Learning & Change

Why am I interested in the future?

I have been interested in the future for a couple of decades. Perhaps more. My wonder years went by between my indulgences in daydreaming and the whimsies of those days. The future was a good escape chute from the pressing dilemmas of the present, back then. Ironical, when I consider how often I dip into the nostalgia of those times, to escape the difficult times we live in now! Those were pristine days. 

But the future has always given me hope. Back then and now. Hope about a better life.  

The trouble with the future. 

William Gibson said it well. The future is already here – it is just not very evenly distributed. 

Sample this. 

A few months ago on one of my rural sojourns, I was at a small village in rural India. I was shooting the breeze with villagers and as always, they were saying some rather profound truths. I reached for my iPad and started scribbling some notes.  Little did I think that the iPad would become the cynosure of the village’s attention for a bit. They had never seen an iPad. To them, it seemed that the iPad was a magical device! Imagine that happening in 2019. 

Another example. 

Two different organisations I consult with had similar asks of me. They both wanted to decipher their futures. They operate in different contexts but the pictures that emerged for them were a study in contrast. One team spoke of robots, holograms and the like. The other team’s best version of the future was video calls and not relying on emails to communicate. 

Both were valid and predicated by their present worlds, their exposure and expectations they had of the future.  

The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. What is a magical dream that will come alive in the distant future for some is already alive and kicking for a few!  The other deceptive element about the future is that it comes in trickles. One day at a time. It does not arrive with cymbals chiming and trumpets piercing through the air. The future is amoebic. It seeps in steadily and occupies centre stage for a bit. Only to be swept away by a newer version. 

So, why should you be interested in the future? 

Well, for one, the future is where we and our children will spend time in. Plus, the future bristles with possibility while being cloaked by uncertainty. We have ideas about what might be. We have hopes about what perhaps should (and shouldn’t) be. 

While what will be will be. But there is no limit to human curiosity about what will be.  There are different providers for this market that extends from the local astrologer to Linda Goodman to futurists!  

My interest in the future extends far beyond it being an escape from the present. It has a simple logical premise as the base. It reads something like this: The present is a product of the past. Our futures are going to be a function of what we do now. Our understanding of what can possibly shape the world will help us sculpt our action now. Wayne Gretzky the famed ice hockey player said it well. “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”. 

Reason number two. The rate of change that is accompanying our everyday life is at such a fast clip, that a lack of understanding of the change would be debilitating. I don’t want to be the person who brings morbid news to a happy world. On second thoughts, I might as well be. We need to be aware and prepared to be able to embrace the change. If not, the inequality between the haves and the have nots will have a new dimension. A defining dimension at that. 

The flux will create will mean that the ones who are better prepared have a better chance at adapting and surviving. 

Over the years, I have a four-pronged way of working on my understanding of the future. 

Indulge in reading, listening & conversation. (Soaking). Indulge in experimentation at the edge of your comfort levels. (Playing)
Indulge in reflection. (Reflecting). Feed the reflection back into the conversation. (Re-soaking). 

Soaking.

Read up. Listen in. Speak up. The more I read and indulge in conversations about what I have read and listened in to, I am left with more questions. It is almost like a curious detective going after clues. That’s the thing about thinking about the future. I have learnt that I stop looking for answers, but more for clues! 

One result of this endeavour is The OWL Despatch (OWL standing for Our Work in Learning) that I publish every other Tuesday that reaches the inbox of numerous subscribers around the world. Just putting it together has been such a fulfilling experience that its the best example I can think of for ‘soaking’.  

Playing.

If soaking it in is one component, experimenting with a sense of play is another. Experiments at the frontiers of comfort zones test levels of comfort and push learning. Often asking myself ‘when was the last time I tried something out for the first time’ has kept me on alive. 

Experiments in robotics, in new technologies for everyday work, in play etc always reveal something new. Many are hopeless flops. But the few that remain make it worthwhile. They reveal more about blowing winds of change in the world. Even better, they reveal a thing or two about myself! Over to you, what was the last experiment about the thing of future you have had? How did it go?

Reflection.

That question, ‘how did it go?’ is a question of reflection. Having a reflective conversation about my experiments with sparring partners has offered me insights that would have been otherwise beyond me. Yes, a sparring partner helps quite a lot. I have been ever so thankful for the handful that I have! 

Feeding forward.

Feeding the reflection back into the soaking and playing anew is a crucial part. Sharing ideas, collecting conversations and continuing the ideas keeps it in the perpetual beta mode. 

By the way, there is a webinar coming up. Hosted by the International Association of Facilitators. I am so looking forward to it. 

One such is this webinar at the International Association of Facilitators. The IAF has such amazing people that a fantastic conversation is guaranteed. Conversations are the ideal stages for learning and change. Stay tuned for more updates on how the conversation went. 

Image Credit: www.unsplash.com

Reacting to change

On December 31st, 2018 an interesting article appeared in the New York Times. It was titled “Wielding Rocks and Knives, Arizonans Attack Self-Driving Cars“.  It wasn’t a lazy review of some crazy future book. The fourth industrial revolution is here and our tools seem to be testing us. And some of us are running out of patience. The world is reacting to change. Like in Arizona, people were pelting stones at driverless cars! Including one man who jumped in front of one driverless car and waved a gun at it saying, ‘he despises it’!

