Thursday, June 25, 2009

Zone of transformational development

For many people, change is an existential threat. We become used to the certainty of an income from a job, the relationships we have, where we live, the skills we can use and the rules of the system.

But every so often a tidal wave crashes/washes over us, like the big one in 2008-2009. We are unprepared for it, and it totally disrupts our lives. Many of the rules of the old system go out of the window and the rules of the new system are not yet fully apparent. Our skills are no longer in demand as new tools we don't know how to use displace those with which we are familiar.

It all has to do with how humans learn.

The Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, whose ideas underpin much of what we know about constructivist models of learning showed that young people (and older people as well) learn:

* Through interaction with tools - physical, psychological, symbolic etc - often involving "inner speech", so the new capability is practiced externally and then internalized;

* With assistance by an adult or a more capable peer, through what he called the ZPD or Zone of Proximal development;

* Through imitation via collective play, such as playing mothers and fathers, or doctors and nurses, so that they "perform as if they were a head taller", and bring themselves into the ZPD.

But there is another kind of developmental space which Vygotsky described but did not name, which I call the Zone of Transformational development or ZTD. It involves a shift to a new kind of order, where our tools become smarter, give us more power, transform the way we relate to each other and the world and allow us to play new roles. The witchdoctor becomes a brain surgeon. The Roman Charioteer takes on the new role as jumbo jet captain. Basket weavers morph into computer programmers.

In the human mind, it is new combinations of kinetic melodies (speech or motor routines we perform automatically), which form into higher level capability, like the shift from concrete to abstract thought.

Vygotsky compared these kinds of changes in child development "with the historical ages or eras in the development of mankind, with the evolutionary epochs in the development of organic life, or with geological epochs in the history of the earth's development. In the transition from one age-level to another we find the emergence of new structures that were absent in earlier periods we can see a reorganization and alteration of the very course of development."

These large scale changes begin slowly, accelerate away as we rapidly accumulate knowledge about this new kind of human activity and then eventually slow down, as we run out of ways of reinventing the way we do things, within the current paradigm. Each new paradigm involves radical re-arrangements of not only the cognitive system, but also the tool system and thence the socio-cultural system. As the new tools emerge, they form into new ecosystems of tools, e.g. the motor car, freeways, mechanics, gas stations, etc. and radically transform the way society works/relates. The new tools also automate and democratize the skills of the previous period. As the new kinds of jobs emerge, fewer people are required to perform the old kinds of work.

When we look back over human history we see a remarkable pattern of transformational technological and cultural change. Some 10,000 years ago our nomadic hunter gather ancestors, began the shift to the permanent villages and plowed fields of the agriculturalists. Then, in the 1700s, a new wave of change began to transform our lives. Industrial Age machines displaced the labor of humans and beasts of burden. Then another giant disruption occurred in the 1970s, when the working lives of millions of clerks and secretaries were disrupted/made redundant by the photocopier and the computer.

It all became a blur in the late 1990s when "knowledge workers" began to automate knowledge creation, distribution and implementation. About 30% of all people are now employed in this sector; software programmers, inventors, consultants, educators, researchers and other professionals.

Right now, about 5-10% of us have begun creating/using new tools to automate/democratize the wise application of knowledge, so it is a capability available to all. Wasteless production loops. Spiritual intelligence. Integral learning. Servant/serving leadership. Ethical dialectical discourse.

So what if we could harness the power of wisdom, and make our way through the next zone of transformational development? Here's some questions that might help:

1. Thinking about the major problems/opportunities that exist in the world today, what are some outcomes we could expect, if we learned/practised how to apply knowledge more wisely?
2. Thinking about your work/job/career, how could you re-invent/transform your job so it makes better use of the wise application of knowledge?
3. What kinds of tools could we/others create that would help people apply their knowledge more wisely?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Dialogue plus

Sadly, for many organizations, meetings are the place where great ideas are carved into little pieces or strangled by the discussion. On the surface, it can be very polite. We take turns to talk, we wait patiently for others to finish, or if they take too long, we casually/rudely interrupt, to speak our mind.

Sometimes the conversation moves around the table in an orderly fashion, determined by geographic location. But most meetings are more brutal. They bounce all over the place. Twenty per cent of the people do 80% of the talking. We argue. Debate. Persuade. Criticize. And attack ideas and people. Until just one idea is left standing.

