Tech Literacy and the Joy of Dancing

My Nephew, Elliott, Dancing

My six-year old nephew, Elliott, is an amazing dancer. I’m sure genetics had something to do with it. After all, both of his parents are musicians. But what really makes him great isn’t his rhythm or his moves. When he dances, there isn’t a trace of self-consciousness or thought. He simply moves and radiates joy. I often watch a video clip of him when he was three, boogeying his little heart out, and it always brings a huge smile to my face. (I have no plans to share that clip here, but if you ever see me face-to-face, ask, and I’ll gladly show it to you.)

It makes me happy to see him enjoy himself this way, because I personally have a huge mental block about dancing. I didn’t always have it, or at least it used to be much, much smaller, but it’s grown into a veritable albatross over the years. When I put my learner hat on, I know all the things I should (or shouldn’t) be doing. Don’t think. Don’t worry about “doing it right.” Just enjoy the music, and let your body move.

It’s silly. I’m fearless about so many things in life, and I generally don’t care about looking stupid. And I’ve been able to let go at times with certain people or in certain situations. But for the most part, my fear of dancing is debilitating.

It’s not about my relationship to my body. I’ve always loved sports, and I’ve always held my own on the court or on the field, even though I’m a mediocre athlete.

A big reason for that is that I’m hyper-competitive. Another reason is that I developed a basic literacy for sports at an early age. I can run, throw, and catch. I can dribble and shoot a ball with both my hands and my feet. More importantly, I have a basic feel for how to play team sports, how to move without the ball, how to use my body to create space. I can play several sports serviceably, and I can pick up new ones easily.

The bottom line is that I’m sports-literate. My body speaks sports fluently, and so I’m able to play without thinking, to express myself joyfully through sports.

I’m lucky to be literate in a lot of things, and I find joy in all of them. But I also feel lucky to be grossly illiterate in other things. Foreign languages, for example. And dancing. I’m lucky because it makes me understand and appreciate the value of literacy and the level of effort required to develop everything from basic proficiency to virtuosity.

That brings me to technology.

I have a gift with tools. It’s a huge advantage in this day and age, especially as a knowledge worker. I know that I can figure out how to use almost any tool quickly and skillfully. When I work with clients, I’m often able to adapt my processes to use the tools they’re already familiar with. I also know how to build my own tools, which means I can build things to do exactly what I want them to do, and I can speak fluently and familiarly with other tool-builders. I can do all of these things without letting my technology lens blind me.

On this basis alone, I can offer way more value to organizations than most consultants in my space. I consider the Blue Oxen philosophy and approach to be a much more significant differentiator, but even without that, I’d still be able to separate myself from the pack on the basis of my tech literacy alone.

I don’t expect my clients to have the same level of literacy. I adjust my expectations, and if tools are to play a heavy role, I focus on being a coach and supporter. I don’t let my clients create an artificial hierarchy based on what they think they don’t know.

My project teams, however, are another matter. High-performance teams always have some Shared Language that they speak fluently. When one of those languages in which your team is fluent is technology, it expands your possibilities. Frankly, it also makes the work a lot more fun. I’ve worked with a lot of teams that have had that baseline level of tech fluency, and it’s always been a magical experience.

However, it’s not always possible to have that team-wide fluency. In those cases, as with my clients, I adjust my expectations. The difference is that I still hold my teams to higher standards of performance, and that makes me less patient.

Right now, I’m working with one of the top three teams I’ve worked with in my eight years at Blue Oxen Associates, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t take the top spot by the end of our project. We also happen to have mixed levels of tech literacy.

I am more than happy to accept this, because everyone brings unique skills in other areas. More importantly, we have a shared fluency around our principles and approaches to collaboration. Frankly, that’s made us vastly more effective at using tools than many of my previous teams where we started with a higher level of tech fluency.

Needless to say, I am having an incredible amount of fun working with these folks. Still, I find myself getting frustrated every once in a while by the different levels of tech literacy. We occasionally have to slow down to get people up to speed on things that seem trivially easy to me. I know it’s an unfair response on my part, but I can’t help feeling impatient.

