Creating ripples of impact in the world

It’s hard to know where you might make impact in your life, and how you might do it. Often it’s little things that slowly ripple out and take unexpected twists and turns.

Using images in Africa

Mari reviewing the birth records

VizPeep Mari Alexander is a therapist, physician assistant, intercultural consultant and Mom to two teenage boys. She’s also the co-founder of a grassroots nonprofit, Safe Passages to Motherhood that has been working in a rural village in Kenya. They’ve been sharing Home Based Life Saving Skills with a group in the village, and that small group has reached out and shared the information with over fifteen thousand other people.The program teaches people to recognize the signs of childbirth emergencies and to get those women to help before it is too late. Since the program has started, none of the women in the village have died in childbirth. Pretty impressive in an area of the world where 1 in 16 women die having babies.

One of the challenges of working in the developing world is really knowing what is happening and if you are actually making a real difference. This program has assessment and information tracking built in, but Mari was interested in the impacts beyond just the number of births in the clinic or attendance at programs.

Mari knew how powerful using images was in her work as a therapist and consultant, but feared the photographic images would be difficult to relate to for the people in Africa. So we worked with her to develop a set of paintings she could use instead.

Stories of Empowerment

Bware woman sharing story about paintings with translator

The paintings worked exceedingly well. People easily found images to describe the impact the Safe Passage to Motherhood program had on their lives. The stories weren’t so much about saving the mothers lives as they were about how becoming a trainer and sharing this vital information was changing them. They were stories of discovering purpose, and becoming someone.

Increasing the feeling of empowerment

It was obvious this group had been changed by participating in the program. Now, to figure out how to make it sustainable after the five site visits of the Home Based Life Saving Skills program. Part of the training had been to get the community thinking about how to leverage the resources they had. The US group provided some limited funds, but wanted to make sure the group could carry on after the official part of the program ended.

The group was very motivated to find ways to keep the work going. They looked around the village for opportunities, and realized for most of the long gatherings, people sat on the ground and on benches that weren’t comfortable.

Mari with the SPM trainers in Kenya with their chairs

The group saved up money to buy chairs, which they rent out. From the money they made, they bought dishes. They knew they were great at feeding big groups because they did it every time they did a training. They were saving money to buy a tent to extend their new catering business into rainy season. The US based group made a donation to the tent fund, and it arrived the day after the US group left. They now have a way to support spreading their work to other villages.

They have requested their own set of images so they can use them in their training. Of course VisualsSpeak will provide them!

The last official visit

The Home Based Life Saving Skills program that Safe Passages to Motherhood uses has five visits to the community in the developing world. The last trip is focused on evaluation, and documenting the impact the program has had. We already know the group has reached over 15 thousand people, and women are being brought to the clinic in time for help to save their lives.

Safe Passages is a tiny grassroots organization. The health care workers and team who go to Africa take time off from work and volunteer their time. They are very resourceful and keep costs to a minimum. Still, it is very expensive to get them there. When they can, they purchase medical supplies to bring to the village. They have not raised all the money to fund the upcoming trip.

Can you help?

Make a donation

Any amount will help, it’s incredible how far our dollars can stretch in the developing world. Right now they are several thousand dollars away from just paying for transportation for the upcoming trip.

This program is powerful and effective. We’re seeing the impacts ripple out to make real differences.



Culture Matters: What retirees at Fukushima nuclear plant can teach us

What would you say to me if I was retired and enjoying my golden years and I told you that I felt it was my duty to go work in the nuclear plant I use to work in where I would most likely die a horrible death due to radiation poisoning?

Would you understand; be shocked; ask me if I had forgotten to take my meds? Our cultural backgrounds would, in large part, influence our response to this question. The cultural values we ‘inherit’ inform our thinking on a daily basis and affect our personal values.

Fukushima retirees head back to ‘work’

I heard a story today on the radio about the retirees of Fukushima Nuclear Plant (Japan) planning on returning to work to help clean up the disaster caused by the recent Tsunami. A past employee started the group, which consists of about 500 people aged from their mid-fifties and up.

They feel that it is their duty to participate in this work because they were a part of running the plant for many years. They also don’t feel that it is fair to ask the younger workers to do this, as they are still young enough to be raising families where the retirees’ children are already grown.

The retirees want to assume the most hazardous parts of the cleanup. They know that this is basically a death sentence and yet they have freely volunteered to do the work.

Who are you working with?

Knowing something about a person’s cultural background is important to helping people solve the challenges they have come to you with. It doesn’t matter whether your role is that of coach, therapist, counselor or something else, having an understanding of your client’s cultural background is going to help you do your job better, get better results for your client and avoid some potentially big misunderstandings.

Questioning with respect

Most people are comfortable talking about their cultural backgrounds when they feel someone is asking them respectfully and with an open mind. Being genuinely curious about the other person and how they see the world through their cultural lens can create the proper atmosphere for a fruitful dialogue.

It’s also important to keep in mind that no one person can speak for their entire culture. There are just too many variables and ways to interpret cultural being-ness. Culture is truly a delicious and at times a totally contrary soup full of subtle and not so subtle flavors bursting to the surface or waiting in the depths to be discovered.

Using images is a nice indirect way to get at some of this information as they help to surface core values naturally and without even asking. Core values can be a reflection of cultural values and surfacing them will give you many opportunities to ask questions that will help you understand your client better.

