21 March 2006

The asynchronous conversation

An experimental interview with Maish R. Nichani of elearningpost.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile you know that Charlie Rose is one of my favorite interviewers. One of the reasons is that every interview he does feels like a conversation.

Robert Scoble's new book on the blogosphere is called Naked Conversations for a reason -- Scoble is not the only one who has noted that the world of blogging is a world of conversation. You may have noticed that recently I have been testing this model by asking you to tell me what you think.

So here's a big thank you for your overwhelmingly positive response!

I believe that conversations are important in the business world, and that they will only become more so over time; you can read more about that here.

So when it was time to do an interview I wanted to try something different. Maish R. Nichani has been blogging -- well, it seems like forever. His blog, elearningpost, is always full of fascinating and thought-provoking links. But Maish himself has always been a bit of a mystery. So I asked Maish if he would be up for a little "experiment in conversation." Luckily he said yes!

The asynchronous conversation
Most conversations are synchronous; that is, they happen in real time, either in person or by phone. Some conversations are asynchronous: email for instance. If I write you an email you can respond when it is convenient for you. The conversation in the blogosphere is mostly asynchronous. One of the benefits of an asynchronous conversation is that it's easier for people all over the world to join.

The idea behind this "experiment" is to do an asynchronous interview with Maish, and open the conversation up to you, the Communication Nation community.

I will kick off the conversation with a couple of questions for Maish, and he has agreed to watch the comments section, where I hope that a rich conversation will develop. Of course, that part is up to you.

Here goes...

Maish, could you briefly introduce yourself and your work to Communication Nation readers?

I’m the editor of the blog, elearningpost, http://www.elearningpost.com/. To serve my passion (and for survival) I run a small design studio (http://www.pebbleroad.com/) focusing on intranets, websites and e-learning. As far as work is concerned, I pursue a design-thinking mindset; and as far as life is concerned, I like to think of myself as a passionate learner. I use elearningpost to explore the vastness of the design-learning intersect. I never intended to do this of course; it just so happened that I stumbled across something that I like. I have the blogosphere to thank for that.

What do you think people are missing? What (if any) topics do you think people should be thinking and talking more about?

I think it’s good if people are missing things! George Clooney spoke about the same in his Oscar acceptance speech for best supporting actor where he professed that he was proud to be “out of touch” as being out of touch helped shine the light away from the stereotypical storylines.

And therein lies the crux of the matter for the rest of us.

It’s one thing to be out of touch, it’s totally another to do something about it. In this day and age, success, I think, comes to those who are comfortable being uncomfortable or those who deliberately practice being uncomfortable. But many of us shy way from being out of touch.
A few days ago I had a chat with a friend who runs creativity courses here and he signaled out the education system as the reason for this passive shyness. Right from the start we are told to draw on the lines and color inside the boxes and this conformity mindset has molded us into being passive receivers. But thanks to the Internet, there is hope.

The very nature of the internet – always hackable and always in beta – is helping to get the new philosophy across. Web 2.0 is an indication of this movement. If you think about it, Web 2.0 is actually making things messier. All this talk about platforms and mashups and APIs can make one dizzy, but yet, we seem to be coping well.

So, to answer your question on what we should be talking about, I think it would help if we could spend more energy on
1) learning from experience and
2) learning how to represent.

One lets us cope with the constant change, while the other lets us make sense of the constant change. James McGee posted an article on learning, mindfulness and reflection (http://www.mcgeesmusings.net/2006/02/27.html#a4734) that explains the first point. The second point is to do with what you’ve been doing with visual explanations – representing ideas to aid understanding. Representations, I think, are the driving force behind Web 2.0 and behind the Whole New Mind.

Can you name some recent things you have seen or heard that you think are especially exciting?

Web 2.0 apps are interesting. So is the prospect of reading Beautiful Evidence and Don Norman’s new book. I also like the current interest in experience design and narrative work. Also I can’t wait to play with the rumored calendaring app from Google. As you would have guessed, all links are from my blog!

What role do you see for face-to-face conversations in an increasingly global and technologically connected world?

When it comes to creating new knowledge – brainstorming, prototyping, sensemaking, etc., or when deciding on important things, having face-to-face interactions is crucial. Technology is useful when you’re dealing with the day-to-day working knowledge.

In short, face-to-face conversations are absolutely essential when the risks are higher or when you are dealing with complexity. They key is finding out what constitutes as being high risk or as being complex.

