Making the Most of Remote

First, I hope you and your loved ones are well and that you have all been able to move to a long-haul approach to self-isolating. Together, all of us are all going through this extraordinary shift in our approach to living and working.

Organizations have had to pivot almost overnight to everyone working from home. (The Zoom blog reports an increase from 10 million daily users to 200 million since December; Google Classroom, thrust upon teachers with no prior distance learning experience, has tips for improving performance here.) Stay-at-home orders have remade the “normal” working environment for everyone, even for those who are used to working remotely. If you find yourself struggling and frustrated, these suggestions may help:

• Relax/reduce your usual productivity expectations for meetings, and communicate those to your team.

• Provide time at the beginning or end of the meeting for brief personal check-ins; people are craving connection.

• Ask yourself: Does it need to be a video meeting? Could it be a conference call, instead?

• Assume people will have different levels of technical expertise; with practice, everyone will improve.

• Make "patience, patience, patience” your new statement of purpose.

Diagram displaying Zoom (videoconference) etiquette

Finally, consider that folks in your team might be struggling with the competing demands of children, pets, partners, and their own ramped-up anxiety and cabin fever. Expect that their attention will not be as focused as it would be in a face-to-face meeting. A graphic recorder, working remotely, can help here. A visual summary of your meeting can provide a road map for moving forward to a series of actions and can help keep your team on track. (Yes, it can be shared on screen, live.)

I can help you by capturing your remote meetings. Please contact me here if you'd like a demonstration.

Stay safe, stay home. Be well.

Complexity in the Workplace

Complexity is part of our world, and the workplace is no exception. Mergers, expanding a workforce from two to nine and then ninety, changes in regulations, new technology: All of these change the way work is done and can be challenging to implement, even when they're done right.

It helps to think of a workplace as a system. Components of the system are the people (workers, clients, suppliers, consultants, regulators), regulatory agencies, technological systems, products, and so on. Even small changes can affect the whole system. When the system is very large, like, say, a university, a government agency, or an international corporation, the impacts can be magnified and seem overwhelming.

Often, an organization’s leaders don’t put enough emphasis on understanding its systems. When change occurs in one component, that lack of understanding leads to an inability to communicate effectively about how it will affect the organization, leading to loss of morale and, ultimately, trust within the workforce—arguably the organization’s most important asset.

Diagram of someone visualizing the complexity of their organization

Understand your system. Diagram it out. You might need help with this--get it! Even better, make it a team building exercise. Give members of your organization the opportunity to own part of the outcome. And once you think you've nailed it, communicate it clearly. Revisit as often as you need to--changes will continue to be part of our complex world, so embrace them as gracefully as possible and get your team to do the same.

What are they really thinking?

I recently conducted an informal survey via Facebook, asking this question: What pops into your head when you hear the words "strategic planning"? The results astonished me.

First, the sheer number of responses -- I got over 100 in 24 hours. I had clearly touched a nerve; people had strong opinions and were eager to share them.

I put the responses into three categories -- positive, neutral, and negative. Only 16% reacted positively (mostly friends who do some kind of facilitation work or who have a managerial role in organizations). The neutrals (also about 15%) seemed to understand the need for planning, though they were just, well, neutral, though leaning toward unenthusiastic.

The negatives? Over 60% used such terms as "boring," "waste of time," "corporate BS," "military/authoritarian," and on into "brace for layoffs," all indicating tedium, cynicism and deep mistrust.

This was a small sample size, and it wasn't a scientific survey. But any organization thinking about embarking on strategic planning should understand that some of its members could share those reactions and prepare accordingly.

drawing of a general asking workers to charge toward the future with a strategic plan

Next week, we'll look into some of these negative reactions more closely to see how to turn them into positive interactions with your team to allow everyone to go forward in a purposeful way.

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The Right Tools for the Job

Last week I talked about my first day of school in a new country and my trip to a magical stationery store. I got a pencil case so I could fit in with my five-year-old classmates and put my pencil, pencil sharpener and eraser inside so they wouldn’t get lost.

What does this have to do with you?

Knowing that you have the right tools for the job.

What are your tools? drawing

So much of what we do requires tools and the skills to use them. I’m typing this on a laptop using software I had to learn to use. Yesterday I was making some yarn on a spinning wheel. We cook our dinners with kitchen tools and we garden with gardening tools that have changed little since the middle ages—because they were well designed to begin with.

When it comes to tools for our work, we are often given standard-issue equipment. Mostly it works well enough. But what if we looked at tools in a broader sense? Tools are often about what choices we make. Should I send this person an email? Call them up? Arrange to meet in person? Send them a handwritten note? The point is, the choice might have a strong impact on the outcome. “Management by walking around” is a style, but it’s also a tool.
My own professional tools are markers, paper, and boards I set on tripods. I choose German Neuland markers because they come in a huge range of colors, they’re water-based (non-toxic), and refillable. I choose layout paper because it’s smooth and takes ink well and because the smell of it takes me back to the inside of a stationery store in Madrid on a September afternoon.

What are your favorite tools, and how do they help you excel in your work?

