‘Process literacy’ 101

Mild process (Credits: Wassily Kandinsky, 1928) Mild process (Credits: Wassily Kandinsky, 1928)

Today I just sat through two very good – erm let’s say ‘very typical’ – examples of moments lacking ‘process literacy’:

  • A seminar that I had to leave after 50 minutes and hadn’t yet started the questions and answers session (like a penetrating and Q&A is totally ‘rad’ from an engagement point of view, right?)
  • A cool networking moment with a group which subtly moved on to a presentation that we were promised would be “only 5 slides, only 5 minutes” and turned out to be a lecture of 30 minutes and nearly as many slides, to a group of us feeling completely trapped by this unwanted PowerPoint invitation.

And these are not just two isolated incidents. They happen all the time! To you, me and the rest of us all…

I mean: what is wrong with you people? You don’t even need to be the highest process literates in the world to understand there is a slight glitch there, right?

So, at the risk of repeating a couple of things I’ve said in the past, let me spell it out for you right there: get process literate please! You will benefit from it but certainly others will benefit from it too!

What is ‘process literacy’ though?

Process literacy’ is a new term for an old practice. And it revolves around understanding and maximising the dynamics between people and what connects them to what it is they’re supposed to do together – whether they already know it or not. It is the weaving pattern that nests purpose in conversations and vice versa. It’s what makes human connections richer than ‘just a nice chat about whatever’.

Process literacy is about connecting the dots, the circles of people and conversation together, the energies and interests, in a time pathway, and in full realisation of where this is happening. It’s the travel training kit that prepares you for the richest adventures. And somehow refusing to see this means you will keep stuck with not so rich, not so amazing, not so long-lasting, not so effective results in your interactions with the brave whole world (or with your direct neighbour) and/or in any of your work involving others, other times, other spaces…

Even commercial companies have understood something needs to be done about process to gain value…

…although I think it’s a reductionist view.

Peeling this onion off a little more, being process literate means…

  • You don’t just care about yourself but also about others, about their opinions and feelings, their motives and motivations;
  • You don’t just care about ideas and whatever you’re focusing on but also how that focus content relates to a wider context;
  • But you also know that the process is only one aspect of it and that you should not focus only about it all the time;
  • You don’t just care about what you’re doing or talking about now – even though you should fully be present there – but also about how it relates to a wider objective;
  • You actually know where you are in this journey and you pay attention to explain to others what they are doing in this spot with you, why and what’s coming up next;
  • If you have no clue why you are at that spot, you actually try to understand this to relate ideas and actions together and shape a way forward;
  • You really care for that collective adventure people are on and you strive for engagement, individual and collective betterment, and collective action and change;
  • You pay attention to time and to the capacity of the people around you to be able to undertake that higher level calling;
  • And because all this ‘process stuff’ matters to you as something eminently important, you try understand it better by continually reflecting on the little and big details that make the process fly…

So it’s very much about the practice SMARTS – and about our lifelong learning.

Lifelong Learning

What to do about it? Learn process facilitation perhaps? Groups like Community At Work, Liberating Structures and many others can offer great starting points (and training!).

But you don’t need to be an ace facilitator to work on and care for process literacy. Great leaders know this as it relates to their imperative of empathy, to their social leadership skills, in normal times or in times of change.

Want to find out more? Hey the good news is there will likely be a session on ‘process literacy 101’ – which may go in other directions than this post by the way – at the upcoming AgKnowledge Innovation Process Share Fair. So join us there (and register here).

Meanwhile, what is coming up for you, thinking about this process literacy?

Related blog posts:

Agile KM from ‘SMART goals’ to ‘practice SMARTS’

The game of knowledge management has changed.

Despite the definitions given to knowledge management (see this useful post by Stan Garfield – and my own definitions of knowledge and knowledge management), KM really is no longer about managing knowledge-related assets as a taxidermist. It certainly is no longer about databases and catch-all portals (despite some tendencies). It’s not even really about communities of practice anymore either (however great – and tricky – these are)…

Change from SMART goals to SMART practices (Credits: Simon Webster / FlickR)

Change from SMART goals to SMART practices (Credits: Simon Webster / FlickR)

Instead, KM now has to be agile – not like a prescribed Agile / Scrum / Kanban kind of way (though each methodology has useful ideas). No, it’s about being generally agile, a combination of resilient and innovative, ever-adaptive, embracing perpetual beta as Harold Jarche would put it.

It’s about being smart, individually, and smarter, collectively – or smartest as we develop healthy human systems.