Invariably, meetings become polarized. Coalitions form and we get locked into defending our positions. It happens because meetings are mostly random affairs that employ a muddle of relating methods (Monologue, Discussion, Dialogue, Debate, Fisticuffs) and different kinds of thinking (Information, Feelings, Benefits, Dangers/Risks, Next Steps).

But there is better way. It involves resolving our individual perspectives into a jointly created, all-embracing superb idea. To help us do this we use a knowledge creation tool that presents a sequence of open-ended discussable questions so everyone does the same kind of thinking at the same time. The tool comprises a bunch of keyboards connected to a computer. Each keyboard is connected to a space on the screen. There is also a public space where the ideas collect. Everyone can "talk" at the same time, so even the quiet people get a say.

People talk in pairs, type their ideas, read them aloud and make sense of what they see/hear. The stream of ideas converges over the course of a session, so that after 6-7 questions people reach similar conclusions.

We use a type of conversation I call Dialogue plus which combines the respectful aspects of dialogue and the synthesizing ways of dialectical discourse to create new knowledge together.

So, instead of spending millions of Dollars, Pounds, Kroner and Euros on leadership, teamwork, and conflict resolution skills to dash ideas to death politely, we use Dialogue plus to reach agreement/similar conclusions without the pain.

Here's an example of a guided conversation:

1. Choose a concept, theory, model or process to explore/better define/understand. e.g. how a car engine works.
2. What key words could you use to describe the concept (or theory, model, method or process)?
3. Using the most appropriate key words you have created, craft your best explanation of the concept(or theory, model, method or process).
4. Review the contributions. Now, building on the best explanations, craft a new and better explanation of the concept (or theory, model, method or process).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Jumping through the Johari window

Ever had that feeling that as soon as you learn something new, there's a whole lot more you did not know you did not know. It's like a hall, not of mirrors, but of Johari windows.

The Johari window was invented by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955 to better understand how we relate to others. The four quadrants reveal for us, what we and others know about ourselves (or don't know):

* Arena: What we and others know about who we are. * Blind spot: What we don't know about ourselves but others do. * Facade: What we know about ourselves but we hide from others. * Unknown: What both we and others do not know.

There is a way to access what we don't know we don't know. We can learn to jump through the Johari window and discover a new you, or new aspects of the world. It's what children do when they play cowboys and Indians, doctors and nurses or mothers and fathers. We invent our way to a new and different personal future through collectively imagined interactions with others.

Here's how it works. Each person in the group (A1, B1, C1) invents a character that they would like to become (A2, B2, C2), an ideal "you", unfettered by past constraints. Your new persona might be somewhat like the person you set out to be in your youth, but other choices got in the way. Or it might be someone you would love to become, to start life afresh.

Instead of arguing over "he said" and "she said", then "he did" and "she did" you engage in conversations with others from the perspective of your new persona, we jump off a "cliff of possibility" together, except the cliff of possibility advances with us. It's great for rebuilding relationships that have been damaged or are stuck in a circular argument.

Sure, your new character can't do brain surgery overnight, run a 3-minute mile, or help you pass exams you did not study for, but you get a second chance at life to change your attitudes, develop new relationships and set new goals.

Collectively we become what we imagine, and bring the future into the present faster!

Here's how to do it:

1. Craft a character for a play about the person you've always dreamed of becoming, what you believe, your interests, deeds you do, relationships, mannerisms, dress...and give your character a new name...
2. Looking at the other characters, describe the kinds of relationships you could have with each other. Respond like this: Name each of the other characters: describe how you will relate to them.
3. Create a scene where all the characters come together some time in the future, e.g. the staff Christmas party or to jointly solve a problem/issue. Craft the dialogue your characters will use to interact with others.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

It pays to pay attention

We were gathered around the dinner table at a business conference. I was absorbed in telling my colleagues about a story I had read in New Scientist on the subject of attention, and how apes use subterfuge to draw attention away from their real intentions.

A small platter of the most fabulous chocolates was delivered to our table ready for the coffee service. I continued to explain how an ape pretended to be disinterested in a ripe banana just beyond his reach to trick other apes into thinking it was just a banana skin. His intention? To convince them to go away so he could collect the banana without a fight.

And as I was telling this story, the other apes at the table stole the best chocolates.

