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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Monday 27 May 2013

James Hunt: open talent champion

I was eating cornflakes when I heard the radio commentary of James Hunt winning the 1976 Formula 1 championship from the other side of the world, a mysterious rainy Japan. In the mind of a shy seven year old struggling to fit into the school system, James Hunt’s victory took on a magical escapologist quality. Beyond the corners of my Bedfordshire breakfast table, all things seemed suddenly possible.  

I recall this not just because, 20 years since the death of James Hunt, 2013 will see the launch of a new film about his life.  As unlikely as it might sound to some, the memory of James Hunt has been something quite influential to me in developing the thinking behind the Foyer Federation’s Open Talent approach to working with young people. While much is made of Hunt’s flamboyant personality, there are two simple lessons from his story that help to illustrate how we can best equip young people with the tools they need to create a positive future.

The first of these lies in Hunt’s character and charisma. Hyperactive, rebellious, sensitive, single-minded, prone to tantrums and depressions, Hunt was cut out to be ‘a problem child’.   In a different setting, he would no doubt have been sent to remedial classes and excluded for not conforming. Hunt was lucky enough to have wealthy parents.  They paid for a public school education, an environment where his early love of animals and ability in sports were encouraged.  The young James Hunt was able to thrive by following his instincts. Indeed, what made him a champion in 1976 was exactly the same set of ingredients that made him potentially difficult as a young child. Hunt’s ability to drive a car at the edge of performance depended on a volatile set of personality traits. The ‘disadvantages’ of character became the ‘advantages’ of charisma, with the added ingredient of steely determination. Perhaps a by-product of his parent’s discipline, part of his own competitive nature, and no doubt influenced from the self-confidence gained in public school, the determination to succeed gave Hunt a winning hand.  Without it, the flamboyant Hunt of fame would never have been able to hold down two jobs, working day and night just to afford the parts he needed for his first racing car. 

Encouraging young people to follow what they are good at, and giving them the confidence and work ethic to make a go of things, are the secrets behind Hunt’s success.  It shouldn’t need a privileged education for us to focus on empowering people to make use of their natural traits and to follow their dreams.  It’s a basic approach that is fundamental to any service or relationship striving to better the lives of young people from challenging backgrounds.  How many James Hunts do we miss out on, because we don’t know how to look for them?

The second lesson is the one which ignites Hunt’s career. A chance visit to Silverstone on his 18th birthday gave Hunt a new purpose to aim for – what he described as ‘instant commitment’.  A key threshold had been passed. Watching the race, Hunt discovered the one thing he could invest his energy and passion on.  Plans to become a doctor were quickly abandoned as Hunt set out on a haphazard journey through early adulthood that would lead him to the pinnacle of the world.  What can’t be underestimated here is the importance of that random visit to the race track.  Hunt was not born wearing a motor racing helmet; he discovered his crown by chance.  How many of us feel the same when we look back at the connections in our life and realise how important it has been to be immersed in different experiences and contexts. Yet, despite knowing this truth, few services make such experiences a key part of their curriculum. In the south east, there are commissioners who believe young people should be taught how to assemble flat-packed furniture as a key life skill instead.  What contribution would that have made to James Hunt?  There is a dreadful gap in aspirations here. Young people who haven’t been to public school can also find their ‘instant commitment’ by trying out the world around them.  Experience doesn’t come from following instructions for flat-packed furniture; it’s discovered by allowing the heart and mind to wonder.

If you put these two lessons together, you end up realising that it is important to ‘personalise’ and ‘tailor’ how we equip young people to make a positive transition into adulthood that exceeds expectations. James Hunt will be remembered for certain things in life that would make many people query why he should be seen as a potential role model for opening the talents of young people today.  But that would be to miss the significance of his story. Beneath the overalls of the legend lies some simple, magical truths, we shouldn’t be in a 'rush' not to dwell on.   Above all else, Hunt was an authentic rule breaker.  The charity sector urgently needs to follow suit.