Energy Revolutions

Every revolution is about a shift in energy. From physical to mechanical. From mechanical to digital.

The first industrial revolution (sometime between 1760 – 1840 or so) had the power of ‘steam’ as its thrust area.  Steam. Steel. Machine tools. Industrial looms. And the like. 

The second industrial revolution a.k.a “The technological revolution”, is about scale. Electricity. Petroleum. Iron & Steel. Railroads. Turbines. Engines. Etc. And the like. Perhaps a mention of Fredrick Taylor and his management principles is due. The second industrial revolution happened between 1870-1914. 

The third industrial revolution is the giant shift from mechanical to digital. Commencing sometime from the late 50s when computers began to make their first appearance. An important marker on the ground was the movement of music from vinyl records to CDs in the 80s!

Some argue that the fourth is primarily a continuation of the the 3rd. Obviously, it’s not that simple. Wearable devices. Implants. Networked devices. Data. Robotics. Internet of things. All point to a fusing of the physical, biological and digital. 

Reacting to change

Example after example from history points to non linear change leading to a forceful response .  Every significant change that disrupted an existing status quo provoked people of that time. Be that a wave of dismissal, royal proclamation or violent protests! 

Is it different this time?

If change is natural, so must our reactions to it. Isn’t it? Only this time, the scale of change isnt quite the same. Changes that are reaching us are more intense, simultaneous, interconnected like never before.  Klaus Schwab, who wrote “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” speaks of the difference in terms of Scale, Scope and complexity. The fusion of physical, digital and biological worlds will break boundaries of a number of disciplines. From economics to research. From biology to technology. 

Artificial Intelligence is changing professions. Lawyers. Doctors. Construction engineers. Construction engineers. Armed Forces. You name a domain and a passing lark will point to how AI and related stuff is sitting outside the door. 

The ramifications of such sweeping change presents dilemmas at scale. Most of it dished out simulataneously. Complex and interwoven, mankind’s sense of preservation is being tested. The scenario of mankind not cherishing all the progress made by its own is real. Worse, it is already happening every day. 

There is something more 

The fourth industrial revolution has in it an innate ability to amplify and showcase the inequalities that are omni present in the world. These inequalities have been a result of a thinking that gave ‘Capital’ a lot more heft. Perhaps this time it will be a tad different with ‘talent’ getting more attention than before.  

The amplification of inequalities and the new opportunity to amplify independent voice is a different deal. This change is not the usual change! 

In search of new frameworks and new mental models

Ways of thinking and working that aided us all these years are coming apart now. Not because they are wrong but because, they were designed for a different era. The new age citizen needs a new assortment of skills and mind maps. Needless to say that holds true for leaders and leadership as well. 

Klaus Schwab notes, “We need leaders who are emotionally intelligent, and able to model and champion co-operative working. They’ll coach, rather than command; they’ll be driven by empathy, not ego. The digital revolution needs a different, more human kind of leadership”.

We need to keep thinking and talking about this. It is only in our interest to do the same.

The Chemistry In Digital Transformation

Back in school, the chemistry lab with its test tubes, beakers and such stuff was a pure joy. It was magical to see new substances emerge out of old ones in beakers. And it was created right there! On a few occasions, my experiments went completely awry, in a deeply invigorating way. The lab was special. Because the lab was the first place for me to witness transformation before my eyes. That is where I learnt about mixtures and compounds as well. The days in the labs help me make better sense of the chemistry in transformation. The chemistry in digital transformation as well!

The distinction between mixtures and compounds was simple to understand. A compound was a new substance. You couldn’t separate its constituents even if you wanted to. Unlike a mixture. In essence, a compound represented a transformation. A compound meant the original constituents gave up their properties for a new set of properties. Oftentimes it was physical and magical too. An irrevocable change.

What about chemistry in digital transformation?

There isn’t any shortage of Digital Transformation projects that are announced. The question really is, do end results from these projects resemble ‘mixtures’ or do they resemble ‘compounds’?

When digital technology is slapped on top of existing work/ways of work, where it runs as a parallel stream, it is analogous to a mixture. It is a mixture when leadership thinks ‘transformation’ is for “those others”. That it is done to other teams! With sanctions of resources and leadership bandwidth.

The output of real change and transformation is more like compounds. That is when work is reimagined for digital! Digital is not a layer atop work. Digital technology gets enmeshed into work so much so, that work looks different. Such transformation is lasting because the old way of working has ceded space to a new way of working.

I will go so far as to argue, that complete transformation takes places when the change alters the way organisations think and approach their dilemmas. It may take a while and it is difficult. But there are no shortcuts in the long road to transformation.

As much as the allure of a transformed future is inviting, any organisation that seeks to go through digital transformation journeys needs to be prepared to endure pain. The change will cause enough and more disruption to current ways of working and leadership teams must be ready to face these.

There is no dearth of the technology that is available for change. The problems rest in us and our incapability to imagine work differently.

