Saturday, November 6, 2010

Seeing the world through other's eyes

There seem to be as many different ways of seeing the world as there are humans. The potential differences are mindbogglingly huge, an astounding Factorial 6500 million differences (about 10 multiplied by itself 10,000,000,000 times).

Each of us grows up with a unique set of influences that no other person on the planet - past present or future - will ever experience. And although this myriad of unique lenses could lead to ongoing disagreement, misunderstanding and lack of trust, there is equally the opportunity for considerable creative potential for good when we bridge and integrate our differences to create new theories, models, lifestyles, products or services.

There's over 6500 languages, with English currently displacing many others that have been around for thousands of years. We can grow up in the traditions of hundreds of religions including the Christian, Bhuddist, Hindu and Islamic faiths. We can stay within or surf to a new stage of human development, of which there are six, starting with the Hunter Gatherer and ending up with post-Knowledge Age (Wisdom Age or Wisdom Economy) ways of being in the world. Political views stretch from the anarchist, communist and socialist on the left to the conservative and fascist on the right.

Then there are career differences. We have White, Blue and now Green Collar work. We work for organizations that range from the academic, religious, business and community to local, state, federal and international  governments. Jobs are as diverse as soldier, lawyer, policeman, prostitute, airline pilot, fisherman, janitor, farmer, psychiatrist and teacher. Each has its' own unique language and concepts that may not be known to other disciplines....which can complicate communication beyond belief.

There's also a huge array of mental models with which to analyse and understand the world. MBA's frequently see the world through the lense of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) or McKinsey's 7-S Model (Style, Structure, Systems, Staff, Strategy, Super-ordinate goals). Farmers think about Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring. Christians might view the world through the lense of the Ten Commandments, Thou Shalt Not Kill or Thou must not covet thy neighbour's ass. Some have a simplistic view of Right and Wrong. And electricians and plumbers have to be sure the power or water is On or Off before they start work.

So what if we could learn to see the world through other people's viewpoints, to live inside their mental models for a few minutes, or a days or a couple of weeks, a critical skill in the emerging Wisdom Economy. Here's a workshop to begin the process:

1. Beliefs: Brainstorm a list of 10 things you believe.
2. Labels: What's some labels you might use to describe the way you see the world e.g. Christian, Catholc, Bhuddist, Capitalist, Socialist, Accountant.You might be more than one....
3. Mental Models: Brainstorm a list of the 2-10 attributes you use to analyse the world around you....Here are some examples.....SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), The Seasons (Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring,
4. Mental Models: Describe a mental model you use to understand the world around you and how you use in your life. e.g. Right-Wrong.
5. Here's a problem...Use your mental model to make a decison about how to solve this problem...give your reasons, and as you do, explain how you mental model/lense helps you understand it better.
6. Now pick another mental model/lense different to yours, and analysis this new problem..., explain how you used the model/lense to arrive at your conclusions.
7. What did you learn from this experience? What did you learn about mental models/lenses?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The language in "things"

It might come as a surprise that all the physical tools and objects we humans use are actually "concretized language".

Things are nothing more than concepts or ideas in a physical form, the results of our actions in response to questions that explore how we might do something or what to do next. Or implemented action in the form of lists of things to do that reorganize nature.

In a very real sense, everything we find in nature is simply organized information. The fundamental forces of nature such as gravity and electromagnetism guide how matter is organized. DNA guides the way organisms are assembled from the raw materials of atoms. We have learned how to manipulate these information processing systems in extraordinary ways. It is what defines us as a species.

The Russian psychologist, A.N. Leont'ev shows that sequences of automatic motor actions - either speech or gesture - eventually become a tool we can use. First a psychological tool or method which is merely a list of steps and eventually the phsyical tool that automates the method. The neurophysiologist A.R. Luria called the neural programs for speech and gesture muscle actions "kinetic melodies". The two are often produced together.

Consider for a moment the software you use to write a story, paint a picture, send an email or reconcile your bank accounts. These seemingly "physical" tools are simply words written by the programmer to tell your computer what to do next. The language is translated from words into mathematical symbols, 0s and 1s that determine how electricity will flow through your computer to actuate switches.

Or consider the pathway from a physical action to a physical tool. The common cup grew out of the gesture of a cupped hand. Before that we drank just like other animals, mouth in the water. Here's how it works. Imagine you are one of your ancestors, the inventor of the cup:

1. Bend down and stick nose in water to drink like other animals.
2. You think: Too hard. But what if I.....
3. Cup hand. Scoop up water and bring to mouth.
4. You think: Much easier. But what if I...
5. Find container like a cup that scoops up water.
6. You think: Very easy. But what if I...want to re-use it
7. Make list of steps to make cup. Make cup.

Conretized language takes many forms. The instructions that drive your computer software to display a character or a word, or print the words and symbols on a page are language. The sculpture that is left after you chisel away the surplus stone to reveal hidden inside the physical representation of an idea is language. Skyscrapers, jumbo jets and electrical power are just the re-organization of our nearby universe using instructions - our most powerfully organized words and concepts, in the most amazing order, made with electro mechanical devices such as metal cutting machines whose internal computer programs control the angle, depth, shape and speed of cutting or polishing or electroplating. There's even a new kind of printer that can print familiar objects such as appliance or car parts, one layer of atoms at a time, assembled in the same way as the printed word. All language.

