Thursday, 22 December 2016

A pause

We'll see you you in 2017, trying it again, only this time faster, but slower....

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

2016: Faster but Slower

 Well, 2016 has been a year memorable often for all the wrong reasons. I can’t be the only person wanting to slap themself for their previous complacency, can I? I’m not going to go on about the dark times that have emerged from neglected corners, I suspect ‘regular readers’ know where I stand, and others are more eloquent. Read the brilliant Zadie Smith’s piece here instead. I do, though, want to remind us that as Brecht half-said, in the dark times there will still be singing, and much work to be done. 

 The combination of much work and an ongoing sense of not wanting to add to the ‘blabber and smoke’ (to quote Captain Beefheart) has meant I’ve been quiet on the blog this year. This does not mean I’ve been quiet elsewhere. As in previous years, I’ve written tens of thousands of words in reports, evaluations and articles. 

 Two big pieces of work have been about Creative People & Places, one of the most significant initiatives Arts Council England have supported in recent years. I collaborated with Consilium Research to look at approaches to excellence (of product and of process of engaging communities) across the programme. This also included a small review of existing quality or excellence frameworks. The report ‘What it does to you’: Excellence in CPP is amongst the wealth of material shared by CPP as part of its learning.

 A recent commission was to take that material and boil the learning down to a form more people could read. This meant going from over 70 documents to 21 pages. The report ‘Faster but Slower, Slower but Faster’ captures lessons at a key point in CPP, with achievements and learning emerging but major change tantalisingly only potential. The report may be the only report to takes its underlying structure from a hybrid of the sonnet and the 3 act narrative. It’s both big and little, a fast and slow read that I hope does justicve to the learning. 

 Coincidentally, as that new report was published, something I worked on earlier in the year with EW Group, for Arts Council England, was published as part of ACE’s creative case and cultural education work. Every Child looks at the barriers to inclusion in arts and cultural activity across the protected characteristics in relation to young people, and has informed ACE’s action plan in this area. 2017 should see other projects with EW Group for ACE around disability and diversity more broadly published. 

 The other major chunk of published material finished this year was a set of 20 case studies and essays about changing business models, commissioned by AMA and shared via Culture Hive. I’ve written about these before, but it’s a substantial set of studies that are proving useful to people, or so they tell me. 

 Other online publications this year include: 
A conversation about the role of Critical Friend with Rachel Adam of bait and Eleanor Turney 
Arts professional article on the excellence research 
A ‘review’ of the DCMS White paper for a-n 
Remembering ‘the big one that got away’ for Tees Valley Art
I’ve done a bit of conference reporting this year also: you can see the ‘storifys’ here

 I’ve also actually managed to write more poems this year than for a while, and to do some performances as part of this years T-Junction International Poetry Festival, including my first school visit for about 20 years. My poem A Confession was published the day after the EU Referendum, which gave the last line a different edge. Mr Duncan-Smith Dreaming In The Sun was included in the anthology New Books and Pantisocrasies, edited by W.N. Herbert and Andy Jackson for Smokestack Books. I was also chuffed to have a poem in The Long White Thread of Words, an anthology edited by Amarjit Chandan, Gareth Evans and Yasmin Gunaratnam to mark John Berger’s 90th birthday. 

 Of course, most of my year is not spent at my desk writing things that can be hyperlinked but face to face with clients, talking at conferences, leading training, facilitating planning and away days and so on. This is the listening without which I really would have nothing to say, so thank you to all the people I’ve worked with this year. Whatever it brings 2017 is going to need all the cultural leaders it can get, at all levels, of all types, and doing all sorts of work. May it be the year of the plural and embracing rather than the singular and exclusive.

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Art of Relevance

Nina Simon, who is the Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, and a leading museums thinker, was the punchiest keynote speaker at the recent AMA conference. I came away with a copy of The Art of Relevance, her new book, the themes of which she set out in her talk. 

