Ways of working

Times of transition are a good opportunity to take stock. In the past I have been asked by organisations like WWF and Oxfam to share thoughts with their teams on my experiences, so I thought that moving on from my Commissioner roles would be a good moment to share some of those reflections on some key lessons in making thing happen.

1. Working across boundaries – looking back this has been a theme for my career dating back to crossing the bridge for my first job as a teacher in Somerset, to my role heading up the DTI programme for placing teachers into business and my time with CBI and Business in the Community which involved working with business to engage with social and environmental issues. It taught me never to underestimate the “silos” that we all live in and the power of putting people in unfamiliar surroundings. In my time at BITC I must have participated in over 50 Seeing is Believing programmes – a simple formula which uses a supporter with powerful asking power, peer group dynamics and pressure and an experience likened to an emotional tumble drier. There is nothing more powerful than unusual allies in achieving influence as so often we have alliances of the usual suspects on any one issue.

2. Building Networks – I was told once that the only difference between networking and not working is one vowel – but more importantly I was also influenced by work of Geoff Mulgan which highlighted one of the greatest causes of poverty in the UK was the poverty of networks. Conversely then it can be the one of the greatest sources of power, so structures that support and enable networks are so critical – business knows this – so networks that connect business, communities and government are the basis for achieving change – in the old SDC we used to call it the 'triangle of change'.

3. Convening powers – if I look at my diary most of my time has been spent in some sort of convening function. It was my only real power in my old Commissioner role, while I have had the opportunity to work for the greatest of convenors in the form of the Prince of Wales, who has the capacity to bring together leaders from across all forms of society – perhaps his only power too but its importance should never be under estimated.

4. Being an honest broker – a lot of this work is based on the premise of being an honest broker, building trust with partners that you do what you say, providing a safe space for dialogue but one where there is some degree of confidence that dialogue will lead to action and delivery. Some of this can take a long time – and there are times when you think it better to be faster on your own but generally it proves to be better to be slower together. Of course over my career the capacity to convene, build networks, convene and broker action has been transformed and we now have the capacity of facebook, twitter and linkedin to reinforce the traditional face to face networks, roundtables and conferences. Perhaps best illustrated over the where we have used the online campaigning capacity in the development of Size of Wales – the initiative that aims to protect an area of rain forest the Size of Wales, which has provided some interesting lessons – combining Incentives – match funds through Size of Wales, the outreach of partners with significant reach and scale, the passion of national identity, the online capacity – winning UK awards for campaigning and a sense of fun.

But some basic principles have remained that I think are pretty essential in delivering in the sorts of role I have played.

  • Government in particular does not like surprises – so a no surprises principle is critical if you are to maintain trust and influence.

  • Most of the hard work in Government is done by relatively junior civil servants so make sure those relationships are strong – remember they are the ones who have to answer the letters, respond to the post card campaigns etc.

  • It is more effective to catch people doing the right thing, say well done and amplify their messages.

  • Peer pressure works at all sorts of levels – it is why independent public benchmarking is so important.

  • Identify where the energy and enterprise exists and avoid the “drains”.

  • Always go beyond the usual suspects if you can to create the disruptive ideas.

  • Work out who are the important carriers of the message – or as an old boss of mine used to say “who is sleeping with whom”.

  • Avoid becoming the story or the rent a quote – make sure leaders in communities, businesses or public bodies are the story.

At the end of the day it is about creating opportunity for change – which again to quote an old boss is like making coffee; you can do in one of two ways – as a percolator where change bubbles up from the bottom or as a cafetiere where you push down change from the top – ideally it is a combination of the two. Change happens when both are working together.

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