Cultures within cultures

There can be regional and other differences within cultures that need to be taken into account. I am from the northeastern part of the US originally and now live in the northwest. Even though we are all Americans, there are some significant differences in attitudes and how we express ourselves.

For example, in the northeast people will joke with you and give you a hard time if they like you. Here in the northwest, people interpret this behavior as being rude. Go figure.

Questions for Fukushima

Wouldn’t it be fascinating to sit down and talk to the retirees planning on going back to work at these reactors? How did they come to this conclusion? Why did they decide to do this? What thoughts and feelings are they having? Why do they feel it is their duty to help with this mess?

If you are Japanese and reading this, you might be wondering why I am even talking about this. Of course the refugees feel it is their duty. What else could they be feeling?

But for an American, I find the mindset of these people to be intriguing, because we would not come to this same decision collectively in my culture. Any retired nuclear reactor employees would likely offer their expertise at most. To have 500 of them volunteer to go clean up the mess would probably never happen as that is not part of our cultural mindset.

What would you like to ask the Fukushima retirees?

If you were in a position to interview these people, what questions would you have for them? Does their decision to help out align with your cultural norms or run contrary to it?


Visuals and Multi-Cultural Environments

Culture is everywhere!A few months ago, in our July 2010 Tuesday Topics call, Christine talked about “Why Visuals Work.” As a part of that call, one of the listeners asked a question about multi-cultural environments. Here’s a snippet of that interview:

Interviewer: What role can visuals play? How do they work differently, or better or less effectively with people in multicultural environments, as we all seem to find ourselves in today?

Christine: Well, we’ve done a lot of work with the images in a cross-cultural context. We developed them specifically to help with some of these issues. So one of the ways it does it is [by] really help[ing] level language difference. You know, because when everyone has a different native language that they speak, and they’re oftentimes required to speak in English—which could be their fourth or fifth language—the images really help. They help kind of keep the ideas and save them.

What I mean is that you put the ideas down on the table and they’re there. And you have those artifacts to help you talk about them. So you’re not necessarily sitting there translating in your head or thinking about what you’re going to say because it’s there, it kinda sits there. So it gives you the ability to listen more fully to the other people in your group. We hear a lot of stories about that.

We see a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily share because they’re uncomfortable with their language abilities or whatever, share much more freely and they’re more fluent when they’re speaking from the images. It’s really pretty amazing to see.

Int: Is that in part because they’re describing something that they can then use as a reference as they’re describing it?

Christine: Yeah, I think that’s part of it, absolutely. And also it’s just more concrete. You know you’re making ideas more concrete by taking a visual image and putting it on the table. And it frequently is easier to describe things that have some kind of concreteness than something that is very abstract.

Int: I’m sure we could do an entire call about this, but are there specific kinds of cultures that respond in different kinds to ways to the images? Things that you’ve noticed through the process?

Christine: Absolutely. You’re right that’s a whole huge other call. Absolutely they respond very differently. You see the real cultural difference come forward, which is one of the things that’s really amazing and awesome. You see the ways in which they construct meaning very, very differently.

And those are all the things that kind of come out when you are doing VisualsSpeak sessions. As you go around the table, all those kind of ideas and different ways of looking at the world are put on the table and are being talked about. So even if the person isn’t currently living in another culture, or they’re a second-generation or whatever, you start to see some of those differences.

And you know it’s changing a lot because we’re working in multicultural environments. So it’s not as distinct as it would have been twenty years ago, when people were pretty much staying in their native cultures and it was rare to have people being global citizens. Whereas now, you’re seeing this melding of culture of origin and the cultures that they’re working in. Oftentimes, the organizational culture becomes very important, and it supercedes some of those personal culture kinds of aspects.

For the whole interview, head to our audiocasts page. You’ll find this excerpt around 38 minutes into the call.

Using visuals to reach across cultures

We all see things differently. Simple concept, almost obvious. But do you keep it in mind every time you have an interaction? It’s hard to. We see the world through our own experiences, history, and culture. One of the ways I have found to dramatically increase my understanding of how differently we all see is through watching people interpret visuals. I’m regularly in awe by the range of possible ways any one thing can be interpreted.

No where is this more evident than when we work with people from other cultures. It could be someone who lives or was born in another country, but it could also be someone from a different profession. Culture is multi-layered and complex.

Unite Your Brain: How to Effectively Use Visuals in Training, Teaching & Coaching

I’ve teamed up with Intercultural specialist Cate Brubaker to offer a six week teleclass to help you work more effectively with visuals. We’ll talk about how visuals can be used to increase effectiveness and deepen communication across cultural differences.

Cate has more information, an example of a teleclass we recorded last month, and sign up information onCulturally Teaching. The class runs for six weeks beginning Sept 30 at 10 AM Pacific. Here is an overview of what we’ll be covering.

Session 1 :: Getting Started Using Visuals

  • How not to look foolish or take unnecessary risks
  • Visuals aren’t your content: You have time to use them
  • Simple ways to begin

Session 2 :: Designing Your Session

  • Assessing your audience
  • Identifying the desired outcome
  • Planning how to get that audience to that outcome

Session 3 :: The Facilitation Process

  • The logistics of the space and process
  • Asking the right questions at the right time
  • Working with what is in the room

Session 4 :: Using Visuals for Organizing

  • Using visuals to organize words
  • Using Flipcharts, whiteboard, sticky notes and other visual aids
  • Using visual templates

Session 5 :: Using Visuals for Conveying

  • Using presentation software more effectively
  • Using photography to increase stickiness
  • Where to find resources

Session 6 :: Putting it All Together

  • How the parts form a whole session

    From icebreakers to multi-day retreats

    Creating a plan for you

The class will be customized to participants needs. You’ll have opportunities to make suggestions and ask questions about your context in each week’s call.