At times like these, I think about dancing. I think about the fear that even the thought of dancing evokes. I think about how I’ve felt when friends and loved ones, who are great dancers, have patiently danced with me when they almost certainly could have been having more fun dancing with others — a mixture of appreciation, but also guilt, misplaced or not.

I think about all of these things, and I feel my impatience drift away in favor of empathy and appreciation. I think about how everyone on my team is pushing their boundaries, setting aside their discomfort and even fear because of their hunger to learn, to improve, to perform. I think about how they encourage each other patiently and without judgement, creating a space that’s safe to try, to fail, to learn, and I feel deeply humbled.

Then I think about Elliott dancing, how he radiates joy without fear or shame, joy that’s contagious. I think about the innocent wisdom that our children share with us when we are smart enough to pay attention, and I hope beyond hope that Elliott and his little brother, Benjamin, never lose that wisdom and that unbridled joy.

My Quest to Learn Korean

설악산, November 2002. I’m admiring the grilled sardines and steamed mussels and sea snails outside of Sanmaeul Restaurant, a wonderful, family-run hole-in-the-wall. They ended up feeding us for our entire stay in 설악산. Also note my sweet, red hat.

I’m generally good at learning, but I have a few nasty Achilles’ heels. My biggest one is languages. I absolutely suck at learning languages. Or, at least, I’ve sucked at learning languages in the past.

You see, I believe that we’re all much more capable of learning than we give ourselves credit for. There are lots of different ways to learn; we just have to find the way that fits the task and our style.

I believe this, and I’ve preached this, but I’ve never rigorously acted on it. I’ve thought a lot about the things I’ve sucked at learning in the past, and how I’d do them differently now, but I’ve never really carried out those ideas. My excuse has always been that I’m too busy, and that I’d rather spend my time mastering stuff that I’m already good at than struggling over something I’m not. There’s some truth to that, but there’s a bigger truth. I’m scared. Deep down, I’m not confident that I can do it, because I haven’t done it before.

Well, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to stop hiding and start doing.

Why the sudden motivation? First, I spent most of this past year hanging out with Wikimedians. Most of the Wikimedians I know kick ass at languages. I am bitterly resentful of all of them. Yes, that includes you Delphine and SJ and Chuck. That includes all of the ridiculously multilingual Wikimedia Foundation employees — the majority of them, in fact. Every time any of them would fluidly slip into another language to converse with others, I would seethe with rage and jealousy inside. Clearly, I needed to do something about this.

Second, I’ve always felt bad about not being able to speak to my parents or extended family in their native tongue, and I’ve always thought that if I were going to focus my energies on any language, it would be Korean. A few recent events encouraged me to follow through on this. I decided to go to Korea in October — my first extended vacation since founding Blue Oxen Associates eight years ago.

Then last month, I had the pleasure of meeting Jung-Ok Lee at the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, who asked me if I had ever thought about helping groups in Korea become more collaborative. I would love to do this, but the reality is that I don’t think I could be effective there without being fluent in Korean.

Which brings me to my third reason: Language is an essential element of my work in collaboration. I’ve always stressed the importance of Shared Language, and much of my philosophy and process revolves around this. I’ve always felt a tad hypocritical about emphasizing the importance of bridging between different languages, when I had limited experience doing this myself. I wanted to know what it felt like to speak more than one language fluently.

My Goals and Game Plan

My goals are modest. By June 2011:

  • I’d like to be able to read Korean children’s books.
  • I’d like to be reasonably competent at understanding spoken Korean.
  • I’d like to be fluent enough to survive in Korea by myself.

I had two approaches in developing my strategy. First, I thought about my previous failures in learning languages. This gave me some ideas of what not to do.

Second, I thought about my one and only success in learning a language: English. Believe it or not, this was remarkably useful.

Here’s my strategy in a nutshell:

  • Learn like a baby. Find opportunities to immerse myself — with family, with friends, at restaurants and supermarkets, and, of course, with my upcoming trip. Vocabulary is more important than grammar. Most importantly, babble like a baby. It worked for me before.
  • Learn visually. It’s easier for me to learn vocabulary when I can visualize what the words look like and what they represent when I hear them. Flash cards are a must.
  • Learn contextually. All of my friends who are language studs learn new languages by struggling through children’s books. This is significantly easier in this day and age, thanks to Google Translate.
  • Learn traditionally. At worst, taking a class forces me to practice regularly.

