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Experimental IV – photos

In the last post I mentioned that I worked as a Community Artist in the 1980s. This involved teachings skills in photography as well as creative writing. It must be said that my photographic skills were pretty basic. This was in the days of rolls of film, black and white moody photos and dark rooms with chemicals for developing each photo.

The world of photography has changed so much. These days millions of photos are taken from our smart phones and shared online every day. The technology that supports are photo taking has improved so much that many of the technical skills of the photographer are now done by the phone rather than the operator. But there is still so much that is in the hands of the person who points and shoots.

How we frame the photo and what we take as the subject is key. Then the editing of the photos that we take can lift the images to a whole new level.

Recently I took a batch of photos whilst walking with friends in the Wirral. One of the photos was an unremarkable photo of birds in the sky. I took the photo, cropped it and then added various filters.

Here is the original photograph before it was cropped:

Nothing remarkable in this photo. But once a crop is applied to focus on the four photos on the left of the image – and then some filters and effects are added…

The result is four images that could be a series of paintings. Experimenting with an image, a glass of wine (it helps apparently) and a simple app (snapseed) produces something which I really like.

Bird in Sky I
Birds in Sky II
Birds in Sky III
Birds in Sky IV



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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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Phones and Control

There seems to be a general agreement that 2016 was an awful year for the planet and for the people in it. That doesn’t, of course, mean that it was bad for you and I – although some of the big national and global things that happened probably impacted how it turned out for each of us.

What does this all mean for our ability to feel in control? And how does that even matter?

Well, try as we might, it is built into us to need to feel some sense of control over things. Depending on the scale at which we are working, and depending on where we are feeling most vulnerable, we will attempt to impose some control in some way so that we can feel comfortable with what is happening. Or at least feel that we can cope with what is going on around us.

Oddly, this is why we see so many people walking around with phones in their hands or headphones stuffed in their ears. Years ago this feeling of control and comfort was probably provided by smoking a cigarette. As that has become less acceptable, the phone has replaced the cigarette as an adult “comfort blanket”. I’m not intending to be patronising or superior about this. I do it too! When bored, or distracted, or between things, or uncomfortably alone – we get out our phone to see if we have any new messages or content to give us a nice endorphin rush.

Here’s a spontaneous thought. If we left our phone at home and went out – what would we do instead of getting our phone out to check it? Where would we feel most out of control and most vulnerable? And what would we gain or lose from not having the phone with us?

OK, I can hear you breathing very shallowly at the thought (or is that me I can hear?) A first step would be to take the phone with you, but not take it out of your pocket or bag. Don’t check it for at least an hour. Be conscious of the times when you are tempted to check it. What is happening? Why do you feel the need to do it? What is the next thing that comes to mind to allay that response?

Food for thought.

Are we living in a smart phone addicted world? Answers welcome in the comments.

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Learning to Look: photography

img_2582A couple of months ago I took part in a Street Wisdom session in Manchester. We spent the afternoon with David Pearl, the creator of the concept. It was a fabulous afternoon where I met new people who I have continued to have coffee conversations with, and also learnt to look at the city around me in a new way. I took a couple of photos that afternoon with my phone, but generally resisted the temptation as I didn’t want to be distracted by the camera.

img_2474More recently, the team I work with in the NHS in England did a workshop with a professional photographer (Ginny Koppenhol) to improve our photo taking skills, especially with the smart phones in our pockets. Unfortunately I missed the workshop because I was double-booked that day. The team learnt a lot of new skills, particularly emphasising the importance of telling a story with our photos. They also learnt how to use apps such as Snapseed to apply filters, text and effects. I acquired these skills secondhand the next day!

img_2424One member of the team (thanks Jo!) suggested that we do a 365 day challenge to post a photo every day to a Google Plus page which we have set up. We are just under a month into the challenge and so far it has been really inspiring. Each day, looking for photos, the world around me turns into stories to tell or things that I want to highlight. It’s a great way to sharpen the senses. And it is also a brilliant way to pull together a catalogue of stories about a year in our lives.

img_2583I began my career way back in the early 1980s as a Community Artist teaching skills in photography and creative writing when cameras were a closed box with film in them and I had to learn how to develop film to get a result. Often what we produced was a poor version of what I had seen at the time. Having a smart phone in my pocket and a few skills in manipulating images means that I can create the most amazing documentary of what I see. But more important than this, I also have the challenge to look for stories, to see things that would otherwise pass me by.

