Consultation needs to be genuine

or…

The power of listening

 During my work history I have heard the term ‘community consultation’ bandied about freely. The meaning of the term should be pretty obvious, and it doesn’t take much cogitating to understand why it is so vital a component for success when planning a policy, strategy or project. If you are wanting to reach or empower a certain community of people and engage their support and/or develop their capacity in some area, you need to really understand them first. You need to do this by talking to them, and developing a variety of means and forums in which to do this that allow this community to speak honestly and without fear or anxiety. You need to be absolutely open minded about what the community has to say, even if they are proving your assumptions wrong or saying things you are uncomfortable hearing.

Listen and truly connect

Listen and truly connect

However, I have seen instances where the community consultation strategies that have been mapped out in funding applications or strategic plans have been carried out in a way that is tokenistic, unthinking or even manipulative. The word ‘consultation’ carries with it connotations of thorough communication and having deep conversations. But I have seen people in charge of running projects who have talked up their ‘community consultation strategies’ in front of their reference groups or Boards and then, in practice, just have a few superficial conversations with some cherry picked community members, fishing for vague statements that suited their own personal agenda. Sometimes I feel as if the words ‘community consultation’ have become weasel words – words that no longer carry any real meaning, words that have been appropriated by managerial or bureaucratic types to mean anything they say they mean.

By carrying out community consultation in a rushed or insincere way, talking at (rather than to) a few bewildered community representatives, these workers or managers rob the community they are supposed to be empowering of the opportunity to be really involved with projects that should engage them. Not being listened to, in the first instance, is extraordinarily disempowering; to then have your presence at some half-baked conversation be appropriated to endorse the planning of a project that has no appeal for you or your community, and to then have that project promoted to you and your community as an opportunity for your development, just adds more layers of insult to deeper layers of injury.

Remember when you’re designing for social change – you’re not necessarily designing for people like you! – Chris Vanstone

What is behind this trend of shallow or insincere attempts at consultation? I am sure that I have seen a couple of people deliberately manipulate the community consultation process so that it gave them answers that furthered their own selfish agendas, but I think the majority of people who stuff it up don’t even know that they are doing it. I think it has to do with the fact that, as a society, much of our history of leadership and organising groups of people has been done in hierarchies, with information and decision making flowing from the top to the bottom. Even well-meaning people can be guilty of riding to the rescue of other folks in such a way that they undercut their own good intentions. Flushed with the confidence of knowing they intend altruism, they can rush in to inflict ‘solutions’ on the beleaguered that arise out of their own assumptions as to what is needed. The problem with this is that these assumptions can be based on a lack of deep understanding, and a feeling of pity rather than empathy. Thus power can continue to be hoarded by the empowered, and denied to the disempowered, and all because of a lack of will to really make the time to talk and listen. Those in authority or vested with societal privilege have got to stop seeing themselves as above or separate from unfortunate or inferior others. Regardless of the sector, the success of group undertakings relies on a flow of knowledge and empowering activity.

Empowering groups: getting a delicate balance of power just right

Empowering groups: getting a delicate balance of power just right

When designing for social change, you must step outside of your own concerns and be prepared to lay aside your own assumptions. Only by adapting your communication methods and really listening to others can you be assured of successful consultation.

I will talk about the importance of community consultation, along with other things central to starting up a project or organisation with social outcomes, as part of my workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – on Friday 24 October 2014.

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Ramblings from a self confessed structure freak

I have always described myself as a ‘structure freak’, that is to say someone who is fascinated by the shape of things and the frameworks we develop around our activities to express our ideas. When I was working as a choreographer I was as intrigued by the challenge of developing the structure of the narrative or flow of impressions of a piece as I was with coming up with the right combinations of movements.

'Sarabande pour Femme' from Receuil De Dances, dance notation by Raoul-Auger Feuillet, pub. 1700. Image sourced from publicdomainreview.org

‘Sarabande pour Femme’ from Receuil De Dances, dance notation by Raoul-Auger Feuillet, pub. 1700. Image sourced from publicdomainreview.org

As much as I am this structure freak so too am I creative, in love with ideas, my own as well as those of others. I started moving into project and business planning and strategizing via working in arts management, where I was supporting other creative minds in realising their projects even when I wasn’t working on my own.

In working with various groups and organisations in different contexts I experienced and witnessed how much power underlying structures could have. “Culture follows structure” (Craig Larman) does the rounds a lot on Twitter, and culture is not the only thing.

