Lessons from Learning Like A Dolphin

In a short period of time, experiential learning can provide key insights into life and work that help us make sense of our experiences. These quick illuminations provide a basis for reflection and understanding that is more powerful because it is both embodied and demonstrated.

I had a good reminder of this at Engage Nova Scotia’s event on Tough Collaborations, the latest work of Adam Kahane and his colleague Ian Prinsloo. One of the premises in Tough Collaborations is working with emergence and they used an exercise they called Learning Like A Dolphin to illustrate this point.

One person is asked to leave the room and the rest of the group is asked to come up with a very specific thing that they want the one person to learn. In this case, it was to stack three chairs underneath a light fixture in the middle of the room. When the person comes back in the room, the only guidance the group can give her is to clap – the same way a dolphin would be trained. The dolphin learns part 1 of a game through being positively reinforced until it understands the first step. Then, the second step is added in and, again, positively reinforced until they get it. And so it goes until the full repertoire is good.

In this play experience, the group was to clap at the first thing the volunteer did that would support her learning the task. It took only ten minutes but felt a lot longer – for the group and especially for her. As she stood in the right location, the group clapped. When she moved out of range, there was silence. When she touched a chair, the group clapped. When she stood on the chair, there was silence. For awhile, she stood and looked at the group to see if she could discern anything. She did notice that some people were looking up at the light fixture which clued her into location.

Members of the group were not always consistent in their feedback, clapping at different times for different things.

3-chairs-stacked-and-an-extraShe finally got four chairs in the centre of the room and she lined them up in a couple of different ways, turned them around, sat on them and mostly received silence. When she picked up one chair, there was clapping and it was in that moment she figured out about stacking the chairs. Within ten minutes she had accomplished the task. That’s when the debrief started.

When she was asked about her experience and what she felt or thought she shared some of the following: about half way through she wondered what she had gotten herself into, would she find her way and figure it out, would someone rescue her. The real life corollary: we often only realize part way through, if ever, what it is we have agreed to do in any given situation and certainly in any situation that is complex.

She was asked if she understood what it was she was supposed to have learned and she honestly answered, no. Even though she had completed the task successfully, there was no understanding of the meaning of the accomplishment. Now, granted, it was a game, but there is still a real life analogy. How well have we communicated the greater context of the work so that it has meaning to the people tasked with carrying it out?

Feedback from the crowd was mixed, confusing the message. It showed up at different times when she moved or when she touched the chairs. Also, people were in different vantage points so where the center of the fixture was wasn’t clear. Some abdicated their responsibility to the “authority” in the room: the facilitator who set up the exercise.

There was a breakthrough moment – when she figured out it was about stacking the chairs – and towards the end the learning quickened. At the beginning she was operating in a vacuum so it took longer to figure out the first steps. But once things began to come together, it was a lot easier to figure out number of chairs or directionality.

When she did just stand still, there was no feedback whatsoever so any movement offered information.

In terms of working with emergence, Adam and Ian brought it back to the following lessons:

  • Move toward
  • Stay connected – if you have a large goal begin with small things
  • Be experimental – build knowledge piece by piece and discover what your options might be
  • By systematic to gain an understanding and then take a leap
  • Embrace your emotions – and others too – throughout the experience. There is a lot of information that is helpful to understanding where you are and find your way through the process.

A Decade of More People “Stepping Up”, Engaging in Nova Scotia

Stepping Up

Stepping Up Conference – 2015

On January 11, 2005 (what later become fondly known as J21 within Envision Halifax), I walked into a day long community gathering hosted by Envision Halifax, along with more than 100 other people, at St. Matthew’s Church Hall on Barrington Street, and my life and the way I work were forever changed. And, more than that, a movement began, sparked by a mission to “ignite a culture of civic engagement”.


A visual depicting the Envision Halifax Leadership Journey – 2007 – which used Theory U as the journey and Art of Hosting as the “operating system”.

I had cause to think of that moment earlier this week when I walked into the new public library in Halifax for the Stepping Up Conference (#StepUpNS) hosted by Engage Nova Scotia, along with more than 350 other people in Halifax, even more gathered at 10 other locations in the province with an additional 500 or more people at their own computer screens following the live streaming.

A decade ago it was Envision Halifax. Something new and meaningful was sparked. Then a sabbatical to check back in with need, purpose and approach, some work in the background and the emergence of Engage Nova Scotia as a next iteration ~ different, stronger and with greater reach.

Danny Graham and Kathy Jourdain at an Envision Halifax public gathering where project teams shared what they were working on in that year (2007).

Danny Graham and Kathy Jourdain at an Envision Halifax public gathering where project teams shared what they were working on in that year (2007).

During the Envision days, Danny Graham and I had a chat about whether we were just “preaching to the choir” as many liked to say or was it something more? Maybe it was preaching to the choir, but I wondered then and I wonder now, is that so bad? Is that not a good starting place? I thought about this because I overheard someone remark at the Stepping Up conference that “we are only preaching to the converted”, since that is who shows up. That may be. But something happened over a decade to grow the number of “converted” in this province by at least 15 fold and probably more.

I was honoured to facilitate the group conversation focused on a new attitude. There were many gems of wisdom in that conversation including: expand your own bubble and do more of what you can, ignore naysayers and time how long it can take you to shift a negative conversation into a positive one. These gems are reflective of “new attitudes” sparking all over the province as individuals recognize their own circles of influence and focus their attention on what they can do and impact.

What struck me in a deep and meaningful way, reflecting over a decade is – more. More people in Nova Scotia are paying attention. More people are asking questions. More people are longing for a future that looks different than the past. More people are Stepping Up. And that is a very exciting ongoing evolution over just one short decade of quiet but growing change in and across our beautiful little province.

A decade ago and this week (and in many other places and times in between), Danny quoted a favourite poem of his:

If you always believe what you have always believed,
You will always feel the way you always felt.
If you always feel the way you always felt,
You will always think the way you always thought.
If you always think the way you always thought,
You will always do what you’ve always done.
If you always do what you have always done,
You will always get what you have always gotten.
If there is no change there is no change

Well, in Nova Scotia, if you stop a moment to reflect, it is clear that beliefs, feelings, thoughts and actions are changing. Thank you Nova Scotia, thank you Engage and thank you to everyone who played, and continues to play, a role in changing the future in the place I am delighted to call home.