From nothing to something: How to create learning experiences on the fly

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Creating learning experiences on the fly is one of the many talents of Master Facilitator and Performance expert Thiagi.

Here’s just one example of an experience he recently created, and highlighted in his monthly newsletter. What you’ll find is that facilitating meaningful discussions on leadership, communication, and teamwork doesn’t necessarily require a 50-page slide deck or months of instructional design time.

What it does require, is a willingness to a) use what’s in the room (not just the materials, i.e. chairs… but the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of your participants) to co-create a meaningful and impactful learning experience.

Here, Thiagi recounts a recent training session where he walked into the room to see the chairs arranged in a single line.

I took one look at the room set up and thanked my lucky stars for providing the perfect arrangement for an experiential exercise. I told the participants to organize themselves into four groups of six. I asked one person in each group to act as a non-participating observer. I assigned myself the observer’s role for the group that had only five members. I asked each group to spend 7 minutes to plan how to rearrange the chairs in the room to permit teamwork and small-group discussions. I called the observers and gave them specific suggestions on what to watch out for.

After the 7 minutes of planning, I asked members of each group to hold one-on-one conversations with the members of the other groups. After about 5 minutes, I asked the groups to revise their original plans to please the members of the other group. Each group presented its final plan. The plans included removing all the chairs to the hallway and conducting a stand-up session, arranging the chairs in six clusters of four, arranging 24 chairs in a large circle, and letting each participant own a chair and carry it around whenever a new configuration was required. We conducted a poll to choose the best approach (which turned out to be each participant lugging his or her chair around) and spent 5 minutes implementing the plan.

This activity provided valuable experiences related to communication and leadership. I conducted a debriefing discussion with these types of questions: Who assumed the leadership role? Who talked the most? Who came up with the best ideas? How did you listen to the others in your group? To the people from the other groups? How did you attempt to persuade the others? Who kept track of the time? Who took notes? What would have happened if I assigned the leader’s roles to specific participants?

These questions and the responses from the participants and the observers formed the foundation for leadership and communication principles and procedures that we explored for the rest of the day.

Instead of lecturing about leadership to begin the session, Thiagi designed a simple experience for his participants to learn by doing – and to guide the debrief towards specific learning outcomes.

Simple, yes. Effective, yes…  if we can create the conditions and ask the right questions to pique curiosity and spur reflection, then we have more tools already at our disposal than we realize.

When failure is part of the rules

A few weeks ago, a woman in one of my workshops raised her hand and asked a very important question: “Are you telling us that it’s okay to fail?”

A group of incredibly smart, focused, and skilled future leaders was confused. No one had ever given them permission to fail before.

I told her what one of my mentors, Randy Nelson told me: life is not about error avoidance, it’s about error recovery.

I wasn’t actually encouraging them to fail, I simply encouraged this group to change their reaction to failure.

Most of us fail inward – meaning, our bodies tense up, we get smaller and we let the world know that we are ashamed.

Improvisers practice what same may see as a silly exercise called the “Failure Bow” – we turn failure from an inward defeat to an outward celebration. This small practice helps us act the way we want to feel.

Seth Godin speaks brilliantly about failure, here in this interview. Some of the highlights:

  • those who fail more often, win – The people who don’t win are the ones that don’t fail at all and get stuck, or the ones that fail so big that they don’t get to play again.
  • What are the risks that you can take that keep you in the game even if you fail?
  •  Following the rules can lead to a fear of initiation and a fear of failure. Where can you work where failing is part of the rules?

The concept of embracing failure is broad and confusing for some – depending on your profession, and your past experience. This concept is also juicy and full of connection to vulnerability, innovation, creativity, you name it.

Simply put…error recovery builds resilience, it provides a new kind of reward…perhaps one that we aren’t teaching or recognizing enough.

 

How to give yourself permission to be more creative

High on a mountaintop sits the creative genius. Not to be bothered with, talked to, or talked down to. He speaks in short, punctuated sentences, rides a scooter (yes, on a mountaintop) and abstains from yellow food. Who is this person? Surely he must be creative.

If you ask me, the great divide between “the creative person” and the non-creative type is phony.

Anyone can be creative. It’s not a category you fall into, the job you are assigned, the assessment you take. Creativity starts with permission.

To be creative is to give yourself and to give others the permission to explore, to have new ideas and to follow them. 

Creative people are more comfortable with the freedom inside structure than just the structure itself. They are more comfortable exploring, less on logic and rules and more on what could be.

They take risks because they have given themselves permission to. They think broadly, in opposites, in analogies, or in obvious straight-forward methods.

It’s a shift – from a judging to learner mindset, a mechanistic or organismic structure, technical to adaptive problem solving, or whole-brain thinking. But, becoming more creative involves not just a neurological shift but an environmental shift as well.

Peter Sims talks about this in this article, “Ultimately, while basic design and creative methods can be learned much like muscles, and developed and strengthened through practice, this shift in mindset requires a different kind of leadership.”

Helping others become more creative involves giving them permission to fail, to have big ideas, to take risks and to blur the lines between who is deemed creative and who isn’t.

 

 

TOOL: The Failure Bow

Last year I had the privilege of meeting Ted DesMaisons – a fellow Improviser, also a blogger, Stanford Business School Graduate, and a very gifted man and teacher.

His latest blog post, The Transformative Failure Bow , talks about one of the greatest resources in an improviser’s toolkit: the ability to transform failure and a mistake into a celebration of boldness. It is a learned skill worth practicing. Here he describes the history of this great tool, how he teaches it, and how it creates transformation by shifting our reaction and definition of “failure”.

