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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Saturday 31 December 2011

You are responsible for your rose

Every place has its cipher. A symbol for its meaning. And so, for Japan, buried amid the mountain, lake and ryoken of Hakone, there lies the unlikely museum for Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the writer of The Little Prince.  I remember receiving my copy of his book when I left the Royal Academy of Dancing, a present from a favourite colleague who wrote, `the is for adults too, for you`. The book has held its place through the years in a confused pile of Foucault, Michael Wood, Rimbaud, Fassbinder, Lou Reed, and Baudelaire, littered by my bedside. But it is in Japan, in an unexpected Disneyland of imitation French buildings, that the story finds its moment. Re-reading the museum`s narrative of Exupery`s dramatic life and death, I realise the power of his message - that `what is essential is invisible to the eye, only one`s heart can properly see`.  It seems a fitting epitaph to a country where one can find space and time to watch steam rise from hot water on a mountain side onsen, feeling the thoughts in your body and mind melt into the air, losing awareness of yourself to the essence of hot and cold on skin.  This is what we have mislaid, burried, forgotton, hidden. It is no wonder so many mistaken programmes promise transformation, to avoid the art of becoming, of connecting, of changing how we see what makes us. We are fools gold, digging deeper for egos in the mud, earning honours of no honour instead of flying to touch the sun and moon of who we are. The rituals that shape how our hearts see, lead a year into being. Where are they? On New year`s eve, Japan remembers its suffering with songs of hope, false snow and glitter, a cabaret that smiles on.  The lampshade shakes to a minor tremor; I sip on wine and play cars with a 3 year-old who won`t remember me. They say, soon, this place will be destroyed by the waves, for human spirit to re-build again.  Like 2012.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Xmas cake with a Chance for Change

In Japan, it is xmas eve that is celebrated rather than the day itself. December decoration and glitz provides a backdrop for perfectly wrapped presents, confused adverts suggesting a `very very xmas`, decorated trees presented as `light shows`, and cover versions of once familiar hits where the promise to jingle bells sound oddly out of place.

Lines outside KFC for roast chicken, lines for xmas cake at the supermarket, families feasting on sushi before midnight; and then, on the day itself, nothing.  It is as though the whole thing exists only for the ritual of its arrival. The country feels like an xmas tourist. There is an innocence and restraint about the whole affair, a sense of family fun that often seems absent in our excesses back home; and also more integrity in the reading of sutras for ancestors before presents and wine.

Still, the deeper reality sits outside in the everyday passing and joining of things.  Everyone here waits for the turning of the year.  This afternoon, someone rings my door to deliver an xmas cake, having heard that I had failed to buy one last night. The most genuine gestures come from the heart.

Meanwhile, I am excited by the news that Chance for Change has released its website. There is no greater present than the promise of discovery– and C4C is that present and promise. The charity is in its first intrepid steps. There is the excitement of who the young people will be to take up the chance, what change together they can create, and how advantaged thinking will break new ground.  Only the possible lies ahead.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Hope - Kibou

Two days in Tokyo. One enjoys little Lost in Translation moments, stumbling across popular fashion shop names like `Freak`s Store`, or dodging dogs pushed around in prams.  At the railway station, on platforms once so bright you could run a chain of cosmetic shops, the lights are now dimmer to save on electricity. Such small signs from the aftermath of the nuclear disaster pierce through the veneer of polite ritual and Shinjuku chaos.

It is the Emperor`s birthday. The city is under attack from black vans with nationalist flags and megaphones playing military marching music in a throw back to Mishima. It sounds to my untrained ears like a failed Eurovision entry.  The vans are eventually penned in around Shibuya with a large police presence, but the authorities are detached to the spectacle, almost tolerant. A man with a long grey coat and a large camera stands alone in the middle of a bridge, watching and waiting. It is another sign of what is unspoken.

At an art gallery, I stumble across the `hope – kibou` exhibition, which unites artists from Greece and Japan through their experience of confusion and struggle arising from the earthquake and economy in 2011. As the exhibition says, `Although it may take a long time, the most important thing under such circumstances is to have hope in your mind`. It is a good message for Open Talent, all the more poignant following my visit to Greece this year to support the work of a charity seeking to establish a Foyer for young people caught up in the justice system. I have hope – kibou – that the much needed Foyer  finds its foundations over 2012.

As I make my way from Tokyo, I receive a message from a University professor who came to visit Foyer Federation last year to find out more about our work on MyNav and social inclusion.  The professor tells me that the e-learning lecture produced from the visit has been very successful, and that he is now engaged in research with his students in the northeast of Japan to contribute to the regeneration of the area following the earthquake.  It is reassuring to note that the University is contributing to the important work of rebuilding lives. Once the international media circus has moved on to the next tragedy to appeal for, it is the work on solutions and futures which seems the most significant story to me.

I see a connection between the professor`s work, and our own message for a different and deeper investment in young people. We are both involved in the ancient science and art of retelling the narrative of modern life, so we can understand and change our world.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Goldfish at the temple

It doesn`t take long to immerse yourself back into Japanese life. Like swimming in the sea, you dunk your head under the water and suddenly acclimatise.  Within 5 minutes, there is the wonder of heated toilet seats; followed by sushi and green tea; then the strange experience of a functioning train system; the endlessly repeated rituals of politeness and respect; and finally, after just a few hours of arrival, you are floating naked in an onsen looking through the heated mist into the horizon of the sea, wondering how you ended up here and why you ever left the last time.

Day two in my trip takes me to the temple, snaking through 3 hours of train tracks high into the hills.  The trees are still autumnal, red and gold in the piercing sunshine. I arrive, by coincidence, in time for the twice yearly opening of the Buddah casket; a moment of luck they say.  The head of the temple invites me to see him for coffee, and we exchange stories of our work overlooking the great bell in the grounds. He likes Open Talent, has seen the film and calls me `the enlightened one,` a title I scarcely deserve. But it gives me the opportunity to be shown the temple`s new approach to it`s work, which has had amazing results, carefully recorded in files of spider diagrams. It is simple, like all good answers, and raises some profound questions about the direction we have been heading at home. I can see how far, even in Open talent, we have reflected our society`s disconnection of the individual from community and family.  The shaping of reality is far more complex than the narrative we have been prescribing. We are using a focus on a positive future to reconnect and direct what is possible, which is true and right, but we have missed understanding how to link ourselves back into the past beyond the limits and problems that have led us to detach from it.  There is a different type of mediation, which we have perhaps left in the rush for ourselves, not realising that our identity as players of life is more delicate and complex than a coach can teach alone.

The afternoon deepens into shade as I make my way slowly back, surrounded by the chaos of rush hour, wondering how I can possibly begin to explain the thoughts goldfishing in my head.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Turning Japanese

This time 12 months ago, I was making my way to the airport for Japan while Juilian Assange was being released on bail and it was snowing in London. At least this year it looks like we are being spared the snow, although  I'm still wondering what has happened to Private Bradley Manning back in the USA.  Society tends to forget these things, those people.

I've been going to Japan the last two years.  On each occassion I've left a wish at one of the temples.  The first year it was for Open Talent to 'begin'; last year, it was for Open Talent to 'blossom'. And this year... Like one of my favourite cartoons Pinky and the Brain, we try to take over the world!

