Lunchtime Learning Experiment

How do you share good practice and/or create a space for talking about big ideas?

About a month ago, I began toying with the idea of running some sort of lunchtime talk type.. thing.

From Weekly Braindump #29 :

I also posted a Tweet about it and was rewarded with some really excellent tips. (Having a network of bright, knowledgeable people at your finger tips is awesome — exhibit A)

Why bother running lunchtime learning sessions?

First and foremost, I saw it as a mechanism for enabling people to share practical experience and good practice outside the usual boundaries of departments/job titles. A more networked organisation is a faster learning, more adaptive organisation.

Secondly, I saw it as a designated space for people to talk about big ideas or or broad concepts that don’t naturally get an airing elsewhere. If, for example, you were thinking about the potential impacts of automation on us, tenants or society as a whole, how would you engage others about it or even find out who was interested?

With a very rough idea of what this looked like, I floated the idea on Yammer and crossed my fingers that anyone else would be similarly enthused.

About 20 people liked or commented on the post. That gave me enough confidence that if I did arrange something, I wouldn’t be sat in a room talking to myself.

Figuring out the finer details

A member of the senior management team enquired if this was purely intended for non-managers and directors. My gut feeling was that if the goal was to connect the dots and share learning, it had to be accessible to EVERYONE without exception. It wasn’t just about enabling conversation across the organisation, it was also about enabling it up and down.

My only minor concern was that the presence of a manager or director might inhibit people sharing so openly, or that people might start treating the sessions like just another form of meeting. Likewise, would managers/directors feel the burden to provide answers if open ended questions were asked?

I decided the we probably needed to define some guiding principles for people to follow. The first of which would be..

Please leave your job title at the door.

I saw this as a way to provide a safe space for discussion which was distinctly different from other situations where people might interact.

I wondered whether I might have to moderate the first few sessions to protect that principle. I stress, not because I thought anyone would *need* moderating, but more from the perspective of making sure everyone had the opportunity to contribute.

So, next job. Find some people to talk about stuff. Luckily, the comments on the initial Yammer post provided some good initial topics & speakers. Here are the things that initially surfaced..

Next question.. how many people should talk during a session.. and for how long? I initially landed on 3 speakers, 20 minutes per person. That felt like a good balance of keeping people on point whilst not making the thing last too long. Restricting it to an hour meant that someone *could* potentially spend their lunch break listening to all speakers if they chose to do so.

“When was this thing happening?” people started enquiring. Good question! Logically speaking it would happen when we had 3 people available to speak. So I set about checking availability of speakers and meeting rooms.

The 29th of June leapt out as a good date. And it was a couple of weeks away which gave people time to hear about it and block out their time. I set about inviting the speakers to see who could make it and then inviting anyone who had shown interest on the initial Yammer post.

Looking at the range of topics I began to wonder if some people might like to participate in some but maybe not the others. Would people feel the weight of expectation to sit through the whole thing?

If this really was going to be markedly different from a bog standard meeting, why not borrow some things from the unconference format to allow people to come and go as they liked. Principle number 2 was born!

If you are not actively learning or participating, you are free to leave! 🙂

To enable this to happen, I thought it might be wise to circulate who was speaking and at what time to allow people to dip in and out as they wanted. That’s one of the oddly liberating things I love about the unconference format. The law of two feet!

Sadly, I didn’t quite manage to A) get my bum in gear and B) secure a definite yes/no from all the speakers in enough time to put this into practice. But it’s definitely something I’ll do well ahead of time for the next one.

I added one final principle to the list. Given it was lunchtime it seemed entirely sensible..

Bring your own lunch.

What happened on the actual day?

Seating wise, I again liberally stole from the unconference playbook and arranged chairs in a circular fashion. This promoted a more equal dynamic rather than having someone stood in front of an audience ‘presenting’ (credit to Esko Reinikainen and Ben Proctor for some previous top tips on making unconferences a welcoming space). I had a projector on hand in case anyone wanted to use visual aids, and a flipchart on standby for potential scribbling.

My original plan was to not participate directly myself, but take more of a back seat facilitating and making sure everything ran smoothly. However, as I was short of speakers I decided to try and juggle facilitating and speaking.

I decided that regardless of who turned up to the actual sessions, it was important to capture any learning or discussions that took place and share them far and wide. I settled on the idea of storing those in a openly readable Google Doc for later posting on Yammer.

So, 12:30 arrived and 7 people turned up (as I was frantically putting the finishing touches to the broad outline of what I was going to later talk about.).

Our first topic was entitled ‘The Power of Data’. Whilst people talked I tried to capture the key points in the Google Document. I deliberated decide not to take traditional minutes, but rather just capture the flow of the conversation without directly attributing comments to anyone in particular.

As we had less speakers I let this session run 40 minutes, which was double what I’d originally envisioned. But, given the breadth of the topic (which morphed into ‘What sort of data do we hold? Who’s responsible for it? How can we make better use of it?’) it was actually just enough time to start asking some really interesting probing questions.

I used the remaining 20 minutes to run through my own session which was all about my experience of attempting to use Kanban to organise my work. Here’s a link to my hastily composed notes so you can see the sort of information we’re sharing with the rest of the organisation.

I then created a Yammer group for ‘Lunchtime Learning’ and created separate posts for each session, attaching the notes in the process. My thinking was this would ensure that any discussion would be kept specific to each topic and make it easier for reference in the future.

What have I learned?

So — that’s the first experiment concluded. What did I learn?

  • It confirmed my belief that people’s range of interests and talents are often not represented by their official job title.
  • I need to confirm who’s talking and about what a earlier so that people have the flexibility to come for just the stuff they are interested in. (And also know it’s being talked about!)
  • Topics of discussion fall into two broad categories. Sharing good practice & I want to start a discussion about X. I feel like the former is okay in a 20 minute slot, but the latter benefits from 40 minutes to get to the core issues.
  • I’ve got some thoughts on how to positively frame the more open discussions. I haven’t overtly promoted that as yet as I’ve not really needed to. But for the future I think it’s wise to avoid any situations where sessions inadvertently turn into a ‘Why don’t <this set of people> do <thing I’d like them to do>?’.
  • I think we need some sort of call to action at the end of these things. Something which encourages people to move forward with anything that resonated with them.
  • I need some way of capturing outcomes of these events. Has anything tangibly changed for the better? (If not — ditch it!)

If you’ve done anything like this or have any thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear from you!

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