A white knuckle ride through the world of governance.

A white knuckle ride through the world of governance.

Image sourced from rockpointpark.com
Image sourced from rockpointpark.com

I recently attended the Inaugural Professorial Lecture at RMIT University. Entitled ‘Non-profit Boardroom Corporate Governance: An Insider View’ and given by Professor Lee Parker of the School of Accounting, it was an eloquent appraisal of the challenges and context of governance in the non-profit sector.

Parker’s “insider view” arises out of his research methodology, in which he obtains permission to attend and observe board room meetings in various not for profit (NFP) organisations. Perhaps this is why, in my opinion and in the opinion of others who attended the lecture and with whom I chatted afterwards, Lee’s explication of context, conditions, strengths and weaknesses of NFP boards was spot on.

I have spent most of my life working in the NFP sector, first in the arts industry, then in the tertiary sector and lastly in the community sector. As a youngster I was not interested in what was happening in board rooms, seeing boards as collections of figureheads – human trophies saying “rhubarb, rhubarb” – while people like me got on and did the real work. It was only at one point, when I was working closely with an underperforming board that had a positively delinquent approach to governance, that the importance of board performance really came alive for me. It was a horrible experience, like watching a car wreck happen in slow motion, and being able to predict what parts would smash next, but being unable to do anything about it.


It did do me the favour of bringing the whole subject of governance alive, of transforming it from an academic subject stored in the archives in my head to appearing as a dynamic living paradigm at work. I came to see how it fed into, informed and sustained the shape, tenor, rhythms, and activity of an organisation’s culture, strategy, plans and protocols; in the case of poor governance the affect was absolutely toxic.

Not all NFP boards in my career, and certainly not in the sector, were as bad as the one I mentioned in the paragraph above. I felt that Professor Parker was able to offer a nuanced explication of board performance in the sector, identifying patterns of recurrent problems and strengths in an even handed manner while leaving his audience in no doubt of the serious challenges NFP boards face. The passion and dedication to a cause that many NFP board members feel was mentioned several times; the unfortunate tendency to micro manage operational staff or recruit under skilled board members was also identified as something some NFP boards tend to do.

When I mention my NFP experience to people who have never worked in the sector I often encounter reactions that can only be called patronising. People mean well, they think they are being kind when they smile and say that they think that NFPs do wonderful work, but they often let slip that they think the work sounds kind of hokey, simple, cute, undemanding, uncomplicated. “Cruisey” was how one person described my work in the organisation which had the board I described above. I used to feel like I had received a psychic pat on the head for being so earnest and good, but there was something so dismissive in their tone and attitude, sometimes in their words. Running a neighbourhood house, a community development program, producing a theatre show? What could be so hard about any of that? What could I possibly know about real grown up work, real strategy, planning, financial management, marketing, operations, or stakeholder management?

If you want a white knuckle ride through the world of governance go run a small community or arts organisation for a year or two, or just sit on one of their boards. To make the experience especially juicy, to get those adrenalin glands really pumping, choose one with an inadequate budget and a shrinking pool of funding.

I simply loved it when Professor Parker said that he thought that NFP organisations were more complicated to run than for profit organisations.

One reason for this, and Professor Parker enlarged on this during his lecture, is that NFP organisations have to answer to more constituencies, and their agendas, than do their for profit brethren. From memory of Parker’s lecture, and from my own recollection, these constituencies may include the disadvantaged cohort that relies on the NFP organisation for services, funding bodies (government and / or philanthropic), perhaps corporate partners or sponsors, perhaps communities of individual donors, regulatory bodies, any other NFP organisations they may be partnering with, and, if the organisation offers any fee for service components, paying customers. From my experience, too, I can report that if the NFP organisation offers several programs as part of answering a community need, then each program may carry its own mix of these constituencies.

Working in the NFP sector did me some favours. It taught me how to manage relationships (actually one of my favourite areas of work) and how to work in complex conditions. Good NFP board members are worth their weight in gold; board experience gained from working with a well lead and managed NFP organisation is valuable and rewarding, and well worth enduring any hair raising episodes to get.