For the next few weeks I'll be in Japan with occassional internet access, hopefully enough to keep on writing as I gorge myself on wonderful food, culture and spirit. 2011 has been as challenging as it has been rewarding. I'm hoping I'll find seeds and influences in the far east to help shape a more advantaged thinking world next year....

See you from Tokyo, Yokosuka, and Hakone )

Thursday 15 December 2011

The Talent Cracker

‘There’s no T (for talent) in their postcode,’ was my favourite line from a young person having fun at the excellent Braintree Foyer / SAHA awards night.

I turned up perhaps without my advantaged thinking head on, assuming by the last minute invitation that I would be mingling in the Foyer common room over some crisps and dips. I should have known better.  I had already failed to win the Foyer Federation best dressed staff award earlier in the day, and now, I was being taken by bus to a sit down 3 course xmas dinner with the SAHA Chief Exec present, with everyone else dressed up to the nines.  What mattered most though was seeing the young people enjoying the moment, celebrating their own achievements, supporting each other. These certainly were not the images from a Disadvantaged Thinking advert.

The Foyer highlights magazine notes that, ‘At Braintree Foyer we focus on inspiring our young people to develop their talents and aspire to great things. To do this we invest in challenging opportunities which will motivate and stretch our young people.’  This is a service that has not just been touched by Open Talent, but is running with it. Meeting the CEO of SAHA, I was struck, rather like with Gwalia yesterday, that here is a large housing association working to embed Open Talent into its core practices and culture, reaching into the very heart of its staff HR policies.  With such powers for change, and many more in the network, Open Talent really is on the brink of a massive breakthrough over the next year.  

The highlight of the evening was watching a duet from a young person – I believe one of our talent champions – and his support worker, who stepped into the breach to help share that scary moment when you are under the spotlight for the first time. What a performance it was.  It enabled the young person to take on his own act afterwards, with all the confidence of someone who is clearly going places in life.  This is exactly the sort of thing that won’t be in the complex needs support manual, singing a young person to the top of their talent.

We have recently been able to announce the beginning of an Open talent pilot in Braintree for 2012, with Youth at Risk, as part of our investor relationship with SAHA. So, I decided to wrap up one of my orange T-shirts from my TedX performance in Greece, and hand it over as a symbolic gift for the New Year.  I hope it will bring them good fortune, and perhaps inspire them to make me a better t-shirt for the next time I speak!

On the way home, I re-read a piece of paper from an Xmas cracker telling the story of  ‘that adventurous and  forward thinking Tom Smith’ who invented the cracker concept from a trip to France in 1840. Originally based in Clerkenwell, like the Foyer Federation, (who also discovered their reason for being from a trip to France) Smith watched his idea evolve over the years, until he eventually moved to the City and left his business to his sons, one of whom would tour the world to find new and unusual ideas for gifts to include inside. (I’m already thinking of changing my job title to that). Opening with a bang, wearing a new ‘hat’, celebrating with each other, looking forwards to what’s inside – the history of Tom Smith has more than a bit of Open Talent to it.  Maybe next year, we’ll make our own.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

The A Team: making cherries, not war.

I was alarmed to get an email this week from my new friends in Australia alerting me to the strange appearance of ‘APOS’ in some of my correspondence.  Emails from my new tablet pc tend to replace apostrophes with APOS, which makes for strange reading.  Thinking this was a potential piece of advantaged thinking they were missing, my friends investigated further. What they found was that APOS is a popular acronym for ‘A Piece of Shit’.  Thankfully, they concluded that this was not the kind of greeting likely to come from an advantaged thinker – although I had hoped they would have suggested ‘A Positive Original Solution’ as an alternative. I’m left wondering what all the other people who have received my emails have thought. That tablet pc has clearly been taking the APOS.

I’m writing this on the way home from South Wales, hailstones spitting outside, the skies cement-grey, lightening on the line delaying my train.  Travelling to Wales is always an emotional trek for me through the strange weather of my youth, the memories of people and places where I lost and found too many talents to mention.  On arrival, I’m hurrying down Swansea high street, dashing past ripped-up pavements and Xmas posters promising festive cheer among suspicious looking names with too much make up, to reach the heart of inspiration in the city: the offices of Gwalia, our brilliant partners in South Wales. 

My wonderful host for today’s visit tells me some fantastic stories from her recent trip to India, and introduces me to the role of the Mahout, the people who look after Indian elephant sanctuaries. A Mahout works on a 1-1 basis with an elephant through an intensive relationship.  This is where some of the elephants who have gone a bit wild and caused havoc, or otherwise been rejected and depressed, end up – being cared for in a nurturing environment.  I reflect that the elephants of South India are getting a better deal than some of the young people we lock away in institutions of support and rehabilitation, who would get better outcomes with a sanctuary and a 1-1 Mahout. 

Which reminds me - on the topic of locking away - what actually happened to the rehabilitation revolution?  What justice have we achieved to make the criminal system work for those involved in it? Maybe we need to spend a little more time with our European partners to find out how to make a revolution happen.

After the elephants (great title for a book), Gwalia relay one of those annoying incidents where, at an external meeting, someone claimed – quite falsely – that Foyers ‘cherry pick’, despite the countless reports and accreditation evidence to the opposite.  The world take note: Foyers are not cherry pickers, they are cherry makers. Cherry picking is just a lazy accusation to avoid thinking about why services in our sector can’t open talent for all young people, and to avoid understanding how Foyers achieve positive outcomes through more creative approaches.

Cherry picking and cherry making leads me back to talent. We want to develop services that can spot and develop talent, not because they will cherry pick in an exclusive way, but because they will bother to work with and ‘make’ something from the potential others don’t recognise.  Open Talent dismisses the quite appalling rhetoric of ‘complex needs’, because it is about the more important stuff of goals, complex challenging goals that are the real drivers for life and future opportunity.  Every service should be a talent maker. Don’t diss the cherries!

Just imagine if our current set of ‘complex need’ expert policy and decision makers ran X Factor, and travelled around the country in a CompleX Needs bus, in pursuit of people with the biggest problems and deficits to disadvantage. Think you’ve got the CompleX Needs factor? We’ll warehouse you in a service to spot what you are not good at and what’s wrong with you, then help you cope with your problems until you aren’t complex enough for us to support anymore. No inspirational coach or mentor to develop your talent; no opportunity to take risks and learn through opportunities; no contract or agent to promote you. It’s no laughing matter.  This is what we are reduced to: a complex needs disadvantaged arms race, while the rest of the advantaged thinking world gets on with spotting and developing the talents that we allow to go to waste. There’s nothing complex about complex needs. It just needs to be voted out. It’s a no from me, Gary…

As for the rest of the meeting…Well…watch this space... If you have a problem, if complex needs can’t help, and if you’re in South Wales, maybe you can hire….  the Gwalia A Team, advantaged thinkers opening  talent in a community near you in 2012.  I love it when a plan comes together!

I have never been so excited about Wales since my parents first took me to Pembrokeshire with a bucket and spade when I was 8.

Meanwhile, my now doubly delayed train reminds me why the A Team drove a van.   Howling mad Falconer will, eventually, be back in the office…

Monday 12 December 2011

How amazing are you?

I’ve just come from an interesting ping pong of ideas around the tennis table of Sidekick Studios, who help support the development of new enterprise solutions such as the Amazings.  