For example, in a well-documented story, around 2000 TBWA Chiat/Day tried a bold experiment with virtual offices. They gave their staff portables and mobiles and asked them to work from where ever they wished. The thinking was that advertising was a well-structured discipline and all one had to do was to follow the process. They learnt the hard way that this was not true when their staff walked out on them and demanded their space back.

Another well-documented story is that of the Challenger launch decision. Here an important decision on the O-rings was made over the phone. The situation was both complex and high risk and yet there was no face-to-face meeting.

So, if its complex and/or high risk, just meet up. For everything else, look for the best mix. Now, I could be simplifying things here, but it’s a good start.

Dave [to you]:
Now the experiment in asynchronous conversation begins. What questions do you have for Maish? What ideas did his thoughts trigger? Do you have a relevant story to tell? Please put your questions and thoughts in the comments section and join the conversation!

[Update: Based on what I am seeing so far, the asynchronous interview has the following attributes:

1. It moves slowly -- one or two questions a day seem to be the norm.
2. The conversation is rich and dense, like chocolate cake. And like chocolate cake it takes some time to digest. Read it slowly and thoughtfully.

Since this is my first asynchronous interview it's hard to say if this is a general rule. However the patterns are interesting and unique enough that I intend to do some more of these.

Keep checking back on this post -- rather than post new entries I am focusing my attention on this interview; I want to nurture it and see what dynamics develop. Until the interview loses momentum I'll be posting my thoughts in the thread.]

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17 March 2006

Dave Winer on the unconference

In case you haven't heard of him, Dave Winer is a pioneer in the blogging world; in his own words,

"I've been blogging since there is such a thing."

In a recent post Dave has some interesting thoughts about "unconferences:"

"The idea for an unconference came while sitting in the audience of a panel discussion at a conference, waiting for someone to say something intelligent, or not self-serving, or not mind-numbingly boring. The idea came while listening to someone drone endlessly through PowerPoint slides, nodding off, or (in later years) checking email, or posting something to my blog, wondering if it had to be so mind-numbingly boring.

A fundamental law?
This observation may turn out to be the Fundamental Law of Conventional Conferences.

The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of expertise of the people on stage.

It's probably much worse than that. My guess is that if you swapped the people on stage with an equal number chosen at random from the audience, the new panelists would effectively be smarter, because they didn't have the time to get nervous, to prepare PowerPoint slides, to make lists of things they must remember to say, or have overly grandiose ideas about how much recognition they are getting. In other words, putting someone on stage and telling them they're boss probably makes them dumber. In any case it surely makes them more boring.

Turning things around
So then, how do you turn things around so that we can harness the expertise we just discovered and get a discussion moving efficiently and spontaneously without forcing the interesting conversations into the hallway. I wanted to see if there was a way to get the hallway ideas to come back into the meeting room. It turns out there was.

First, you take the people who used to be the audience and give them a promotion. They're now participants. Their job is to participate, not just to listen and at the end to ask questions. Then you ask everyone whwho was on stage to take a seat in what used to be the audience. Okay, now you have a room full of people, what exactly are they supposed to do? Choose a reporter, someone who knows something about the topic of discussion (yes, there is a topic, it’s not free-form) and knows how to ask questions and knit a story together.

Read more in Dave's Wordpress Blog -- Blog Archive -- What is an unconference?

Photo by Jay Cross -- thanks Jay!

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15 March 2006

14 March 2006

Who are you?

According to Communication Nation's referrer logs, about 300 people a day are reading this blog. Like a lot of bloggers I am curious:

Who are you?

Some of you I know personally, and others I have met through the blog.

I know some of you are founders and CEOs, strategists and technologists. I suspect that many of you are in communications-related fields such as organizational development, PR or marketing; and that many others are technology or business professionals who are interested in better communication.

But when it comes down to it that's really just a guess.

I want to make this blog a rich hub of ideas and conversations about things that matter to you -- things that you care about and want to talk about. As you know, when I have a question I prefer to go direct. So I have a couple of questions for you.

Please take a minute to tell me and the other readers:
1. Who are you? If it's not too personal, what's your name and job title?
2. What industry or field do you work in or most strongly identify with?
3. What do you most want to see happening on this blog?

If you would rather be anonymous that's fine but I would still very much like to know what industry you're in and what you really want to see here. Thanks in advance for sharing!