Vectors for digital transformation

“Why are Digital Transformation projects tough?”, he asked me. We were just starting a conversation why the vectors for digital transformation were simple to see yet not commonly practiced. This was a CEO of a large enterprise who has been at his wit’s end, trying to evangelise digital change. The conversation meandered and the two vectors that stayed on the table are outlined here.

A growing number of leaders understand the importance of digital and the impending changes that knock on our gates. At one level, that is good news. The other piece of good news is the surfeit of new technology that docks at our ports every minute. They call it the fourth industrial revolution and thats not without reason.  Technology at that scale accompanied by executive backing should be a sufficient multiplier you would reckon. True, it implies raw power. But digital transformation is more nuanced than that.

Digital Transformation is tough.

Despite all the promise it holds, any transformation is tough. Particularly so for digital transformation. For starters, Digital transformation cannot be achieved through diktats. There are no silver bullets, gilded warriors and ornamented events.

There are many other reasons why digital transformation is tough.  These range from having a common understanding of what digital is to evolving a strategy for getting the organisation ready to leverage it in full. The digital space is dynamic, with both actual change and a lot of noise leaving people confused and leaden-footed. This is often exacerbated by leaders seeking lasting change at a furious pace. Like any other initiative!

The only trouble is that going digital is not an initiative.  On the contrary, it is patient work at organisation social design and reimagining of the work that is important.

The difficult part about the change does not pertain to technology but about conversations about work. To fundamentally reimagine a set way of working with all stakeholders concerned, is not a function of technology alone. Therefore, it requires an inviting way for people to examine their new context owing to shifts heralded by technology. Processes go redundant. Policies will require a relook. Skills are different. Etc etc. These warrant careful examination via conversation. Human and work-centric facilitated conversations make a difference.

Change management with digital is a messy dialogue. It needs patience and a series of sustained activities. Two vectors for digital transformation are outlined here.

a. Portfolio of initiatives:

Any transformation project doesn’t get accomplished with one swish of a sword. It needs multi-pronged initiatives over a period of time. Work and accomplishment of work tasks being at the center, a multidimensional patient effort is a bare minimum. Communication, org design, workflow, processes and policies, skills enhancement and several others. All targeted at a few work-related outcomes that can flourish through conversation, ideation and perhaps experimentation. Teams that are willing to invest the time in conversation and evolve new ways of working have far more chance at engineer lasting change.

b. The necessity of the big moves and the small wins:

Digital transformation success stories have often an adroit balance between ‘big moves’ and ‘small wins’. The big moves provide stability and the foundations. Investments of money and time, infrastructure, commitment, and communication etc are all examples of the big moves. Small wins are like speedometers on the journey. They show that there is progress in the direction of the Big Moves.

Several leaders recognise the importance of these and bring about a play in both. A celebration of the Small Wins in the context of the Big Move brings clarity to a wider population about what is what. Not to mention, a clear understanding of the need to keep going forward.

To be able to hold the space for all stakeholders to come together to reimagine their roles, skills, and ways of working, in the wake of digital, is a key skill for modern day change makers. We must remember that the days of ‘herding into a room for a powerpoint based announcement’ are long over.

All this is for ones that are serious about orchestrating a mindset that embraces digital transformation. The essence to lasting Digital Transformation is getting ready to change again, just after you have changed! It is a continuing conversation with no finish line in place. That makes it perpetual.

 

Giddy-Up

When my daughter was three, the favourite game at home was called ‘Giddy Up’. I was the horse and she would clamber on to my back and shout ‘giddy-up’. I had to move ahead emitting neighs. Every time she wanted a bit more excitement, her magic word was ‘giddy up’ and I had to change pace. (a.k.a faster).

One horse that I would like to clamber on and ride into the future is a steed named Facilitation. And guess what, ‘Giddy Up’ would be the first thing that I would say. There are several reasons.

Facilitation is best poised to be a potent tool to build dialogue and bridges in a world that is mired in conflict and walls. There are several other reasons and I would urge you to give this a read.

For years now, the power of debate, dialogue and the strength of human connection pulled mankind through. Now stare at several abysses. The invasion of technology, the loss of connect, the generational gap, the resurrection of walls and much else. It is time to say ‘giddy up’ all over again and help the world experience the power of facilitation.

Giddy-Up for #Facweek

The week beginning 15th October is being celebrated as the International Facilitation Week. There are several events that are happening around the world for the same.

You could consider being part of a few or follow the hashtag #FacWeek on social channels. I intend writing here on some of my experiences and ideas on Facilitation. Do give me a shout if any resonates with you.

I have had the good fortune of facilitating conversations across cultures and continents. Whenever  I do this, there is one phrase that I play in my mind.  Every time I sit in silence before a session or emerge from the cacophony after it is the catchphrase ‘lightly-tightly’.

To be able to tell between ‘light’ and ‘tight’, and to be able to work it well is important. What would you hold light? Why? And at the other end of the spectrum, what would you hold tight? Why?