So here's a set of questions for busy people to help you pay attention to what's important:

1. What issues/problems/opportunities are you paying attention to at the moment?
2. What clues, snippets of information, worrying signs, new developments, weak signals from the future have you heard/seen recently that you have mostly ignored?
3. Thinking about the big events/trends in the wider world, what is happening outside your world that seems unrelated to your business/industry/situation that you might need to examine more closely?
4. What kind of process could you introduce that allows you to see/hear early warning signs for events/issues that might overtake/overwhelm you and your organization.

Brain extensions

During the past 10,000 years, since we abandoned our hunter-gatherer existence for an agricultural way of life our tools have become an evolutionary juggernaut while our genes have been plodding along. During this time, the human genome has drifted a mere 0.1 percent.

In a feedback loop between our ever-smarter tools and the same old “stone age” brain, we humans have managed to invent our way from a clutch of very ordinary looking tools of vocalizations, sign language, spears and fire to a dazzlingly rich cornucopia of technologies - power and light at the flick of a switch, the ability to be anywhere else in the world in less than a day, instant communication anywhere at the click of a button or instant extinction with nuclear weapons some of us have at our fingertips.

Tools are like partners for our brains and exoskeletons for our bodies. When we “strap on” a new tool we gain extra powers, the power to send messages to the future or record memories of the past or the ability to invent more tools, so that both we and our tools become smarter. As Damasio points out, brain cells are different to all other cells, because they are not only themselves, but they represent other cells, and become unified with the “tools” you hold in your hand, or say with your larynx, or type with your fingers.

Think Ellen Ripley in Aliens played by Sigourney Weaver when she straps on the caterpiller tractor-type machine to take on the beast. When we fly as a passenger in a plane, or ride in a motor car, the pilot or driver is merely allowing us to take a ride in their extended body. The playwright uses the services of actors to extend his or her mind, so that the narrative becomes visible to others. The leaders of countries deploy armies to extend their power and influence at a distance.

The new roles we play are achieved by appropriating a new tool and, with practice, automating its use so we don’t even have to think about it. It also depends on how we use the tool….the rules of use. A stick can be a sword, a digging implement, a baton to conduct an orchestra or a toy that represents something else in childrens' play. Books can entertain us, teach us new things, fuel a fire when we have exhausted our firewood or prop up a bed with a broken leg. A jet aircraft can help us travel to exotic places for our holidays, run a global business or be used as a weapon of mass destruction.

When we choose both the tool and the rules of use, that determines our role. Often, using a tool to perform many roles. Consider how a computer can be used to play the roles of soldier, writer, artist, musician, lover, friend, pilot, software programmer, terrorist or academic.

Questions are some of the most powerful tools in our arsenal, that give us extra powers as leaders, facilitators, consultants or influencers.

At a low power setting, not much happens when we ask:

"What color is the sky?"

But if you ask a higher voltage question, such as:

"Think of the sky, in all its' different colors. What was happening each time? e.g. The menacing green of an approaching thunderstorm.

It's the difference between a photo/snapshot and a movie.

Here's a method to help you invent your own rich, attention-grabbing questions:

1. Brainstorm a whole bunch of rich, interesting or amazing questions to explore a topic, e.g. HAPPINESS (one or two questions each).
2. Present and collectively respond to each question, and at the end of the question, report how you reacted to the question.

Then complete this process:

3. What features/characteristics of questions grab our attention, get our brains excited, entertain us, get us talking to each other?
4. Make a list of the TOP 10 features/characteristics of great questions.
5. Now using the Check list from 4. craft a new set of fantastic questions to explore a different topic, e.g. WORK.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Exceptional excuses

This week Barack Obama created a precedent as the first US president to give a 10-year old the best excuse note ever to explain her absence from school.

Discovering that a questioner had brought his daughter, Kennedy to a packed town hall meeting, the president offered to write a note for her teacher. And did so.

"To Kennedy's Teacher. Please excuse Kennedy's absence...She's with me." he wrote and signed it.

Fun warm up questions for a workshop:

1. What's the best excuse you have ever given to explain your absence from work or school?
2. Craft an excuse, the more incredible the better, for missing an appointment, exceeding the speed limit, standing up a girl/boyfriend or skipping jury duty?


Have you ever noticed how models of the world, start to become the "real world" and limit what you see? As any fisherman will tell you, what you catch in your net depends on the size of the mesh.

