Video and transcript from Mohamed Ali Abdirahman‘s talk at Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit, Control the Room

This is part of the 2019 Control The Room speaker video series.

Control the Room 2019 was Austin’s 1st Annual Facilitator Summit with the goal of bringing together facilitators of all kinds to build rapport, learn, and grow together.

The conference opened with a talk by Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering.” After that, we moved onto 15 quick-and-powerful presentations by facilitators of all kinds.

Within that group of amazing speakers, we were lucky enough to have Mohamed Ali Abdirahman. Mohamed’s Design Thinking Canvas was born from ongoing conversations on how design has an impact, alongside a search for a way to codify a comprehensive approach to design thinking. He takes experiences of forging human bonds through community and used them to structure reminders for clients of that deepest of human needs, the need to love, to be loved, and to relate.

Mohamed Ali Abdirahman, Partner at LeadIN
Mohamed Ali Abdirahman, Partner at LeadIN

He showed us exercises to use to open workshops, at “lunch & learns,” orientations, or other interactions where we may need to foster a more human connection between people in a room.

Watch Mohamed Ali Abdirahman’s talk “You are not a label”:

Read the Transcript

Mohamed Ali: Awesome. Thank you. How’s everyone feeling? Are you tired of sitting, or are you tired of standing?

Audience member: Tired of sitting.

Mohamed Ali: Tired of sitting. All right, the loudest voice has proclaimed this. So just say thank you for having me here. Here I am in beautiful Austin. I didn’t have time to take the sights, so I just Photoshopped myself here. I’ll be sharing how I realized that a lot of my life has been underpinned by three things, intention, curiosity, and reflection.

But before I share this, I’ll have you stand and make the noises. Yeah. And luckily, Jess has already given you a bit of a breathing exercise. What I’m going to have you do is pair up, okay? Find the partner. Awesome. We’re doing great so far. Actually for the rest of this talk, we’re going to throw this behind our back. Okay? Introduce yourselves, just names, first names, and then I want you to take 10 seconds to think through … and thank you, Douglas. What is your superpower? One characteristic that defines you. Just one, one word. The partner is going to tell you in 45 seconds why this superpower will save the world. Okay, look each other in the eye and whoever wants to start will put up their hand. The person who is going to be listening, put up your hand. Okay. Tell them your characteristic. Go.

So you can couple this exercise, it’s a very simple improv exercise, you can couple it with an exercise that Heidi showed you earlier from a liberating structure where you rotate. I like to use this as soon as I get into a room, because it really sets the stage for people to get to know each other no matter the hierarchy.

So for me, my story, I’ll start it with my grandmother. In Somali, the word is and [Somali 00:02:32]. I was raised by her, and I don’t remember a whole lot, but what I do remember from my childhood, from the time that I was with her, is that one of the most … one of the more vivid memories, sorry, is that I remember tracing my fingers alongside the walls. Some parts of the walls were narrow. There were narrow holes. Some were wider holes, and some were really strange. But I also remember that she was full of love, and she knew how to love, and she knew how to relate to people. Our home had a revolving door of characters that would just show up who sought her out. I later learned that those holes were actually bullet holes, and that the people who were showing up were people who were seeking refuge or respite in her home.

The reason I’m sharing this story is that she raised me through local and regional conflicts; and throughout these conflicts, she had two values that she’s passed. One was service to others, and the other was human relationships. This is something that I, it’s this tiny bit of what made her loved is what I try and take with me wherever I go. It sort of happened inadvertently that I take this wherever I go. Sorry, I’ll be looking into this, because I want to make sure that I get across the story as well as possible.

She raised six children, and she was of simple means. She was a house cleaner, and she wanted for her daughter to be educated, and that’s the reason she raised me. She also understood that war and hardship are impartial to your means and the social contract that she had through these values with her neighborhood. And it meant that she had ended up raising more than just her six children. To this day, people who remember her, remember her fondly, who have survived [inaudible 00:04:37] remember her fondly.

So why is it that I’m sharing her story? This story is part of what informed my path and what brought me here today, for example. I became aware of these stories through people, people who wish to serve, like my grandma, people who want to ease or facilitate for deeper understanding and more meaningful connections, people like the creative bunch who are peppered throughout my slides, and people like Douglas and Lily and the volunteers here, who have helped us come here in the hopes that we will forge deeper connections, in hopes that we may better serve others.

As a recovering human resource professional, when I came across human-centered design, specifically when it was utilized in exploring meaningful, what I felt was meaningful challenges like designing disrupters to mass incarceration in Washington DC with returning citizens, it sort of fueled an exploration. This curiosity that I had, I felt that possibly maybe I could apply some of this in my little corner of the HR world.

So then when my wife and I decided to go to DC, I kind of went a little bit overboard and started affinity diagramming our needs in a real estate agent and in the house that we want to buy, and then taking these personas and sitting with the real estate agents and asking them where it went wrong with other people. I stayed curious, and I’ve participated in learning circles like Theory U that were … a lot of these things were mentioned earlier, possibly not sociocracy. And I also came across LeadIN, where over eight learning circles, excuse me, and two hours a week with 11 other strangers, we tried to figure out what leadership was for us.

