Once Upon A Time There Was A…

I think this post treads further along the line of thought opened up by last week’s musings…

As we take the first steps towards formal launch of our new five-year strategy and ten year vision at the university of Salford, I become continually reawakened to the fact that language is important. I’m not just talking (no pun intended) about the spoken, but the whole multivalent lexicon that a person, or a group uses to share ideas. The nuances in this language not only shape action, but can also shape our perceptions and our experiences of the world. Two anecdotes to explain what I mean…

Actor training at Bath Spa University

After leaving freelance work as a performer, my first academic post was as a lecturer at Bath Spa University. During that time I was privileged to work under Gunduz Kalic, training actors on the BA (Hons) Performing Arts programme. Stemming from Kalic’s direction, there was a specific vocabulary of terms, phrases and practices on the programme. One notable example was the way in which an actor would describe what has traditionally been called motivation or objective – essentially a label given to the driving impetus for a character in any given unit of action. Gunduz reframed this motivation as ‘urge’ i.e. ‘I have an urge to….’ Moreover, the way in which this ‘urge’ was described foregrounded action; the actor would use it an order to the self to do something. An urge for a unit of action might be phrased as ‘ make them stop’ or, ‘Get out of here’ or ‘win the competition’. The effect of this linguistic frame upon the work of undergraduate actors was considerable. Far from carrying their character’s motivations in their heads as cranial, conceptual notions, use of ‘urge’ moved this drive into the gut; into the body of the performer, producing an intensely embodied response and a deeper emotional literacy that sat with the whole bodymind, rather than residing from the neck upwards.


Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane is a fantastic book about the connections between language and the land. In the opening pages he demonstrates the power language has to shape how we see the world. He mentions the word smeuse; a word from Sussex dialect describing the little pathlet in a hedgerow formed by the regular passage of a small animal. This word has snuck into my mind – smeused its way in if you like, such that now, whenever I’m on walks like this one, I can’t help but spot smeuses with delightful regularity… Language is the basis of this discovery – words shape intentionality.

So, in the context of a communal endeavour, such as that found at Salford University, developing a shared lexicon, or language; a verbal/ non verbal/ physical/ pictorial/ multi-sensory mode of describing the doing, is critical in shaping the doing itself and fostering collective ideas and collaboration.

I think, at the heart of a successful lexicon, one which inspires cooperation and belief, is the notion of story, or narrative. Call it a shared vision, a common set of values, a brilliant idea, or a framework of concepts – it’s a thing which shapes, and is shaped by, the language surrounding it. Cooperation is based on our ability to effectively tell and believe in stories and align in purpose under a common understanding.

A lot of my thinking here comes from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,  by Yuval Noah Harari. Harari places the idea of story as fundamental to the way in which language helps share and shape ideas. As one with a background in performance, I’ve seen and felt first hand many times over the force of a good story well told. Neil Gaiman, a master storyteller of our time has also penned a wonderful piece on the powerful nature of stories.

A university (itself a constantly shifting multi-stranded story) has (many) stories. At Salford, we’re just really beginning to work towards writing and telling our next chapter – one which has Industrial Collaboration Zones (ICZs)at its heart. These ICZs are a new, contemporary echo of a longstanding tradition of practice at Salford. As we try to unfold the story of our ICZs and chip the shape of them out of the current landscape, it strikes me that developing an increasingly sensitised, shared, yet agile and flexible language-as-story is absolutely necessary to this process.

Like the ‘urge’ work from my experience at Bath Spa University, this multi-modal language needs the drive of action at its core. Like the smeuses, it inherently begs revelry in applied curiosity. Above all, this story needs to facilitate engagement, offering participants the opportunity to tell and devise their own stories through it. It’s there for the inventing… It’s the irresistible call to adventure offered by; ‘Once upon a time there was a…

See you next week.

It’s All About Timing…

I’ve had a good week. Unusually, it’s been a very ‘me’ centred week, where I’ve focused on, or participated in, a number of activities and actions which have been specifically intended to develop me in some way. I’m separating this from the the ongoing process of self development arising as a natural consequence of the day to day activity. There has been more deliberate practice than in a usual week and at the end of the week, whist sometimes revisiting familiar territory, this focus has opened up new possibilities and threads of exploration. I’m now looking forward to trying new ideas out and itching to experiment and put things into practice…

There have been three things in particular that made it a good week. On their own, each of them were positive occurrences, however, placed together, they became more than just the sum total of their parts.