Language of sorts has been with us a long time. It's not just humans that communicate. It's prairie dogs who warn others about danger, or bees that return to the hive with clear instructions where to find the best pollen, or proteins that help DNA do it's job of creating a new cell. Or light that communicates with matter in a way that re-organizes them both.

When we start to think of language this way it becomes much easier to see the universe as an amazingly rich conversation between the past and the future that has been going on for billions of years. And we are just one small part of this amazing story.

So here's some questions to explore this idea:

1. Give examples of the following different kinds of language: utterances, symbols, signs, conversations, concepts, questions, theories, statements, stories, poetry, lists, plans, methods, narratives, advertising slogans, newsapaper headlines.
2. What kind of extra powers do these forms of language give humans? Choose one and describe it's powers.
3. When humans invented the written word, what did this allow us to do, we could not do before? What did we have to do before? And before that?
4. What is the connection between human action/activity and language/gesture?
5. Imagine you are one of the first humans to speak. What do you imagine you spoke about. What kinds of words, signs, symbols or gesture did you use?
6. Thinking about an object in everyday use in our world, trace the language/gestural function of the tool back to its origins e.g. cup, cupped hand, drinking from water in a river or stream.
7. Make a list of all the parts of a jumbo jet or a motor car. Imagine and describe the journey from the past to the present for each of these parts.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Playing with pataphors

What do infatuation, obsessive compulsive disorder, theories of mind, teamwork, string theory, Rube Goldberg and Heath Robinson machines have in common?

They are pataphors, high level abstractions, "wild" assumptions built on "wild" assumptions. It's the "science of imaginary solutions that rests on "the truth of contradictions and exceptions".

Pataphors are like the Second Life of the mind. Much of what is incoherent or impossible in the real world can suddenly be obvious and simple in these worlds of the wildest imagination.

Pataphors can help us solve wicked, unsolvable problems. They are metaphors on steroids. Like when a character in a story invents herself. Koinonia, the Mary Poppins of Imaginary Friends, is a pataphorical creation. She is one of the main characters in a wild romp I'm writing with colleague Abby Straus.

Pataphysics began life as "nonsensical" philosophy invented in 1893 by French writer Alfred Jarry to poke fun at physics and metaphysics, to parody the modern scientific method and all its theories.

physics > metaphysics > pataphysics

Just as metaphors lend new meaning to other words and help us explore new conceptual landscapes, pataphors help us create imagined worlds built upon the foundations or assumptions of the metaphor. 

Take metaphorical landscapes as an example. Imagine for a moment that a world exists in which words have the characteristics of mountains. Rivers. Hillocks. Deserts. Forests. Jungles.

Jungle "word worlds" might be inabited by tropical concepts like succulent mango, or sabre-tooth tiger, or verdant vines so you might "enjoy sex like a succulent mango" or feel so constantly threatened you have "a sabre-tooth tiger of a day" or go "swinging through life like Tarzan, leaping from tree to tree with the aid of a "vine pendulum", to mix metaphors.

Pataphysics is, in essense, a degree of separation from reality. If we see someone we know on the street and believe they are ignoring us (even if it is not true), and then begin to imagine a reason for them doing so, we are essentially thinking pataphorically.

An example of a real-life pataphor is String Theory. Physicists have created this theoretical  explanation of how the universe works on the flimsy foundation of "speculative" mathematical theories of general relativity and quantum mechnanics. String Theory is more in the realm of fantasy than science. What gets me is how the quantum mechanics maths only works when you apply a technique called "renormalization" that eliminates the inconvenient x/0 terms. Which is crazy, since any number divided by zero is infinity. And one of the truths of general relativity is that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. David Bohm's spin experiments say otherwise. And the superliminal effects of the Casimir effect and quantum tunneling show light travelling faster than it should. String theory is not in fact physics, but pataphysics.

When teenagers become infatuated with another, they use the tiniest cues or scraps of conversation to build a belief that the other is just as in love with them as they are with the object of their affection. I thought he looked at me (assumption 1), which means he thinks I am attractive (assumption 2)  and wants to sleep with me (assumption 3) and get married (assumption 4).

I know of a woman who was the mistress of the reputation killer pataphor. She began with the speculation "I wonder if Jack is having an affair?" Girlfriend One would reply, equally speculatively "I guess he could be having an affair". Turning to Girlfriend Two my reputation killer tells her "Girlfriend One said in all probability he is having an affair". The next time the story is told, the inconvenient words "in all probability" are left out and the story becomes "Jack is having an affair".  So out of almost nothing, a 'skyhook' or 'bootstrap' forms  and soon there is absolutely no doubt that I'm a cad, a bounder, a low life...and heading for the divorce court.

Pataphors can be our worst fears or cherished dreams run amok. They are whole worlds we create out of wild and wonderful assumption heaped upon wild "assumption assumptions". They are the creatures of a mind that borders on the schizophrenic, because according to the latest brain research from the Karolina Institute, the dopamine systems of the super-creative are similar to those of the victims of the condition we regard as a psychosis. We enjoy the same kinds of good feelings.

The ingenious contraptions invented by Goldberg and Robinson also defy normal physics. Wonderfully exotic and outrageous functions are combined into a complex "machine system" which covers up/brushes over the fatal flaws in logic.

