Archive for March, 2010

Team-Building or Team Intervention

Mar 29, 2010 // 1 Comment » // Team Intervention

Picture source: Wishard_of_Oz via Flickr

Picture source: Wishard_of_Oz via Flickr

Some well-meaning trainer friends recently commented:

“Allen, it will be difficult to get people to show interest about your Team Intervention work. You can’t even ‘google’ team intervention on the web.”

“You have to tell people that you are good at team-building. You have to accede to the mainstream.”

“You got to do what the clients want…not what you think you want.”

Well, I intended to stay the course…but let me explain.

The idea of team-building can be trace back to the year 1920s-30s with the now classic Hawthorne studies. These involved a series of research activities designed to examine in-depth what happened to a group of workers under various conditions. After much analysis, the researchers agreed that the most significant factor was the building of a sense of group identity, a feeling of social support and cohesion that came with increased worker interaction.

My sense is that most mainstream ‘team-building’ events are designed specifically to address the above bolded factors:

Sense of Group Identity – the event are usually high in energy, competitive or challenging activities to arouse collective sense of group identity. The team/group may leave with recollection of what their purpose is and new found camaraderie at the end of the day.

Feeling of Social Support - the sessions tend to give maximum opportunities for supportive action (holding one another, belaying and supporting in low/high adventure learning settings etc), brainstorming and problem solving, discussion and cheering for one another when the chips are down. The idea is to let team members rekindle the feeling of social connection again.

Increased Worker Interaction – Not the least, a typical team-building event will have team members spend maximum time eat, sleep, have fun and suffer together usually at an off-site location far away from their workplace environment. They will usually have group presentation, role-plays and activities like amazing race, river-rafting and building anything using lego bricks to cooking together in a posh kitchen and even spraying paint ball at each other.

Don’t get me wrong, my points above are perfectly alright and legitimate for building a team. In fact, I have been doing this for the last ten years and still enjoys doing and think that it does impact team development to some extend…Here’s my problem, I constantly question myself;  is that what team-building is about? I have seen enough sweat and laughter with the team during the event but at the end of the day when I watched them walk out of the room, I doubted the “feeling” they have just acquired was sustainable.

ConversationCircles want to do more and deeper work with team that goes beyond just sense, feeling and interaction.  We want to intervene right from the beginning during consultation, listen to your real issues and challenges that is facing the team and together take some calculated risk to provide CIRCLE solutions to group intervention that may be sustainable.

We are prepared to intervene…are you ready?

Empower your people…Challenge by Choice

Mar 23, 2010 // No Comments » // Change Initiation | Conversational Circles | From The Inside Out

Photo source: Flickr_Steve.portigal

Picture source: Steve.portigal via Flickr

This is brilliant: if you dirnk, you have a CHOICE – take a taxi ($20) or take a cop car ($1800). Like “click it or ticket” they set up law enforcement as a situation where you are making an informed choice. I think this elevates the community member in the dynamic. Plus, this car is just a fantastic visualization of the two different vectors in that choice. Taxi married to cop-car.

I have been attempting to write about this topic for a while but I was concerned of both the philosophical and psychological implication of its meaning…nevertheless, I CHOOSE to take the risk. So do give me your two-cents worth of thoughts if you think that I don’t make any sense.

The first time I paid attention to the meaning of CHOICE was when my mentor said: “Do take a deeper understanding to the meaning of the word ‘Choice’ for the well being of your life. It may be one of the worthwhile life pursuit after-all”. During my tenured at Singapore Training & Development Association, we used the phrase “Challenge By Choice” as a way to encourage adult learner to be responsible for their choice of action and involvement in their learning. Even then, I wasn’t very sure what it really means…

  • “the challenge is introduced unto you from the outside and you have to make a choice to be subjected to it or not.” or
  • “the challenge is re-introduced by you from the inside and you make a choice to be subjected to it or not.”

I gave some thought to this lately and here’s my observation. In the former scenario, the common responses are ” Oh, I have NO CHOICE but to accept…” or “This is not what I am looking for but I’ve got NO CHOICE…” –  The common post-decision reactions are of blame, haplessness. In the latter, a likely response when people ‘re-introduced’ the challenge intrinsically and make a willful choice on it tends to take ownership of its implication and responsible for its outcome. A common post-decision reactions are usually of ownership of control, pride of trying and learning to take risk etc.

