Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The one with the chat about the role of the Critical Friend

 For the last three years I’ve been the Critical Friend for bait, the Creative People & Places project for South East Northumberland. Although all the CPP projects have a Critical Friend, the exact role has varied depending on the context, needs and skills of the teams and their Friends. With bait, my role has been a combination of coach, facilitator, challenger, mirror, and bringer of other perspectives and frameworks. I’ve worked with the team and with the Consortium Board, mainly around identifying and understanding what is happening as a result of the work, and what the implications for action might be. Along the way, I’ve passed on various techniques and frameworks for everyday use, which is another key aspect of the Critical Friend role, and we've developed bespoke frameworks together, such as bait's Quality Guidelines

 The role differs slightly from that of, say, a coaching or mentoring situation, as it is much more engaged with the mission of the team. (Coaching and mentoring being generally more personally-focussed, but often more detached, especially in coaching.) This came up in an interview Rachel Adam, the Project Director and I recently did with Eleanor Turney, which you can read on the CPP web site. You have to have a lot of distance and a lot of connection simultaneously, and help the team, including yourself, work in an atmosphere of ‘high support, high challenge’. 

 The classic definition of the role in education, where it is most used, suggests ‘a critical friend can be defined as a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend. A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working toward. The friend is an advocate for the success of that work.’ (Costa and Kallick, 1993

 I was interested to see some references to Janus when checking definitions. As a typical Libran who doesn’t believe in astrology, and whose scores on most psychometrics have increasingly converged on the middle range in all areas, this perhaps explains why it’s a role I’m confortable with, and have enjoyed. (Last time I did a Myers-Briggs test I was almost equal everything: I’m either becoming a very balanced human being or gradually losing any personality I ever had.) 

 You can see in the interview what the relationship has brought to bait and to Rachel as the Project Director. As she says: ‘"I will want there to be a critical friend written into any other complex projects I undertake. It’s absolutely worth its weight in gold." I do feel it’s a role that would be useful for other major projects or for NPOs moving through major changes, challenges or developments (ie most of them). 

 Like the other CPP Critical Friends, my work with bait has been around 12 days a year, but I am sure the role could be meaningful with less time than that, given clarity and good planning. Although board members can, in theory, provide some of the functions of the Critical Friend, often they don’t, and often boards also benefit from having someone to help them operate well together in that ‘high support, high challenge’ zone that often leads to the best work, and to breakthroughs in thinking. This kind of facilitative support is often brought in on ‘special occasions’ – high days, away days and crises – and can of course be invaluable in those circumstances. But the ongoing, long-term nature of the Critical Friend role changes dynamics in a helpful way, embedding reflective practices that help teams think through messy or complex issues, what they do, what it makes happen and what they need to consider or do next, and who they might need to involve. 

 You can read the conversation between Rachel, Eleanor and myself here.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Mission, values and business modelling

 Last year I was commissioned by the Arts Marketing Association to research and write a large set of case studies looking at arts organisation and museum business models, using the Business Model Canvas, devised by Osterwalder & Peignuer. This is a format that, with some additions I’ll come to, I’ve used regularly with many organisations of different types and scales over the last few years, so it was an interesting opportunity to dig a bit deeper into the format, as well as into some fascinating organisations. 

 The case studies were based on interviews and examination of several years of annual accounts and reports. This last led to my new top tip to organisations seeking funding or investment: take your annual report seriously as an opportunity to portray yourself to the world, not just as a statutory duty, they are your visible portraits. Remember: someone might look at them to try and understand you. 

 The 18 case studies were used as part of the AMA’s Future Proof Museums programme last year, inform the new online learning resource Building Resilience, and have now all been uploaded onto the CultureHive website, along with some introductions to the Business Model Canvas and a piece discussing some patterns and outliers. In that I pose six questions, which I think have relevance at both individual organisation or group level and at sectoral levels. 

