Posts categorized “Unschooling”.

One way to do it

Just thought I would share this piece of communication from my son’s school.  he attends a middle school that has a unique focus on its approach to learning and character development and there is a lot I like about it.  I especially like the way there are certain traditions that flow, giving a time for mentorship and responsibility.  Check this out:

November 1st Late Start

It has been a tradition  for the grade six class to try and formulate a valid argument (i.e. in the Practical Reasoning class) as to why students should be allowed to come late to school (i.e. 10:30) on November 1st (the day after Halloween). Given that the older students often tutor the younger students with the best arguments over the years, it is a fair bet that the students will win their argument. Just a heads-up, then, that it is almost certainly the case that there will be a 10:30 start on Thursday, November 1st.  Off-island students can therefore board the 10:00 ferry, if they choose. Note that the school will be open at 8:30 am as usual for those students who need to come in early, in any case.

As a life learner, my son has chosen to attend this school as part of his learning in life.  It’s stuff like this that confirms my insticnts about his ability to choose his mentors and his learning opportunities to balance wisdom and fun.

Dealing with the architecture of fear

Just read an article on how the fear of failure is the greatest thing holding back innovation in the business world. One reads these kinds of articles all the time. The essence is that unless we can let go of fear or deal with our deep need to be in control at all times, innovation is stifled.

This is true of course, but I see few articles that talk about how fear of failure in built into the architecture of the organization.

We live in an expert driven culture. Kids raised in schools are taught at an early age that having the answer is everything. Children raise their hands and are given points for the correct answer. Marks and scores are awarded for success – failure gets you remedial help, often crushing dreams and passions at the same time.

In the post-school world, most people are hired in a job interview based on the answers they give. There are millions of words written on how to give a stellar job interview, to land the job of your dreams. It is has to do with giving the right answers.

And so it is no surprise in the organizational world that I see success as the the only way forward and failure as “not an option.” For leaders, embracing failure is almost too risky. Despite the management literature to the contrary, I see very few leaders willing to take the risk that something may fail. Sometimes the failure is wrapped in competence – it’s okay to fail, but not to have losses. In other words, don’t do something I can’t repair.

This is because few of these articles talk about some of the real politiks of organizational life. It’s not that I’m afraid to fail – it’s that I am afraid to lose my job. When there is a scarcity of political capital and credit in an organization, there are multiple games that are played to turn failure into a way to screw the other guy so I don’t lose my job. Blame is deflected, responsibility is assigned elsewhere, and sometimes people will take credit for taking the risk but will lie the failure at the feet of someone else. It’s relatively easy to play on the expert driven culture to advance your own causes at the expense of another’s failings.

The answer to this is for leaders to be engaged in changing the architecture of fear and failure in the organization. It means hiring people into their areas of stretch, not into their areas of core competence. It means embodying risk taking, and creating and maintaining a culture of risk and trust. A single betrayal destroys the fabric of a risk taking team.

I think that means going beyond simply having corporate pep rallies to celebrate failure, or giving incentives for the “best failed idea.” It goes to creating a culture of conversation and collective ownership for successes and failures. It means standing with each other and not advancing your own interests at the expense of something that was tried. It means deeply investigating on an ongoing basis the ways in which we hold each other accountable so that we may work with grace and support, to rush in to help when things go sideways instead of lobbing accusations from the sidelines.

Without changing the architecture of fear, embracing the fear of failure is impossible.

Self-doubt and the bullying boss

Johnnie Moore posts a touching analysis of what drives bullying bosses in organizations.  Some recent research concludes that a perceived sense of incompetence can cause people to lash out against others.

This has been my experience.  Our culture demands answers, expertise and bold confidence in making decisions.  Most people are trained starting in pre-school that these traits are in the domain of the individual and that your success depends on them.

What is missing is training in asking questions, seeking help and acting from clarity. In schools, these practices are forbidden in exam rooms, where students are evaluated on their progress.  You are not allowed to ask questions, to ask for help, or borrow other’s ideas.  All of that is considered “cheating.”

The stress that comes from needing to perform as a solo act can be huge and the resulting manifestation of this stress can be toxic.  I have worked with and under both kinds of leaders and once worked with one leader who started collaborative and curious and evolved into a frightened bully.  It seems to me that these individuals that suffered did so alone, with the thought that as a leader, they should somehow carry the load by themselves.

In a world in which nothing is certain, and answers are elusive, these expectations will always result in stress.  I can find it in myself, when I step into new work, at a new level, how my anxiety rises.  This is why, when I am doing something new, I almost always work with friends.