The circular human chair is a physical equivalent of a pataphor. Each person sits on the knee of the person behind them to form a circle. Remove one of the humans in the circular chain and the whole structure falls over.

Here's a workshop to explore pataphorical thinking:

1. Brainstorm some metaphors and apply them to an everyday concept e.g. wolf woman, rocket man, diamond bullet, cave brain, corporate fool.
2. So starting with your metaphor, describe what it could be e.g. a cave brain is empty, dark inside, with a few skeletons, and the ashes of a long dead-fire.
3. Now in your cave brain world, describe how the "elements" you have included in your description come to life, e.g. the skeletons in his cave brain rattled around, looking for a fire to ignite his neurons, but all they could find were ashes.
4. Think of a time when you were madly in love with another person, but they took absolutely no notice of you. Describe how you imagined life would be like with them, and how even the slightest hint of a smile gave you hope.
5. Brainstorm a list of other kinds of "things" that "exist" that are pataphorical e.g. Second Life businesses, science fiction worlds, imaginary numbers i.e. square root of -1.
6. Thinking about the theory of mind concept and how you might imagine what another person might be thinking about what you are saying and doing. Invent two characters and how they think about each other this way. What do they do and say in your imagination?
7. What is your worst fear. Now, take that worst fear and explore at least five worst case scenarios that could happen as a consequence, and then a consequence of that, and then a consequence of that.
8. What is your most cherished dream? Starting with a cherished dream (that does not yet exist) explore at least five wonderful outcomes that could happen as a consequence, and then a consequence of that, and then a consequence of that.

Artist: Allan Lam, Rube Goldberg type machine from Dreams, Memes & Themes software, Zing Technologies, 2002.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Terse verse

Over the past two weeks I have been playing a constrained writing game called Terse Verse with colleague, co-creator and friend Abby Straus from Pittsburgh. We wanted to see what would happen when we collectively wrote poetry constrained by simple rules.

Click on the image to start the animated gif to see how the verse unfolded. 

"Serendipity sucks" unfurled like a beautiful flower, danced from concept to concept, through twists and turns of meaning, springing surprises, posing challenges.  The process engaged our own personal Googles - our right frontal lobes - which searched in unlikely nooks and crannies of our brains for new and richer possibilities.

Although we each had some control, it felt as if the poem developed a life of it's own.

Activity: Terse Verse works like this. On your turn add two words. You can only change words you have written. Punctuation can be added or removed at any time.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

An "impossible" feat of self-organization

In his new book, Complex Adaptive Leadership, Nick Obolensky shows how a group can successfully complete a very complex task in just a few minutes, if everyone follows some very simple rules of interaction.

It's a powerful example of how to lead or manage in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.  And offers an alternative to the traditional approaches to the division of labour, co-ordination and managerial control which are often failing us, as the world becomes more complex, uncertain and ambiguous.

I first played this game with Carrie Lobman at the Eastside Institute in New York. It's an Improv game from the book Carrie and Matt Lundquist wrote called Unscripted Learning that helps teachers use improvisation  in the school classroom to help young people learn "playfully".

They use the game to teach kids about triangles....isosceles triangles. Two of the three sides are the same length.

It's an activity for 5-80 people and can be played in a room, but preferably in a space with clear boundaries such as a tennis or basketball court.

Each person selects two people at random and must stay an equal distance from both, for the remainder of the game.

Acording to Nick Obolensky, the group settles into a steady-state pattern in about 1.25 minuutes per 20 people. So if there are 60 people in the group it will take three minutes for everyone to stop moving around.

It's the same kind of simple rule that helps bird flock and fish to shoal without crashing into each other. They maintain the same distance from each other, and as they change direction make tiny adjustments to maintain the rule.

So here's a workshop to explore this emergent phenomenon:

1. Undertake the "simple rules of interaction" experiment for yourselves. Then report back, how did it feel?.
2. Given the range of possible solutions and the number of people involved, how complex was this task and what makes the task complex? Describe what would have happened if one person had been in charge.
3. The group quickly achieved a task that some think impossible or would have taken a long time to complete. What helped the participants perform the task?
4. Explain how each of the following enablers helped you achieve the task. * Clear individual objective * Few simple rules * Continuous feedback * Discretion and freedom of action * Skill/will of participants
5. What are the consequences for traditional models of organization leadership and managership in rapidly changing and more complex times?
6. Describe how you could could get complexity to work for you (rather than against you) for all different kinds of organization problems/issues?
7. Brainstorm a list of outcomes you want e.g. trust each other implicitly, and then describe a "rule of interaction" for each outcome, that could improve your relations or coordination with others?
8. Where might you discover really good examples of rules of interaction?
9. What operating principles have your discovered today about operating in emergent, chaotic situations?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A process of transformational political change

Influencing Governments has never been more difficult and fleeting. Just when you think they are convinced of your arguments, along comes a political opponent with many supporters in their cavalcade and upsets your applecart, your business plans and your life.

This old way of doing business was simple. You go straight to the political leader and ask for special treatment, as shown in the picture on the left. This approach may have had a big short-term effect, but it's unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term.

In a past life I was a political consultant. Not the kind that knocked on doors, and lobbied politicians. But one that created coaltions of common interests among people and organizations who would normally have little to do with each other, or be uncomfortable working for the same cause.