 Those questions are: 

Q1. Can you talk clearly, simply and powerfully about your business model and your value? 
It is simplistic to suggest that all cultural organisations can achieve the often-cited ‘third/third/third’ financial mix of public, private and earned income. But how common do we hear a realistic and clear alternative set out? One use of the Canvas can be to help people talk more powerfully about how an arts business works and what value it makes with or for people. 

Q.2 Does your adapted Value Proposition fit well with your mission, purpose and your customers? 
One limitation of the Business Model Canvas as applied to arts and cultural organisations is that there is no specific way to accommodate purpose or mission, especially where this is charitable in nature rather than financial. When working with people I have added a ‘Mission’ section to the Canvas to make sure this aspect is not lost. A number of the case studies talked powerfully about how re-emphasising the charitable purpose of their organisation had been important in reviewing and renewing their business models and work. (This made me think, again, how many arts ‘charities’ pay too little attention to the responsibilities of that legal structure.) 

Q.3 Does your business model reflect your values? 
The Business Model Canvas doesn’t explicitly reference Values. These are often reflected in the Customer Relationships where we articulate what kind of relationship the model needs to establish with customers. It is crucial, however, that the model, whatever, it is, is in keeping with your values: it’s a fool’s game to set up a model reliant on income from sponsors whose interests don't sit with those of the communities or audience groups you want o work with, for instance. 

Q.4 Are you making the best use of your particular crisis? 
There is a cliche that every crisis is actually an opportunity. A surprising number of people interviewed for these case studies related stories of how crisis had been useful to them, although the nature of the crisis varied widely. Some talked about crises of finance, where income had fallen and left a hole in the budgets. Others talked about facing a crisis of relevance that had gradually emerged as their business lost its community or audience backing. One small organisation talked of a crisis of short-termism - a common syndrome as organisations grow. For others the crisis was one of performance dropping or of stakeholders changing priorities. 

Q.5 What role do your Key Partners play in your business model and in the model for the sector as a whole? 
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a cultural organisation in possession of a mission and a Value Proposition must be in need of a partner. The range of ways in which people had opened up their businesses to partners – including audiences in some cases – was striking. Although the Canvas is useful as a design tool, don't forget that many models end up being co-designed, one way or another. 

Q.6 Are you adapting your business model as a whole or just one element? 
Although it was most common to see innovation driven by changes to the offer and the overall Value Proposition, Key Partners and Customer Segments also played a big part. Understanding of customers, increasingly informed by data that allows mining for behaviours as well as demographics, can be seen to shape offer and resources - as in Beamish’s development of a new 1950s town. What was common with those I spoke to was a desire to see the business model as a whole. Leaders recognised a need to avoid continually adding on ‘sub-business models’ designed simply to increase Revenue Streams, without considering the whole business. This means that staffing, partnerships and crucially the Value Proposition to customers can be aligned as the model adapts. 

 I'll be leading sessions on using the Business Model Canvas (with my humble additions) at the AMA Conference in Edinburgh 12-14 July. The theme is 'on a mission to matter', the importance of which comes through all the case studies. 

 The 18 case studies are of the organisations listed below, and I’d like to thank here people from each of the organisations for their time and help in developing the case studies.

Allenheads Contemporary Arts 
Arts at the Old Fire Station, Oxford 
Beamish Museum 
Black Country Living Museum 
Bloodaxe Books 
Castlefield Gallery 
Derby Museums 
Hackney Empire 
Ironbridge Gorge Museum 
Live Theatre 
MAC Birmingham 
Ministry of Stories 
Red Earth Theatre 
Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History 
South Bank Centre 
Western Australia Museum

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Storifying the creative case

Last week, for one day, I had a job title again. I quite like avoiding having a job title whenever possible, only adopting one when forms require it, but last Tuesday I was Official Tweeter at the Creative Case NORTH national event at Leeds City Museum, having failed till it was too late to demand to be referred to as Executive Tweeter or Vice President of Tweetology or Humphrey Jennings Memorial Documentary Tweet Director. I was part of the documentation team, alongside another poet, a photographer and a visual notetaker. It was actually much harder work than I'd anticipated, listening, writing and editing in as close to real time as possible. I'd like to do it again, can see how I might be able to become more creative with it with more practice. So if you'd like some informed and creative reflection on your event or conference, get in touch. 

