A Beginner’s Mind

We ran a training last March on human centered development. One of the trainers told us  that developing a beginner’s mind allowed us to process information and imagine new solutions. As you may recall, a beginner’s mind is that terrified, curious, excited brain that we experience when doing something we have never done before. It is the brain that our kids often have when we push them into dance class or that community play. It is the brain that adults exercise less often as we stick to the hobbies or tasks that we have done for years.

I was thinking about adopting a beginner’s mind last night at pottery class. I had never potted in my life—not even casual clay play—until a friend invited me to join her at a class she loves. I’m pretty crafty with fabric, paint, or a glue gun, but clay has not been a medium I have dug in to.

There I was on the wheel with balls of dark brown ready to spin—and spin out of control—when I realized I was having an out-of-body experience thinking about my teaching in terms of my own learning.

  1. Empathy

Sitting in an uncomfortable chair, not really sure what I am doing and knowing that I am making a mess doing it is how so many people I train feel coming into the room. I regularly start a training asking how people feel about being on a board or learning finance, and they say overwhelmed, confused, tired, hopeful. That’s what I was feeling while my coffee-cup-to-be turned into a projectile landing on my neighbor’s wheel. I feel your pain, fellow learners. You can only sustain a beginner’s mind for so long before you need to retreat back into something you know.

  1. Practice

My determined teacher remained committed to my success. She spent at least 30 minutes holding her hands over mine trying to teach my fingers how much pressure to exert. She wasn’t even looking at the wheel as she locked her fingers into place and hands together for support. Experience had taught her hands what to do. My job was to practice ball after ball after ball into I had the muscle memory I needed to do this on my own. Muscle memory turns into habit; practice turns into mastery. Eventually. I am told.

  1. Sense of humor

As it turns out, if you don’t make the wall of your structure evenly, the centrifugal force of the pottery wheel renders the narrower band thinner and thinner until the two pieces separate and the top part flings into space. If you don’t change how you are holding your hands, it happens every time you turn clay. How many times can a patient teacher watch clay fly into the air before she can’t help but laugh. When she laughs, I laugh. Somehow, laughter makes failure feel better. For a short time at least.

  1. Team

I learned through this class that there is a group of women who are devoted potters who spend nearly every Saturday in the studio. They are good because they have put in a lot of hours at the wheel and know every glaze in those pickle buckets under the table. They are willing teachers when asked. And those sitting next to me in class? How gratifying it is to commiserate as we both struggle to shape just one coffee cup that doesn’t end up in the garden with a leak. It takes a team of teachers and partners to muddle through a beginner’s mind.

fullsizerender_1So far this quarter I have brought home one small bowl. The glaze on the inside didn’t turn out right. I told my friend that I thought it looked artsy that way. She scoffed. I brought the bowl home and showed my teenage daughter what I had made. “The glaze on the inside is cool. Looks artsy!”

So fellow learners, I feel your pain. At the end of the day, what we produce may not be perfect, but it expresses our curiosity in ways that might re-define success. Or not. Maybe it just gives us the pleasure of feeling a deeper sense of ownership of the salsa bowl.

When did you last adopt a beginner’s mind?
How did it make you feel?
What did you notice about you, the work that you were trying to accomplish or others around you?

“For Small Nonprofits” Podcast

fsnd_logoIn October 2016, I had the tremendous privilege to be interviewed by one of my favorite podcast producers: Erik Hanberg of the “For Small Nonprofits” podcast.  Take a listen if you want to learn more about what resources we have designed for small nonprofits and why.

Nancy Bacon – Free Resources For Nonprofits – Episode 015

The Inseparability of Reflection and Action

reflection“We find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers.”
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Sometimes you give people time to think about something, and things get a lot deeper than you were planning on. You stop for reflection, and they dig into something so deep that even they seemed surprised. As much as you might prepare, you can’t anticipate when this is going to happen. And when it does happen, it is very cool.

