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.