Episode 277 – Making Workshops Work with Penny Pullan

Penny PullanPenny Pullan was talking about virtual leadership and running virtual events long before it was fashionable – now that the rest of the world has caught up, she’s leading the way in making virtual and hybrid events (which are surely the future) not just possible, but powerful.

Most people at work have sat through interminable Zoom meetings over the last 18 months, few of us have experienced the kind of energy and engagement that Penny can bring. In this conversation she reveals some of the techniques she uses to inject vitality into virtual and also some of the potential pitfalls – it’s all too easy to subtly exclude members of remote teams. 

She also talks about her own approach to writing – highly visual and voice-based – and explains why her engineering background helps her see things differently in business. 

Making Workshops Work was the winner of the very first 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge, over 5 years ago: it’s been a long time coming, but it turns out to be the right book at exactly the right moment. 

Penny on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/pennypullan/

Penny on Twitter: https://twitter.com/PennyPullan

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

The EBBC summer 2021 reading list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/thinking-better-the-ebbc-summer-2021-reading-list

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Dr Penny Pullan who’s the author of several books, including Virtual Leadership: Practical strategies for getting the best out of virtual work and virtual teams. She works with people in multinational organizations who are grappling with tricky projects, uncertain, with ambiguous requirements, stakeholders who need to be engaged and virtual teams dispersed around the world.

And her latest book, Making Workshops Work: Creative collaboration for our time, is out on the 13th of July from Practical Inspiration Publishing.

So welcome to the show Penny.

Penny Pullan: Well, it’s lovely to be here.

Alison Jones: Oh, it’s great to have you here.

And of course this is going out just before the book comes out. So firstly, congratulations.

Penny Pullan: Oh, it’s exciting. This is the day that I think perhaps you thought might never come.

Alison Jones: Shall we talk about that?

Penny Pullan: Could do, a little bit

Alison Jones: We could talk about that, couldn’t we, because you actually were the first ever winner of the first ever 10-Day Business Book Proposal Challenge.

Penny Pullan: Yes, it was just brilliant. It came out just as my previous book, Virtual Leadership, came out. Do you remember when virtual leadership was a thing that just a small number of people did?

Alison Jones: You were a voice in the desert. Yeah.

Penny Pullan: There was not really anybody out there doing it. And my book launched in 2016 and then your proposal challenge.

And I thought, oh, it sounds perfect. It’s a bit too early, but I do have an idea of what’s coming next. So I entered and then said, you know, I shouldn’t put this in for the competition, it’s not really fair. But then you chose it.

Alison Jones: And here we are five years later to the day, it is a record actually in the proposal challenge. I mean, you know, I’m sure it won’t be forever, but you’ve had a lot of life happening in between then.

Penny Pullan: A lot of life and actually in a way it’s a book for our time. I mean, we came up with the subtitle, creative collaboration for our time, well before the pandemic happened, but oh boy, is it appropriate now.

Alison Jones: Yeah and of course, actually the pandemic is partly to blame for that big delay, because you had set aside three months in 2020,

Penny Pullan: It was, yes, absolutely.

Alison Jones: And you were going to do nothing else, but this book and then suddenly.

Penny Pullan: That’s right. I cleared out March, April, May, and then of course, March hit and then I got all these callers. So, you talked about all the people who I work with, but actually the people who were calling were head teachers, doctors, people in government, the people in organizations, as well as all the big internationals and also the BBC, Management Today, CEO Today, Forbes, goodness knows what else.

I was being asked to write articles to help people get going with this virtual stuff. The book just sort of ended up completely on the side. And I was doing so much writing, but not writing this new book. So actually it had already been delayed through a family member getting cancer and then dying and all sorts of other things happening.

Writing books is incredibly important, but it is very much something that you can put to the side when life hits. And I think that that’s important. And thank you so much for being a publisher who gets that.

Yeah, so I was obviously thinking a lot and running remote workshops and seeing other people grappling with these and helping them to do things virtually and in a hybrid way.

And it made me realize actually, the book that I designed, that you had agreed to publish, made perfect sense. And I could add more given the experiences that people were having and how I was seeing people grappling with things.

So actually it’s a better book than it would have been had it come out two or three years ago.

Alison Jones: Yes. It’s very much a book whose time has come, isn’t it?

 And it’s not just about virtual workshops of course, you do talk about in the room, you know, remember when we could do that.

Penny Pullan: Yes, it’s all the different types of workshops that I’ve done for 20 years now. Because it was 9/11 that forced me to, instead of going off to do a program kickoff meeting in New York, which would have been lovely fun, but I was due to fly over to New York two days after 9/11 hit.

