Stoke, Leicester, London, Belfast: great people are meeting and committing to action but how do we get to the next stage?
Significant change tends to happen gradually. So often we only spot trends when drawn to a comparison over a longer time frame; for example, when something occurs which reminds us of an earlier event. So it was last night when I attended a splendid gathering of RSA Fellows in Belfast, some of whom had made the effort to travel across the border from the Republic.
Less than two years ago a speech invitation in Newcastle, County Down offered an opportunity to speak to Irish Fellows. It was a more informal gathering than last night and with less notice and organisation. Yet I was struck by several comparisons.
At the earlier event there was only a handful of Fellows and a polite, rather than enthusiastic, response to my urgings to be more active. Also, I had felt my encouragement was undermined by a lack of inspiring examples of mobilisation drawn from other parts of the Fellowship. Last night 25 people came together with different backgrounds and interests but, so it seemed, a shared enthusiasm for the RSA to make a greater impact in Ireland. And this time I was able to offer lots of inspiring examples of Fellow activities, from the civic days in Stoke and Leicester to FRSA networks on social enterprise and corporate responsibility, not to mention the growing list of Catalyst winners.
But in case this sounds like an exercise in organisational self-congratulation (something to which I know I am prone), as I flew home this morning my mind turned to the hard question of how engagement and enthusiasm can be channelled into positive action.
Experience tells me that constructive initiatives made to last rarely emerge from large group discussions. Instead it takes a small number of people who work intensively to develop an idea before bringing it back to the larger group in search of feedback and support. When they work most effectively, these smaller groups are bound by mutual respect and affection and shared enthusiasm (this is particularly vital for voluntary activities in which people naturally want to enjoy themselves) as welll as complementary skills, experience and resources.
My analysis of how first stage gatherings turn into second stage action suggests bad news and good. The former is that however much goodwill exists, it is hard to force these smaller groups into being. They tend to emerge spontaneously as people warm to each other and a spark of intent travels between them. The latter is that by simply gathering people together we increase the chances of these creative interactions occurring.
But what makes the most fertile territory for small group emergence? The processes I have seen applied most often tend either to be too random or too structured. So last night, for example, each person described their reasons for being at the event and it was easy to spot potential synergies. But the format didn’t create enough of an opportunity to start to turn shared interests into mutual commitments. This will rely on follow up and as we all know the enthusiasm we feel in a group can quickly evaporate when we are back as individuals in our busy lives.
In contrast, events which involve post it notes and break out groups often seem to me to end up over-directing people, channelling their interest prematurely and encouraging them to make plans before they have established the interpersonal dynamic on which the viability of those plans depend.
Think how often you have experienced what happens when these respective processes fail; in the first the meeting was great but it didn’t really get anywhere, in the second we all agreed to take something forward but virtually no one followed through.
As Fellowship engagement continues to grow there are more and more events like last night (by the way, I do think RSA Ireland is going to take off) and I am really keen to find a more effective way of making the kinds of connections which lead to creative small groups. As I say, this involves not just identifying shared interests but also complementary attributes and human affinity. So the processes need to combine sharing information (about people’s interests, skills and resources) with an opportunity for people to engage in the kind of interaction which gives strong clues about the likelihood of effective team working.
Does anyone out there have any proven methods I could try out next time?
Where do ideas come from? As I tour around the country – yesterday it was Leicester – talking to Fellows this question keeps nagging away at me. (Before those of you who are only reading in the hope I will say something indiscreet about my time working for Mr Tony click on another site, I should say there are some interesting insights to gained from what we are doing here at the RSA.)
The idea of enabling the Fellowship to move from being an inward-looking social club into being an outward-looking network for civic innovation (that beeping sound is your Windows cliché checker) is gaining ground. The forces of conservatism (small ‘c’), as the aforementioned former leader once called them, are in retreat. The question now is not ‘why should we?’ but ‘how do we?’ – which, it turns out, is a much harder question.
It involves creating the right spaces for ideas to emerge (on-line and off-line). It means developing a culture in which bad ideas die elegantly and good ideas thrive. It forces us at HQ to be clear about the kind of backing we can give to emerging ideas.
But where do ideas come from?
Three answers, three implications for how we work. Ideas come from giving creative people in interesting combinations time to work together. The Leicestershire Fellows group I met yesterday told me they wanted ‘to do something about older people’. But, as we talked, it became clear that for some people this was about meeting needs, while for others it meant addressing negative perceptions of ageing. From this disagreement started to emerge the idea that we should meet older people’s needs by drawing on their strengths – a great conversation, but probably only a tenth of the way to developing a good idea. Through creating more enjoyable informal spaces for Fellows to meet and talk, and replicating this on line, we can allow ideas to emerge, evolve and mature.
Ideas come from the urgency and focus provided by a problem. Drawing on its incredible networks, its brand and its national resources, the RSA Fellowship should be able to respond quickly and generously when a need arises that we can meet. We can develop local solutions derived from an international network of experience and expertise. I have a fantasy about a Fellow saying ‘this problem we’ve got in Stoke-on-Trent, well I’ve been sent a really good idea by a Fellow who tackled something similar in New Jersey (or Melbourne, or Paris or New Delhi)’.
Ideas occur to us in the shower. When Fellows have that Eureka moment they should be able to stand shivering and dripping by their computer throwing the idea out to the wider Fellowship. While I’m being watery, the RSA should be a pond into which we can skim our half formed idea pebbles. Most will sink without trace (I have an interesting thought every day and a useful one every month) but some will set off ripples.