The coalition buildiing approach is based on one of the fundamental laws of complex adaptive systems, when parts of the system connect to other parts. New order emerges seemingly in a quantum leap. The system shifts from one stable energetic state to a new stable state at a more energetic level. Typical of these phase transitions in human system is the transformation of a group into a team. Or the despatch of an old technology by a new technological ecology. Or a bunch of loosely connected ideas that resolve into a  breakthrough decision, theory or concept.

Phase transitions are also a feature of the activity of large social and political systems.

Think of a political system as widely dispersed citizens and their organizations, closely connected Government department and agencies near the centre of power. The Heads of these government organizations serve the current political leaders. In the US it's the Secretary, in the UK and Australia, the Minister. Many of these agencies and their political leaders are in competition with each other, think environment vs mining, so we should not make the mistake of thinking of "the government" as a unified player in the game.

The picture on the right shows how we used to build coalitions of common interests, by progressively connecting up the whole system, which would then shift, autocatalytically, to a new more organized stable state. A kind of Wisdom of Crowds effect, the kind of activity we can expect to see more often in the emerging Wisdom Age, or its' economic equivalent., the Wisdom Economy.

This approach worked by collectively creating/discovering an idea that better served the interests of all of the parties than the narrower goals each previously pursued. Or a new collective ideal which helped people with diverse interests avoid an outcome that all would be unhappy if it happened

The solutions were never cut and dried. Or known in advance. The clients often had to dramatically alter their wish list along the way. Many of the ideas that emerged from engaging the many stakeholders, were often better than the compromises the client had already grown assumed. More often than not, the client had been backed into a corner and was resigned to their fate.

We would start with a client and their needs. Like prosper and live a happy life. We would take note of the problem, like the decision which might dramatically increase their costs, beyond what was sustainable and restrict what they could do. They often faced choices which had adverse impacts on their employees, contractors, suppliers, neighbors, communities and even their competitors. Often all their efforts to negotiate a political settlement had failed and there seemed to be nowhere else to go.

So we would talk to all the stakeholders - everyone who had an interest - and ask what they thought was the issue, and the best solution possible. As we worked our way around the stakeholder network, many of whom had limited contact with the client, we would discover new ways of thinking about the issue, and feed back these ideas and perspectives to the client and to the other stakeholders.

And very soon a new idea would start to emerge, around which all the stakeholders could unite, despite their differences, which would become the "big idea". And we would create tentative pictures/maps/designs and benefit analysis which gave it substance.

We would start at the periphery and work our way towards the centre, acquiring supporters as we went. We would constantly make adjustments to the "big idea" so that we continued to enroll more people and their organizations. We deliberately stayed away from politicians and their public servants who were often locked in resonance with the old "problem maker" and were often not prepared to change their minds until the winds of political change almost blew them away.

When we reached the central political stakeholders we held back, to give the laggards time to comprehend the practicalities of the new political order. If people are strongly committed to a course of action, they need time to mourn the past, and adapt/adjust to the new. Shoving it in their face merely reinforces their determination to stick to their guns, even in the face of reality.

Most wicked problems have solutions. They are only wicked problems because the principal stakeholders have opinions, values, or interests from which they are unprepared to budge. The Middle East conflict between the Isralis and the Palestinians could easily be resolved if both were to adopt less zealous positions. The debate over abortion could be easily resolved if those who oppose it were to accept that it is unfair and unreasonable for their point of view to be imposed on others who do not share their views. The climate change battle has been hard fought because some see themselves as losers. But when we realize that by sticking our heads in the mud, we are all likely to be losers, attitudes change.

We did not have the Zing team meeting system back in those days, but if we had, these are some of the kinds of questions we would have asked:

1. Thinking about the problem/decision [describe it], what impact will it have on you and your organization/community/family?
2. Who else is there in the community which may be affected negatively by problems/decisions and what do you think they might prefer to happen and why?
3. Who do you think is in favour of the decision or will benefit from it and why do you think they are supporting it?
4. If you had complete comtrol/authority, what would you do differently and why would you want to do this?
5. What ideas might other stakeholders have that could be incorporated into a better solution?
6. What ideas could we include in the final solution to serve the interests of those who support the new solution/decision?
7.  How will we ensure what we really want, happens?

How old are we?

When asked how old we are, most of us probably give our chronological age. But there are many other ways to think about our existence:

* As one of the "children of the stars"...I am billions of years old. Most of my heavier atoms such as oxygen, iron, etc - were forged in supernovae.

* In a biological sense I am at least 800 million years old.. Identical aspects of my DNA are present in most other life on this planet.

* As a primate I am 4 million years old. That's when I/we began to diverge from the great apes...we have 98.8% of our DNA in common.

* My modern humanity puts me at 40,000+ years of age. Back to the last out-of-Africa episode. The maximum difference in our DNA is 0.1%. We all have stone-age brains...

* My chronological age is 65 revolutions of our planet around our sun.

* And my present age is about 1 year old, the number of years since I reinvented myself (for about the 10th time so far).

* My spiritual age is 0....because we and the universe are one and the same thing....and all the photons (fast matter) and matter (slow light) are the connection to the past and the emergent future, and the more playful we can be, the more fun/fabulous our local-verse can be."

Question: How old are you and what difference does that make?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Blindsided by our mental models

Many of us myopically peer into the future, blindsided by our out-of-date mental models, believing that the observational tools we have at our disposal provide an accurate picture.