In a session on turning learning into action, I asked people to think about a time that they had reflected on something. What was that like. They thought silently for a minute then shared with a neighbor. One woman had journaled about a newspaper headline and ended up writing a book. Several women talked about the reflection that comes from loss, driving them to start a statewide advocacy group or make serious life changes. Across the board, people recounted experiences that showed how a time of reflection yielded a time of change.

“Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection.”
– Paulo Freire 

Silence was not an option for the author driven to write a book. She said that she couldn’t stop herself once the idea took hold. She described the fear that comes from taking on a project that involves new skills showcased in a public way, and yet that fear wasn’t enough to deter her. The resulting book is the only documentation of a local asylum that defined that era of mental health services.

Reflection and action are inseparable. Each is needed to keep the other on track, and yet too often we rush to action because so much needs to get done. What if we stopped– and those supporting us funded us to stop– so that we could reflect alone, with colleagues, and our community?

How Are You Feeling?

mood-meterWe have a thing in the U.S. about talking about emotions. We are taught that we aren’t supposed to think a lot about how we our feeling because our emotions might cloud our objectivity. We may get distracted from the business at hand. So we don’t talk about how we are feeling in the hopes that we can move on.

Ignoring all of that completely, I start our board trainings by asking what is holding people back from having a great board. I ask how they are feeling right now as it relates to their board service. “Overwhelmed, frustrated, scared,” they answer. Often someone tosses in “hopeful,” which is wonderful, but usually no more than one person in a crowd of 80.

Curiously, the characteristics that we most read about related to boards and how their members should feel are quite different. “Resilient, agile, curious, confident.” These are descriptions of strength that lead us to think about the kind of leadership able to take an organization to the next level.

The gap between how people are feeling and how we want them to feel matters because research tells us that emotions drive how we make decisions and take action. (Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide gives lots of interesting examples on how.) Emotions are not something to be tucked away but rather something to unpack, understand, and address. By cluing into emotions, we can design learning experiences that are more likely to take root.

For example, what emotion do most people feel about the law? Anything legal seems to provoke a sense of powerlessness because it is complicated, risky if done wrong, and expensive if that error leads you to hire a lawyer. The opposite of powerlessness is power, which means that you have a full toolkit of knowledge, skills, tools, and even legal counsel accompanying you as you take action around following the law. Power over one’s law-related activities became our goal in developing “Let’s Go Legal,” a new tool for nonprofits in Washington to be legally compliant and protected. A set of short videos and kit materials deliver information, sample documents to help people take immediate action, and access to pro-bono legal help for more complicated cases.

Just as I start each training getting a sense of how people feel about the topic at hand, I end the same way: how are you feeling as we finish our time together. As much as I care that they have learned something, I really care that they are feeling hopeful, encouraged, connected, or inspired as they leave. Happy people solve hard problems and come back for more learning another day.

Time Bank – Nonprofit Style


“But after a few weeks he noticed that he was spending an incredible amount [of time]. I’ll economise, he thought. He got up earlier, washed less thoroughly, drank his tea standing up, ran all the way to the office, and arrived far too early. Everywhere he saved a little bit of time. But on Sunday there was nothing left of all that he’d saved….

It occurred to him that there must be some government bureau, some kind of time bank where he could change at least part of his paltry seconds. After all they were genuine. He’d never heard of such an establishment but there would certainly be something of the kind in the directory under “T” or perhaps it was also called “Bank for Time”; he could easily look under “B”. Maybe he could also consider the letter “I” for he assumed it was an imperial institution; that would accord with its importance.”

 The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainier Maria Rilke

timebankImagine a time bank, an institution into which you can deposit little bits of time saved now to withdraw later when you need time. It’s the kind of bank that converts a whole lot of seconds into minutes, into hours, into days, into productive lumps of time that are “genuine.”

This is the kind of institution imagined by Nikolaj Kusmitch, the “he” in the story above. Kusmitch is a Russian bureaucrat for whom time is very precious. He hoards time, saves time, and otherwise manages time in order to be able to live longer. But no matter how hard he tries, his Sunday accounting leaves him short.

