About Me

My photo
Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Sunday 16 December 2012

In a Crisis

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a V event to raise awareness about youth homelessness. It was an open mic style evening at Westminster University, to which myself and two other charities had been invited to provide some speeches in between the open mic musical performances. 

My contribution was based around a bucket, representing the big change in thinking and behaviour we all need to lead on, instead of the small change of coins by which we dispose of the issues and our responsibility in solving them.  The bucket was my performance prop, and I hoped at the end of the evening to give the audience that image to carry with them for some time to come. What talent do you have to put in the bucket, to bring about real change?  Every time they saw a coin bucket, I wanted them to think of the bigger bucket inside their minds and hearts.

At the start of the evening, something fascinating happened. The event was actually being used to promote the work of Crisis, whose leaflets and small change bucket were plastered across the room. There are lots of charities working in this field, and in the run up to Christmas, Crisis is one that many people rightly think of. Like a dog, though, a charity is not just for Christmas – but nevertheless, that’s how our social thinking works.  When the representative from Crisis arrived, and we were introduced, I was looking forward to an interesting conversation about how our respective work contributed to the issues the event was exploring.  Instead, the representative just smiled politely. ‘ Foyer who?’.  I tried to explain. ‘Should I know you?’ the person said, half apologetically.  Behind us, the big projection screen would show that there were around 80,000 young people experiencing the stereotype homeless. My organisation worked with 10,000 – should they know us?

This was and is the real crisis. Not the charity name, but a crisis in charity itself. We spend most of our time promoting the problems and asking for money to solve them, but take minimal responsibility for the way we act ourselves. We don’t really know each other. We don’t really love each other. Rather than finding new ways to collaborate, we mostly compete against one another in endless funding and marketing duals.  We think more of our own survival and wouldn’t think twice about taking the cake for ourselves without any sense of responsibility for fair distribution between us. We often spend our time gossiping about each other’s weaknesses. We don’t really share our resources to create the biggest impact. We hardly ever go looking at how we can support each other. We care for the cause in equal measure but don’t have time to care about each other. 

And yet here we all are, at the same event, oblivious to the real crisis: that the values by which we work directly equate to and reflect the problems we are working with.  We are homeless charities, who have no home for each other.

‘Should I know you?’ she said. 

Yes, 80,000 times over.

We are in a Crisis, we are seeking Shelter, we want some Prince’s Trust, we care to take Action for Children, we believe in Kids Company, we are making a Centrepoint, we are Foyer Federation...and so many more. 

In the Home for Advantaged Thinking, no one is at home unless everyone is.  Making a home for people must begin with how we work with ourselves. It starts here, inside us. How can I know you?

Monday 19 November 2012

Remedial Child

‘Egos come and egos go
And that's all right you see
Experience has made me rich
And now they're after me
'Cause everybody's living in a Remedial world
And I am a Remedial child
You know that we’re living in a Remedial world
And I am a Remedial child’
We all know the story. The kid who was no good at education – aspergers, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, the wrong side of the tracks, whatever – who ends up conquering the world.  Rags and thickness to riches and brains.  The story of Remedial Child.

Only it’s not true.  ‘They’ don’t become one of ‘us’.  This isn’t Pygmalion.  The truth is far more interesting: the normative ‘us’ in the story is a lie, a distortion created through our obsession with a rational logic that defines a set human identity we believe everyone should conform to. What William Whyte, in a business context, defined as ‘organisation man’ (1956). The beauty of the truth is that Remedial Child never learns to be normal; they learn how to use who they are within the limits of our world view, harnessing what they were deemed to be no good at – what they were mocked for - and turning it into their talent for life.   

Look at some of the absurdly prescribed indicators of ‘gifted children’ – as if we have learnt nothing from R D Laign about defining the human norm from ticklists – and you will find some of the indicators of Remedial Children. For example,

•doesn't accept authoritarian pronouncements

 •asks provocative questions, challenges parents, teachers, and other authorities

 •is bored with memorisation and recitation

 •displays energy, sometimes disruptively

 •produces unexpected, sometimes "silly" responses

 •is considered, and perhaps resented, by some peers as "crazy"

Remedial children turn their problems into talents either by immense resilience; or by being spotted by someone to invest in their quirks as gifts; or through the luck of a life experience that alters their chances of growing the confidence to believe in what they can do.  Whatever, the important thing is that 'they' change 'us' as the norm, rather than become part of the same norm.  Some organisations talent spot for ‘remedial’ these days – they want a more balanced staff team than just ‘organisation man or woman’. Things have changed since I was growing up in the 70s or William Whyte's 50s .

I write this because I was a Remedial Child. And I still am. I’ve been living in a remedial world for a long long time. And always will. 

I was sent to remedial classes as soon as I entered into primary education. I was also banished from art classes, deemed too disruptive an influence.   I can’t remember what I was meant to have done to be disruptive, but I think it involved completing my artwork at speed and then getting in everyone else’s way by throwing paint over them or tearing up their work. On the one hand, it appeared I couldn’t do anything normal, like speak and write properly; but on the other hand, while I was dreaming of much more important things in my head and heart like castles and wombles and clangers, I couldn’t understand why life had been reduced to such a boring set of things that seemed to make no sense to me.   And so every week I went to the classes for the ‘thickheads’ as they called us, where we had to colour in picture books and work out if the words ‘flash and flush’ were for ‘the toilet or the torch’ (a question I thought was so stupid I remember deliberately getting it wrong).  You got gold stars for going to remedial class, and you could take them back to your main class to put them on the achievement chart, so everyone could see what a thickhead you were.  I hid mine in the desk when no one was looking.  I knew how to make untidy desks from an early age.

Then one day it dawned on me. I must have been about 5 or 6, and I suddenly realised in an Orwellian kind of way: it’s not me, it’s the system.  The education system was as silly as a plate of wobbling jelly.  My suspicions reached their zenith when our young teacher of the time, let’s call her Miss Brodie, lost her rag with us one day and cancelled our games class. Everyone put their ties back on and grimly filed out the building to watch the other kids play instead, standing where they would probably be castigated by the head teacher. Being Remedial Child, I had to wait behind everyone else so Miss could put my tie back because I couldn’t do it myself. And there we were, just the two of us, Remedial Child and Miss Brodie.  As she took my tie in her hands she looked at me and said: ‘Colin, do you think I did the right thing?’  The me of now would have said – how the xxxx should I know?’. But the me of then understood, deep down, intuitively, that ‘they’ the adults didn’t know what they were doing, no one knew what they were doing, and they certainly didn’t know who I was or have any right to call or define me as Remedial. Let alone ask me to advise them about their wobbling jelly.

I was lucky. My parents took my out of that crazy education system to a ‘Cider with Rosie’ world in South Wales, where I was nurtured in a small school that encouraged imagination and play. Remedial child started to show signs that he could out-read and think his age group, but still at the same time be educationally vulnerable within the assessment system - I only scraped through my 11 plus, on the borderline as ever, with no confidence in my real ability.

By the time I entered University at 18, all the disruptive energy and wayward dreams that got me classified as remedial were now being admired as signs of ‘a brilliant mind’. I didn’t just get a First, I won every prize they were giving out the year of my Graduation. Yet sitting at the Graduation meal next to the Archbishop of York and the Duchess of Kent, it was abundantly clear that I lacked the graces and charms and normality of the other students at the top table.  I wasn't like the real 'gifted' children. They had tried to throw me out of University in my first term for being ‘too odd’. Nothing had changed since: I just learnt to harness my oddness as an art form and turn it against the persecutors.  At the top table I could ask them to go and get me another bottle of wine instead.

Fast forward to where I am now.  What I have learnt most over my time at the Foyer Federation is that I am not only driven by the feelings and insights I carry with me from my time as Remedial Child; I am the same person living inside a rational adult. It’s where everything I do comes from.  I had a stammer at an early age, and it’s something you never lose; you just stammer the words inside your head instead as you speak. So Remedial Child thinks away at a 1000 disruptive images a minute inside, while the rest of me copes with the logical systems that I have to function through. 

Those same logical processes and contexts and assessments that classified me as Remedial  - and continue to fail others by the same discriminations - are the logic I see reflected back in the systems and processes that most organisations (dis)function by.  Sometimes people think I am being difficult or rude or detached – well, he is an innovative type with Einstein hair - but truth is I’m simply trying to contain my disruptive energy to fit in an outside world I don't really feel part of.  It's not always easy, I don't always get the better of myself, I hurt people without meaning to, I care too much about everything because the experience is alive for me. And some days, Remedial Child gets a gold star, when the piece of innovation ‘they’ have been allowed to disclose – healthy transitions, working assets, open talent, whatever  – is shown at the front of the class. Other times I’m left in the corner, with the crumpled stars hidden in a little desk in my head, the ideas no one sees again.

Disruption is now a cool word. I go to meetings where people talk about their organisation being ‘disruptive’, about the power of ‘disruptive innovation’.  The last person who asked me for advice on this I told to go drink a bottle of pepper vodka on a full moon and see what happens the next morning. Which is what my tutor Lorna Sage would have said, tongue in cheek.  She had the gift too, in a very different way. Her 'Bad Blood'. Maybe I’m in style at last. Only of course there is a logical system already being devised somewhere to classify disruption, and it certainly won’t include me in it.  

It’s strange that someone as disorganised as Remedial Child could grow up to devise the organised purity of the Foyer Accreditation Scheme. But that’s another part of the lie: Remedial Child can do pretty much anything, IF they are allowed to do it in their own way, or can convince others to play along with their rules.  (I wrote the accreditation scheme of 2005 called ‘FISH’ listening to ‘Michael Caine’ by Madness, played repeatedly over 72 hours while living on tea, toast and jam in a basement with the original SP QAF drafts for company, without any help other than no one asking where I had vanished to at the time - few organisations would have allowed me to do that, which is why the Foyer Federation is always a special place to be remedial in).

The logical systems we live our life by are mostly flawed proxies that serve a majority, but fail the rest of us. Intelligence systems test what intelligence is deemed to be, not what it really is. I am a Remedial child with a First Class degree and an MA.  And yet nothing has changed in my intelligence. I still can't do the same things - but I can do others.

As I think back to that childhood incident with Miss Brodie, there is something else I remember. She chose to ask me because she trusted that I wouldn’t tell on her. And I allowed that trust, because I could feel that she was genuine. She was a nice person, she cared, and she was worried about what she had done.  She was vulnerable, and in that vulnerability she was as open as I was.  It was an early lesson in authenticity. I knew the education system was false, was a lie, and that the truth was different. But here was someone who was being honest with me for once.  No more flash and flush.

 I have spent the last 18 years fighting for that truth with and for others. I care passionately about it. There is nothing that makes me more 'disruptive' than working with an organisation that is not authentic, that thinks it is invulnerable, lost in the ego of its false logic, in pursuit of itself, dismissive of everyone else. And there is nothing that makes me more innovative than working with someone who trusts me enough to open up the bag of tricks in my head, playing together to find real solutions that are honest to the people we are meant to be working for.

I wanted to be an enfant terrible like Foucault or Lou Reed, but I was just a dumb kid who found he wasn’t stupid after all. There are lots of us, very successful, very talented, very remedial, shaking the status quo at the top table.  And there are lots of us not here, lost in transition, struggling in life, crushed by a policy-driven system, the other remedial kids falling into the cracks we walk over in our rush to another morning meeting about the unshifting paradigm shift. 

I used to tell myself, when being Remedial Child really hurt,  that the 7th cavalry would come to save me one day, like it did in the stories in my cartoon book.   While the adults droned on about how useless I was, I’d be listening to a bugle horn playing in my head. I still hear it in meetings, whenever the adults are droning on about rational things I can’t understand.
Had I read my Foucault early enough, I would have realised that I had chosen the wrong expression of power to save me. What I should have been asking for was the other ‘re’ word – revolution.  A revolution in education to find the talent in everyone, without a logic model to discriminate and punish people by.  That’s an idea worth being disruptive for, 'in a remedial - in a remedial - in a remedial world'. Go sing the words ...
'Egos come and egos go
And that's all right you see
Experience has made me rich
And now they're after me
'Cause everybody's living in a Remedial world
And I am a Remedial child
You know that we’re living in a Remedial world
And I am a Remedial child’

Monday 12 November 2012

Managing Now

The last few weeks has made writing rather like trying to cross a formula 1 motor racing track; no sooner have you’ve tip toed forward that another news story comes screaming round the bend to knock your head off.  In between the meltdown of BBC mis-management and the onset of the silly season for charity xmas campaigns, I’d like to ‘retreat forwards’ as Roland Barthes once said, and amble a while in the pit-lane.

‘Tomorrow, we begin a new tomorrow.’ So sounded the clarion call for the dystopian nightmare of Mitt Romney as the world’s most powerful leader.  That was yesterday though, a pile-up on the track avoided as Obama won by being the car least likely to explode.  Somewhere between the ‘Yesterday’ of the Beatles, and Romney’s almost Annie-like threat of  ‘Tomorrow’, we find the real challenge: staying conscious to the moment, being present, creating now, making change happen here, living life in this reality.
People, seize the day!  But no one uses that slogan, not in this (human) race.
Truth is, we rather like the grand narrative of yesterday and tomorrow. One allows us to bask in the power of nostalgia to reshape our history; and the other allows us to dream a future better than where we are now. Both have their positive uses; but both are used too often to negative diversionary effect. We are a humanity that seems incapable of facing up to the fact that we are what we are now – and what we are now, and what we will be tomorrow just like we were yesterday, looking at the state of inequality and ecological decline in the world, is not an image many of us would want to see reflecting in the mirror.  The now that is lost in yesterday and tomorrow needs a stronger and more honest focus in our actions.

Let’s call a new approach that counters these narratives ‘Managing Now’.  The ability to target resources to the need and goals of the moment in a way which keeps the past alive and builds the future.  In other words, our ‘Managing Now’ isn’t the crisis management of a moment without connection to time; it’s the intelligent and authentic management of what is happening, has and will happen.  Exactly not how most organisations and institutions run.

Just think how many strategic, operational, delivery and project plans you have lived through, where the delivery of the perfect future has been packaged up with seemingly little regard to the in-your-face ‘gap’ between  the rhetoric and reality.  Just imagine how many staff are employed to plan for a tomorrow which doesn't come while missing its seeds in the today around them. The logical thinkers will keep building their Stalin-like plans without realising that the plan they obsess over is the problem. There is no plan to solve where we are.  There is no magical plan that can function on its own merit.  We’d like to think that planning is a sophisticated development tool, but truth is, it’s as false as Mitt Romney’s centre-ground rhetoric.  It’s an illusion of complex logic, a car that drives our minds into circles.  It’s a plan asking for another plan to plan a plan by.  

Managing Now thinks more about people, about creating the autonomy and authenticity within us all to make now happen so that tomorrow can change through it.  The art of inner-vation. The responsibility that we are only 'all in it together' if we are conscious and autonomous to create the 'it' we are together in. Without that, the rest, as a modern Hamlet may pronounce, is soundbites, spreadsheets, and tweets.
Which is why we need to stop singing about tomorrow and yesterday. The talent is already in the room, the real race that matters is not the cars but us.  What are we doing to live this? It's all happening, right here. Roll up, roll up...

Saturday 27 October 2012

Getting fit to give

It must be my luck in Philadelphia to keep finding someone having a bad day breaking down in tears.  It’s like I’m walking through the cracks of the system.  What happens in a go-for-gold society, when you don’t quite make it, when you don’t quite fit in?  There is an advert on TV for the Republicans at the moment, claiming that America is in danger of losing its core values to the ugly spectre of socialism. What I see is the opposite: gold casts a shadow, and within it, the ‘acceptable debt’ of privilege bed down for the night invisible and forgotton.  What a thing is human, that we seem to have no idea how to construct a society for us all to live in, to harness our potential – whether in terms of people, or in terms of organisations endlessly competing instead of collaborating.  The more I think of it, a world of diminishing resources is perhaps the only thing that can save us, to force the ego to ‘reach out’ to our fellows in the realization that we can no longer afford the gasoline in the tank to drive alone.

It’s a stereotype that everything is an extra size up in America, but it’s the same story we have in the UK about charities: there are the big not-for-profit cruise ships draining the hot dollars to fuel engines that keep going in the straight lines of the status quo, and there are the nifty but small kayaks, canoes and speedboats, innovating to reach the deeper issues and solutions that cruise ships sail over in their backwash. At lunch yesterday I was with the kayaks and speedboats, and it felt like we had formed a docking marina for the passions, frustrations and beliefs of all the small ships in the world.  This is the pulse of the revolution: people who are fighting for their values and vision without selling out, people who are seeking to create a sustainable world based on community and giving.  

 Among the kayaks was Ploome run by the wonderful Christina Stoltz, who has enough energy to sail the world and back in the blink of an eye.   It would be a complete misunderstanding to say that Ploome is just a community space for Pilates and movement workshops. Plume is what an 'advantaged thinking 'organisation looks like – or in its own words,’ Intelligent Fitness in Action: a Pilates studio and movement arts boutique celebrating body diversity and promoting social responsibility’.  Every class in Ploome gives back resource through its sister charity, Req.1, to help someone experiencing trauma to heal through the power of movement and dance. It’s a simple and brilliant concept: the community is buying something it wants in terms of a centre for fitness and fun, and at the same time the community is being educated to create a stronger community by reaching out to include those most in need . ‘Get fit and give back’.  I hope this is the future of gyms.

Little boats like Ploome show that creating the future is within our power, if we stick to our values and vision.  It’s not so much a 'big society' we should be talking about, but a more intelligent and compassionate one: a society and a not-for-profit sector that is ‘fit’ to be human, because we are a community for each other.
As Christina puts it, ‘let’s go beyond the barre’.   It’s time to get the cruise ships, corporates and community into the studio to dance!

Friday 26 October 2012

Opportunity Youth & The Champagne of Beers

Yesterday was the Foyer for Philly’s ‘Housing symposium’ held at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – known as ‘the CHOP’. In the run up to Halloween, that probably isn’t the best acronym to use.

Driving across the city to get there with the Foyer’s executive Director, Leigh Braden, I was struck by an advert for Millers larger, ‘the champagne of beers’.  If only our sector had access to that kind of marketing talent.  Maybe champagne isn’t quite the right comparison for us, but it’s that kind of advantaged thinking image we need to promote our vision for who young people are beyond the crass Centrepoint advert.

The CHOP greeted us by asking if we had come for Flu jabs. I wanted to say, ‘no, we’ve come to open talent,’ but was too lost in my mind wondering what a room might look like to offer Talent jabs.  ‘Boost your talent here.’  'Don't prevent the present, create the future'.  I guess Millers won't be employing me...

I presented my whistle stop tour of  the Open Talent ‘revolution’ to the Symposium, paying homage to Tom Paine’s ‘rights of man’ as the modern right to talent, and Martin Seligman’s work on enabling wellbeing to ‘Flourish’.  I was surprised that nobody in the room from the sector had even heard of Seligman, who after all is a Professor at the local Penn State University. It’s an illustration of how the best advantaged thinking approaches are often utilised in the wrong places. After all, Seligman’s excellent approach to a curriculum of resilience was tested out in the elite world of Geelong Grammar in Melbourne – but it’s most needed here in the streets of Philadelphia on his doorstep.  My speech also offered a platform to promote the excellent work of FSG’s ‘Collective Impact for Opportunity Youth’. Hands down, it’s the most important Open Talentesque essay I’ve read in 2012. Rebranding so-called ‘disadvantaged’ 16-24 year olds as ‘opportunity youth’ is a brilliant answer to ‘the champagne of beers’. I urge you to read it.

After the presentation, there was an insightful housing panel which included the inspiring ‘True Colours Residence’ in New York, set up through the support of Cyndi Lauper to work with LGBT youth using a funding/tenancy model that allows participants to leave when they are ready rather than when an artificial funder’s time limit dictates; and an update on the Chelsea Foyer, whose use of the ‘efforts to outcomes’ impact measurement tool could teach us a lot in the UK. It was wonderful to catch up again with Denise Hinds from Good Shepherd, the Assistant Executive Director who oversees the work of the Chelsea Foyer, who instantly ‘got’ Open Talent as ‘taking strengths-based to a whole different level.'

The afternoon finished off with a presentation at Project H.O.M.E who have the wonderful strapline, ‘None of Us are Home until All of Us are Home’.  We discussed the work of Foyers to hopefully begin a future conversation exploring how the Foyer for Philly can move beyond running winter shelters to offer a proper housing model that can work with the LGBT community on a more sustainable basis.  Later, I would learn from Leigh how the first shelter programme had enabled young people to survive in the gap between leaving the shelter at 7am and the opening of a city day service at 12 by providing gym membership to use the 5 hour interval to get clean and fit.  And they turned out to be one of the gym’s most popular clients, because they respected and wanted the resource on offer.  

In the evening, I took a trip to Leigh’s house in a Philly suberb called Narberth.  I grew up in a place in south wales called Narberth, and here I was, thousands of miles away, in a place with the same name, sharing my story of how a shy kid with ‘remedial’ issues somehow passed his 11 plus in the welsh school system to end up in Narberth, Philadelphia, trying to help young people be valued as something far greater than the champagne of beers can ever be…  We journey forward in life, only to find ourselves constantly amazed to be back home.

Thursday 25 October 2012

City of Brotherly Love

I have arrived in Philadelphia, where I’m taking some time out to help the ‘Foyer of Philadelphia’ charity to raise awareness and support for its work to help young people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

The last time I was in Philadelphia I was here to speak to a Professor from Penn State University who gave me some very sage advice on the need to capture a different story about young people making the transition into adulthood.  It’s taken over 5 years to pick up the thread of that conversation again, but some stories take a time to be told. Like my own.

At immigration, I get the distinct impression that the story of who I am is becoming less believable as my hair continues to grow against the grain. ‘You do what? Who are these people you talk to?’  At least they didn’t ask me to show my ears –the last request at passport control coming back to the UK from France.  If you have hair like mine, you get asked the dumbest things.  It’s slightly ironic that I clearly don’t look authentic enough to be believed, because I’m not speaking in or looking like the normative stereotypes. Turning on the TV for the American election, that’s all I hear: two men trading in stereotypes in order to be believed the most (though does anyone really..?). With round the clock coverage on American TV, it’s shocking that in all the saturation of information there is precious little detail about the real debate. American politics has turned into live car-crash TV, only it’s not much of a thrill to watch. It’s just scary.

Despite the modern swanky-look hotel, my mind thinks I’ve walked into the film Barton Fink. The corridors seem threatening in their swish silence; the city drones outside my window like the prelude to an explosion; staff smile as they fix my crazed alarm clock that won’t stop ringing to wake me up. They have ‘star service’ here which means I can apparently ask for anything.  How about an answer for the 6.7 million young people in America who are struggling to make their way in life? But that’s not on the list of ‘forgotten toiletries or other special needs’. Stars don’t think about that.

Outside, a quick walk around the block brings me back to earth. In just 10 minutes, I lose count of the number of people I see crying, slumped on the pavement, hiding in a doorway, babbling to no one, staring menacingly. Yet this, according to Conde Nest Traveller magazine, is the friendliest and most honest city in America .  The task facing humanity, to be human, is simply overwhelming.  At least we are good at building skyscrapers.

Today I’m talking about how Thomas Paine and Martin Seligman – both connected with this great city - can inspire us to take a different approach to open the talents of our young people. I’m not fit to be in the same paragraph as either of them, but I think they would both recognise the story: we need a revolution in how we value and invest in life, if we are to make the most of the life we have inside and in front of us.  Particularly the lives of those young people from a community that has so much to give, both in Philadelphia and around the world.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Being Real

Last week proved a hard test for the words ‘aspiration’ and ‘inspiration’, and what it means to be ‘authentic’.

Let’s start with the latter.  A charity recently told me that, just because they had committed to do something, it didn’t actually mean they would do it. This is an organisation whose central working methodology is based on the importance of people making authentic commitments in their life.  Though the method, I now realise, was not meant to be applied to the organisation itself.  It is true that life requires a pragmatic approach, but pragmatism only works if it is grounded on something – if it comes from somewhere.   Similarly, the vision and purpose of charities ‘should’ be grounded in a set of values that are more real and authentic to what they do than the whims of opportunity find people working in.   But that is a rare thing.

 It is almost as though the very landscape charities work through – the uncertainty of survival, the dream of the pot of gold if only people could find out about their work, the need to be competitive with one’s own partners – ends up turning charities into a person who  is rather egocentric with an unstable set of behaviour patterns.  A celebrity, perhaps?  Indeed, the celebrity of charity - if that is what we can call it - is all around us, jangling buckets and clipboards on the streets, promoting disadvantage in adverts, being the self-serving expert in media interviews, and keeping whatever brand in our minds through the latest happening.  It’s as though the UK has been turned into a Big Brother show for charities to outdo each other, all in the desperate game of increased ratings and approval linked to a worthwhile cause that undermines itself.  They all think they have the right answer; they often think they have a better answer to someone else; they sometimes think they don’t know what the real answer is because they are too busy trying to deliver what they thought was the answer but is only part of the solution and sometimes  the problem.  What rarely happens is that anyone stands back from the absurdity of organisations competing against each other, with no effective systems to work together, and with little understanding of the big picture, to say: what is it that we are meant to be doing, how should we go about doing it, and is the fact that we are too busy and too lost in our own brands and commitments a sign of how far charity is lost from the social purpose to make this a better world in the future - not just for the pragmatists of now? 

Then there is aspiration. The Conservatives have come out of the closet at last, as the party of ‘the aspiration nation’. It’s like an episode of Stars in their Eyes, where suddenly Cameron transforms himself into whoever was the last Prime Mistaker to promise the same thing (see ‘the politics of aspiration for all’ Blair, 2005; or ‘the party of aspiration’ Brown, 2010). It is of course the choco-ration nation he is referring to. The choco-ration principle is found in George Orwell’s 1984, and refers to the media manipulation that can make a nation of people celebrate that choco rations are going up when they are actually going down.  So it is with aspiration. The ‘aspiration nation’ removes investment from young people struggling to access further education, and kicks them off the ladder (the withdrawal of EMA), but celebrates all this as part of a fairer approach at a time of economic stress whilst companies such as Facebook  maximise earnings (175m) by not paying proper taxes (238k).   The dots don’t join up, but then the ‘aspiration nation’ is like a dot-to-dot puzzle that keeps you occupied in the hope it might turn into a shape until the next election wipes the page clean of promises. That’s not a nation many would wish to aspire to.

Finally, we have inspiration.  This week, we have been told that an English football player who used racially abusive language is still an ‘ inspiration’, and that an American cyclist who led the most manipulative drug taking regime probably of any sport in history and continues to deny his guilt is still ‘inspirational’ because of his charity work and worthy of his Nike sponsorship.  There are some interesting lessons to be had here about how we value things. The first story was actually a back page headline based on an interview with a fellow player – regardless of the personal opinion, how on earth was this deemed an appropriate headline? Are we meant to sleep better knowing that someone who racially abused another person – and was meant to be a role model as England captain – is also a guy of inspiration to his teammates?  Apparently so. That’s all it takes to decontaminate a brand in the world of football, where money is the only value in town.  The second story is even more absurd, given the scale of deceit. How on earth can someone who has cheated success with such disdain have any claim as an authentic icon for beating cancer?  Nike claims its brand is about ‘inspiration and innovation for every athlete in the world’. Is the innovation they promote about cheating?  Is the ‘inspiration’ they promote about how to win at any cost?

Like a distorting nightmare, Armstrong is the mirror image of the charity that does not live the way it tries to work; the mirror image of the Government that does not do what they say; the mirror image of a world that does not know how to be authentic; the mirror image of the consequence that always catches up with us in the end. The icon of Orwell's 'doublethink'. 

Nike’s strapline is ‘Just do it’.  But our survival as human beings is about doing it properly, doing it truthfully, thinking more than just 'I'.  Isn’t it time we looked in the mirror and did ourselves some justice? Or, to quote another strapline, ‘Can’t Beat the Real Thing’... 

Monday 1 October 2012

Advantaged Thinking TV

The world of online video means it is easy to contribute to other people’s conferences without necessarily being there in person. Sure, nothing beats human contact, but a recorded or live message is better than not being part of the conversation.  There is a wealth of opportunity to create video messages that help stimulate debate and learning between services across the UK as much as the rest of the world. We need to start thinking through more than one channel of communication and see beyond the written word.  You only have to look at what people can produce on youtube to realise that the only thing stopping us is intent. Step away from the keyboard now.

Which begs the question, why am I writing this as another word blog? I’m actually just waiting to talk to someone on skype, but excuses of time aside, I have been experimenting with a few request for video pieces that will mean more content in future. Let me illustrate…

The first ATTV example is a 20 minute overview  in response to a set of questions about advantaged thinking from an organisation called HYPA in southern Australia.

The second ATTV example is a 2 minute contribution to a Q&A session at the Foyer Foundation conference in Melbourne, Australia this week, to help stimulate some Open Talent thinking.

Neither of which are particularly wonderful as static talking heads, though both have been useful to spread the word. And that is the Advantaged Thinking opportunity. Most of the people reading this have a computer or phone with video capability. Why don’t we take advantage of our natural creative powers by using simple everyday videos to capture different perspectives of what advantaged thinking and opening young people’s talent means to us?  Can we create a dialogue that includes every Foyer and Open Talent partner across the UK offering their insights into the campaign? Can we hear what our Talent Champions have got to say?

In the meantime, looking ahead on ATTV, I hope to post some video updates from a trip to Aberdeen with the Foyer Federation’s TalentS framework, and I’ll be taking some leave at the end of the month to spread some very special Open Talent magic for the LGBT community at the Foyer for Philadelphia in the USA.   Of the 3,000 and more young people experiencing homelessness in Philly, around 1,300 are part of an LGBT community for whom there are no organisations with the specialist understanding to work with their talents. In the gaps of life, if we believe to try, roses will bloom.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Inspiring a generation? It's not just about more sport.

It was my pleasure to be invited along to an excellent fundraising event by SHYPP (Supported Housing for Young People Project) on friday, to offer a few words of encouragement to set the context for their charity auction. It's slightly odd, but I get more invites to speak abroad and to work with other organisations than I ever do to speak for the Foyer Federation or for Foyers, so I was really pleased to be able to lend a hand for the fantastic SHYPP Foyer services in Hereford, Leominster and Ross.  It was all the more a privilege to follow some inspiring opening words from a former Foyer resident, who spoke movingly about the positive transition they had made in their life. My theme for the night was about investing in talent. The text below is not a copy of my speech, for which I had no script, but contains  some of the ideas and thoughts I drew from  during my 10-15 minutes, minus the jokes about my confused 1.5hour walk from the railway station to be there...

Talent is not an elitist concept. It’s not just for the XFactor and Eaton. We are the talent – we all have a talent – and life is about finding and expressing our talent for the good of ourselves and others.

The Greeks were the first to use the word talent as a unit of measure. A talent meant an amount of silver equivalent to about 9 years-worth of skilled labour. What is the price of a young person’s talent so they can have 9 years and more of skilled labour in today’s challenging environment?  How do we invest in the talent young people have, so they can thrive, and by doing so, enable our society to flourish?

It is a testament to everything that is wrong in our society that we don’t ask that question enough, that we write endless blank cheques to pay for the support required to keep someone, who has not expressed their talent, in a lifelong dependency.  Look beyond the stereotypes and you see it is the failure of the adults to care for and manage talent in young people that defines our society.  We have not put the systems in place to ensure that everyone can find and harness their talent. It’s our social system that isn’t working, not just the young people within it.

How do we create something better? The Greeks were also, of course, the inventor of the Olympics, and we could do well to turn to the forerunner for today’s international Olympic committee down in Shropshire where, in 1850, Brooks established what he called The Olympian Class - "for the promotion of moral, physical and intellectual improvement".  On similar terms, we could create our Olympian talent class, to promote the talent of young people and encourage the community to be part of its development. It's what the Foyer Federation is trying to build through our Open Talent work.

The end of the Olympics has seen a stream of articles highlighting the contrast between our investment in the successful medal winning team, and the lack of investment in basic sporting facilities and opportunities for large groups of young people. This is an Olympic legacy issue. But inspiring a generation is not just about playing more sport. It’s also about what we can achieve in life, as individuals, as teams together, and as a community for each other.  There is a bigger legacy issue at stake here in the Olympics: how we can be inspired to think differently about how we invest in our next generation to ensure that more people can perform to their potential in life to the benefit of all – whether through sport, the arts, digital technology, business, and the thousand different talents we express our working lives.

In our medal success at the Olympics, we can see a simple equation: high quality coaching to develop skills, coupled with targeted investment in resources and opportunities, together with a supportive community of practice with high aspirations, generates the advantages required to succeed. It is a winning formula. It is the formula that drives successful talent development strategies in business as much as it is used in sport. So why is this formula not used in the sphere it is most needed – the social sphere, where talented young people battle inside a system and a way of thinking which is geared around limiting their problems instead of nurturing their potential?

The Olympics is hugely expensive – but an Olympian advantaged thinking approach need not be.  We spend billions of pounds on supporting people to cope with disadvantages, when we could spend less to enable them to thrive through their talent.  It is a question of values, of putting a value – both moral and economic – on the lives of our young people.  Putting a value on what a positive future costs, against the cost of dependency and low aspiration. The Olympics shows us what a systematic approach to nurturing talent can create.  What would be truly inspirational is to use that approach where it is needed most, where it can have a generational impact. If we value life, if we have values in our life, then we must ensure each and every young person has access to the right investments to create a better future for us all.  Clare Balding claims the Olympics changed us as people. If it has, then as changed people we need to change the disadvantaged thinking paradigm that is preventing people from realising their talents. 

You only need to turn two letters around in the word latent to produce the word talent. That’s the shift that Open Talent services are trying to make in young people; that’s the shift we are trying to make in the thinking of funders, charities, and society: to believe we can turn latent into talent. The average ticket price to watch a London Olympics event was £40. What is the cost of the ticket to open a young person’s ability, to invest in their life?  What is the cost of us not contributing to that?  One thing for sure –  a positive future for all our young people is worth so much to our sustainability as a planet, we simply can't afford not to achieve it.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

An Olympic movement of the mind

'‘As we approach the London Olympics in 2012, an observer might notice the stark social contrast between Britain’s investment in the science of coaching medal winners in the sporting arena, and its approach to the needs of young adults struggling to achieve adult independence. By 2012, Britain’s medal tally is likely to remain in the top 3 to 5 countries; but the well being of its young people will remain one of the worst in the western world ( see Unicef 07/08)....' (From Open Talent, 2009)

These words - and the rest of the first page below  - were written by me in August 2009, looking ahead to London 2012. They are from a (rather large) document which outlined, for the first time, the key principles of Open Talent and the early ideas that shaped the concept of Advantaged Thinking. In the context of the 2012 Olympics, they are worth revisiting. Not so much for the optimism of Britain’s likely medal tally in the first paragraph, but for the general drift of the disparity in thinking and investment between how we approach performance and inspiration in sport and how we work with and think about young people labelled as ‘disadvantaged’ .

Open Talent has come alone way from that outline document written over a frenetic week in August. But the point of the journey is as clear as ever. As we hear commentators talk about talent and inspiration on TV, and recognise some of the amazing achievements such as the 15 year-old gold medal swimmer from Pymouth,  let’s not forget about the talent and inspiration that lies in the young people we  care about who are not performing at the Olympic games.  There’s enough to have taken (if they could have afforded them) atleast 40% of all the Olympic tickets. Sport, as well as growing up into a thriving adulthood, is an elite sport (see Peter Wilby in The Guardian online).  Clearly, it's going to take far more than another charity fun run to change the way we think about and invest in those young  people – it needs an Olympic movement of the mind, with host cities every day around the world.  We are beginning to light a fire with Open Talent: a  flame for the future generation we really can't afford not to believe in. ....

'The theme of mismanaging talent and potential has proved topical in the under-achieving world of British tennis and English football; but it is even more poignant when we consider how the positive science of coaching winners with the right skills and resources could have a transformational impact on the lives of 2.8 million young adults if it was applied to a wider social and political arena.  At a time of economic pressure, our most valuable commodity, young people, is too often being allowed to go to waste.  It is not for lack of investment by Government, but a lack of vision for what we are investing in, and a lack of collective understanding of how we can best make that investment work. 
Those young people involved in crime, who are not in education, training or employment, and those who are stuck in dependent lifestyles, all have the potential to achieve.  But how many of those young people have ever been treated as future high achievers? How many have we actually negatively invested in – diminishing their aspirations through short term and poor quality provision, fixed barriers to educational and vocational progression, and resettlement outcomes that limit future life transitions? Too many, is the answer.  Perversely, it is more expensive to make a negative investment, to send someone to prison and criminalise them for the rest of their life, than it is to make a positive investment by giving someone a gold medal educational package on a par with Eton or the best Universities.  Why do we favour more expensive controlling measures, over making an investment in nurturing talent potential?
The answer lies in our social aspirations. In one case, we want a young person to build a sustainable livelihood in which they will continue to thrive for their rest of their life. In the other, we hope that the young person will at best manage to cope with their weaknesses and dependencies for as long as they can. Britain, politically at least, seems to have become a country of low aspirations for young people.  If every child matters, and if every young adult matters too, then why does social policy and practice continue to block the advancement of certain groups of children and young adults?  We talk of raising the bar, but we never dare to remove the bars to welfare, housing, health, advice and guidance and education services, that continue to hold back many young people from making progress in their lives once they have reached the transitional years of 16-25.

Coaching for talent and potential should be a universal approach, especially for those most in need of support; instead, policy and practice dictates that the support we offer is shaped around preventing negative behaviour and controlling risks instead of securing more aspirational outcomes.  The appalling achievement rates of those within the care system – the children of the parental state - speak volumes of our society’s approach. We have turned the transition into adulthood into an elite sport, where only those lucky enough to have the best social and family supports to draw on are likely to succeed. It is no wonder that social mobility, at best, is at a stand still  - that ‘Britain is moving back towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen more than 40 years ago’ (Joseph Rowntree, ‘Poverty and wealth across Britain 1968 to 2005’, 2007). Like the corporate business world, we have created a system that acts as though the management of talent is about prioritising the few, not investing in the many – a philosophy that runs counter to the principles of social justice and equity that underpin the values of a modern democracy...'
(From Open Talent, 2009)

Monday 16 July 2012

Completely normal Olympic deviants

The recent Olympics debacle brought about an interesting omission. According to culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, it was "completely normal" for a contractor to fail to deliver on a major project.

It probably wasn’t the best phrase of words to capture the understandable difficulty of organising security for the Olympics. But there is a greater ring of truth about what is deemed as acceptable.  

For too long, it has been ‘completely normal’ for large providers to fail to deliver. For years, we’ve been watching the ‘usual suspects’ – the Job Centre Minuses, the Further Dis-education colleges, the ‘Prime Turkey’ contractors - miss the mark in achieving real education and employment outcomes for young people, but continue to devour funding contracts to do more.  For years, we’ve watched and waved large cruise ship charities offload the same old cargo of goods and ply the same waters of disadvantaged thinking without changing course to bring back fresh ideas, find different lands, or rescue the local charity canoes capsized in the sizeable backwash of their egos.

What is completely normal about all this is our failure to change what is acceptable as the norm. None of this has to be this way. Only a country devoid of intelligent leadership and enterprise could possibly manage both large scale unemployment and staff shortages at the same time.  It is not completely normal – it is what we have made normal.

Let’s make a list – and, believe me, in my world, a list is a last resort.  Let’s make a list of every current project, provider, institution, service, where we expect things not to work or be solved just because they are complex or challenging. And then let’s think about harnessing the energy and talents that are being wasted in communities up and down this country to solve those issues. 

What we will find is that we have normalised systems of failure. We have structured failure into the operating software our lives, accepted it as the limit of what we can achieve, and created commissioning and contracting conditions to sustain failure as a positive outcome.
How ironic it is, on the eve of the Olympics, when we are meant to marvel at humans pushing the boundaries of what is physically possible, that we are so ready to accept the limits of what we deem mentally impossible.  It is not so much a question of Olympic security that is the issue at stake here, but how we choose to invest in and utilise the resources we have available to secure our future.

Every day, it has been completely normal, under this and every Government I can remember, for people to struggle.  For young people, and for old people, to lose what counts in their lives, at the same time as others gain more than they could ever possibly need, without adequate checks and balances between these extremes.   What we might calmly pronounce as ‘completely normal’ in our society  - that a TV actor pretending to be a nurse will be paid more than a person who can actually nurse - is a choice we have made that demeans our humanity. If this is what is normal, then it’s time to wallow in that other great English gift: to be a positive deviant.  We need an army of them.  ‘Advantaged thinking’ Olympic deviants deployed in every local authority, every national charity, and every normally-failing Government provider, to breakthrough what we have 'accepted'.  And it certainly won't be a contract for G4S...

Thursday 12 July 2012

Doing it, whichever way we can

Doing it Differently was my 12th annual Foyer Federation conference at Aston University, and reflected the progress made in the Foyer network over the last couple of years as Advantaged Thinking and Open Talent begin to be expressed in ever more exciting ways.  Whatever the very real impact of the economic recession on young people and frontline services, there is certainly no recession in ideas here.  Foyers are claiming their rightful place as the ‘militant optimists’ of the third sector.

 Watching Independent Futures use drama and performance to give the audience an insight into how their Open Talent ‘Connect Yourself’ programme had transformed the lives of young people and staff, seemed to me to capture the essence of the two days: not just ‘doing it differently’ but bringing the spirit of Open Talent into life. With passion, with confidence.

The conference innovation exhibition was the spirit of adventure to spot, develop and promote young people’s talents for the world of work ahead.

Our keynote speaker Nick Booth was the spirit of digital revolution, harnessing the power of social capital through social media.  

Young People in Governance was the spirit of young people’s influence, highlighting that something as essential as Foyer Accreditation was developed only because young people were given the platform to clarify its priority in the early days of the Foyer movement. 

Stephen Cox from Peter Cruddas Foundation was the spirit of positive fundraising, creating networks and relationships based around what we are good at, what we believe in, what we have to offer.

The evening entertainment was a spirited reminder that we could and should find a way for an intelligent use of comedy to ‘stand up’ to Disadvantage by exposing its stereotypes and absurdities.

Open Space and World Café sessions were the spirit of collaborative inquiry and dialogue, while the C'arl Miller show' was the spirit of energy to recharge and focus our vision.

My little magic routine was the spirit of creative dreaming, to find the advantaged thinkers and convert the disadvantaged thinkers so we can build an Open Talent team around the world.
Finally, the young person who took the microphone at the end of the conference and thanked everyone for the impact on her life, was the spirit of recognition and celebration.

When the speaking is done, when we return to the challenges that define us all, it is the spirit of Open Talent that remains our source for future solutions.  Doing it, whichever way we can. 
Where will you be in July 2013?

Thursday 5 July 2012

Creating, not cloning

Being back at in the UK, back at the helm of innovation, is a little bit like:

·         Fighting with bayonets on a sinking lifeboat in the talons of a giant octopus;

·         Jogging up mount Everest dressed as a banana;

·         Realising that humans are just oversized devices to carry phones and ipads (when is the ihuman?);

·         Stepping back onto a motor circuit with fresh tyres, doubting the meaning of life and other existential dramas whilst remembering that one can’t actually drive anyway despite travelling at over 100 miles an hour;

·         Tuning into channel Tory to find the same endless repeats of European referendum, charges against youth by feckless adults,  and dodgy trails of corruption – a reality TV show that makes one long for the innocence of the Magic Roundabout.

That said, I’m still having a good week.  The seeds of advantaged thinking are growing everywhere, and I keep getting to meet them, and they are always people more energetic and inspiring than I am, such as my latest advantaged thinking colleagues from the wonderful Chance for Change. 

Plus, tomorrow I’m in Warrington with Your Housing Young People's Services for the world premier (as my American friends would say) of the second phase of TalentS, the quality assurance approach for Open Talent and advantaged thinking.

Why does that excite me?

It’s much much more fun than a banana costume.

The premise of TalentS is that quality, like talent, resides in people.  All we need do, then, is to help people find the right processes to harness their talent and quality and create positive solutions.  It’s an investment in the DNA that defines the wonder of what humans can achieve beyond the limits. Thus TalentS is the first quality assurance scheme that is more interested in enabling people’s innovation to find the answers than to set the answers and then just mark against them.  Thus TalentS is more interested in how we present who we are, how we explore who we are, and how we experience who we are, in an advantaged thinking kind of way, than an assessment that defines who we need to be. Thus TalentS is actually about validating an experiential journey where we discover the best offer by which we can make a positive investment in young people count, rather than force feeding a set of ingredients and rubber stamping what comes out the other end.  And what comes out the other end in TalentS is more like a rites of passage than a policy and procedure manual.  Those on the journey exit the cave as shiny members of a new community of practice. Ready to energise and excite others.

It’s all about creating rather than cloning.  Creating can be messy, like paints thrown around at playschool, but it is ultimately a more powerful way to find the fresh new talent pool of life.
For those who dare to be more than a device.

Thursday 28 June 2012

Excess baggage

It’s my last full day in Australia.

I spent the morning talking with the team at Ladder about their inspirational plans to develop the Foyer approach through an AFL vision of working with young people.  Open Talent fits them beautifully because the ideas behind talent development are ingrained in their practice and values.   As I noted in a previous blog, I think it is fascinating to dwell on the disparity between the sense of social equality built into how the league ladder functions, and the social inequality that dictates how we invest in young people’s talents . Something to write more about another day.

The afternoon was back with my collaborators at Hanover and The Brotherhood. We have agreed a structure and timescale to progress over the months, so now it’s (just) a case of making it happen and visualising the Open Talent practice manual that is going to shake things up in the sector.  The only thing we haven’t cracked is inventing the time machine to hatch it in.  I’ve been inspired by working with one of the interns here from America to realise that we need to engage the talents of more young people to help us do that.

My day moved on to an interview with someone interested in how Open Talent might apply to the indigenous population, who are often  highly talented and negatively stereotyped with access to few opportunities. I was told a story about how one of the mining companies has been working to successfully engage the indigenous population in the industry, which reminded me of our experience with Virgin Trains that it is possible for an employer, with the right approach, to help invest in transformational change.  This could be another venture for an Open Talent Foyer to break new ground in Australia.
Finally, I was invited in for a brief appearance at the Hanover board to discuss what Open Talent might mean for the governance of an organisation and its strategic thinking.  There was some good debate, and the realisation that this isn’t just about creating a youth Foyer but a whole new way of thinking about sector and service reform.
Now I’ve just got to pack my bags, work out what I’m going to write on the plane, and prepare for the mountain of work awaiting for me back at base camp.
I’m really going to miss Australia.  The work to build Open Talent from the bottom up is so special and exciting that I shall certainly be leaving part of my spirit to light the corridors of Hanover’s office for some time to come.  I’m sure there will be many challenges ahead.  What’s more important though is that there is a determination and a passion here to get things the right way round.  It’s not every week I feel like I’ve been able to draw on my own talent base to give as much as I can. And that says a lot about the people and culture of the organisations I’ve been collaborating with.  Maybe being an external guest expert makes it easier, but there is something else too: innovation thrives best when it is given the permission to inspire. Just like young people in the conversation to open their talents. Australia is certainly 'open' to working with talent.

I haven’t brought anything in Australia to take back home, except the experience.  That's worth far more than any stuffed kangaroo. My spirit and mind is way over the excess baggage allowance.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Being Napoleon

The last few days I’ve been continuing work on fleshing out the 5 areas of Open Talent towards a practice manual for a new Foyer.  Hopefully, the first drafts of that will be in place over the next couple of months to offer a key component for an Open talent community of practice, allowing a more fluid exchange of different models and ideas between services in the UK and Australia through a coherent framework of ingrediants.  

I’ve caught up with two bright and engaging American grad students on work experience in the not for profit sector, and discovered that our traditional game of rugger is known over there as ‘scottish rugby’.  Whatever that might mean. Maybe they got confused between shorts and kilts, or the shape of the ball?

I’ve spent time with Anglicare to catch up with their fresh learning on the Foyer approach in Perth (where they are building the Oxford Foyer, which suggests that the Harvard Foyer must happen one day), the quest for the right Foyer evidence base, and the many interpretations of re-brand images.
And today, I turned up for a meeting with Maddock’s – one of Australia’s top 20 law firms – to find my name printed on a lunch menu with a lectern to present Open Talent before the arrival of dark chocolate fondant dessert (the perfect way to keep me focused on keeping to time).  Lunch meetings at the Federation are a more humble affair of sandwiches and water, rather than beef fillet or roast pumpkin with wine. I never thought I would find myself in a room full of lawyers for 2 hours without worrying about how much it was costing.  The outcome was a sparky conversation, a real engagement from those present about working with young people in transition and the role of charity and the corporate sector to lead an ‘advantaged thinking’ campaign.  The ‘lightbulb’ moment rippled around the room.  I’m not convinced my days as an after dinner speaker have begun, but certainly this was the beginning of an intelligent conversation in the potential for Open Talent in Australia.  We ought to be doing more of this in the UK.