I like to hear your comments and stay in touch.

I’m working on a new series of tools for personal and professional development. To be the first to know about them and introductory specials, sign up to be on the Early Explorer list.

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More stories (and results) from Africa

Part 1: Sending Visual Tools to Africa

Part 2: Adjusting images for Africa

Part 3: Stories from Africa

Part 4: Safe Passage to Motherhood 2010

One woman started teaching Home Based Life Saving Skills (HBLSS) in 2009 by training 15 people. One year later those 15 have reached 10,000 people.

The clinic in Bware

But really, what does that mean? Did the people who heard about the program actually learn something that will make a difference? The over arching goal is to reduce infant and maternal mortality. The numbers are alarming, everywhere from 1-13 to 1-22 risk of dying in childbirth in Africa. Many of the deaths are from complications that can be treated if the risk is identified and the woman gets help.

Going to the clinic

One of the core teachings in the HBLSS training is identifying the signs that a mother needs some kind of assistance in her birth. Most women birth at home, so the clinic is a place where women go who need some skilled assistance.

The year before HBLSS, there were 53 births at the clinic.  There were 166 births in the clinic in 2009, 90 already in 2010.

There have been no maternal deaths in the last year. Up until then, there had been 2-3 a year.

Spreading the word to other villages

The Safe Passage to Motherhood (SPM) team knew the biggest challenges the trainers in Kenya were facing from the VisualsSpeak session they did with the group.

  1. Transport
  2. Umbrellas, rain boots, shoes
  3. Bag for carrying materials
  4. Money for transportation
  5. Badges and uniforms
Walking to nearby villages

All of these things relate to spreading the training to nearby villages. The team in Bware walk to do their work. For hours. In all kinds of weather. Carrying all their materials and supplies. The villages they go have limited resources, so there were times they were not even offered food and water.

Given all of this, the SPM team needed to go to the places the group considered trained, and see what those communities really knew about how to offer assistance to birthing women. They set off walking to the remote sites.

What helped communities learn

The results from the communities were mixed. When the trainers went and simply talked about HBLSS and the steps people could take to assist in birth, people did not remember enough detail to be able to take effective action. When the trainers went several times to the community and did the interactive training that involved role playing the interventions, the information was remembered.

Similar to my experience training with a wide variety of people in the US, lecture didn’t stick and experiential learning did.

Balancing empowerment and effectiveness

There is a certain amount of power in standing before a group to impart knowledge. SPM saw that empowerment in the Bware trainers. Some of it is really important, and shows new levels of confidence. As developing educators, we also need to guard against putting too much emphasis on ourselves, and serve the groups we work with. I know at times I can feel almost lonely facilitating a particularly dynamic conversation. Everyone else is fully engaged and I almost step back to allow the space for it to happen.

The work continues

SPM brought a lot of information back from Bware that is still being tabulated and analyzed. I know there are a lot more stories coming. The group plans to continue working with Bware, but also dreams of working on projects in other part of the developing world. Like so many others, funding is what limits their abilities to do more. If you’d like to help, I’m sure they would put your donation to good use.

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Stories from Africa

Part 1: Sending Visual Tools to Africa

Part 2: Adjusting images for Africa

Part 3: Safe Passage to Motherhood 2010

Safe Passage to Motherhood in Kenya 2010
Annie, Emily, Julian, Mari, Gabriel and Maggie

The Safe Passage to Motherhood (SPM) team were met at the airport by Emily when they arrived in Kenya. Emily acted as a translator during training, and takes responsibility for much of the communication between Bware and Portland, OR. Annie is a midwifery student, and the boys are Maggie and Mari’s teens. Mari is a physician assistant and Maggie is a nurse midwife.

In Kenya with specific goals

The team was in Kenya to assess the results of the training they started the year before. They identified specific things to look at while they were there.

  • Assess the number of communities and participants trained,
  • Assess the quality of the ongoing training as they cascade down to more

    and more women

  • Set mechanisms in place to track health outcomes in trained communities
  • Understand barriers and challenges
  • Determine ways to support the sustainability of the program
  • Strengthen ties between youth and women leaders
  • Increase the emphasis on education and prevention starting with the young and

    extending through child-bearing years

Beginning to gather data

10,000 trained in HBLSS
10,000 people trained in HBLSS

The Home Based Life  Saving Skills (HBLSS) program includes keeping detailed records of training and births. The SPM team was thrilled to find that their contacts had kept detailed notes and tracked their progress.

On the wall behind Mari and Emily is a pyramid chart. Each trainer filled in information about how many people attended their training each month.

When the numbers were added up, there were 10,000 people who had heard about how to identify signs that a woman needed help birthing. With proper training, skilled attendants can recognize problems early and can intervene directly or stabilize the condition and help the patient reach specialized care.

One woman started spreading the word in 2009 by training 15 people. One year later, those 15 have reached 10,000 people.