 Relevance has the potential to give the other R word a run for its money in the 2016 Buzzword stakes, but we should not hold that against Nina or her argument. Using the images of rooms and keys and insiders and outsiders, the book is a sharp argument for mattering more to more people, not by assertion of your own intrinsic value but by making genuine connections. It uses stories and micro-case studies to illustrate how switching the terms in an open and ongoing fashion leads to change, and to relevance. 

 Along the way there are a good number of highly quotable lines and arguments. Simon starts off by skewering two common delusions, seen weekly in the arts: firstly that what we do is relevant to everyone, and secondly that we don’t have to work on that relevance as people will find our work due to its distinctiveness. The key is that relevance is not about you: ‘It’s not about what you think people need to want or deserve. It’s about them – their values, their priorities.’ 

 She goes on to deal with that old chestnut ,‘we shouldn't be giving people what they want, our job is to give them what they need,’ in a way which made something clearer for me than it had been before: ‘In my experience, the institutionally-articulated ‘needs’ of audiences often look suspiciously like the ‘wants’ of the professionals speaking….Let’s not sell short the power of giving people what they want. Cultural experiences should be a pleasure. They can also be educational, challenging, empowering, political… but they must first be something people want.’ 

 One of the key points of the book is that if you want to be more relevant to some people you must be prepared to change what you do, and for your centre of gravity to shift so you become less relevant to others. Helping outsiders feel confident about entering your ‘room’ may unsettle the current insiders – it should certainly change the atmosphere. Many organisations talk the talk whilst attempting to console themselves and insiders that they won't lose any of their privileges. 

 I can certainly think of organisations that fit this description: ‘Many institutions take a schizophrenic middle ground on relevance. They swing between issuing press releases about change while reassuring insiders that none of the good stuff will be impacted. They pat themselves on the back in the morning and go to bed fearful at night.’ (If someone at Arts Council isn't fretting over how to make real change in the NPO portfolio without, er, making too much change in the NPO portfolio I'll be surprised.) 

 Any arts or cultural organisation not entirely satisfied with themselves will find something in The Art of Relevance. It should be compulsory reading for any ‘national’ organisation currently wondering how it gets out to the regions to engage with communities perceived as voting to leave the EU, for whom it has many useful lessons. (I say 'perceived' as people voted, not places, generally by fairly small margins, it wasn’t a series of local referenda.)

 Firstly, as Nina Simon says, ‘Now is the least useful form of relevance,’ so any ‘listening’ to be done should not focus exclusively on one Y/N question but the underlying issues it reflects. Secondly, Rufus Norris or whoever should be ready to be met on the doorstep (ok, my doorstep) by a variant of ‘Where the bloody hell have you been till now?’ and to work to get over that hurdle. 

 Thirdly, national bodies – or anyone in ACE urging ‘national’ bodies to work in places like Stockton, as appears to be happening – should make sure they start not from what they do and want but from the concerns of those they wish to engage. They need to be prepared to work radically differently, not restrict the ‘offer’ to current ways of working. 

 ‘What matters or is useful to people in places like Hartlepool, Boston, and other places with big leave majorities?’ needs to be the starting point, not ‘what can ‘we’ do to help people in those places be part of a more cohesive or creative society?’. If Nina Simon is right, and I think she is, only when people ask the first question first can they hope to make progress on the second. This does not, of course, mean putting your own values to one side – if anything it means being clearer about them, so that you can develop lasting relevance rooted in all the awkwardness of honest relationships rather than provisional, contingent ones.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Models, Missions, Visions and Hope

Well, a lot has happened since I last wrote a blog, much of it enough to make me put my head in my hands before getting back in gear. I don't have time right now to start on causes and implications of Brexit; the new headmistress, I mean Prime Minister; the adult-ed teachers room squabble to be head of department in the Labour Party; or multiple murderous madnesses around the globe. Besides, something else may have happened whilst I was writing this paragraph. I may return to this in time – one of my conclusions is rushing to immediate opinion isn’t conducive to very much at all. 

