I had the immense privilege of listening to two prestigious experts in their field, with a common research object and practice, meditation. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche who is a Tibetan Buddhist master and meditation teacher, and Dr Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry who is well known for his research on the brain and meditation, and is a friend of the Dalai Lama.
They talked us about meditation, how it can help decision makers. The conference was a pleasant dance between teachings about meditation, small meditation exercises, and scientific facts that confirm the importance of the meditation practice for more awareness for better decision-making. My visual notes:
Big thank you to my colleagues Carles BlasChloé Dengis who invited these two persons and organised the conference so well.
“Each story is like a star. It is bright, shiny and grabs our attention. Stories find their home in narratives, like stars in constellations, and each individual story makes sense and is believable only if it attaches to a narrative. Stories bring narratives to life, while narratives infuse stories with deeper meaning. Taken together, stories and narratives shape our culture.”
I really love this metaphor used by Nayantara Sen and other cultural strategists. I could only sketch it so that it was even more part of me. It gave meaning to a quest I carried out for 10 years. Today it guides me in many work projects and helps me to better understand the societal changes around cultures.
This is the story of how this metaphor came to me. It all started with stardust, with a tagline.
Somewhere in 2012, I asked my Director-General “- Walter [Deffaa], how would you explain to your daughter who knows nothing about it, what the Directorate-General for Regional Policy you lead does, in a tagline?”. He slumped in his chair and replied “– Claudio, I’ll never do it. What we do is far too complex to be summed up in a single sentence.“
I remember my confusion. As internal communicator, I was always looking for ways to motivate colleagues in DG Regional Policy, to put stars (12) in their eyes and make them proud of their work. I expected from my Director-General a motto that expresses our purpose and our activities. Something easy to remember, in which each of us could identify, could draw pride and motivation from it. Kind of like the motto a janitor of the NASA space centre gave President JFQ in 1962 “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
If a tagline is too short to sum up the complexity of what we do, maybe a story would do, I thought. Not only can a story convey information but it does much more than that. A story activates our imagination, involves our senses, triggers our emotions, transmits values and social principles, connects us to identities. Also our brain fundamentally structures and relates our human experiences through stories. That’s why people love and remember stories. As Jung Chang told me in 2013 “- If you tell your message through a story, people will remember your message. Because they will remember the story“.
Convinced of this, I worked for a long time with my colleagues in the communication unit to write the story that tells our organisation, the DG Regional Policy.
The fact is that we never managed to create The perfect story that tells what DG Regional Policy does, and why, in a comprehensive, inspiring, and memorable way. Even just a good story, in my opinion, despite the efforts of my colleagues1 . In my quest, I came to question my idea of one story that would tell everything. And because nothing comes by chance, I watched “The dangers of the single story” TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I suddenly had the conviction that we were, I was on the wrong track from the beginning. From the TED talk: “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of their stories of that place and that person.“, and also “when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.“
How could one story be the entire story? We had to think of a collection of stories rather than a single story. Not only did we have to tell stories, lots of stories, but above all not to create them ourselves, we the communication experts. These stories had to be told by those who lived them, by the protagonists.
This is how we, Eva Maria S. and I, created the “Our stories” internal video series, the first narrative. Within two years, we interviewed more than 130 colleagues. We asked them to tell us their little big stories of what they do in their work, which we filmed and published internally. The series was a source of inspiration and motivation for all staff to do more, to do things differently, with joy and together. The series made it possible to understand the narrative of what we were doing and how, but it still lacked the narrative of why we were doing it, the meaning.
With Agnès M., I then imagined a new collection of stories, for another narrative. “An aggregate of similar stories that produces a meaning-making pattern” to better understand who we are, and why we do what we do. It was time to leave our walls and our colleagues to go to the field to collect other stories. The little big stories of the beneficiaries of the European funds for which we worked. As I explained to my colleagues in the vision paper for the launch of the series in 2019 “this collection of stories constitutes the compelling narrative that will broaden our spectrum of vision to the meaning of what we all do together for the ultimate benefit of the citizens of Europe.” You can watch and listen to these little big stories on Youtube in the “Stories from the regions” playlist.
With great humility, I don’t believe that these constellations of stories have brought about any cultural change in DG Regional Policy. That was not the objective. At most, the colleagues who have taken the trouble to listen to the stories hopefully better understand the deeper meaning of their daily work, as well as the culture of our organisation. That was the objective.
According to Nayantara Sen in Stories for change: “to transform our culture, we begin by changing the stories that we tell. Because each story has the power to shift narratives, and by extension, change belief systems in our culture“. The objective was not to change our culture in DG Regional Policy, so we collected and told the stories that supported our current narratives. To instill a culture change in the organisation – useful for any organisation that wants to evolve and adapt – it would take humility and audacity to collect other stories, to use other storytelling models, in order to shift the current commonly accepted narratives. This is the biggest lesson I learned on my journey from stardust (a tagline) to galaxies (cultures).
My colleagues in the communication unit of DG Regional Policy continued the reflection and came up with this motto that you can read on the Regional Policy website: “Regional policy is the EU’s main investment policy. It supports job creation, competitiveness, economic growth, improved quality of life and sustainable development, leaving no one and no region behind.” Well, my former Director-General, Walter Deffaa, was right in 2012. It’s impossible to sum up the complexity of who we are and what we do in a single sentence, however elegant and punchy it may be.
