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June 10, 2010

Life-Career Planning in an MBA program

"It worked! The images they picked really hit home in ways that surprised them."
From: Carol Connolly Bruce,
To: Chuck Palus
I used Visual Explorer in my Mid-Career MBA course at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
There are evening students, most over 30 years, all with work experience. One of their assignments was to create a Life-Career Plan. So I asked them to pick an image that represents their Current Reality as part of their Life-Career Story. Picking the image helped inform their writing of the story. In preparation for the Life-Career Plan, they picked a second image that represents their vision for their life/career. In the plan, they used Robert Fritz’s concepts of Structural Tension, Current Reality and Vision/Aspiration. Then they integrated the two images, Current Reality and Vision, and the steps it will take to move from the first to the second.

Many of them didn’t think they could do it, but I encouraged them to try and just see what happened. Well, it worked! The images they picked really hit home in ways that surprised them. Their plans were very good, lots of authentic self awareness and opening up to go after things they’ve wanted to do but have pushed aside due to limiting beliefs and mental models, which they were to uncover in their life/career stories. Several are really going for it as a result of the work they did in the course, all are much clearer on what they want. They also commented on how they have a sense of renewal and less fatigue about where they are in their work and lives.

Carol Connolly Bruce
The Center for Creative Leadership

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May 19, 2010

Visually exploring burn out

Cathy M. writes about her experience of Visual Explorer cards as introduced to her by her CCL feedback coach.This is a great illustration of using VE for one on one coaching, and also suggests a self-coaching process, in this case on the topic of burn out.
During my attendance at CCL for the Leadership Development Program, I was blessed to have TZiPi Radonsky as my feedback coach. Prior to attending CCL, I was going through a bit of professional and personal “burn out”. During my feedback session, TZiPi offered me a deck of cards that had a photograph on each card. My assignment was to file through the deck and pull out any cards with pictures that spoke to me in some way. I flipped through the deck and pulled out 7 cards that contained scenes that evoked peace, tranquility and joy in me and 1 card that represented destruction and burn out.
Two interesting things came from the experience:

1) My initial reaction to the burn out card revealed a picture of a bridge embankment that had been destroyed by a tornado or bomb. This demonstrated how I was feeling at that moment. After the empowering, feedback session with TZiPi that followed, I looked at the cards one more time and I couldn’t find the card with the destroyed embankment. I realized that the picture I originally saw as destruction was actually a beautiful bridge crossing a canal leading to a forested area. I was stunned at how being in a more peaceful, clear thinking place completely transformed the picture into something of beauty. Additionally, I never could get the picture back to the original view.

2) The second awareness I had from the card experience came about 4 weeks later. I had been working hard on my CCL goals which included getting back to a state of peace. I began noticing a sense of calm and tranquility in the following weeks and enjoyed recognizing things around me that previously gave me joy. These included:

a. Snow skiing - so I began planning a ski trip with friends this winter.
b. Music - so I purchased tickets for a Christmas concert with the symphony.
c. Nature - so I made a point to notice the sky through the Fall leaves above me on a lunchtime walk through the woods.
d. The beach – so I gathered several girlfriends and went to the beach for the weekend.

A few weeks later, I revisited the cards that I had chosen at CCL (TZiPi sent e-files of them to me) and I was amazed to discover that all of the activities I had planned and accomplished were depicted on the cards I had chosen with TZiPi.

This was quite remarkable. I was pleased to see that the things that evoke peace and joy for me are true even in times when I am in a non-positive place. And, I was impressed that visualizing things I enjoy motivated me to make them happen.
This was an exciting activity!

Cathy M.
CCL attendee, September 2008

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May 10, 2010

Metaphor My Life

Global Citizen Year Fellow Ananda Day talks about imagery, metaphor, and life:
"Some people live their lives in technicolor. Others live life in misery. And still others live in ignorance, bliss, knowledge, etc. While there may not be one way to live life, it has become blatantly obvious to me that almost everyone lives their life in metaphor."

