Three criteria for working with others for change and action

working with others for change and actionHow can we successfully work with others for change and action?

During the last eight months, I’ve been striving to save a tiny liberal arts school, Marlboro College, from closure. I’ve felt compelled to do this work, not only because the school sits at the heart of rural Marlboro, Vermont, where I’ve lived since 1978, but also because I taught there for ten years (1983-1993) and have a deep affection for the College’s rare form of education.

Someone could write a book about the twists and turns in this struggle, but it won’t be me. Instead, I’m going to share three criteria I uncovered about how to successfully work with others for change and action. When I say “successfully”, I’m not talking about whether “my” side won or lost. Rather, these are pragmatic criteria that can make the process of working with other people on a social or political goal somewhat easier and more productive.

1. Be sure that fundamental motivations are aligned

Attempting to work collaboratively and fruitfully on a complex issue? Take a little time to find out whether your potential collaborators share the same fundamental motivations as you!

It’s tempting to quickly accept any offer of help. At first, all seems well. Sometimes, though, it turns out that a potential collaborator who shares your goals has fundamentally different motivations. I’ve learned that when peoples’ motivations aren’t sufficiently closely aligned, friction and disharmony eventually surface.

When this occurs, you’ll realize that a significant amount of the time and effort spent building the collaborative relationship has been fruitless.

Of course, no two people have exactly the same motivations to work together on a project. Minor differences are often irrelevant, or resolved quickly. Deciding whether fundamental motivations are aligned, therefore, is ultimately a judgment call. However, ignoring motivational differences, no matter how severe, is a recipe for disappointment and frustration.

2. Check that people are willing to work

working with others for change and actionWatch out for folks who are quick to share opinions about what should be done, but always leave the work they propose to others.

For example, during our campaign, many people made suggestions about legal grounds to sue those planning to close the school. Their ideas were plausible on the surface (certainly to a non-attorney like me). But they never offered to contact an attorney and discover whether there was indeed a legal case to make.

Those of us who did spend significant time talking to attorneys discovered that most of the proposed ideas were not good ones. Because we didn’t want to telegraph our legal strategy, it was difficult to openly repudiate the suggestions. The spate of proposals continued.

Ideas are welcome. Some supporters with good ideas simply don’t have sufficient free time to work, and that’s fine. But ultimately, someone needs to do the work of researching the plausibility of ideas and turning them into action. You may need to tolerate those who frequently opine without offering to do the work — but don’t spend too much time appeasing them.

3. Be able to work well with others in the group

working with others for change and action
There are numerous ways that folks who share common goals and motivations and are eager to work can still fail to collaborate successfully. I’ll mention a couple here.

One interesting requirement is a nuanced appreciation of confidentiality. When you’re working in an informal fluid group, you need to have a clear communal understanding of whom to trust with what. In my experience, some people don’t grasp the need for this, and don’t think through the consequences of passing on information given to them in confidence. Though I’m sure everyone’s made this mistake one time or another (I certainly have), someone who routinely breaks confidentiality is not a prime candidate for successful collaboration.

Personality clashes can be another collaboration breaker. For example, over the last eight months, a few people who had useful expertise and experience became more trouble than it was worth to work with because they unpredictably blew up at group members. Dealing with their outbursts significantly reduced the limited time working group members had available. Consequently, there was a reluctant but necessary passing of the ways.

Conclusion

There are, of course, many other factors involved in facilitating large-scale change. Even when a seemingly coherent group forms to address important issues, it still can be difficult to work with others for change and action. I hope the three criteria shared above help you use your energy for social and political activism more productively.

Working Smarter With Knowledge

working smarterA shoutout to Harold Jarche for his continuing explorations and advice about working smarter with knowledge. He’s just made available, under a Creative Commons license, his free downloadable field guide for the networked knowledge worker: Working Smarter Field Guide 2020.

All of us require relevant knowledge to work in today’s world. Harold has developed models, frameworks, and practices for creating knowledge management systems that meet our individual unique wants and needs.