Understanding Barriers and Challenges

Safe Passage to Motherhood is committed to working with the people in Bware to help them solve their own challenges. The process includes listening to stories of what they are already doing, identifying resources they can utilize or reassign, and partnering to learn skills that can make a difference. The organization here in the US operates on a shoestring, and the trainers are volunteering their time and medical skills. This is grassroots. People sharing knowledge to help one another.

There are real challenges to spreading the work. Money to get SPM trainers there, money to pay for supplies and transportation in Kenya, money to pay for the medical supplies. At the same time, the groups have been incredibly resourceful in how they spend the small amounts they do have. The goal is always to think about the sustainability of the approach.

What are the problems?

Making list of challenges
Making list of challenges

The first step to looking at  barriers and  challenges was to make a comprehensive list of things that had come up in the last year. Seventeen items were identified, the Kenyans picked the top five as the most important.

  1. Transport
  2. Umbrellas, rain boots, shoes
  3. Bag for carrying materials
  4. Money for transportation
  5. Badges and uniforms
  6. =========================

  7. Sickness
  8. Work at home
  9. No money for help
  10. Food for trainers
  11. Trainees being late
  12. Equipment
  13. Vacation from work
  14. Cultural beliefs,
  15. Different ages and belief systems
  16. No light at night
  17. New people at repeat trainings
  18. Distance

Understanding more fully what this means

Using VisualsSpeak in Bware Kenya
Using VisualsSpeak in Bware Kenya

We created a set of VisualsSpeak images to be used specifically to deepen understanding of these challenges. The more the SPM team knew about what people meant when they said these things, the more effective they would be helping them come up with solutions.

Before they left for Kenya, I had a number of conversations with Mari about what prompt to use. She decided to use:

Find pictures that speak about a time you have succeeded at a challenge as a member of BUCHWA (the community health group that does the HBLSS training.)

What happened?

There was no hesitation with the VisualsSpeak process. The Kenyans were very comfortable with the images and process. There was no learning curve. Maggie reported,  “They are very metaphoric, it was like they had drawn the images themselves. We had no difficulty.”

Many of the stories that emerged were less about the challenges, and more about the empowerment. Stories about being lonely and only affecting their homes before learning all the skills, and now being a part of something bigger. Making a difference. Being someone.

Hierarchy is a large part of Kenyan culture. This is a poor rural village. There are not a lot of opportunities for women. The SPM team knew this, but until they heard all the stories, they didn’t realize how huge this was for the group. The uniforms and badges the Kenyans found so important? Very much about being part of, being someone special, being someone with knowledge.

The fifteen Bware United Community Health Workers Association (BUCHWA) members have shared information with 10.000 people. What has happened to them as a result of learning how to help others save the lives of women and babies may be even more profound.

Next up: More stories (and results) from Africa

Coming soon.

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Adjusting images for Africa

Part 1: Sending Visual Tools to Africa

Part 2: Safe Passage to Motherhood 2010

The goal of using visual tools in Kenya was to encourage people to tell stories of their experience with the Home Based Life Saving Skills course, HBLSS they learned the year before. Maggie Alexander is the nurse midwife who trained the group the previous year. Mari Alexander  is a physician assistant who was on the assessment trip two years before. She is a VisualsSpeak customer who has used the tools in her mental health practice and in her work in diversity and inclusion training. The two of them were joined by their teenage sons and a midwifery student for the 2010 trip.

What images should we use?

diversifying paintings of people
diversifying paintings of people

The original VisualsSpeak tools are all photographs. While we worked hard to make them diverse, they are still a US designed tool, created for a professional market. We were nervous that rural Kenyans would not be able to relate to them. I’ve been working on new products that incorporate my paintings, and have a deck that we’ve been using in testing those products that we knew worked in the US and Europe.

I’ve also been working on a series of paintings for a storytelling deck. They have broad universal themes, and are the images in my online gallery. I plan to create a storytelling product as well as use these in other new decks.

We didn’t know which to pick, so we decided to send both, but with modifications.

Adding local images

The first deck is a mixture of 24 photographs, 12 illustrations, and 12 abstract paintings. We added 24 photographs Mari and Maggie had from Bware. Most of them were people, but there were also a few of the houses and landscape.

This deck is about the size of playing cards. We made one of those to use with the younger people, but had to enlarge them for working with the adults. We did this because most people do not have reading glasses (other than the gifts the group brings over) so they would have difficulty seeing the details of the images.

Brown is generic not diverse

We felt more confident about the storytelling images for a number of reasons. First, the Kenyans have a storytelling tradition. Second, my style has the flat patterned look of some of the textile work from the region.

When I did the original paintings, I made the people medium brown. As the group looked at them, they felt they were way too light. Especially considering how dark the Kenyans are. They also suggested making them more shades of brown to make the diversity clearer.

I altered many of the people images to be a variety of skin shades. Thanks to the wonders of Photoshop, this wasn’t too difficult. I printed out the images and laminated them. We put them in  zipper pouches handmade by a woman in our town, and sent them off with Maggie and Mari.

Other parts of the story:

Part 1: Sending Visual Tools to Africa

Part 3: Stories from Africa


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VisualsSpeak for Intercultural Communication

Intercultural CommunicationDifferent members of the VisualsSpeak community use the toolset for very different purposes. This time, we look at how the tools (especially the Image Set) can be used for intercultural communication.

