LGF Retreat Day 1: ducks on bikes


I’m in Madrid! The surroundings are gorgeous, the other Fellows and IYF team are incredible, and the food is delicious. It’s really hard to be present, though, because I’m taking my major exam in 2.5 months, and it’s the biggest hurdle of my PhD yet. One thing that is making it easier, though, is that the retreat is structured in a way that really helps me feel comfortable: an intimate group of people, close interaction with the IYF team (who also share their stories as we go along), and a good deal of unstructured time built into the day to help me process.

And as I’ve learned that blogging is how I process, here I am trying to capture each day’s learnings in the here and now.

Today is all about personal leadership.

Our icebreakers were first about building relationships (walking around the room and acknowledging others in different ways – high fives, handshakes, winks! – and a name game where we got in a circle and tried to call out the names of those on either side of us before the split-second time ran out). I surprised myself knowing all but two names in the room this morning. Admittedly, I’m inspired by an MIT professor, Ana Miljacki, who takes the time to memorize her ~25 students’ names before the second class.

We then moved to connecting with our purpose. Joel walked us through a visualization exercise where we envisioned our ‘workspace’, then thought of our team surrounding and connecting to us, followed by our family/mentors/supporters, followed by our communities. Figuring out whether to envision my desk in Cambridge or the Kakkaiyankulam classroom reminded me of my daily mental tug-of-war in apportioning my attention, and envisioning ‘supporters’ with whom relationships have become strained reminded me of how I want to be better at both strengthening great relationships and repairing ones that have frayed.

Jessie talked us through IYF programmes as a means to give us context for where we are now. I was struck at how they’ve scaled, not by having more Fellows annually – it’s still 20 a year and I think that number is perfect – but through strategic partnerships that allow for replicating and adapting the programme to different local contexts. Definitely useful to think about as I struggle to keep Building Bridges a ‘high-touch’ arts programme while reaching more young people.

Also, coming up with a ‘social contract’ for the week!



I loved the life map, because I’ve done a few similar things before but not quite as visual, and it was really fun to be working in colour. Also, great facilitation tip: I really appreciated how Joel shared his first, which collapsed the gap between the IYF team and ourselves. Here’s mine:


Three ways my personal story influences or shapes the leader I am today:

  1. Definitely my unending meditation on identity (although in a nod to my major exam reading, Frederick Cooper would probably berate me for using the term too loosely). I have an enduring sense of both belonging deeply and not belonging in Sri Lanka, I’m trying to figure out what form of identifying as Australian feels right to me, and I’m mulling over my fondness for Boston at a time when temporary visitors (and even permanent residents) are made to feel more unwelcome than ever.
  2. My fascination with meaning-making and stories themselves – not only because theatre changed my perception of self and others, but because it has made me fully aware that the shape of my story depends on which ‘beads’ I choose to string together – and my attempts to share this exploration through Building Bridges.
  3. Have to think more on this one!

A few key turning points I can use to talk to donors, staff, volunteers, and others about why I do my work:

  1. I can speak more explicitly about my “playground to playground” journey, from being bullied in one playground to building a playground through work that brought people with very different views together, although my ‘first play’ and ‘graveyard visit’ story-beads fit oddly in the middle.
  2. I’ve never really talked about how many plane journeys I’ve taken – my first time flying alone at age five! – and how these have completely transformed my outlook through immersion in different countries and given me reasons to think about who I am (and who I have been) in a particular place at a particular time.


Ducks on bikes: Jim’s use of David Shannon’s Duck on a Bike to help us think through what it means to lead (especially re: starting something we may not feel we know much about, and in the face of criticism or naysaying) was a hilarious and simple reminder to stay courageous – and to see the fun in the adventure!)


I was completely thrown (in a good way) by the very direct conversation about gender that happened directly after we discussed the ‘leaky pipeline’ problem – although more than half of new hires are women, less than 3% are CEOs. We did a “five minute fishbowl” where some participants chose to sit in the inner circle of two rings of chairs, and tried to honestly answer questions around gender discrimination, why the leaky pipeline exists, and what we can see being done to combar gender bias. I’m so glad we just tackled the subject head on, rather than skirt around it in our discussions around women’s strengths and under-representation.


Daily dose o’ inspo: Nat, who’s worked in Sri Lanka, and who I want to talk to about her gamification strategies for My Green World; Innocent, whose My Little Travelling Library really appeals to the lifelong reader in me (and who also works entirely with volunteers); Cristina, a fellow Tiger whose journey in creating and sustained EscueLab is weirdly similar to mine; Katia, an architect who went from unpaid commissions to working with the Ministry of Culture on Beirut Design Week and more with Architects for Change.

Also, here are my not-so-live tweets from today’s session, which include some other fun nuggets that seemed to belong better on Twitter.

From Prototype to Fruition (Session 3)


The last session of this three-week workshop discussed how we assess risk and test our assumptions.