It’s a good thing it wasn’t two days before because I would have been stranded Yes. So I had to do all this stuff, run virtual and hybrid as well, when you have a few people in one country and a few people in a room together in a different country and some remote people dialing in. I’ve been doing this ever since then.

Yes, so it covers in person and it covers hybrid and it covers virtual and it’s right throughout, which is the thing that I said right from the beginning, too many workshop books it’s all about in-person workshops and then you get maybe four pages on page 324 about how to do things virtually. And I wanted something where virtual and hybrid were right in there from the start.

Alison Jones: And that focus on creative collaboration is interesting because I think we’ve all had to make Zoom meetings work. They’re not fun, but they work. They’re fine. There’s not often much creative about them is there?

Penny Pullan: Ah, but there can be.

Alison Jones: Exactly. Tell me more Penny, tell me more.

Penny Pullan: Okay. Well, if I tell you a bit of a story, now, you might think creativity and engineering don’t go together. I mean, I think they do. I started off doing engineering up to PhD level and then becoming a chartered engineer. And the way I was taught to solve problems was to… in fact, the only way you could handle these really complicated problems was to draw a picture of them and then apply the maths. So when I finished all of that and went off into management consultancy, I actually carried on doing the same thing. There are all these problems, but they weren’t mathematical problems, they were problems about businesses and processes and stuff.

So ever since then, I’ve been drawing out problems to get a holistic view of what’s happening. And over the years I started doing this more publicly and doing it big on the side in meetings to help people get a view of what’s happening and to help people to see what they mean literally and you can use very visual techniques like this in meetings, even in virtual ones. And I draw little squiggle people and things like that. It brings a smile to people’s faces and it connects people. It keeps people looking at the screen and you can actually have fun. So one of the ways to bring in some creativity is to bring in hand-drawn pictures, actually that you’re drawing live in the session, whether it’s in a workshop on a big piece of paper, or if it’s on your PowerPoint slide or your white board or whatever it might be on your virtual screen.

Alison Jones: And Penny taught me how to use a graphics tablet to achieve this which was fantastic. You did a Pi-Q webinar for us, right at the beginning of lockdown, didn’t you, which was absolutely eye-opening.

And I mean, I hope you won’t be offended by this, but you are no Picasso are you Penny, you just squiggly figures.

Penny Pullan: That’s the whole point. In fact, we see so many perfect straight lines, that actually straight lines don’t engage people. Whereas if you see somebody drawing something and their line is a bit wobbly, well, actually it’s engaging and it has character.

So it’s not about being an artist, it’s about communicating the essence to the people who are further away and actually being engaging is so important when we’re virtual. And if I can draw little stick people or squiggle people or whatever, that aren’t perfect, that are gloriously imperfect, but incredibly human. You know, then that’s fantastic and it engages people and that’s great.

So actually one of my mantras throughout all of this, for workshops and for life in a pandemic as well, is be human not perfect. And actually that will really help.

Alison Jones: And I think that by showing that, and you talk about the way that that changes the energy in the room as well, the virtual room or the real room, and often people don’t draw because they see it as something rarefied and something, you know, I can’t draw but actually getting permission to express yourself in that way and I don’t mean creative expression as in drawing as therapy, I just mean a different mode, a different way of thinking about a problem, completely shifts the energy in a room, doesn’t it?

Penny Pullan: In a physical room with other people it’s fascinating because if I start drawing in a not artistic way, but in a fun and engaging way, what I notice is that other people join in. I don’t say you are now allowed to draw, but you know, there’s lots of pens, there’s lots of paper everywhere and the invitation is there and they can see I’m not that great.

As you said Alison, you know, they could see it’s not about perfection.

Alison Jones: Yeah.

Penny Pullan: And people join in. And by the end of the day everybody’s up on their feet and they’re using this engaging, creative tool because so much of our brains are honed in on visuals. And we can take in a huge amount of information visually, and we can get a holistic picture all at once visually.

We can’t do that with sound, what we’re doing now is a whole stream, a linear stream of things that it takes quite a lot of time to get through, but with visuals you can have a complicated picture placed in front of you and get a gist of the whole thing in one go.

Alison Jones: And that use of the whiteboard in a Zoom meeting, I’d never seen anybody use it so creatively. And you talk a lot, there’s examples in the book about how you can use breakout rooms to create different areas of a whiteboard and it’s really imaginative.

