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


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!


Gillian Martin Mehers said...

Hi Frits, I am very much enjoying reading your blog and I have a comment to add...

If I can be a little provocative here :-) (which is why blogs are so great!) there is a whole field of study that actually challenges the notion that people learn most from their mistakes. The field is called Appreciative Inquiry (AI), and it's foundations say that people learn more from looking at what is working, rather than their mistakes. When you know what is working then you can do more of it, think how to apply those success criteria to other situations where things are not working so well.

I have found using AI in my work as a facilitator and trainer to be very powerful. People seem to have more hope when they can look back and identify those things they did really well and then understand the detail of what made it work, then extrapolate those lessons to other areas. There is a good website called the Appreciative Inquiry Commons, which is run by Case Western University. AI has been used now all over the world, with good examples from Nepal, South Africa, as well as North America. People are even using it for evaluation purposes and find that it does not skew that results, instead makes people want to use them for further improvements (which is why evaluations are normally done, or should be). Has anyone else tried using AI in work contexts? What did you think?

Frits Hesselink said...

In Strategy it is necessary to know the Ways of all other Schools”, writes Musashi. So I am happy that the title triggered Gillian’s contribution. She also offers a good start to learn about the appreciative inquiry approach ( I subscribe to its basic principles. Question is: do you always apply them?

Schools are about interpretations, descriptions of reality. They are not reality. Like a map of the Netherlands is not the Netherlands. Musashi may have said: “know the appreciative inquiry approach and in applying the strategy do what has to be done, and don’t do what has to be left undone”.

So in this case – I had only 1,5 day to help this field project and had to respect what my local project leaders had prepared - I did not suggest to change the sitting arrangements, make the meeting with villagers more interactive, respect the local knowledge, although I had a tough time biting my tongue. I knew the real change in the situation of the Spiranthis spiralis would have to come from a different side.

My strategy for change was let things develop and concentrate: look out for that one opportunity. And, as described in the phone call posting, in the end it came. If I had used my energy and credit with the team on getting the process of the round table with the villagers right, I may have missed the entry point for the right process.

In the end I was fortunate in this case that many pieces fell into place, especially by focusing on what went well and what could be improved. And the questions the team started to ask. For me it is an art to get there. But I can be wrong of course, I may have just been lucky!