I’m loving the simplicity and focus of The Amazings.  It’s very advantaged thinking: give a platform for people retired or coming up to retirement to offer their ‘amazing’ skill and experience from life in return for payment.  From blow drying and chocolate tasting, to woodland art and street photography, the Amazings remind us that as a society we too often under value the talents of those either side of the transition into and out of working adulthood.   I’m hoping that by the time I reach retirement, retirement won’t exist. We’ll all be too busy amazing each other.

Of course, young people are just as amazing. Anyone who has seen how a young person can light up a room of adults knows that.  Indeed, my mind is instantly taken back to a workshop in Plymouth Foyer this year, where a young person spent the whole day refering to himself - rightly so - as 'amazing'.The concept and platform for the Amazings should be a prompt for us to think more about the talents that young people have to offer from their own lives. The things we classify into boxes as disadvantages and problem behaviours, such as homelessness, can also sometimes contain their own powerful learning opportunities. Just look at Unseen Tours’ to see how individuals can be supported to turn their experience of the streets into an enterprising service.   It’s a question of the flip-vision: what have we got to use and offer?

 All this reminds me of  an equally amazing discussion with the charismatic CEO of People Can, Maff Potts, when he was at the Department for Communities and Local Government many years ago. We were shaping a concept for a prospective new service in London working with those from homeless and other backgrounds. The idea was to scrap the traditional deficit-based initial assessment process that normally awaits someone walking into the service, and instead offer each person just two profound questions: What have you got to offer? What do you want to take away?  I’m still in love with that idea.  So much so, that I shall post the question to anyone reading this blog. What have you got to offer as an advantaged thinker? And what do you want to take away?  Please tell me.

I wonder if David Cameron was asking himself those questions when he was negotiating the EU treaty.  If he was, I expect the word in his head was ‘bugger all’.  But as an advantaged thinker, I suppose there is the chance that he was holding onto the hope that Britain’s banking sector might become the new Switzerland.  What was it that Orson Wells said in The Third Man about cuckoo clocks….?

Sunday 11 December 2011

Braintree's Got Talent

Ever since my TEDx presentation of Open Talent back in April this year, it’s been my dream that young people would take up the challenge to make their own films about what Open Talent means – with their own tshirts! 

Back in March, it seemed every meeting I went to I was being told that Open Talent was complex and difficult to understand. The TEDx speech was a platform to show that it was simple, personal, common sense, and something that everyone could own as a campaign.

Some months later, I am delighted to hear that Braintree is the first Foyer to take up the baton, with Jessie and Jodie presenting a short film about ‘how young people can open their talent’.  It's a simple and insightful film, with the message that talent is all around us. We just need to see it.

It’s no surprise: Braintree Foyer, led by the advantaged-thinking Mark Watson, is a special place, a shining example of what the Foyer approach is all about.

I particularly like the moment Carl Miller, our talent champion of champions, describes a talent as ‘anything that makes you smile’. Carl’s work with Look Up To Yourself is amazing.  Alot of organisations talk about transformation and coaching, but few live it like Carl.

Now we have at least three videos to describe Open Talent – TEDx, Foyer Federation, and Braintree – with one more due from my Australian presentation to Virgin last month.  But why not many more?  Go and find out what your open talent is all about, and share it to inspire others.

Perhaps in a few years we will have our own TEDx, with young people from Foyers around the world showing us their talent to shape the future.  I dearly hope so. At a time when the adults have clearly lost the plot as leaders on the world stage, it can’t come a day too soon.

Saturday 10 December 2011

The MP Postal Service

Like many people, I’ve just experienced one of those moments (twice in the same week) when Royal Mail comes, doesn’t ring the doorbell (once, let along twice), and doesn’t leave a red delivery card.  They come, and then go, for no other reason than to suggest the illusion of a postal delivery service which used to be a fabric of our daily life.

Think about it. Royal Mail has just been paid to drive / cycle around London on a Saturday morning in order NOT to deliver the items they were carrying, but to take them back to the depot and wait until the person meant to receive them has worked out that they came but didn’t make it through the letter box.  It is Royal Mail who was not there to deliver, rather than I who was not there to receive.  Of course, it's true, I was unlucky. Some people actually get the red delivery card posted through their box, even if no attempt was made to deliver the actual parcel attached to it .  (And since starting this blog, someone just came, 5 hours later from the first attempt, to post a failed delivery card - again, with no attempt to knock a door or ring a bell. That's two journeys, with the parcel, to deliver one piece of paper!)

This is a farce. Isn’t it time we were honest about the postal system, and find a better way to provide  a service?  So Royal Mail is not being asked to carry around parcels with no real intent to deliver? 

In Germany, they have a system where you can have your parcel sent to a ‘packing station’ so you can pick it up yourself in your own time 24/7with a special code number emailed to you.   This at least takes out the uncertainty of relying on Royal Mail to post a delivery card through the letterbox to tell you to pick up the item they couldn’t be bothered to deliver to you.  It’s easy and transparent.

If that’s too expensive for us to create in the UK, why not have a postal choice, where we can ask for items to be sent direct to the local delivery office, without bothering the Royal Mail to fail to deliver them?  Even if we don’t have the sophistication of a proper ‘packing station’ you can access anytime, at least we could find out exactly when our item had arrived and have an automatic tracking code to go and pick it up. In some cases, this would be more preferable to guarantee we received our post.  Meanwhile, the Royal Mail service could focus on actually delivering the mail it has been paid to, and re-train its staff to ring doorbells, knock on doors, and use letter boxes.

Maybe in a Big Society like way, a local community could volunteer together for its own post person to go and pick up items at the weekend and deliver them as part of a ‘Postman Pat’ service, where you get your mail and a conversation at the same time.  Or a National Citizenship Postal Service. David Cameron – on yer bike!  Hold on a minute…The MP Postal Service could be just the trick to demonstrate Big Society in action, and give politicians a useful way to reconnect with their electorate. After all, they are pretty good at posting leaflets and knocking on doors during election time, so they have already perfected the talents required by the Royal Mail. Next time a politician who has lost their seat wonders what to do with their future career, we’ll know what to suggest.

As our society becomes more sophisticated, we seem to be destroying some of the little things in life that make a difference.   If Royal Mail can’t deliver a basic postal service, let alone the more human one it once did, then it’s time it abdicated and gave the crown to someone else.  I think my delivery card, when it does finally come, would look much better with a Westminster portcullis at the top.

Thursday 8 December 2011

rebel avatars and romantic anarchists

Now my Lenovo thinkpad keyboard has finally arrived, my tablet pc looks like it can operate without me.  I sit beside it like a cat in undergrowth, waiting for the first presentation or novel to flow from its screen. One day, we will end up redundant in the process of conversation and connection that is defining our world.  The words will just echo without us.  Tweets will tweet back to each other in an infinite tweet-ness.  Faces will follow one another that bear no relation to the identities that originally chose them to represent the fast vanishing concept of ourselves . We’ll become unwanted slaves to rebel avatars. Back to the basket, cats …

It’s been one of those over and under advantaged thinking days, which starts off with the high octane of ideas ballooning in the sky (thanks to C4C), and ends crashing into the pavement of limits and gravity. But the ideas were good, with wings I could fly in. Like Icarus. Advantaged thinking is ultimately all about holding your nerve and belief, in the face of all the reasons of why we under achieve our dreams. Advantaged dreaming needs Advantaged actioning too.

