Friday, July 31, 2009

"Hollowing out" the middle class

It's often said that a civilized society depends for its' existence/persistence on a robust middle class who want to preserve their way of life.

As an Australian who spends a lot of time in the USA, I'm troubled by this trend. More troubled are my American friends who have to live in a society which is showing some early signs of arteriosclerosis - hardening of the arteries.

Whereas, 93% of Australians identify as middle class only 54% of Americans feel the same. Just 0.7% of Australians see themselves as wealthy and 6.4% as lower class. More recently, there are a growing number of US citizens who feel left behind. Those who think they are better off now than before has plunged from an all time high in 1996 of 57% to 51% in 2007 and down to 41% in 2008.

Perhaps there is a "hollowing out" of the US middle class underway.

So what are the key differences between these two very similar nations that might contribute to these dissimilar trends? Especially for two countries which see themselves as having an adventurous spirit, champion the freedom of the individual, sustain openly democratic institutions, encourage creativity and innovation and live life as if there was no tomorrow.

Here's a workshop to explore the issues:

1. Thinking about what you have learned through the media (film, TV, newspapers, books) and personal contact, what are the key features of AMERICAN (USA) culture, the way of life, core beliefs, how they do things, television, what they are good at, their weaknesses?
2. Thinking about what you have learned through the media (film, TV, newspapers, books) and person contact, what are the key features of AUSTRALIAN culture, the way of life, core beliefs, how they do things, television, what they are good at, their weaknesses?
3. What are some of the major differences between the two nations that might account for some of the difference in the percentage of people regarding themselves as middle class?
4. What other factor could account for these differences?
5. List 5 factors which you think could contribute to the differences in the percentage of people who regard themselves as middle class.
6. Choose one of these factors and suggest a strategy for reversing the trend in America or to sustain the trend in Australia.

* Inside the Middle Class: Bad Times Hit the Good Life, Pew Research Centre. ** State of the Middle Class. The Australia Institute.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The private parts of plants

Everywhere you look in the universe, they're a whole lot of creativity going on every single moment.

Take this week. Physical changes, like the earth-size hole punched in Jupiter by a comet or the tsunami that cried wolf off New Zealand. Chemical interactions, like the explosions that rocked and rearranged the dining rooms of two Indonesian hotels. Or the oxidation of thousands of tonnes of gasoline in the engines of 400 million cars that spewed even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Or today. Biological, like the 358,500 babies conceived and the gadzillions of flowers of the 290,000 different kinds of plants pollinated by bees and other insects. Neuronal, like the billions of new/novel ideas or experiences the 6,000 million of us collectively experienced/generated.

What is strange, is how some of us try to defy this natural creative order and draw a line in the sand that neither we nor others in our communities are allowed to cross, for fear of punishment, ostracism, prison or death.

I'm co-writing a tongue-in-cheek novel at the moment about this new schism in the affairs of humankind, a new divide between play/creativity and fundamentalism of any kind.

It's the administration of regulations that make little sense. It's those who want to preserve jobs that disappeared with the horse and buggy. Business people who want to be paid obscene salaries and bonuses to raise the share price in the short term irregardless of the long term peril of their short-term decisions. Religious leaders who impose their strict views about lifestyles that many believers regard as just plain silly or out of touch with day-to-day living. Leaders of countries who rig elections to maintain a power base or exclude women or minorities from sharing power.

What is interesting is the old division between socialism and capitalism is slowly vanishing, as new combinations of the two are trialled all over the world. In many places, we have seen the growth of a universal middle class, like in my own country, Australia, where fewer and fewer people identify as lower class or upper class. The emerging post-racialism evident in many parts of the world, including my own family, where genetic lines are blurring as never before. My grandson to be born in October will have Scottish, Irish, German, Spanish and Filipino forebears.

Why then, in the midst of all this creativity, do some of us resist change at all costs, and stick to old ideas that have passed their use-by date? Is it because we simply accept the status quo? That we have not questioned the underlying assumptions? Or are terrified of contaminating our lives with anything that's different? Where strict adherence to a particular view is non-negotiable. Where we, who are in control, "know" what is right and impose that view on everyone else around us, in order to maintain our power.