Professor Parker was kind enough to give me permission to link to his RMIT Inaugural Speaker Handout for this lecture.

Invitation: free Conversation of Intrigue

Invitation: free Conversation of Intrigue

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world”. – John Le Carre

Conversations of Intrigue are a new facilitated discussion I have developed to guide people to reflect on their workplace experience and identify shared values and the potential for growth and change.

Focusing in equal parts on creative response and critical thinking, the Conversations use short extracts from a work of fiction to as a platform through which to identify values, issues and strategies to improve workplace culture.

For the first outing of this model I am using extracts from John Le Carre’s great spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Although deservedly renowned as being an enthralling read, this novel is also a compelling portrait of organisational dysfunction, toxic culture, and all too human character types. Writing with poetic imagery, constrained compassion and a quiet sly wit, Le Carre has a gift for evoking atmosphere and character in short passages – the perfect material on which to build meaningful group discussion.

The aim of Conversations of Intrigue is to allow people the space to reflect and articulate impressions, identify values, and consider strategies for building humane workplace cultures.

Conversations of Intrigue is the result of a year’s worth of work (ever since a ‘light bulb’ moment happened last year). I am excited about this model as it sees me pulling together the disparate strands of my bohemian past and portfolio of skills and interest. I am trying to identify a ‘home’ for the Conversations and your support would be incredibly useful.

Having developed the discussion format I would now like to trial it and I am inviting you to participate in a free Conversation of Intrigue on one of the dates listed below.

Dates and times:

  • Tuesday 15 September; 6-8pm
  • Thursday 17 September; 10.30am-12.30pm
  • Monday 21 September; 9.30am-11.30am
  • Tuesday 22 September; 6-8pm

Venue: Ross House, 247 Flinders Lane (between Bourke and Elizabeth Streets), Melbourne CBD

Cost: Free but I would like some feedback

RSVPs: essential. Seating capacity is very limited at only 7 places per session. Bookings can be made on Eventbrite.

More information can be found here.


Starving in a garret…

Starving in a garret…

Alongside digital sociologist Alexia Maddox and researcher, artist and event designer Romaine Logere, I am currently co-curating and co-facilitating Parallel Fascinations at The Channel, Arts Centre Melbourne, a series of salon type events dedicated to supporting the development of new ideas and research and interdisciplinary conversation.

For our fourth salon, we were lucky to have curator and writer Amelia Winata* talking about the tension between creative practice and arts administration. You can read more about the event on our Parallel Fascinations blog.

Art making versus arts administration

For me, as with others in the room, Amelia’s chosen topic of conversation had a great deal of resonance. I have worked as an arts practitioner myself – in my case I was a performing artist and choreographer. But I have also worked in arts administration and arts management – project management, production management, event management, grant writing and fundraising, stakeholder management, business planning. I enjoyed doing both these things but doing them both at once fatigued me and was one of the factors that lead to eventual burnout.

Another was a strong sense of disillusionment with the way the arts industry is structured, with its tiers of class privilege, convoluted bureaucratic procedures (especially in the areas of grant and contract management), and paucity of funding (even worse now than in my day). There seems to be a disconnect between the more agile responses of artists to creative opportunities and the slow and tedious processes of arts administration. It was interesting that my own feelings of discontent seemed to be mirrored by others in the room.

Starving Poet and Publisher by Thomas Rowlandson, late 18th cent.
Starving Poet and Publisher by Thomas Rowlandson, late 18th cent.

There was some tentative discussion around possible working models that could accommodate both a free flowing creative process and an efficient arts administration process; if the discussion at this point was tentative it was not in mood but because no one, with any certainty, seemed to be able to suggest something that could actually work. The problem as felt by many individual artists or even small collectives is that there are only so many hours in a day, and time spent on filling in paperwork is time stolen from creating work. The other problem is the nature of the thinking you have to do – you use a very different part of your intellect and emotional intelligence to write a grant application than you do to paint or compose; the theft here is one of focus and inspiration.

