The ‘creative destruction’ and rethinking of how we work and learn online with Nancy White

In this podcast Robin is talking with Nancy White about how we can rethink how we work and learn online. Nancy is one of the pioneers of virtual communities, social learning and online facilitation. She now works mainly in organisation development focusing on how we meet. Nancy’s interview gives a different feel to other interviews in this series, it's less about formal learning and more an exploration of how to reimagine working and learning online. In the podcast, Nancy uses a powerful statement that is picked up in the title ‘creative destruction.’ Creative destruction is a great mindset for rethinking and refocusing the way we work.

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Robin: It's a time when the way we meet and learn and communicate and sometimes our dysfunctional practises have been taken online. All of a sudden, we've started to realise how bad some approaches were. There is a shift to wanting more collaborative, online experiences. What do you think is really happening around this desire for different online experiences? Is our digital literacy starting to change? Is there now a potential for different ways of interacting online?

Nancy: Well, I think there's a whole bunch of things going on. First is, as we are forced to go online, no matter who we are, there's an equalisation of experience. So, no longer are the privileged able to fly to meetings and everyone else has to get things second-hand or the boss calls everybody in the room and uses her or his physical presence to control the room. We're all now in our living rooms, in our bedrooms or our closets Zooming in or Microsoft Teaming in and it's interesting. This has broken down some of the walls of formality and hierarchy in interesting ways. I must say, when I meet with a client from a very hierarchical organisation and they were all in their tee shirts and there were kids screaming in the background, I said, "You're a whole lot more fun this way because you bring a little bit more of yourself to the table then when you're in your suits and heels in the climate-controlled fancy-pants meeting room."


There's something different about being with each other in this time that is a true opportunity, a door opener for us to rethink our practises because the second thing is, our truly dysfunctional meeting practises when moved online are agonising. We did a workshop this morning with a network I'm working with here in the upper northwest corner of the United States and we started with what we call chatterfall. And I ask a question, "Recall the last meeting that absolutely drove you crazy. Why did it drive you crazy? Why was it so terrible?" And everybody types into the chat room and when we say enter, everybody hits enter and there's this waterfall, this chatterfall, of all the dysfunctions of our meetings. Then I ask people to pause and then to go back and read what other people have said and there you have instantaneously a catalogue of our bad practises.
How many of those were we doing offline? Most of them. There's a few that are unique to the online environment. So then I asked, "Okay, remember the last online meeting in the last six weeks that just soared. What happened?" Same thing. Type, don't hit enter, wait 'til everybody goes. I have them give me a visual cue, hit enter, the chatterfall falls down there. There you see. Look, there are your useful practises. Breakout groups where people could have meaningful conversations. Don't go too long. Don't have slideshow presentations and speeches. Send those in advance. I mean, this is stuff that is not rocket science. This is stuff we have known for a long time but for some reason we've fallen back to the whole group. Everybody's got to hear everything. The people in power who need to be heard are the ones who are heard and the rest of us bite our tongues, send text messages to each other about how miserable it is.

Creative Destruction

We've accepted that as the status quo. So that brings me to my third point, which is, now is the time for creative destruction. Now is the time when we can actually say, let's baseline out at zero and build something different. Let's take only those useful practises from offline and put them online but let's throw the other ones out and then let's see what happens. As we've been experimenting with people and building capacity to do different things online, both in how they use the technology and how they structure processes, people are surprised. "Wow. That was an amazing 60 minutes. I feel as if I connected with my team, we got something done and it was actually enjoyable." Okay, how often have you heard that after the weekly status update, right? Or the lecture you went to for your learning meeting? So it's an opportune time.

It's the triggering of different ways of meeting, thinking and working together which is a really interesting thing about what's happening at the moment. I think in learning as well, there's this confusion about, well, "What's a meeting? What's the learning experience?" And that sense of what the medium's good for as well. Finding myself in these interviews a lot, talking about stopping using synchronous and getting things into asynchronous spaces as well and I think that example of you not doing the presentations during the meetings and sending them beforehand is a really, really good example of that as well.

