Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Training, Learning, and Reversing Assumptions

May 7, 2020

Up until recently, my experiences led me to believe that planning, designing, marketing, and facilitating webinars was a process requiring weeks if not months of collaboration. And then came coronavirus pandemic shelter-in-place guidelines, “emergency remote learning,” and a widespread adoption of turning-on-a-dime action to respond to and take advantage of rapidly-changing conditions in nearly every aspect of our daily lives. And from that challenge has come a new understanding of what we can do when we stay in touch with colleagues, collaboratively take advantage of resources we already have in place, and identify and pursue opportunities we otherwise might overlook.

The first of two “webinar-in-a-heartbeat” experiences I’ve had within the past month while “sheltering” in place—it actually feels more like living-dynamically-at-the-speed-of-light-in-place rather than sheltering—is one I recently described on my blog: the experience of seeing that colleagues in the South Florida Chapter of ATD (Association for Talent Development) were looking for presenter-facilitators willing to join and participate in leading a new series of online learning opportunities designed to at least temporarily replace what chapter members have so effectively done face-to-face for many years and accepting the challenge. Thanks to wonderfully collaborative efforts with the chapter member in charge of the series, I was one of the first three trainer-teacher-learners leading online sessions (via Zoom) within the following three weeks. (I’ve also benefitted strongly, since seeing that initial invitation to participate, from joining those highly-interactive online sessions as a learner, and have absorbed a tremendous amount  and been absolutely inspired simply by observing and writing about tremendous colleagues in action.)

Every day seems to bring a new opportunity, and that certainly was the case less than two weeks ago when friend/colleague/collaborator/-co-facilitator and owner of PCI [People Connect Institute] Webinars Andrew Sanderbeck and I met online via Zoom, ostensibly to brainstorm projects we could initiate and offer during the second half of this year—post shelter-in-place. The conversation began as most of our conversations do: talking with and listening to each other about what we are currently doing and how we are responding to our training-teaching-learning landscape. Andrew asked how I was faring in a shelter-in-place world, and I told him that a) it hasn’t been much of an adjustment since I do so much of my work in online environments, and b) that I recognized I am extremely lucky that an abnormally higher-than-usual percentage of my current work had already been scheduled for online environments during the first half of the year. The picture for Andrew was much different: he talked about missing face-to-face encounters; mentioned that online conversations even using the most highly-praised and ostensibly engaging of tools weren’t offering him the same level of satisfaction and pleasure that onsite interactions do; and told me a bit about what he had been finding and reading online.

The clincher identify-and-take-advantage-of-opportunities unexpectedly came while he was telling me about a BBC News article he had found on the topic of “Assumption Reversal”: an approach used by facilitators attempting to foster creativity among those with whom they are working.

“A few years ago, Michael Michalko, a former US army officer, came up with a fascinating idea to sharpen creativity,” Matthew Syed writes in that BBC News article. “He called it ‘assumption reversal’. You take the core notions in any context, subject, discipline and then, well, turn them on their head.

“…suppose you are considering a new taxi company. The first assumption might be: ‘taxi companies own cars’. The reversal would be: ‘taxi companies own no cars’. Twenty years ago, that might have sounded crazy. Today, the largest taxi company that has ever existed doesn’t own cars: Uber. Now we are living through a disruption (you might even call it a reversal) of unprecedented scale….”

“Reversal techniques are typically used by people working in the creative industries to come up with new products or innovations. I wonder if we can all use it to seek out a silver lining or two amid the grey clouds.”

Without even reading the article I just finished quoting, and thinking only about Andrew’s brief description of Assumption Reversal, my mind was already racing.

“You gonna use that?” I immediately ask, and Andrew temporarily appears to be uncertain as to what I am really asking.

It is, I continue, exactly the sort of opportunity we were looking to explore when we set up this particular conversation online. We and many people we know are trying to figure out what the world is going to look like after shelter-in-place ends. We know that trying to predict the future usually produces lousy results, but taking steps to help shape the future can be very productive and rewarding. At a time when so many people are struggling to identify ways to even cope with what to them appears to be a bleak and extremely uncertain future, a workshop or a webinar proposing Assumption Reversal as a potentially useful tool might be a game-changer for some of those people.

