Cultivating Collaborative Conversations

October 20, 2014

I sometimes visit Bill Gates’ blog, GatesNotes, to see what books he’s reading as well as for his occasional and interesting reviews eg here. The leading header on the blog a while ago was an interview he had with a Teacher of the Year (Washington State, 2014).

Although education is not a primary interest of mine, I watched the video above and quickly became fascinated.

From the blog post:

Katie had an insight that really struck me: She said we’ve known for a long time that most students won’t learn if you just stick them in a classroom and make them listen to a lecture. They have to put the learning to use and make it relevant to their own lives. And yet most teachers still get their professional development at seminars and conferences, where they sit listening to lectures. “We would never do that with kids,” Katie said, “but we still do it with teachers.”

This extract relates to quite a few posts on this blog on different ways of sharing knowledge (see knowledge management category on the rhs).

The main points from the short video above are:

  • Time – the school principal is heroic enough to give the teachers time to learn through mutual collaboration (as opposed to cramming yet another task into an already busy schedule; in other words, something else is given a lesser priority!). I can imagine that just doing this one thing sends out a very powerful message. The example given is that the in the monthly 45 minute staff meeting, 30 minutes is spent on discussing ‘instruction’ (how can we all teach better?).
  • Large group collaboration – this is for generating the big picture and is typically not hands-on.
  • Small group collaboration – this is for applying the big picture insights to specific areas, say physics or French and is hands-on.
  • Visits – a group of teachers go around the school to see how well the ideas are working out, taking the whole working environment into account (for example the use of graphics on the walls might be very effective and this approach could be used elsewhere).

An example discussion question is: How do we develop strategies for better student dialogue, how do we help kids have more constructive conversations in class?

This question sounded pretty impressive to me!

I have no experience of teaching in high school although I have taught at various universities during my time in academia. However, in common with many other lecturers, I had no formal training for this, let alone (planned) collaborative discussions about good methods that worked.

I was curious if any of this could be transferred to a business setting, even in an approximate way.

For example, replace the above school discussion question by: How do we develop strategies for better business dialogue, how do we help people have more constructive conversations in their work environments, leading to better understanding, motivation and results?

The first thing that came to mind was a partial overlap with the idea of ‘knowledge cafes’ that are already being successfully used in various organisations eg see here. Typically they start with a question for a whole group which is then discussed in detail via small groups. The full group then gets together again to see what personal insights or actions the discussions may have lead to.

The school approach above could be thought of as a type of ‘cafe’ which roles on month after month and where the questions are collaboratively developed. Importantly it also includes the facility of seeing how insights are realised in particular settings through visits e.g. to working offices. In a business setting, such a ‘cafe’ (based on collaborative conversations) would become an integral way of working rather than a separate activity.


Speaking To Oneself

September 25, 2014

“Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of witnesses.” – Margaret Millar

Thinking about it, so are some emails!

See also here (on the quality of feedback in conversations).

Originally spotted as a ‘quote tweet’ from David Gurteen.


The Waiting Game

September 5, 2014

Insightful quote:

“The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” – Fran Lebowitz

Last Tuesday I was at an office based meeting with everyone rapidly exchanging opinions and insights and I found myself doing exactly this – waiting for an opportunity to express my views rather than listening fully to what others had to say! This is partly due to time constraints of course, you don’t have all day to listen and also get your points across.

However, at the end of the meeting, some of us transferred to a local pub and miraculously I found that listening suddenly became a lot easier. Maybe this was due to the fact that the meeting had ‘ended’ and everyone simply relaxed or perhaps everyone had had time to assimilate all the many other viewpoints and personalities and only details remained. Then again, maybe it was just the alcohol and informal atmosphere loosening things up?

Anyway, the combination of formal and informal venues, as noted on other similar occasions eg Knowledge Cafe at Arup, worked very well.


A Bit Of Honesty Helps

August 27, 2014

A close relative has recently been diagnosed with dementia and we’re all coming to terms with this unanticipated situation. There are lots of articles on dementia in the papers and TV etc but I guess it was a case of thinking that it wouldn’t happen to any of us. For example, as I’ve now found out (see here)

After the age of 65, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles approximately every five years. It is estimated that dementia affects one in 14 people over the age of 65 and one in six over the age of 80.

We’ve had some helpful meetings with the social services and have independently done research and reading up on the condition from the internet. As always the information is fragmented, you have to bring bits and pieces together and then relate that to what seems to be happening in practice (medically, financially and legally).

In parallel with this I’ve talked to friends and neighbours who also happened to be in very similar situations or had been through this recently. Sometimes the whole situation seems a bit chaotic, with numerous organisations involved, although, remarkably, very good results (regarding the care of the relative) seem to be coming out.

In this light one of the most useful pieces of information I came across was a simple bit of honesty (see here):

Be prepared to be persistent to get what you want. Health and social care professionals may not always communicate with each other as well as they should, and you may find you have to explain your situation each time you meet a new professional.

I was quite amazed to read this on an official NHS site but the advice was worth it’s weight in gold.