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13 March 2006

How to be a great moderator

Guy Kawasaki offers ten tips on how to be a great moderator:

1. Don't over-prepare the panelists.
2. Do prepare yourself in advance.
3. Never let panelists use PowerPoint.
4. Never let panelists use anything special.
5. Make them introduce themselves in thirty seconds.
6. Break eye contact with the panelists.
7. Make everyone else look smart.
8. Stand up for the audience.
9. Involve the audience.
10. Seize the day.

Read more in How to be a Great Moderator.

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City color

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11 March 2006

10 March 2006

How do you top the best-selling video game of all time?

Will Wright created the best-selling video games Sim City and The Sims.

Both games are expressions of Wright's interest in simulation and user-created virtual environments and societies. The Sims is the best-selling video game of all time.

How do you top something like that?

Wright spoke at the 2005 Game Developers' conference about his new game, Spore.

The new game is partly inspired by Charles and Ray Eames' Powers of 10, a landmark 1977 film that explored the nature of exponential relationships and the human environment. Players start with a microscopic organism and "play god," developing higher and higher life forms, moving upward in the food chain to develop societies and eventually entire worlds.

Wright is a visionary and his 35-minute presentation is worth a look.

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09 March 2006

Dealing with the Devil's Advocate

"How many times have you been in meetings where the Devil's Advocate decimated your idea or your colleague's idea?

The other big problem with the group meeting is a variant of groupthink -- when your idea is modified by the group to such an extent that it loses its entire meaning...

Coming back to the Devil's Advocate - how do we deal with him/her?"

Read more in Sast Wingees Speaketh :: Dealing with the Devil's Advocate

Update: Read the comments posted here -- an interesting thread developeth! Please share your thoughts.

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Oh yes, looks matter -- oh yes they do

"Presentation visuals must be free of errors; they must be accurate. But our visuals -- like it or not -- also touch our audience on an emotional level. People judge instantly whether or not something is attractive to them or not. This is a visceral reaction. And it matters."

Read more in Presentation Zen: Visceral design: do looks matter?

Via Christian who pointed me to Evhead.

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When it's time to relax, play the sand game

Warning: It's addictive.

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06 March 2006

Visual thinking isn't for everyone

Visualization isn't for everyone. In the 15 years since I started XPLANE, I have sat in many meetings where I was asked to "xplane" the value of visual explanations. I have learned over the years that people either seem to instantly "get it" while others struggled to understand the value of visualization.

I remember sitting in a meeting where I pulled out a visual map (here's an example) and a woman actually seemed upset by it. She said she didn't understand what the purpose of this was and that she just didn't see the usefulness of it at all.

This is a question aimed at all you visual thinkers out there: What have you experienced? Have you noticed any patterns? Does visualization resonate well in some industries and poorly in others? Or perhaps the pattern is more by functional area: Do people in sales "get it" while people in accounting seem puzzled?

I have a high degree of interest in this topic. Please share your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks!

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02 March 2006

A questioning toolkit

Some things to consider adding to your questioning toolkit:

Essential Questions are at the heart of the search for truth. "What kind of person do I want to be?"

Subsidiary Questions are families of smaller questions which lead to insight about essential questions. "What's the best and worst that could happen?"

Hypothetical Questions explore possibilities and test relationships. They begin "what if..."

Telling Questions are highly focused and targeted, to provide sorting and sifting during the gathering or discovery process. "In similar situations, what has been the result?"

Planning Questions ask how you will structure your search. "Where should I look to find..."

Organizing Questions structure your findings into categories. "How should we structure this?"

Probing Questions are deep and exploratory, like archaeology tools. They are based on logic, intuition, and sometimes good old "trial and error."

Sorting & Sifting Questions filter out extraneous information to help you find what's meaningful and relevant. "Is this reliable? What's worth keeping?"

Clarification Questions convert fog into meaning. "What is meant by..."

Strategic Questions make meaning. "Am I asking the right questions?"

Elaborating Questions follow the trail. "What is the next step?"

Unanswerable Questions may never be answered, but they can illuminate in themselves. "What is friendship?"

Inventive Questions turn things upside-down or inside-out. "What if we looked at this from the opposit perspective?"

Provocative Questions challenge the status quo or conventional wisdom. "What if our assumptions are wrong?"

Irrelevant Questions divert us from the task at hand -- and that is their beauty! Truth almost never appears where logic would expect.

