8.23 a good time to collaboratively reflect

018Umeå Univeristy host a weekly event called 8.23 each Tuesday morning to discuss a paper in development and to share ideas around what resident researchers are working on. I participated in this firstly as someone engaging around other’s ideas and later as the facilitator of my own Organizational Zoo concept.  Both conversations led to stimulating exchange of ideas.  I believe that the concept of proactively engaging others to seek their perspectives though constructive feedback enhances the value and relationships for everyone involved and is enjoyed by the participants.

Engaging others in exchange of perspectives through conversation, is something I make a conscious effort to practice myself, because it opens our minds to new ideas. 8.23 is facilitated in a way to optimise the outcomes and create a constructive environment. This stimulates trust to interact in a professionally manner and is aligned with the concept of Conversations that Matter. Benefits are generated by challenging the interdependencies between behaviour, conversation and context and their impacts on relationships.
The benefits of aligning behaviour with context and pre-thinking on what behaviours are optimal for outcomes is further explored in another linked blog post.

The 8.23 activity (http://0823.se/?p=1021) sets an appropriate behavioural environment for constructive dialogue and sensemaking. It provides exchange of both rational and emotive perspectives to help the author of the “discussion piece” enhance their concept or paper (and therefore more likely to be developed and published). In the current “publish or perish” academic world, many journal reviewers are more influenced by a “rational” decision making and inclined to criticise subjective data. I personally think this is a mistake, as neuroscience research is increasingly showing that emotional aspects influence decision making more than we had previously understood. Conversations about the “art” aspects of decision making is becoming stronger with concepts like story, narrative and metaphor adding to the dialogue around subconscious and emotional aspects used to inform more balanced decision making.

Language is another key influence on perception and mutual understanding. What we say and the words we choose make a big difference to how we are perceived and the influence/impact we have.  For example, “I THINK you are wrong” implies rational decision challenge whereas, “I feel we might have missed the point”, implies a more emotional based challenge to your decision.  The Australian Army recently investigated in the impact of language use and lexicons on their culture (Thomson 2014) and found that what is said and how it is stated make an important contribution to cultural identity.  This is also discussed in greater depth by Corballis (2011).

We all know there is a difference in what we say and what we do, and this changes what stories we tell and how we “present” the information we share.  This is not new… it reflects back to Aristotle (350 BCE) contemplating the synergistic impact of combining Ethos, Logos and Pathos to more effectively persuade others. Which raises the question: How do we know when we are persuading others to adopt our own approach and when we are simply sharing perspectives?

I find it is important to ask oneself challenging questions such as these on a regular basis in order to continue learning and maintain an open mind.  It is too easy to become comfortable in one’s own ways of thinking and deciding and when we do this we cease to grow, personally and professionally.  It is useful to challenges the current rational dominance in management thinking and contemplate what is “fact” (as opposed to interpretation or perspective) and if there is such a thing as “absolute truth”.  We live in a complex world and most of what we know is actually interpreted through our own emotions and experiences, so everything we “see” and do is fundamentally biased.  This does not make it wrong, in fact, acknowledging this enables us to interpret the data more effectively knowing that the subjectivity is there.

So my take away from the 8.23 sessions is that conversation is a powerful tool to create, discover and collaboratively develop concepts and ideas. This is especially so when there is conscious effort to align behaviours with constructive interactions. A group of professionals engaging in regular collaborative conversation is likely to enhance learning outcomes and generate superior performance. Engaging with an organisation where this is part of the culture motivates me to participate and stimulates my intellectual values (and hopefully my contributions have a similar positive impact on the other participants).


Aristotle 350 BCE On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse Translated Kennedy, GA 2006 Oxford University Press, UK.

Corballis, MC 2011 The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought, and Civilization Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.

Thomson, EA 2014 Towards inclusion. Language use in the Department of Defence, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, www.aspi.org.au

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Start with Why

You often hear people say they need to know all about an idea before they can decide to engage with it or not.
A common approach is “the five W’s” to determine If and How…
“Who, What, Where, When, Why and How” may be generically useful, but the order is far more important than many utters of this throw-away line realise.
What, Where, When, and How are sub-servant to Who, which is completely determined by Why we need to act.

If we start with WHY, we understand the desired outcomes.  In a well considered “CStep1Whyonversation that Matters” reflecting on WHY first defines the intangible and tangible REASONS for acting.  Reflecting on WHY we explore the value that comes from the decision and actions and we consider the relative priority of how we invest our time to deliver the most important outcomes. Without pausing to discuss relative priorities, we can quickly sink into the mire of “just doing” because we are focused on being seen to be active (an unfortunate approach to perception management in modern organisations… as opposed to the alternative of  acting in strategic and sustainable ways using evidence based decision-making as a guide).

An effective leader engages their team with a series of exploratory questions to understand why…
They challenge relative benefits of a range of options and leverage the diversity of views available to them to make better informed decisions before acting.
This can be done quite quickly- even in minutes in some cases. Done well it does not cause procrastination or lead to group-think.

The key is to reflect first and in a way that engages rather than threatens those involved.

