Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Oh So Quiet?

I’m greatly enjoying reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking 

I’m only half way through, and have been surprised to identify with a number of the feelings which she attributes to people who are more introverts than extroverts. Particularly because I am in my element when facilitating or training large-ish groups of people, and I don’t have any major fears about giving presentations in front of large groups of people - though I’m glad I don’t have to that very often.

However I do get stuck a lot in meetings of over about 6 people, and especially when my thinking feels quite different to theirs. This happened last Friday and a comment from someone involved in running the session has prompted me to reflect on what I did during the session.

The session was a workshop on 

Reconceptualising Representation: 
Exploring alternative spaces and modes of representation
A seminar that will open up conversations around the various ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ representational form structures within society and governance. 
These discussions will inform critical research and insights into the effectiveness and impact of different representational forms and provide a better understanding into what representation is, its value and how do we best use it. Through discussions we will look at alternative modes and spaces of representation, such as applying the arts, and how this can be adapted and applied to enhance policy and governance practices.

Following introductions of everyone around the table, there were a couple of quite short presentations, including a couple of great videos, and then a few people involved in the research project and in arts projects were invited to talk about (really interesting and inspiring) pieces of work they had been involved in. After a couple of half attempts at opening the discussion more widely some questions were asked, but as is often the case with groups of over 5 or 6 people, those who had already contributed significantly continued to be the main contributors to the discussion. Lots of questions had been posed in the very first presentation, but with no-one helping the group to consider and respond to these in the subsequent discussions I felt that they were sadly wasted, in my view - a real shame as they were great questions.

Image credit: daevildevous
It didn’t appear to me as though anyone had taken on the role of facilitating - this would have involved them remaining impartial to the discussions and supporting participants to contribute. Also I don’t think consideration had been made to non-verbal contributions, a (probably unconscious) assumption was made that those involved would be happy and comfortable contributing verbally. Which is interesting of itself given that there were people from ‘the arts’ involved in delivering the session - I am left wondering why the session wasn’t planned in more creative way and why it didn’t invite participants to contribute in creative ways. To be fair, the session was billed as a seminar, and the emphasis is on discussions, so this is merely something I’m left pondering, not a criticism.
So for about 3 hours I listened and listened, tried to gauge when there might be opportunities in the discussion to add something which I had to contribute. I couldn’t quite feel them, so I listened some more. One of the group members said something to me when we reconvened after lunch along the lines of “you haven’t said much” and made reference to the fact that I’d “taken lots of notes”.

Well, that’s what it may have looked like while I was tapping away at my keypad...

Listening, and talking elsewhere

I’ve looked back at my ‘notes’ from the session, which consist of about 800 words:

  • Over a quarter were repetition of questions and useful information from the presentation slides, which I took note of because it didn’t look likely that we would be told where to refer to the presentation online, and nor did it look as though other visual aids would be used, such as the questions on flipchart to refer to later. (My memory isn't good enough to recall content of even a few slides.) 
  • Another quarter of what I ‘noted’ was some fundamental questions I had about the research and wanted to ask, my reflections on things people had said and talked about out, connections to things which I might talk about and share, and an action for myself 
  • Just under a third were notes from the discussion - quotes of things people said which struck me and felt useful to reflect on.
  • The remainder didn’t get written until the very end of the workshop, when we were asked to feedback two issues or opportunities arising from what we’d heard about/discussed. Thankfully for me I was near the end of the rotation, so had time to consider and prepare  what I wanted to contribute, and I typed it up to help me talk coherently, as by that point in the session I had said so little that I had lost confidence in my ability to contribute.
That’s just my ‘notes’. I no doubt gave the impression of writing much more, but what I was doing was talking online and finding relevant information to absorb in other ways than just listening.

Here’s what I also did during the main part of the workshop discussion:

Image credit: danielmoyle flickr
I sent tweets about the workshop, which involved
  • Searching for, reading and filtering 3 sites about Laurence Payot‘s project Coincidence, searching for his twitter handle and eventually finding a video from the project to share on twitter
  • Searching for and reading some of Black Country Touring’s website, finding their twitter handle and tweeting about them, including a page about The Corner Shop project
  • Considering which of my twitter followers might be interested in the discussion and mentioning 4 of them, inviting them to join in - and replying to tweets they sent (mostly about having fun in the snow!)
  • Tweeting thoughts I had during the discussion
  • Searching for and reading about the Love Stirchley project and tweeting a link about it, including a mention of someone I thought would like it (he did!) - and @GKBhambra retweeted it
  • Tweeting about what I heard said about setting up an Urban Resource Network in Stirchley and replying to a response I got about that on twitter
  • Taking a picture of an image I liked in the Love Stirchley leaflet we were given, sharing it on Instagram and twitter
  • Searching for, reading about and tweeting about Small Change
Oh, and I also
  • Put the Love Stirchley Festival in my calendar
  • Emailed myself links to the Coincidence project and the Small Change Forum to remind myself to read more
  • Looked up definitions of things like representation to help me think through what the research was about and what I might usefully contribute to discussions from some of my work 


I was also taking part in a few side discussions on twitter which had nothing to do with the workshop (with apologies to those running the workshop, but I didn’t feel 100% engaged in the conversation). They involved banter about yarn bombing, events cancelled due to the snow, and @weeklyblogclub.