To be able to hold your own fleeting feelings and emotions lightly whilst getting the group to tightly own the agenda and work towards finding solutions makes much of a difference. When the group owns the problem and there is a space for solutions to emerge, much happens. Much of it is unseen and goes by the name of ‘facilitation’. When the facilitator is invisible and the groups declare that they did it by themselves, there is collective move forward.

The masters of the craft, I have noticed, hold themselves lightly and recede into the background. Emerging only to nudge the group to hold each other tightly if they find a need. With experience and success, the ability to cast oneself out of the frame is troublesome and tricky. But that often get the group to ‘Giddy Up’ and gallop away!

That’s my thought. Your turn now.

The Power of Facilitation

Every now and then, there are domains and disciplines that come to the forefront and shine. Sometimes for a flicker of a brief moment and at other times for a bit longer.  Before retreating to the back offices of quiet practice or the ignominy of obsolescence and death. Facilitation, however, has been around for ages morphing with societal changes, demands and evolving constantly. There are moments in time, that are inflection points that provide opportunities never seen before. Right now, is one such. We are in the throes of life-altering changes in society that tugs at the power of facilitation to help create pathways for the future.

The future of work and life stand at a crossroad of sorts. We could go in many directions. A cursory examination of the world that we live in brings us face to face with a number of realities. Of course, there are many more. The following strikes me as dominant. (Please feel free to add and debate).

Reality # 1: Fractured and frayed

Switch on the television or flip open any newspaper. The fault lines show. Between countries, cultures, age groups. So much so, that that new fault lines appear citing the existence of a fault line in history and thus get perpetuated into the future. The consequent problem: mankind has been losing its humanity in such crevices. When we can’t have a civil conversation with one other, society has tripped on progress and fallen face down into the sand.

Reality # 2: Multiplier Effect

With the proliferation of social media and social tools, everybody has an equivalent of a global megaphone. Every minor fault line commands its own space, followers and likes. Over time, this shapes beliefs and positions that make possibilities for inclusive dialogue recede.  The tyranny of echo chambers wreck havoc.  The space and platforms for a neutral coming together disappear and walls (sometimes physical ones too) take their place.

Reality # 3: The technology conundrum

The rapid progress of technology has fundamentally altered how we went about our lives. We have ceded spaces in our lives that we treasured to technology. As the world sees more wearables, artificial intelligence, blockchain and a zillion other technologies, it takes a cursory glance to understand that the world is precariously poised. Add the possibility of singularity to that list, and we don’t know how the world will be in the not so distant future! Will we continue to be driven by the lure of profit or will we get to rise up to lift the world with technology? We don’t know.

Reality # 4: New world order

All of the above have churned the world order that we once knew. Countries that lead the charge in showing the way are now under the weather, having lost much sheen. The ‘order’ that they promoted lies amidst new questions and fresh doubts. For sure, a new world order brings with it new undertones of strife and conflict. With young populations armed with technologies that can well see beyond nations and boundaries, yet wrapped tightly in think ideologies, the future seems like a looming dark cloud.

If all of that seems far removed from the everyday rhythms of work and home, we have to remind ourselves that our lives, our homes, our places of work function within the context of these shifts. These have an indelible impact on us. What the future of work and living can be, needs fresh discussion.

The power of facilitation

Given the scenario, facilitation, as a body of work is well poised to act as a lever. There are a number of factors that will augment that argument. As a practitioner, my top three factors to bat for the power of facilitation, given where the world is, are the following.

a. The centrality of conversation and engagement

Facilitation is about the conversation, dialogue, engagement and an opportunity to shape a future that is different from the present.  Entrenched positions and echo chambers make strong walls but facilitation is best poised to be the bridge. It is not without example. The Singapore Conversations were a fantastic start. There are several other examples of public participatory decision-making processes. These need to make their move to citizen groups and communities. Without dialogue and conversation, we are broken. That is a substantive reason for facilitation.

b. The belief in the collective:

Facilitation’s working with (and on) the ‘group’ places emphasis on the ‘collective’. At best, there are solutions that emerge with everybody doing their bit to shape it. At worst, there is a recognition of the other’s position. Solutions are rooted in reality and draw strength from its foundations. It is not easy work by any stretch of imagination, but it is a platform for a beginning to be made. With effort and imagination, it evokes hope and promise.

c. A voice to all:

The belief in the collective leads to an important aspect: an opportunity to hear all voices. Sometimes just having a safe space to voice opinion is enough for a problem to sort itself out. As the gap between the haves and have-nots increases exponentially, we have a large marginalised population.  The haves and have-nots have its foundations on privilege. Privilege goes beyond economics.  It includes privileges that stem from age, technology, country of birth, the colour of skin, education, and others. Giving a voice and a safe space for every segment to share (and take responsibility for) their views is straight up the facilitation alley.

So, what must facilitators do?

The invitation for facilitation to play a crucial role emerges in both subtle and not so subtle ways.  Even as it does, there is much work for the community of practitioners from around the world to ponder, posit and practice.  Last week, I was at the Asia Conference of the International Association of Facilitators at Osaka, Japan. Conversations with fellow practitioners from around the world have had me reflecting on what must the community do. Here are some initial ideas. Let’s keep the conversation going. I remain confident that we will get somewhere.

a. Embracing technology:

The relentless march of technology has altered us as human beings and is busy working on our DNA! Amongst other things.  It has shrunk geography and tested our notions of who we are. Every profession from doctors to lawyers to taxi drivers have got to re-imagine their lives and their work. Facilitation and facilitators are no different.

