Calgary Learning Adventure!

Sue's picture

The Group Pattern Language Project has just returned from our first ever 'field trip'-- and what an adventure it was!  Three core team members-- Daniel Lindenberger, Tree Bressen and Sue Woehrlin-- spent five days in Calgary, Alberta learning new ways that Group Works can be used to support large scale organizational change.  Over the last year we'd been hearing rumors that over 6,000 City employees, and a couple thousand more citizens had had their hands on Group Works cards, and we'd certainly noticed a geographical concentration of deck sales in the area, so we decided we just had to go see for ourselves what was happening in northern stampede country!

Our hosts, teachers and collaborators for the week were 4 of the 5 team members who for the past two years have lead the City of Calgary's Cultural Transformation Project: Dave Plouffe (Engagement Lead), DJ Kelly (Strategy Lead), Beth Gignac (Lead and Culture Coach), and Ken Cameron (citizen 'raconteur'!). What a talented, committed and innovative bunch of change agents!  

We spent the first day interviewing them about how they initially incorporated Group Works into the daily life of their team: drawing a card a day for random guidance, using the deck to plan upcoming meetings and scope out phases and aspects of their big initiative.  Indeed, one of the things that struck us most was the organic way team members had integrated the group pattern language into their thinking and speech.  That is, even without the cards in sight, they would say things like: "Oh, let's follow the group energy here" or "Guess it's time to inform the group mind" or "The experts on tap for this session were..."  It was so inspiring to see the group pattern language embodied so fully!

Then we heard about that 'aha' moment when the team realized they could actually use the Group Works deck as one of the primary engagement tools in their cultural transformation project (along with Appreciative Inquiry) to directly help surface and articulate core values to guide the City's work with/for citizens. 

They did this by asking thousands of employees (in hour long workshops by functional groups) to tell a story using three group pattern cards about their best/ideal work day and then prioritizing the top ones.  They did this in the board room of the City Manager, with the City's legal staff, community and neighborhood services managers, safety officers, and with road maintenance crews out in Quonset huts along the highway at 6 am between the night and day shifts.  The selected patterns that served as the core for each person’s story were sorted by habits, behaviors and attitudes, and then tallied.  Eventually tallies from all 62 sessions were synthesized and 7 patterns emerged: Listening, Purpose, Commitment, Taking Responsibility, Simplify, Transparency and Appreciation. These have now been adopted as guiding values for the City. 

The 'Calgary team' reflected that what made the cards such an ideal tool is that they were engaging to play with (the images and colors drew people in), easy to synthesize (versus thousands of post-its of differing ways of describing values), they reduced bias, were accessible to a wide range of stakeholders, and were infinitely portable (didn't require technology other than a plastic bin to carry them around in!).  Most powerful of all, the group pattern cards provided a common language that allowed all the involved City employees and citizens to express their voice in the process.  

And all this was just the first day of our visit!  Day two we participated in two different workshops that Dave, Beth, DJ and Ken co-led.  We delighted in witnessing them in action incorporating the cards into whatever they do. The morning session involved the community of practice comprised of those who lead Learning and Development efforts for the City.  The cards were used in a ‘collective impact’ exercise as a tool to help participants envision next steps in their coordinated efforts.  The afternoon was a brainstorming session for those invested in creating an ‘innovation lab’ for the City.  Here the Group Works cards were used both to tell innovation stories, and then in an exercise to visually 'map' aspects/ phases/ underlying patterns of what such an endeavor might look like.  

That evening several of us attended the monthly gathering of the local IAP2 (International Association for Public Participation) "Wildrose" chapter-- a wonderful networking opportunity.  By the way, Dave Plouffe and his team were just awarded the organization of the year award from IAP2 in Winnipeg this past week for their Cultural Transformation Project work.  And last winter IAF (international Association of Facilitators) awarded them their Platinum award!

Day Three we facilitated back-to-back half day introductory Group Works workshops for a total of 60 city employees who were quite enthusiastic about the cards' applicability to their work in a wide variety of different departments. 

Day four we offered a workshop to the general public attended by some 30 folks--mainly more community-based in their work.  We teamed up with a local facilitator, Alla Guelber, for this.  In our workshops we’re continuing to experiment with new ways to teach Group Works applications.  The addition of category cards with the second deck printing has sparked new exercises, such as an organizational assessment using just the nine categories.

