Internet notebook about my work: deep listening to facilitate positive change


Monday 28 May 2007

Passion and creativity

Today was the last day of the exhibition in Amsterdam - ‘Light as guidance’ - about the life and works of my mothers’ father in the first half of the last century. Frits Lensvelt (1886-1945, he passed away a month before I was born) was a designer for the printing press, theatre, interiors and industry. It was the time that electricity was broadly introduced into our cities. So he designed, e.g. the lighting for the Council Chambers of the Amsterdam City Hall (today the conference room of The Grand Amsterdam, Sofitel Demeure Hotel), and introduced lighting with special effects on stage in the Dutch theatre that was at the time in transition from ‘representing’ reality to ‘imagining’ reality.

I walk through the exhibition admiring his drawings for a range of Shakespeare plays, models for the backstage of Goethe’s Faust, Beaumarchais’ Le Marriage de Figaro. Designs of interiors of the houses of people, I had visited as a young boy. The decoration of the streets in Amsterdam, which he designed for the occasion of the marriage of Princess (later our Queen) Juliana and Prince Bernhard. Books he illustrated and which I saw on the bookshelves of my parental home. I always have admired his fine style of drawing. As a kid I often dreamed I could draw like him.

His time was the beginning of the industrial revolution with all its changes, challenges and innovations. The fine arts in those days broke away from many conventions. We now know the turning points brought about by e.g. Strawinsky, Mondriaan, Mies von der Rohe. But how much do you see, how much vision do you need, when you are part of the change? Wandering through the exhibition and looking at the products of my grand father’s creativity and imagination, I realize that what we need for the big changes in our time is a similar creativity. Sustainability needs new functionalities, new forms. The Art of Positive Change is a quest for passion and creativity.

Friday 25 May 2007

Case study format

Spiranthis spiralis V. In four episodes - between 2 and 7 May - I told the story of the conservation of the threatened species Spiranthis spiralis (to view all episodes: click in the left column under content rubrics on case study). A rather long story, maybe too long, if you do not have much time. And some aspects may not have seemed relevant to you. So, now I just want to summarize the main lessons learned from this case in the box below and illustrate in a nutshell the added value of strategic communication.

For a long time I have been passionately searching for a method to 'prove' the added value of strategic communication. Together with my colleagues Miro Kline and Gwen van Boven we developed a first format for case studies. It was tested in a workshop on biodiversity and CEPA organized by the Spanish Ministry of Environment in collaboration with IUCN (Valsain, 2004). Speakers were asked to organize their CEPA lessons learned by using the format. Our ten-point format proved too complicated.

In my introductory presentation I tried to set the example. But most other speakers just presented their cases by way of telling stories, which were quite different and difficult to compare. In the subsequent IUCN CEC publication Achieving Environmental Objectives, we asked the authors again to use the format. And again this proved rather difficult - the editors did a lot of interviewing to get the cases right and produce the publication as it is now. The format just did not work by itself.

In recent years I have been working from time to time on making the format simpler. The idea is to present a case in a simple box using not more than 150 words. At the same time it should prove how and when positive change is taking off. For me this format is quite helpful. I am curious whether it will be of help to others as well.

Thursday 24 May 2007


My name is Pema Choedon. And to be transparent about it, my eldest aunt is Frits’ wife. I am a student of B.A. (Hons.) in Journalism at the Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi. I am currently doing an internship with in Dharamsala (North India), which started out as a forum for interaction amongst young Tibetans. It has now grown into a full- fledged news website. This summer I am also hoping to intern with one of India's daily newspapers.

After being on trial for some period and passing a few tests, Frits said I was qualified to help him with editing his blog and possibly assist him later on with other work. My objective of doing this work is to learn about communication and the environmental issues and how people outside India think about change towards sustainable development. I also want to explore how I can apply my knowledge as a student of journalism, within the frame work of an international consultancy. I will share my views by commenting on postings as well.

