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Making innovation work for good. T:@inspirechilli

Monday 24 June 2013

Just Starting Over...

I was travelling on the bus to school when I first picked up that John Lennon had died. It was the gossip of breakfast radio. For once, something more real than another saccharine song.  Huddled against my frosty seat window, driving through the sad fringes of town before our descent into school’s inferno, ‘Starting Over’ rang out with a strange poignancy.  Here was a song promising re-beginnings that was being played to mark an end.  I wanted to take the moment home, to hold it close and precious to understand it, like the death of my first cat a year or so ago, but the horrors of the morning playground engulfed my capacity for thought. The chance was gone.

Many years later I ended up in Central Park on the 25th anniversary of Lennon’s death. It was a co-incidence I was there, my first time in New York.  I’d grown up a teenager listening to Lou Reed, so it was Christopher Street my heart was heading, scouting for trouble to the lower east side.  Instead, I stumbled upon the crowds dotted outside the Dakota and joined in the night time procession. Solemnly we walked past the lit candles and messages of love.  There were too many cameras and acoustic guitars, but still, it sensed something in the soul. I went home on the subway, watching an amazing man sing ‘It’s a wonderful world’ from a broken beer bottle for a microphone. He had such an incredible voice, with nothing else in his life beyond the clothes he was wearing. I caught his eye as the train doors steeled shut.  

It would take a long time before I heard Double Fantasy’s interplay between the emotion of Lennon’s English rock and Ono’s Japanese avant garde.  I remember being struck by teh album's fusion of styles, its simplicity and reach.  Its daring to express love. No wonder the critics first hated it.

Last night was the first live performance of Double Fantasy at the Royal Festival Hall; a joyous, moving occasion, that left something grown in the heart. Like the smile of a subway singer on an empty midnight platform, or the first touch of feeling after years of blank ice. A celebration. ‘Well I tell them there's no problem, only solutions…’  Despite the impressive list of vocalists, and the home videos of John Lennon, it was the final entrance of Yoko Ono that stole the night, telling us, in her 80th year, she was very happy.
Life is the biggest dialogue of all.  We have to perform it to explore,  see the end of ourselves to re-begin, starting over and over again.  I guess that's what I thought, as I caught the bus away.

Sunday 16 June 2013

39 Steps

4 actors playing 130 characters in 100 minutes – the premise for a highly entertaining version of The 39 Steps currently on stage in London and on tour across the UK.

Any potential problems posed by using a small number of actors with limited staging for a complex play are brilliantly transformed into opportunities for fresh invention.   Frenetic energy and imagination encapsulates this production’s narrative drive. The performance seems to offer a series of ‘get-out-of-that’ moments where the ingenious use of physical theatre and prop manipulation becomes the focus for comedy and entertainment. It’s a clever conjuring trick in the tradition of creative drama, as much as it is a reminder for how we can also shape our own ‘theatre of life’. In an age of austerity, this is what can be achieved when you harness the resources of a team to generate solutions.

I was lucky enough to catch 39 Steps courtesy of my hosts Forum Housing Association at the Pavilion Theatre in New Brighton.  It didn’t take me long to see a connection between the values of Forum and the Foyer Federation with the innovation of the production.  If only more organisations in our society felt the same permission and foresight to perform in a different way to get things done. Like Hannay, too many of us end up feeling constrained. We are handcuffed by bureaucrats to the detriment of doing what we know is vital.  The best, though, find a way out.

Freeing of minds is an important theme that runs throughout this play as it travels from London to  Scotland and back again, culminating in the final ‘release’ of the Memory Man’s secret.  From the subject of the story to its performance on stage, the audience is left rooting for the human spirit personified in Hannay to escape the various restrictions imposed by social forces.  The essence of good comedy is in making that revolution look easy.

There is something in the running man of Richard Hannay which encapsulates the charity sector.  It’s not just the breakneck speed of things either.  Or the sense that we only have 18 hours to save the world while the rest have24 hours with a bigger budget for lunch. Whether we are running to keep ahead, or to outwit others, we often feel we want to achieve something that is too important to be left in the clumsy hands of those currently in power.  At least the interplay of an accomplished cast in 39 Steps shows us that we don’t need to do that alone. The right team can make anything possible.   It’s Advantaged Thinking theatre that we need most.  
The 39 Steps is currently playing at the Criterion Theatre in London.

Saturday 8 June 2013

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

‘I woke up into the bleak winter morning on my twenty-first birthday, the window-sill shining with its lip of snow, and the morning already begun.’

So ends one of the great short stories of world literature, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, written by the enigmatic Delmore Schwartz in 1934.  It’s a beautifully crafted line from a poignant narrative about a young man on the eve of his 21st birthday.  The man finds himself  at a cinema in a dream, watching a film where the characters are his parents meeting as a young couple about to begin what he knows from bitter experience is a disastrous marriage, but in the audience he is powerless to change the outcome. Schwartz wrote this story at the age of 21 himself, capturing the full insecurity of the moment, the need to reflect on one’s origins, the conflict one can feel with one’s family and past, and the sense of reaching a ‘threshold’ without necessarily feeling in control of the journey ahead.

