Monday, 12 March 2012

“Must you be so linear?”

I’ve just participated in the second Ageing Well Dudley stakeholder session, helpfully facilitated again by Carol Hayden (I shared reflections on the first session here).

Ageing Well Dudley activities have involved Appreciative Inquiry interviews and group sessions in two areas of the borough with contrasting demographics; Brockmoor and Pedmore. From the interview information some composite fictional profiles of older people in each area were put together and shared at the stakeholder event to get us thinking about:
  • What type of support would make a difference to this person’s quality of life?
  • What support could be found without relying on statutory services?
  • What is needed to extend this sort of support
  • How would you use £1000 to make this happen?

The group I was in were given a pen picture of the fictional Mrs Bates, a 73 year old retired dinner lady who is a council housing tenant in Brockmoor. Her husband died 8 yrs ago, she does a supermarket shop at the weekend with her daughter, shopping locally is not as easy as it was as she is less mobile. Her daughter and son-in-law are moving away, and she won't have to look after her grandchildren any more, she will miss them but is a bit relieved as it was becoming hard work. Getting things done in her home is difficult. She would like a grab rail but has been told that the council don't fit them. She waited 6 months for hole in ceiling to be fixed. She doesn't know who to ask for advice and help, she doesn't want to speak to social services.

Some of common features of discussions about the pen pictures of older people included a need for some listening, them having someone to talk to, seeing an older person as a whole (not a broken arm, in the case of one who had been in hospital) and older people knowing about services and activities when they need to. Then, in groups we were tasked with developing an idea to share with others in the room which could be done with £1000.

Dudley Social Media Surgery
I described to my group the model of Social Media Surgeries and that the beauty of them is that it is people offering their time and a bit of knowledge which creates connections in the room. Here are the ingredients for a Social Media Surgery, as compiled by Nick Booth in 2009.

I was wondering if a similar model of voluntary, peer support could be developed in a neighbourhood.

Nick stresses that social capital is the most important ingredient:
Think of social capital as the stock pot of your social media kitchen; you need to keep it constantly bubbling away. By the way, it has to be home made and hand made. In an emergency you can borrow some social capital from your neighbour, but please take care to return it as soon as you can. Some people are tempted to use shop bought social capital. It never works.
Nick recently updated his recipe as he thought it should be more simple and is mainly about being there - here's my version of the simple version for an older people's peer support meet-up:
  • A free room with some chairs and where you can buy or blag a drink (a cafe is perfect)
  • A host – the person who’s happy to choose a time and date and check with the people at the venue that it’s ok with them. On the day they welcome people, introduce them and just make sure people are ok
  • At least one volunteer helper from the neighbourhood and hopefully at least one older person from the neighbourhood looking to make new connections. 
  • Zero expectations – high hopes can kill enthusiasm. Expect nothing and be delighted by what does happen.
My difficulty today was that in starting to share this idea I was struggling to communicate, partly because  most people were service providers and immediately started think about giving advice, and what if the person volunteering gives the wrong advice … and so on. What I am thinking about isn’t really about advice at all, it’s about an impartial person giving their time freely to sit with someone else who lives in the same neighbourhood and is perhaps feeling a bit isolated. Admittedly the volunteer helpers might need to people who know a bit about what goes on in the area or have experience of accessing services and navigating through services, but there is no way that such an activity could be expected to match exactly a the needs or questions of an older person with a service provider who has an answer (see Nick's recipe: have zero expectations).

The Third Sector Research Council recently published a fantastic paper by Eileen Conn which helps me to understand why I’m struggling to communicate my idea. In Community engagement in the social eco-system dance Eileen describes two systems, as below.

