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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

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.

Getting it Done

 Day 4 of my trip was spent starting to work up the detail on what the 5 areas of Open Talent mean in terms of operational delivery for a new Foyer service. We had a head start from the inspire workshop the day before, and settled in to focus on Opportunity as the one area that connects most with everything else. It’s so exciting to be able to draw out the pathway for a service that is trying to do everything the right way round, and we tried to push the boundaries of what that means through some radical thinking on the entry process. At the same time, we kept a separate sheet to note down any key values that emerged, to form the basis of an overarching set of principles for the service drawn from across the 5 areas. 

As the four of us present drew, talked, typed, walked around the room, and opened our minds, we touched on some fascinating ideas, from creating a game-based approach to a young person’s transition and development of assets, to a ‘Foyerversity’ of short online videos showcasing key skills for and by staff and young people, which could easily be made through collaboration from our current network of services.  Everything is possible.
We spent the day in a room named after the founder of The Brotherhood of St Laurence, Gerard Kennedy Tucker. Shamefully, when I heard we were going to the Father Tucker Room, a childhood of Robin Hood films meant I was getting ready for when the Sherwood of Nottingham might come to get me. I was grateful to be able to read a bit about the man on the walls, and realise that this was a remarkable person about whom it was said ‘He got things done’.  I made a note to reference this in my speech the next day. The ‘getting things done’ included a long list of actions, such as reform of the Landlord and Tenant Act, setting up housing schemes for unemployed men and families, campaigning against slum housing,  establishing the first family day care service, and pioneering a network of Opportunity Shops.  I know from personal experience that there is a only small group of leaders who really believe in ‘innovation’ as a key purpose of charity, and this, alongside a passionate belief in advocacy and social justice, marked Tucker out for me as someone special.  I felt in my heart that he would not only have approved of Open Talent, but probably ask why we were taking so long  to make it happen.  We need to get it done, because we need to get things done too.    Sometimes you have to travel to the otherside of the world just to feel at home in yourself.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

When the room rocks

Highlights from day two and three of my Australian visit....

 Day two
I take a tour round a ‘crisis’ project which houses and supports people of mixed ages over a short timescale who tend to be working through drug and alcohol issues.  It’s a building which, although from the early 90’s, looks like a homeless sector dinosaur: a front desk behind a screen, announcements from reception on an intercom like something out of Hi-de-Hi,  dark labyrinth corridors, bare walls.  I feel like Barton Fink. 
What’s different though about this tour is that the manager showing me round has been trying to use Open Talent to change the culture.  Whatever limits the building posed, outside had been converted into herb gardens and recreational spaces, while inside anything that could be maximised as a potential zone for informal activities was being renovated to help develop a different culture of working.  At the same time, a project had been funded as part of one staff member’s time to trial out the Open talent personalised ‘bond’ approach over a 3 month timescale.  Invitations were sent out to clients living in crisis accommodation, transitional housing, those on a drug dependency programmes and supported in outreach.  12 people applied, with 10 selected between the ages of 30 and 47. They had worked to identify a range of aspirational goals, ranging from developing personal skills in writing and music, setting up various original business ventures, and gaining work in the community and homeless sector.  The project was over half way during my visit, with at least 6 of the 10 evidencing clear progress.  There had been a lot of learning along the way, and considering the lack of planning, time and resource involved in the venture, the focus and drive in the project was impressive.  This was a good example of using experiential learning to help create the conditions for Open Talent to grow, teasing out the confidence, trust and belief to adopt a different approach. 
Bur there is one challenge. While the staff are doing a great job of recording what the outcomes and journey is, the paper that is doing the capturing speaks less than the people do. In other words, there is not the system in place to really hold on to the wealth of impact and learning being gneerated. It is this arena that our new work funded by Esmee Fairbairn will be so important, to provide a process to assist staff to do that. 

Day three

I have just finished a workshop on Open Talent with staff from a mix range of organisations associated with the 3 new Foyer developments in Melbourne. The exciting thing is that they are integrating Open Talent into the first Foyer design, so it is developed through the lens of advantaged thinking. It will be the first Open Talent Foyer of its kind anywhere.   More than that, of course, it will transform the organisations involved in the process.  Open talent, as DNA, is not something you can just isolate in a box - the ripples reach out everywhere.  I’ve been working with key staff on how to integrate Open Talent and create a manual of practice, so today was the opportunity to involve a broader group in a special ‘inspire workshop’, with a focus on innovation activities drawn from the new TalentS QA model (some of them just written on the flight over).

This was the feedback from the end of day activity, where staff were encouraged to speak into my mobile phone about what they had taken from the day, what they were going to do, and what permission there were prepared to give the senior staff to take Open Talent forwards:

‘I’ve got it… I was thinking from a micro context before, not the systemic of Open Talent’

‘We’ve started the conversation… we’ve started thinking differently’

‘I’m going to create an environment in my team where my thinking is challenged, and I want you to keep challenging us when our thinking is out of line from where our beliefs need to be’

‘I’m going to start being more perceptive about the type of language I use, and to look at other sectors where they use positive language and bring that back to this’

‘What I’m going to do is to reflect on the way we manage our teams and influence their thinking around advantaged thinking’

‘I’m going to audit where we are doing the domains of Open Talent and where we are not doing them and why’

‘Given we have silos in my Government Department called mental health, drug and alcohol, homelessness, it’s going to be interesting to introduce Open Talent'

‘I have a better understanding of the opportunity to present the positives of the sector… and to start to change the narrative’

‘The open learning and sharing was fantastic’

‘We are beginning to create a common understanding, a model that is shared between people’

‘I learnt conceptualising open talent as DNA and what it means appropriating other tools… and how (as a funder) to write and express advantage thinking in my own reports and recommendations, and I want you to hold me account to do that.’

‘I got most excited about the possibilities’

‘The Open Talent tags gives us a direction to build a framework’

‘I’m very heartened that the not for profits have considered a different approach to young people and taken the lead’

Most asked for output from the day: to create a ‘booklet’ of advantaged thinking.  Key priorities for action: to focus on the campaign language, to create a new HR approach, and to integrate the change at a  strategic and Governance level.

Last night there was an earthquake in Australia. Today, the room rocked with Open Talent.  And the best thing of all, everyone involved in Open Talent back home in the UK would have understood each word. It's the beginning of a powerful community of practice.

Monday 18 June 2012


I'll be writing regularly to document my current trip in Australia over the next 2 weeks, working on Open Talent with Hanover in Melbourne. This is day 1 of the tour...

Arrivals are magical moments. The transition between different cultures, the movement over boundaries between worlds, the entry into a space where even the most mundane act is full of significance. I’ve spent Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday travelling to Singapore (great airport), Sydney (with posters of ‘come to Great Britain for great culture and great country’), and my final destination of Melbourne. It’s winter here – but it feels more like autumn with half-dressed tress waiting for a skinny dip of snow. Along the way I’ve watched far too much from a series of Homeland, scan read a dozen books and articles on innovation theory, written notes on various mad ideas to preserve the concept of Thinking Class travel, and spotted a wonderful advert in a toilet at Sydney airport for Mensheds Australia – who use the concept of men’s sheds to develop community spaces that support health and wellbeing.  Not sure what kind of space the female equivalent of that would be, but I liked the community focus of the concept and the way it was reconnecting public services with those who miss out.  Another Place to Open Talent.

I have always been thankful for working for the third sector during conversations at passport control and immigration, and landing in Australia was another one of those occasions.  After being pulled to one side, it felt certain that the man with rubber gloves who had swooped on me was about to conduct an unwanted inspection of at least my bags, if not more. I tried to explain that I was over to speak at an event organised ‘with the Brotherhood’ but that wasn’t the best way to lessen any suspicion until I stumbled to find the rest of the name - ‘of St Laurence…’ - and began to explain how Foyers operated.  It got me through unscathed.

Then the jet lag finally caught up with me, walking like a zombie round a shop across the road from my Melbourne apartment, searching  aimlessly for a distant memory of shopping ingredients as though the answer of life lay somewhere between a section of chillingly named ‘caged eggs’ and monster size celery.

I have taken a huge ‘to do list’ with me to Australia, but there is one main goal for being here: to fire the next stage of Open Talent, hammering out the tools that will sustain its impact both in Australia and at home.  Whatever it looked like might be in my bag at immigration, it’s the things inside my head and heart that pose the greatest challenge to the ecosystem.   The arrival of Open Talent is all about a revolution.  Expect the barricades of thought to be burning.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Doing good is good business / Good business is doing good

How many learning and work experience programmes end up with 100% retention and achievement outcomes for young people from Foyers? Getting a 70% return is typically seen to be a  good result, taking into account the many challenges young people have to navigate through and their prior experiences of training and work which can often be quite negative.  

I’ve seen lots of decent programmes come and go over the years, hitting between 60-80% returns, but I’ve never seen anything quite like the work experience programme we have just completed with Virgin Trains set up through Virgin Unite.  Where every young person was a winner.

The concept was simple enough: Foyers would refer young people to an assessment day with Virgin Trains, and a group of young people would get talent spotted for a 4 week work experience at Euston station and on the Virgin trains with training and mentoring. The work would include serving on trains, in the First Class Lounge, and helping with tickets in the station. The challenges included making sure Job Centre Plus didn’t stop people participating, ensuring that young people could travel in at very early times from distances such as Enfield and Ealing, hoping that nothing from life would get in the way, overcoming some of the negative stereotypes about employability created by ‘the system’ of welfare, housing support and careers advice, and trusting in the Open Talent philosophy that latent potential talent just needs the right places, people and opportunity to flourish.

As I sat in the audience on Friday morning, listening to the young people present back their reflections  from the programme graduation, I realised I was watching one of the most moving experiences I’ve seen for a long time. This wasn’t one of those dreadful disadvantaged thinking events where young people are asked to talk about their negative past, get applauded with a certificate, and the adults go away feeling good about themselves. I’ve had to sit through too many of those over the last decade. Instead, this was pure Open Talent: individuals focusing on who they really are, articulating the joy of sharing a positive experience, telling stories that made us laugh and cry, looking to the future from a position of strength.  Young people talking in their own authentic language.  I found it hard to watch, simply because it is so rare and precious these days. Here are all the young people our sector likes to tag as the disadvantaged, the people with complex needs, the homeless and NEET, and, with very little or no prior experience of the world of work, those same young people had performed presentations that would put to shame many of the so-called ‘key note’ speakers at employability conferences. 

I was fascinated to see how the values of Virgin Trains actually work for young people. This is an employer that prides itself on being fun, on looking out for each other as a team, on being passionate about customer service. You can read about such things on bits of paper and websites, but seeing it in action is something else.  The staff mentors spoke with genuine love and appreciation for the energy and enthusiasm of the young people they had worked with, and their genuine belief and ‘living’ of the Virgin values had clearly made a massive impact. For each young person, the ability to make a customer smile, to give something valuable to someone else, to help and support others, to be part of a real team, to wear a brand associated with positives, had all been life affirming and life changing.  Anyone who has studied positive psychology would recognise the obvious impact: if you focus on doing good, you feel good too. Perhaps the most amazing example came when one of the quietest of the young people in the group shared his first life experience on the programme of interacting with someone who was blind. He had helped the customer take his seat in the Virgin Trains lounge, serve and look after him, and before leaving him,  the customer had said, ‘I wish I could see your face’.  It reminded me of something that Greg Barton from Chance for Change had told me –if you give young people stories to tell, it changes the dynamic of the conversation.

Not only had all the young people completed the 4 week programme and demonstrated their work readiness for an environment thay cared about, Virgin trains had also found a couple of full time jobs to offer two of the brightest stars from the group.  I liked the way that the Virgin Trains philosophy of ‘bottom up’ meant that the mentors on the stations and trains - those with the relationships - were making the decisions. Again, the authenticity of the company’s values is important for the young people to respect and feel part of.  But of equal importance is the fact that the business too had gained from the experience of working with the young people. Both for the mentors and what they had learned, and for the company’s recruitment process by having immediate access to proven talent.

This is what I like to call the ‘ethical talent agency’ approach: the employer invests in working with young people further away from the talent pool, which has a profound impact on the lives and services of the young people involved; and in return the employer gets the chance to spot and develop the talent they want while offering their employees involved some interesting staff development experience. It’s not about CSR; it’s how good business is about doing good, and how doing good is good business. It's getting the deal right.  ‘SBAU’ as they say at Virgin Unite. 

I left the presentation thinking – how many other employers fit the same talent-building profile of Virgin Trains? What other work places have the value base that ‘works’ for young people from Foyers?  We need to do our own talent spotting to find the right employers as part of an ethical talent agency approach. Let's stop trying to put young people into silos they don't fit; let's match their talent potential with the places, people and opportunities where their talent can really flourish.

This programme had no Government funding. In fact, it had no funding at all. It had cost us time and resource to help facilitate, for which we need to find the future funds to support.  So, how can we get people to invest in an ethical talent agency approach?  How can we game-change the way that Foyers, other charities and employers work through a shared agenda of talent?  What can we create togther to give young people a stake in a more sustainable future? It’s time to make doing good business the only business in 'advantaged thinking' town.