Flipped Classroom

Well, the whole flipped classroom. This is nothing new again but can we use it? Yes, we can use it. I think the other thing we noticed with sending information in advance is, we have to restructure what we ask people to do with that stuff in advance and what kind of accountability or responsibility because we are seeing, "Oh, we're going to make a recording of our update. You watch it and then we'll discuss it" and they haven't watched it. Okay? So there's some tensions too, about our agreements when we mix asynchronous or not at the same time and synchronous and we can't send out tonnes of volume because people don't have time to do it and creating something short is harder than creating something long.

Robin: Something I've heard. And I don't know if it's actually correct but at Amazon, meetings start with the question "Has everyone read the documents?" and if people say no, the group sits there and reads the documents in silence. So they are all on the same page before the discussion starts.

Nancy: if that's what's necessary, that's what's necessary. You've actually though, assessed the situation. If the only time we have to pay attention is this hour we've scheduled together, then we have to do that.

Robin: Which isn't really that different way of thinking about meeting and structuring time as well.

Nancy: Very much about structuring time. I think that especially right now when ... Have you ever talked to someone and you don't know what day of the week it is? That seems to be very, very common in the time of COVID lockdown. Right? What day of the week is it? What time is it? I'm still in my pyjamas. So structuring time takes on a different significance right now and I suspect it will for quite some time.

Robin: There was one particular week I just realised that the whole week and weekend had merged. Working from home doesn't just change your spatial experience of work but your perception transforms as well.

Nancy: Or you had to take care of kids for X number of hours in between and therefore you have to make up for that time.

Robin: Nancy, if you had a magic wand, what would you do to transform how people are working on online?

Living is Learning

Nancy: Well, I think the first is to shatter the myth that everybody has to hear everything at the same time or everyone has to have the same conversation at the same time. That the plenary is truly the only democratic way of interacting and that we use what we know about useful group practise, which is alternating large group and small group. So, a small group for going deeper, sense-making, thinking. Large groups for seeing the patterns across, building agreement and using that knowledge to structure our online learning, working, whatever you want to call it and by the way, I think almost everything is learning. I have a bias that living is learning and if a meeting includes no learning, then it's crap. I wonder maybe I shouldn't have said that word.

I'm uncensored. What can I say? So I think that would be the first of it. The second would be to understand we have a repertoire of things we can do to meet and learn together that is broader than report and converse, report and converse. That there's many more things we can do and ways to do it that can be really well-scaffolded and supported by technology but that we haven't invested in that capacity in ourselves and in our members of our organisation. So invest in processes, baby. It is not a waste of time. It saves time.

Robin: There are some lovely sentiments there. I just want to pick up on process and platforms and working and learning for a little bit because one of the things I think that's a great possibility at the moment is that all of a sudden, I'm going to use a piece of software as an example, many organisations have adopted Microsoft Teams for working and connecting with people. A team space becomes a digital working workspace. As you say, there shouldn't be any difference between that being a learning space as well. It's interesting because a lot of people would say that you have to go into a virtual classroom to learn rather than to a meeting tool or learning happening as part of a meeting time. Powerful practices like taking a moment to reflect on what's happened in the last week and build some generalisations and planning what you are not going to do again next week, is a powerful learning practice.

What? So What? Now What?

Nancy: Well, there's a little simple practise and most people will recognise it in one form or another, called What? So What? Now What? It's a debriefing tool but it's also a learning tool. It's also an assessment tool. It's also a planning tool. So if we were to, at the end of this podcast, if we were to first observe what happened, what data and information did we notice about the X number of minutes we spent together recording this podcast? Second question is, so what? Why does that matter? How do we interpret that data? So the first one is data. The second one is sense-making or opinion about data. One of the things people don't have a lot of practise doing is separating those two things. So if you ask them what, the first time, they're going to already start interpreting and I'm going like, "no, no, no. Go back to the data."

