Project, business and strategic planning.
Training, group facilitation, mentoring, writing, relationship building.
Lurking fears named; problems creatively solved; visions nurtured.
I spent much of last week writing a grant application*. The grant application form I had to fill in was well designed – easy to understand, short and asking for succinct information. To have dismissed it as simple would have been a mistake – writing good persuasive documents is like writing haiku where the challenge lies within the requirement for succinctness. To take a complex idea and render it into a distilled yet compelling argument takes a great deal of thought and cleverness, and, if undertaken with integrity**, can be an acid test of the idea itself.
My usual approach to writing these things is to write them as if my life depended on the outcome and then, once submitted, forget they even existed. The reason for this is that obviously I want to give myself the best chance so I work damned hard on the application; but I also acknowledge that the mathematical odds are probably against me being successful. Grant programs attract a lot of competition and can only ever fund a minority of applicants. Grants are not ‘free’ money. In return for the cash you will ‘pay’ in time spent applying for, managing (compliance and relationship management) and acquitting the grant.
So why invest serious time and thought into something you have a fair chance of not getting? Is it worth even trying? How do you decide?
This is where it is useful to consider the side benefits of writing a grant: does the process of researching, planning and then writing the application have benefits that can feed into other parts of your professional practice? Some examples of such side benefits could be:
A chance to revisit and maybe even refine your vision and strategies. Explaining what your purpose is to others is always a great test as to how well-defined that purpose is.
Creating (or refining already existing) text about who you are and what you do. If you come up with some nice pithy phrases to put in your application to ‘sell’ yourself then keep them – this material may come in handy when you are next updating your marketing materials or writing your next report or funding application.
A chance to do some forward planning. This is what I found myself doing last week. I had to think through, in some detail, as to exactly how I was going to implement the strategy I was seeking funding for; I even was able to identify which parts of this strategy I could implement without the funding (albeit more slowly or on a smaller scale). This exercise was as useful as it was clarifying and inspiring.
If you are writing the grant application as part of a team, this is a great opportunity to check that everyone is on the same page – has the same understanding of and confidence in your team’s goals.
Conduct something of a risk management or contingency planning exercise. Ask yourself: ‘What will I do if I don’t get this funding? What could I do if the funding body offers me a lower sum of money?’
Take the pulse of your current network of allies: do you have anyone who will be a referee for your application or write you a letter of support? Would anyone partner with you within the grant? Who in your networks is ‘friendly’ enough to help you research your application?
What do you think? Can you think of any other side benefits?
*Wish me luck!
**I have seen clever grant writers – weasel wordsmiths – bullshit their way through funding applications with very little forethought and no integrity. This is a waste of time if they don’t get the grant, and a real menace if they do – badly planned projects that have been funded for spurious reasons can open up quite a can of worms governance wise.
“Automation of procedural work is accelerating” writes Harold Jarche as the opening sentence to his elegant and succinct piece ‘cooperation makes us human’, published 21 April on jarche.com. He then goes on to explicate why he thinks that “Interconnected people have the ability to adapt to a world dominated by machines and algorithms”. In describing the qualities that make humans unique and which cannot be replicated by computers Jarche goes on to write one of the most balanced and even hopeful responses to the increasingly widely circulated idea that technology is radically changing the ways in which we work, how we work and even why we work.
There is plenty of gloomy speculation as to the effects that increasing automation will have on industry and society; among the more alarming is the idea that at some stage many people will be left without work as many jobs will simply cease to exist, having been absorbed into the range of technological activity performed by super-duper robots. My personal view has always been that if, IF, we, as a society, undertake to be adaptable, broad minded, and socially just, and if we can bear to leave behind old fashioned notions of what work ought to mean and how labour ought to define us, then we have nothing to fear from the drastic changes to our society that will be wrought by this onslaught of technology.
“We can never be better computers. People cannot become more efficient than machines.”
Jarche has not written an anti-technology piece by any means, and that is one of the things I like about it. But he goes onto say that “All we can do is be more empathetic, more passionate, more creative. Our social connections reflect and reinforce our humanity. Cooperation is social. Collaboration is a temporary agreement to get something done. Amongst trusted people, collaboration is the easy part. Machines cannot cooperate.”
