I called this blog ’Lessons I Learned’, but really it would be better titled ’Lessons I’m Learning’. I believe in sharing what we learn to help others avoid our same mistakes and also exposing ourselves to the criticism and questions which might help us improve. I am skeptical of the popular approaches to both voluntourism and development work, though those are both areas in which I have worked as I’d love to be part of learning how we can do them both better. I think we need to learn before we can help, so I believe “service learning” should be “learning service”. I feel like I am learning more every day about how to help create the world I want to see my future kids and their future kids living in, and sometimes what I learn contradicts what I thought I knew was true. I have learned that good intentions are not enough and that the only person you can “improve” in the world is yourself, so I had better start improving the world by starting there. I hope the dialogue generated through this site will give me more chances to do that and to share the lessons I am learning with others who could benefit from avoiding my mistakes.

27 June 2015 ~ 0 Comments

We made an app-less app

This is the story of a little app. An app some friends and I made a year or so ago, and then did nothing with. What a lonely little app! No one, apart from those of us who worked on it have probably ever seen it or downloaded it… and here’s why.

It started with a brainstorming day — my friends Kit, Tim, and I were all working as consultants in various capacities, had worked together in small ways on some projects, and decided to put some time into thinking about how we might work together on more things in the future. During the course of two days in London, we conducted a number of brainstorming and ideation sessions over coffee and teas (non-caffeinated for me, as those who know me will be relieved to hear, as caffeine can be dangerous for those around me). Even when non-caffeinated, there was often too much energy and excitement about these new ideas that needed to be contained – and as we had so many topics that we wanted to go through in those two days, we needed a system of how to manage our time so that we didn’t get carried away on one topic and miss the others.

We had each experimented with the time keeping tool, Pomodoro, and so we decided to try to use a Pomodoro app to manage our brainstorming, For those unfamiliar with the time management tool named after the red tomato timers sometimes found in kitchens, I’ll save you from having to read a book about it and give you the two sentence summary of the idea: “Pomodoros” are 25 minute blocks of time followed by 5 minute breaks. The idea is that, if you break up your work into 25 minute uninterrupted chunks, you will get more done, knowing that the break is forthcoming, and you’ll be more efficient if you limit yourself to completing a task within the allotted time.

We had each used the Pomodoro timer previously in our own solo work, but this was the first time we were trying it in a group brainstorming session. We found that the fixed 25 minute slots weren’t going to work for us and we needed to modify it a bit: for most sessions we’d allocate some period of time, say 15 minutes, to flush out the high level info about the topic we wanted to discuss, then spend about 5 minutes to break that topic into 3-4 key areas we wanted to tackle in that area, and then do about 10 minutes of deep dive into each of those sub-topics.

We left those two days with many ideas for how we might work together – and the timer had nothing to do with it – it was just a tool we’d used in the process. But once Kit and Tim left, I got really excited about the idea of making a programmable timer app. As the over enthusiastic one, I convinced Tim and Kit to get excited about the idea too so we started checking out other timers that existed but none seemed to do exactly what we were looking for: a programmable timer where you could allocate different time amounts for each section of a meeting or work flow along with the title of that section and perhaps instructions or tips for those actions and the timer would automatically flow to the next section when your pre-programmed time slot was complete.

We reached out to an MBA classmate of mine, Saket, who had built a tech team for his new start-up, MealTango (an AirBNB of meals – so when you travel, you can have a local meal in someone’s home, try new types of food, and meet local people). His team had spare capacity at the time, and he agreed to take on the design work.

In the end, we ended up with a beta version of an app that was done more than a year ago… and we did nothing with it. The key feature we had been missing in the other apps we had seen (the ability to programme the amount of time and title/tips for each section) was out of our budget and initial time frame, so we ended up with a beta version that has three fixed timer tools (one being a “15 Minute Meeting Tool” which can be used for the morning huddles I wrote about recently). But it has flaws (the timer stops working when the screen goes to sleep!) and we had it designed only for iPhones/iPads (at the time my phone was too old to add new apps, so I never even used it myself, let alone shared it with anyone else). It was a beta idea that had used up some of our valuable time and money, and it sat there in the “fun-ideas-that-didn’t-go-anywhere” graveyard.

