How To Fit Four Years of Experience Into One Minute

Dealing with self-inflicted complexity

Opportunity

I recently had the pleasure of being included in a team of people pitching for the 2023 London Borough of Culture award. Sutton, the borough I’ve lived in for most of my life, has been shortlisted for the award, and the council chose to involve two members of the community in the pitch. I am fortunate to be one of them.

Our instructions were simple. Deliver a ten-minute presentation to a panel of experts, then engage in a detailed question and answer session. At a previous planning meeting, we agreed I would take up to 60 seconds to illustrate the excellent grass roots arts and cultural scene in our borough. To support my words, I asked for a visual backdrop, a montage showing people in our community engaging with the arts and cultural scene, and then I got to work.

Challenge

As a community artist and executive committee member of Arts Network Sutton – I am in a fortunate position to have good visibility of much of the excellent arts and cultural work being carried out across our borough, but as I soon realised – this was as much a curse as a blessing. I started doodling and making notes, and it quickly became clear I could easily take up the whole session enthusing about the many good things happening locally. I got a bit stressed by the challenge I faced, ‘How can I do justice to all this good stuff in just 60 seconds?’

Spark

I’ve recently reacquainted myself with my Stop Doing Dumb Things cards – a device I created back in 2013 to help people like me and you when we get stuck in our work. I shuffled the deck and pulled a couple of cards. One of them read:

‘How much of your complexity is self-inflicted? Simplify Relentlessly.’ 

Change

That first phrase took me back several years to an unconference I facilitated at Target Field, Minnesota. I was working with Thomson Reuters global project management team at the time, and we got together to explore that particular community’s wants and needs, and to make cocreated plans for the future. Two people gave short presentations at the start of the event.

Dave St Peter – President of the Minnesota Twins, talked about the importance of family, both in relation to the team’s fans, and a sense of togetherness among the non-playing and playing staff in the Twins organisation. This was a useful spark for some of the community conversations we subsequently had.

Rick King, a senior executive at Thomson Reuters also spoke, and it was he who uttered that phrase, ‘How much of your complexity is self-inflicted’, during his talk. Bearing in mind Rick was addressing around 200 project managers, this particular line was a ‘pin drop’ moment at the time, and to this day I’ve never forgotten his words. Thank you Rick.

Practice

Fast forward to 2020 and I got back to work on the pitch – writing, cutting, focusing, repeat. I chose to speak about my experience of Arts Network Sutton, as discovering them back in 2016 was a pivotal moment in my artistic adventures. My job was to set the scene of a local grass roots arts scene, doing good things, and keen to do much more with the support of the award. My family were invaluable in making time for me to rehearse in front of an audience, and after a great deal of hard work – I simplified my message while keeping it effective, and timely. I used 58 of my allocated 60 seconds, so the rest of the team got 2 bonus seconds returned to them!   

Deliver

On the day we were given space and time to rehearse and talk things through. That was useful – and we quickly got to a place of readiness, without going over the top. With our presentation delivered, we got stuck into an intense question and answer session and worked well as a team, fielding questions, supporting and contributing where relevant. Our previous work together gave us the ability to respond dynamically, knowing where specific strengths lay in the team. The adjudication panel were friendly and tough – but in a way that conveyed genuine interest and a desire to hear how we could be, at our very best.

Be Thankful

I felt exhausted once our work was done – and we slowly drifted our separate ways, happy that we’d worked well together. Life carries on, until we meet again at City Hall on Tuesday 11th February to find out more. I am grateful to be included in this project, and to have had the opportunity to simplify relentlessly.

Visual Communication : Different ways of recording our thoughts

I recently attended an Open Space event discussing Paradigms of Mental Health. Open Space Technology is a very liberating, loose framework within which to convene dialogue. I like it a lot, it’s a great opportunity to hear many voices, I use it often in my work and when I’m aware of other events where the technology is to be applied, I’m keen to get along and participate. So far this year I’ve been involved in Open Space events discussing:

  • The Future of Learning Technologies
  • The Arts in my local borough
  • Mental Health

I usually note take when I’m at these events, and for some reason, Open Space tends to bring out the artist in me.

The conversation at the learning technologies event focused less on the technology itself, far more on behaviours. Here’s the sketch note I made whilst at the event.

During the arts session, there were lots of opportunities to talk, so I proposed a session called ‘Would You Like to Paint?’ where instead of having a conversation, we just made art together. Here’s some of our work.

At the mental health conversation, I was introduced to Monica Biagioli, a senior lecturer at London College of Communication. Monica showed me a new device, called The Zine. We were given a piece of paper, folded with a few cuts in it, and invited to record thoughts and ideas as we conversed. The way the paper is cut means you can refold it into many shapes, which in turn means the things you originally noted adjacent to one another, can be repositioned. Here are some photos showing side one and two of my zine, and a folded version.

I love how, as you move from conversation to conversation, taking notes as you go, the notes can be refolded and repositioned, taking the dialogue in new and unexpected directions. Very zen.

Almost two months after attending the mental health open space event, the zine is still in clear view on my desk. Bearing in mind my desk doubles up as a mini art studio, the continued presence of the zine is no mean feat! I think it is an excellent tool for recording, and remixing ideas. Thank you Monica, for this great, and simple idea.