Or just when we think our mental model is the latest and the greatest, we discover the world has morphed into something else and that others have an advantage over us because they have a faster, smarter, more accurate something-scope.

More of us - than ever before - are contributing to new knowledge creation. 

Creative types such as artists, writers and scientists lead the way. They interpret the future for us. Set the scene. Try out new combinations.  They get to do this work simply because they are playful re-arrangers of what has gone before.

However, each of these creative roles is being democratized by the new media and the Internet. Millions get to play at being writers and publishers of blogs and wikis, producer/director/writer/actors in our own YouTube videos or the artist or photographer that sees the world through a new lens.

And as this new knowledge we create is split into ever more "idea spaces",  it becomes harder for any one person to comprehend it all. And so the business of government and the governance of business becomes more difficult and complex.

Knowledge is not only growing exponentially - so that more and more people are more knowledgeable about a tiny part of the "knowledge cosmos" - but each "idea space" comes with it's own complex jargon, that's hard for others outside the field to understand. Languages are now developing, not only through geographical isolation, but also professional isolation. It was always thus, just more so.

For example, many PhDs know more than anyone else in the world about their tiny needle point of knowledge in the knowledge cosmos, a little about adjacent fields, and the kind of generalized knowledge acquired by just living or via the media, the arts or travel.

And so it is more difficult than ever before to reach agreement across the boundaries of what we separately know. Because we can't trust others unless we understand what they mean, and believe what they say. Look at what's happening right now over climate change, nuclear power, abortion, the delivery of health services or economic policy.

Anyone who has ever looked through a microscope or a telescope can tell you there is much hidden from our senses. These extensions to our observational organs help us peer into the world of the very large, or the very small, to see distant stellar objects or micro-organisms that are invisible to the naked eye. Once-upon-a-time at a handful of magnifications. And as the technology improves, at millions of magnifications, all the way to the "edge of time".

I am reminded of the days we presented black tie "thinking theater" type events with Michael, an astrophysicist from the University of New South Wales. We awarded bottles of champagne to the tables who contributed the most inventive, but usually incorrect interpretation of images he had taken of the night sky. His favorite challenge was to show pictures taken at different wavelengths., Like these two. Nothing much at infra-red wavelengths. But a hive of activity in invisible light.

But, as a fisherman will tell you, what you catch depends upon the size of your net. And it is not just the measuring instruments which limit what we perceive, it is also our mental models. How blind is a person, brought up to believe the world is flat to the possibilities that flow from a spherical perspective.

Sadly, some are us are still using the "clockwork universe" perspective of Isaac Newton without realizing it. We see things in terms of cause and effect, people and processes to be controlled and managed, numbers to be crunched in algorithms that produce serial results.

Very few of us yet think in terms of the new sciences of complexity theory, quantum dynamics, fractals, chaos theory, evolutionary psychology or string theory. These ways of seeing the world in all its non-linear glory have been available for decades.

When we think in the ways of the new sciences, we see flows and processes, the deep interconnection between people and nature, self-similarity at every scale, emergent phenomena - new kinds of order - that seems to just pop out of the system, phenomena which are no longer either-or but both, simplicity within the complexity and complexity that follows from simple rules.

But if you are unable to think this way, you might not be able to see a phase shift occurring in market space, as our brains, the tools we use, and the jobs we perform, shift to a higher level of order under pressure from our desire for a better life. Like the current transition from a world focused on Knowledge tools and work, to a world in which Wisdom work, the work of the guru or leader, is being democratized. 

You might miss the shift to new and smarter technologies that help humans do stuff more reliably, with less impact on the planet. Your belief in cause and effect might blind you to the ongoing chaos in world financial markets, where hiccups in one country ricochet around the world, dragging under the local bank upon whom you rely for credit, which you did not realize was so highly connected to the rest of the world. Your conditioning to focus on one thing at a time, might limit your ability to get many projects started, only one of which might generate the attention it deserves or ensure it survives in a world of intense competition for ideas.

So here's a workshop to help discover what is hidden from your view:

1. Describe what it is like to make decisions in market, social and economic conditions of the early 21st century.
2. What is the mental model that you are using to view, manage and control your world? What are your assumptions?
3. Give examples of how managers might see the world in terms of opposing forces, management and control of people and systems, cause and effect and linear algorithms.
4. Describe what you know about quantum dynamics, complex systems, holographic order and chaos theory and how you have applied these concepts to your life, your work or the organizations to which you belong.
5. Quantum dynamics teaches us that phenomena have multiple aspects e.g. light is both a wave and a particle. Use this idea to explain the following concepts group/team, leadership/managership, producer/consumer and how thinking this way might help.
6. Complex systems undergo phase shifts from one level of order to another when catalysts within the system cross-catalyze each other. What kind of catalysts might you find in a marketplace which is undergoing transition from one kind of tool/work to another e.g. horse and buggy to car, CD to flash memory, and how is this relevant to you/your organization?
7. When you cut a hologram up into little pieces and shine laser light on it, you still get a three dimensional image because all the information is distributed throughout the system. Choose one of these terms and explain how/why they might be holographic. Relationships. Organizational knowledge. Resources. Concepts.
8. Explain how you could develop skills/capability holographically so your organization is more flexible and fast moving and why might this be useful today.
9. How could you organize your corporation or agency fractally - self-similarity at every scale - and what might be the benefits?
10. Give examples of how you could measure personal and organization performance in a rapidly changing world using some of the principles of quantum dynamics, complexity theory etc. and how you might disturb the dynamics of the organization, simply by making the measurement 
11. What dramatic changes could you implement in an organization by setting up initial conditions so multifaceted, complex behavior might flow from the adoption of simple rules e.g. servant leadership or dialectical discourse.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The power of rich conversations

In the 1990s, while working with the De Bono Institute in Melbourne, Australia, I realized that many thinking, learning and decision making methods could be captured using just 6-7 rich, open-ended questions to guide really fabulous conversations.