Cooperation, empathy and creativity cannot be automated. We have nothing to fear.
A couple of years ago, when I was fleeing ‘working for the man’ and planning on setting up my own freelance practice, I came across this article – Understanding how to frame your creative expertise by Tara Sophia Mohr on the 99u.com website.
I found the article to be very resonant the first time I read it and have mentally referred to it over the last couple of years as I have been (enjoyably) grappling with developing my services and brand.
Mohr defines 4 types of experts, including “The Specialist” (think of your typical consultant who boasts of a deep immersive experience in one specialised field) and “The Called” (those visionary souls who feel drawn to some transformative mission). I define myself as a mixture of “The Survivor” and “The Cross Trainer”:
“The Survivor”: “You’ve been through something, learned a heck of a lot along the way, and now you are on fire to share what you’ve learned… You have an ability to move and connect with your audiences that most formal experts on your topic don’t have. You can provide inspiration and role-modeling – not just information. You have insider insights that will help you create a more compelling offer for your audience.”
“The Cross Trainer”: “Cross trainers make interdisciplinary connections and drive innovations. They see the blind spots of the conventional thinking in the field they’ve turned their attention to…For cross trainers, the charge is to be bold in asking provocative questions and making interdisciplinary leaps, … Focus on starting new conversations…”
This is a succinct, well written and thought provoking article. It helped me to start to get a handle on just what is that I have to offer; this is something of a challenge for those of us with unconventional resumes that boast a portfolio of varied experience rather than a linear career path.
Millennials tend to be described either as paragons of empathy and creativity or narcissistic over-indulged brats. To borrow a phrase from Jane Austen, they “deserve neither such praise nor such censure”*. They’re just people. Respect them and talk to them in the same way you do with your Boomer and Slacker reports and colleagues. If your normal way of managing, co-working and communicating doesn’t provide the optimal conditions for a Millennial to function creatively and collaboratively then the bad news is that your normal way of working has not provided the optimal conditions for anyone of any generation to fulfil their potential.
I have come across articles from time to time mentioning the differences between the generations. I feel as if there is a theme I am spotting where millennials are being praised for their super-duper capacity for empathy and creativity. There is a lot of well-meaning advice out there for folks (it seems to be pitched at boomers and slackers) who feel they need to hire and then manage these millennials so that the young’uns can work their magic and create innovative STUFF for the businesses these old folks own and / or manage. I have been wondering why I find these articles so damned irritating. I don’t find millennials irritating. I have worked with lots of millennials in my time and had a ball doing it**. But these articles irk me; recently I realised why.
There are amongst us oldies out there a cohort of people who figure they have an issue or problem in that their companies need to ‘innovate or die’. They figure they can help to address this by hiring packs of millennials who, so they are told, are extra creative. I think my problem with this line of thinking is that it offers a solution to a problem that allows current managers to ignore an underlying problem.
Which is this: You can hire millennials by the truckload, but if you insert them into the culture or hierarchies that already exist in your business then you are not going to be able to harvest the insights or ideas from them that you crave. If you figure that your current staff is so bereft of the ability to innovate that you have to outsource this most human of functions to a whole other new generation then the problem is not that your current staff are a pack of dullards. Your problem is that you treat them as if they are. You, as a manager, have failed to generate opportunities for your fellow Boomers, Gen-Xers and the older millennials already on your staff to engage with innovative process. Your work culture, your communication processes, your hierarchies, have all worked to estrange or silence innovative people on your staff. Your problem is not that you don’t have the most creative millennials on your staff. Your problem is that you have been unheedingly walking past the most creative boomers and Xers on your staff every day for years and not doing a bloody thing about that. Unless you address that failing, all the promising young talent in the world is not going to be able to make their ideas known to you.
Am I oversimplifying things? Of course I am! This is just a one page blog, after all. But I really can’t shake the feeling that older business leaders and their managers are working themselves up into a lather over how to hire and then how to communicate with these rarefied beings called millennials; article are written and talks are given in the same fomenting but hushed tones certain people might use in describing that time they saw an extra-terrestrial or a unicorn gambolling on their front lawn.
