I am about to step into a large workshop with my 2 Rusty Brown team mates. Despite having clarity about the overall purpose of the gathering, we struggled to pull together a coherent design for today’s workshop. Our Skype call featured lot’s of ideas and periods of silent reflection with me filling the space with more ideas – that’s what I do when self doubt creeps in!
After watching the latest Game of Thrones episode and a great night sleep, I reflected on yesterday’s struggles. Some events, no matter how thorough the planning and briefing is, are impossible to pre-design in any sort of detail. This is where we rely on sound principles and practices to get through and serve the groups we work with.
A room of 60+ individuals (who have just been part of a re structure) is a complex system made up of many, connected parts. It is not possible to ‘know’ which are the best moment by moment processes ahead of time. When we start interacting with the system (in about an hour from now), we will get feedback which will inform our decisions and the processes that follow. It feels messy and challenges our need for certainty and detailed plans … but that’s facilitation for you!
Our family is into it’s 3rd week of 20 weeks on the ‘off-roads’ of Australia’s North West. As a family unit, we have only just found our rhythm with the set-up/pack-down of the tent, 4WD navigation and the discipline needed for home-schooling 3 young boys. You can read about our adventures over here at Camping Feet.
I awoke this morning (at a remote beach under Goulet Bluff just south of Monkey Mia) with a renewed focus after a few days of unsettling (gale force) winds and lack of sleep. It’s taken time to adjust to the change and uncertainty that comes from leaving behind a life of work and school, a house, 2 dogs, a car and a community of friends and family. We have slowly found our roles that contribute to a well oiled camping machine. The kids are learning what they can do (that’s useful) and we parents are learning to let-go of control.
As I reflect on the time it has taken me (and us) to settle into a gentler pattern of living off-road, I started to think about the groups and teams that I work with. Here are some first cut thoughts (as I sit in our 4WD heading north to Carnarvan) …
I’ve spent my life working with groups and I’ve learned that it takes time – days of ‘doing stuff’ together – for a group to find it’s mojo. Time for conversations, playing games, relationship building and time for individuals to get in touch with their own inner game. Time is needed for a group to build a shared understanding of the world (as it is now and how it could be in the future) and co-discover what needs attention … all whilst practicing the art of suspending judgement.
At some point (and not all groups get there) groups/teams naturally start to experiment with solutions and test their ideas for actions. They find a core purpose that builds energy and keeps them on track when the going gets tough. Individuals have a sense of their role and need a high degree of autonomy in order to thrive. They learn to improvise together and they begin to realise the potential of group genius. Collective action toward something bigger than the group may then follow.
These groups may have started as loose networks of people with a shared interest scattered across a community. They might be a newly formed committee or a new team within an organisation. Whatever the context, groups begin to look outside of themselves and serve the greater good. The conversations about themselves and their own practice become a broader conversation with communities and stakeholders around them.
Of course none of this group stuff is linear … it’s messy. How long does it take? Well, it all depends … there are no hard and fast rules, only broad principles and practices as a guide-beside. Questions of leadership crop up everywhere and groups have to face up to their fears and struggle with the questions that keep them up at night. “How do we proceed amid such uncertainty?” … “How do we make sound decisions in such change and complexity?”.
I think I’ve learned to sit more comfortably in that space of “not knowing” … and to trust and be present to whatever emerges next. On this 5 month family journey, we are learning to gently push our adventurous edge, whilst remaining safe. Everyday we are faced with countless choices, decisions and opportunities. Everyday we grow stronger and closer as a family.
The ‘Notice More’ mantra is one I keep coming back to. Johnnie Moore first introduced me to the concept of Notice More-Change Less – it’s like a principle to live by.
Well, last week I ‘noticed’ an interview with Kelly Slater, arguably the world’s most enduring sports champion. He’s been at the top of surfing for 23 years and has beaten 5 era’s of surfers with 11 World Titles. This detailed info graphic sums his achievements …
Here are a couple of quotes from Kelly on ‘Noticing’
When asked how he can keep winning so many tight contests …
“I try to pay attention to a lot of things”
“I notice things and adjust accordingly.”
The detailed of the interview reveals that he spends a lot of time watching the waves and the forces that shape the wave direction, frequency and form. Like noticing the ball in tennis, being in tune with the waves is everything. I’m sure Timothy Gallway (author of the Inner Game series) would agree.