In this new book called Imaginary Friends, that combines the playfulness of Dr. Seuss with the sauciness of Aretino's Dialogues, we explore the emerging conflict between creativity/play and fundamentalism via some novel hypothetical situations.

What if the law required us to cover up the sexual parts of plants, in the same way we expect humans to dress modestly?

Imagine for a moment how gray our world would become. The job of the florist would go underground. St. Valentine's day would become a furtive hunt for a floral equivalent of a speakeasy. Flowers as tokens of our appreciation for retiring or departing friends would make way for a more puritanical gesture. Manicured gardens around our homes would be replaced by concrete. Embracing nature, like strolling through national parks and rain forests would be prohibited. Botanical gardens would be uprooted. Displays of flowers to brighten up a home or office would be regarded as obscenities. Pumpkin and courgette flowers would be off the menu at flash restaurants. Kids would be banned from making daisy chains.

It's a bit like Alice In Wonderland, where the painters were required to paint white roses red.

So here's a workshop you can offer to explore whether the cultural taboos, norms and practices you accept as normal make sense any more:

1. Make a list of all things taboo or prohibited - that you are NOT ALLOWED to do in your culture, family, workplace, religion etc..
2. Make a list of all the things you MUST DO that do not make sense to you any more, seems unreasonable, out of touch with the times.
3. What are the assumptions behind some of the regulations, prohibitions, customs, taboos that no longer make sense?
4. Choose one of these taboos, prohibitions, requirements, regulations and explain why you believe it is out of date, what you would now do differently and why.
5. What would be the consequences of making the changes you propose/suggest?
5. What limits should we set, so that human's behave decently and appropriately towards each other? Where do we draw the line?

Photo: Hamish Findlay. Eucalyptus leucoxylon rosea. Pink flowering gum.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The "coffin corner" of facilitation

The task of leading and orchestrating learning and decision making teams can be both dangerous and exhilarating. Like the coffin corner of flying there is little room for making mistakes but you can fly really high.

When Air France Flight 447 went down in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 coffin corner emerged as one of the contributing culprits.

At high altitude, where the air is thin, there is a fine dividing line between stable and unstable flight. Fly too fast and the plane will become uncontrollable. Fly too slow and the plane will stall and crash.

The controls of a high performance passenger jet aircraft are far from intuitive, but when you align all aspects of the flight envelope - speed, angle of the wings, flaps, rudder and trim tab settings - you get reliable lift that you can use to ascend or descend at an appropriate rate or reliable turn characteristics so you can change direction. At high altitude, you just have to follow the rules more carefully. The same when landing.

I make software that helps teachers, consultants, managers and facilitators reliably lead and orchestrate groups so they become energized, productive and happy teams. And fly higher than ever before.

And although it takes thousands of flying hours to become a great pilot, our newly minted facilitators can perform their role after just one day in our electronic trainer. They perform at their best when they follow the rules precisely. And that takes practice. If we start with a warm up session to establish the norms for the group, they will do whatever you ask for the rest of the day. But only if the questions are fun, start with what they could know or discover and build on these foundations.

Our software (and it's systems/methods) bring together into a single space * an environment for capturing and sharing the fruits of our conversations in pairs * a sequence of questions/activities that take people on an exciting/interesting learning journey * a relating method which orchestrates the group and a * a dialectical discourse method to create new knowledge together.

Some questions to ask:

1. What was the most difficult experience you have ever had as a leader or facilitator of a group? What happened, what went wrong?
2. If you could replay your interaction with the group what would you do differently and why?
3. What was the most exceptional experience you had as a leader or facilitator of a group? What happened, what went right?
4. Develop a set of rules based on our collective best experiences and what we have learned from our worst experiences, for performing as a leader or facilitator in the future. 1..., 2...., 3.... etc.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The value of common sense

The elephant in the room at the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Sotomayor's appointment to the US Supreme Court was not her Latin heritage, nor President Obama's desire for a more empathic approach to the law, but the logic of the procedures and processes of the legal system.

Superficially it was a case of Precedent vs. Judicial Activism. But the real question was never canvassed: Whether a test at the heart of a controversial legal case was useful or not?

