Which City?

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Same old, same old - so let's do something different

Kids are back at school this week, traffic queues are tailing back from the city centre all morning. There's a semblance of normality about, but I feel quite weird, don't know about you?

I know I live a magpie life, dipping into this and that all the time, but the world is whizzing for me at the moment. Here's my list of what's on, how does it compare to yours?

Health - the end of an era, are we staring into the abyss, or is this the shake up the labyrinthine NHS needs. I end my term as a Non-Executive Director of Yorkshire and Humber SHA this month, not yet sure if I will carry on any association with the NHS, undecided about whether I feel sadness or relief. There is much doom expressed about the NHS Reform Bill, and I worry that the aspirations that my grandparents' generation had, and the services which guaranteed my own well being whatever the income of my family, will not be passed on as legacy to my children, or indeed to the millions of children who will need them. I feel we are breaking links in a chain.

Housing - our focus in Sheffield Homes is on the future, and on supporting the Council's thinking about how best to manage its housing after our contract ends in 2014. What is really important both in practical, political and emotional terms, we are asking? In leading the ALMO Board I am clearly on the side of the ALMO, but the outcome needs to be the best for tenants and the city.

On the broader national housing stage, our inability to provide housing for people who need it, to be resorting to talk of boats and caravans (whilst we clear a site of caravans for green belt) feels like failure. Will we ever be prepared to recognise that housing is too important to leave to the market? Investment in housing is not just in bricks and mortar, but in health, cohesion, community. The loss of Sarah Webb, Chief Executive of CIH, this week removes a wise and truthful spirit from the housing world.

Higher Education -  As the pre-fee hike generation starts university this month, those of us on governing bodies start to plan for a new world from 2012 onwards. We can't ignore predictions about how higher fees will dampen numbers and put off the poorer students and their families. As a governor, I would like to see us invest in young people and their futures as a society, rather than trying to anticipate the aggregate effect of individual decisions.
Having said that I am already deep into the role of higher education consumer, as my daughter starts her last year of school and we participate in the beauty parade of university open days.

And then there's the continuing aftermath of the riots, the constant looking back at 9/11, Libya and the rest of the Arab world in tumult, more empty shops on the high street, changeable weather, etc., etc..

As I write this, it dawns on me that the weird feeling is a combination of deja vu and the onset of old age. The current crisis all feels a bit 80s (or is it 70s or 90s - whatever, we have been there before). And yet if feels as if all the previous crises are happening at once this time; is this because I am getting old, and becoming frightened of life?

I hope not. After a sandwich and a cup of coffee, my energy's back and I can start to look on the brighter side. Change is a fact of life, it's inevitable and is actually the life force which keeps us going. Everyday the sun comes up, but no day is ever the same as the one before. So, we have seen it all before, but this time it is different. The benefit of recognising this, is that we take a fresh look and try new approaches to solve problems as they are now.

I am nervous about NHS reforms, but there is a lot to improve in the NHS. We have to be take on more responsiblity for our own health, expect  more responsive services and find better ways to pay for the costs of a growing and ageing population. Innovation and creativy are vital, smaller units of decision making, resources closer to patients could liberate us, but the system is enormous and will still need managing.

I hope the recognition that the market will not deliver new homes without some support for its risk will enable both central and local government to look at using the resources we have already to better effect - public land and buildings and empty homes need to be part of the equation, with flexible and creative ideas for funding development, and sharing costs and risk part of the picture.

And in Higher Education the market will make us sharpen up our act, to be supportive of students as well as challenging, so that they get not only a good experience at university but also a good outcome. But it will also make some potential students look elsewhere, to training and apprenticeships, to jobs with prospects. In some areas students will be lucky to have this choice - my worry is that in areas outside the most affluent, the rug will be pulled in all directions.

Family games make holiday travelling less boring for young children - our daughter is 17 now but we still had a holiday game this year, trying to think of as many proverbs or wise sayings as we could. I'll leave you with a couple:

Necessity is the Mother of Invention


If we keep doing the same thing, we get the same result

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

UK Riots: Our shared responsibility for what young people do.