So, here’s a question to consider. If ‘noticing’ the ball is everything in tennis and being in the flow of the waves in surfing is the secret to success and mastery … what is the ‘ball’ or ‘wave’ in the game you play? What are the critical factors that need more of your attention?
How well do you listen? It’s a practice that I have to continually work on in all aspects of life – as a parent, partner, friend, family and consultant. Like with most of us, my attention tends to drift toward my thoughts, ideas and next thing I want to say. With discipline and practice I have learned to really listen when facilitating groups. Here are some other people and ideas who have taught me about the art of listening:
Chris Corrigan and listening – I have developed some habits and techniques that turn my attention toward the group. Lately I’ve been practicing this simple breathing technique that Chris Corrigan writes about here. Chris’ technique helps me to tune into the “sound” of the group conversation and provides another way of reading the dynamics between people in the room.
Herman Hesse and listening – I have just read Hermanne Hesse’s Siddhartha. A character named Vasudeva the Ferryman teaches Siddhartha the art of listening. Siddhartha feels the joy and connection that comes from being listened to. I just love Hesse’s words in this passage …
“Vasudeva listened with great attentiveness. He took in everything as he listened, origins and childhood, all the learning, all the searching, all the joy, all the suffering. This was one of the greatest amoung the ferryman’s virtues: He had mastered the art of listening. Although Vasudeva himself did not utter a word, it was clear to the one speaking that each of his words was being allowed to enter into his listener, who sat there quietly, openly, waiting: not a single word was disregarded or met with impatience: Vasudeva attached neither praise nor blame to what he heard but merely listened. Siddhartha felt what a joy it was to be able to confide in such a listener, to entrust his life, his searching, his sorrow, to this welcoming heart” p. 88
Theodore Zeldin and listening – I have been learning a lot about listening by applying a principle to every conversation I’m in. The principle is this … “I am willing to emerge a slightly different person from this conversation with you”. When you start a conversation with this principle in mind, it is amazing what you hear from the other person. This mindset helps me to be still, quiet and attentive. There is a richness to the conversation that is lacking when I am swept up by my own thoughts and inner voice. I learned this principle in working alongside David Gurteen who shared this quote by historian Theodore Zeldin …
“The kind of conversation I’m interested in is one in which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person.” Theodore Zeldin.
Johnnie Moore and listening – A few years ago friend and co-conspirator Johnnie Moore taught me a phrase that has stuck with me … Notice More, Change Less. It’s the idea if limiting your interventions and not playing the role of outside expert in trying to make stuff happen. Johnnie has taught me to simply “support what is emerging from within the system, not operating on it as the cold outsider.” In his Change This manifesto with James Cherkoff, he builds on this idea of a willingness to be changed in our interactions …
“In the world of improvised theatre, which inspires a lot of our thinking, the player who tries too hard to drive the narrative is accused of scriptwriting. The one who tries to tell jokes is encouraged to stop gagging. The real skill in performance is to fully take on the offers of the other players and be changed by them. Then what you offer back is likely to develop the drama.”
Viv McWaters and listening – A willingness to “emerge a slightly different person” opens up learning possibilities in every interaction. It’s not about agreeing with everything either … sometimes the lesson is simply that other people hold a different point of view to me. In Applied Improvisation we apply the principle of Accepting Offers. Saying ‘Yes And’ builds on what the other person offers. It means that others walk away from conversations knowing they have been heard and understood. This “knowing I’ve been heard” outcome is critically important in building relationships and trust. Viv McWaters writes about this principle here and says …
“Adopting a ‘yes, and…’ mindset is all about accepting offers. You don’t need to like the offer, or even follow-through. It’s about the initial moment of acceptance rather than rejection. It’s about seeing that there’s more to making a choice than it’s either this or it’s either that. It’s about noticing the offer in what others say and do. Sometimes it’s hard to notice an offer – it’s a small offer, or it’s tentative, or it’s hidden amongst a whole lot of noise. Make big offers yourself. Notice the offer in what others say and do.
To accept is such a gift. To be accepted is such an honour.” Viv McWaters
So, here’s my offer to you and reminder for me … during the next conversation you have with someone (anyone), experiment with these listening principles. I’d love to hear what you notice and learn from this!
Fellow applied improvisor and friend April Seymore showed up to Thriving In Uncertainty last week. Not only did she contribute her enthusiasm and wisdom, April picked up the marker pens and harvested from conversations that were happening in break out sessions. Great to see others doing this as well!!
Last week, a small event was staged. About 60 or 70 folks from around the World gathered in Melbourne for the Thriving in Uncertainty Conference. This was a true collaboration between Melbourne Playback Theatre & Viv McWaters. I was a witness to the co-creation of this event and was largely on the sidelines … watching others do all the hard work … contributing where I could … taking it all in and learning. And here’s a photo of me watching Viv and Sherridan (Melb Playback) do the work at the HUB Melbourne …
Viv’s co-conspirator and explorer at the Edges of Work, Johnnie Moore, came out to support Viv in ‘holding the space’ we called Thriving in Uncertainty. Johnnie also dabbled in an Art of Hosting event recently with Chris Corrigan – both are also active in AIN. Together, me, Viv, Johnnie, Chris and Anne Patillo call ourselves The Slips and have worked together on conferences in Australia, Canada and Asia.
I could go on and on and on … list the names of many more people and networks that connect together with weak or strong ties. When you are part of a network like this, doing stuff is like dancing in the corner of a vast spider’s web … the energy flows across the entire system. Unexpected and serendipidous occasions follow – like this gathering in Vancouver recently …
The pattern I am sensing in all of this are the connections between and across different communities of practice. Applied Improv is mixing with Art of Hosting and OpenSpace which is riffing with Thrivability and playing with the Gathering 11 & 12 movement here in Melbourne. Consultants are sharing work and wisdom with theatre directors, musicians, university professors, researchers, PhD students, business leaders and practitioners drawn from other sectors. When the work and worldviews of so many diverse players come together CHANGE starts to happen quickly. Innovation is everywhere and look out everybody … “This is gonna be a train wreck and I can’t wait!” (HT to Andrew McMasters for these words in his session at Thriving in Uncertainty last week!)
I shared lots of stuff with the group … probably too much … and promised them a summary of my favourite resources to kick start (or continue) their own inquiry into the links between Living Systems – Complexity – Applied Improv. Here’s the email I just sent out …
During the session we started by building a huge version of the Cynefin Framework on the floor. 1 card, 1 idea and 1 example at a time, we populated the different domains of the framework. We explored the links between the complex (unknowable) work that we all do and Living Systems principles. Improv principles became a foundation for the conversation as well … a great touchstone whenever we became to theoretical and needed to ground ourselves in examples.
I’ll get to the PUNCHLINE of Manuel’s talk first, and add the CONTEXT later …
A new type of thinking is emerging according to Manuel. A way of thinking where everything is interconnected and interdependent. Right at the end of the talk (and this is bit I liked), he points out that “it’s not enough anymore to be a specialist in 1 area … you need to know a little bit about everything … or at least create outbound ties so that you are able to learn from other disparate areas.”
As a facilitator, the “outbound tie” that has transformed my practice is Improvisational Theatre. Who would have thought that a bunch of mindsets and practices from actors on the stage could teach me so much about myself and working with groups?! AIN (The Applied Improvisational Network) is full of people from hundreds of disciplines who share a passionate belief that applying improv can change hearts and minds, bring us closer together and create the conditions for innovative partnerships. This mental shift toward a networked view of the world (that Manuel points to) must be accompanied by principles and practices, to guide us through uncertainty and when the script doesn’t even exist. The ability to respond when the way forward is unclear is a key skill for business success during times of uncertainty and change.
So how’s this for a provocative proposition! Every field of practice and every discipline on earth needs to know a little bit about Improvisational Theatre and add it as an “outbound tie”!
For those in Montreal, you should get in touch with the monthly Thrivability Montreal conversations. They are connecting with real businesses who are serious about a networked and living systems view of their business.
CONTEXT … the first parts of Manuel’s talk
Manuel’s talk is about the power of Networks and the challenge of mapping an increasingly complex world. He starts with a historical look at the metaphor of the structure of a Tree and how it has dominated our idea of how the world works. The tree has been a religious symbol and was used to tell biblical stories. The branch structure of the tree has been used as a knowledge classification system in blood ties between people, animal species and in other areas of science.
Manual points out that the Tree structure branches off with no connections or ties between them. The tree, he says, expresses our desire for order, hierarchy, balance, unity and a need for a simple way of looking at the world. Our social and organisational structures reflect this view and so emerged top-down hierarchies and organisational charts. In my experience, even our local community groups suffer from too much of this type of structure.
He urges that we are at a turning point, where the tree metaphor is no longer able to communicate the inherent complexities of the modern world. The internet has shown our connections to be a network like a web … not like the hierarchy of a tree structure. We now understand our eco systems in much more connected, complex and sophisticated way. We know that the brain is no longer a compartmentalised centre, instead it’s a complex network more akin to a symphony being played by hundreds of thousand of instruments. Even human endeavor has created Wikipedia which shows the interconnections which binds and ties disparate fields of knowledge together.
If we embrace the idea that an organisation is a living ecosystem, rather than a mechanistic model, how would we work with that larger consciousness? Paul Plsek likens this difference to that between throwing a stone and throwing a live bird (1). The trajectory of the stone can be calculated precisely using the mechanical laws of physics. The trajectory of the bird is emergent and far less predictable! The question is whether we can genuinely embrace this shift in perspective and add a layer of living tissue to the organisational machine.
(1) T.Bentley and J.Wilsdon 2003, ‘Introduction:The Adaptive State’, in T.Bentley and J.Wilsdon (eds) – The Adaptive State— Strategies for Personalising the Public Realm, Demos, London, p. 26.
The good news is that we don’t need to abandon everything we currently do. When dealing with technical problems, we still need efficient management, expertise and best practice processes. But on their own, rational, linear and individually-generated solutions are not up to the task. It’s not enough to just bring our brains to work. We need to access and apply our whole intelligence to problem-solving, creativity and innovation, especially in the face of global and local social and environmental issues.
The premise of this conference is that Applied Improvisation is a key driver for business and organisational success during times of uncertainty and change. Ironically, we all know how to improvise, but most of us spend too much time planning and never get to the improvisation part! And when you look at the cutting edge of business today, the most pioneering and successful companies are moving in exactly that direction. Their leaders know that innovation comes from a careful balance of planning and improvisation. By applying improv, their people are cultivating strong relationships and are being creative with limited resources. These organisations are deeply fulfilling to work with, enrich the communities they serve and are able to thrive in uncertainty.
Since being introduced to Applied Improv 5 years ago, it’s principles have reshaped the way I facilitate, parent and live life. In practice, applying improv has connected me to a deeper self, an authentic part of me that I never knew existed.
Some of my clients have joined me on this learning journey and a couple are coming to Thriving in Uncertainty on July 12 & 13. This gathering will bring together leaders, executives and managers, entrepreneurs, learning and development facilitators, trainers and educators, consultants and coaches – I can’t think of a better way to discover our inherent leadership capacities and go to the edges of our learning and development.
I invite you to learning laboratory that explores questions like:
What if we think of organisations as living ecosystems? How would that change what we do and how we lead?
How can we learn from each other and our own experiences?
What can applied improv offer us as we try new ways of thinking and interacting?
These same questions are being explored in Montreal (Canada) in June this year. Thrivability Montreal brings together business leaders to explore new ways of thinking about and working in organisations. Our group will learn directly from the Montreal conversations. In fact, the design of this workshop is a collaboration between me and the Thrivability Montreal Network. I will integrate the key insights and examples of how organisations are applying improv to thrive in uncertainty and change.
Belina Raffy (below left) and Michelle Holliday are the hosts of the Thrivability Montreal Camp next month. I recently interviewed them and recorded this podcast. In the 3rd part of the podcast, we talk about the links between Thrivability Montreal and Thriving in Uncertainty. The key insights from Montreal will filter down to this workshop in Melbourne.
Belina’s Pecha Kucha presentation is also a good one to watch. In 6 minutes and 40 seconds, she describes her provocative proposition that Improv Can Save the World!
The team at the Do Lectures pointed to this little quote and it’s worth remembering for our own health and sense of vitality.
I’ll add a little extension to this quote …
Doing things, or just doing something and starting somewhere, is the best response when the unexpected happens. When our best laid plans turn pear-shaped and we become wracked with uncertainty. When the fear of failure dominates our being – this is when letting go and doing things is the only way forward. Never know, it might even stop you from growing old and slowing down