I wonder how many other organisations would be similarly honest?


Memorable Meetings

July 22, 2014

From Greg McKeown in the HBR (I’m reading his book Essentialism at the moment):

Mr. Frost, my superb economics teacher in England, once shared the story of two people talking about a lecture given by the late Milton Friedman, the father of Monetarism. The first said, “Twenty years ago, I went to the worst lecture I’ve ever heard! Friedman gave it and I still remember how he just muttered on and on and all I could make out was the word ‘money.’” The second man responded, “If you can remember what the key message was some twenty years later, I think it might be the best lecture you ever heard!”

Indeed, Friedman’s singular message — that by controlling the supply of money, you can stabilize the whole economy — became, arguably, the most impactful economic theory of the second half of the 20th century. The point I wish to emphasize is not an economic one, but a human one: if you try to say too many things, you don’t say anything at all.

He highlights a few key lessons he’s learned over the years in giving effective presentations:

  1. You can’t communicate what you haven’t defined i.e. be really clear, starting with yourself, about what you want to say
  2. Lose the slides and have a conversation – something my friend David Gurteen has been saying for years!
  3. Kill your darlings i.e. ruthless editing
  4. Be repetitive without being boring i.e. focus on the one message you want to hammer home

See also, Why Are Most Events Rubbish?

Rereading this latter post, it may be a bit unkind but the underlying point is still a good one and one that everyone still seems to be struggling with.

 


Thinking About Your Networks

July 16, 2014

Connected_780

This picture plus it’s accompanying discussion can be found here. It’s quite interesting to think about one’s connections in this way, even if it’s hard to be too specific about the measurement of the (time dependent) factors.


The Benefits Of Regularly Looking Backwards And Forwards

April 22, 2014

I’ve written previously on the powerful impact of carrying out (honest) reviews (for both projects and individual work). I came across an interesting variation on this theme that works for organisations and is called the Snippets system (from the free e-book here):

During Google’s growth stage, Larry Schwimmer, an early software engineer, stumbled upon a deceptively simple solution that persists to this day at Google and throughout Silicon Valley. In this system called Snippets, employees receive a weekly email asking them to write down what they did last week and what they plan to do in the upcoming week. Replies get compiled in a public space and distributed automatically the following day by email.

The Snippets process at any scale is a compelling productivity solution, and companies of all sizes have adopted it. Some, like SV Angel, rich in Google DNA, do daily snippets.

The routine process encourages employees to reflect and jot down a forward-looking plan for getting stuff done, all while requiring a minimal disruption in the employee’s actual work.

It sounds very attractive but I’m curious how it actually works in practice – how honest is everyone, how scalable is it really, how easy is it to spot unexpected connections in a mass of information? However I can imagine that if you can get such a system working well (as I’m sure you can) it would be incredibly powerful.

It reminded me a bit of a more standard system that I’d come across earlier that also incorporated the personal touch (the latter part wouldn’t scale easily but has advantages in it’s own right).

When I left academia in the late 80’s, I had a position at the UK IBM Scientific Centre in Winchester (specialising in research in data visualisation). Looking back now, I was terribly inexperienced with anything to do with business, so the ideas of professional management practices and business development and so on were quite alien to me. As a consequence I had to learn a lot in a short time.

One aspect that fascinated me was the way they did monthly group progress meetings. Every month everyone would briefly write down and circulate their key achievements and plans for the future as well as raise any issues that others could potentially help with. In addition, in the actual meeting everyone summarised their main points in 5 minutes or less. All staff were treated on the same footing so no one got more time than any other. Waffling on was cleverly regulated by the manager starting to look around the room and feigning a total lack of interest – it’s amazing how powerful that simple ploy can be!

These meetings were incredibly useful – it was good to have to think back on what I’d actually done in the last month, what was a problem and my initial ideas for the next month. It also meant that, as we were all working in different areas, we had to explain what we were doing (although technically very advanced) in a relatively simple and jargon-free manner (a very useful skill). The manager would then decide what were the highlights for that month (just one or two of the maybe 50 items discussed) and then summarise the rest.

The summary, just one or two pages, then got circulated around to the other groups. Quite often links and connections were discovered in these meetings that we’d not been aware of even though informal ‘water cooler’ conversations were an integral part of the way we worked.

It was a simple idea but very effective in practice and similar in spirit to the Snippets idea above. In a modern context, we were doing proactive ‘knowledge management’ through ‘creative conversations and smart summaries’. The clever part was managing the overall process without using a heavy hand, thereby encouraging honesty and fruitful participation.

It might seem that this idea is rather trivial and commonplace but that’s not my experience. After leaving IBM I worked for a number of research agencies and, although they did similar things, none approached the usefulness and directness of the IBM approach described above. I always had the feeling that in these organisations such meetings were activities you ‘had’ to do (and were essentially bureaucratic in nature) rather than something creative, motivating and useful. So just how you do it (preferably very brief and to the point, and stressing connections) is extremely important.

Maybe some of these knowledge sharing ideas can profitably be used in your organisation?

 


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