But not any more! I decided that, with this final blog in my “Monthly Resolution Club” goal of reviving my train-of-thought blogging, I would finally explode the on-going guilt I have carried around about this darn app-less app by transforming the experience mentally from a “total waste of people’s time and money” project to a “learning opportunity for myself and, hopefully, others.” So here goes… this is what I learned from making an app we never used:

  • For projects to transform from a fun side project into something real, it needs to have a champion who is really passionate about it. I had put the initial energy into the idea, but I wasn’t passionate enough about it to keep sustaining that momentum. I have seen this time and again in my own work and the projects of other people: something might seem like a fun idea in the moment, but to make anything last past a few initial meetings, someone needs to REALLY care about it. Ideas are a dime a dozen – execution takes time and isn’t always as “fun.” In order to be willing to execute through to the end you have to allocate the time, be willing to prioritize it, and care enough about it to want to do those things. (Images of the chapter of our Leanring Service book I am mid-editing are flashing through my mind right now! I’ll get there on that one though – because I do care about it and I think it does have more social value than a lonely little timer app… but indeed, this too is a case of prioritising and sustaining momentum for something to the end without moving on to the “new” thing… something I am clearly working on!)
  • There is a difference between a “fun idea” and a real “problem to be solved.” In working with dozens of students, and dozens of my own ideas, I have seen this time and again: we often get wrapped up in a fun idea and can sometimes disguise it as a “problem we are solving.” When someone really cares about solving a problem they really learn about that problem, all of the current solutions that are out there, and what the gaps are to solving that problem. This relates to the current research and work I am doing in my job around “apprenticing with a problem” – which I’ll also get into in a future blog. In the case of this app, sure, we did some skimming around for other apps that might solve our problem, but the fun that were exploring was more about “Let’s see what it’s like to make an app.” rather than “Let’s see how we can really solve this problem of having a timer that works for our needs and the needs of other people.” I don’t think it’s a problem to do things for fun, but the important thing is to be honest with ourselves about our goals.
  • Spare capacity can dry up. Since we were doing this as a fun side project, we didn’t put extensive dedicated resources and funding behind it, and instead paid a small amount to an already busy team to play with the idea with us. In the end, when Saket’s company had an investor looking to work with them, that investor rightfully didn’t want to see the staff being pulled off to side projects and our already side-lined side project got moved all the way to the actual line of the side line…. Poor little app – we didn’t give it all the love and time it needed to thrive.
  • It’s ok to play with fun ideas and it’s ok that they don’t all work. But the key part of my reconciliation with this latent app abandoning guilt is to get over myself and remember that it’s OK to play with ideas, try different things, and leave some apps out to dry. It might not be a “poor little app” after all – but rather a little life lesson in the form of an app. It’s in Beta, but hey, aren’t we all? I’m on the same page as Buddha in thinking that we’re all a work in progress…. And this app is therefor no different than you and I – it can certainly be a lot better, but it’s proud to be here as it is right now, sharing the lessons it can! (Sorry I called you a “poor little app”, little app!)

PS – Here’s the link to the free app, if you want to check it out. If you happen to be an app developer, or want to be, and you want the code for this app so you can build upon it and make it better, we’d be happy to give it to you for free so that this little app might gain new wings. Just drop me a note.

PSS – If you do download our free little beta app, you might notice that it’s part of a wider “Free-the-ideas” website we made and never did anything with either…. But that to is a blog post for next month I guess! Yet another idea looking for a happy home….!

