Sunday, August 30, 2009

The new wowsers

The new "wowsers" in the state where I live are the Authority responsible for issuing drivers licences. Recently they raised the requirement for supervised instruction of new drivers from 50 hours to 120 hours.

Over the years the Authority has developed great policies to help reduce the road toll. But the latest requirement defies good sense and fails to be good policy because people now "cheat" the system. It's easier to get a license to fly a plane solo, a much more complicated task. Forty hours is all that is required.

The original concept of wowser was a person whose believed their view of morality gave them the power to deprive others of their rights to "sinful pleasures" such as alcohol, drugs and sex. A form of righteousness, the belief in "being" right, no matter what.

The issue has always been how much "social control" versus how much "individual responsibility". Often it is difficult to strike a balance between the two.

But things go off the rails when the new laws are unnecessary or do not work. Then we need to closely examine our rationale and together - across the political, moral, social or religious aisle - work out whether there is a better way.

It's very easy to accidentally become a "wowser". It often happens when no other solutions appear to be available, especially when a society is in transition, when change is accelerating, like right now. Or when the policy horses have bolted and there is a tendency to over compensate and use new prohibitions to put a band-aid on the problem previously created. Sometimes, policies take a long time to travel through society, like the indigestible meal you wished you never had. The effects are so remote from the cause it's not obvious what to do.

For example the strategy of setting tax incentives for investment in blue chips and property instead of business innovation and social entrepreneurship has led to investment bubbles in businesses that have refused to change their ways in the face of accelerating change. The oversight of a school system designed for the Industrial Age that bores our children and equips them for jobs that no longer exist has resulted in a growing pool of unemployables. Or failing to provide support to young families, so babies/toddlers develop the rich language skills that program their brains for success - being read to, joint activity, playful and conversation - before they get to school, means many people are behind the eight ball within 3-4 years of starting out on life.

A recent survey of young people shows many are faking their log-book entries because the task is impossible to achieve. Their parents do not have the time to supervise their driving and the cost of 120 hours of professional driver training puts a driver's licence on par with a university degree.

Any game player will tell you that when the game is "too hard" people give up playing, or subvert the game. Its the same with learning activities. If you were to drop a 5 year old into a calculus class they would soon be bored and boisterous. When we ban drink and drugs, people find ways around the law, to do what is banned anyway. It just goes underground. So from a psychological point of view the new law makes no sense.

It's the same with being tough on crime. There is not much evidence that these kinds of policies reduce the incidence of fraud, rape, murder, robbery, drug dealing or drug taking. But being tough on crime is a great strategy to get yourself elected as the sheriff or the district attorney. Lock someone up and there's a queue ready to take over the drug dealership or the robbery and fencing jobs of those inside.

In America some 2.3 million people are in prison out of a total population of 306 million, which is one in every 113. It's costing Americans a small fortune, money that might be better spent on early childhood, school education and encouraging entrepreneurship in the young and talented, to deal with the problem before it becomes an issue.

In marked contrast, the Australian prison population is just 24,000, out of a total population of 21 million, which is one in every 875. If Australia jailed people at the same rate as the USA 185,000 people would jave lost their liberty. On most measures of public safety, locking up far fewer people, does not make Australia less safe, although politicians are following the American trend, and have locked up 50% more people in the last five years, even though there is no evidence of an increase in crime.

The real test should be "what works?"

So here's a workshop to explore whether some of our laws/policies make sense or not:

1. What overly onerous examples of the law or policy position you or know about?
2. In what ways do these extreme prescriptions achieve a useful outcome for society? Give examples.
3. In what ways do these extreme prescriptions achieve a less than useful outcome for society? Give examples.
4. What might be a better/creative/sensible way to achieve a useful social outcome?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Discourse and dissipative systems

In 1984 Prigogne and Stengers showed that complex systems like hurricanes and ecologies depend for their survival/stability on the flow or dissipation of energy or matter through the system.

It's not immediately obvious, but human social networks are dissipative systems. They depend for their vitality on the richness of the conversations that flow through them, not just verbal conversations but motor activity as well.

Conversations take on many forms ranging from physical interactions such as gestures which are partners in speech and the special cases of bodily communication such as fisticuffs, lovemaking, war, theatre or dance. A social group with no conversation or interaction is by definition no social group at all.

A recent study of student discourse in secondary school classrooms using a team learning system showed the richness of the discourse depends on the kinds of questions teachers ask and in what order.