Here's to a new journey and an opportunity to grow a little. Hopefully, not only for myself but for you too. Cheers!

Tuesday 22 May 2007

Deep listening and mindfulness

I used the Sunday in Bangkok well. I went to the Lumpini Park Hall and joined a few thousand people to listen to the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He talked about how to rebuild happy families and a happy society. He stressed the importance of 'compassionate speech' and 'deep listening' as the keys to communications.

He said that in modern society, humans have lost the capacity to listen. "In Buddhism, peace means the absence of tension and pain in your heart and body. If you have peace, it will be easier for you to help others release the tension from their heart and body. Buddha's teachings from 2,600 years ago are still relevant - they are about how to cultivate peace."

He emphasised the need to cultivate mindfulness as a key in peace-building. "It is not necessary to go to the temple to do this", he said. "You can practise mindfulness when cooking, washing dishes or walking."

I think 'mindfulness' is a word I should have used in my last postings (Simply live simple & Simply design simple). Practicing mindfulness in terms of the footprint you leave behind when you do the dishes, design your project or do your job.

Sunday 20 May 2007

Simply design simple

In her comment on my post (15 May, "Simply live simple") about climate change and the behavior change of people like me, working for international, Gillian quoted a climate expert from her organization. His position, in short, was that in bringing sustainable development closer, the footprint of those working towards the goal, should not be counted separately but seen collectively in the positive result of their work. But I did not agree.

I do not agree as it is an excuse not to do our best in thinking creatively of innovative sustainable solutions. No travel or ‘slow travel’ as they call it, is not a real answer in a globalized world. More selective travel is. Project design is one of the places where we can be much more creative. If I were to undertake today, some of the larger projects I did in the past, I would design them differently and save at least 20% of the international travel involved then. And also, when I look at my recent projects that were designed by people who mostly think that a workshop is the only effective means of communication, I think that I could save up to 50% of the travel and be as effective or more!

You do not always need a workshop. There are many good alternatives which, from the point of view of strategic communication are often much more effective! Think of telephonic interviews and conferences; web surveys and discussions; online cooperation on documents; e-learning and yes - blogging. The CEPA toolkit provides a range of effective communication means in section 2,3 and 4.

Unless thinking in terms of the impact of our footprints becomes second nature to us, we will conduct business as usual and design projects full of inception workshops, training workshops, evaluation workshops, international workshops, regional workshops… and keep on accumulating air miles, being part of the problem and not of the solution!

Thursday 17 May 2007

Business case for meditation

The information processing capacity of the human mind is limited, as is evidenced by the so-called “attentional-blink” deficit. When two targets (T1 and T2) embedded in a rapid stream of events are presented in close temporal proximity, the second target is often not seen. This deficit is believed to result from competition between the two targets for limited attentional brain resources. In a test of two groups (with and without meditation experience) the first group showed less allocation of brain resources to T1 and were better able to identify T2. The Dutch-American study further indicates that mental training can result in increased control over the distribution of limited brain resources.

I am coaching Asian professionals conducting focus groups for a large multinational company. They are eager to learn about how to set the tone, how to ask the right questions, and how to create a flow in the discussion. They tend to immediately be contented with the first new motive or idea they identify. I try to help them see that the biggest handicap in analysis is that the first thing you find, stains all other observations that follow and that it prevents you from seeing, at times, facts that are more important, but come up later on in the discussion. I, myself, am eager to subsequently let them analyse their findings properly.

One young man of the team is much better than the rest. I ask him if he meditates. He seems a bit embarrassed. The group is surprised. “But that is a personal question”, they object. I get an answer anyway, probably because of my seniority: Yes I do, but what has it to with focus groups?” "First of all it is not personal", I say. "It is professional. If you cannot control your own mind, you cannot be a good strategic communicator. Listening and observing are the most important part. Our own mind plays so many tricks there – meditation helps you to control it". And I tell them about the article on ”attentional-blink deficit”, I just had come across. "You teach mediatation?" they ask. "No", I laugh. "And mind you, I am a lousy practitioner myself! But the monks in your temple can teach you."

