All posts by Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Ego and the Small Business

Here’s a paradox:

It is ego that often launches a successful new business, realising the vision of a single individual or small group and turning into an energetic, fast growth enterprise.

It is also ego that can kill off a struggling business, stopping it from changing, recovering and redefining itself.

Without the strong will, focus and determination of a person (or group of people), with a very clear picture of the product or service at the heart of their new business, without a strong passion at the heart of the person starting a new project or realising an idea, that enterprise rarely succeeds.

The problem is that not all good ideas succeed in the long run. Two thirds of UK businesses will not survive ten years and about a third won’t make it beyond eighteen months. And when things start to go wrong, the founder’s ego can turn into a kind of disease for the enterprise. The founder refuses to let go of their belief that, having successfully set up this venture, they are the only person who knows what it needs to survive. The founder becomes a kind of ghost, haunting the future of the business with tired old thinking.

Even as the business or project starts to decline, run out of cash, lose customers and clients, the founder refuses to hear advice from others, heeds no warnings, listens to no well intentioned questions or challenges, placing faith in their own “founder’s ego” to sort things out.

It can be very hard to realise and accept that you yourself are now part of the problem, not the solution. Even as the environment around you is changing, you are trapped in a much smaller world, the world of your own thinking, with the same thoughts and recipes, actions and solutions recycling around, some of which may well have started and hastened the current decline.

Ego like this will kill the venture. Openness, listening and humility may just give it a chance.

Listen. You might not be the person who knows the solution to this problem. You might actually be making it worse.

You might be sulking and angry with yourself for the mess you are in and have become fixated on you being the only one who can or should solve things. You may have just started behaving like a poltergeist in your own house. The paradox of ego is that, in the form of egoism, it can both kill or cure. It can launch and also bring crashing down. The inventor is not necessarily always the innovator. The dreamer is not necessarily the finisher. Being open to call for help requires the ego to calm and allow what needs to be done to speak louder than “what I think”.

When we hit rock bottom, many of us final realise that we actually pushed ourselves into the abyss. It is an opportunity to become humble. Often the best insights into ourselves are the ones we gained finally when we feel humble. We no longer have all the answers. It is time to start inquiring, instead of advocating. To listen instead of doing all the speaking. Insights can come to us from other people who see us more clearly who, perhaps, warned us and we ignored the warnings.

And there is a danger here. We then decide to be open and humble with all the same fiery ego that got us into this mess into the first place. You can’t force humbleness. It tends to elude you when you do that and you can end up in an even bigger mess.

It is better when it is gentle. It is more successful when you are patient and your ego calms a bit.

How do we turn around the disaster?

We listen more. We are gently patient. We are open to others’ viewpoints. We listen without judgement. We don’t force the turnaround. If the situation is urgent then we try to form a group and get different perspectives. We invite rather than demand. We are prepared to admit our mistakes, to learn from them. We seek others’ ideas for actions. We look to be more objective, basing decisions on evidence, not only ego-based instincts. We become open to the idea we may be wrong, that we need more knowledge and skills.

The ego will still be there, because all human beings have an ego that forms who they are. But we can put it to the service of something bigger, a purpose for the business that isn’t just to be slave to the founder vision, but also to what is possible, practical and purposeful.


Notes from a Conversation about Wretched Contentment

A Group Conversation

In this 90-minute conversation, we explored whether the performing arts has become a safe, comfort zone and whether this limits our career and personal life opportunities.

The session took place a DandD14 on Sunday at 3pm. (Devoted and Disgruntled is an annual open space conference in the UK organised and hosted by Improbable Theatre. It took place in January 2019 at the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton over three days).

A few key points made by the group (which grew in size during the session!).

– We tend to seek certainty these days, yet the state of not knowing, the
wildnerness can be a vital place for our creative journey

– Long silence and the empty space can be hard to bear, even a state of suffering, yet these are also places where our finest ideas and impulses can be born

– As we get older we notice we have less time ahead of us than behind us andthis can focus us more on the essential, to suffer collusion less

– We can collude with mediocrity, avoid risk and danger, play life too safe, never risk real honesty which can be uncomfortable, and even when we do honestly name, we take no action. When we do commit to real action, we dilute or allow things to revert back to familiarity and safety, or fade away

– We can live a B minus life but label it as A plus!

– There is a longer term price to pay for this superfical strategising around safety and ease. We feel (if we go there) a deeper sense of wretchedness

– It can be ok to say “I have reached a limit” and can now only share with, and support others

– Coaching and trusted challenge can help is creatively embrace and transform our deeper wretchedness

– We tend, in the west, to have an issue about avoiding a deeper honesty and label it as rude or unnecessarily traumatic

As we develop ourselves as performers, artists and theatre makers, Fringe festivals can seem like a game where there is a smart path through them to optimise success.. The danger of this is we can win the battle but lose the war. We successfully pilot through, do well, feel the highs, even highly satisfied, but we can also feel something is missing, eluding is deeper down. Confronting it, naming it, can feel like a risk, a place of danger. Yet that deeper. darker place, can make us feel paradoxically more alive, more authentic. But going there, initially, may need us to call our current ‘tactical’ happiness, wretched.

This can be easier if we open space for comon ground (common suffering?) convesations with other people, when we feel supported in a mood of trust and honesty by our community. We ay need to do this work alone, but not always.

As we get older, or if we have a sudden crisis (such as a life threatening illness) this confontation can become necessary, as we realise our mortaility and our limited time in our lives.

Yet this also can be joyful work, especially over the longer term. When contentment is not wretched at its core, our fulfilment feels real, we can be genuinely creatively satisfied.

person holding round smiling emoji board photo
Photo by on

Suggestions arising in the group

– coaching can be help – another view on us, offering time to reflect and ak powerful questions

– learning to value honesty, for it to be normal and not traumatic – the dialogue of honesty is a skill that can be learned

– an exchange between older and younger generations can be valuable, even essential

– do not dilute your definition of excellent, nor avoid exploring your dreams and your potential

– don’t measure success narrowly not over-strategise your personal and professional life

– restlessness, silence, not knowing – all are actually valuable ways to be in life and the processes of creation

I felt a sense of growing fellowship, honesty and NOT collusion by the end of this session.


How Wretchedly Content Ae You?

