Welcome and unwelcome disruption

In a previous post I wrote about the experience of being a ‘professional outsider’ with a role to creatively and positively disrupt normal ways of working. This sparked a really interesting discussion on twitter with Mark Brown and Roxanne Persaud (both of whom I would say are kindred spirits in the disruption stakes). Mark made the point that the reaction that disruptors get to their suggestions is dependent on (in his words) ‘which gate you enter through’.

This got me thinking about the differences between being an invited outsider and an uninvited one.

I realise that at different times in my career the ideas I have suggested have been received very differently. Sometimes I know I’ve been seen as a pain in the neck (as anyone who knows me will attest) but on other occasions the response has been far more positive. What makes the difference? Is it all about the ideas or are there other factors at play?

It’s my firm view – and one that I am grateful to Mark for articulating and reminding me of – that the content (what is being suggested) is only part of the picture in determining how it is received and whether or not it is acted on. Though I’ve not conducted a randomised controlled trial on this to test my theory, I think that who the message comes from and their perceived status has a significant bearing on how that message is received.

I’ve worked with countless community activists that have had to ‘force’ their way in to discussions within organisations that – to a greater or lesser extent – see them as trouble makers and unwelcome disruptions. The questions they ask and the ideas they put forward are typically seen as difficult and more often than not strenuous efforts are made to marginalise them and their thinking. In my (sometimes) more privileged role as an ‘invited disruptor’, my interjections are – on the whole – regarded as equally awkward but less easy to dismiss. The disruption is not always welcome, but it is expected. This role is legitimised in a way that the community activist’s may not be, despite the fact that there’s no fundamental difference in what might be said.

I do think that perhaps sometimes there is a knowledge of an organisation, the context and – crucially – the language in which the messages are couched, that makes it easier for invited disruptors to be heard. One learns when and how to ‘push back’ against resistance. But there’s also an important learning point for organisations to think more carefully about how they respond to disruption. This is particularly pertinent with the growing expectations that user or community involvement matters to the quality of decision-making and delivery of outcomes.

If organisations are unable to respond in constructive ways to the disruption of outsiders the risks are that at very people they say they want to involve will quickly become disillusioned and walk away. It’s not easy though as a lack of institutional knowledge and access to some of the issues that may not have been disclosed makes it too easy to dismiss valid questions and suggestions.

Nonetheless if we fail to regard ‘uninvited disruption’ in an equitable way to ‘invited disruption’ then it will become increasingly difficult to achieve some of the – hopefully – common goals that are shared by activists and organisations.


Disruption, change and the professional outsider

I used to find it easy to answer the question ‘so, what do you do?’. I’d simply reply, I run a charity and that was generally met with ‘oh, how rewarding’….to which I always replied, ‘yes, it’s great, I get paid every month’. These days I find the question far harder to answer and generally revert to fairly meaningless terms like, social innovation, public benefit, social good and community stuff.

The usual labels we apply to our work, such as our job titles or the sector we work in, don’t really apply. That’s probably true of most consultants (though I don’t really consider myself a consultant, since some of my work is done as an employee, others on a freelance basis…) but I feel there’s something else going on.

I increasingly find myself working in sectors in which I am not an expert, surrounded by people who are immersed in the subject. I’ve written before about being a generalist and the benefits this can bring to the creative process. But it occurs to me that, in addition to being a generalist and dipping your toes into different subjects, there’s something about the role of being an ‘outsider’ which is an increasing part of my work.


I work in local government – and I am an employee of a local authority – but I don’t really feel I am ‘from local government’ and nor do I think my colleagues in the council regard me as such. My role is to be an outsider on the inside. To question why we do things in a certain way and wonder whether there might be a different way.

It’s the same with my work with charities. Though I do feel more ‘of the sector’ than with local government, I find myself increasingly offer opinion on how local authorities and others might perceive things or explaining how the opaque workings of the public sector might relate (or not).

I’m not a techie or a developer, though I consider myself an open data advocate.

I’m not an educationalist, but I have helped establish a school.

I’m a long way from being an academic or a researcher, but I do work with academics and researchers and often find myself among them discussing it.

I’m not a planner nor am I an architect, but I’ve often found myself talking to build environment professionals about the planning system and how to engage communities in it.

In fact it’s the fact that I am not immersed in these disciplines or intimately familiar with the way things tend to be done that allows me to ask stupid questions, to challenge orthodoxy and to constantly ask ‘is this the best way it can be done?’

I am, I suppose, a professional outsider, paid to creatively disrupt traditional ways of working and established norms.

If we are in the business of change – and that is one of the few common characteristics of what I do – then disruption is inevitable. Disruption is what happens when we change things.

Where does the disruption come from?

Of course that will vary from setting to setting and it’s probably more common to come from within. Some people are comfortable challenging traditional behaviour from within their own organisations (in fact I’ve worked with some remarkable people who thrive on it). Some people are tasked with change, and so have disruption written into their roles (though generally not in any explicit way).

But sometimes that disruption comes from the outside. Whether it’s a service user, a funder, a politician or some other stakeholder, the challenge to our normal ways of working can be profound. And sometimes the disruption is deliberately invited in – whether that’s asking someone to come and talk, circulating a provocative article or talk you’ve come across, or paying someone to work with you to inject some creative disruption.

