Chair Game at the V&A

This last year I have become somewhat obsessed by a game I call the Chair Game, which I learned from Stefan Cousquer (who in turn, learned it from Michael Jacobs).

For me, it is such a rich game, there is so much to learn from it. I will write about what I am learning from it at some point, but meanwhile, here’s a lovely little post that John Willshire wrote which sets the scene nicely for the Chair Game at the V&A, which is happening next week.


The Perfect Steve Chapman

I know the perfect Steve Chapman. He always comes up with Steve Chapman-like comments. He is an unending source of Steve Chapman style ideas. When I want a Steve Chapman perspective on something of mine, he’s the guy. He writes a blog that is the quintessence of Steve Chapman-ness. He also talks like Steve Chapman, walks like Steve Chapman and even looks exactly like Steve Chapman. He does all of this without having to try. He is Steve Chapman through and through. No-one else I know comes close.

I also know the perfect Kay Scorah. Just as Steve Chapman is Steve Chapman I can depend on her to be 100% Kay Scorah. She is ineluctably, irredeemably and effortlessly Kay Scorah. And in a similar vein, blessed that I am, I also know the complete Neil Randhawa, the authentic Conrad Keating, the total Mark Skipper and the only proper person to go to for an injection of Jorge Alvarez.

I am challenged, however, when it comes to Robert Poynton.

I seem to have a much slimmer grasp of who he is than I ought to. My ideas about him can be horribly distorted, lurching wildly from massive exaggerations of his shortcomings to drastic overestimates of his capabilities from one moment to the next. As if I really have no knowledge of him whatsoever.

I spend a good proportion of my time and energy wishing him to be otherwise, trying to make him be (or appear) a certain way. I find myself thinking that if only he were able to do this a bit better, or stop doing that, or act a bit more like so and so, then he (and I) would be better off.

What would it take, I wonder, for each of us to really know who we are and accept that?

If I could truly realise that I need to be and become who I am, rather than hope (or pretend) to be someone I imagine, what would then be possible….?








Moving towards difficulty

It’s a filthy day. The rain has been coming at us, all day long. Horizontally.

People don’t associate this weather with Spain, but here in the Gredos Mountains, when it rains, it really rains. It looks implausible, like bad movie rain, with exaggerated sheets of water coming at us hour after hour. The waterfall across the valley, swollen by the run off from millions of acres of bare granite, thunders so loudly you can hear it even above the howling wind. Our off-grid house, perched on an exposed hilltop, feels like a boat being battered by a storm.

On days like this, our own little stream becomes a torrent, sweeping so much sand and silt downstream that it can cut off our water supply. So this morning, I got the waders on and plodded uphill in the driving rain to the dam, ready to plunge waist deep in to the water, to see what was going on.

It sounds miserable, and in some ways it is, but there is also much to love about this. There’s something so simple, basic and vital about it. It’s probably atavistic (it’s certainly a bloke thing). You end up soaking wet and covered in mud but on the inside, you glow.

This time I had an added incentive. Basilio, one of the two brothers that built this house and one of the most resourceful people I have ever met, had made an improvement to the set up and I was curious to see if his idea had worked.

The problem he was trying to solve is this. Behind the little dam is a pool. A (perforated) pipe is set into the dam, which draws water from the pool and takes it into a water tank a few metres away, from where it is piped 2km downhill to our house. When the stream is in flood, the pool behind the dam fills up with sand and silt, water stops flowing into the pipe and before too long you run out of water (which is ironic, since it is inevitably tipping down).

Most of the ideas I have had about how to resolve this were ways to try and retain, or control the sand and silt – another dam, a bigger dam, a bypass channel and so on. But of course, that just delays the inevitable. Sooner or later you would have to clear out the silt – there would just be more if it.