He asks the question we all could be asking — what are we rewarding? The effort, the result, or both? How do you define the result?

“As Matt Smith affirmed in a recent conversation, “The Failure Bow isn’t designed to reward or focus on the failure. It’s designed to reward the willingness to be transparent, the capacity to remain available in the present moment, and the ability to get back on the horse without residing in shame.” It’s that awesome eagerness that leads an athlete to say “Hit me another, Coach” or a student to insist “Let me try again.” We get knocked down, but we get up again.”

The Transformative Failure Bow 

One link between emotion and creativity

Say you want to help a group be more creative. 

What emotion would best help the group achieve this goal?

This question was recently posed to students in a weekend workshop I attended on Emotional Intelligence at Columbia University.

The choices:

1. Happiness

2. Worry

3. Sadness

4. Anger

5. Other

What would you say? I listened as classmates, one after the other, suggested that negative emotions would fuel the creative fire.

Sure, we know that not everyone responds the same way, but could negativity really be the answer? It saddened me that this was the myth or common view floating around the University halls.

Results of a study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, set us straight.

The emotion that best helps a group promote creativity is happiness.  Why? An upbeat mood makes people more receptive to information, helps widens our lens and allows us to see connections we normally would have been closed off to otherwise.

In addition, happiness and laughter release dopamine which contributes to stress reduction.

Stress reduction and an overall relaxed state triggers responses in our brain that coincide with inhibition – and the ability to have more creative insights.

This blog post is brought to you by the letters “H.A.P.P.I.N.E.S.S” and Positive Psychology. Now go out and make someone happy!

What’s the drill – September 12: And because of that…

Remember the Story Spine? The fantastic tool we use to apply elements of storytelling to a plethora of organizational situations and cases?

  • Once upon a time …
  • And every day …
  • Until one day..
  • And because of that …
  • And because of that …
  • And because of that…
  • Until finally…
  • And ever since that day ..

Today specifically we can talk about the Story Spine as a means of discussing risk and reward.

Take the phrase, “And because of that…”

Improvisers are taught, and become more comfortable with taking risks. They feel on stage, experientially, what it’s like to get out of their comfort zone. And because of that, they stretch, grow, and so much more.

Sometimes, off-stage, we take a risk (“until one day”) and wait for the reward (“because of that”). We see risk taking as a means to an end. It’s got to be something tangible, right?

“Where is my ‘because of that‘ already?”, we ask. Show me the reward! Let’s flip to the end of the story.

In truth, the other, “because of that’s” might not have been written yet. We often can’t see them coming although we hope they appear. It may take months, years for you to recognize what they are. You might find there are more than 3, perhaps dozens of “because of that” phrases. All we know sometimes is that the risk moves us forward, certainly in learning, and hopefully in tangible results.

If we are taking risks solely in pursuit of the reward we might never be satisfied with our story spine.

The point is that we as organizations and the people who run them have a responsibility to keep the story moving forward. Choosing to take risks and to use the call to action of “until one day” moves us forward, compared to the glacial, steady, predictable pace of “and every day”.

 

Saying Yes to the Mess – The Improvisational Mindset of Frank J. Barrett

In the midst of change (large or small), our natural instinct is often to try to control the chaos and the mess.

What if instead of fighting it, we said yes to this mess?

This question and more is one posed by author and professor Frank Barrett in his new book, “Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz.”

His approach is one we might recognize, as the author of “Appreciative Inquiry – a Positive Approach to Building Cooperative Capacity.

We can safely say he is a fan of the tenants of Improvisation and Positive Psychology and their application to leadership and management.

This Improvisational mindset is one we’ve discussed:

  1. Face the mess
  2. Learn to take action with incomplete information – you can’t always stop and problem solve
  3. Build affirmative competence by learning how to respond in the moment
  4. Solo and Support – Learn to play both roles, let others shine, while following your instincts.

Learn more from Barrett in this insightful interview here!

The top five qualities of innovative companies, via HBR

Companies that know how to innovate have something in common — they make it a priority. The companies listed in Hay Group’s seventh annual Best Companies for Leadership (BCL) ranking recognize the value of  innovation and put it at the heart of their corporate culture.

How do they do they do it? Well, you may recognize some of these best practices. The theme remains one of openness, flexibility, agility, and growth via learning:

1. Create a safe space for innovation

  • Idea – allow calculated risks
  • Example – build a lab environment into part of the culture

2. Enable organizational agility.

  • Idea – allow job definitions to be more flexible and fluid — if you want an organization to be adaptable, and flexible,  and changing to the needs of the marketplace, take a look at the job structure.
  • Give employees room to grow and explore their range of interests within a company, for example, Google is great at this.
  • Example – build empathy across organization, independent thinking and problem solving by allowing others to join a new department for a month/quarter, etc.

3. Broaden perspectives. 

  • Idea – new ideas can come from anywhere – an innovative company knows this and is an expert at “staying open”.
  • Example – Solicit feedback on ideas from the community and company as a whole.

4. Promote and reward collaboration.

  • Idea – the majority of innovations are born from collaborative efforts.
  • Create an environment that encourages collaboration
  • Ideas can be those of the individual, and “yes, anded” by the group as a whole.  Reward dependence, not just independence.

5. Celebrate success and learn from setbacks.

  • Idea – fail forward
  • Innovative companies see problems and failures as learning experiences. By reacting this way, companies encourage risk taking and keep the innovation engine running. An employee who feels they can never mess up, will never try to be anything other than average.
  • Encourage “what if’s” and “why not’s”