Tuesday 15 May 2007

Simply live simple

When asked about lifestyle, I am told Ghandi said: “simply live simple”. I think of that quote when I read the summary for policy makers of the IPCC report, Mitigation of Climate Change. I look at the graphics and boxes. The quantity of emissions from Europe compared to the Asian countries I am visiting, as always embarrass me. I scan the proposed measures. Many are technical. Then I read: Changes in lifestyle and behaviour patterns can contribute to climate change mitigation across all sectors. Management practices can also have a positive role. It is rated as high agreement, medium evidence. The following examples of change management are given:

• Lifestyles and consumption patterns emphasizing resource conservation can contribute to developing a low-carbon economy that is both equitable and sustainable.
• Education and training programmes can help overcome barriers to the market
acceptance of energy efficiency, particularly in combination with other measures.
• Changes in occupant behaviour, cultural patterns, consumer choice to use
technologies can result in considerable reduction of emissions related to energy
use in buildings.
• Transport Demand Management, which includes urban planning (reducing the
demand for travel) and provision of information and educational techniques (reducing car usage and leading to an efficient driving style).
• In industry, management tools that include staff training, reward systems, regular
feedback, documentation of existing practices can help overcome industrial
organization barriers, reduce energy use, and GHG emissions.

What is it that I can contribute in my own behaviour? I surf to Futuremaker. The link is recently sent to me by Andreas Glanznig. I find a few new tips, but what really appeals to me, is measuring my footprint. Honestly filling in my answers, my feedback is that if everyone has a lifestyle like me, we need 3,5 worlds. When I cheat about my flying, the feedback is better: my footprint allows for one earth. Will positive change towards living more simple, mean the end of international consultants, international meetings? How will creative learning and communication solutions look like? Maybe it all starts with measuring our footprint?

Sunday 13 May 2007

Universal Responsibility

Dialogues and partnerships will not deliver sustainable development unless there are mechanisms that balance the power relationships between the partners, help negotiate interests in a way that maximizes public value and commitments towards development.
Dialogue participant in Sao Paulo, Development as Accountability, p. 37

We have a universal responsibility for the planet. That is what drives us - working for the environmental conventions and sustainable development. One of the features of sustainability we aim for is cross sector co-operation and partnerships: collaborative management of protected areas and natural resources, public participation in government decision making. Universal responsibility implies accountability. The CEPA toolkit stresses basic communication principles in this respect: e.g. that what we do, provides a message with more impact, than what we say. The section on stakeholder management illustrates that delivering on promises is one of the first milestones for establishing meaningful relationships. The fact sheets on public participation point at the importance of strengthening the capacity of local stakeholders. Is that enough to guarantee accountability?

Early this morning the captain of the plane which was taking me to Asia, woke us up just a few hours before we were supposed to land. He announced that – due to engine failures - he had turned around and now was almost back in Amsterdam. Waiting for the next evening flight, I have time enough to read. Lizzie made me aware of the report just before I left. Key findings for NGOs, governments, donors and business are:
1. Development partnerships are not inherently more accountable.
2. Collaboration is weakening traditional mechanisms of state and private sector accountability.
3. Poor people understand and value accountability, despite cultural variations in emphasis. Yet ensuring their participation continues to be a major challenge.
4. Civil society organizations now have a complex twin role as advocates of accountability and as active partners in multi-stakeholder partnerships.
5. There is an observable lack of knowledge on collaborative governance.

I realize how many challenges and opportunities this issue poses for communication and learning. Anyone has experiences on this issue, that (s)he wants to share?