I have just returned from holiday in India, so viewed what was happening last week from a distance and through a distorted lens. This post is a response to Wakka Khan on the Common Purpose website, who himself comments on the  response of Tariq Jahan to those who killed his son and two others, asking them to 'calm down and go home'

It is indeed a brave and dignified response from a bereaved father to ask for calm rather than for revenge, and some of this spirit would be better shown by some of politicians and commentators who offer strident rhetoric rather than recognition of our system failing and solutions.

Young people are a vulnerable group in our society, in transition economically and emotionally, uncertain about whether they will have a better or worse future than their parents. Those whom we have supported to understand their political and cultural position may protest noisily yet peacefully, or be motivated to study and work harder to ensure they aren't left at the bottom of a social system.

For those without such confidence, analysis and resources, crime against others and self-harm are techniques they use at the best of times to assert anger and frustration at their lack of control or self-determination. This is a persistent problem which we should be addressing through support from early years, through education and engagement in social and community life, especially in the things that young people enjoy, like sport or music and increasingly the creative use of new media.

Earlier this  year, we have seen largely well-off, educated young people protest about student grants, and now less advantaged young people striking out against their own communities. Many young people I speak to from across a wide social range feel unhappy with the government, the police, and the way things are at the moment, as may many other groups in society.  But young people often feel their sense of disempowerment much more keenly.

We should not try to silence young people, but listen to them, understand their frustration and work with them to find solutions. Where family support is strong, 'calming down and going home' may work, but we risk too much by expecting families alone to provide a secure future for our young people.

I hope these recent events can help us to start seeing young people in all our communities as our opportunity, not as our 'problem'. The young have so much energy and creativity, they will want to change the present, but hopefully by using their spark to create a better future, rather than setting the torch to their own neighbourhoods.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Gracious leadership - is it time for a softer style?

Now that the lovely Tom Pellereau has won The Apprentice and the nasty newspaper barons are  geting their comeuppance, is it time for a softer, more gracious style of leadership?

I saw the film Tree of Life this weekend and can't have been alone in struggling on first viewing to get the point of it all. But it is a film which makes you think, it's impact extending long after the titles have rolled. In it, we are asked to ponder the essential forces of life - nature which creates us, and grace, which makes us human. Grace, broadly interpreted, might be  simply defined as kindness, that force in us which chooses to be good rather than not.

In business, and (sadly I think ) in public life we have got used in the last thirty years to displaying some of our worst human qualities in the pursuit of profit and performance. Agressive competitiveness, clawing our way to the top, squeezing the pips out of every deal and contract, looking after number one - some of the cliched concepts which have been seen as good for profit and best for customers.

But where has it led us but to financial and moral bankruptcy. We are feeling well and truly screwed by the banks, by the press, the police and politicians. And they are left without any reputation or good standing, trust or confidence.

Is it time to bring some grace back into business? Great leaders - those who take people with them - are great people. They display integrity as much as influence, they care as much as they create, they serve as much as speculate.

In the midst of our current difficulties we feel that what we want is for those in power to be fair, to value the people that work for them, to respect the people who use their services. And not just to say it, but to do it.

Strong leaders are not loud, cruel or selfish. They are sensitive to the needs of others, quietly considerate, scrupulous in their integrity. If we could rely on all our leaders being this strong, we would have nothing to worry about. Gracious leadership isn't easy, it requires a leader to believe not just in themselves but in others, not only to be independent but to recognise that we are interdependent and much more powerful when we work with one another and not against one another.

A softer style isn't a weakness, it requires confidence in your ability to do what is right. Instincts and gut feeling, common sense, and a sense of justice are better leadership tools than Gantt charts and project plans. Use your moral compass rather than your management satnav.

Our belief in the strengths in people drives our work at The Open Channel. We know that people aren't perfect and that they can and need to improve. But if you want to lead people to do more with less and deliver the best services they can, then build on what they can do well rather than knocking them down for what they havn't done.

Be gracious - it will pay off.


Monday, 11 July 2011

What does the Public really want from Public Services?