Closed questions, and questions about stuff beyond our expertise can be conversation killers. All you get is Yes, No, Maybe, Blue or Dunno. Yet sometimes Yes can be a response to an invitation for more interaction. To go somewhere nice for dinner, play baseball or playfully roll in the hay.

Open ended questions kick start your personal Google into action, performing far better than any search engine. Our frontal lobes orchestrate multiple searches in rapid succession. So when we think motor cars we might recall brands (Ford, Toyota BMW etc.), parts of a car (engine, door, wheels, etc.), types (utes, pick-ups, station waggons, 4-wheel drives etc.) or people we know who drive cars (the person who nearly ran into you last week, taxi, truck and bus drivers).

Conversation becomes exciting when collectively we create new combinations of ideas that solve human problems and which foster more human interactivity, which is the discourse equivalent of great sex.

Here's a directed graphs analysis of a rich question where the participants in a conversation stimulate so many "remindings"/"rememberings" in the minds of others, that the system undergoes a structural change....from a group to a team. The blue dots are ideas, the red dots are people who generated no ideas and the black dots are people who generated ideas. The direction of the arrows shows whose "rememberings" were influenced by others.

When we become a top performing team teams/effective groups, it's a shift from chaotic connections to a higher level of organization. Through a process of forming, storming, norming, performing and when it's all over, adjourning.

Everyone is listened to. Leadership is distributed. And we become very creative. Which is what happens to great football and basketball teams, families where the children thrive as well as the best orchestras and the most renowned theater troupes.

So here's a workshop that helps your collective frontal lobes go "gangbusters" and quickly share vital information about each other. Interview each other in pairs, then record and introduce each other for each question:

1. Expectations: What outcomes do you expect from this session? New learning, new perspectives, commitments or relationships.
2. Work: What is your current work? The skills you have, the organization you work for, your learning, travel, highlights.
3. Leisure: What are your interests? Hobbies, sports, games, entertainments, pastimes, leisure, pleasures, community activities)
4. Beliefs: Describe your opinions, beliefs, heroes, archetypes, and political aspirations.
5. Values: What is important to you? What are your personal ideals? What motivates you?
6. Family and Home: What is your situation? Single/married, children, where you live, lifestyle, growing up, early memories.
7. Dislikes: What makes you unhappy, angry or concerned? What you would like to change about the world, your job or your life?
8. Likes: What do you like about your job, family, employer or the world?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Guilt, sarcasm and other psychological tools

If you ask people to brainstorm a list of emotions, guilt is almost certain be on the list along with blame, shame, love, happiness, fear and anger.

It's a learned emotion. We feel guilty when our actions may diminish the lives of others. We also feel collective guilt for what our forebears may have inflicted unfairly on others, or when some in our community act unreasonably and we do nothing to stop them.

Some people use guilt as a tool. To make people feel guilty in order to change the way they act, to dissuade them from a course of action or encourage a different course of action.

When mother says, "Dont take the last piece of toast. Jane has not eaten yet," her words are designed to stop you in your tracks, to feel "guilty" for diminishing Jane's enjoyment of life.

Your mother is using guilt as a tool to extend her power over you.

In Interactivity theory#, we think of tools as extensions of human brains. As Damasio shows brain cells are unlike any other cells. They are not only themselves but they also represent other cells. And represent the objects/tools we hold in our hands or speak with our larynx or express with our face.

Tools give us the power to do stuff. Language, gestures, symbols and signs are the basics. We use them routinely in our daily interactions with others.

Primary tools are physical. They include the sword, the motor car and the computer. Secondary tools are psychological. They include methods, processes, questions and instructions. Tertiary tools are cultural. They are complex constellations of tools that deliver power at a distance or over a wide area such as the road network, systems of government, global corporations or armies.

Some people use psychological tools in the same way they use swords and guns. For example, sarcasm is a tool that uses humor in the form of cutting remarks or words that mock, wound or subject the person to contempt/ridicule. It comes from the Greek σαρκάζω (sarkazo) meaning to "tear flesh".

Most tools are used jointly with others and often involve a disproportionate use of power. For example, when a person uses a sword on another. The sword-bearer kills or mains and the victim is injured in the process. The words killer/victim describe roles which represent a power imbalance.

Most often, in a civilized society laws, rules and regulations determine how we collectively use shared tools so that power is generally distributed equitably amongst the users for their collective benefit. For example the road rules are designed to help us automatically decide who can turn or cross and the order, speed and direction in which we can safely travel.

Interactivity theory explains how humans and tools evolve in a symbiotic relationship, like the algae and polyps of a coral reef. Most of the time we make minor improvements to the tools and gain incremental enhancements to our powers.