Futurist Jeremy Scrivens has a wonderful story he tells (see the YouTube clip below) about how a company dealt with a sudden challenge by reaching out to, and then discovering new things about, their existing staff. Watch it and have a ponder about just how well you know your own staff. Do you think they could surprise you? Instead of looking outside your organisation and assuming the answer to the future lies in people as yet unhired, do you need to actually look closer to home first?
I wrote (and then forgot about) this blog months ago, actually. It was a companion blog to one I wrote at the same time and posted last year – On Problem Solving and Black Mould.
*Lizzy Bennet dealing with Miss Bingley in Chapter 9 of Pride and Prejudice.
**For the record – as a contractor I worked at student services departments at RMIT University from 2003-2010 doing stuff that ranged from project management, volunteer management, event management, arts administration and included supporting and / or mentoring student leaders. Lots of fun! Number 1 tip for working with millennials? Um… treat them like any other human being? Empathy and respect works for anyone of any generation.
“Another obstructive misconception is that creativity is simply unfettered thinking, divorced from practicality and reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Creativity, in fact, is hard work.” David Cropley, ‘Fighting the slump: a strategic approach to developing creativity’, The Conversation, 12 Jan. 2015
Years ago I used to be a performer.
One of the last acting gigs I had, and definitely one of my favourites, was working as a Simulated Patient during role plays conducted as part of the training for first year psychiatric nursing students at Deakin University.
I loved it, which is perverse of me as my particular role – the patient I was meant to simulate in the role plays – was based on real life suffering. Her fictional name was Elise, she had Borderline Personality Disorder, and her history (based on real case notes apart from the change of name) was absolutely heartrending. I used to think of her and the trauma she had suffered and cry on the train to the University campus, and then cry for her and others like her on the way back home.
Why did I love it then?
I had many reasons. It was great, for one, to use my acting skills to participate in an exercise – the training of psychiatric nurses – which would lead to people going out into the world and making a positive difference. It was one of the most challenging acting gigs I ever had, requiring a sustained integrity of performance where discipline and instinctive creative response had to be perfectly balanced in order for me to be both convincing within the role play for the sake of the other participant but also useful within the context of facilitating a useful training experience.
Because it was an exercise in using my acting skills to their highest capacity, but not for the sake of entertainment, it gave me the distance from theatre making to think about the nature of performing. I was fascinated about how the key to a useful training experience was to resist the urge to make compelling nail biting scenery chewing theatre. The students were practising communication strategies on a person in a highly agitated state and driven by poor impulse control (i.e. me); if they used these strategies well then I had to give them a win and allow them some success in calming me down. My theatrical instincts always wanted to do the opposite and to ramp the drama right up, but this would have been distorting and undermining of their learning experience.
The way role plays are set up…
The other thing I found myself considering was the nature of improvisation in performance. The way Simulated Patient role plays are set up is this: actors and other participants are given a scenario in which to interact with each other and are assigned roles. This scenario will include a setting, some kind of circumstance or set of conditions (usually designed to put some kind of pressure on the participants) and a desired outcome. In my case, the role play was set in a mental health institution and was between my character Elise and a psychiatric nurse played by the students. The context was that Elise had been found breaking house rules and the nurse’s needed to talk to her about it. Elise’s desired outcome was to get out of this conversation as fast as she could without admitting to any wrongdoing. The students / nurse’s desired outcomes were to get Elise to own up and undertake to follow the rules. A bonus would be if they could get Elise to open up about the feelings that drove her poor impulse control and self-destructive behaviour, something Elise was determined to avoid doing as her memories of her tragic past were harrowing to the point of emotional disintegration.
So as a performer there were clear guidelines that I had to follow, but the actual dialogue, the emotional arc of the role players and where the dialogue could end up were undetermined. Those of us participating in the role play had to react to each other and think on our feet.
“Creativity, in fact, is hard work.”
“Another obstructive misconception is that creativity is simply unfettered thinking, divorced from practicality and reality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Creativity, in fact, is hard work.”
I get the impression that people think that performing is a result of “unfettered thinking”, that all you have to do is be disinhibited and to let it all hang out.