The current economic context, technological advances and socio-political drivers are all increasing the pace and need for change in the public, private and not for profit sectors. If doing things differently requires some sort of disruption, are we seeing a growing realisation that the outsider is an increasingly important part of our organisational requirements?

Or maybe it’s just me…

Generalists, specialists and the creative process

About once a month or so, it seems to cross my mind that I should jolly well decide what it is I am interested in or want to ‘do’ and start concentrating on that. Sometimes the thought passes fleetingly past my eyes and out of sight. On other occasions it stays with me, lingering around, causing me to mull it over for a few days…like it has this week.

So I thought I’d get it out in the open and see what others thought.

I have pretty varied interests, as I’m sure most people do. Where I’ve been really lucky, is that I have been able to find ways of working on all of these different things – some of it paid! 😉

I don’t know that they are particularly connected, other than being things I am interested in and work on. Local government reform, open data, banking and community finance, education, community participation, regeneration and the built environment, experimentation, grant making….it’s a bit of a funny list. I suppose you could lump it all under the broad heading of ‘social good’ – at least I’d like to think it would all fit under there. But it is, I think, pretty varied.

So, within all that (and that’s just the stuff I’m currently working on…I’ve done a fair bit of other stuff in the past) it’s probably hard to be an expert in anything. I suppose I like to think of myself as knowing a thing or two about community engagement – so that’s maybe one area I’d consider myself pretty well informed. To be honest I don’t think it’s really to do with how much you know about something.

I think I know quite a bit about some of those things. However I think if you work across a wide range of topics, I think people are probably less likely to see you as an expert in any of them. A polymath is perhaps a rare thing.

One of the consistently beneficial aspects of having varied interests, in my experience, lies in the ability to be creative and innovative. New ideas come, often, from the ability to connect things which might previously have been unconnected. As Steve Jobs said:

“Creativity is just connecting things.”

The wider the range of disconnected inputs we have, the more chance we have of being able to make connections. Although I work across a wide range of subjects, I am constantly seeing connections and ways that approaches can be applied. I believe that the vast majority of my ideas come from taking what is commonplace in one sphere and applying it to another.

Being a generalist – and having a passion for learning new things – gives me a tremendous advantage in seeking creative and innovative solutions to social problems. Whether it’s thinking about using open data in education or applying community investment practice to local government reform, the cross-fertilisation of ideas from one area of work to another is seemingly never ending.

So maybe I should stop worrying about not being a specialist and celebrate the joys of being a generalist…at least for another month.

The glory of failure (& a bit about creativity)

Today I went to a Big Lottery Fund seminar on People Powered Change, facilitated by their social-reporters-at-large, David Wilcox, John Popham and Drew Mackie. It was a really lively event with energetic and interesting people who were very engaged and full of ideas. (You can find out more about what went on in this Storify that John’s put together).

I arrived to find myself on the delegate list under ‘Organisation: ‘Very lively online’ – which I quite liked, but I think Shaun Walsh (BIG’s Deputy Director of Communications) was slightly embarrassed…he clearly doesn’t know me J

I joined a discussion about peer-learning and telling stories and the focus of the conversation turned to what could be done to share learning better within the VCS (and what BIG could do to encourage this).

I suggested, much to the amusement on one of the other tables (when my point was tweeted) that BIG might consider creating incentives for failure to be more honestly reported.

The problem, as I see it, is that despite the talk about learning from mistakes there’s currently very little incentive to be honest about when things go wrong or we make mistakes. Not horribly, incredibly pear-shaped. Just a bit wrong. If we say ‘oh we didn’t actually achieve what we said we would’ and went on to explain why, we worry it harms our reputation and prospects of future funding. So we don’t. We pretend everything is wonderful and we kid ourselves that’s true. And we don’t learn and nor does anyone else and no doubt someone makes the same mistakes again in the future.

So, how can we create incentives for people to be more honest about failure? Or as Roxanne Persaud puts it how can we really create a culture which recognises ‘the Glory of Failure’?

As one of the biggest funders in the country BIG has the chance to make a real difference by how it approaches things. I remember when they really started getting serious about outcomes, it changed how many not for profits think about outcomes (and also a number of other grant makers). Surely BIG could turn their attention to honesty in learning and play a similarly ‘shaping’ role?

One obvious way of creating an incentive to change behaviour is with funds. [And before all you behaviour change experts start telling me that extrinsic incentives, like money, aren’t as effective as intrinsic rewards….I know, but I think it’s a slightly different situation]

What would happen if BIG gave money to people who made mistakes and admitted them? Clearly that’s absurd. Public money can’t just be given to people to mess up. So what about if there was money for people who made mistakes, admitted them, and demonstrated they’d learnt from the experience and changed things as a result? That, in my view, begins to get closer to something that might have merit.