Quickly displaying an increasing amount of interest in the possibilities, Andrew asks what I have in mind. I suggest that we could design and develop something for roll-out for late summer or early fall.

“I’m thinking about something a little sooner,” he teases.

“Doesn’t it take a while to set things like that up, schedule them, and get the word out?” I respond with what was meant to be rhetorical rather than real curiosity.

“You forget I own a webinar company,” he coyly answers, obviously relishing my surprise at what he is suggesting.

Less than two weeks later, he had filled the webinar to the capacity we had set—a maximum of 75 participants, so we could foster high levels of interactivity among the participants; had identified resources including Michalko’s description online of the Reversing Assumptions technique and a Joker News video on “Assumption Reversal in Pandemic Crisis” connecting the process to ideas for responding to our evolving landscape during the coronavirus pandemic; had a waiting list of people interested in attending a similar session; had loaded up the slides on the PCI Webinars site so we had a visually-stimulating set of images to inspire conversation during that hour-long session; and was ready to roll with me for what turned out to be a very stimulating, positive learning experience for all of us.

Participants reacted, at the end of the session, with tremendous gratitude for the opportunity we had provided to explore positive, creative action in very challenging times. One of our colleagues who serves as host/producer for PCI Webinars and generally stays in the background during the live sessions became an active and tremendously valuable contributor to the entire conversation. And Andrew and I, once again, walked away having learned quite a bit about how we can best serve our clients, colleagues, and friends in the best as well as the most challenging of times.

–N.B.: This is the ninth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online. For information about scheduling onsite or online versions of “Preparing for an Uncertain Future: Reversing Our Assumptions,” please contact Andrew at andrew@peopleconnectinstitute.com and Paul at paul@paulsignorelli.com.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Training Trainers, Learning, and Victory Dances

May 6, 2020

There are obviously numerous buildings with “closed” signs on them as many of us continue to follow shelter-in-place guidelines in effect because of the coronavirus pandemic. But “closed” remains a relative term for many, e.g., libraries and other learning organizations, because the buildings may be closed, but the learning is continuing online. In offerings that sometimes are arranged so quickly that everyone’s head is spinning. And, sometimes, in offerings done effectively enough to leave learners with useful, memorable, engaging learning experiences that they can either immediately apply or can begin incorporating into learning opportunities with buildings once again sport open doors.

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, through all of this, to have had several projects underway that were primarily set up as online learning experiences. And one that was scheduled to begin with a daylong series of onsite sessions (in Tampa, Florida) and then continue with three subsequent one-hour online sessions. That train-the-trainer course, for learning co-conspirators (aka “adult learners”) through the Tampa Bay Library Consortium, was charmed from the beginning. Our onsite time together in Tampa took place less than two weeks before shelter-in-place suddenly became an all-too-familiar experience and temporarily put on hold most face-to-face training sessions. The first of the three webinars was held a week after shelter-in-place went into effect, and offered us an opportunity to begin exploring what trainer-teacher-learners could—and have to—do when their world suddenly goes topsy-turvy and many long-held beliefs and expectations fly out the window in a rapidly, ever-evolving learning environment. And the final webinar, completed earlier today, brought us full circle through explorations of how to design and facilitate online, onsite, and blended learning opportunities—by engaging in onsite, online, and blended learning opportunities using whatever tools we have available.