Saturday 25 May 2013

The power of writing the unexpressed

When people ask me for suggestions on how to develop their thinking and writing, I often say that they should try to write about one of their earliest memories. It’s a simple exercise that allows someone to explore the power of writing about unexpressed feelings and concepts, and to experience how through the act of writing itself we can discover things inside us that perhaps we didn’t know where there or are frightened to examine.  Early memories force you to go deep and require you to use your senses to capture them. They also need the mental and emotional resilience to express things that might be difficult and challenging. Which is why it’s a good exercise to open your heart and mind to new thinking. It is a useful reminder that free writing can allow you to reach ideas that the logical mind would never be able to find.  It’s a creative tool, and it can also help you to catch up with feelings and thoughts that you haven’t had time to shape into something coherent.

As an example, I’ve written up an early memory of my own, which reveals to me why, to this day, I can’t face walking into a hospital.  Who knows, maybe I’ll end up designing one in the future. ..

 Waiting room

Mummy is on the phone. It isn’t a normal call. There is blood crying from her eye. I watch it trickle down the cheek: a red worm; a vampire surprised at sunrise.  Cotton wool drips on the fluffy carpet.  I can’t stop it. I can’t stop her vanishing instead of the blood. The phone sits squat and silent like a snail. We are left to wait.

Nana lets my brother and I watch Land of the Giants.  We’re staying up late for Daddy’s dark suit and eyebrows to return.  I’m laughing at nothing, excited in fear.   It’s like Christmas with empty presents.  The humans are tied to stakes on TV.  There is no one to shout for help. Will the window I can’t reach be left open tonight?

They drive us to sit in a sterile white room, comics attached to our faces. I struggle to keep the pictures in my mind to read them. There is clock on the wall looking down with a missing hand. This is the place they fix broken things.  My brother came from here, and he thinks he’s fine now. But I came from the bedroom. Hos-pit-al.  I wish I had taken my teddy, the one with a hole in the neck and his head hanging floppy.  
A lady with a white cap brings her smile to rescue us. We are led through a secret door. You are not allowed to go in your Mummy’s bed, I am told. You are not allowed to shout.  It’s the first thing I do, hugging her tightly under the green bed cloth, stroking her wiry brown hair. 

The images flicker through  my memory’s silent film.  Emotionless, bandaged up by time. But the wound is torn as I walk back inside a hospital.  Feeling seeps out. I crouch in the waiting room sweating pain, a prisoner at dawn knowing he will be dead in the hour, sick to the deepest pit in my heart for release.  On the other side of the curtain, someone waits to be taken away.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Innovation Tips

Open Talent, Advantaged Thinking, life coaching, Healthy Transitions, Working Assets, accreditation models  – over the last 12 years I’ve shaped a growing list of innovative ideas and programmes at the Foyer Federation.  The secrets of my approach aren’t the ones you will find in traditional innovation manuals or workshops.  Here's my top 7 tips:

1)      Don’t neglect the power of the moon. 

That old phrase, ‘the planets must be in alignment’ has some truth to it.  About 10 years ago I worked out that the period in which the full moon comes together has an intense creative energy – for me at least – so I always try to harness it as the perfect time to develop ideas or turn thinking into practice.  In Japan they call it ‘being in tune with the laws of the universe’. As much as anything else, connecting yourself with a natural energy driver gives you a psychological boost.  You can use knowledge of how your body reacts to the energy around it to accelerate the incubation process for new projects.


2)      Manifest your thinking

Creative visualisation techniques are as popular in sports psychology as they are in Buddhist philosophy. Making what you want to be real ‘manifest in reality’ focuses concentration and taps into the power of positively shaping your own existence. I think of it in terms of holding the seeds of ideas inside you that need to be nourished regularly and then directed out to root into the external world to grow.  Every good innovation I have come up with I have consciously talked about as if it already existed before I had finished it. If you keep your ideas as secrets they will wilt in shadows.  The brain is like a cinema projector, able to propel images out onto the screen of the world where they shape themselves into narratives and being. Treat a new idea as something to be honoured, something to be discovered, something that will happen because it has to, and let the abundant universe help.