Favourite quote of the day: ‘here’s a right wing left field idea…’  Do we ever do right field ideas? Maybe that would be radical in a left brain kind of way. Right field, right of centre, right in the muddy patch near the bushes, to go left at the next right…

Favourite idea of the day: instead of just co-working hubs, why don’t we do office swaps? So, we could form a connection of say 100 people in 100 organisations, and swap a day a week between our workspaces. Which would also benefit the organisations from the input of new energy. Who wants to be my swapper?  I'm up for Russia if you are reading.

For some reason, I’ve ended up being reminded that I spent my early childhood learning to overcome a stammer. Now, as an adult, I’m trying to ‘avoid’ overcoming the intellectual stammer in my head, that refuses to stop beating out its drum for change in what Fassbinder once wonderfully described as a romantic anarchism.  My brain is punk. I'm asking for an upgrade from Director of Innovation to Director of anarchy.

What we need are the people who keep us on track at being our authentic selves, who hold a compass for our beliefs like a co-heartbeat.  Is that a new job for the 21st century?  City Trackers.  Please apply within. My compass is heading left of left field...

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Harry Potter and Tommy Cooper

A great meeting today with the new CEO of Venture Trust, Mark Bibby.  We have worked with Venture Trust down the years as their programme has consistently offered a valuable opportunity for young people in Foyers to access and develop through. It’s not often that an organisation is able to have the ex CEO and the new one in the same room to say hello and goodbye at the same time, which made for an exciting conversation on the past and future as we slouched around the Foyer Federation’s brightly coloured bean bags in our respective suits.  

Thinking about the way Venture Trust work – the young people in Foyers travel a long way beyond Hadrian’s Wall to go into a wilderness setting where they develop new skills, confidence and self-belief – it struck me that perhaps this was the real Harry Potter programme, for which a special platform in Kings Cross no doubt already exists for those in the know.  After all, the young people come back from Venture Trust having re-found their inner magic. Which is exactly what an Open Talent opportunity is all about: opening up the gifts that lie within us all. Venture Trust is a ‘place’ and an ‘opportunity’ which does that.  We don't need to look for an imaginary world; it already exists - all be it a long way up north!

Now I just need to catch up with the Harry Potter novels / films on my next long haul flight, and learn how to conjure up some investment so we can work with Venture Trust for more years to come. New year resolutions and workplan goals– must learn to be a stand up comedian, and a magician.  Can I be the Tommy Cooper of Open Talent? 
It's the yin and yang of life.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

mince pies and ice cream

A first taste of mince pies with the Virgin Unite board today, as we thanked them for their support in helping us to begin our Open Talent journey.

 As always with such events, it’s the young people who rightly steal the show. Not because they are under the spot light to talk about their disadvantages, at least not with Open Talent. Today was all about recognising human achievement and potential. Of celebrating how we can harness the talents of all young people by working with them through the right investment.  Such as the young person who wants to set up a thai boxing gym to work with those who have been bullied so they too can find their confidence in life.  The capacity to turn challenging experiences into inspiring solutions is what drives us to make Open Talent fly.  This really is a matter of shaping the future through individual lives. 

Today was also a reminder of what happens when you give young people the space to be themselves, when their natural qualities for creativity and daring come effortlessly to the fore. No one else in the room would have plucked up the courage to ask Ben and Jerry to name an ice cream after them. But a young person did.  We miss that too often.
As for myself, it’s the first Open Talent event when I actually really really needed a drink of coffee to wake up – and there was none in sight. The only coffee in the room was in my powerpoint slides, and the energy of minds lit up by what’s possible.  In the end, that was more than enough.
Back in the office, looking through the outline for our new Open Talent qualities framework, it feels more like the beginning of the year ahead than the end of a long year.  

Monday 5 December 2011

Coffee and Calendars

There is nothing like a cold grey Monday morning to make you feel back home in the UK. Walking along the Seven Sisters road I realise I’m definitely not in Australia. The green trees are skeletal.  I’m into the tail end of jetlag, but each night, every dream I have, no matter what the story, ends up on another long haul flight. Why can’t I dream of cruise liners instead? Or buses that never come, like in London.

Today it’s another Working Assets session, throwing around ideas with our partners Changemakers.  Having talked in Oz about the difference between the narrative of coffee, and the language of disadvantaged thinking, I’m now into playing games where people present themselves – or their services - as coffee, to focus on branding their advantages.  Despite the current turn of my dreams, my coffee is the ‘big dreamer’.  Drink to dream a better world.  And because I can never do the same thing twice, every cup is as different as the day it’s drunk. … Which was no where near as exciting a coffee as my colleagues.  Starbucks, watch out! What coffee are you?

For some random reason, the session on Working Assets generates a stack of ideas on alternative advent calendars. This is rich material for possibilities. My favourite is the Big Society calendar, with nothing in any of the doors, allowing you and the local community to fill them in yourself.   Any takers?   Keep an eye out next year in Asda...

Friday 2 December 2011

The Foyer has landed

It’s in a Sydney airport shop where I’m woken up from my sleepy daze by a female assistant asking me where I’m going back to. ‘Oh London’, she says when I answer, ‘that’s such a cliché choice to live. You should at least be up north and have a Cheshire accent.’  Arena Foyers would have loved that.

 It turns out she had spent a year in Solihull – a place which, I seem to recall, has a roundabout with flowers in a desperate attempt to be mistaken as a garden city.
‘I can speak English when I’m drunk,’ she proudly asserts. Which is very English.
I ask her why she is working in the shop, and she talks to me about her love for makeup and how she is a ‘struggling artist’ paying for her passion for make up palettes through a day job.  She looks, in the most polite way, as though she stuck her head in the mouth of a cement mixer when she got up, and was now sporting strange white patches around her mouth and eyes. Maybe she didn’t care that much for artistry in a shop full of mostly tacky gifts.
 When I come to pay, I work out I’ll probably have 10 dollars spare by the flight, which I can either give away to the Rotary appeal, or the person in front of me. I slide the note across the counter top, in a gesture of someone wanting to believe in her dream. 

On the first leg of the flight home, I have that moment everyone waits for – when someone from cabin crew comes over and announces ‘we have another seat for you’.  The surrounding passengers watch in some jealousy as I’m lead to the promised land of an upgrade. A seat I can sleep in. Maybe the manager from Atlantic liked my presentation back in Sydney.  I take the opportunity to read a few chapters from the book presented to me by Mark Bolton from The Ladder, and I am struck by the connection in its approach to developing team values and the focus on qualities in Open Talent. It’s too good a coincidence. In the right chair and headspace, I tap out my paper on the Qualities Framework like it’s been waiting for this moment all along.

Unfortunately, my trip in the promised land only lasts up to Hong Kong, before being cast back to economy.  My seat companion for the final leg is a determined young lady returning home for xmas after trying to get some post law degree experience working in Australia, all be it only in a retail shop.  It’s that ability to be mobile which many people aren’t able to experience during their transition to adulthood.  It’s a precious investment, and one which is already lifting her out of the more closed network of her upbringing. Similar to the makeup artist, she might feel in that period of living when the future hope feels far away from reality, but in the end, as I remind her, in a Yeats / Gunn kind of way, we always arrive as someone by not standing still.