But SMART here is not the same as the monitoring acronym standing for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

What I propose instead is to think of SMARTS as a practice code to turn useful habits into our behavioural identity and eventually let us all become a strong network node in our collective sense-making. The practices mentioned below can actually change our identity towards:

  • Speedy
  • Multi-purpose
  • Anticipating
  • Reflective
  • Trustworthy
  • Sharing and showing this approach together

Speedy is because we need to react quickly. Agile KM for collective SMARTS is about turning things around quickly, fast iterations, fast failure, fast improvement, reacting on the dot, not letting information go through the endless tunnels of polishing and editing to publishing perfection… It’s about quick & dirty for faster and stronger feedback loops and acting upon the opportunities right at the moment when they present themselves.

Multi-purpose because agile KM (and innovation) is not about reinventing the wheel – despite its occasional usefulness – but about applying and recombining existing bits. Reformatting for different channels (PC, mobile, tablets); versioning for different audiences based on the same raw information. And with multi-purpose comes multi-perspectives, the multiple knowledges that matter when dealing with complex problems as IKM-Emergent pointed out.

Anticipating change is the name of the game. Always being on the lookout for what is going to affect you next, what is going to create tradeoffs. Individually we must be aspirational in our decision to move somewhere, towards a certain direction and objective, and develop our pathway to get there. Collectively we must be inspirational for each other, modeling useful positive deviance and visioning a common future that looks brighter than the here and now. But remaining realistic as to where on our journey we are, and what obstacles lie ahead on the way. Anticipating is about visioning that pathway for a positive change, at all times.

Reflective is our modus operandi in the social age and the world of change. Not only to anticipate future changes, but also to absorb the maximum learning from what just happened, and generally to learn how to sail along pattern currents in the sea of change. Being reflective is about documenting the change affecting us personally and the ecosystem around us. And it moves to becoming increasingly reflexive, learning to reflect about our reflection, moving through learning loops

Being Trustworthy is an imperative in our individual quest to becoming ever better networked. Trust is the currency of the social age. How do you generate trust? Dave Pollard suggests it is developed at the junction of positive chemical/sensory signals, shared/appreciated world views and positive collaborative experiences. In the social SMARTS age, trust also happens through consistency, quality (of the stuff we develop or share) and authenticity.

Sharing and showing this approach with/to others is the final stage to make sure we are not just SMART ourselves, individually, but we develop our collective SMARTS as these human systems we hope to improve together – because we care. We are eminently social but that social nature still requires active, a sense of purposeconsistency and working on changing our habits and behaviour, so we don’t revel in the happy square of wishful thinkers – for others (I want YOU to change). And building habits together is easier, as every fitness starter knows. Our habits can start there.

As IBM would put it: let’s build a smarter planet together… also through agile KM practice SMARTS.

Let's build a smarter planet together (Credits: IBM)

Let’s build a smarter planet together (Credits: IBM)

Related blog posts

Put your knowledge work on turbo mode: Ask for help!

In his seminal post Rendering knowledge, controversial and inspirational KM thinker Dave Snowden says that “in a context of real need, few people will withold their knowledge”.

From personal diaries to social diarrhea... but that's not what I'm talking about here (credits: 91 9 Sea FM)

From personal diaries to social diarrhea… but that’s not what I’m talking about here (credits: 91 9 Sea FM)

And it is true. Only few people will proactively, continuously care for others enough to share their knowledge regardless of circumstances. Well, of course the evidence seems to suggest otherwise…

…but that’s an egoistic act of sharing stuff related to you and your fabulous life. What I’m talking about here is the stuff that people can use in their life, work, ideas, knowledge ecosystem. And one of the surest ways to put the turbo on your knowledge work in that ecosystem is to ask for help.

This begs the question: How much will we help other people who are (or may be) trying to improve their knowledge work? It depends on several factors:

  • How much time do we have available?
  • Do we have what it takes -technically – to help them?
  • How much do we care about these people?
  • Have they even asked for help?
  • Have they insisted to get help?
  • Do they seem resolute about what they want to do/improve?
  • How much potential do we see in them?
  • Does our helping them impact us over a longer period of time too?
Asking for help from the sources of light (Credits: Keoni 101 / FlickR)

Asking for help from the sources of light (Credits: Keoni 101 / FlickR)

The bottom line, for the people to be helped, is to voice their need for help out loud. And preferably to tell those who helped them how their support actually helped or not.