The first is the system of relationships which we see in our public sector agencies and formal voluntary organisations:
... the nature of the relationships is primarily vertical and hierarchical: tightly regulated to ensure compliance with organisational policies and constraints including employment and contract laws, and financial and managerial governance. They are generally divided into segments, subjects and topics. The organisation structures, and management and governance systems, have co-evolved with the vertical hierarchical system of relationships.
Eileen calls this a vertical, hierarchical system of relationships. Eileen explains that this is very different to civil society - which is not like regulated organisations, where people are recruited to particular defined jobs. Instead, individuals, when they come together voluntarily through their shared interests, connect to give each other mutual ‘peer’ support in some way. These personal connections are the source of nourishment for the horizontal relationships between peers. Eileen explains that for the horizontal, peer system of relationships to be healthy and strong
the roots for these social relationships need to be appropriately tended. The way grass roots grow… is an instructive image for this. Grass that grows strongly and healthily, and is difficult to uproot, has a strong and intertwining mat of roots. These are like the strong interconnections in a community, all giving strength and support to the whole. If the grass is separated from its mat of roots it loses its strength and its intrinsic nature. These social networks, and the need to nurture them, are fundamental to resilience.
I guess what I was making a fumbled effort to convey in the meeting today was an idea for a very easy to manage way for some of those roots to give a bit of their time (an hour or two a month, or less) in a hosted space to connect and intertwine with neighbouring roots, perhaps with a look towards that whole other system of vertical, hierarchical relationships and tips on navigating it, but as much, if not more, with a view to people in similar situations sharing, connecting and learning from each other. It could be that the first time someone attends they end up sharing a recipe, or a story about living in the area 50 years ago… but they have had the opportunity to be listened to and to connect. No-one has put them in a box clearly marked with a service area.

My idea was about this, but I appreciate that it’s difficult to see that if you’re used to doing things for people, providing services to people and if you’re looking at the world from through the windows of your vertical structures. Eileen explains this really helpfully in this video clip:

So I’ve come away from the meeting feeling that I may have been less than helpful to my colleagues (in being inadequate in conveying my idea) and that I might have destroyed my idea by exposing it to a different way of thinking, which is very linear: a person is seen as having a problem, a service provides response. As the character Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation says to Captain Jean-Luc Picard: 
You humans are so linear… although you can occasionally break the patterns of thought that so limit you. While you know better from personal experience, you still engage in this linear thinking that so restricts your understanding …
I feel that I am frequently guilty of linear thought, and I think people who provide services often work in culture which encourages linear thought. In order for older people in Dudley to become empowered, connected and like the intertwined roots of grass needs us to stop worrying about linear solutions all of the time, and facilitate emergence. Rather than only providing the solution to what we see as a person's problems, can we do more to tend the whole lawn - allowing each blade of grass to lean towards the sunshine?


  1. A great blog Lorna, really thought provoking. You aren't the only one guilty of linear thought, I think most of us are, but at least by being aware of it we are on the first step to changing .

  2. Lorna,
    I read and enjoyed Eileen Conn's paper - thankyou.
    I am trying to bridge two ways the word emergence gets used: one to talk about a sort of order and potential that just happens when you do the groundwork and the other a specific and managed capability that exists when you combine systems in a particular way.
    As you say the underlying complexity of the social context that service providers find themselves in is much more structured and interconnected than service providers are ever going to recognise while they focus on what they need to deliver. There are more organised ways of tapping into that complexity, however, than the "what turns up" approach.
    Ti keep the metaphor of the eco-system dance, there is a useful place for choreography!

  3. Dear Lorna
    I stumbled on your blog as I was experimenting with twitter to master its use for our local websites... What a delight to see your remarks, and the comments on your blog. A delight because my idea has been helpful in others gaining new insights into our human predicament.
    I have just come back from a community meeting in Peckham where we had over 200 people enthusiastic about the work we as community activists are doing to revive our town centre and realise its potential for all of us. It was the energy wave suddenly made visible as it really engaged though briefly with four human individuals speaking in their roles from inside the organised world of work - the elected councilor responsible for Regeneration, the council officer Head of Planning & Transport, the Head of Network Rail Town Planning, and a senior manager from the train company managing our local station & rail services.
    I have applied my approach, encapsulated in the social eco-system dance model, into all my work here for the last 10 years. It really does pay off, even though it is still such hard work to shift and soften the rigidities coming from the vertical hierarchical system. But the excitement of this evening is that it keeps my dream alive that there is a different and better way of working together. It is within our reach. The challenge is whether we can, all of us everywhere, gain the strength and faith to grasp it.

  4. Thanks for your support Jenny.

    Aiden, I'm glad you enjoyed Eileen's paper - I think it will become my most referred to document of 2011/12, I find it so very helpful. I love the idea of choreography, to me it feels close to facilitation and suggests something around watching, feeling and knowing the other as well as yourself. A less inward focused activity than service provision!