Together with the exercises in Street Wisdom I feel that I have had my senses sharpened, my imagination enhanced and been given a daily piece of fun to enhance my day.

(November Challenge 10/31)

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A Gremlin in the works – 31 day blog challenge

img_2565There’s a gremlin in the works. I set out this month to write a blog post every day. If you are a subscriber, don’t panic. I am not going to post them every day – that would be too much. I’m scheduling them and spacing them out. I decided to do this as a challenge which would be a little less onerous than the famous NaNoWriMo. You don’t know what that is? It’s a daily challenge, known in full as National Novel Writing Month. Launched in the USA back in 1997 it happens every November. It is an opportunity to set a challenge to write 50,000 words in the month, doing a little each day. The idea is that you write a novel in the month and then have something to start to work on and edit into shape. The focus is overcoming writers’ block and just writing whatever comes through. It’s a great idea. I did it about 15 years ago and it really worked.

At the moment, I just don’t have the time to do that – but I thought I could produce a blog post, even if it’s a short one – each day this month. Scheduling seemed like a great idea, although some of you may have noticed that two slipped out last Friday as I pressed the wrong link on my phone and accidentally posted whilst on a train. Oops, sorry about that.

This challenge also grew from a process of reflection on the blog. Since I began blogging back in 2003 I have written the grand total of 555 posts. I thought it would be good to go back and read through and see how style and content had changed over that time. One thing that struck me was how readable some of those early posts are (some aren’t brilliant either, to be fair). And that often the interesting ones were setting out what I was reading, listening to, what I was thinking about.

From all of this, it struck me that whilst I think I may have “upped my game” with blogging over the years, that has led to less informal blog posts. Certainly I write a lot less about music, stuff I am reading – and where I am travelling etc. So, as part of this challenge I will be doing more of that. Writing more about the everyday stuff that I am working on and thinking about.

I hope it is of value.

Footnote: this is the 5th of 31 posts…

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What are you good at?

FullSizeRenderIt’s an exercise I attempted a while back. Probably six months ago. I sat with a blank piece of paper and set out to write a list of 100 things that I am good at. It was hard, really difficult. Modesty kept kicking in. A voice inside me kept saying, well yes you’re quite good at that but not as good as (insert any name). And then I wrestled with the whole concept of good – well, what does good mean? How do I decide whether I am good at something or just average?
In the end, after the list had reached 10 things I decided it was time to cut loose and come back to it. I scheduled to return to this list every week at the same time and add to it until it reached 100 things. No excuses – each time I wrote on the list I had to add 10 things.
It was gruelling! Difficult to find new things each time I sat down. But over time as I worked away at the list adding things that I knew something about, hobbies, ways in which I approached the world, types of food and drink that I had made an effort to find out about. Well, the list just grew.
Each time I sat down again with that list, I would begin by reading through what was there. It was encouraging to revisit it and notice that I had put down what I had.
The list wasn’t for anyone else. It was just for me – to look at what I think I am good at (not better than or the best, just good at) and use that list to focus myself into things that I want to spend time on.
Why don’t you try it too?
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Has your team had a Rehearsal Day?

IMG_0151There are eight people in the team that I lead. Last summer it was feeling like we were flying around and hardly ever having time to reflect, time to work together and to plan our future. We were so busy in delivery mode that we had little time to see the bigger picture.

Tentatively I suggested to the team that we should spend some time in reflection. We were in the middle of a series of workshops to look at the work that we needed to do to build strong and supportive communities of practise. It struck me – that if we were going to build strong communities, we had to begin with ourselves.