Thursday 10 May 2007

Wisdom Mind

It was a rainy afternoon, somewhere in 1972 when a friend presented me with a book full of beautiful - almost mystical - photos of nature and verses of ancient Chinese wisdom. I did not understand a word in the beginning. But until today my fascination stayed. Somehow the verses look like a glimpse into the ultimate truth. At the same time they seem to make so little practical sense. Especially as they are so contrary to the mainstream mindset of the seventies and eighties: “through our interventions we can (re)construct society”. Does this old book make sense when we talk about sustainable development, positive change, communication and learning? I think so. In letting go the idea of control, new opportunities arise. As a manager, I learned that an output based management style is more effective than one based on input. Isn’t it the same for education? As a consultant, I learned that a good doctor, when his patient asks him for an aspirin, doesn’t immediately give it. Let alone, blames him for being sick. He starts asking questions: how he eats, sleeps etc. Likewise a good consultant ‘dances’ with the client. Listen:

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.

Less and less is done.
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.

Tao Te Ching, 48

In the end, is stimulating new joint ventures towards sustainability between actors from private sector and civil society not far more powerful, than taxes, regulations and subsidies? Are protected areas, run by local communities in most cases not more effective, than those run by state bureaucracies? Aren’t people who are so busy with conservation projects, that they have no time for planning, let alone for reflection, not less effective than people who look at conservation with a ‘beginners’ mind? For me, I learned from this verse that the mindset we have, is decisive for the success of what we do or leave undone.

Wednesday 9 May 2007

Blogging with humour

Ricardo Carvalho is a long serving member of CEC. He is a journalist and TV producer. Not just that - he is a real artist of positive change. Ricardo always has helped CEC to gain visibility for CEPA through TV and video: e.g.during two World Conservation Congresses, during the World Parks Congress and during the Conferences of the Parties to CBD. We all came to know and love him because of his humour and his craftmanship. I specially have good memories as we worked closely together on quite a few projects. Recently he started the Brazilian Ethical Market.This portal not only provides information through editorials, but also contains short videos with inteviews and films. I like his interview with Al Gore.

Recently Ricardo added a video blog to the site. He knows I love music. Almost any music. When we worked together in Rio de Janeiro, he showed me the bar where Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes wrote the Girl of Ipanema. We both like to enjoy a beer listening to local artists. So it won't surprise him that I also very much appreciate his video blog about cultural diversity as element of sustainable development. In this blog Paulistas show that Beethoven and samba can go hand in hand. Music brings people together whatever their background. Anyone has a similar example?

The blog also shows that Ricardo has not lost his sense of humour. His latest addition shows the power of humour to raise awareness for the environment. Awareness in ten seconds of suspense and fun. I immediately thought how nice it would be to use this video when you start a lecture on the issue. Who knows of more of such examples?

Tuesday 8 May 2007

User feedback 2

Dr. Jinie Dela, co-author of the toolkit, sent me by email the following feedback and agreed to publish it on the blog. Jinie has been connected with CEC for many years. She has first hand experience with CEPA and the National Biodiversity Strategy of her country. I remember she developed for the IUCN Species Survival Commission a training manual (see illustration below). Through this blog I now learn we have more similarities in our background! Another unique selling point of blogging. She writes:

Blog and website
I am very new to blogging (it is very expensive as our telephone bills skyrocket - I surf the net only on Sundays or after 9 p.m). It is very interesting but somehow the site needs to be warmer and inviting (a bright picture at the top ? Your smiling face? at least A smiling face at the top?). The same applies to the website. I like the text and the structure of both very much (very user friendly, very useful stuff) - but not the look and the feel somehow: too cool and clinically scientific, it does not feel like a refuge. Needs an inviting face and eyes! I've been browsing . . . - I know this sounds odd -- but Harry Potter fans do seem to browse the mugglenet site frequently and find it irresistible - on a different plane I admit, but its a very effective and warm meeting point.

