Project, business and strategic planning.
Lurking fears named; problems creatively solved; visions nurtured.
Wishing you joy and happiness and healthfulness and prosperity during the year of the goat. I will post a ‘proper’ blog next week. In the meantime, if you want to check out what I am up to at the moment you can check that out here: Dangerous Meredith Annual Newsletter 2015 Two things I am super excited about working on this year:
- An eBook (title to be confirmed) that I am co-writing with evaluation expert Dr. Louise Greenstock. We are putting together an introductory text aimed at introducing social entrepreneurs to planning and evaluation.
- My new facilitated conversation service – ‘You know the place went bad'; viewing the indicators of organisational dysfunction through the filter of a spy novel.
In the meantime I anticipate having a glorious time providing mentoring and training in innovation and business and project planning. Thanks for your readership over the last year. I’m looking forward to another year of blogging and reading about what you’re doing, so stay connected.
On Friday 6 February 2015 I gave a presentation at Parallel Fascinations on how I have been using a classic spy novel as a filter or tool to examine issues to do with workplace culture and organisational dysfunction.
Parallel Fascinations… … is a new event series that I am co-organising and co-hosting with digital sociologist Alexia Maddox and artist and event curator Romaine Logere. To quote from our promotional text: “Parallel Fascinations draws upon ideas of private obsessions and the space where seemingly disparate ideas collide. Reminiscent of the Salon, we are seeding an interdisciplinary group that crosses academic and industry sectors to engage with topics raised through this theme.”
“You know the place went bad.” My presentation was about the classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre, a beautifully written and engrossing page turner, peopled by fascinating characters. Set against a background of an organization beset with problems of scandal, poor governance and toxic culture, its plot revolves around the hunt for a double agent who is wreaking havoc within this same organization.
Can a literary work be a filter through which we contemplate the health and functionality of organisational culture? The way Le Carre has designed his narrative makes these issues intrinsic in the telling of his story and the deep engagement of his readers. A skim reading of any newspaper will provide instances of real life organisations, across all sectors, dealing with these same aforementioned issues. Many of us have war stories to tell of our own experiences with bullying bosses, ineffective managers, stifled innovation, poor communication and perhaps even sub-legal or illegal behaviour. A discussion of a literary work such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its narrative techniques can give us the space and perspective from which to examine our own experiences of poor workplace culture, while the primal mythological pull of responding to storytelling allows us to connect with this discussion on an emotional, instinctual and imaginative level.
“… question reality… destabilize uncertainty…”
As author Matt Haig says in his tweet quoted above, fiction can allow us to delve into the uncertainties in life. A great novel will engage the intellect, the emotions and the imagination. Using a novel as a tool or filter the reader can consider themes or issues in a way that bypasses black and white thinking, allowing us to consider alternative viewpoints or different realities. The group who attended Parallel Fascinations last Friday shared very thoughtful and rich perspectives in response to the themes upon which I was focusing and the conversation veered in some surprising directions. As a presenter I am enormously grateful for their input, and very pleased that my presentation was able to tap into themes that were of interest to them.
What next? Inspired by the response to my presentation I will keep on working with this novel and the themes I have identified.
A friend I was speaking to this morning, who attended last Friday, said she thought the format was unique; it offered participants an experience that allowed for and elicited reflection, speculation, and intellectual curiosity. Our event had apparently avoided the formal qualities of a lecture, the (sometimes) combative tone of an academic panel review, and the wishy-washiness of an unstructured informal conversation. She felt that participants felt equally relaxed about either joining in the discussion or just nursing a glass of wine and listening.
I am wondering if I can adapt my presentation into some kind of workshop – some sort of facilitated discussion – that I can take into organisations to help them reflect on their own workplace culture and identify areas they wish to work on. The final format of this has still not ‘found’ me, but I am drooling in anticipation of the actions I can take to go and find it.
