I’m in the exciting planning and admin la la of flights & accomm booking, emails out to folks, introductions from friends and allies to orgs and people in anticipation of my Churchill Fellowship travels to the USA in May/June.

I am particularly interested in meeting with social change arts and media organisations – with a focus on distribution and marketing of cultural products (film, theatre, apps etc) to create greatest impact and change.

Key orgs who are already on my list to spend some time with (fingers crossed it all lines up) are:

Smart Meme – I’m doing their advanced training in STORY based strategy in June; very excited!

Working Films – the distribution campaigns that they design are incredible – I really want to understand how to do this better to be able to apply to the Australian context

Witness I’ve admired their work for a long time and now Lizzie Gillett who produced Age of Stupid is working there as a ‘Catalyst’. Very keen to learn more.

Films that Change the World - Run by the ever inspiring Sandi Du Bowski FTCTW have long been on my list to visit since meeting Sandi at the Crossover lab in early 2009.

Skylight Pictures Make incredible films including The Reckoning (about the International Criminal Court) and Granito. These films very much create leverage for and are part of the movements in which they are made.

Big Noise Films Are long term activist filmmakers and recently completed Dirty Wars, which kicked ass at Sundance. Looking forward to seeing it.

Change.org An old friend and inspiration now works here in Communications and I plan to pick her brains tirelessly!

If there are any other organisations that you would recommend I get in touch with on this trip please let me know!

I’ll be doing my best to keep the blog updated on this trip.

I’ve just spent 6 days at Woodford volunteering on the burlesque themed Parlour Bar. I first visited the Woodfordia site for the Dreaming Festival with Ngapartji Ngapartji in 2007 and was at Woodford 2010/11 tour managing the amazing 9 piece brass band from Edinburgh Orkestra Del Sol. So not as long or involved history as some people have but I have seen the festival and site from a few different angles. And I am IMPRESSED!

I plan to do some interviews with people who work on the festival but in the mean time I’ve been inspired to post because it is such a brilliant thing to see an event which caters to so many people (150,000 this season) which has a $10M budget and runs predominantly by volunteers who are in turn managed by 120 department heads, run so well. The Festival caters to over 25,000 people a day – so it’s the same size as Alice Springs and has high demands for sewerage, first aid, etc. 

It has incredible systems in place and also maintains an inclusive, connected and highly positive culture. I am curious about where the leadership comes from that has created this – is it individuals or collective leadership (I suspect both). Stay tuned for more on Woodford.

And Happy 2013!!

 

 

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen. – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

I have read a bunch of interesting stuff while I have been looking at how we work together and the structures and cultures of our workplaces. I have also been co-facilitating a leadership program so that has introduced me to a lot of leadership theory as well as corporate leadership and innovation speak (hence the reference to the airport management books in the last post!)

I wanted to add a post to the things that I reckon are worth reading and orgs to check out.

ReWork by 37 Signals – an organisation that specialise in web based collaboration and communications systems for organisations. Has anyone used campfire or basecamp? Any thoughts? I enjoyed ReWork – it was poppy and somewhat flippant, but the ideas resonated. The two that stick with me the most are “Close enough is good enough” – just get going don’t plan til the end of time, just get on with it. And to not sit on difficult decisions, just make them now; they will still be hard in a weeks time.

Robyn Archer’s Detritus. Robyn Archer is an inspiring think and leader, what makes her even more inspiring is that she puts her thoughts in to action and curates innovative and interesting public events and festivals. She articulates the role of culture and the arts with such smarts it is joyous to listen to her speak and read her words.

5 Dysfunctions of a Team (I read the manga version!) Someone I met in Canberra told me about the ’5 dysfunctions of a team’ and I found it revelatory; particularly the avoidance of conflict aspect. Many times when working in a facilitation role I had tried to steer things away from disagreements; I think this is one of the limits of the way I was approaching consensus decision making. Reading about this made me realise it is not about avoiding difference of opinion, but finding more mature ways to have conflict and big disagreements without it getting personal.

Power and Love - Adam Kahane. I am deeply inspired by the systems approach to complex problems that Reos Partners have developed and continue to experiment with internationally. I would love to work alongside one of their projects at some point. The simple idea that Power without Love is authoritarian and oppressive and that Love without Power is weak and anemic provides a rigorous basis for thinking about social change in a way that I really appreciate.

Smart Meme Re:Imagining Change Smart Meme are an activist communications strategy organisation based in the USA. They are dynamic and have such smarts about movement building, campaign strategy and training for changing the story around social issues. This book is a wonderful resource (you can buy hardcopy or download PDF).

Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles. For fabulously gripping post nuclear apocalyptic fantasy with a kick ass heroine I can’t really go past Obernewtyn. Great analysis of war, campaigns against discrimination and how to deal with your gifts and leadership.