Rehearsal Day is our community building time. We take a day a month and shut the doors to the outside world. The day is in two halves – morning is structured and afternoon is open, a space for us to be creative.

Since last August we have run 5 Rehearsal Days, each one pushing us a little further forwards. Each time we sit down together and use a private Google Plus page to capture our time together – photos, video, web links and short posts from the whole team – so that we are capturing the learning as we work together. This is a key component of the day as it enhances reflection. For the first day, I asked everyone to make sure that they posted at least 5 photos, a short video (from their phone) and a 200 word post of their impressions on the day.

The mornings are generally taken up with team meeting work – updates, decisions needed, detailed planning of the forward programme of work. Nothing original in this – most teams have these kind of sessions.

The afternoons are a time for us to learn together. We show videos – often TED Talks – and we look for inspiration around us that will push our thinking forwards. We also spend time looking at the work that we are doing with an open mind, challenging the way we do things and being open to new ways of looking at the work that we do.

Team Awaydays are nothing new. However, this isn’t time away – it’s time in our base, rehearsing in private, trying things out, testing out how we work together. The unstructured element of the work is key – that is how we make space to be creative and innovative.

The experiment of Rehearsal Days is still in process – each month the approach we are taking shifts and adapts. It is important not to settle into a pattern as this would miss the point of creating an environment of constant innovation.

What have we achieved so far?

  • The team is much more open to debating how we work and testing out new ideas
  • We are much clearer about the core values and behaviours that underpin our work and we have had time to test these out in a safe space
  • We have had time to look at our working space and explore how to make it more conducive to what we are trying to achieve
  • The culture of the team has shifted as we have worked together to be an inclusive, optimistic team where everyone’s ideas are valuable
  • We are learning how to have fun together and see play and enjoyment as a key part of work
  • We are looking much more widely for inspiration – seeing ideas that can be adapted in the most diverse of places

It has been such an exciting journey. As the leader I have learnt to hold back and resist the temptation to plan ahead which would stifle the process we are developing. This is challenging as it means being prepared to feel out of control in order to make a more innovative and participative space. The payback for doing this is huge. Our work is moving forward at such a pace and we are creating new programmes and projects of work that would never have happened without Rehearsal Days.


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Capturing the Learning – after action review

When we hold events, workshops, conferences, or just bring people together for a key meeting that will shape our work for the future, it is so easy to just move on to the next piece of work without reflecting on the experience.

How often have you been involved in running an event, and then at the end set off for home with an uneasy feeling as to whether it went as well as you think it did? And by the time you are on your train, or in the car, it is too late to check with anyone else.

This is why After Action Review is so important. It’s an opportunity to pull together everyone’s views about how the event has gone, and to do so in a positive way.

It is based on a practise that was developed by the US Army. Their approach is a bit more detailed than mine, covering the following:

  1. What was supposed to happen?
  2. What did happen?
  3. What are some improvements?
  4. What are some sustainments?
  5. What can be done to improve the training next time?
  6. Closing comments (summary).

(No, I don’t know what “sustainments” means either!) I first came across this approach when I was working for the NHS Modernisation Agency in 2003. Since then, I have been working with a simplified version. If you read this blog regularly you will know that I like lists of three as they are easy to remember and focus the mind.

As soon as an event or a discrete piece of work has finished we gather together in a circle in the room and spend about 40 minutes considering the following three questions:

  1. What worked, what went well?
  2. What could have gone better and why?
  3. What have we learnt?

We capture all of this feedback and make sure that we feed it into future planning. Everyone in the group has the chance to input to this process, and we also make sure that we capture anything that we have been told through the day by delegates. There are plenty of opportunities for this sort of feedback in queues for coffee, for lunch and during the course of the day.

It is a very simple process, but it works really well as a way of capturing the learning. Above all else, it can be a great place to appreciate the hard work that has gone into a piece of work and to have a “virtual group hug” before dispersing at the end of the day.