I have been thinking about this story a lot as the Foyer Federation celebrates its own 21st birthday later this year.  Turning 21 forms part of a tradition of ‘coming-of-age’ literature and film, when an individual begins to experience the growing awareness and responsibilities of adulthood with a greater sense of what life is and what possibilities or the lack of them lie ahead.  While 21 is a very much a western obsession, the ‘stage’ of transition can be experienced through many different ages.  In an advantaged thinking sense, it is about becoming aware, beginning to recognise one’s identity, starting to play a more independent role in creating the future, and bearing the greater expectations of society with nimble shoulders.   Many of the young people we work with have had to experience some of those things at very early ages, without all the structures and relationships in place to deal with them. As an individual at a Foyer once told me, ‘I’ve been living the life of a 21 year old for years, but everyone forgets I’m only 16.’

The transition of young people into adulthood remains a complex and at times scary narrative that we still don’t how to tell properly.  Not everyone makes it to the end; we never seem to learn from our mistakes to spot how we might change the story.  Watching a child see their parents fighting in the street below me, listening to a rage of obscenities echoing the stresses of their lives, you sense a future being shipwrecked in front of you. I still remember the first time I watched an adult throw a brick through a window at me, how that moment broke forever my trust in authority. The butterfly wings of the smallest things reverberate through the rest of our lives.  
Schwartz’s character watches his past play out before him, powerless to shape its conclusion; but it is the future we see being created around us every day. Looking across the youth sector, we possess all the skills and resources required to influence a better outcome. Somehow, though, we remain stuck in a story not of our making, restricted within the disadvantaged thinking of others, forever ending homelessness and poverty instead of creating the conditions for a more positive world.  Charity has the responsibility to craft a different tale to make a better future happen.  Who is doing that?

After In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Delmore Schwartz played out the rest of his life never realising the exceptional ability shown in his early work. He died in a squalid New York hotel, left in the morgue for 2 days before anyone even knew who his body belonged to.  That’s a warning from history. The Foyer Federation has reached a critical stage in its journey as a charity. At 21, it is fully aware of what it and we as a society need to do to turn the potential of all young people into future talent.  The morning has already begun - wake up to it.

Thursday 6 June 2013

The Usain Bolt Moment

Usain Bolt – the fastest human on the planet, the lightening rod of athletics, and my favourite person to begin a presentation with these days. Why? Because the images of Bolt before he settles into the blocks on the running track, with his eyes fixed firm to the finish, epitomise what it means to be in the race  – focused and thinking ahead. Bolt is able to visualise the end goal of what he is trying to achieve in a way which reminds us all that we need to be as equally determined in our own lives. 

Every act we do is a race, a performance of some kind, something we can either choose to be part of and actively participate in, or something we just turn up to and drift along with. Bolt doesn’t arrive at the track wondering why he is there. He is prepared; he knows what he wants to achieve; and he has perfected a process of putting himself in the zone where he can maximise his talents.  Too often we just find ourselves in things and learn to get by rather than maximising our experiences.  As I always remind my workshop participants, Bolt doesn’t have his mobile phone on hand in case it rings during a race, he is completely focused on the moment; nor is he wondering what he watched on TV last night or what’s going to be for lunch afterwards; he is just thinking about the finishing line. 

The ‘Usain Bolt moment’ is the wake up call to the fact that we are in the race, that we have the opportunity and responsibility to run the race, and that we have the ability to focus on the goal that we want to achieve ahead at the finishing line.  It’s no wonder the first letters of his name spells ‘Us’. The ‘Usain Bolt moment’ is the very essence of what it means to be really alive.

The Foyer Federation’s innovative new Healthy Conversations programme is all about paying closer attention to the things we need to build what Aristotle called ‘the good life’.  Equipping young people with the know-how to flourish and nurture their health.  Or in other words, the Usain Bolt moment. Aristotle and Bolt might come from vastly different worlds and disciplines, but they share a common approach: that the good life, that what is positive to us, is something we need to create and nurture through ourselves. Bolt doesn’t focus on losing the race when he is preparing to go into the blocks at the start; he isn’t lost in thinking about all the problems he needs to deal with; he has a tunnel vision on what he can achieve. The track ahead is his good life. We need to perfect that same lightening rod concentration, attuned to the opportunities in whatever race we are in, to grow our health and expand our lives.