On the Other side of Listening: Being Heard

I was recently at a conference of the International Forum of Visual Practitioners (people who do what I do for a living). The keynote speaker was a photojournalist. Halfway through his talk, he looked down. Everyone in the front row was drawing what he said. He chuckled in surprised appreciation. Being a photographer is often a solitary occupation and doesn't allow for the experience of seeing how others respond to your work. Here, people were responding to his words, visibly, in real time. It was evidence that they were listening intently. He felt heard -- and seemed quite moved.

Drawing of a chart with a question: I think you said this: did you?

Graphic recording isn't just sketchnoting in large format, though it uses a lot of the same skills.

Often, people in a meeting are so focused on what they want to say that they're not really listening to anyone else. If I can get down what they say, they can relax. I often turn around and make eye contact with the person who just spoke to give them an additional cue that I heard them. The energy in the room shifts. The talkers-not-listeners can then start participating, contributing in a meaningful way to the creative process. Graphic recording is a path to making that happen.

I added a video to my Listen-ink Facebook page to explore this topic further.

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All I Did Was Ask

Terry Gross, the interviewer of NPR’s daily talk show Fresh Air, published a book with this title in 2004. It’s a cute quip for a veteran interviewer but also slightly misleading: the key to Gross’s success is obviously in WHAT she’s asked. Her questions, driven by insatiable curiosity, elicit often remarkable responses from people from all walks of life (who may not want to divulge all or even much). It’s a formula that has worked for decades; Terry Gross’s interviews are a unique record of American culture since 1985. She regularly pulls in 5 million listeners. 

My job is to listen. Listening to a room, listening to what’s said but also for what’s not said. Listening to a presenter, listening for content. Listening for emotional charge. Listening for that special kind of silence that tells me the whole room just got really surprised and is thinking hard and in new ways. Listening and then translating that onto paper or iPad, synthesizing on the fly, making connections. 

This listening? It’s also an ask.

Sometimes as a graphic facilitator I do ask directly, which happens more when I’m working with individuals. Yet there are lots of ways to ask questions. With groups, I often turn around when capturing what someone said to make eye contact and with gestures quickly establish that yes, I did understand, or “please could you repeat or rephrase that,” or checking to see how much emphasis I should be placing on this by reactions around the person — if lots of heads are nodding, I just got an answer.

Natural curiosity is an essential quality in an interviewer. It’s also an essential quality in a graphic facilitator. I can’t help feeling that more of it would do a lot of good in the world.

Marketing and social media experts keep recommending that we “tell our story.” There’s a good reason for this — it’s more compelling than the dry facts, making it more likely for us to be remembered in this age of information overload. When you’re a visual practitioner, something a lot of people have never heard of, it provides a way of explaining what we do; but even if it’s a profession everyone "knows" (firefighter, bank manager), what brought you to it will be unique and interesting--as they say, there are no dull lives, just dull obituaries.

I’ve been working with members of my small business network on their stories, drawing them out on paper as they tell them. It’s been incredibly rewarding for me to get to know these colleagues on a much deeper level; telling our stories sometimes takes us to vulnerable places, not necessarily the first thing people think of as a way to establish a professional persona. But I think it adds to the appeal: it makes you a person, not just your professional identity.

Here are some things I’ve observed over these past few weeks that might make a more compelling story: 

a) Remember, not everyone needs to hear the WHOLE story; tailor your story to your listener(s) and watch or listen for their cues. What are they interested in? Develop a series of mini-stories to have up your sleeve.

b) Practice. Practice with friends and family, practice in the mirror. Create a Facebook Live post in a private group where you’re the only member and post to it daily.* It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it should be authentic.

c) Notice where you get fired up and where you drift off. Chances are, others will notice this too. Rather than rambling, compress the transitions to get to the highlights.

d) This is your opportunity to deliver your WHY — why you do this, why you love it, and why the person listening to you should hire or refer you. Don’t be surprised if they do!

graphic depicting stages of telling your story to establish your professional WHY

*Many thanks to Vanessa Errecarte of Marketing Simplified for this suggestion.

What Motivates Me

The past week has been a blur – capturing conversations following three separate performances of Pronoun, a play about a transgender youth’s journey with his peers, parents, school and the medical establishment. The cast was entirely made up of high school students from Davis.

I have been so energized by these conversations. I hope my graphic capture was able to help energize participants. Here’s what I noticed, especially on the third night of my activity onstage next to these amazing high school students: What we do in graphic facilitation is a kind of performance. We are, like the young actors in this play, hoping to bring understanding and clarity, and at the same time to inspire activism. In my case, it is finding a way for my professional work to ignite and stoke my own activism. Meaningful work, captured and organized meaningfully.

Alison Kent laughs as Director Emily Henderson wonders how many hours there can be in a day. Photo by Robert Schulz.
Alison Kent laughs as Director Emily Henderson wonders how many hours there can be in a day. Photo by Robert Schulz.

This is a week when so many of us are wondering where to put our energy and activism. Pronoun director Emily Henderson, pictured here, said during one of the panel discussions that she had only enough energy to have her activism intersect with her professional life. I couldn't have put it better myself.