The Invitation

A Short Story by Paul Levy

Part 1

Bethlehem, about 2000 years ago

You don’t weave baskets in the evening, let alone late at night. There isn’t the light and it just isn’t done. Tomorrow, my mother, her two sisters and my own sister will sit in the cool shade, working their craft, and from straw will come beautiful baskets for carrying bread, fruit, fish, newly caught and even babies wrapped in linen. These are simple things, and only occasionally does my oldest Aunt fashion something for the rich, for she is known for her abilities and her vision for something divine, wrought into wicker.
Tomorrow, as on every day (except the Sabbath) they will sit from dawn until the light is no longer strong enough to see by, and work their craft, bringing in the meagre income we need to survive and purchase those occasional things that make life worth living; I am a fool for honey and those seed cakes that make the mouth dribble with spicy delight.
The finest weaver of all, (though she is scolded often for taking her time) is my sister, Rivka.
Sometimes I watch her for hours as her fingers dance with the cord and a fine basket appears as if emerging from the invisible realm that is perhaps Heaven. Yes, there is music in her movement and though her eyes no longer see our world, she is gazing at what appears from her fine finger-work. She always looks as if she is looking, even though she cannot see. I never say ‘blind’ for I do not find that bearable.
My sister. We used to play in the dusty streets and down by the river,; it was only when she increasingly struggled on the cobbles, tripping or failing to pick me out in a crowd that I told mama that I had seen that she could no longer easily see. Perhaps the sunlight or a piece of grit or dust in her eyes.
Mama, of course knew but bade me silent. Did Rivka know then? She was but four years old and if she knew, she never showed she had a single care for it. Rivka was resilient; she lived for, and loved what she had. We had little in our household but she adored every bit of it. Our tiny house, if house you could call it, and it wasn’t easy with a father passed on, and uncles gone to sea or always in the hills, tending sheep, goats, sharing their fireside stories late into the night.
Our goat. Our threadbare rugs, our cooking pots, the prayer shawls, our candle holders with beeswax on holy days if we were in luck at the market.
Rivka’s sight had fully gone by the time she was six.
She is now eleven, soon to be a woman, and I am watching her again, from the shadows, tinkering with a piece of wood and my knife in need of sharpening. I am lazy with such things and she told me today I would do no good work with such a blunted blade unless I cared for it more. She needed only lightly feel the metal to see with her forefinger that it needs some work on the sharpening stone.
Tonight the sky feels brightened by moonlight though there is no moon. “Look at the stars after dark.” Rivka had told me. “There will be one you will know and it will be light enough to see by.”
Surely enough, a great white star hangs this night over our city, a place overcrowded with people here to give account for their names, their families, as our leaders count them up and set their heavier burdens of tax demands for years ahead. A census of us all. A great reckoning, it seems as if the whole country is here and every room is filled, fit to burst. There is no room in our meagre living space, though enough have asked and the money offered could have filled our bellies for a month.
An argument broke out but Aunt Leah was adamant and mother agreed with her. Only their younger sisters with eyes on palms laden with desperate, proffered coins glinting in the morning sun held out in temptation had asked why we should refuse such easily earned plenty to squeeze in a few weary strangers into our corners to lie for a few nights out of the cold, until it was their time to return to their own towns and village. No, says my mother, and Leah nods.
They are the queens here, and their word is law. The argument soon passes. Our home is already full to bursting with us! It isn’t a lack of hospitality. It is simply true. Two rooms above to sleep, a space to cook and work and to live beside our few animals.
Now it is late evening, at the time when we should sleep for early rising. The noise in the streets has died down but for a few late revelers and the sound of crying babes, their days disturbed by kicked-up dust and unwelcome shouts as late arrivers seek beds for a bit of floor for the bitterly cold approaching night. It was a boiling hot day and now the clear sky awakens with stars and the chill is achingly cold.
The light of each jewel on high shines through our window, penetrating the hangings, and we have a small fire going. By that blended glow of gold and silver, my mother, my aunts and my gentle sister continue to work away, fashioning their baskets, their weaving tight, as if to protect from water, vessels fit enough to carry once again Moses himself among the reeds and the rushes. Aunt Lila hums as she always does, out of tune but always enough to set me to yawning.
I want to ask them why they are working so late, but it seems wrong to do so. I’m an eavesdropper onto these powerful, strong women, with no skill nor will.of my own to match. The star light bids me to silence and I simply watch them at their work. My sister, as always knowing just where I am, turns her head towards me. “Paul” she says. “Go to bed. Get some sleep.” My younger sister, ordering me about!
I look her in her milky eyes and sense her gaze. She can see me in ways that need no physical eyes. I know it. She knows it. I love my sister beyond life.
Though, for years, I led her through the streets, she has often been my guide when I couldn’t see my own next steps in Life.
“Why are you working so late? Basket work is for the day, in good light” I remark, though in a whisper so as not to disturb the other three.
My sister smiles, then turns away and returns to her weaving, as her quick fingers take hold of another piece of twine. “Rest, my brother.”
She is a year younger than me. Soon I will be a man and apprentice to the carpenter, Simon. It’s an honor to be chosen, but it will be endless hard work. He is a hard man. he drinks too much and often has offered that foul liquor to me. I spluttered the first time. Once I vomited but amid that found taste and stink, I feel somehow drawn to.
Tonight, here in the coldest, brightest night I can remember, I continue to watch, suddenly fearful of my future, and aching with sadness that my sister is blind. Would I give up my own sight and take her place? I turn away, feeling ashamed, that I doubt my own courage for the deed, were it ever asked of me. Yet I cannot sleep. Am am more awake than I have ever been in my life.
I am transfixed by those forty fingers at work around the fire’s glow. Basket weaving under the light of stars, they could be witches, my family here on this night. I should grow bored. But I do not. Tonight they embrace the dark with all of their skills.
The ache of sadness that grips my heart forms itself into a pull of something. All at once I want to be away from here, from family and safety, and I want to take my sightless sister with me. Where to, I know not, but there is an invitation somewhere there out in the night of the city.
There is an invitation, alive and insistent, hanging on the dry, freezing night breeze.
I realise I am staring deeply into the meagre flames and there is an afterglow of gold and orange floating before my eyes, between me and my sister.
I raise myself up and walk to the window, pulling aside a chink of the brown drape and
look up into the sky. There it is, holding its own impossibly high above our city – a star, bigger than the other stars that surround it. It looks as if it is almost dripping wet with light. A star i have never seen before. I am sure those so-called gazer-men who gather in square will be consulting their charts and spelling out feast or famine for the season ahead, on the morrow.
Suddenly I shudder, for that feeling of an invitation, a tugging becomes much stronger, and it is emanating from that star. I try to locate its pull. My eyes are drawn downwards until they reach a group of buildings perhaps a thousand paces from our own hovel.
There it is, over by the west side of the city, not far away. Why I look downwards and find that place I have no idea. From that area, the pull is felt again, surer. I shake my head, explaining all as tiredness and staring too long at women fussing over their work when they too should be safely under rugs and blankets, finding warmth and the sleep of refreshment needed for a long day tomorrow, doing what they do, each day, until their fingers drop off their hands in weary old age, all their baskets spent.
I turn away, yet the pull remains, a quiet, insistent bidding.
As I turn back into the room my sister has put down her work, and is now looking intently at me. Can she see me with no eyes that work? I wonder, as I have so often pondered. Can you see me? I have often asked her. No, she says, Then always she giggles. “Perhaps.”
She doesn’t seem happy in her blindness, yet, perhaps I imagine it for my own sake, I sense a deep longing in her to pluck up a bud and know its colour, from the outside in, or to look into the face of a goat or see a mirage in the desert sun. Or perhaps that boy who whistles at her like a wolf and see her reflection in the hungry pupils. To be blind in a city is no blessing, though she can find her way easily along streets we have trodden for years.
“It is a special night. my brother. We do what we do.” She says to me. “The star has come for good reason.”.
“What do you mean?” I reply. There are tears in the eyes of my sister. “Why are you crying?”
There is a long pause. My youngest Aunt tuts and says. “Leave her be, boy. We have work to do.”
“But why at night?” I ask them all. “You’ve never worked this late before.”
Suddenly my entire family is looking at me. Staring at me. It is as if they have noticed for the first time they are making baskets near midnight! They gaze at each other then at their half-woven baskets. I’ve woken them all up! Then they return to their wickerwork, their picking, and easy joining and mending.
“Go to bed, Pauly.” says my sister once more.
I settle under my blanket, buffing up my straw-filled cushion. I try to settle. I turn and turn over three times and more. But it is no good. Even with my eyes closed, the silver glow of the star impresses itself on my shut eyelids. Silver, like the moon. Yet there is no moon tonight only this great star and his companions.
Does it reflect that moonlight, even when it is not there, shining up there in the near midnight sky?
I open my eyes again, peeking at my sister, still working with the other women.
A memory falls into my mind, of when she nearly downed down by the river where the fisherman unload their catch. There was Uncle Benjamin, singing with delight from the best catch in years. Unraveling the net he was, full to bursting with fish. Enough to us all!
And there, in front of me, my sister, balancing on the gangplank then she teeters, totters, sways and falls between the boats, hitting her beautiful seven-year-old head against the hard wood of the two moored boats starboard before disappearing into river water and not surfacing for air. I am too scared to move, I finally jump in, uselessly and both my sister and I are saved from drowning by two of the deck hands. I feel ashamed and my poor sister is in bed for a week with a nasty gash and livid bump on her head. But she is angry. Angry with herself for missing her footing. She knew that gangplank, had crossed it with ease for season after season when the haul was brought in. But this had been a new plank and she couldn’t see the knot in the wood.
Blind. There I have said it. If only in my head.
My sister is blind, and I wish more than anything else for her to see. To see the world – the city I which she lives, the desert sand, a scorpion and a big furry cat. The fat priests and the honey cakes. Truth be told, I want her to see, and my want is greater than hers.

That is when the invitation became an irresistible pull and I could do nothing to stand against it. It pulled me out of my bed. It stood me on my feet, and it took those feet across to my sister, there, working by the quickening fire.
I stand before her. My mother and aunts ignore me, bending further to their work with yet more concentration and intensity. My sister turns her head towards me, as if she knows I am going to speak to her. Well, she always knows.
“We have to go.” I announce.
“We do?” says Rivka as she puts down her twine,
“Yes we do. We must go now..”
“Alright. We’ll go.”
My sister gets up, and though she needs no guide out of our home, I take her hand, warm in mine. Unnoticed by my mother and aunts, we step into our sandals waiting by the door and I push the rickety wood outwards as we stepped into the now deserted street. Starlight here is brighter than ever. but the pull below it is strong, so very strong.
She allows me to lead her, though I sense a sadness in her. Here face is downcast, not facing ahead.
“What’s wrong”? I asked her, closing the door behind me to the rest of my family who seem oblivious of our leaving.
Rivka’s voice is strong and clear: “Lead me, then. If you must, lead me.”
I walk with her in the direction of an invitation, bathed in star shine, that I cannot refuse.
Soon we are near a building built into a sandy rock. Many such hovels, stables and even houses have made use of what Nature offers us.
It is the first time I have led my sister anywhere. She was always the leader, even when we very young.
Now it is me who is in front, she the clasper of my hand reaching behind, she the one allowing me to find the way. Though she knows these narrow alleys and back ways with easy rooted memory and sureness of foot, hearing and smell, she permits me to be the guide.
The light of a brand shines within with the shimmering glow of a fire and we hear the sounds of people in that pace; a woman crying in pain and the sounds of a child coming into the world. Why have I brought us here? I have no idea, yet this is the source of the invitation.
I take a step forward but feel the resisting hand of Rivka. “We cannot go on.” she says.
“But we must! We are close now, so very close.” I reply urgently”, allowing my words to take hold of my breath, for I am following a deep call within my soul, a call I have never heard before but am compelled to follow.
“No, brother.” Her voice is once again firm. “What is your purpose, here?”
“Just one touch of the child. Or even the mother” I answer, “Then you will be able to see. To see properly, with your physical eyes. Perhaps even we are just near enough, and you will be healed. Rivka, God has come to visit!”
“And if I…”
“Come! Quickly, now!” There is a cry from within the stable, for that is what this caved and wooden shack must be. The bleat of a lamb. The sob of a young woman, and I am pulling my sister towards a draped window at the side. Something is hanging there. A whiteish-grey cloth, wet, and, hanging in the window to dry. “Touch it!” I command her.
She can do no other, for I am her brother, and she can deeply see my need for her to see.
To offer her this act of my greatest love.

This invitation is my invitation.
I take her hand and guide her fingers to the cloth. They pull back but then I rest them on the cloth. I hold them there for a few breaths, then she withdraws her fingers as we hear the cry of a babe from the other side of the hanging crimson curtain.

This invitation is my invitation.
For a moment or more the star above this place appears to shine brighter and is reflected in the eyes of my Rivka. Two points of light, one in each blind eye. I dare to look at her, so full of hope I am that it might crush me. A babe had been born this night, not a few steps away, and I am full of certainty that is is a babe born with miracles in its body.
The light dims a little and my sister is very still.
We wait as the sounds of a mother singing to her child rises on the chill of the night.
We turn away and this time it is my sister who leads me home. Soon we are back in our little house and she rejoins her aunts and mother by our own fire, back at her basket, her skilled fingers working away, picking gentle and weaving softy. Still blind. The invitation has ebbed away, and now has gone. It receded, not into the night, but into the aching core of my own belly.
I have come back to myself. I feel embarrassed, yet I know my darling sister will never speak of this again. I feel tired, lost. So very lost. I will lay down upon my hard mat, pull a rough blanket over me, and slip into a dreamless sleep.

What Happened Next
Many years go by. I do not find a profession I can stay with for long.
I mend fishing nets and occasionally go out with the men in their boats. I try my hand as a carpenter, and I lose money time and again gambling with dice. I am often led to cool off in a cell. There are some years when I live a normal life but too many when I lie drunk, when I starve, and when I am forced to steal. Often it is my sister who rescues me from a thrashing, who brings me home and sobers me up. I meet neither wife, not good fortune in friends.
I wander from place to place. I return home. I catch the pox but recover. Always Rivka sets me on my feet but I am too ashamed to ask her for help.
The years slip by.
I find myself in another town and I am now a man who looks much older than he is. My sister is a true seer now and many go to her for advice.
They say she is blessed, that she has a gift for prophecy. She tells me she is mostly a good listener and doesn’t need physical eyes to read the possibility lying fallow in what people tell and ask her. She is happy.
In this new town, I am without money but have found lodging with an old man bent low who treats me kindly in return for mucking out his pigs and tending his goats.

My family have come to this place to listen to a preacher. A wise man, some say the wisest.
Many have come. Perhaps thousands. Rivka knows I am here though I do not know how. She invites me to join her in hearing the stories of this great man, who is speaking high on a hill at the edge of the town. I do not wish to disappoint her, for blind though she may be, she can surely smell swine on my clothes and burnt skin.
We go to this hillside together and hear His tales and stories. Rivka seems to savour every one spoken by this soul they call the Teacher her milky eyes drawn towards the sound of his voice. At the end food is shared and I am startled to suddenly find this
Teacher right beside me talking to my sister. He has weaved his way easily through the crowd, picked her out, and now is He here.
He looks at me only for a moment and then addresses her. “I think, dear sister, you see better than any who are gathered her. You need no miracle from me.”
“That is true.” she replies. She is smiling. “And you are pure sunshine.”
The man laughs. “That may be true as well.”
“Yet, he needs this and I am willing to give it to him”. Now my sister is directing her words very intently at this man.”. The man turns towards me. I cannot look Him in the eyes and turn my gaze away.
“Then, let it be done” says the man. He touches Rivka’s eyes gently with his fingers.
My sister looks at me, her brother. “Ah!” she says. “I knew that is what you would look like!”
From that day onwards, I followed this man. I followed him everywhere until that day on Golgotha. I fled that scene and didn’t once look back. For years I didn’t drink another drop. And I was happy.
My sister? With her new found sight, her higher gift seemed to fade. I didn’t see her again. I wonder if she was glad or angry. Surely she was glad?