3)      Trust words to lead the way

I’ve always allowed the process of writing to generate ideas.  When it comes to a new funding application, for example, my approach would be to completely ignore the application form and focus on allowing the idea to concrete first through free writing.  The application form is the box you have to tip you cake mixture into but you shouldn’t be restricting yourself to live and cook within it until you are ready. To generate ideas through writing I was given a precious tip by an artist I met when I first joined the Foyer Federation. She told me that inside us all is a locked space – so you start by trying to visualise what that space looks like on the outside, what shape it is, what colour the door is. To get to the locked space you have to go deep sea diving, using a concentrated period of writing to take you to the door and find a way inside it. Behind the door there is a room full of treasure – imagery, ideas, abundance. Once you are inside the room you discover and touch what you can, until the oxygen of words runs out and you have to return to the surface again. Then you look at what’s in your catch. The more you do it, the more you can take back with you. It’s a powerful technique.


4)      Take a walk on the wild side

Going to new places, exploring other environments, making yourself vulnerable, pushing the boundary of how you think – these are critical if you need to work on something ground breaking.  You have to trust your instinct here. Where do you need to go to find what it is you are not sure what you are looking for? I’ve made all my discoveries in the strangest of places: a New York restaurant; a train carriage at St Pancras station bound for France; a Tokyo hotel bedroom cabinet; an airplane back from Australia; the beachfront road at Thessaloniki; and a dozen other places. Only one of them comes from being in the office.  My favourite is the train carriage. I was about to go on a week trip to southern France to try to write something for the Foyer Federation that would pull it’s thinking together for the future. I had a laptop full of articles I thought might help me, but absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was about 6am and sleepily I picked up a copy of the Times left in the train and looked through the pages– and there it was, in an article on the demise of British Tennis, the idea of Open Talent leapt out.  I hadn’t even started and I already had the answer. You just have to be on the right train at the right time.


5)      Soleil Levant

In 1872, Monet took less than 30 minutes to paint a picture of sunrise over Le Havre docks in France. It was a ground breaking picture that would name and define the impressionist movement in art. Monet’s 30 minutes of inspiration was the result of years of research and experience, in particular his discovery of Japanese woodcuts, that found new definition in a single moment. Being at the right place at the right time only works if you have the right experience inside you to interact with the opportunity.  I think of this as the jam jar technique: you have to absorb as much as possible inside you, until you literally can’t hold onto any more, then look for the best place where you can explode the ideas and let them interact in whatever moment you find yourself in.  When you reach this moment, you don’t edit, you just create at rapid speed. Rather than crafting something slowly, the idea behind Soleil Levant is to allow it to grow invisibly and unconsciously, and then within the limitations of time – a sunrise in Monet’s case, 24 hours in mine – it is forced to express itself into new form.  I tend to use this technique to work on the most complex and challenging ideas or programmes, trusting in the process to produce at white heat a solution I would never have been able to craft consciously.  


6)      Listening with an open heart

The power of listening to people is a much neglected art. I often meet clever people who are too busy projecting their own ideas and organisational brand to be ‘open’ to contemplate someone else’s. Being completely empty of ego is the perfect place to listen from. I know nothing; I am nothing; everything around me is abundant. Listen to it.  Why are you here to hear it, what is its meaning?  There are so many voices to tune into each day, beyond the one in our head. The answers are all around us but we don’t bother to find them outside ourselves. If you want something, listen for it in others.  Not through scripted questions, but through the flow and interchange of people’s passions. Speaking and listening to each other is the space where we collaborate. If you exit a conversation having heard nothing but yourself repeated back to you, you have lost a chance to discover something new.