My First Class

I decided to enroll in an introductory class at the Intercultural Institute of California, and I just came home from my first class. I was very nervous. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a traditional classroom, and my previous experiences in language classes were never that positive.

As it turned out, I had an unexpected advantage over the other students in the class. I already know how to read and write Hangul. Hangul is easy to learn, especially if you’re good with symbols. It’s phonetic, with 14 consonants and 10 vowels — two fewer than the Latin alphabet.

Pronouncing Korean is hard, and I’m nowhere close to good at it, but I have a decent amount of experience hearing the correct pronunciations. My parents insist that I always mispronounce 사과 (apple), even though I’ve practiced it about a million times. I can’t for the life of me hear the difference between ㅈ (sort of a cross between j and ch) and ㅉ (a hard j), and I’m pretty sure my teacher (who seems very nice) stifled a laugh when I tried pronouncing them. (She definitely was laughing when I sang the alphabet, but I’m pretty sure that was because of my enthusiastic warbling. I really, really hope that was the reason.)

Knowing the basics allowed me to focus on other things. For example, I don’t always use the correct strokes when writing the alphabet, so I paid close attention to that.

I also focused on recognizing word patterns rather than sounding out characters. When I see the word, “apple,” I’m not sounding out the characters. I’m recognizing the whole word. This is not currently the case with Hangul. When I see 하나 (the number one), I’m not recognizing the word pattern. I’m sounding out each character, then understanding the word. By focusing on the word pattern, I can visualize the word when I hear it, which I think will help me learn vocabulary much more quickly.

I also know that my advantage will be very short-lived, and my weaknesses are going to surface fairly quickly. I’m going to try to mitigate that through extra preparation, although I’m bracing myself for much more laughter over the coming months.

Straying Off Point

Meeting Best Practices #1 and #2:    (N3K)

  1. Have a goal    (N3L)
  2. Have an agenda    (N3M)

The meeting facilitator’s challenge is to keep the group on point and to finish the meeting on time. That’s where the agenda comes in.    (N3N)

Here’s the problem: What if the agenda is wrong?    (N3O)

We decide to the best of our abilities what the agenda should be, based not only on the goal but on the makeup and state of the group. The latter factor tends to be the trouble-maker. Everyone may agree that the goal of a meeting is to come up with an action plan that everyone stands behind, but what if the people in the room all speak different languages or have different understandings of the problem? You have no chance of creating that action plan without Shared Understanding and Shared Language, and so an agenda focused entirely on making a plan is doomed to failure.    (N3P)

The challenge is knowing your group well enough to make these decisions. That’s why I often say that good design is more crucial to a meeting’s success than good facilitation, because you are tackling these questions before you even step into the meeting.    (N3Q)

What happens if the goal shifts? This happens often when the problem is complex enough. Everyone agrees before the meeting on what the problem is, then in the course of collectively drafting a solution, you suddenly realize that you don’t understand the problem after all. Now the facilitator’s role is critical, because he or she needs to decide whether to stick with the agenda or revise it on the fly.    (N3R)

The reality is that agendas are important, but they need to be fluid. As a facilitator, you need to reserve the right to stray off point if you feel like the situation merits it. This is one reason that I feel so strongly in hiding the agenda, especially with the kind of highly emergent meetings that I usually design. People tend to cling to the agenda like a life-preserver rather than risk swimming into the unknown, which is certainly scarier, but is often necessary. It’s better to trust the facilitator to stay on point and stray off point when the situation merits it.    (N3S)

This is also why I like Dialogue Mapping so much as a facilitation technique. With Dialogue Mapping, the emergent structure of the conversation along with the key underlying questions are explicit and apparent to all of the participants, so that you can effectively leverage the Collective Intelligence of the group rather than rely on the facilitator to be the sole driver.    (N3T)

Twitter, Facebook, and Social Boundaries

Speaking of tweets and Twitter, I finally succumbed and activated my Twitter account a few weeks ago. Come follow me! I had many reasons for doing so, but the kicker was probably learning that Twitter is in fact for old people. Seriously, my main reason was that I’ve been blog-free for many months, and I wanted to maintain a lighter-weight Visible Pulse for sharing ideas and letting people know that I was still alive.    (MTL)