I have also been listening to a bit of Tara Brach‘s podcasts on mindfullness – she comes at this with good humour and a calm that I really dig. This is a very new space for me to be exploring, but feel like there is some really interesting stuff to draw on here to temper my general adrenalin fueled approach to projects.

What about you, what reading has been floating your boat in these areas?

So this blog post got started 12 months ago, and I finished it in a rush today because I thought I better post something before the end of 2011!

So if we agree that creative cultures and more flexible workplace structures are better for dealing with the chaos of reality, create more space for innovation and can drive better results then how do we replicate this on a large scale?

Putting aside for a moment arguments against scaling up and bearing in mind that a desire to make things bigger is pretty hooked in with capitalist growth mentality – how do you take good values and cultures to bigger scale organisations without them becoming corporate rhetoric, but real lived culture?

I think it is pretty well recognised that we are living in an age of pretty ridiculous over beuracratisation of  our lives and in our work places. This seems to be partly driven by a litigation culture, with orgs and individuals worrying about covering their ass constantly and possibly partly by the levels of reporting  required by funding bodies for many NGOs.

There are a growing genre of airport stand pop psych management books that crap on about “change management” and “innovation” with snappy dynamic language around how to make your workplace more creative and innovative. Many corporations are adopting this language as well as triple bottom line reporting probably due to with climate change and the whole corporate social responsibility shebang getting on the agenda in the 90s. I think this kind of spin or “innovation wash” is really comparable to green wash and I reckon it is just as dangerous. It makes it hard to tell who is walking the talking and who is just talking when everybody says they care about community, the environment and creating dynamic innovative workplaces.

In my experience the larger an organisation the more risk averse it becomes, but is this really the case? Apple, google, large manufacturing companies must take risks – but perhaps it easier to take risks when you are already loaded up with cash? I feel like I probably need to get some more experience in the business sector because my work experience is so far limited to the arts, universities, NGOs, independent media orgs and government.

When I was in France last year I was surprised and inspired when talking to Anne-Louise from the Festival Avignon – known as the Cannes of theatre festivals and quite an event. The festival, along with the fringe festival AvignonOFF takes over the ancient walled city of Avignon for 3 weeks every July, and has done so for 64 years! The Festival employs 24 people year round and 800 people by July. They have to host over 1200 artists. The sell over 120,000 tickets and have an audience of over 40,000 people. And according to Anne-Louise is it a ‘brilliant management case study’. Who says that about their workplace?

She describes a highly efficient and positive workplace where information channels work well, everyone knows who to talk to for what and are really helpful to each other. She also said that given the scale of the event and the number of external relationships the core team of 24 “can’t afford not to work well internally”. Now essentially no-one can afford not to work well together internally, but this often isn’t a reason enough to stop squabbling and ugly practices emerging, so how did they build such a trusting culture?

Anne-Louise says she has never worked somewhere so smooth and positive. She doesn’t think it is necessarily a French thing either, she praises the attitude and the leadership of the co-directors, and the fact that there are two people at the helm, not just one. She cites the time that they take to greet staff by name, check in with people, not make themselves seem too important etc.

Even though I talked to her about the org for quite a while I couldn’t really get a sense of what made it different other than the leadership of the two co-directors. So I wonder then if it is about structure or is it about the culture of leadership that management provide?

How you maintain positive workplace cultures and processes in a larger workplace is a big question. I understand how to get 5 people on track together, but 800? This is when systems become really important – when you think about how you communicate with them team about itself and how you share information. Who makes decisions and how? And how do 800 people find about all the decisions and policies that are being made?

I don’t have any answers but I am interested in your thoughts? More about the “innovation spin” in my next post…

Humans seem incapable of wrapping their heads around or accepting chaos. We’re really good at being resilient and responding to chaos as or after it happens, we just don’t seem to accept that it chaos is reality. We put enormous energy in to creating systems, cultures, rules, mores, etiquettes, collectively held ideas etc almost as if to ignore the fact that everything is essentially totally transient and out of our control. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like cultures and collectively agreed on ideas – I just think there is a deep irony at play here, especially with regards to how we build organisations and projects.

So if we start at with this idea of chaos then how do we create organisations, projects and workplaces equipped to deal with this reality of changeability and the random? How do we create conditions that are safe and supportive to be creative, responsive and make great work?

I think that systems, clarity of roles, access to information and shared understanding of vision are vital. I have also spent a lot of time training in and thinking about processes; meeting processes, decision making processes, training processes, info sharing and induction processes etc. Now though, I am starting to think that the culture and dynamic of a group or team is just as important as any structures that are collectively agreed on or written down in a constitution or business plan.

It isn’t an either/or with structure or culture – they certainly inform each other, but I have seen plenty of organisations with glowing values and structures on paper and really poor process and culture in reality. Walking the talk takes more than a plan with lofty values put together after 2 days with butchers paper and coloured textas.