But every so often, as if by magic, our tools undergo a rapid transformation to a new kind of order, with hundreds or thousands of times the power of the old tools. Think horse and buggy to motor car, or sail to steam ships, or carbon paper to photocopier.

When the new tools arrive, our old ways of doing things don't work any more, so our old jobs become extinct, and new kinds of jobs begin to appear.

Here's the Interactivity model we use to analyse these changes in human activity systems:

* Humans use tools in joint activity to extend their power and capability:
* in order to play a set of roles, for example, teacher/student facilitator/participant, that is determined by
* the rules of how tools are used, which in turn determines
* the relationships that develop between the participants as each pursues their individual, and occasionally collective interests, which results in
* a change in activity that may either be incremental (both negative and positive) or transformational depending on whether
* the activity is consciously directed towards individual/collective aspirations OR spontaneously emerges as a result of unconscious collective activity e.g. from group -> team or from horse and buggy tool system -> motor car tool system,
* which determines whether the culture is diminished, persists or is transformed.

Which brings me to the point of this story. Over the course of the last 10,000 years since we were hunter gatherers we have been reluctant to give up many of the old ways of doing things, including using psychological tools to manipulate others by causing emotional pain, which harm rather than build relationships.

Usually, participants in human activity systems exert power differently and play disparate roles. When one has more power than the other we see win-lose outcomes such as occurs when a person makes another feel guilty to cause them to change their intended activity.

Guilt as a tool is a one-sided attempt at exercising control over another. One person plays the role of the aggressor/oppressor and the other the role of the victim. The rules of use of the tools are similar to the use of a sword...a unilateral action, in which case the relationship is diminished and the activity system regresses to a lower functioning state. A Win-lose situation.

If the victim chooses to retaliate, and plays the aggressor, the activity system enters a chaotic state where anything may happen, until it is resolved in some way. A potentially lose-lose situation, where the group may regress to an earlier stage of development such as feudalism, or if the dispute broadens, like a strike or war with collateral damage, we may even revert to anarchy. A Lose-Lose-Lose situation.

But when individuals choose to further both their own interests and the group's interests there is the possibility of alignment, a win-win outcome, or if the outcomes benefit the wider community, a win-win-win result. In which case you would not use guilt as a tool, because it does not help foster these kinds of outcomes.

Instead you might use a tool such as "love" or "fun/play", and ask others to join with you to collectively do/create/pursue something new, to "bake a bigger cake" together, and so benefit from the "joy" you feel together, when you get to play with the new possibilities.

So here's a workshop to explore how the way we use tools can enhance who we are and our relationships with others:

1. Aspiration Horizon: What do you aspire to become/be doing that is fun, brilliant, joyful?
2. Tools: What tools are you using to deal with the issue/problem/opportunity. Think about physical (products, machines, tools), psychological (methods, processes, techniques) and cultural (large scale systems e.g. army, multi-player gaming world)?
3. Rules: How are you using the tools? Think about the rules of use both in terms of verbal communication (unilateral monologue, random dicussion, empathic dialogue, integrative dialectic) and gestural communication (e.g. smack in the face with a fist, warm embrace).
4. Roles: What role have you chosen/has been selected for you by the rules of use of the tools?
5. Relationships: What are the consequences of the choice of tool, rules and consequential role and the effect on others with whom you have (or would like to have) a relationship?
6. Analysis: To what extent is your use of the tools aligned with others (colleagues, suppliers, shareholders, competitors, family members, friends, research subjects)?
7. New aspiration: What could you now aspire to become/be doing that might better meet your needs/other needs so that your collective use of the tools is aligned and resonates rather than interferes with each other. i.e a team rather than a group.

#Findlay, J. (2008). Learning as a game: Exploring cultural differences between teachers and learners using a team learning system. Doctoral dissertation, University of Wollongong, Australia -- Wollongong.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Crazy new world

This week British futurist Rohit Talwar published a list of tomorrow's jobs and asked colleagues and clients for comments.

Among the list were vertical farmers to grow hydroponic crops in cities. Personal entertainmment programmers to develop highly targeted/personalized news and entertainment services. Baby designers to personalise the characteristics and features of your unfertilized "child". And nano-medics to help repair worn-out cells with atomic scale replacement devices.

Sounds like science fiction? Not really. Just think back one hundred years. Eighty percent of farm production fed horses for transportation, electricity powered only 5% of factories and 10% of homes, the first “computers” were not due for another 40 years, and the internet was incomprensible. At the start of the 21st century, electricity, the motor car, the computer and the internet have totally transformed our lives.