Metaphor My Life

 Ananda Day Ananda Day
Two days ago, while struggling to fall asleep (due to the hilarious wolof jokes being told outside my window by ten Senegalese men), I pulled out a stack of Visual Explorer cards, from the Center for Creative Leadership, that I had gotten during training. Visual Explorer is basically a stack of really nice photographs that are card sized. I then asked myself questions, and tried to find out which picture perfectly explained my emotions or ideas about that question. It is surprising how much more you find out about yourself when you make yourself realize why one image or phrase resonates, and another doesn’t. This led me to think about how much of my life is explained like Visual Explorer – in metaphor.
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March 25, 2010

"Can this blind man do Visual Explorer ... ?"

"I was of course pleased to meet Enos and glad to have him as part of our program. My mind, however, began working overtime on how I would incorporate him into the upcoming Visual Explorer exercise. What could I do to be sensitive to this blind gentleman’s needs? ... "

Steadman Harrison at the Center for Creative Leadership sends us this story from the Leadership Beyond Boundaries initiative:
"In December 2006 I traveled to Kenya as part of a research initiative called Leadership Beyond Boundaries. I looked at the map and guessed that it would take me about an hour and a half by car to drive from the capital city of Nairobi up to a smaller town called Nakuru where I was to host a Leadership Forum Workshop for our contacts at ERMIS Africa. In Nairobi I hired a driver who agreed to take me out to Nakuru and we started our journey.

"Kenya is a very large country. The short trip I had anticipated turned into a nearly 4 hour drive across the Rift Valley ridge of mountains more than 8,000 feet above sea level. The road was last paved in the 1960s and at times the driver chose to drive off road because the potholes were so bad. At one point I looked out and saw a heard of zebras and asked if we could pull over so I could take a picture. The driver simply veered the car off the road and drove straight out into the field into the middle of the heard so I could see them better. This was the start of my adventure.

"I’ll focus here on one story that happened that first day at the workshop in Nakuru. I decided to set up Visual Explorer early in the morning before the workshop began as a bit of a backdrop and to create some intrigue about the activities we would cover later in the day. The colorful 8.5 by 11 pictures lined 3 of the walls of the conference room. This was an open enrollment workshop and my friend, Bancy, had sent out all the invitations. I had no idea how many participants we would have nor did I know anything about their backgrounds. As participants came in that morning I would introduce myself and some of them asked a few questions about all the pictures spread out around the room.

"Enos Awili was about the tenth person to join us that morning. He came in being led at the hand by a friend. Shortly after being seated he invited me to come over and speak with him where he told me a little bit about his life.
Born in 1950, I became blind as a result of infections by Trachoma and Glaucoma combined. I then went through the normal academic education in a residential school for the blind twenty-seven miles from Nairobi city. I then worked for a bread-producing company until it closed down in January 1993. Since then, I have not been in any gainful employment but thank the Lord for providing me with sponsors who paid school fees for my three children. Despite my financial problems I still feel it’s my duty to teach people about the ethics of good leadership and how to stay free from HIV and AIDS scourge. So I am here today as a representative for Persons with Disabilities National Council of Kenya and look forward to this program.
"I was, of course, pleased to meet Enos and glad to have him as part of our program. My mind, however, began working overtime on how I would incorporate him into the upcoming Visual Explorer exercise. What could I do to be sensitive to this gentleman’s needs? After introducing Visual Explorer that morning I promptly assured Enos that he could be fully involved in the exercise.

"As the exercise began I asked him to briefly describe both his organizational challenge and the ideal future state of his organization (the two questions I had asked the group to consider as they picked out their two pictures). I then led him around the room briefly describing each picture. To my surprise this didn’t take long. When we came across the picture of ‘a donkey with its feet tied together’ he exclaimed that this was his picture he was looking for. And when I described ‘the bird with outstretched wings having just caught a fish’ he said that this was his future organization. The really rich part of the exercise was watching Enos’s sheer delight as each of the members of his small group described the two pictures in great detail.

