Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Subtle differences: how to identify creative collaborative activity

I’ve been learning a lot about what creative collaborative activity looks and feels like from Tessy Britton and Laura Billings. I’m coming to realise that until you experience it directly, it can be a tricky thing to differentiate from more traditional activity which might be in, for example, a charitable or consumer paradigm (see Tessy’s post on participatory paradigms). For any ornithologists reading this it’s a bit like trying to decide if you’re looking at a Willow Warbler or a Chiffchaff (without hearing any song).

A Chiffchaff and a Willow Warbler

As Jason Lauritsen of Talent Anarchy said recently in a blog about a different kind of event he and Joe Gertstandt are offering:
“Different can be hard to understand in advance. That’s why people and organizations tend to treat new ideas so poorly.  And why we have such a hard time innovating. It can be hard to embrace the different.”
I’ve been reflecting on differences between two Pot Luck dinners held at the same venue in Brierley Hill, one last September (which I blogged about and Storifiedand one last week, both involving 16 people. On the face of it both probably looked pretty similar - 16 people milling around and then gathering around a large table to share food. However the dinner in October was collaborative, and the dinner last week, which was initiated with great intent but got unwittingly shifted to a more traditional meeting.

Pot Luck Dinner last September
The people:
  • In September it was a family-friendly activity, there were 10 adults and 6 children, three generations from one family came along. 
  • Last week it was an adult only space, and in addition, only adults actively involved in some kind of community group or activity - mostly people who run or lead groups or organisations. I doubt that anyone around the table felt that others were missing, after all we’re used to leaving loved ones and kids at home when going to community meetings.

The food:
  • In September the food arrived in tupperware and bowls. The vast majority of it had been cooked or prepared by the person who had bought it along, barring a couple of big bags of sharing crisps and the ice cream lollies.
  • Last week the table looked like supermarket shelves, with branded plastic containers full of supermarket food, and a collection of individual bags of crisps. The only exceptions was some lovely looking home made cake, and my (rather too thick) dal made in a slow cooker and bought along warm. Again, I’m sure those involved didn’t think anything amiss with what was on offer, as we are so used to having food provided at events - by caters and the like. We’re not accustomed to making and sharing.

The conversation:
  • In September we just got on with it. Had a good laugh, naturally and informally made introductions between people who hadn’t met before. There was music, play and fun.
  • Last week it felt quite stilted, given the dinner part was preceded by notification that there was paperwork to fill in for Community First, and then a round of introductions, as you'd have at a meeting.

Pot Luck Dinner last week - paperwork ahoy!
The outcomes:
  • In September we overheard lovely discussions between Joyce and others about her food and Caribbean cooking lessons, with intent expressed for people to connect over this at a later time. Having seen the hall, Joyce soon bought a large family party to INSIGHT for Carers, helping INSIGHT to generate income.
  • Last week I’m not sure if anything serendipitous occurred. I caught up with a couple of people, which was lovely. Some ‘required paperwork’ got filled in, which rather missed the point of bringing people together in a different way.

The washing up:
  • In September Tony and Donna did the lions share of the washing up, and had a brilliant laugh doing it. They wouldn’t even let others help they were having such fun!
  • Last week I had to chivvy people to clear the table, and a rather fed up Marc said they could leave the washing up. This exemplifies what happens when something is delivered by a few to the many (charitable or consumer paradigm) - tasks aren’t shared or enjoyed, they are left. People trot off home without a second thought to the dirty dishes.

Tony and Donna having fun with the washing up

So my first thoughts about identifying creative collaborative activity go something like this:
  • Are the only people present those involved in committees or local groups/organisations? This might indicate a lack of creative collaboration.
  • Are a small group of people doing everything? (They are probably from a committee or group.) This is an indication of community delivering to community. It’s where a handful of local people take on or imitate the role of service providers. A sign of operating in a charitable paradigm.
  • Is anything handmade and/or are lots of people sharing their skills, talents or passions? If so, things are looking like they might be creative and collaborative.
  • What has been paid for centrally? If the entertainment, food and whatever else is going on has been paid from from a group’s budget or a project budget, then creative collaboration is probably limited, or not present.

