Leadership, Events, Shackleton, Survival, and Hope

Leadership and eventsIf you missed David Adler‘s & my closing keynote Leadership, Events, Shackleton, Survival, and Hope at Untethered2020, you can watch it at the end of this post. I’ve also included a lightly edited transcript, complete with timeline, so you can watch/listen/read as the fancy takes you.

David and I structured this session as an unrehearsed conversation, so it’s a little rough — but I think that keeps it fresh! It includes plenty of short videos and images that illustrate the points we’re making.

Leader in Events transcript

[0:00] David Adler DA: So, welcome Adrian! We’re here in front of this Untethered Conference; this is supposedly the end keynote, and I wanted to have a conversation with you.

This is a little bit of a mash-up of a couple of different concepts.

When I was a kid I did Outward Bound. I don’t know how many people out there did Outward Bound. It was one of the things that completely changed the way I thought about the world.

I was in 11th grade and I did this 26-day Outward Bound course; my grades went from C’s to A’s following this course. There was something about what Outward Bound did. It was outdoor wilderness training, an amazing experience that gave me confidence as a kid. It has been one of the things that has driven me through my entire life, and has made me look at conflict and look at things I couldn’t do and say oh my God maybe I can try that.

And it all comes down to that great Robert Kennedy quote:

“As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, those he touched and I still have to touch him. Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’, I dream things that never were and say ‘Why not’.”

And we are in this moment especially with what’s going on in the world today where we have to dream about why not. How do we change things, how do we do things? So this Outward Bound thing was really incredible.

So I want to bring you [AS] in on this discussion. I guess you are one of the great innovators in meetings and facilitation, and I believe that facilitators — people that know how to be collaboration artists — are going to be what is really important in the event industry, in the meeting industry, in the conference industry going forward.

Why don’t you say a few words about what are the things that you’ve developed over the years?

[2:18] Adrian Segar AS: Thank you David and thank you for the nice things you said about me. I just want to add that I always enjoy talking with you so much; I really appreciate being invited in on this conversation. As some people know, I’m interested in creating meetings that are the best possible meeting for each person involved. I realized that I needed to create meetings that became — in real time, during the meeting — as much as possible what the participants and the sponsors and all the stakeholders wanted, and that’s driven my work ever since.

[2:59] DA: And you developed the unconference? And brought it into the popular culture.

[3:00] AS: Well, I can’t say that I invented the word “unconference”. Open Space was around, was developed right around the same time but Harrison Owen had the good fortune to write a book about it right away; so Open Space became synonymous with unconference. I didn’t invent that word, and in some ways I don’t like it because I think conferences should really be about conferring. And unfortunately, as we all know, at many traditional conferences there are still too many people talking for long periods of time, and everybody else is listening.

[3:40] DA: With that said I’m going to share my screen right now. One of the things I learned from Outward Bound, the lectures that we heard on the rock for the morning meetings that were so inspirational when you watched the ocean, were the lessons of Ernest Shackleton. He was the guy that was caught in the Antarctic and had to take his crew and make them survive. One of the things I heard was all these great lessons, and I realized that Ernest Shackleton really was what I call a collaboration artist.

Because you cannot be a leader today without collaborating in the best possible way and I’m sure you agree with that as well, right Adrian?

[4:18] AS: Of course, yes.

[4:19] DA: Collaboration arts are the key and are the future. This [slide] is just a little bit on Adrian and I. I want to go into what we’ll learn from Ernest Shackleton. He did leadership through collaboration. And event organizers and meeting planners and conference planners are all collaboration artists. I wanted to talk about a program that I created called Collaborate America.

[4:47] Various speakers during the Collaborate America video:

“With Collaborate America we simply want to make artistic and smart collaboration a goal of everyone who purposely gathers people together, no matter what the reason. We want our culture to recognize collaboration artists the same way that they have celebritized culinary figures and the risk takers of the start-up world. We want collaboration artists to really be recognized.”

“Artful collaboration might be our most critical resource going forward, in terms of the outcome of mankind. A collaboration artist knows how to bring people together, drive consensus, and enroll people in a common mission. Create ideas, and translate ideas into solutions.”

“Imagine if artful collaboration were taught to children, and seen by them as one of the most important skills to have. And so we are at this event to honor and learn from some of the greatest collaborators of our generation.”