For example, game theorists play in the closed system of a four quadrant box to explain much about the outcomes of cooperation and competition. But the model totally ignores two unique and powerful states of any game - Win-win-win and Lose-lose-lose.

Lose-lose-lose is the trouble we cause for the broader community when we allow a dispute with another to get entirely out of hand. Nasty divorces, hostile take-overs, terrorist acts, wars, union disputes. It's when we drop a bomb on a "target" and take out a whole bunch of innocent villagers. It's when we use the kids as weapons in a divorce. It's when the corporate raider slashes and burns to "maximize" their returns and rationalize the two existing businesses - employees of both the predator and the prey suffer. Its when a union goes on strike for higher pay and everyone else is stood down for the duration, even though they have no quarrel with their employer. Its when we go fishing and accidentally catch/kill other species, like dolphins. We give these awful outcomes nice sounding names such as collateral damage, bycatch or unintended consequences.

But there is a better possible result. Win-win-win. When you make choices that benefit the entire community. It's the richness of a vibrant marriage where the children thrive because they are loved and respected. It's the power of Wikipedia, created by the many, for many more. It's the foresight of a Henry Ford who paid his workers more so they could afford to buy the cars they collectively created. It's the mutuality of credit unions that create a bigger pool of money from which individuals can borrow.

Here's how it works. It requires a belief in abundance. You begin by imagining how you can simultaneously serve the interests of others and your own interests. It's what we call selfish altruism. When we co-create, so that others benefit as well, the system rewards us. It enriches other aspects of our lives. It becomes contagious and more powerful.

Here's a workshop question sequence to bake a bigger cake, starting today:

1. Describe a current problem/issue/conflict that you, your family, team, community, organization or institution is facing.
2. Give an example of how you could achieve a Lose-lose-lose outcome. The issue impacts on the entire community as well as the parties in dispute.
3. Give an example of how you could achieve a Lose-lose outcome. The issue is not resolved and the parties fail to get a benefit.
4. Give a example of how you could achieve a Compromise outcome. All parties give a little to get a solution that partly meets everyone's needs.
5. Give an example of how you could achieve a Win-lose outcome. A majority or sometimes a minority gets its way. The other party gives in.
6. Give an example of how you could achieve a Win-win outcome. The solution meets everyone's needs. The decision is often a radical solution that combines interests in new ways.
7. Give an example of how you could achieve a Win-win-win outcome. The solution not only benefits the parties, but also others in the community.
8. Which of these kinds of outcomes dominates your family, team, community, organization, institution?
9. What can we now do differently to achieve the best possible result, for everyone?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Double speak

Wagga Wagga is a city of about 100,000 people in rural Australia. When you say the name, with the appropriate amount of throat gargling and nose snurgling, it sounds like crows talking to each other. In the local Australian Widadjuri aboriginal dialect, it means "the land of many crows".

I lived as a child at Greg Greg near the confluence of the Murray and Tooma Rivers, in the foothills of Mount Kosciusko, Australia's highest mountain. When spoken deep in the throat, it sounds like what it means, "the place of many frogs".

Then there is Grong Grong, not far from Wagga Wagga, which in Aboriginal-speak means "very bad camping ground" and Woy Woy, a dormitory suburb of Sydney, located on the Hawksbury River, which in the Darkinjung aboriginal dialect, means "much water."

Some of us have raised this figure of speech to even greater heights than its original purpose as an aboriginal numerical device.

Remember the cafe scene in the 1989 movie "When Harry met Sally" where she simulates an orgasm with "Yes! Yes! Yes!" to the amazement of her fellow diners, or the stuttering Jim Trott in the British TV sitcom The Vicar of Dibley who always says "No! No! No! No!" before he says anything else, usually "Yes!"

Question: What new arrangements of double words with surprising/amusing definitions/meanings/interpretations can you create/craft/generate? e.g. Mouth Mouth = loudmouth, Me Me - selfish.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Deeply hidden beliefs

If my mother and her twin sister had been born in Africa I might not be writing these words. In many tribes, twins are feared and ostracized. Some are murdered. Instead, she was born in Australia where multiple births are regarded as a blessing, rather than a curse.

Such superstitions have no rational basis. But none of us are immune. Deep within our connected psyche, most of us harbor some unsustainable, unsupportable beliefs, passed down from one generation to the next, that causes us to think or respond in some strange, illogical or unreasonable way. Friday the 13th, spilled sugar, ladders, broken mirrors or opening an umbrella indoors are among the most obvious.