To survey technologies that are emerging on the horizon and re-imagine what we could do with it for the profession is a good place to start.  This conference provided a teasing glimpse of what it can offer with hybrid sessions and a concurrent session on digital technologies that shape our world. Plus of course, an entire series on topics ranging from AI to the future of facilitation in a tech-enabled world.

We need to do more of this. We need more active experiments than the ones that shrink geography and time. Although, they are a great start. We need to get uncomfortable and weave our work around the technology that is becoming available.

b. Inclusive expansion:

As the profession expands and holds increasing allure, people from different walks of life are attracted to it. I have had conversations with a wide array of people over the last few weeks. People who have embraced facilitation with gusto. From chefs to chief executives, trainers to authors to social workers. All bringing in their own backgrounds and spice to the space. This perhaps is a good time to stay inclusive without getting lost in ‘definitions’ of what is (and isn’t) facilitation! We have a job to do. So what if facilitation goes by a different name or wears different overalls.

c. The work within:

As the profession advances, every facilitator needs to do deep work on self. That goes beyond facilitation tools. Facilitation, as a way of life, implies that it is a way of thinking and living. To elevate the profession requires facilitators to go deeper within. Becoming more aware of ‘the shadow’ self and its consequences are important. Here is a piece I had written earlier written whilst engaging with a similar thought stream.

Every time we reduce the profession to a bagful of tricks and tools, we rip a part of potential and toss it into a vacuous space.

The power of facilitation is more rooted in the outcomes that it can produce.  One way to advance the cause is to help larger groups of people experience facilitation in the context of the real world challenges. That implies work that goes beyond organisational domains. The work at the level of community, smaller cohorts working on challenges that confront everyday life can be challenging. To say the least. From traffic to pollution to plastic to even fostering peace in the building you live in. These are opportunities to hold space for a bunch of people to discuss and debate.

However, harnessing the power of facilitation that resides in everyone requires one crucial step.  Which is as simple as stepping forward with courage and stay open to all that emerges in the group.  There is raw power in quiet courage. Try.

 

Features Dont Sell

It was in an animated conversation with a dear friend a quote came up. He said, quoting the Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar, as he spoke of writing, “the experience is always bigger than the writing”. His words have stayed with me ever since. Especially so, when I sit down to write and wanted to describe an experience. Last week, in the middle of a conversation on Digital change, I was so reminded of this again. As a fine bunch of tech colleagues focused much on the technology that they were getting deployed. I call it ‘Feature Focus’. And features don’t sell!

Helping organisations navigate digital change processes brings me front and centre of how much ‘feature focus’ dominates conversations. The top three conversation dominators in my experience have been like the following

  1. This product can do ‘X’ and then it can do ‘y’.
  2. If users face a problem then they can click button Q and hit enter and they will get a view of the help centre and raise a ticket..
  3. It runs on ‘XYZ platform with ABC technology that has been adopted by 85% of Fortune 500 firms.

You get the drift.

Products rarely succeed (or fail) solely by virtue of the features within. What a product can do, in this case, a technology, is also dependent on the context of the environment in question.  To have passionate conversations without the end user’s context in the room often proves to be the digital change efforts undoing. Falling in love with our areas of expertise ( geeks falling in love with technology, facilitators obsessed with their ‘performance’ etc). So much so that focus remains trained on the features within, forgetting that the technology is just a means to a larger business goal.

Reflections on my experience and conversations with fellow change practitioners lead me to three thought trails. To many, am restating the obvious. But I have been through serial surprises over the last few weeks on how blinding the obvious is, that it is completely missed.

1. Features are contextual

Features are not absolutes. They are always a function of the context in which they are deployed in. A 5G phone may be fantastic by itself. In a geography where technology is limited to 3G phones, 5G has no relevance! While this may occur to you as a rather inane example, it illustrates the point. Imagine sitting in meetings where the virtues of such ‘5G technology’ are extolled.

Business rhythms, organisational cycles, tendencies for change and the need for change all matter much. When these are drowned in the noise of features, the change effort goes nowhere. It, in fact, is a giveaway for how the change effort will unravel!

2. Tech adoption is not a function of features

Features are important. So is context. Yes. There are more elements that determine adoption. To me, a key aspect is demystifying the technology element and weaving it into daily work.  The time lag between the start of the change effort and when change hits every individual is a big factor too. The essence, however, is to focus on ‘work’ and how work shifts for every employee. Features and glory of the technology in itself have to be experienced on the ground, more because of the shift in work. There is no glory in them being on Powerpoint slides.

3. Communication is not the fancy poster in the hallway

There is a communication 101 lesson that I recall. Communication is always a function of how it is received. Numerous change efforts have fancy posters, screensavers, games, and contests. To my mind, communication is a ‘moment of truth’ thing. It happens at places closest where work gets done. It often happens between people on the ground. At least the communication that determines the sustenance and success of the change happens there. That’s why keeping the ear to the ground trumps hanging from the nail in a hallway in the ivory tower.

