That leaving speech I never gave

I didn’t prepare a leaving speech. I thought about it, but in the end decided to wait and see what felt right in the moment. Having attended a few down the years I knew how awkward they can be, so when the time came I opted to keep it brief. On reflection, there are a few things I’d like to have said.

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I have to confess that the technical side of the job was never really my forté. Thank goodness I had such a great team of subject matter experts to work with. Instead, the speech I never made would have been about the people and the organisation. I was always more passionate about how we worked together than what we were working on. The speech would have been a story of some success and a fair amount of failure. Secretly, I had aspirations to transform the whole organisation. I can see now how that ambition was perhaps a little over optimistic!

When I applied for the job, eight years ago, part of the interview process involved preparing a presentation about what I perceived to be most important in the role. Here’s what I wrote:

“The Directorate can use its strengths of being open to innovation and diversity to develop a positive culture change. …Investment projects will provide a PR opportunity that will have the added benefit of improving the Team’s perception of itself… By focusing upon communication generally and working with Corporate Communications team to develop the bigger picture, the Directorate can help to deal with potential resistance at its root. The most important themes will be leadership and communication at all levels.”

The organisation has such complex cultural and political dynamics that it always fascinated me to see how it worked and how it might work better. I enjoyed the thinking and conversations that accompanied restructuring. In eight years, I lead on four re-structures and was subject to a few more. I always enjoyed the events and discussions around staff surveys and various attempts to initiate “culture change”. Issues around internal communications and feelings of separation were recurring themes. This was why I became interested in new forms of networked communications, as it was clear that the physical working environment would always have its limitations and challenges.

It seemed to me that online networks offered an invitation to a radical new way of thinking about relationships generally and the organisational structure (based upon trust, generosity and an equal voice). In 2010, I held the first corporate-wide online meeting debating Diversity and Equalities issues. At that stage, I had high hopes for developing a more open and equal dialogue across the organisation. That dream never really took off, despite the fact that well over 1,000 staff showed an interest by signing up to the network.

Pushing for a flatter, looser structure was part of the reason why I developed an interest in mediation, not only as a more progressive way of resolving disputes but also as a basic management competence for a forward thinking workplace.

Exploring new ways of working and communicating led me to become a partner at Ethos VO, a living experiment in networked organisation. It also led me to work with Jenni Lloyd on ConnectingBrighton and  involvement with other “Smart City” initiatives.

Perhaps my proudest work achievement over the past eight years was making myself partially redundant. Successive re-structures in my area led to a major shift of resource from management to the front line. There are now only three managers for a team of 60 where before there were seven. In 2013, I proposed a further flattening of the structure, taking out a complete tier, by experimenting with peer-to-peer performance reviews. Unfortunately the then Chief Executive wasn’t so keen.

In some ways, it seems as though the organisation changed quite a bit over those years. In other ways, it feels like nothing changed at all. What’s certain is that I changed, a lot. I learned a huge amount during my time in the public sector. For that I am extremely grateful and I will continue to be a supporter.


An Outrageous Idea

Eight years.

What would it take to create an entirely new local public services organisation? Switch off the old one, build and turn on a new one, inside eight years.


What would it take to keep (and bring back) the most creative and passionate people? Fully integrate communities and businesses in the design and delivery of public services, to the point where it’s impossible to draw a line between public and private.

What would it take to eliminate the financial burden? Switch from a constricting mindset to one of abundance. A place where dreams are sought, shared and realised.

What would it take to work in a culture of trust, mediation and celebration? Make “us and them”, grievances, whistleblowing and confrontation a thing of the past.

ConnectingBrighton: what next?

This week we will reconvene to review the first ConnectingBrighton event and talk about what happens next. To help form a view of the future, I thought it would be useful (for me) to look back at how it emerged.ConnectBTN_scibe

Midway through 2014, the local council launched a publicity campaign spelling out the upcoming challenges of population change and massively shrinking council budgets. It seemed to me that there was no master plan to address it and so I wondered what could be done.

That September, I pitched the idea to a group of local businesses and investors of an event to talk about these issues and connect different sectors and communities. The reaction was good so I started looking at potential venues and asked around for help.

In October, I met Prof Zef Hemel at a “Future Cities” event in London and heard him talking about city identities and community involvement in planning. I was really pleased that Zef agreed to come over and speak at our event.

Towards the end of January, I met with Jenni and we started talking about connecting different sectors, “Happy Cities” and new ways of community working.

In February, I met with Brighton Digital Festival Manager, Jesse Black Mooney. We talked about Amsterdam’s interpretation of a “smart city” and how something similar might work in Brighton.

