your question, there is another trend that has been increasing exponentially in the past 15 years or so:  Facilitative leadership.

Within many organizations, there is a great deal of interest by managers around the world who engaged in cross-functional planning and problem-solving. It has definitely become a focus of much training, and our consulting firm has defined our own approach, through training and coaching, to support people who are not neutral third parties to develop a collaborative mindset and acquire skills that can enable their effectiveness. That said, it’s hard to predict how long this trend will endure. Our experience is that the participants in our facilitative leadership programs are intrigued by the new skills and happy when they leave a workshop after a few days, but very few of them are gung-ho participatory philosophers. Most are agnostic on the issue of whether or not collaboration is worthy; it comes down to a question of whether the skill set is suitable for meeting a particular objective. So we think it remains to be seen whether the introduction of facilitation skills into corporate culture, government culture, university culture, NGO culture, will change management theory and practice over time, or whether it will become one more trendy fad, like sensitivity training, that lasts for several years and then runs its course.

To be a facilitator... (Credits: Unclear)

To be a facilitator… (Credits: Unclear)

Do you see any connection between facilitation and knowledge management and if so, where/how?

(NN) Effective knowledge management comes from being able to see a whole system, being able to actively engage players at all levels in that system, and making sense of the data that one can draw from throughout the system. I see two key areas where skilled facilitators can support organisations in this.

The first is through encouraging full participation – giving voice to the knowledge present at all levels of an organization, not just that which comes from the most powerful, or most vocal, or most confident in a system. And as that supports people to become more confident about speaking up, the pool of available data to contribute to organizational knowledge grows.

The second is through supporting people with diverse perspectives in an organisation to better understand each other – to be open and curious about the way information transforms into knowledge differently as it filters through people’s different lenses of experience. By this I mean that people don’t just hear other people’s points of view and think “Oh, that’s nice, Jim has a different thought about that than I do because we have different history and experience”. Rather, that they take it to another level of analysis and go “Oh, so Jim sees it like this and Mary sees it like that and I see it this other way – so what does it mean when I put those pieces together? How do those things connect in a way that tells me something meaningful about our organization?”.

In my ten years working in government agencies, I saw several knowledge management efforts that involve one or two people sending out surveys, logging the results and storing them in an online repository that functions like a data base if anyone wants to go look up something. This seems like such a lost opportunity to me. In a facilitated environment, people develop the thinking skills to put the pieces together themselves, so that knowledge management becomes accessible to, and the responsibility of, all players in a system. This makes it more likely that people will want to use the stored data later, and it also makes it vastly more likely that people will want to update their information as knowledge changes and grows.

Are you involved in virtual facilitation and what do you see as challenges and opportunities with facilitating virtually?

(SK) My colleague and co-author Lenny Lind was one the pioneers in the development of virtual facilitation skills.  Beginning in the early 1990’s he and his team at CoVision developed a platform called Council, built for huge face-to-face meetings where 100 to 10,000 participants came together to communicate in real time, using laptops to promote interaction.  So for example, an executive might stand up in front of the group and give a talk, using slides to emphasize certain points, and everyone would listen just as in a normal large meeting.  But then, as soon as the talking points are covered, the participants talk briefly to their colleagues at their tables and then start typing in their thoughts, reactions, questions, etc, into their laptops.  Then using any one of a number of methods the comments are sorted into themes, some of which are immediately focused on and some of which are deferred. The activity then continues, back and forth between face to face conversation in small groups, and large group inputting and responding. The meeting can last anywhere from an hour or two hours to an entire day or two, all depending on the agenda and its objectives.

Here is the important point: Even though the activity was done in the same room at the same time, much of the information was transmitted virtually and the meeting facilitator had to develop a lot of the skills that virtual facilitators take for granted nowadays. In fact, the software that runs Council was rewritten in the early 2000’s so that it could be used entirely by people who communicated virtually, not necessarily in the same room at the same time. So the virtual facilitation skills became even more central at that point.