But there is much more to it than that. Performing, like all art forms (visual, performative, literary or otherwise), actually requires a fine balance of imagination and intellect, of creative and critical thinking. When actors refer to their ‘craft’ they are not being wankers. There is a craft to it, and it must be practised. The ability to act convincingly, whether that be during an improvisational exercise or to deliver carefully scripted and rehearsed lines, has a lot to do with decision making. Yes – it also has to do with emotional display and imaginative response, but the performer has to make the right decisions as to how to harness those emotions and ideas. Good actors are able to make decisions about this very quickly and consistently and at such speed that it manifests as instinct.
As a trainer I am not crazy about role playing as a training tool if only for the reason that it is so often badly set up and people feel stupid doing it. But my experience in Deakin’s Simulated Patient program (now sadly discontinued) was different; I was well briefed, the role plays were well set up and we were able to create a strong immersive experience for the students. By being asked to participate in the role play they were being asked to experience and practise the split second decision making skills that I as a performer and they as real life psychiatric nurses would have to deploy to operate at a suitably high standard. By participating in an acting exercise they were given the opportunity to experience using emotional intelligence, intellect, creative problem solving simultaneously to cope with a difficult situation, to harness these things and not be overwhelmed by them.
Surely many occupations require a mixture or balance of these qualities, albeit under less duress that psychiatric nurses. But any job requires its incumbent to develop the right balance between intellect, feeling and imagination. What particular mix does your job require? Are you working in conditions that allow you to get the balance right?
This blog was inspired by a recent visit to the Building Leadership Simulation Centre (fascinating place!) organised by the Third Place meetup group. Helen Blunden, who organised the tour, wrote a blog about the visit which I highly recommend that you read.
I was delivering training in a not for profit RTO a couple of years ago. The learners in the small class were either refugees or migrants from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds. One day, as these people were returning from their lunch break, a lively conversation broke out during which people related stories of their school days and especially the naughty things they did as kids and the ways in which they were punished. The group was laughing and cheerful, except for one Cambodian lady. Unheard by the rest, she turned to me and said “I grew up under the Khmer Rouge. I didn’t go to school.”
I am no expert in Cambodian history but the little I do know about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, their persecution of academics, the starvations, the killing fields and all of the ghastly things that happened during this time in Cambodia tells me that not being able to go to school was only one problem that this lady and her loved ones would have faced at that time. Her one brief revelation to me that day pointed to a past that was steeped in the sort of privation, tragedy and trauma that a flabby middle class Aussie like me can only guess at*.
I quietly replied that I was aware that the Khmer Rouge had closed all places of learning and persecuted academics, and how difficult and terrible that must have been to live through. She nodded and then turned straight back into participating with the group at large. She didn’t want counselling, she wanted a moment of empathy and of acknowledgement of what she had lived through. This want arose spontaneously in a moment where a conversation had unexpectedly triggered a memory of something horrible.
But imagine this: you are facilitating a group discussion. Something arises in conversation which triggers a strong emotional reaction in one of the participants. They begin to cry, or shake, or become angry. I have had the rare experience where this has happened too. As the person facilitating the group what do you do? What strategies do you use to help that person, and then help the group who has witnessed it?
I am currently putting together some frameworks for facilitated discussions I plan to offer later this year. The material I am working with should be
interesting, even fun, but could also take people to a very deep emotional and imaginative level. The discussions will be about aspects of workplace culture and dynamics; given the frequency of bullying in Australia right now there is a chance that these discussions could trigger in some participants memories of being bullied.
I am definitely NOT aiming to run group therapy and my questions and choice of material will be chosen to direct people to thinking about things on an organisational and cultural level. Having said this, and acknowledging that I am using material that engages the feelings and imaginations as well as the intellect, I am assuming that people will be emotionally engaged (mostly in a good way, I think).
I am NOT worried that severe triggered episodes will happen often. Nor am I worried, per se, about my ability to cope with emotional responses if and when they do arise. I have a history of dealing with such episodes appropriately in the training and group facilitation that I have done in the past. But I would be a fool if I neglected the possibility that it could happen and I feel that, while I am reviewing my facilitation skills, why not give them a bit of a brush up? Further professional development is always good so I thought I would reach out to my peers (that’s you) and see if any of you had any advice or thoughts to share. I am also an inveterate sticky beak who loves to find out how other people do things.
