Learning via Artifacts: A Conversation with Dave Gray

Next Wednesday, April 2, 2014 at 12:30pm PDT, I’ll be participating in a public Google Hangout with my friend, Dave Gray. The conversation will be about learning via artifacts. All are welcome to watch. We’ll also be using a public Boardthing to take notes during the conversation, and we encourage everyone to join in that as well.

Why are we doing this, and what exactly is “learning via artifacts” all about?

The short answer is that this is a response to my recent blog post over on Faster Than 20, “Documenting Is Not Learning.” That post was a mini-rant on how many people seem to equate “learning systems” with trying to get people to write down and file everything that’s in their heads so that others can read and access them. It’s an incredibly naive approach, but people often pour thousands of dollars (and sometimes orders of magnitude more) into trying to build these kinds of systems, most of which inevitably fail.

My overwhelming desire to make this point caused me to wave my hands past a subtle, but equally important point, one that is foundational to all the work that I do: The process of documenting is one of the most powerful ways of catalyzing learning.

Dave (and a few others, actually) called me out on this point on Facebook. I agreed, and I said I needed to write a followup. But since I was already talking with him about this, and since he happens to be one of the foremost practitioners in this space, I figured it would be much more interesting to highlight his voice. Thus, next Wednesday’s Google Hangout was born.

The Boardthing is a huge bonus. Dave and his team recently created a wonderful collaborative tool that is the online equivalent of putting stickies on walls. If that sounds simple, it is, but when done right, it’s also incredibly powerful. Up until now, no one has done it right. We’ll use Boardthing to model what we’ll be talking about, and we hope that many of you will jump in as well.

The long story starts with this gift from Dave on October 18, 2006:

Designing for Emergence

Dave was participating in a collaboration workshop I was facilitating in St. Louis. To him, this isn’t anything special. This is simply the way he takes notes.

To me, this was a gift on many levels. Whenever I think about that workshop, I think of this image first. I actually took copious notes from that workshop, some of which I even blogged. I wrote a piece about the things I said that led to Dave drawing this. I also posted pictures from that workshop, including shots of the flipcharts from the day.

There are lots of great knowledge nuggets, most of which have been sitting around, collecting virtual dust for years. Until I think about this picture, that is. This image, for me, is the start of a trail, and whenever I start poking around it again, I remember old insights, and I look at them in new ways. I’m willing to bet that this holds true for whomever reads this, that you are far more likely to start poking around than you would have had you not seen the picture. There is something about the visual that draws us in, that stirs our emotions, that makes us want to know more.

This is all after-the-fact learning. But what about in-the-moment learning? What was happening in Dave’s head as he drew that picture? How did the act of drawing help him learn? What would happen if you made that synthesis process collaborative? How would that impact learning?

I’ll leave you all with these questions for now. This is the stuff that we’ll be talking about this coming Wednesday. But I do want to say a few more things about Dave.

Dave is and has been my hero in so many ways. I’ve known many brilliant visual thinkers and learners for many years, but there has always been something about Dave’s style and presence that has encouraged me to practice these skills myself more actively in a way that others haven’t.

The first time we met, he explained to me how he draws stick figures. His trick? Draw the body first. Why? Because body language says so much! That’s really the essence of what you’re trying to communicate. How freakin’ simple and brilliant is that?!

My partnership with Amy Wu over the years has been strongly influenced and inspired by Dave and his work, and you can see that in the evolution of my slides over the years and even in the Faster Than 20 website. What you don’t see in those final products are all of the sketches that both Amy and I drew to help us think through these ideas. Dave is one of the people who strongly inspired me to work this way.

To me, Dave personifies the learning mindset. At XPLANE, the wonderful design consultancy he founded years ago, he started something called Visual Thinking School, one of the ideas that inspired me to start Changemaker Bootcamp last year. He is a great speaker and writer, but he is also constantly making things — tools like Boardthing, companies like XPLANE, brilliant books like The Connected Company, beautiful paintings.