Designing effective change requires courage. It seeks a huge degree of going beyond the immediate and seeing the larger picture. It requires a raw courage to thrive in the ambiguous gray of change.  Above all, it mandates going beyond a feature focus. That often means going past a stated requirement and find a new plane.  For a change practitioner, that requires comfort in crowing heroes of change and staying in the shadows. Borrowing from my friend’s quote of Mahesh Elkunchwar, the change that is sought is more important than the skills it takes to orchestrate it!

 

Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators

Any domain attracts attention, interest and following in its ascendency. Facilitation or ‘process facilitation’ is entering that phase now. This interest fueled by some reflection prompts me to write about the characteristics that I have observed in facilitators from around the world who continue to inspire me. It was a random reflective scrawl that morphed into “Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators”.

As the world continues to get fragmented by narrow walls and as existing modes of engineering change creak more than normal, facilitation is more than merely ‘sought after’. Over the last few years, I have seen this in action in the first person. Conferences and events like the International Association of Facilitators‘ recently concluded Asia and India conferences are freshly minted in memory. Both conferences were well crafted with meticulous care and depth. Both organising teams deserved the heaps of praise and applause they got. What couldn’t be missed, was the enormous interest and attention that facilitation as a domain is drawing. I met people from diverse industries, geographies, professions, interest groups etc, all seeking to know and learn more.

Even as I experienced top quality facilitation, I recalled some of the best facilitators in action. When I was amongst those being facilitated. Post the conferences, I was scribbling some notes about what stood out in the best of my experience. ( I continue to hear first-person accounts of great facilitation from the world over. Facilitators whose mastery I hope to experience someday). This post holds together seven aspects that are common in facilitators who I have experienced and admire.  Of course, this is my list filled with my biases and notions of what construes to be the best.  If you are a facilitator, I would encourage you to reflect, have a conversation and evolve your own list as well. For now, this is my list: Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators.

1. Self Awareness:

Top notch facilitators realise that the journey within them is the real journey. They are well aware of their own mental models, preferences. and biases. They are keenly aware of where their true self-worth comes from. Often times, it comes from who they are and not from being a recipient of an award, certification, the position they hold in a hierarchy or even the kind of work they do. They are in the perpetual beta mode!

This is invaluable in my opinion, for they approach the position of a ‘facilitator’  with a degree of respect and an inclusive embrace. They are simple people with no airs. Not for them any ‘super manesque’ infallibility and Midas touches that sprinkle magic solutions.  They don’t hanker for power and have any need to holler into a microphone. Wearing their vulnerability on their sleeve, they walk amongst the rest of us. Like the rest of us! This makes them endearing. There is something in them that draws people seeking out a conversation.

 

2. It is never about themselves:

That is a straight one, isn’t it? To be able to keep the light shining on the group that entrusts itself with a facilitator is an important ask. Great facilitators do this with effortless ease. An important distinction that I became aware of is the temptation to take the stage, in the garb of ‘shining the light on others’!  Great facilitators ensure that the whole space belongs to the group and the community. They are part of the milieu.

‘Holding the space’ is a phrase that permeates several facilitator conversations. This piece has some good insights and it lists eight important tips to hold space for others. Amongst them, are “Don’t take their power away”, “Keep your own ego out of it”, “Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness”.

Those are potholes that I catch myself falling often into. These jarred edges have sticky spikes.

3. Here and Now:

Presence and complete immersion with the group in front of them get great facilitators in a flow. Close your eyes and imagine an ‘ego-less’ state, where it’s not about showcasing oneself or the tools or the competence. A state where the sole focus of the group moving forward. It is a powerful idea that escapes capturing in its full essence here.

Just being present to the stated and unstated needs of the people in front can mean on the spot improvisation of well laid out plans. Sometimes, junking plans and taking different routes.  It didn’t matter if hours of preparation went into the design of a process. I have seen great facilitators drop it as though they had never thought about it because the ‘group has a different need’. To hold oneself at the service of the group is a mindset that switches on presence, in my opinion.

4. Tools are tools:

This is amongst my favourites. The best amongst us treat tools as mere tools. There is a respect for what the tools can help accomplish and a consequent need to be acquainted with these. But true mastery is not in replicating tools and processes. True mastery is in combining, shaping, mixing, axing of tools, processes, and ideas with imagination. Tools must always bow at the altar of outcomes that a group needs.

Heres a tip that I learned some time ago: Learning up a tool is good.  But true learning is when you have learned to go beyond the tool or the process. The quest for the new and shiny tools have sent several of us scurrying to far corners & writing down every word that an expert says. My experience of having practiced it in my early years gets me to wish I had realised how pointless an exercise it is. Unless accompanied by adaptation and reflection lead practice, it is a big house with no residents.

5. Curiosity:

The benefits that curiosity laden inquiry brings are often missed. Genuine curiosity and a spirit of exploration can lead to results that alter horizons.  It is in the nature of what Edgar Shein describes in Humble Inquiry. It helps unravel what groups are confronted with and the issues beneath the surface.