The case focused on the dumping of a multiple choice test that a bunch of white guys seeking promotion as firefighters to leadership roles were able to pass, but some of their Latino and African-American colleagues could not (or did not score as well).

Some senators argued that Judge Sotomayor allowed personal beliefs to determine the case, and by rejecting the white firefighters appeal, made the law rather than followed the law.

Over the course of the confirmation hearing, it became clear that Sotomayor and her fellow judges relied on precedent, whereas the Supreme Court, who overturned their decision, were in fact the real activists and created a new precedent in a split 5-4 vote.

At the heart of legal thought is a notion of enduring, fundamental rules that are good for all time, and only need to fine tuned from time to time.

But as anyone will tell you, who has a deep connection to the world at large, times are a-changing, and in a great hurry, like it or not. Those untrained in specialized thinking and all its precedents, may be more closely connected to the times than we realize. Something we call common sense.

As many people with good old fashioned common sense will tell you, leadership is all about relationship and serving others' interests as well as your own, and not the ability to pass a written test. Which raises the question: Why was so much US judicial system time and taxpayer's money spent on arguing the pros and cons of the discriminatory aspects of a particular test rather than the validity/usefulness of the test?

So here's some workshop questions to consider:

1. What are the qualities of a great leader?
2. What are the qualities of a person who does not display good leadership?
3. Give examples of all different ways of knowing/thinking and the ways of regarding the world/truth? e.g. accountancy, seeing the world in terms of profits and losses, revenues and expenses...
4. How should great leaders go about solving problems, especially to understand the different ways that people think/know things?
5. Brainstorm a list of questions that leaders should ask in order to serve their people?
6. Give an example from your life where someone made a decision about you but ignored/was unaware of your logic/interests/ways of knowing.
7. Give an example of when you followed the rules or used a specific logic, you skirted around the real problem, because your way of knowing gave you a limited access to understanding the length/breadth/complexity of the issue.
8. Give an example of something you know to be true but you can't give a logical reason why/why not?
9. Explain what you mean by "common sense" and how this might help us understand the ways the rules of society are changing.
10. Brainstorm a list of situations when you might rely on "common sense" to get at the "truth".
11. How do great leaders arrive at new "truths"? Brainstorm ideas for a process e.g. 1..., 2...., 3....

Monday, July 13, 2009

Be careful what you catch

The size of your mesh determines what kind of fish you catch. So if you focus on catching the wrong kind of stuff, then life can be, well less than wonderful.

In a "no name city" in suburban Sydney, Australia, some time during the late 20th century the good civic leaders employed a fishing net in the form of a sign to "catch" dead cats.

The sign, located at one of the public entrances to the council chambers, proclaimed the focus of their attention to be their cat euthanasia service. The sign read: "Instructions. Cat disposal. 1. Take the cat...." All couched in the clinical language of the bureaucracy.

No fancy personal pronouns on this sign. No "she" or "her" or "you" or "your". Just "the cat". No need to remind you of "your" personal attachment to a soon-to-be former member of your family, just in case you reneged on the deal. No works of art or carved letters above a stone archway. No inspiring Latin phrase such as alis volat propris - meaning "she flies with her own wings" etched in bold across a frieze to inspire the community to greater heights. No banner like you find everywhere in Mexico to celebrate the richness of human endeavor. No symbol to catch your attention and invite inquiry. No poetry to speak directly to your soul. No warm or welcoming embrace. No humanity.

Just the technicalities...a bland, ruthless puritanism.

During the City's 200th birthday celebrations, the sign was ceremoniously torn down, to reflect a turning of the tide.

Perhaps you have such signs. If so:

1. What words, symbols, signs, phrases, mottos, slogans do you and your organization exhibit/use/display which are a millstone around your neck or a hawser that ties you to the wharf?
2. What new words/phrases/symbols could you invent, that probably do not yet exist, that could allow you to break the bonds, escape the yoke, spread your wings or celebrate the future you?

Monday, July 6, 2009

A bumpy, wild ride?

"A better life" for ourselves, but especially for our children. That's what humans seem to want most of all. Not fame, not fortune, but happiness and contentment.

Strangely, the definition of what makes a better life, and how we attain it, seems to be constantly changing.