Basilio’s idea was different. Instead of trying to stop the silt, he extended the pipe upstream so that the end of it lies just where the water flows over a rock and into the pool. He moved it into the area of turbulence, knowing that the constant vortex of water there would wash away the silt. At that point, where the water flowed into the pool, there ought to be a little area washed clear. And there was.

On the walk back down I started to wonder how this logic might apply elsewhere. Where else might we be better served, not by trying to constrain or control forces that will, sooner or later, overpower us, but by moving towards the source of the difficulty, into the turbulence, and, like an aikido move, using that to solve the problem….

Simplicity on the other side of complexity

Whilst working on the Praxis symposium this year I found myself thinking about what is it that I am really doing when when I am designing a workshop or learning experience.

I have written about this before (see How to cultivate conversation, The Craft of Improv) but I still keep learning. Which in itself is fabulous – one of life’s great joys is to find you can keep on learning about something you already know well.

Back in June, as I was thinking about the Praxis event, it came to me that in effect, there are only three things you have to think about – how you organise people in time, how you organise them in space and what you give them to do. That’s it. There are an infinite number of possibilities under each heading and they obviously interconnect, but in essence that is all you have to think about.

I love this. It was a really helpful insight. It gives me clarity and simplicity but also acts as a creative stimulant. It gives me confidence, but inspires me to invent. It seems to be a great example of how simple patterns can underlie complexity.

It reminds me of Heisenberg (the quantum physicist not the character in Breaking Bad) who said:

“I would give nothing for the simplicity on this side of complexity; and everything for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Perhaps (at last?) I am approaching the simplicity on the other side of complexity…?


Help – ask early, ask often

In the spring I hosted an event called ‘The Help Weekend’ – an inquiry into what it takes to get and give help. It was based on the observation that most people are slow to ask for help, yet when they are asked to help someone else they are (often) delighted.

I brought a small group of people to my home in Arenas de San Pedro for the weekend and asked each of them to think of something they could use a little help with.

The process of inviting people started to reveal some very different attitudes to help. At one end of the spectrum were people who said ‘oh, that’s an interesting idea, but there isn’t really anything I need help with’.


At the other extreme were people who were so worried by the number of things they needed help with and the difficulty of choosing that they felt unable to participate (as one of them put it “I think what I need help with is asking for help”).

In the end, there were seven others and me. Each of us had a chunk of time, to use as we wished, to get help from the others. When you weren’t being helped you were a helper.

It was a wonderful, highly emotional, weekend. The experience quickly created a strong sense of connection amongst us. And we not only got a lot of help on our particular projects, but learned a lot about the wider issue of asking for and giving help.

Here’s a selection of the things we noticed….

  • Its hard to help people if they are very abstract. Being concrete helps people to help you.
  • Small things, almost inconsequential things, can be very valuable.
  • You need to be honest with yourself about what it is you need help with.
  • A little structure is good.
  • To get help you have to let go of trying to control stuff.
  • We easily get too used to doing things by ourselves.
  • Asking for help is intensely personal – you get ‘up close’ and that can make you feel vulnerable.
  • Sometimes individuals help more than a group.
  • When you get more energy, then something has helped – so the energy you feel can be a good measure of helpfulness.
  • You can get what you haven’t asked for, which is often more helpful than what you thought would be useful.
  • The importance of empty spaces……
  • Asking for help shows us that we are incomplete……this makes us more interesting people and therefore more beautiful.
  • It can be hard to be ‘selfish’ when it is your turn to get help.
  • Giving help can light a fire in you and uncover wisdom you didn’t know you had.
  • You always have something to contribute, even when you don’t think you do.
  • There is an emotional release to asking.
  • There is physical joy in giving and receiving…

We came up with a motto, that seemed to capture much of this – “ask early, ask often” (hat tip to Ideo). We have taken this practise to heart. We continue to help each other and in general, people report being much more willing to ask for help than before.

So it would seem that the Help Weekend helped.

Fresh eyes and ears

I was recently interviewed by a Radio Station, BFM in Malaysia.

