“I wonder if any year ever had less chance of being happy. It’s as though the whole race were indulging in a kind of species introversion — as though we looked inward on our neuroses. And the thing we see isn’t very pretty…”
John Steinbeck, writer and advocate for the disenfranchised, wrote that in 1941. It resonates for me right now, with storm clouds amassing and divisions running deep.
Steinbeck’s response to the dark side (which you can read in full on the fantastic brainpickings.org) encouraged me to face the year ahead with a bit of oomph, openness and a positive focus on what can be done. So here are my top three tips for generating energy and thinking differently. I’ll be doing these in 2019 to boost my motivation, curiosity and creativity; I hope it sparks something for you and the teams or groups you work with.
1. Think like artists and try a new process
I’m always interested in creative techniques and love designing innovative processes for me and the groups I facilitate. I’m starting next week with a trip to Cologne, Germany to collaborate with Philine Velhagen, a radio and theatre producer who works in public spaces. We’re developing a new approach that uses aesthetic transformations (the way artists work and think) to help people and organisations who don’t normally think of themselves as creative.
I was lucky to meet Philine at a brilliant summer school at the Universitat der Kunst in Berlin last year that used the city as a source of inspiration. In the same way our starting point is using what already exists, our own thoughts, what’s in front of us and how we relate to it. It’s definitely not about sitting in front of a blank page waiting for inspiration or being a creative genius with amazing technique. I’m looking forward to mixing things up, producing sparks and looking for what we don’t normally see.
2. Be a story activist – get the stories that matter out in the world
Stories are a main theme of my work, so this won’t be new to people who’ve read previous blog posts. Sitting at my desk on these first quiet days of the year, I’m reminded of how much energy I get from writing and collaborating with others on story work. For me stories make sense of the gritty tough stuff and amplify the positives.
Today I’m writing about public servants in Bexley children’s services, assessed by Ofsted as outstanding. These are extraordinary tales, from social workers, educators, children and families, told about themselves, their work and the triumphs and tragedies they encounter every day. No need for an academic treatise on what outstanding looks like – these tales powerfully illustrate why Bexley is special and the people who work there very special indeed. A new book of their stories will be out in the spring.
In 2018 we published three books: Boldly and Rightly, Town Hall – buildings, people and power and This Leader Can – make a difference on Equalities (find out all about them at www.sharedpress.co.uk) We also helped Bradford Leaders Network pull together their own collection, “The threads that bind.” That’s 170 people who’ve told their stories, seen them published, honoured and out there and more who’ve taken part in organisational story-telling workshops. Every story I’m told or read lifts me up and has an impact.
3. New conversations in new forms – an art and literature festival about our moral compass
We all know people in our networks whose conversations energise us and make us feel alive. I always get a boost talking to multi-disciplinary artist, Arts Council assessor and friend Sarah Tutt about the art of process. I love Sarah’s questioning and inventive spirit. We are different personalities in different worlds and the crossovers are magic.
Before Christmas we tested out a new idea of mine based on ethics; although it’s not fully formed it’s based on the need for a new moral compass and standards in public life. We’re thinking about having the debate in the form of an arts festival with the themes of integrity, selflessness, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. The themes are the Nolan principles that everyone in public life signs up to – even our politicians. And my question is do they give us all a moral compass? I don’t where the conversations or the idea will take me but it’s already exciting. If you’re curious and want to join the conversation let me know.
Writing this blog has helped me think myself into the year and I’m ready for it all, the highs and the inevitable lows. John Steinbeck never lost hope in the human spirit, we shouldn’t either. It’s our experience and engagement with people, their lives, stories and ideas that helps me keep the faith.