I was privileged to facilitate about a dozen Council meetings over a period of ten years, so I learned at first hand the realities of what happens when a virtual-meeting facilitator makes good moves and not-so-good moves in the management of people who are writing comments to people who cannot see the faces or in some cases hear the voices of each other.

This leads to my core point: Lenny learned early that virtual communication is good for certain things but that it augments, not replaces, face to face communication. For example, people can express certain points that are controversial when they do so anonymously. But it is well known that quite often a person’s first pass at expressing something emotional is transformed through the process of discussing it in the context of a genuine, caring relationship. Virtual meetings are great for brainstorming, great for gathering and sorting and getting reactions to information, and they are truly amazing for increasing the number of people who can become engaged in an issue. A phenomenon like this very blog, not to mention the gigantically influential forms of communication such as YouTube and Facebook, are clear evidence of the power of virtual communication to make change in the world. At the same time, the transformative potential of face-to-face struggle — where people develop authentic empathy and compassion not just intellectually broadened perspective — still remains as a substantial component of lasting change. Lenny and his co-author Karl Danskin develop their own views on this in their brand new book, Virtuous Meetings (2104) available from Wiley & Sons.

Where do you go fetch interesting new resources and ideas for your own facilitation practice?

(NN) One of the things I love about working in the field of human systems is that the learning never stops! I have three main areas where I go to develop my own facilitation skills.

  1. The first, and most narrowly specific to my own work, is working with feedback from my clients. We have a strong continuous improvement philosophy at Community At Work, so listening to my clients about what’s working and what’s not working for them gives me ideas about how to strengthen my approach.
  2. Second is having a network of peers to debrief with and learn from. Working with Sam and the rest of our team provides a endless reservoir and insight and experience from which to draw learning, as well as thinking partners with whom to test new ideas. I also have a lot of friends who work in the same field as I so, so an evening or weekend walk, or a quiet drink on a Friday night often doubles as a knowledge-sharing experience!
  3. Third, I read stuff! But not usually books or articles specifically on facilitation. I’m more interested these days in material on organizational development, collaborative practices, knowledge management and board governance.

And I’m hoping I’ll soon have a fourth main area to add to this list. We’ve recently started a Community At Work Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CommunityAtWorkSF?ref=aymt_homepage_panel for members of our community to share their thinking and ideas. We’re hoping that will soon grow into a vibrant resource for us and others involved in this field.

(SK) Earlier in our conversation, I mentioned NCDD; Collective Impact Forum; Stanford Social Innovation Review. Another really excellent one is Skoll World Forum http://skollworldforum.org. These four have such terrific reach that they point me to other, different sources of ideas all the time.  For those wanting a mainstream professional organization that tries to stay current, I would recommend Organization Development Network (founded in the 1950’s).

Nelli Noakes, Sam Kaner and ILRI staff (Credits: ILRI)

Nelli Noakes, Sam Kaner and ILRI staff (Credits: ILRI)

What would be your advice for starting facilitators?

(NN) When I first fell into facilitating, I had very limited knowledge or practice, and knew almost no-one else who worked in the field.

So the first thing I did was read as many books on the subject as I could find, and then attended some training courses. Then I started persuading groups to let me facilitate their meetings for free. Fortunately, the groups I volunteered with knew even less about it than I did, so they appreciated the order I brought to their previous chaos more than they saw the many errors I made! And I was able to start to get some real experience in seeing what worked and didn’t.

The next thing I did was start to build a network of people who also worked in the field, so we could start to learn from each other. I joined the International Association of Facilitators and the International Association of Public Participation (both of which have a much more active presence in Australia than in North America) and started attending their events, all of which exposed me to many different perspectives.

Those two elements – volunteering and building a network – proved to be invaluable many years later when I started my own consulting firm. I had a lot of people who were willing to vouch for me. To this day, most of my business comes from word-of-mouth recommendations.