Time to talk

I used the lunch break as my main opportunity to ask the questions I wanted to of some of the people in the workshop - such as questions about the research focus and whether Small Change uses Theory of Change. I reckon I probably learned more by having those discussions on a one-to-one basis than if I’d have asked them in the whole group discussion, as the respondents were free from the need to take in to consideration other people’s positions, or the need to give background to those who may be less familiar with the subject area.

Being quietly useful (I hope)

So although I hadn’t said much in the main discussion, I was working hard to share the interesting things I was hearing about with other people outside the room, and also finding non-verbal ways to take in information and answer some of the numerous questions I had without taking up time in the discussion by searching for and reading information online. Of course online sharing works really when people involved in delivering activities join in and make content available online before and after events. It's great that I could find links to the projects that we heard about, but information about the research itself (and the slides from the session) aren't available for open sharing yet (I've asked). If I hear more I'll shout about it on twitter!

So I've realised that you’ll rarely find me in any discussion in a group bigger than about 6 people without at least my phone in use - tweeting offers me a route to expression which isn’t often offered unless an activity is very well facilitated and involves access to lots of pens and paper for writing and drawing. Being online also means I can check things out in the moment, so enhances my learning and acquisition of knowledge during a discussion. 

I wonder if other people have these sorts of feelings and do these sorts of things? 

Below is a video of Bjork's song, It's Oh So Quiet - just because I like this song and writing this post made me think of it.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Bikes, Bread and Birmingham

On my way to drop of some posters at Sycamore Adventure today I saw this sign:

Having met John Lane and John Guest a number of times I was keen to pop in and see their bike workshop, I’d been promising to a couple of years ago before they moved to their current base.

mmm, oily workshop smell!
Walking in I was immediately engulfed in the lovely smell of oil and workshop type things, bringing back warm memories of my Grandad’s workshop in his garage and the basement of the engineering block at Warwick University where I learned to lathe. 

John Lane warmly welcomed me, swiftly made us a cup of coffee and settled down for a chat, having introduced me to three other volunteers that I hadn’t met before. I think City-Can-Cycle is wonderful for a number of reasons: they make what some people think is scrap in to fully working and safe bikes, they thoughtfully distribute bikes (free to people they know can’t afford it, and for donations to those who can), they do all this for nothing and they have lots of ideas for the future.

I particularly loved the whiteboard (the workshop is in an old school classroom). While I was chatting John Guest amended the number of visitors on the board from 936 to 937. I was the statistic being counted. What simple monitoring: number of bikes in, bikes out and visitors to the workshop. All recorded with a whiteboard marker and updated in real time!

John Guest proudly presenting the hi-tech monitoring!

John Lane
It was wonderful listening to John talk about the history of City-Can-Cycle, their future ideas and how they manage to wangle things like a workshop space for free. I asked John how he’d feel about contributing to a Community Lover’s Guide to Dudley which Melissa Guest and I are co-editing. I’m pleased that he was interested - I showed him the Community Lover’s Guide to Birmingham which I’ve read this week. 

The first story is written by Tom Baker from Loaf, and it really got me thinking. Tom's contribution is beautifully crafted and is both moving and hunger inducing! I was delighted to meet Tom on Tuesday, having invited myself along to the intimate launch of the Community Lover’s Guide to Birmingham. And it was fantastic to both meet Birgit and Marcia from ChangeKitchen (another story in the Guide) and to sample their delicious food. They are having a Penny-Pinching Pop-Up restaurant once a month, I’d fully recommend a visit if you’re nearby. 

I’ve archived tweets, blogs and a video from the launch event here (I’m so glad the Community Lovers are such a social bunch online). And a little history to the Community Lover’s Guide to the Universe series was posted by Tessy Britton here, following her brilliant publication, Hand Made. Karen Strunks posted this short video clip of Nick Booth at the launch on You Tube:

Having gone on from City-Can-Cycle today to meet with Julie Dillon from Lions Boxing Club and then popping in to see Camilla Phillips and volunteers at the Hope Centre, I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that there are so many wonderful, generous and caring people in every square mile in Dudley borough. Let’s hope that our Community Lover’s Guide to Dudley will help people who don’t know all these stories to learn more. It really has been enlightening to read the stories behind projects and activities in Birmingham which I thought I knew a fair bit about. It makes a real difference reading what the people involved say about what they do.