Which I thought was rather lovely, given that I live in a small town in rural Spain. I think I can reasonably claim to be the only inhabitant of Arenas de San Pedro to be interviewed by an Asian radio station.

As far as I recall, no-one anticipated that this kind of thing would become commonplace with globalisation. The predictions were all about the destruction of local culture by Coke, McDonalds et al, but I don’t remember there being any comments about how speaking at a conference in Wales would lead to an interview on Malaysian radio.

Which just goes to show how wonderful the unpredictable nature of complexity can be sometimes….

Anyway, it was a great interview, not because of me, but because of the interviewer, Natasha Fusil. She had done her homework and asked great questions. She also made some very pertinent observations, so I found myself learning new things about my own stuff along the way.

For example (minute 9) she made asked whether being able to improvise requires you to think on your feet and be mentally quick, or whether that is the result of the practises. It’s the latter, of course, the point that being responsive and agile is an output, not an input. I couldn’t have put it better myself – in fact, I didn’t, it took someone with a fresh eye to put that interpretation on it.




Patient learning and the futility of ‘happy sheets’

Freddie Mercury was wrong. If you want it now you can’t have it all. At least not in the realm of learning.

Part way through an experimental, two-day, Praxis workshop, one of the participants told me that she couldn’t work out what she was getting from it. She was by her own admission having a wonderful time and she was well aware that the workshop was experimental (there was a clue in the title – it was called ‘The Awareness Experiment).

She herself, a scientist by training was well aware that in a good experiment, you don’t know the outcome in advance, indeed, she had pointed out to me the absurdity of the fact that to get funding her lab had to stipulate in advance, what it was going to discover!

So what was going on here?

Learning doesn’t necessarily take place in the same period as the experience that generates it. It may require (unconscious) processing reflection, experience, the relevant context (which may be completely unpredictable) and a trigger or need, to name but a few possibilities.

To put the same thing the other way round, if, at the end of a learning experience (programme, workshop etc.) you ask participants what they have learned, you are only allowing them to give a trivial answer. On these feedback forms, or ‘happy sheets’ as my friend and colleague Marshall Young refers to them, all they can report is what is immediately available to them with the conscious mind that they can verbally report. And by definition, any significant or deep learning is unlikely to be of that kind.

We should be more patient. We should slow down, let go of our anxiety and accept that proper learning is slow, painstaking work.

If we did, we might find that we actually learn more.


Evaluation vs. Feedback

My friend and colleague John-Paul Flintoff has been writing about feedback. So I gave him some and he gave me some – inviting me to write this post. I am interested in how easily we confuse feedback and evaluation. Indeed, we don’t just confuse them (i.e. have trouble telling them apart) we conflate them – assuming them to be the same thing.

But they aren’t.

I remember very well, the moment I realised this. I was working with an executive who was talking about performance reviews and why she found them difficult.

“We aren’t very good at giving feedback. If you have to say someone hasn’t done well, then that’s obviously difficult. But being British, I find it just as hard to give compliments to people”.

For her feedback came with a value judgement included, it was evaluative. And whether that was good or bad, she found it difficult.

Yet the word feedback, in its original sense, doesn’t imply this at all. It is simply information – literally a ‘feed’ of data reporting back on an action or series of actions. Feedback would be ‘you are going north’ evaluation would be ‘you are going the wrong way’.

I also realised, in that same moment, how common it is to conflate the two, and how much complication and difficulty that leads to.  In a world of Facebook ‘likes’, where we are constantly invited to evaluate, this blind spot is probably getting bigger.

Just as this senior manager said, if all feedback is interpreted as being thumbs up or thumbs down, then of course it was hard to give, or take. So you probably avoid it (or dismiss it) as much as you could, stunting or slowing the flow of information.

So how would you get simple, straightforward information about what was actually happening? How could you think sensibly about what to do if everything was always loaded with judgement?  It’s a small step from that to the knife in the ribs that John Paul experienced.

