Tag Archives: storytelling

Facilitating an organizational vision: The Hot Pen Technique

Successful organizations have long known about the power unleashed across a team when people are galvanized around an effective vision. There are dozens of approaches to facilitating an organizational vision process. The essential process is all about marrying imagination and strategy – taking intuitive, creative and informed leaps into a possible aspirational future. The next few posts will lay out just a few that I’ve found really effective as a facilitator, starting with the “hot pen technique.”

Books like The Artist’s Way describe the benefits of using stream-of-consciousness approach to creative writing for a prescribed length of pages or amount of time. The idea is to let your creative juices flow, without editing or judging anything that wants to emerge. Feeling creatively constipated, so to speak? Not to fear. Just write ‘blah blah blah’, or cuss like a sailor – anything goes. Just write.

Business leader and visioner extraordinaire Ari Weinsweig teaches a similar approach to visioning specifically, and it’s incredibly powerful (and fun). He calls it the “Hot Pen Technique”. Check out page 144 of Ari Weinsweig’s “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business” for specifics. The basic idea is this: write for at least 15 minutes without stopping. Turn off your ‘internal editor’ and just write – whatever comes to mind – about your aspirational future. It should be a stretch – that is, bold enough to get your heart racing just a little – but also achievable. It should also be personal. Put yourself in the picture. You’re the star of this movie!

And ideally, include the elements of a great story. That is, engage your senses of light, touch, smell, taste, as you describe the setting and characters co-starring in this fabulous new future. Hell, add a soundtrack! Make it as vivid, detailed and visceral as your imagination allows.

I recently attended a workshop of Ari’s while facilitating a retreat in beautiful Molokai, Hawaii, and found this technique to be remarkably useful. While I went into the exercise feeling pretty clear about my vision, the method crystallized and fleshed out startling new details of what I hope to achieve in both my personal and professional trajectory.

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14 Questions to ask when facilitating an organizational vision

iStock_000015298832XSmallLast month a good friend called me up in a bit of a panic. “I’m chairing another citizen’s meeting next week”, she said, “but I’m afraid it’s going to go like all the others: we’re going to generate a big laundry list of tactics, drink a lot of bad coffee, eat too many cookies and go home feeling dissatisfied. And bloated. We’re thinking too small. We need a vision!” So we talked about the different ways she could lead her folks into bolder, more inspiring territory through a visioning process.

There are many ways to facilitate a group of people through a visioning process. Most of them are rich, often profound and always creative. The essential process is about marrying imagination and strategy – taking intuitive, creative and informed leaps into a possible, aspirational future.

One of the most powerful approaches is a “guided visualization”. I have led dozens of groups through guided visualizations as part of a visioning process over the past decade. Inspired by Inc. magazine’s list of “14 questions you need to ask when crafting a vision for your businesses success”, here’s the list that I implicitly use. These can be adjusted for individuals, small business or non-profits. In practice, I develop a script tailored to the unique needs and assets of each client group, but it usually contains these elements.

  1. Time frame… 3-5 years? 10 years? Collins and Porras, in Built to Last, recommend 10-30 years. Notions of “purpose” and “core ideology” are more long-term; visions change relatively more quickly to reflect the changing internal and external dynamics of organizations.
  2. Stories….. Start with a specific time and place, specific characters, and a setting… Where are you, in your mind’s eye? Put yourself in the picture! As I described in an earlier post about stories, scan your senses: lights, temperature, movement of the air, sound, smells… Who is there? What’s happening? This will get you into the story in a deeply personal way, unleashing more of your own creative, imaginative power.
  3. Major accomplishments: What are you most proud of? Get emotional, personal and specific. What are your top 1-3 major accomplishments or “big wins”? Imagine there was a feature article about your success. What did the headlines say? What difference did this make in the world?
  4. Breakthroughs: In the past X years, what is the most significant breakthrough that launched the organization into a whole new level of wild success? How? What happened? Who helped make it happen? What was different?
  5. People you serve: Whose lives is your work touching? Who are you serving? How exactly are they engaging with you? Zero in on one or two ‘representative’ individuals… Why are they choosing to engage with your messages, services or products? What’s in it for them?
  6. Allies: Are there new or unusual allies that contributed to your success as an organization? As an individual?
  7. Your niche: Notice other groups similar to your own… How is yours specifically unique and different?
  8. No-go zones: What are some services or approaches that your organization does NOT offer or do?
  9. Internal collaboration: How are people working together internally? What is the feeling/tone of that work? How are teams working with one another ‘across silos’? What’s new and different? Why is it working so well? What are the specific structures and practices that are making this new level of collaboration so successful?
  10. People in the organization: Who is working in the organization – what do they look like, demographically? What is the collective culture like? What practices or group norms do you notice?
  11. Leadership: Who is leading the organization? How are they leading? What’s it like? Is it different? If so, how?
  12. Resources: What kind of abundance is the organization enjoying? What does that look like, specifically?
  13. Geographic scope: Where are you working, and not working – are there specific communities? Regions? How focused are you?
  14. What else… What else do you notice that’s different, or the same, in this successful, deeply satisfying future?

Afterword: So I whipped up a script based pretty well on all these questions and emailed it off to my friend, and she used it to lead the group through a closed-eye visualization process. She did an amazing job – it was by all accounts a fantastic success. After the visualization, she helped everyone share their individual insights and arrive at a few core themes that resonated for the whole group. They left feeling energized, inspired, and aligned around a whole new level of collective work. And it’s entirely possible that they didn’t scarf down quite so many cookies.

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Your brain on stories

brain-iStock_000004321955XSmallWhy are some stories ‘stickier’ than others?  I pondered the question while I sat at my desk, sipping the steaming hot Nicaraguan coffee we brought back from holiday a few weeks ago. My puppy’s fuzzy black head rested heavily on my bare foot, and I was getting ready for a conference call, when my colleague Nina forwarded this wonderful post about story-telling and the senses.  Serendipity!  When communications strategist and writer Nina Winham and I taught a session on communicating sustainability last year, I pushed our participants to tell stories that didn’t just have a ‘beginning, middle and an end’, but more importantly, activated the senses. “Describe the setting”, I urged; “the light, the temperature, the atmosphere. Who was there?  What did they look like? What were they doing?  How did it feel, to be there?  Were there any scents in the air? Sounds”?

According to an emerging body of research in the neurosciences, stories that activate the senses – sight, sound, smells, and touch – literally activate those same sensory regions of the brain in both listeners/readers and story-tellers.  That’s why, in advocacy communications, there’s such a vast difference between communicating the meaning of something (“our aging communities deserve  better access to health care”) versus leading with stories that paint pictures in the listener’s minds (“yesterday my 83 year old mother clutched her throbbing, broken right wrist for six hours as we waited for a doctor’s care in the jam-packed emergency room at St. Vince’s hospital…”).   Check out this powerful infographic that shows how specific regions of the brain ‘light up’ when presented with sensory-loaded story-telling. By activating the senses through our words, we are putting the listener in the picture – almost literally putting them in the center of their own story. When it comes to effective stories, whether it’s a quick aside or mention of just one sensory quality (“it was a sunny Spring morning”) or a more complex narrative, every sense counts.

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