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Experimental II

I didn’t get what was meant to be happening with John Cage’s 4:33 when I first heard about it. This was a piece of “music” that lasted for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Except it wasn’t a piece of music because the musician would sit at the piano (or any other instrument) and not play anything for that amount of time. It seemed like Cage was laughing at us – playing the ultimate con trick. Except, when you sit in the space and there is no music, you are forced into a zen-like experience of hearing everything else that is going on around you. There isn’t complete silence at all. You become aware of the sounds that the audience are making, noises coming from outside, the sound of your own breath. Perhaps, even the sound of your own thoughts distracting you. A truly powerful idea!

Simple, abstract and minimalist are all ideas in music and word that have intrigued me over the years. I bought the Gavin Bryars album “Sinking of the Titanic / Jesus’ Blood” when it was first released on vinyl in 1975. Not because I had heard of Gavin Bryars, but because it was on Brian Eno’s experimental label, and I trusted his judgement. I was only 14 at the time – it was an easy thing to do. This album was comprised of two pieces of music each spanning the full side. The first piece was inspired by the idea that the concert band on the Titanic continued to play as the ship sank. This idea is combined  with the idea that sound gradually decays and would be still present after the ship has gone down. Using recorded footage of interviews with survivors and treating the music as though it is echoing and distorting – the result is a beautiful piece of music. But it was the second side which really gripped me. Called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” this piece begins with the recording of an unknown homeless man who Bryars had recorded for another project. The recording is looped and plays over and over for the 25 minutes of the piece. Instruments gradually join the singer, build and then fade away to just the singer’s voice. It’s a fragile and deeply moving recording.

Sometimes the deepest experiments begin with very little material – silence in one case, a short loop of a recorded voice. This gives the boundaries within which the experiment can take life.

How can you place simple boundaries to enable you to experiment?

Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.


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Experimental I

This is the first of a series of posts on the experimental. This will be a set of blog posts, which feature ideas and experiments. Different approaches.

What is “Experimental”?

There are two distinct definitions for the word. When aimed at science, (of a new invention or product), based on untested ideas or techniques and not yet established or finalised e.g. “an experimental drug”.

When focused on the arts (of art or an artistic technique), involving a radically new and innovative style, e.g. “experimental music”.

Experimental – to take something and test it, try something new, be innovative. Put the two approaches together…

Are these two so different? What is the common ground between them? Why do we always want to separate out arts and science – and then further stratify with humanities and social sciences? Does division diminish?

In the background I can hear “4D Music” by Brian Eno. This is a simple drone, with a pulsing that creates a simple rhythm. A whispered voice repeats and layers the words “Behold the child, in front of me”. The piece – hypnotic and mesmerising, but also unsettling. Shifting slowly, imperceptibly.

Rain persists in the sky. Falling on silent wishes.

Disruption caused by change, new routines, new patterns – all to create different thoughts.

A blog post by Doug Shaw about Patterning – experimenting. Working out Loud – finding a space to share his journey of learning, self teaching…

John Kannenberg, curator of a wonderful web-based record label called Stasisfield which ran from 2002 to 2015. Avant garden, minimalist, micro-tonal. Thought-provoking and stimulating. I loved the music that appeared on this label – all of it free.  A labour of love. Something happened last week, prompted me to go searching – found that Stasisfield has stopped but John continues to experiment with a beautifully crafted site and a blog called Phonomnesis about silent memories of sound, art, time, museums, philosophy, and culture. Experiments.

Graham Shaw showing us all, that contrary to the Art Teacher at secondary school who told us otherwise, we can actually draw.

… and the journey of a year’s worth of Skype calls in 2013 with Andrew Dubber where his role was to persuade me that I could shift from someone who wrote a bit, to a published author. Technical ability making up 20% and confidence and battling the inner critic making the remaining 80%. He did more than I suspect he realised to push me forwards.

Poetry – the experimental. Taking an image and crashing it into something else. Loving the work of Frank O’Hara (writing about him in the new book, “The Journey to Wonder”) and obsessing over the writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. How to write with elegance and effortlessness.

Reading the latest issue of “The Wire” experimental music magazine – adventures in sound. Marvelling at the number of experimental magazines that exist at the margins these days. Sampling, trying – pushing the imagination to explore.

Street Wisdom – wandering streets with a loosely structured process to interrogate the surroundings, see it anew and find solutions to linear questions with non-linear approaches. Months later and still absorbing the learning.