What VisualsSpeak Can Achieve

VisualsSpeak promotes diversity and helps increase intercultural awareness by revealing commonalities and differences that exist among individuals from different cultures. VisualsSpeak exposes the beliefs, values and assumptions that are the basis of cultural differences, helping people of diverse cultures to bridge differences and learn to work together more effectively.

Framing the Question

As with other applications of VisualsSpeak, it’s important to know what issue the group is trying to solve when framing the question. One likely goal is to encourage participants to be more aware of the commonalities and differences that exist among different cultures. Another approach is to isolate one particular aspect of life that differs from one culture to the next. This can be a great way to isolate conflicts and help participants work together more effectively.

Regardless of the framework you create, it’s important to let the participants know they are free to redefine the question. Any question you create contains a certain number of cultural biases and assumptions. Enabling the participants to redefine the question reveals the biases present within these questions.

What to Observe

Pay particular attention to how different participants of diverse cultures approach the question. Do some need to redefine the question in order to answer it? Do some find the images culturally biased, and have difficulty finding images that are meaningful to them? In addition, notice the stories participants tell about the images they chose, paying particular attention to the patterns you notice culture to culture and in the images composed by people from different cultures in a diverse group.

The Debrief Session

A framework that exposes cultural differences is a great jumping-off point for conversation. During the debrief session, ask questions that expose the value differences that exist among different cultures. Be aware that we all see things through our own cultural lens. Allow each participant to interpret the meaning of his/her own images, and make sure you don’t make assumptions.

Also, be aware that behaviors that mean one thing in one culture can have a completely different meaning in another. Use the questions you ask to illustrate the fact that different cultures see things through different lenses. Help the participants to understand this, so they begin to limit the number of assumptions they make and learn to work more openly with others.

Saving lives with images

Mari Alexander

We have amazing customers. People who are passionate about facilitating conversations that matter and making a difference in the lives of those around them. During this season of giving, I wanted to share a little piece of how our colleague Mari Alexander is giving back, and invite you to join us in supporting the work she is doing.

Mari makes a difference in the world in a number of ways. As a compassionate physicians assistant in private practice, as a mother, as a cross-cultural consultant at Kaiser Permanente, just to name a few. She does use VisualsSpeak in her work, but I want to talk about another group of images she uses to save lives in the developing world.

Powerful stories from amazing women

Mari came to the Society for Intercultural Education Training and Research (SIETAR) December meeting to share her experience of being in Kenya last month with the non-profit organization Safe Passage to Motherhood. She brought Dr. Teresa Gipson, who is part of the Ray of Hope Foundation, and provided the on-the-ground connections in Africa for the work Mari did.

These organizations and women do incredible work. I could talk about the details, but what really got my attention was the way Mari and Teresa glowed when they talked about what they were doing. As someone who has no idea how to deal with the day to day aspects of babies, and who may call for help with dealing with my cats hairball— it was particularly impressive to see their passion for dealing with helping others in what are shocking circumstances.

Dr. Gipson has been working in Kenya for fifteen years. Aligning with people who are already working there. Supporting efforts that make a difference for whole communities. Bringing resources and education to people who really need it, in a place with unique medical challenges. Her accomplishments are long. But once again, what got my attention was the light in her eyes when she talked about the pictures of the people and their stories. And the deep understanding she has about their challenges and the cultural context in which they live.

How images save lives.

Safe Passage to Motherhood is a group of Oregon-based health care providers and educators who are working to help save the lives of mothers and babies in high-risk areas of the developing world.

They use visual teaching materials created by the American College of Nurse Midwives on Home Based Life Saving Skills. This are a series of workbooks created to teach women how to recognize and deal with birthing emergencies. Visuals are particularly powerful when working across a range of literacy and with differing native languages. The images are used to start conversations with groups of women, helping them to learn how to assist each other with limited resources.

This program has been used by trainers in 30 countries since 1989. Many lives of women and children have been saved through the skills taught with these images.

Kenya bound in 2009

The Ray of Hope Foundation and Safe Passages for Motherhood  are returning to Kenya in 2009, with plans to train 400 women in  these life saving skills. Donations make it possible for these health professionals to leave their practices in Oregon to do this important work. Instead of spending money on end of year holiday gifts, we have decided to donate to their efforts. Want to join us?

Currently, Safe Passage to Motherhood is accepting donations through our sister organization, Ray of Hope, International. Follow these steps to make your donation:

  1. Click on the “Donate Now through Network for Good ” button below. This will connect you to the Ray of Hope donation page.
  2. In the “Designation” window on the Ray of Hope donation page enter “Safe Passage to Motherhood.”
  3. Complete the remaining steps in the process as indicated. You will be able to use your credit card or PayPal, specify a one-time or recurring donation, and request a receipt for tax purposes.

Thank you for your support of Safe Passage to Motherhood!

Network for Good donation button

Reflections on culture and technology

I find that the only way I really deepen my cultural competency is when I am immersed in a process with people who are in some way different than myself. I can read about diversity and inclusion, and benefit somewhat, but it’s only when I am challenged by being in-relationship with others that I reach those deeper places where resistance lives

I spent last week in a class at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) in Portland, Oregon. This is my fifth year at SIIC, and like every other year, I learned a lot about my limitations and how much I don’t know. The classes range from a couple of hours to five days, with my favorite being the five days. It’s enough time to dig deep into a topic while taking advantage of the diversity in the room to experience walking up to my edge.

Terry Brake, of tmaworld, taught the 5-day class on Culture, Technology, and Communication in the Global Workplace.

