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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

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...