 After the event, I pulled together a 'storify' version of the online activity around what was a really positive day. I did a meta-evaluation of the first three years of Creative Case NORTH activity last year, and it was interesting to feel a greater focus on action in the discussions - and there were some great case studies shared during the day, which I think will be shared online. (You can read about the most recent Creative Case NORTH activity here.) The storify does give a flavour of the feeling. (I was mainly tweeting from the Zendeh account, except when I forgot, hence the relative lack of @thinkinpractice tweets.) 

 Whilst I'm sharing online sources, I also recently wrote a short blog for Tees Valley Arts, who have been archiving old projects and found the Poem for the Millennium I helped start in 1997. (I worked there as Literature Development Worker and the Director between 1993 and 1999, when it was known as Cleveland Arts.) Start but not finish, sadly... hence the theme of my blog, 'the big one that got away'. The idea was a kind of chain poem, but it ran out of steam - though not before being passed round some very fine poets around the English-speaking world, some of whom, such as Claudia Rankine, are much better known now than at the time.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Not bold, not new, but workable

I was tempted to head this blog ''Minister, you're no Jennie Lee', but I decided that would be a bit unfair. Ed Vaizey is obviously passionate about his brief, and is scrupulous in his run through the 50 years between the first White Paper on the arts, overseen by Jennie Lee, and his own, published recently. He gives due credit to his predecessors, regardless of party. But although there are clear continuities in some areas of attention, such as access and education, it is in the discontinuities and disconnections that the real story is told, and where the new White Paper falls down against not just Lee’s vision, but, more importantly, in relation to what’s needed now. 

 Vaizey has claimed the White Paper represents a ‘bold, new vision’, but there is really very little new here - and what one might at a push consider bold, such as putting culture at the heart of communities, is definitely not new. The paper starts with this statement ‘Everyone should enjoy the opportunities culture offers, no matter where they start in life.’ We would hardly expect anyone to say otherwise, would we, and after that things go pretty much as one might expect. The diversity of the sector needs to improve. Children should have access to the arts as part of their education. Cultural is important to place, regeneration, health and well-being. Culture helps Britain’s ‘soft power’. We need more corporate giving and diverse income streams. 

 This is all unsurprising, and although these may or may not be my or your priorities, they don’t require any greater distortion of effort than is currently being undertaken, which sadly comes as something of a relief. That these things are unsurprising does not make them wrong, of course. On the ‘first do no harm’ principle of strategy/policy, the rhetoric of the paper is, well, alright. (Can you tell I’ve been ‘managing my expectations’ for quite some time now?) 

 In many ways, the tell-tale sentence in the Minister’s introduction is this ‘Our relationship with Shakespeare exemplifies the intentions of this white paper.’ (The cover image is equally bullish in its fashion, being of an ethnically diverse set of young people playing violins.) He goes on to signal how the manifold uses of Shakespeare and his work are relevant to young people, place, Britain’s soft power, fundraising and so on. He misses the negative effect of compulsory Shakespeare in schools for some young people, and the way in which Shakespeare can represent a particular type of canonical culture. 

If Shakespeare exemplifies the approach, the current mixed outcomes of brilliance, life-changing discovery, engagement, boredom and disenfranchisement are likely to persist unless that relationship shifts. Jennie Lee was not without something of the same spirit, of course, and I am not for a second suggesting Shakespeare doesn’t still have the potential to be a live and vital part of our culture. (Ditto violins.) But without moving beyond such ‘great’ (or is it ‘GREAT’?) thinking, much of the paper feels like a restatement of business as usual. 