But the imagination doesn’t follow any damned thing and new ideas can be odd, awkward, engrossing and compelling things that take some careful handling when they emerge out of the glorious protective sanctuary of someone’s head and start getting manhandled through brainstorming sessions or operational procedures, being judged, all the while, against a context and agenda set by the structures defined by an organisation’s governance model or business strategy.

The trick is to come up with structures that define space into which new ideas can emerge, and then provide a supportive and protective framework within which these new visions can be worked on. If the structures are too rigid, tight or proscribed then any creativity will be squelched; too lax or inconsistently applied then unproductive chaos can ensue.

Getting the balance between structure and creativity can be tricky, especially when by ‘structure’ you could mean governance or business models. These things belong to the world of logic, and can seem to be opposite to the world of creativity (although some of us creative find an organic flow between the two as was the case with my own choreographic practice). I have come across both business people and artists who talk as if the two were mutually exclusive.

There is often a tension between addressing the need for both structure and creativity but I don’t believe that this has to always be an unhealthy tension. The right kind of tension can, itself, be a spark that ignites more innovative thinking and elicits intelligent problem solving. I think the answer lies in thinking deeply about both. Spend the time understanding what the glorious images on that cinema screen inside your head are really trying to tell you. Don’t treat choosing your governance structure or writing your business strategy as a tick the box activity; do your research and think about the ramifications.

My workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – is part of the Changemakers Festival. It is free and will take place at 6pm on 24 October 2014. For more information look here; RSVPs are required and you can do that here; to check out the Changemakers Festival program go to their website here. The workshop venue is at Naturalis Clinic, and you can find their website here.

Another of M. Feuillet's beautiful notations

Another of M. Feuillet’s beautiful notations

Yearning for meaning

A couple of weeks ago I was following #TEDatIBM on Twitter, as you do, and this video from youtube was shown on the big screen at one stage:

 

You may have seen it; apparently it’s gone viral and seems to have garnered much admiration. Which is interesting. Obviously most of us are ready to admire people who find original and perhaps even cheeky ways to do things, like putting together a self-made dance clip to replace the traditional resignation letter. But I think that this video has tapped into an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with work felt by too many employees today. Future of work expert Jeremy Scrivens (@JeremyScrivens) has tweeted the statistic that 87% of employees are disengaged from their work; it is stunning to think that this many people are bored, uninspired and perhaps even unhappy with their jobs and / or workplaces.

Plenty of us will know people who find their day to day work routine tedious, or who fret that their talents are not fully utilised or recognised, or who feel alienated by an unsupportive workplace culture, or who perceive that they are bumping their heads against a glass or bamboo ceiling. I have met those, too, who seem to be asking themselves “is this all there is”, who question whether the seemingly endless quest for profit is a fulfilling enough way to spend their working lives. There are also people out there who are worried about the plight of those less fortunate, and who chaff at the idea that their current jobs do nothing to alleviate the suffering or constraints experienced by others.

Image from 'Mr Galliano's Circus' by Enid Blyton

Image from ‘Mr Galliano’s Circus’ by Enid Blyton

I find myself wondering how many of these dissatisfied employees are harbouring what I call “Run and away and join the circus” or “join the foreign legion” type yearnings. Not everyone wants to quit their jobs, and many will want to stay for the security and in the (forlorn?) hope that something will shift in their work conditions to help them bring some sense of meaning back into their lives. But there are those brave folks who would like to make a career shift so that they can do something that engages their heart, mind and souls and who envisage a life in service of deeper inspirations and ennobling values.

NOT a realistic depiction of life in the social enterprise sector, I'm afraid

NOT a realistic depiction of life in the social enterprise sector, I’m afraid

I am thinking about this a lot as I am currently fine tuning an introductory workshop to help people who want to start a social enterprise or community based organisation. During the past year I have encountered people who wish to cross over from the corporate or bureaucratic worlds into the social enterprise and community sectors to run projects or enterprises. They are doing this not just to try something new, but also to explore their talents, express altruism and give meaning to their lives.

I acknowledge that this may not be the path for everyone but I think this is splendid. Instead of giving into feelings of cynicism or pessimism, these people are daring to dream and experiment. They will bring some new energy, enthusiasm, insights and skills into a sector that is facing huge challenges and doing a lot of heavy lifting for our nation at the moment. We will all benefit from their innovations and efforts.

My workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – is part of the Changemakers Festival. It is free and will take place at 6pm on 24 October 2014. For more information look here; RSVPs are required and you can do that here; to check out the Changemakers Festival program go to their website here. The workshop venue is at Naturalis Clinic, and you can find their website here.