 I’ve been trying to bring my personal vital signs back to functional by working hard, relishing the small pleasures of life and turning off social media more often. Let the Horizon of Stupid stay where it is for a while. (Yes, I know this is what The Man wants.) Amongst other things, I attended the Arts Marketing Association’s conference in Edinburgh last week, giving two seminars on the uses and limitations of the Business Model Canvas. I want here to point to a few resources and things I mentioned in the seminars. 

 The case studies I wrote for the AMA that the seminars were based on can all be found here, on CultureHive, as can the overview papers. One of the adaptations I usually make the Canvas when using with people is adding a Mission box, and ensuring we discuss Values in relation to the model as a whole and Customer Relationships particularly. I was interested to see, then, that one of the people who created the Business Model Canvas, Alexander Osterwalder has recently worked with Steve Blank to make a version for Mission-driven non-profits. This replaces Customers with Beneficiaries, Customer Relationships with Buy-in & Support and, Channels with Deployment and Revenue Streams with Mission Achievement/Impact Factors. 

 Whist this helps build these ideas in, I do think the advantages are limited. For many there is a useful rigour to thinking about beneficiaries as customers alongside those people who pay for things either directly or on behalf of beneficiaries. (Eg Arts on Prescription models need to provide value both to those referred to them and the commissioning bodies providing the funding.) Losing the clarity/discipline of Revenue Streams also seems to weaken the Canvas. The mission needs to sit separately from the balancing of costs and revenue income. 

 It is though an interesting new version. I listened in on a webinar between Osterwalder and Blank recently that you can replay here. It explains why income may not have been front of mind in developing it, as it was trialled with various parts of the US government. 

 Linking to the Post-Referendum Blues, I want to end with a couple of quotes from Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant book Hope in the Dark, which I mentioned in Edinburgh I’d reread to shake myself up. (I used a line of Solnit’s about emergency containing the word emerge.) I think the quotes speak for themselves - they will certainly have to right now. Both may have relevance to those grappling with the times and with their business models and other designs for life. They certainly did for me - I can't recommend the book highly enough, or indeed any of Solnit's other books. (The Faraway Nearby being my favourite.) It's about to be reissued by Canongate, and there was an essay based on it in the Guardian last weekend

 Quote 1: 
‘But the despair was something else. Sometime before the election [George Bush’s relection in 2004] was over, I vowed to keep away from what I thought of as ‘The Conversation”, the tailspin of mutual wailing of how bad everything was, a recitation of the evidence against us – one exciting opportunity the left offers if of being your own persecutor – that just buried any hope and imagination down into a dank little foxhole of curled-up despair. Now I watch people having it, wondering what it is we get from it. The certainty of despair – is even that kind of certainty so worth pursuing? …. Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair, and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.’ 

 Quote 2: 
‘Moths and other nocturnal insects navigate by the moon and starts. Those heavenly bodies are useful for them to find their way, even though they never get far from the surface of the earth. But light bulbs and candles send them astray, they fly into the heat or the flame and die. For these creatures, to arrive is a calamity. When activists mistake heaven for some goal at which they must arrive, rather than an idea to navigate earth by, they burn themselves out, or they set up a totalitarian utopia in which others are burned out in the flames. Don't mistake a light bulb for the moon, and don't believe that the moon us useless unless we land on it. … The moon is profound except when we land on it.’

Monday, 20 June 2016

REMAIN wary of easy answers to complex problems

Like many people I’ve found the EU referendum process a depressing and dispiriting one that illustrates, again, the brokenness of our political culture. Self-righteousness, lack of empathy and perspective, inability or unwillingness to listen or imagine, disregard for uncomfortable facts, disdain, willingness to treat opinion as fact and fact as mere opinion… Despite being absolutely and firmly in the Remain camp these have felt like they’ve been all around, some coming from all sides, albeit not equally.