Today, the government finally publishes its public services White Paper
The vision for reform is underpinned by five principles, which promote a set of values appearing to occupy the middle ground

Choice – Wherever possible we will increase choice.
Decentralisation – Power should be decentralised to the lowest appropriate level.
Diversity – Public services should be open to a range of providers.
Fairness – We will ensure fair access to public services
Accountability – Public services should be accountable to users and taxpayers. 

Of course. This is what we want. Or is it?

There is no shirking the reality of life for many people who make use of public services in Britain
today, and the White Paper makes reference to widespread inequalities in  education,        health and poverty. Addressing poverty and inequalities better is an avowed aim of the document.
Empowering people, putting them more in control is a central tenet across the centre ground of politics.
But what are the challenges for this vision of individual freedom to choose, collective opportunity to run our own services and real power to demand quality and value?
Well, first of all there is bound to be a certain scepticism in the air about the extent to which the private sector can be entrusted with our public services. As investors in Southern Cross walk away from an increasingly unprofitable sector, the White Paper suggests that health care should not be an area where 'profit' is be made. So how does the private sector engage in delivery of public services without the opportunity to make a profit? Which bank will lend to a private company without the prospect of profit?
We can't have our cake and eat it.
In social care local authorities have looked to drive down costs, to cope with increasing demand and reducing budgets. Squeezing profits will put people out of business. If care is not affordable in the public sector why do we think it will be in the private sector? Because it is more efficient, or because pay levels and quality will be driven down?

Social enterprises, management and staff mutuals are held out as the middle way - a route to get public services out of political control and into the market, but with a human face. If these enterprises are to succeed, they have to be able to charge for quality, they have to have the resources to pay good staff. There are risks either way - they may not be able to compete with private providers who can drive costs down, or they cost as much as public services ever did.
I don't believe there is a holy grail or we would have found it.
Public services do not exist in neutral territory, they live in a political context. The White Paper talks about choice, but you have to deserve the service, you will have to need it , to qualify. It isn't the same choice as picking the make and model of your new car, nor should it be, but let's not overegg the amount of control we do have. For most people it isn't a choice to cross the country to have health treatment that is better and cheaper - the need to be supported by family and existing services is a massive drive to stay local. Choice is about always having a positive service, even if there is only one choice.
The poor are most in need of support from public services. The better off often find it easier to navigate the system and make better use of what's available in relative terms. This is why fair access is so important, and why we shouldn't have to rely on service users alone to hold services to account - this is the duty of our elected representatives  at local and national level.
It's a complex picture, and one in which people across public services - whether delivering services directly or commissioning them from others are in a state of change. At The Open Channel we are supporting colleagues at the eye of this storm of change, people who are changing themselves and adapting to working not only in new ways but in completely new contexts. Our approach is to build on the strengths in people and organisations and to use those strengths to respond to the future, using techniques like Appreciative Inquiry and  Action Learning
Our experience extends to every corner of public service delivery and includes experience in private, voluntary and community sector settings. We have deep and current networks in housing, health, social care, higher education, fire services, criminal justice, children's services to name just some of our areas of expertise. 
The White Paper is a while coming, and it will give us plenty to do for some time to come. If you want to talk to us about your challenges, just get in touch

Monday, 4 July 2011

Dementia Without Walls - can a city be dementia friendly?

On the day that Andrew Dilnot tries to solve our future care conundrum, Dementia Awareness Week highlights the scale of the challenge. As we live longer, more of us are exposed to the risk of ill health and disablity, needing social and health care for longer and to meet increasingly complex needs. And, as the costs of our pensions rise, working until you're 68 with a parent or parents in their mid 80s or early 90s makes for a very bleak future. Capping the cost of care, promoting old age insurance will help to share the burden, but we will all have to contribute. Is there anything more we can do?

As part of its Dementia and Society programme the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has commissioned a local project to look at whether a city (in this case York) can become 'dementia-friendly'. I will be working through the Dean Knight Partnership as an associate of AESOP consortium to lead the project jointly with Janet Crampton and we will be supported by her colleague Ruth Eley. Both Janet and Ruth were until recently working in the Department of Health on the National Dementia Strategy. My contribution will be to bring local network knowledge and wider public service linkages.