360 degrees

At the University of Salford, members of the university management team have just undertaken a 360 feedback process. This week I received my feedback from that process. It was a fascinating insight into how others perceive me set against my own perceptions of my work and the means by which I try to undertake my role. The detail gave some really useful points for my consideration – thoughts towards improvement and also (pleasingly) numerous suggestions for areas in which I can place more personal faith and capitalise upon my practice to take these perceived strengths further. It’s great to have all the analysis in one document. This precious document is now mine, for dissemination and further action as I wish or see fit. As a first step I’ve given it to my PA to read in full. I’ve written down my thoughts on what I’d like to work on – I’m going to need Emma’s help in making it carry positive echoes in a structural and organisational sphere that goes beyond just my own actions.

Strategic Leadership Programme

As part of my ongoing professional development at Salford I’ve enrolled on the Leadership Foundation’s Strategic Leadership Programme. This week saw me spend two days on the first of two short residentials between now and September. The days were packed, fast paced and lively. Approximately 20 of us are on the programme – it was great to meet likeminded individuals, all of whom brought projects from their home institutions to form the personalised content of the course as it progresses. Action Learning Sets have been initiated and were interspersed with wider group discussions and exercises over the two days. There was a huge amount of stimulus, constructive challenge and collegiate support through the sesions. No doubt as I reflect further on the learning I’ll be revisiting it in these posts.

Group Genius

Finally, I’ve been nodded towards Group Genius by Keith Sawyer. The book draws on a number of familiar (to me) frameworks to explore the notion of genius as residing in a group dynamic, or collective process. Inspiration and understanding is taken from improvisation theatre and jazz ensembles alongside a group orientated take on Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow. (I wrote about this a couple of posts back) It’s a great read. I thoroughly recommended it to anyone interested in fostering creative team dynamics. Whilst some of the content is very familiar on a personal level, the book comes at just the right time for me to channel it into several threads of work at Salford. Timely just ain’t the word…

It all ties together…

So, aside from a chance to reflect upon my professional practice in the context of Higher Education, this week has seen a meeting of things which all came together at the right time. One has sparked actions and been given language by the other, which has been consolidated and expanded upon by the third (its not quite as linear as that, but you get the picture…)

Above all, the connections and spaces between the topics above are just as interesting as the topics themselves. I can see the relationships between the various things above have begun to frame a possible articulation of thoughts, directions and ideas which have been swimming around in my mind for a while. This is something that is very valuable to me in my position, as the learning of the last week has begun to point towards a language I might use in communication of ideas. It’s simply serendipitous and wonderful timing that these unrelated influences have arrived with me in the same week. It feels like a birthday has arrived early.

I think I’m also consciously looking out for connections and inviting myself to seek out relationships between the apparently unconnected. It’s when I start putting this with that because of an intuitive sense that the two unrelated fragments might work together that unpredicted sparks begin to appear – some useful, others not so. However, this week, the resulting spark from connecting the previously unrelated has been the beginnings of a useful lexicon – a real step forward. Watch this space….

See you next week.

Take a Chance?

I went to the 2016 Educational Strategy Forum with one of my colleagues this week. The two day event in Windsor had a very packed agenda containing a mixture of talks, networking and short business meetings (some pre-arranged) with various vendors and sponsors of the event (it was free for participants on the basis of sponsorship by a number of companies engaged in developing edtech and the services and structures that support the student learning journey). In the evening we had dinner – again hosted by some of the event sponsors.

Whilst the content and information contained within the event itself was certainly interesting at worst, illuminating at best and informative throughout, what struck me most about the event across its two days was the way it was designed – its format and structures.

The geographical architecture of the conference held at the Beaumont Estate  created a variety of spaces and settings in which interactions could occur. Some spaces were set up with small high tables and chairs – think towards the round tables and chairs set around pillars in a typical pub. There were also a number of rooms set up café style and used for presentations, some working hot-desk areas and then there were the little spaces within and across these rooms; sofas grouped together or clusters of comfy chairs around low coffee tables. Additionally, power sockets were ubiquitous, offering delegates the possibility of setting up a pop up office.