U.S. labor statistics for the past 100 years tell the dramatic story of economic and social change. Hunter-gatherer jobs are now non-existent. Agricultural and mining jobs have plummeted from 20% to 3%. Industrial jobs have slumped from 31% to 19%. At the same time, services work has stayed static around 40% whereas knowledge careers has risen from 10% to 36% of total jobs. 

Yet one in six Americans will leave school this year unable to get a job because they can not read, write or count, use a computer or work in a team with others. And armies of highly qualified engineers, scientists and technicians in what were some of the world’s poorest countries are starting to create and implement new theories and ideas at a faster rate than the "more advanced" Western powers.

The world is changing so fast, that radical new ways are now necessary to make sense of what is happening. Newly created knowledge, powerful new technologies and ways of connecting people are driving many of our largest and most respected firms to extinction, along with a raft of familiar products, services and jobs.

The current chaos, is not just an economic problem, but is symptomatic of a major transformation of society that is underway.

Over the past 10,000 years since we were hunter-gatherers, human society has been transformed at least four times, as a result of a powerful partnership between the tools we create and the human brain. During this time, our genes – and our brain design - has changed less than 0.1 per cent but our tools have become an evolutionary juggernaut....from grunts, flints and spears to a myriad of languages, jumbo jets, movies, television, global corporations and the internet.

Four big waves of change are crashing down on top of us in quick succession. The last remnants of the Industrial Age. The recent Information Age. The newly emerging Knowledge Age. And a new era characterized by the wise application of knowledge. Most organisations are able to handle incremental change, which occurs between the major transitions. But few have developed the necessary skills to navigate the chaotic transitions.

With each new wave of change, we use our new knowledge to create new tools that are more powerful and knowledge intensive that ever before.

The new tools automate the work of the previous period AND further automate the work of earlier cultural/tool periods. It works as a kind of knowledge multiplier effect that ricochets all the way back through the system.

Here's a workshop to explore the possibilities:

1. Choose one of these new technologies. Nano-machines and atomic/molecular level manufacturing systems. Connected machines. Brain-machine interfaces. Direct genetic manipulation of all kinds of life. Replacement body parts. Personalised experiences delvery. Biologically manufactured foods. In what ways could you imagine/forsee how these technologies will change the way we work/learn/live?
2. Describe a new kind of job/career that the new technologies will make possible/necessary?
3. Who will be the new haves and the have nots? Who will be umeployable/no longer useful?
4. Which old kinds of jobs will the new tools and jobs make redundant.
5. What are the possible alternative consequences for society as it is currently organized? Its structure, way it makes decisions,
6. What kinds of changes do we need to make to education/learning in order to prepare people for this new kind of world?
7. What kinds of changes will we need to make to the political/administrative/judicial system to govern our new ways of living and interacting?
8. What kinds of changes will need to make to business, government and community production/delivery systems that feed, clothe, entertain and generally sustain/enrich human life?
9. What will be the biggest threat to human society?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Certainty and mystery

Want a quick answer to a problem? Go to and use this "computational knowledge engine" to give a unique/definite/correct answer to a closed, finite, factual question. What's the wavelength of blue light? How far from earth to the sun? What's the probability of a Royal Flush in poker?

It will save you stretching the neurons, going to the library or rummaging through Wikipedia. And probably ruin Trivia Nights at the pub.

Despite its' fancy new name, this kind of technology has been around for yonks. It's call an expert system, a carefully cultivated database of factual information, computational rules and questions framed in natural language, rather than the more formal language of computer programming. In this case, the designers have created a web portal to access the software that drives the system instead of a software application resident on a stand-alone computer.

But there's a problem with this kind of knowing. It's totally boring. And in the same way that any lengthy bout of conservative or radical politics often leads to its polar opposite it's likely that an era of absolute certainty will lead to a thirst for mystery. And where do you find more mystery? By expanding the range of possibilities. By inventing new worlds, new denizens of these worlds, and new relationships between the participants, no matter what the species.

Our brains are designed to deal with uncertainty, to struggle to make sense out of what we don't know and what we don't know we don't know. New concepts and new ways of seeing the world.

When danger lurks or a new problem presents for which we don't have an instinctive or automatic response the right frontal lobes take control. Our own personal Google helps to find stuff from all over the brain, as well as the latest updates from our senses. And it very helpfully creates brand new solutions.