Romaine, Alexia and I are, thus far, very happy with the way Parallel Fascinations is shaping up. It is a young thing still, mine was just the second presentation (Alexia gave the first presentation on the theme of Serendipity – it was fascinating). We have been incredibly fortunate to be supported by the Digital Learning Hub in their new venue – The Channel at Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre – and Parallel Fascinations will have a home in the future. We look forward to offering more presentations during the coming year. For more information please check out our blog at parallelfascinations.wordpress.com
This is the second part of my blog ‘To seem a stranger lies my lot’. You can find the first half of the blog here. There are quotes from one of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ sonnets in this blog, the whole text of which can be found below.
Not being heard, finding one’s self on the outer of a dialogue or group, can lead to feelings of isolation or abandonment. Sometimes we make a deliberate choice to be a quiet or less-verbally active participant of a discussion. But when someone has some ideas or observations to share, and they are denied the chance to share them or these things are ignored or derided when they do, then that can make that someone feel estranged and cast off. Doing this often in a relationship can be toxic, both for the relationship itself and for the confidence of the person being blocked.
And this can be the case in any kind of relationship – between lovers, family members, friends, or at work. It can happen, too, between institutions and constituents or between businesses and their customers. When people feel they have a stake in what’s going on in some arena of their lives, and when they then invest the time and energy and goodwill to speak up, they can be enraged or disheartened if they are ignored. If these feelings become further compounded, people are inspired towards acts that speak of bitterness, diminishing loyalty, or even subversiveness.
“… dark heaven’s baffling ban…”*
To quote Gerard Manly Hopkins “Only what word / Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban / Bars or hell’s spell thwarts.” To feel that the words that express our experiences or potential are banned, barred or thwarted is incredibly disempowering. The victim of bullying in the workplace who feels that they have no one to support or even believe them, Muslims who see themselves described as terrorists by bigots, minorities who struggle to get job interviews, women who hit the glass ceiling despite the excellence of their work, anyone who feels that no matter what they do or what they say they will not be noticed or will be wilfully misunderstood – all these people will feel that estrangement.
“Only what word Wisest my heart breeds”.
By not being good listeners, either as individuals or as institutions, we also deny ourselves the opportunity of connecting with someone else’s thoughts. We deny ourselves the chance to hear and be moved by insights, perhaps even words of wisdom that have been bred in the heart of someone else’s imagination, intellect, emotions or spirit.
It behoves us as individuals to learn to be good listeners, to understand that this is not the same as just not making noise while someone else is speaking. We need to develop the concentration to tune into others’ words, to read body language and all the other ‘tells’ that provide context or nuance to words that are being spoken, and also to actively listen and respond in such a way that the speaker knows they have been heard. This is as important for friendships as it is for Manager–Employee or Business-Customer relationships.
So too do organisations and governments need to learn to be good listeners. ‘Community’ ‘consultation’ should not just be a pair of weasel words; the establishment needs to be prepared to be surprised and challenged by what they hear, and not just to fashion consultation processes that will elicit the responses they want to hear.
On both a micro and macro level it is only by undertaking to really listen that we can build trust and enjoy a true exchange of ideas and communion of will and values.
*The sonnets that Hopkins wrote that are designated by scholars as his ‘Terrible Sonnets’ are not called this because the writing is bad. The writing is devastatingly great. Rather, the sonnets describe a dark night of the soul and are heartbreaking to read.
Sonnet No. 44 by Gerard Manly Hopkins
|TO seem the stranger lies my lot, my life|
|Among strangers. Father and mother dear,|
|Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near|
|And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.|
|England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife||5|
|To my creating thought, would neither hear|
|Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-|
|y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.|
|I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd|
|Remove. Not but in all removes I can||10|
|Kind love both give and get. Only what word|
|Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban|
|Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,|
|Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.|
There is a great quote from Maya Angelou that does the rounds on Twitter every now and again:
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”.
This quote always makes me think of the beautiful words that end Gerard Manly Hopkins’ Terrible* Sonnet No. 44: “This to hoard unheard, / Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.”
I am not sure what the context of Angelou’s words was. But I have always assumed that what she was talking about was the lonely agony that came from not having an opportunity to tell your story or expound your ideas at all. The words that start Hopkin’s Sonnet 44 are “To seem the stranger lies my lot…” and this, for me, calls to mind the consequences of “bearing an untold story inside you”.