I have been in groups where some ace facilitators tease groups with a curious inquiry. To go beyond what is stated, to ask how to seek why to question if a broader ‘what’ is possible all means to challenge status quo. It is in such challenges that groups move forward beyond their immediate stated needs. Curiosity is a superb lubricant to move a conversation into areas that it hasn’t been to.

6. Working on themselves:

Perhaps the biggest learning that I have had from expert facilitators is their investment in themselves.  It is this aspect that gives them renewal. Investment in areas of skills and processes is eclipsed often by a conscious commitment to discover and work on the self.

The meticulous commitment to reflect, dialogue, debate and learn as a collective is a not so secret weapon in the arsenal of true champions. But it is something that can so easily missed in the quest for business or in the comfort of easy ‘success’. Lasting long term comes from the commitment a facilitator makes to the craft of facilitation.

7. Givers:

I kept this for the last because it is special.  It is when you truly give, that you are worth receiving.  I have approached members of the community with so much ease that it has made my inhibitions melt. Irrespective of their schedules and stature, people who inspire have gone beyond their brief to help.

People give their time to bounce off ideas, talk,  debate, often times for little or no consideration at all. This lack of seeking ‘whats in it for me’, sets them apart. To them, ‘to give’ is consideration enough.

So those are my seven from a long list I drew up thinking of the people who I have experienced first-hand several times. Thiagi, Kimberly BainBarbara Mackay, Martin FarellNoel Tan, Martin Galbraith,, Tom Schwartz, Rhonda Tranks, Lawrence Philbrook amongst international facilitators.

I hesitate to list my colleagues from India. For the well of knowledge that I have drawn from far exceeds the small bucket of my memory and experience. Let’s leave it at that. Many of them feature in some of the pictures of the Asia and India conferences, courtesy the wonderful organisers from the Chennai and Seoul. (Please give it 2-3 minutes for the pictures to load. You may get a message that “This slideshow requires javascript” before the images load)

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So those are the items that make the Seven Characteristics of Awesome Facilitators. Facilitators who I have seen a few times in action and who have left an imprint on me. I am curious to know about your list. Perhaps we should talk about it soon.

The Song Of A Neo-Generalist

When you have been humming a favourite tune for a while and then to have it sung to you by the singer who sung it in the first place, is rare. To put it mildly. “The Neo-Generalist” has several tunes that have stayed with me.  And then, Kenneth Mikkelsen one of its authors came to Mumbai.  We have exchanged notes and followed each other’s work for a while now. So to catch up with an original neo-generalist and hear the context behind the points of views, was fascinating.

I read “The Neo-Generalist” co-written by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin months ago. I was then in the eye of a personal change storm myself. Busy trading cartons of corporate experience for a flimsy backpack-wielding walk across the big wide world. The first tentative steps towards discovering what it meant to be ‘boundaryless’ were fulfilling and occasionally overwhelming.

‘The Neo-Generalist’ had held me together as I read stories of several others who had gone on this path before. Clutching a bunch of interests, sharing a worldview that was broad and most importantly, acting on their beliefs. The book fascinated me and has served as ready reckoner many times since. ( Richard and Kenneth and share their thoughts and work and do take a moment or two to follow their work).

The book tangibalised my meandering ways. Wrapped in the assurance that emerged from stories of different people, curated with care and laid out with brilliance, my ways found my feet. It taught me the importance of ‘serial mastery’. The importance of hybridisation in a world that favours labels and specialists. To specialise multiple times and to see the vastness of potential that resides within every person was energising beyond liberating.

Several aspects of the book have kept me unwavering company.  Am going to state two here. One, an image. Another, a phrase that morphed into a couplet. The image is that of an ‘infinite loop’. 

Pic from Hackernoon.com

An infinite loop of seamless movement through life that made the pathways credible. The seamless movement offering much energy and life to careers and life, that have become limited by labels, functions and designations. Through a rich array of examples, powerful metaphors, and flow, the richness of what it means to be a ‘neo-generalist’ emerged.

Now for the couplet.  “Jack of all trades and master of none” is pretty well known. Often spoken with an undertone of negativitiy and dismissal.  This morphing into a couple was unknown to me. The couple was “Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one”. Pretty neat. I thought. 

As much it was personal, there were other aspects too.  After reading and debating with friends, mentors, colleagues and other experts across the board, it was becoming clear that the ‘Future of Work and learning’ was going to be quite different than our present ways.  It was obvious that broad perspectives coupled with possibilities of dialogue and convergence were important. Linear thinking and limited ways has brought frayed success and deep residual issues.  Polymathic ways of thinking and living needed a shot in the arm and the book was precisely the remedy the doctor ordered.

That’s about the book. My good friend Tanmay’s sketch note in should give you a drone’s eye-view of the book. ( Read his blogpost here).

 

Neo-Generalist Sketch Note

It is one thing to read a book and it is another to spend a few hours with the author. It is quite something else to do both! We shot the breeze, exchanging ideas and experiences from the roads that we have trodden. Similar roads and different pathways and here we were, talking to each other.  Exploring the neo-generalist in each other and relishing the intensity of our current multi-disciplinarian pursuits.