My most important piece of advice for starting facilitators (apart from attending our Group Facilitation Skills workshop, of course!), is to become not just comfortable with receiving feedback, but to actively seek it at every possibility. Learn to value it as the most important factor in your own continuous improvement process. (A good place to start exploring how to receive feedback well is Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen)

(SK) Over the decades I have had a lot of chance to watch people get started, and I have come to believe that two ways are especially powerful:

1.    Volunteer.  For example, volunteer to facilitate a meeting at a small nonprofit organization, or at your church, or at your child’s school. In these situations you can’t lose — these community contexts places are so funky that anything you can do will be an improvement. You can see changes happen. Often, if you are secure in your own workplace, a staff meeting or the meeting to start a new project is equally good. Whichever context you choose, just be sure to make this deal at the beginning, before you start: you are willing to volunteer your time for no financial remuneration, but you would like to be “paid” with 5 minutes (or more) of good feedback on your strengths and ‘improvables’ at the end of the meeting.

2.    Find a peer support group.  Having a face-to-face group touching base every two weeks or so is a priceless experience. I have personally witnessed the results, over the years, when people who were raw rookies in facilitation went on to be successful consultants who then built their own long-term independent consulting firms, because they built so much confidence in the early years. In the ILAC years before the creation of the consortium, CGIAR as an entity attempted to maintain a network of people who had earned judgment suspenders. It became an online ‘D-group’. At that point, it became an information-sharing group which ultimately did not have the same dynamism as a face to face support group.

Experiential learning and the power of questions in motion (Ramblings and mumblings around…)


No focused post this week, too much is brewing in my mind. All possible walks of my professional life are in utmost effervescence or have just been put to a complete stop. A whirlwind of destructive-creative energy, and many ideas are seeping out of its trail. I am just walking forward with these ideas, shaping them up as I walk on.

So what is animating me?

How to pass on learning from experiences…

A great KM4Dev conversation, actually emerging from the combination of two different trails (which you can follow directly on the Dgroup if you are a member):

The SECI model keeps on raising eyebrows (Credits: UKEssays)

The SECI model keeps on raising eyebrows (Credits: UKEssays)

This is the great debate of combination-internalization vs. socialization-externalization. Or in other words: documenting and codifying vs. sharing and learning.

It also relates to a question I asked myself a while back: What is good in a project?

Before that, however, here’s one very interesting (f not really new) comment from one of the conversation participants:

How do you incorporate learning loops (that are not reports) in the projects you are engaged in? (Beverly Wenger-Trayner)

The difficulty of the debate on what to record vs. what to share in other ways relates to the complexity of tasks at hand: best practices can be highly codified in texts, documents, videos etc.; good practices can be listed; but appropriate practices for a given complex situation can only be explored as we move forward, sharpening our questions – putting our questions in motion. There is no giving guidelines on how to deal with it.

At the other end of that double-sided conversation, was the toolkit conversation, which also hints at the codification of practices to guide better practices. And here comes another insight from another conversation participant:

The learning step comes first, then choice of  toolkit follows – yes? Many toolkits don’t distinguish WHEN to use WHICH tool in a learning spiral. (Valerie Brown)

Yes: How to organize toolkits in a way that they can guide people through either simple, complicated or complex situations (arguably chaotic situations wouldn’t get dedicated toolkits – or would the)? There is certainly an opportunity to beef up all these existing and aspiring toolkits out there – some of which Nancy White started listing here.

And my final layer on this multi-idea multi-conversation multi-mulling process relates to the comfort of people with what is fix, fixed, static and aesthetic. The attraction of beautiful calm, still nature. I was recently talking to an acquaintance of mine who’s trying to help some organisation with knowledge management and that organisation seems to be focusing on having products (some would have the databases) like a knowledge management strategy, to feel secure on that front.

Where is the thread in all of this?

All these questions and reflections are quite interesting in themselves. But there is something more to them, that brings them together:

Experiential learning is a constantly challenging journey that brings us to meet people, co-create ideas, refine our frame of mind, our theories of change, our practices sometimes. And that experiential learning is faster, wider and/or deeper as more people join that journey (social learning), and as that journey is shaped by questions, not by answers.