Listening, really listening, …
… is a small act of mundane compassion we can enact for each other. And real sincere listening is quite rare. All too often we fall into the trap of letting someone’s words flow past us while we superficially skim and scan them looking for something upon which we can hang our next sound bite, all the while using half our brain to compose this while our lips are closed. People often just look for the next chance to jump into a pause in the conversation to grab a bit of airspace for themselves, or for the opportunity to score points or further an agenda. People can act, too, off assumptions they have about their dialogue partner before the conversation even begins; they carry with them into a discussion the determination to defend a point of view or undermine a position. The airwaves are anything but clear.
When I was a shy teenager I heard or read somewhere that the secret to charm was being able to listen. I forget the source of this advice but whoever composed it did me a real favour, as I was very dubious about my skills as a conversationalist. When I went to University I put this into practice and it worked. I quickly realised how hungry people were for someone who actually gave a damn about how they thought or felt.
I have recently been dipping into a book called Imagination and a Pile of Junk (“A droll history of inventors and inventions”) by Trevor Norton. The chapter ‘Full Steam Ahead’ deals with the development of the steam locomotive. The following excerpt describes popular (mis)conceptions about steam travel in the 1820s or thereabouts:
“For a generation that knew of nothing faster than a galloping horse, speed was a concern. Stephenson assured a House pf Commons committee that his trains would run at a stately 12 mph (19 kph). He lied, of course: he had no choice because ‘experts’ prophesied that travelling at more than 20 mph (32 kph) would suck all the air from your lungs or you would go mad. Even watching the landscape rush by would damage your eyes. The hiss and clank of the engine would cause women to miscarry and leave the male traveller ‘in a state of confusion that it is well if he recovers in a week.’ Daily commuting would be out of the question.
Even innocent bystanders were in danger. A passing train could wilt vegetables in the fields, kill birds in flight and dry up a cow’s udders. An objector collared Stephenson on the danger of a cow on the line with a train approaching. ‘Surely,’ he said, ‘that would be a very awkward circumstance.’ ‘Aye,’ Stephenson replied, ‘very awkward… for the cow.’
… A cartoon captioned ‘The Pleasures of the Railroad’ depicted an exploding locomotive with detached limbs flying in all directions from the torsos of surprised passengers… It took the public some time to get used to the speed of trains. Some believed that the locomotive really did get bigger as the train approached. Others leapt from the carriage when they were close to their destination and were rewarded with a broken leg or worse. When the train reached 23 mph (37 kph) a passenger found it ‘frightful… it is impossible to divert yourself of the notion of instant death for all.’ Nevertheless, the public soon learned to sit back and enjoy the thrill of speeding ‘swifter than a bird… when I closed my eyes, this sensation of flying was quite delightful.’” pp. 30-31, Imagination and a Pile of Junk by Trevor Norton.
What busy, urgent inner lives we humans have. We are blessed with the imagination to come up with innovative ideas alongside the capacity to play out lively scenarios of risk and doom within the confines of that same imagination. As a species we veer between pushing back the boundaries and being terrified of the monsters that live under our beds.
I guess most new things have to run the gamut of suspicion and wild surmise before they get the chance to be accepted. Being sensible about risk is an important survival trait our species has had to develop over the millennia but in the worst case scenario, risk aversion kills off new things before they even get off the ground.
What do you think? Have you had experience with seeing some new invention or innovation challenged or even undermined by undue amounts of caution or scepticism? How do we avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water?
Last week I worked as a trainer for the Moreland Fashion Industry Mentoring Program. This project was conceptualised, developed and project managed by designer and fashion industry expert Chitra Mangma. Her goal was to provide mentoring and training in business skills to young designers to help them establish their own new professional practice. Chitra was fortunate enough to obtain funding from Moreland City Council’s Community Grants program and venue support from Brunswick Business Incubator.