End of Part 1


Part Two

Eleventh Century France

Sometimes I see too clearly. Called the ‘hawk’ by my fellows, on this day I wish I were already blind.
Bound by ropes and a leather strap, I am on my back, and the glowing red of the iron rod comes closer to my left eye. For all of my cunning and fleetness of foot, I am trussed up like a bird ready for roasting. I am a prisoner and these folk want revenge for my skewering aplenty of their comrades.
They are going to dismember me slowly, starting with my eyes.
And she is going to be the one to do it. What a woman is doing in this unpleasant company I have no idea, but the little of their language I know tells me they are using her for a game. She steps closer, the killing, glowing red point of a flamed-heated lance near enough to my right eye for me to feel its deadly heat. Our eyes meet. She frowns. I feel I know those eyes. She stumbles and the rod veers off and severs part of my ear instead. I scream in pain. There is laughter and shouts of ‘Clumsy bitch !’
Then the horn sounds.
It is the sound of an attack on the walls.
The men, fearful now but brave with it, turn and the fat one steps forward to finish me off quickly.
“Leave him to me!” demands the woman
Fatty hesitates. Time is running out for him.
“You all promised me this!” She shouts into his face.
She is suddenly alone as they answer the call to man the gate and the walls.
A fire arrow lands nearby.
She looks at it, stamps the flame out with her foot, then returns to me, the lance still raised in her hand.
“You have to get away.” she says, her voice now calm..
I hold my own, trying to appear more self-possessed than I truly feel.
“Easily said,” I answer, “with me here trussed up like a pig, and you with a sharp point ready to pierce my eyes.”
Suddenly she leans forward with a cold fury on her face and I feel my bowels emptying as I prepare for pain and following blindness.
But then she has pushed me into my side with her foot and then cut my bonds.
My hands my own again, I sit up. “Who are you ? Why are you doing this ?”
“I saw you when they brought you in” she replies. “An instinct turned my head and a came for a closer look. I like to follow my instincts.I work in the chapel and some of them let me tend their wounds. I thought perhaps we had met before but I see now that impossible. I do not know you, stranger.”
“Nor I you, but I thank you for sparing my life, and my sight!”
The woman sighs. “There is no argument that could ever be made for cutting a man to pieces, even if he is your enemy and now your prisoner. I watched from the Church. They would have delighted in cutting you up like a deer for the table. My instinct was to take a closer look at you.”
“You truly would have cut me in bits including my eyes ?”
“One eye might have been enough to save you. I supposed I was biding my time. The priest Joachim knew the enemy was but minutes from the gates. He might have been able to stop them, though he can be a coward when it suits him.”
With sunlight behind her head I had to squint to look at her. In that moment I wondered if we had met before. She had her hands on her hips, proud like a man.
She points towards the church. “Go quickly into the chapel. The priest will be there. Tell him Alina is calling in a favour and to let you out through the drainage gate in the crypt. He will do it…It will let you out into the meadow and the woods are not far. Now, go quickly.”
“But …”
“Go! They may have rushed to the gates, but one or more could return any moment. Go!”
I scramble up, aching from days in bonds, and as I run, I cannot help but turn to see her standing there, a feeling of recognition for her rising in me that I will never be able pin down in all the years of my life.
She is waving me on and pointing to the chapel, as a roar goes up and the gate hold.
“Wait, stranger, wait!”. I turn at her call. For a moment I am still.
“Do you know, for a moment, I did want to pluck out your eyes. To blind you forever. To take away your sight in this world.” Her face now is burning with anger.
“Why didn’t you?” I ask.
She turns away slowly, and then she running towards to castle walls.
When they find me gone they will flay her alive but perhaps, with battle lost, she will escape and they will forget. I’m through the door and soon to the anonymous safety of thick trees.

What Happened Next
I returned to England, by way of boat and a ride on a cart. I arrived back in Ipswich and met a woman a year more than my age. We now have three sons and a daughter. I left the life of a soldier, and I picked up my old trade as a carpenter.
My wife tried her hand at basket weaving, she wasn’t very good at it.
Sometimes I stare out to sea, and I look at the stars. I wonder at that woman who nearly took out my eyes yet saved my life in that ramshackle castle in France.


End of Part Two


Part Three

Brighton, UK, 2018

I would never imagined in a million years that I would end up doing this job. It is bad enough in the middle of Spring or Summer, but five days before Christmas, this is the last job I would have dreamed of doing.
The pay is decent and, though I find it hard to admit, I seem to be good at it. People get into financial difficulties for all kinds of reasons – from dumb and lazy, to downright scheming and clever. In all cases, can’t pay? Then we’ll come and take it away. Well, “it” being stuff of value to the equivalent (and a bit more) of what you owe.
It wasn’t snowing but it was bloody cold. Not freezing, but near enough, and this was our last call of the night. I had managed to get the rest of the week off and I wouldn’t be doing this when most people are hole-ing up for the Yuletide holiday. You can’t take their presents from under the tree, but, a few days out, you can take them from the hall, or their hiding places in the loft, the shed, the garage, or even behind the sofa, or the back of a car which, if we can prove it isn’t owned by the leasing company or on other finance, we can take ownership of their means of getting from A to B. Cars, toy drones, old cookers, and even cash in the drawer, we can take it all.
The bailiff on the threshold of the most generous time of the year. Christmas. And we were at the door of a Mr Neil Knight with a high court order to collect four thousand three hundred pounds or goods to the value thereof. And they wanted him out too, especially if he didn’t cough up the full amount straight away.
The garden was overgrown, the front door ancient blue paint and peeling. No bell. No knocker, so loud bangs on the wood by my colleague Gav. No reply. A tap on the window and it looks like there’s candlelight in the living room. No one answers the door.No one comes to the window.
Gav turns to me. “Paula, over to you.”
I lift the letter box and call into the house. “Mr Knight. High Court Enforcement. Open the door please.”
It doesn’t usually work. But it never works for Gav. This time it works for me. After a minute a man opens the door and as we enter he has already retreated along the hallway and returned to the living room. I catch straw, messy blond hair and a gentle gait; he looks like he is in his forties.
The sight that greets us isn’t what we could have expected and I’ve no idea how we would put a financial value on any of it. A medieval sword hanging on the wall above a cold fire-place, alive with burning logs. A shield, also very old and a bit rusty on t wall opposite the fire. Sofas covered with woven hangings and throws. Cushions everywhere, the smell of some kind of incense making the air misty but also somehow reassuring and welcoming. Some kind of tapestry hangs on another wall and then there is Mr Knight. Mr Knight, dressed in what looks like an ancient Monk’s brown cloak or cassock. Oh, and scraggy jeans, and faded, scuffed, white trainers.
He is sitting on the floor in the very centre of this soon to be claimed semi-detached. This is retrieval of goods and an eviction notice. Rent hasn’t been paid for over a year and what is owing is more than the rent. The landlord is a small and unyielding corporation that is happy to build more charges and interest than just the rent. Mr Knight is in a lot of trouble, here on the edge of a freezing run up to Christmas.
He is perched on a rug that has seen better days, and what is he doing? Weaving some kind of basket.
He smiles at Gav, and then at me. “You won’t find much of value here. I think even the sword is a copy. And I’m pretty crap at this. He indicates the basket. Take what you like. And I’ll be gone in an hour. But, please. Don’t take the shield, please let me take the shield. It isn’t worth much but I found it in Epping Forest when I was a kid. It’s been everywhere with me.”
Gav wanders about the room and starts listing stuff. That’s what we do. Right in front of the people who live there. Sometimes we suggest they go and make a cuppa in the kitchen. Mr Knight didn’t seem to mind.
“Your landlord’s have no idea. I came back to this house. I grew up here. It’s on a ley line.” He giggles, and returns his attention to his basket weaving.”
Gav is at a loss for words. Which is rare. He recovers though by doing the thing most designed to get himself back in charge. He walks over to the shield and runs his finger down the intricate carving on the metal. He makes some notes. That gets Knight’s attention.
“Please,” begs Mr Knight. “Let me keep the shield.”
Gav continues with his list. I prepare to look into the other rooms. Knight doesn’t put up a fight. He sits there, staring into the fire, humming some kind of old folk tune, continuing to work on his basket as Gav reads the riot act, monotone and a bit deflated. I start on my list. There’s bugger all in the kitchen, nothing upstairs. This man either used a laundrette or hand washed everything (if at all, but the place seems pretty clean). No microwave, no car outside, nothing in the bathroom and worthless stuff in the kitchen. No TV, no computers. Experience tells me this man has no cash to hand and doesn’t do banks, though we will have to check. He is penniless, very weird, and we’ll leave with little or nothing. But he will be homeless, unless he has friends this Christmas or is savvy with the overstretched local council.
One thing for sure. He will be gone within the hour. And Gav is telling him the shield will have to be valued. For now, it will go with us just in case.
“Please, sir…” I hear from the living room. “Gav never says sorry but this time he does.
Gav sounds regretful about the shield!
Through the hallway, lit by the glow of the flames in the mantlepiece, I can see the basket. I would say that some kind of memory stirs, but it doesn’t. I have never owed a basket though I think we kept crayons in some at school when I was young. But something sounds for a moment and I am back in the living room and my eyes meet those of Mr Knight. For a second he looks more like a woman and suddenly I do not want to take his shield, or his sword, or his threadbare hangings and rugs.
His basket is nearly finished and he clearly isn’t as bad as he claims, though it is no work of a master.
Gav is reminding him he has an hour to gather his stuff and contact the council if he wants even as chance of temporary accommodation at this time of the year. I’m back in the hall and walking along it towards the front door. I open it and step into the freezing evening.
I have the paperwork. We need a debit card payment, BACS or cash. No credit cards. I can hear Gav “If you pay at least two grand we won’t need to take your shield, Mr Knight.”
I am in the garden on this cold night, five days before Christmas. I am feeling a bit strange.
I’ve saved for Christmas. And I have saved for three months job-hunting and a yoga retreat. I made the decision to pack this job ijn back in October and saved every cent ever since. It isn’t that there’s anything wrong with this kind of work, it is just not for me.
And how much did I manage to save? A little shudder runs along my back and prickles my forehead and I remember the amount: Four thousand three hundred pounds.
Carol singers march by but I ignore them. Christmas lights twinkle magically in the window next door.

I’m taking out my debit card. I’m taking out my mobile payment device. I insert it into the slot. I punch in the numbers. I feel like I am responding to an invitation. An invitation I am going to accept. I can’t describe what I did that day any other way.
A few moments later I am back in the house, stepping into the living room. I catch Gav’s eye. Then I speak: “It’s been paid”.
“What?” says Gav.
“It’s done” I reply. “Paid. The landlord says if he paid up in full straight away, they’d let him go after Christmas. Kind hearts, I suppose.”
Mr Knight hasn’t moved a muscle. He looks back into the fire and he is humming another tune. It sounds French. Or medieval. Folky anyway.
“Gav, let’s go.” I am firm, and want to leave. “Goodnight, Mr Knight. Happy Christmas.”
Bemused and speechless, Gav follows us out of the house and into the street. Before we get into our van, Gav is staring at me. “What the…?”
I don’t let him say any more.
“Get in, Gav. Can you drop me off at the Clock Tower ? I want to look at the lights, then it’s home.”
I take a last look at the house. I notice a candle is alight in the window. Just like a little star.
We drive away.