My take away from this piece is that relationship and work are equally important.  To sacrifice relationship[ building for “outcomes” is to not only jeopardize the sustainability of good work, but to create a climate in which good work is unlikely to ever get done.

Back at home, from the feed

My business year usually follows the wet seasons, running for September to June.  I’m finally back home on Bowen Island, relaxing and recovering, feeling rather burned out from a very heavy year of travel and work.  Here are a few links that crossed my path recently:

Fear is relative

Last week I was working with an interesting group of 60 Aboriginal folks who work within the Canadian Forces and the department of National Defense, providing advice and support on Aboriginal issues within the military and civilian systems.  We ran two half days in Open Space to work on emerging issues and action plans.

In an interesting side conversation, I spoke with a career soldier about fear.  This man, one of the support staff for the gathering, had worked for a couple of decades as a corporal, mostly working as a mechanic on trucks.  We got into an interesting conversation about fear.  He said to me that he could never do what I do, walking into a circle and speaking to a large group of people.  I expressed some surprise at this – after all I was talking to a trained soldier.  I asked him if he had ever been in combat and experienced fear.  He replied that he had been on a peacekeeping mission in Israel and that at one point in a threatening situtaion he had pointed a loaded gun at someone and awaited the order to fire, but he didn’t feel any fear at all.

We decided that it was first of all all about the stories you tell yourselves and second of all about training and practice.  The fear of public speaking – fear that would paralyse even a soldier – is a fear that is borne from a history of equating public speaking with a performance.  In school for example we are taught that public speaking is something to be judged rather than a skill to be learned.  Imagine if we gave grades for tying a shoelace, or using a toilet or eating food.  If we performed these important but mundane tasks with the expectation of reward or punishment, conditional on someone else’s judgement about them, having nothing to do with the final result, we might well develop fear and aversion to these things too.

The fact is that the fear of public speaking – glossophobia – is widespread and this makes me think it has something to do with public schooling.  Our training leaves us in a place of competence or fear, and, as much of the training in social skills is undertaken implicitly in school (including deference to authority, conditional self-esteem and a proclivity to answers and judgement rather than question and curiosity) we absorb school’s teaching about these things without knowing where they came from.  Certainly when I grew up – and I was a little younger than this soldier I was speaking with – speaking in school was generally either a gradable part of reporting on an assignment or was competitive, as in debating, a practice that was prevalent in my academic high school that sent many young people into competitive speaking careers as lawyers and business people.   If you were no good at this form of speaking, the results of being judged on your attempts to get a point across were often humiliating.  You lost, or you skulked away with the knowledge that people thought you sucked.

In contrast, my friend’s ability to find himself relatively fearless in an armed confrontation was a result of his military training, which, when it comes to combat, is all aimed having a soldier perform exactly as my friend had – calmly and coolly, especially in a peacekeeping role.

These days, in teaching people how to do facilitation, I am increasingly leaving the tools and techniques aside and instead building in practices of noticing and cultivating fearlessness.  When you can walk into a circle fearlessly, you can effectively and magically open space.  If you harbour fear about yourself or your abilities, it is hard to get the space open and enter into a trusting relationship with a group of people. Once you can do that, you can use any tool effectively, but the key capacity is not knowing the tool, it is knowing yourself.

How do you teach or learn fearlessness?



Photo by Nathan Ward

Little elements that showed up lately:

Live blogging from STIA

Seattle, Washington

Here at the Systems Thinking in Action conference doing a variety of things, including playing with my friends Teresa POsakony, Tenneson Woolf, Peggy Holman, Gabriel Shirley, Nancy White, Amy Lenzo and Anne Stadler.  We are together co-hosting a conversation space here at the conference which is a place for amplifying the questions and insights that re flowing from the plenary and breakout sessions.

This morning, Teresa, Tenneson, Gabriel and I practiced a new form of keynote harvesting.  Debra Meyerson, author of “Tempered Radicals” was speaking on her work and we passed around a laptop and recorded a harvest, not of her speech but of our questions and thinking inspired by what she was saying.  Here’s what we got…

Meyerson begins with a story of an all woman flight crew on the plane on the way up here. She asked if she could visit the cockpit at the end of flight…”Oh,” said the flight attendant. “We don’t call it a cockpit any more.” Things are changing.

Types of change

Types of change and approaches to change. Our own perspectives often blind us to seeing generative process. Two forms include:

  • Episodic change, in which everything ticks along punctuated by discreet episodes of change. Tends to focus on programs and policies and formal authorities

  • Adaptive approaches sees things as organic, always changing and adapting This emphasises dispersed leadership, and dispersed locations of change and shift.

