Friday 29 March 2019

Flip Me!

One of the programmes I'm involved in running is a three day development programme for Deans at Cardiff University. Day one is run by the PVCs, setting the context etc, and I pick up days 2 and 3 (which are some time apart). These focus on a variety of topics, from time management to change leadership and influencing skills.

This year, at the end of day 2, which had gone well, they asked if we could try flipped learning for day 3. For those not in the know, flipped learning means sending them all the material I would normally talk them through in advance of the day for them to read, leaving the day itself clear for discussion of, or practice with, the material, with their peers.

I was in two minds. On the one hand, I was keen to experiment and see what I could learn. On the other hand, I think that one of my skills is making the material relevant and interesting in the way I present it.  Further I was concerned that my handout material probably makes more sense in support of my presentation of the topics, rather than freestanding.

Nonetheless, I agreed to give it a go, and sent out the handout material in advance. On the day, I posted the agenda/running order on a flip chart, reminded the Deans about the primacy of listening (I had introduced the Thinking Environment on the previous day) and then launched each topic with a very brief reminder of the key points in the material I'd circulated.  In a couple of cases, I suggested a particular approach or activity that might help them get the most from the topic and the time, and that seemed useful.

Then it was over to them to discuss it. And discuss it they did: sometimes in plenary, sometimes in pairs and threes.  Some went for a walk in the park to discuss one issue (resilience) whilst others discussed it over a coffee in the coffee area.

It seemed to go very well, and as I travelled home, I got a little flurry of emails from some of the Deans saying how much they had valued the day and the approach, and how well it had helped them get to know each other as well as discuss the various topics.

And not only that, they revealed that they have invented the collective noun for Deans: they are a Forest of Deans.

All in all, a very satisfactory day; and an approach I will certainly try again when the occasion arises.

Sunday 24 March 2019

Learning from failure

Some years ago, I wrote a post called Blogging About Failure. I believe that we can learn a lot from failure - or, to put it less strongly, from those occasions when things didn't go as well as we had hoped or expected.

Somewhat tongue in cheek, I described that post, back in 2013, as the first in an occasional series.  Well, here is the second.

I am not claiming, of course, that everything else between then and now has gone as well as it possibly could; but there are some situations one cannot blog about, as they involve others who might be identifiable.  And further,  I don't choose to wash all my dirty linen in public...

I am keenly aware that I have blogged a lot, recently, about successes with the Thinking Environment (see posts with that tag for examples), and even with questions about it, at the critical, intellectual level. So for balance, I thought I would describe an occasion a while ago when it did not work as well as I had hoped.

I introduced the approach on one of the year-long programmes I am involved in facilitating, with a view to including some Time to Think in pairs or trios at the end of each day, to enable participants to reflect on the day's learning and decide what to do with it.  But, whilst some found it really useful, others did not.

So what had gone wrong, given how different this was from my usual experience?

I think that the problem lay with me. In introducing the idea, I think I had gone quite quickly, giving only a fairly sketchy explanation, as I wanted to get people into the experience quickly.

This was fuelled, perhaps, by a degree of complacency: this approach had always worked with other groups, so I was confident that it would do so again. So perhaps I was a little too confident, which, along with a sense of urgency, undermined my usual commitment to gain full understanding of, and commitment to, the process before starting.

What was interesting was that afterwards, I asked them to line up in the room, to indicate how useful they had found their thinking session. They ranged from fairly low, to very high.  Then I asked them to use the other dimension of the room, to indicate how closely they had followed the instructions and kept to the rules, rather than simply have a conversation.  That was very revealing: we got a strong diagonal.  That is, those who had stuck most closely to the structure had got the most out of it; those who had deviated the most, had got the least.

Which was valuable feedback: what it suggests to me is that the problem lay not with the approach, but with the way in which I had set it up. I had clearly failed either to make the rules sufficiently clear; or to convey the reasons for following them, at least on this occasion as an experiment, with sufficient compulsion.

So a reminder to myself not to get complacent, but to prepare both myself and then others adequately, if I wish to get the best from a practical session.

