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.


Changing communities – reflections on catalysing community evolution

Alice Casey’s recent article on Nesta’s Systemic Innovation discussion series raises some interesting questions about the future of communities and public service reform.

I like Alice’s suggestion of three promising ways that innovation is happening in practice:

Structures that value collaboration, relationships that enable power sharing and internet platforms that reveal patterns, help scale and lead to behaviour change.

It’s right to point to the importance of structures that value collaboration, but it’s not right to suggest that these are anything new. Whilst examples of projects like Spice and of community groups evolving to become providers of holistic community services are good to hear about, they are not new. Community trading/exchange schemes that are not based on financial interaction are have been around a long time. Timebanks are now well established, but Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) have been around since the 1980s. I suspect that some bright spark advising a Minister (or Shadow Minister) decided they needed repackaging as something ‘new’ and so there’s a sudden rush to rebrand an old idea in a new wrapper. And, just to be clear I’m not suggesting Timebanks are bad simply because they aren’t LETS and both have their place. But all too often we dismiss decades of learning in the rush to reinvent the wheel for political reasons. The tendency for politicians to reinvent and rebrand the same ideas, without any regard for their heritage and learning from the past is a particular bugbear of mine.

Suggesting community groups providing holistic services is merely an emerging phenomenon is wide of the mark. For over a century the Settlement movement has sought to provide holistic services that meet the needs of local communities, more recently Development Trusts have operated in a similar way (and now the two movements are incorporated into a single association, with the creation of Locality[1]). And more generally, community groups are constantly joining up the dots and filling in the gaps of state provision.

Nonetheless, not every community group or development trust values collaboration and we should not confuse the governance model (eg not for profit) with the way they work – some community groups, charities, local authorities, for-profit-companies value collaboration and some don’t. I do however, agree wholeheartedly that to support and scale up approaches that place greater emphasis and value on collaboration, we need to see significant change in local authority behaviours – along, I would add, with central government and the rest of the public sector, and pretty much everyone else.

The Social Value Act is a useful hook, but if we expect it to be our salvation then we need to think again. I have been trying to do some serious thinking (as part of my work at Lambeth) about how we respond to some of these challenges – such as embedding a robust but manageable assessment of social value in our commissioning cycle. But there is a long way to go before we will have real confidence in any holistic measurement of impact.

Alice refers to ‘relationships that enable power sharing’ based on a shift from a deficit model, to a strengths based approach, which is a very positive development. But again, from my experience of trying to implement this sort of shift, the tricky bit is not in articulating the change, but in working out how it fits together with other bits of the system. For example, what happens when the priorities and ambitions of a neighbourhood differ markedly from the political priorities of an elected council (or indeed national government)? Do we take localism to its natural conclusion and devolve control fully to every neighbourhood? It’s a brave politician that would advocate that….Turkeys…Christmas? And just in case anyone’s wondering…I don’t believe for one second that Eric Pickles brand of smoke and mirrors centralising localism is doing anything of the sort.

But even putting that to one side, there’s still the question of how we connect the unearthed community assets with the state’s resource allocations, prioritisation and service delivery. At the most basic and practical level, these two approaches simply do not fit easily together.

Co-production is also an important part of the jigsaw, and citing Holy Cross (a project I know well) as a good example of co-production is fine, but it is one good, but small, project. How can coproduction work across an entire local authority boundary? In fact administrative boundaries aren’t always helpful, so we need a system that works across ward or council boundaries, as well as across departmental and service silos. And, if we’re properly taking account of social value – then it becomes even more complicated – as we start to ask, what the impact of Holy Cross (or every other individual project) is on the local economy, environment, cultural life, community safety, wellbeing….the list goes on.

Technology too offers potential benefits that can be utilised to support online and offline networking and collaboration. Though of course there are still considerable challenges we face in bridging the unequal availability and capability to use these new platforms. Nonetheless, progress is being made, where technology is applied in ways that fit with people’s everyday lives. And yet too few institutions have made the shift from broadcast to interaction in the way they use technology. There’s a reason social media has the name….it’s social, interactive, communal, shared; a point lost on a great many institutions.

So for me, the simple bit is agreeing that a strength based approach, co-production and using emerging technology are essential ingredients. What I’m not yet clear on – and have spent much time thinking about recently – is what the recipe is and the method we need to use to cook up some change.



[1] Locality was created from the merger of bassac – the membership group for settlements and action centres – with the Development Trusts Association.

Increasing the evidence base or reducing uncertainty?

Over the years, and in a variety of roles, I have spent a lot of time trying to ‘increase the evidence base’ to inform policy and decision-making. Evidence of what works should guide our plans for the future – this has been the mantra.

Sometimes we’ve had lots of evidence-based policy making – the Social Exclusion Unit’s Policy Action Teams is probably the zenith for evidence based policy development – and at other times we’ve had an almost anti-evidence approach. Talk of ‘conviction politics’ seems more popular these days, less evidence, more how it feels.

The politics is the politics….whatever.

But I’ve been increasingly questioning the sense of ‘increasing evidence’ if we are serious about social innovation.

They say that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour, but is that the case if we are trying to change things?

If we are trying seriously to develop innovative approaches – whether it’s to service delivery, community participation, governance, design or enterprise – we cannot know what the outcome will be. If we know, then surely it can’t be innovation….it’s a dead cert. And that doesn’t sound to me like innovation.

So, with innovation and creativity, there is a risk. We take that risk in trying something new, whether we acknowledge it or not. It may fail. 

Try again, fail again, fail better!

[i just couldn’t resist putting this wonderful Samuel Beckett quote in!]

We can learn from the past, from the evidence base, certainly. But that is useful only as a means of reducing the uncertainty (or the level of risk) in our planned innovation.