Seeing things as episodic leads to NOT being able to see adaptive strategies and, by extension, the ram materials of sustainable change – peoples, actions, leadership, ideas and conversations.

Tempered radicals are balance beam walkers. They want to shake things up but stay within the system. They often come from the margins and experiences of differences which they want to to express while at the same time, they continue to fit in and cultivate their legitimacy. Tempered radicals are the agents of change within organization operating on a spectrum from changing informal structures all the way to formal, deliberate organizing.

It’s based on a belief and her research that small things can create change and momentum. Including radical acts like inviting different people to a meeting, sharing information to new people, wearing dressing outside the norm, and finding those small wins that change or invite a new conversations. It is quite organic and local at first then who knows what is possible as we discover the raw material for systemic change.

The role of tempered radicals

Meyerson is going in and talking about tactics that tempered radicals use in their workplaces. What I am looking for from her is the way that tempered radicals understand and attach to the roots of their work. My own experience is that people don’t just come from communities of difference or marginalization, but that they can find in any place a healthy and active place for the expression of the purpose that guides their lives. Tempered radicals bring a strong sense of rooted purpose to their work. How do you develop a rootedness that can thrive anywhere…tempered radicals as weeds. Weeds grow up in the strangest of places and cracks up the concrete and breaks up the soil. My experience of working with and being a tempered radical is that there is nothing really scripted about this work. It is not strategic in the sense of choosing specific tactics for specific moments. Rather it is a stand that radiates from a strong sense of purpose and rootedness.

  • How do we develop and work with a strong purposive root that can help us act wisely within constrained organizations?

  • How do we find each other in the world and support rootedness while the wind is blowing us around?

  • I think almost everyone is a tempered radical. What is your core purpose and how do you bring it to work?

  • What is the experience of negotiating your root, and what are the characteristics of letting your root go…what happens then. Is it sell out or leave or is there a third way to handle this?

  • If you are a human being, a learning system, can you not be a tempered radical? Learning is what humans do, not what we learn. Children know this – do this. Like the “common as weeds” feeling here. BY the way, we don’t call them “weeds” (cockpits) any more, we call them flowers…

Systemic change based on small wins is not tactical – its about cultivating a practice. We need to create a massive diversity of small tries and harvest from the beginning so that we can understand what grows and what doesn’t, not as learning about the try itself, but more as learning about the system itself. Dye in a river…in order to understand flow. Planting the same seed in eight different places to understand the conditions for creating a 300 Douglas-fir.

One of the things we discover in doing this is what I am now calling “pattern questions” which are questions that invite a similar level of change at every level of the system, from the individual to the largest system. Discovering pattern questions help us to both find the channels of change and find the deeper purpose of the organization or the system.

Don’t let “winning” get in the way of change.

Amplifying wins means not working completely within the constraints of the organization but rather help the organization find its more radical purpose. For example you can help schools improve reading scores, or you can find a more rooted purpose around literacy and go there, and in so doing shift both programming and purpose, exploring the depths of your own pattern.

Working with psychological safety

Meyerson talks about the conditions for psychological safety, but she is really talking about external conditions and not internal conditions, skills or practices. Much psychological safety (or all of it?) is about the stories you believe about the situations you find yourself in.

Why is there such a need today for “psychological safety?” What in our pattern of learning has created the need for psych safety? When stuck, invitation to learn… When you are shot, you don’t have to die! (FBI agent story: what happens when you are shot is that you don’t have to die. FBI agents are trained to understand that taking a bullet does not mean you are dead. Understanding that in the moment can save your life.) The only time you are actually in any kind of danger is physically and all war begins with defence. So how can we bring REAL defence applications to the practice of peace in physical situations? And how can we reframe “safety” so that we understand what is really safe and dangerous and what is simply a belief about safety?

The barriers to change in organization are the foundations of “safety” in the school system: rigid roles, eliminating questioning, creating rewards for being “right” and “perfect,” and frequent and unpredictable changes, like a bell ringing every 40 minutes to tell you to go and do something else with no coherence. What creates safety in organizations are things that are not taught in schools: reducing perceived status barriers through eliciting input, demonstrating humility and accepting errors, creating, inquiring and working with expressions of deviance, celebrating instances of courageous behaviour (especially when that behaviour bucks the system.) Pity kids these days. They need a coming of age to bring them from their childhood worlds to their adult worlds, understanding that they are really moving to a mirror-image way of being.