What Happened Next
It is Christmas Eve. Something has drawn me back to that house. I am at the gate. The front door opens and he is standing there.
He looks at me and suddenly I feel a familiarity with him though i have only met him once before.
I walk slowly along through the broken gate, along the garden path, through the door and into the welcoming light of the living room.
Shield and sword, patchwork rugs and the smell of incense. Mr Knight is there, once again on the floor before the fire, working intently and inexpertly at his basket. I sit down opposite him. Gently, I take his basket from him and, though I have never woven a basket before in my life, I quietly set about repairing his many mistakes and setting the thing to rights.
He is looking at me with curiousity. Then with warmth. He isn’t exactly smiling, he might even be on the verge of tears.
I look up, continuing to work on the basket as if I had done such a thing all of my life.
Our eyes meet.
“You.” says Mr Knight.
“You.” says the bailiff.”


The End


The Turnaround Away Day


The Unique and Vital Away Day

The organisation is in crisis. Things are not going well. Finances are in a poor state. Sales have hit a continued downward roll. There’s a stress and there are quality problems. Products or service are failing in the market place. There’s been a PR disaster. We are stuck in a rut. We are running out of resources. We are running out of options. We are out of ideas.

The Turnaround Away Day isn’t an easy day, but it makes a real, sincere and energised push towards action – action that will take a bad situation and start to put it on the road to better. Turning around a nightmare involves waking up, sometimes while trapped in the dream. We’ll need to call things by their real name. We’ll need to move on from the past but not be afraid to learn the hard lessons and harvest whatever we can. We’ll need to risk argument, disagreement, and we will have to find a consensus on the way forward. And consensus is a grown up thing. Those who aren’t in will need to vote truthfully with their two feet. Those who are in will need to commit – fully and authentically.

It’s about seeing where we have come from and how to got to where we are now. Then it’s about gathering what we can, dropping what we truly don’t need, then making space for action in the Now and the Future.

It takes the form of a grown up conversation, facilitated, emergent, but also focused on where we will need to go next. We’ll identify those actions that maximise our chances of a enduring and do-able turnaround.

We may have to break a collusion of mediocrity, exorcise a few ghosts, get passionate and angry, and also drop our egos where they are hindering not helping. We’ll try to use every spare ounce of remaining resource to create a potent brew of change, innovation and commitment.

Actions plans that do not sit in reports in drawers, or fading on flip charts. Actions anchored in a real and realisable strategy. Actions anchored in time, deadline, committed resources and shared, open consequences of non-delivery.

We’ll ditch teamwork in favour of a passionate group  – community of real change.

We’ll open with the past, then move on. We won’t dream unless those dreams inspire us to action. We’ll look for synergy, authenticity and a collective conversation that feels quicker than light, and loaded with a value that motivates us to get rid of the dark situation, and to turn it to something lighter, better and healthier.

Getting hold of spiralling costs, re-thinking our products and services, reshaping the strategy and the organisation. Reforging partnerships. Finding newness and dumping the crumbling, rusty and unneeded old.

We’ll do it with deep decency, skilled humanity and it will be as exciting as it is frightening. A highly skilled, facilitated process. A day, or perhaps two. The top team, or perhaps the whole organisation.

A day to die. A day to live again. A day to become a more conscious organisation.

Contact us here to get started.

Debriefing Your Team








When a team has been established for a while it can be useful to step back and reflect on how the team is progressing.

We meet for an hour or so and work through some questions.

Below is a list of questions that can help your team to reflect on its development and how well it is performing as a team.

Some questions around cultural difference and diversity are also included.


Team Debrief Check list

Team Discipline

How we organised are we as a team?

How efficient are our team meetings?

How well do we communicate between meetings?

Do we have ground rules that we stick to that help us work consistently and effectively?

How well do we record actions arising from team meetings/ How effectively are we administrating our team?

Are we using a common communications platform and how well is it working ? (E.g. A closed Facebook Group or a Slack Group)

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Team Decision Making and Leadership

How effective is our team decision making?

How do we manage conflict and differences of opinion?

Are we using leadership as well as we could? Is one person making all of the decisions or is everyone involved?

Has anyone dominated the team – how have you dealt with that?

How does your group let leaders emerge as needed?

How do we ensure all views are heard?

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Team Performance

Are we getting the results that we should be getting and, if not, why not?

Are we using good time and project management? Are we using any project management tools?

Are we prioritising time and tasks effectively?

Are we leaving things until the last minute or working proactively and in a balanced way?

Do we take time to reflect on what we have and haven’t achieved?

Are we using technology as well as we could to optimise our performance as a team?

Are we learning from our mistakes and building on success?

Is everyone pulling their weight? Are their any free riders? How are we dealing with that?

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Team Mood and Morale

Is the group in a positive frame of mind? What is the atmosphere like in the group?

Is the group stressed? How do we deal with stress?

What’s the group motivation like? What causes it to fall and how to we lift the level of motivation?

Do we celebrate success and socialise appropriately to build the team spirit in our team?

How are you dealing with disrespectful behaviours, lateness and regular absence from meetings, as well as people under-performing?

Is there collusion in the team; do you avoid saying how you feel? How do difficult issues get raised and discussed?

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Team Diversity

Are difference respected and tapped into in our group?

How do we deal with the different cultural backgrounds, values and perspectives represented in our team?

Do we talk openly about our differences and our commonalities?

Are we making best use of different language capabilities in our team, e.g. when we do online research internationally?

Are there any issues with gender or age differences and are we dealing with those well? What different assumptions and habits in out group affect this?

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Team Improvement

Think of examples of when the group was at its strongest and when it was at its weakest. Share those examples in your team and discuss how the strengths can become more consistently present.

What does our team look and feel like when we are performing at our best?


Community is Naturally Obvious and Obviously Natural.

We tend to over-complicate Life.

Yet the core of any community is a circle.

We need only sit together in a circle and open some space for conversation and collaboration with minimal fuss. Often we go into phone, text and email overload when all that is needed is to meet at the same time in our favourite cafe, or in our homes. A cup of tea or coffee and a conversation.

But what turns that meeting into a community is the free expression of needs and the collective attempt to address those needs. We speak and listen together, but we also go to work.

And when space for that work opens in a self-organising conversation in a circle, we can achieve anything.

Often we gently look for one less thing to do, and we do not worry too much about who hasn’t shown up. We “go where the energy is”, as writer Finn Kollerup says.

We are more effective when we go gently, taking our feet where we can be most productive, greeting the beginnings and endings of our meetings with an ease, and acceptance that the time we have is the right time.

Whatever happens, happens and when it is over it is over. The circle forms, changes, reforms. We are mobile; we expect and welcome surprise, even surprised when we are not surprised!

We are in the community conversation in a circle, but that circle and the strength from the support we find from it, means that the community energy is never lost.

Community comes naturally, if we allow it to.


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Past, Present and Future – From Time-Line to Field of Possibility

Putting what went before (behind us in time), before (in front of) us, is a way to become more conscious about what action we need to take in the present. We usually see time as a line – a time line – consisting of past, present and future. Yet we can also see time as a field with past, present and future in play at the same time.

We can learn in the present from the past, we can explore what might have been and also learn from what actually did happen. Often things lying unresolved and poorly understood can become raw material for fresh thinking in the present about the future.

The past is still playing into us and the future may lie up ahead but even the future is in the same story as our past and present! When we put what went before, in front of us we can explore that story in a richer way. We often think that dwelling on the past can drain us, can full us with regret. It can.

Yet if we see beyond that, there is a rich resource of history to learn from, to inquiry into it, and even gather in resolutions and impulses that we never fully released or made use of.

Lessons from the past can be harvested, and we can add them to our present knowledge and future vision and wishes.

Don’t ignore your past, risk the discomfort of looking back, and gather in what you need; the present situation can then become changed, look and feel different and we can and will look differently at the future.

Here we are now, not trapped on a time line, but in a rich field of possibility.


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What is conversation really about?







So much of our conversation is about what we advocate to each other. We speak, they speak. Our turn to say something, their turn to say something.

It is usually transactional. Like a game of tennis, we take turns. Often someone wins the point. Sometimes the rallies are long and we tire ourselves out!

Our standpoint, their standpoint.

We deliver our view, then they respond with their own delivery of their point.

Is this conversation? At a certain level, perhaps yes.

Yet, could conversation be richer than that – less tiring and more energising?

I believe it can. That happens when we listen more, when we pause more, when we ask more questions of each other. Instead of advocacy, there can be inquiry.

We find what we want to say more through listening to another person than seeking that answer only inside ourselves.

The other person doesn’t only trigger what we say, they inspire it, they guide, it, they influence it.

What we ask others is an invitation for them to help us ask even more. We don’t only seek responses and answers, but further questions to help us with our thinking and our understanding.

Conversation tends to slow, and we allow in more silence, more pausing for thinking.

Our thinking deepens and we begin to find our answers, not through we alone, but through the other person.

Conversation becomes shared and we become more than two separate people planning verbal tennis. We become two separate people but also a shared conversation. Then the conversation deepens and becomes richer.

And often wisdom emerges, not just intellectual cleverness.

Then, when we do advocate, we find our thinking is more living, arising from within and from without.

That might just be real conversation. What do you think?


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This is the age when the old become young


It’s become a bit of a cliche to say that children are growing up more and more quickly. Our education system is engaged in an ideological battle between the idea that we should allow children to stay children for as long as possible, and the idea that we need to get them ready for adult life as quickly and early as possible. Isn’t that what happens in nature? Isn’t that the best chance for survival in a tough world? Surely the first view is naive and the second the only practical way?

Certainly the second view largely dominates in Western Culture. Or does it? In Scandinavia, children aren’t taught to read until they are nearer seven years old. In Waldorf education, children flourish and adulthood sets in at a natural pace for each child – it isn’t forced. Learning to play, to slowly focus on the sharper edges of the world, this is valued by many as the best preparation for life.

And yet the Facebook generation, the tech-savvy generation Y soon and quickly grasp what technology has to offer and are beginning to see their slower parents as the naive ones, as the childish ones. The young are teaching the old, and often leading the way, both into realms of light and shadow.

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We don’t know how the digital age is going to pan out and many adults look on, bemused at the new patterns of living and working among our younger generations. We can no longer guide them, if we find the digital age a mystery. The parenting relationship becomes weirdly reversed as children, even as young as seven or eight are guiding their parents into the digital age. Many parents, worried (perhaps rightly) at the effects of the digital on their young human beings in their care, resort to traditional forms of control and policing, only to find their children can become master cat burglar’s of digital time and space.

Though the older generations may be running to catch up with their Generation Y kids and millennial grandchildren, they still are wiser and older in the business of being human.