If a leader is not listening for the data and they're just doing their sense-making, they're going to miss a lot of data. Data they need to learn or the group needs to learn. So I usually make them go back and give me examples of data, observable data. Then they come back to the ‘So What,’ the second time and all of a sudden they start interpreting the data differently and then finally you get to the third question, ‘Now What?’ So, what are our next steps? What are we going to do with that? And this is based off of Argyris's Ladder of Inference, which basically says in day-to-day life, we're often going from our assumptions to our conclusions and actions without examining the data. By doing What? So What? Now What? we're slowing down and saying, "Let's actually look at the data."

We usually have a lot of data we absolutely ignore and we just move based on assumptions and often we make faulty moves based on assumptions. So if we think of every debrief as a learning moment, if we think of every assessment as a learning moment, if we think of every brainstorm or ideation process as a learning moment, then learning's happening every time, everywhere but if we don't pay attention to it, we're not going to benefit from it. So, I think that's what distinguishes this kind of lovely thing that everything is learning but if you're not paying attention and you're not treating it as learning, you miss the learning so that we're processes come in.

Robin: It's where that process of getting people to build that “So What”, is a nice way of thinking about it. It's interesting as well because sometimes some people will react negatively to meeting processes. I heard someone say that conferences that were strongly facilitated were a bit like kindergarten and talked down to people. What's your thoughts on that, Nancy?

Nancy: Well, there's a form of facilitation, which I call ‘facipulation,’ where we are really manipulating people. So personally, I feel there needs to be generally, not every time, transparency about when you're saying to people, "Do this. Just do this" or when you're inviting them to do something and they can say no. I think that's part of it, treat people like adults so you don't over-manage it and a core part of my practise is liberating structures. One of the tenets is, you're looking for that space between over control and under control. It rests on the idea that you engage and unleash people with enough guardrails so there's forward movement. So a few constraints are very valuable. Too many constraints are not. "You have to do it this way. You have to fill out the templates this way." People just start pushing back.

I'm actually a terrible person to facilitate. I push back at almost everything. So I appreciate the minimum specs to keep us on the rails. So things like, "You have five minutes to think about this question and come back with the sharpest response you can think of, most cogent response." I do not want a report out. Nobody likes report outs. Okay? They put everyone to freaking sleep. But if I can say, "what is the strongest provocation you can come out of this with?" or "the one thing that if we didn't do it, our work would fail." Put stakes on it. Make it worth bringing something back, something you think everyone should hear, not everything you talked about. That's the kind of constraint that allows people to have a wide ranging conversation about something but to bring it back to something actionable, useful, insightful to the group.

Robin: Again that is a lovely sentiment about constraints and controls in business. You also see this in online platforms. Especially the virtual classroom and webinars, webinar ones start to lock people down. Whereas in actual fact, being in a spot where as a facilitator, you set up the space where people know what the constraints and the possibilities are, is so much more powerful.

Slide Decks

Nancy: Well, there's a little example. When you're using Zoom and you have a slide deck to support you. I use slide decks to put instructions for activities because sometimes when we just hear them, we don't quite get them all but if you can hear them and see them, it's easier to get the instructions for the process but I don't always screen-share. If I know the group is comfortable switching to a Google Slides tab, I let them have the URL. So they can skip ahead if they want to. They could lag behind, they can cross reference and go back. Give people as much agency as you can without blowing everything into chaos.

Because in these environments, we do actually run up to that feeling that we have no control. We have no agency. "You're not going to let me chat. I have to raise my hand to ask a question only to the moderator who may or may not decide to push it onto the speaker. I mean, come on. Why should I stay engaged? You've taken all my agency away." I don't know how many adults really like having all their agency taken away.

Robin: Most people don't. I love that strategy of sharing the slides Nancy, so that people can go through them. I'm one of those people who quite often needs to know the map and big picture, before I can dive into the details.

Nancy: Absolutely

Robin: I wonder if I picked it up from you about putting the questions on the slides. I'm not quite sure where I picked it up from actually.

Nancy: I just think it's good practise for those of us who don't listen carefully by habit or by just how our brains work.

Robin: To cheat. I find that when I'm facilitating, I don't always say the questions in the way that I designed the questions. So having questions on the slides brings me back to the core of what the powerful questions were meant to be.