The worst aspect of what has not so much been a campaign as a car park row has been the nationalism and xenophobia  behind much of the Leave rhetoric and on the ugly surface of some of it. Not everyone who wants to leave is on the right, of course, certainly not on the nationalist right, but those who are see this as their best opportunity since the 70s. (When violent fascists were a common danger on the streets or at gigs, let’s not forget.)

My reasons for being IN include lifelong Europhilia brought on by studying Modern Languages’ before I’d been anywhere more ‘foreign’ than Barry Island, and a belief that collaborative internationalism is more constructive than competitive individualism. I see – and experience – migration as a good thing, certainly more helpful than its opposites. I don't see how the EU has developed as entirely positive, but no governance format is going to be in the kind of economy/society we have. The alternatives seem at best very uncertain, or where not uncertain, hugely negative. This is definitely the case in relation to the arts and culture where I work, both practically in terms of loss of EU funds and spiritually in terms of intercultural creativity. I have even forgiven the EU for the hoops of fire endured over the years in raising money from it – as the transformative effects in the NE massively outweighed any irritation.

Given the potential losses it struck me last week that what we are in danger of seeing is a kind of law-abiding riot by referendum. People who feel unheeded, who feel their grievances  are belittled, are in a mood for some destructive release, even if it does leave their neighbourhood battered, with damaged businesses, and with a hefty bill for the clean up. I even started to write something along those lines, almost breaking a silence inspired by that feeling of depression, of not wanting to add another pointless voice to the noise.

By the time I got on a train to London on Thursday, though, the MP Jo Cox had been so tragically killed and I spent most of the trip either in a daze or thinking of the poems of Goran Simic. Goran is a Bosnian poet who was in Middlesbrough recently, as part of the hugely internationalist T-Junction Poetry Festival. (I help on the committee and mc-ed the reading Goran was part of.) His ‘New and Selected Sorrows’, published by Smokestack, who also published my last book I should (proudly) declare, is an amazing and horrifying set of poems flowing out of his experience of the siege of Sarajevo. How does a civilised country slip into horror? As I read about Jo Cox on that train, holding back tears at the mad waste, I could not hold back an irrational (irrational? please say it’s irrational) fear about England. What genie has been let out of the bottle by this unnecessary referendum? Is this John Lydon's words 'No future in England's Dreaming' given horrible form 40 years on?

Perspective, though, Mark, I tell myself. The loss of perspective is part of the problem. The us and them is part of the problem. Simplicity is part of the problem. The sad, bad, disturbed and dangerous to know have always been with us. Nuance and empathy have to be our platform. Things being several things at once, inconveniently. But until you can get that across, do not add to the noise. Several days later, I still feel that.

But I also feel that positive action has to be part of it too, though I don’t know what. Some people have suggested some new form of music or arts platform against racism and nationalism, citing the example of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League in the 70s and early 80s. I’d be happy to put my flimsy poems towards that, though they are not what’s needed. I was heading to London for the opening party of the new TATE Modern – in some senses it felt hugely irrelevant, in others positive, and most of the conversations I had that night touched on people’s worries about the atmosphere around the referendum, as well as the outcome.

Culture has to be part of the solution, whatever happens on Thursday. I’ve had some lines of Greil Marcus in my head a lot lately, even before the killing of Jo Cox, something he wrote about the blues singer Robert Johnson: ‘“It is not the simple presence of evil that is unbearable; what is unbearable is the impossibility of reconciling the facts of evil with the beauty of the world.” Sadly what is unbearable must be borne so it can be changed, and culture has a role in that. 

I am also reminded of the end of Auden’s sadly immortal poem about the start of World War II:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

So now my voice says I shall be voting to Remain, and I hope you do too. I doubt that will change any of my reader’s views, but just in case there are more Eurosceptics out there than I suspect, and for all its tiny effect, I decided to share that here. I’ll be continuing to commit my non-Thinking Practice creative work to this area this year, whether it turns out to be or do any good or not. All ideas for other positive actions welcome.

PS: I want to say it's not so much I think anyone needs to know my thoughts on the referendum, but I needed to get these thoughts out of my head. Thank you for maybe being there.

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