Some years ago, I was tasked to run a workshop for new employees to help them understand the importance of “responsibility”. At that time, I wasn’t sure how a three hours workshop can help young adults to ‘become’ responsible for their action, learning and development; but after much thought I decided to give it a try… I remembered the session started with the participants strolling into the classroom randomly and about a third of them were late for the 8.30am session. By 8.50am, most were seated chatting away with laptop computer up (they seems busy checking emails) and some even sipping coffee and having their breakfast. I stood silently right at the front of the room throughout and observing with keen interest of their actions. By 9.00am, most were alerted by my silence and I thought it was that silence that jolt them into their consciousness. When the classroom came to a complete mute, I asked:

“Why are you here?”

It takes another couple minutes of silence before someone bravely responded: “WE are here because we are told to do so.”

“Thanks for being brave and taking action to respond for the rest. But why are YOU here?” I asked firmly with my eyes fixated on him.

“Umm…I think I am here…because…I have NO CHOICE! The email indicated that the attendance is compulsory and failing to attend will result in having to report to my manager…” he continued bravely with his reasons and garnering some supportive nods and ‘yeses’ from other colleagues.

I sensed a good opportunity to introduce the concept of CHOICE and asked: “If I give you permission to return to your work-station if you CHOOSE not to be here, and promised that I will take full responsibility for your omission from this class, what say you?”

Surprisingly, that reply brought laughter aloud from the class as if they thought I was joking. I retorted firmly: “That promised goes to everyone in this class, if you are not able to take RESPONSIBILITY and make a CHOICE to be here by your will, then the next 3 hours will be a waste of your time and mine.”

No one leave the class that day. We had an enjoyable three hours (or less with an indicative introduction to the workshop).

I know that you prized and valued the opportunity to be self-determining. To be able to make choices.

When was the last time you said: “I have NO CHOICE!”?

Be inclusive in your talent strategy.

Mar 17, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Leadership Infusion

Picture source: Vestaligo via Flickr

Picture source: Vestaligo via Flickr

A matryoshka doll, also known as a Russian nested doll or a babushka doll, is a set of dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside the other. The word “matryoshka” is derived from the Russian female first name “Matryona”. The word “babushka”  is the Russian word for grandmother.

Some years ago, I chanced upon one set of such dolls in a gift shop and was intrigued by the concept behind the design. I did some research and found that during Perestroika (Russian term for political and economical reforms introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev), the leaders of the Soviet Union became a common theme depicted on matryoshkas. Starting with the largest, Mikhail Gorbachev, then Leonid Brezhnev (Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko almost never appear due to the short length of their respective terms), then Nikita Khrushchev, Josef Stalin and finally the smallest, Vladimir Lenin. Newer versions start with Dmitry Medvedev and then follow with Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Joseph Stalin and then Vladimir Lenin.

One story goes about how a chairman of a global firm called for a board meeting one day. At the boardroom table,  at the front of each boardroom members he placed a similar matryoshka doll. The chairman said: “Lift it up, its you inside…”. They went on to lift the doll one by one by opening up the top-half, for every bigger version they saw a smaller version and one after another it got smaller and smaller until revealing the smallest doll eventually. There’s a note at the end with the smallest doll that says: ” If you are conscientiously hiring people that are ‘smaller’ or less capable than you, someday we will become a midget organization. In contrast, if we put in effort in hiring talents that are ‘bigger’ or more capable and talented than us, we will be building giants for the future.”

Two years ago, I wrote in an in-house HR newsletter how we can learn from the matryoshka doll about leadership. Leaders in organization should embrace talents that are ‘bigger’ and more capable than oneself, so that you can help build an organisation of giants.

Are your next level managers hold the same hiring ideology? Are you decreasing so others may increase? Do you have your ‘generals’ in your organisation that are afraid of ‘decreasing‘ so others might ‘increase’?

At ConversationCircles, we can help you to infuse leadership concept and ideology in a way that is inclusive and embracing. Talk to me today at +65-96559409 or email at


Sharing story as a way to motivate.