During the project participants (selected during an application process) had one on one mentoring with Chitra which focussed on developing their skills as designers in the context of finding a market or future career in the fashion industry. My contribution was to deliver three workshops that focussed on how to build a brand and a marketing strategy. The program concluded with participants presenting their marketing strategy to a panel that included Chitra, myself and Anthony (Manager of Brunswick Business Incubator). As a panel our job was to provide feedback and suggestions.
Although tiny symptoms of stage nerves were apparent (and, hey, this happens to the best of us) the participants presented really, really well. I was so proud of them. All of them are obviously hugely talented designers; during the program they revealed themselves to be delightful people – good natured and generous in their input – with a determined and grounded attitude to developing their future professional practices. Their presentations were lucid and clear, showing a good grasp of the marketing and branding concepts we had talked about in the workshops and mentoring sessions. They were able to lay out specific and practical tactics they could follow in the future, and showed a good sense of strategy. Chitra and I were thrilled with the development these guys had shown in just two weeks, and the amount of deep thought they had put into their participation in the program was very much in evidence. The feedback from the participants was great – it showed they valued the program, found it interesting, enjoyable and useful.
When I present any kind of business or project planning workshops to artists or creatives I try to take the angle that the creative and the business sides of their professional practice needn’t be at odds. Indeed, much about the planning process requires the sort of fluid, conceptualising, contextualising, envisioning mental skills that come so easily to creative brains. Marketing, a huge part of any business, is also a very creative process. Having worked for so long in the arts industry I also have a healthy respect for the self-discipline developed by artists in response to the demands of their vocation, and I absolutely believe that this gives them the discipline to cope with any aspects of business or project management that at first feel new or odd to them.
And yet there is a persistent myth in our society that creative people are wild and flakey, lacking in sense and pragmatism. I have seen this manifest in otherwise very sensible and organised artists as a lack of confidence in their ability to develop business acumen, despite the fact that their actual behaviours and self-management actions point to the fact that they do have the savviness and practicality to manage their affairs very well indeed. My own abilities in project and business management came out of what I call my ‘choreographer’s brain’ and my own initial experience in putting on my own shows. I hate this lack of confidence and think it is quite a toxic influence on the minds of creatives. What makes it even worse is that the arts and creative sectors can be difficult ones to make a career in – lack of funding, (depending on the art form) a lack of a clear career path, competitiveness, scarcity in markets (we live in a society that doesn’t like to pay people for their creative labour) are all factors. The stark reality is that creative people can’t afford to labour under the misconception that they are a bunch of nuff nuffs and that the world of business is Not. For. Them. If they are not going to spend their lives on the dole queue or stacking shelves they need to box mighty clever, and be confident that they can do so.
So it felt really, really good when our participants spoke of feeling “empowered” by the program; one said she could see how the brand building and marketing strategies could function as an extension of her creative practice. This was sweet. This is what I wanted.
Chitra Mangma has many years’ experience as a designer, stylist, retailer and project manager in the fashion industry; prior to this she worked in advertising in her native country Thailand. Chitra is passionate about passing on her considerable knowledge of the fashion industry to up and coming designers and put together this program to help young designers to enjoy a smoother transition from fashion student to small business person. Chitra was able to obtain funding from Moreland City Council’s Community Grants Funding Program; the Brunswick Business Incubator provided in kind support by making a venue for the workshops available. Chitra was especially pleased to be able to present this program in the Brunswick area as she feels that fashion is a big part of the Brunswick community due to the presence of fashion retailers on Sydney Road, the fashion and textile courses at RMIT University’s Brunswick Campus, a number of fashion businesses in the Brunswick Business Incubator, and a healthy arts and creative scene in Brunswick. Chitra, herself, is a long time Brunswick resident and her own shop (only just recently closed) was itself on Sydney Road.
As a digital immigrant I am one of those arrivals who take the citizenship oath misty eyed and with a lump in their throat. I plunge myself into the yearly national celebrations with a patriotic fervour that leaves the natives far behind. I am a happy, secure and grateful immigrant who flies the flag in my front yard and tries to use the colloquialisms correctly.