There were no large, open spaces, and there were only two ways in or out of the section of the hotel occupied by the event. Seating at the main talks and presentations was not assigned and, like myself, many delegates sat at different tables throughout the event, leading to there being an ever shifting collection of colleagues around me.

In a similar vein, the shape of each session also changed frequently. There were fairly traditional talks and presentations, debates, 1-2-1 meetings, a fairly exhausting ‘speed dating’ session, and numerous informal meetings and exchanges of ideas and thoughts. There were also concurrent events happening much of the time; the colour of one’s lanyard dictated which ‘stream’ of events to attend.

I mention all of this detail because it seems that deliberately fostering the opportunity for short meetings, chance or otherwise, was a key aspect of the event design – it encouraged interactions which might (or might not) be the beginning of something more – these were not prolonged engagements, but initial sparks. I gained the feeling that there was always the possibility of meeting someone round the next corner – indeed, I actually met two more colleagues I didn’t know were attending by chance in a corridor – it was these kind of encounters the event nudged to the surface. It was an enjoyable, fast paced and ‘full’ event.

I travelled back from Windsor with my colleague. Having dissected the event and agreed actions to take forward, and realising that connecting to Virgin wifi on a train is a task akin to nailing mist to a wall, we played cards.

We played two games, only one of which has a name repeatable in polite company. Both however, have rules which allow the player full rein for devious behaviour, causing the other player woe of varying scales. It was thoroughly enjoyable to play (just) within the rules whilst at the same making the most of the chance happenings that offered, or took away advantage.

It would seem that a certain degree of chance delights the participant. Chance within agreed parameters or rules can be seen as both play and perhaps playful – it invites in unexpected or unforeseen possibilities within a wider stable framework. The state of play itself isn’t fixed and static; a known thing with a predetermined outcome, but a state which contains flux, a degree of unpredictability, and the possibility of the unexpected. Roger Caillois explains that, ‘an outcome known in advance, with no possibility of error or surprise, clearly leading to an inescapable result is incompatible with the nature of play’ (Caillois 2001:7).

Both the conference structure and the card games on the way home were playful exercises in engineered chance; little surprises were uncovered within a (comforting?) framework of the expected.

Building on this, it strikes me that a playful sense of jouissance, a sense of safe danger might be part of what we are trying to create at the University of Salford as we build our Industrial Collaboration Zones (ICZs). They are interdisciplinary exploring, making and meeting places for translating thinking into applied action. At their best they’ll become creative play spaces where deliberate chance is deliberately given a chance. We’re developing their structures at the moment. It’s an exciting time…

See you next week.

Walking the Dragon’s Back

Last Sunday I went on one of my favourite day walks  – the Dragon’s Back.

I went with our dog. We’ve had our dog now for about three and half years. She was a rescue puppy and has a stub for a tail. We’re not sure why. Her name is Willow. Somewhere along the line, this name has been suffixed with ‘Pants’, resulting in Willow-Pants. Again, I don’t know the reason behind this. Occasionally, the original section of her name will disappear when I’m calling her. When she is out of sight on a walk, (as she often is) the frequent solo audio performances given by the solitary suffix offer the mildly alarming impression that I’m trundling along on my own, sporadically shouting out the word ‘Pants!’ to a listening woodland or hill top path. It’s the little things…

Anyhow, Willow and I went on a walk. For me, a typical day walk can be anything between 8-20 miles. On these walks I’m more often than not alone with the dog. I thoroughly enjoy the solitude of this activity and paradoxically often wish that I could share the experience only arrived at by being on my own. Having hiked in many countries and continents, I can say with conviction that I find the Peak District to be one of the most beautiful places to walk in the world. It gives me a quiet call to nature as soon as I step out my door and I enjoy some of my most peaceful and profound periods of personal peace and contentedness when I’m quietly padding along with the hills for company and a pack on my back.

If I’m lucky, the walk will contain one or two periods of time when I am lost. Not literally lost, (although that is often the merry case – my ‘shortcuts’ are the stuff of legend amongst friends), but lost-absorbed in the moment of doing. In those liminal bubbles, space-time starts to curve and I find myself connected to my surroundings to the point of merging, and yet I’m somehow insulated from them. It feels as if, in a state of hyper awareness, everything I need is within reach – perceptual horizons are extended beyond my immediate phenomenal environment.