At this point I want to mention how I view creativity and idea-creation – or at least how I develop ideas and new thinking. When I have an idea, I don’t really expect that idea to be a game changer…in fact I rarely expect it to be viable. So I am not seriously saying that the BIG should just give cash to people who screw up. But, from that turning things on their head to tackle a problem, an idea emerges which I (or whoever I’m with) can build on – or spin off from – and play with to see if there’s something in it that could be useful. By the end (and I don’t think I’ve quite got there yet with this one) the bonkers idea that had the table at the back laughing [you know who you are…!] was becoming something that you could sort of see there was an idea in there worth thinking about. The way my brain works really only mirrors a tried and tested creative thinking technique that Edward De Bono (no less) advocates of turning things completely to their opposite and seeing where that leads you.

Peter Wanless, BIG’s chief executive (who I briefly ran my half-baked thoughts by at the event) tweeted shortly after ‘like idea of BIG paying for learning from failure if helps inform future. Less sure about more cash so same people can have another go’. Now I’m with him on that one….but I think what Peter was saying (and he can correct me if I’ve got this wrong) is that there may be a germ of an idea in there about some sort of financial incentive for learning from failure.

There are all sorts of issues that would need to be worked through – not least accountability to Parliament for spending public money – but perhaps there’s a way forward.

Maybe BIG can play a role in establishing a new approach to learning and more honest about failure in this way? And if they do, I’d like to think my suggestion had contributed just a little, whilst amusing some people along the way.


Innovation brain-food

For me, innovation and creativity come from being exposed to new ideas and thinking and inspiring stories of things people have done and applying them in different ways and different situations to my own work and thinking. One of the most obvious ways I expose myself to thinking and ideas is by reading and so, in an effort to share with others some of the more interesting things I’ve come across over the last year or so, I’ve made a list of books that have caused me to think about things differently.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything that’s been written in all of them, but that’s not the point. They’ve caused me to think and I hope they do the same for you!

23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism – this is the only book I can remember reading twice for many years (the last being Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping Point). Ha-Joon Chang expertly (and accessibly) dismantles a number of myths that surround popular notions of how our global economy works. A must read for anyone interested in re-thinking economic theory and practice and a great resource to help you challenge defunct conventional wisdom.

Switch: how to change things when change is hard by Dan and Chip Heath is an excellent and fairly light hearted (but still serious) look at change – what helps and hinders efforts to make things different – which is the business many of us are in! Brings change theory to life with interesting anecdotes from a wide range of perspectives in the private, public and not-for-profit sector, with plenty of practical tips to apply in real life.

Reading Switch made me go back to the Heath brothers’ first book, Made to stick: why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck, which is also excellent. It covers some of the same ground as Tipping Point, but is also well worth a read if (like me) you are interested in understanding how we apply change management theory and practice to bringing about social change.

Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us by Daniel Pink is another interesting read on the subject of change, this time exploring the issues of motivation and the psychology of incentives. Whilst the truth that’s ‘uncovered’ may not be as surprising as the title suggests, it does provide a very interesting insight into behaviour change and builds on the thinking behind Nudge and behavioural economics.

Social animal: a story of how success happens by David Brooks – I heard about this on the E-Campaigners Forum email list [which is great by the way, i strongly recommend signing up!] and was then coincidentally given a copy the next week! It has been gaining a lot of attention among politicians and David Cameron and Ed Miliband have both apparently had recent meetings with the author. Don’t let the ‘new nudge’ title put you off. It’s a fascinating read, awash with incredible findings about how the mind works and how we develop as individuals throughout our lives.

Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer is an interesting study of how Israel has developed an entrepreneurial culture that has led to the growth of a thriving technology industry. It offers some valuable lessons in the factors that contribute to an enterprise culture that should give plenty of thought to how we support social (and private) enterprise in the UK. Like most of the other books listed, it includes plenty of interesting stories and examples of things that, whilst improbable, have actually happened.

The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr starts with the premise that technology is changing not just how we act but actually changing our brains physiologically too. I have to confess that I am only half way through this one at the moment, and I’m still undecided on whether this (if true) is actually as important as the author suggests, but it’s certainly got me thinking about how we use technology and how it affects society.

A thousand little things isn’t like the other publications listed. It’s not really a book and you can’t buy it in a bookshop. It’s something that has been produced by the clothing company, Boden. It’s not a catalogue selling things. In fact it’s hard to really say what it is. It’s a fairly random collection of pictures, collages, thoughts and stories from the people who work at Boden (and a few celebrity friends). The reason I like it so much is because of its eclectic and eye-catching design. To my untrained eye it’s a ‘design classic’ and a great example of how good design can pull you in – even if the content isn’t something you’re particularly interested in.

TED talks another slightly different entry to finish off my list. This isn’t a book, or even a publication. It’s people talking. Lots of people. Talking about all sorts of topics from data visualisation to fighting cancer. There are hundreds of short (10-15 minute) video clips of thought provoking and insightful speakers from around the world sharing their ideas. It also includes talks by a number of the authors of the books listed above! If you’re not a book person (or if you want to get a feel for some of the books I’ve mentioned) then this is a great place to go for inspiration and brain food.

So, that’s some of the brain food I’ve been feasting on over the last few months. I’m always on the lookout for interesting material, so do please share any interesting books, articles or video that you’ve come across.