PR for the toolkit
Could we advertise up coming events? Training events, workshops etc. This will interest NBSAP coordinators. Perhaps we should give the names of CEC CEPA experts that NBSAP coordinators can contact, if they want to clarify anything on communication? What about problem sharing opportunities online? Could we have a link to the website in the GEF webpage? We also should ask CEC members in different countries whether they can get the hard copies/CDs across to the Ministers of Environment or CBD focal points. Maybe we should have a short press release that can be circulated via e-mail to journalist/communicators networks with the web link. Again CEC members can also here (I can get this done here). They can also send it to the local newspapers with a picture.

Suggestions for the Blog
Could we focus on running a dialogue on the different sections or topics of the toolkit: e.g. stakeholder consultation? I mean you give your comments (a sort of editorial with a catchy title) on a definite topic in the toolkit with reference to the chapter or section and encourage a debate on the toolkit and also sharing of experiences and examples. Hope this makes sense. I am still spending limited time at the computer, as my eyes are not back to normal. It is great being part of the team.

Post Scriptum
Incidentally, my mother was a first violinist in one of the two Symphony Orchestras of Sri Lanka during her time! I still have her grade 5 examination card (Royal School of Music London) where she has got full marks for all her grade 5 pieces. She also played some by Fritz Kreisler and Nicolo Paganini which I loved to hear. I really miss the private recitals after she passed away. Hope you are still continuing with the violin. I had a baby violin which was about 1 foot long and perfectly like the real one. But alas, my hold (my thumb bends) did not quite qualify to meet my mothers high standards! All the best and hope to see a smiling face on the site.

Monday 7 May 2007

Joint fact finding

Positive Change - the Spiranthis spiralis IV
One of the most important elements of stakeholder management is joint fact finding. During lunch it seems an argument breaks out between the villagers and the scientists. It appears it is about the location where to find the Spiranthis spiralis. For years the scientists have mapped the location, but the villagers say there is nothing to see at that location. This year though, they have seen lots of orchids on a different mountain. The decision is taken to have a look together.

After lunch everyone gets in the cars brought by the experts and we drive out of the village, leave the cars at a tiny river, cross the bridge and start climbing the hills. The view on the landscape with the mountains far away is beautiful. I seem to be the only one to enjoy it. The biologists have only an eye for the orchid and the villagers are too used to their environment to notice it. Some are interviewed by the regional TV station that was specially invited for the round table and has just arrived.

At a certain spot the team members get excited. They have found the small sticks they have put in the earth on the spots where they found the orchid last year. Everyone bends down and starts searching the grass. There are many tiny flowers and a diversity of grasses. But no orchid to be found. We go up higher and higher. After two hours we have not found a single orchid. The experts come up with the explanation that we are maybe a week too early as it has rained so much the last months and it was a bit cold. The villagers claim that they know a better spot.

It is decided we first go back and have some more hot goulash and schnapps at the community center. One car drives on to the other mountain. Two villagers and two team members go to check. When they return we learn that the villagers were right. We should have trusted the local knowledge. The team still grumbles, they had found their sticks from last year, how is that possaible? But giving credit to the village helps to break the ice, we slowly start talking business.

The joint climbing of the mountain, the lunch, the fact that we as experts have come down from our scientific throne by taking interest in the views of the villagers, it all helps to create a real round table. Without any orchestration three small groups are sitting around a bottle and talk. Facts are compared, ideas tested. It appears that the State Nature Conservation Authority has already managed to negotiate a deal with the Regional Agricultural Authority to stop their afforestation programs in the localities of the orchids. Now we come to talk about their sustainable agricultural policies. Someone knows they cannot spend the budget. In another group they realize that the co-operative of the manager, who had left half way the morning session still has sheep. The idea for the phone calls is born.

All are proud to be part of the solution, and their role in it. The villagers are also happy with the exposure their village gets on TV. They realize it is because of the orchids. They seem to have some degree of renewed trust in the scientists. They commit to cleaning some meadows each year and monitor developments. The teacher is happy with the orchid materials and T-shirts. The conservation organizations sense the improvement of their reputation. We sign the Village Book, more toasts: Nazdrovje! Then satisfied in many ways, we leave. Good communication is simple and personal. But at the same time, not easy! Look here for information on joint fact finding.