The diverse perspectives and experiences between the people on that journey ineluctably lets questions arise, as bubbles of possible change that challenge the aesthetic fixed world we have created. The questions we engage in with others bring reflections of where our beautiful world is actually flawed and needs further work. Experiential learning is a journey of learning, of meeting, of change.

Learning is unrest. It requires people to let go of their security, to accept that their truth of yesterday may not be the one they wish to keep today. Some sort of transformation that is deeper in social learning (see this great framework for it below), which leads to the second relation… meeting.

Meeting people – not just superficially but really, deeply – puts you in a dynamic mode that helps you peel the layers of learning loops. Combined with learning it opens avenues for change.

Changing is agreeing – and showing – that you can actually rest with what previously caused your unrest. It is the journey to understanding that the beauty does not lie in a static picture, but in the beautiful choreography of change and transfiguration that people are going through. What is beautiful is their courage, and their resilience.

There is a point, however, in stopping from time to time that process of ‘learning and questioning in motion’ to look around. Contemplating the strong questions we have been pondering, taking our breath again before the next voyage of change is ignited. And sometimes these moments of respite are just another way to question things and trigger change but from another angle, as KMers navigating between fast flow and slow space. But the bottom line is: better be in motion, as it brings you in contact with others who help deepen or fasten your reflection of change. If you understand French you will appreciate the relation of all this with this quote…

Un intellectuel assis ira toujours moins loin qu’un con qui marche. (Michel Audiard)

And so there actually is a red thread in all of this: motion and contact, as the forces behind innovation. And the first step is to open your door, so people can see and meet you and open your mind, so other minds can see and meet you through it too.

Related blog posts:

Mind your culture, and mind that I don’t mind it ;)


‘Culture’ is one of the very complex, variables to face in any knowledge management initiative. It is also one of the difficult variables in Mathieu Weggeman’s ‘knowledge value chain‘. With good reason, considering what it really is. Everything that is closely related to change is difficult, and complex.

The excellent infographic below  relates to organisational change and unravels some of that complexity surrounding the evanescent concept of ‘culture’.

The iceberg of organisational change – where culture and other subtle drivers are *really* deciding the name of the game (Credits: Torbenrick)

Personally I pay a lot of attention to culture, and yet I’m never really sure what to make of it. So here are a couple of thoughts about culture in a KM context.

  • Yes culture exists, and can be a really important enabler or barrier to any KM initiative;
  • So yes, paying attention to it is not only good, it’s essential. It can become a way to harness change around local preferences (e.g. asking people what they consider appropriate or not for their culture);
  • But culture is not necessarily what people think it is, and the scale of culture changes a lot (across industries, ages, even places large or small) – so best gather a variety of viewpoints about it from e.g. high-placed people, women, youths, people of diverse ethnic and/or socio-economic backgrounds etc.;
  • Because culture is often much less (if at all !) something codified than e.g. strategies, procedures etc.
  • But culture should not become a shield behind which no change is possible. Change happens everywhere, all the time, which means no culture is carved in stone, only the levers and buttons to trigger change may work very differently in places where the people have not been exposed to a lot of diverse experiences ;
  • Realising for yourself what you put as your own cultural background vis-à-vis other people or groups is also really helpful to keep your own biases in check, and engage in more meaningful intercultural learning conversations ;
  • Culture is a good conversation trigger to loosen tongues and get people to reflect on the deeper trends that affect their lives, beyond what is formally written, or said ;
  • Using the card of your own culture in a completely different environment can also be a powerful way to trigger change by playing a neutral role – or the role of the not culturally-savvy person who can come up with provoking statements…
Culture, it keeps moving on (Credits: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)

Culture, it keeps moving on (Credits: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)

So in brief, culture can be a useful trigger to spawn deep conversations, and is not something any KM initiative should take lightly, but it should also not be considered a factor to wave as an excuse for change – or at least good, serious, deep conversations – not to happen.

So even more briefly : mind your culture, and mind that I don’t mind it… so much…

Related blog posts:

We are a system, you cannot I-solate yourself, so surf and co-create the wave of our collective grace


This could be one of the fundamentals of this blog: it takes two to tango and we are all part of a (same) system. The ‘I’ has a much lesser role to play to in our WElcoming world than we perhaps like to admit.