"At the end of our debrief, he was in tears as he shared what a great gift it was to be a part of such a wonderful exercise that captured the challenges facing the disabled people of East Africa and the hope that he had moving forward to a day when so many people in need would have the resources they needed to soar like eagles.

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March 08, 2010

Visual Explorer with the Afghan National Army

A collage of officer's VE images from the program

Earlier we looked at Visual Explorer in Afghanistan, used there in leadership development with the Afghan National Army. Clemson Turregano at CCL leads that work. Check out this great collage (top of post) they made of the VE images picked by the class--fabulous. The slideshow below puts the initiative in context and shows the program design.. But the very best part is this next story from Clemson, when his set of VE images got vetted by the local mullah ....
I had laid out the VE pictures in the hallway prior to the class. Going through the deck, I removed any that I thought might be culturally sensitive (women in shorts, that kind of thing). There were still pictures of women, but none that I found might be offensive to Islam. As I was about to welcome the students, a nice gentleman appeared in full Afghan regalia, toting a very nice camera. My translators informed me that he was the local imam, responsible for the area in which the school was located. He spoke a little English and informed me that he was a photographer and asked if he could look at the images. I replied that I welcomed his insight and asked if he might review the pictures so that they would meet all the ‘cultural’ requirements. I left him alone for a while and when I returned, he and I spotted the one picture I had overlooked – Lady Godiva on a horse. Before I could get to it, he looked to the one next to Lady Godiva and said ‘This one OK’ – then he saw Lady Godiva, and handing the picture to me, he stated, ‘this…not so much…’ We both laughed and then he stayed most of the day to watch the interaction with the class. When he left, he thanked me for allowing him to help us.

January 04, 2010

Effective Group Coaching

Jennifer Britton has a new book called Effective Group Coaching: Tried and Tested Tools and Resources for Optimum Coaching Results. On her blog she cites Visual Explorer as the first of My Five Favorite Group Coaching Tools This Year. An excerpt:

Thursday, December 17, 2009
My Favorite Group Coaching Tools This Year

Every year at this time, I like to look back and take stock of some of my favorite tools and resources of the year, and share them here on the blog.

This year, five of my favorite tools and resources are:
  • Visual Explorer from the Center For Creative Leadership. Those of you who joined me in Orlando know the power of this visual tool. I continue to bring it in to team and group coaching sessions, along with workshops and seminars as a conversation starter, and awareness builder. Visit CCL to learn more about the tool in its many different forms.
  • Facilitative Coaching by Dale Schwarz and Anne Davidson. This book is chock full of exercises and resources for your coaching work. Although geared primarily for a 1-1 setting you could adapt many of these for a group context.
  • MindMapping seems to make my list each and every year, but I do so love this tool for program design, brainstorming and getting clients unstuck. Check out the tag MindMapping for some ideas on how I use it. Once again, is the best computer based MindMapping tool around. Try out their 21 day free trial at

    More at the Group Coaching blog

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December 04, 2009

Opportunities to lead and experience full lives: Living the mission at UGARC

What does the mission statement mean to you?
What do you need to do for the mission statement to be fully achieved?
  - framing questions for the UGARC Visual Explorer sessions

Our colleagues at the social services organization Ulster-Greene ARC (UGARC) have been using Visual Explorer™ in a series of creative conversations to build understanding of and commitment to the mission among their 1000+ employees. The method involves gathering about 35 people at a time in three and a half hour sessions, with the Executive Director participating in each one. UGARC has been quite pleased with the process and the outcomes. What they are doing is a fascinating form of leadership, and leadership development. Let's take a closer look.

This post documents the details of the process so others can follow and adapt from it. All you need for the process is a set or two of Visual Explorer images, facilitators, a big enough room, and a worthy mission needing understanding and commitment!

(Thanks to all the fine people at UGARC! Thanks also to Al Selvin at Compendium Institute for helping to birth this process at UGARC; his detailed process notes are invaluable and are linked here.)

