Monday, 26 April 2010

my approach

In the last few days I've worked with two sets of students.

The first set was a group of Year 8's in a school in Walworth Academy in South London.

The second set was a group of students at Cambridge University.

In Walworth my role was to help twelve young people be heard.

In Cambridge, my role was to help eight young people understand that dialogue can be a powerful channel for making creative decisions.

My approach to these two events was completely different.

My approach to the event in Walworth started from Waterloo. The circular gateway of Elephant and Castle reveals a London less overtly cultural than the nearby South Bank with its National Film Theatre, its Royal National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall or The Cut with its famous theatre brothers Old Vic and Young Vic, separated only by tapas bars, fish restaurants, cycling and cake shops.

By the time you're through Elephant and Castle there are no tapas bars. There are lots of places selling fried chicken though. Fried chicken and chips.

And there are blocks of flats. Some looking a little worse for wear. Some looking quite new. Quite recent. Not great to look at. Not great architecture. But probably a big improvement on what was there before.

Not much green either. Not much green at all.

Not many bikes either. But lots of cars.

Lots of cars on wide main roads.

And finally, on the final leg of my approach to the school, I see that the old school building has been demolished and a new one has been built.

A sparkling new building. Lots of glass. And lots of steel. And a courtyard of sorts. A garden almost. A few raised beds. And then, life pours out of the building. The students are unleashed onto the courtyard and there's an incredible sense of energy... huge energy. Young, young energy. Harnessed (just) by a few rules and regulations; I'm not sure what the rules are but I sense there are some. And they're just about being obeyed. Just about.

I watch as long teenage limbs effortlessly hurdle the raised beds. "Don't step on the raised beds" must be a rule. No need to. Not with those legs.

And so, my approach is over and I'm in the space. My work is about to start.

My approach to the session in Cambridge was very different. It started at the station where I noticed there was a lot of demolition going on.

But then, quite soon, as I walked towards the town, the buildings became less likely to be knocked down. Much less likely. Victorian houses. Beautiful colleges. Bridges and cobbled streets. No knocking down here. And quite right too. Plenty to be protected. No need for renewal. Restoration and care have clearly been at work here for a long time.

And then, across the green. So much green. And so many bikes. Not many cars. Not in these narrow streets.

And so to the English Faculty. A modern building. Not quite as modern as the Law Faculty. Which has lots of glass. And steel.

And the students... are slowly and deliberately moving from one place to another. But their pace is not energetic.

Some look stressed. Others look anxious. Some look really anxious.

In the library, some students are sleeping. On their books. It looks like they've been asleep for a long time. All night maybe.

Young people.

Asleep on their books.

And so... my approach is over. And my work begins.

I tell the students in Cambridge about the students in Walworth.

And this week, I might tell the students in Walworth about the students in Cambridge.

I'm not sure yet.

It depends on my approach.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

almost certainly

A year ago today, on April 14th 2009, my dear friend and colleague Rod Wright died, at the age of just 51.

Rod was a deeply thoughtful, kind and generous man to me. He taught me a great deal and at a critical time in my life supported and encouraged me to do things I knew in my heart were the right things to do, but without him, I'm not sure if I would have done them.

So to Rod - thank you.

And to his family, Judy, Billy and Kitty - much love and power to your elbows.

One of the things Rod and I did together was a series of podcasts on dialogue. Here's the one on the key skill of Navigating.

And here's a transcript of our last few words together in that podcast.
At the time I never imagined they would have quite such a profound meaning for me:

Rod: Dialogues don’t happen in isolation. They’re part of sequences. So by closing one conversation properly, you’re setting up the next one.

Karl: The end of one journey is the beginning of the next.

Rod: And I’m afraid... Is this the end of ours? Is this the end of our journey?

Karl: It is I’m afraid. For now...

Rod: For now.

Karl: How was this for you?

Rod: It was a good journey. Thank you.

Karl: Thank you. Shall we have another one soon?

Rod: I think we almost certainly will.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

big society

So - today... I saw a politician talking sense, supporting something worthwhile.

A man sounding like he meant what he said and being honest enough to say that even if he didn't lead the next government, he'd like whoever was leading it to support what he thought was just a good thing.

And how bizarre, how extraordinary for a Tory politician, a leader of the Tory party just a single generation away from Margaret Thatcher, to so naturally, effortlessly and eloquently talk about the importance of society.

Can I trust that he and his government won't go too far and mistake the crucial role that local action has to play (as an additional string to the bow of ideas, funding and intelligent strategy) for an alternative to a national plan.


I wish I could but I can't.

Do I wish that it was his Labour counterpart saying what he was saying?

Yes. (God yes.) I miss passion, eloquence and energy SO much from Gordon Brown right now.

And does it make me slightly less uneasy about the prospect of his party in power to hear him talk in this way?

Yes. Slightly.

So - David Cameron: nice to see you not looking or sounding as smug and cautious as normal.

(Although I'm sorry you've stolen the phrase big society from some people who have a richer definition of the phrase than you do.)

And to Big Society, good luck. I love your project.

(Just don't get TOO friendly with too many Tories with a misty glint of power in their eyes.)

Friday, 9 April 2010

nothing doing

I'm looking forward to catching up on my blogging in earnest next week but meanwhile, in the name of dialogue, I'm going to make it my job to listen for the small things during the election campaign.