It doesn’t replace more formal evaluation and there should be a more formal debrief once the dust has settled on a piece of work. But it is a perfect way to capture things in the moment “on the battlefield” so that things are not forgotten.

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Why individuation makes sense to me as I get older

TIMG_0259he concept of individuation was first brought to my attention when reading the work of Carl Jung. I would have been in my early thirties when I started exploring this idea; that stage in life when I was struggling with new identities like parenthood and trying to figure out what I was here on the planet to do. It’s a very confusing time – looking back at journals that I kept then, I can see that I was going round in circles trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, whilst balancing the priorities that young children bring.

It was all very mystifying so reading the ideas that Jung was putting forward really helped. He talks about the journey of the soul as it travels through a life. It begins whole and then goes through a fragmentation in the early decades of life. We are trying to figure out who we are, and in doing so we define different characters, different versions of ourselves. We are also trying to fit in, so a lot of these characters that form are versions of our true self, and are versions where there is a lot repressed into what Jung calls the Shadow.

Then there comes a point in our 40s and 50s where things start to integrate again. Major life events – such as the death of parents – speed this process along. It is almost as though there is something within that is driving the different aspects of our self together into an integrated whole. This is what I think Jung means by Individuation – the process of bringing back together the different parts of our self so that we become whole again.

Some describe this as “growing old disgracefully” because it is the time in life when we are able to integrate and accept those parts of ourselves which we have buried in the Shadow earlier in life. We are also working hard to draw together the parts of ourselves that we display in the different worlds we inhabit. Until this begins to happen we may come across very differently in the world of work, family, friends and so on. Individuation brings this together and helps us to become more whole.

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Conversation as a problem solving approach

IMG_0888In my last post I suggested a few possible ideas for topics to produce blog posts about. Thanks to those who sent me messages with their thoughts on the topics they would like me to write about. I will get to those as soon as I can.

In the meantime, I am on a train returning from a coaching session and am inspired to write about the importance of conversation. In the session, I somewhat recklessly described work as being about conversations and relationships. Of course, that’s open to dispute, and I was using those two areas of focus to make a point. But it is important to never underestimate the power of conversation in all that we do.

It is so easy to see think that we need to do everything ourselves and that opening work up to the involvement of others is an indication of weakness. It is the opposite. When we involve others in the work that we deliver we make it more relevant, more widely owned and we ensure that we are drawing on a vast array of strength beyond our own.

In discussing this, I was asked who we should draw on for conversation and came up with a few ideas:

  • Direct reports – conversation with those who work to us a great way to get proper engagement with the work that our team needs to deliver
  • Colleagues – peers at the same level in the organisation. Again, a good way to draw in the skills and influence of other teams.
  • The Boss – conversation with the boss can be a great way to clarify a particular issue
  • Friends – an outside perspective on the problems that we are struggling with can be incredibly helpful
  • Mentors / Coaches – people who can help us with skilful questions and a safe place for conversation about challenges that we face
  • Ourselves – yes, talking to ourselves can be a great way to engage in conversation about a topic. This can be on the page, or recorded monologue. We can also develop it into a dialogue if that is helpful, asking ourselves questions and then recording the answers

That was as far as we got in the session. Since then, here on the train as I whizz through the countryside, I’ve come up with some more ideas:

  • Authors – focused reading can ensure that the books we are reading give us the opportunity to dig out ideas that can create a meaningful “conversation” about issues we are working through.
  • Heroes – who do you admire? What would they do in this situation? I have written about this previously. It’s a great technique to get us to think differently.
  • Looking for clues – do we notice coincidences, synchronicities. Does something seem to be giving us the answer that we are looking for? This is a form of conversation with the world around us. Don’t ignore it.
  • Outside reflecting our intuition – similar to the previous one. How does what is going on around us reflect the powers of our intuition? If we bump into someone is that a great opportunity to solve the problem we are facing?

Plenty of different ways to think about conversation as a way to solve problems or move us forward with a challenge. Do you know of other ways?