According to Eric Weiner’s study about the geography of bliss, happiness in Thailand is not a concept framed around unique individuals but around entire families, lineages. The goal, to be happy is not so much to be the most successful person on earth, but to make sure you add your (stepping) stone to make your whole family’s saga richer and better.

Social Ecosystem Diagram (Credits: Erin Malone / FlickR)

How about creating a social ecosystem, online and offline? (Credits: Erin Malone / FlickR)

And, surely, every step we take impacts others. There is no real I-solation possible…

Which means…

  • We should not just look at our activities but always at the whole system with it. We shouldn’t try to improve just ourselves but the whole ecosystem behind.
  • It does not only make sense to role model behaviours to influence others’ practices, but it also probably happens anyway because we are connected. Role modeling just accelerates the connection and alignment of us all, the nodes, to the mother grid.

Our only hope, our only grace, should be to connect more widely and more deeply to affect the whole system more directly, to actively contribute to creating a social ecosystem… surfing collective waves, and co-creating them.

But one thing is certain: we are not alone, we are a human and earth system… And our success depends on our ability to connect with each other in that system. So much for egoism!

Of successful people, and other people... (Credits: ??)

Of successful people, and other people… (Credits: ??)

Related blog posts:

Good bye acute meetingitis! Plan your day-to-day meetings as a true KMer…


On this blog I talk a lot about (large) events, how they’re designed, facilitated, useful, successful, impactful… or not. There is a related, mundane, day-to-day topic: the case of everyday meetings. We spend sometimes so much time that we might want to think about how to make them as useful.

And in this post, I just want to stop and consider how to plan your time in these day-to-day meetings in the best possible way, from a KMer perspective (also because good KMers are innovation conveners – and good practice-shapers).

So many (bad) reasons to hold a meeting - time to reverse the trend (Credits: Axbom)

So many (bad) reasons to hold a meeting – time to reverse the trend (Credits: Axbom)

So here are some principles to get your started in planning your (attendance at) meetings:

Come prepared

Long preparation, short war so… If you’re not prepared, you’re likely going to be wasting your time and others’. And as I keep referring to meeting cost calculators (such as Meeting Ticker) everyone’s time amounts to quite a lot of money in the end.

Make sure there’s an agenda

If the agenda really concerns you there is a point in attending and contributing (unless you’re forced to attend). If there isn’t one, you’re wasting your time again.

Say no to meetings

If you’re not prepared, or if others aren’t, or if there’s no clear objective, the meeting is not worth it. Be ruthless and put a stop to this nonsense! Don’t encourage more fluffy and useless meetings. You can follow these simple rules to eliminate such useless meetings.

Plan your meetings in ‘bundles’…

Rather than have a meeting every other hour, how about clustering your meetings one after another so that you have some specific ‘meeting times’ and you can also enjoy some ‘non-meeting times’ to get other important things done?

…And at otherwise unproductive times (for me right after lunch)

Maybe you can use time when you’re least effective for your personal work to have meetings, it’s a great way to be productive at all times. For me that’s right after lunch. First thing after lunch. On the contrary, having a meeting at the middle of the morning or the afternoon (simply because you don’t have anything planned then) sounds -to me- like a missed opportunity to avoid seeing your productive time torn apart by islands of activities.

Now then, when you’re in the meetings / discussions…

When it’s over, it’s over!

This simple OST principle applies for day to day meetings too. Why use the time you planned just because you have it if you’re done or you’ve achieved your objectives? Stop when you’re done. Claim your freedom again :) Or spend it happily with others.

