“Balance Bikes” for Changemakers

How do you make it safe to learn?

A few months ago, I was chatting with a friend who races dirt bikes, and he was talking about the challenge of picking up the sport when you’re an adult. The problem? The bigger you are, the harder you fall. Because falling is riskier as an adult than as a kid, it’s harder to learn the intricate nuances of balance. If you don’t practice falling, you will never be effective.

Then he added, “You’ve heard of balance bikes, right?”

I had not. I — like many of my peers — learned to ride a bike with training wheels. It was a harrowing experience. I would spend a few days happily riding around with training wheels, and then my Dad would say, “Ready to try without?” And I would always say no. I had zero confidence that I could ride without them. Somehow, my Dad always managed to get me to try, and more often than not, the experiment would end quickly.

As it turns out, training wheels do the opposite of what they are supposed to do, which is to train kids to ride bikes. In order to learn how to ride a bike, you need to learn balance. Training wheels actually discourage you from learning balance.

Balance bikes are bikes without pedals. Kids sit on the bike and push themselves forward with their feet. When they want to stop, they put their feet down. Balance bikes provide the same security from falling as training wheels, but they help you to learn balance in the process.

For the past few years, it’s been hip to tout failure in the social sector. It’s well-intentioned, but it’s tremendously shallow, largely manifesting itself in big talk and ill-conceived failure contests. Failure competitions are the training wheels of changemaking. They don’t make it any safer to take thoughtful risks, and they don’t create a real path for learning how to make change meaningfully.

What’s missing from the social sector right now are balance bikes — structures that support learning the right things by lowering the cost of falling and by encouraging practice.

What are examples of balance bikes for changemakers?

I think one example is practice-oriented mentorship. Most professional cooks learn their craft through staging, where they’ll work for free on their off days in another chef’s kitchen. They’re not simply shadowing other cooks. They’re doing real work with peers and mentors. This is not just a well-understood concept among cooking circles. It’s prevalent practice.

The closest thing to this in the social sector are incubators and accelerators, both of which I think are fantastic. However, I think there’s room for something less formal and more incremental, something that looks and feels more like staging.

What do you think are potential balance bikes for changemakers? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Photo by Kate McCarthy. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Collaborative Literacy

Take a moment, and think about the best collaborative experience you’ve ever had. It could be something that happened at work or a personal experience — organizing a family gathering, doing a shared activity with friends.

What would your life be like if all of your collaborative experiences were as good as that one?

Imagine a world in which everybody’s collaborative experiences were just one percent better, however you’d like to define that. What would that world look like?

My driving passion for the past 10 years has been to create that world. My contention has been that our overall collaborative literacy is depressingly low, and if we could boost that literacy even a little bit, it would result in drastic improvements in the world around us.

By “collaborative literacy,” I mean our fundamental abilities to collaborate with others. But what exactly does that mean? And how can we boost it?

As is often the case, I think sports offers a wonderful analogy. In honor of today’s NCAA Finals game, I’d like to draw some lessons on collaborative literacy from basketball. (If you’re not a sports fan, please bear with me. I’ll try to keep the jargon to a minimum, and I hope the analogy will still be useful.)

Basketball is one of those sports that’s hard to play casually unless you have some basic skills: dribbling and shooting. Both are hard to acquire, and dribbling is harder to learn than shooting. I spent hours as a kid practicing my dribbling, and I’m still below average at it. Lots of people can’t dribble without looking at the ball, including some pros.

When you play pick-up basketball, you meet people of all skill levels, but you rarely meet anyone who doesn’t have those baseline skills. And if they have those skills, that means they’ve put in some amount of time playing the game.

However, those are individual skills — necessary, but not sufficient. You also need to understand how to play the game at a team level. In other words, you need to have some baseline level of collaborative literacy. Casual followers of the game might think that collaborative literacy consists simply of passing the ball, but there’s a whole lot more. On offense, collaborative literacy consists of:

  • Passing
  • Moving without the ball
  • Setting screens (i.e. creating a wall with your body so that your teammate can get away from his or her defender)
  • Boxing out (i.e. again, using your body as a wall so that the opposing player can’t get a rebound)

On defense, collaborative literacy consists of:

  • Calling out screens (i.e. letting your teammate know that the opposing player is setting a screen, so that your teammate can move around it)
  • Double-teaming (i.e. helping a teammate defend an opposing player)
  • Rotating (i.e. covering for your teammate when an opposing player gets by him or her)

None of these skills are easily apparent, in the same way that the individual skills of shooting and dribbling are. However, they are all physically easier to acquire than the individual skills. Anyone can pick up a ball for the first time and pass the ball reasonably well. The same can’t be said for dribbling or shooting. Calling out screens requires the ability to yell. Most people are naturally very good at that. All the other group skills simply require moving your body, running to a spot. You don’t have to teach your body anything new.