“Artful collaboration not only represents an opportunity that is essential to our survival as a species; I think if you look at the level and the scope of the challenges that we’re facing in the world today, how can we possibly solve those things without effective collaboration. The answer is that we can’t — we all have a responsibility to do everything we can to build trust, build cooperation, and give people access to the brilliance that’s in everyone’s minds in the room.”

[6:17] DA: So, I believe that future events need to be more valuable than ever, that we can’t waste people’s time with badly produced or badly facilitated events. You don’t want to go to an event if it’s going to kill your grandmother. So, with that said, I have this hypothesis that I want to share with you Adrian, and you can beat me up on it or you can fight it or you can tell me I’m full of it. But the idea is that leaders today need to be collaboration artists.

We’re seeing that in our general leadership in the country today. I put a picture of a president on there because I think you need to have effective national leadership to solve problems. And I also believe that event organizers use collaboration arts as their number one skill. Yes, it’s great to have great food & beverage and great design, but if people don’t connect in the room and connect for a purpose then why are they there? And so I believe that event organizing in person or virtual is a key leadership tool so that we cannot think of our industry as superfluous but actually primary to help society.

Survival skills, like what we’re about to go into with Ernest Shackleton, depended on collaboration and are dependent on the people that he’s leading and the leader listening to other people. So with that I want to do a little bit on what Ernest Shackleton went through, in a very brief period. There’s a lot of literature on what he did and I’m going to talk about some of the takeaways that have been around for a few years.

[7:52] AS: The only thing I would like to add is that behind collaboration ultimately is connection. We as human beings need connection in our daily lives, nearly all of us. The pandemic has brought this into sharp relief, and I see collaboration as the piece behind that. That’s how you turn the desire for connection into the reality of the shared experience of the collaboration and connecting experience. And so collaboration is kind of a tool but it meets this fundamental need for connection — and at meetings, the connections are always around something relevant to people: topics, issues, challenges that people currently have.

[8:38] Ernest Shackleton video: “Setting sail from Plymouth on the 8th of August 1914, the Endurance became stuck in the ice flows before sinking in November 1915. With no chance of rescue, Shackleton planned a daring and dangerous rescue to sail a lifeboat to South Georgia.  With five other crew, they launched the James Caird into the treacherous seas of the Antarctic, and against all the odds they reached South Georgia. Then, having to trek across mountain ranges, they finally reached help on the 20th of May 1916 before rescuing his crew on the 30th of August. Every one of them still alive.”

[9:18] DA: So, at this rock that I sat in front of in the morning at Outward Bound when I was 16 years old, the guy gets up and gives these 9 points, these 9 lectures, that I’ve been actively living with in every part of my business. Whether it’s to survive a crisis, whether it’s to get through an event, it’s whether how to get through the day in my team, these are the nine things I think that everyone should think about in terms of how they are approaching the world.

And the number one is never lose sight of the ultimate goal and focus on short-term objectives. So the idea is, how do you get to the day, how to get to the next moment, how do you survive till tomorrow?

[10:02] AS: First of all, this is Simon Sinek’s point about understanding your “Why?”. It can be your own personal “Why?”, it can be the “Why?” of a meeting, but once you have that clear — and sometimes it’s really hard to get that! The corollary of that is: once you have that goal it makes focusing on the short-term objectives to get it so much clearer. Once I realized that what I love to do in life is to facilitate connection between people in meetings — that drives everything I do. So that creates the short-term objectives that I, then, sit down every day and say what should I do today.

[10:42] DA: This is a leadership fundamental that has been, between Simon Sinek and everyone else; this is the main thing. So, number 2: Set a personal example with visible memorable symbols of behavior.

When I go out and I lead a group of people, if I’m not in the game with them they’re not going to listen to me. If I’m not setting up things that that are goals and be smart about the behavior of the group then you’re going to lose people right away.

[11:17] AS:  What you’re amazing at: I remember seeing you at meetings and you’re running a major event, and I see you at lunch time and I see you going around and creating conversations at every single table with hundreds of people. You’re modeling behavior. You’re saying: I’m doing this, I’m leading this event but this is important, we’re here to have conversations. You’re modeling, and you can’t expect people for example to take risks if you’re not willing to show that you’re willing to take risks too. Or to be vulnerable about a situation that’s difficult if you are not willing to do that too.

[11:59] DA: You know, I learned this when I was working at the state department and we had a big event for David Cameron who is the prime minister, and I noticed that he got up and went to every single table, like you do at a wedding or a bar mitzvah or any kind of social.