The Holy Grail

As a freelance performer who had to produce her own shows and then, later, as an arts manager I found that I loved certain aspects of the management process, namely creating strategies and project plans, relationship development, persuasive writing and marketing, and it is these things I bring forward into my current freelance practice as a trainer. These things appealed to my choreographer’s brain – choreography is about arranging things and people in time and space as is business strategy. Clunky and tautological bureaucratic process has always irritated me – it offends the designer in me. I can spot slapdash planning from a mile off, too; there is too much of these in evidence within the arts industry in Australia.

I decided to go into arts management because I was inspired to help other artists and to try to relieve some of the strain I could see they were experiencing in producing their work. My holy grail was to develop an approach to creative producing or project managing an arts show that supported the artists, assuaged the bureaucrats, rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s but that ultimately produced great art. I like to think that, at times, I really did make a positive difference to the artists with which I worked, and I certainly learnt a heck of a lot about managing creative and innovative process, and this is precious to me in the work I’m doing now. But, against a background of ongoing uncertainty in funding, precarious employment, a lack of societal respect for contemporary art, and, at times, an almost tribal approach to protecting turf from others in the arts industry, I ended up feeling destabilised and exhausted.

I am still looking for that holy grail, am still passionate about supporting artists and arts and humanities academics, but, paradoxically, am steering well clear of the arts industry in my quest. And I still have no clear idea as to what that good working model could look like; just a vague notion of some lines of enquiry I could follow.

'Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail' by Franz Stassen (1869-1949)
‘Parsifal revealing the Holy Grail’ by Franz Stassen (1869-1949)

There is a dearly held belief in our society that artists are wankers and flakes – I am getting sick of hearing comments from people to that end. They’re no such thing – good artists are red hot implementers and have a gift for devising practical ways of making the products of their imaginations tangible; this is what makes them working artists instead of daydreamers. But the nature of the bureaucratic work and political lobbying the arts industry asks of them is enough to shut down even the most robust imagination.

*Amelia Winata’s bio: Amelia is an emerging curator and writer. She holds an Honours degree in Art History from the University of Melbourne. Her current projects include a curated exhibition of video art to be presented as part of Channels Festival 2015, and a writing mentorship with Gertrude Contemporary. She is currently Gallery Operations Coordinator at RMIT Gallery.

Recommended Read: How to Knit a Compelling Story in an Age of Change.

Recommended Read: How to Knit a Compelling Story in an Age of Change.

“It’s organisations simply looking at what inspires everyone with their passion, hobbies and interests that fire up their imagination, creativity and openness to learning and then applying these to meaningful work.” – Helen Blunden 

Social learning consultant and trainer, Helen Blunden of Activate Learn, recently posted a delightful blog called How to Knit a Compelling Story in an Age of Change. In it Helen charts her own journey of developing a personal learning practice partially through her involvement in knitting, a craft she has been passionately involved in for years.

Helen describes the interactions and modelled learning and knowledge sharing behaviours of the knitters she regularly interacts with, and describes how this has inspired and supported her own “… incredible desire to always continually learn and experience new things.”

As I plough on through various iterations of my own young professional practice I rely hugely on social media as a forum through which to build a “village of support”*, conduct research, experiment with branding techniques, and promote my services. Online resources have been particularly vital (and enjoyable) means through which to conduct personal learning; I was lucky to come into this latest stint of self-employment with some degree of confidence in using social media and blogging to engage with, and learn from, others. I found my online ‘voice’ before I started using it for career advancement; I found that online voice in a place that takes many people by surprise.

