Which City?

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Do you set goals or ask questions?

In the past week or so, I have had the benefit of some good quality ideas and challenges to my thinking, which I want to share with you. 

At The Open Channel we take a positive approach to the work we do with individuals and organisations, building on their strengths, so recent workshops by Action for Happiness and Quakers and Business have chimed well with our style.

I'm going to start in reverse chronological order with a workshop given by Vanessa King of Action for Happiness on the Great Dream - Ten Keys to Happier Living. I don't know how many of you will have come across this, but I recommend you have a look.

You'll find that the Great Dream is a mnemonic for the Ten Keys which are:

Giving Relating Exercising Appreciating Trying Out
Direction Resilience Emotion Acceptance Meaning

There isn't anything new in each of the words, but putting them together and looking at ourselves in the round can be very powerful. The first five keys are actions which we do externally to others, and which reward us with satisfaction and progress inwardly. The second five are things we do inwardly which have the potential for positive impact on others.

A couple of simple examples:

Giving - there is a well known business epithet 'Givers Gain' which is based on the experiential view that if you give a business lead or referral you're more likely to get one back. The key of 'Giving' in Action for Happiness' scheme is based on the belief that other people matter, and is underpinned by psychological research (which you don't have to believe if you don't want to) that giving lights up reward centres in our brain. This is parallelled in other business focused research on the success of Givers, Matchers (who only give in relation to what they get) and Takers which seems to demonstrate that Givers are the most successful group. 

So, giving may be good for our well-being and good for business. And the giving doesn't have to be massive - a small kindness or just being pleasant tends to have at least three degrees of separation. If you're nice to your partner in the morning, and they are smiling when they buy a paper, the news vendor is more likely to give a smile to the next customer. Other research suggests that five small acts of kindness in one day can have a positive impact which lasts up to eight weeks.

Direction - this is about having goals to look forward to. Action for Happiness says this is how happiness happens, through the power of small wins and the sense of progress which goals produce. I like this approach, it is of human scale.

Sometimes we can get caught up in developing long term strategies with lofty goals that are ambitious but probably never achievable. There is no doubt that these kind of goals can inspire and energise people, but probably only for a short time. They need to be broken down into steps and personal goals which people can recognise as something they can personally achieve within a visible time line.

I have a goal to write a novel (I might as well say to climb a mountain, its seems as daunting). But I can make steps toward this goal. I can practise writing in my comfort zone by producing another poem or two. I could send these to a competition or to magazines or put them on my writing blog to see if anybody has any feedback for me. I could try writing some prose, I could aim for 2000 words a week. With these smaller steps I can build up confidence and practise my skills.

Within organisations, goals are often articulated at both the visionary and practical levels and people need to feel a sense of progress by identifying with the part of the goal or steps that they can achieve. Appreciative Inquiry is a technique which involves people in producing a vision of the future together and designing the steps which need to be taken to deliver the vision. This co-production of goals works at a strategic level, but also at the personal level, for instance in setting goals with individuals making progress on a care path or towards a health improvement. At The Open Channel we have experience of using these techniques in a range of contexts. We are also experts at using Action Learning and Coaching techniques to help teams and individuals to find ways to overcome the barriers which make their goals difficult to achieve.

So yes, I am sold on goals both personally and for organisations, but I am conscious of the risks. I have plenty of personal and professional goals which I have not achieved and it is important to be aware of the negative impact that failure can have on people and organisations.

Which brings me to my second recent experience of hearing wise words from people who know things. Last weekend I went to a Quaker and Business Coaching Skills workshop where people from the excellent Sheffield Hallam University (I declare my interest I am a governor there and was trained in coaching by SHU) led an interactive morning where we learned and practised simple coaching skills. We were a mixed bunch of practising coaches and people who wanted to learn about coaching and how to use it at work or in a group they belonged to. We used the GROW model and the Three Stage Process as models to play with, but the general value was in learning how to use open questions powerfully. 

In the afternoon, we had the privilege of a discussion led by David Megginson, Emeritus Professor and world-renowned coach. His use of poems and quotations to illustrate his points was delightful, but it was his insight into the use of goals which has stayed with me. David and his colleagues are publishing a new book on goals in the autumn, so look out for it. 

For now, consider this. What would happen if, instead of setting yourself a goal, you didn't, but asked yourself the question, will I do that? It might be writing a novel, climbing a mountain, or in David Megginson's case a more simple and immediate goal of taking a run on a Saturday morning. What is the effect of changing I will go for a run, into Will I go for a run?

Well, it gives you the choice, to say no, I won't, I'll choose to stay at home and read the papers or do the garden or get the shopping done. And it means you cannot fail. If you make a choice not to do something, that's as positive as a choice to do something else. You don't fail if you have a choice. So you don't  have to burden yourself with a sense of something not done, a lack of achievement.

Is it worth a try? Shouldn't a goal always be a matter of choice anyway? Try framing your goals as questions, as choices and let me know how you get on.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Just to be different, my blog is not about Margaret Thatcher...well, not all of it.

