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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Biomimicry at E4S

I had the privilege of speaking for ten minutes at the Entrepreneurs for Sustainability Biomimicry session last night. I presented along with a representative from MOEN who delivered the thinking behind their bio-inspired showerhead and a doctor from Case Western Reserve University. She presented information on bandages and other coverings that can remove moisture and deliver medication. It was bio-inspired by the human skeletal system's ability to take in and distribute out nourishment and liquids through bone loading (how did I do?).

I presented biomimicry as used in the process of strategic planning. This is based on my past 11 years conducting strategic planning events, new product development and learning development sessions. Obviously, not as heady as the Fibonacci sequence or Bone Loading, but three is a charm (and also part of the Fibonacci sequence) and if I was able to merely round out the numbers that will suffice.

The Process

The sessions make use of group decision-making and parallel work. Somewhere between twelve and one hundred people make for a healthy session. Thirty to sixty seem to be the sweet spot in my opinion and falls in line with the
Wisdom of Crowds thinking – groups think more accurately than individuals. The process for facilitating this work covers two to three days and steps through a creative process that takes the group from concept to reality.

When we solve a problem we go through a number of iterations of thought and actions. I have labeled them as:

  • Inspiration – something new or some thing old experienced in a new way that reveals elements that can contribute to a solution.

  • Imagination – the combining of elements, new and old, into all or part of a new solution.

  • Evaluation – testing a solution or set of options against external realities.

  • Engineer to execute – creating the plan and team to implement.

Natural Systems

Crafting a healthy solution to an issue or problem requires that the group acquire new information as a group. The study of natural systems, though at first seems a bit weird, provides a sound base to a group as natural systems (bee hives, ant colonies, geese flocks, the rain forest, tide pools, swamps, rivers, etc.) provide

  • A time-tested, sustainable model

  • A model that stresses effectiveness and efficiency

  • A model that is lean and mean

  • A cooperative model

And nature’s only care is that it works.

Using Natural Systems in the Group

In the spirit of parallel work, a number of natural systems can be studied (books, articles, video, field trip) by small groups, discussed and synthesized to share with the large group in the form of standing presentations. The elements that emerge become critical success factors to the design of the solution.

And there’s more

Work of this nature brings people together into teaming in a healthy, non-hierarchical way.

  • Natural systems familiarity is not based level in the organization. In fact, most people don’t have this knowledge.

  • Everyone learning something for the first time leave no one at an advantage which encourages genuine, authentic relations – not those based on authority or expertise.

  • The study of the unfamiliar allows groups to discuss helpful ways to create change objectively.

  • We too are natural systems and possess the same hardwiring as do all natural systems making it easy to fit into our way of doing things.


The following links direct you to two authors I have found to be very insightful into the thinking and application of natural systems.

Kevin Kelly

Maragaret Wheately

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Trust = Opportunity over Risk

I think it was Norman Vincent Peale who related this thought provoking analogy. It is about the opportunity to walk on a 2x4 board between the Twin Trade Towers (obviously this was written some time ago). Would you do it? He then presents the opportunity to walk across the same 2x4 on your living room floor. How about now? Same task. Same 2x4. The ability to complete the task successfully should be equal, but of course it is not.

In this transitional time in our world, innovation, cross-functional competencies, lateral career development, right-sizing, teaming, and collaboration are all excellent opportunities for individual growth and company profit. In order to encourage individuals to embrace these opportunities it is more advantageous to relate risk more like the 2x4 on the floor that it is versus the one between two high rise towers in order to control the direction of individual or group in a constantly changing environment.

In order to help people make changes that will contribute to a company's success in new markets and to reinvigorate their competitive stature in existing markets, a bond of trust between company decision makers and the implementers of those decisions works best related in an honest realistic way, which is usually uncomfortatble, not life threatening. No one should have to feel their opportunity for success depends on crossing a 2x4 between two high rise towers. Movement will be hampered by the thought that the tiniest slip would present too great a risk.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Design Element: Don’t Kill Their Energy

Once you cut off a person’s nose, there is no sense in giving them a rose to smell!

One of the greatest learnings passed on to me by my teachers, is to not stand in the way of a person’s energy. Always go with it and take it to where you need them to go. I like to think of it as the shepherd and the flock. A shepherd never stands in front of the flock and yells’ “STOP”, that would be suicide. A shepherd works with the energy of the flock and moves them from the sides, never breaking the energy of the group. It’s not my job to start and stop a group’s energy, but to sculpt it. In the end if it looks like they have done it themselves, that is the true reward and one which will keep people coming back to smell the roses.

Design Element: Ask the Dumb Questions

Oh see the happy moron.
He doesn’t give a damn.
I wish I were a moron.
My God, I think I am.

Asking the dumb question often elicits some simple, powerful answers. It is also the question that is plaguing people’s minds at the core, however because we are always concerned with looking, as opposed to being, knowledgeable we shake our heads in agreement when we could be saying, “I don’t understand”, “How does that work”, “No, I have never learned that, would you please explain”. As they say, the only truly dumb question is the one that is not asked.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Design Element: You Can Destroy the Whole by Way of the Details

"When you dissect a frog, you learn a lot about a frog, but in the end what you have is a dead frog."