I am an obsessive fan of kung fu and wuxia movies**. I love them. As a former choreographer I find their audacious creativity, virtuosic performances and endlessly inventive choreography irresistible. For many years I blogged about the movies and participated in online forums, especially as an administrator on a page on Facebook. I have had to neglect these things over the last couple of years as planning and setting up my professional practice has been all absorbing, but I do look forward to getting back to blogging and posting pictures like this on Facebook again:

Still from Tai Chi Zero. Image sourced from imdb.com
Still from Tai Chi Zero.
Image sourced from imdb.com

The fan base I was involved in was far more diverse that may people would expect, and I was lucky enough to connect with networks who were generous with their knowledge and their joy in the movies. I have recently come to understand that even while I was enjoying myself hugely I was also engaged in learning a huge amount about film making, Chinese history, Hong Kong culture, as well as reflecting on my own choreographic practice and my own culture.

Interacting with my fellow obsessives also helped me to find that ‘voice’ and have the confidence to ‘mix it’ with an online community and share my opinions, an interesting experience for me in a fairly male-dominated fan community talking about testosterone drenched films.

I had one particularly important experience a couple of years ago when I was helping to administrate the Heroic Sisterhood Facebook page. Someone left a poorly worded comment that was not exactly trolling but could still have been read as insensitive and potentially hurtful and divisive for our little tribe of devotees. I diplomatically invited him to unpack that comment, prepared, all the while, to delete his comment and bounce him off the page if it turned out that he was looking for trouble. As it happens, during our online dialogue he was able to explain himself better and we were able to then join together in sending a more considered message to our network. I was pleased with the way this had turned out and felt good about the role I had played. Shortly before this experience I had completed a work project during which I was exposed to some toxic behaviour from certain stakeholders over an extended period of time. This affected my faith in my own ability to handle people. The opportunity to contribute positively to an online forum helped me to reclaim that confidence and find my voice again.

I couldn’t agree with Helen more that “…organisations have a lot to learn from knitters.” As they have to learn from chopsocky fans, sports clubs, social enterprises, volunteer movements. Learning experiences and opportunities for reflection can open up for us anywhere, and inspiration is all around us. Any communal activity is great people watching experience; much can be learned about team building, networking, collaboration, knowledge sharing and working with diversity.

It’s too easy to find inspiration in blogs like the one Helen wrote. Thanks for sharing those thoughts, Helen, and for prompting me to reflect on my own compelling story.

*A lovely phrase coined by Trevor Young and expounded in this article.

**Don’t laugh.

sourced from hkmdb.com
sourced from hkmdb.com
Enterprises are about logistics

Enterprises are about logistics

“… all great enterprises are about logistics. Not genius…but logistics.”

I read an article called Forensic Logistics: this crime ‘howdunnit’ is sexier than it sounds by John Lenarcic in The Conversation last year. This quote caught my eye:

“Waxing ever more lyrical though, English novelist Tom McCarthy in his first novel, Remainder, had this to say:

‘… all great enterprises are about logistics. Not genius or inspiration or flights of imagination, skill or cunning, but logistics. Building pyramids or landing spacecraft on Jupiter or invading whole continents or painting divine scenes over the roofs of chapels: logistics.’”

I thought this was an interesting perspective, lyrically expressed. These days you can’t spit, so to speak, without hitting an article or blog or website extolling the virtues of innovation for business. To state the bleeding obvious, when we talk about innovation we are talking about a range of activities starting with creative ideation and then progressing through all of the operational processes through which that idea takes tangible form to, somehow, add value to either process or product. In other words, logistics is definitely a part of innovation and the development of creative, value-adding ideas.

And this is not just the case in business either. As someone who started out as an artiste before progressing to arts management work, wherein I helped others realise their creative projects, I am coming to grind my teeth when I hear business folk describe artists as flakey and crazy, inferring that they indulge in wild flights of fancy and lack the practical nous to implement their ideas. Don’t you believe a word of it: good artists, performing and visual, are red hot implementers. Their practice is all about taking their creative ideas and expressing them in tangible or experiential forms. If they don’t do this they are merely day dreamers. While artists may not have the same skill sets as business people, they have their own range of logistics to wrangle and their own different but comparable sorts of ingenuity to get the best results from these.