Deeply rooted erroneous beliefs are like the thick hawsers that tie our boats to the bollards on the wharf. Even if we gun the engines to full speed ahead we never set sail.

Question: What deeply hidden beliefs or fears do you harbor that prevent you from achieving your full potential as a human being, member of your family, community or business?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The limits to innovation

The wonderful thing about words, is when you bring two or more of them together they qualify or change each other in some amazing way. For example, "space-ship", "type-writer", "auto-mobile", "mobile phone", "hair dryer" or "post-it-note".

The type-writer, for example, borrows from a whole bunch of concepts - piano keys, fabric ribbon, printer's ink, lead type, iron framework, the lever, cogs and rollers. The Germans are really good at it. Consider, for example, the German word Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän which is 41 letters long and means Danube river steam boat captain.

If you've ever been to a brainstorming session to invent a new product or service and just a few hundred ideas collect on the whiteboard, you aren't trying hard enough.

The 600,000 words in the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary language allow us to generate (600,000 x 599,999 x 599,998......x 2 x 1) combinations, which, according to WolframAlpha, the computational search engine is:

Translated into Easyspeak, the result is 10 multiplied by itself over 3 million times, which is a very big number.

How soon will we run out of combinations? Probably never. Far from exhausting new possibilities, the human race has barely scratched the surface. If every man, woman and child alive on earth today - all 6.5 billion of us - explored a brand new combination every second since the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago we would have tried a mere handful of combinations (10 multiplied by itself 27 times), which means we still have a long way to go:

So for all those budding innovators out there, let's get started. There's some seriously difficult problems to solve, deserving of our brainpower. warming...species to win the to become famous. There's more possible solutions than we could ever collectively imagine. Here's a way to practice idea generation by exploring unique combinations:

Question: What radical idea, concept, product or service could you create by combining these five contradictory concepts - razzmatazz, divine, candelabra, foghorn and kaleidoscope - to solve a major world problem?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dining by letters

Imagine for a moment you are dining at a fabulous restaurant renowned for its exquisite cuisine, like Aureole in New York, Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester in London or the Harbourkitchen in Sydney.

But the dishes have been assembled alliteratively. All the ingredients, for any dish, are restricted to just As, Bs or Cs.

In what ways might your taste buds be surprised, shocked or terrified by the idiotic ingredients, curious combinations or tantalizing taste sensations? Here's a sample:

Beluga and baby beets in blackberry broth
Creamed crab casserole and caramel confusion
Lamb loin lollypops with licorice liqueur
Minke mushroom and marzipan miso
Newt and numbat nibbles with nougat gnashes
Oregano and orange obsessions
Peppercorn peas with pesto, pear and pecorini petals
Poached perch with pineapple and pistachio puree
Quagga quesadillas and quince quibblets
Tuna terrines with tiny tangerine and turnip tacos#

Question: What amazing alliterative combination of edible foodstuffs could you invent to present to your favorite restaurateur so as to revitalize the culinary arts in your city/neigborhood?

# from Chapter 11, Imaginary Friends, a ribald pataphysical romp for adults, co-written with Abby Straus of New York.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Golden baubles

There's nothing more useless than a Wingwam.

When I was a child, if I persisted in asking "What are you making, Dad?", he would reply with a wry smile, "a wigwam for a gooses bridle." Occasionally he used the phrase to explain that some purchase was totally useless. Said in the same breath as "a bump on a log", "a third wheel for a bicycle" or a "second mouth".

The words made no sense at the time. As a 15-year old, exploring the English language, in all its 600,000 word glory, I would conjure up the image of early settlers attempting to trade/exchange an American Indian domestic dwelling for a device to steer a useless as attempting to take a cat for a walk. Much later in life I learned there were many versions of the word "wigwam", including "whim-wham" and "wingwam", my preferred spelling. My favorite meaning is "a golden bauble for a prostitute's hat". Probably wrong. But it brings to mind a hypothetical retrospective response from my mother, who would probably issue orders to all seven of us to "wash our mouths out" for using such shameful language.

Wingwam. Decorative, somewhat naughty and totally useless. Like this column.

Question: What's the most useless, but decorative or even naughty object, activity or idea you have ever encountered?