Our focus will be on people with dementia, their carers and families, as well as the people who provide services and facilities to them. We will be asking questions like ' What makes your life easier or more difficult?' 'How do you manage transport?' ' Are shops and restaurants aware of your needs?', as well as trying to identify the best (and not so good) examples of housing, health and social care which could be blueprints for the future. A central feature of the project will be to enable people with dementia and their families to see some of these different examples and to find out what is really important to people as individuals and if there are common themes. We will be working with Innovations in Dementia to capture these views and create an end of project report and event to spread the ideas.

Places are for people - they have meaning, history, associations, but they also need to evolve to meet our changing needs,  they need to facilitate and enable us at every age and help us to live together in the best possible way. As much older people become a larger part of the population the business world and commercial interests need to understand this consumer base as much as public services need to provide for their care. Dementia Without Walls is exploratory in nature, it may come up with recommendations and action plans, but as much as anything we hope it will start people thinking in different ways about how the places we live in can help rather than hinder us.

If you have any thought, ideas, contacts, connections or resources we can use or share, please contact me.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Big society or small society - people need to get together

Is it TV, cheap alcohol and the internet which have progressively driven us indoors to sit alone, in our small families or with our decreasing circles of friends to entertain and amuse ourselves? When the teenage rush of excitement about underage clubbing wears off, what can we be bothered to congregate for?

As we forsake the high street for armchair shopping, do we sustain sufficient demand for community buildings? And is this another nail in the coffin of interdependence, the glue which can hold us together? I hope not. 

As I age, I hate harping back to the old days more and more, I actually feel I want to look ahead at the possibilities which remain, rather than the opportunities lost. 

But thinking about the village I grew up in -  for a few thousand inhabitants it sustained five churches, three working men's clubs and three pubs, a park pavilion with park and attached recreation ground and clubhouse , two primary schools, two woods and a dozen bus shelters - all of which offered opportunities to both do good and get up to no good in a fairly structured and organised way. There really was something for everybody - praying, singing, dancing, drinking, sport, first aid classes, clubs and societies galore - even indoor roller skating! Learning about God went on at the same time as learning to snog and learning to smoke.

Admittedly, we were a bit cut off, few cars, infrequent busses, three television channels, a sprinkling of land lines - an ancient world. So we were thrown together for entertainment. Does the same drive still exist?

I think it does. Coming together is what makes us  - social beings with a need to communicate, to congregate, laugh, argue and decide things together. Social networking plays on this very successfully - I want to talk, I blog! - and gives the impression of community without the face to face contact, the human touch.  This isn't all bad - we can't complain of isolation in a global sense, and for people who find it difficult to get out physically or financially, having a virtual world can be a force for real good. But I hope the virtual world is not replacing the real world.

Steve Loraine and I conceived The Open Channel as a way of connecting with people who might not have the time and resources to meet us face to face, and we are finding that there is a growing business interest in doing things at a distance. We are also hearing about the momentum gathering in the public sector around home and virtual working - a phenomenon not unusual in many private sector companies - which is offering efficiencies around premises and facilitating some shared service plans. 

But we are also conscious that this creates a demand for a new type of support for people who are not seeing colleagues on a regular basis and we are exploring ways of helping people to feel better connected. What we are also finding is that the more people work alone or in smaller groups, the more the need to come together face to face periodically to really understand what's happening, and where it's all leading.

So what does this changing way of working and socialising mean for communities and the physical environment around us?

I think it means we have to thing more collectively and collaboratively about how we use places for one thing. The population is growing, but where people live and work might well change. We will need places to be flexible. In York I am often irritated by flats that look like offices and offices that look like flats - but why should I be if this means that changing their use can be painless, quick and cheap? Reusing expensive buildings is important for our sustainable future, so let's build in flexibility from the start.

And don't lets assume that if we don't need something for a specific purpose anymore it can't be reused - flexible planning, imaginative architecture should allow us to go with the grain of development rather than constantly crashing and burning.

Most of all, I hope we can generate the time, energy and confidence to come out of our individual spaces and connect with each other - we need local places where people can get together. If we can find a commercial benefit in these, the private sector will provide, but if we can't,  I hope we can use the ingenuity and creativity in the public and voluntary sectors to find the efficient and affordable way these things can be done. 