When he learns, he learns out loud, so that others can participate in and benefit from all aspects of his process, not just the beautiful, final artifacts. He wanted to learn more about Agile processes, so he decided to write a book about it. He’s interviewing great practitioners in order to learn, and he’s doing them live on Google Hangout, so others can learn with him.

I love every opportunity I have to chat with and learn from him, and I hope many of you will join us this Wednesday!

I’ll write a followup blog post on Faster Than 20 after our conversation about learning via artifacts, but in the meantime, you can read and watch some of the things I’ve said on this topic in the past:

Finally, here’s video from a brown bag I led in 2011 entitled, “Saving the World Through Better Note-Taking.”

My Six Favorite Essays on the Groupaya Blog

A random interaction with an old friend earlier today caused me to search for something I wrote on the Groupaya blog a few years ago. That got me nostalgic, and I ended up reading every post on the blog.

It was great to revisit these, and it stirred up some useful, sometimes nostalgic memories. I’m proud of what I wrote in my time there (2011-2012), but I’m even prouder of what Kristin Cobble and Rebecca Petzel wrote. They shared some wonderful gems.

It’s unfortunate that the company no longer prioritizes real-time knowledge sharing, since there’s a lot of wisdom in that group from which the world could benefit. It’s understandable, though. Sharing what you learn openly and in real-time is challenging, even scary, and it’s not for everyone. You have to really value it to do it.

If you do, however, you’ll find that it’s not that hard to make it a habit. It’s also tremendously rewarding, as I’ve been rediscovering through my Faster Than 20 blog. The act of writing and sharing is valuable in and of itself. It helps you think, and it helps you find your people. I am constantly humbled by the people I meet and touch through my writing.

But the most valuable benefit of blogging this way is that your ideas become persistent. (This is also what scares a lot of people.) Others can discover what you write long after you’ve written it. That can lead to new connections and possibilities. “Others” sometimes even includes yourself! I find revisiting old thinking to be a hugely valuable learning process, if only to remind me of thoughts I once thought and have since forgotten.

Here, in no particular order, are my six favorite essays from the Groupaya blog that I wrote:

  1. What Does the Collaboration Field Look Like?
  2. Measuring Impact: How You Feel Also Matters
  3. The Illusion of Control
  4. Practicing for the Emergent
  5. The Skillful, Intentional Practitioner.
  6. The Secret to High-Performance: Constant Striving


My Top Blog Posts in 2013

Here are my top 10 blog posts from 2013 (unique visits in parentheses, bolded items explained below):

  1. Aaron Swartz (3,105)
  2. Tom Bihn Bags for Micro Four Thirds Cameras (1,732)
  3. Seeking Google Alerts Replacement (699)
  4. Balance, Impact, and Next Steps (333)
  5. Three Simple Hacks for Making Delightful Virtual Spaces (300)
  6. Survey on Changemaker Challenges (255)
  7. Five Tips for Facilitating Power Dynamics (235)
  8. WikiWednesday in San Francisco: State of the Wiki Ecosystem (199)
  9. Balance Bikes for Changemakers (199)
  10. Lessons on Mentors and Mentorship (158)

I found this breakdown curious, and it speaks to why I started my new website, Faster Than 20. The purpose of this blog is not to build an audience. It’s a place to record my thoughts. If others find my posts useful, great. If my posts catalyze interesting interactions and lead to new connections and learning, even better.

My site statistics reflect my lack of intentionality as well as the vagaries of attention on the Internet. The top post by far was a memory I shared about Aaron Swartz, someone I barely knew. Obviously, his suicide was big news, and rightfully so. But my tribute to Doug Engelbart — someone whom I knew well and who was more famous than Aaron — didn’t even crack my top 25 most visited posts. (It was 27.)

My second most visited post was about camera bags. I’ve written over 650 posts, and none of them have been even remotely similar to that piece. Why the popularity? Mostly because it was reshared by Tom Bihn, the manufacturer I mentioned in the post, but also because there’s not a lot of good information on the Internet about bags for micro-four-thirds cameras, which was why I wrote the post in the first place. From that perspective, I’m glad that it’s been a popular post.