And finally, we do.  To a cold London, rising in December sunshine, with a fountain of emails pouring from my phone. 

Wednesday 30 November 2011

The adventure ahead

It’s the simple things in life which fox me. Like trying to open Masterfoods squeeze-on tomato sauce without looking like I’ve been shot.   Too late.
I’m in the last hotel of my stay, on a floor with the ‘General’s Suite’.   I expect the person who stays there has a Condiments Officer to avoid culinary embarrassments.
It’s also my final night in Australia, the ending of the tour. There won’t be a wild party at the bar. Tonight is a period for reflection, for saying goodbye, and – like an episode in Southpark – for working out what the learning has been.
I began my last day with a visit to Mark Bolton at The Ladder project in Melbourne. Mark is an ex AFL player, and his outfit adopts the values of sports performance to empower and mentor young people.  They work in tandem with housing and support to offer a Foyer-like approach. I like what they are trying to do. Once the ‘support’ agency they work with allows them to integrate their work into case management, and the 20 young people accommodated are all part of the service, they will have the beginnings of an exciting Foyer. I particularly like the way they have worked with the young people to choose a set of values – commitment, respect, and inspiration – which the young people use to reflect on their behaviour and goals.  Like Carl Miller’s Lookup to Yourself in the UK, Mark Bolton’s work has a natural synergy with Open Talent.  Mark leaves me with a book on improving leadership and team performance , written by Ray McLean, who was a big influence on teams in the AFL.  A perfect addition to our Open Talent library.
My final speaking session is a workshop with Hanover managers. As always in Melbourne, the conversation bounces around like a tennis ball as we tease out strengths and challenges around the Open Talent approach.   Future actions include reassessing the current case management system across their services, and, for myself,  inventing a new way to play videos when the speakers, where ever you go in the world, never work.
Time for one final laugh with Shelley and Tony as Hanover descends into an Office parody around the Xmas party while we sketch out some future directions for Open Talent and Foyer accreditation. Places to open talent should be full of laughter. Maybe there is more to ‘stand up to open talent’ than meets the eye. 
And so, the tour has reached its end. I’ve learned that the people I have met in the sector in Australia – like Michael, Narelle, Tony –have tremendous courage and determination.  I think Michael is right, ‘The community of people working to end youth homelessness has shown continuous resilience over the past decades’.  I’ve learned that the majority of people here are open to new ideas, to challenging the status quo, to seizing the opportunity for change. For Australia really does have a tremendous opportunity – not to replicate the Foyers that were first built in the 1990s, or those that continue to work from a fixed model, but to shape a fresh approach that breaks new ground. Standing on the shoulders of Open Talent, with a leg up from Foyer Accreditation, and the support of business and philanthropy, Australia can create a community of practice that is inclusive, forward thinking, and revolutionary. I hope I have contributed something, in some way, for that to happen. At least as much to match the kindness and hospitality that I have been so grateful to receive here.  It won’t be a revolution overnight. It won’t be led by one service or organisation. It will open when the talents play together.
Shelley said that Open Talent was still, in some ways, in its nappies. What an adventure lies ahead.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Farc, Art, and Kafka

Today starts out with a morning gallop through the possibilities for Foyer accreditation with Dr Shelley Mallett, who already feels like a kindred spirit - someone who  shares my ‘accreditation is the death of ideas’ philosophy with the determination to do something more radical.  I think we have the makings of an innovative plot. It’s a windy day in Melbourne, so our thoughts are blowing through the air along with the local's 'flat white'.  One thing I’ve learned is that not investing in writing things up in the UK has limited how learning has been transferred into contexts like Australia. We really must take care with Open Talent to get the record straight at the beginning.  Another job for the long flight home.

For some reason, we end up talking about crockery – as you do – and I suddenly see a vision of a Greek smashing plates party, with all the plates decorated with the language of ‘disadvantaged thinking’. Our next staff party?  I want to watch ‘NEETS’ splinter into pieces, followed by ‘homeless sector’, followed by Centrepoint adverts, followed by… I better stop there.

Then it was the Hanover AGM, where we were serenaded by a young person resident who is going to be a contestant on Australia’s Got Talent. It’s a shame he missed my speech – he gave a lovely description of the ‘talent’ inside us all, before a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace.  I did my best to follow.  I’m not a big fan of doing the same speech more than once, but it does have its luxuries, and third time round you can enjoy watching the audience react. A member of the board offers a thoughtful response on developing new approaches to the induction into adulthood, and someone asks me ‘which glass I’m drinking out of’ after the positive/negative water story.

However, it’s what follows which matters most to me today: the story of the incredible works of art hung in the space outside the conference room. These were painted by an artist who used to frequent one of the early Hanover projects, capturing the faces and personalities of its users with an honesty and dignity that is completely Open Talent. After a speech mocking the stereotyping of disadvantaged  thinking, this was the best illustration of what an advantaged approach is all about: putting the humanity of the people into the spotlight. I only wish I could take the pictures back with me, beyond the memory imprinted on my heart.

I love the values of Hanover housing: imagination, courage, fun. You can see all those things in the CEO Tony Keenan, and his bubbly staff team.  It feels like a family you want to belong to, just like YFoundations and the SYFS.  I have never enjoyed a report back from a finance, audit and risk committee so much after Tony’s witty intro to the acronym ‘farc’.

After the AGM lunch, I head off with Shelley for a meeting in the Kafkaesque building of the Department of Human Services, which, like the Starship Enterprise, has its own sickbay and a board room with a table big enough for a crazy golf course.   In this strange abode we meet up with architects and the housing and community building division to discuss the design concepts for the first of 3 new Foyers being built in Melbourne / Victoria. It’s a great opportunity to ensure that the key principles of innovative Foyer design are expressed, so I make sure that a focus on community, on flexibility, visibility, integration and interaction, are all emphasised.  It’s a good debate, and after a follow up session back at the architects, (if you are reading this Toby, they have a lovely round table), I’m impressed by everyone’s commitment to get it right – even if the timescale to do so is pressing.  I think it’s going to work.

My day is rounded up with a fascinating meal with the CEO of the Girl Guides and a trustee of a family trust, who kindly invited me out after the Open Talent speech.  It’s a conversation about changing the world through the right investments, connecting the passions of people who are trying to shift the story into a different paradigm. I end up with a guided tour round Melbourne, and begin to realise how much more there is to the city than the view from my hotel.  The horizon of the world opens up through other people’s insights.    Thank you Norman and Wendy.  Catherine Zeta Jones may not have turned up at the restaurant, but you were the biggest celebs in the backyard of your town.
I go to bed feeling a little like K. I wonder what I'll wake up as?  Hopefully, not Maslow...

Monday 28 November 2011

Diss Off Clothing

Vegetarian breakfasts in Melbourne come with avocado and spinach.   Food is a serious vocation.  A stroll along the block takes in everything from the M word to Sushi.  Maybe I should pop into the barbers for a cut, eat a dirty burger, and hang out with the locals at the liquor store.  I love the fact that opposite my hotel is the slightly on-its-knees looking ‘Elizabeth’ hostel. Nothing is named after Cromwell here. 