Some facts about UGARC, from their website:
We are a not-for-profit agency that serves nearly 2000 people who have developmental delays or disabilities throughout the mid-Hudson and Catskill Mountains (New York state) region. The disabilities include mental retardation, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, to name just a few.

Our vision: The dreams, desires and needs of people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities are realized through innovative services and advocacy.

Our mission: To offer people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities opportunities to live and experience full lives.
This is challenging and rewarding work, and it is not for everyone. It's vital that UGARC engages people explicitly and deeply around their shared direction. The mission is the reward--and if you don't believe that you may be working in the wrong place. UGARC built a wonderful process for this kind of engagement, a conversation using visual images as something in the middle to work with.

  • Staff at all levels will think about the mission with an open mind
  • People from different departments will creatively connect with each other
  • All staff will live the mission
  • 100% engagement in a non-threatening environment
  • More alignment to the mission within and across departments
  • Widespread renewal of passion for the mission
Here's a summary of the process.

Thirty five people at a time gather for three and a half hours in a comfortable place. The Executive Director talks briefly about the mission. People spend five minutes writing their thoughts (privately) about two questions:
1: What does the mission statement mean to you?
2: What do you need to do for the mission statement to be fully achieved?
Each person chooses two images, one for each question, from the Visual Explorer set, browsing all the images laid around the room. Groups of 5-6 sit in circles and share their images and their ideas about the two questions (in a process we call the Star Model, described below.) Then the whole group gets back together and talks about what they learned about the two questions, and how was it talking like that, and they have a good chat about the mission.

This is not complicated nor is it difficult. There are a few tricky aspects and clear instructions, and basic facilitation, are necessary. The script for the process used at UGARC is provided at the bottom of this post.

Here are some interesting observations that Bart Louwagie, their IT Director and a catalyst of this process, shared with me recently.
  • It's non-threatening. There is not much of a chance "to say the wrong thing."
  • 100% participation ensues naturally. It's fun and inviting.
  • The mission is in the foreground
  • Easy and simple, you can do it with your own staff
  • Overall feedback is very positive
  • People talk closely with each other in these sessions on many topics using many stories.
  • It's also a chance to get different departments (who attend together) to get on the same page
  • Now some people are using Visual Explorer in other places like staff meetings, or in their families
The following agenda spells out the process used at UGARC. The details can be adapted of course to fit a variety of objectives and contexts. (Here are slides from one of the sessions, which also produced the "hands on the mission" poster at the top of this post.)

Sample Agenda

8-9: Arrive
- Hand out first handout with the two questions
- Hand out their name tags and a sequential number between 1 and 16
- Hand out the agendas
- Hand out map with assigned areas
- Food-coffee is in multipurpose room.

9-9:15: Introduction, recognition

9:15 Laurie (Executive Director)
- Talk to the mission and the mission statement
- Laurie say that the goal is for us: [COMPLETE]
o All to sign the mission statement with our hand print, which you will do at the end of the session.
o Do a personal commitment by writing to yourself
o We have a FULL day, so stick to time indicated

9: 20 Sue & Bart (Senior leaders)
- Explanation of Visual Explorer with the one sample slide. Model the process.
- You all have a handout with two questions that we would like you to think about and write some initial thoughts down. This is something just for you personally. Spend 5 minutes on both questions.
- Question 1: What does the mission statement mean to you?
- Question 2: What do you need to do for the mission statement to be fully achieved?
  • Look at all the pictures
  • Pick two pictures that talk to you, one for each question. 
  • Please be silent while you choose pictures. 
  • Come back to your seat with the two pictures.
- Talk about time management; why it is important for all to keep track of time so that all have a fair share in the conversation.

- 15 minute walk around with music and pick their pictures and come right back to your seat.