I find it useful to tease the two apart. Like this. Evaluation is feedback plus judgement.

feedback vs. evaluation

So to anyone who wants to encourage a healthy flow of information between people, to improve whatever you are doing, my feedback would be – be ready to give and get both feedback and evaluation. And learn to distinguish one from the other.



A view inside the mind

…plan plan plan, talk, worry, plan, plan, decide. Rush, hurry, meet, talk, talk talk, check. Plan plan, rush, decide, talk talk, micro-plan, check, worry, doubt, talk talk rush rush hurry hurry decide doubt check, check, check, talk plan, mini-plan, anticipate, confirm, talk, talk, hurry, worry, hurry talk talk talk talk. Pause… worry, worry, worry, hurry, do, talk, talk, rush, hurry worry. Talk check check talk worry hurry, talk, plan plan plan….

If I am not careful, this is what my day can sound like from inside my own mind.

How about you?  When do you stop or pause?  How do you create space for reflection?

The Power of Context – who is my son Pablo?

At the beginning of September my two elder sons went away to school, leaving Pablo, the youngest, living alone at home with his parents. He is, as they say ‘a different person’. We see it ourselves and others comment upon it. With no competition for attention, or food, or time on the Play Station, Pablo has indeed become different. But he hasn’t changed. He is just expressing himself differently. No doubt he will learn and change through this experience, but the immediately observable change is a change in context more than a change in him. He isn’t different. How could he be in the space of a few days?

This makes visible how mistaken our normal way of thinking can be. We find it easier and simpler to treat people as if they were objects to which we attribute stable (or slowly changing) attributes. What Pablo is showing us is that a person is a stream of actions not a thing (in complexity language a ‘dissipative structure’). As such, people are profoundly shaped by context and relationship. Not so much ‘Pablo’ as ‘pablo-ing’. Alan Watts says something rather similar, here (start at ‘Appling’ 1min 15s).

Change the context, change the relationships and you ‘change’ the person. Which changes everything. Something you might want to think about if you are interested in changing some ‘thing’ or someone.

Travel Thinking

Travel broadens the mind they say. For me it has another benefit. It also deepens it.

Living in rural Spain and working mostly in the UK I travel a fair amount and I find that when I travel I escape the insistent, nagging of the to-do list.

Part of this is the drive. After a year in the early 1990’s spent mostly on buses in China and South America, I became convinced that the constant passage of a landscape does something to the eye, the brain and the mind, opening up new spaces and ideas. That still works for me.

And even the sluggish, cumbersome milling around that always accompanies air travel opens up lots of inbetween spaces, like niches in a coral reef of time that can be occupied by little half-formed, half-baked ideas, looking for somewhere to live. It is amazing how many times I come back from a trip with new ideas or something worked out.

For me, this kind of travel isn’t anywhere close to the value of a walk (which I see as a form of thinking not an aid to thinking) because the physical body is essentially passive, but the movement of a journey, even one as dull as an oft repeated journey can be a valuable source of stimulus.



Draw your own conclusions

Years ago a friend, who is an artist, did a very simple line drawing portrait of me.  logo4

A few years later another, who is an engineer turned it into a wood block. I was amazed at his ingenuity.  ‘I have made a few improvements though’ he said. ‘Your glasses weren’t drawn straight, so I levelled them out’.

Here’s the thing. My glasses are never straight. My face isn’t straight and as anyone who wears glasses knows, the act of taking them off with your dominant hand tends to skew them even more.

The artist drew what he saw.

The engineer made an assumption that regularity was good and ‘corrected’ the image to be more regular, thus in his view, making it ‘better’.

Draw your own conclusions.

Learning fast and slow

Over the past couple of months I have started to realise how long it can take for me to learn. Sometimes, years after an event I am still learning. For example, even now, two years on from The Creative Tapas Experiment I am still getting ideas from it – both through reflection and through conversation with other people who were there.

