Monday, October 12, 2009

Finishing the Task

I find that it’s very hard to maintain focus on a project that goes on for a while. That’s probably normal for most folks; the initial fascination and newness wears off and the real work begins. Finishing a project requires discipline and focus.

It’s my experience that creative people, in particular, have trouble finishing a task. They look at the world around them with a critical eye – always looking for better ways to do things. As they work on a project for a period of time, they imagine new possibilities and can be tempted to jump to that new idea.

One of my architecture classmates at Kentucky was a classic example of this. He was a gifted designer and had amazing spatial talents. Over the course of a couple weeks, I watched him each night – build, then tear up his cardboard model; going from idea to idea. At several points along the way, he came up with something I considered really great. Instead of developing one concept, he would think of something new and start all over. Several of us tried (unsuccessfully) to push him to complete any one idea. When it came time for his public presentation, he had nothing to show but a mangled model. All those great ideas were lost.

I witness this sort of thing frequently at work and at scout activity-planning. Wood Badge has hopefully taught you several lessons to avoid this – and help you reach the finish-line with your ticket:
  • Before you start, understand your personal values and have a vision of what success looks like.
  • Plan out your mission including all tasks required and a time-line for each. Avoid the “activity trap” – starting the work before finishing the plan.
  • Don’t work in a vacuum; accept the help of others and listen to their feedback. They will sometimes have insights that are not apparent to you.
  • Have the discipline to stay on-task.
  • If circumstances dictate a change, go back to your vision and create a revised plan.
  • Finish the job – most projects have little value unless they are completed.
  • After the project, honestly critique the process to understand what lessons were learned.

At the conclusion of the second weekend of SR966, celebrate the fact that you completed the 6-day training component of the course. This is a great accomplishment that we hope was a good experience as well. Now, the rest is up to you.

You are to go back home and work your ticket – armed with a plan, some inspiration, and new skills to make it happen. With discipline to follow the path that you laid out, you are certain to find your way to the finish-line.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Having seen Everett Winn show us his cherished hiking stick collection at the Interfaith Service last weekend, it got me thinking about things that I keep around – my collections. Like Everett, there are certain things that mean a great deal to me. None of my things would get serious attention on Ebay, but they are priceless to me. Each triggers a certain memory of a special occasion or important person in our life:

  • My mother helped me start my plate block stamp collection when I was 7 years old
  • The patches recall a hundreds of scout activities over the last 40 years.
  • The neckerchiefs were traded with people I met at the World Jamboree

Last night, I had a chance to exhibit some of my collections. Our first Pack Meeting of the school year was themed around “collections”. Nine types of collections were displayed on tables for a gathering activity and the boys were asked to rank them from most to least favorite. These collections were all mine and I was curious to see what grade-school boys thought was interesting these days.

It was no big surprise to discover that the highest ranked collections were shiny (crystals, old pennies, and hiking medals.) Less popular were my most prized collections of stamps, neckerchiefs, and patches. After hearing of their thoughts about my stuff during a group discussion, I asked them what they collected. Their answers included state quarters, Legos, and Pokeman items. There was one future comic who said he collected albums from the Beatles and Black Sabbath.

The most important collections we keep are not physical things that you put in a box and look at once in a while. Rather, they are relationships and memories of people. As a scout leader, you will encounter dozens of youth through the years. Your favorite memory of each person will be different. It might be teaching a new skill to a Cub Scout, the excitement of a scout receiving his First Class badge, or hearing a Venture Scout tell you about their plans for college.

A collection of good memories and friendships is your reward for all those hours invested in scouting. It is a collection that you will treasure. A special memory of you and all the cool experiences will likely be part of your scouts’ collections too.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Power of a Ticket

A couple times during Weekend One, I made a reference to the 2007 World Jamboree. Since those were just glancing references, let me follow up and add some context. My interest in attending this event started with what I thought would be weakest ticket item as part of my vision that as a Cub Pack Committee Chair:
“I will be a more effective leader and as a result my Pack will have a better program.”

As with all 21st Century Wood Badge participants, we were “asked” to have at least one ticket that spoke to diversity. I struggled with this concept since my downtown pack was already diverse by most standards. Having seen the World Friendship Fund collection as part of the Day 3 service, I decided to check out who was to benefit from this money. Searching the internet, I discovered that nearly every country had scouting and that scouting programs were connected by an organization called the World Organization of the Scout Movement. My interest was piqued and I decided that one way to bring diversity to my unit was to introduce them to scout customs in other countries.