What makes these skills hard is knowing what to do in the right moment. You can discuss the mechanics of these, and you can learn a lot by watching others, but in order to embody these skills, you have to practice them. And unlike the individual skills, you can’t  practice these collaborative skills by yourself.

To some extent, you can learn these skills by osmosis, but what I’ve discovered from years of playing pick-up is that people rarely do. You need to be conscious of these skills in order to practice them. I’ve played pick-up basketball with people who have played their whole lives and yet who never move without the ball or box out.

This holds true with collaborative literacy in all contexts. How many people do you know at work who have a basic literacy around giving and receiving effective feedback, for example? How long have they been doing business?

In order to learn how to collaborate more effectively, we need to be conscious of what collaborative literacy entails. But, even more critically, we need to have opportunities to practice those. I actually think there’s a ton of good information on the basic skills of collaborative literacy, but there are very few supporting structures for practicing these intentionally. Leadership development programs, for example, focus almost entirely on individual skill development, but they only marginally cover collaborative skill development, and they generally offer very few opportunities to actually practice them.

If we’re to achieve this vision of a world where all of our collaborative experiences are merely one percent better, we need to create more structures for developing collaborative literacy.

Photo by Wade Menard. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. As a relevant aside, I searched through hundreds of CC-licensed Flickr pictures seeking something that embodied team play. I didn’t find any. All of the pictures highlighted an individual skill.

On Sourcing Quotes and the Wikimedia Way

This morning, I came across this Charlie Parker quote that I really loved:

“Master your instrument, master the music, then forget all that bullshit and just play.”

My first instinct was to tweet it. My second, more practiced instinct, was to check the source first. It’s really not that hard to at least do a quick check, and I’ve discovered lots of misattributed quotes this way.

A quick search surfaced a bunch of unattributed variants on that quote, as well as this entry from Wikiquote:

“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” –As quoted in Acting Is a Job: Real-life Lessons About the Acting Business (2006) by Jason Pugatch, p. 73; this statement has occurred with many different phrasings, including: “Learn the changes, then forget them.”

A book on acting is not the most credible source, probably no better than the blog post above. But at least it’s the start of a trail, one that anyone can follow to the end, if they so desire.

The ethos of sourcing facts is theoretically easier in this connected age, but the reality is that our connectivity seems to discourage it. We read funny or provocative things that speak to us, we click once, and boom, we’ve instantaneously shared it with hundreds of our followers without giving any thought to whether or not it’s true. That’s a problem.

Furthermore, social media tools seem to be actively evolving to discourage sourcing. I was guilted into this practice of sourcing-before-sharing after reading a rant by Evan Prodromou, who pointed out that a quote that was being widely and rapidly shared was actually misattributed.

Here’s the problem: Even though he posted it publicly somewhere, I can’t find it. It’s not on his blog, and it’s not on Status.net (the company he founded, which very much values persistent data), although he alludes to the rant there. Which means that he posted it on Facebook or Google Plus, which means that I can just about forget about ever finding it, since neither of those services seem to care about making posts persistent and findable. (Read a similar criticism that Kellan Eliott-McCrea had about Twitter.) Which means that this knowledge trail, minor though it may be, has been unnecessarily broken.

This is yet another reason why I appreciate Wikimedia so much. There is a deeply embedded ethos in that community around sourcing truth. Sometimes, this ethos surfaces some quirky challenges around epistemology,  such as the recent Philip Roth affair, but even situations like these only serve to make us smarter and more self-aware.

The wiki tool enables this ethos to some extent, but the reality is that its source is cultural, not technical, and the community is trying to apply this ethos to all forms of knowledge, not just encyclopedic. No one else is doing this. That’s unfortunate, because we need a lot more of it.

Five Lessons from my Nephew on Learning

I spent last week in Cincinnati with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews, Elliott and Benjamin. I hadn’t seen them in a while, and I just wanted to spend some quality time with them. Despite the frigid cold, it was restful and wonderful. I spent a lot of time in particular hanging out with Elliott while I was there, sitting in on his second-grade class, watching him practice cello and hockey, and trash talking our way through a marathon game of Parcheesi.