Do you agree with McCarthy’s view? Feel free to leave a comment below. For me this quote alludes to that alchemical moment during any creative enterprise when you get the imagination and intellect talking together, when day to day processes and real-life circumstances can be lined up or wrangled to facilitate the expression of a new creative idea. What I have always called ‘my choreographer’s brain’, by which I mean a brain that likes arranging people and things in time and space to express something, gets a kick out of this. It’s what makes the area of innovation such a fun thing to play around in. Fun, and for the business world, vital.

Marco Polo's Caravan
Marco Polo’s Caravan
Design as survival skill

Design as survival skill

In my reading about innovation I have seen the idea stated, and more than once, that innovation cannot be achieved or should not be attempted during a time of crisis. I will admit that this has always puzzled me. On the one hand I can understand the reasoning behind this idea – it is hard and perhaps even risky to make the changes that are the result of innovation, and especially when morale or resourcing are low or governance and strategy making are being challenged. On the other hand I have seen instances where innovation has happened as a result of a crisis, as a reflex to adapt and invent solutions in the face of that crisis and as a manifestation of survival instinct. These instances have taken place outside of the business world; they have been the responses of small not for profit organisations or creative workers to (organisational) life threatening constraints.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a lovely interview of designer Keiji Ashizawa by Rachel Elliot-Jones for Assemble Papers (11 June 2015) – Modesty and Materiality: Keiji Ashizawa:

“Keiji Ashizawa’s hats are many. As an architect, product designer and erstwhile steel fabricator, his work spans vast luxury residences to tiny tealight holders… Among his many plaudits, Keiji is the founder of the Ishinomaki Laboratory – a community DIY workshop he initiated in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, where local people could cometogether and begin to build their post-disaster future – 0ne red cedar 2×4 at a time.”

I love the idea of Ishinomaki Laboratory and its work:

“To Keiji, design is the ultimate “survival skill”, one that has helped him solve numerous ‘problems’ in everyday life – a new studio with no desks; an impromptu dinner with no table; an international exhibition that needs to be installed in a day. Whatever needs doing, he does himself (or with his colleagues), using the materials he has lying around. In Ishinomaki, Keiji could see that those people who were DIYing their houses and shops were rebuilding faster than those waiting for government assistance, but not everyone had the skills or the confidence to do it themselves. His idea was that an all-welcome community workshop could inspire more people to get hands-on by providing simple techniques and ideas for furniture that might “make life easier or nicer”.”

It seems to me that its design approach and its business model are enmeshed in a community development model. These three things work together and inform each other; each is an intelligent and empathic immediate response to a devastated community and urban landscape. The interview and documentary, great as they are, have not furnished me with the details, but it seems to me that each of the three components contain innovative elements individually, and that these innovations arose from the affect the three components had on each other. This initially arose from a need to respond to the aftermath of a disaster and a lack of resources.

Perhaps the most striking innovation is the way the design approach, business model and community development model have grafted onto each other. I feel that this is a case study that would equally delight a community development practitioner, a designer, a social entrepreneur, and a business man.

Surely this is an example of design thinking at its best? Ishinomaki Laboratory produces aesthetically pleasing furniture that requires operationally streamlined production processes, and these things themselves have arisen out of deep insight into the needs of the customers gained from a literally hands on approach to customer engagement. Inspirational stuff indeed!

Powerpoint slides from Rebel Jam (#RebelJam15)

Powerpoint slides from Rebel Jam (#RebelJam15)

I will get back to writing and posting blogs in about a week’s time.

I gave a 20 minute presentation on my new service Conversations of Intrigue during the online Rebel Jam conference. Below are the few powerpoint slides I used for my presentation.

If you want to know more about Conversations of Intrigue then go here.

This hyperlink will take you to the Parallel Fascinations blog.

If you would like to ask me about Conversations of Intrigue you can contact me here or on twitter @DangerousMere. 

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