Saturday 5 May 2007

Communication residue

Positive Change - the Spiranthis spiralis III
I have learned a message will come across when people pay Attention to it; when it contains Information that is relevant for them; when it generates a Desire in them: and when it makes clear which Action they can take. You can check the AIDA principle by asking people after your communication what the main message was – the communication residue. Ideally this should be a reformulation of your communication objectives.

It is lunch time during the Spiranthis spiralis round table meeting. A large number of people - more than during the lectures of this morning - merrily gather at the tables filled with plates and bottles. Eat, drink and toast. On the friendship between the city people and the villagers. The mayor receives the first Spiranthis spiralis T-shirt, specially made for this campaign. The two boys and one girl get a T-shirt and a puzzle with a photo of the orchid. The teacher is provided with more copies of the puzzle for the rest of the school.

I use the time to talk to the school kids and find out what they have learned. My colleague Ema translates. I ask them what they would tell their parents about this meeting. One boy answers that one should be careful with nature and not step on the flowers. The other answers that one should prevent pollution. The girl interferes and says “no, it was about the orchid, and you should no let cows graze there as they are too heavy. Sheep are much better”.

"And what can you contribute to save these orchids," I ask. “They did not tell us”, answers the girl “they only gave information on the flower and they talked about the farmers. But there are no private farmers here, only the co-operatives. My mother has one cow, so does my grandfather. But we are only part time farmers, my father works in the city.”

I ask the mayor what the most important thing was he had heard this morning. First he is polite and wants to toast on Europe and the guest from The Netherlands. But then he says: "the professor and the scientists want us go back to traditional farming, but there is nobody anymore to farm". Other villagers have similar messages: "City people do not understand what it is to live here. They come and tell us in difficult language what to do and then go back to their comfortable houses." I encourage them to tell about life in the valley and the history of this place. The conversation becomes very animated.

I wonder how satisfied the members of the Orchid Club are with the communication residue. And how they see positive change taking off. As for me I learned so much during this visit, I will continue the story about the Spiranthis spiralis in another posting - using my notes from six years ago.

Friday 4 May 2007

User feedback

Some years ago I was asked to advice on the strengthening of the strategic communication capabilities of the Directorate for the Brown Agenda in the Ministry of Environment in Brasilia. One of the first things our team focused on was improving internal communications. Part of that exercise was to set up an intranet (see illustration below). When I suggested to involve end users in the development, I noticed some frowns and question marks on foreheads. Not with Mercedes Sanchez, the project leader for the intranet. She now has her own consultancy Usabilidade in Sao Paulo. I asked her to give me some feedback on the toolkit website and this blog. Her response is so useful that - as we all are dealing with these issues - I want to share it here (of course I asked her permission first):

I had a chance to navigate on your new web site and would like to send you my comments and suggestions. Fist of all, I got really impressed... it’s a great job. You are providing a lot of useful information. Now you should turn these great information more visible and attractive. My recommendations (based on hundred of usability tests I've done with web users and on my communication skills):

- Home - it is the main page, the first page your visitors will see, so it must be the “shopwindow”. Use the home to show visitors, in an interesting way, what they will find inside. Text should be shorter and more attractive... e.g.: explain briefly why the toolkit CEPA is good, important and usable - what people can get from it? You already have this text on your blog and it is very good: “The toolkit offers different learning opportunities. Maybe you are facing in your work a specific issue or question. Zap through the toolkit and you may come across relevant fact sheets, examples or checklists. Maybe you are engaged...”