And returning to Brian Eno: his oblique strategies cards were created with artist Peter Schmidt as a way to disrupt thinking. Two random examples:

“Be extravagant”

“You can only make one dot at a time”

… the journey to wonder continues.



Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.


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Knowing when to quit

fawlty-towersThere were only two series of “Fawlty Towers”. Two series of “The Office”. And so on. For many comedy writers it’s about knowing how to quit at the top of the game and go onto something else. Contrast this with the USA approach to comedy series for TV which often run for 10 series or more. Which is the better approach?

It’s important to know when to quit, rather than drive something relentlessly into the ground until you are remembered for the poor ending rather than the spectacular beginning.

How do we know when to quit? When something is fine tuned and working beautifully after all the work to get it right – is that the time to keep going and deliver excellence, or is that when we should stop?

From my own experience – especially  with running workshops, events, conferences and programmes – there is a point where the natural arc of what is being delivered reaches the top of the bell curve. That is the point where as a courageous leader it is time to say stop. At that point (and knowing where the top of the curve is, is really tricky) it’s time to stop the current approach and either move on or adapt it to another level of excellence.

Do you know when you are at your peak? Do you know how to transform to another level or to just stop and go out on a high?

There are some things to think about:

  • The audience or participants for the work. Have they received what they wanted?
  • What different approach is needed to take the existing work and transform it into something that is a step change better than the current approach?
  • What would happen if we just stopped doing this now? How would it look in 6 months time?

Final question to consider – when is the best time to stop this and leave them wanting more? Because that is the best time to quit!

(November Challenge 8/31)


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The Real Challenge

fullsizeoutput_107aQuestion 1: What’s the real challenge for me here?

Thanks to Michael Bungay Stanier for that question from his latest book, “The Coaching Habit”, which is a brilliant read. It’s a quiet time and I have a few minutes to think about this big awesome question. I’m spending too much time stuck in busy at the moment. It’s like the motor is turning, I’m revving it to make a lot of noise, but I haven’t put it into gear so I feel like I am going nowhere!

Six things spring to mind:

  • Funding – chasing the money to do the work. Without the funds we can’t pay the wages, but money can become too much of an obsession. And it can be a real drain to energy for anything else. Equally it can generate a creative approach. A real double-edged sword.
  • Capacity – being stuck in a loop, at full capacity when we need to grow. This is the classic business growth trap. We need time to develop new things, but we are really busy doing the existing things to create the growth we need. Capacity blockage!
  • Ideas – new ideas, plenty of them, but lacking capacity to move into them. Left with frustration and potential boredom. Really want to get on with new things.
  • Energy – low levels of energy. Is this because of burn-out? Which way does it go? Are energy levels low because of the previous three issues, or are these issues real because energy levels are low? Loop thinking again.
  • Focus – the constant battle between curiosity and a diverse set of interests, competing with the need to be really focused to get anything done.
  • Profile – if nobody knows, if there is no audience then what is the point of doing this. Make it and they will come no longer holds true.

Then Michael suggests another question.

Question 2: What do I really want?

Wow. That’s a piercing question that cuts to the core of what I am trying to get to. In amongst those six issues that I am working with there is something at the heart of it all that really drives what I am here for. Finding that will create a key. One of my weaknesses / strengths depending on the context is the ability to hyper-ideate or create a stack of new ideas in response to something. I tend to over-complicate things and distract myself with an over-long list of ways forwards. Sometimes what is needed is to just focus down on what I really want and go for that and only that.

The third part of this exercise is to massively inflate the issue to shift the thinking to something radically new. Take the likely outcome and multiply it by 10. Then think how it can be achieved. This shifts to a new way of thinking. You can’t keep doing the same thing if you want to go to 10x!

I have gone through the exercise and it is getting me to think up and outward in a different way.

In the archive of this blog is a post about Michael – one of the series I am writing called “Who Inspires Me”. I said there that I looked forward to continuing to be inspired by Michael. This exercise is a great example of that. Thank you Michael.


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Going on Safari – in Bristol?

GiraffeTomorrow I am going to the Paintworks in Bristol for the Social Age Safari which is being run by Sea Salt Learning. It’s a 3 day event with people coming from around the globe. There will be loads of opportunities to build networks and to learn more about learning in the social age. Julian Stodd worked with my team last year, running a workshop for us which inspired new thinking for the team about the ways in which we work, and the focus for our work going forwards.