Sunday 17 March 2019

Thinking about the Thinking Environment

Conference Delegates in Thinking Partnerships
As regular readers of my musings will know, I am a big fan of the Nancy Kline's work on the Thinking Environment (see the tag of that name for a list of my posts on it).  Just yesterday, for example, I gave a presentation on Time Management at a conference: and instead of an hour's erudite exposition of the Eisenhower Matrix, and my planning models that help address the issues that throws up, I gave them five tips and then introduced them to the thinking environment (as a tool and practice that they can use to think about their priorities and time management regularly). Then I got them to work in thinking partnerships to elicit their own best thinking about improving their time management. The energy level in the room was very high, and some brief feedback at the end of the session suggested that this was a useful approach, for those who spoke at that stage.

It went down extremely well with the rest, apparently: at least, they gave me a generous round of applause; though that may have been because I ended with a deliberate clap-trap (as Max Atkinson terms it, iirc, in his excellent Our Masters' Voices).

Nonetheless, I continue to question Nancy's thinking and approach, because... well, because that's what I do. I am curious. I read a lot. I try to put together new learning with what I already know.  So questions arise.

One of the books I am currently reading is Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow.  If you haven't yet read it, I highly recommend it; it you have, you may be able to see where this post is going.

For what Kahneman demonstrates, over and over again, is that we all, habitually, use shortcuts in our thinking, without ever knowing that we are doing so.  Given that the Thinking Environment approach is predicated on the supreme value of people doing their very best independent thinking, Kahneman's work clearly raises some questions.  And for me as a coach, it seems, it also introduces some more responsibilities: I need to learn how to spot these short cuts, so that I can help clients to notice when they deploy them. Sharing such knowledge, appropriately, falls, I think, into the 'Information' component of the Thinking Environment model, and would be designed, above all, to help clients better answer the question: 'what are you assuming?'

The other area where I have a question is in the assumption that is, it seems to me, implicit in Nancy's work: that once people know what they think they should or choose to do, they will then do it.  I am not sure that the evidence supports that proposition: which is why in my book, Shifting Stories, I dedicate a lot of space to the topic of Thickening the Plot; which is essentially about how to make the new and more helpful understanding that we have generated, come (and stay) true.

I will get to work on both of these, and may report back in this blog in due course.  I'll also raise it with Nancy and others at the Collegiate in due course, and their response, too, may find its way into a further post on this blog.

Saturday 2 March 2019

Question X

As part of my coaching practice, I write reflective notes after every coaching session. I start with a narrative outpouring: my initial stream-of-consciousness reflections on what has just taken place. Then I use a pro forma and work through a series of questions designed to prompt examination of all aspects of my approach. Reflection is key

These notes are designed primarily to ensure that I reflect on and learn from my practice, and also, of course, are very helpful in preparing for subsequent sessions. They are also the source of the issues I take to supervision. Up until now, my favourite - or possibly most hated - question on the pro forma has been: What would I least like my supervisor to know about this session? Clearly that is a powerful question in terms of self-examination; and for obvious reasons, when preparing for supervision, I look at all the answers to that question on every review sheet since my last supervision meeting.

But I have come up with a new question, which is my current favourite.  And that is Question X. Question X is a prompt to myself to ask a new question. And that question is sometimes: what is the question I should be asking about this session? I have found that a fascinating question to ask myself: the answer often surprises me, and the answer to the resulting question is often very revealing.  But the other use I have for Question X is to ask myself a question about a current aspect of my work I am seeking to improve or examine in detail, or a model or theory I want to work with and practice until it is integrated in my work.  

For example, one of the essays in the Heart of Coaching supervision (a book I blogged about recently) is about philosophy, purpose and process; and an exhortation to reflect on all three and how they are integrated in one's practice. I found the essay, and the ideas in it, really stimulating; but of course, the risk is that I forget them and move on, as I continue to read (currently, Thinking, Fast and Slow, about which I will doubtless blog in due course). So I am going to use Question X this week to ask myself about philosophy, purpose and process in my work, and how (or whether) they are appropriately integrated. 

The joy of Question X, then, is that it makes what can be a very repetitive exercise (the completion of a pro forma) fresh every time - and makes me focus on whatever needs to be at the leading edge of my learning at any point in time.