I believe that CEOs are been terrible hosts lately, and they’re not mirroring behavior. Or leaders are going to an event and they’re not wearing their masks. So that is, to me, kind of an example of the person’s not going to be with you. So, instill optimism and self-confidence but remain grounded in reality. You always have to be very optimistic, but at the same time you got to be realistic. We all know that behind the scenes of an event things go wrong all the time, but at the same time, to the crowd you got to say okay everything’s going well when you don’t notice it.

But you still know that you’ve got to get that person off the stage cuz they’re taking up too much time, or this is not going according to schedule. So you have to be on both sides and this happens every day with leadership all the time, but you have to make sure that you’re being honest.

[13:16] AS: And this goes back to the first point again; not only do you have to know what your ultimate goal is but you have to believe in it and basically want it to happen. It has to be congruent with who you are as a person. If those two things are satisfied then you’re going to be optimistic about it. I mean it’s not like “yes, I know I’m going to succeed” but you’ll be coming from that place where it’s like “I think we can do this and we’re going to make it happen to the best of our ability”.

[13:46] DA: This is the tenet of most entrepreneurs, because most people say their ideas suck and they’ll never be successful. And so you have to be optimistic and you have to be self confident but you have to know that cash flow is king. Especially with what’s going on today, what I’m seeing with entrepreneurs, their cash is running out so they have to pivot, they have to do other things, but the same time they can’t lose the optimism.

So number 4 is take care of yourself, maintain your stamina, and let go of guilt. The idea is, make sure that you’re in good health, that you are, instead of getting up every morning and just getting to work, that you should go do your meditation or get grounded, and also if you make a decision and it’s not popular let go of the guilt; you cannot please everybody all the time.

[14:35] AS:  That’s right, well I think that this one is pretty self-evident to anyone who’s been in the meeting industry for any length of time. Because we all work incredibly hard preparing meetings, and then, of course, at the event itself. Letting go of guilt is very important because we do make mistakes, we’re not perfect, and as you say. We can’t satisfy everybody. If you run a meeting of any size, there will always be a few people who say “I didn’t like this, I didn’t like that” and so on. And if you let that overcome the fact that 98% of the people who had a great time it’s going to affect your effectiveness.

[15:13] DA: I’ve also heard stories today of people that have to let go people and furlough people and you’re making these awful decisions, but if you’re mired in guilt nothing will get done, you have to get over that, there’s no way around it because it’s survival.

So number 5 is “Reinforce the team message consistently; we are one, we live or die together” — now this cannot be more true than today. It also cannot be more true in every event that we ever do because we’re managing teams and for short periods of time in some cases. Wearing that mask is saving other people’s lives.

“Minimize staff differences, insist on courtesy and mutual respect”: the idea that when we set up processes we’ve got to follow them. We have to make sure that there are protocols in place that allow us to create the discipline to have a day that works the way the last day worked in order to accomplish goals, and the idea of courtesy and respect is something that is just part of life, and this way if people understand the rules then there is a lot less problems.

[16:25] AS: This goes back to the modeling. David, you epitomize courtesy in every dealing I’ve had with you, and seeing you working with other people you epitomize courtesy & mutual respect. And that’s going to affect and influence the people you are with.

[16:44] DA: I would say we’re all not perfect. I’m certainly not perfect at this, but the idea is that we have to develop processes, so one of the things that I’ve actually done it well in this situation where we’re in tight quarters with other people is: we’re actually in a small group of people having a meeting every single day to figure out what we’re planning on doing that day. So that there are certain norms that, even in a very odd situation, you can actually rely on as to create a new reality in a sense. And I’m sure that Shackleton did that every single day, in terms of making sure that his people were doing something on a regular basis.

This is one that I’d use all the time: “Master conflicts, engage dissidents, and avoid needless power struggles”. My feeling is, the minute you look at how to turn a blind eye to conflict you’re dead. That you have to confront it right away. It means making faster decisions. It means understanding what other people are thinking, to not get involved in the politics of the moment.

[17:51] AS: The piece of advice I really like in this is about engaging dissidents; it’s something that I’ve learned over the years of facilitating and so on. You often have people who are like “No! I really disagree!” and maybe they’re in a minority, you have to make a decision.

The most important thing you can do in those situations is make sure that those dissidents feel heard. You really need to listen to them, you may not agree with them, you may not end up doing what they want. But if they feel heard — we all know that we don’t always get our way in everything we want — but if they feel heard, they’re much more likely to not harbor resentment, and to say, “okay, I guess I don’t agree but the majority thinks we should do this and I’ll go along with it”.