There isn’t to judge activity which is or isn’t creative and collaborative. I am simply sharing my process of beginning to understand what the differences are and how to know them.

Has anyone else experienced and contrasted differences? What would you use as identifiers?
Photo credits: Pot Luck pictures were taken by me, and the birds are from The Portland Portal 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Feeling safe to learn and share

Imagine you and a colleague have just started facilitating a pretty complex and challenging learning event. 

There are about 50 participants squeezed in to a not quite big enough room and you had to start late due to issues with the conferencing venue requiring people for lots of different events to queue on the street outside. Your participants are from a wide range of organisations: local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, NHS trusts, LINk and Healthwatch organisations, voluntary sector organisations and more. You have given a bit of an introduction which describes the landscape of complex systems they are all working in. A participant right in front of you at the nearest table is busy tapping away at a laptop keyboard as the group around the table start discussing the first scenario you have introduced. Someone quietly raises an issue about that participant sharing the discussion online. You panic as you realise you haven’t said anything in your introduction about maintaining a safe space for learning.

This is pretty much what I think happened for Laurie McMahon and Sarah Harvey from Loop2 today. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that I was the participant on the laptop! (At that point in the session I was working from the document we’d been emailed, highlighting key points in the scenario and making notes on what my fellow group members were raising as issues.)

Unfortunately for those concerned, the concern raised wasn’t dealt with well at the time. But I am very grateful to Laurie for taking the time to apologise and have a very genuine dialogue with me at the end of the day, so that is forgiven. 

On to the learning - and a request for your help and ideas...

Laurie and I discussed the fact that the Chatham House Rule doesn’t really work very well. So what guidelines or starting points for negotiating ground rules could a facilitator delivering this sort of learning suggest and send to participants in advance?

I often use the following in relation to confidentiality in event and workshop participant guidelines:
Sometimes when working in smaller groups and workshops people feel they want to draw on their own experience, but may not want people outside the group to know the details they are sharing. We can’t guarantee that people you are working with will keep what you say confidential, so you must take responsibility for what you choose to disclose.
That might not quite cut it at a learning event where the facilitator might want people from public sector organisations to feel free to say things that they wouldn’t in front of the press etc. So what can we do in face-to-face learning environments so that people feel free to speak their mind and offer opinions, without concern that what they say will be attributed to them (or their organisation) outside the room? 

And then we come to online sharing. At events I organise I include in the guidelines something like:
Social media 
Staff from Dudley CVS will be taking pictures, tweeting, and making videos during the event.  We’ll ask you when you arrive about whether you are happy for photographs to be taken of you and respect your feelings around that. If you do fancy starring on YouTube or a podcast, please tell us - we’d love to feature you!

Image credit: kdonovan_gaddy (flickr) 
Again, this doesn’t prove particularly helpful for a learning event where participants might want to share learning points and useful information or links. So what could a facilitator ask to ensure a common understanding and agreement in the room about what sorts of things might be shared in what ways? 

Assume in this instance that participants are people involve in a paid capacity, or perhaps volunteers at board level of organisations. And remember that the facilitator(s) and some of the participants may not be social media savvy, and perhaps have views of twitter etc. which they’ve formed from reading sensationalist stories in the press. 

I suspect that some of you reading this might want to suggest the short and simple social media policy:  “don’t be an idiot”. But I think that might not be so helpful to people who don’t know you so don't understand that you’re not an idiot and you’re not going to tweet them verbatim and attribute everything you say.

Has anyone had useful discussions where agreements have been made about individuals tweeting their own reflections, for example? Or not mentioning or making organisations or individuals visible through what is being shared (unless it’s something like: organisation x in somewhereville have an amazing document about y - here’s the link...)?

Your experiences, ideas and suggestions are warmly encouraged, and I’ll pass them on to Laurie too.