Soon after Jenni joined Ethos VO,  in March, I floated the idea on our internal network of holding an event at the Brighton Digital Festival. Jenni suggested doing one about what it means to be a smart city and what a smart Brighton could be. We came up with a “statement of purpose” and got to work.

Looking back, I wonder whether presenting the event as part of the Digital Festival and linking it to the “smart cities” debate was helpful or confusing (maybe it was both!). My sense is that our intention was always to look beyond digital technology and reclaim the notion of a “smart city” as one that is first and foremost human.

So what next?

In my view, ConnectingBrighton is essentially a story that can help to bring people and organisations together, to improve life in Brighton & Hove. It could happen in many different ways: at a big event, in a small group, one-to-one, online, through art.. For me, ConnectingBrighton could be the story that gives those connections meaning. I think there is a need for a narrative, and dreams, that are bigger than politics, religion, business, technology, and so on. One that allows people to see beyond sector boundaries and helps to bind the community. I think that technology can play a significant role to amplify the story and strengthen connections but we need to focus above all on the quality of our relationships.

There are countless ways to build the story but I agree with Jenni that there needs to be more support for it to grow. Perhaps one way is to join up with the next city bid project, for example, the current Urban Living call.

Paradoxically, I also feel that it needs to be owned by both everyone and no one. It needs leaders to help support and facilitate the conversations and story building but I don’t think it can be associated too strongly with one or other person or organisation. Otherwise it runs the risk of becoming another segment. It needs to be really easy for anyone and everyone to jump in and take it to the next level.

The image included shows an illustration by Monika Bansal of the ConnectingBrighton event on 25th September 2015. Photo by Clive Andrews. Video created by David Scurr

Super Smart Brighton

The message from Brighton & Hove City Council’s Corporate Plan 2015-2019 is pretty clear: big change is round the corner whether we like it or not.

Against a backdrop of massively shrinking council budgets (about 40% smaller) we need to address some major challenges. For example:

  • Life expectancy is up to nine years less in the most deprived communities
  • 1 in 5 children live in poverty (1 in 2 in the most deprived areas)
  • Almost 3/4 of households cannot afford housing without a subsidy
  • Major investment is needed to maintain and develop our infrastructure, not least on the seafront
  • Congestion and air quality trends in the city centre are unsustainable
  • Social care costs associated with a growing and aging population will balloon
  • Volumes of waste per household are high and recycling rates are low
  • Many community safety measures may become unaffordable


Faced with these complex issues we will need to be smart. One response could be to try and control the situation, by gripping more tightly with a much stronger, central leadership from the council. An alternative view, which is suggested in parts of the Council’s Plan, is to embrace a more emergent, responsive and decentralised leadership. I think that the latter approach is more natural to Brighton.

To understand the local culture, you might get a clue from the physical layout of the city. There are many iconic buildings and spaces: the Pavillion, the Piers, Hove Lawns, the Lanes, New Road, Madeira Drive and our parks. The i360 will be another. But when someone asks “where is the centre of the city?” it’s not easy to pinpoint. Many towns have a central square where people naturally gravitate: to celebrate, to demonstrate or to begin an initial exploration. In Brighton, it could be any one of a number of locations, although unlike other cities the chances are you won’t find a town hall or cathedral there. The council actually has three town halls (Brighton, Hove and Portslade) although none of them houses the corporate leadership team (who are mainly based at Kings House in Hove). Almost half the city’s residents have no declared religion, which is around twice as many as the national average, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there is no obvious central church or cathedral.

One of the things that “Smart Cities” aim to do is identify spare capacity and match it to need. For that to work, people need to connect and share. To my mind, it’s more than just a technical challenge. I think it’s more one of trust and a desire to help: to think and act as a community. I believe it’s a desire that springs from understanding the wider picture and from strong, personal relationships; that springs naturally from a sense of identity and association. In a recent poll, Brighton came top amongst UK cities where residents are proud to live (91% positive), so it seems that we have a great foundation.

How does a city connect when there is no centre? Perhaps Brighton is a “starfish city“, one that positively thrives without a central control. In a networked era, decentralisation is becoming easier. The Brighton Digital Festival (BDF) organisation is a great example of a structureless, voluntary, open network. Last year I attended a coordination group meeting with the BDF. It was diverse, messy, passionate and brilliantly successful. This year I hope that we can hold an event at the Festival to focus upon what more Brighton can do to become an even smarter and more responsive city.

I’m inspired by some of the language used in the Council’s Corporate Plan, which seems to invite this sort of change:

“We must aim much higher than trying to remain the same. With a decreasing budget, we are open that the council will shrink in size, employing fewer people over the coming years. The relationship between the council, partners, providers and citizens needs to adapt.