 Gaetan Lee - Global shellLessons about Global Virtual Teams

Virginia Yonkers stopped by this blog each day with very helpful insights. She wrote a blog post, entitled Lessons Learned in Working with International Virtual Groups, which summarizes insights that she and her classes have gathered over the years about working with global teams. It’s a great resource list and very little is about the technology itself. Curiosity, resiliency, and patience seem to be at the center of the required skills.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing the faculty for the class, Terry Brake, for the ASTD-Cascadia podcast. We talk about his upcoming book, Where in the world is my team: Making a success of your virtual global workplace. I’m really looking forward to it, because we got a preview of the material in class. It has a lot to offer anyone who is building diverse teams.

Moving beyond the class

The class has a Facebook page where we plan to continue sharing resources. We have also chosen a delicious tag (siic2008cct) for collecting things that may help. If you are interested in the intersection between culture, technology, and communication join the Facebook page or tag some resources.

Reflections on my participation

Facilitation skills + technology skills + some cultural competency ≠ competent participation on virtual global teams.

I’ve been a facilitator for a long time. I know that the process is foundational, and must be operating smoothly for the content to be effective. Why then, did I jump right in with everybody else to focus on content/task/outcome. Did I leave my facilitation skills at home?

We kept hearing about continuous partial attention, the state many of us are in while we are managing multiple tasks. We would encounter a challenge in class, have to come up with a way to use technology, navigate the cultural differences, listen to very fluent but accented voices, and achieve some kind of outcome in a short amount of time. Not to mention checking email and answering inquiries from the office.

Kermit Pattison’s article, Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching in Fast Company wonders about the impact of our behavior:

I argue that when people are switching contexts every 10 and half minutes they can’t possibly be thinking deeply. There’s no way people can achieve flow. When I write a research article, it takes me a couple of hours before I can even begin to think creatively. If I was switching every 10 and half minutes, there’s just no way I’d be able to think deeply about what I’m doing. This is really bad for innovation. When you’re on the treadmill like this, it’s just not possible to achieve flow.

I learned a lot in the class. Way more than I could have by reading about how to be successful. I don’t think our project output reflects the depth of the learning. I found myself taking shortcuts and aiming for “good enough”. Which is a much lower standard than I usually aim for.

The other thing I noticed is I did not get to meet many other people from the other classes at the Institute. It took all my focus to participate in the global teams’ class. There was so much audio processing from simulating conference calls, and having to listen very carefully to the variety of accents, I was totally exhausted by the end of the day. Usually I will attend the evening socials, which start at 9:30 PM. Not this time, I had to go home and go to bed. I have colleagues who were there who I did not even get a chance to talk to.

Blogging each day

This was a stretch for me. First because the days are long and I was really tired, but also because I am fairly reflective, and it’s hard for me to experience something new and then turn right around and write about it. I usually try to be clearer and spend more time on my posts, so it was new to throw unfinished ideas up on the blog.

Which technology?

I was surprised to see much of the class was about using conference calls, chat and email. It seems that these tools are what is still most common for many virtual teams. Certainly the people in the class who were working with organizations often had other web conferencing tools, but I saw way less social media tools than I expected. I realize that is still true in the larger whole, but I thought people who were involved in virtual teams would already be using the whole gamut of collaboration tools available. Instead, people were sharing tools and signing up in class for the ones they weren’t already using. It was also nice to see some of the older class members were using more of the tools than the younger members.

Photographs? Not under pressure

I’m not a snapshot photographer. It seldom occurs to me to take pictures unless I am specifically out on a photo shoot. So here I am in a visual company writing a blog without photographs again. I also realized I have a lot of things in my office to help me with the visuals like fancy software, digital tablets and a network drive full of photos. Away from the office on a strange laptop, suddenly everything seemed hard. So I just ignored it. The pressure to perform the tasks to get the assignments done superseded my need to illustrate my posts. I have a lot more empathy for people who don’t know where to start with photographs.

Take aways?

Building teams takes time. Over technology, it takes way more.

The process of how you will communicate, and even more how you will sense and respond when people are not communicating is really important. Dare I say, the most important?

The cost of not attending to all aspects of process is losing potential input that can be critical to move the outcome from good enough to high performance.

Cross cultural, technology, and communication skills separately will help you, but you have to learn all over again when you are combining them.

In order to work on a global virtual team regularly, I would need to come up with some way to have visual inputs. Shared visuals, and ways to draw on a whiteboard is really important to me, and central to the way I make meaning.

I’m left with a question posed by one of our class participants Miki Yamashita:

Tips for Avoiding Problems on Virtual Teams

This was a question explored by our virtual team in the Culture, Technology, and Communication in the Global Workplace at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) in Portland Oregon.

Tips for Avoiding Problems on Virtual Teams

In order to avoid challenges on teams, it is important that each team member has multiple ways in which to get in touch with other team members. For instance, do team members have contact information on email, skype, telephone, snail mail or other agreed upon technologies? Do team members have back-up contact information in case they haven’t heard from a teammate?

It is also important to set communication standards for the team. The team should have a shared understanding of what “silence” means. The leader should ask each person:

  • What does silence mean to you?
  • When you experience silence from other people, how do you respond?
  • When you are silent, how would you like other people to respond?
  • How much time (in general) would you like people to wait before contacting you?