Bolt is not shy at celebrating  either.  He enjoys the recognition from crossing the 'threshold' of the finish line. He knows how to be the centre of the conversation. So, at the end of the day, why not ask yourself: what was my Usain Bolt moment? And how might I make another one tomorrow?  Create a conversation about yourself. Celebrate whatever threshold you have crossed during the day. Just don’t forget to do the pose and ask someone for a medal…

Monday 3 June 2013

Fair Wealth and the 40p buccaneers

I first wrote about the theory of Fair Wealth as part of my blog on the Secret Millions series. Its basic premise was to take an advantaged thinking approach to the limitations found in the unravelling safety net of the welfare state. Instead of following the political arguments about how much welfare anyone deserves, I suggested we should be looking to construct a different policy environment where our purpose is to ensure that, wherever possible, a state handout serves as the first step towards a state handup. In other words, the function of ‘fair wealth for welfare’ is to find the best, smartest means of investing positively in someone’s current and future development.  Fair Wealth’s aspiration is that each individual can contribute to the growth of our society as an active agent and asset rather than a passive recipient and deficit.  

From welfare, to the job centre, to the homeless charity, our society has become ever dependent on outdated deficit-based institutions of disadvantage.  We talk the language of social enterprise, yet we are quite happy to put 40p in a bucket without applying our minds to eradicating its need. We lecture the world on the economics of sustainable aid, whilst at home we invest millions of tax payer’s money in work programmes and support contracts that apply methodologies which have produced no evidence of lasting impact.  We are not using our wealth fairly in any sense of the word.

As the welfare state dies around us, we can choose to turn our attention to what vision and values we expect a 21st century society to express for those people who need investments in their lives. Surely, in a world of diminishing resources, it is imperative for everyone to achieve their potential, however that is individually defined through different stages of our existence.  We cannot afford just to support people to cope within fixed stereotype of needs, and then argue over the size of the handouts allowed. We deserve a different state of being, with a positive sense of what wealth can achieve, the knowledge of how to harness that wealth in each person, and the logic to measure and learn from what its investments can build for the long term benefit of all.

We have none of these things at present.  Our current leaders lack the imagination to create a viable alternative. For the pioneers among us, this is an opportunity to develop an alliance of radical minds with similar values to explore a series of pathway questions:

1.       What fair investments are there for someone to build the asset base required to function in an independent, sustainable way, instead of just surviving and coping through support?

2.       How far is our social wealth really defined in terms of community wellbeing, social value, and the future impact of current social investments?

3.       Are all people in our society being recognised and promoted in terms of their investment potential and opportunity?

4.       What deal is in place for an individual or organisation to invest back any personal assets, developed through social investment, into the growth of social value and community wellbeing?

5.       To what an extent does an individual recipient have any control over how social investment is spent, and how its impact is measured and valued?

Fair wealth can only be given away once it has been generated.  It can’t be handed out from nothing, or bankrolled to nobody. To grow the concept of Fair Wealth beyond these questions requires a space for social conversation, and a process for social action.  Above all else, it needs organisations and individuals willing to create wealth together in order to invest it differently in our future.  If  it was a group, I would call it the 40p buccaneers...

Saturday 1 June 2013


This week was the birthday of the great filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the self-styled ‘romantic anarchist’ who made films about the lives and issues that the rest of society did not care care about. Fassbinder possessed a rare ability to explore the edge of human understanding, to expand our consciousness through the camera.  In his films one finds the gaze of attention on those who don’t normally have a voice in our political system. Fassbinder was a director of the frontier.

I was in Utrecht on Thursday to offer a workshop on Talents, our new developmental process for organisations to experience the concepts of Open Talent and Advantaged Thinking.  Fassbinder was not in my mind, but I suddenly made the connection when people were trying to interpret the language of ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘advantaged’ into Dutch. This, they said, was about borders and frontiers.  While they believed in the positive principles of the vision, they found it hard to maintain its energy and focus in the negative restrictions within which they worked.  In many ways, Talents is about the journey one can make to liberate practice from such shackles, so the interpretation made sense.  However, the language of frontiers has other resonances that are worth exploring.

In America, the psychology and political significance of frontiers was famously documented by Frederick Jackson Turner in his influential Frontier Thesis of 1893. Jackson claimed that the moving frontier line in America, populated by early pioneers in search of fortune, led to the foundations of American democracy and personality (both good and bad). The frontier was a place where the institutional mindsets and hierarchies of European settlers were transformed through experience into the free-thinking individualism of American liberty. 

Putting the political theory to one side, we are left with the idea of the frontier as a place of personal and social transition for those pioneers who dare to explore it.   The connection of Open Talent and Advantaged Thinking with this image has a compelling significance.  As concepts, they challenge the restrictive deficit-based approaches that have grown up in our social system, with the optimism that we possess the assets to create sustainable solutions.  We are all the children of Maslow’s hierarchy, but now we are being asked to turn our focus on supporting needs upside down and embrace the freedom of investing in positive risks.

Advantaged Thinking is a new frontier for those in search of a different way of working.  It cultivates the liberty of talent, and the revolution that we actually all possess it, no matter what stereotype society has given us to live through. Fassbinder would have understood this very well.  He would have said - we need to keep telling the story.  I am sure in the Netherlands it is just beginning.