If we get too hung up on talking about increasing the evidence base, I worry that we will become too confident about the impact we will have when we deliver a particular innovation. The evidence base may be useful – it may tell us how things worked in a different setting with different circumstances. But because life around us changes so rapidly, we cannot be certain that what happened in the past will happen again in the future.

The other thing that makes me nervous talking about increasing the evidence-base, is that it can stifle innovation and (managed) risk taking. If we emphasize having to have an evidence base to prove that we should do something, we may find that the evidence is never there and so the innovation is never tried.

If we talk about reducing uncertainty, by contrast, we are accepting an implicit level of risk (which is there) but that the use of evidence can help us to reduce that risk to a more manageable level. 

That may sound rather subtle but I think in terms of establishing a culture of innovation (thinking in particular about my experience of local government) I think this matters a great deal.

This is not about dismissing the value of evidence….but more about how we frame its use in supporting social innovation.

Pick ‘n Mix isn’t a recipe for replication

Yesterday Michael Gove announced his plans to overhaul GCSEs and reintroduce an end of course exam for core subjects that is reminiscent of O-levels. If he hadn’t signalled his intention some time ago, I’m sure that many observers would have suggested this was due to the recent marking debacle.

This raises a fundamental question of whether exams are the best way to equip children with the skills and knowledge they need for their futures. There is plenty of evidence to suggest they are not….but that topic is for another day. What interested me most yesterday was the government’s clear intention to copy the ‘very best education systems’, in particular the Finnish approach.

The Finnish system does produce some of the best results in the world in maths and science (in particular), and understandably the Secretary of State would like some of that. But it appears as if the plans laid out yesterday are based in picking bits of the Finnish approach they like, whilst overlooking other fundamentals.

I heard a Finnish academic being interviewed on the radio yesterday and the first question he was asked was ‘what makes your system so good?’. The first words to come out of his mouth were not about class sizes, exams, funding or individual learning plans…he said simply ‘the Finnish system is based on equity’.

This fundamental guiding principle that underpins one of the most successful education systems in the world took me slightly by surprise. Not because I was surprised to hear that, like social policy in other Scandinavian countries, delivered better outcomes for all…but because I had not heard any references to suggest the Secretary of State plans to embed it in the UK.

Of course to do so would require a more fundamental shake-up of our education system than fiddling around with exams for 16 year olds. It would mean wholesale change and an end to the huge educational inequality that exists currently.

When seeking to replicate good practice or social innovation, you cannot simply pick the bits you like and disregard the bits you don’t. This is not education by identikit!

Our education system is a highly complex web of dependencies, relationships and endless ‘moving parts’. To overlook fundamental principles and simply copy a few of the elements that it incorporates and hope it still works is not Grade A work….I’m not even sure it merits a pass!

It smacks of oversimplification and beings to mind a nice quote (the origins of which escape me), which goes along the lines of: Disasters can occur when complex problems are regarded as merely complicated, or even simple ones.

Let’s hope our children’s education are not based on a pick ‘n mix approach to innovation.

The Gig Society – reflections on City Camp Brighton

On Sunday I went to Brighton and once I’d traipsed through the rain the long way round the Amex Stadium I found myself at City Camp Brighton. City Camps, if you don’t know, are gatherings of people working together to develop innovative solutions to social problems through the use of technology. Over the weekend people from the voluntary and community sector, techies, local government and the odd punk-rocker or two put their heads together to see what ideas they could come up with. After a couple of days exploring, discussing, designing and refining their thinking, at the end of the weekend people can pitch their ideas and the best idea (or ideas) are given money to take them forward.

Brighton’s second City Camp (following a successful foray into the genre last year) was organised by the Democratic Society and the prize money was put up by Brighton & Hove City council and NHS Sussex. I was asked to chair the panel judging the winners and have the pleasure of giving away someone else’s money to support good ideas J


There were a number of ideas that caught the eye and we ultimately agreed to fund 7 projects, with others being offered in-kind support to develop their ideas. The outright – and unanimous – winner was Gig Buddies, the brainchild of Paul Richards Bass Player from punk rock band Heavy Load. The idea is simple – aren’t all the best ones? – to connect disabled people  who want to go to gigs, with people who can help get them there (and home). When disabled people rely on carers to assist them getting around, it’s not uncommon for them to finish work at 9 or 10pm, meaning cutting short gigs and other evening activity. Gig Buddies will help connect disabled people with other people who are going to the gig already to help out. It was immediately obvious that the idea would make a difference to people’s lives. It also helped that they had the pun of the day in the Gig Society.

There were lots of other good ideas – and Wired has done a nice write up of the event and some of the winning ideas that’s worth a read.


Some of the ideas were truly radical – and offering them a £5,000 grant wouldn’t have even touched the sides in terms of what they needed. Others were rough diamonds that clearly had something about them, but needed more work to develop a clearer focus and plan to move them forward. Some, as is always the case when people get together to talk about innovation, were interesting and good projects, but not what I would call innovation. That doesn’t make them bad ideas…just not necessarily right for City Camp.

I think the City Camp model is a good one, though I believe it’s still a challenge to make it truly accessible to grass roots groups. Using technology to develop social innovation has huge potential but I still feel it’s an invited space which non-techies are welcomed in to, to a greater or lesser extent. I can’t help feeling there’s more we can do to establish and support social spaces that put technology second to community action – merely tools to be deployed in furtherance of social aims. I know there are people out there from grass roots groups and communities whose radical ideas for innovation would benefit from technology and help those working with/in technology to use their skills and expertise to greater effect.

But I realise that there are currently a number of obstacles on all sides that don’t make that coming together an easy thing to pull off. Brighton have made a great start….now we need to push further.



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.