Training, Creative Leadership, and Tuscan Evening Conversations

Trainer-teacher-learners never seem happier than when they are trying something new. Since repetition breeds boredom and boredom kills learning, we thrive on exposure to anything novel that deepens our ability to serve the organizations and clients with which we work.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that when you place workplace learning and performance professionals in leadership roles, you’re going to find people who combine their love of producing tangible and sustainable results with a never-ending search for new ways to approach routine challenges. Which is what happened again last night when ASTD (American Society for Training & Development) Mt. Diablo Chapter Board members held their first monthly meeting of the new year.

We knew we had to take a series of actions on routine financial and administrative matters, so we blasted through those items within the first 15 or 20 minutes of our time together. We then turned our attention to our continuing efforts to adopt a Chapter strategic plan—a year-long effort which is nearing completion.

But this was not to be a routine discussion conducted by a group of trainers-as-leaders sitting around a table. Because we try to conduct business in a way which provides learning opportunities for us, contributes to our development as a community of learners, and keeps our meetings lively and engaging, we decided to try something new—a way of practicing our ability to deliver elevator speeches (those brief and focused presentations which force presenters to effectively communicate in brief periods of time); we also wanted to be sure that everyone had ample opportunities to contribute to the strategic planning conversation.

The set-up was simple and adapted from something I had seen in an entirely different context: a conversation among long-time friends and neighbors on a warm summer evening in Vagliagli, a small Tuscan village in Italy’s Chianti region, many years ago.  In the original model, two older men sat on a bench directly outside the village caffè while the other men stood in a semicircle around them. Those standing men took turns speaking; when one spoke, he would move forward out of the semi-circle, closer to the two seated men, before making his point and then melting back into the semi-circle. The two in the middle occasionally punctuated this conversation with their own comments, as if to introduce a new theme into the chanting of a Greek chorus, then returned to silence as the others continued their discussion. I could see each man claiming the stage in several ways: the direct act of interruption. Or by stepping forward, closer to their seated friends. Or leaning in toward the center and extending a hand or arm as if to brush some air away to make room for their words. The semi-circle was far from static, and the connections between the speakers also appeared fluid. It was a dynamic version of engaged conversation unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere, and we decided to bring a variation of that Tuscan conversation to a San Francisco Bay Area meeting room on a stormy winter night.

It worked magnificently with minor modifications.

No one sat on the bench during our conversation or acted as a moderator; we formed a semicircle of equal participants, comfortably took turns—in a completely unchoreographed way—stepping forward into the center whenever we had anything to contribute to the fast-paced conversation. Within 15 minutes—more or less the amount of time we had given ourselves to complete the conversation—we had agreed upon a set of steps designed to produce a final draft of the strategic plan before our next monthly meeting is held. And we had fun in the process.

As we returned from our virtual visit to Tuscany and reseated ourselves around the table in our meeting room, we found ourselves in agreement that the experiment had produced the results we were seeking. It gave us a facilitation tool which we can use with other learners. And it had the added benefit of encouraging us to conduct business in a playful and innovative way where no voice went unheard. Where everyone contributed equally to the overall effort simply by adapting a well-tested method of communication into a setting that inspires us and keeps us engaged at the playful level we all cherish. And continues to help us develop as a group of trainers-as-leaders who depend on collaboration, rather than hierarchical methods, to make decisions on behalf of those we serve.

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