Day one of the Melbourne tour kicks off with the wonderful informality of, ‘oh you’re seeing the Minister for housing later today’.  Bring her on.  I like the sense of organised creative anarchy that prevails in a positive way. I join in with a visit from the Oxford Foyer team in Perth, seated around a plate of jumbo muffins. The questions cover the gamut of service provision on what makes an inspiring operational Foyer as we tuck into my six ‘asset tests’.  It’s good to hear that Perth is taking forwards their own version of the Learning power Award. I get the sense that Melbourne likes its ideas, or at least Hanover housing does.  We agree some actions including my suggestion for linking the developing Foyers in Australia with an ‘elders group’ of services from the Foyer Federation’s investor partners, to share practice, offer guidance and work towards some exchanges.  I think that will be an exciting forum.

We head off for what is the first meeting of the Foyer Foundation ‘foyer network’ in the region, where I present Open Talent while John Burger from Anglicare runs through the model for the Perth Oxford Foyer. It’s a privilege to be able to offer an insight into Open Talent to a mix of Foyer practitioners and partners. The questions that follow are impressively wide ranging, intelligent and encouraging, with support from the corporate representatives present that Government is not the only funder in town to make talent happen.  The audience quickly adopts talking about ‘complex goals instead of complex needs’.   It might be just the beginning, but there is clearly an appetite for challenging disadvantaged thinking with something fresh.  John’s presentation on the Oxford Foyer offers the optimism of developing a replicable outcomes model for Government departments to fund and support, rather than the other way around. I’m impressed by the focus, although I’ll be interested to see if a 98 bed service can thrive in the Perth summer without aircon.  I hope it does, it deserves to be a success.

After the meeting, I chat through ideas around accreditation, ‘case management’ and learning with Hanover staff. We come up with a new idea for my next tshirt: ‘I’m a danger to myself and others – watch out!’  Perhaps a clothing range of disadvantaged thinking can go alongside the ‘stand up comedy’ plan.  Anyone like to help out, drop me a line at ‘Diss Off Clothing’.

The day finishes with a meeting with what has now become the Advisor for the Minister for Housing, Tim Rose. Tim has a real commitment to Foyers and instantly gets the ambition in Open Talent to change the service paradigm. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such an engaging conversation with someone from Government. But then I can’t remember when I’ve last had a conversation with someone in Government without  being covered in ink…

On the journey back to the hotel, we pass a Salvation Army Band with Santa hats struggling their way through Xmas hits.  We don't have time to spot their real talent, but it certainly isn't this. Has anyone spotted, the 12 days of Xmas is full of advantaged thinking presents. Santa gives talent to open!

Sunday 27 November 2011

Skating under the ice

I’ve arrived in Melbourne.  The city is a strange mix between old Oxbridge named University colleges, Washington / Philadelphia style streets, and people sitting on rooftops with beer bottles shouting out ‘great hair man’.  I’m taken out for a meal with my hosts from Hanover Housing at a lovely restaurant named after St Jude, complete with 'rabbit chips' and 'thrice fried chips' (is this some kind of potato torture? or an acknowledgement that in the world of the patron saint of lost causes, it's always going to take at least three attempts?)  I notice the questions in Melbourne tend to be a bit trickier than in Sydney, like bombs with longer fuses.  We are skating under the ice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about accreditation. It’s led me to combine - in my head at least - the Foyer tests with the Qualities framework to produce a new  hybrid shape, based on expressing, exploring, experiencing, and  energising  what we understand as quality for a foyer-style, strengths-based dimension.  AQE4 if you like, that follows through the phases as a process of development. We’ll see where that goes. I have it down in squiggles.

On the flight up – or down – I am struck by an article in the paper on ‘Dear me – a letter to my sixteen year old self’, edited by Joseph Galliano.   It’s a good idea for a book. For myself, what would the advice be? Probably that I was right without knowing it, but that getting it wrong would provide a richer source of knowledge.  Maybe the book needs to be the other way around too, for our 16 year-old self to remind our older entity of values that get forgotton through age. The secret of life lies in finding the bits of the puzzle.

Meanwhile, back in Gotham city, UK– what do you call a gathering of intellectuals and politicians? Another discussion on the riots.  It's a joke, but who is laughing...

Friday 25 November 2011

Think 'n' Chips

Have I woken up back in England? It is hammering rain against my hotel windows, the city skyscrapers disappear into mist, and at the railway station there are no trains.  Just an anomaly, I’m told.

On the TV news, 19mm of rain is a major headline. I find myself staying to watch the bizarre experience of the world weather screened with the backing sound of Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again.  It shouldn’t work, but is quite moving.  Maybe they were thinking of the sun.

A morning off, so I make straight for the nearest prison museum.  It’s the usual story of our failure as a society to cope with, nurture and rehabilitate those deemed to have fallen outside the law. Yet we still don’t seem able to understand how to change the narrative.  The youth justice system is as problematic here as it is in the UK.   The tools of puinshment many have changed, but the mugshots of people remain the same.

I follow the tourists snailing around the Opera House. My mind though is elsewhere, thinking of Open Talent day back in October, and the wonderful young person from Arena whose talent goal was to be an Opera Singer. In many ways, her journey towards that goal had taken her much further than where I was standing in Sydney.  The birds squark and the joggers run.

For lunch, I meet up with 5 members from the Sydney Rotaract Club. Appropriately, they choose the 24 hour Express café down at the Circular Quay. Its newspaper style menu claims that it is ‘always open, always good news’. The prefect venue to present Open Talent. Indeed, the paper wrapping my (thin) chips includes an article from 1912 entitled ‘A thrifty people’ on the value of human capital. This is the new Open University - learning delivered through chip paper.  I’m impressed by the Rotaract group’s energy and commitment, the range of talents they offer around the table.  We are soon discussing practical ideas on how to invest in advantages.  In particular, how micro financing can be applied as a vehicle for empowering enterprises and personal goals. I think they’ll be pioneers for a positive investment in young people.

Walking back along the harbour, I finally bump into the person known around the world in every city: the guy who plays the wooden pipes. He conjures up the great George Harrison track, 'Something'. Just another anomaly.

As the sun sets over Sydney for the last time this tour, I notice some of the pictures from the conference are now up on photographer Anna Zhu's site.  The usual one of me - all hair and lips.  Great to see that Anna captured the 'hands up' moment at the beginning of my workshop.  I hope that makes my colleague Nicola Kidston smile. 

Bye bye to Sydney - thanks for the memories.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Putting dreams back into housing

Finally checked out from the Santa’s grotto of the Novotel at Brighton Le Sands. Great hotel, but there are only so many breakfasts you can take listening to the Jingle Bells Rocks and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.  I’ve started using my ‘end youth homelessness’ Keepcup, as the next hotel down at the Rocks has cups so small you can hardly fit a teabag in them.  Love the quote on the Keepcup instructions – ‘through our own actions we inspire others to be the change they wish to see in the world’.  I’m advocating for a world of big cups.

Today I was a guest ‘expert’ at the NSW Homelessness Unit ‘Youth Housing Roundtable’.   This kicked off with a presentation on a ‘research synthesis’ on youth housing models, which, although very useful, had seemed to miss out a few important points on the Foyer experience: namely, the evidence showing that Foyers do operate with young people with ‘complex needs’ as it is called; and the importance of our quality assurance experience to define Foyerness around a focus, approach and relationship rather than a fixed model.  It was good to be able to throw that into the conversation, straight from the horse’s mouth.