Claim your time back! (Credits: Scott Adams)

Claim your time back! (Credits: Scott Adams)

One thing leads to another – of balancing objectives and energy and keeping the process in sight

Sometimes a meeting unravels a whole set of issues that were unexpected and are actually really important to discuss. Then either there is an option to spend just a bit more time on the issue(s) and significantly negotiate its resolution, or a commitment to discuss this must be made at a later time. Just don’t let things hanging, which leads me to my penultimate point for today…

Summarise concrete follow up

Unless this was a blue sky brainstorming session, you should make sure there is a clear harvest of: insights, recommendations, decisions… so that the meeting – however productive it was while it happened – does not lead to a completely unproductive standstill afterwards. This is about managing your time in the longer run.

Use your time differently in meetings

You may want to try walking meetings, meetings in a totally different environment, online meetings where you’re learning to use a new technology (plan the time well on this one ;), meetings with a different dynamic… The point is to also think ‘differently’ about your time in meetings… so feel free to add your own meeting time tips here! But hopefully with all of this, you can finally say ‘good bye’ to acute meetingitis

Think out of the box with meetings... (Credits: Todd Nielsen)

Think out of the box with meetings… (Credits: Todd Nielsen)

Related blog posts:

A good idea for today and everyday: paraphrasing


Paraphrasing always had a negative connotation for my French ears. Like beating around the bush or repeating things without value.

I know a much better meaning now: it’s a cornerstone of listening and learning.

I’ve been in this wonderful course from Sam Kaner about facilitation and participatory decision making. Quality stuff! And one of the first skills we learnt was paraphrasing.

Paraphrase, mirror, mimic each other, create a connection and have fun! (Credits: Arnold Newman / Getty Images)

Paraphrase, mirror, mimic each other, create a connection and have fun! (Credits: Arnold Newman / Getty Images)

This technique is useful for events and any piece of work involving people conversing, in fact even for personal life.

Essentially it’s about interpreting what someone said to check we understood. Sometimes it’s just mirroring (repeating), sometimes drawing the person to say more, or even ask others t osay more about the same topic. Obvious you would think! All the more so as facilitators. Yes, I do it often,  but not systematically. And as Sam would say, you have to commit to it.

And yet how often have I really understood everyone’s point? How often have I taken things for granted? Time to change that and practice.

Paraphrasing is my new diet. And I’ve just learned again how humbling but refreshing learning is…

Feeling thankful…

PS. And with this post I’m ending the series of short daily posts. Not sure about the whole experiment…

 

From pervasive attention to purposeful intention (the rituals of learning)


The next learning step is everywhere. Curiosity and ritualised investigation accelerate these discoveries though (Credits: photonquantique / FlickR)

The next learning step is everywhere. Curiosity and ritualised investigation accelerate these discoveries though (Credits: photonquantique / FlickR)

This may be related to the anatomy of learning. I notice that we tend to learn in a pervasive way: as we go along we discover micro patterns. But we can, and should, put our attention to the next mile, the next thing we can improve. These micro patterns that come to our attention are an opportunity paving the way for new learning, as they reveal to us a new change that is possible.

Good minds put attention to small incremental changes. Great minds – with wisdom and humility – put moments or happenings into entire wider trajectories of change, based on a conscious, purposeful, intention.
Typically that’s also what great parents do with their children: they raise their attention to the intention behind an act, and explain the very reason why it’s good to celebrate a particular moment beyond just appreciating it. They ritualise that learning.

Raising our attention is hard enough; emphasising intentions of greater significance is even more subtle to get to. Yet it’s what makes learning more collective, more sticky – and what makes long lasting change more likely to happen.

Two examples of putting measures in place to mark the intention and ritualise learning:

  • Asking for each post you share: ‘why you should bother reading this’ – because (I) you’ve realised that otherwise the value may not be so clear to readers.
  • Stopping criticising only and rather wondering what we (I) can personally do to improve something we are criticising.

Easier said than done, but that’s why learning is the holy grail and why social (and triple loop) learning is so difficult.

Who is in for triple loop learning?


Learning is hard. Hard to understand, hard to apply, hard to make consistent, hard to apply and change behaviour.

Learning about learning is a lot harder.