I am contacting various people I know from many different fields; the one thing they all have in common is that they talk on a deep level with groups of people. Among my contacts are a psychotherapist, directors guiding groups of actors through rehearsals, trainers in the neighbourhood house sector, corporate trainers and consultants, sociologists, and event managers. I hope people will respond. It will be interesting to compare advice given across sectors.
The last time I had to deal with a triggered response was when I stepped in, as a favour, to cover an ESL class in a neighbourhood house. The people I was teaching were either migrants or refugees. During one conversation, which was about the necessity of practising a language that you learn in order to remember it, one man, who had arrived in Australia as a refugee after the Vietnamese War, was talking about why he could not remember the French he had learnt as a youngster. He blurted out not just that he was tortured by a prison guard for speaking French, but how. He then blushed and looked mortified; I got the impression that he hadn’t intended to disclose this but had just been hijacked by a terrible memory and spoke on impulse. I expressed sadness for what he had suffered, remarked on how he must find it hard to consider speaking French even now, and then opened up the conversation into a group discussion about how the conditions we live in affect the way we undertake to study language. From here it was relatively easy to steer the conversation onto practical matters like time management, study habits, and the use of conversation partners. This man had not been looking for therapy. He deserved empathy but then he needed to find a way back into the group dialogue and away from opening up traumatic memories. I was aware that anyone listening, given their own refugee backgrounds, might also have their own terrible memories to contend with and I needed to keep the discussion under control for their sake, given that they had turned up on that day expecting an English class and not group therapy.
For the rest of the class, both this individual and the group functioned just fine and the atmosphere continued to be relaxed and friendly. I actually felt that a sense of trust had developed between us all. But after class, on my way home on the train, I cried for this man, the horror he had endured, and the power of memories of that horror to endure for so long afterwards.
As group facilitators we are not all called upon to provide therapy (unless this is your actual job); we have specific goals to achieve for our group, be it a technical skill successfully taught or a piece of theatre successfully developed. But as humans dealing with other humans we need to be prepared for the emotional atmosphere that builds as we work towards these goals, be that good or bad.
Leave a comment below: how do you prepare the emotional context for your participants in the way you plan or promote your activities? How do you deal with deep emotion when it arises?
*But there she was, middle aged, kids safely launched into school, making use of her time doing volunteer work and enrolled in a Diploma course which she was BLITZING because she was as hard working as she was naturally intellectually brilliant. Folks, this is why we DO let genuine asylum seekers into our country. Apart from honouring the humanitarian principle of helping others in need, we gain terrific people who invest their talent, courage, resourcefulness and loyalty into our society.
If you want some background on the facilitated conversations I am developing then please look here. I will be trialling these conversations over the next couple of months. Contact me if you want more information.
“If the person complaining is ‘standing up for herself’, in order to be recognized, it is as though she were physically present but morally non-existent in the asshole’s view of the world.” P. 27, Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James.
I recently read an interesting book by Philosopher Aaron James called Assholes: A Theory. I plucked it off the library bookshelf because of the title: coming up against mean, selfish and chronically annoying people is something that all people can lay claim to in all walks of life.
“In interpersonal or cooperative relations, the asshole:
Although I didn’t agree with every single contention of James, I did enjoy his book and found it to be enlightening. The chapters that particularly resonated with me were the early ones in which James expounds a theory as to why most of us want to pummel assholes into the ground and leave them as a greasy smear on the carpet.
The attack of the spiritual pygmies
The assholes in my own history – mine have been concentrated within the work sphere – made me pretty miserable, once upon a time, by distorting our workplace culture through consistent nastiness and inappropriate competitiveness. Even while it was happening and certainly after my removal from their toxic auras I could see they were sad people: spiritual pygmies and ineffective workers out of their depth and too scared to admit it. Given this perspective (and on my better days I even manage compassion and empathy for these people) I wonder why, even now, they make my palms itch, my blood boil, and my teeth grind with rage.