7)      Surf the waves with shin pads

If you really want to be an innovator, you must be prepared to be laughed at, seen as potentially dangerous, told that people don’t understand what you are talking about, accused of lacking patience or focus, criticised for not having a strong enough evidence base or commercial market for an idea, and dismissed as a failure developing things that can’t work. If you don’t experience any of these, then you are doing something wrong. Innovation if it is innovative is all about riding the crest of the wave of new ideas that challenge how others think and see in the present. You need to pad up to deal with the knocks and ignore them while you continue to ‘listen with an open heart’ to the reality you are making.   You also need to take some care, though, with how you shape the wave and who you allow to be part of that. Waves can easily get diverted and broken up before they have power. But if the wave does get stopped, always remember it’s still in the sea, waiting to be part of the next one.  I’ve never known a failed idea not come back even stronger.   It’s your responsibility as an innovator to ride the waves to the beach.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Lorna Sage - bad blood into good

I was introduced to Lorna Sage by my tutor at University. She had been taught by Lorna, and, up to that point, my tutor was the most fascinating person I had met in my life. She once took a Henry James novel and caressed herself with it in front of our amazed class of innocents. Clearly, there were more to words than we had realised. Academia became life defining. What would Lorna be like, if this was her protege? Somehow I had to find out. I had a hunch I was onto something.

So, armed with my British Academy Award, I ended up at UEA in Norwich to take a Master’s Degree.  They say you should avoid meeting your heroes because the image you build is infinitely better than the real thing. Not with Lorna.  Her beautiful brilliant mind cast the rest of the famous UEA Literature and writing departments into dark shadow. Under Lorna’s eccentric style, Literature and philosophy turned into comic one-liners and quips that revealed new depths to Plato’s Cave.  I had never laughed so much; I had never thought so hard.

Lorna was a Socratic treasure trove of stories. The day Bobby Sands died, she had walked into a Republican Irish bar in New York. It was early. People moved away as they heard an English voice call the barman over; but when she ordered an extra large gin and tonic, the pub relaxed, including her in stories of troubled times-  through the currency of intimacy, she said, politics no longer mattered. I’ll always remember the day an American student dared to suggest that Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was not worthy of study because of his portrayal of women. Lorna, as passionate a feminist as she was a fan of Eco, used the deftest of touches to disarm the student's argument, and rebuked us all to ‘pick one’s fights with greater care’. Eco and Lorna were heavyweights.

Beneath the smile and laughter was someone with tremendous steel and insight. She had thought hard for her success. Women of her  background and generation weren't meant to go to University, let alone teach in them. I realised that for Lorna teaching and writing was a calling, and with it came huge responsibilities.  When her friend Angela Carter died, she felt the pressure of being left behind to put the pieces of her life together. She gave us a tutorial on her writing just the week before, and  referred to her only in the third person. Some of us left the classroom in tears.   ‘It’s what we have to do,’ she said to me. ‘You go to the party, you soak up their drink, canapes, and words, and the next morning you wake up and turn it all into something else, something essential, because you have to – it’s inside you.’  I didn’t have a clue what she was trying to tell me at the time. It would take another 15 years before I realised what she meant.

I was worn out when I went to UEA. I found myself battling doubt in the first few months, unable to focus, stuck with writer’s block from finishing my first essays. Trying to copy the lifestyle of philosopher John Dee didn't help either - two hours of sleep, with bread and port, and you too can start believing in angels. Lorna could see through me straight away. When she invited us round to her house for a party, she sat next to me in the circle and we realised that we both had the same habit of drawing impenetrable doodles that nobody else could understand. People thought we were writing notes on everything said, but what we were really doing was secret thinking, processing for gold to store among the flowing rivers of words inside us.  ‘You look like you need a drink, go get us one next door’. Next door turned out to be a room with crates of wine bottles from her beloved Florence, piled to the ceiling, from wall-to-wall. Her drinking might have been legendary, but when she had a glass of wine or gin to the lips, it was her eyes that shined with clarity of spirit.  Language and meaning had a potent thirst  for life in her.