 Amongst the new(er) proposals, there is a mix of commonsense to be worked with despite broader government policy (place-based partnerships, for instance), bare-faced cheek to be responded to through gritted teeth (education) and some ideas which are questionable if not daft. I am more than sceptical of the merits of a Commercial Academy for Culture, for instance, given all the work being done within the sector already. If Ed Vaizey really believed in the power of culture, shouldn’t this at least be accompanied by a parallel proposal for a Cultural Academy for Commerce, where the cultural sector can properly pass on its skills, for appropriate return? 

 The ‘tailored reviews’ of ACE and HLF may make sense in the light of the place-based ambitions, though I would then question why review separately, especially as the Select Committee looked at ACE less than two years ago. (The stubborn bulldog Rebalancing does not bark in this White Paper, by the way: there is only the sound of scratching in the backyard from its mongrel pup Devolution.) 

The museums review is a necessary response to the growing crisis emerging due to local government cuts, and the very different nature of many museums: its not really a strategy, though. if it leads to one, it may be helpful, but at a time when ACE is likely to bring museums and libraries onto a level playing field for funding, however, careful coordination of thinking will be needed. 

 The already announced tax breaks for museums and galleries will no doubt have benefits for some. I cannot put arguments against them in theatre better than Alan Lane did in The Stage a while back, so won’t try. Ed Vaizey may not be ‘an ideological ninja’, as Alan described George Osborne, but he knows a man who is. For me, tax breaks are not investment in culture. We should not accept them as such. 

This brings me to the most important fault line in the paper: the lack of join up with the rest of government, which Vaizey has often bemoaned, but seemingly been unable to do much about, beyond a few isolated, relatively disconnected examples and some quotes from relevant Ministers. (The one from Nicky Morgan takes the biscuit, and wins her, already, my Brass Neck Award for 2016. If she means the words social justice, they may have been rendered meaningless.)

 If there was a big opportunity for this paper, this might have been it, to describe the describe the strategy by which Vaizey’s sincere and honestly held ambitions for culture can be progressed in the context of this government’s fiscal and legislative approach, by those of us working in and for the sector, for artists, for our fellow citizens, for whatever vision culture we believe in. But on the questions of how culture develops in a land of combined authorities and local government weakened by starvation rations and legislative change, where even the NHS see charging become normalized if not universal, how young people will discover a passion in culture under a regime of academies and Ebaccs, or how a more diverse workforce can be developed amidst growing inequality, the paper is unconvincing, to put it generously. 

 The key distinction between 2016 and 1965’s White Papers is that now we lack the clarity and sense of strategic urgency around potential investment priorities provided by Jennie Lee’s ‘Housing the Arts’ chapter. The paucity of the ideas in the section on ‘Cultural investment, resilience and reform’ is telling. We may not need a new round of capital building to house the arts, but this section lacks a contemporary equivalent to Lee’s challenge. (If you want to compare the documents, Jennie Lee's Policy for the Arts has been made available by US arts blogger Michael Rushton here.) Without shifting the gearstick from Evolution to Revolution, the thinking here could have been much more interesting, around things like mergers connected to place-based or sector development for instance. 

 My first conclusion was the paper was well-meant, rather bland, unsurprisingly likely to benefit them that’s got rather than them that’s not, but essentially workable. The silences clear on closer examination don’t really change that. It’s a paper from a Conservative government, so was always going to talk about access rather than redistribution. The Chancellor who more or less protected dedicated cultural budgets believes more in control and tactics than strategy, so the need for ‘big ideas for George’ alongside proper strategic fit locally remains. 

 I wanted to conclude with a ‘so what?’ Thinking about what the sector should start/stop/carry on doing in response, I kept coming back to one thought. To work on a better spread of culture and inclusion, everyone, whatever their position, should start holding themselves accountable for what they share and who with, and on what terms - whether it’s beliefs or goals, expertise, jobs, facilities or work, panel chairs or payments, taxes or tax reliefs, collections or calculators. (I too often hear people say things that hold government or funders or universities accountable for things like diversity of workforce, programme or audience, for instance.) 