Sharing the costs of public spaces and local facilities, enabling their use for a wide range of purposes and connecting them to what people and communities need, is what society needs, whether it's Big or not.


Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Public Service Entrepreneurs - what's stopping them?

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about entrepreneurship and the public sector, prompted by a resurgence of a rhetoric of  'private sector good'/'public service bad'  and the assumption that a social enterprise can deliver public service but is out of the public sector, by virtue of its being enterprising. 

As somebody who worked for 26 years in local government, has subsequently founded a successful business and  recently launched a new venture, I think I must have been entrepreneurial all along, even in the midst of my public service career. I certainly don't feel that the skills and characteristics I deploy now have changed that much. The critical attributes for success in any kind of business it seems to me, are:
  • The ability to see the bigger picture and the fine detail - understanding the impact of strategy on the customer. Whether the strategy is personlisation of social care or big supermarkets going local, the important issues are will service users/customers like it and will it improve the service/profit margin?
  • The ability to think long term and to take action now - having a long term vision and plan is critical for sustained success, but tackling the immediate issues is what matters to people (staff and customers)now, and they won't thank you for having to wait.
  • A willingness to take responsiblity for the supply chain, make it work for the customer. Few businesses or public service departments work well in isolation, valuing the supply chain and understanding the role of support services rather than blaming weak links will please customers rather than irritate them.
  • Recognising that people make success - whether its a product,  a service or an idea you can't make things happen without people, so valuing them is common sense. People who are valued work more productivley.
So why  is there so much emphasis on the differences between the public and private sector, and scepticism about whether skills transfer? I do get frustrated by this debate - wishing we could spend more time and energy on what unites us rather than divides us - but I do understand it. Tom Riordan posed an interesting question on Twitter yesterday - should local government be more enterprising and should business be more civic? Well of course, but why don't they?

Firstly, of course, public services are constrained by the democratic process and by our tolerance (or lack of it)  for taxes. This creates both a tendency for risk aversion (since politicians might ultimately pay the price at the ballot box) and for levels of investment which relate to the balance of payments rather than the need for investment. Encouraging investment in housing, jobs, green technology through development might sometimes be constrained policitically even where there is a good business case and entrpreneurs are keen, if the public are against it. And spending enough on critical services like social care might be a civic challenge to avoid the burden falling more heavily on the council tax payer, but the risk for the entreprenuerial care home owner is high.

Finding the points of common interest has to be the way forward, and we can only do this if everybody is prepared to take a wider, longer term and less individualistic view. Spending on public services is not just a cost, it is an investment in the health and well being of our communities. Thriving people are more likely to be employed, to spend more, to live better longer, thereby contributing to the economy. And public services create business opportunities and sustainable profits for the entrepreneur on the basis of known markets. 

Involving the public, and the politicians who represent them locally, in understanding more closely the symbiotic relationship between public and private sectors, is the key to robust decision making and management of risk. Councils cannot just be concerned with what they do, they must understand what business does, and business has to understand that investment in public services generates business not burdens.

What this closer understanding also depends on is a shared skill set - entrepreneurial and civic, fleet of foot and consultative, productivity and outcome driven.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Star players score goals but the team wins the match

I surprise myself when I stray into sporting analogy. Since I played hockey in the fifth form, I'm not sure I've played another team game, and I walk out of the room when the football's on, yet the clarity of sporting references is easy to communicate, helping me to understand what I mean, so I hope it  helps you too, whether or not you like sport.

When a manager, or a school sports teacher puts a team together they are looking for a level of indiviudal skill and competence which will make an effective contribution to the team. You have to be good enough to make the team. This applies of course to senior teams in organisations.

Star players carry a premium, but you only need one or two on the side. The team as a whole needs the determination and stamina to work hard, attacking, defending, coping on a minute by minute basis with everything the oposition throws at them. They have to be competent as individuals, but they must be effective as a team.

So often senior people are recruited as individuals, star players who have performed well eslewhere, in another role or organisation. Many transfer their skills well, some don't - either not stepping up, or finding a different style difficult to adjust to.

