Not a meeting…

I had a great meeting at work recently. Actually, ‘meeting’ is the wrong title for such a, erm… meeting. However, ‘session’ sounds a bit too much like we were making free-form jazz and ‘brainstorm’ describes a wholly unproductive use of time in which several people chase ideas along a single thread, where one person could probably do nearly as much.

It was a… gathering (nevermind) of several people, without formal agenda, but with a clear idea of the territory we would be exploring, but without a predetermined idea of outcome, ok?

I was excited about this, because the frame of the… assembly (Nope. Again; sorry) as well as the topic of discussion, offered the possibility for invention. In reflecting on it, I’m reminded of a simulation exercise I did as part of the Leadership Foundation’s SLP3 programme.

The simulation was fun. The SLP3 cohort – a group of about 20 or so colleagues from across UK HEIs – were split into two fictitious institutional management teams, with each team being given a dedicated room. One team was the management team of a small specialist HEI with a distinct heritage and character, which, whilst being of some prestige, did not, unfortunately make ends meet. This small specialist had consequently entered into a partnership with the local large HEI – represented by the other institutional management team, comprising the remainder of the SLP3 cohort. Fed by ‘real time’ facilitator interruptions and ‘new information’ the task for both teams was to balance the competing demands of the changing situation and arrive at a favourable outcome for all. The simulation lasted about 5 hours. It passed in seconds…

Of course what the exercise was actually designed to experientially examine was working team dynamics. A facilitator was assigned to each room and at the end of the exercise, each team had a detailed plenary and discussion about the behaviours and points that had arisen.

Very useful and insightful… more in a minute, as what I’d like to say needs to come at the end.

Jump back across to the real world …

Myself and three colleagues were having a… get-together (awful descriptor – too redolent of a 1970’s cheese and wine do) to do some creative thinking around aspects of the organisational development aligned to the Education and Student Experience Strategy. It had been a while coming because, learning from the previous experience of myself and one other colleague in the room, we put aside three hours for this meeting (the last one had been a four hour + creative blitz) and finding a slot where all four of us had three consecutive hours available all at the same time had been a feat of outlook acrobatics…

So, the…summit (help me) happened and predictably (or surprisingly depending on your stance) 3 hours again disappeared in seconds, confirming that time has nothing to do with the man made construct of the clock, but is an Individual Thing dependent upon ones attitude to the activity being undertaken. During this time, as was the case in the SLP simulation, the bubble occurred – that absorbing liminal space often found at the bottom of a book, or in the pursuit of crafting something, or practicing something.

My PhD focused on the nature of this absorption, itself an essential component of flow. I’ve discovered through the doctoral study and in further reflections, big and small, that absorption is essentially a kind of conversation between the self and other; instances wherein one loses oneself in the doing and the other kind of takes over a little. In these periods of time, the creative direction of travel seems to almost take on a life of its own and drift somewhat out of ones control.

Interestingly in the context of the creative… session (maybe it is session…) I first mentioned and the SLP3 simulation exercise the absorptive other is both the ideas being generated, and the other people in the room. In contrast to the lone venture of the solitary sculptor (for instance) this flow was communal; ideas were bounced back and forth, interrogated and re-interrogated, understandings were hashed and rehashed and it was the interplay of individual contributions which produced outcomes constituting more than the sum of the parts. This idea of flow as a group endeavour has been explored in Group Genius by Keith Sawyer – great read for anyone interested in this…

So, in thinking about both the idea of the conversation with other, as a part of (productive) absorption and thinking about the two instances of group work – what are the principles, or operating guidelines for this liminal space? What did we do both times? What behaviours were consistent across both iterations? (be prepared for a starter for ten list folks– its not exhaustive…)

  •  We didn’t meet in a ‘normal’ setting – this was a different space for all of us, therefore tacit normative behaviours and assumptions were easier to ignore if one so desired.
  •  We spent some time ‘checking in’ – in both groups the start of the meeting had spacetime for us to leave whatever was not needed at the door.
  •  We trusted, and therefore could say whatever.
  •  There was no hierarchy in the room – everyone’s opinion and thought was valid – people were playing themselves, not their day job.
  •  We drew things and kept things visible–someone took up the reins of scribe early on in each meeting and recorded everything – flipcharts and whiteboards rein supreme – analogue rules.
  •  We kept ideas bubbling between us, not settling or bouncing into groupthink and positive reinforcement of each others ideas, but maintaining a state of what Ronald Heifetz has called ‘cooking the conflict’.
  •  We had plenty of snacks (maltesers, cakes and coffee were a recurrent theme – I know healthier options are available, but; maltesers. Maltesers, people.)

See you next week.

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Author: samgrogan

I am many sided; Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Experience at Salford University, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, driven Tough Mudder runner, and a lover of the outdoors. I live in the heart of the beautiful Peak District with my wife and our pets. On weekends, you'll find me out in the countryside with the dog, running or walking up a hill, or typically cooking for friends (I'm getting better, so they say) My role at Salford is one I cherish. I'm one of the fortunate few who wake up excited about the day ahead. It's really not work when it's this much fun. As part of the Vice-Chancellor's Executive Team I work alongside a gifted and dedicated team of creative educationalists passionate about being better tomorrow than we are today. As PVC SE at Salford I hold executive responsibility for both the assurance of quality and standards of our institutional academic portfolio, and its strategic direction and character. Intertwined with this facet of my role, I am responsible for strategic leadership and enhancement of the wider student experience and the development of a distinctive Salford learning environment. My overall purpose, driven by these two key parts of my role, is to develop a bold, playful learning landscape at Salford which delivers holistic sustainable success, preparing our students for life. I'm fascinated by how people learn, and how we might collectively make that experience result in a profound expansion of personal and professional horizons and an extension of possibilities for all parties involved. My greatest reward comes from seeing thresholds crossed, barriers broken, new habits formed and changes made. To this end, I'm also endlessly absorbed in considering how we might develop better, more useful ways of integrating the digital landscape and other technologies, emerging and present, into the act of learning. I think we're just beginning - a brave new world awaits... My background is in performance - Before undertaking my PhD and before spending the first half of my university career as a lecturer, programme leader and head of department, in my early career I acted, danced and made theatre across the world. This ten year experience continues to be fundamental in shaping the way I think about teaching and learning. At its best I see it as a facilitated journey of discovery, play, risk and adventure anchored in 'reflective doing'. Not 'knowing' in this context is often a signal that a useful path is being trodden - Thinking on its own is just rehearsal...

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