 I’m currently working on sharing (free) something I hope will be useful that has been developed as a side-effect of my work on adaptive resilience – watch this space next month for news. (Start doing/saying things like that, by the way, that make you accountable, I find it helps…)


 Well, it’s been very quiet on the blog this year, hasn’t it. This has been to leave you time to digest some significant developments in UK arts policy thinking – including ACE investment proposals, AHRC Cultural Value Project final report, DCMS Culture White Paper, just to mention three.

 It’s also been because I’ve been deep in one of those periods where every time I thought of blogging, I was occupied on other important work or recovering from important work with the family. I’ve been working on some significant projects, which I hope to catch you up on here over the next few weeks.

They included:
 • Finishing writing 20 case studies for the AMA about organizational business models – many up already on CultureHive with more to follow
• Working with Bait on plans for the next three years of Creative People and Places in South East Northumberland
• Working with a great team from EWG on two projects for ACE – one considering how best to increase numbers and experience of disabled people in the cultural workforce, and one working on practical guidance on workforce diversification. (Thank you if you filled in the survey.)
• Starting a collaboration with Consillium on a thematic study of approaches to ‘excellence’ across Creative People and Places projects
• A lot of other facilitation and organizational development work, often in response to changing structures at local level

 I want to get back to some regular blogging, as it is part of my own reflective practice. I've been reflecting, but not writing, but I always notice something extra when I write – and this blog works on the basis that might be useful to others too. (No need to tell me if not…)

 I thought a once in every 50 years Culture White Paper probably deserved a blog – so that follows shortly.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A slice of future

Thinking Practice is shutting down for Xmas and New Year. It's been another really good year professionally, although the world continues to go mad, and the Circle of Life has been very much spinning at home, bringing both pleasure and pain. Looking back at the work I've done, I've done what I set out to: work exclusively on projects that mattered, and make a difference. Thanks to the clients that have made that possible. 

I've even been a bit more active on the blog, and have had satisfying evidence that people read it. Not hundreds of thousands, but enough. So special thanks to those who subscribe, those who RT, those who press reply to let me know what they think and those who listen.

The photos above show the commissioned poem I wrote about in January, in its Xmas guise. Not many poets can brag of having illuminated reindeers sitting on their poem. I'm not sure that's a huge competitive advantage over many other consultancies, but I'll take it!

Here's to a good 2016. 

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Five things people forget about resilience

Engage have just published an edition of their International Journal of Visual Art and Gallery Education themed around resilience, with a wide range of articles looking at various applications of that word, in an equally wide range of contexts and settings, including internationally. It's a good read. The foreword by editor Barbara Dougan here sets it out, and is accessible to anyone, but you have to subscribe to read the whole thing. You can also watch out for the print version in good gallery bookshops near you, of course. 

 I contributed a piece entitled 'Five things people forget about resilience'. I thought it might be useful to tackle some of the things I sometimes need to make my position clear on, especially to say something about why I feel that although there are valid critiques of the use of the R word to shift responsibility to, for instance, the poor, the weak and - in arts and culture - the undercapitalised and underfunded, I ultimately think it can be a more helpful framework than vulnerable dependence. 

 My 'five things' are: 

1. Resilience is a dynamic, not a state of being 
2. No one escape the adaptive cycle 
3. Size doesn't matter 
4. Redundancy is resilience's ally 
5. Resilience is for you (us), not them 

 If you want to know what I meant by each those, you can download the whole article here in handy pdf form, as it's a bit long for a blog. 

 It's always interesting reading something you wrote a while ago as it comes into print. (It happens less often now many things are online within minutes.) One sentence jumped out at me, nearly a year after writing it, as perhaps the most important in the article: 'The ongoing work of change as well as of stability should be given greater prominence in discussing organisational or sectoral resilience.' 

I'm not going to explicate further, I'm just going to quote - and hopefully thereby encourage you to read the whole thing.