On the other hand, I’m a little disappointed that the knowledge nuggets I shared about collaboration (by rough count, about 75 percent of my posts this past year) were not more prominently represented in the top 10. (The ones that were are bolded.) I think that several have been useful and important, but they have not been widely accessed. This could either mean that I’m overstating their importance in my head, or that I haven’t been intentional enough about building the audience.

Both are probably true, which is why I started Faster Than 20. I’m happy about keeping this space as is, but I want more people to read what I have to share about collaboration. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference intention makes next year.

October Progress Report on Balance and Impact

I’ve been on quite the adventure since I last reported on my journey toward life balance and greater impact five months ago. In a nutshell:

  • My mentor passed away this past July. I was already in a reflective state, but Doug’s passing kicked it up a notch, and it reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing.
  • I completed a second pilot of Changemaker Bootcamp, and I felt ready to take it to the next level. That process turned out to be simultaneously discouraging and hopeful. It was discouraging in that I wasn’t able to get the enrollment I had hoped for. It was hopeful in that I think I understand why, I felt a tremendous amount of support from most of my peers, and I feel a renewed commitment to making this happen. I just started a third pilot this past week, and I have strong interest from a few organizations to do a cohort bootcamp for them.
  • I started doing weekly checkins with my friend, Seb Paquet, which are about to evolve into a much larger experiment on new, networked ways of working. More on this soon.
  • I’m launching a new website next week. More on this soon.
  • I recently took on a consulting project.

Yes, that’s right, I’m consulting again. Up until last month, I had been very disciplined about turning down consulting opportunities, staying laser-focused on my own experiments. Then, two things magically aligned. First, I started actively seeking organizations interested in doing a cohort version of bootcamp. Second, Rick Reed of Garfield Foundation made me an offer I almost, but ultimately couldn’t refuse.

The philanthropic and nonprofit sectors are notoriously poor at collaborating. The problems are both cultural and structural, and they are particularly frustrating given the social mission of these sectors. I’ve mostly avoided these sectors — particularly philanthropy — because I think there are bigger leverages for change with less structural and cultural baggage, and I’d rather focus my energies there. However, I’ve obviously made exceptions.

In 2003, the Garfield Foundation launched an initiative that would eventually be called RE-AMP (“Renewable Energy Alignment Mapping Project”). The goal was to reduce global warming emissions across eight states in the Midwest, but the approach was markedly different from other initiatives in the sector.

Garfield spent several months convincing other organizations — both foundations and nonprofits alike — to sit at the table together as peers and to go through a strategic planning process together to see what they would learn. It was a long, arduous process with missteps along the way, but in the end, these organizations aligned around a common strategy. The collective strategy was different from what many organizations — including Garfield — had originally set out to do, and it required these organizations to take a long look in the mirror to see if they were truly committed to letting go of control and following what had emerged from the group.

More importantly, the group developed networked structures for working together. Rather than creating a new, centralized organization to manage processes and make decisions, they found ways to pool resources and build the capacity of existing organizations within the network.

This investment in network alignment and capacity has helped shut down a number of coal plants and resulted in many new clean energy regulations throughout the Midwest, results that would not have been possible without these organizations working in concert with each other.

Rick Reed, the initiator of this project, has his roots in sustainability activism, but his current mission is to change the way philanthropy works so that it is more collaborative. RE-AMP was a great success, and now he — along with his co-conspirator, Ruth Rominger — want to see if the model can work in other areas. Earlier this year, Garfield Foundation put out a call to find networks of nonprofits and foundations looking to solve complex problems together. For the next three years, Garfield wants to work side-by-side with one of these networks, providing both financial and knowledge resources, to help it achieve its goals.

I first met Rick a few years ago at a talk he and Heather McLeod Grant (who wrote a wonderful case study about RE-AMP) gave. Heather invited me to join Rick and Jennie Curtis, Garfield’s Executive Director, for dinner afterward. As it turned out, Rick was aware of some of my work, about which he had some kind and generous things to say.

