Bit by Bit…

In my head I sometimes fancifully imagine what ‘having arrived’ will look/ feel like. What I mean by this is having a sense of the final impact of success. The sense, although not attached to any particular circumstance or picture, is, I suppose, quite filmic – one could place any number of descriptive metaphors against the feeling; the idea of a finishing line being crossed, a pinnacle being reached, a door finally swinging open… And beyond this threshold? An idea of arrival, of finality, of a job being completed – a sense of there being no track left upon which to run further; a sense of having arrived.

Of course, that’s;

  1. All in my head (which is, from experience, not always a good thing)
  2. Decidedly Hollywood-esque, simple and overly convenient in its linear narrative construction
  3. Not in any way representative of what actually happens

Real life just isn’t that definite or that straightforward is it? It’s far more complex. In my experience, the sense of arrival, or success, is momentary and fleeting if that; it passes by in the blink of an eye, if indeed it is there at all.

In my spare time (hahaha) a guilty pleasure (one of many folks, one of many) is video games. As anyone of a similar disposition will know, the success of completing a level, or a section, or even the entire game, is always a bit ho-hum. The real joy is to be found in the problem solving wrestle of ones personal navigation of the game and the means by which incremental success is achieved and cemented as a stepping stone to the next challenge. Several years after first picking up the game, I’m still finding new things to do in the vast and beautifully layered landscape that is Skyrim – all of these rely on me ensuring my avatar continually acquires increasingly advanced skills and abilities.

Relatedly (it will become clear in a minute or two – stay with me folks) I went for a run this weekend – not an isolated incident you’ll be pleased to know – you can put the blankets away – I tend to run 3-4 times a week. As the clocks have now hit summer settings and the evenings begin to stretch, it’s that time of year when I look forward to a season of Tough Mudder runs and various other outdoor adventures which involve a certain level of stamina. (It’s all part of a longer journey which will hopefully see me complete an Iron Man Challenge in a year/ couple of years). My general routine is to (very) slowly increase the mileage and the incline/ terrain difficulty through Spring so that by the time I hit Mudder season (this year its in about a month or so – I’ll being doing two consecutive runs on the 5th and 6th of May) I’m comfortably running 12 or so miles across country. This weekend I did about 9 miles in the Goyt Valley with my canine partner in crime Willowpants the Brave (see photos of said doggie in this blog entry) Next week it’ll be 10 miles and so on… Incremental gain, bit by bit. There’s always a brief moment of reflection after a run; what worked, what didn’t, and then this learning is put to use the next time my feet hit the hills. This week I learned that a small glass of water and a banana an hour before running is fine. A small glass of water and a banana 15 minutes before running leads to an uncomfortable first couple of miles and an interesting body breath relationship on the incline….

More gains – this time at work. The nattily and succinctly titled annual Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey came out recently and I’m delighted that, thanks to the collective efforts of staff across the university, we’ve gone up 19 places, to now sit smack bang in the middle of the league table. And what is this down to? Alongside some of the bigger changes we’ve been making (for example, changes to our physical campus) it’s achieved through the collective power of incremental gain. Matthew Syed references this in his reflections in his book Black Box Thinking on the performance of the GB cycling team  at the latest Olympics (amongst other reference points). Phenomenal success was achieved through a consistent, persistent pursuit of improvement through collective incremental gains. So it is at Salford; whilst there are always the slower moving big-ticket items, success is achieved through a myriad of tiny, increasingly rigorously focused steps, reflections and improvements, each one of which by itself would amount to very little. But when experienced collectively by our students, a tangibly more positive difference is felt in the overall encounter – one aspect that tells us we are succeeding.

So, to return to the notion of success/ arrival opened up at the start of this entry, and with my PVC Student Experience hat firmly set on head, does this make me feel as though we’ve succeeded? Is there that sense of finishing line being crossed? Of course not. Success is not about having arrived (does one ever?). It’s about intelligent increments, moving forward step by step (this doesn’t mean slowly by the way) and, in a complex, shifting and dynamic environment, being in a good position to grasp the next rung of the ladder. In this vein, a convenient point/door/finishing post (as much as I sometimes wish for one…) is just not good enough. I think we’re/ I’m actually in pursuit of a temporal, attitudinal, habitually practiced stance. On a personal level, its simply intelligently pushing/ demanding myself to up the ante. On an institutional level, its an expectation of a systematically embedded high performance culture.