It's all because of a partnership between our brains and the tools we have invented. We create new tools that give us greater powers and automate more of what we do, which helps us create ever more powerful tools. Wheels and portable fuel to drive places that are too far to walk. Electricity to cook our food and light and heat our homes. Instantly accessible libraries of knowledge at everyone's fingertips. Electronics to connect us to other people anywhere on the planet. Planes to fly us half-way round the globe in less than a day. Powers that would seem "god-like" to our ancestors.

Our tools begin as "automatic" mental operations, which are cognitive routines that allow us to perform complex actions unconsciously. No more pushing the porridge up the nose. No more stalling the car. No more living a Groundhog day every day. Parts of our brain, which seem to be involved in the orchestration of speech and gestures - successive processing - do the job for us.

Then one day, some of us discover a way to convert what we do into a "labour saving" device or method. We automate our automatic operations! And when we have invented a complex web of these tools, the tool ecologies and human society undergo a transformation to a higher level of organization. The old tool ecologies and ways of doing things (work) become extinct (think horse and buggy, farriers, saddlers, village scale living), and the new species of tools become widely adopted (think motor cars, freeways, service stations, shopping malls, mechanics).

We don't plan the change, it just happens, simply because humans and our tools are just another complex system that obeys the laws of complexity theory.

Several social and technological revolutions have occurred at regular intervals over the past 10,000 years since we were nomadic Hunter Gatherers. First we made the shift to an Agricultural society of villagers that domesticated plants and animals. We then progressed to an Industrial Age culture when we created machines to do the work of people and animals. Next we happened upon an Information Age world in which electricity and electronic devices allowed us to build and control highly complex organizational systems that spanned the world. Soon thereafter we switched to a Knowledge Age society, where the power to store and create new knowledge became widespread and available to most humans on the planet. The latest change is to a Wisdom Age world in which some of us are acquiring new powers to apply new and existing knowledge wisely.

These changes, or abrupt discontinuities, follow the pattern of a period doubling cascade. Each wave of change is about 1/5 the length of the previous system, and approaches the Feigenbaum constant, 4.669...which is as fundamental as Pi.

We are now at a critical stage of human development. Culturally we have passed through the fourth bifurcation, where systems wide chaos emerges in complex systems. This means we could be in for a wild ride. Each new period, between transitions, is now so short that the dramatic upheavals which used to arrive every few thousand or few hundred years, are now likely to appear in just a handful of years.

The big question is what's next? Is it a series of new cultural waves, but at a higher cognitive level? Or do our tools become part of us and we co-evolve together as a new species? Or does society disintegrate and we reset the clock, like Pol Pot tried to do in Cambodia?

Perhaps we are simply in the process of becoming something more amazing...yet to be imagined and automated. The thinking that we automate then becomes a tool which takes its place in the physical universe alongside or instead of natural organisms or objects, and joins with other tools and our brains in an ever cleverer web of tools that feeds back into the system to generate yet another cycle of period doubling, tool and job extinctions and speciations.

If only we can learn to deal with the blindingly accelerating speed of change. If we can, then the universe might just become a “physical” instantiation of our best past, present and future collective imaginations. The possibilities are both enticing and frightening. But symbiotically frighteningly fantastic, for which the frontal lobes of our “stone-age” brains are perfectly designed.

Some questions:

1. Describe some of the major changes that are taking place in the world today.
2. Thinking about these changes, describe a scenario which you think accounts for the way humans and tools have developed over the past 10,000 years.
3. Describe a scenario that might extrapolate from our past to the future.
4. Looking back over the past, what have we done that has ensured our success/survival?
5. What must we now do to ensure we survive the next few waves of change?

Your own personal "Google"

The outcome of a Sudoku game, the Japanese puzzle, can be fully predetermined with as few as 17 given numbers out of a possible 81. Puzzle solvers place the numbers 1 to 9 so that in each of nine vertical columns, nine horizontal rows and nine 3 x 3 grid boxes, all numbers are represented, once and only once.

It is all because of an underlying pattern within the system that ensures a predetermined (deterministic) outcome rather than a chance (probabalistic) outcome.