The “he” could just as well be a nonprofit board trying desperately to save time around the edges and yet meeting after meeting, month after month falling short to do all of those other things that would extend their capacity to do the purposeful, community-growing work that so many want them to do.

This is where German literature and the education of nonprofit boards intersect. (No, I’m not talking about feeling trapped in a Kafkaesque bug’s body during an especially long board meeting.) Imagine if we gathered all of the seconds, minutes, and possibly hours that boards waste trying to figure out how minutes should be written, how to navigate roles and responsibilities in the absence of job descriptions, or where to find the standard operating policies that Google just doesn’t seem to have the algorithm for. We run factories, restaurants and schools through lean principles, why not boards?

The result could be revolutionary. Dividends of time would accumulate for matters of true governance. We could withdraw hours to have the kind of “sense-making” conversations that never find time in a normal board meeting. We could dive into the policy decisions that hold us back and make sure policymakers understand the experiences of the people we serve. Imagine the kind of thoughtful plans we would devise. Everything boards are told they should do, they could do.

And that time bank? If we were able to create such a thing, I would venture to say that it would be found under the letter “I” just as Nikolaj speculated. That would accord with its… Influence… to change the actions and habits of the good people volunteering their time to make something important happen.

3 Thoughts on Human-Centered Design

Human-centered design has taken center stage. It is the theme for this year’s Washington State Nonprofit Conference. It comes up regularly now in conversation about human service program design and how to engage previously not reached populations in our programs. It has jumped from designing products to delivering programs. A movement is underfoot, and I am just catching up.

What is human-centered design? What have I been missing?

“Human-centered design … starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for; generating tons of ideas; building a bunch of prototypes; sharing what you’ve made with the people you’re designing for; and eventually putting your innovative new solution out in the world.”
– http://www.designkit.org/human-centered-design

It sounds like good teaching.

Human-centered design sounds like what teachers have known for a long time—that educating students is most effective when the content is delivered in a shape and form that most resonates with the learner. Kids who feel ownership of the process are more likely to invest in their own success. People working in international development have experienced that the only way to solve hard social problems is for the people living within the problem to be a fundamental driver in moving forward a solution. We can take lessons from education and global poverty alleviation to better understand human-centered design.

Teams help us to get there.

A human-centered design expert explained that the secret sauce is the team of people at the table. That team blends a mix of talent that cuts across all of the elements of the work: content experts, social workers, data managers, educators, etc. We experienced the power of such a team in creating two tools for nonprofit board learning (Finance Unlocked and Boards in Gear). In both, a content expert, communication expert, and adult educator developed resources that reflect must-know content paired equally with effective language and delivery. Our understanding of local culture, social realities, predominant emotions and other “human-centered” topics provided the foundation to our solution.

Empathy makes human-centered design inevitable.

Lastly, I am struck by the reference to “deep empathy.” “Deep empathy” lies at the heart of why we press for global education in which our children build a deep and personal connection to communities living lives very different from ours. It is what challenges us in building authentic relationships with neighbors down the street. “Deep empathy” has the potential to drive powerful change as we shape solutions that place at the center the people we have accompanied, admired, become challenged by, and otherwise created a personal connection with. If we can invest in ways to drill down into the kind of empathy that stewards compassionate, respectful, and inclusive action, society will be better for it.

Learning is more fun with a buddy

Learning Buddy Card

Our workshop participants won’t learn most of what they need to know from us. Hard to imagine, but it is true. The prevailing wisdom of 70/20/10 — 70% is learned on the job, 20% in interactions with others, and 10% in classrooms– rings true as I check back with people who were fired up to change their practice just one month ago. As one wrote yesterday, “Thank you for keeping us on track… so sorry I seemed to have dropped the ball.”

How do we help them hold on to the ball? How do we grab some of that 20% of learning that comes from peer engagement? One thought is to create learning buddies when we have them. Give them a way to exchange contact information with someone in the room and commit to meeting within 30 days. What will they talk about?  How about:

  • What is your goal?
  • What progress have you made?
  • What more do you need to do, get, or find to achieve your goal?