Unlike my experience with this blog, I initially found it hard to start tweeting. I love to share ideas, but I don’t like talking about myself. My blog has been great for that, and I figured I’d use Twitter the same way. But it’s hard to do in 140 characters. It’s much easier to mention what I had for breakfast than it is to share some brilliant new insight, although simply tweeting “Eureka!” probably fulfills the latter need quite nicely.    (MTM)

So to get going on Twitter, I used a trick that I never had to use with my blog. I built an audience. I started following people, and many of them reciprocated. Now tweeting was about having a conversation with the people in my network. I didn’t have to do this with my blog, because I was motivated enough to start sharing my ideas without it. Getting that audience simply furthered that motivation (the past few months not withstanding).    (MTN)

This is obvious stuff to people who already blog or tweet regularly, but it’s not obvious to those who don’t, and when it’s explicitly understood, it can be used to your advantage. This is why Pattern Languages are so useful.    (MTO)

It would be interesting to do some analytics on tweeting based on size of social networks. For example, do people with larger social networks tweet more?    (MTP)

Another nice Twitter pattern is the character limit: Constrained Space. Many people have told me that they find blogging intimidating, because they feel a lot of pressure to actually write something. The character constraint relieves that pressure. It’s easier to come up with a 140 character message than it is to fill a blank slate. Size of space matters.    (MTQ)

The issue I’m now having with Twitter is with social boundaries, and not surprisingly, the cause of this isn’t Twitter at all. It’s Facebook. My close colleagues know that I am obsessed with Facebook, not because of some deep seeded need to feel like I have a lot of friends, but because I think it is one of the most well-designed online tool I have ever seen. There are all of these well thought out social patterns deeply embedded in the tool.    (MTR)

Because of this, it’s no surprise that so many people across so many different networks use it. My pattern for studying Social Network sites has always been to only connect to people who connect to me first, then to watch what happens. With the vast majority of sites, it’s the same group of people end up pinging me. In other cases, certain niches become apparent. Facebook is the first Social Network tool I’ve used where people across almost all of the different communities of which I’m a part have found and reached out to me.    (MTS)

The problem is that Social Networks are not frictionless. You can’t just mix them all up and expect everything to be wonderful. A while back, Pamela Dingle told a great anecdote that wonderfully portrayed some of the unsavory consequences of these boundary issues.    (MTT)

One of the things that exacerbates Facebook’s challenges with Social Network friction is its open API. For a lot of reasons, Facebook has encouraged people across many different networks to intentionally come together in a shared space. However, its API allows people to bring new networks to the same shared space unintentionally.    (MTU)

I enjoy the status updates on Facebook, and so when I started tweeting, I decided to sync Twitter with my Facebook status. By doing so, my audience went from a somewhat closed community of folks who speak the same Shared Language to a much larger community of folks, many of whom think I’ve gone nuts. These include people like high school friends, most of whom find the idea of posting a picture that’s not hidden behind a password absolutely ludicrous.    (MTV)

Those of us who have been part of Identity Commons for a long time have been talking about these issues for ages, yet it’s fascinating to experience them firsthand. I don’t find them that big a deal, because I have well-defined boundaries that I think work with my different networks. I don’t mention people by name unless I know they’re comfortable with it or I’m attributing an idea to someone. I’ll happily write about what I had for breakfast (Tartine bread and gruyere this morning), but I won’t write about my dating life.    (MTW)

I don’t know how long the Twitter experiment will last. It still feels a bit uncomfortable, but it’s been fascinating, and I probably won’t stop anytime soon.    (MTX)

Evolutionary Leadership Workshop: Final Exercise

For the last exercise of my guest stint at Alexander Laszlo and Kathia Laszlo‘s Evolutionary Leadership class a few weeks ago, I decided to have the group come up with a working definition of “collaboration,” as well as thoughts on patterns of and metrics for effective collaboration. If this sounds boringly familiar to regular readers of this blog, it should. This conceptual framework is fundamental to everything I do, and I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, and leading workshops about it.    (MMQ)