I think this makes sense and that we have quite mistaken ideas about how and when learning of any significance happens. We are often in too much of a hurry to allow any deep learning to happen. If we are trying to memorise the road signs of the Highway Code, then maybe its reasonable to expect an immediate result. But if we are interested in anything complex or subtle, like leadership or creativity is that really sensible? Or is it wiser to let a learning experience seep into us slowly and starts to affect us over time, in gentle ways we didn’t anticipate?

I love this idea. It means that powerful experiences, like The Praxis Awareness Experiment I was lucky enough to be involved in a few weeks ago, or The Coaching To Excellence programme I was on last week have the capacity to keep on yielding learning for who knows how long.

All I have to do is be patient and they will, in their own sweet time, surrender their riches to me.





Read, walk, eat

We recently hosted the Praxis Reading Weekend at La Serna.  I am hoping this is the beginning of all sorts of interesting things that La Serna could play host to.

One of the participants, Chris Riley found it very thought provoking and had this to say about it. I am thrilled. As you would be.

Even though I knew it would work in some way, I was still pleased about how it worked and how easily.

‘Read between meals, talk over meals’ seemed to be enough structure of the right kind to engage people and I was fascinated to see how the books wove their way into the conversations, even though we didn’t ask about them specifically. Since people picked up different books according to what others had said about them, the whole thing became remarkably interconnected in surprising ways and over time the conversations became deeper and broader, and the group became quite happy with the kind of silence that illuminates talk.

It reminds me of something Zidane, the footballer once said “Sometimes, magic is almost nothing”.

Of course we had some great advantages – a wonderful group of people happy to take whatever adventure came and an extraordinary place. I also know from experience with Parenthesis that Fidel’s food can work magic on people. So it isn’t nothing, even if its ‘almost’ nothing. But it certainly need not be complicated or as hard for people to come together an enrich each other on many levels.  And I have a hunch this is just a beginning….


Take your own advice

I like playing around with the sub-title of this site. So far I have had ‘Out on an edge’, ‘Life is a mash up’, ‘Big fan of small airports’, ‘What will this year hold?’ and currently ‘Time for a walk’.

I went for a walk on Sunday morning. With the dog. It was a spectacular day, as you can see from the photo (click on the title of this post).

What came of it was spectacular as well. A three hour hike released a spontaneous brainstorm (breathily recorded on the iPhone) and I came back down the mountain with a completely new idea for what On Your Feet in Europe could be, the products it might offer, the relationship with the business in the US and who might be involved.

Not bad for a walk with the dog.

Improv in ten

Dave Morrison does a wonderful and quick explanation of the improvisational way.

Makes me realise that the twenty minutes I got at the Do Lectures was a luxury.

Also, I particularly liked how he demonstrated ‘Yes And’ though, as normal, I do take issue a little with the implication that you should always say ‘yes’ (I bang on about this at some length in ‘Safekeeping’, Chapter 6′ of ‘Everything’s an Offer’).


How to cultivate conversation

Recently, I was working with friend and colleague Marshall Young at Green Templeton College, Oxford.  We filled three enormous whiteboards with scribbles, which I always think is a pretty good sign. We were thinking about how conversation works and what the underlying conditions or dimensions (many of them physical) that shape conversation are and what you would seek to vary or manipulate if you are endeavouring to create a series of rich conversations.

There’s scale – group, triads, pairs. Duration, or structure in time. Periodicity as well.  Iteration is another one (i.e. you can create series of conversations). Space and physical layout, including proximity and position (do you talk to someone next to you, or in front of you, do you stand or sit). There’s constraint (a given topic, or rule or procedure) and stimulus (an input of some kind).

All these things make a difference to the kind of conversation that you have and though they don’t have straightforward, linear effects, you can know that varying them will make a difference, even if you can’t predict what that difference will be. And, to build on an earlier entry, the craft of conversation, at least in a setting like a workshop, lies in combining these elements.