Some things, we confirmed together through a highly-interactive and collaborative approach, remain constant at a time when “emergency remote learning” is all around us: Following a learning model such as ADDIE (Assess, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) and USER (Char Booth’s Understand, Structure, Engage, and Reflect) continues to provide strong foundations for effective learning. Preparation, flexibility, confidence, empathy, attention to detail, and humor all remain essential elements of what we do. Collaboration produces magnificent results, as we frequently saw when the learners were participants in shaping sessions in the moment; there were times when learners’ questions and suggestions inspired me to set aside activities I had planned and, on the spot, replace them with activities the participants themselves helped create and implement. And there were times when delivery/facilitation of a session changed on a dime, as when a slide deck I had planned to use for the first webinar wasn’t loading properly through screen-sharing—so we set aside the deck and simply covered the material in that online environment through virtual “face to face” conversations that pretty much replicated the spirit of what we had achieved a few weeks earlier in the physical learning space that was our initial meeting place.

Learners had a variety of options available to them because a well-designed infrastructure. They had an online asynchronous meeting place—the Bridge learning management system—where they could easily find materials, updates, and guidance as to what they needed to be doing. They had an easy-to-use online platform for meetings—Zoom. They had a wonderful organizer/liaison/host/–TBLC Manager of Programs and Services Kelly McDonald. They had the opportunity to participate in the live webinars or participate asynchronously by viewing archived recordings of those webinars. And they had access to all PowerPoint slide decks, which included copious speaker notes so they could review topics of special interest to them.   

Because they were engaged in further improving their own training-teaching-learning skills, they also had—and created—ample opportunities to practice what they were learning. While onsite, they engaged in impromptu presentations that helped them experiment with different ways to use their learning spaces. While online, they sometimes became presenters themselves by picking up themes from the typed chat and explaining and exploring those themes with their online collaborators. If there were missed opportunities for engagement, we would be hard-pressed to identify them because we jumped at those opportunities whenever we could.

The series concluded with plans for how that particular community of learning might continue through learner-directed interactions and collaboration; with reminders that the series had formally concluded but the learning would continue as they applied what they had absorbed; and with reminders that taking time to reflect upon our shared experiences would provide an additional platform for gaining all they could from all the effort we all expended together.

Following my own guidance and longtime commitment to reflective learning, I took a few minutes, after logging out of the final session, to reflect on what the time with those learners inspired. And those moments of reflection rekindled memories of previous training-teaching-learning experiences, including one that began more than a decade ago when I had the unexpected pleasure of being paid to attend a TED conference. A friend who owns a bookstore here in San Francisco was the official onsite bookseller for the conference, and he offered me a last-minute chance to attend the conference as one of his employees in the bookstore. It was every bit as fun and inspirational as I expected it to be, and there was the obvious thrill of watching that spectacular live feed of TED talks on a screen in the bookstore and chatting with some of the presenters as they wandered through onsite bookstore.


One of the more memorable encounters was a brief face-to-face conversation with Matt Harding, who at the time was receiving tremendous, well-deserved attention and praise for his “Where the Hell is Matt?” videos showing him doing a brief, playful dance with volunteers in settings all over the world. (A video available online shows him explaining how he created his work.) I loved Matt. I loved the videos. And I loved the sheer joy that flowed through his work.


A year or two later, working with a training partner on a series of classes and workshops on a challenging topic, I was looking for a playful way to end one of the most difficult hour-long workshops, so suggested to my partner that we end that session with a “victory dance”–which, of course, involved showing one of Matt’s videos to the learners as a way of leaving them smiling.

We had no idea whether it would be successful, but we tried it. And we knew it had worked when, at the end of a subsequent workshop (the following day), someone smiled and said, “What? No victory dance today?”


I still love those videos. I still return to them occasionally. When I want to smile. Or when I want to celebrate something that has just occurred. And so, after facilitating the final webinar in the four-part blended (partially onsite, partially online) set of Train-the-Trainer sessions for the Tampa Bay Library Consortium earlier today, I decided to celebrate in private by watching a Where the Hell Is Matt? video and do a virtual victory dance to celebrate the successful conclusion of the latest successful collaboration with the learners who continually enrich my life in ways that surpass anything I will ever be able to offer them. And at the end of all of this, I’m left with one of the best suggestions I can offer to any training-teaching-learning colleague: let’s dance.

–N.B.: This is the eighth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online.


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