When Garfield put out its call for proposals earlier this year, Ruth called me to explore the possibility of getting involved with the project. The obvious thing would have been for me to be part of the pool of potential consultants for the network that emerges from this process, but I put the kibosh on that idea. I wasn’t consulting anymore.

Still, we had a wonderful conversation. I was curious to hear more about what they wanted to do, and I was taken by how much of a learning mindset Ruth (and, as I would later discover, Rick) possessed. They did not make presumptions about their past success, nor did they apologize for it. They had a sense of conviction around the basic principles in which they did their work, but they were also very conscious of how nonlinear their learning was, and they were not looking to impose a recipe onto others. They are both smart, creative, and passionate, and they both have a very nice presence.

Flash forward to this past August. I was ready to test the Changemaker Bootcamp model on cohorts, and I was looking for pilot groups, so I started calling up various people I knew — including Ruth — whom I thought might know of potential groups. As it turned out, both Ruth and Rick were intrigued by the bootcamp idea and thought that whichever network emerged from their process might be a good candidate.

Furthermore, Garfield was just about finished whittling down its 62 applicants to ten, but Rick was feeling a desire to bring in some external thinking to help raise the quality of their evaluation and possibly prune the list further. So he came up with the following ideas:

  • Invite some network thinkers and doers to gather together for a day and to provide feedback on the potential finalists. He wanted to use this process as an excuse to surface a diverse set of experienced viewpoints into a robust evaluation framework.
  • Invite some of these guests to participate in the subsequent site visits with the finalists.

They ended up organizing a workshop with three of my favorite people in the field — Taj James, Nancy White, and Odin Zackman. That alone was reason for me to participate, but I had two other selfish reasons. First, I am on an ongoing quest to synthesize my thinking into usable frameworks. Second, I wanted to see Rick and Ruth in action.

As you might imagine, that day was amazing. Rick subsequently invited me to participate in the site visits, working around my schedule so that I could visit as many of the candidates as possible. We’ve also been exploring the possibility of me joining the “brain trust” for next year. I’m still not entirely sure what that means, but I love the spirit of their intent, and if all the cards fall in the right places, I’m going to do it.

This project is different in significant ways from my past consulting projects, but the reality is, it’s still consulting. I left consulting for a reason, and for me to come back to it, the project needed to align strongly with some very specific goals. Truthfully, I struggled with this. I was hypersensitive about the possibility of rationalizing my participation rather than being disciplined and strategic about my choices.

I discussed my quandary with some close colleagues — Seb and Rebecca Petzel in particular — which helped quite a bit. But it was something that my friend, Mariah Howard, shared with me that really helped me see more clearly.

Improv is among Mariah’s many talents. She explained that, in improv, audiences love to watch performers scramble. A classic improv technique is to throw unexpected curveballs that force the performers to think on their feet. This opportunity, Mariah suggested, was one of those curveballs — new information that I didn’t have before when I was formulating my strategy and making decisions. She encouraged me to play rather than obsess.

My goal is to help as many people as possible improve their collaborative literacy by focusing on two specific leverage points: practice and artifacts. Those happen to be two things that Rick and Ruth value tremendously. I need a testbed on which to experiment with ideas. Rick and Ruth have created an amazing testbed in which the stakes are meaningful, and they have been extremely generous in inviting me to play with them. If we’re successful, it will be both a learningful and impactful experience.

I’m going to continue developing Changemaker Bootcamp (which will hopefully overlap with the Garfield work). I will continue to pursue my other experiments (although I’ve had to whittle down the list, always a good discipline). I’m going to leverage the tools and practices I’ve developed over the past year to stay focused on my goals, to adapt in thoughtful ways, and to live a balanced life. I’m going to take the time to reflect on and to share what I’ve learned. I’m going to take lots of pictures.

Most importantly, I’m going to have fun! I feel extremely blessed to even have the opportunity to do this kind of work with such incredible people, and I do not take that lightly. I love the whole range of projects in which I’m engaged right now. I’ve already walked away from the Garfield site visits inspired and challenged, and I’m looking forward to sharing more!