Since that workshop, we have continued to connect with Julian and his team, finding a lot of inspiration in the work that he is developing.

I will write more about the Safari over the next few days. Already, we have connections to other attendees though LinkedIn, Twitter and a new platform for me, Slack. Throughout the event there will be loads of creative processes, a daily newspaper, and I will be blogging about the process here.

Three of us from the team will be there – looking for connections, looking for techniques and methods to incorporate into our work, and also the opportunity to share our work with others.

This is very timely as I was talking last week about the desire to form a network of like-minded organisations across the globe to share and develop ideas with. Hopefully we can start to build that network later this week.

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A Renaissance Way of Working

da vinciI said to him, “It’s all about the techniques that were common in Renaissance time, when people like Leonardo da Vinci weren’t artists or scientists. They showed a great appetite for all learning and understood the way these things all connected together, or could connect as a process of discovery.”
It was one of those great conversations where we articulate what we have been thinking in vague ways for a while, but through conversation it all becomes so much clearer. I had heard of Working Out Loud, this was Working in Conversation.
That led me to think some more about how I express what I mean by the Renaissance approach to the work I do in the health service and to my own work too….
It goes back to being at school – loving subjects across the great divide! I loved Maths, English and Economics – one arts, one science and one social science. I did this combination for A-Level and would have liked to continue to work in this way. But the UK system requires you to specialise at university level. It was hugely disappointing – I really wanted to study English and Maths but there was only one place in the country that did that and I didn’t want to go there. So, I opted for English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Liverpool instead. My thinking was that Philosophy had a similar rigour of thinking to Mathematics and would therefore be a close substitute.
One of the pivotal moments during my degree was when I studied Harriet Martineau and she was an influence in literature and in philosophy. Whilst doing a project in English that encompassed her work, I also found myself referring to her in Philosophy.  This happened several times during my studies although that was by accident rather than by design. It was still a fascinating experience, and felt like a time where the learning was coming from me rather than from the teacher.
There are examples of this in education – where a topic is looked at from a range of academic disciplines rather than the focus being the academic discipline itself. When we do that, we get a much richer learning experience.
This has real learning for working in research. Where we are able to draw together the best of health research, together with social sciences and the arts & humanities – the result is a rich and positive experience.
In our work we have been exploring the opportunities for the creative arts to inform dissemination experiences. We can also create real synergy for researchers to use creative methods in the research itself. There are also opportunities to look at research methods in the arts and humanities and connect those to health research. Significant work has been done by the Wellcome Trust in this field. It’s an organisation that has really embraced the renaissance connectivity that I am talking about here.
At the heart of this approach is a driving curiosity that is less interested in the discipline than in the search for new knowledge. Through the bringing together of multi-disciplinary approaches that bring the thinking modes from across the spectrum, we are able to generate startling and original thinking.
A lot has been written about left and right brain thinking – that feels much too binary for what I am talking about here. It’s about a whole brain approach, that also draws on mind and heart to encompass a rich breadth of understanding of things. Perhaps this is somewhere in the space that Ken Wilber has talked about in his attempts at a Theory of Everything. It’s an exciting space to explore, one where the possibilities are only restricted by our own ability to suspend judgement, and our facility to connect with others and trust their expertise in developing a team approach to solution generating.
I have been playing with words to try to come up with something that suitably describes what I am talking about. The word Renaissance means re-birth – and refers to a connecting back of that particular movement to the best of the classical world. I am at a loss to find an appropriate word for a modern-day approach. I wonder whether a term could be drawn from Leonardo da Vinci’s name as he is such an inspiration. Any ideas?
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Where and how we work

I read a couple of really interesting blog posts today. The first one was by Julian Stodd who worked with us a couple of months ago. In it he was talking about the way that we ‘meet’ with people being much more flexible these days. Having so many options to connect in virtual ways with people does mean that we don’t always have to be in face-to-face contact. Traditional views would have it that there is nothing like face contact to make strong connections with people. Julian puts forward the idea that connections in virtual space can be much more fluid and we can bring forth aspects of ourselves that we might not normally bring into direct contact. There are some really interesting ideas in what he says.

For me, I know that I travel far less than I used to in doing my work. And that I often have really productive conversations with people using video links rather than travelling to them. Some people are reluctant to do this, but with a little persuasion it is becoming much more commonplace.