24 June 2015 ~ 2 Comments

15 Minute Morning Meetings

Lots has been written about the value of morning “huddles” and many articles about entrepreneurship or “lean start-up” models are giving even more press to the concept of the morning team meeting. I had no idea it was a “thing” when Doug Beacom (now somewhat of a kraut tycoon) brought our first morning meeting to PEPY. Doug was one of PEPY’s first interns in 2006 (back when we had more interns than staff!) and I believe he had learned about morning huddles when working in a summer camp during his younger years. He brought us the morning meeting framework, which we adapted for our work in Cambodia.

Every work day (yep, 5 days a week!), we used to have a morning meeting, standing in a circle, which consisted of:

  • 5 minutes of updates: You would share something if you thought it was important for everyone to know or if you had a blockage in your work and you needed to ask for support that dayin order to move forward.
  • 5 minutes of logistics: Dates we needed to put in the calendar, timing of things (in Cambodia, it was often about the timing of the truck that would be going to or from our partner projects), the movement of different people so we knew when they would be out or where to find them, etc.
  • 5 minutes of acknowledgements: Thank yous, gratitude, respect, and love. This was a strange one at first as I am sure many wondered if we were really going to have people to thank for five minutes each morning. In the end, it was one of the best parts of setting our group culture and connecting us to the small wins each day. Even when we weren’t great at sitting back and reflecting on the bigger picture of our work, we could give thanks and high-fives to the daily steps it took to get there, and our morning meetings would sometimes involve thanks and gratitude to people outside of our circle: the man at the ministry of foreign affairs who finally granted a visa we needed or the guy who fixed the truck when it broke down (again!) the day before, etc. It not only kept people in the loop about the wider network of support that was fueling our progress but also left us all with a really happy feeling as we walked into the rest of our day.
  • A quick “Go team!” (with the requisite fist-pump) to close out the meeting. No explanation necessary :-)

Not everyone needed to share something every day – that was the point. It wasn’t a laundry list of “this is what I am working on” but rather a chance to speak up if you had something you thought would be useful to share that day, and a chance to listen and get caught up on the wider ecosystem of the groups work even if you weren’t speaking.

It wasn’t always 15 minutes (we needed the timer app which I’ll write about in my next post!) – but we created practices that helped keep us more on-track, like putting things in a “sidebar” if the conversation was getting off-track. To rotate the responsibility of keeping us on time, we would periodically change the time keeper/facilitator. Once we hired a lovely woman called Bopha we decided to stop rotating the facilitator and just asked Bopha to do it each morning, as her “Goooooooodmorning everybody!” was so joyful that no one could compete with her ability to deliver an upbeat day. (Yes, this is coming from me, the optimistic American – Bopha’s morning positivity had me beat by miles.)

Nearly every work-day morning for almost five years we had a standing morning meeting, and though I might not have realized it at the time, it was a cornerstone of our team’s coordination. It was not only how we shared little bits of joy and gratitude, but how we kept up to date about the wider workings of the organization, the upcoming needs, and the networks we were working within. When PEPY’s staff size was at its height, we were nearly 50 people, so keeping the morning meeting culture alive got push back from time to time, but I believe it was a fundamental tool for our work. In my final year in Cambodia we moved to only doing the meeting a few times a week, as we had multiple office locations, and though I know it continued for a bit after I left, I’m not sure if the tool is still part of the PEPY team culture. Perhaps it was replaced by any number of other useful tools for keeping a team connected and moving forward.

In my new role in Oxford we have been trying to figure out how to keep a wide networked group, spanning a few teams, connected and up to date on each other’s work, and have instated a weekly morning meeting across our Centres (Centers for you Americans). This one is less sweaty than those in our air-conditioning-free Cambodian office, and has less languages being spoken at once, but it’s a good reminder to me that it is a really useful tool to keep up momentum and communication.

If you are reading this far (thanks!), I’d love to hear other ideas for tools, ways to keep meetings efficient, or any other tips you have on building effective communication, efficiency, and momentum in teams. Books are useful, but it’s sometimes even more useful to hear from your network about what people are really trying and how it is working. By sharing these tips, the tricks of running an effective and safe summer camp can lead to more productive work around the world. (Thanks again, Doug, for this valuable gift so many years ago!).