In a way, this is all that improv exercises do as well, though they are fairly extreme forms.  An improv form is a structure that conditions the kind of interaction or conversation that is created.  What interested us in this was the notion of how you create a rich field for conversation, without dictating where that conversation would go. Rather like hosting a party really – you work on creating the conditions and allow people to flow through the ‘system’ (fuelled by food and drink on a social occasion) and interact as they will.

Do Do’s

Had a couple of great bits of feedback from the Do Lectures.  One was John of Brainjuicer, another of the speakers, who decided as a result of my talk to run a board meeting with no agenda.  And Amanda Blake, who wasn’t even at the Do Lectures but listened to a recording of one of my practice runs and was inspired enough to come up with four principles of the kind of work she wanted to do  (which were – time flexibility, financial viability, helping to build a world you believe in, and collaborating with cool people).  Nice.

The craft of improv

Just got back from the Do Lectures.  Quite the most extraordinary four days I have ever had I think.

One of the highlights was a conversation about craft and where the craft of improv lies. It was one of those conversations where I heard myself saying things I hadn’t ever thought before, which was what I liked about it.

It seems to me that craft resides in how you set up and explain games and exercises, how you carry yourself physically, what you pay attention to as they unfold, the questions you ask and the connections that you make visible for people.  There’s also craft in design, not just of a workshop but of a process or way of working, which is the area I recently got interested in (see The Copenhagen Interpretation).

The craft of conversation perhaps.  A lot to think about here.

The Copenhagen Interpretation

In July we were in Copenhagen.  We were with my friend Helene Simonsen at one of the open air jazz concerts when she bumped into someone she knew.  I remember he was wearing some very cool glasses and looked like a bit of a boffin.

My new found friend asked me how I knew Helene and I sketched out a connection that lead from Oxford, via Peter Hanke and his work with conducting and leadership to an Arts and Leadership conference at Bramstrup and thus to Helene.  I also mentioned my own work with improvisation.

This struck a chord.  It turned out that my un-named friend worked for IBM and he started talking about ‘Agile Project Management’ and ‘Scrum’.  I remember finding it a bit uncomfortable because Helene hadn’t actually introduced me (I later discovered this was because she couldn’t remember his name).

But what he was saying was fascinating.  It struck me how the improvisational practices seemed to be almost designed into the structure of the way of working he was talking about and later that day I checked out ‘Agile Project Management’ and ‘Scrum’ on the web.  It wasn’t as interesting as what he had said, but still, provided some food for thought.

A few days later we were in Henne Strand in Jutland, out for a long walk on a wild and windswept beach and my unconscious mind had obviously been snacking on all of this because I suddenly realised there is a huge hole in the work I have been doing.  I love it when something becomes clear that has been in plain sight all along.  I enjoy the feeling of “how could I have been so stupid?” (quite easily is probably the answer).

So, as a result of this fabulously serendipitous and unlikely sequence of events with a man with no name in a square in Copenhagen I can see that I have, for about a decade now, leaped straight to behaviour.  There’s nothing wrong with running workshops that aim to help people become more adaptable by adopting improv practices but it would be an awful lot easier if you actually designed the organisation or team in such a way as to promote that behaviour in the first place.

So what I am interested in now, and what I am going to spend some time working on and thinking about is how to design for improv, as it were, in both process and structure. Because process, being time based, is really narrative, which means that all the story tools and frameworks and ideas could fit there.  And improv forms have micro and macro structure, as does a show and the theatre itself.  And one could create feedback loops between all of this so that the design of structure and process to promote improvised, agile, creative behaviour could yield changes to the structure and process so as to create more chance of yet more of the same kind of behaviour, and so on.

I am very excited about all this.  It feels like it could give my work a whole new lease of life, which is very timely.  I am going to call it the Copenhagen Interpretation, in homage to Nils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg whose interpretation of quantum physics also bears the name of a city that is, apparently, the only one in the world with too many bicycles.