Friday night both teams celebrated a very full week at a local beer pub….  Then Saturday morning Daniel, Tree and Sue debriefed for a couple of hours at the Calgary airport before catching our respective flights home.

Of course we are still digesting all that we've learned and looking for further ways to share the learning.  For starters, Dave Plouffe and Sue Woehrlin will be presenting on this case application of Group Works October 18th at the upcoming NCDD (National Coalition for Dialog & Deliberation) conference in Reston, VA.  Also, we are in the process of making a short video about the "Calgary Story" which we will post in another month or so on the Group Works website on a special new page with other documentation about the ground breaking work being done there using the group pattern language.


Kavana Tree's picture

Thanks Sue for sending out this update.  A few add-ons from me, some of my own personal take-aways:

1. Embeddedness

Sue wrote:

"Indeed, one of the things that struck us most was the organic way team members had integrated the group pattern language into their thinking and speech." 

Agreed!  Honestly, they have integrated it more than our own team has.  Not only do they bring phrases from Group Works into daily use, they also use the cards quite naturally in a huge wide variety of ways--internally, they use them as part of practically every operation!  For example, when starting each phase of their Appreciative Inquiry, each team member chose cards to represent personal goals during that phase; these cards were tacked up onto a poster that stayed up throughout that phase, and then at the end of the phase they would talk over how they did.  Some of their members draw a personal card of the day daily, usually using the "random draw" feature on the iPhone app.  I could go on, but basically the point is that because their team has created a shared culture around this, it has become embedded far more than any individual would ever achieve on their own.

2. Safe Space for Speaking from the Heart

When we were in the process of writing and first publishing the patterns, i heard a lot of concern from people along the lines of "The cards seem very [northwest] [new age] [woo-woo]."  My typical response was two-fold:  (a) we're following the data, and (b) if you think the group you are using them with won't respond well to cards like Spirit and Magic, feel free to take them out of the deck before that meeting.  The "following the data" comment arose from the first ever meeting of this project, 9 people at my house for 5 days in December 2008.  There was a go-round at one point where these experienced practitioners were reflecting on their most successful work, and every single one of them, whether doing corporate scenario planning or technology development or nonprofit boards or whatever other divergent sector, all acknowledged something like Spirit being a real and present factor in the work--also that none of us were openly talking about that factor with our clients, nor with our students, because it didn't seem safe.  Fascinating!  

What i realized from the extensive discussions in Calgary, where as Sue mentioned, the GW cards were used in meetings with roads pavers and lawyers and recycling haulers and security guards, is that much of their value actually arises from their heartfulness, from their emotional expression (through both words & pictures), perhaps even from their "spiritualness" (if that doesn't sound horribly pretentious).  We live in a society that does not allow open airing of emotions in the occasions we call "meetings."  Yet emotional and relational connectedness is how a lot of real business gets done, and in my long experience is how the toughest problems get solved.  Having that language on the cards allows people to use them as a stand-in for things that either haven't been safe to say or haven't even been internally articulated yet.  You can point to a card like Discharging or Tend Relationships or Appreciation or Honour Each Person and say, "This. We need this."  

3. Breadth of Content Application

Until the trip to Calgary, i had been limited in my thinking about applications.  I thought the cards were mainly useful for talking about process.  Fine for those of us who are facilitators who live and breathe this stuff, but what about everybody else?  What i learned from occasions like this:

"The afternoon was a brainstorming session for those invested in creating an ‘innovation lab’ for the City.  Here the Group Works cards were used both to tell innovation stories, and then in an exercise to visually 'map' aspects/ phases/ underlying patterns of what such an endeavor might look like." 

is that the cards can be applied to a much wider range of content than i'd envisioned.  For an 'innovation lab' session:  pick 3 cards that tell your story of innovation.  For a 'learning and development meet-up':  pick 3 cards that tell your story as a learning and development professional.  And so on.  It turns out you can apply them to lots of meetings i'd never have used them in.  Wow!

A public thanks to the fine folks in Calgary who welcomed us into their lives and work for a very hectic week.  I know the implications of what i learned on this trip will continue to reverberate for a long time to come.  All of us who feel an aliveness in the pattern language are beneficiaries of the Calgary team's dedicated explorations.



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