- Use the home to present the content and also to present new things, the updating content. It is important to show visitors that someone is taking care of this web site, maintaining it alive, updating it. You should put al least 1 new content per week and announce it on the home page, if possible. The important thing is to show visitors the new content - you can use a label "NEW". If you update one item of the CEPA Toolkit you must show this to visitors, always on the home page and you can use a label "UPDATED", for example.

- Main Menu - The main menu is where people must find access to all the web site pages. So, “Toolkit CEPA” must be an item of the main menu. If you have an item called “More tools”, people may think where are the “tools” and why they are not on the main menu. My suggestion for your main menu:

Home - Toolkit CEPA - More tools - Links - Further reading - About us - About initiators - Contact us

- “Users Guide” and “Copyright & Disclaimer” should not be on the main menu, they should be at a foot menu, because they are not principal items. Besides, web users usually look for these things and expect to find them at foot menus. Look at this examples of foot menus:
- Contact us - My recommendation is for you to ad a link to contact in all pages, including the home, at the top; it can be an item of the main menu.
- About us and About the initiators - They should be 2 items of the main menu. Think about new visitors that don’t know CEPA, IUCN... they will want to know who did this site and who are behind this site.
- Files format - When you indicate that a file is (pdf) you should also indicate the KB, e.g.: 250KB - pdf ; 2MB - pdf ... This is an important information for visitors in order do decide if they will download a heavy file at that moment or later - when they are at a slow connection using modem (e.g.: in Africa countryside).
- Video, brochures, presentations - You’d better create a pattern to show information to visitors always the same way, e.g.: brief description, authors, date of creation, where and when it is was presented.

About the blog
Your blog is very good, just loved it.. and loved to read your texts, great! Don't worry if people don't leave a lot of comments, it's absolutely normal. Studies show that only 1 or 2 per cent of users leave comments on blogs and publish content on web sites. The great majority only reads.

There are some things you can do (that you may already know) in order to increase the number of visitors, like:
- put links to your blog on "Toolkit CEPA" website - you can even insert a new item on the main menu "Our blog".
- go to "famous" environmental blogs and leave a comment on a post (that has something to do with your blog) inviting people to know your new blog ;)
- Put on your blog links to other blogs (similar subject). This helps to create a community of interest.
- Ask CEPA to help on spreading the news about the blog by CEPA's own communication channels.
- Ask visitors of your blog to send their stories of success and difficulties

Just one more thing: you should put a link on the image of CEPA Toolkit that appear at the right on your blog - people expect this kind of image to link to a new page.

Thursday 3 May 2007

Learning from mistakes

Positive Change - the Spiranthis spiralis II
You learn most from making mistakes. Education is often focused on not letting people make mistakes. In my work strengthening the strategic communication skills of biodiversity managers, I learned to bite my tongue and allow - to a certain degree - mistakes. I won't let them drown, but letting them get just a wet foot can be very effective.

Our national workshop had focused on stakeholder management and round tables - theory and practice. The real learning starts when people go out in the field and do it, reflect on process and results and get feedback. This is their first experience. Observing all good advice that they seem to have forgotten since the national workshop, I now have to decide whether and to what extent to interfere or to let go. Encourage now, give feedback lateron.

The team has arranged six rows of ten chairs in between the two long tables. The specially for this occasion prepared posters with pictures hang on either side of the podium. The lights of the projectors are tested. It all works. The mayor comes in. The director of the regional agricultural agency arrives. Hands are shaken. Then the managers of the cooperatives come in. The team guides them to the posters and start their explanations. Slowly other people come in and take a seat. As no one of the team welcomes them or speaks to them, they must be lesser gods from the village. I find out that one of them is the teacher of the school in the next small town where the three kids of this village go.

The smart young staff person from the regional conservation agency claps his hands to start the meeting. Everybody takes a seat. I count 26 visitors. Not including the people who bring in the lunch. He welcomes the VIPs and the villagers. After five minutes he gives the floor to one of his colleagues. From the pictures of the slide show I deduct that the retired professor lectures about nature and society in the region.