Over the next year, I crafted a month of programs for the dens which culminated in our Blue and Gold Banquet – with the theme Scouts around the World. During the month, the boys played games from other countries, made table centerpieces out of the other scout logos, and wrote letters to a Cub Pack in Australia. It became so interesting to me that I started to collect patches from other countries and did my first large watercolor featuring logos from scout programs (boys and girls) from around the world. My weak ticket had become a personal passion that hopefully expanded my pack’s view of the world.

Three years after my ticket was complete, I kept that newly-found interest going by signing up to attend the World Jamboree in England. If there was ever one to go to, it would be this one – celebrating the 100th anniversary of scouting’s birth. For three weeks I was assigned to be one of 8000 International Service Team members. This group’s purpose is to make the camp function so the youth and their leaders would have a great experience. Specifically, my job was to walk the beat as a steward (their name for security guard/information officer) with my team members from Pakistan, Switzerland, and Great Britain. When not working, I took my sketchbook and sat down to draw some of the things around the site. Invariably, a scout would be curious and come look at my sketch. It was a great way to start a conversation and after a few minutes, I’d present the scout with a council strip from the Heart of Virginia. After 20 days of rotating shifts, 200 miles of walking, and meeting at least 1500 people from 50+ countries, I had the full multi-cultural experience.

The most meaningful memory for me was not one of the big production shows or even guarding a future King of England. It was the simple act of donating my new Jamboree tent to the delegation from Zambia. One of their leaders shared a need for any kind of equipment that would help new scout units in their country. After carefully folding it up on the last day, I quietly put it at the simple signpost that marked the entrance to the Zambia camping area.

Baden-Powell’s vision for scouting was to see scouts from around the world united in peace and sharing a spirit of brotherhood. The power of scouting became very real to me that day – and showed me that what I took away from the Jamboree was not as important as what I could leave behind. That “weak” ticket item from Wood Badge became pretty great.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Be Prepared

The Boy Scout motto is taking on new meaning as the start of Wood Badge course SR966 is now only one month away. The staff is all about preparation right now as we will have our final meeting at Cub Adventure Camp this weekend. This will be our last chance to practice our presentations and test months of preparation.

Be prepared was a phrase frequently used by scouting’s founder. It sums up his motivation for starting the scouting program after his return from military service. Baden-Powell was alarmed that British youth were not adequately prepared for service to the nation. That day’s youth had a diminishing understanding of the outdoors and the skills required to live in it.

The phrase must have had a special place for BP as it shared initials with his own name. He described this phrase in his book “Scouting for Boys”. He stated that “Be Prepared” means you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty:
  • Be Prepared in Mind by having disciplined yourself to be obedient to every order, and also by having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it.
  • Be Prepared in Body by making yourself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it.
Being prepared requires vision and experience. Vision is a picture of future success and a good plan should envision possible scenarios that might disrupt that picture. Do you have a contingency plan that can substitute if circumstances change? Will the alternative outcome be as good as the original intent? Will the goal still be achieved?

Preparation is seasoned by experience – whether it comes through success or failure. Experience teaches us what not to do as much as what will work. If you combine preparation and experience, the result is confidence.

Scouting is designed to work exactly this way. With the guidance of adult leaders, the program teaches young people how to plan and carry out their own activities. Some plans will come together as designed. Others will not turn out so well. By overcoming challenges, scouts learn how to improvise and adapt to change. With time, they will grow in confidence and take on bigger challenges.

As Wood Badge staffers, our vision pictures a successful course built on important ideas, presented simply and effectively. We will shortly be prepared to deliver the course as designed, but be ready to adapt to changes. Hopefully, our preparation will be apparent.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Leading Change

The word change is certainly being batted about in the news and was a central theme in our recent elections. It will also be a topic presented at Wood Badge this fall – but with a decidedly Scouting flavor.

Think about how many things have changed in your lifetime. There have been incredible advances in technology, medicine, and communication. The map of the world is quite different than it was 20 years ago and with the changes in communication, that world continues to shrink. To personalize the speed of change and how one can lead it, I think of my grandfathers and their personal stories.

My mother’s father was born in Germany in 1901 – when Wilhelm II was Kaiser; before cars were on the road; before the Wright brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk. He came to the US in 1921 by himself and over the next 10 years gained his citizenship and saved enough money to bring his fiancĂ© and the rest of his family too. During his life of 95 years, he witnessed incredible change around him. I look up to him because he was more than an observer – he ventured into the unknown and created his own future.

My father’s father was born in the 19th century to Swedish immigrants. He was commissioned as a missionary and in 1921 (only six weeks after getting married) journeyed with his new bride from Minnesota to a small Chinese city 1000 miles inland on the Yangtze River. The travel took well over a month by nearly every mode of transportation that existed. My grandparents stayed there for most of the decade - until a revolution forced them out. The courage and faith to embrace this adventure and the changes it brought to them are unimaginable to me.