Since my last blog, a fortnight ago, Margaret Thatcher has died. I can't imagine how many millions of words have been written about her, and there will be yet more, so I don't need to add to that volume. Looking back at my last blog, however, I realised that if you want to know what I thought of Margaret Thatcher, it would be pretty clear, so I refer you there.

One of the reasons why my views of Thatcher are clearly to one side, is because of my heritage. I am a coalminer's daughter. And over the last fortnight I have been obsessively researching my family history, triggered by a feeling that there is nobody left now in the generation above me and I need to leave some legacy to my children, who knew little of their grandparents.

I discovered that I am a coalminer's daughter, and grand-daughter and great-grandaughter back to the ninth generation when coal was commerically mined in Staffordshire. It is fascinating to find the details of people who have carried my DNA to where it is now, but the greater fascination is in tracing through the stories of real people the economic and social history of the last five hundred years, since amazingly I have found some relatives born in the early 16th century.

After an initial breathtaking but false start when I thought I was part of a line that stretched back through earls created by Henry V, to knights slain at Flodden and even pre-Conquest back to Charlemagne, I had to concede that I was probably fantasising but the likely false link has yet to be definitively disproved. Still, it is more likely that one of my ancestors was known as 'Big Charley' rather than Charlemagne!

The truth of my heritage is that on one side it is almost exclusively North Yorkshire, in a line from the outskirts of York to a village near Saltburn which is now in Redcar and Cleveland. These families illustrate clearly the impact of industrialisation on the rural poor as increasingly young men moved alone or with their families from labouring on farms to crawling down mines - initially ironstone mines in Rosedale and after 1926 to coalmines in South and West Yorkshire. 

And here they met families of Staffordshire miners going back generations who had moved for more work to Doncaster, Rotherham and Barnsley, as well as Irish migrants who built roads and railways and then mined for coal. These families initially farmed the lands of the gentry, and later mined to create power for factories and wealth for mine owners. They created wealth, but their share was only ever just enough.

It is striking how much they moved around for work, how much they squeezed into one another's tiny cottages to keep a roof over their heads, how few of their children survived to old age, how some of them declared themselves (especially a women living alone with three young sons, or an old man or woman) as paupers, and how some of these people after the Poor Law did find some awful kind of safety net in the workhouse. Pickering workhouse records for the end of the 19th century are full of surnames which appear in my family tree.

Some branches of my family enjoyed a little more prosperity, with small farms and skilled work appearing now and again, but generally I am clearly from working class stock.

Interesting developments appear in my grandparents' generation, where my grandfather's move from Rosedale to Doncaster is supported by housing provided by the local council. Having returned from the First World War alive, he was indeed a worthy beneficiary of these Homes for Heroes, but the solid brick family homes had an economic benefit in enabling men with the right skills to generate wealth in the local mine.

For my parents, born in 1920, early lives of austerity if not poverty in the 20s and 30s were followed by a married life after the war of relative security, comfort and aspiration. Things began to change for them, and were different for me because they had the benefit of social housing (initially the prefab in which I was born ) within five years of their marriage in 1946. 

My father, a bright man, was prevented by a test of his families means from going to grammar school - they could not afford his uniform or equipment. I passed the eleven plus and my brother and I benefitted from state education which set us up for working lives outside of mining or factory work for women. We enjoyed good health as children with free vitamins, vaccinations, eye tests and dentistry and developed aspirations to do something with our lives. 

Our parents, their parents, and all the generations before them clearly had  worked hard, moved around for work, used every spare inch of space in their homes to good purpose, and always hoped for better. All this they did on their own, with little help from anybody. 

With the help of collective contributions into welfare services and state provision of health, education and housing, I have prospered, which was the intention. I have had a career which has meant I have paid back into the system at a fairly high level, my children hopefully will do the same. But they are already seeing the state narrowing for them - they have no expectation of social housing, they will pay back the loans for their student fees, they will pay for the dentistry, the vitamins, possibly some of their healthcare, their care in old age.

We seem to have the view that the Welfare State makes us weak. It has made me strong. It has been the platform from which I broke out of generations of poverty and despair. I was lifted up by collective kindness and collaborative effort. By being the best we could be collectively, I have been the best I can be, I hope.

I have seen through the eyes of my family that people will move for work, live in overcrowded conditions, share their resources in order to survive, but I have also seen that some of them will die in infancy, of starvation, of addiction, of early ageing because without some kind of support.

I have worked in public service all my adult life. My commitment to it is personal and professional. I think it is good for individuals and society that we contribute collectively to support those who need our help. We all recognise that in charitable giving, (and in the modern idiom, in crowdfunding), but we don't seem to apply that kind of positive logic to taxation and the state.
State support in itself does not disempower, in fact it can do the reverse, it can make us strong. After just one generation of the welfare state 'experiment' we have just pulled out some of the vital bricks of support which may see the most vulnerable suffer real hardship. It is harsh and not economically sensible to frighten people into work without good access to jobs and housing in the places where jobs exist.

Margaret Thatcher is dead in the flesh, but clearly not in the spirit.