Mar 16, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Change Initiation | Conversational Circles | Leadership Infusion


Photo source: Mr. Mark via

Photo source: Mr. Mark via

Every veins and  lines probably have a story to tell…

I have a friend whom recently become quite sought after in the circle of motivational speaking. He was sharing how excited he was and good money too given that’s not what his main income’s source…

“What would you speak about to motivate others?”

“Can people really be motivated by hearing from someone else?

“How long you think they will stay motivated after hearing you?” came my barrage of questions.

He responded matter-of-factly: “Sure they do, they like to listen to my stories about failures and successes, rags to riches and it never fails to resonate in them…they LOVE it!”. “Umm…as for whether they remain motivated or not, who knows; aren’t they suppose to be able to self-motivate?!”…

Last year, I attended a workshop organized by National Book Development Council of Singapore titled: ‘ Narrative Techniques For Business’. The two days seminar essentially help us to understand the value of stories (or ‘grapevine’ depending on how you see it) within an organization setting and how to use narrative-based activities to design change that impact organization. I was mesmerized by the intriguing process of Preparation, Discovery, Sensemaking/Intervention Design and Monitoring, and how this process; if apply appropriately are able to help organisation facilitate intervention from hiring or firing to mergers and acquisition decision.

Stories are everywhere.

Christina Baldwin, who had pioneered the field of journal writing and women leadership; authored a wonderful book titled: “Storycatcher — Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power  and Practice of Story”. In the book, she open with the preface that says: “Every person is born into life as a blank page – and every person leaves life as a full book.”

We all have stories that are uniquely our own. Even when we shared similar features in our story that we can find common ground of understanding and viewpoint. Last week, the Straits Times interview-report  the father of 3M’s Post-it notes scheme Dr. Geoff Nicholson, he commented that CEOs should do well in telling stories; and that will have profound impact to spur staff to be innovative, he stressed.

When was the last time you share with or listen to someone’s story?

Collective exploration

Mar 15, 2010 // 2 Comments » // Conversational Circles

Photo source: jules_lewis via

Photo source: jules_lewis via

Recently, someone asked me: ” So what is so unique about having conversation in a circle?”

I responded by asking: “What do you want to know? The uniqueness or the conversation?”

“I mean, how can having conversation in a circle help people or team to change?”, he expounded.

“I don’t know how but I know it does…”, came my casual reply when I sensed that he is not ready for a serious and long answer to a casual question.

Last week, I facilitated a class of 15 junior executives from various South East Asia countries that spent two days keen to learn the rope of people management skills. Most came with high hopes of picking up management techniques that enable them to better communicate, manage performance and understand their subordinate better so as to lead them with confidence. But when we started the first day morning in a conversational circle with a check-in question: “How many of you think that people can be managed?”, they instinctively knew that they are in for something different they thought they already knew…

We spent the next two days in conversational circles 8 times after some experiential activities that explores these questions:

  • What have I observed during the activity that I find interesting about the way I communicate?
  • What was our focus in decision making when we have to agree to disagree? What change can I make even if I disagree?
  • Are there behavior/s that were congruent to my present behavior that I think should change so that I can relate better?

And many more simple questions that help people to talk, think and take risk to share in the circle. The power of conversational circle is not just about powerful questions. It is the collective wisdom and respectful exploration within the conversational circle that they begin to discover answers and deeper questions. When they got ‘stuck’ in their thoughts, it is the very circle that they created help them move to where they never dare explore…with confidence feeding from one another within the rim.

We ended the two days with a conversational circle check-out . I was privileged to be in the circle with them and help them see the possibility of conversational circle. They left with confidence in leading more effectively but most importantly; seeing people management with a new paradigm — a form of relating beginning with having a conversation.

Harvard’s Lecture

Mar 11, 2010 // No Comments » // Conversational Circles

I would like to invite you to join me at Harvard for a series of lectures by Michael Sandel. Michael is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard, where he has taught political philosophy since 1980. His books include Democracy’s Discontent, Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, and, most recently, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? His writings have been translated into eleven foreign languages and have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, and the New York Times.