When you plan the match game nim, featured in the 1962 movie L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961) the task is to remove as many matches as you wish from any row, but only one row during your turn. The last person forced to pick up a match, loses the game. But the reality is, that when both players know how nim works, the person who goes second will always win, because the winner merely has to leave behind even numbers of binary clumps of matches, 2^0, 1^1, 2^2, or when the game is reduced to three rows, one match in each row, the only rule that defies the binary clump rule.

If you are faced with these combinations you will be forced to pick up the last match:

In bridge, when the cards are dealt and a suit is decided, there is a precise order in which the cards must fall in order to win the hand, otherwise your partner can become very annoyed when you either play the cards in the incorrect sequence or over/underbid your hand.

The human brain often works this way. There may be 100 billion neurons (10^17) and 100 trillion snyapses (10^14), but ask a person a closed question and your left frontal lobes brain will help deliver a single automatic, predetermined response. You don't have to go searching through all the other possible combinations and permutations. That could take forever.

On the other hand, brains can also remain open to a wider range of possibilities, because our right frontal lobes are designed to quickly explore the best combinations. For example, if you ask a person a rich open-ended question your own personal Google will respond in a few seconds with a whole variety of possibilities from which to choose or make sense.

Fortunately, for our convenience, brains deliver up a selection of the most likely possibilities rather quickly, together with incoming data from all the senses. If the brain's response was too slow, you could easily become a predator's meal by the time you worked out whether it's a tiger or just the shadows.

So the next time, when you are absolutely certain that you are right, you may not be. You may merely have recalled a predetermined response, which was right for you, back then, but maybe not now. And although there may be many other people whose brains work the same way this may lull you into a false sense of security. You may all be wrong, especially if the rules of the game have changed.

Like right now! Because, as we make the transition from a Knowledge Age world to a Wisdom Age world all bets are off!

Here's a workshop to exercise your own personal "Google":

1. Make a list of 10 things that you know.
2. Make a list of 10 things that you don't know.
3. Why might it be useful to distinguish between what we know and what we don't know?
4. Describe 2 different ways you could acquire knowledge.
5. Brainstorm at least 5 examples of UNRELIABLE ways of acquiring knowledge. Explain why what you learn may be unreliable.
6. Brainstorm at least 5 examples of RELIABLE ways of acquiring knowledge. Explain why what you learn may be reliable.
7. Consider for a moment Encyclopedia Britannica (compiled by experts) and Wikipedia as source of knowledge (compiled by anyone). In what ways might they be reliable/unreliable and why?
8. Make a list of methods you could use to improve your confidence in the reliability of knowledge.
9. How would you know whether what you think you know is an automatic response that might be culturally acquired?
10. How could you keep an open mind? How could you train your brain to detect erroneous beliefs or a shift in the rules of the game?
11. What is the difference between "being knowledgeable" and "being wise"?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The ill-tempered orchestra

You've probably heard of the well-tempered klavier (the pianoforte) but not the ill-tempered orchestra.

This is a musical instrument formed entirely by human voices. The concept has its origins in "the gripe orchestra", an Improv routine that invites people to let go of their angst as a performance facilitated/orchestrated by the team leader. It's designed to let off steam.

The ill-tempered orchestra raises complaining to new artistic heights....with the perfect synchronization and artistic flair expected of the Boston Philharmonic.

Each table of participants is assigned a kind of complaining. Nigglers. Moaners. Whingers. Wailers. Grizzlers. Whiners. Grumblers. Each sounds like the music created by playing a violin, bass, bassoon, trumpet or trombone.

Each table of participants crafts the libretto for their instrument. The words are recorded and projected onto a large screen, so the assembled orchestra can read the score. Words like "nobody loves me", "It's not fair", "I don't want to", "I don't feel well", "It hurts me here."

The tympani section, the naysayers, set the beat...with their "No. No. No", or "Never, Never, Never" and each group extemporizes, chiming in whenever their instrument seems appropriate.

The result is amazing music, everyone falls about laughing, and strangely all our cares just simply fall away.


1. Craft the words for an orchestral complaint based on your assigned "musical instrument". e.g. grizzlers, whingers, wailers, moaners etc.
2. Come to the front of the room, stay in your groups, and play/create/perform a musical work. Start with the Naysayers (tympani). Synchronized/harmonize your performance with the other "instruments".