A version of this post first appeared on HRExaminer in May 2018.

Update. I recently met Monica Biagioli again, and she has kindly provided additional information relating to the Zine project. I’m delighted to share this with you here.

Zine Method credits

Description:
Monica Biagioli, Allan Owens and Anne Pässilä started their collaboration around the Zine Method in a participatory innovation process in social enterprise where the focus was to capture citizens’ perspectives and ideas as well as to create a space for sharing multiple perspectives into a development process.  After that we have systematically applied the Zine Method  in various contexts: IFKAD, Bari, Italy, 2015; GNOSIS, London, UK, 2016; IFKAD, Dresden,Germany, 2016; PhD students at University of Chester, UK; MA students at University of Chester and University of the Arts London, UK, 2017 onwards; ArtsEqual LUT research as artful inquiry, Lahti, Finland; Zamek Cieszyn, Cieszyn, Poland, 2018; RSA NHS R&D Mental health care session, Liverpool, UK, 2018; University of Central Lancashire, 2018; Realising Potential Ltd application in leadership coaching and as facilitation in business, 2018 onwards; ACAT Conference 2018, application of method by conference participants during the conference.

By Zine Method we mean the design response of the ‘zine’ as a means for self-reflection and to improve communication. Zines (small (maga)zines) have roots in the do-it-yourself movement. The idea and use of the zine has emerged over time, from the early leaflets and pamphlets produced by independent publishers in the late 18th century, to the amateur press movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, to the subculture of fandom that emerged in the 1930s in science fiction, to spread later to the punk and riot grrrl movements, up to current times.

Zines are applied as a method of collecting and analysing data within a framework of qualitative analysis to retain more of the shape of the complete experience (Dewey) and allow for emotional responses to emerge within the zine format. Zines can be solely for private consumption (self-reflection) and can therefore act as containers to process difficult emotions, such as the ones that emerge in conflict situations.

– A way to progress understanding iteratively by applying the format to map the negotiation ahead:
use it as metaphor; brainstorm ideas; and apply it as a communication tool; One of our collaborators pointed out that when applying zines to organising collective voicing “It is more about collective reflection and meaning making rather than problem solving”
– A way to reflect subjectively on own role in the process:
each zine can focus on different points of views and contributions to the negotiation; it can serve as a self-reflection tool to check “what is going on with yourself”
– A contained way to address complexity and ambiguity:
each zine can map and record uncertainties within a conflict negotiation process and the role emotion plays in that; help find relationships out of random placements; and connect elements previously disconnected to make sense of a situation

Zine Method report for Beyond Text (includes the zine template): 
http://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/12489/1/Zine%20Method%20Beyond%20Text%20May%202017.pdf

Zine construction by Monica Biagioli; application developed collaboratively by Monica Biagioli, Allan Owens and Anne Pässilä. Source: Biagioli, Monica (2018) The Zine Method. Project Report. RECAP Research Centre; and Biagioli, M., Pässilä, A. and Owens, A. (forthcoming) Zine method as a form of qualitative analysis. In Jeff Adams & Allan Owens (eds.) Beyond Text. Intellect LTD, UK

Monica Biagioli, Professor Allan Owens, and Dr Anne Pässilä
June 2018

Live Painting at Workplace Trends : Psychological Safety

Last week I was at the Workplace Trends Research Spring Summit. I was there to learn, to do some live painting, and to give a talk on creative practice at work. This is a short blog post about a piece of art I made on the day.

Early on in the presentations, I listened to Nicola Gillen and Charlotte Hermans talking about how AECOM is undertaking new research to investigate predictors of wellbeing and performance in populations of office workers.

AECOM is testing to identify the most influential factors of work (e.g., job design, management, culture) vs. workplace (e.g., quality of work settings, noise, air quality) in predicting physical, mental, social, intellectual, spiritual and material dimensions of wellbeing, performance and satisfaction. Something which caught my attention was Nicola’s observation of the importance of psychological safety. In particular she spoke of the idea of being your ‘whole self’ at work, and how potentially harmful it can be in a workplace where this doesn’t feel possible.

I know from personal experience and from listening to many stories, how tricky it can be in some places to be yourself, to be open and honest about what you see, and how it’s making you think and feel. As I considered how I might get over that sense of reluctance when things are a little unclear, I began to paint. The blurred background indicates uncertainty, things moving at speed, not being quite sure what’s going on. The winged creature indicates a guardian within – open arms encouraging that sense of being sufficiently confident to speak truth to power, to be myself at work. I chose to title the piece ‘Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself Again.’

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Above are photographs of the piece as it was finished and displayed in conference, and a couple of close ups so you can see some of the detail. It took me all morning and some of the lunch break to paint this, each line on the wings is a single free hand brush stroke. Patience was required to complete the piece, and at times during the making, I felt like quitting and starting again on something easier. I’m glad I persisted, people gave me lots of positive feedback on the finished piece and it sits well alongside some of my other recent works.

I’ll share more live painting from the event soon, and some slides and speaker notes too. For now, thank you Nicola for the spark of an idea which brought the art into being.