Thank you to the Fellows in Manchester and Leicester who got me thinking this way. The transformation of the Fellowship won’t be easy. But whereas before it felt like digging ourselves out of a hole, now it feels like we are trying to climb a mountain – just as hard but much, much more fun.
Now on my way back from Manchester. It was a success. The turnout was good, the commitment tangible and the quality of discussion high. There will be time for a fuller report – coming soon on the revamped networks platform – but here are some highlights of the morning.
In a breakout group to discuss Fellows’ responsibilities the question was posed: ‘what is it that we have in common?. We knocked this around for a while before someone said ‘isn’t what is different about the RSA is that we all come from different backgrounds and perspectives, so isn’t it up to us to create what we have in common?’ What a brilliant thought.
In a group to discuss communication, a Fellow who had been quiet up to then suddenly burst out: ‘you mean, if I want to, I can just contact local Fellows and start a local group; I don’t need permission from London or the regional committee?’ Exactly. In another group a universal agreement that being an RSA Fellow didn’t mean you have to sign your life away or promise to have a great idea every ten minutes; it means being open to the possibility that you might one day choose to work with other Fellows to develop their idea or your own. Unlike being a member of other organisations, being an RSA Fellow doesn’t mean a choice between disengagement and diving in at the deep end – there are plenty of ways to paddle too. Absolutely.
On days like today it feels like we are so close to the tipping point, when the Fellowship starts to generate the level of engagement, the quality of ideas and the practical action which make us a real force in the land. There are bad days too when it feels like we are pushing water uphill or when we have to deal with the loud but dwindling minority who want the RSA to be little more than a closed social club. But, overall, I am convinced we are getting there.
Thanks to everyone who made today - the Fellows who gave up their mornings, the staff who made it all work and most of all the magnificent Vivs. She is one of those people who creates energy wherever she goes.
I’m on my way to Manchester for an RSA Networks open day, of which more later. When RCE (Barbara, or ‘the Real Chief Executive’ as everyone knows her) told me my train was at 6.20 I was spectacularly unchuffed. It’s not so much the getting up early that I find objectionable more the going to bed early that I find impossible.
Walking through the streets of Lambeth at half past five this morning I was reminded of my brief stint as a street cleaner in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It was the summer of 1977. Every morning I was full of energy and hope, even though I’d rarely had more than three hours sleep. I loved walking across Chelsea Bridge as the sun was rising, and even one day when I watched the police river boat haul a body from the Thames it seemed somehow elegiac.
I recall my first morning most vividly. I turned up at 5.00 am and the foreman allocated me to Reg, a short, stoop shouldered man with skin etched with street dust and a dormant roll-up permanently attached to his bottom lip. He looked about 75 but I later found out was in his mid fifties. Reg took me to a street behind Sloane Square gave me a broom and set me to work.
After about half an hour I was regretting ever taking this summer job. I was covered in sweat, my eyes were streaming and I had already developed a pathological hatred for dog owners. Reg sidled up to me. He pointed back to the pristine pavement stretching 100 yards or so behind me. ‘’Ave you done this?; he asked in such accusatory tones that I assumed my productivity was well below par. ‘Yes’ I nodded, bracing myself for a lecture about the fecklessness of youth. ‘Listen mate’ said Reg patting me on the back ‘this is a job not a bleeding vocation’.
That’s when the proper initiation began, the most important part of which concerned the morning inspection round made by the foreman on his motor scooter. Looking in his white pith helmet every inch a district superintendent on an imperial posting, the supervisor made it a matter of pride that he kept always to a strict timetable. You could set your clock by when you would hear the putter of his scooter rounding the corner and see his jaunty salute as he satisfied himself and the Royal Borough that its staff were hard at work.
And we did set our clocks.
For this was the only time of the day when we could reliably be found with brooms in our hands. At all other times we would be distributed far and wide, some at home, some in the pub or the betting shop, one even pursuing a Lawrencian affair with a Sloane dowager. The only one of us who was generally to be seen with his handcart was Sean the junky who used his to secrete car radios nicked to pay for his habit.
Now, I guess, I do have a vocation, or at least a mission. Today is a big day for the RSA as we try to transform the Society into a powerful force for social innovation. The Fellowship and network teams have done a great job of preparation and I am really looking forward to the day (I will report back later from the train home). But sometimes, only sometimes, I wish I could return to those days when creativity was something you used not to improve your job, but to avoid having to do it.
Great day out in Exeter yesterday with South West Fellows. The evening reception was fun – it’s always nice to talk to Fellows old and new – but the high point of the day was the afternoon session with Committee members and invited Fellows.
In this session, we discussed half a dozen ideas for Fellowship projects in the South West – these ranged from the RSA helping to turn the historic Beer Quarry Caves into a World Heritage site through to giving young people a stronger voice in Exeter.
As we talked it became clear that some projects offered more as RSA initiatives than others, and this process of encouraging Fellows to develop ideas, then discussing them critically but positively, and working out the next stage as ideas turn into initiatives is exactly how I see RSA Networks developing.
Of course, we are at a very early stage – we need lots more ideas and we need to understand that this is about RSA initiatives rather than just supporting existing ideas and organisations. We also need to be realistic – out of, say, 20 good ideas only a handful will result in further engagement and possibly only 1 into an RSA initiative.
However, I am confident that in a few years’ time we will have a whole database of successful RSA initiatives from around the country – this will be an incredibly valuable learning tool, showing what works in one part of the country and could be adapted for another.
The development of the Networks project, without a strong history of activism to rely on, is the steepest part of the learning curve. But in the enthusiasm, camaraderie and willingness to engage and be engaged that I saw in the SW yesterday lies the future for the RSA Fellowship.