What’s more: we should all ask for help, as it shows or vulnerability and highlights or need for connection – and that is part of our networked economy and ecology.

Proactive sharing and reactive help-seeking are two sides of the same coin and count among the currency of the social age.

So pay it forward and ask for help, it’s never too late!

Related blog posts:

Enabling change: a manager’s choice (and a leader’s decision)

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed! – Peter Senge

I’ve covered individual change on this blog though various writings (on the willingness or difficulty to change, recognising that the process of changing is slow, wanting others to change), but hardly done justice to the management side of change. And management has a lot to do, and even more to say about change. Particularly about the kind of change that has negative consequences for people (reorganisations, redundancies)…

Are you going to do anything about that change? (Credits: Patrick Mayfield)

Are you going to do anything about that change? (Credits: Patrick Mayfield)

So what are the choices of managers to enable or disable change?
Before we start let’s distinguish two different situations – that often need to be balanced:

  • Change that is internally driven – i.e. decided by that management, or any other group internal to an organisation or an initiative.
  • Change that is externally induced – as a result of signals that were not created by the group themselves.

Recognising this context is essential because it has repercussions on the way other people feel about the change and who they perceive as major beneficiaries or victims of change. Dealing with this well means management can show true leadership. And we know for a fact that complex development work requires many factors to deal with change well.

Internally driven change

What can ‘management’ do here to enable change:

Bring their team on board about the change, as early as possible, to let them see the change as a whole, appreciate positive aspects of that change and how negative ones are really going to affect them – and crucially to let them voice their questions, concerns, feelings, ideas, suggestions.

If even possible, co-create that change and get their ideas on board to shape that change into something very positive that brings everyone’s ideas in the mix to understand the bigger picture – sometimes (often) it is only through this approach that a change can be gauged in its wholesomeness.

Understand that we all have to take consequences of the change and that ‘I WANT YOU TO CHANGE!‘ is not a viable way forward.

Brainstorm (and at the very least, if there is no manoeuvre possible, communicate) about what can be done next, and particularly for that team or group. And also communicate what is not known – but commit to finding out more.

Draw lessons about what happens with that change for the next time around, to be better prepared and to develop the collective capacity to adapt and recombine;

Later assess how the change influenced everyone and what new lessons or measures can be drawn from the whole experience several months after the deed.

The tao of change management (Credits: V. Kotelnikov)

The tao of change management (Credits: V. Kotelnikov)

Externally induced change

This type of change is a result of an external shock or circumstance, and can have either positive or negative consequences (or both – think tradeoffs). All of the above applies here too, but in addition management should:

Analyse with the help of all those who think they understand some of that big picture, what made this change happen, to better understand that whole change and determine with more accuracy how the change will affect everyone. Lead with patterns – and follow some ideas of this Cynefin framework adapted for management.

Management / Leadership in the Cynefin framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

Change Management / Leadership in the Cynefin framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

Help (and encourage) sharpening the foresight capability of the team to ensure everyone contributes to forecasting the next external changes.

In contrast, what can managers do to muddle everything up?

  • Not change anything (about themselves) – and ignore the famous quote “change leader, change thyself“. On the other hand, change brings wonderful opportunities for innovation (and innovative) leadership.
  • Not anticipate change or keep an old lens (used for previous changes) to forecasting. But even change changes and takes different shapes. “Yesterday’s thinking will not solve tomorrow’s problems”…
  • Not cultivate collective foresight. Not investing in foresight capabilities is signing an organisation’s death certificate. Not doing so with a wide group – ideally based on the entire collective’s capacity (strengthened by PKM and personal learning networks) is only postponing the delivery of that certificate…
  • Not communicate: nothing about the change, nothing about how it affects people, nothing about the measures taken admit this
  • Not learn: no drawing lessons about drivers, initiatives taken or results recorded, just being affected without any sense of agency… Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?

    The process of transition and the feelings this inspires in us (Credits: JM Fisher)

    The process of transition and the feelings this inspires in us (Credits: JM Fisher)

  • Not involve: no taking into account the opinions, experiences, feelings (and there are many – see the picture below) and capacities of all those affected by the change – even in times when change is not happening. And down with your problems with empowerment, please, you don’t have a real choice.
  • Involve and consult but ignore anything coming out of that. In some ways this is even worse as it tokenises participation and instils longer term defiance viz. future attempts at engaging with the same people.

Taking these principles into account should become the ABC of today’s managers, and change management is the one specialised field they should focus on (and here are some quotes that will help them). Did I hear anyone say ‘process literacy’?