Cut to Tata Institute of Social Sciences ( TISS ). Heres some context.

Amongst the things I do, I am a visiting faculty at TISS and teach Advanced Learning & Development to a bunch of enthusiastic students who are pursuing their masters in Human Resources.  We are trying our hand at mirroring the modern world with its tools and tackles in the classroom. It has challenged our collective imagination but the class is doing good.

The class has its own slack channel where there is a continuous conversation that’s on. A fledgling hashtag ( #Tisslabs ) on twitter, the class is often punctuated by bursts of hard reflection and active conversation online. Much of it is under the hood. We recognise that we are just about warming up and have all the excitement to go a long distance. If you have a point or two about what we should be doing in class, or if you are interested to participate,  please do give us a shout.

So, when I proposed the idea of interacting with Kenneth and learning from conversations with him, the class took it to the next level. They proposed that the stage must be that of the Centre of Social and Organisational Leadership ( C SOL ). A body that is working to advance global and local thinking and practice of Organisation Development, Change and Leadership. Working with Prof. Vijayakumar, Chair and Professor at C SOL, the class made an interaction possible.

odX invite - TISS - Leadership futures

The evening was special. Kenneth drew from the book, his experiences, his India story, research, anecdotes from around the world and such else. Students, professors, practitioners, research scholars were in the audience. The thoughts elicited discussions, questions, and dialogue. Much to the curiosity and surprise of the chai vendor for people forgot about a chai break!

Heres a sketch note by Shilpa Srikanth, that captures the conversation.

Sketch Note by Shilpa Srkanth

The neo-generalist is perhaps ahead of its time said Kenneth in his talk. I think the neo-generalists have always been there. They are the ones who didn’t take the beaten paths but had it in them to weave a different warp and weft.  As the sounds of predictability, precision, clarity and definitiveness grows in the modern world, the music that a neo-generalist can create is of a different order. As we discovered with Kenneth.

Hearing him speak took me back to the book. The book is interlaced with some awesome quotes. One of them that I seek to mention here is this: “Nothing changed, except the point of view – which changed everything” – Nick Sousanis, Unflattering.  A new-generalist view of the world will change the way we approach ourselves. And our work too. That is precisely what the future needs.

Of Curiosity and exploration

A few weeks ago, I was tasked with curating Founding Fuel’s newsletter. I wrote there, “As new walls are coming up the world over, history points in the direction of bringing in diverse ideas and people to collaborate for new frontiers to get established.”

Diversity of thought, opinion and domains have been factors that I have been exposed on a regular basis over the last year. If there was one element that is central to this exposure, that would be curiosity. It is curiosity that has been central to all conversations that I have immensely enjoyed.  More on curiosity, later.  For now, allow me to let you rest you with this Zulu phrase that I spotted in this brilliant piece.

To drift into another area now. What does depth in a subject mean? The last year or so has been a pointer to have my own answer to this question has evolved. ‘Depth’ in a topic/domain is no longer a lonely chair in a unitary pipe at the bottom of an ocean of knowledge, but rather is a noisy couch at the intersections of disciplines.  Depth in a domain has now come to signify a deep knowledge and understanding yet a sense of not being bound by that domain alone. You know it well enough to think of how it relates and connects to other aspects around.

Depth in a domain, therefore, has leaned more towards the ‘connection’ and in the ‘relating’ to other domains and disciplines. You need to go beyond a domain to see how it relates to other domains. Needless to say, to go beyond one’s core domain and see how it relates to other domains requires a depth that is greater and much-varied depth.

Where better to see the interplay of disciplines in an airport and airplanes. They bring alive some of the best and worst behaviour in people. Some of my best travels have been with total strangers as co-passengers. People who are innately curious about my domains of interest and have had no hesitation in sharing theirs. I have had some fantastic conversation with doctors, scientists, traders and even a football coach. These have been people who did not hesitate to share or ask pointed questions on my work.

By the time the plane touched down at a new airport, I knew a thing or two about what it meant to be a doctor or a football coach. But more importantly, I knew a thing or two that I had to look up, reflect and dive deep into my own areas of work, based on our conversation in air.  These explorations have lead me to something else, triggering an infinite loop of search and discovery.

The other thing that I have now concluded is this: people are nice. Generally speaking! If you share a perspective, expose a vulnerable sleeve and are prepared to lend a patient ear, people share. There are the odd ones that are exceptions. But they are really the odd ones and yes, they are exceptions!

One more thing. I have met some true masters. Their mastery of their own craft that was belied by a simple demeanour but superseded by an innate infinite curiosity to explore other areas. It is this curiosity that held our conversations together. It is this curiosity that I hope to have by my side. To me, it is this curiosity that will surface the depths of what’s possible and what needs to be explored.

That brings me back to curiosity.

There is a ton of research that points to how relevant and important curiosity is to learning and growth.  There are pointers to how you could build curiosity in kids as well. I find it very easy to just ask questions and stay fully present to answers. It is as simple as that! And it is the best way to find others and in their answers find more of yourself.