My new workshop: Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise

Media Release – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise

A free workshop for corporate escapees who are contemplating the shift to a career in social entrepreneurship.

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Presented as part of the annual Changemakers Festival, the ‘Getting to the heart of running a social business’ workshop will help people who want to start a social business or community organisation:

  • understand the skills and qualities they can transfer into the community sector
  • gain clarification around their goals
  • get an introduction into legal and organisational structures and funding models
  • develop a hit list of what to do next.

Inspired by mentoring sessions and conversations with corporate escapees who were yearning to make a difference, business and strategic development trainer and consultant Meredith Lewis came up with the idea for this workshop, and felt that the Changemakers Festival was the ideal forum in which to present it.

Social businesses are springing up in a variety of effective, interesting and innovative models. Many people are drawn to work in this area because of the chance to right wrongs, address social imbalance, and of knowing that they have made a real difference in the life of others.

All of the above can be true, of course. But what can go unacknowledged is that setting up and running a social venture can also be challenging, complex, and risky. There are differences between the for-profit and not-for-profit cultures that need to be acknowledged and overcome.

Workshop convenor Meredith Lewis has over 25 years’ experience of working in the arts, creative, tertiary and community sectors including as a project manager and manager of a community organisation. She enjoys working with innovators, and specialises in helping people develop plans and strategies that anchor and promote creative thinking, humane values, and good business.

Naturalis Clinic (www.naturalisclinic.com.au ) is a new holistic health clinic and workshop space in Northcote that offers an array of services. As a business that exists to promote holistic health and wellbeing, it is an ideal venue for this workshop.

Details:

Date: Friday 24 October 2014

Time: 6-7.30pm

Venue: Naturalis Clinic, 9 Langwells Parade, Northcote, phone 03 0039 9662

Cost: Free BUT bookings MUST be made at Eventbrite here

For more information contact Meredith Lewis:

M: 0421 653 325

E: dangerousmeredith@outlook.com

B: dangerousmeredith.wordpress.com

Please also check out the Changemakers Festival Event page on this blog

Recommended read: The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions.

My recommended read is The brilliance of asking incredibly naïve questions by Megan Hustad. I am preoccupied at the moment with putting together a workshop I will be presenting in October called Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise in the Changemakers Festival. This workshop is aimed at people who want to leave the bureaucratic or corporate spheres and set up a charity or social enterprise, but who don’t know where to start. During the workshop I want to help these people clarify what it is that is driving them – their passions, their inspirations, the shape in their minds that their sense of altruism and / or adventure takes – and then to give them some context and some practical suggestions as to where their researches might start. The challenge for me as workshop facilitator will be in making sure that I ask the right questions. I checked my email shortly before starting to write this and found that a good friend had sent me a call for papers for a conference on “The role of design in building a competitive business advantage” which seeks to “examine how design as a strategic resource adds value to business.” She did this because she knows that design thinking – what I have been used to calling ‘my choreographer’s brain’ all these years – in business is something that fascinates me to the extent that I have been doing a lot of research on it this year. The idea of submitting an abstract made my head buzz simultaneously with terror and delight. I think I might set myself the task of developing an abstract, just for the challenge of forcing myself to get some of my observations down in tangible form. The key to writing a good abstract and paper will be to ask myself the right questions. Furthermore, I would like to use a paper to ask my audience (at this stage, hypothetical audience) the right questions. But what are these ‘right questions’. The welcome discipline of both of the above is the necessity of winnowing down my thoughts to their clearest and most essential forms. The challenge of asking myself “but what does that really mean, why am I lead to think that?” is helping me to locate and articulate ideas that have had to be teased out of years of personal history, experience in multiple work places and different sectors, and learning both formal and informal. I was looking in my scribble library today when I came across an article – The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions – published in Fortune Magazine and written by Megan Hustad. It’s a really nice piece, and discusses the need for a “questioning culture” in our workplaces where folks feel free to ask each other questions without worrying about whether those questions are too simple or make the asker look dumb. It makes the point that ‘simple’ questions can highlight essential gaps in knowledge and / or elicit profound answers. It was a good piece for me to read today because it reminded me that what I am doing right now, in putting together workshops or writing papers, is trying to find a way to ask myself the right questions so that I can ask these of others. If you want to read Megan’s piece, click here.