-Mark Twain

When a solution has been created in a collaborative, multi-iterative group process over a period time, the group's intimacy with the solution, in part, is what makes for success in a session. They understand how the parts make the whole. Basically, they have spent time with the frog. The result is a solution set that is often more innovative and unrepeatable than a solution crafted under more conventional means.

When people ask to be brought into the session late, because of schedule conflicts or other barriers, it is a disincentive to the process - lacking hands on experience and context they need to be "brought up-to-speed". The “bringing them up-to-speed” means taking valuable time and energy going back and explaining and recreating the work up to the moment. It diminishes the energy of the group, as it often takes many people to explain to one. It channels the energy away from the true goal of creating the solution.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Photo Safari

I carry a simple Canon digital camera everywhere I go. I use it to shoot my work and it cleans up very nicely in Photoshop. I have also found it to be a great way to build visual content in my head and on my hard drive, and have started going out and doing what I call a Photo Safari. Because I travel a great deal and go to some notable locations, I have a wealth of things from which to choose.

Originally I found myself overwhelmed with wanting to shoot postcard subject photos to share with others about my trips, as well as the interesting stuff to inspire my imagination. I found, over time, that most of those postcards subjects are indeed postcards already available and can be bought for a minimal amount or the image can be found on the internet. Re-shooting these images is like shooting the amazing sunset I and everybody on earth has photographed at least once.

So instead, I leave those subjects to the professionals and concentrate on the little things that catch my eye. Among those I have found interesting are:
  • Graffiti lettering and characters
  • Unique signs
  • Statues and parts of statues
  • Plants and animals
  • Architecture and spaces
  • Unique people (with permission and sometimes a donation)
Not only does this type of focus and capture help build more visual inspiration and imagination, it also builds an eye for seeing the wealth of the world around us - how parts make a whole, how connections can be found in previously disconnected things. One of my favorite bloggers is Robert Genn. In a great blog post; Working with Miksang, he goes even deeper into the mediative and contemplative nature of using the digital camera as a tool for focusing on the world around us. Check it out.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Design Element: Learning to Learn

The best environment for learning exists when we realize we are all simultaneously teachers and students. Nothing exists in ordinary life that cannot be improved upon or changed for the better through communal sharing of experience. Therefore the host teacher is merely the facilitator and presenter of the best information available at a certain time on a topic or subject and is only beginning a dialog and a learning that cannot be completed until everyone in the group has had the opportunity to contribute either through questions or comments on the matter at hand. Learning exists best on the edge of failure and doubt not on success and certainty. This holds true for both teacher and student.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Don't do something, just sit there

I personally believe my job as facilitator is to bring out the conversation in others. Once established, my next job is to get out of the way and be supportive, by connecting, encouraging and guiding. Basically, to shut up and help them to get their work done more effectively.

I have witnessed two types of facilitators (though I am sure there are many different types). One pulls the group along, leading and directing. This style, by the way, is appealing to many groups and can be advantageous to certain types of organizations.

The second, takes the energy and recycles it back into the group. The position of facilitator is more of shepherd than leader, by gently nudging participants away from danger and coaxing them forward - to make it easier for them to do THEIR job. This I believe is my job, which is not to be the expert of their work or to do their work, but to allow them to own their efforts and help to make the journey easier.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Design Element: No Rule Book

Occasionally you get someone who offers counsel with only a few words, yet those few words can open a door to knowledge no encyclopedia can fill.

I had a great teacher who coached me on becoming a facilitator and he offered some short insight that has helped me more in the area of facilitation and just about everything else. His words were as follows: "The only rule book you need is the one inside yourself. Once you get in touch with that, all the other rules fall away." And it's true for when I can get in that place, it sets the stage for right thinking and right acting in the moment. Of course, it's not always accessible - stress, frustration, and competing agendas always seem to want to crowd in, but in in establishing a sense of knowing the feeling, thinking and acting that tells you when you are there provides an option that transcends the normal rules and still keeps me in touch with the tools and techniques I need when I need them.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Drilling Down to the Ordinary Level

When I began as a entry level consultant in a large consulting company, I was overwhelmed by the language and models and complexity of consulting. Mega processes, tools and techniques, route maps, entity diagrams and the like left me thinking that I had missed some important learning during my education or somewhere in my life. As I was able to learn more about mapping processes, understanding the nature of MBA educated professionals and our very human need for importance, I began to translate such references in ways that made sense to me. When I began learning graphic communication as a way to facilitate conversations and dialog, I began to find value on bringing out the ordinary from our extraordinary language and use this tool as a bridge for greater understanding with clients.

My First Icon Post

I have decided to dedicate a new blog for posting raw sketches and doodles that form the basis of graphic communication.

This guy above came out one of the many times I have sat with just a clipboard of white, printer paper and doodle until something happens (usually it's that I get interrupted, but on occasion I actually come up with a gem). This character might be used to express urgency, or danger, or nervousness. I take a liking to little personalities that are the simple, everyman, kind of like a Chico Marx character that senses something very innocently yet shows a wisdom and whimsy.