Don’t get me wrong, in my journey I was in multiple different labels or roles that have labels associated with leadership, but it didn’t really mean that I was a leader. One of these roles, I was in a company as employee number 90, and I was responsible for recruiting, developing 2000 people over two years, and we did that. But it left me stretched out, it made me feel tired and sort of disappointed in this.

So why was that the case? I think part of the challenge is understanding that the systems that I was a part of, whether it was humanitarian, whether it was energy, whether it was government sectors, were rooted in leadership cultures that witnessed individuals as resources, as people who had to be managed, as opposed to humans as resourceful, if you design the environment for them to contribute the work that they wish to contribute.

So I like to learn about the etymology of words, specifically in Arabic, because it could be poetic at times. The word for human, insan, in Arabic has two roots. One is to forget, and the other is to love, to be loved, to relate, those three words together. I’m not going to talk about forgetting, the neuroscience of forgetting and it’s important for mental health. It’s fascinating, so check it out. But I’m more interested in this part of the equation of the human condition.

The Surgeon General of the United States, the 19th Surgeon General, in 2014, 2015 stated that there is a loneliness epidemic. I’ve witnessed this in my career in HR. Think about meeting dynamics, the micro-inequities in organizations, unconscious bias, and unheard voices. A lot of that, I felt, is because there was a default state. Let’s set aside what happens in companies. What happens when you go to a networking event? It’s very lonely. You’ve got the state. The default state is business cards and a 15-second pitch. So why is it that we have the value an individual boiled down to 15 seconds, whether it be in networking events or in scanning a CV, for instance.

So when I was moving to Dubai, I wanted to be more intentional about the kind of space that I wanted to create for myself. It sort of hit me more clearly what I heard once at a UXDC conference, which was, “If you don’t design, you default.” So borrowing from adaptive positive deviance and the approach of, “I am looking for people that say I make the difference,” versus, “Yeah, but here’s a set of excuses,” I started exploring, I sort of co-opted six of these questions to try and figure out what is it that I’m trying to create. I’ll go through this quickly, but it’ll be in the slide.

That led me to figure out who out there resonates with the values that I have, service to others and human relationships. Who out there does the kind of work that I’m interested in? So I reached out, and I told people, “I want to co-facilitate whatever it is your co-facilitating. I just want to be up there.” And I found this lady, [Najic Deb 00:10:07], a really amazing person, who is actually doing a creative morning talk about being a prototype. So we ended up gathering people who both thought that they make the difference and who wanted to be a prototype and a group called the Creative Bunch was born.

Out of this group, in a year three podcasts were created, an improv group was created. We delivered one of the most successful service design jams to date. We cobbled together by putting together people from the group within three weeks. A lot of that, I realized, was because of something called slow networking, according to the Chris Batchelder, which is, “a gradually unfolding over time interaction grounded in a desire for authentic human connection.”

Before showing up here, I surveyed the group, and I asked them a lot of questions, one of which was, “As small business owners and as freelancers, are you more likely to offer assistance or share opportunities?” which is unheard of for a lot of small business owners looking to survive. Overwhelmingly, 4.5 out of five, with five being much more likely, they said, “Yes we would.” These are some other voices in the group. Just looking in the eyes of some bunchies, creative bunchies, makes me feel home. It’s different, because we celebrate another’s success as our own, and everyone is about something and striving for something.

So what I want to do is just experiment with the people here, because there are a lot of beautiful souls I’ve come across. What I want to do is just give you a sample of the process that unfolded over a year’s time, but with the group here, if you’d like to ingratiate me here, just play around with me.

So I’ll have you think through individually and write it down if it makes it easier, what is it that you wish to develop or build or bring into the world? So I’ll give you 30 seconds to just write it down. Some of you may have already something there, because Keith had asked a similar question earlier. Then think through, what do you take pleasure in helping with? Something that if someone comes to you, you’re like, “Yeah, I’ve got you, I’ve got your back. No worries.” The last question, this one’s a bit more difficult, what help do you need? So choose the thing that makes you feel uneasy to ask for help of someone.

All right, now with the same partner, I’m going to give you a minute to share this between you, the same partner you did the earlier exercise with, okay? Go.

Awesome. Just one very quick exercise. So you’ve developed and you’ve built what you sought to, okay? You’re on top of the hill. You made it. You are excited, and you want to tell your partner about it, okay? You ready to tell them about it? How you achieved this, are you ready to tell them how you achieved the thing that you wanted to build or develop? Yeah. You’re going to do it, but you’re going to do it using jibberish. Go partner one, go start to your partner. Go. Using jibberish, no English, jibberish.

So I tried to very quickly show you sort of my journey going from how do you ensure that people feel that they’re not resources, and how do you enable people? And I feel that keeping in mind the human element, the need for love, to feel loved, and to relate to someone, I think we need to ensure that there’s more of that.

This is a slide you can take a picture of or checkout. It’s just a summary of today. As you leave, I want you to be your partner’s advocate. As you meet other people today, as you speak to them, instead of putting what you need forward, advocate them. You’ll be surprised how much more convincing you are when you’re trying to get someone else what they need.

As for my grandma, her daughter graduated in biochemistry, became a lab technician, and is currently a translator helping refugees navigate the medical landscape out in Canada. So I am not a label. I am a human prototype, who is learning to love, to be loved, and to relate. [Somali 00:15:23], Austin. Thank you.