At various times in our lives, we are confronted with changes that we cannot control. Our values are tested by how we deal with this change. There are other times when we can take control of circumstances and lead meaningful change. To do this, you must look beyond the present and have an insight (vision) of what that change might mean.

As recent history has shown, our world will continue to change at a tremendous pace. Scouting must adapt to these changes or lose its relevance. As scout leaders, we should hold to our values but have the vision to get out in front and lead change.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The End of Boring Powerpoints

Creativity is the process of generating new ideas or concepts. It can also mean taking something that is old and changing it so it is seen and understood in a new way.
One of the lessons taught to scout trainers is that people are different in the way they see and learn new things. Some will respond best to spoken or written directions while others learn best through graphic images or hands-on demonstrations. To communicate effectively to a group, we must find a variety of ways to present our material. Whenever possible use many types of media and keep it interesting.

Did you ever sit through a PowerPoint presentation where slide after slide of words rolled by – and the speaker read everything printed on the screen? This technique is often called “Death by PowerPoint”. It can be quite a snooze-fest. Printed words can be powerful but lost in a crowd, they can lose their importance. To illustrate a fresh approach/challenge for the coming Wood Badge course, the SR966 course director (Craig Britt) demonstrated the extreme opposite of this technique by using no printed words in his slide presentation – only graphics that complimented his spoken words.

This example was liberating. While strictly following the objectives of the Wood Badge syllabus, the staff of SR966 is taking Craig’s cue by finding clever new ways to present the material. Staff prep sessions have been fascinating to watch; there are so many ways that staffers inject their own personalities and skills into their presentations. We have seen numerous images of scouts in action, physical models, story-telling, play-acting, and even animation. It will be interesting to see what the final group of presenters has for us in August.
Hopefully, the net result of this creativity will be a course that better communicates the messages of Wood Badge to each participant. That is our goal – while keeping it simple and making it fun along the way.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Richmond Parks

One benefit of living in Richmond is the abundance of public parks. Richmond parks are accessible to the public, diverse, and visited by a large number of people. Unlike wilderness areas, parks are created for people. Richmond parks range from urban spaces and rich natural areas. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Capitol Square – Walk from your downtown office space and eat your lunch in the shadow of a Jefferson architectural masterpiece. Unlike nearly all other state Capitols, the building is a unique structure and it integrates well with its grounds. The grounds are completely accessible to the public and are a quiet respite in the heart of the central business district.

2. Maymont/Byrd Park – There are several different experiences found in these two contiguous and popular parks. Special features found at this park include the Carillon, Dogwood Dell, the Nature Center, animal area, Dooley mansion, and the gardens. Spread across its open space and lakes, one can find something for every age and interest.

3. James River Park – The 550 acres of river and forest that bisect the city is at one moment a wilderness experience and the next urban. It boasts class 3-4 rapids, many bike and hiking trails, and a sea of river boulders that form Richmond’s version of a beach. It is best experienced from the river or the pedestrian bridge to Belle Island. This park tries to balance its environmental richness with the many people who use it.

4. Hollywood Cemetery – This is much more than a place of burial. It is a well-designed park that is scenic and historic. From the bluffs, you will have one of the best river and skyline views in Richmond.

Other city parks have a more neighborhood flavor. One of the best is Forest Hill Park located just south and east of downtown. It is currently getting a much-needed overhaul. A couple others are east of downtown - Libby Hill and Chimborazo Parks. They host cultural events, open space, and also provide special views of the James River.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Vision for Richmond

There is no point dwelling on Richmond's many missed opportunities. It only makes sense to look at what it is at the moment and paint a vision to what it could become. As an Architect who has spent the past 30 years in design and planning, there is so much opportunity to make this an incredible place. Here are the assets I see:
1. Richmond has an incredible story to tell about the political and social history of our country. Frankly, it is the story of our country. While it has many tragic elements to it, the story is important to tell and is of great interest to most people in the US and many abroad. I find that those who have always lived in Richmond don't have an adequate appreciation for this and therefore don't understand its potential value. Let's put money into those things that will tell the story; it will bring tourism dollars into the area for years to come and perhaps change our own outlook at the same time.
2. The James River flows is an underutilized asset. Having a particular fascination for cities and their interface with rivers, it is obvious to me that the James could be a much bigger part of our urban life. We should do more to utilize this asset - make it cleaner and make it more accessible. These are not opposing goals.
3. VCU is one of the great assets for the city and we should figure out a way to use this resource to make the city stronger. At the moment, VCU is thought of as an island - and often a nuisance to some. An obvious place to start is a cooperative effort with the city's public schools. It is a shame that the city schools send so few graduates to VCU each year. . Let's leverage the various fields of study taught there to engage with the city's youth. Both will benefit from an alliance
4. Architecturally, Richmond has a treasure of old buildings that records our values and behavior in the past. It has many urban neighborhoods that are pedestrian-friendly, safe, and are highly desireable places to live. With that said, we should find a reasonable balance between preservation for preservation sake and un-checked development. Let's identify what has historical or real architectural significance and celebrate it. Let's understand why certain communities work and use that knowledge to make all neighborhoods in the city great places to live.