I used my own 30 minute slot to pick up Minister Mark Arbib’s quote from EYHC that housing provision should enable young people to ‘reach for their dreams’. In other words, how do we put the focus on ‘dreams’ back into housing – which very much lies at the heart of the Open Talent vision.  Reflecting on our current work with Investor Partners in the UK, and our ‘youth offer’ paper for the UK Government’s Youth Action Group, there seemed plenty of connections to support the Australian experience, as well as perhaps the ‘permission’ to be ‘lateral’ in thinking.

After lunch, we broke into small groups to design ideas for a capital project. My group came up with a ‘flexi youth space’ proposal, which we focused on flexible design options to shape around different uses for different client groups, while building into the design the potential for social enterprise. It was good fun, although I kept wondering why there were no young people in the room, and why there didn’t seem to be a more formal and collaborative process to take forwards the thinking.   But I’m just the voice of a political tourist.

I left with the feeling that there is an opportunity to work with organisations in Australia on an alternative approach to outcomes and research evidence that can promote the types of innovative provision that I think anyone who understands the youth sector believes in. If we can’t tell the real story, in everything we measure and say, then we have lost the right to be ‘experts’.

Wouldn’t it be great, from an Open Talent perspective, to create our own design agency with young people as the co-consultants. It’s not just a question of the collaborative involvement process; it’s also an opportunity to turn someone’s experience into a business solution.

It was sad to say goodbye to so many wonderful, passionate people. As the Keepcup suggests, we leave each other with the inspiration for change.  I hope I’ve given as much as I’ve taken from Sydney.

Running on full

The conference is over. Returning back to the hotel, without the other delegates, I have that end of summer twilight feeling in my heart, when you are missing the fun and learning you’ve had.  YFoundations is like a family you want to be part of.  But lots more to come – the tour heads to Melbourne on Sunday! 

I spent my morning chatting with the lovely Jaime Alden, from Sydney Rotaract club, a group of young people wanting to ‘empower people to help themselves’.  I think clubs like these, and the people who make them happen like Jaime, are where the ‘democracy of talent’ will be forged. It’s not all about trying to work with big business. The generational tribe to open talent is all around us.  Let’s make the campaign start here.
Over lunch, I talked with the passionate staff team from Pathfinders in Armidale. This is a rural area with limited access to housing opportunities, so they are trying to explore the concept of developing a Foyer approach by applying it to the resources they have – such as converting a caravan park into a learning community, and running an exchange programme for young people from care to support their peers in Ghana.  If I didn’t have a job to return to, I think I’d be flying to Armidale to help them.  This is why Foyer is exciting - it's an approach to be expressed without boundaries, as long as you have the ethos right.
This afternoon, I was picked up by George, a driver used by Virgin Unite, who took me to and from the Sydney office while explaining the wonders of Beirut nightlife, the philosophy of taxis, Richard Branson’s books, and Sydney society.  A taxi that makes you feel better for the journey because of the conversation. It’s a dying art – and George is an art in himself.
At the Virgin office, with a magical view of the Opera House, I sat in with Anton and the Managing Director from People Development group (with the best business card I’ve seen this year), before getting ‘miked up’ to be filmed presenting to a mixed group of staff from Virgin Mobile, Money, Active, and Atlantic.  This was a trimmed down version of yesterday’s presentation - the expresso version, if you like. We had a great conversation afterwards. Every time I meet staff from Virgin I’m impressed by their drive and creativity.  The world needs more businesses you can think with like Virgin.  Thank you Anton )
A little time left to prepare for tomorrow’s Youth Housing Expert Panel.   I’m over my jetlag – now I’m just plain tired.  But Open Talent is the ultimate battery, I'm always running on full.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

'The beginning of youth talent'

It’s really hard to put into words day one of the End Youth Homeless Conference. Sometimes I feel like a stranger from another planet when I speak, but in this conference I’ve been at home. Everything connects. What a day. From the moment we were treated to the wonderful greeting from Uncle Les, it’s been a moving, innovative roller-coaster of voices and ideas.  
I particularly loved the idea of being introduced by a comedian, which gave me the perfect excuse to try out a few well received jokes of my own about the weather (how English of me) and the way politicians in videos manage to talk while smiling. Open Talent will be a comedy show one day, so watch out disadvantaged thinking, we are coming to get you!
Or the press release: Investing in young people’s talents is integral to ending youth homelessness in Australia, the UK Foyer Federation’s Director of Innovation, Colin Falconer has told a national conference today. “Young people are one of the world’s most important resources. As a pioneering nation, Australia has the opportunity to change the way we view young people, particularly those experiencing homelessness. We must challenge the vision of young people as disadvantaged and instead fight for young people to identify, develop and promote their talents and have access to advantage” Colin Falconer told the End Youth Homelessness Conference 2011. “The end of youth homelessness is the beginning of youth talent.”
I was really moved by the two young people who came up to talk to me afterwards, who totally got it. Bright and passionate individuals – they are the future talent makers.  I loved the tweet from one of them saying ‘even as a young person I’ve underestimated young people’.
 I also found out from someone in the audience from Middlesbrough that Cook the explorer started out as a farm labourer before his own talent was spotted. Just glad that that no Maslow fans didn’t try to mug me afterwards. Maybe a bit naughty of me to orchestrate the audience to say out load, ‘say no to Maslow’, but I think they enjoyed freeing the yoke.
Following my workshop (the advantaged thinking exercise created a great buzz, as did the video when it finally played) I enjoyed an excellent presentation from Virgin’s ‘Champion’ Bee Orsini. Amazing speaker – hope we can get her to the UK to link up with our UK Champions.
I’ve met so many passionate people today, the opportunities to create a new community of practice here are mind blowing.  Australia’s got the talent – thanks to YFoundations for bringing it together. Now we just need to harness the energy with some advantaged thinking.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Snow, strengths, and ice

Australia must be the only country where people apologise if it’s raining. Which, today, it has been. Just imagine if we did that in the UK.  ‘Welcome to England – we’re sorry, we're really sorry’.  
Over breakfast, I was surprised by my first dose of piped Xmas carol music. I even wondered for a moment if the possible might happen and it start to snow.   Or, as someone else put it to me, it snows inside here. I like that idea.
Today was a pre-conference training day, and I got the chance to sit in on a workshop applying the ‘strengths based model’, something very much part of our Open Talent approach.  Along with anecdotes on house decoration by beer can, and a wonderful description of a computer as ‘the machine that makes words’, we were given a useful guide around the key concepts from Rapp and Goscha’s 2006 work on the strengths model.  I liked the emphasis  on ‘possessing a healthy disrespect for the impossible’ as a way to keep the focus on young people’s aspirations,  that ‘only the staff can be non-compliant’ in the client relationship, and the need for providers to ‘build strong reputations’ to leverage partnerships. 
The presenter, Steve Bailey, from Macquarie University, used a number of similar techniques we apply in our own Open Talent inspire days. One I shall certainly adopt in future is asking staff participants to share a young person’s achievement with the group. It was fascinating that some people chose to ‘pass’ on that, but even more so the range and diversity of achievements offered up. We have to do better at capturing the everyday 'what happens' if we are to campaign successfully for an aspirational approach. Telling the story, whatever shape and size, should be an essential part of all practice. I expect we have much to share and learn with Steve.
My day rounded off with a stimulating conversation with Ray Bennett from the Australian Community Management Magazine, discussing the opportunities to create an international community of practice on innovation in the youth sector.  I think the Global theme is essential.  Young people are one of the world’s most precious resources – and we are allowing too many to go to waste.  We need to lead the future.
Apart from the lingering of jet lag, I was slightly unnerved during the day by drinking at the workshop from a jug of water which never seemed to lower its water level. Then I remembered what happens to ice: it melts inside here, just like the snow.