The real beef and pumpkin that Maddock’s brings is the ‘talent’ around the table – and the doors for change in different social networks that they can help open.  Passing a rather large cut out of Napoleon in the foyer on my way out  – an advert for  an exhibition in town, rather than a partner in the firm – it felt that the TalentS revolution for a more positive world was marching on. .. Anyone for the Waterloo Foyer?

Tuesday 26 June 2012

A Ladder

On Saturday I had my first experience of watching an AFL (Australian Football League) match at the famous MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). I was a guest with a former AFL player and manager of The Ladder, an organisation working with young people as part of the Foyer and (now) Open Talent approach in Australia.  I didn’t quite realise what the Ladder meant until the game, when I began to understand that the Ladder represented the table of AFL teams trying to reach the top of the league.  Since every time a player runs out for a game, they donate part of their match fee to the Ladder  charity (with some offering their time as mentors), there is a strong and sustainable link forged between the Ladder league and the focus of the Ladder charity on enabling young people to reach their own goals.   I only wish we had something like that built into the UK premier league. The future lies in these examples of alternative funding models that educate others to give.

The Ladder likes to point out that the 100,000 capacity MCG could be more than filled with people from homeless backgrounds, of which about a third would be young people. It’s a nice way of getting the message across.

The AFL game itself is also a departure from UK football. Not just in the combination of Irish hurling and rugby rules, but in the crowd. No segregation, lots of families, almost as many women as men. The atmosphere is a community letting its hair down for the weekend – providing some therapeutic release for the emotion we bury inside of us.  It’s certainly close to Shankly’s vision of a ‘big society all around us’.  However odd the rules, it was a thrilling game.  As an ex rugby winner I could appreciate the high levels of fitness and breadth of skills required to play. If the AFL represented how a Foyer should work with young people, then the focus was on agility, looking out for each other, a combination of defence and offense skills, and a lot of resilience. 

The game was framed by team songs (at the outset , and just the winner at the end), which sound like something out of a carry on film. A musical curse you spend hours later trying to forget. The players of both teams enter onto the pitch by running through a giant banner decorated for the match.  These simple rituals all add to the spectacle. It’s a reminder of how simple psychological tools used in games reach out to the ways we interact as humans.

I couldn’t say I left the arena as a fan – I was rooting for the losing team, as I always did in my youth – but I left feeling in need of a ‘ladder’ of our own.  It’s something special when a sport builds inside its model that the bottom teams each year have the first pick of the draft for new young players – in other words, the game ensures a sense of equality that every team can get a chance to lead the Ladder with the best players in years to come. That’s something our society so clearly lacks.  Of all the rules in the AFL, it’s the one we should be thinking how to adopt now: to ‘lock in’ a different vision of social mobility that protects the ladder of aspiration for all.

Friday 22 June 2012

The TalentS Revolution

Day 5 was my ‘main gig’ to present the TalentS Revolution at Melbourne University. 

The symposium was focused on creating a Better Youth Offer – or at least to produce a research paper on what that means.  For me, the answer to the Better youth Offer is always going to be the Foyer development rather than the research paper, but I neglected to make that point.

After a lucid outline of the key issues by Tony Nicholson, the Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, I was under the spotlight.  The stage set up wasn’t really conducive to do much running around, but as anyone who has seen me speak over the last few years knows, I don’t use notes and I don’t like to stand behind a lectern looking at my slides. I’m much more interested in the audience. Who on earth would travel all this way to read a bit of paper?

The idea for my speech came from a phone call with one of the Hanover Foyer development team, who had spoken about the idea that the Foyer could be a ‘tabula rasa’ for developing its own Open Talent vision.  I was clearly talking to someone who has much stronger academic credentials than my Masters at UEA could muster, so it took me a while to understand what that meant and then I thought – but that’s exactly it, the tabula rasa is actually all about the latent potential we are all born with, which only some people get the right investments to actualise into a talent that is validated in society This formed the basis for suggesting a connection from 11th century Persian philosophy and 18th century radicals such as Paine and Spence who spoke about a set of natural ‘advantages’ and ‘rights’ which were denied in vast sections of society through an impoverished social contract.

For the 21st century, the rights of man/human is all about the right to be recognised as someone who has a talent that is worth harnessing. That right is not only a moral issue of social justice, but one of economic necessity to create a society based on sustainable livelihood in the model of entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson rather than a culture of welfare dependency and imprisonment.  And if institutions such as Geelong Grammar enable young people to build that livelihood through a curriculum based on positive thinkers such as Seligman – then it’s damn well good enough and essential for the not for profit sector too.  
How to achieve all this was the idea of a TalentS Revolution – which Open Talent allows by not legislating for a set youth offer of particular services or interventions, but by establishing the DNA of innovation and inspiration required to shape and fight for the right ‘talent-building’ offer through an on-going experiential learning journey. That DNA (which we call TalentS) is all about making a breakthrough in thinking, challenging the status quo, refusing to accept Disadvantaged Thinking, flipping the sector back to its radical roots.   Part of the revolution is recognising that we need a new focus in social parenting based on developing talents, and a new focus in social care based on developing the assets to thrive.  I finished with what I hoped was taken as a call to arms, reminding the audience that the values of Gerard Tucker, the founder of the Brotherhood of St Laurence running the event, were all here to be had – to advocate for young people’s talents, to fight for the social justice of investment in talent, and to keep innovating at the frontier of knowledge to shape a fresh offer to do that. It's your revolution.

I was helped in my message by the next speaker, the Deputy Secretary for Schools, and Youth, at the Department for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. It felt like he entered the stage carrying a shovel rather than a speech, and was soon digging himself into the grave of addicted disadvantaged thinking. For once, everyone in the audience knew it. I might present with too much anarchic passion and not enough logical control, but this was like watching a wind up doll at the end of its spring running out of power as well as imagination. 

I had enjoyed the event, was honoured to have been invited to play a part, and learnt alot from some of the other presentations, but as an outsider, it felt to me that the sector had some dangerous obsessions – the fixation on evidence base as a logical mantra without enough questioning of what the evidence base is, how it is gained, what it is used for, and what it prevents; a fixation on the D word of disadvantaged and disengaged, without realising the damage of a ‘youth offer’ that is already limiting aspiration in the easy stereotypes of the adult researchers and policy makers; and a fixation on research and policy without any meaningful representation from young people themselves.  Yet, despite all that, there were some powerful voices in the room, an energy and determination to create and do things that just needs to be allowed to thrive.  I'm constantly inspired by the people in Australia, how quick they are to get things and see through what's not authentic. The conversation outside the lecture hall was full of life.

During the after show meal, sitting next to someone from a philanthropic organisation, I couldn’t help thinking – if only we had control of the money to create the asset  required to set everyone in the room free, what a game changing thrill that would be.  Every revolution needs its Bastille moment; it's really not too far away.  We're already walking through red lights, waving our hearts and ready to go.