What tools are YOU using – or what reflections do you have on “huddles”? Thanks for sharing!

21 June 2015 ~ 0 Comments

A whisk

I’ve heard the term to be “whisked off your feet” but I’ve never considered “a whisk” as a noun, apart from the mixing tool in the kitchen, of course. When my husband bought us surprise tickets to Istanbul for the weekend as a gift for my birthday, a friend referred to it as “a whisk,” and indeed, off my feet I am.

With less than 40 hours on the ground in Turkey, and the need to sleep for at least some of that in order to be awake for work tomorrow, our time was limited, yet it certainly did feel like a worthwhile adventure: the history and religious mix of the Hagia Sophia, the call to prayer and visits to a range of mosques culminating with the magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque looking over the port, a ferry over to the Asian side of the city for an exceptional meal with an old friend and her new baby, a look at the upside-down head of Medusa in the Basilica Cistern which used to be part of a working network of cisterns housing enough water to serve the city – of about a million people at the time – for a whole year if under siege, a look at the modern city of over 14 million from a rooftop bar with the lights of the mosques and their Ramadan signs lighting the sky, the spice bazaar and grand bazaar (No, we didn’t buy a rug, but we were certainly tempted! But we do now have a lot of yummy tea!), a taste of famous pudding (our chosen establishment boasted being open since 1867), a walk over the Bosphorus with dozens of fisherman lining the walk, and of course, as no visit to Istanbul is complete without it, a scrub down by a Turkish lady in a 16th-century Ottoman-style bath house. And that was all yesterday….. today, we slept in a bit, had a quick meal, and are now already on our flight home.

A whisk indeed.

I feel “whisked away”, but my heart and mind feel like they got whipped by this whisk as well. I feel so grateful and lucky to be able to spend a weekend traveling to such an exciting, vibrant, and far away place, and still be back in time to work in a job I enjoy in Oxford on Monday. I feel so lucky to have a husband who planned a series of thoughtful surprises and who goes out of his way to shower me with love while also still holding the bar high to help me be a better me. The confusing part of my feelings of gratitude and love are when they get mixed with feelings of guilt and responsibility – how was it that I got to be so lucky? Is it fair? What responsibilities, or better yet, opportunities, come with this privilege?

We found out while we were away that a dear friend of ours, who is 8 months pregnant and was recently diagnosed with cancer will be undergoing expensive and extensive treatments. This morning, as we discussed the news, we saw a couple begging in the street with a sign saying “We’re from Syria. Please help us.” My friend who lives in Istanbul had noted to us that there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have poured into the city, more than they can count, and that a homelessness and joblessness problem is bursting at the seams due to this influx of need. I felt torn: I was struck by the juxtaposition of my own feelings as I choose to walk by, head down, torn about giving money to a couple begging on the street, yet eager to give funds and support to a couple at home with a different set of needs. And my sense of joy, love, gratitude, adventure, and privileged sent that into even more of a kitchen whisk whirlwind of thoughts.

I’m reminded that my “privilege” is not measured by my bank account, but by the advantages and protection that come with being part of a global network of well-connected people: in fact this trip was an example of that. My husband told me on Thursday that we were flying to Istanbul on Friday, and with one Facebook post we had dozens of recommendations of places to stay, shops to visit, family members to send regards to, and tips to make our adventure more enjoyable. I know that when I hit rough times in my life, that same network will help me out, connecting me to whatever it is that I need next: be it recommendations for a job, a couch to sleep on, or a friendly ear. My reserves in a time of need are actually held within that vast wealth of good-will and love that comes with being connected to a network of support. The question then becomes, how do I use that network in support of those outside of our immediate web?