Rarely is a team recruited together, with complementary skills and roles, with an emphasis on collaboration and shared objectives. Yet always, this is their function. I was once recruited to a  team where all six of us were brought in to create a new management board at the same time. We were all recruited individually, but on a common job description, so we shared similar characteristics, not always helpful for good team working. In Belbin terms we were mostly shapers, in Myers Briggs ENTJs almost to a person - competitive or what? Certainly we seemed to spend more time dodging one another than dealing with what was coming at us from outside.

The purpose of the team is to win the game. There aren't  (or shouldn't be) individual prizes.

So how do individuals, individually convened as a team rather than selected as such, harness their individual talents for the greater good. Here's some tips:

  1. Heads up, look around - if your head is down getting on with your own task, how can you know what your colleagues are doing, how can you help them or benefit from their help. Stop, communicate and listen as I think the song goes...
  2. Know yourself - understand and appreciate your own skills and strengths and let your colleagues know what you've got to offer. 
  3. Know your team - watch how your colleagues behave, what they enjoy, what they avoid. Play your strengths to their weakness, and vice versa, for the good of the team and the shared outcome
  4. Encourage, support and congratulate. Don't wait for the manager or Chief Executive to praise, be positive with your colleagues and feed off their support. Giver's gain, works every time.
At The Open Channel we believe in finding the strengths in individuals and teams, and in difficult times finding your strengths is the key to survival and success.

My colleague Steve Loraine is a real sports coach, I only write about it, but between us we can offer team and individual coaching to help you achieve your goals.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Thinking about shopping...but in a good way

I confess I do like to shop, especially with my teenage daughter whom I have brought up in my image.And like many people these days I shop for pleasure not just for practicalities. It may sound frivolous but the leisure or social aspect of shopping is a loss just as much as the economic aspect when high streets struggle. Julian Dobson's tweet of last week's Guardian article about the changing face of the high street started me thinking about this, and I have been thinking all week.

Of course shopping is about trade, food and drink, clothes and commodities, what we need and what we desire. But it's also about interaction, who we meet, stopping for a chat, lingering over coffee. I sometimes shop on the internet and it's quick and convenient, but impersonal. High streets are moving more into the personal territory of selling what can't be delivered electronically - haircuts and manicures. We may be able to buy goods and services without human contact, but shopping in the high street is a social activity, so we need reasons to go out and socialise.

Large thriving centres will adapt, the riskier places are smaller centres, villages with declining populations, low work areas where money is scarce. Last week Radio 4's You and Yours featured thriving community shops making use of volunteers and selling what Winifred Robinson called 'chi chi' goods whilst the Joseph Rowntree Foundation presented images of shops which were holding communities together by a thread in its launch of the exhibition of work by CRESR at Sheffield Hallam. Both these examples demonstrated how much meaning local shops have for their communities beyond a place to buy things.

We need shops, local shops we can walk to -  but if we're not buying they'll close. If we can get it cheaper on the internet, if it's easier to drive out of town, high streets will continue to decline. How do we stop it? Here's a few ideas:

Multi-use shops - some great examples in York. Our local card shop in Clifton Green has a little tea shop at the back which is loved by mums picking their kids up from school and The House of Avalon is a ovely  charity shop offering teas, vintage clothes and hairdressing.

Encourage landlords to allow creative use of empty shops - art installations and pop-ups shops can work really well in keeping spirits up but for more sustained use, encourage thinking about shop-sharing thorugh joint leases or sub leasing. For larger shops explore how these could be let on a mini-department store basis as shops within a store.

Public services can create footfall - council departments with real customers should come out of the town hall and on to the high street

Don't encourage doctors, dentists and pharmacists to relocate into purpose built soulless one stop shops on the edge of an industrial estate when they could occupy a string of premises on the main street

Don't worry too much about the loss of shops and the rise of cafes and hairdressers - it is better to bring people in to meet even if they can't spend. If they keep the habit of the high street, they're more likely to spend when the money comes back. 

Pleasant public space is worth the investment socially and economically - green space, inspiring streetscape will draw people in and keep them coming, not just to buy but to be together.

I hope Mary Portas looks at more than the clothes rail - high streets are about profit, but they're also about people. If they thrive, so do we.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Quality Time - the benefits of Action Learning

When time and money is short, how do you invest in developing people who need to lead change?