It was all par for the course for me, except I only had 90 minutes. The way I usually approach this in my workshops is to start with storytelling, model the collaborative experience, then have the participants synthesize the framework themselves based on their own learning. We didn’t have time for that. I thought about giving up and doing a traditional lecture, and if I had had slightly less time (say, an hour), I probably would have. But, that would have been extremely lame, and I wanted to see if I could pull off something interesting in 90 minutes.    (MMR)

What I decided to do in the end was create a makeshift anthropology experiment, with the students acting as both the subjects and the anthropologists. I divided the class into four teams. The first three teams would spend half an hour working on the same problem: Define collaboration. However, each team would have different process and tool constraints. The fourth team would observe the other three working.    (MMS)

The three teams were Team Nike, Team Wiki, and Team Taylor. Team Nike’s constraints were simple: It had none. I gave them the challenge without guidance or constraints, and it was up to them to figure out how to go about solving the problem. Their task was to just do it.    (MMT)

Team Wiki was divided into three subteams. They were allowed to interact as much as they wanted and however they wanted with their subteams, but they were not allowed to verbally communicate between subteams. There was a laptop projected in the middle of the room running a text editor. The team’s final product would be whatever was written on the text editor at the end of their time. Only one group could be at the keyboard at a time, and they could write whatever they wanted on the editor.    (MMU)    (MMV)

The final team, Team Taylor, was given a process similar to one I’ve used in many other workshops. They initially broke up into small groups and shared personal experiences with great collaboration. They then regrouped and worked through a series of “Is it Collaboration?” scenarios. Finally, they were given the final exercise and asked to put together a definition given their previous work. (They were named after Blue Oxen advisor Gail Taylor and her husband, Matt Taylor, who were my advanced introduction to workshop designs like these.)    (MMW)

Why this breakdown? I really wanted the students to think carefully about their experiences collaborating with each other as much as the content of the exercise itself. By having three processes going simultaneously, it was clear that the compare-and-contrast would be an important element in this exercise. By having full-fledged observation teams, this process discussion would be a major part of the report-out as well as the resulting work products.    (MMX)

I think the exercise worked moderately well. The participants seemed to enjoy the process, and the comments in the debrief were excellent. The timing was predictably tight, and there were some aspects of the exercise that could have been tightened up some. The most frustrating omission for me was the lack of a collective synthesis process, but I knew that would be the case from the start.    (MMY)

I was most curious to see what Team Nike would do, since they had the least constraints. Both the team itself and its observers noted that initially, there was a lot of talking past each other. I think that’s very natural for large groups that are new to each other, especially when under time constraints. I observed something similar during the Hidden Connections breakout I participated in earlier in the day, and we all saw this during the group counting exercise as well.    (MMZ)

There are several ways to counter this phenomenon. The method most people tend to default to is “stronger facilitation” — having a designated facilitator maintain tight control over the process. There’s a time and a place for this, but I think the resulting order is largely artificial, and that the group will likely fail the Squirm Test. If you do have a designated facilitator, one simple technique that is remarkably effective and underutilized is to simply ask the group to listen to and respect their peers. We saw this work with the group counting exercise, and I’ve seen it work again and again in other meeting contexts.    (MN0)

Although there was no designated facilitator for Team Nike, a few individuals stepped up to take on that role. There was no decision-making process up-front. One student simply started acting as the facilitator, and the others followed. (Leadership is action.) Another student started taking notes and often validated what other people said, which helped slow down the discussion and validated individual participation. This is an outstanding example of the artifact playing a strong, facilitative role, a premise underlying patterns such as Shared Display and processes such as Dialogue Mapping.    (MN1)

At one point, Alexander Laszlo, who was participating in Team Nike, approached me and asked, “Can we collaborate with other groups?” I laughed and said, “You can do anything that wasn’t expressly forbidden.” Because of the time constraints, Team Nike didn’t end up pursuing this, but I was glad they had this insight in the first place. It’s always one of my favorite moments when somebody realizes, “Is there any reason why we couldn’t collaborate with others?” It often takes surprisingly long for someone to figure this out, even at workshops where collaboration is one of the stated goals. It’s a sign of how culturally engrained it is for us not to collaborate with each other.    (MN2)