Once we get it right the left frontal lobes take control and play automatic routines for us so we don't "go bananas" and live a groundhog day every day. Routinely dealing with the same complex problems over and over again. Like

Curiosity about mysteries may well be what drives human cultural evolution. Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi argues that humans have evolved from ancestors who survived because they became skilled at inventing and exploring and were thus able to deal more successfully with the unpredictable. The discovery of novelty engages the brain and evokes a pleasurable experience and that without the motivation for enjoyment there would be no evolution of culture.

So here is a workshop to explore the mysterious?

1. Describe what for you is a mystery?
2. When you discover a mystery what do you feel? What do you want to do?
3. What happens when you start exploring the mystery and get stuck? When it becomes too hard to solve?
4. How do you feel when you solve a mystery? Immediately? A few minutes later? The next couple of hours? The following day?
5. How could you re-invigorate your life using mysteries just a bit out of reach?
6. How could you tackle the really obtuse/remote/complex mysteries, the ones that cause you to become frustrated/bored the first time around?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Mirror neurons, leadership and play

Great Kung Fu masters, virtuoso musicians, impressive orators and talented opera singers become brilliant by practicing ‘the moves” so what they do and say is fluent and automatic.

Why then do we expect our corporate leaders and teachers to be able to perform a complex management or teaching role with minimal rehearsal?

Why do we teach the theory of facilitation and leadership but not the "kinaesthetic" practice of orchestrating/organizing others in a live setting? Why do many universities train their teachers on-line or via lectures? How come many teachers go into the classroom to use a new technology after a quick read of the manual?

Orchestrating the mouth, tongue, larynx, cheeks, fingers, hands, legs and other muscles to perform complicated roles can be as complicated as learning to drive a motor car, for which we need a license to drive. In the State where I live, new drivers are required to have 100 hours of practice and keep a log to prove it.

The new routines we learn are what the famed Russian neuropsychologist, A.R. Luria calls “kinetic melodies” - templates for different combinations of speech and motor actions. Like a player piano roll for the human brain. And it takes time to sequence, orchestrate and automate complex speech and motor actions associated with each new role we choose to perform.

The key to success is considerable rehearsal, in front of a full length mirror, before a small and supportive audience or through the reflective eye of a video camera.

Much of this has to do with “mirror neurons”. These same neurons fire off in the brains of humans and monkeys when they watch an action and when they perform the same action.

This part of the brain helps you form a theory of mind about what the other person might say or do in response to what you say or do. So when you are dealing with a class of 20 or 30 young people or an audience of 50, it can become a very complex "hall of mirrors".

Mirror neurons are located in Broca’s area of the brain. They are adjacent to the motor neuron area where, says David McNeil, author of Gesture and Thought, "inputs from the right hemisphere, the frontal areas and the posterior regions of the left hemisphere...converge”. McNeil says “mirror neurons complete Mead’s loop in the part of the brain where action sequences are organized – the two kinds of sequential actions, speech and gesture, converging... It is damage to this part of the brain that makes it difficult to sequence actions into a new kinetic melody for the “orchestration of movement”.

This same part of the brain may also be involved in the orchestration of collective play, where children imitate or play at being mothers and fathers, cops and robbers or doctors and nurses, and as Vygotsky shows, perform as if they were “a head taller”. We now know that mirror neurons have a role in empathy and may also be implicated in autism. If a person is unable to form a strong or memorable image of another person’s actions as they perform a new role (how they deal with conflicts, help each other, develop good relationships, etc) they may be unable to imagine how their actions will impact on the other person.

So here’s a workshop to practice a new role.

1. Working in pairs, choose a new role to perform e.g. policeman, orchestra conductor. Watch your partner perform in their new role. Report back. What did they do and say?
2. A new role for you. Thinking about a new role that you wish to perform in your organization, community etc, describe in detail the “language game” for that role (words, phrases, concepts, theoretical relationships/connections between concepts)?
3. Thinking about a new role that you wish to perform, describe in detail the “gestural language game” for that role (movement, gestures, demeanour, stance, actions)?
4. Describe a situation in which you will perform your new role. What will you say and do?
5. Now each person will perform their role for a buddy. The other person makes notes about the performance and identifies the types of errors that the person makes (Think about previously learned speech/gestural routines, inner speech to guide your activity, the ideal speech/gesture) .
6. Write a new performance script using inner speech as the basis for guiding what you need to say and do.
7. Practise the speech/moves repeatedly until the motor/speech routines (“kinetic melodies”) become easy to do and you don’t have to consiously think about performing the role.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Connecting the silos

Creating new knowledge is now critical to organization success. It's about getting our different parts of the jigsaw to fit together as a single unified whole, so what we do is perfectly attuned with the market/technological/social trends.