For many of us Action Learning is a good answer (there's never just one answer). There will be times when it will work better for some people if they have individual coaching or mentoring. There will be times when the Team as a whole will need coaching or facilitation to address particular issues.

How is Action Learning different from coaching and facilitation and when and for whom might it work?

For those new to Action Learning, the model offered by The Open Channel involves a group of 4-8 participants and an independent facilitator. Participants offer or 'pitch' issues for learning, and a schedule is agreed for the session (often half or a full day), allowing  time to suit the group and the issues. some people may pitch for a lot of time (say an hour and a half) to tackle a persitent challenge or sensitive issue, others may pitch for half an hour to 'run something past' other group members. There is a format, but it is personalised, and bespoke to the group

Action Learning is different from coaching and team facilitation in some or all of these ways:

  • There is a focus on individuals in turn in a group setting - it is not either individual or group, but both. This enables deep personal learning for individuals presenting issues and participant learning for the group members who are helping the presenter to identify solutions.
  • Action Learning allows time for an individual to present, listen, respond, reflect as in coaching, and for set members to question, challenge, probe and reflect, as individuals but in a group setting. A team workshop may facilitate discussion across the group, but if this were directed at one individual it would come across as threatening or greedy in terms of attention. In an Action Learning set an individual is the focus for their issue, they have attention which is facilitated and moderated to ensure it is constructive, non-threatening, challening but supportive.
  • There is space for a variety of methods of questioning and reflection in each action learning set, techniques which can be tailored to individual and group needs and taken away and used in the workplace. Coaches and facilitators may use a variety of techniques, but often over a longer time frame.
  • Action Learning can take place within an organisation, with sets of colleagues or peers, or it can happen across organisations, sectors and geography with people who have no knowledge of each other or shared background. 
  • Action Learning combines learning about oneself, with others, and learning from others through one's own participation and contribution.

In my experience, Action Learning comes in and out of fashion, and I'm not really sure why that is. I have benefitted from it over the last 15 years in a variety of contexts. At The Open Channel we believe it is particularly relevant now when resources and time are tight and challenge is everywhere. People leading change need time to reflect and space to work out robust solutions. Action Learning need take no more than three days out of the working year, but can provide a source of energy and focus which sustains leaders over weeks and months.

Learning is shared and so is cost - either across individuals within a Department, across Departments within and Organisation or across organisations and even sectors. If people need individual coaching or mentoring, Action Learning is not a cut price substitute. Use it alongside but not instead of team development if that's what is required. 

But do consider it for individuals who need to learn from and with others, who need a bit of safe space to reflect and grow, who could boost their creativity enormously for a modest investment. 

Happy to talk about it to anyone who's interested.



Thursday, 9 June 2011

Leaders who listen, that's what we'd like.

We should all be students -  with open minds, eager to question and learn all the time. We may not see the whole picture, our ideas might be only partially formed, but better to wonder than to think we know it all.
I had the pleasure and privelege to spend an hour and a half with 35 students from Sheffield Hallam University yesterday. I am biased about Sheffield Hallam, my own alma mater , where I now sit on the Board of Governors and where my son is a student. Bubbling under the top 50, it is a warm-hearted, pragmatic, energetic place filled with students who want to learn and want to do well.
In partnership with Common Purpose, the University provided a four day Frontrunner programme aimed at helping second and third year students to secure sandwich placements or permanent jobs in a very competitive market. This group was from the Development and Society faculty on courses within my range of interests - architecture, housing, politics, law  - and I shouldn't have been at all surprised by the incisiveness and insight shown by their questions.
My short presentation on UK government and governance looking at structures for decision making,  current issues in Coalition policy and standards in public life provoked a great range of questions:

Who did I think social housing was for?
What did I think of the NHS reforms?
Would we be better with a Consititution?
Was the EU an administrative and legislative burden?
Why was it so difficult to cut out waste in public services?
Why couldn't 10% less be spent on war and reinvested in universities?
Why couldn't Sheffield Hallam make up the loss of government grant from private investment?
Where I had I found it most difficult to help an organisation change?
Why did power go to peoples' heads?