The 12 lectures focuses on wide variety of topics ranging from Moral, Life and Pleasure, Freedom of Choice, Action and Purpose etc. Topics are mainly philosophical and at best epitomized human wisdom. Though I am into only the third lecture myself (about 55mins/lecture), what I find useful is Michael’s ability to capture the large audiences attention through his questioning techniques and creating powerful dialogue amongst the students. Here’s what others said about his lecture series:

“(Sandel) is able to conduct remarkably effective dialogues in those large classes, like a conductor picking out a wind here, a brass there. He poses moral dilemmas so acute one could escape the agony only by thinking.” – Kathleen Sullivan, former JUSTICE teaching fellow, now a professor at Stanford Law School

“He is the greatest teacher I have ever seen. He is able, without visible effort, to make a lecture to students seem like an intimate, Socratic dialogue.” – Jed Rubenfeld, former JUSTICE teaching fellow, now the Robert R. Slaughter Professor of Law, Yale Law School

And there is more…do visit JusticeHarvard to watch the 12 episode videos, episode summary, discussion guide, addition readings and many more. You can even join a discussion circle or start your own discussion group.

A point to note, I am recommending the Harvard’s lecture series for its method of discussion, the challenging questions and methods of inviting conversation that we can learn from as facilitator and less so for its philosophical contents.

Have fun!

Walk the Talk – 言行一致

Mar 04, 2010 // 3 Comments » // From The Inside Out | Leadership Infusion

Photo source: Liu Ying via

Photo source: Liu Ying via

When I first heard of this phrase “Walk the Talk” many years ago, I was mesmerized by the simple yet profound implication of its meaning.

In my previous regional role, I had the privileged to have conversations with colleagues in China on this topic when running a regional program on Personal Leadership. I was keen to find out whether “Walk the Talk” is a western concept or an oriental treasure…my friends from Beijing have enlightened me.

The term 言行一致 can be traced back to China’s early literature treasure of 儒家之 四书五经 which recorded the most vibrant time in politics, military, foreign affairs and cultural incidents and Confucius thinking. Included in 四书, is the book of 《大学》and 《中庸》originated from 《礼记》,and it is from 《中庸》that teaches the Way of Being。 I was told  that this is the fundamental principle of 儒学思想。

The ‘Way’ is to be neutral and balance,and all ways and choices will lead to consequences。One of the way to achieve “中和” or balance is 至诚无妄,which 诚 is the key to the understanding。诚 in 儒家 context is not just about ’honesty’ or ‘frank’ ,it is about being truly and objectively forthright that matter。The practice and meditation of 诚 which supposed to achieve three levels of being are:

  • To Self - 博学之 (to learn),审问之 (to ask),慎思之(to reflect),明辨之(to probe),笃行之(to act)。
  • To Others - 己所不欲,勿施于人。(to not do to others what you will not do to self)
  • Walk the Talk  - 言顾行,行顾言。(consider the act when you say and when acting consider what you have said)

I was mesmerized by the depth of understanding on this simple yet profound phrase of Walk the Talk by my Chinese counterparts…but we also agreed that knowing the meaning is one thing but practicing it with consistency is another…

What do you think?


Mar 02, 2010 // No Comments » // Leadership Infusion

Photo source: reclassic2 via

Photo source: reclassic2 via

When I first coined this term “servitude” in 2005 while having coffee with a senior HR Director, I intended the term to mean Service + Attitude and  I was sharing enthusiastically about how to infuse a culture of excellence service into organisation. I argued that for an organisation to develop a strategic service culture, the leaders will have to take the lead; and that means the very top person of the organisation walk the talk by serving at the front-line to set an example and to understand what it takes to provide excellence service to customers. I went on to say that the ‘servitude’ should be an illustration of senior management commitment to service excellence and in time would impact the entire service culture of the organisation.

I went to look for the meaning of the term “servitude” and found the following:



slavery or bondage of any kind: political or intellectual servitude. (


1 : a condition in which one lacks liberty especially to determine one’s course of action or way of life
2 : a right by which something (as a piece of land) owned by one person is subject to a specified use or enjoyment by another (Merriam-Webster)

With the negative connotation, I wasn’t sure that’s the right word to use in that context…

But I noted with interest on The Straits Times headlines today:  ”Bad service? The buck stops with the CEO.”

It will be interesting to see the talk eventually starts walking…or the walk talks only?