“For the past several centuries we have used human labour to do what machines cannot. First the machines caught up with us and surpassed humans with their brute force. Now they are surpassing us with their brute intelligence. There is not much more need for machine-like human work which is routine, standardized, or brute. But certain long-term skills can help us connect with our fellow humans in order to learn and innovate — curiosity, sense-making, cooperation, and novel thinking.”

Harold’s guide covers the value of trusted networks, communities of practice, and increasing insights through informal and social learning. It introduces the concept of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM), and his core sensemaking framework: Seek > Sense > Share. Finally, the guide provides concrete examples of PKM approaches developed by various friends and colleagues.

As a original thinker on these topics, as well as leadership and organizational learning, Harold’s writings have influenced many of my posts over the years. A quick read, his free guide is well worth the download!

Share information; don’t hoard it

share information don't hoard

Why would you want to share information, not hoard it? In today’s cutthroat business environment, isn’t exclusive knowledge synonymous with power — and the ability to make money?

Well, if you’re a stock trader or house flipper, maybe. But I’m a consultant who has long subscribed to Jerry Weinberg’s Seventh Law of Marketing: “Give away your best ideas” and  Credit Rule: “You’ll never accomplish anything if you care who gets the credit”, from his invaluable book The Secrets of Consulting. (More of Jerry’s pearls of wisdom can be found here.)

Skeptical? Well, here’s an alternative historical perspective from a completely different source, a 1926 article about the New York Club of Printing House Craftsmen, uncovered by Jeff Jarvis and described as “…a lovely evocation on the value of sharing in our field, which we used to call printing.

“Stop. Stop the presses.”

I’ll let quotes from Jeff’s blog post tell the tale:

“‘The times are not so far distant when every foreman or executive jealously guarded his technical ‘secrets’, in the mistaken idea that by doing so he would make himself indispensable to his employer,’ Fuhrmann writes…

‘And the men [sic*] who had the same or similar problems to meet in the actual running of their employers’ businesses found that an exchange of views and ideas benefitted them without hurting their employers.'”

“And so, we attempt the same today in our rapidly changing field with meetings and communities of practice and training of journalists and managers.”

“Along this journey — which I believe will be long, generations or even centuries long — we need to provide the means to bring together these brave new leaders not just to teach them what we know (so they may challenge it) but also to enable them to teach each other, to share.”
—Jeff Jarvis, Stop. Stop the presses.

This is a touching, century-old example of how communities of practice benefit from sharing information.

Share information; don’t hoard it

During my decades as a consultant I’ve followed Jerry’s advice about giving away your ideas. (As I’ve been doing in this blog for ten years now.) As he explains:

“I do everything possible to encourage my clients to take over the work I’ve been doing. They usually give me direct credit, but even if they don’t, they love me for my generosity. This increases the chance they’ll give me future business, or recommend me to others.”
—Gerald M. Weinberg, Chapter 11, The Secrets of Consulting

Finally, as a meeting designer I’m convinced that using meeting formats that facilitate and support sharing amongst peers of relevant information is one of the most powerful ways to improve the effectiveness of meetings.

Share information; don’t hoard it. Whether you’re a community of practice, a consultant, or a meeting designer, this simple aphorism applies!

Image attribution: Flickr user ben_grey

An excellent life story exercise for groups

In 2005, I joined a men’s group. Eight of us get together for two hours every fortnight. One man chooses a topic and leads the meeting. A couple of months ago, Brent offered the following life story exercise via a preparatory email sent in advance:

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Why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it

switching to active learning
A September 2019 research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences clearly illustrates why switching to active learning is hard — and worth it!

Lecturing has been the core modality in our education systems for centuries. Sadly it still is, even though we know that active learning provides superior quantity, quality, accuracy, and retention of knowledge. Active learning beats the pants off the “receiving knowledge” model drummed into our heads through years of listening to teachers. (For a full explanation of why active learning modalities are superior, see Chapter 4 of my book The Power of Participation.)

So why do we continue to use broadcast-style formats?

The NAS study gives us some important new information:

[M]ost college STEM instructors still choose traditional teaching methods…We find that students in the active classroom learn more, but they feel like they learn less. We show that this negative correlation is caused in part by the increased cognitive effort required during active learning.
Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom, L Deslauriers, L S McCarty, K Miller, K Callaghan, and G Kestin

Let’s look at these three conclusions in the context of meeting design.

Most meeting presenters still lecture

The majority of college STEM teachers choose traditional teaching methods. And most meeting session presenters resort to lecturing as their dominant session modality.

Attendees learn more when presenters use active learning modalities

We have had research evidence for the effectiveness of active learning modalities for more than a hundred years. (The pioneer of memory retention research, Herman Ebbinghaus, published his seminal work in 1885.)

A large body of research over the last twenty years clearly shows the superiority of active over passive learning.

“Students learn more when they are actively engaged in the classroom than they do in a passive lecture environment. Extensive research supports this observation, especially in college-level science courses (16). Research also shows that active teaching strategies increase lecture attendance, engagement, and students’ acquisition of expert attitudes toward the discipline (3, 79).”

College students are the focus of this research. There’s no reason to believe that these conclusions would not apply to adult learning during meeting sessions.

Superstar lecturers and motivational speakers

Here’s a striking conclusion from the NAS research:

“Students in active classrooms learned more (as would be expected based on prior research), but their perception of learning, while positive, was lower than that of their peers in passive environments. This suggests that attempts to evaluate instruction based on students’ perceptions of learning could inadvertently promote inferior (passive) pedagogical methods. For instance, a superstar lecturer could create such a positive feeling of learning that students would choose those lectures over active learning.

Including highly paid keynote speakers at meetings is a meeting industry fixation. I’ve argued that the evaluations of such sessions are unreliable. Now, the NAS research buttresses my point, by providing an important explanation why expensive keynote lectures are so popular at meetings. People perceive that they learn more from a smooth lecturer, while the reality is that they learn less!

Conclusion

There is overwhelming evidence that we can improve meetings by switching to active learning from passive lectures. And we now know that the popularity of fluent lectures, as measured by session evaluations, is based on an incorrect belief by attendees that they are learning more than they actually do.

Finally, the NAS report indicates that a simple intervention can overcome false perceptions about the efficacy of lectures.

“Near the beginning of a physics course that used… active learning …the instructor gave a 20-min presentation that started with a brief description of active learning and evidence for its effectiveness. …At the end of the semester, over 65% of students reported on a survey that their feelings about the effectiveness of active learning significantly improved over the course of the semester. A similar proportion (75%) of students reported that the intervention at the beginning of the semester helped them feel more favorably toward active learning during lectures.”

Consequently, we need to educate stakeholders, presenters, and meeting attendees about the benefits of active learning modalities at meetings.

Image attribution and original inspiration for this post: Inside Higher Ed & Kris Snibbe / Harvard University

Thank you Stephanie West Allen for bringing the above research to my attention!

What I remember from high school — and why

high school memoriesHigh school feels like a dream. Fifty years later, few distinct memories remain. I’ve only stayed in touch with one friend from those days, so there’s almost no reinforcement from reviewing and remembering the past. And yet there are some experiences that still retain power. Let’s look at three and explore why they endure.

Mr. Crooke’s holes

We knew almost nothing personal about our high school teachers. So I was surprised one day when our physics teacher, Mr. Crooke, told us that during World War II he had helped to develop some of the earliest rockets. His job was to figure out the best fin designs. This was long before the days of computer simulations (or computers for that matter), so Mr. Crooke experimented by drilling holes in the fins and then firing the rockets to see how straight they flew.

This captured our schoolboy imaginations, and for the next few weeks “Mr. Crooke’s holes” were a frequent topic of conversation.

I liked physics class because we did actual experiments and it offered the possibility of understanding the strange and confusing world in a rational way that seemed comforting to me. But this unexpected personal story cut through the dry presentations of facts that filled most of my childhood education, and it stuck.

Mr. Crooke told us that one of his rockets was displayed in the London Science Museum. Fifty years later, I spent a day at the museum. I examined every rocket, but, sad to say, couldn’t find the one with Mr. Crooke’s holes.

The biology class I’ll never forget

In class one day I was asked to publicly announce my score on a ten-question biology pop quiz. “Six” I said, and I heard loud gasps. The class of twenty-three students was shocked. I was supposed to be smarter than that. Although it has lost its emotional impact, I still remember the shame I felt at that moment.

In my school, the unspoken classroom rules were do what the teachers tell you and don’t make mistakes. Transgressions were followed by public shaming.

It took me many years to realize how much my education environment relied on shame. Because the emotional cost is high, it’s a rotten way to motivate learning.

Inventing an electric bicycle

Back to my physics class. (Hey, I became a physicist.) One day Mr. Crooke gave us a homework assignment for the week: design something that involved physics. I remember having a hard time thinking of something that would actually work. The evening before the assignment was due, I thought of inventing an electric bicycle.

Although there are some Victorian era patents for electric bikes, they were never mass-produced until recently. I certainly had never seen one when I invented mine. I remember drawing a bicycle with an electric motor bolted on, connected by a chain to the rear wheel. The battery was mounted on a little platform behind the bike. The details of the controls were conveniently omitted.

It amuses me that, thanks to the development of powerful lightweight batteries, my fanciful and impractical “invention” in the 1960’s has become the commonplace e-bike of today.

High school memories

These high school memories of mine have endured because they all include an emotional component of one kind or another. We may learn wondrous facts in school, but it’s the stories, experiences, and associated feelings that trigger memories that live on.

Is that true for you?

Learning in community at conferences

Legendary Apple designer Jony Ive explains how learning in community helped Apple make the iPhone:

“When we genuinely look at a problem it’s an opportunity to learn together, and we discover something together. We know that learning in community is powerful. It feeds and supports momentum which in turn encourages a familiarity and an acceptance of challenges associated with doing difficult things. And I’ve come to learn that I think a desire to learn makes doing something new just a little less scary.”
——Jony Ive, Apple designer Jony Ive explains how ‘teetering towards the absurd’ helped him make the iPhone

At conferences we also learn better when we learn in community. At traditional events, expert speakers broadcast content at attendees. But today our minds are increasingly outside our brains. Our ability to learn effectively now depends mostly on the quality and connectedness of our networks, rather than what’s inside our heads.

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Today’s schoolrooms can teach adults the power of positive sharing

For years I’ve been reading to 3rd & 4th grade students at the Marlboro Elementary School, my amazing local public school. It’s a tiny school that currently serves around 100 pre-kindergarten – 8th grade children (4 – 13 years old).

I read during noon recess, after outdoor play. A student rings the bell and children stream back into their classrooms. But before they get their lunch and listen to me, they sit on the floor in a circle and share answers to a simple question:

What went well during recess?

As I listen, it’s clear that kids feel comfortable talking about how they worked together. They build forts, play games, and do all the things kids have done for years when they play in the wooded grounds of our rural school. They don’t talk in generalities. Rather, they name specific classmates and thank them for collaboration, support, and the fun they created together.

The power of public appreciations
These simple public appreciations create a palpable social awareness in the group. You can see relationships strengthen as one child acknowledges another. The children’s interactions are shaped by largely invisible norms of behavior that the teacher expertly introduces during the first few weeks of school.

It’s not all sweetness and light. Inevitably some conflicts come up too. So the teacher sometimes lets the kids delve into what happened, and sometimes reserves discussion for a private chat later in the day.

What strikes me is how easy this is to do and how powerful the results. Group sharing like this was absent during my school years. Instead, our teachers encouraged us to compete with each other academically. They never asked us to talk about positive things our classmates had done.

Appreciative Inquiry
Surprisingly, asking what is currently being done well is the first crucial step of Appreciative Inquiry(AI): a powerful process for exploring productive organizational change. AI starts with a focus on what works in an organization, not what needs fixing. Stories also play an important role.

Want to learn more about AI? For a quick introduction, I recommend The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. Or go here for a comprehensive set of resources and tools.

Who would have thought it? Today’s schoolrooms can teach adults the power of positive sharing! Have you used Appreciative Inquiry at your organization? Share your experience below.

Image attribution: Amy Kolb Noyes

 

Lessons From Improv: Seeing the Gifts in People and Events

Thoughts triggered while rereading Patricia Ryan Madson’s delightful, straightforward, and yet profound improv wisdom.

Ooh, this is a hard one for me, but it’s so important for anyone working in the meeting profession.

“I can look at a person or event from three vantage points.

  1. To see what’s wrong with it (the critical method commonly used in higher education). Using this lens the self looms large.
  2. To see it objectively (the scientific method). Using this lens both the self as well as others are meant to disappear.
  3. To see the gift in it (the improviser’s method). With this lens others loom large.”

Patricia Ryan Madson, “wake up to the gifts” improv wisdom

Trained to be an academic for the first twenty-five years of my life, I default to Patricia’s first vantage point, the critical method, what’s wrong with it? (I’m consoled slightly by Patricia’s observation that this is her default vantage point too.)

It’s tricky to move to the second “scientific” vantage point, where “both the self as well as others are meant to disappear.” We are trained to do this when working with others, to replace our ego viewpoint with the perspective of a team or a common goal. From this vantage point, our focus is usually a specific outcome or the process needed to obtain it. As Patricia says, the people involved are “meant to disappear”. That’s great for making dispassionate decisions — but my soul is missing.

Finally, the third vantage point, the one that is difficult for me to maintain. When we live from an awareness of the gifts in our lives we become open to others and possibilities in ways that would never otherwise occur. Patricia describes a week in Japan immersed in an intensive process called Naikan, a form of gratitude meditation on one’s debt to the world. In Naikan you focus through a structured process on the answers to three questions: What have I received from (person x)? What have I given to (person x)? and What troubles and difficulties have I caused to (person x)?

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What’s better than people augmented by technology at meetings?

What's better than people augmented by technology at meetings?
There’s a better way to improve meetings than augmenting them with technology. As Finnish management consultant and polymath Esko Kilpi says:

“Human beings augmented by other human beings is more important than human beings augmented by technology” —Esko Kilpi, quoted by Harold Jarche

At face-to-face meetings, we can facilitate relevant connections and learning around participants’ shared just-in-time wants and needs. This is more effective than augmenting an individual’s learning via technology. We maximize learning when:

  • Participants first become aware, collectively and individually, of the room’s wants, needs, and available expertise and experience (i.e. “the smartest person in the room is the room” — David Weinberger, Too Big To Know);
  • We use meeting process that successfully matches participants’ needs and wants with the expertise and experience available; and
  • Time and space is available for the desired learning to take place.

And of course, this approach significantly improves the quantity and quality of relevant connections made by participants during an event.

So the smart choice is to invest in maximizing peer connection and learning. Do this via simple human process rather than elaborate event technology.

I’ve wasted time at many events trying to use apps to connect attendees in some useful way. Even when high-tech approaches use a simple web-browser interface, getting 100% participation is difficult due to technical barriers: all attendees must have a digital device readily available with no low batteries or spotty/slow internet access.

Well-facilitated human process has none of these problems. The value of having a facilitator who knows how to do this work far exceeds the cost (which may be zero once you have invested in training staff to fulfill this function).

When push comes to shove, modern events thrive in supportive, participatory environments. Attendees appreciate the ease of making connections they want and getting the learning they need from the expertise and experience of their peers. Once they’ve experienced what’s possible they rarely enjoy going back to the passive meetings that are still so common.

Yes, we can use technology to augment learning. But the majority of the high-tech event solutions marketed today are inferior and invariably more costly to implement than increasing learning and connection through radically improving what happens between people at our meetings.