So when someone starts talking about ‘double loop learning’, eyes start rolling out. And when ‘triple loop learning’ splashes in a conversation, it ends in a circle of silence baked out of disbelief, compassion and impatience mixed with utter confusion…

Thing is: Are there genuine instances of ‘triple loop learning’ we can point to? There’s enough written about the theory of triple-loop learning but exceedingly little about when (where and how) it happens.

I can however think of a couple of examples:

  • People working hand-in-hand with the people involved in a given initiative to understand and evaluate their learning about what they’re trying to do – like the IKM-Emergent programme evaluation approach perhaps.
  • A community that has managed to work with all stakeholders in and around it to actually self-organise and find its own ways of dealing with its own wicked problems – possibly this was one of the objectives of the Millennium Villages.

Now the question is: can this be funded (by global development actors)? So far, very little chance, it seems. High risk, low certainty, extreme degree of complexity and abstraction (to start with).

But it’s, at the same time, remarkable that we haven’t yet put more attention to this if we want to be more efficient, more effective, more sustainable, scaled up and out and about…

How long before one funding agency, or one collective of people with a strong sense of agency, finds the boldness to just start an initiative that puts triple loop learning front and centre?

How long can we afford to stay at the surface of complex problems? When it’s too late?

Politicians discussing global warming (Isaac Cordal)

Politicians discussing global warming (Isaac Cordal)

The process arts, in defence of sustainable development


Abstrait (Credits: Roger / FlickR)

Abstrait (Credits: Roger / FlickR)

First of this series of short posts.

Maybe this year we’l be organising some sort of share fair of the process arts,  looking at facilitation, graphic facilitation, social learning and some other process-oriented approaches and tools.

But why really? What is it that ‘process’ awareness, or process literacy has to bring?

Perhaps, just perhaps, process is:

  • What connects objectives, activities, outputs, outcomes etc. The glue that holds it together. But also and more importantly it is what creates conversations: budding conversations, sticky conversations, morphing conversations. Because it relates deeply to human connections.
  • What creates engagement, empowerment, alignment, thirst for betterment – a sense of collective action, which drives that action for arguably a much longer term.
  • What keeps track of micro and macro patterns by putting much emphasis on understanding and assessing – both before, during,  and after the action. M&E and all the rest of it…

So it both pays attention to, stimulates and reflects upon the subtle ingredients that make work ‘work’. Remember: “Look beyond what to do: why and how lead to who.”

The rest is just what’s supposed to happen. And everyone thinks it’s easy enough, but not quite when you put on your ‘process literate’ glasses…

You reckon?

Musings of the past week, and a blog experiment


Last week was very rich in conversations that relate to this blog as my organisation was holding its annual communication and knowledge management review and planning meeting. And on the back of that, lots of great free-floating conversations with colleagues and friends…

The blogging experiment this week: one short working out loud post every day (Credits: Jonolist / FlickR 'Random Musings')

The blogging experiment this week: one short working out loud post every day (Credits: Jonolist / FlickR ‘Random Musings’)

 

So I start this week with lots of ideas in mind to further develop as blog posts, including:

  • What is it that the focus on processes can really bring to sustainable development? Is it all and only about the micro-patterns of learning, engagement, or even about getting to a higher level of consciousness that would help us think differently about development?
  • In relation to this, what are genuine examples of ‘triple loop learning’? And in relation, why does no one want to fund ‘social learning’ and attempting to reach that third loop?
  • Thinking about all kinds of platforms that help us save time make informed decisions about e.g. which social media to use (non profit tech for development for instance)… and taking stock of stock-taking exercises…
  • Wondering about Facebook for organisational work – a good idea? A dangerous approach? Is there such a platform as mentioned previously that can inform me well about this?
  • Using Fridays for creativity – what could be the best ideas (and boundaries) to make it work?
  • I’m also having to facilitate a Powerpoint hell trip and wondering what to do about this and in relation, wondering about setting up a blog specifically on facilitation.

…Lots of ideas, lots of questions, lots of blogging material…

And the blogging experiment will be to try to do a series of Seth Godin‘s: a short ‘working out loud’ post every day… Let’s see if I manage to get to this ;)