These methods take learners and decision makers on a voyage of discovery, from what they know to a new * model * theory * learning outcome * decision * feedback * design, or * action plan.

This approach has it's origins in an open-ended highly abstract knowledge creation method called the "future search" conference pioneered by organization change consultant Fred Emery.

Some people, particularly those who like or need structure, feel very uncomfortable at a search conference. They get lost in the ambiguity.

So we decided to try question sequences which take people on a step-by-step journey in bite-size chunks, where each step is doable, and not too overwhelming, but achieves the same objective of the future search which is to explore every nook and cranny of an issue.

The process is self-organizing. At the end of the conversation, the conclusions just "pop-up" or emerge from the morass of ideas as a consequence of our collective struggle. New order for free.

The ideas we generate along the way are often useful as end-products in themselves; such as marketing or business plans, project outlines, a descriptive design of a product, a chapter of a book, a report or a research design.

Margaret Wheatley, author of "Leadership and the New Sciences" explains why these kinds of methods are now essential and why we "can't use neat and incremental methods to make sense of the world any longer". She says: "we need to be experimenting with thinking processes that better suit our neural netlike brains, those processes that are open, nonlinear, messy, relational."  Through a process of "reflexive conversations", we need to be looking for information that "is startling, uncomfortable, and maybe even shocking." That helps us invent our way to the future.

At Zing, we have taken the "rich conversations" concept one step further. We have invented a process to invent radical new conversation methods based on the ideas of thought leaders. See the workshops at Colorful Conversations blog based on TED talks or the Maverick and Boutique blog which showcases the  amazing people in our network of consultants.

Few people learn these kinds of /thinking/relating skills at school, because thinking and decision making is most often taught/learned as an individual cognitive activity. And not as conversation.

Even the methods devised by brilliant change agents such as Edward De BonoEdwards DemmingMichael Hammer or James Champy are most often taught as personal tools. De Bono showed us the power of lateral thinking to think about a problem. Edwards Demming asked groups to collect data and make sense of manufacturing quality problems. Michael Hammer and James Champy developed techniques to speed up organization processes. All their methods are incredibly powerful when used as the basis for conversation

You might learn de Bono's methods in Australian and British schools but not in America or Europe. You have to wait to go to business school to learn about quality and business process redesign. Even then you might merely learn the theory and not the practice

When we train teachers in thinking skills it's often via Blooms taxonomy, which classifies cognitive processes in terms of increasingly more complex cognitive processing - what we know, what we understand, how we use it, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. But teachers teach these techniques one at a time, in isolation, and rarely as sequences. Its' like throwing a dart at a dart board and picking a technique at random.

So here's an activity to create a set of rich open-ended questions to start a conversation in your classroom:

1. Describe a topic/issue in five words or less.
2. What is the context for the learning activity? Discipline, focus, age and experience etc.
3. What will excite, engage or amaze the learner?
4. Make a list of all the ideas/concepts/"facts" we would like the learner/participant to discover.
5. Make a list of all the ideas/concepts/"facts" we could expect the learner/participant to already know.
6. Craft a series of RICH, open-ended discussable questions that explore the topic in engaging/amazing ways. Include scaffolds, rich language etc.
7. How will we organise the questions into a logical sequence that builds knowledge as the learner goes? From what they know to need to know…or don't yet know, or would love to discover.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Limping or leaping?

In these rapidly changing times, more and more organizations are facing the troublesome question of whether to limp on with the products they have or go for the big leap.

Back in 1987 when Richard Foster wrote The Attackers Advantage, breakthrough products and services occurred rarely, but when they did they leapfrogged the competition with productivity gains in the 100-1000% range.

Now they are the norm. 

Foster was one of the first to apply Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions to business. His S-curve model explained how new technologies - every so often - transform markets. Like electricity, the motor car and the computer. And are many times more productive or efficient.  

Foster showed that new, "breakthrough" products or services appear "out of nowhere" without any warning. They cannibalize the market for the products they displace, and several others at the same time. Think the photocopier which wiped out carbon paper, the spirit duplicator and much of what we knew as small offset printing. 

S-curves come in pairs. They describe the adoption trajectories of old and new technologies. 

There is gap between each curve, a discontinuity. It is here that the fate of incumbents and attackers is decided. Sometimes the first mover wins because they gain so much momentum. Sometimes the incumbents win because they have resources. Even old technologies can sustain a miraculous recovery and persist long beyond their "use-by" dates, like the very persistent "knowledge telling" model of school education.

Richard Ogle, author of Smart World, sees breakthrough ideas in terms of new "idea spaces" which emerge out of several earlier and mature "idea spaces" and which offer a better explanation for how the world works. Think the realization that the DNA molecule was a double helix, or how light and matter are connected in the theory of relativity.