To better support the change in the ways of working within the European Commission, a group of colleagues from different teams have decided to join forces in a collective. The idea is to bring together within the same entity all the existing teams which support, facilitate, advise on change, whether they come from the field of HR, organisational development, coaching, consulting, IT, science, governance, data and knowledge management, facilitation, etc. A few days ago, 40+ members of these teams came together for the first time. I had the privilege of being part of these colleagues as a participant and as a host with Ildikó Faber, Mira Bangel, Snezha Kazakova, Fania Pallikarakis, Antonella Tarallo, and Suvi.
One of my roles was to bring visual thinking to the day’s sessions. To help get to know each other better, a session was about creating a competencies visual map. I proposed to colleagues to use wool threads to link their name to competencies, teams and entities on a large board. The session was very dynamic and the result very visual.
To create a common understanding of the mandate of the new entity, we used an hand-made illustration of its 3 pillars. During the session, it was easier for my colleagues speakers to support their explanations and stories with the illustration, while the participants could more easily understand what was presented.
Visual thinking is a work tool that is increasingly used at the European Commission. A tool for making sense, which helps to clarify ideas, to better understand and remember.
My takeaway from conversations that I captured visually
Our brain has great difficulty understanding a complex system with only words. A visual can bring clarity about the complexity and eventually show that what appears to be complex is just complicated.
Over 200 colleagues from across the JRC, the European Commission’s science and knowledge department, met for the launch of their future new transversal working structures, the JRC scientific portfolios. The goal was to engage and discuss around the journey they are about to embark upon together. As with any departure, there was excitement but also some fear sometimes in the face of the unknown.
During a large World Café exercise, colleagues discussed the many outstanding issues, roles and responsibilities, collaboration, resources, to name but a few. At the end, each conversation table shared their main conclusions with everyone. The large number of points, open questions, as well as the numerous interlinkages, made it difficult not to qualify the portfolios system as complex.
My task was to take visual notes of the conclusions, the typical graphic harvesting of a World Café. Because it was too much, too dense and fast, I just noted on post-its the key words and few arrows. Afterwards I put on a large paper a first draft of all of that. Only then did I reorder the points and the connections to create a mind-map on my iPad.
In his report after the event in which he used my visuals, Stephen Quest, the JRC Director-General, said “the portfolios must not become another layer of complexity. Rather, we need to use them to help navigate our complexity.” I am happy and proud to have been able to bring clarity to this apparent complexity with my visual, and I hope I have reduced it to something only complicated.
Two other graphic recordings of the presentations the day before:
And the video to illustrate my visual thinking process in three steps: post-its > draft on large paper > mind map on iPad.
Who has never wondered how to reduce their workload? But who has never found a solution to the question, which is not episodic or ridiculous in terms of real benefits?
My colleague Oliver Kozak brought his scientific and systemic approach to present how continuous improvement can help us to really reduce worlkload.
The objective is to free up enough time to be able to start improving, in order to free up even more time up to 40% to be able to improve continuously and ultimately create much more value at work (by moving from the Spend-It-All team model to the Time-Investor team model). How to get there concretely? By improving in three areas: (your) work processes, team efficiency, and organisation development. Important: you have to go slowly, step by step, with persistence day after day, be patient, and get support.
In a nutshell, the article rightly says that traditional change management, the destination model, is often just a one–off. The journey model is about learning and experience. And the building model is about creating a long term culture with change-ability in the organisation DNA.
My colleague Valeria Croce asked me to record visually two fantastic sessions she organised on “Trust” with renowned speakers. I reproduce here, to accompany my visual notes, the essential passages of the articles that Valeria wrote after the sessions, as a report.
Resilient teams: how trust underpins care and performance in teams
To trust each other at work is even more important in the context of hybrid or remote work, with limited human interaction and the difficulty to reach out to new people!
Chris Tamdjidi shared with us the evidence and learnings he collected through the years working with teams inside and outside the Commission, focussing on the important role of trust in teamwork. He observed that:
It is difficult to build a culture of collaboration: while most teams have established processes to perform tasks, they don’t have established processes to improve how they work together,
During Covid he observed an increase in individual productivity, but a decrease in collaborative productivity: it takes more effort to connect with others and collaborate in a remote setting.
We risk to work in micro-silos, narrow connections because of remote working – we maintain the relationships we already have, it takes efforts to build new ones.
This is why it is important to build team habits that help strengthen collaboration, team resilience and trust, especially in a hybrid environment. These habits are: Habits of attention; of connection; and of positivity.
Why being trusted (or distrusted) matters
Trust is critical to create an environment where colleagues collaborate, share knowledge, engage and contribute to the achievement of the shared purpose. Yet, trust-based relationships require time to be built. What can we do to start building trust from the very beginning of a new collaborative project with colleagues from outside our team or unit?
Hilary Sutcliffe and Vanja Skoric shared lessons they learned working for over 130 civil society projects.In a nutshell, they identify four areas, where most barriers to trust and collaboration can be found, namely:
Prior experiences and assumptions
Skills and procedures
Culture and incentives
Three aspects that are crucial to overcome barriers are: A (truly) shared purpose; a trustworthy process (based on seven drivers of trustworthiness: openness, integrity, competence, inclusion, respect and fairness); and a visible impact.