These four items are tangible, workable concepts. With some vision and community cooperation, Richmond can become a place where people want to come to visit and also a place where they want to come to live.

Early Lessons on Feedback

As an architecture student at Kentucky 30 years ago, I was expected to spend long hours in my design studio, creating and refining the latest design project. It was common for many of us to spend 40 hours a week in this wonderful, 100 year-old building, right in the middle of campus. Most weeks, I spent more time there than in my dorm.

Each semester, 9 classmates and I would be assigned to a particular studio professor and together would share one of the dozen tall rooms in Pence Hall. Each semester, students were re-shuffled into new groups. As soon as our studio room was assigned, we would rush to stake out our personal space and lay out our low-tech equipment: a door, two sawhorses, and a parallel bar.

Together, we were to share that space for 16 weeks. It was an incredibly creative environment. Most people enjoyed collaboration and willingly offered great feedback. A few however, preferred to work in solitude or at home – offering or receiving little advice from others. Without exception, their work was never given high marks.

Our assigned professor would give each of us a daily critique during the scheduled class-time. The length of this feedback depended on how interested or puzzled they were by our work. It was common for professors to make their rounds at all hours of the night – not only to visit their own class but to check out others’. They would wander into our studio and ask someone to spontaneously explain their work and organizing idea. They were often just curious, but always gave very direct feedback. Feedback usually took the form of conversation wrapped around a sketch or two. Not always.

Paul Amatuzzo was one of these wandering, late-night professors known for his biting critiques. One evening in my second year, he ventured from his own studio across the hall and seemed drawn to the elaborate model I was making. It was becoming quite a thing to behold. Being proud of my effort, I shared my “brilliant” concept and waited for his adoration. Instead, he took two fingers into the heart of my model and pulled out a large chunk. I was horrified. He tossed those dissected parts on the floor and said in his thick New York accent “Now that’s much better, isn’t it Larson? Architecture is about space, not object-making”. He didn’t say anything more, he just left the room.

After the shock wore off, I began to realize what he meant and that his feedback was a wonderful gift. With this one simple lesson, Mr. Ammatuzzo had completely changed my understanding of architecture. He demonstrated with this action, that a building’s interior spaces were at least as important as how it looks on the outside. It’s about how the space works for the people who use it – and it’s not about the sculptural quality (or the architect).

In Architecture school, feedback was part of our ritual. We received it from professors in studio; we gave and received it with classmates at 2 AM pin-ups; we received it at formal juries in front of the entire college to witness. We had to learn humility - not taking feedback personally. Use it to make our efforts better.

Wood Badge teaches about giving and receiving feedback. There are effective ways to give and receive it. As staffers for SR966, we will use feedback to make the course better. Remember some of your own positive experiences with feedback and welcome it as it is intended - a gift.


How many teams are you involved in at the moment? As a scout leader, you are an important part of at least one great team and many more if you think about it.

The most visible teams are seen in sports, but aren’t families also teams? How about the group of people you work with? One of your teams may be a church choir, a study group, or car-pool.

Teams are created to achieve a purpose. They can perform at a high level or they can fizzle – depending on a lot of factors. Does the team:
- Share a common purpose and passion?
- Have designated leaders and engaged followers?
- Have a plan and structure that everyone understands?
- Have some diversity in the skills and backgrounds of its members?
- Communicate well?

To me, the Wood Badge curriculum boils down to “the team”. Everything the staff will demonstrate and teach for the course’s 6 days revolves around teamwork.

Think about a few of your teams and your role within them. Is your passion strong or are you just fulfilling an obligation? Are you typically chosen to be a leader or do you prefer to let others step up? Would the team be more successful if a new plan or new ideas were put forward? Is everyone on the same page and prepared for an event?

Wood Badge teaches that all new teams go through 4 distinct stages of development (forming, storming, norming, & performing). It is important to recognize these stages as they occur and know that they are part of a normal team-building process.

Over the next 120 days, the SR966 staff will go through this team-building process to become a high-performing team. There are high expectations at the moment and are ready to take on the challenge. There will certainly be some anxiety and maybe even be some “storming” along the way. However, by the time September roles around, I have no doubt that this experienced and spirited staff will come together and deliver an amazing course.

It’s what we have promised and with everyone’s effort is what we will deliver.