Pulling the wings off flies: competitive instincts or mere distraction

I spent my childhood on a beautiful island with a tiny population called King Island. There being no established pre-school at this time* my Mum and some other ladies started their own, with Mum stepping up to fill the role of pre-school teacher. She tells stories of walking around the playground and looming up behind groups of little rosy cheeked kiddies embarked upon enthusiastic play. Mum says that she never realised until then just how feral and atavistic kids are; the little ones she saw were pretending to lock Granny in the oven or preparing to be eaten by wolves. If most of us think back to the playground we can probably remember a weird dark undercurrent that bubbled alongside our games and imaginings: I was obsessed with witches, and announced to my parents that I wanted to be a lady with long fingernails who slapped men across the face when I grew up; my sister cut the whiskers off our pet cat in the spirit of scientific enquiry. Other kids acted out even uglier instincts by bullying. Most of us, thankfully, grow past these behaviours.

This morning I read an article entitled ‘Don’t Try This at Work: How Entrepreneurs Sabotage the Competition’ by Dana Severson. In it Severson lists some examples of some things that people have done to stymie, backfoot or downright sink their competitors:

“A few weeks ago, Uber was once again accused of trying to sabotage their competition. According to Uber’s lead competitor, riding sharing service Lyft, 177 Uber employees booked and cancelled over 5,000 rides.”

Severson asks “Are these dirty tactics or just competitive spirits at play?” I would call them dirty tactics, while Severson doesn’t seem to directly condemn or endorse them and is, I feel, trying to create a light hearted vibe with the piece. He encourages his readers thusly: “If you’re the type of entrepreneur that appreciates a bit of competitive rivalry, you may enjoy their confessions below” and seems to strike an approving note when he writes “In the sport of business, competition is fierce, there are winners and there are losers.”

A diverse range of people get into business driven by a diverse range of reasons and personal motivations, ranging from necessity to opportunity and from desperation to inspiration to a spirit of adventure. For some, the business world will, indeed, offer an expression for a naturally competitive personality. If this competitiveness is also combined with the right set of skills and qualities then there is no reason why these sorts of people won’t succeed (and good luck to them if they do). Severson quotes businessman Mark Cuban as saying “business is the ultimate sport” and writes: “For people like him, being an entrepreneur is akin to quarterbacking a team to victory.”

While the businessman = quarterbacker analogy doesn’t apply to all of the business people I know, it is still a good analogy for some, granted. But the examples of behaviour listed in this article don’t remind me of the best kind of athletes. There is something heroic about great sports achievements (as long as they’re not tainted by bad sportsmanship or cheating) while the business people’s actions listed in this article are just sort of… mean.

You have probably guessed by now that I don’t approve of the entrepreneurs’ shenanigans listed in this article. In the greater cosmic scheme of things this won’t mean much. People who think as I do don’t need to read this article or blog to be convinced; people who think as the cunning entrepreneurs in this article do probably think people like me are idiots who deserve to have our schemes wrecked someday. I would like to think we lived in a world where people who were pure of heart and mind always prevailed and bastards got their comeuppance but we don’t live in that world: we have all seen appalling people live happy happy lives and good people suffer, and vice versa. And how we measure our rewards varies as well: if I did something mean to a competitor I would never sleep again and any profit that ensued would really turn to ashes in my mouth. But there are people out there who get a kick out of being mean, it does make them feel smug and clever. So the question of whether these actions is right or wrong, or whether you will ultimately be rewarded by them is a fruitless one to prosecute**.

But there is one question that I think really is worth considering. If you devote time, intellect, imagination, energy and even material resources to thinking up and then doing something mean to nobble someone else’s business, why not just devote these things to doing your business really really well?

From an 1882 book 'Golden Rays'; image sourced from the Reusable Art website

From an 1882 book ‘Golden Rays'; image sourced from the Reusable Art website

Imagine a little kid who has just discovered that a magnifying glass can be employed to burn ants on an anthill, and who is lying on his stomach engrossed in doing just that. You would be looking at a child who has applied a certain amount of logic and intellect and concentration, yes, so maybe not a stupid kid, but one who has turned his back on a whole wide world in which he might play at various things to do this one nasty act.

Just as this child becomes myopically focussed on this mundane act of cruelty, so devoting one’s self to acts of sabotage surely becomes another form of myopia. If you are obsessed with acts of treachery, what are you not being aware of in your business? If silly tricks are filling your head, have you been robbed of a broader or more creative vision for your enterprise? I guess what I am trying to say is that the things that have been offered up as example of competitiveness in this article, can also be seen as examples of a business owner being distracted from opportunities to make his / her business better. Why swap the opportunity to direct your talents towards innovation and making yourself unique for the furtive end game of bringing other people down? As Gary Hamel said “Out there in some garage is an entrepreneur who’s forging a bullet with your company’s name on it.”*** You can never know about or control the business activities of all of your competition, but you can control your own decisions as to where you focus your abilities and resources.