It becomes ever more important to identify the archetypes of living and working in the digital realm – issues of trust, connection, developing meaningful relationships, staying safe – all of these remain relevant to the wisdom and experience that comes with age. Yet there are also newer, emerging phenomena around disembodied communication and collaboration, of linking our physical limbs and senses to technological products, that put our kids right into the front line of what is emerging.

Here the adults really do become slower developing children. And these challenges then become about being open to learning from our kids, even as we attempt to keep them safe and well. We now have a role of what Edgar Schein calls “humble inquiry”. We aren’t here to tell the younger ones what to do, though we can invite their own inquiry. Leaning becomes mutual, a vital dialogue, a conversation between older generations, a blending and trading of smart with wise, of knowledge with experience. The conversation is no longer top down, old to young, but is horizontal, a circle of dialogue. And we will all be the better for it,


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My Own Definition of Conscious Business


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“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” 
Carl Jung

This is very much a work in  progress – an emerging set of notes.

I’m going to define Conscious Business in a way that is different to  most in this field.

Consciousness arises from suffering. Now, bear with me for a moment on that rather strange statement.

The philosopher Rudolf Steiner (author of The Philosophy of Freedom) made the same statement over a hundred years ago. Suffering brings forth consciousness. Without suffering there would be no consciousness. Even more strangely: consciousness is a gift of suffering.

Now, that might suggest that suffering is an inevitable process, a law of nature. And I can very much understand why people who react against such a view.

However, let’s take a look at the definition of suffering presented in the dictionary. Most dictionaries offer several definitions of suffering. The first definition is the one we are al most used to:

“To undergo or sustain (something painful, injurious, or unpleasant)” (Reference here.)

Suffering is about pain, is always something negative, according to this definition. People and organisation’s, not surprisingly, try to avoid suffering, sometimes at all costs. Many business attempt to pass on any unwanted suffering to other individuals and groups in their environment, rather than suffer themselves.

But hold on a moment. The dictionary goes further, offering three other definitions of suffering:
To experience; undergo”
To endure or bear; stand”
To permit; allow”


Here the definition is enriched, and also framed in a much more positive way. Suffering is something we “go through”. Suffering is born of endurance and even tolerance. Suffering isn’t something we recoil from, avoid, or try to go around – suffering is something we go through.

Now, working with the idea that suffering gives rise to consciousness, using these definitions we can see that suffering need not always be painful, nor negatively (though it can be felt that way). Suffering is something we “go through”. And when we “suffer” something in this way, we experience it fully, we meet it, and, in meeting it, we engaging with it – and this gives us experience of it. If we reflect on that experience, we have the opportunity to increase our awareness, knowledge and wisdom. We become more conscious.

Avoiding suffering dims consciousness. Embracing suffering gives rise to consciousness.

A business that behaves consciously does not try to avoid suffering – it welcomes it, seeks it out, and harvests the experience into consciousness, enabling it to act in a more aware, effective and skillful way. It does this through reflection, through inquiring into its past, present (ongoing) and future state. It “suffers” uncertainty by asking questions, by being curious and open. Open can mean being “raw” and vulnerable, but it also can mean being responsive and “ready”. A business that behaves consciousness is in an ongoing, open state of internal and external inquiry into its reality. This enables it to respond in real time and in real ways for it is always reality checking through inquiry. It doesn’t seek “comfort”, comfort arises out of its courage to “suffer” uncertainty. Uncertainty becomes a core organisational virtue.

How about THAT for a definition of conscious business?

A few years ago I went to a conference on the theme of suffering. The conference drew quite a bit on the Parsifal story.  This is a story of the search for the Holy Grail, but one of the themes that was at the heart of it was how a journey can involve what could be called “suffering” on all of the levels of the above definition. But by encountering, enduring and “going through” our experiences, we can become better, wise, find resolution and be more conscious.

At the conference there was a speaker who had been a hostage in Beirut for several years, as well as a survivor of the massacres of Rwanda. We also heard about prisoners of conscience who spent years in prison with little or no freedom. In all cases, these people were glad of the consciousness they now possessed through having “gone through” these experience.

Brian Keenan pointed out that, when we properly resource our “going through” with support from our community, with time to reflect, with as feeling of being “held up”” through the processes of whatever we are going through, then suffering can be experienced as something other than just pointless pain.

Pain can be part of the effort of going through something, it is the pain of the strengthen muscles, the pain of confusion that, through diving deeply with the frowning furrowed brow of our thinking, can give birth to a higher view, a longer view, a clearer view, a greater perspective, a wisdom and experience that we can apply to new situations.

I think conscious businesses seek to go through things. They try to heighten their awareness, their ability to sense, experience, and to learn from that experience, incorporating the (sometimes but not always painfully gained) wisdom into new, skillful behaviours and practices.

In fact, without this “going through”, this suffering, a business can’t ever behave consciously.

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Businesses that behave consciously demonstrate:

– a willingness and an ability to suffer uncertainty and to have the courage to allow further uncertainty to arise. Concurrent with the inquiry that forms the exploration of that certainty, comes real-time action and decision

– patience that actions emerge out of ongoing inquiry

– an ability to be curious, open, responsive and questioning

– an ability to regularly go into the “zone of discomfort” in order to be insightful

When this becomes ongoing, the organisation even inquires into how and why it inquires! It’s a process of continuous innovation. Aware, aware, and responsive.

Shall we begin?

Visit the Conscious Business Realm

What Makes a Conscious Business Culture?


By Paul Levy and Jamie Pyper

 Here we go again …. Culture!

We’ve come a long way since culture was described as “the way we do things around here.” That simple definition underpins what writers such as Charles Handy said way back in the ’80s: “in organisations there are deep-set beliefs about the way work should be organised, the way authority should be exercised, people rewarded, people  controlled.” These deep-set beliefs, formulated as rules, structures, formal and informal processes, constitute the organisational culture.

Back in those 1980s, when futurist music was in full digital swing, we also had the definition of organisational culture offered by Edgar Schein. He described culture as “the pattern of basic assumptions that a group has invented, discovered or developed, to cope with its problems of external adaptation or internal  integration, that have worked well and are taught to new members as the way to perceive, think, feel and behave.

Now we are in deep and hot, swirling waters here. We have to content with “deep set beliefs” and “patterns”, if we are to understand culture, according to these writers. There’s come truth in that.

The Paradox of Conscious Business Culture

And yet, there’s a paradox. Because, in our view and experience, conscious businesses are emergent in, not only their actions and reactions in real time, but also unto their core beliefs and assumptions. In conscious businesses, even deep-rooted assumptions have to be allowed to shift, in real time. A conscious business culture will always have strong emergent and temporary qualities to it. Organisational habit will be the habit of not allowing habits to fix for any longer than they are needed. A conscious business embodies the old organisational proverb that the rate of learning is greater than or equal to the rate of change. And the paradox is that even this must be a daily renewed behaviour and not an ingrained habit that we, as a business, fall asleep too.

The golden rule of a truly conscious business is that there are no golden rules. The paint of a conscious business’s organisational culture rarely dries. The brush lies soft and ready for the canvas of possibility and unfolding happenings.

Checking out the Contradiction by Checking in

And now for the contradiction. If a conscious business is a dynamic open system in a changing environment, then its culture will be influenced by those changes, and also by deeper values that are truly alive, authentic, refreshed and renewed. These deeper values, when renewed, will likely repeat if there are “timeless qualities” to them. An example of a timeless quality is an archetype. Love is one example. Honesty is another. We can habitualise these because they are so timeless, and because we have experience of them emerging usefully in all kinds of situations over time. We become used to them. Yet there is still a danger that automatic reactions can become so habitual, that they result in lowered consciousness. It is still useful and healthy to revisit, refresh and renew even our deepest values. One ritual of renewal is the “check in”, where a group shares how they are feeling, “where I am at right now” with the rest of the group. Here there is an opportunity for “jarring” to be shared, where something may well have shifted in our collective “normal” state and we can look at it together. The check in, for some groups, is literally a one minute, turn-taking- sharing of “how I am feeling right now”. Here we may surface that assumptions about the culture are not as shared as we thought they were, and that people are out of sync with each other. There’s an opportunity here to explore any complacency that might have set in.

Some Relatively Timeless Features of a Conscious Business

So, with the proviso in place that nothing is ever fixed for its own sake in a conscious business, we are ready to offer a few features of a conscious business culture that we’ve tended to find in businesses we’d identify as conscious businesses. And once more – that health warning: none of these qualities of culture should be allowed to fall into such a fixed habit that they send the business to sleep…

A conscious business is a culture in which…

1. There is a  common, unifying purpose

2. There is active Collaboration

3. There is Distributed Leadership

4. There is Enough trust for Openness and vulnerability in communications

5. There is space for, and Integration of left and right brain activity equally

6. Failure is destigmatized and seen as an authentic opportunity for organisational learning

7. Transparency  and self-renewal as a shared virtue

8. A Human centric approach to coordination and management

9. An ethic that win-win is prioritized with all stakeholders

10: A focus on developing useful and usable principles and trust rather than rules and control

11. Equality and diversity

Diving in deeper

Now, we;ll take a more detailed look at these features. They are not an exhaustive list, but provide indications of the kinds of cultural features that appear to be repeating and re-emerging when conscious businesses reflect on their cultures.

1. There is a  common, unifying purpose

Common purpose is arrived at through dialogue and authentic communication. Purpose may be led by those in financial ownership, but efforts are made to ensure that joining the enterprise is a free, authentic act, based on voluntary commitment to the purpose. In more democratic and sociocratic businesses, shared purpose is arrived at through discussion, debate and an attempt to achieve consensus and common ground. The purpose is not remote or too rhetorical; it can be translated in ways that guide daily behaviour

2. There is active Collaboration

Collaboration is the way to get things done. Collaboration is self-organised where possible, and leadership and more formal types of control emerge out of the needs of the moment, not from structured habit.Collaboration includes inter-project learning, skilful overlap between functions and across organisational boundaries. The business is skilled in ways of collaborating. Competition is not pursued for its own sake. and attempts are made to collaborate rather than seek win-lose outcomes.

3. There is Distributed Leadership 

Leadership is not so much a person, than an emergent need and business activity. Leaders arise out of real needs and is distributed across the employee and stakeholder base. Leaders are never institutionalised, though a leader may remain a leader if that is needed, even for years. Leaders emerge, return to other roles, arise again, as and when needed. Leadership is seen as a shared responsibility and an act of service to the organisation and its people.

4. There is Enough Trust for Openness and Vulnerability in Communications

Vulnerability is a subtle asset for the organisation. We are prepared to be vulnerable (and to take risks when needed) because we do not fear humiliation and trust our colleagues to support us. People aren’t defensive of their status and “positions”, but rather seem themselves as part of a community, where the community reflects the virtues of each individual, and where, in each individual, the strengths and needs of the community are reflected. It’s a kind of holographic “culture”. With trust, there is the practice of openness. Information is shared and never stored for political purposes. Information is shared where and as needed, and there is a faith in others to act in all of our best interests.