Penny Pullan: And if you think you’re too old and too stodgy and not creative have a look at Gordon’s story in the very end of the book, because Gordon is older than me and came and said, you know, Penny, I’m probably not that far off retiring, but I’d just like a little something to add to the work I do.

So we did some drawing and did a bit of facilitation stuff together. Now he’s known in this company, where I think he’s the oldest by quite a way, he’s known as the creative one. He gets drawn in to do things for board meetings and so on. Fascinating.

Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant, and I’ll never forget my old MD saying to me that he’d learned at the age of 50, if he drew a problem, he could solve it in time. It’s just such a profound thing to say.

And you’ve taken the idea of drawing in that sort of sense of the visual mode, right through the process of writing the book as well, because you do those beautiful mind maps in, what was the program that you use to plan the book?

Penny Pullan: Well, it’s iMindmap, I think it’s since moved on to something else, but it’s Tony Buzan’s own company that makes mind maps and they’re very organic and very colorful. I mean I’d much rather have them on paper, but the thing is I lose the paper and I’ve lost a couple of iterations of this book and actually the one before I think it was that I lost several.

So I now put them into this program, which is really helpful. And then I have simplified them a little bit, to put into the book, but they’re in there. For lots of people, it’s really helpful to see visually what’s this chapter got in it, well, what’s a whole book got in it even. If people don’t find mind maps useful, well, they can just turn the page and go straight into the words, but yes….

Alison Jones: Yes. And I was very worried because they are so beautifully colourful when you see them on screen, and of course the interior of the book is black and white so you’re seeing them in gray scale, but actually it still works, doesn’t it? We’ve got them landscape so you read everything and it just somehow orientates you in the book and it gives you a kind of overview of what you’re going to look at and how all the bits relate to each other, which is really powerful.

Penny Pullan: I’ve done it before and I’m never not going to do it. So yes, it does seem to work. And again, it’s this whole thing that I say in the book as well, which is about provide for diversity and include all the different types of people in your workshops. But also I’m trying to model that for the people who are reading the book as well.

Alison Jones: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that diversity and inclusion piece around workshops, because I think it is something that often isn’t well understood.

You make the point, for example, I’m awful at this. If you’re a native English speaker, you can be using idioms. You can be speaking very quickly. You can be sort of laughing and moving on and anybody for whom English is not the first language is sort of trailing in your wake.

So, what are perhaps a couple of things that people might not think of, but actually have a huge impact for successful inclusion?

Penny Pullan: Yes, it was quite funny actually. I run virtual summits, in fact, there’ll be one to coincide with the launch of this book. And I once interviewed somebody about English for non-English speakers in business, and I introduced him as ‘the leading light in the world of business English’.

And he said, ‘Penny, thank you. That’s a wonderful illustration of what not to do.’

Alison Jones: The Leading Light.

Penny Pullan: Yes. How are people meant to know that leading lights are, as a sailor I know, they are lights that you line up at sea so that you can follow a channel safely into port.

Somebody who is from say a country from the interior, in the continent of Africa or somebody from South America or wherever it might be, who is speaking a different language, they are not going to have a clue, and they are going to be wondering about this leading and this light and what on earth it means. And they will miss the next bit coming along. So I’ve remembered that forever. And in fact, I do it in the book. I’ve got these howlers that I make, I think actually that that’s probably quite a good learning thing for other people to learn from when I’ve done really crazy things.

I mean in the book I tell the story about when I shouted ‘Shut up!’ very loudly to an American lawyer, and I’ve agonized about it ever since

Alison Jones: Are there any other tips for inclusivity?

Penny Pullan: Don’t shout shut up at anybody.

Alison Jones: Yes, quite a profound one too, isn’t it?

Penny Pullan: Yeah. Be aware. I think it’s so much easier to be inclusive when you are aware of who is in the room, whether it’s a physical room or virtual room, what their perspectives are. So for example, I often get people to do things, physical stuff, and I had scissors and paper and there’s somebody in the room who was left-handed. You wouldn’t normally think about it. That’s not on the normal diversity and inclusion checklist, but for them cutting with right-handed scissors was particularly difficult, especially cutting accurately.

So lots of different things to think about, who are the people, what are you asking them to do? What might get in the way of that? What do you need to know?

I mean, an example in the virtual world is if you’re going to have a workshop which includes an element of celebration why not send out little parcels with something special for that celebration, that virtual celebration, and say open only at this time, but make sure you know everybody’s dietary requirements.