Divergent Questions kick off from a home base which is known. "If X is true, what implications can you draw? What about exploring Y?"

Irreverent Questions explore off-limits or taboo territory. "Does the emperor have any clothes on at all?"

Read more in the Questioning Toolkit.

Thanks Maish!

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01 March 2006

Visual thinking camp 2006

Visual thinking camp 2006:
A three-day event in the Bay area.

1. Why is it important?

2. Where will it be?

3. Who will be there?

4. What will we do?

What does it need to be? Let's design it together. Leave a comment on this post -- and join the conversation.

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Go direct

You're frustrated. Somebody, somewhere in your organization has done something that made you mad. They made extra work for you; or they didn't do something that they were supposed to do, or maybe they said something rude.

So here's the big question: What are you going to do about it?

Here are a few options:

a) Lash out. Express your anger directly at the person. Let them know exactly how you feel and don't pull any punches. Another version of this one is to secretly plot your revenge, which might be some clever yet cutting statement you launch at the next staff meeting.

b) Write a semi-polite, yet seething email that expresses your frustration, while following the behavioral norms of your company. Be sure to copy everybody and their mother so the whole world knows how you feel.

c) Vent. Grab your best friend from his/her desk and take them out of the office for a coffee or smoke break. Vent your frustrations -- but as far as everyone else is concerned you're still your naturally cheerful self. Keep that fake smile on at all costs!

d) Go through the chain of command. Tell your boss about the problem and see if you can get your boss to help, by talking to the other peron, or maybe by talking to their boss.

e) Do nothing. Nothing, that is, except sit at your desk and stew.

Which option do you usually choose?

I can't tell you how much unnecessary pain, frustration and anxiety I have seen caused by these kinds of activities. They may make you feel better in the short term, but all of them are destructive behaviors that will hurt both you and your organization.

These kinds of activities are selfish. You express your frustration but do no good to yourself or anyone else. In addition, they are likely to unleash retaliatory behaviors from other parties, resulting in escalating tension and even more pain.

Lashing out puts other people on the defensive and raises their hackles. Whether they respond to your anger or not, they will resent your approach and you won't get anywhere productive. Plotting revenge is even worse, for obvious reasons.

The semi-polite yet seething email often seems to be the easiest way out -- you express your feelings in a semi-public way and make them known. But you are using the group as an authority figure or policeman -- it's like running crying to daddy. What happens is that you force the other person to respond in kind, because no response looks like an admission of guilt. The circle of pain begins again.

Venting seems like it would do no harm, but it does. You are tearing down the human bonds that make your work meaningful and productive. Teamwork and personal relationships are the human glue that holds organizations together. By venting -- even to your close friends -- you are weakening the foundations, just as surely as termites weaken the foundations of a building.

Going through the chain of command seems proper. But think about it. You are involving your boss in your problems -- don't you think your boss might have better things to do? In addition, you really aren't shielding yourself from anything -- it will probably be clear to the affected party where the complaint came from anyway. So now you have gotten someone in trouble, and possibly wasted your boss's time to boot. Do you think you're going to see better behavior and more teamwork from now on?

Doing nothing leaves you unhappy, and the situation remains unresolved.

So what do you do?

1. Take a minute. Cool down. Try to see how the affront could have been unintentional.

2. Pick up the phone, or walk over to the person's desk. If they're not there come back later. Whatever you do, don't send an email.

3. Tell them what you are concerned about. Don't assume or judge them! Most of the time people are not aware that they stepped over a line. If something really bothers you or is unacceptable, you can say this -- but say it in a calm tone of voice.

4. Ask them what you can do to ensure that such things don't happen in the future. That's right, what you can do.

5. Listen. You're opening the door to a conversation. You will find that you are often surprised. Being open to the other point of view can enlighten your understanding of the situation and maybe even help you see a larger system dynamic.

All this is harder than it sounds, especially when someone has done something to tick you off. But with practice, you will get better and better at it. They key to success is to be genuine, to respect the other person and assume that their intentions are good. This creates a positive, constructive dynamic. Even a negative, cynical person will find it difficult to hang on to grudges and ill-will when you give them no place to land.

It's true that in some organizations direct behavior is rare -- even discouraged. If you are unfortunate enough to work in one of these companies, it's better to figure it out as fast as possible and get out of there!

Next time you run into conflict, go direct. It's the quickest and most reliable route to resolution.

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