5. There is space for, and Integration of, left and right brain activity equally

Recently left and right brain has been critiqued as a valid metaphor for how we think and create. Even at the level of a metaphor it can still be useful to characterise a conscious business culture in which we do not over-value the “hard numbers” at the expense of trusted instincts and intuitions. We have both in a conscious business. A conscious business is evidence based, but also values imagination and lateral thinking as ways of dialoguing with emerging reality.

6. Failure is destigmatized and seen as an authentic opportunity for organisational learning

A conscious business is a culture of learning; that includes learning from both success and failure. A conscious business also skilfully places experimentation within clear awareness of risks. Experimentation includes the need to learn from the negative hypotheses we set up. A conscious business encourages feelings to arise about our failures and for all to commit to the consequences of under-performance. But this is not stigmatised. There is much opportunity for personal and professional development, and linking learning to improvement and innovation. There is a “blame” culture. But here blame is grown up. Blame is really transformed into responsibility – individual, collective and organisational responsibility for what goes wrong as what goes right. At the root of this is a need to turn responsibility into the “ability to respond” – the learn and correct, to achieve reconciliation.

7. Transparency and self-renewal as a shared virtue

Without clarity there can be no transparency. Without being able to clearly see “Into” the organisation’s processes, we can’t be a conscious business. A conscious business needs sharpened, even heightened senses. It regularly enhances its information systems, ensures information and knowledge is up to date, and shared where and when needed. It is regularly self-renewing, adjusting and correcting its self-image, It seeks open flow of information with external partners to ensure it remains a clear-seeing open system, able to react quickly and as needed. This behaviour is seen as a key virtue in the business and forms the heart of recruitment, induction, learning and development.

8. A Human centric approach to coordination and management

A conscious business sees its people as its foundation for success. People are the energy that form the commitment to it acting at its best. People offer creativity into it, lessons and reflections that help it improve. Coordination is based on respect for people. We do not have human “resources”. We have people. We seek consensus but also the business is based on “grown up” approaches to giving and receiving feedback. We do not hide behind “niceness” but we ensure honesty is constructive and respectful of diversity. Coordination involves “checking in” with each other, and people act, not only for themselves, but also on behalf of their colleagues. There’s nothing cheesy about teamwork in a conscious business. It is emotionally intelligent and focused on achieve best performance for the business.

9. An ethic that win-win is prioritized with all stakeholders

A Conscious Business believes that creating “losers” – either internally or externally, generates resentment, reduces commitment and motivation. This, in turn, can harm openness, and damage the business’s quality of consciousness. It can harm the quality of feedback it receives as well as creative commitment. Win-lose redistributes energy, and insodoing, unbalances the flow of motivation in the system. Win-win tends to create synergy, increases motivation and also trust and commitment to improvement and innovation. Win-win is also longer term, and, when embedded in long term trust, can still allow individuals, groups, suppliers and customers, to “take a short term hit” in order to achieve a better longer term outcomes. Win-win is about enhancing self-esteem and finding new, emergent ideas and resources that arise from synergy, the notion that the whole becomes greater  than the sum of the parts. A conscious business always takes a meta-systemic, holistic view.

10: A focus on developing useful and usable principles and trust rather than rules and control

Structures supports, but also weighs down. In a conscious business, rules and control are usually temporary, they tend to arise from self-organisation rather than being imposed through top-down power structures. Externally imposed rules such as legal requirements are mutually understood and discussed to achieve common ground commitment and understanding. Internally rules arise and are regularly reviewed, tied closely to the needs of the present moment. Some rules and structures may pervade over the longer term where they prevent risky outcomes. The organisation tends towards shared values and principles that guide us towards to kind of conscious and even wise behaviours that rules often clumsily try to force us towards. Control arises in a conscious business from the self-organising groups that are delivering value to the business. For example, control of cost arises from values of “lean” or sustainability, rather than because a boss has ordered a cost-cutting drive. This links to openness with the financial and other resource needs of the business.

11. Equality and diversity

In a conscious business, we have an equal right to be individual and different. We also have a duty to direct our individuality towards achieving the commonly understood and committed to purpose of the business. We make reasonable adjustments for each other, operate fairly and seek equal opportunity, whilst celebrating and looking to best utilise individual difference and diversity. Individuality is largely self-defined in a conscious business. There are helpful and easy exit points out of the organisation for those whose self-defined difference is leading too far away from the share purpose of the business; leaving isn’t traumatic but a positive, free act.

The business uses diversity to gain multiple perspectives and viewpoints. It is a sensitive employer because it seeks the best in each person in the business.

A self-assessment exercise

Try this short self-assessment activity. You can do it individually for your business or you could do it with colleagues in your organisation.

Score each of the items above on a scale of 1 to 10 where, 1 means: “This feature doesn’t describe our business at all and 10 means “Yes, that describes us completely”. Score anywhere from 1 to 10.

This will create a good starting point for identifying how you might develop a conscious business culture in your organisation

A final warning

Remember our paradox. These features may well change. So far, working in the field of conscious business for a few years, we have found them emerging as possible archetypal and timeless qualities that represent how to be conscious in the current world economy. They may well be very different in the future. We are reviewing them all the time, “out there” and also in our own businesses.

The emerging digital realm may well modify and even transform these “features” of a conscious business culture. There are already differing definitions around privacy. We all used to take right to privacy for granted as a core cultural value. Companies such as Facebook suggest that right to privacy is being superseded by “right to decide what to share”. Privacy settings on social media platforms then become up for debate.

But, for now, the above model represents a useful starting point for taking the first steps to developing a conscious business culture. Contact us if you want to talk further about making your business culture more conscious.

Paul Levy is director of CATS300 and Jamie Pyper is a director of Conscious Business People.

Visit our Conscious Business Realm

Feedback – What Participants Say About the Working in Teams Sessions






Here are just a few of the comments that participants shared in 2017 at Warwick Business School about the Working in Teams Sessions…

“Incredibly insightful. They should have these sessions for every fresher cohort.”

“Great session! It really helped me in understanding group dynamics! While I am more of a leader by nature, my group included two more “natural leaders” which meant that two of us had to back down a little bit. Really helped to show what teamwork really means and that it takes teamwork to succeed, not just a leader.

“Thank you for the interesting workshop.”

“This is the first event that I have attended that has really got me excited to start my course. I normally dislike things like this because I like many others have not had the best group experiences, particularly in my academic career. However, I think having this session on our course right at the start will serve to change my opinion of group work, provided that everyone works to follow the ideas you have given us. I wish something like this was provided more, especially as I think back on my operations management experience when working with very diverse teams. I think the benefits of it are invaluable.”

“Your message about inclusivity and putting one’s ego aside when interacting with other members of a group was a valuable takeaway from the session. Could you include a little more info about how interaction takes place in different cultures in your future sessions?”

“I loved the session, which was different from those traditional classes. I firmly agree to the viewpoint about ADVOCACY and INQUIRY! Anyway, thanks for your session!”

“Mr. Paul Levy provided great teaching for improving our soft skills in team-working! The exercises in the team skills session allowed us to experience how to cope better in order to have productive team work through focusing on the tasks as a team, listening carefully to others, gathering team members’ thoughts, understanding one another’s culture, setting team ground rules and so on. I especially enjoyed the group activity of remembering the name of new friends, whom we have just heard their names said twice, while each person cannot say one’s own names. Therefore, we learnt everyones’ name by asking through another person. It was my first time I felt I could remember numerous peoples’ names in such a short period of time. This activity teaches us that we learn a great deal from inquiring others with questions, instead of just advocating with our own voice. I believe that by following what we have learnt at the workshop, we will have the skills needed to succeed in teamwork!”

“It was an icebreaker and with all the laughing that we had, everything just clicked. Would absolutely recommend it to everyone.”

Visit the Group Dynamics Page

Three Types of Team

When teams and groups work together for the first time on a project, three types of group can emerge. I call them the Polite Team, the Broken Team and the Real Team.

The Real Team is the ideal team type where everyone becomes involved and committed to the project. They “dive in”, occasionally stepping back to be objective and to gain and overview. But mostly there is a sense of involvement shared by the team.







The Polite Team may have a certain level of involvement but can be over-formal and even detached. The commitment needed to really get involved, risk being vulnerable and making mistakes in front of others is not there. The group then performs less well. What is needed is a discussion about involvement and commitment and some team-building activity. Social activity can be part of this as team members get to know each other as human beings.








The Broken Team has some team members involved who become frustrated as others do not fully commit and sit on the edges of the group, not fully involved. And other members of the group may not even commit at all, not showing up, and existing at the end of emails, but never being physically present. Here the team needs to be either fixed on “reset”, perhaps with new members. Fixing it involves openly naming the behaviour. A more senior person may need to get involved, ground rules put in place and some team building may help. We need to get to the root cause of why this team has become broken.









A Model for an Effective Team Process

There are many models that prescribe how too operate effectively as a group or team. Here is one based on an effective group completing a university-based project, leading to a report and presentation…

(click on the image to make it larger)















Here are links to a few different models. Discuss these with your team. There is no one correct way to work effectively as a team and you may wish to adapt your own model that suits your group.

Here are six different team effectiveness models

And here is some models for,  and approaches to completing a team project



Being heard in your Team


Not every member of a team is self-confident. Some are quieter. Some are more shy and less able or willing to speak up.

Teams are diverse; we have different personalities and styles of communication.

Sometimes people with a more extrovert personality can dominate a group. Yet the loudest or most outspoken people may not be the wisest! They may not have the right answers. In effective groups, everyone needs to have their voice heard.

So, how can you be heard in your group if you are feeling ignored?

Here are a few examples …

(Click on the image below to make it larger)
















Where should we meet as a group?

Over the years I’ve observed many groups in organisations and communities.

The more effective and higher performing groups ate smart and skillful in terms of where and how they meet.

Some groups perform well by meeting more informally. However, people from different part of the world and from different cultures have different cultural expectations about meeting etiquette. Some people prefer to meet around the cafe table, others see group projects as being better suited to formal meeting rooms. From the start of a group project it is useful to share these assumptions and expectations openly.

That said, a very formal meeting room with no natural light might not be the best place for a group to think creatively. Equally, if there is a presentation to rehearse which will eventually be delivered in a conference room, then a conference room might be the best place for a group to meet and rehearse it.

Be flexible and choose meeting places that best suit the kind of work the group is doing.

Here are a few more tips about where groups should meet that I’ve gathered together in recent year…

Visit the Group Dyanmics page

Dysfunctional Group Behaviours

A group can become dysfunctional when one or more individuals behave in ways that inhibit the group’s ability to function and perform well.

Sometimes the whole group may collude with each other in the same behaviour or behaviours and collectively impede its effectiveness as a group.

The group may develop the collective habit of leaving things too late, or not taking deadlines seriously, or never challenging each other.

Usually it is one or two members who behave dysfunctionally (literally, against the functioning of the group).

It far better to deal with, or even prevent, dysfunctional behaviours in a group as early as possible in the life of that group. At the end of your first group meeting, allow some time to ‘check out’ with each other. Everyone gets a chance to speak and to share their reflections on that first group meeting. What went well? What went less well? What suggestions do they have for improving how the group functions next time we meet?