We’re/ I’m getting there. Bit by bit.

See you next week.


Boxing Clever…

At the University of Salford we are investing heavily in people development. It sounds a blindingly obvious thing to say, but systems, processes and infrastructure aren’t innately intelligent and don’t tend to do stuff – its people that do stuff. Consequently as we start to put our new Vision on the ground and make it happen, we’re making sure that we’ve got people who are able to embrace and use the thrust of the Vision to continually embed positive change and growth in how we do what we do.

One such event that contributed towards the realisation of this landscape happened this last week. The session – Leading Change for a High Performance Culture was run by a company called Bridge. The whole day session was focused on beginning to embed a leadership culture across the organisation and is going to be run in various guises with colleagues across the university who are working at various levels. Importantly, this isn’t just aimed at ‘leaders’, but recognises that fostering what are commonly seen as leadership qualities in colleagues across the university will be beneficial for all. Consequently, the session positioned everyone as a leader in their own right; whether leading a single module, a service area, an academic team or a workflow, the inherent encouragement is towards a recognition of the personal power, responsibility and autonomy to affect positive change.

One aspect of the day I found particularly interesting in the context of the wider musings of this blog was the idea of a set of assumptions, thought patterns and consequent behaviours through which one essentially shuts oneself down, and conversely, the assumptions, thought patterns and behaviours that encourage open dialogue. The session gave this binary the terminology of ‘being in the box/ being out the box.’

The session was helpful because it provided additions to the lexicon that I’m trying to establish/ identify around co-creative behaviours. It’s giving (more) language to this train of thought, and helps in establishing an institutional behavioural terminology.

In thinking about ‘in the box/ out the box’ in relation to the notion of playfulness I explored in the last post, a state of ‘in the box’ does not permit playfulness; the potential for a meaningful dialogue with the world disappears as we focus in on our own internal, (more of than not negative) self-narrative – one that continually confirms our position and reinforces itself through a continuous cycle of agreement. However, the allure of that internal space is so seductive… Its easier to control, there are very few variables and we reign supreme over whatever is unpacked in there, as there is no one else to present a different point of view. Decision making is swifter – no need for consultation, collaboration, debate – just get on with things and go it alone. How easy! How simple! What an attractively clear-cut and dependable oasis of isolationism in an increasingly unstable, uncertain external landscape.

But when it is unpicked and really considered from the perspective of personal reward, meaningful, nurturing engagement, a useful sense of ones purposeful place in the world and an understanding of the contribution one might make to the grand scheme of things, it just ain’t fun.

Yes, being ‘out the box’ is more troublesome, it takes more focused effort and energy as one resists the voice of inner sirens luring us onto the rocky doubting shores of the inside, and yes, its messier. Interaction and remaining open to suggestion is, by definition, messy, unpredictable and exposes our vulnerabilities, requiring compromise, cooperation and a constant determination to develop ones behaviour to invite a good outcome.

But paradoxically, knowing we have the choice, the free will to choose ‘out’ rather than ‘in’ gives an inordinate amount of autonomy and power. Why? – because if one realises that there is always a choice, its almost impossible to lose… What might we do if we knew we couldn’t fail?

And, to draw it back to the wider topic of this blog (stay with me folks) it’s in the messy spaces that serendipity, that playful jouissance exists. The possibility of the unexpected occurring can never arise whilst ‘in the box’; there simply isn’t the wiggle room. If we are to encourage serendipity and work towards systematising it and recognising its place as a useful, consciously employed, creative driving force in the culture and behaviours of a large organisation such as UoS, then it seems to me that the fundamental place to begin, is locally; with our own ‘in the box’ internal narrative.

So, are you in or out? Your choice, your move.

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.