Later that night, we made a pact together. Lorna revealed a strange box of papers and said she was going to write a book called Bad Blood, based on the influences from her family’s past and her belief in the transformational power of writing to change personal narratives.  She told me that I should choose a novel from the writer Colin Falconer, who had taken my name instead of his own Colin Bowles, and rewrite it in the style of the 'real' Colin Falconer as a form of postmodern tongue-in-cheek reconstructionist revenge.  

I forgot all about it. The only thing I followed was her advice to get a teaching qualification, something that would change my own story forever. I tiptoed out from Eco's scriptorium and closed the door behind me.  Farwell to Foucault, Derrida, Barthes. My thesis on the 'Hermeneutics of Susipicion' vanished in the toxic haze of a MIddlesbrough sunset.

Years later, I saw Lorna’s younger face pasted all over a shop window, like a Warhol screenprint. Bad Blood was out. The book felt cold in my hand, like marble, a choc ice in winter. I ran straight home with my copy clutched to my heart. I already knew that it was too late.  By the time I could write to her, she had gone.  Bad Blood stayed by my bedside.  I have never been able to read it though. Even now, when the pages open, Lorna’s voice cracks another joke about Borges, raging against the dying of the light. Wake up and write. Not because you want. Because you have to. The words are our blood; make them into something good...

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Learning Ability and the Spirit of 2012

This morning I was at the launch of the Mayday Trust Foyer in Rugby. A new Foyer is always something special – but particularly when it is the ‘The Learning Ability Foyer’, designed to help harness the talents of young people who are experiencing what society calls 'learning disabilities'. It’s a good example of  'advantage thinking’: recognising the ability, not stereotyping a disability.  As someone who was stuck in remedial classes as a young boy, classified with ‘learning difficulties’, I feel passionately that people deserve the right approach to find and grow their unique talent in life. The friendly, interactive environment created by May Day, with staff coaches on hand to encourage the development of skills and resources, is exactly the sort of place every community needs. It was no surprise the event was packed out.  Those attending were treated to a table tennis display from paralympic table tennis champion Victoria Bromley, and an inspiring speech from Special Olympics athlete and board member Greg Silvester. As Mayday's dynamic CEO Pat McArdle explained, "We have invited our Olympians here because we are using exactly the same model to achieve aspirations, with no limit on goals and potential." 

I think Pat is right. The real potential 2012 legacy is staring us in the face, yet is somehow being missed.  Great Britain was a top medal winner; our children, however, lie at the bottom of the table for wellbeing across Europe. Why can’t we take the learning that helped us develop such successful elite athletes, and apply it to those in our society who we continue to fail? 

We can. There are 3 ingredients to seize on: a focus on high aspirations, to believe that the young people we tag as ‘disadvantaged’ can build thriving lives; an approach that uses world class coaching, to enable young people to find and nurture their talents; and targeted flexible investment that can give young people the power to shape the path they need to make their dreams a reality. 
 These ingredients are precisely what the Foyer Federation believes all services for young people should offer.  It is something the Foyer Federation calls Open Talent – a campaign to pull together the many different ways these three asset-building ingredients can be put into practice. It is possible to achieve, and it is essential to achieve. The expensive evidence base of services ill equipped to nurture young people’s talents, from care homes to job centres, is all around us. 

Later in the afternoon, I attended an event hosted by the Big Lottery to promote work to rekindle the Olympic ‘Spirit of 2012’, including the launch of new funding to encourage positive volunteering activity such as the excellent Pedal On UK initiative led by the Sustrans charity.  After a morning of table tennis, we had speeches from Olympians Chris Tomlinson, Andrew Triggs Hodge, and Lord Coe. While this was all vital stuff, I couldn’t help but think how the Spirit of 2012 should set us a challenge worthy of the Olympian inside us all: to be more advantaged thinking by asking us to apply the three ingrediants behind the success of the GB olympic and paralympic teams to how we work with our young people. Just like the Kaos Singing choir, who were the highlight of the event, we need to sing out loud, embrace our learning ability, and ‘do things differently’.