Ten finds

Photo by Jeremy

I was out surfing this week…

Man breaks mold! News at 11

I sat down this morning with my little pot of Dilmah tea to read friends’ blogs. This beats curling up with the Sunday New York Times or some other largely useless aggregation of pulp fibre. Much better to get the news of the day from those who are working on things and who need help or have discovered useful insights for the rest of us. And so, sitting before the woodstove with a pot of tea and a laptop is a lovely way to begin a Sunday morning.

And this morning my friend Jon Husband sends me in a couple of directions. First towards Dave Snowdon’s Cognitive Edge methods and open source methods database. And now I am thinking of doing the same around here – compiling meeting and conference designs for use by others. Not at all a bad way to extend learning into the world.

And then I read a great post that Jon finds via backtrack to a young man named Wade who has discovered two truths in the world. First, there is great merit to buying and drinking Dilmah tea. And second, the cubicle-based work culture he finds himself in just isn’t working. Here’s what Wade has to say about that:

From my limited direct experience, as well as second and third-hand understanding, the cubical and the process-worker still seems to be the way most workplaces are run. These structures seem to inhibit enjoyment, co-operation, communication, and happiness and effectively dis-able their employees.

When as people we feel involved, and responsible for our actions and output, we feel happier, and do a better job. When we are allowed to think, we become enabled nodes and peers, no longer following, but helping to shape and create something greater than before. From nothing comes something. The success of peer2peer file-sharing, and wikipedia shows the power of self-coordinating peers, when allowed to act and do.

An employee who feels passionate about his workplace, who enjoys the people and his work, is less likely to be sick, and more likely to stay a part of the developing company. The company gains even greater productivity as well as knowledge retention. Dialogue and communication take places, collaboratively they steer the ship to their common vision, not some top-down management approach that seems illogical to the employee. This is the wirearchy.

To discover this at a young age in his work career is both a blessing and a curse, as Jon also points out. But more than that, to me, it points out something interesting about people entering the workforce directly from the education system.

The education system, right through to the post-secondary level trains people to act alone. Individual effort is rewarded, despite the fact that people participate in group activities throughout their educational career. Even at business schools, the incentives for behaviour tend towards the individual reward, making for lots of pedagogical and cognitive dissonance in group assingments. Teachers I know of in these environments struggle as students compete with their team members, resorting often to command and control behaviours and unsustainable weight puling to ensure a good mark for themselves by way of getting a good mark for their group. This is not collaborative behaviour, and in fact is completely at odds with the world that Wade is describing.

There is some delusion about competition in the world. In the most competitive environments, such as sales or warfare or sports, individuals excel only if they work very well with others. Even mercenaries depend on others to do their jobs well.

The education system in most places I know of turns out people who are good by themselves. It focuses on individual capacities like reading and writing and figuring things out for yourself, that are the basis for effective collaboration, but not the logical progression to working collaboratively. The key capacity for living in a collaborative world is knowing how to be in relationship with others. It’s about knowing what you are good at, being open to learning from others and both offering and accepting relationships to advance to purpose of any given group.

Who knows of an education system that gives marks heavily weighted towards learning how to read and write and makes sense TOGETHER – a practice we call collective harvesting? Who can point me to a school where marks are given for collaborative work as opposed to individual learning artifacts?

What Wade has discovered is that the real world works much differently than school tells us it does but the WORK world more often than not mimics schools, I think to the supreme disadvantage of enterprise in general. If you are taking people and throwing them into cubicles and not providing for the kind of collaboration that is really needed, you are wasting time, resources and energies, and your employees, like Wade, will notice.

Perhaps this can be food for thought as Dave Pollard continues his podcast journey on learning, leadership and enterprise. In the meantime, thanks to Wade for jotting down his experience and triggering some interesting connections.

Time for more Dilmah.

[tags]dilmah tea, dave pollard, jon husband, dave snowdon, schools, business school, workplace, wirearchy[/tags]

School: Socialized or Civilized?

It’s kind of an old debate, but the question of “socialization” seems to come up a fair amount when I talk about homeschooling with people who aren’t familiar with that way of life.

Usually I give the half-facetious remark that we don’t send our kids to school precisely because school seeks to socialize them.  That starts a nice conversation about the role of institutions in shaping the behaviours of young people.  In general people expect schools to do these things but then there is very little deep conversation about the role of school when folks talk about youth alienation, the hyper-extension of adolescence or gang culture and violence.  Most often the media comes in for blame, and no one looks at how well the school based “socialization” program works.

At any rate, today I found a nice piece at one of regular homeschooling blogs that gives the question some more thought, and I invite you to have a look if the question interests you.