The emphasis is on us, the council, releasing more of the control that we have traditionally held, collaborating increasingly with partners and enabling citizens to be active and do more for themselves.

We have the opportunity and the potential to help realise the shared partnership vision of a connected city.”

[Thanks to Jenni Lloyd for the conversations that sparked this post and for coming up with the idea of bringing the Smart Cities debate to the BDF. Thanks to Jesse Black for the title!]

Watching your heart beat

In preparation for running the marathon I bought a heart monitor. It’s a useful aid to pitch your training at the right intensity. I wore it to sleep one night to try and get a good read on my resting heart rate. I had expected to see a gradual drop and steady low rate. But when I downloaded the data I was surprised to see this:


This much I don’t know

For the past few years I’ve been asking my colleagues what they think about my work in a twice yearly anonymous survey. Overall it’s been ok and in fact, it has proven to be my most valuable development tool. But the one area where I have consistently received a low score (25-30%) is knowledge.

At first I was pretty cross about it. After all, I’ve been working in this sector for 18 years etc etc.. Surely they’ve got it wrong! (I thought).

But the truth is that they are absolutely right. If I had to cover for most of the roles in my team I would underperform because I simply don’t have the depth of knowledge in all areas. I think that’s ok though. So long as that expertise exists within the team, and is accessible, we should be alright.

It’s a well established cliché that no one person knows more than everyone. Pretty obvious really, although I wonder whether people really believe it about their own specialised subject. Most of us are happy asking for advice about areas where we do not consider ourselves expert, but how about the ones where we do? This is where I think there is often a missed opportunity for both learning and connecting. Sharing your expertise and experience is revolutionary. A huge step forward in adding value compared to keeping it hidden or restricted. Helping others that ask for assistance? Even better. You could say that these two approaches fit the category of “providing”. In this relationship the people we are connecting with remain, in the main, recipients. There are parallels between this type relationship and the teacher / pupil or manager / subordinate type dynamic. Learning is predominantly one-way and if there is a connection it’s likely to be slightly reverential.

Moving to a different level, the power of asking “what do you think?” is enormous. In one stroke you have conceded that you don’t know it all and levelled the playing field. The dynamic is transformed into a conversation between equals which has the added benefits of creating the opportunity to learn and grow; and opening up the possibility of building a friendship.

To survive and make sense of the world, most people absorb less than 5% of what we can sense. And our senses are only capable of picking up a fraction of what’s there. So our blind spots are far greater than our range of visibility. Perhaps the more eyes and views we can get on the problem the better.

Fractures (Small Acts of Generosity / Small Acts of Mutiny)

“The world as we know it is built on a story. To be a change agent is, first, to disrupt the existing Story of the World, and second, to tell a new Story of the World so that those entering the space between stories have a place to go.”  Charles Eisenstein 

If the purpose of change agents is to facilitate transition from one story to another, I like the idea of initiating the process with Small Acts of Generosity & Small Acts of Mutiny. imageExperiences which create schisms. Fractures. Fissures in the dominant story. Chinks of light. Apertures into a new story. Invitations to a different way of being. They are the moments of clarity, glimpsed on the way down. They are the practical actions creating experiences which don’t quite fit. The ‘irrational’ cameos that seemingly make no sense.

Small Acts are on the one hand giving; on the other, refusing. Unexpected generosity; uncomfortable mutiny. This is not revolution. These are just Small Acts. Gentle nudges. Harmless, yet potentially transformational. A slow puncture in life as we know it. The seeds of a new way. The rôle of change agents is to sprinkle these seeds and nurture them.

10% Days (#10pcday) are an attempt at a two-in-one Small Act of both Generosity and Mutiny. It is a baby step on the path towards a potentially big shift. What if everyone took a 10% day? What if 10% became 20%, or 30%? What if “gift work” experiments on 10% days became the norm everyday?

Small Acts are not theoretical. They are practical. The only talking is about what you are doing and how it went. Small Acts are not desktop punditry or soap box rhetoric. They are evidence of full and active commitment.

Working Out Loud (#WOL) is potentially another two-in-one Small Act. It is a generous commitment to share and to help, beyond what is required in your job description. It is also a declination. A refusal to constrain yourself to the established mode of operating. This is my favourite example of full commitment Working Out Loud by serial experimenter and Small Acts grand master, Jonathan Anthony: Working Out Loud Under The Stairs.

Small Acts are about doing what feels right, not what is expected. They are about doing what is important, not what is urgent. They are about stepping out of the shadows and being bold.

Anyone can commit to a Small Act. They don’t require upheaval or high risk. They don’t require a project team. They are simple ways that anyone can get on with it, right now.

What do you do to initiate change?