I write about these dichotomies often in my work on volunteer travel – in fact I was recently editing a part of our book on Learning Service that talks about these often unproductive feelings: the sense of burden that can weigh on those who want to “do good in the world” juxtaposed with an ineffective righteousness that is often unduly touted by those of us trying to “fix” other people’s problems. I know guilt is an unproductive driver, and, as the students in the leadership programme I run know, I’m acutely aware of the dangers of letting “shoulds, musts, and have-tos” run your life: I often remind the students I work with that those words are the barriers to choice and self-determination towards productive change. So as I share these thoughts in contemplation, I am doing my best to remove any “shoulds” or self-judgements, and instead just lay them naked in this blog to examine and consider in a hope that in writing them down, I can work through my own thoughts on what I “could” do next.

Today my choice was to share my “whisking” and so, there it is. A wonderful whirlwind journey reminding me of the whirlwind of feelings that living as a human in this time of growing disparity of wealth yet increasing interconnectivity can produce. And in my effort to write four blogs this month without self-judgement of how “good” they are, I’m sharing this straight from the plane, with the smell of the hammam’s olive oil soap still lingering and the taste of Turkish delights fresh in my memory. My wish for today is that both couples, the one living on the streets of Istanbul and our friends going into the hospital today, find joy, support from the compassion of strangers and friends, and that I find a way to channel the love and joy of being whisked away into joy for others, far beyond my personal network of Friends.

17 June 2015 ~ 0 Comments

Back to blogging

It’s been a while since I’ve really “blogged”. I’ve written “articles” or worked on “papers” – but increasingly over the years since I started this blog, I’ve gotten bogged down in the trap of making the “perfect” the enemy of the “good”.

When I was living in Cambodia and working at PEPY we had a monthly newsletter, and I’d often write articles in there about the lessons I was learning. Increasingly, our newsletters got more “professional” and the lessons I was learning more tangential from the target of our work – in other words, it stopped seeming appropriate to have an article from me questioning some aspect of development work next to an article about our development projects, so I needed to find another place to write.

When I started this blog, I’d have an idea for something I wanted to capture or think about through writing, and I’d sit down, write, and click submit. Much to my spell-checking mother’s chagrin, I’d rarely even re-read them before posting my thoughts (though to be honest, I can’t complain, as it’s lovely that my lovely mother was even reading the darn thing… let alone sending back grammar edits!!)

When more people outside of my immediate family started reading the blog, I started to at least spell-check a bit (sometimes!), and slowly I’d start running articles by people. My husband would say something like “It’s good, but the middle section could use more work and I don’t understand your point here…” and I’d agree, it did need more work… but I didn’t have the time or motivation right then to make it work, so I’d shelf the piece, my interest in it would fade, and I’d move on to learning the next lesson with a 98% done, not-so-great-but-not-horrible blog post sitting in the “To write” folder on my computer. They are named things like:

  • International developreneurship (Coming soon to an emerging market near you! No need for an explanation here)
  • The Tapas Generation (about this generation that wants to try lots of things in our lives and careers and might never get to the “main course”)
  • Executioner wanted (about the bajillion ideas that I and others have that are waiting around for someone to execute)
  • Why does your child want to be a ‘social entrepreneur’
  • Etc.

There are the beginnings of posts about the meeting timer app my friends and I made, a half-completed website where people can “free their ideas”, an intro to the gratitude journal we published, and so many other nearly done by just not quite there projects.

I just checked the folder, and it now has more than 20 blog posts in it, all waiting in blog post purgatory, hoping for an online home some day. And they might get it! Some friends and I have a “monthly resolution club” and this month my resolution is to post four blog posts – to get over myself, to not worry about making anything perfect, to get back to the fun and flow of writing and sending and not really caring what people think about it, and getting some of my train-of-thought pieces out into the world…. So here I go.

It’s 17 days into the month so I better get cracking:
Monthly resolution ¼ complete.
Freeing myself of the chains of blogging-editing-perfectionism: In process.
Posting without obsessive editing: DONE!