The issue is that many of our organizations still think success goes to the winners of the competition for resources, power and influence. So we fight to make sure our idea wins, even though it's not the complete story. We try to treat pneumonia as if it was a head cold.

Some of us find it hard to make the switch to new ways of working/thinking, particularly if the new world that is emerging looks very different to the one we know so well. New words and concepts. New technologies. New methods. New kinds of relationships.

Like the transition from water to ice, the shift from dinosaurs to mammals, or the demise of the horse and buggy and its' replacement by the motor car, freeways, shopping malls and service stations.

Complexity theory offers a rich explanation of how these changes occur. We now know that not only do physical, chemical and biological systems undergo periodic transformations to a more organised state through a process of auto-catalysis, but laws of complexity even apply to human social systems, how groups become teams, relationships develop and the human brain learns.

So what if we used this knowledge about transformational change to design better meetings, corporate retreats and organization-wide conferences?

Biologist Stuart Kauffman uses the example of random graphs to show how systems change the way they are organised at critical moments. Random graphs are vertices or nodes (“buttons”) connected by links or edges (“threads). He asks you to imagine a large number of buttons, say 10,000 lying on a floor. The buttons are randomly connected in pairs, two at a time. Pick up any thread when there are few threads connected and you are likely to pick up a new pair of buttons every time. Pick up any threads or buttons near the transition point and you are likely to pick up most of the buttons, in a complete assemblage. The system changes state when half the buttons are connected.

As the diversity of people and their separate goals in the system increases, the ratio of reactions also increases. But only if they are in the same "test tube". The number of catalysts in the system rises above a threshold at which time the likelihood of collectively autocatalytic sets in the system becomes almost guaranteed. The organization begins to act as a single athletic entity rather than a motley collection of warring tribes or fiefdoms.

We now have the tools to do it, to increase the adjacency between people so the contagion can spread. Web2.0 technologies allow everyone in a meeting room to give instant feedback to a presentation. The corporate retreat is no longer a one-way series of presentations by divisional teams. Instead it can be a lively real-time conversation between hundreds of people. People who rarely get together. People who even more rarely have input to each other's work. People who only discover what others are doing via their manager, a very old and inefficient co-ordination mechanism from the days of Taylorist scientific management.

Now we can instantly share our thoughts and feelings about ways to take advantage of our respective strengths and resources. We explore how we can do more together than by acting alone. We help each other iron out the bugs in projects. We minimise the distrust and suspicion about what others are doing and how it impacts on our work. We achieve greater organization flexibility. All at the same time.

Imagine 50-100 or so people at such an event. Perhaps 5-10 teams. It is an approach we use to help coordinate and orchestrate the activities of cross-boundary teams. Each team has responsibility for some aspect of the organization's activities. We use it with marketing/sales teams responsible for different, but vaguely related products, sometimes with overlapping customers, so they help each other make more sales, more strategically. We use it to help teams that deliver different aspects of a major construction, defence or information systems project to integrate complex systems that must work perfectly together. And we use the method to help the functional divisions of an organization - finance, marketing, sales, production, distribution and services - bring every piece of information to bear on an issue.

It's similar to what the great systems thinker Stafford Beer conceptualized as "syntegration", the simultaneous synthesis and integration of ideas and interests.

Here's how it works:

After each team presents, we ask the audience to discuss and capture their comments via a large screen that makes the ideas instantly visible to everyone. Just one-minute per question:

1. What was great about the plan/proposal/project?
2. What improvements/enhancements could be made to the plan/proposal/project?
3. What could we contribute to the plan/proposal/project?

At the conclusion of all the presentations, we brainstorm a list of the top 10-15 REALLY BIG issues/opportunities. We spend just one minute brainstorming ideas to deal with each issue. Just 20 minutes in total. The most effective meeting the organization will hold this year. By the time we return to our hotel rooms there's a copy of what we said in our mailbox. And on Monday morning we have new relationships to explore and a plan to continue what we started.

4. Describe an issue/opportunity that needs to be/could be addressed.
5. What ideas do we have for dealing with this issue/opportunity.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Build it and they will come

It's a living advertisement for the Industrial Age. The bridge at Ironbridge was built in 1779, just west of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, to prove to the world that iron could be safely used for bridge building instead of timber. Some say this is where the industrial revolution began.