- Short 5 minute break

- Look at the back of your questions form to find the instructions below..
Please be seated in your group by 10:00
A. Please make sure to start this phase on time. Spend 1 min reading the instructions.
B. Question 1 first
1. Person A starts and shows the picture to group and makes sure everyone can see the picture during the conversation. Describe the physical image itself in detail. (1 min)
2. Talk to why you chose that picture, “How does the picture speak to the question about the mission?” (4 min)
3. Then hand the conversation over to another person B in the group who says: “If I had picked this picture (the one of person A) this is what I would have seen…” Allow everyone to answer that same question in turn (1 min each), limit back and forth please.
4. Person A with picture “thank you for your input” (0 min)
5. Next person presents their own picture with process starting on number 1.
C. After half hour total all pictures for 1 question should have been reviewed by the group.
D. When all have done image/question 1, same cycle for image/question 2, go back to B. You should start on question 2 by 10:40
E. Finish group discussion of both questions and be back in main room by 11:20.
That's the agenda that UGARC followed. Of course this can be adapted for other contexts and timeframes.

The experience of the staff at UGARC in doing this exercise has typically been quite positive. Here is a reflection from Don Crespino, Ulster-Greene ARC Vocational Coordinator:
As with most trainings, I entered into the Visual Explorer Training not knowing what to expect. The Visual Explorer session was a rare and enlightening experience in the field of working with individuals with intellectual disabilities. I feel that we as a culture are realizing that more often than not, it is our thinking and approach that greatly hinders us from providing quality services (more than anything else). The Visual Explorer exercise managed to unite different types of people and employees on all levels by getting them to experience universal meanings based on seeing the same thing in all aspects of life. The fact that everyone was able to express themselves in an environment where there were no wrong answers, just interpretations based on a few different photographs and everyone uniquely expressing how they see things like our agencies Mission Statement in them, was so thought provoking towards the right thinking and approach in our field of employment.

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November 02, 2009

What do you see? Using Visual Explorer for admissions essays at the New York University Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

click through to the New York Times article
more on Dean Schall's address
more at the NYU site
more at Leading Effectively CCL blog

reposted from the New York Times, EducationLife section, Sunday, November 1, 2009

Below is the online application page with the instructions for the essay (click image to enlarge).

More from Dean Ellen Schall:

Excerpt from Dean Ellen Schall's Convocation Remarks
Presented to 2009 graduates of the
NYU Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
May 15, 2009

“In the Wall Street Journal last week, 10 college presidents were asked to answer a question from their own schools’ applications. They all found it harder than they imagined. We have always understood at Wagner that it mattered how we started to engage you, even as prospective students, that we were beginning a conversation, perhaps a relationship - one that could last for years.

"Two years ago, when many of you applied, we decided to add a particular twist to our application - in part to get your attention, in part to signal we were after a different level of engagement. We gave you the possibility of responding to a photo, a visual image, from a collection of images developed by colleagues at the Center for Creative Leadership. As you may remember, we use Visual Explorer, which is what CCL calls this approach, at orientation as well. The basic idea is that it’s easier to get the conversation started when you have an object in the middle. And we wanted to get a conversation started. more>> and more>>

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August 02, 2009

Creative conversations with the women of Kpendua, Ghana, West Africa

"This is the Nyobilbaligu Women's Group having their monthly meeting on my veranda. Using the Visual Explorer cards, this meeting focused on thinking for oneself, creativity, problem-solving, and information sharing."

"[In these photos] three women at our women's group meeting trying to decipher what exactly is in each photo. When they weren't asking their friends for help, they were sitting quietly turning the Visual Explorer cards over and over in their hands."

This item is reposted from the CCL Leadership Beyond Boundaries blog, Visualizing new futures with women in rural Ghana.

From: Cheri Baker
Sent: Saturday, August 01, 2009 5:44 PM

Continue reading this post >>

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July 02, 2009

Levels of looking

Al Selvin has been a fine fellow traveler in the development of Visual Explorer from nearly the beginning. The first time I met Al we uploaded VE images into Compendium maps and a prototype of what we now think of as D!gital Explorer was born (see this joint publication for example). Al's ideas about knowledge art started taking off around that time as well.