The second blog post I was looking at was by an App Developer – sorry, but I’ve lost the link. His post is about the different places we work in. He runs an App business. All of his staff are home based. He says that it is increasingly difficult to talk about where we work, as we find ourselves working where we happen to be. This also reminded me of the book I read by Scott Berkun recently. Called, A Year with No Pants”, it describes his time at WordPress where he led a team that were scattered across the globe and were all home based.

That prompted me to think about the office base for the team I work with. We moved offices a few weeks ago. We had been in our previous base for just over 2 years, and before that we were in the same building but on a different floor. Each time we move, costs are an important consideration, driving down our overheads. But so is the ambience and the way in which our workspace contributes to team working and the ability to work creatively.

These two blog posts have prompted me to think even more about the way I work. It’s important to constantly challenge the assumptions we make about working patterns.

A couple of years ago we were challenged by one of our Associates to look at whether we actually needed office space. I think this is still essential for us. But I will continue to review where we are based, how we work with others (Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Skype are key parts of our work now) and look at the best environments to create great work places for the team.

We have recently agreed to introduce a monthly Team Retreat Day for example. This will be a day when we are in our office space – not available for outside meetings – and we can use the time for focused work and thinking time, planning and creating time. We will divide the time into action focused mornings with group work and afternoons for reflection, thinking and planning. I hope this time once a month will develop into a space where we can develop even more ambitious ways of working.

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Walking the Edge

IMG_0568The team I work with had a fantastic workshop a couple of weeks ago with Margaret Wheatley. She was visiting the UK and whilst here she spent a day with us looking at how we build meaningful community. It was an inspiring day.

One phrase has lingered with me long after the workshop:

Edge Walkers

The words resonated with me the first time she used them. It was a beautiful articulation of the space I have been working myself into in recent years. Now – that sounds pretentious when I say it. But please trust me when I say that it is not meant in that way. It is just a description of the journey I have been following as I work out where I want to be in the work that I do to be of service.

In recent years I have found greater courage through the support of others around me:

  • to push out to the boundaries
  • to trust my intuition when I think that something is worth exploring
  • to take things from other sectors or situations and try them out in the space I am in
  • to take risks
  • to challenge the status quo
  • to rip down all the things that we do just because we have always done them

It was an emotional experience to hear someone whose writings I deeply respect, describing where I am and what I am doing in two simple words – Edge Walkers.

That was the first part of the message for me. The second part was equally important. She said that if we choose to walk the edge, we need to ensure that we have support. This is as important as the journey out to the edge. If we don’t build strong support we won’t last the journey.

This is something I have worked hard to build around me since the challenging days of the late 90s and early 00s when I was doing a part-time PhD and finding new ways to express what I was seeing around me. The mechanisms I built around me, which I wrote about here – have been the basis for what I have now. As a team, we have a strong core, and then we have beyond that a Faculty of Associates that ensures that we are supported as we venture out to the edge and look out beyond the boundaries of what we think is possible.

Who do you look to for this support? Who is there for you? Who watches your back whilst you look outwards to the unknown?

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Who inspires me 7: Brian Eno

484px-Brian_Eno_2008It’s been a long time since that first time when I heard the music of Brian Eno and was completely captivated – and there began a lifetime obsession. We are talking the mid 70s. Of course, I had heard Roxy Music before that – but it was his solo work that really began the journey. It’s a journey that I could spend thousands of words describing. But let’s begin with a few headlines.

‘Discreet Music’ was arguably the first album to be called ambient music. It’s not a straightforward case of novel invention – there were many things before it that led to this album. Eno himself refers to the music of French composer Erik Satie whose piano pieces which were minimalist and repetitive and called furniture music by the composer. Eno talked of wanting to make music that could be played in elevators or large open spaces and ignored, but that would be really interesting to listen to as well. Eno was also very interested in systems theory, citing the work of Stafford Beer. He drew on this to develop ideas for repeating patterns that would create gradually changing music with loops of different length.

For this early album, the Discreet Music track itself which filled an entire side of a vinyl album, he was inspired by listening to a piece of classical music that was turned right down low on a record player with only one channel / speaker working. This gave him the idea for a piece of music which should be played so that it is barely audible.

The piece of music he produced was extremely minimalist – another influence was Terry Riley – using simple loops that constantly shifted. It’s a beautiful piece of music. On first hearing it, I was really inspired. Within a few months I had also heard the albums of a friend in the village where I grew up – this included Eno’s earlier solo albums which were a mix of vocal and instrumental, and the albums he made with German musicians Roedelius and Moebius (known as the band Cluster). This was beautiful, stark music heavily influenced by Kraftwerk. I loved it.