In my opinion, strong design is much more powerful than strong facilitation, and those were principles I hoped would emerge when comparing Team Wiki and Team Taylor’s processes with Team Nike’s. Two design constraints all three teams shared were a concrete goal and a time constraint. Nothing motivates a group to collaborate more effectively than a sense of urgency, and both of these constraints help to create that urgency. One of the most important elements of Blue Oxen‘s definition of collaboration is the notion that the goal is bounded — that it has both a beginning and an end. If there’s an end, then the goal is measurable, and you can have a time constraint. None of the teams identified this in their definitions of collaboration, although I’d be willing to bet that it would have emerged if we had more time.    (MN3)

Another useful design constraint is the power of small groups. Conversation flowed better within both Team Wiki and Team Taylor, and that flow carried over when Team Taylor got together as a large group. It’s a simple principle, and yet it’s also vastly underutilized.    (MN4)

Besides being broken into small groups, Team Wiki’s major design constraint was the use of a Shared Display as a medium for both creating their deliverable and communicating between the group. My goal was to simulate a Wiki-like collaborative pattern in a very short timespan. Given my well-known love of Wikis, I enjoyed watching this group the most. The content itself evolved predictably in a way that was reminiscent of Wikis, starting with a straw man of content, some side conversations in the document itself, and plenty of refactoring. The group dynamic, however, was anything but predictable. One group went directly to the laptop and started working. Another group saw this, realized only one group could type at a time, and decided that it would spend most of its time talking amongst themselves. Throughout the half hour, two groups regular switched off on the laptop while the third group didn’t participate until the very end. The last few minutes was mostly frantic typing while everyone else stood around and watched.    (MN5)

Several people noted the challenge of having only a single keyboard, and expressed curiosity about the possibility of having multiple people work simultaneously. We could have accomplished that a number of ways, the best of which would have been to use a real-time collaborative editor such as Gobby or SynchroEdit. However, the point of this exercise was to simulate asysnchronous collaboration. I think this was an exercise that would have benefited from a bit more time.    (MN6)

Two interesting things emerged from Team Taylor, one which I expected and one which I didn’t even notice until the team itself pointed it out. At one point, the team observed that two people were monopolizing the conversation, and that they were both men, even though the majority of the group comprised of women. This observation was complicated by the fact that the observation team — in this case, all men — were sitting with the group in a circle rather than outside of the group. As a result, it was hard to say whether this was indeed a gender dynamic, or whether the two who spoke the most just happened to be the biggest talkers in the group. Nevertheless, the awareness of the gender dynamic was an important one that a lot of facilitators — especially males — miss.    (MN7)

Team Taylor didn’t do a particularly good job at the stated exercise, but one participant observed that if they had five more minutes, they would have done an amazing job. I believe this, and I think the resulting definition would have scored the highest on the Squirm Test. The reason for that was that their process was optimized for building Shared Language and trust. The personal storytelling was especially important for trust-building. When you have both of these in great amounts, the actual collaboration is far more effective. Truthfully, they were also hamstrung by the fact that I didn’t tell them what their actual goal was until the final ten minutes of their exercise. That would have been an appropriate thing to do if they had much more time, but given the time constraints, it probably would have been more fair to tell them the exercise ahead of time. I agonized over this when designing the exercise, and I chose not to tell them the exercise in advance because I was afraid the urgency of the deadline might cause them to skip through the first two exercises.    (MN8)

Finally, a word on the actual definitions. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by any of the definitions, again largely due to the time constraints. I was more interested in the group learning. However, I thought all three definitions were pretty good, and I was impressed by the context and the patterns that emerged: the importance of trust, communication, and Shared Language, for example. I also saw something that I’ve seen with other folks and with other definitions. Everyone tried to define “effective collaboration,” when in fact, the exercise called for simply defining “collaboration.” I think it helps to separate the two. Ineffective collaboration is still collaboration. There is something cognitively liberating about separating the question of whether or not you are collaborating from whether or not you are collaborating effectively.    (MN9)

I was very impressed by the quality of the group, and I had a blast working with them. I recommend folks interested in learning more about collaboration, systems thinking, and leadership in a business context to check out the Presidio School program, and in particular, to take a look at the various classes that the Laszlos teach.    (MNA)