I set up learning buddies at a training on October 29. I asked them tell me who the matches were so that I could give them a 30 day reminder. That’s how I know this person dropped the ball.  And that is how I was able to find out what they needed to make Saturday’s board retreat go well, which I promptly sent with instructions. Does that mean I got into the 70% of learning that happens when we are faced with a real situation?  I’m not sure, but I was able to help one board get to action, which was my ultimate goal anyway.


Chunk, the Superhero of Learning

I recently presented at a conference with someone who has lived and breathed grantwriting for a long time. We were working over our presentation, and I found myself in the same conversation I often find myself in with experts in the field. “They need to understand this. And this. And this. And this. And this.” The thises go on and on, and I get lulled as one does when Ferris Bueller’s teacher states his absent student’s name over and over and over in a monotone voice.

5PointsGrantwritingChunk to the rescue. “Bottom line: What five things do we need people to know to be better grantwriters?” There are countless things that these newcomers to grantwriting could and possibly should know. But if we are going to move them forward, we are going to need to prioritize and simplify. Our message is better heard and internalized when we amplify these five bottom line nuggets and modulate our voice around information that pushes more experienced practitioners in their practice. In education-ese, that’s scaffolding: “Using a variety of instructional techniques to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process.” Imagine a room full of people walking up ladders with five rungs, each one placed at just the right height to move them comfortably upward.

superherochunkAs I have shared Chunk Flip Guide Laugh with people thinking about how to better teach adults, Chunk has emerged as the superhero of learning. “Your chunking approach had me rethink the book I am writing…. I came back on a mission to make sure every chapter zeros in on 3 to 5 ideas.”

Simplicity can be revolutionary. Let the chunking begin.

Action Objectives Are More Active

A good lesson begins with learning objectives, we are told. We create and then communicate what we intend our students to learn by the end of our time together.

Learning is great, but action is better. Teachers, imagine how our teaching shifts when we articulate the actions our students will take because of our lesson. Those creating teachable moments within your office or board meeting, imagine how the engagement of others changes when we envision what our staff or board members will do because of the information you share. I hesitate to say “will take” or “will do” as opposed to “be able to take or do” because there is, of course, no certainly that they will take or do them. But let’s post that flag on the hill and aim for it. Their success matters.

The action objectives I set for our board trainings is that the board members who attend will implement job descriptions, schedule an orientation for new members, and train those who need it on how read a balance sheet. I know that not all will take these actions, but I have heard from many of them that they do. We give them the awareness of why these things matter, word doc templates to adapt as they need, and short videos that make a lesson on balance sheets easy. We make it simple to take the next step.

By stating our objectives in term of action, we have more skin in the game to move them along the engagement cycle from know to understand to engage. We commit to giving them the tools they’ll need to succeed; we commit to staying with them as inevitable questions arise while they put lesson learned to work.

Ultimately we need those sitting in our workshops to do things differently. Our funding partners expect it too. Setting action objectives raises the bar on us so that we can more reasonably expect more from them. Ready, set, action!

The start of something new

2015-09-05 16.22.03We often don’t think about why we do what we do until well after we have done it. Such was the case with Chunk, Flip, Guide, Laugh, an educational approach that I have subconsciously been developing over the past 15 years without an intentional focus on the purpose behind it. It took a colleague’s request that I share my thoughts with others for me to take the time and write them down.

In reflection, Chunk, Flip, Guide, Laugh resulted from a chunking process on the plane ride out to that talk. It was the end of the training season, and I was tired. I hadn’t packed any supporting materials and had no intention of doing a powerpoint. I asked myself: Bottom line, what do they need to know about my approach to education? Chunk became a part of my professional vocabulary after a graduate school leadership professor spent a quarter talking about how we needed to “chunk the work.” Flip is commonly associated with the “flipped classroom” and Khan academy. Guide and Laugh flowed naturally from our work with rubrics (which we call “pathways” as a friendlier word) and humor to break up such serious subjects. The notes I scribbled on that plane ride became the basis for more thinking on how we teach so adults can learn.

%d bloggers like this: