Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Strategies for Building Skills

April 27, 2011

By Luz Santana

Many years ago, when I was a welfare recipient, I was assigned to a caseworker who thought I could help myself. Even that if I could hardly speak English he carved out time from our meetings to teach me things I could do on my own –for example, how to navigate job, children’s school and support service systems. That really helped and made a big difference for me.

Over the years I have tried my best to follow his example with the good fortune of working today in an organization whose work focuses on building skills. The work of the Right Question Project focused on building skills that are a foundation for taking action and transferable to a variety of settings and situations. Through years of trial and error we have found that there are many useful skills that people can learn but that there is a need to teach two basic skills that are usually skipped over – how to ask questions and how to focus effectively on decisions. We have developed a strategy that can be easily integrated into any program or service to develop these skills.

Last week I meet old friend I have not seen in years. She was surprised to hear that I was still working to help people across fields build skills and quickly reminded me about the difficulties of the work. “You are still doing that! There is so much going on… It is so difficult to bring people out of their homes, everybody is busy; they don’t have time!” Well, she had some good points…

She made me think about how much the work of the Right Question Project has evolved and how much we have learned. She was right, these are other times but to help people develop skills is as urgent as it was eighteen years ago. Like my social worker, there are many people working across fields who can make the building of skills part of the work they do. There are people organizing residents, working with youth or immigrants, implementing educational programs or working in micro-enterprise --regardless of the work they can build skills that will allow people to depend more on what they can do to help themselves.

Here are some of the things we earned along the way on how to effectively build skills:

o Narrow it down to what is most essential. One of our biggest lessons was that there are no limits on how much you could teach. At some point in our work we had a thirty-two hour curriculum to deliver and could have still added more. We noticed that people were not using everything but that they were “pulling out” some parts of what were teaching. After much trial an error we were able to pull out the most essential pieces to teach.

Our goal is to accomplish the maximum by teaching the minimum.

o Keep it simple. Again stay focused on what is essential. Find ways to make it easy to deliver. One of our challenges has been on how to ensure it the strategy is kept simple enough so people can easily teach it and learn it.

o Stay focused. Work with the end goal in mind. There will always be new issues and challenges you will need to address. Keep in mind how you are ensuring skill building is taking place.

o Deliver as you go. Make it an ongoing part of your work. Look for teachable moments. Think about what is it that they have now they didn’t have when they came in. Try not to create an additional structure but make it part of the work you do.

These are just some of the lessons that we've been able to learn. I know that I would not be in the position today to be sharing them with you if my caseworker didn't believe in my capacity to grow.

What kinds of skills are you building?

What strategies are you using?

What have you learned about how to do it effectively?

Friday, April 22, 2011

How Do You Like to Receive Disconfirming Data?

April 22, 2011

By Pia Infante

An executive leadership coach I know often initiates a new client relationship with the question: "How do you like to receive disconfirming data?"

The irony being that most people don't like to receive disconfirming data at all. Our brains process unexpected data by a) sounding an amygdala alarm bell throughout our nervous system or, as is so common, b) by not absorbing it at all, selectively taking in only what it expects to perceive.

I'm utterly fascinated by my own brain's ability to skip over disconfirming data repeatedly - a.k.a., visualize me tripping over a newly placed chair in the living room an undisclosable number of times.

In a Wired Magazine article on the neuroscience of failure, where a study of lab experiments show a preponderance of the scenario where scientists go in "looking for x, but [invariably] find y," Jonah Lehrer explores how disconfirming data and failed experiments are actually quite a rich place of learning.

Here are Jonah's tips on How To Learn From Failure:

Check Your Assumptions
Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

Seek Out The Ignorant
Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

Encourage Diversity
If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

Beware of Failure Blindness
It's normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.

I see an application of this way of behaving in many other realms outside of science. I'm sure we in the philanthropic and non-profit sectors could truly benefit from checking our assumptions and expectations at the door, and seeking out disconfirming data.