Below is a list of such dysfunctional group behaviours. They can only be dealt with if they are embodied in a set of ground rules or if the group members agree to be open, honest and constructive. Speak out before things get worse! And also remember to praise, to say what worked well, and to celebrate success.








Team Skills – Frequently Asked Questions






Here are some frequently asked questions about effective team work. We’ll be adding more as they arise…

What is the difference between a more effective and a less effective team?

An effective team communicates consistently, both online and face to face. A more effective team gets the best of the team in terms of skills and knowledge. An effective group acknowledges and makes the best use of the cultural diversity in the group. An effective group uses project management, sets agreed milestones for agreed talks and group roles, and manages its time effectively. An effective group are honest and open with each other, constructive with criticism but not afraid to challenge and to praise each other. An effective group celebrates success.

What are the best collaboration tools for a group?

The team should regularly meet face to face as needed. Get around a table and ensure you can all see each other. You may also use collaboration tools offered by your organisation such as Slack, or other bespoke tools provided by them. Some groups meet via a conference call or video meeting. You can also group text. The best tools also allow you to co-author documents, such as Google Docs. Keep their use simple and use them consistently. Agree their purpose from the start and ensure all group members buy into using them and understand how to use them. Don’t over-use emailing and texting. They are not good places to make collective decisions as they are very linear in design. Use the collaboration tools such as online teams.

We have a free rider in our group. What should we do?

A free rider expects everyone else in the group to do all of the work. Free riding has to be named by the whole group and attempts made to share the work load fairly. Free riders may need to be reported to a member of staff if they do not improve their commitment to the team. In some circumstances, for example, if the free rider only shows this behaviour near the delivery date for a project, it may be better for the rest of the group to just let it go and get on with it and rely on peer assessment later on. Some free riders are not free riders at all but may have a personal issue. Ask if everything is alright. Be confidential in your group and be ready to help but also ready to recommend the group member to seek professional help.

We have a shy member in our group. What should we do?

Groups are less effective if there is too much silence. Shyness can come from a lack of self-confidence. Try to meet more informally, pair up with the person so another group member can speak a bit on their behalf and support them. Some shy group members are less shy in a cafe setting than a formal meeting place – others are more shy in a cafe and prefer a more formal meeting! Recognise the diversity in the group and try to find ways of communicating that suit each individual best. Some people who are shy face to face are less shy using online communication methods. If you are a large group then break into smaller sized groups for at least part of your meetings.

What if all attempts to resolve difficulties or Conflicts within our team have failed?

You may need to contact a leader or higher level manager, and write down all the attempts you have made as a group to resolve the issue within your group.

Our team lacks leadership, or, on the contrary, one person is dominating. What should we do?

Leadership should always be a temporary thing, based on the skills of the group members. One person might lead when there is a presentation to do, another might lead when the group is doing research, or when the group is under time pressure. When your group forms, share aloud what skills you have with the rest of your group. Let leadership be temporary and emerge as needed. But no one should be a permanent boss. Set some ground rules for your group (also known as a group contract).

How often should we meet?

It depends on the team project. Meeting weekly for an hour is a good way to time manage and ensure progress, supported by online communication and collaboration. Occasionally meet for longer, for example when agreeing roles and tasks at the beginning of a project, when sharing research and when getting ready to do a team presentation and to hand in work. It can be good to start or end with lunch together to be more informal as a group. Ensure your meetings are well chaired and also time kept with a clear agenda. Agree who is doing what and the time scales.

There is bullying in our group. Or name-calling. What should we do?

Set some ground rules right from the start and agree what will happen if unacceptable behaviours arise. Bullying is not acceptable to universities, course managers or employers under any circumstances. Be clear with the bully or teaser that their behaviour is unacceptable. Name the behaviour clearly to them, offering them objective feedback. But be safe. Let another group member know what is happening and how you are feeling and be prepared to make a formal complaint.

Our group always seem to be panicking. Why is that?

It is usually down to poor time management and not meeting enough face to face to track progress. Don’t leave things until the last minute. Meet very quickly after a team project is set and set up a time plan, with clear team roles, milestones and consequences of group members not meeting their promises. The group may need a clearer project plan!



Enjoying and Getting the Most from Cultural Differences in Groups

On many educational programmes as well as in teams in global companies, you’ll find yourself working with people from different countries and cultural backgrounds. That diversity can be a strength, you can broaden your horizons and learn from others.

People speak different langauges, have different customs and cultural norms. Many are living away from their country of origin and you may find yourself working or studying overseas or in a group with people who are, themselves, away from home.

Some cultures are more “polite” and won’t speak out and speak up easily. Others have a more relaxed attitude to time keeping or may be “louder” in terms of speaking up in a group.

Even within diffierent countries there are regions with different languages and customs and norms of behaviour. There will also be people who identify themselves as from more than one country and culture. Some see themselves as “global citizens”.

We are also all individuals, unique and different from each other, whilst sharing common ground and many similarities. Just because one country or region has cultural norms, doesn’t mean everyone from that region will behave the same. We all have our own personalities.

In teams and groups, getting to know and to enjoy our differences, even ig that process is clumsy or awkward for some people at first, is key to that group perfoming well over time. We need to understand and get the best out of each other.

An Activity: Tuning in to your group

One useful activity – though it might feel strange at first – is to introduce ourselves to each other in our own language. Say your name, where you come from, a bit about your family, your hobbies and interests, why you chose this course or job. Even if others don’t speak your language it is surprising how much we can grasp by “tuning in”. Each language offers up its own clues but is also different – the words, the intonation, the gestures. Some words arem in some cases,  the same or similar in all languages = names or places, for example. This is a good way for the group to break the ice and realise that we are different and we need to get the best out of each other, through recognising and enjoying our diversity.

An Activity: Discussing our cultural differences

Have a short coversation, perhaps together over coffee in the common native language you are sharing e.g. English. Discuss how you would normally behave in groups:



  • how to you share ideas?
  • how do you seek clarification?
  • how do you time keep?
  • how do you challenge or disagree?
  • is it ok in your culture to interrupt?
  • how is success or failure defined or dealt with in your culture?
  • are there any difference in the way gender is approached in your culture
  • how do you give or receive feedback or criticism?
  • what happens if someone isn’t contributing to the group?
  • how is humour used (If at all) in groups in your culture?
  • what kind of language is acceptable or unacceptable?

Explore the similarities and differences about how people get things achieved in groups in your own hime culture(s).

An Activity: Cooking for Each Other


Food can be a real social glue! Take it in turns to host an informal gathering or a forma team meeting over lunch or dinner where you cook some of your home nation’s cuisine for the rest of the group. Describe some of the cultural customs about how meals are served and eaten and let them try your cooking!

It doesn’t need to be gourmet or expensive – just a taste of where you are from.

It can lead to group bonding as well as getting to know each other through relaxed conversation.

Group Dynamics Resource Page


Welcome to the Working in Teams Resource page. Here you’ll find resources and links about working effectively in groups and teams.

And welcome to students from Warwick Business School. (Meet the team currently delivering this programme at Warwick – Bob Thomson, Andrew Vaid, and Paul Levy.


Listen to Paul Levy‘s introduction to Group Dynamics and Group Skills – the underpinning ideas behind Working in Teams

Group Skills FAQ – Frequently asked questions

Advocacy and Inquiry – explained and explored

Zin Obelisk a powerful group exercise exploring group dynamics

What is a team? – a useful and clear definition and some quotes to inspire you

Conversation and Listening in Groups – two simple models and some links to further reading

A model for an effective team process – a process for a group getting work done well

Effective Group Working – exploring the positive and negative behaviours in groups

Three Types of Team – the ideal team and the teams that don’t function well

Group Dynamics Gallery – what effective group working looks like visually

Enjoying and Getting the Most from Cultural Differences in Groups – some advice and activities

Where should we meet as a group ? – some practical advice

Being heard in your group – how to ensure your voice is heard in your group

Dysfunctional Group Behaviours – what behaviours limit the performance of a group or team?

A Group Contract – how we embed group behaviours consistently in a group – also known as “Groundrules”

Debriefing your Group – a useful set of questions

Reflecting on your group’s performance – some resources and activities.

Feedback – what Participants Say About the Working in Teams Sessions


Here are some links to resources on this web site that can help you to explore Group Dynamics more deeply.

Brainstorming – What it is and some alternative ways to collect ideas in a group

The Three Tests for Change – when a group makes a decision, three different types of approach often surface in different group members

Sleeping on group decisions – why splitting meetings into two can be important

Burying your head in the clouds – how to be grounded in your group


“Group Dynamics is the term that describes the relationship within and between groups. These dynamics can be positive or negative, helpful or unhelpful to the group in achieving its goals, tasks or purpose. They are dynamic because they change and can be influenced by how group members see, experience and react to, each other. Good group dynamics are essential to working effectively in a group or team.” Paul Levy

A Group Contract


Groups can work more of less effectively together.

When groups are formed to achieve something together over time, how well they work together will determine a more or less successful outcome.

A work project

An academic project

Creating a product in a team

Solving  a problem together

It can be useful to develop and and sign up to a set of ground rules – sometimes called a Group Contract – these are our commitments to each other in terms of behaviours and values that we all sign up to from the start of working together and to completion of our shared task, project or assignment.

Activity – a group contract or “ground rules”

Produce a written contract – to be signed by each of you – which lists the commitments each of you will make to this group about what you will do to help the group works well over the coming year.

 Ensure that one person takes responsibility for sharing a copy of this with every group member.

From time to time you may wish to review how your group and the individuals within it are doing in relation to this contract. This may lead you to revise the contract. It may also generate feedback to individuals.

This contract can include…


For example:

Being positive rather than cynical

Being honest and not keeping quiet when you have something to say

Respecting others’ opinions

Being prepared to challenge and be challenged

Explicit behaviours

For example:

Meetings are confidential

We keep to time

Inform others if you will be late

Do the tasks to you commit to

All actions arising from meetings are minuted and sent out within 24 hours of the meeting

One way to begin to identify the behaviours and attitudes in a group contact is to try this:

Reflecting on today, complete this sentence:

In working with my seminar group colleagues on the Masters programme, I am committed to behave in the following ways …. (Write down three personal commitments.)


Some typical ground rules

Our Group Behaviours

  • Time keeping – don’t be late for meetings, always inform in advanced is you are late (if you are late you buy coffee for the rest if the group)
  • Deadlines – we set and meet all deadlines and agreed actions: always inform in advance if you have trouble meeting as deadline
  • No digital distraction at meetings – phones are off unless used for the group’s purpose

Our Group Attitudes

Be open and honest and prepared to challenge but also respectful of others

Don’t be silent, speak up but don’t dominate conversations

We divide work fairly – no free riders

Bring a positive attitude to meetings; criticism should be constructive

(all group members sign the ground rules or group contract)


Here’s an example…


Find out more: Here is a sample group contract from a course at the University of Delaware. They call them “group ground rules”.

Here’s a useful check list.(Source here)

Visit the Group Dynamics Resource Page

Involutionary Brainstorming


What is it?