Customers came from near and far to marvel at the miracle metal and the amazingly strong design. Back then the bridge straddled a river poisoned by the sulfurous sludge of industry that despoiled what was once a beautiful valley. Today, with the polluters gone, the valley has become a tourist destination, a combination of recovered natural beauty and the artistry of human endeavour.

After Ironbridge, the idea of steel bridges spread like a contagious disease, a cognitive retrovirus that evolved with each new infection, creating not only more of itself, but variations on a theme.....the arch, suspension, cantilever and beam. My favourite is the Verrazano Narrows bridge, a double deck 4,260 single span monster that guards the entrance to New York Harbour. But I also have a soft spot for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, that graces the city where I live, a soaring symphony of metal which sits astride one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.

Iconic concepts when turned into objects, such as Ironbridge, are like the attractors in complex systems. A set of solutions occupies a well defined mathematical space to which other related concepts gravitate. Such ideas spawned other steel structures such as the Eiffel tower, the skyscraper and the elevated freeways that form a network around the city of New York.  

So what living advertisement can you create around such a powerful concept that people travel from near and far to gaze in wonder and become disciples for the idea?

Here's a workshop to begin the process:

1. What's your big idea? What gets people excited by your product, service, concept or theory and how it could transform/improve/add value to their world?
2. What iconic symbol could you create/design/make/build/assemble that expresses your big idea in such a richly symbolic and powerful way that people come from all over the world to see it?
3. When people come to see your big idea, what can you give them to take back home to other people so they will immediately understand what it means, and will want to join your crusade/movement/new way of being?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Closely connected experiences

Imagine your hand is connected wirelessly to another hand in another body, perhaps your partner or best friend. You unconsciously decide to point your index finger. Two fingers point, yours and theirs.

Then, without warning your hand makes a "V for victory" sign or gives a "thumbs up", without receiving a command from your brain. Two hands separated in space perform the same command in unison. Great for synchronized swimming, amazing ballroom dancing or singing in perfect harmony with others.

To you it seems like your unconscious left frontal lobes have taken control. It's like those involuntary movements you sometimes make without planning to. But the controller is outside your body.

It could become a huge problem. A mess of conflicting activities, a tragedy of the commons, where no one takes responsibility and soon the resources of the commons are depleted, damaged or destroyed.

In some ways, it's a bit like connecting multiple keyboards to a computer with a Microsoft operating system and every keyboard is able to type letters. Each of us has some control, but because control is shared, what you get is gobbledegook, unless you decide upon a protocol, that allows turn taking or you each have your own space on the screen and can do your own thing within the group context.

Seem far fetched? Not at all. A UK husband and wife scientific team have already connected their arms to each other in a kind of soma-kinetic experiment.

Perhaps sometime during the 21st century you will be able to choose whether to be alone with your own thoughts or allow others to invade your brain and play synaptic pinball with your neurons. And you with theirs. Perhaps physical sex will be a thing of the past and be replaced with synaptic sex. You might even be able to host a party in your head.

It is these kinds of "behind the eyelids", closely connected experiences, that human must now be prepared for.

Some of us have already learned how to simulate this kind of world, because we are able to empathise with others. We have learned to imagine and often correctly guess what they are thinking in response to what we are saying and doing. Even without the wireless implants.

Here's one way to practise this skill.

We use an Improv routine called The Mirror to perform this joint activity, and afterwards share our cognitive experiences with each other so we have a better understanding of the connections between our inner and outer worlds:

1. Working with a partner, one person moves their hand and the other follows as if one hand is the mirror image of the other. Do this for 30-60 seconds. Then ask each other what did you see, hear and feel as we did that together? Record what you each learned.

2. Reverse roles. The other person moves their hand and the other person follows, as if their hand is a mirror image. Do this for 30-60 seconds. Then ask each other what did you see, hear and feel as we did that together? Record what you each learned.

3. Working with a partner, imagine yourselves performing a task together, such as writing a book, climbing a hill, shopping. Ask the other person: What did you see, hear or feel? Record what your learned from each other.

4. What happens when we ask people about their internal experiences of the world, rather than just respond to what they say or do?

5. What new rules of etiquette might we need to put in place to ensure we care for each other in these kinds of interactions?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Talking your way out of trouble

In this era of accelerating change, organizations need to to be able to change direction in a moment. Agility depends on many factors. But the most critical is the speed with which we create new knowledge together.

It all depends on how people talk to each other, and whether the bad news delivered by the marketplace and from the production and distribution people about the gaps/bugs in your systems is heard, understood and acted upon.