Nancy: Something emerges, you could say, "Listen, the question just changed because of what happened here." That's noticing the data, okay? And being responsive and adaptive rather than, "Oh my God, this is what's on my slides, so that's what I have to do."

Robin: It's a really nice moment in one of our virtual conferences and it was Ben Bett’s, who's passionate about social learning. He didn't have many people in the room and he sat there and went, "I'm going to turn SlideShare off. I'm going to promote everyone in the room to talking. We're just going to talk about a few issues for 10 minutes before I get started on the presentation." The recording is really powerful Nancy because essentially it's a really intimate conversation between these peers. It's just so different to the rest of the conference experience. There's nothing visual. It's just a really different space. It was just a nice way of shaking things up and I really respected that he actually did deviate from the standard presentation.

Nancy: Well, I think anybody who believes in social learning and I raise my hand boldly, is that ‘when you're asked to come in and do a presentation,’ quote-unquote, that can be perceived or is the antithesis of social learning. I was reading how someone had to do a presentation using an online conference platform and they bring the speaker into a virtual green room and then they bring you on stage. So they're trying to do a simulacrum of a speaker's experience but you never see the audience. You never see the responses. You're speaking into a vacuum. That's not very human.

Robin: Not human at all. I came across this framework. The idea that face-to-face events are quite often theatrical-like and then virtual events were more cinema-like. I've been recently wrestling with this because cinema is still passive and virtual events can be social experiences where people interact and are not just watching. If people are trying to do interesting things with Zoom cameras because they see it as being cinematic but it really should be a collaboration space.

Nancy: That would be the example of trying to take bad habits from offline online.

Robin It's actually taking the stage and turning it into cinema rather than rethinking.

Nancy: I mean, if your goal is performance, then do a performance. Don't call it a meeting.

Robin: That's interesting, isn't it?

Nancy: Because there's some people, I mean, you've heard those speakers, they open their mouth and you just want to hear more. They are so good. They have this incredible knowledge and skill. That's when you should just turn everything off and let us just soak in the experience of that but those people are rare and that is only one thing we need for learning or working. It is not everything. It's very interesting because I'm also a graphic recorder and graphic recording is the live capture of what's going on in the room, yes, you can do it online. I don't do it online yet but a lot of my colleagues do. There's a performance aspect about it, that's the first blush is, "Wow. How did you do that? You're really capturing what's going on?" It's like this shock and awe, like, "wow," but once it's understood of its function, it fades into, not the background but into the space and as a reference space, a listening space, a referral space and you get past the performative aspect of it and it becomes something different.

Robin: That's a nice cycle of impression. Nancy, if you had one gem of wisdom for people who want to move to more collaborative formats, what would it be?

Nancy: Look at the purpose you're trying to achieve and strip everything else away. So I mentioned creative destruction at the onset, here is that take a look at what you've designed and say, "Why am I doing that? Why am I doing that? Why am I doing that?" Until you hit that moment when you know why you're doing it. "I'm doing this because we have to change our relationships to this work" or, "I am doing this because our communication is broken and we can't learn when our communication is broken" or whatever it is and strip all the other stuff away. If you go and look at 90% and I'm making up that number, so I own that as just a wild number of agendas to look at, you go like, "Our purpose is to collaborate better." "Okay." That's like we say in the States here, Mom and apple pie.

Deconstruct First, Before You Reconstruct

You can't say no to that but what the heck does it mean and why should I pay attention? What's in it for me or us or you? Let's be clear about that and strip away everything else and when we get clear on purpose then and only then can we design to achieve that purpose. Otherwise, we are simply reporting. We are simply spewing from one perspective and we're not really moving into a space where we're making a difference, collaborating, learning, or doing something. So my mantra right now is deconstruct first, before you reconstruct your offline meeting into an online space. Be brutal and creatively destroy anything that doesn't add to that purpose. Be really clear about what needs to be done synchronously while we're together, do not squander my hour on Zoom or Teams or whatever. Do not squander that and just talk at me or I'm gone physically, emotionally, cognitively and next time when you invite me, the answer may be no.