I was sent an enormous bottle of Champagne, which was lovely, last summer as a thank you. The only trouble was since the beginning of the year I’d been, for health reasons, I’ve not been able to drink wine at all. In fact, I still don’t. So actually it was lovely, but it also slightly excluded me, but it did mean that I have friends who think I’m marvelous because I pass on Champagne and Prosecco and so on to them.

But yeah, so just make sure you know the things you need to know to be able to include people completely.

Alison Jones: Let’s talk about the writing as well Penny, we’ve already touched on the fact that this one’s been a while in the brewing, but you’ve written several books now and obviously we’ve talked about the mind maps as well, which think is a really crucial point.

Are there any other things that you have, any other sort of ways of working that you have established over the years that really would just help you pull a book together?

Penny Pullan: Well this book was actually together probably shortly after the proposal challenge in terms of all the mind-maps mapped out. And then I sit with it. I go away and think about it and come back and add things to the mind-maps. I generally take a set of mind maps around with me and scribble things down, but I have lost several of those.

So yes, coming back and adding, so it percolates probably for about six months and then I was about to start. And then my dad got cancer, so everything went to the side. Dads with cancer are way more important than books, even if you have a contract with the illustrious Alison Jones and Practical Inspiration Publishing.

But percolation helps. I am terrible at sitting down with a blank screen at a word processor, it just doesn’t work for me. So what I do instead is I speak my books. I don’t know if you can tell Alison?

Alison Jones: Oh, it sounds just like listening to you. Absolutely. I mean, I knew this, so kind of knew that, but it is, it’s so, it’s simple, it’s direct, very much just like talking to you.

Penny Pullan: Yeah. So that’s why I get my first draft is I have my mind map in my hand, the mind map will be covered in notes. So there are about three or four layers of mind-map that you can’t see in the book because they’d been shaved down to the sort of very highest level, or they wouldn’t fit and you wouldn’t be able to read the font.

And I probably have a little mind map branch for every paragraph or probably below several for each paragraph. And I just talk it through as if I was talking to an old friend who wanted to know about the topic.

In fact I put a Teddy bear behind the microphone, a Teddy bear that my son knitted for me over lockdown was the one that I used this time, just friendly, talking to them.

 And now of course, I used to use a human transcriber, but now I have a subscription to a transcription tool. You feed the recording in and there you are. Boom. Of course it’s full of rubbish, it needs editing. So I edit it in the transcription tool, which is quite good. And then the first download to Word is actually one I’ve spoken, but then worked on, so it’s a decent first draft.

Alison Jones: Yes, because actually you have to go through it, don’t you? See it written on the page and remove the repetition and make the transition smoother. So you might as well do that while you do the first pass in the transcription.

Penny Pullan: Yes and because it’s in the transcription program rather than in Word I’m not properly writing it. So it sort of feels a bit more freeing.

Alison Jones: Oh, that’s interesting, so it feels more provisional.

Penny Pullan: Yes. This is just me messing around in the transcription software.

Alison Jones: That’s a neat way of taking the pressure off yourself. Isn’t it? I like that. I’m going to ask you about your best tip. I mean, I’m greedy, because I’ve just had loads. Sorry, but you know, if somebody’s at the start of their first book, what do you think is the most important thing that they should do or know?

Penny Pullan: They probably need to know you actually, go on your challenge, that will be good because actually the proposal…

I was incredibly lucky, the first book I ever wrote. It was Ruth Murray-Webster, who I asked to write the foreword for this book. She is an expert on risk and change and she had come to my facilitation course and said, hang on, this stuff’s dynamite. If we can mix it with risk, we’ve got something, a book that doesn’t exist already. And this was my first book 10 years ago. And she said, look, I’ve got a proposal outline. And we wrote that together and it clarified, it was before we wrote the book and I’ve always done it that way.

Have real clarity on what it is that you’re writing, who it’s for, what it’s for and then write.

Too often I come across people who say, look, I’ve written three quarters of a book, and I think, oh, yikes, you may have to start again. I don’t know if that you come across that?

Alison Jones: Oh, I’m nodding furiously. You are not going to get any argument. I think writing a proposal, you know, why would you not do that first? You just have to get clear on who you’re writing for and what the point of this is.

Penny Pullan: I just published the virtual leadership book, which then as I said, was a slightly obscure topic and nobody ever knew what I did when I talked to my parents’ friends, they sort of go and talk to somebody about something else, but go oh, I know what you’ve been talking about all these years now. Anyway.

Alison Jones: Shame it took a pandemic. Isn’t it?

Penny Pullan: Yes. Anyway.