Also huge, huge thanks to my twitter followers who helped me get through today by offering support and good advice (when I dramatically said that I felt I’d been gagged by the thought police!): @John_at_HPL @notazengarden @Hypnofix @navcaecm @marciasandel @lil_ster @jumpylegs @paulineroche @JonnyZander @watfordgap and @Donna_M_Roberts. 

And thanks to folk who were tweeting from the event more quietly than me! Ooh, and a learning point for me, following a helpfully made comment by a fellow participant - the noise of my keyboard tapping is distracting to people when there is a speaker at an event. I quickly switched to my iPad - all good :) 

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Anarchists in the Boardroom

Anarchists in the Boardroom is the title of a book which I think should get published, and is highly likely to get published if lots of people talk about it and about 200 or so chip in financial support in return for copies of the book (for which they get a thank you in the book) and/or some consultancy support from the author. (If you’re interested already, just jump straight to the campaign page, if you want my review of chapters 1 and 2, please do carry on.)

Liam, the author of the book is, like many people I ‘know’ nowadays, someone who I started listening to thanks to twitter. We did met fleetingly face to face at an event in London. It is predominantly through Liam’s blog that we and others have conversed, and reflected on big stuff in relation to organisations and people. A lot of what Liam has been doing through the blog is enabling an open process to writing a book, a book which is about organisations being More Like People, and about what we can learn and use from social media/new technologies and movements that they have supported.

Liam generously sent through the first two chapters of the book for me to blog about here, so here is an overview and my reactions.

Chapter 1: The inhumanity of it all

The chapter opens by highlighting the contrast between the way that Occupy modelled critical elements of the world which members of the movement wanted to see and the ways that social change organisations behave and describe change. Via Taylorism, Liam asks us to consider the impact of professionalism on behaviours displayed by those of us who work in voluntary/community organisations, social enterprises etc. He makes some interesting observations about the ways that civil servants change what they are doing when political leadership or policy changes, and do so seemingly without question.

We are then encouraged to consider ‘ways in which traditional management structures are likely to be at odds with underpinning principles of social media’. And Liam introduces anarchism - something which ‘places the highest faith in human potential, arguing that we do not need outside structures to create order.’ 

Finally we are introduced to three simple principles of the ‘more like people’ approach which organisations could take:
  • Humanity: Being ourselves, while growing and learning to build stronger relationships
  • Autonomy: Having the freedom to find out own best ways of doing things.
  • Complexity: Understanding that life is as emergent, non-linear and interdependent as we are. 

Chapter 2 The ‘more like people’ principles: humanity, autonomy, complexity

Liam gives a really accessible introduction to complexity and examples of how it comes in to play for social change organisations. He discusses humanity, and how we can better bring what we know and have learned in other parts of our lives in to our organisational lives. (This is really important to me, I have never failed to be astonished by how often voluntary members of community groups leave loads of their knowledge and skills from other parts of their lives at the door when they come along to a meeting - perhaps draughty community halls and boring agendas don’t help!) 

In the section on autonomy Liam has a great imaginary story which really gets through what organisations do wrong when it comes to using social media. He also talks about how ‘social media makes it much more obvious when we aren’t being ourselves’.

It's really interesting and well written, well worth pledging to buy!

Liam’s writing style is really conversational and engaging, and the examples and stories he uses feel so real and immediate. There are questions in key sections of each chapter which encourage the reader to reflect - this is a book that you are invited to interact with, as well as having the opportunity to jump online and talk about it.

I did smile at the fact that I am helping to get a book published which includes a sentence which begins: 
“Sadly, when leadership goes bat-shit-crazy, as history has demonstrated it often does ...”

I am so encouraged by the lengths which Liam has gone to in order to involve people in the thinking behind the book content, and his absolute commitment to creating a community of people who will grapple together with putting the principles of being More Like People in to practice, therefore putting the principles in to practice himself.

It has been really invigorating to see the pledges on the campaign page to get the book published quickly accumulate within the first two days of the campaign, it looks as though a few more supporters will mean I can read the remaining chapters!

So please do tweet about the book, share the campaign on Facebook, visit the campaign page, pledge to buy a copy or two, and if I haven’t convinced you, take a look at the short video of Liam talking about it below.