One of the few ways that Visual Explorer can get off-track is when the level of looking is shallow or cursory. VE works best under conditions of "slowing looking down" (per David Perkins) and paying attention in more artful and more disciplined ways. This kind of attention is one of the potential benefits of using VE and needs just a bit of facilitation, usually, to come alive. Al's post on his Knowledge Art blog, reposted below, unpacks this essential insight.

A few weeks ago I facilitated a Visual Explorer session for a social services agency for mentally disabled children and adults in the Hudson Valley. A friend is the IT director at the agency, and asked me to help run a communication session for the IT group and its internal clients.

This was the first time in several years that I've done a true, extended VE session with enough time and mandate to set it up and introduce it properly. There were 10 attendees, half from IT and half from other parts of the agency. We did two rounds, the first on the question "What's the place of IT in the organization?" and the second, after discussion, debrief, and a break, on "How can IT best support the organization (and vice versa)?" We spent about 2.5 hours in all.

In the first round, the small groups got engaged quickly and the discussions were lively. Even people who hung back at first got excited as it went on. One of the IT guys was at first reluctant to engage and didn't even pick a picture during the browsing period. But after the first two people in his small group took their turns, he jumped up and grabbed a picture, and ended up giving one of the more evocative and insightful descriptions.

In both large group rounds, the discussion was engaged and (as far as I could tell as an outsider) did enable people to talk in ways they normally don't to each other. A number of themes emerged, such as the separation between the different groups, surprise by non-IT people about how the IT people felt about their work and their relationships with the rest of the agency, how to better communicate about the goals and benefits of IT projects and deal with resistance to change by helping people to see what they could get out of the new capabilities, etc. Afterwards, a number of the people said that it had been valuable and that the pictures enabled them to have a better and deeper dialogue with each other.

I noticed a paradox in the session, which I've seen before. It involves differing levels of looking at and talking about what people see in a picture, and how the picture relates to their situation and concerns. It's relatively easy to get people to talk about what they see in a VE image on the level of what the picture "says", what they think the story of the picture is. This is a wonderful human capability -- something a computer could never do (e.g. "these people are happy because they just won a race", "nothing's really clear, the racers and the audience can't see each other well, there's such a frenetic pace" etc.). But the paradox is that it's not so easy to get people to go to the next level, to really look at and talk about the actual 'physical' details in the picture -- to engage with and talk about what they really see rather than the story or ideas that are suggested to them.

In other words, people relate almost instantly to what they see as the "story" of the picture, suggested by the images, facial expressions, etc. -- the visual detail that strikes us on a sub-verbal level, all the time, in conversations with others (for example, the way we "read" other people's moods and interpret what that might mean for us, as we scan their faces or listen to their voices in a meeting).

But to go farther -- to be able to say exactly what visual and aural nuances might have given us this impression (the crease of a brow, the elevated pitch of part of a spoken sentence) takes an extra effort and does not come readily for most people. I often think of what I had to learn in film classes in college -- not to just let a film "wash over" me in a tide of impressions and effects, but rather to pay close attention so I could see what techniques the filmmaker used to give me those impressions -- the small details of editing, sound, lighting, composition, color, and many others. This can lead to a deeper level of insight and articulation.

As the practitioner in the VE session I'm describing here, I tried to inculcate this to some extent. As people were working in the small groups, I walked around and made a few suggestions, such as pointing out specific visual details and getting the groups to look at them, when it was apparent that the group was in 'story' mode and could benefit from taking a closer look. That did seem to shake things loose a bit and move the conversation to a more engaged level.

This same dynamic occurs with other forms of collaborative media. Getting people to look closely and talk about what they see requires a level of effort -- for both participants and practitioners -- beyond what is easiest to do. The "story" level is also a good thing and generates dialogue that takes people out of their normal way of relating, but going farther is where a lot of the potential lies. Posted by Al at 9:27 AM

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