New breakthrough products are often "clunky" at first. But as they gather support over a half dozen or so years, they gain momentum. Critical customers come on board, and little-by-little they shed the clunkiness, until one day, after many iterations, the product becomes so simple, so easy to use and easy to acquire, it captures everyone's attention and imagination. And starts to fly off the shelf.

Like the iPhone, which at last count had 174,000 applications available. This amazing portable device combines the computer, phone, video and music entertainment, global positioning system, banking portal and is challenging dozens of product and service segments simultaneously.

But there are dangers in moving too early, before an idea space is mature, and ripe for re-invention. Dudley Lynch and Paul Kordis, make this point in their book, the Strategy of the Dolphin. Early movers can burn through a lot of resources if their brilliant idea is too far ahead of the times. Late movers may never recover because the are so far behind the leaders. Those who start just ahead of the changing times, have a reasonable chance of success, but can also be overtaken by financially well-resourced and powerful copyists.

 So here's a workshop to explore whether you are safe (or not) from a challenge:

1. In what ways are your customers unhappy, angry or concerned about your product or service, and what would they like to be different?
2. Thinking about what your customers would like to be different, what new products or services are emerging or available which may meet your customer's needs better, and make them happy or delighted?
3. Thinking about your product or service, what are the latest scientific theories about your "idea space" and to what extent are you in alignment or not?
4. If there is a new theory in your idea space that supports a radical new manufacturing method, distribution method or product feature, what is it and what could it allow someone else to do (and which you can't do)?
5. What minor challenges are you currently facing in the marketplace from products or services in different categories to your products/services that seem to encroaching on your space, just a little?
6. What evidence do you have for new jobs being created around other new products/services?
7. What evidence do you have for declining work opportunities for people who use your products or services or supply them as part of their work?
8. What idea spaces appear to be coming together? Describe them.
9. To what extent are the new products/services well before the times, ahead of the times, or with the times?
10 What idea spaces could/should you bring together in order to create a product that survives new challenges?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The power of the warm-up...

Just before the show begins on American Idol, Oprah or Letterman, there's a warm-up. To get the audience in the mood. And to learn to applaud or laugh on cue.

Without the audience "reaction" such shows would be deadly dull.

Athletes, dancers and musicians warm up before they perform. To focus the mind and prepare the body for a complex sequence of motor actions.

Why then, is there so much resistance from the corporate world to a "warm up" routine that puts people in the mood for creative and intuitive leaps.

Some see play as wasting time. Not really work. Sinful, childish or pointless. It's a hangover from our puritanical past, a consequence of what we valued during the Age of Reason. 

Surgeons don't operate on your brain and pilots don't fly planes without rehearsal. So why should participants in vital corporate meetings just show up? And decide what's best for their staff, customers and shareholders without knowing how to collectively perform decision making in the best way possible?

In the world of Zing we use warm-up questions at the start of our electronic meetings, to practice a protocol that orchestrates/co-ordinates the conversations, unleashes the creative juices and teaches a powerful kind of discourse that helps people create new knowledge faster and more reliably.

We ask three questions, in ascending richness and complexity, which accelerate the norming, storming and performing process. Fifteen minutes of organized fun helps poorly organized groups become a top performing team. Before we start the day's real work.

Here's the warm up sequence:

1. Play: Type anything you like, the words of your favorite song, a list of what you had for breakfast or The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
2. Etiquette: What's your favorite story? Name, author and why?
3. If you could be a fairytale, movie, TV or cartoon character who would you be and what would you be like to live with?

Our discourse protocol - Talk-Type-Read-Review - quickly becomes the norm. We learn to discuss questions in pairs so there's lots of variety and connection. Everyone talks and types at the same time so we all get a global picture of what everyone thinks or feels. We learn to create new ideas across the boundaries of our differences and make sense of what we collectively know, feel or mean.

It's these kinds of intuitive leaps that are now critical to organization success. As Richard Ogle, in Smart World observes: "Working together, intuition and imagination give rise to insight, the quintessential phenomenon of breakthrough creativity, the eureka moment, the sudden flash that brings new light to what was previously darkness......Imagination, guided by the pattern-recognizing powers of intuition, boldly jumps across intervening space to connect to whole new networks of meaning. And so suddenly the breakthrough occurs. A new space is born."

Here's an example of how it works. The blue squares represent ideas generated in response to an open-ended question. The red dots are people. The arrows show who generated which ideas. The highly cross-linked concepts (blue cluster at the center of the network map) is the emergent new knowledge being created collectively by the five different factions (red clusters).

It is this community building process - simultaneously bridging different ideas spaces and mental models that establishes and then reinforces the affective links between people - which makes Zing an incredibly powerful tool. But like any tool, it can be used poorly. The results can be less than impressive if we deviate too far from the prescribed questions and the protocol.

The structure of the initial questions is critical to success. Ideally a session should begin with a simple activity to discover where each keyboard types on the screen. Our research shows that people find it hard to learn how to use a new tool AND use it for a real activity. They perform best when the learning and the doing are separated.

Next, participants learn the etiquette or meeting protocol by responding to a warm-up activity that presents an easy-to answer question. They become familiar with the tool and comfortable about exposing their thinking/opinions/feelings to people they may not know, or don't know very well. A second "self-revealing" warm-up activity reinforces the etiquette, shifts the role of reading ideas to the participants and builds affective connections across the community!