Once you know WHY your initiative is a worthy of priority, you will then know WHO should be involved and ONLY then can you determine WHAT should be done. With a clear vision around Why, Who and What, the How, when and where become much more obvious. The path towards more success more often is paved with a series of stepping stones in a specific order:

WHY provides the value and priority

WHO provides the knowledge and expertise to get the WHAT right.

Once we have value and people sorted, we can then look at processes (How and When) and supporting tools How, When and Where).

Too often people muddle the order of the conversation and start with a tool or process and end up doing many things that do not add value, or worse, deflect critical resources away from activities that wold have added value.

Simply asking WHY in a constructive way (with appropriately aligned behaviour) can bring priority back into informed decision-making and enhance individual, team and organisational performance.
Is there sufficient trust in your organisational culture to engage in this way?

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12 Principles of Knowledge Leadership

Leadership is a subjective participation sport of perspectives and relationships. The more effectively you influence others to play with you, the greater your own success, and the more value you generate with, and for, others. Great leaders generate trust and act in an open and trustworthy manner. In doing so, they generate an environment in which people desire to be involved in decision-making and the implementation of value-creating actions. They interact in an open manner to solicit a range of perspectives to ensure knowledge is transferred between them, constructively challenging current thinking to generate the ideas to make a better tomorrow. Knowledge leadership is primarily behavioural (both for the leader and their followers) and generates a collaborative atmosphere of ownership and a sense of identity around the shared purpose.  Effective leaders use metaphor to simplify complex matters and creatively highlight connections between what is already known and what needs to be understood for the future.  This use of metaphor to draw people towards a mutually beneficial journey with sustainable outcomes develops an environment of trust and participation.

Reflect on why you have followed those you consider your leaders, mentors, and role models. Reflect on
why we will move mountains for those we trust… and why we place them in the paths of those we do not. Such self-awareness will lead to insights on why leadership is critical to success and why knowledge and behaviour are essential ingredients in this success.  Recently I wrote the opening chapter for the book “Successful Knowledge leadership” describing 12 principles that effective knowledge leaders follow. Each of us probably have elements of these some of the time, the great leaders exhibit most of them, most of the time.  It is just about consciously implementing your “should do’s” to convert the thoughts into actions and the potential into value.

12 Principles of Knowledge Leadership is a great place to start you practice of becoming more successful:

  1. Lead people to interact through effective processes to deliver aligned individual and organisational goals supported by tools to make this more efficient.
  2. Engage people in ‘Conversations that Matter’ to make more informed and sustainable decisions and build trusted relationships (and the subsequent flow-on effect of increasing knowledge transfer).
  3. Enhance performance of self, teams, organisation, and cross-organisational boundaries through timely communication and relevant interactions.
  4. Accelerate the development of employee capability, experiences, and networks by creating an environment which attracts, engages, and retains knowledgeable employees through the provision of constructive and meaningful work activities.
  5. Create the foundations of a learning organisation and a ‘safe-fail’ environment that encourages emergent discovery and an adaptive approach to errors.
  6. Prioritise activities to focus on appropriate resources to highest value activities (considering both short and long term implications and both tangible and intangible benefits and risks).
  7. Ensure cycles of knowledge flow throughout the organisation from initiative design, to implementation, to post-implementation review, such that learning from the current cycle informs the next cycle.
  8. Invest resources in prospecting of future potential to fuel growth and innovation, to fill knowledge gaps and create new options.
  9. Share relevant information, narrative, story, and insights through targeted communications to build community and team identity and leverage cultural diversity.
  10. Stimulate change and challenges through reflective and emergent dialogue using creative social interactions among people who benefit from connecting regularly (ideally through both face-to-face and virtual contact).
  11. Leverage knowledge assets (tacit knowledge, processes, intellectual assets, networks, relationships etc.) in creative but ethical ways to make sense of emerging trends and highlight potential risks – considering both internal and external influencing factors.
  12. Be the knowledge leader you want to serve and mentor the one you want to replace you.

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Moving mindsets from “What is” to “What is POSSIBLE”

“Traditional teaching” is TEACHER and CONTENT focused. This is fine – if you want to win a local pub trivia night, but it is not LEARNING. Learning requires a level of understanding of what the content is about and why it is important. Even more important is knowing when it is relevant to apply and why it is more optimal than a range of other possible options. Flip teaching is (apparently) a “new” way to teach that incorporates technology and prior learning before applying the content in tutorials. The basic process is record a video or activity that students view or act on BEFORE the class, so when they come together in the classroom, they engage in APPLYING the content and ideas to exercises. This is of course better (in theory) than just learning content (which is rapidly forgotten). Some examples of the “flipped classroom” also have technology where the students are doing exercises in computers in class and the teacher can monitor their activity and put their attention towards those who need it most.