Monday 21 November 2011

Foyer Pavlova

Wollongong – but not forgotten – after a wonderful day with Narelle Clay, Kristen Day and the team from Southern Youth and Family Services (SYFS) in Wollongong, Illawarra, 80km from Sydney.  Wollongong might be famous for its coal mining history, but it is SYFS’s holistic offer to young people which provides and supports a rich seam of local talent. 
I saw a mix of services on my visit, including a youth health and outreach service, a crisis refuge, a medium-term housing and support service, and some Foyer projects. Together, these and other connected specialist services outline a transitional roadmap for young people.  It made me think a bit of the original ‘Step by Step’ approach in Aldershot, or Forum Housing’s model in Birkenhead.
The ethos across different services is consistently strong – person focussed, with an attention to quality detail, good resources and resourcefulness, and above all an investment in the idea of community belonging.  Certainly, I can’t remember ever seeing so many xmas decorations! The idea of the Foyer ‘deal’ was evident in a prevailing culture of rights, responsibilities and commitment between young people and staff.  Both were articulate and passionate about what they were doing. These were environments I would feel happy living and learning in – which has always been my inner litmus test.  
At lunch, we tucked into Pavlova for dessert, which struck me as an appropriate metaphor for SYSF: a firm defined outer core, nurturing soft skills within, with a topping of cream.   Looking at the stats in the annual report, they seem to be doing a decent job, too, on what they describe as ‘turning off the tap’ to homelessness and ‘enhancing opportunities’ to improve and expand. I loved some of the creative acronyms for programmes – RAGE, for example, is ‘resourcing adolescents to gain essentials’, while ‘HAPY’ is for Healthy Active Positive Youth. 
As well as being a service provider, one of the aims of SYFS is ‘to act as an advocate for and facilitator of structural change that achieve improved living situations for young people and their families’. That aim was evident in our final conversation before the train back: on the need to campaign for greater flexibility in policy and funding to ‘open talent in all young people’. I left them with a couple of Open Talent usb wrist bands, and took with me the feeling that we had started a powerful conversation to connect across the world.

Sunday 20 November 2011

The RSL Club, and Thinking Class...

I arrive in Sydney airport to the sounds of ‘Tainted Love’ in arrivals. Not quite how I imagined it. For a moment I think I’ve travelled around the world for two days just to turn up at a shopping mall in Dudley, but the glinting sunshine outside and the sight of jumbo croissants and strange looking sausage rolls reassure otherwise.  I wonder back in my mind to the epic scenes of Lou Reed’s first arrival in Sydney, and the brilliant deadpan interview he gave to the bemused 1974 journalists. He clearly hadn’t been flying economy.

At the Brighton Beach hotel, I have both a glorious view of the sea, and an intriguingly named ‘RSL Club’ just around the corner. An international rest home for social landlords perhaps? The signs of animated life inside suggest otherwise.  Walking around I’m struck by how puny I seem compared to everyone else. Have I shrunk or does the world get bigger through jet lagged eyes?  No wonder England got stuffed in the rugby today.
I’d promised to finish Richard Branson’s 'Screw Business as Usual' by the time the flight reached Hong Kong. In the end I reached the last page as the flight was leaving Heathrow. It’s a fast-paced read, with the first few chapters the most illuminating.  Reassuringly, there is a close synergy between Branson’s ideas and the vision in Open Talent: ‘It can no longer be about putting sticking plasters on issues and hoping they will go away; it has to be about creating opportunities for people so that they can build the lives they deserve’.  Investment through sustainable business, rather than giving and aid, is the only serious game in town, and the book provides numerous examples through the stories of Professor Yunus and microcredit, C K Prahalad and the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, Chris West from the Shell Foundation, and of course Branson himself. 

Reading the book made me excited at the prospect of more 'action-tank thinking' through our Virgin Unite partnership. I also dreamed up the following as a proposition for the book, which I’ve just submitted to its ideas page:

'Here's my idea for screwing business as usual. Introduce a 'Thinking Class' for passengers (air and train) to opt into.   Passengers donate time and generate ideas through a virtual community platform, with options for 'Thinking Class' conversations during trips. These explore and share business approaches to solve a portfolio of live challenges posed by Virgin charities.  'Thinking Class' connects and harnesses the untapped power of advantaged minds using Virgin transport. Why should we sit back with so much potential around us in one place to do more?  Not when we can ‘upgrade’ our journey experience to #SBAU. Creating social good is the new air miles. 
Just imagine the power this can achieve. I work for a charity that opens talent in the young people society often leaves behind. We have a lot of issues we are trying to find solutions for. We also have lots of ideas. But what we lack are richer connections and conversations with different forms of thinking and talent from other spheres of life. In fact, the people you will probably find on the same London to Sydney flight I have just been on. Who sat and watched films and played games, but could just have easily spent 45 minutes thinking of a contribution they could make to a question read in a Thinking Class page online or in the flight magazine. They could have even discussed the question with the person they didn’t know sitting next to them wearing the same Thinking Class badge. (And why not a Thinking Class carriage in trains – not all of us want to be quiet). 

The future is not just in a flight or train asking for charity donations in a bag, but in the option for people to easily invest their intellectual capital.  Every passenger could be a member of the ‘24902 community’ in Thinking Class.  Why not make that come alive.’

My other thought, not submitted, was to repeat Branson’s concept of the ‘Elders Group’ for the youth charity sector. A group of wise entrepreneurial voices leading the sector into the real world of collaboration and development.  Superminds pushing out the competing silos and 'disadvantaged widget delivery' into a better thinking and doing space. Not sure who would be on it - certainly not Anne Widdecombe, who has just popped up on TV. I expect someone will say ‘but that’s called the Youth Action Group’. And at that point, I’m calling it a night…

Friday 18 November 2011

Intrepid explorers

Off to the airport with Richard Branson's new 'Screw Business as Usual' to read, which promotes the idea of Capitalism 24902 - 'every single business person has the responsibility for taking care of the people and planet that make up our global village, all 24,902 circumferential miles of it'.  A smart image. It reminds me of the American idea that 'if you want capitalism, then you need to spread the capital'. I wonder if 'taking care' though was the wrong word, too loaded with the status quo that the book is all for breaking through; maybe it is a more empowering quality like 'nurture'.  However, by the I time I change planes in Hong Kong, I don't suppose I'll be pondering that one too deeply.

Interestingly, I was reminded today of Botany Bay's associations with the explorer James Cook, who (re-)named the bay on one of his famous voyages to Australia. Cook was born in Marton, Middlesborough, where I began my career as a teacher at the Marton VI form college. I remember waking up in the cold Middlesborough winter mornings and seeing his name on the way to work and thinking how far away this all was from Australia, and how much everyone in the school - teachers and students - wanted to excape from the system we were all stuck in.  So many years later, and in the Foyer Federation, we are trying to be intrepid explorers to find and share new ideas.  That's a nice thought for the journey ahead.