Since those early years the journey of listening to Eno’s music has taken me through to places and influences that have created obsessions in their own right. The music of Jon Hassell for example (he will be the subject of another ‘Who inspires me’) – he made an early album with Eno called ‘Fourth World: Possible Musics” which whilst being ambient also included music from Africa. I fell in love with the sounds of Jon Hassell’s music – his trumpet playing heavily influenced by Miles Davis, but also drawing on being taught Indian Raga forms by Pandit Pran Nath. Then there was the work he did with Talking Heads and David Bowie (the Berlin albums for example). The album he made with David Byrne from Talking Heads called “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” took field recordings of voices from around the world and set them to backbeats. This was at least 20 years ahead of its time. When Eno works with artists he is never just there as a producer. He gets involved in composition, idea generation, plays instruments and sings too. The influence he has on musicians is really profound.

He developed an innovation generator with artist Peter Schmidt called ‘Oblique Strategies’ in the mid 1970s – a deck of cards that helps to shift thinking when the artist gets stuck. It really works. These cards have been incredibly widely used over the years. There are now online versions too.

So, the obsession with everything that Eno did continued. In the 1990s he released a book called “A Year with Swollen Appendices” – a diary of the year 1995, some of which he spent in Russia. It captured beautifully the sheer breadth of his curiosity, his open minded pursuit of so many interests. There is even a section on his interest in perfumes. The book was a huge influence on me. I still dip into it from time to time for inspiration.

Over the years he has created record labels. Obscure Records – with albums by the unheard of at the time Gavin Bryars, Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Michael Nyman amongst others. After 10 albums he ended this project and moved on. Then there were 4 ambient albums, including the sublime “Music for Airports” which I played until it was worn out when it first came out. There was another record label called Opal which produced much of his material in the late 90s and early 2000s. He has created computer programmes for Generative Music and more recently has developed Apps that create music.

Even now, his music pushes boundaries and is always exciting and new.

I love the way he keeps pursuing the new, pushes boundaries and is not afraid to try things that may fail. Some of the things he has tried haven’t worked – but so many have been astonishing, and have opened up new areas for others to follow.

Brian Eno is not just someone who has inspired me. He has influenced my thinking, been a massive influence on my listening habits since my early teens, and has encouraged me to take risks when creating.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, it would be really easy to expand this piece to a whole book on the work of Eno. Others have already done that (see “On Some Faraway Beach” by David Sheppard for a good example)! His direct influence on me could have been described with countless other memories, routes through ideas, pursuit of specific influences and associated thoughts. Suffice to say that I owe the man a big debt for the musical pleasure he has given me and for the impact he has had on my own work. Thank you, Brian!

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Hanging around in virtual space

A few weeks ago I blogged about online learning and how incredibly interesting the current developments are in that field. I mentioned MOOCs and some of the online platforms providing opportunities to join virtual conferences, webinars etc. All fascinating stuff!

This week we have been thinking about ways in which to take some of the work that we do with groups in real time and attempt them using Google Hangouts. We are at early stages of thinking with this. A great conversation with Kevin Wyke yesterday helped to propel the thinking forwards.

The advantages are that we can get busy professionals together in groups of up to 10 to explore topics and get to know each other. There is no need to travel, or to take out a whole day for a workshop. In fact, a workshop that would typically take a day could be run instead over a number of days for just an hour each day. That way we could minimise disruption. There would be plenty of opportunities to get to know a whole set of new people.  The platform automatically gives the option to stream the discussions through YouTube so there is the opportunity to watch the discussions happening in real time. This can also be set to private if that is a preferred approach. Each Hangout session is also automatically recorded giving the option to enable people to listen back after the event.

The disadvantages are the learning curve, and the initial barriers to adoption for people  who may not be used to the approach. Also, and this is a really important point, I wonder to what extent the making of new connections depends on being in the same physical space as someone – having the opportunity to really get to know someone. That is possible when you are in the same venue, less easy when you are on the same laptop or iPad screen.

We are going to experiment with this method and see how it works. We will learn from this piloting, but I would welcome any comments here from anyone who has experimented already and has key learning points from it.

Our first step with this will, I think, be a small group having a discussion to try out the approach.

Then, once we have ironed out all the problems, the ambition would be to try out a workshop that would typically include 80 people working in groups of 10 having parallel discussions. Let’s see how the initial session goes.