Elliott’s a sweet, goofy, playful eight-year old, easily distracted by the world and its many pleasures, but full of beautiful insights. I suppose it’s not surprising how creative and thoughtful he is, given his two musician parents, but he often astonishes me with his observations. A few years ago, I was reading him a bedtime story about a tree dying in the forest (why are children’s books so depressing?!). Midway through, he suddenly stopped me, and asked me to repeat a line. “That’s so beautiful,” he said after listening to the line again. And it was! But I wouldn’t have expected someone his age to pick up on that. Heck, I hadn’t picked up on it.

Elliott’s in the enrichment program in his class, and his teachers rave about him, but he’s not book smart in the way my sisters and I were growing up. We were Class-A nerds, perfect at spelling and math. We picked things up in the classroom easily, and we loved to read and study on our own. Elliott’s good, but not great at those things. His mind clearly works in different ways. I’ve been able to watch his learning process in a punctuated way over time, and on this trip, I saw a lot of things that both surprised me and reinforced some of my thoughts on learning and pedagogy. Here are five things I learned.

1. You can practice falling.

I grew up loving sports, and Elliott took to sports at an early age as well. I loved sharing that with him, and I bought him his first glove and basketball. But then he took an unexpected turn. He decided that hockey was his favorite sport.

I’m from L.A. I didn’t watch or play hockey growing up, even when Gretzky joined the Kings. Even though I went to school in the northeast, where they have silly events with vaguely insidious names like “Beanpot,” I never took to the sport. I didn’t know a puck from a crease.

When Elliott became a hockey nut, our relationship was suddenly reversed. Now he was the one sharing with me something that he loved, something that I knew nothing about, but that I wanted to learn because of him. My friend, Eugene, was telling me recently about a similar experience he was going through with his son, and how much he was enjoying it. It’s a special experience.

As part of my ongoing immersion, I watched my very first hockey practice last week, and I saw something that blew my mind. In hockey, you practice falling.

Elliott Falls on the Ice

How brilliant is that? We were not meant to move our bodies at breakneck speeds on hard, frictionless surfaces, especially with other bodies simultaneously trying to bodycheck us off the ice. Even the most skilled skater is going to fall many times throughout the course of a game. And so rather than put their blind faith in the athleticism of their players, coaches teach players how to fall, and they have them practice it over and over again. It made me wonder what the equivalent of falling (not failing) was in my work, and how I could practice it more intentionally.

2. Improvement can take time to see.

My brother-in-law is a cellist, and Elliott started taking cello lessons when he was three. Both my sister and brother-in-law are steeped in the Suzuki method, which emphasizes learning by listening, playing in groups, and space. (More on space below.)

Elliott has always had a natural sense of rhythm and an affinity to music, but I’m not sure he’s passionate about cello. Maybe that will come over time. I know for certain that he doesn’t like to practice it, which makes him like just about every other little boy in the world.

Elliott at Orchestra Practice Elliott and Ms. Nadine

Nevertheless, he’s been playing for five (!) years now. I’ve gotten to watch him practice every time I’ve visited. He’s not any more enthused than he was when he started, but he’s definitely better. I can see that viscerally. I doubt that he can, and I wish that he could.

Incremental improvement takes time to see. You notice it immediately when you’ve been away from it, but it’s just about impossible to see when you’re living it every day. Elliott sometimes got frustrated by his “lack of progress,” both with the cello and with hockey, but he simply wasn’t able to see the amazing amount of progress he has made.

It reminded me of my own frustrations with Groupaya last year, when I felt like we weren’t learning fast enough. When I was able to step back, look at the actual data, and take a long view, I could see how mistaken I was. Learning takes time, and progress is not always immediately visible.

3. Space matters.

Elliott’s cello teacher, Ms. Nadine, is a master of space. She knew that I would be sitting in on his lesson, and when I walked into her practice room, she already had a chair ready for me… behind Elliott, so that he couldn’t look at me during the lesson. Her room was designed to eliminate distractions so that her students could focus on two things: their instruments and their teacher.

I was similarly impressed by Elliott’s school. (More on this below.) His classroom was designed in really smart ways, redefining what most people understand “classroom-style” to mean.

Elliott's Second Grade Class

The class was split up into small groups, facing each other rather than the teacher. (His teacher later told me that she would rather divide the class into even smaller groups, but couldn’t due to space constraints.) There were folder pouches on the back of each chair, allowing the students to have whatever they needed closely on-hand, so they wouldn’t be distracted by large bags lying around all over the place. Everything on the walls and on the floor had meaning behind their placement.