Friday, 4 January 2013

x-y coordination

It's that time of year when I try to get bit organised, and have grand plans and aspirations. Inspired by  the Weekly Blog Club celebrated in a recent great post by Dan Slee I'm going to try to write more here. And as part of the process of getting organised I'll start by finishing and publishing a number of half written posts lurking in various spaces across the chaotic system that serves as places I shove electronic files. (I'm in the process of bringing order to that chaos, and starting to understand the beauty of Evernote.) So here's a post I drafted in August having read an article called The Millenials by Tamara Erickson in the Summer 2012 RSA journal

It is about ways that members of Generation Y are transforming the way we work, with their technological proficiency, aptitude for teamwork and willingness to embrace multiple perspectives.

Having been born in 1975, I think I pretty much have to accept that I am one of Generation X, not one of the Millenials. However I was struck by how much I think I'm struggling with the same things that Tamara suggests the Millenials, or Generation Y, are changing. She suggested that: 

They are redrawing the line between what is institutional and what is personal, raising questions about which applications can be used during traditional work hours and what access to external sites will be allowed from internal machines. Over time, they will push us to remove the barriers; the boundaries will disappear. At some point, corporations will no longer provide employees with computers and mobile phones; their employees will simply plug in the ones that they already own.

Working at Brewsmiths coffee shop today
Thankfully I work in an organisation without daft restrictions to social networking sites and other web 2.0 platforms, so I can use them powerfully to benefit my work. However I still face the question 'when do you have time to do this?' from colleagues who don't use online to enhance offline, and haven't blurred that boundary between what is work and what is personal. 

I am already plugging in the devices I already own. I'm a year into having an iPad and wouldn't like to go to a meeting or event without it (you never know what you might want to look up). And increasingly my PC sits on my desk with the power off as I plug in my MacBook to work more quickly and easily than I can using cumbersome Windows programmes, and to produce more beautiful documents. I tried using Word once this week for 30 minutes. It crashed. I save my work to Dropbox, I forget to back up to the server (it feels archaic, and exclusive - how can my colleagues in the council or in other places and organisations access stuff I save on our server?). 

I think (hope) that I also have this characteristic of folk younger than me: Ys select and use technology to make their lives easier, both inside and outside the workplace. They manage technology – and its role in their lives – in ways that are helpful and productive, whereas for many adults, it can seem intrusive or anxiety-producing.
And I now share this way of working with Generation Y folk: Using new technology to support them, Ys have become highly accomplished at ‘time shifting’: doing things when it is most convenient, rather than when they are scheduled to occur. As a result, fixed work hours will eventually disappear, replaced by a focus on achieving a specified result by a particular date, regardless of how time is managed within that span. I can't wait for this day - hurry up Millenials!
Tamara got me thinking with this: Ys are expert at multitasking and are quick to make the most of the rapid-fire information that characterises today’s world. They also tend to be good at coordinating, as opposed to planning or scheduling. They will bring this practice to the workplace and, for a number of activities, it will prove more efficient and agile.
I'm definitely don't rely on or stick rigidly to schedules or plans, rather I use them loosely to give some structure, which enables others to have sense of a what and a rough when. And then as new learning emerges, and context and focus changes my rough plans evolve. I think I'd rather have co-ordinating as a strength if it's OK to have that and be less good at planning. And if these things are the case then - brilliant:

Ys perform tasks collaboratively, sharing information openly and solving problems through communal wisdom. Bringing ideas together is an essential component of the innovation required for today’s competitive environment, and Ys tend to do it well.
... Ys tend to play by network rules. As the cost of communication decreases, businesses are becoming part of a complex network. The rule of network economics is that open systems – those that allow others to play – are the ones that win. Ys will encourage us to develop strategies based on the principle of allowing all participants to benefit from the transaction.
Tamara states that Ys are heavily dependent on peer networks to identify the best, most trusted sources of information. I think I'm in this place now, the people I follow on twitter are amazing filters for me.
And I hope that I can be part of a group of people who know how to build their own reputations as both knowledgeable sources and insightful reviewers. I think there are a lot of people out there who are a bit older who have pioneered some of the changes described in the RSA article, I wonder if they too feel impatient and want these new, younger, thinkers to start to occupy more spaces so that traditional ways of working really shift. In the meantime, I might just try to turn 30 again!

Image credit: by Merlin2525 from Open Clip Art Library
This post is written with a huge amount of appreciation to the many brilliant people (perhaps mostly Generation Xers) who have encouraged, inspired and supported me to learn how work in these different ways over the last three years. They include Sophie Ballinger, Toby Blume, Nick BoothDavid Wilcox, Paul WebsterSal Hampson, Dan SleeAndy Mabbett and John Popham.