The real cost of “a ruined afternoon”
“But the material costs many assholes impose on others – a longer wait in line, a snide remark, a ruined afternoon – are often by comparison (to people like Hitler or Stalin) moderate or very small… Despite the fact that the material costs they impose are often moderate or small, assholes are rightly upsetting, even morally outrageous.” P. 11
James has a theory as to why assholes are so upsetting, and why we find them so “outrageous” and hard to get out from under our skin.
First he unpacks the way the asshole attitudinally positions themselves to the rest of us:
“According to our theory, the asshole does what he does out of a ‘sense of entitlement’, a sense of what he deserves, or is due, or has a right to.” P. 13
James describes how we all feel deserving of a little special consideration every once in a while if circumstances indicate that this is necessary, an example being if we are spoilt a little by friends during our birthday or cut some slack if we are unwell or going through a crisis. But he makes the point that assholes seem to behave this way all the time:
“The asshole, by contrast (with the rest of us), sees no need to wait for special circumstances to come his way in the normal course of things. The asshole feels entitled to allow himself special advantages as he pleases systematically, across a wide range of social interactions. He cuts in line, and interrupts often, and drives without particular care, and persistently highlights people’s flaws.” P. 15
“The general problem is that the asshole helps himself to more than his share, or acts out of turn, or sloughs off the burdens that must generally be carried if the practices in question are to work.” P. 21
The practices alluded to here are those practices that most people adhere to in order for our society to work in such a way that we can live together in something approximating harmony, or at least productive cooperation.
The particular effect assholes have on the rest of us, and the assholes’ attitudes to their assholery, is also discussed:
“The deeper problem is not deliberate exploitation but a kind of wilful insensitivity: he sees no reason to address the ambiguities and uncertainties that inevitably arise when people interact.” Pp. 21-22
I like the phrase “wilful insensitivity”; it neatly sums up why assholes are so infuriating. The next part of the theory James advances relates to what lies behind our fury at these jerks, what specifically makes us want to kill them, which is:
“…a crucial aspect of the asshole’s entrenched sense of entitlement: it immunizes him against the complaints of other people… He is unwilling to recognize anyone who does express a complaint, never considering the complaint might be legitimate. So although one may only suffer the small material cost of being cut ahead of in line, or being interrupted, or being talked over, one also suffers a deeper wrong: one’s very status as a moral person goes unrecognized. Immanuel Kant memorably says that respect for the moral law “strikes down” or “humiliates” our sense of “self-conceit”. This doesn’t happen for the asshole.” Pp. 22-23
“One’s very status as a moral person goes unrecognized.”
For me, this theory really sits up and sings. If some slight from an asshole enrages me way beyond the material value of that slight then it makes sense that it represents that deeper “moral outrage” being perpetuated against me. It represents a cancelling out, a rendering invisible, of my moral personhood.
“If the person complaining is ‘standing up for herself’, in order to be recognized, it is as though she were physically present but morally non-existent in the asshole’s view of the world.
That is why otherwise coolheaded people fall into a fit of rage or lash out at the asshole: they are fighting to be recognized. They are not fighting for the small benefit of having the asshole move to the back of the line or, more generally, for a slightly more fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of cooperation. The person taking a stand against the asshole is fighting to be registered in the asshole’s point of view as morally real. She struggles not simply to be heard but to be seen. She struggles to be seen, in Thomas Nagle’s phrase, as ‘one among others equally real.’” P. 27
I found the way James built this theory to be very satisfying; it made a huge amount of sense to me. I am still unsure as to how to effectively make that stand in order for my moral self to be recognized (or even if this is worth expending energy on if I am dealing with an asshole), but it was still somehow comforting to be able to come to an understanding of what drives my own anger in the face of petty nasty behaviour.
These ideas also have further ramifications for how we operate in the world. As a manager or co-worker what can you do to make the people you deal with feel as if they are “one among others equally real”? If the equality in question pertains to recognising people’s moral personhood then this transcends status, position, or perceived levels of talent. A workplace filled with people who are secure in their status of being morally real in the eyes of others must be a very healthy organism indeed, affording security to its workers and communally robust against the depredations of assholes.