*a million years ago now…

**Even though I know I AM right!

***Going to have to write a blog one day about how macho the language of business is – all these metaphors from the world of sport or combat.

Darkly wise, rudely great

A short wild stumble through ideas about ideas, how they are used and where they come from.

 

Man: “… placed on this isthmus of a worldly state, a being darkly wise, rudely great.”

Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man.

 

Recently I attended a session of the Third Place Meetup Group for learning professionals. There was a small group of us, all from diverse backgrounds, chatting about this and that. One member had attended a Meetup group for people who work in developing virtual reality technology and he was talking about some of the amazing stuff they create and the variety of places in which it is used. A nice man, he somewhat blushingly and reluctantly(1) referred to the way that some virtual technology is finding a ready home in the porn industry. Of course, this started me off on a lovely train of thought about ideas, the seemingly higgledy-piggledy(2) ways in which they pop into our heads and the different ways and places they make it out into the world.

As my brain started rummaging around the “rag and bone shop”(3) of its storage banks it first dragged into the light a remembrance of a terrific blog by Jeff De Graff called ‘Innovation Starts in Dark Places’. “The most radical innovation in video streaming started in the pornography industry…Why does innovation often start in dark places? When you’re working in the fringes, the normal risks and rewards associated with radical change suddenly become different: you have a lot less to lose, but you can also gain a lot more.”

I then couldn’t get out of my mind a YouTube clip that I saw in one of my favourite current affairs blogs The Weekly Sift(4). In this clip, somebody had attached a camera to a drone and sent it into the middle of a fireworks display to capture footage that is breathtaking and very lovely. And yet drones have a certain notoriety about them that comes from their use as killing machines in war. I have often thought that this is a typically human thing to do, and is our curse and our blessing. We are cursed with the inventiveness to create a flying robot for remote controlled murder; and we are blessed with the inventiveness to look at this same machine and figure out that it can be used to film something beautiful and make art.

 

And this made me think of the quote “… the falling angel meets the rising ape…”. I felt I knew where I had seen this quote before – it was in a book by Terry Pratchett called Hogfather. I decided to make sure, though, and, not having the book with me threw myself on the combined resources of the Twitterverse to make sure. Philosopher Damon Young replied to my question with a tweet containing the beautiful quote from Pope “… placed on this isthmus of a worldly state, a being darkly wise, rudely great” which contained a similar idea(5).

 

So… in this blog so far I have rambled between quotes from poetry and fiction, discussions at Meetup groups, the blog of a thought leader in innovation, a current affairs blog, and a news story. Information and stimuli have been garnered from face to face conversations, Twitter, youtube, blogs and print media.

 

We all do this every day – our brains and instincts ping from a chat to an article to a tweet to a half heard news bulletin. Magpie-like, we collect concepts, impressions, and little bits of information. Ideas come to us out of a strange convex of need, opportunity, yearning, applied cleverness and primal instinct. The imagination is a bugger, really. It doesn’t care where it gets its stimulus from or how that might make its host (i.e. you or I) feel. It’s an amoral function. The images get splashed vividly across the screen inside our heads; if and how we manifest those impressions externally, and in what moral context, is up to the rest of our being.

 

And that’s where the fun really starts. Coming up with ideas? Pfft! That’s the easy part – we are primed as a species to have ideas. But what dark wisdom or rude greatness do we apply to expressing them, developing them, to allowing each other to share ideas, to act on them, to use them to look after our own needs and / or the needs of others. How do we get the balance right?

 

When businesses talk about creativity and innovation it is the conditions that surround the realisation of these things, and the values that those conditions betray or reveal, that interest me. This is where the apes are separated from the angels, and where rising and falling takes place.

(1) And on behalf of the Sisterhood I gave a nod of approval at this

(2) Although there is much great work being done on how to create conditions and methods on optimizing creative thought; so if creativity cannot be controlled the capacity for creative thought in individuals, organizations, societies can be boosted and nurtured.

(3) With apologies to W.B Yeats, whose splendid “Rag and bone shop of the heart” line from the poem ‘Circus Animals Desertion’ comes to me so often and in contexts that poor old Yeats probably never envisaged.

(4) The Weekly Sift covers US current affairs. I really recommend it. It is beautifully written and contains some very insightful in depth analysis.

(5) Google search indicated that it probably was Pratchett who had written “the falling angel…” quote.