Toolkits and learning

People often ask me about the tools I use in organization design and development and a while ago I started to collect a list of toolkits that I access or draw on. This week I've stumbled across two that have several tools that I could use in the workshops, focus groups and discussion forums that I facilitate in the course of my work, and I've added them to the list.

The first is the Business Survival Toolkit. For anyone looking for organization design and development tools it's a great source of free, downloadable tools. The second is the Change Management Toolbook with 65 free downloadable tools and three training sessions.

But also this week I've been taking a course on adult education with 'two tracks of knowledge-—in one track, you will learn about the theories within the field of adult education; in the other, you will be learning about yourself.'

The course prompted me to consider that 'Not only are we adult educators, but we are adult learners as well. As Taylor, Marienau, and Fiddler (2000) state, "Development of ourselves as educators mirrors our individual development in that it is always open to revision and reframing" (p. 317). Thus, in order to be open to revision and reframing, we must embark on a journey of self-discovery. We begin by answering such questions as "How do I teach?" and" What are the assumptions I have built my practice on?"

I changed the first question a bit to ask myself 'How do I facilitate' and stuck with the second 'What are the assumptions I have built my practice on.' These led me to ask myself is what is the connection between the tools I choose to use as a facilitator of workshops, discussion forums, focus groups, and so on in the course of my work, and the way this is (or is not) helping the adults I'm working with learn to solve their business problems, look at opportunities, make decisions, take risks and design better organizations. I'm getting round to the view that facilitation is essentially about education and learning.

Years ago I trained to be a teacher and later taught learning theory, and some of this came back to me when, on the course just mentioned, I read a piece about Myles Horton an educator and activist who, according to Stephen Brookfield author of Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher 'believed passionately in two things. Firstly, that education was a process that helped people learn what they do. In other words, help them become aware of the experiences and abilities they already possessed. He also believed that most people knew the answers to the problems besetting them. The problem was they didn't know how to analyze their experience to come up with these answers.'

This paragraph struck a chord with me. I too believe that people know the answers to most organizational issues but don't know how to come up with them. And I believe that part of my role is to help them find the answers and not to give them answers.

I looked in my folder 'Toolkit' to see how far the tools I have in it reflect this belief. And found that for the most part they are enquiry and information gathering tools, and not prescriptive checklists or instructions. So I am in sync with my beliefs on that one but what then struck me about my toolkit ,the toolkits such as those mentioned above and the tools available on sites like Business Balls or mindtools or 12 manage is that they reflect the norms, language and patterns of 'management'. Look at some different toolkits for example Seeds for Change and you'll see tools with the same intent, for example 'holding better meetings', but in a very different style and language. It's possible that the language and style of the tool reinforces aspects of the familiar rather than extends the boundaries of it.

Thus it seems that the tool choices I make: which of them to use, why that choice, and how to use them, has a bearing on what information is captured and what form the explorations take. The tools help frame the conversations. And/or the conversations inform which tools to choose.

What I also noticed about my personal toolkit is that pretty much all the tools I have are word based – there are very few that are visual, graphical, musical, or tactile. One exception is Broken Squares a communication tool that I use intermittently which is great fun and not word based. (You are not allowed to speak whilst using it). Another that I used recently was Orgvue's set of process mapping cards which people had a very good time with.

Now I'm wondering if I'm missing lots of learning opportunities for myself and others by not having tools in a variety of media. I have the book 101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar that has many tools in it that are visual and interactive and look good but somehow I haven't yet used any of them. Why not?

I'm also wondering whether my method of choosing tools for circumstances should be more conscious and less intuitive. On this basis I started to list out some questions to ask myself when choosing which tools to use:

  • How far should this tool match the participants 'comfort level' (via language, style of activity or instrument) or extend their boundaries? (Assuming I can judge their 'comfort level')
  • How is this tool going to help the participants organize and explore areas of problem/opportunity/common/diverse thinking?
  • How will this tool facilitate the learning of the participants?
  • How will this tool develop different perspectives and demonstrate there is not one right answer?
  • How will this tool help participants find the answer they already know but can't express?

The adult learning course I mentioned earlier states a premise that 'Current research indicates that adults continue to grow intellectually and cognitively; their growth is related to the experiences they face in dealing with problems and situations at work, home, and in community life.'

I believe that part of the responsibility of a consultant/facilitator is to choose the tools and methods that will help participants 'learn what they do' in a way that will help them find answers to 'the problems besetting them'.

How do you choose what tools to use in your organization design work? Let me know.

Taylor, K., Marienau, C., & Fiddler, M. (2000). Developing adult learners: Strategies for teachers and trainers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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