For the first part of the class, we wrote down three key risks on stickies and assigned them to a box on the Lean Canvas – mine were around whether our paying customers were interested in design thinking methods at all, whether our funding model would require us to spend the bulk of our time catering to our paying customers rather than our low-income beneficiaries, and (if we focus on teacher training over student engagement) whether a lack of resources would prevent teachers from being able to implement what they learned.

Reading through the notes articulated by others in our class made it clear that the most well-articulated risks are those that have an implicit benchmark and are measurable. Continue reading

From Prototype to Fruition (Session 2)

Lean Canvas 1

Last week, we discussed some challenges around the lean canvas – from clear descriptions, to unique value propositions vs. solutions, to the different between a for-profit business idea and its form(s) as an impact venture. We also started assessing the risks inherent in our ideas.

Thinking in this way is new to me, and doesn’t come easily. To stretch my muscles, I tried to envision Building Bridges as a series of different ventures and assess the risks inherent in each (I’d love to hear feedback in the comments!). Continue reading

May: From Conflict to Collaboration


Nobody likes conflict, and we’ll often do all we can to avoid it. The problem is that agreeing too much is just as dangerous. It’s possible to end up with the unpleasant situation that management expert Jerry B. Harvey calls the Abilene Paradox, where everyone agrees to a course of action that nobody really wanted. It happens when everyone just ‘goes along’ with an idea because they wanted to please the group, and causes a lot of resentment and blame-shifting.

But it’s inevitable that we will disagree with someone in our family, on our team, in our community, online, on the bus, at the supermarket, and especially with people who don’t share our values. What do we do then? Continue reading

From Prototype to Fruition (Session 1)


I’m using my time as an exchange scholar at Stanford to take a number of short pop-up classes at the d.school; I’m hoping they will provide some useful tools for both incorporating into current Building Bridges programmes and for thinking about where we are heading next. One of these is From Prototype to Fruition – it’s a three-week taster taught by Stefanos Zenios and Matthew Glickman, drawing from the two-quarter GSB course Start-up Garage, and it’s offered within the d.school to encourage a quick-and-dirty, iterative approach to developing business models. Continue reading

April: Future Visions, Current Actions


The first three challenges for the year focused on identifying our strengths, tracing how personal history shapes our sense of self and values, and how to use these insights to clarify what we do, who we do it for, and how to leverage our personal networks of power.

The next three challenges revolve around leading and working with a team. While there are countless resources out there, it can all feel a little overwhelming. Where do you even start? How do you manage the delicate balance between leading and managing, macro-visions and micro-tasks, or present operations and future visions? Continue reading

March: Calibrating your compass


The first challenge for this year was to consider our strengths – who we are and how we function when we are at our best. The second challenge involved mapping out how significant life events, as well as our socio-political networks more generally, have shaped our sense of self. This month’s challenge incorporates those insights in gaining clarity in terms of why we do what we do, and who we do it for. You’ve probably read a lot about the power of storytelling, and these two elements are key to crafting the story you can tell yourself when you need to calibrate your personal compass. Continue reading

Exponential Ideation


Yesterday I took part in a d.school pop-out class called Exponential Ideation, with Elysa Fenenbock and Aithan Shapira, and it was chock-full of activities and prompts that I plan to steal shamelessly for Building Bridges. In fact, I would almost describe it as a (six-hour marathon) BB workshop for adults. At an art gallery! Today’s focus was on brainstorming as someone else (and reflecting on what that felt like), empathy as a form of ideation, translating ideas across media and industries, and changing constraints through unusual pairings. Here’s a run-down of what we did today, in case you find it as useful as I did. A note, though – I haven’t edited this post for readability, just used it as a brain dump for future use, so I apologise if it’s hard to get through. I hope the emphases and spacing and pictures help! Also, did you know that massaging your face can make your brain feel better? Continue reading

February: Signposting and Mapping


This month’s challenge has two parts: reflecting on your life as it is being lived out (i.e. your personal identity), and then digging deeper to take historical, cultural, and political factors into consideration (i.e. your social identity). If the first part is about identifying the signposts on your life-path, the second is about seeing that path winding through the map of its cultural and political context. All links are included at the end of this article to reduce distraction while still providing rabbit-holes (and citations).

Part 1: Developing your ‘life narrative’

This exercise draws directly from an article in The Leadership Quarterly we read in my MIT class ‘Leading Creative Teams’. It talks about different types of leadership (we’ll get more into that in upcoming months), asserting that one trait common to all outstanding leaders is how they respond to crises. Continue reading

January: Identifying My Strengths


Last year, I took a class at MIT called ‘Leading Creative Teams’ and one of the major assignments was to complete a version of the Reflected Best Self (RBS) Portrait. The RBS is a feedback-seeking exercise developed by researchers at Harvard and Michigan that I found to be really insightful for three reasons:

Firstly, it focuses on identifying strengths rather than areas for improvement. As a perfectionist trained to spot errors, glitches, lapses, contradictions, mistakes, anomalies (you get my drift) it was refreshing to seek out, for once, what absolutely shines. The RBS reoriented how I evaluate myself. Continue reading