Most forms of discourse are of little help in creating new knowledge. They weakly connect and analyse information. It is only when you use dialectical discourse, which I call Dialogue plus, that you get to talk with any clear purpose.

Here is a model that I use to understand the nature of human activity, ranging from our powerlessness in the face of nature to the more equal power relationships of groups whose interests have converged and are served by each other. It explains the relationship between the exercise of power and how we communicate. It helps to think of language as having both motor/physical and voice components. For example, unilateral action is the equivalent of monologue. Discussion is ships passing in the night. Dialogue is a warm embrace. Dialectical discourse is great sex.

Many organizations continue to employ Monologue to manage their daily operations in a highly directive manner. Monologue is a weak form of discourse and ensures a significant power differential is maintained between the manager and the stakeholders. It is usually employed by teachers in the form of a lecture, oppressors in the form of incarceration, and leaders when they wish to be directive and ignore other opinions, such as occurs with invasions of one country by another. When the corporate "shit hits the fan", people who are treated badly are often too afraid to change, unless the man with the gun, unbridled authority or sarcastic voice says it's OK.

Discussion is also a weak form of discourse, but is more powerful than monologue. Although all participants in a knowledge-creating activity may have permission to speak, some remain silent, or have little to say. The more articulate or powerful in the group often ignore/reject the views of minorities whose views are often the first sign of the errors/mismatches that will eventually doom the organization. Such treatments breeds discontent and disloyalty.

Although Dialogue is a moderately powerful form of discourse where people listen carefully to each other, to understand other viewpoints, and where possible/practical incorporate those viewpoints into a group decision, it's a “hit and miss” process of knowledge creation. Despite our best efforts, dialogue often fails to resolve organizational conflicts, simpy because it lacks a great purpose. The politiciking and discontent often persists, when people fail to reach agreement about what to do together, that could resolve their differences.

Dialectical discourse (Dialogue Plus), which is a formal knowledge creation process, sets out to resolve the ideas/information contributed by the members of the team into one or more unifying/overarching concepts/decisions that satisfy the needs of all the participants, and either creates the new external trend, or is a good fit with the trend. Dialectical discourse results in highly effective models of leadership, not merely at the senior management level of an organization, but when applied throughout an organization. Dialectical discourse is an essential skill for rapidly changing times, where the ability to reliably and speedily transform the organization’s structure, processes and strategy is critical to success.

So here's a workshop to help you get started:

1. How do people in your organization converse with each other and what are the consequences?
2. What kinds of knowledge creating processes does your organization use and how effectively does it resolve the conflict between different information streams/sources?
3. What would you have to do to get your organization to implement Dialogue Plus as a daily way of working/learning?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Getting started

Have you ever been to one of those company retreats where you generated and agreed upon some fantastic new ideas but when you all returned to work Monday nothing happened?

It's a common outcome. The old patterns of work, with which we are familiar, seem to overwhelm the new. The handful of steps to get started are soon forgotten. The new ideas quickly fade from memory.

But there is a way forward. It's the law of two feet. You need to get started, and set aside some time every day for the new project to take root, so it becomes part of your normal routine.

A few quick action steps is insufficient. First you must translate the kernel of an idea into all its rich variety, that gives it substance. You must then richly connect the idea and its consequences to people and their interests (or passions) and what they do.

It's a process of right brain to left brain transfer. You use your right brain to create the rich new world that surround the idea, then solve all the aspects of the project in all its complexity, and turn these into automatic left brain routines.

Here's a way workshop to help you on your way. It's from the Zing collaborative title for business, Dreams, Memes & Themes, a quick brain dump that takes 30 minutes:

1. Craft a tentative name for the project (5 words or less)
2. Describe the project (25 words or less)
3. What is the theory, knowledge base or best-in-class method we should use to help make this a great project?
4. What new or existing technology or equipment should we use or investigate for the project?
5. What are the first five steps: to get started. Respond like this 1... 2... 3... etc.
6. What are the major milestones including target start and completion dates? Respond like this event 1: date, event 2: date...etc.
7. What resources are required for the project? (Funds, equipment, materials, buildings, etc. x quantities)
8. Estimate the likely cost of the project including people time x dollars, equipment x dollars and consumables x dollars
9. What are the benefits of this project?
10. What are the risks or likely problems to be encountered with the project and how should they be overcome?
11. How will we know if the project is successful? How and when will we measure it?
12. Who should be on the team and why?
13. What are we likely to learn from the project?
14. Craft a new name for the project (5 words or less)