Because the truth is, disconfirming data is like that chair I keep stubbing my toe on. Even if I don't seek it out, or remember its existence, it will continue to just. be. there.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Only Know What I Know

April 13, 2011
Sue Ellen McCann

I was recently introduced to the concept of “evaluation” – in my case, a process in which I would receive feedback from an outside organization on my work process and product. At first, I thought, “Oh, great, another report card!” Memories of exchanges echoing the words “you should have done it this way” (I can’t stand the word “should”) brought up unproductive experiences filed in that awkward space under “character building”.

That was my “glass half empty” side worrying. In fact, that isn’t what happened at all. Instead, I have been introduced to a process of learning, a process of observation and dialog that accommodates conversation, reflection and growth. How did I get this so wrong? I somehow thought I was going to be punished for what I didn’t know. Aren’t we judged for what we get wrong?

The “science” of evaluation at its core is a process to assist in a greater understanding of how to find out “what we want to know” – truly about anything, how to collect information on what we what to know, how we might effect or alter different experiences based on that knowledge, and how to tell others about what was learned through this process. Then start again.

When you think about it for a bit, it’s not a very revolutionary concept, but it has changed the way I consider my work and life. It’s given me a focus I didn’t have before and opened me to new approaches in both my personal and professional life.
The key has been having an outside perspective, someone who can offer you a mix of wisdom, tools, observation, and guidance, and as the process continues some reflection on what’s working and what isn’t. I am fortunate in working on a project that can afford the services of a paid professional evaluator but value the simple gift of friendship that offer the same results.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Difference between Dialogue and Debate

April 8, 2011
By John Esterle

On March 4th, I attended California Council for Humanities' "Forum on Democracy and the Culture of Civic Conversation." The Forum was the kick-off event for CCH's promising new two-year statewide initiative, Searching for Democracy. The day featured a thoughtful and informative mix of speakers and panels, but it was the closing session that stuck with me.

At one point the panel conversation featured much talk about dialogue and democracy, so in the Q&A I asked the speakers what they thought were the key elements of dialogue. I particularly wanted to hear their thoughts because in the opening session someone asked the panel how they understood the difference between debate and dialogue. The panel looked a bit puzzled by the question and the one answer was that it is a distinction without a difference.

I referenced her opening session question when I asked my closing session one (What are the key elements of dialogue?) and this time there was more of a response.

Chris Abani answered first and Omnia El Sharky echoed his answer. They both said that entering a conversation with a sense of vulnerability was the foundational piece of what it means to be in dialogue. Dialogue occurs when you embrace the prospect that the conversation you're engaging in might truly change your mind. And for that kind of change to occur we need to allow ourselves to be open, to be vulnerable. This answer resonated with me, particularly since at the time it came right on the heels of my last blog post on "The Power of Vulnerability."

The importance of language in terms of how we create and frame meaning has been a theme touched on in a number of recent posts on our blog. Consequently, I've been reflecting on how and to what degree "vulnerability" is used as part of the framing of both dialogue -- and of leadership. Most of us probably like the notion that a leader is someone who can engage in, and actively promote, dialogue. But how often do we talk about vulnerability as an aspect of both dialogue and leadership? In terms of our public discourse, do we reward political leaders who show evidence of changing their minds as a result of dialogue? Or do we punish them? Must a public leader exude certainty at all times, even if that's not what they're at?

So, in thinking about democracy and our culture of civic conversation, I'm struck by how things might shift if we started injecting "I don't know" more often into our public discourse.

When we enter a debate it's with our armor on. To enter a dialogue means taking that armor off. When engaging across difference there's a real tension between these two orientations, so context also becomes very important. This is a point Jane Junn addressed in her answer to my question by stressing the importance of being aware of the context, the structures, that frame and shape a dialogue.

After the session ended the woman who asked the unanswered question in the morning came up and thanked me for mine. So, another part of what sticks for me from that final session was the importance of asking a question related to language and the avenues to meaning such a question opens up.