And today I found this little bit of honesty from the BBC on its Election 2010 page:

It's the tone as much as anything else that I like:

Key election events?

"There aren’t any at the moment..."

No shit.

Perhaps this election won't be quite as rich with new media content as we've been told it will be.

Monday, 5 April 2010

win win

A long gap... because of a huge March.

Of work.

Centre stage was helping 280 people in Istanbul to have a BIG dialogue on success. On what success means to them. And what they have to do to achieve it.

The stakes were high, the investment was huge and it was a big decision to say yes to it.

I was plenty busy enough and I had good reasons to say no.

But I was drawn to this event, partly because the stakes were so high. (I'd not been stretched much this year so far - maybe that's what attracted me.)

Whatever it was that drew me in, I found myself (inadvertently) in a position to ask myself the same questions I was asking others.

Some people might say that there's only so much you can learn from commercial work, that it can't be work of real depth, but I find it a fascinating form to work in. Sometimes it feels like the best training in the world. And sometimes it feels like it's what I've trained for.

Perhaps it's because the imperative for achievement is so much keener, sharper and immediate than in the various not-for-profit adventures I've taken on (something which makes me extremely energised on a good day or cross on a bad day or angry some days and just frustrated most days.)

But the truth is I think that wherever I work, whatever environment I find myself working in, the forms I employ are the same.

And I'm old enough now to know that when I'm being employed or given positions of responsibility, I should do what I do well (When I'm doing things purely for my own pleasure, I love doing things I'm not very good at but when you're getting paid, stick to what you do well is a good motto.)

So, for the event in Istanbul, I did the things I do well:

I helped people talk to each other.

I recorded and edited conversations.

I put them together with a musical underscore and created an animation out of it.

I made a short film, interviewing people who know first-hand what it is to succeed (professionally at least).

I coached the enigmatic and fascinating Brazilian boss, and helped the fabulous Lisa and Matt (occasionally) to make sure the event as a whole was working.

At times I wondered if I was a little too close to the wire on it. But I wasn't. Not really. And what might have been a scary job with too much pressure, became a genuinely rewarding experience and what had seemed to me to be an absurd project to take on before I said yes, became one of those I'm very glad I did.

Success. Winning.

These words had seemed very thin and uninteresting to me.

But I learnt lots about them. As ideas. And habits. I became... for a while.. utterly immersed in them. (Partly because I was listening back to the many, many recordings I did on the project. Every day... for ages.)

So there I was, trying to succeed at something that was about... success.

Trying to edit a film and create an animation with words and phrases about how to be brilliant, swimming around my head throughout. Receiving constant notes from others (little did they know).

And so... now it's gone. Now it's done. (It's taken me a month to have enough space in my head to write this). Now I've been given a chance to consider why what I do works sometimes. (It doesn't always. But usually, if I'm honest, it does.)

And given that I insist that others reflect and learn, I thought I should insist to myself that I stop and ask what success is about for me.

Not so much what it means to me, but how I try to make it happen.

So - here's what I did, on this particular event.

Here's how my determination to help make something a success came out. In terms of behaviour, there were four main things I think:

1. I worked longer hours than I have on anything for months.

2. I kept on pushing and challenging myself and those around me even when I knew what we had was good enough (but not as good as it could be yet).

3. I remained open to possibilities, even though a deadline was close. Very close.

4. I accepted that some things weren't what I'd hoped they might be and moved on.. to discover newer and previously unseen things.

But out of all the things I did...I think above all, it was more about something I had that made the biggest difference.

It's something I know I have (and count myself lucky to have it) but it revealed itself to me in a very fresh way in Istanbul: it was confidence.

Not confidence in the sense of "I can do this. I know I can do this." Actually sometimes I wondered if I actually could do it.

(I think that's healthy. It's healthy not to be sure but to get on and do it anyway. I think... Usually. Certainty is something I'm slowly learning to give up.)

No, this was more about confidence in relationships.

I found that if I looked at people straight in the eye and trusted that a dialogue is possible, no matter how much pressure there is, that when I've asked something of someone, something that might have been really challenging, mostly (mostly) what people put their faith in wasn't so much their ability, or their courage or nerve, but actually it was in their faith or their confidence in their relationship with me.

Because if someone goes out on a limb....

If as a result of a conversation with someone you try something new, something really big and then - in terms of the task or the challenge - you fail... what are you left with?

Surely... it's the relationship with the person who asked you to take on that challenge.

The person who asked something of you.

And I asked a lot of people on this event, in different ways.

And I'm happy to say that in terms of all the challenges and the tasks we took on in Istanbul, just about every single one was a success.

But even on the ones where (if only temporarily) there was failure, the relationships remained intact. As people walked towards me after their big moments, I saw smiles. Expressions that said: "I've just learnt something." I heard tones of satisfaction. And I witnessed small triumphs of integrity.

And in the handshakes and the sighs of relief that come after a big event, it felt like relationships had been tested. And they'd survived.

In fact more than that - they'd grown. They'd become stronger.

So - strengthened relationships. Those two words have always been there as one of the outcomes of dialogue on my well used slide that says: The Principles of Dialogue.

And I'm glad to say that on this event, the principles were practised.

And that felt good.

So thanks Istanbul. (And sorry I didn't see much of you. I'll be back.)

But mostly, thanks to those people who trusted me there, who put faith in themselves and confidence in our relationship.