Label Free Zone

New York

In the run up to last week’s Unconference, Tim Casswell and I were talking about the toys we were going to play with, or if you prefer, some methods we were going to utilise (yawn).

Guests at the event had been invited to prepare Pecha Kuchas as a way of seeding some ideas into the day, and we were going to use the World Café method to facilitate conversations.

Tim was railing against the processes, saying something like ‘This Pecha Kucha stuff is too restrictive, artists don’t like being told what to do’, and ‘Who cares that it’s called a World Café? Naming all this stuff just means you Doug, have to waste time explaining to people that they are going to hear a few short talks and have some great conversations!’

I take Tim’s point about a Pecha Kucha being restrictive, given that once you press play, your slides (all 20 of them) are each on screen for 20 seconds before autoforwarding to the next one. It’s extreme sports for presenters and though not for everyone, I think this method is very helpful in encouraging people to get a point across quite quickly. So we kind of agreed to disagree on this one.

The point about naming stuff though – that was a lightbulb moment for me. ‘OK Tim’ I said, ‘Tomorrow will be a label free zone’, and between us, we worked hard to make it so. I confess the term Pecha Kucha did creep in once or twice but not a mention of World Café, just conversations. And it worked – powerfully.

I think we have a tendency to over-complicate stuff. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s a sense of insecurity that convinces us that our work has to be tricky to understand, and so helps ensure our survival in the workplace hierarchy? Simplification strikes me as really powerful, simplification breaks down barriers. If we take last week’s event as an example I believe one of the reasons people responded to the opportunity so positively was that it we made any process very simple to understand.

That simplification left everyone’s brains free to respond to the much more interesting and useful challenges like defining ‘Why are we here today?’ ‘What do we want to talk about?’ ‘How are we going to make today’s conversations into tomorrow’s reality?’ None of these are easy questions to answer but thanks to an uncomplicated and largely label free approach, I think we helped make it easier for people to engage with something more meaningful to them.


I’m catching up on some reading and this post on The Future of L&D by David Goddin caught my eye. In the post, David says that ‘The opportunity is for the L&D function to engage more consultatively with the business’. I agree, and though I’m biased I think this is why a sales background can be so useful in business. Great sales people inherently ‘get’ the consultative approach, and so from the start appreciate the critical importance of relationships.

We often hear people use phrases like ‘I can relate to Sophie because she talks my language’, and I think that understanding is best forged from a balance of taking the time to understand the other person’s business/perspective/environment, and keeping things simple. This second point is less well practiced, and the comments in David’s blog posts are well worth a read as they dig into this area in more detail.

The simplicity of work matters.

photo credit

Aspirations and Anxieties

Last week at the kick off (or should that be the get go?) of the Thomson Reuters’ New York Project Management Unconference, we asked people to express their aspirations and anxieties about the afternoon ahead of them. Here’s some of what people told us:


  • Building community
  • Sharing ideas
  • Recognition
  • Excitement
  • Lead by example
  • Collaboration
  • Renew motivation
  • New ways to look at things
  • Communicating with confidence



  • Will people get involved?
  • Not enough collaboration
  • Same old same old
  • Only do this once a year
  • Don’t recognize anyone
  • How to network?
  • Dealing with change
  • 20 people won’t show because of work pressure


The bullet lists summarise what people told us and you can click on the thumbnail pics above to see and download much larger, easier to read versions if you want to digest the whole thing. I think there’s some real power in what people said, particularly around the anxieties they expressed.

What we went on to experience was one of the liveliest, most participative sessions it’s ever been my privilege to be a part of, and though I have no evidence to back this up, I feel strongly that in part it was because people were invited right at the start to make a contribution. There was no fuss, people weren’t asked to stand up and ‘incriminate’ themselves, we just created some mental space for people to get involved, gathered some scribbled notes and then Tim Casswell and his team got on with illustrating them.

We had a photographer on hand and though I’ve not seen the pics yet (apart from one) I understand that they too give a really good impression of the energy levels and the sense of useful fun in the room.

Here’s some post event follow up from Anthony Allinson. There will doubtless be more to follow about the event and our experiences as I and others have the chance to digest what we talked about and learned, but for now I just wanted to share this first thought with you. We all want to be heard. Create an environment that’s all about your guests, invite them to talk and play, and your time together will be so much better for it.

Time Stands Still

I started writing this post at 11pm on my last evening in New York City. I may have had a few drinks.

Today has been great, useful fun. The good people of Thomson Reuters have turned up to their unconference and questioned, participated and contributed to the max.

We’ve articulated our anticipations and anxieties, shared raw, personal stories, and worked our way through awkward silences. Most importantly, together we’ve delivered a day that is truly about the people in the room and those who are important to them.

In particular I want to reflect on an uncomfortable moment when having shared many ideas, the group were trying to distil them and get to grips with the questions they wanted to explore next. This process can be difficult, frustrating even – something doesn’t always emerge immediately, particularly when trying to form ideas from such a wealth of initial output. A question was asked along the lines of ‘So what is it we should be talking about?’. It seemed a perfectly reasonable question and I’m pretty sure many others were thinking it. In the moment I turned the question back to the group and on the 30th floor way above Times Square, time stands still.

What followed was a short period of awkwardness before, after some more bouncing of ideas – we got to somewhere useful. I know it was somewhere useful because the blast wave of conversation that followed was pretty much unstoppable. Even more importantly – in that moment the group clearly saw the purpose of their gathering was all about them. They matter, their views and ideas matter.

I’ll share more from the day when I get home. For now I’ve got to pack up and leave my apartment. Thanks to everyone who has made my stay so much fun, I’ve learned loads while I’ve been away, and boy….I’m ready to come home.