And then you’ve deescalated a potential conflict that otherwise could last for a long time.

[18:43] DA: Can you go through … I’ve learned from you, because you’re a tremendous mentor to me, how you do it in a public space? You are able to have these techniques for allowing people of different opinions to actually be heard. Give one example of something that works.

[19:02] AS: One of my favorite techniques is what I use when you want to have a genuine discussion and you’ve got, maybe, hundreds of people in the room. There’s no way that you’re going to be able to hear from everybody, and you also don’t want the discussion to be dominated by people who just want to talk all the time.

And I use something called Fishbowl for that, which allows people to have their say because anyone can come up and speak at any time in Fishbowl. But the social dynamics of it, the rules — which are very simple and explained at the start — make it almost impossible for even someone who would love to hog the spotlight, from staying in the spotlight for a longer than a reasonable amount of time. Again, I refer people to my books and articles about Fishbowls — one of the things I’ve mentioned — but it’s an example of how to how to engage dissidents but not let them take over.

[20:11] DA: This is a skill; this is not just put yourself in a burning fire, running into a burning building. You need to know how to do this.

[20:21] AS:  You do need to know how to do it, but the interesting thing is … I don’t know how many thousands or tens of thousands of people I’ve run Fishbowl with. Some of those people take it and they see how well it works, and then they take it and go on. It’s not like I’m the only person who can do this. A large number of people are perfectly capable of being part of a Fishbowl and saying “I see how that works! That was great, I like how that worked. I’m going to try that in my place of business or organization.” And they can do it just as well as I can.

[20:57] DA: So here is the one that I believe is at the heart of what many people do other than people that are hosting meetings and when we have events. The idea is what Shackleton said: that you always have to find something to celebrate and something to laugh about.

And the idea is, even when Wuhan opened up a few weeks ago, even though it was precarious, they had an event to celebrate the opening. They did video mapping of all the buildings; if you see some of the videos on YouTube it’s pretty incredible how our industry is part of leadership. And so when I see the idea of celebrating something, every major leader in the world knows that they have to do something when they achieve a goal. They need to pat people on the back, they need to show that they’re caring about all the work that someone has done to create the end of the mission, and also to be human and to laugh and to show emotion. Because I think emotion, especially positive emotion brightens up everyone’s day.

And I also think about what’s happening every day in New York City at 5 o’clock. People are getting on their balconies and applauding, and they’ve been doing that in Italy and in France and other places. Our business is the business of leadership, and that is why it cannot be minimized. And that is why it is more important than anybody could imagine.

I always used to say that in our industry, for years, we were sitting at the children’s table for Thanksgiving. And I believe that we are so much at the adult table from a strategic perspective. Every major leader: when you see President Obama give a speech like he did the other night, when you see the leaders of the world at ceremonial events, that’s all about celebrating something, and that’s all such a key part of what we do. So we cannot minimize our efforts in this world, and [it’s] why what we do in the event / meeting / Festival business is so important.

The last two things I have: “Be willing to take the big risk”. Now in every event that you ever have it’s “oh, what are we going to do next year, what are we going to do to make this different”. A lot of people fall back on “we did this this year; let’s do it again next year”. You know, the idea of moving to an unconference or changing the way things are structured, to confront people in different ways. We have to be thinking about this every day. Because what we do is events in the ephemeral moment, so we have to create ephemeral moments every time. And everything that Adrian does, different techniques, is risk taking in massive ways.

Talk about some of the things you have seen and how people have changed through that type of big risk.

[24:01] AS I want to acknowledge you first, David, because I see you again as the epitome of risk taker. You know, a big risk to one person may be a small risk to someone else. The crucial word is “risk” because every single person has a particular level at which they say, well, this is a risk to me. And it won’t be the same for someone else. Throughout your career — building BizBash and all the things you’ve done — you have all these creative ideas. And you’re willing to try ‘em out all the time, you try things on. And just like me, I try new things all the time; some of them don’t work.

[24:48] DA: Lots of them don’t work!

[24:49] AS: Also, it’s the continued risk taking. When I started running meetings 30 years ago I was terrified about being out on stage, a common thing. It’s not like one day I wasn’t terrified anymore. Went out and took that risk every day, and eventually it got better! I like to try new things, learn at every meeting I do. I learn new things, and I try to import them. And I have ideas and I try them and sometimes they don’t work. That’s how you learn.

[25:27] DA: There’s one more that I left out and that is: always there is another move. And, to me, that is one of the most important things. Especially with today with so many people who are seeing their businesses completely falling apart. The idea of pivoting, to always make another move, there’s always a way. And the way you up your game and survive and thrive is to be accompanied and see what’s going on out there in the world. One of the things we’ve done through BizBash was to allow people to peek over the fence to see what other people are doing. And when you see what other people are doing you say, “oh, I can do that”, “oh, I have a better idea than that”.

So everything that we talked about today is here to make you think. And we want to make sure that this address today is for you. For you to think about your future and to put yourself through your own Outward Bound experience and get the confidence that you could do anything. Because, believe me, once you get through this there’s not one thing that you will not be able to do. Adrian, do you have any final comments?

[26:35] AS: I think you’ve covered things beautifully; I’ve really enjoyed my time talking to you. I love this kind of spontaneous conversation that we’ve had from time to time and what it brings forth. Thank you very much for the opportunity.

[26:52] DA: Thank you, Adrian, and I encourage people to go read all of Adrian’s books and, of course, I encourage everyone to go look at BizBash every day — you never know where we’re going to be going. The world is changing radically; you want to see new ideas, we’ve got new ideas just for you. We’re in the age of innovation, yes, we want to be safe, but it is remarkable how people are innovating and changing the world every single day. And we want to be a part of that and that is our mission, so thank you so much for the opportunity to speak to you. Thanks!


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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Lessons from Anguilla: What meeting designers can learn from religious services

On my daily vacation walk to Island Harbour, I hear singing. As I turn the corner onto Rose Hill Road, the sound swells. It’s 7:30 am, but the morning service at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church is in full swing and, as I pass, a familiar hymn from my youth washes over me, sung by a hundred enthusiastic voices. And yes, I admit it, during the second day of my vacation while enjoying the harmonies I hear, I’m jolted to think about religious meeting design…

Religious services are thought to be around 300,000 years old — by far the oldest form of organized meeting that humans have created. We know little about prehistory religious services, but the meeting designs used by the major world religions today date from the Middle Ages. Over the last thousand years, religious meetings developed a number of important features in order to maximize the likelihood that people would attend.

What’s interesting is that these features are largely absent from modern secular meetings!

So what can we learn from religious meeting design? I confine my observations to Christian and Jewish services, as they are the faiths familiar to me.

Don’t let any one person talk too long
The most frequent preaching length in Christian churches is 20 to 28 minutes. Although some pastors take more time, their number is decreasing. And in 2014, the Vatican recommended that sermons be limited to eight minutes or less!

While people joke about the length of boring sermons, contrast this relative brevity to modern conferences, where speakers typically speak for an hour. We know that listener attention drops sharply after ten minutes unless a speaker does specific things to maintain it. Religious institutions know this, and deliver short bursts of emotional content. Most meetings don’t, and attendee learning suffers as a consequence.

Include lots of communal activities
Singing is one of the most powerful fundamental, communal human activities; right up there with eating together. The oldest written music is a song, the Sumerian Hymn to Creation, dated before 800 B.C., and communal singing likely predates this by tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

Jewish and Christian religious services are filled with singing and praying. These are communal activities — each congregant contributes to a common endeavor. Some people have good voices, sing in harmony, and add pleasure to everyone’s experience. Even those who can’t carry a tune very well become part of something, a common endeavor, while they are singing a familiar and often beautiful hymn or prayer.

Communal activities are powerful because they align participants in a common experience: creating something beautiful and uplifting together. When was the last time you did something like that in a meeting?

Breaks aren’t communal activities
Most meeting organizers assume that the human interaction they’ve been told should be incorporated into their meetings is provided by breaks and socials. But breaks and socials aren’t communal activities — everyone is doing something different! The post-service Church Suppers and Jewish Kiddish give congregants time to meet socially, thus strengthening the communal experience provided by the service. In contrast, modern conferences expect attendees to bond after having primarily listened to lectures.

Keep ’em moving!
People don’t sit still at most religious services. They stand to sing and pray. In some congregations, dance is a normal component of the service. Physical movement during events is important because blood flow to the brain starts to decline within ten minutes of sitting still, leading to decreased attention. Sadly, it’s rare for meeting sessions to include any kind of body movement.

Provide an emotional experience
Whatever opinions you hold about religious services, it’s clear that they are designed to create an emotional experience. Given a choice between emotional and “book learning” experiences, people will invariably choose the former. Religious services offer the kinds of experiences that people prefer, served up in a safe and familiar way. Most conferences offer little emotional experience directly related to their content and purpose; instead such experiences — entertainment and socials — are glued onto the program as unintegrated extras.

Conclusions
I’m not suggesting that we turn all our meetings into gospel revivals. But think about it — how would your meetings be improved if they incorporated some of the religious services features I’ve shared here?

Church service photograph courtesy of The Anguillan

Lessons From Improv: Make Sure Your Meeting Messages Are Received

pointing-finger-nounWant to improve the learning at your meetings? Here’s what I learned from You. No, not you — “You“!

“You”
You is a delightful improv game I played at the Mindful Play, Playful Mind retreat in Mere Point, Maine. Players stand in a circle and the first player points to someone and says “You”. The pointed-to player does the same by pointing to someone else until the last person has pointed back to the 1st person, creating a pattern. The pattern is practiced a few times until everyone has it … and then another pattern is created, using names of a class of common objects such as junk food, or birds, or colors, etc. Once the players have got that pattern down … well, let’s run both patterns simultaneously! Then let’s start doing things like adding another pattern, changing places in the circle with the “next” player…

As the game gets more complicated, it becomes an exercise in concentration and dealing with potential chaos. You have to figure out how to deal with unexpected situations: e.g. two people point to you simultaneously with a pattern while you’re trying to pass a third pattern on to someone else. It’s challenging — and a lot of fun!

Learning from a debrief
After you play a game at an improv workshop, it’s time for a debrief, so we held one in between adding further complexities to “You”. Then we worked on incorporating our incremental learning into the next round.

What did we learn?

We discovered that when we were playing with multiple patterns going round the circle, the game fell apart when we incorrectly believed we had passed on a pattern to the next person and could turn our attention back to the circle to deal with the next pattern to be passed to us. It’s easy to point to the pattern’s next recipient, then hear another pattern that you have to respond to and fail to make sure that the pattern you’re passing has been successfully received. This only has to happen once for a pattern to stop going round the circle.

We realized that when we got caught up in the excitement and high-attention needs of a complex game, we played too quickly to reliably pass on pattern messages to the next person in the sequence, leading to dropped patterns.

We then realized that what we needed to do to play the game reliably was to switch our focus from frantically keeping up to making sure that our pattern message for the next person was received. We needed to wait until our desired receiver was giving us their full attention. Then we could pass the pattern, check visually that they had received it and, only then, turn our attention back to receiving patterns from others in the group.

The beauty of this focus switch was that if everyone did it, the game automatically slowed down as needed to successfully deal with complex or new situations. For example, if Mohamed & Juanita both wanted to send me a pattern while I was supposed to send one to Laurie, I would wait until Laurie was free to receive my pattern before turning my attention to Mohamed & Juanita. Mohamed & Juanita would see that I was occupied and wait until I had successfully sent Laurie my pattern, whereupon one of them would get my attention while the other waited until I was finally free.

If you didn’t carefully read the previous paragraph with full understanding, I forgive you. It’s much easier to experience how this focus switch works than to explain it.

The Lesson. You’ve gotta ask! Twice!
Ever had someone tell you something and you don’t understand what they said? Duh! Of course you have! When this happens, the obvious thing to do is to ask them to explain. Do we always do that? No! In Conferences That Work I tell the story of how an entire class of graduate students (including me) stopped understanding our math professor halfway through the semester, and none of us ever informed him we were lost. What a waste of everyone’s time!

When you teach it’s important to provide clear understandable information. When you facilitate or lead a group, it’s important to provide clear process instructions. But regardless of how “good” you are at this, there is no guarantee that your message has been received completely or correctly.

And so to our lesson:

If we want to teach or facilitate effectively, we need to check early and often that what we are saying has been received and understood. When we use the ask, tell, ask model of participative learning, the second ask — the follow-up check for reception and understanding — is the one that’s all too easy to omit.

When we improv players made sure that our pattern passes had been received, we were amazed at how complex a game of “You” we could successfully play. In the same way, faithfully using all three steps of the ask, tell, ask model allows us to check that our teaching and facilitation as been received and understood, allowing us to create complex and successful active learning at our meetings.

Lessons from improv: Be Average!

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

“The poet William Stafford used to rise every morning at four and write a poem. Somebody said to him, “But surely you can’t write a good poem every day, Bill. What happens then?” “Oh,” he said, “then I lower my standards.”
—from Radical Presence by Mary Rose O’Reilley

Patricia Madson’s fifth maxim is be average. Be average? Who wants to be average?! Hear me out.

Back in January I wrote Everyone Makes Mistakes about how many of us were taught while growing up that we had to do things perfectly in order to feel good about ourselves. Eventually I discovered this doesn’t work. The emotional stress incurred in attempting the impossible task of being perfect far outweighs any small increase in the perfection of work, and, most of the time, that same stress leads to a decrease in effectiveness. But there’s more to being average than letting go of perfectionism.

Because being average is a great approach to being creative. Here’s how.

When we’re working on being creative, there’s an assumption that we must try to come up with something that’s different, something that’s “outside the box”. Not necessarily, says Patricia Madson, and she quotes Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In other words, she suggests that we look more carefully inside the box.

When I was an information technology consultant, clients would often expect a shiny new high-tech answer to their problems. Instead I usually came up with mundane but creative solutions that took best advantage of available resources. My clients were momentarily disappointed—until they heard how inexpensive my proposals would be. (Luckily for them, I just charged for my time rather than the amount of money I saved.)

Think about Magritte’s pipe that isn’t:
pipe

or Duchamp’s Fountain:
Duchamp_Fountain

These artists expressed their creativity through household objects depicted in new ways.

One of the nice things about this kind of creativity is that we can all practice it using the gifts we already have. I find that dreaming up “way out” ideas is hard. It’s simpler for me to concentrate on seeing something familiar in a new way and be open to what pops into my consciousness.

There’s a delight in this kind of relaxed creativity. Be average and focus on the obvious. And, if nothing fantastic occurs to you right away, don’t worry.

Just lower your standards.

Conference facilitation lessons from improv: Say Yes!

improv-say yes-3588343908_cbfcbf005c

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

Patricia Madson’s first improv maxim is say yes. Which reminds me of a harrowing incident not so long ago…

I was facilitating the closing session of a West Coast peer conference using a fishbowl format that wasn’t working so well. People were eager to talk, but instead of a conversation developing we were jumping disjointedly from topic to topic.

And then things got worse.

“Selma”, a senior state official, began to speak. Listening, my heart sank as she shared that the conference had failed to adequately involve the significant numbers of minority and low-income attendees who were present. I felt shocked and dismayed. The conference organizers had made heroic and successful efforts to make it possible for a wide variety of people to attend, so Selma’s verdict seemed like a serious indictment of the conference process we had used, a process for which I was responsible.

Looking around the room, it was clear that people were upset by what they had just heard.

And then things got even worse.

Instead of responding to Selma’s comments, John, the next person to speak, started talking about something entirely different. I felt the credibility of the session shrink rapidly toward zero. People were disengaging. We couldn’t even face a difficult issue head on—instead we were going to avoid it and change the subject!

John finished, and I knew we were at a tipping point. And if, as an exercise, someone had described the situation and asked me what I would do, I would have drawn a complete blank.

But this wasn’t an exercise.

Somehow, at that moment, I accepted the situation and acted from my gut.

“John,” I said, my voice quavering a little, “please excuse me, but I feel we need to talk about what Selma just said. If we don’t discuss the issue she’s brought up, then I think we are all going to feel pretty dissatisfied with our time together today.” I turned to Selma. “Selma, I want to hear more about how you think we’ve failed some of the attendees at this event.”

That was enough for Selma and the group to enter an intense discussion of the issues she had raised. There was no more rambling conversation. And, though the resulting dialog was difficult at times, the tension in the room subsided as the participants shared and felt heard. The session became an authentic reflection on tough topics; a fitting end to a conference that had raised more questions than could be fully answered in the time we were together. And that was just fine with me.

I’m proud about how I responded at the crucial moment. In Madson’s words, I said yes to the situation I was given and responded from my authentic self. It wasn’t easy for me. It would have been safer to not take a risk by saying nothing and letting the group ramble on disconnectedly. But when we say yes to the challenges that come our way,  amazing things can happen. Try it!

P.S. If you’re interested in the inspiring organizational and cultural consequences of saying yes, I wholeheartedly recommend Peter Block’s great book on the subject The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters.

Have you said yes at a difficult moment? Share that moment below!

Image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/feastoffools/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0