As I said earlier, Elliott is easily distracted, yet it was amazing how much of an impact environment had on his ability to focus. I have long believed in the importance of this, and yet, my experience in Cincinnati has me wanting to reassess my workspace for ways that it can help me perform better.

4. We could learn a lot from existing schools.

I think there are a lot of problems with our school system. I’ve worked in education, both formally as part of my consulting practice and informally as a volunteer. Everyone has horror stories to share, many from personal experience. And yet, it always makes me cringe a little when I hear categorical rejections of our current ways of learning.

What I’ve known from my previous work and what I got to see firsthand last week is that there are a lot of good things happening in today’s schools, stuff that folks in other fields could learn a lot from. It wasn’t just the space (although the classrooms at Elliott’s school were designed more thoughtfully than most office spaces I’ve seen). It was also the teaching, the curriculum, the pedagogy, and the work practices.

I’ve spent so much of the past 10 years thinking about how groups learn, playing with different ideas and looking for models that work. One place I haven’t spent much time examining is our current school system, probably because I carry the same biases that I described above. I’m reconsidering that. I think there’s a whole lot more I could learn about learning simply by spending more time in schools, especially at the elementary level.

5. Learning should be joyful.

I’ve been doing a lot of culture change work with groups over the past few years. Something that’s come up repeatedly in different places has been the desire to reintroduce joy as a cultural goal. There is something primal and important about joy, and it’s a little bit sad how often we as adults need to be reminded (or worse, persuaded) of this.

Whenever I see both of my nephews, they give me a refresher course on this. This is their nature. They derive joy from connection, from achievement, from play, from learning, from love. It is a beautiful thing to watch and experience, and I’m lucky to have such wonderful teachers.


Technique, Practice, and Craft

Last week, Sports Illustrated published an article about Georgetown’s basketball program and its coach, John Thompson III. Georgetown has a long tradition of producing skilled big men, starting with Thompson’s father in the 1970s and 1980s. And while Thompson has continued that tradition, he’s gained a reputation for something different:

Much has been made about the Princeton-style offense that Georgetown runs under Thompson, about how difficult it is to defend and prepare for. But what is unique about Georgetown’s system has little to do with anything that is written in a playbook. Everything the Hoyas do offensively is based on reading the defense and reacting to those reads. Most systems involve a player being told something along the lines of: cut here, run off of that screen there, set a pick for him and roll to the basket, lather, rinse, repeat.

Georgetown’s theory is different.

Thompson doesn’t tell his team what to do on any given play. He doesn’t give them specific instructions, rather he teaches them, from the day they set foot on campus, how to make that decision for themselves based off of what they see on the floor in front of them. In his words, “the ability to just be a basketball player is something that we stress. Don’t be a position.”

And that is the most difficult point to get across.

“A lot of freshmen want to be told specifically what to do,” he said. “The difficult part becomes understanding that they have to make the read, because they’re so used to being told where to run in the play next.

“It’s new for most players to have to make reads and have to make decisions based on how they’re being played and how the defense is set. But once you grasp that way of thinking, I think it is very simple.”

I’ve loved basketball my whole life, but I’ve never played it competitively. So I’m intrigued by what this actually means in practice. I totally agree with it in theory. However, before you can learn how to make your own decisions, sometimes you have to learn things by rote.

I recently heard chef extraordinaire Jacques Pepin on the radio talking about cooking, and he gave a wonderful definition of technique:

For me, technique is very important. Technique is really a repetition, repetition, endless repetition of a certain movement, whether you use a knife or whatever, so it becomes so engrained, so part of yourself that you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.

You learn a certain movement, a certain reaction over and over and over again until, as Pepin said, “you can afford to forget it, because it’s there forever.” That, to me, is the essence of craft, whether it’s sports, cooking, or my own craft of collaboration. Learning certain things by rote ultimately gives you the freedom to express yourself.

After a recent playoff game, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers had this to say about his point guard, Rajon Rondo:

“He’s got to be in attack,” Rivers said. “I thought the second quarter he was attacking and attacking. I thought he was reading a lot instead of playing on instincts. I think sometimes his IQ hurts him at times. He’s trying to read the defense, but you can’t read and play with speed at the same time.

“We go through it a lot — at least Rondo and I — about, ‘Rondo, just trust your instincts. Your speed has to be part of it. Your instincts will take over. You’ll make the right decision.'”

Doing any craft well is all about trusting your instincts. You get those instincts by doing your thinking in practice rather than in the moment.