Micheal Sampson suggests team leaders should be transparent and model for others how to act on the team. Individuals on the team should not stop talking to each other about:

  • what’s coming up
  • when they are going to be out of the office and out-of-touch
  • what they think is working and not working on the team
  • ideas they have for improving what’s being done

All team members must be willing to share their working conditions if they encounter non-understanding. This would include their physical environment, timezone, colleagues or any other factors affecting how you are able to work.

How we gathered information

We used a variety of inputs to create this listing of tips.

1. web research

2. tagging in delicious

3. class discussion including class members from respective cultures

4. input from faculty

5. input from comments on the week posts (thank you Virginia, Michele, and Ken!)

6. wisdom from our team members experience

While we had almost continuous technical challenges, we learned a lot. It’s not easy, but we realize this is where we are going in the future.

See also:

Exploring Culture and Technology

Exploring Culture and Technology: Day 2

Exploring Culture and Technology: Day 3

Exploring Culture and Technology: Day 4

Collaborating over Google Docs

Collaborating over Google Docs

We have resorted to using Google Docs for our virtual team project in the Culture, Technology, and Communication in the Global Workplace at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) in Portland Oregon.

Great idea. We could all access it. We could all edit it.

And so we discovered another way we could get into trouble. We only had a couple of days of sitting in a class together. We thought we trusted each other. But simply editing brought us to a halt. We dumped all the information into the document and had a mess. Was it really OK to cut and reorder each others work? And what was each others work? There were no indicators.

The other thing I found difficult was there were some references sprinkled throughout. But I couldn’t tell which parts of the text was referenced, or by who, and which was the work of my colleagues. We talked about using my blog to put the final documents on, but since it is my business blog, I want to make sure anything we put on it is properly attributed. And I can’t tell.

We still can’t get the German Google chat to hook up with the US Google chat. We did get Skype working with our German member. But the other US member can’t install Skype on her work laptop. So I attempted to work in two chat windows and be the go between. I have also resorted to kicking my colleague under the table to get him to notice his chat. The other group in the room has given up and is simulating a conference call. Now we are distracted, in multiple chats, trying to edit a messy Google Doc together.

So we decide to go outside where we can talk. Smooth out the difference of opinion I was cutting and pasting between chat windows.

Exploring Culture and Technology

Exploring Culture and Technology: Day 2

Exploring Culture and Technology: Day 3

Exploring culture and technology: Day 4

Another day, and another round of fully experiencing how hard communicating virtually across cultures can be. I guess my conclusion is that no matter what you choose to do, someone will potentially have problems with it. Best to use a variety of processes to at least allow people to be more comfortable some of the time.

Verbally directing a visual

In the first exercise of the day we sat back to back. One person described a visual, the other tried to draw it. None of the teams did very well. For the second round, the person who had the visual could stand behind the other and coach them as they were describing the visual to the drawing partner.

I drew in the second round. We finished first, and I came pretty close to reproducing the visual. However, I had huge advantages:

  • my partner was a US American
  • we both were native English speakers
  • we both used the same native units of measurement
  • I can draw (not totally necessary, but gives me confidence if nothing else)
  • the visual was an electric circuit, and I am married to an engineer so I am familiar with the type of visual we created

The other teams were working across native language difference and nationality.

Shared meaning is very important

Without shared meaning there is no understanding

  • need to probe for understanding
  • try to say it other ways
  • double the care when working cross-cultural

Assumptions of similarity is a big challenge. It can be tricky when native language is shared, but birth nation is not.

Simulated conference call

We sat in a circle with our backs turned. Each person received three cards with information about a culture and a monument built there. The task was to figure out which day the monument was completed, but sharing the bits of knowledge we had with each other.

One person was selected as the leader of the call. She was really good, and you could tell all the participants had been on a number of conference calls. We knew a lot about identifying ourselves, turn taking and the behaviors that help calls run well.

It was basically a math problem, with parts labeled in unfamiliar terms. We did accomplish the task in just over half and hour. However, It was exhausting for me. Even though I could take notes, getting all my input through audio was really hard. Especially listening through all the accents. Even though everyone is quite fluent in English. If I had a job where I had to be on conference calls all the time, I’m afraid I would have to quit. It would be like working with one hand tied behind my back all the time.

Building paper roller coasters

Our last task was to break into three teams. Each one is responsible for building a section of roller coaster from 10 sheets of paper, a length of tape, and some paper clips. Over technology. We were sent off to various place, and were only allowed one five minute conference call, and five – four minute other calls to teams. The goal is to come back face to face to put it together and be able to roll a chocolate covered coffee bean down the track.

Can we just say round one was a disaster? Even our faculty brought us back face to face to come up with a new strategy for tomorrow. Technical challenge for the day, getting Skype and iChat working on my laptop. Never mind the roller coaster.

I did get the interview with Terry Brake recorded. Sent if off for editing, so I should be able to share that with you soon.

See also:

Exploring Culture and Technology

Exploring Culture and Technology: Day 2

Exploring Culture and Technology: Day 3

Exploring culture and technology: Day 3

It’s all about the people skills

Our class at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication was a half day today. Good thing, I think many of us needed the time to process all we are learning.

We started out talking about the most common challenges for global virtual teams.