This ‘extended’ state of being has been approached from various disciplines and practices and has attracted numerous descriptors; John Dewey called it ‘imaginative unification’, Abraham Maslow termed it ‘peak experience’ and Victor Turner described it as ‘communitas’, to name but a few . I’m sure I’ll write more on this in future posts as I try to pick at it from various perspectives, but in the meantime, back to the circumstances of this particular instance…

Thinking back to last week’s walk, it occurred as I hit a ridge on Hollins Hill, and was able to look through sharp afternoon winter sunshine over a stile towards Chrome Hill,  nicknamed the Dragon’s Back for obvious reasons: (I took the shot below on a different walk)14883863978_1ca3874b06_o

I’d walked Chrome Hill earlier in the day, so there was a certain amount of satisfaction in surveying conquered ground, coupled with a delight in being outside, immersed in such beauty and unencumbered by the constraints of walls – literal or technological. I was acutely aware of experiencing a grounded connection with the wide world around me; a phenomenological pleasure in participating in the essence of something inexplicably complex and so simple. All senses firing, with the body-mind moving in an accelerated state of what Csikszentmihalyi called flow consciousness.

Whilst this instance isn’t replicable in itself, (nor should it be) I’m beginning to understand and seek out, on a personal level, the circumstances and conditions which lead to a greater chance of encountering this state of being-doing. Csikszentmihalyi called it the flow channel – a state wherein we become absorbed and the ‘doing’ begins to steer us, rather than the reverse. There’s even a diagram y’know.


With an eye on my weekday preoccupation, (I’ll be the first to admit, it does seep into evenings, weekends and the wee small hours) one thought (of many) and one question (of very many) surfaces…

Flow is a wholly positive telenomic state; that is, one experiences a sense of positive personal expansion through flow engagement in a given activity – lost in becoming more, so to speak. Technically then, it’s the autotelic telenomy of self.

Wouldn’t it be great if we built learning environments/ patterns that were designed and created as an invite to foster flow engagement as one aspect of learning? There’s already thinking on and debate this

See you next week.

Meeting differently

Meetings are the essential currency of action and transaction in any mid-scale or large institution. ‘Yes, let’s meet to discuss that – I’ll haven’t got time now – I’ll set something up.’ If one were to dig into the circumstance behind that all too familiar sentence, one might find that the obstacle preventing said person from meeting other said person was that said person was actually meeting other persons. A somewhat restrictive pattern emerges…

In my experience, formalised meetings fall into three large categories. I’m sure there are others, but these are the bulk of what I tend to experience;

  • The transactional exchange where one is updated/ updates others on stuff.
  • The committee where the group collectively debates/ discusses stuff presented and (hopefully) arrives at actions.
  • The creative exchange/ workshop where new ideas/problems (stuff) are generated/ tested/ solved.

I’ll come back to these in a moment, but in the meantime, my mind has just butted in with tangential, but related musings which will hopefully come back together in a minute or two nearer the end of this post…

Tangent 1

My PA is brilliant. My job at Salford is the first time in my professional life where I’ve worked with a PA. Emma and I have been working together for a little while now. Emma is brilliant because she has declared a renewed war on my diary and challenged me to be better and more efficient with my time. On our first day working together, there was a mixture of shock, amusement and pity coupled with a clear resolution to make things change. And change they have. 5 or so months on, I am beginning to experience these strange occasional spaces in my diary – pure clean white time, unruffled by the colour-coded blocks that tell me I should have been somewhere else about 5 mins ago. Here’s the revelation (to me at least – I may be behind the curve here); I’m no less visible around campus (very important for my role to work well) and I’m no less productive (if anything, it’s the opposite). Simply put, Emma has taken time to carefully work out where I could let meetings go and then ‘helped’ me let them go, always with the open door offer of adhoc contact should the need arise.

Looking at these meetings, now conspicuous by their absence, it’s interesting to note that they were pretty much all sitting in the first category.

Tangent 2

We’re living in exciting times at Salford. We’ve recently reworked our ten-year vision and subsequently we’ve re-imagined our academic strategy and functional strategies to support this, all kicking off with gusto in September 2016.