In summary there is much that managers can do to deal collectively with change, and it all has to do with the leadership rules for healthy human systems: involve, communicate, listen, encourage, mobilise, reflect, expand, multiply, respect…

Of course, at our individual level, we also have much to do in order to see change in its whole form. We may still not welcome this process but we can nevertheless always decide to seize the opportunities it brings to do something different, and better. But that is another story.

Related blog posts:

Sailing along ‘pattern currents’ in the sea of change

Test Pattern I (Credits: Sauerlender / FlickR) - How to jump over patterns?

Test Pattern I (Credits: Sauerlaender / FlickR) – How to jump over patterns?


Change is so ubiquitous and, as Torben Rick would say, “constant change is the new normal” to such an extent that for networked individuals, change is hardly surprising though it is still discomforting.

Where, then, are the spaces to catch your breath and find some kind of ‘structure’ or insights to make sense of change? 

There is no single or simple answer to that, but the best fragments of chance for some coping ability lie in patterns. Patterns are the islands that help us navigate the sea of change without sinking in it. And patterns are everywhere:

  • Patterns from the biggest to the smallest order, mimicking fractals of complexity, from the way a family organises itself to the way a multi-country agreement is reached (or not);
  • Patterns of conversations, like the phoenixes I sometimes refer to, reveal ideas that are – perhaps also like the ‘déjà vu’ experiences in the movie The Matrix reveal something bigger (and in that case, dangerous);
  • Patterns of colour, sound, shape, intensity, rhythm, that each hold a grain of truth about the universal order around us;
  • Patterns of behaviour from another area to the one we are in – how does xyz react in this environment?
  • Patterns of events from another place, or time, to another one – how did this happen again here and now?

Companies like Google (see below), or Except have understood early on that the seed of innovation and of the next step lies at the junction of individual ideas and collective sense-making, and it appears out of patterns of conversations…

We need to become highly trained at working with patterns:

  • Spot patterns
  • Match patterns
  • Mix patterns
  • Break, dim, develop or amplify patterns of behaviour

All the patterns we see around us are ways to make better sense of the world around us, and get us ahead of the challenges coming at us. I would put my bets on pattern-breakers as the most effective decision-makers of this era.

If learning is the grammar of the social age of change, patterns might just be (part of) the alphabet we need to apply that grammar…

How to surf with patterns?

Webtreats Free Tileable Tropical Abstract Patterns Part 1-4 (Credits: WebTreats / FlickR) - Where patterns help us ride the ripples

Webtreats Free Tileable Tropical Abstract Patterns Part 1-4 (Credits: WebTreats / FlickR) – Where patterns help us ride the ripples


The art of reading and using patterns is a bit of a gift and a bit of an acquired practice. But a few things certainly help everyone get better – and apparently humans are the best pattern-recognition machines so here’s hope for everybody :)

The door key to patternland is diversity. A diversity of experiences and perspectives allows to look at the world in a more lateral or oblique manner, giving us a new understanding of where similiarities and differences lie.


  • Do what you can to broaden your vision and walks of life;
  • Put yourself in someone else’s shoes (use DeBono’s six thinking hats for this?);
  • Bring diverse, dissident or deviant voices to think along;
  • Move away from your typical position to look at an issue, look at it from above, from under, from aside, from across…
  • Use metaphors, analogies, ask yourself “what would it be if it was: an animal / a plant / a country / a dish” and those sort of questions that get you out of your thinking box;
  • Reflect regularly, note things down, and every time dive one level deeper;
  • Use different languages to approach an issue;
  • Borrow ideas and recombine them, to spot new patterns;
  • Make it a game to notice all kinds of patterns of everyday life, these superficial patterns still subtly sharpen your pattern-breaking capability;
  • And of course to notice the deeper patterns of thinking and action, as ITAD did with capacity development;
  • Put yourself in uncomfortable positions so that you have no other choice but to identify patterns;
  • Make patterns a central ‘pattern’ of your language, like the GroupWorks collective did with their card deck.
  • … add your many ways to spot patterns…
De Bono's 'six thinking hats' is one of many ways to help us see patterns

De Bono’s ‘six thinking hats’ is one of many ways to help us see patterns

Nothing is quite definite any longer, but patterns are a constant in the sea of change, they are islands – or perhaps more adequately currents – that allow us to navigate the ever fluctuating sea of change.

What are your secrets to find where these currents are?

Related blog posts:

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)

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