I am an old Gen-Xer who can clearly remember growing up without the internet or mobile phones. My first (free) classes in how to use the internet were at the State Library of Victoria* and I remember being terrified that I would hit the wrong button and melt down the computer. My first email account was a Hotmail account opened in May 1999 just before I went to live and work in Japan for two years; this was also done on a free computer at the State Library as I didn’t have the internet on at home. My very first mobile phone was acquired in Japan shortly after. It was a gloriously stream lined pearl coloured affair and I felt very smug at owning it as I thought of a few affluent friends back in Australia who had started to equip themselves with devices shaped like bricks just before I left.**
A couple of years after I returned to Australia in the early 2000s I did a lot of project management work for a student services department at RMIT University***. At this stage we only used email and the odd web page to promote programs or events we were running. Even when the Great Myspace Craze swept our offices individuals were using it (covertly) for personal use only, not as a promotional, collaborative or community building tool. We used other – mostly offline – methods for these. I was introduced to an early unadorned Facebook by one of the students I knew at RMIT; I responded to his friend request and found myself looking at an arid blue and white site and thought “It’s all just bloody American college kids. This’ll never catch on.”
Prior to this, during the 90s, I worked as a freelance choreographer and dancer, independently devising and producing my own small performances. Back in those days I relied on mainly non-techonological means to promote – PR (mainly newspapers and radio), fliers, posters and promotional appearances. Much of my later work at RMIT involved planning and / or facilitating and / or promoting stuff for other creatives. During the years from 2009-2013 I worked in project management in the community sector and also managed a small not for profit business and watched how the growth and availability of technology such as social media and cloud based things like Dropbox or Google Docs changed the way we could do things, and the way these changed processes then impinged upon traditional strategies and models.
On the 24 October of this year I ran a small event (a workshop) for myself. I realised that it was probably the first event I had run since I left RMIT. What struck me forcibly were the changes that technology has wrought in event management, and more broadly in project and business management, over the last few years. Using a suite of resources such as Eventbrite****, Twitter, Facebook, Hootsuite, email, my blog, Surveymonkey, and Dropbox I slapped together, promoted, ticketed and evaluated my event for only the cost of the internet and my labour and in a fraction of the time it used to take me. The implementation stage was better coordinated and with less human error, leaving me more time to respond to other opportunities that popped up. Importantly it left me with more time and creative energy to devote to developing my workshop.
And this is what struck me: time was saved, but saved for what? A lot of the pesky administration that used to make me grind my teeth was gone and that’s great. But the time I had left over was not just filled with more administration. I was able to replace it with the things that will enable me to move my professional practice forward – more and better creative thinking, research, planning, and writing.
It makes me wonder what it would have been like working on some of my old projects and within some of my old teams (and I had some great colleagues) if we had had access to this technology back in the years prior to, say, 2009. I have no doubt that our approach to our work would have been radically different. We would have had the capacity to allow ourselves more time to plan more thoroughly and communicate more effectively, releasing ourselves from the pressure of ‘shaved monkey work’ to prioritise more creative and / or critical thinking around our task making. Who knows if this would have been the case, but the potential certainly would have been there.
I guess this is the (positive) challenge available to businesses these days. As you access more technology, how are you using it? What sorts of labour is it freeing up, and how are you replacing that labour? Are you taking the opportunity to come up with new ways of working, are you allowing shifts in the ways in which you work? Or are you cleaving to processes or structures that have always been in place, preferring the illusion of safety to the reality of the possibility for change and growth?
*God bless our public library system and all who sail in her!
**I must admit that I’ve always preferred using the term ‘skymail’ as was done in Japan in 1999 as opposed to the more prosaic ‘text message’ I found us Westerners using when I came back.
***Formerly known as RMIT Union Arts, a department of an independent student association called RMIT Union which has now been merged with RMIT University. Union Arts is now called RMIT Link.
****Oh WOW Eventbrite where have you been all my life. I used to have to do what Eventbrite does from scratch with no other resources than Excel spreadsheets and my poor tired brain.