His presentation is followed by another team member. He is an university research fellow and has studied the Spiranthis Spiralis in the fields on the hills around the village for years. The local people know him from his previous visits. He starts a long lecture about orchids in general and the Spiranthis Spiralis in particular. He elasborates about the threats to its survival. They are clear: the orchid disappears because the villagers do not mow the fields anymore, nor do they have their sheep grazing there. Junipers and other shrubs start overgrowing its habitat.

The director of the regional agricultural agency is visibly more and more uncomfortable on his chair. Finally he gets up and whispers some friendly words in the ear of the retired professor. One of the directors of the cooperatives follows him out of the hall. The lecture continues. Half an hour later more then half of the audience has left. Time for questions. Some one asks for concrete suggestions for action. A long answer on re-introducing of traditional farming follows. Other people just look at the lunch. Finally lunch is announced.

Notwithstanding my impatience, I bite my tongue the whole day. Keep smiling and encouraging and collect more information. Only a day later we discuss round table facilitation issues. What went well was the inviation process, the guided tour of VIPs and opinion leaders to their small exhibition, the logistics, the distribution of T-shirts, brochures and puzzles. The experience how they had lost more than half of the audience was a powerful lesson - they all came up with suggestions for improvement: changing the lecturing part into a more questioning approach, other modes of interaction; the sitting arranements.

They asked me for examples of alternatives - pleople really learn when they have a question. And I learned coaching requires patience, a smile and trust. Too much educational interference, makes people dependent, and deprives them of the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Even after six years, I am still in contact with some of the team members. Colleagues now!

Wednesday 2 May 2007

Impact of a phone call

Positive Change - the Spiranthis spiralis I
Can a phone call trigger change? Yes, if you think about communication strategically: what is the essential change? Who has to do something differently? What would motivate? Who should do the talking? What is the message?
Help us to improve our education program to convince villagers to re-introduce traditional ways of sheep farming on their mountain meadows. As sheep farming has stopped, shrubs and trees are overgrowing the meadows. Biodiversity is threatened, especially the Spiranthis spiralis, a tiny orchid." In short this was my briefing.

After a long bumpy ride we arrive in one of the villages. We pass a small Russian Orthodox church, a small Greek Orthodox Church and then we arrive at the village community building. In front are three containers for separate waste collection. I had not seen such progress in any city so far in this country. But here they are!

A stone monument with a red star on a tiny green grass field commemorates the liberation by the Russians in 1944. Liberation also had brought here a system of collective agriculture. Large scale sheep farming. But since the introduction of the free market in the early nineties, most cooperatives had gone bankrupt, people had left the villages, only old people stayed back. The schools had to be closed. So change through educating kids in schools, I thought: no way! But I decided to bite my tongue, better ask questions.

“We actually need to educate these villagers about the Spiranthis Spiralis. They have no knowledge of nature and care only for material things”, lectures the retired professor and chair person of the Orchid Club, while we are entering the building. The hall contains two long rows of tables with chairs facing each other. At the end is a podium. The biodiversity team starts working on the sitting arrangements and sets up the overhead and slides projectors.

A next time I will tell you about the round table meeting, the joint fact finding and other details. Now I want to tell you how it all ended. The team already had developed educational materials for the schools, including a puzzle and brochures, so they went on with their education work for the schools in the city closeby. But we also found a way to trigger real change. It were two phone calls that did it.

One was to the regional agricultural authority and we found out that they had difficulty to spend their budgetline for sustainable agriculture. The second was to the chairman of a co-operative at the other side of the valley that still had sheep: yes, he could load them on trucks and drive them to the mountain meadows at the other side of the valley, if he was reimbursed for the extra costs.

The subsidies could take care of that. The Conservation Authority staffs would help with the bureaucracy. The villagers were given a role to monitor impact and help cleaning the meadows. A positive change that energized the people as everyone likes to be part of visible success.