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.