11 May 2015 ~ 0 Comments

Does this ‘Nepal’ image make you want to build these children a home?

Claire Bennett (of Learning Service) wrote a follow up piece to her first viral article on the Guardian. If this image of “Nepali” kids makes you want to donate to orphanages, look again.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/07/nepal-children-image-orphanages-donate

11 May 2015 ~ 0 Comments

Ode to my red bike

I first laid eyes on my red Specialized Hardrock bike in June 2004, as I prepared to cycle halfway across Japan for a month. You’d think someone who was just weeks away from a multi-week cycle ride would own a bike, but I didn’t, and I had no idea what doors I was about to start opening. Some of my fellow cyclists on the BEE Ride, an annual environmental education ride across Japan, opted for higher-end bikes with lighter frames, upgraded parts, or fancier Shimano components. For me, the Hardrock was such an upgrade from any bike I’d ever owned, I stuck with the standard offering, solid and sturdy.

BEE-Japan

BEE Japan (2004)

 

And sturdy she has been. She carried me across Japan that summer, stopping at Patagonia shops to do talks on the environment, visits to Japanese school and community groups, and a few days at the Sado Island festival for performances by Kodo, the breathtaking Japanese drummers. We had front and back panniers (which I later upgraded to amazing Arkel ones) for of carrying our bike gear as well as food, a sleeping bag, a tent, and all sorts of camping gear. We rarely needed the camping gear though, as each night we’d pull into an onsen, a Japanese hot spring building, which are nearly ubiquitous in towns across the country, and as we were a mixed group of Japanese and foreign riders, we’d attract a lot of attention. It was rare that someone didn’t offer us a place to stay or a meal to eat, with invites to sleep in the tatami rooms of many onsen, to set up our tents on the steps under the awning of the ferry building in the rain, or to eat in someone’s home. Each night, tired, dusty, and proud, we’d go to bed with aching muscles, feeling like we really deserved the food and sleep we indulged in. I was hooked. Why drive or fly across a country when you could see it at a more human pace, gliding through towns, able to stop and chat as you liked, and feeling stronger and more alive with every pedal.

The first PEPY Ride (2005)

The first PEPY Ride (2005)

I had already had a dream of biking across Cambodia, inspired by other friends who had done the same a few years prior, and the trip across Japan made me determined to plan my next ride. The first PEPY Ride, our annual cycle trip across Cambodia, started in December 2005, and once again, my trusty red steed carried me across the land. This time, the red dust wafted up all around me, camouflaging me and my trusty chariot, and leaving me to pick out dust from my finger nails for weeks afterwards. At the time, I didn’t realize our five week journey would lead to many years of living and working in Cambodia, nor could I have imagined that I’d be in Siem Reap again for the 10th annual PEPY Ride recently!

Biking across Cambodia

Biking across Cambodia

And you might not believe this if you ride anything other than a Hardrock, but my bike is going strong. It has ridden across Cambodia many times, and 10 years after I got her, nearly all of her parts are still the original ones from that first ride in Japan. In fact, it took more than 3 years before I even got a flat tire, and the day I mentioned to someone, “My bike has ridden across two countries, one of them three times, and yet had nothing so much as a flat tire yet!” was actually the day I got my first flat. I guess my bike was listening and thought it should try to fit in with the rest of the bikes. It’s only had one other flat in the decade (knock on wood!).

The PEPY Ride X (Jan 2015)

The PEPY Ride X (Jan 2015)

In a last minute decision, I decided to bring my lovely Specialized bike to the UK with me after my last bike ride in Cambodia, so here she is now, taking me on my daily commute to work, going strong, and reminding me of all of the friends, fields, and fatigue she has brought me over the years… Anyone up for a bike ride to Paris?

27 April 2015 ~ 0 Comments

Read this before jumping on a plane to Nepal

A blog post on the Guardian today by Claire Bennett (fellow Learning Service writer).  Based on the number of comments, this is a hot topic! Check it out here.