A phrase we’ve been using amongst friends in Alice Springs is “we hold each other up by invisible threads” and I think it is this holding that creates the most dynamic and productive of spaces. That is, if you feel supported, safe, critically honest and held by your team, management, organisation then there is much more scope for exploration, growth and most importantly; creative risk. The most exceptional work, the most successful work, relies on the space to take creative risk; together.

So how to create the structure that best promotes a culture of honest, critical, challenging and supportive holding? What are the practical ways of building a dynamic and trusting culture within a project or team?

After many years rejecting the very idea of leadership, which was, I think a very unsophisticated approach to anarchist theory, I have started to understand that leadership is highly important and not very well taught, talked about or understood in general. Especially amongst NGOs, community orgs and in the arts. The tall poppy syndrome could also take some blame here I reckon.

Now I think groups and projects need leadership to flourish. Not necessarily one central leader for everything, different people can lead in different ways; ie Pantjiti, Makinti, Amanyi and Lorna lead Ngapartji Ngapartji culturally, whereas Scott and I lead it in the overall design and producing and Damian and Beth lead musically.

Building a good organisation or team culture is also something that is achieved by behavioural and cultural leadership within a team. Creating dynamics through deeds and practice, not just written guides. I have observed many groups and organisations suffering from dysfunction, bad treatment of each other, siege mentality, sniping or just making mediocre work because the dynamic does not hold each person up by invisible threads and support them to grow and do their best work.

The more held people are in an organisation the more flexible and able to move quickly, deal with emerging opportunities and chaos, the more creative and productive an organisation can be.

The ‘work of how we work‘ together is often overlooked or seen as secondary to the tasks at hand and our upcoming deadlines. If good work is not done building a strong, healthy and supportive internal culture then making brilliant work is impossible and people burn out and leave hurt rather than inspired by the work. Things also tend to stumble or fall apart when chaotic events and conflicts arise.

Because of chaos and because the terrain, politics, people, community with which we work are constantly changing and growing this work of how we work needs constant attention. It shouldn’t tip over in to navel gazing, as with all things it requires balance, but it needs to be much more valued in our planning, project design, collaboration and art making than it appears to me that it is at present.

Anyone who I talk to about the fact that I have been completely knocked out with the. worst. flu. ever. for the last two weeks laughs at me for being surprised. They reckon it’s the 6-year-project-ending-body-gives-in-to-get-the-toxins-out-totally-inevitable-flu.

After the hugeness of the Ngapartji Ngapartji wrap up combined with 6 months in Canberra, completing the doco, distributing 1500 memory baskets, then putting on the final event in London, I think there could be something in this theory!

Whatever it is, it’s now getting a bit annoying. And given it’s two thousand and zen and I can’t speed up getting well, I just have to be zen. Even though it’s thrown many planned meetings & interviews to date. Even though I have had a cotton wool head. Even though I couldn’t read or process anything. Even though I couldn’t party with a mate who was over from Alice (sorry k!) Even though I was only capable of watching the entire first season of glee (ok there was one upside to being in bed for 10 days).

Today is the first day that my brain seems to be working and ideas are starting to simmer again. Given the sicky context I have been thinking a lot about stress, adrenalin and capacity. Thinking about how hard I pushed myself for 6 years and how, although it was very rewarding and dynamic, it was also very stressful and I was rarely ever relaxed, even when on a break, during those 6 years. I always had a sense of weight and responsibility throughout the life of Ngapartji Ngapartji. For the project; it’s opportunities, funding, reputation, administration and for people working on it; their opportunities, well-being, income, ideas and needs.

I have always adhered to the anarcho adage ‘freedom with responsibility’ and in some ways it does feel like the more autonomous, risky, creative and experimental a project (the more free) then the higher the responsibility. The less traditional structures, the more work to create new ones. The newer the model, the less examples or paths to follow.

I want to continue to work like this, with high levels of creative risk and freedom, I don’t mind the responsibility, but I don’t want the weight of the stress/pressure. Is that possible? I am not sure, but ‘how do you do this for your whole life’ is a question that is creeping in to my interviews with and brain-picking of people.

Time out, good silly fun, travel, mates and play seem to be big parts of many people’s approach to keeping balanced and healthy (and thus more effective and dynamic on their projects).  So I am pretty excited to have the space for a bit of that over in euro summer – once I finally kick this flu. The fact that I am capable of writing a blog post probably demonstrates that I am on the mend. Phew.

It has been about 8 years since I deleted the blog I kept in my early 20s so it is with some shyness and  curiousity that I am launching myself in to the blogosphere again. This blog has primarilly been motivated by an upcoming residency in Paris exploring different structures and processes of arts organisations. It is also a creative release valve after many years working on one project – the amazing Ngapartji Ngapartji – and by the fact that I think I actually have a whole lotta things to say.

I look forward to the dialogue and I hope some of my reflections kick off some interesting discussions.

Thanks for popping by, please come again!

And so

Reflections on structures and ideas of how we organise ourselves and the impact our structures and processes have on our projects.

Header image by Civil from Irene Warehouse.

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