Alison Jones: Would you like as well, Penny to recommend a business book for us? Or it doesn’t have to be a business book, but a book that you think is going to be interesting and useful for listeners to this podcast.

Penny Pullan: Okay. There are a few, there are a few. So first of all, Ruth, who I mentioned earlier, Ruth Murray-Webster has just written a book, which has come out a few weeks before this one, which is called The Disruption Game Plan. And the subtitle is ‘New rules for connected thinking on innovation and risk’. Now I’m really interested in risk having worked on projects for years and uncertainty and also innovation and creativity and doing things in new ways.

 Once I read the book, I thought, duh, this is obvious, we shouldn’t have separate people in separate departments working on innovation from those working on risks, because it’s part and parcel of the same thing. I think that’s partly what lots of people have found in the pandemic is we’re in risky times, but oh boy, do we innovate? These things are linked. So that’s a good book.

Alison Jones: It’s with Eleanor Winton. Isn’t it? Bringing those two things together, it’s just absolute genius. And as soon as you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it, No, I completely agree. Yes, it’s brilliant.

Penny Pullan: Another one that’s been useful is Caroline Webb’s How to Have a Good Day.

Alison Jones: Yes.

Penny Pullan: Caroline and I were actually at the same college in Cambridge many, many years ago.

Alison Jones: Cool.

Penny Pullan: Yes. And I find it actually really useful and, you know, talk about packed with neuroscience and behavioral economics. I just put a little sprinkling in, but I recommended that in my chapter on neuroscience and social psychology and so on as a useful book.

And then of course, a lot of my reading at the moment. I’m crazy, I’ve just started an MA, I’m about to start an MA with Durham University part-time it’s what I’m going to be doing on my Mondays from now on for the next three years.

Alison Jones: I’m quite glad we got the book out of you before you started this.

Penny Pullan: Yes, well, anyway so actually I’m reading loads of interesting stuff as well. Probably not business book related, but at the moment it’s feminist theology and I’m going to be doing some anthropology and lots of stuff on ethics from September. So there you go, it’s fascinating. And it opens your mind. It’s very different. So I enjoy reading different things. I think I probably pulled some things that are quite different into my book compared to most business books, so, yeah.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. You’re right. It is filling the well, isn’t it, and it’s seeing connections in fields that you wouldn’t necessarily automatically think of as being related. Quality brain food, that’s it is really.

Penny Pullan: It’s fun!

Alison Jones: Yes. And actually just dotting back to Caroline Webb for a minute. What I love about that book as well, is it’s just such a friendly unpretentious title: How to Have a Good Day. It’s really profound, but it’s really simple. And as you say absolutely packed with really practical neuroscience. There is no compromise on the kind of qualities, but she doesn’t feel the need to use any long words. The title, I just, I love that about that book.

It’s just absolutely ego-less. Isn’t it?

Penny Pullan: And I’m trying to have that too in mind. I don’t think I managed quite as well as Caroline, but yes, friendly, it comes across as friendly and caring and practical and useful

Alison Jones: Yep. Brilliant, great recommendations. I don’t know whether I’m relieved or disappointed that you didn’t give us any feminist theology titles, but Yeah, thank you for the general point.

Penny Pullan: Very happy to talk anybody about what I’m finding out about that, all fascinating stuff, but yes.

Alison Jones: So Penny, if people want to find out more about you, more about this book, and your other books and the work that you do, where should they go?

Penny Pullan: Well, it depends where they want to go. So I’m on LinkedIn. I’m Penny Pullan PULLAN is a good place to get me. I’m on Twitter as well. @PennyPullan I’m also, by the time the book comes out, there will be a website, www.pennypullan.com. Remember the Pullan is AN not EN which is why I’m pronouncing it in a slightly strange way.

Pullan. Yeah. PULLAN. Yes. And you can find me there and you can phone me and send me emails and all sorts of things. Very happy to chat to people,

Alison Jones: So if you do want to know how feminist theology works, then that’s how you get in touch.

Penny Pullan: Probably I will have moved on to liberation theology by that time whatever the next thing is.

Alison Jones: Keep up Alison. Brilliant. Thank you so much, Penny. That was absolutely fascinating. And I have to say on a personal note, I’m so pleased to be publishing it. I knew it was going to be worth the wait and it absolutely is. So thank you for it, it is absolutely brilliant.

Penny Pullan: And thank you, Alison, for being the most understanding publisher of all, I mean, I must say I was thinking as each thing came up, she’s never going to want to go anywhere near the next book of mine…

Alison Jones: We’ll have to schedule it in now. ready for 2030. Thanks so much for your time, Penny.

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