This last question perhaps fuelled by questions which were about the qualities that we look for in leaders and our expectations of their behaviour and whether there are differences in elected and appointed leaders?

In discussion, we concluded, I think, that the evidence shows that there are pros and cons for election and appointment of leaders and decision makers, and both groups can corrupt, be corrupted, be led astray or just not be very good.

What makes a good leader is a topical question which we thought about and there was an interesting comment from a student that a charismatic leader isn't much use if he can't deliver - Obama and health reform in the USA being her case in point.

These students weren't over impressed by loud leaders, flashy leaders, leaders who promised a lot but delivered little. They were more interested in leaders who listened, who were honest about why things couldn't happen, who involved people in the thinking that led up to decisions and in the taking of decisions.

This is fair, but it is challenging. In leadership roles we think we have to be brave, to take things on, to show the way, to make things happen. We are worried that uncertainty, hesitation, deliberation can be seen as weakness. This is why we sometimes fear consultation and involvement, and why even when we pause to take on other views, we want to rush to announce what we are going to do even before the pause is over.

Listen to the wisdom of the young, share our thinking -  own the decisions together.

Friday, 3 June 2011

It's not what you know but how you share it...

I went to my first Business Link workshop yesterday - better late than never, you might say since the NY BL will close in November. 

The event was on Vision and Strategy, which I thought would be useful as, having just embarked on a new venture with Steve Loraine -  The Open Channel  - I wanted to think about the vision we had for this collaboration and our future strategy. 

The free event ( £20 penalty for non attendance) was half full as witnessed by the number of unclaimed name badges, and confirmed the adage that people don't value free events. Feeling somewhat defensive about public sector funding cuts, I was annoyed at this apparent waste of a resource aimed at helping private companies to grow.

I found the event pretty near useless and dull as ditchwater - a waste of a wonderful sunny afternoon spent in a gloomy hotel conference room. Or was it? 

This is why it was dull:

  • No introductions, no participation on the round tables, no opportunity to get to know one another
  • A presenter talking for 95% of the time, telling us it was not 'talk and chalk' when it was just that.
  • Slides and concepts older than most of the people in the room (not me, sadly) but maybe therefore 'new' for some. No doubt some ideas are robust and still useful, but there was no new thinking, no relevance to the current context, no fresh air!
  • One case study with narrow transference to other businesses, based on a pre-recession world view. 
And this is why it maybe wasn't so useless:

  • Three hours to scribble and doodle and think about the future of the markets we are in and to envision new ones, without fear of being asked a question or having to contribute.
  • A great contact from a proactive colleague who approached me in the break to ask what I did - we found a great connection between our businesses and some good reasons to connect in future.
I could have spent the time at home, catching up on emails, doing admin, chained to LinkedIn and Twitter, I might have been more productive, and more profitable in the long run. But, space for creative thinking and a trigger to sit with a blank sheet of paper and do some creative thinking, plus a good contact is probably three hours well spent.

The mood of the room was mixed, some leaving early, some clearly engaging, one or two sharing my view about the missed opportunity. I wanted to know what skills there were in the room and to share in some learning with them. This old-fashioned style of the old hand passing down their often irrelevant wisdom to the younger or less experienced is surely due for a makeover.

In all my business ventures, I sell experience and expertise, but always through a transactional process. The Open Channel  is predicated on the basis of a shared learning experience running through the organisations, groups and communities with whom we work, as well as directly between our clients and ourselves. Real knowledge is a shared resource, and to share effectively there has to be at least two-way communication. Our core techniques of Appreciative Inquiry and Action Learning draw out understanding rather than just inject information.

I may not have felt that I learned a lot directly from Business Link yesterday, but I learned something about myself and my businesses - it's not only what you know but how you share it that matters.

In the void that Business Links leave, what will SMEs do to support their thinking around growth, development, diversification and sustainability? We have pitched The Open Channel at the public services sector since that's our home ground essentially, but the feedback we are getting already is that there is a real need for some fresh ideas for supporting all sectors - public, private, voluntary and community. 

Why don't you share your ideas with us. Switch on to The Open Channel and let us know what you think. Have a great weekend,