Here's what we also do (and no one notices, because the methods are built into the protocol and the questions):

* the warm-up activity lets people know its time to play. Collective play is a way of simultaneously creating new knowledge together, exploring novel scenarios and developing closer relationships with others. People soon discover it's OK to let down their guard and be more open to each other, which accelerates the rate at which we develop affective links.

* we replace the outmoded brainstorming rules of the last three decades with a powerful new model of knowledge creation. The old way is to freewheel and generate hundreds of ideas at random, but too often the ideas are 2-3 word snippets out of context, that have little meaning. Instead, we engage in a kind of deliberate creative thinking....or serious creativity. We raise the demand on the participants and ask them to craft complex, extraordinary, meaningful ideas from what Wittgenstein called "language games", the families of concepts that belong to different ideas spaces. The more different and emergent the better, like biomimicry (emulating nature), complexity (autocatalytic) or wisdom (wise application of knowledge). We create super-concepts that richly combine simpler ideas, so they leap off the page in a year's time. It's called dialectical discourse, the basis of all knowledge creation.

* we learn to use analogical/metaphorical thinking to see something as something else. It's the process by which stunning new concepts are created along the way to a new theory or model. The cartoon character question helps us practice this "IF, THEN" thinking. For example, if we were a cartoon character....then what would we be like to live with? Or if the next wave of change is the "Wisdom Age", then what is a "wisdom job" or a "wisdom tool" and how might they function?

* we firmly establish a conversation process of talking in pairs which generates more and richer ideas than taking turns around the table. It also ensures everyone is heard.

* we learn how to look for patterns in the ideas or "common themes", to make sense of what they mean. This starts the new model/theory building process. It also helps people recognize the value in other contributions or world views and make the intuitive leap to the Eureka idea.

* the question sequences are designed like a game with built-in rewards, that propel us further into the game, and make us want to keep on playing. These are right-brain tasks that are a bit of a stretch but doable, which result in Flow, a state of optimal experience, first identified by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, author of Boredom and Anxiety*, (see image below). If the warm-up questions are too boring - too logical or corporate - we don't get the dopamine flowing and dont get into Flow, and we're stuck with our old analytical, automatic thinking patterns controlled by our left-brain.

* we deliberately practice right brain thinking (simultaneous processing) using the cartoon question. The concepts/prompts act as catalysts that stimulate our imagination. We are reminded of multiple characters from our experience of TV, film and fairy tales. We recall their characteristics and try to match them with our own. It's the kind of thinking required to make collective intuitive leaps.

* the warm-up practice helps the meeting process become automatic...a left-brain we don't have to think about it any more. We can then devote all of the brain's resources to energy-consuming right-brain (simultaneous) processing to achieve the required leaps of intuition across the boundaries of all of our mental models and constraints.

Here are some more warm-up questions to choose from in the Dreams, Memes & Themes title, which contains 50 meetings for transforming any organization. You can download a trial applet from

1. Play: Type the words of your favorite song OR what you had for breakfast OR The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
2. What is your favorite story? Title, author and why in 30 words or less.
3. If you could be a fairytale, cartoon or movie character who would you be and what would you be like to live with?
4. What is the most spectacular thing you have ever done and why?
5. How do you embarrass yourself?
6. Explain a beautiful spring day to a blind person?
7. If you could live to 1,000 what would you do differently?
8. What is your favourite saying and how does it affect your life?
9. Who is your hero or heroine and why are they so important to you?
10. If you could make a momentous discovery, what would it be?
11. What could you do to become very famous?
12. How would you catch a falling star?
13. What for you is the $64 million dollar question?
14. What is at the end of your rainbow?
15. How do you get to be over the moon?
16. What good turn for you would deserve another?
17. If you had a four-leaf clover what would you wish for?
18. You have been dumped by the love of your life. What do you now do?
19. Tomorrow you are to meet Jim Carrey. How do you prepare?
20. You are now your country's leader. What is the first thing you will do?
21. How do you sing for your supper?
22. They are to make a movie of your life. What is the title?
23. If you entered a popularity contest, why would you lose?
24. How do you end up in the doghouse?
25. What is the most creative thing you have ever done?
26. You have transformed into something nasty by a wicked witch. What are you now and how can you use it to your advantage?
27. What kind of animal are you most like and why?
28. If you could be a fly on a wall, whose wall would you like to be on and why?
29. What is your worst kept secret?
30. Use only five words to describe yourself.
31. What is the most precious thing for you in the whole world?
32. If you became the boss for a day, and for only a day, what would you do?
33. Describe a fate worse than death for your favourite politician.
34. What captures your imagination and why?
35. What was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you? Who did it and why?

And some more questions, especially for corporate organizations that are stuck in the "play is not work" era:

36. During the time you have worked for (name of organization), what was the most fun, amazing or incredible experience/event that happened to you/for you?
37. What for you was the most amazing creative leap or "aha" that now helps you see the world in rich new ways?
38. If our organization was a movie, fairytale, TV or cartoon character, who would it be and how does it engage wth the world?
39. What words of wisdom, mental models, thinking processes, or ways of seeing the world could you  contribute today that might be helpful to the future of our organization?

 Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Image of the conductor, created by Allan Lam, for Dreams,Memes & Themes, 50 meetings to transform your organization, Zing, 2002.