It is not about the content, its about the interactions

The biggest limitation is traditional teaching is students may not fully understand the impacts and consequences of the knowledge they have “gained”. Vygotsky (1978) argued a long time ago that language and signs helped learners to develop a richer and higher level of understanding, thereby increasing the chances of converting content and thought into meaningful action. He described this transformation as a move from a life where action dominates meaning (or “rebus”) to one where meaning dominates action. For this evolution to happen, learners benefit from spaces where they can interact and reflect (alone or with others) to develop their thinking and interpretation of the content. Interactions across perspectives enhance the richness of these exchanges and this is what the Facilitator” should be doing in class rather than teaching content.
The idea of learning by doing and interacting with others is far from new. May writers have discussed action learning, action research, andragogy (or adult teaching method) and the limitations of these versus traditional content based teaching. One of the key limitations is that andragogy assumes the learner is a willing participant and will engage with others. Words Bloom used to describe the outcomes of traditional learning included: defines, describes, identifies, knows, labels, lists…
Whereas words Bloom used to describe andragogy are much richer and action orientated such as (and require a significantly higher level of understanding): appraises, compares, concludes, contrasts, criticizes, critiques, defends, discriminates, evaluates, explains, interprets, justifies, relates…

However, if students have not read the material before the interaction, the value of the dialogue is significantly reduced. Larry Michaelsen creatively got around this problem by setting short tests at the beginning of each class that count to final grades. If they did not read, they (and their teams) were penalised in the results (simple and brilliant). The truth is if they DO read before, they learn more and education is an investment in your future. If you want to maximise return on your time and efforts investment, you read before, interact during class and reflect afterwards. The truth is, your capabilities (what you are really buying in education) are as much influenced by what you do before and after classes than in them. Each enhances the quality of the other.
A quality education is one in which we (participants) understand what is already known from the past and apply this to inform decisions and actions (the same or differently) in the present, in order to create a better future. After all, one of the key the purposes of education (other than just being fun to participate in) is to guide us to a more sustainable and enjoyable future. Flipping the classroom is just one way to achieve this higher level understanding, others include conversation, games, metaphor, role plays, challenges, debates etc. The key in the interactive dialogue and being outcomes focused (around what you are trying to achieve).
I advise my research students that I want them to develop multiple perspectives:

  • Understand the problem (but this is just the beginning)…
  • Convert that problem into an opportunity (if it is an issue, then resolving it adds value right?)
  • Then advise, specifically, how to act for the future (in a meaningful way that creates sustainable way.

That is, inspire our thinking by shifting our focus from “What is” to “What is POSSIBLE!”


Bloom, BS, Hastings, JT & Madaus, GF 1971, Handbook on Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student Learning, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, NY, USA.
Michaelsen 2012 http://www.teambasedlearning.org/
Vygotsky, LS 1978 Mind and society: The development of higher psychological
processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Understanding and Mitigating Culture Clash

Culture is an interesting outcome of people interacting in specific environments and can be difficult to influence. The Organisational Zoo metaphor provides a simple way to understand culture as an outcome of:
(i) What animals you have in the zoo
(ii) Where they are in the hierarchy and
(iii) How they interact with each other.

The Zoo represents the organisation and each animal an individual behaviour (not a person as a whole). People are far too complex to put into a “box”. They behave differently in different contexts, sometimes automated (instinctive) and at other times somewhat deliberately. All organisations have an overall stereotypical culture, which in reality is the combination of many smaller subcultures. As you drill down through specific contexts, different behaviours are displayed resulting in variation on how the collective accept some behaviours and not others depending on the situation.

We can come to understand this better as we analyse the types of behaviours and how those involved categorise them according to context. A useful exercise to understand your (sub)culture is to determine which animals you prefer in each of the following categories:
• Expected (this behaviour is considered absolutely required in this context)
• Desired (we would like to have this behaviour if possible)
• Tolerated (prefer this was not displayed)
• Not tolerated (this behaviour is disruptive in the context and likely to lead to conflict)

Participants are asked to include twenty of the Organizational Zoo animals (place five cards into each of the four categories). In doing so, they engage in a rich exchange of perspectives of the impact of each animal on outcomes and performance. They often disagree and with good facilitation, insights into why this diversity exists and impacts each animal has in each category can generate terrific understanding between the people involved. This exercise has been done in a range of cultures/countries using a range of groups and every time it generates positive outcomes: participants learn from each other and have fun whilst disagreeing!

One key learning that often comes out is why cultures have clashes (see photo). Where two cultures (or subcultures within one organisation) have similar animals in the expected and desired categories, they are very compatible and cross fertilisation of ideas seems easy. There is a strong sense of common identity and willingness to engage with each other as indicated by the green zones. Cross overs between desired and tolerated between the cultures are inconvenient at times and can create some tension, but these can be managed with competent leadership. However, if there are some animals that are expected in one culture and not tolerated in another (red zones), there is a lot of tension and if not managed well, ultimately leads to conflict and culture clashes.

The Zoo metaphor cards can be used to highlight such potential issues early in the formation of teams (such as acquisitions, mergers, new projects…). If such constructive dialogue is facilitated before tensions are allowed to escalate into issues, agreements on ways of interacting can be forged. However, if such conversations are not facilitated (or done badly), the underlying tensions build into an explosive crisis, after which resolution is extremely difficult. When this happens, trust and collaboration seldom develop causing derailment and destroying performance.

Often, it is not the conversations that DO happen that are most damaging. Its those that should have happened but didn’t (or did so too late and or with the wrong behaviours).

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