We’re currently in the process of working out how best we put this into practice (definitely more to come in future posts). As I’m primarily connected with the Education and Student Experience strategy, one task I’m engaged with is developing the pedagogical distinctiveness and the particular philosophy of practice at Salford (definitely, definitely more to come).

In considering the meeting categories, it’s quite interesting to compare them to a couple of popular teaching modes…

  • Transactional exchange = lecture, or knowledge transmission
  • Committee = seminar discussion
  • Creative exchange/ workshop or working group = experiential problem based learning

Hopefully not too frustratingly, I’m going to resist the somewhat compelling desire to expand further on what this might tell us about developing pedagogical direction and leave this topic hanging at the moment (focus, Sam, focus – definitely more to come).

Back to meetings…

So, whilst meetings of the first type are useful, I think it’s debatable that physical presence in the same room is actually always needed. (I’m not suggesting recourse to more email, but a smarter use of conferencing software and technology, which requires a basic shared digital literacy)

Meetings of the second and third type are interesting and often creative. I find the most useful aspect of them is the exchange – the interplay between people and the thoughts that emerge. However, I often feel that the possibilities within this interaction don’t quite fully blossom. These meetings are always scheduled and planned sometimes a year or so ahead. They often have terms of reference attached, quite rightly used to focus efforts. And there is never quite enough time. I often barrel into the room, trailing echoes of the previous interaction behind me – the first minutes of the meeting are then inevitably spent trying to get ones head quickly into the correct space. Similarly for myself and other colleagues there is frequently the ‘can I just catch you’ conversation afterwards. In a previous life as a performer I’d have called these bits ‘checking in/ checking out’ – the process of warm up/focusing and then warm down before/ after rehearsal.

I guess what I’m pointing at is that the format and structure of these meetings doesn’t encourage creative thinking/doing. There is limited opportunity for the unexpected to occur or for the tangential to crowbar in ‘aha!’ moments. The agenda rules. Time is precious. There is little room for serendipity.

What’s also interesting is that these meetings represent a significant channel through which the complex entity of the university interacts with itself. There is limited opportunity or means outside these channels to reach out to the wider university in a manner that offers the potential for a connected, yet freer exchange. The casual network is also somewhat fragmented. Breaking the (self imposed) silo is tough. It’s sometimes quite problematic to actually find out the full breadth of work being undertaken along a particular theme and how this might meaningfully connect to/ inform another. I’m (literally) amazed on a weekly basis as I discover that this academic, or these students, or this services team have achieved this or that, or created the other.

So what if we began to think differently? What if we increasingly operated as an organisation by taking some influence from Teal or Environmental organisational approaches – and developed a considered autonomy built around an invitation to creativity? What if the impromptu, accidental and random happening was structurally nurtured – systematic encouragement of the short touch points, the guerrilla get-togethers and the lightbulb conversations in which there are no formal agendas. What if we built engagement networks and spaces to deliberately foster chance and serendipity and what if these ‘meetings’ steered the university? What if this fleeting, corridor creativity became the driving interaction of the institution and the meetings of categories 2 and 3 were honed and refined to become the lesser prominent force – still there, of course, still inventing, but a supportive structure to engender the creative semi-autonomous working of a university-as-ensemble which thrived on an agile mode of interaction rather than a formalised transaction?

Happily, as we develop our thinking, we are now starting to work towards creating these spaces. I think we’re beginning to meaningfully scratch the surface of the implications inherent in such direction. And its exciting place to be. Whilst the ‘to be’ situation isn’t a million miles away from where we are now, it’s already becoming clear that in the coming months and years, as we bring the vision to life, we’re going to need to adjust and shift our habitual working practicesSo towards this, I’m looking forward to continuing to work alongside creative colleagues in developing the means, ways and channels to meet each other differently. Maybe we might meet less to transact, and more to exchange, and maybe we touch base more often and spend less time in formal agendas. 

‘Why can’t we make a workplace where casual meetings are as important as working at your desk?’ Sometimes that’s where your better creative work happens.’

         David Chipperfield

As I wrap up this entry, a final thought for this entry pops into my head; a personal snapshot.

I met my wife on a bus. I’d woken up late and would have normally taken the previous service. I think that undoubtedly remains one of the best meetings of my life. We haven’t yet got round to drafting an agenda.