    Eileen, I'm so glad you stumbled here, and that you are using twitter. If you let me know your twitter name I'll mention you every time I add something about your paper on the web. Your meeting sounds amazing, and your talk of the energy wave echoes Aiden's suggestion of choreography. As I've been sharing and discussing your approach with different colleagues we have ended up musing on how we might agree on whether something sits in the space of possibilities, or if it is really a vertical, hierarchical thing pretending not to be. What criteria might we use, if that feels an appropriate thing to do. This is a discussion I might start over on - I'll invite you over when I do. Good luck with mastering twitter

    Lorna :o)

  5. I've had some lovely feedback by email and conversation on this post.

    Bridget Brickley from Dudley Community Partnership related what I said about the linear way services develop to issues she is exploring in her whole systems OU course. She advocates a learning culture, reflection, and a trusting environment which allows gentle challenge. She also referenced power imbalances in invited spaces, and therefore the need for created spaces.

    I also wanted to share a link here to a video which Shelley Brooks from Dudley MBC told me about. It's brilliant but very sad - Charlie and Marie: a tale of ageing

  6. Lorna
    I have also been mulling over the responses others have made, particularly the role of choreography. Who ever takes that role has a lot of power and responsibility, that they have to be aware of and that can affect the space which is created. Ideally they need to find spaces where those involved can build trust and confidence to develop an interpetive peice rather than an line dance, but recognise that most have not had any dance training!

  7. Lorna, Eileen, Bridget,

    How encouraging to have a reflective conversation about things that really matter.
    I had a challenging client conversation yesterday in the context of the primary care / local clinic part of the forest. We agreed that there were too many institutional stakeholders, each with their own narrowe performance framework. Some bureaucratic opposite of an ecosystem anyway.
    The client drew a diagram of increasing integration, increasingly pertinent information and increasing benefit to all. He then labelled it the stairway to heaven, his point being that for most institutions their ambition stops at the first or second step. You can't include even massive potential in a business case for someone who just wants numbers through the door or paying tenants.
    What I heard you talking about at the workshop, Lorna, was access to a massive resource that the relevant institutions are blind to. I don't think it is true that we have to walk the stairway to heaven at the pace of the least ambitious, and I see choreography as a technique for skipping some of the painful steps.
    The key thing to put alongside Bridget's dance classes is I think passionate ownership of place. Eileen speaks that way of Peckham and it only really takes someone to say "this is my town and we are going to make it a great place to be" and not to let that be negotiated away.

  8. Thanks Aidan (apologies I misspelled your name before). Your client's diagram sounds really useful. I can't even begin to describe the warm feeling I get through being involved in Social Media Surgeries. It is just amazing to observe people just sharing, no structure, no targets, no 'experts', just generosity and a cuppa. As a volunteer at a surgery it is great to be able to just turn up, get to know someone and what they do and give a little help. Last time I was there to help I ended up receiving help from others and learning about some amazing projects (for another blog post). And because the amazing Nick Booth (who started the Social Media Surgery movement) must be at some level a bit lazy, even hosting a surgery requires very little time or energy. It's a very useful lesson in the art of standing back a bit, and not preparing too much. It really is fantastic to see what people will do if you stop doing things for them (laid back choreography?).

  9. Hi all,
    I have a big interest in learning systems for children at the moment, largely from the perspective that current systems fail the majority, at least using the current measures of success. I won’t go into detail here, but I came across this through the TED site.

    Which is about The ‘Hole in the Wall’ initiative in India. which has a real resonance with this blog, It is about creating open spaces where children have access to computer technology, they go on to self organise and learn through collaboration.

    Lorna this blog has really started something spinning in my head, making connections all the time thank you


  10. Hi Bridget
    Thanks, I've downloaded the TED talk and looked up the Hole in the Wall site. Gender discrimination hadn't occurred to me and I love that the playground setting addresses that as well as challenging the traditional ways (and times) that education is provided. (And therein lies the issue - children should not be consumers of education, but should be independent, confident, supported learners.)
    Regarding learning I'd also highly recommend Kathy Davidson's book 'Now You See It' (see - the best book I have read in the last year or more. You might also enjoy a dip in to David Gauntlett's "Making is Connecting" ( - there is a great section in the conclusion on imagined futures, one is around education and addresses the issues you are concerned with, (as does Kathy Davidson, who also refers to interesting things re testing etc.)

    In relation to some of the ideas we were thinking about re. Ageing Well, I've just read this inspiring account of community-led activity in Newsome, Kirklees which reinforces the importance of creating a process "a way of working together and trusting in each other" and that it can't be rushed.