  • difference in time orientation
  • difference in problem solving approach
  • difference in decision placement in org
  • who gets to participate?
  • differing degrees of formality
  • differing expectations of leadership behavior

The person who is key is the leader. But not just any leader. A leader with some tech skill certainly, but more important, one who has collaborative leadership skills. The competitive advantage is gained through collaborative advantage. How can we truly leverage the diversity on our teams?

Trust is a decision

We spent quite a bit of time talking about trust. How to gain it and lose it virtually, across cultures, and virtually across cultures. How can you help a team build both swift trust and deeper trust?

Virtual teams are totally dependent on trust, but technology doesn’t really support it. Research has shown these things build trust:
Swift trust

  • competence demonstrated
  • cooperation, mutual support— offers of help
  • open with each other about issues
  • reliability

Deepening trust

  • accessibility over time, have presence
  • compatibility
  • predictable
  • caring as individuals
  • safety ( I can say things and it won’t come back to haunt me, what is said in meeting, stays in meeting)
  • inclusion

Technical challenge of the day!

Now I’m pretty sure there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time you have to accomplish a task and the number of challenges that arise. I recorded a really great podcast interview with our class instructor Terry Brake. Only it was the first time I did it without my technical guru co-host. So I managed to record my questions, but none of Terry’s answers. Not so interesting! I’ll try again, now that I have determined what I was doing wrong. If Terry is willing and we can find the time.

See also:

Exploring Culture and Technology

Exploring Culture and Technology: Day 2

Exploring culture and technology: Day 2

As has happened every time I have attended the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC), insights are emerging about my cultural edges. There is nothing like being immersed in an experience with people from around the world to surface opportunities for growth!

I can only begin to skim the surface of the learning. Cross-cultural dialogue unfolds over time for me. I understand on a simple level what I am learning today, but I know it will seep in and affect my behavior over a longer period of time.


We spend much of the day exploring cultural dimensions and how they might impact our communication over technology. Using the Worldprism™, each class member played the role of cultural informant for the country they were born in. We took our best guess about where the business culture fell on average in the different countries.

The conversations were very rich. We were not looking to identify simple lists of what to do in specific countries, but rather to look at the factors that might be influencing communication. To begin to understand the type of drivers which might be under particular responses, and to learn what in our own behavior over technology may be difficult for others. I’ll have to spend some time combing through the notes to organize our collective thoughts.

Identifying my people

I was on the USA team. At the end of the part where we were charting the USA, I commented that I felt like a deviant. While I recognized the pattern, I was also aware how I felt different. Then I saw the French Canadian from Quebec chart. My grandparents were French Canadian, and though I only knew one of them, I see now how their norms have passed through to me. I had never heard someone speak from this perspective before. I always wondered why descriptions of French and Canadian separately had never felt familiar to me.

There was part of me that felt very emotional, like I had found my people. Ok, so I realize that part is very US American. It takes many of us quite a while to discover and define our cultural identities. Many other aspects are very clear to me, but this national piece has been elusive.

Our first virtual team experiment

I’m on the technology in business team. We are working virtually (in theory) on a project to explore how to identify and intervene when things go poorly. We ended the day with an hour working on our project over Google Chat. Lets just say that we experienced a full range of the things that go wrong on virtual teams. I think we are doing action research. Just a few things we noticed:

What created challenges

  1. hadn’t thought about process or content
  2. got into trouble right away, but kept going anyway
  3. were answering different questions
  4. German Google was not working technically (no indication in US chat windows)
  5. assumed universal chat vocabulary which wasn’t true
  6. no one was responsible for checking in around technology
  7. no common cohesive problem
  8. no defined roles
  9. no direction
  10. no turn taking
  11. no clear facilitator

And after an hour of struggling, we are resorting to email since we have a deliverable on Friday. I no longer wonder why business doesn’t adopt more technology! Oh did I mention we ended up in the hall talking face to face?

Have you experienced any of these challenges? What did you do?

One of our class members is also reflecting on the class here.

Also see: Exploring Culture and Technology Day 1

Exploring Culture and Technology: Day 3

Exploring Culture and Technology

Today was the first day of a five day workshop I am attending on Culture, Technology, and Communication in the Global Workplace. It’s being held at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) in Portland Oregon.

One of the things I find very special about this particular setting is the people who assemble here, from all around the world, yet all passionate about learning about each other. There are people working a wide variety of settings: education, business, non-profit, ngo’s.

Global Perspectives from global citizens

My day started hearing from the institute faculty who are teaching a range of workshops on diversity, inclusion, cross-cultural, and intercultural communication. Each shared something they have been thinking about, or what I think of how they are changing their little corner of the world. The interns follow, professionals in their own right, greeting us in the many languages they speak, from the countries they have lived in. Can’t remember how many, but more than 35.

Starting Class

To get us fully engaged in understanding the challenges of global teams, our faculty Terence Brake from tmaworld broke us into two teams. All but one person on each team was blindfolded. The rest of us where told we had something to find near us, which we were to assemble once we found it.

This was a very effective exercise to force us to communicate clearly (or not), find ways to connect and collaborate (or not), and challenge all sorts of assumptions. It was not easy, even though we were able to actually reach out and touch each other, giving us another sense we would not have over technology.

We’ll be exploring all week

I’ll be working with my team to investigate a number of technologies, and investigating the cross-cultural implications of the choices we make. My small group is particularly interested in exploring what we can do when the online communication starts going bad. How do we tell? What can we do about it?

Any insights? What are the signs you look for to tell something is wrong in a conversation using technology?