Brainstorming is the rapid pooling of all and any ideas that a group of people can come up with before any discussion or judgement takes place. Every idea is recorded no matter how bizarre or irrational.

Enable individuals and groups to:

· Problem Solve

· Evaluate

How to Brainstorm

1.      Keep a relaxed atmosphere. Meetings should be disciplined but informal. If possible, choose an informal venue.

2.      Get the right size of team. The technique works best with groups of 5 to 7 people.

3.      Choose a leader. The leader checks that everyone understands what is going on and why.

4.      Define the problem clearly.

5.      Generate as many ideas as possible.

6.      Do not allow any evaluation and discussion.

7.      Give everyone equal opportunity to contribute.

8.      Write down EVERY idea – clearly and where everyone can see them.

9.      When all the ideas are listed, review them for clarification, making sure everyone understands each item. At this point you can eliminate duplications and remove ideas the group feels are no longer appropriate.

The Involutionary Part

10.  Allow each member of the group to allocate 3 votes to their preferred three items. The rewrite the list with the items that got the least or no votes at the top. Then discuss the items that got NO votes. These ideas usually tend to be “evolved out” of the list but are often, when given proper time for discussion, the very innovative ideas that are most needed.

Approaches to Brainstorming

1.      One-at-a-time – a member of the group offers one idea and the session continues this way until everyone has had a chance to add to the list.

2.      Open Door or Freewheeling – anyone who has a contribution speaks whenever he or she wants.

3.      Write-it down – ideas are written down rather than stated out loud, but everyone must be able to see each idea listed.

What is it ?

Involutionary brainstorming tries to focus on avoiding the rejection of even the most, apparently, crazy ideas, when considering a process innovation.

How to do it.

Here’s the process.

1.      Agree the topic to be brainstormed

2.      Brainstorming takes place following the usual ground rules for brainstorming (non judgmental, all ideas valid, one at a time)

3.      Ideas are then grouped and prioritised through voting

4.      The top ideas are then identified and put to one side.

5.      Bottom ideas are then explored and attempts made to justify them

6.      Top ideas are then revisited and possible re-prioritising is carried out

7.      Learning points are extracted from rejected ideas.

Why use it ?

The basic idea behind this technique is that the most popular ideas in a brainstorm are not necessarily the best ones in terms of innovation.


Voting is a evolutionary process. We exclude ideas and only the “fittest” survive. But are they really the fittest? Often innovation arises from ideas that were once thought to be crazy. By focusing on ideas at the bottom of the list, we are looking for potential innovations which popular vote has failed to see or give proper time to. Also, we ignore rejected ideas at our peril. These ideas came from individuals who may well be committed to them. Managing the “exit” of these ideas from the process is a critical aspect. The main way of doing this is to acknowledge these ideas and to draw learning and insight from them.

Also, many of the rejected ideas may have been rejected because they are seen to be too radical or ‘crazy’. Yet it may well be these very ideas, which, on deeper examination, contain the seeds of future innovation.

Read more on involutionary thinking here.

Critical Thinking Skills








Welcome to the Critical Thinking Skills Page.

Here you will find resources and links for developing your skills as a critical thinker in life, in work, in research.

Being able to think critically is an important skill in your personal and working life. Being able to understand the world as objectively and possible involves asking questions, challenging assumptions (our own and other peoples’) and becoming aware of different points of view, the quality and vaidity of information and the fallacies of thinking we can fall into.

Critical thinkers are more aware – of the world around them and of themselves. Critical thinkers seek different perspectives and to come closer to truth. There are many different approaches to critical thinking and it is a skill we can develop and practise.

Useful links

What is critical thinking? A good definition from Hong Kong University

Critical thinking skills defined and how to development – useful article from the Thinker Academy

A useful diagram of the critical thinking process

Some useful tips for critical thinking

Watch this TED talk offering 5 Tips for Improving Critical Thinking

Nine strategies for critical thinking in everyday life – a helpful article

An article on learning the art of critical thinking

An outline of six basic critical thinking skills. And six exercises to strengthen them.

Some exercises to improve critical thinking skills.

Some critical thinking activities to get you started. And here are fifty more activities for practising critical thinking.

7 Puzzles to challenge your critical thinking

An informative interview with an expert on critical thinking  (and some of his research into critical thinking)

Some quotes on critical thinking
An online quiz  to test your critical thinking

The Harvard Guide to evaluating sources 

Evaluating the quality and credibility of sources of information

Evaluating research and academic sources

Assertiveness Skills









Welcome to the Assertiveness Skills page.

Here you can find resources and links to help you become more assertive.

Whether at work, at home, socialising with friends, at college or online, assertiveness is a key skill. This is a loud, often competitive world, and being able to be heard, to assert yourself is an important way to be happy and effective.

Assertiveness isn’t about being loud, it isn’t the same as aggression, and it isn’t about winning. Assertiveness is about being direct, open, and true to yourself and others. Assertiveness places you in the world on equal terms with others. If you are shy or introvert in your personality, being assertive doesn’t mean you have to start shouting. It is possible to be quietly assertive and that can be as effective as asserting yourself through a forceful voice or gestures. We are all different, and each of us will be assertive in unique ways.

“When we practice assertiveness, we improve our self esteem and confidence. By being assertive you are helping other people to do the same. Read through the following assertiveness quotes to help you to become more assertive in your daily life.”

“The only healthy communication style is assertive communication”. Jim Rohn

Useful links

A good overview from University of Warwick

A good introduction to Assertiveness from GetSelfHelp and another good intro here

An online guide to being assertive

Some useful tips on being more assertive

Five tips for being assertive from a psychologist. And 5 tips from a coach.

A good list of ten tips for being more assertive.

Some specific advice for students (from Oxford Brookes University)

Do students need to be more assertive? An article from The Guardian

Some assertiveness techniques and exercises

An excellent online course in assertiveness from the Centre for Clinical Interventions

Ten Guilt-free ways to say No – how to be assertive when saying no

How to say No at work – some simple, visually presented tips from Forbes

A Shy Person’s Guide to being  heard in a group – very helpful tips for shy and introvert people

More advice for quieter people about being heard in a group

A questionnaire to assess how assertive you are

12 aspects of assertive behaviour – a helpful list

Some assertiveness scenarios with advice

Read more quotes on assertiveness here


Academic Writing Skills












Academic Writing Skills Resources

Welcome to the academic writing skills resource page. Here you’ll find links to useful resources and activities for the academic writing skills sessions run by Paul Levy.

A useful writing checklist

Different styles of writing

Your introduction

Writing an introduction and here’s a sample introduction


The Body an an Essay

Writing the body of an assignment or essay (Try two activities)

a) The title and wording of the assignment (whether it is your own, negotiated with the tutor- or one that has been given to you).

b) The statement of intent that you write in the introduction, based on the title.

Once you have dealt with the above two elements, the main body of the assignment probably then serves to do at least two things:

a) Demonstrate/show your knowledge of the topic, by including relevant evidence;

b) Analyse/evaluate the evidence you have gathered.

Referencing your work

Referencing – Resources and guidelines

In-text referencing (what you write IN your essay)

List of References (what you write AT THE END of your essay)

Internet References

Notes and Footnotes

Recommended Reading

Some recommended books on academic writing

Other useful links and resources

A free online thesaurus

How to overcome writers’ block – a good set of tips

How to structure an essay

According to Kathy Livingston’s Guide to Writing a Basic Essay, there are seven steps to writing a successful essay:
  1. Pick a topic. …
  2. Prepare an outline or diagram of your ideas. …
  3. Write your thesis statement. …
  4. Write the body. …
  5. Write the introduction. …
  6. Write the conclusion. …
  7. Add the finishing touches.

An explanation of objectivity and subjectivity in writing

Sleeping on Decisions


A Wise Approach to Group Decision Making

I know we’re all supposed to be busy. Somehow busyness has become equated with effectiveness which has an Alice-in-Wonderland feel to it, yet too many people have still bought this pup.

We need to get to decisions “quickly”; an effective meeting is one where decisions are reached, where there is agreed “action”. It’s almost as if actions in themselves are good things, regardless of their content. I think this is a kind of generic reaction to the countless meetings people have attended where there was no action or decision at all. Meetings, bloody meetings! etc.

Although not a huge fan of meditation (I prefer a Pooh Bear-like serious think with some honey to follow), there is some sense in the notion I once heard that we should allow an equal amount of silence to follow a meditational verse or sentence. We have to let it “sink in”. I do like the silence that sometimes follows a stunning piece of live music before the audience erupts into the responsive applause. It’s rare, but it happens.

Allowing words and thoughts to sink in seems to make common sense. I like the notion that, for every five minutes of speaking, we should have five minutes of thinking, or quiet reflection time. I like the idea of an afternoon siesta where we wake up fresh.

Whether you have any spiritual ideology of what human beings are, or not, we seem to have an inner space where we dream, where we imagine, where we relax, where we “let go”, where we get inspired; a place that sometimes just to be quite quiet – we lie on a sofa, or sit in a cafe just “letting”. It seems a place where things can cook slowly, where silence seems to let us “just reflect”.

Silence is not something tolerated in many organisations; it’s deemed to be unproductive. Yet it’s been proven unproductive to make products to stock, rather than to real customer orders, for then waste builds up, unsold “inventory”. A factory can be productive making nothing, if there are no real orders; then we can tidy the factory, do some thinking – some problem solving. This lies at the heart of the Japanese “Just in time” system of making things. A factory is not “idle” when it isn’t making products – it is simply free to do some other kinds of activity. It makes something only when there is a “pull” of demand from the customer.

Sleep is usually restorative. I see it as a spiritual cup of tea. In The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall-Smith, Mma Ramotswe, the “lady” detective believes a cup of Redbush tea always makes things feel better, always helps you to get perspective and a clearer view of difficult cases, tough, seemingly insoluable problems.

For me, sleep is a spiritual cup of tea. If we sleep on a problem, taking those questions into our sleep, I’ve heard enough tales of people waking up with fresh impetus and even new answers that would have been different to ones offered the night before. Often if you sleep on a problem, the solution you wake up with is a better one. So said Sherlock Holmes as well!


So, no matter how inconvenient and “unproductive” it might seem, I propose that meetings at work, especially where big decisions need to be made, are divided into two parts, separated by the night where everyone can sleep on the proposals for decision and action. ON the second day, at part two of the meeting, we come to decision.

Not only would better decisions be made, but also DIFFERENT decisions would be made. Our hurry to action can be a clumsy way to travel. The night offers up silence, it offers up dreams (not all happy) and we often awaken with the answers we are looking for. A new meeting structure then:

Day 1
Exploring issues, proposals ideas and arriving at choices and options for decision

Allowing the options to “sink in”, to float a little, to hand in the air, the swirl, over night and into the waking morning. (this really isn’t as hippy as it sounds)

Day 2
Arriving a decision and action

You can allow the  same amount of time for the meeting. Try it, you might just find the decisions are better and the time taken is actually less.

When we speak a lot, we also think a lot. It’s important to take these thoughts and words back into ourselves, to let the thoughts order and settle. Making decisions together can also feel like a chaotic process and allowing the discussion to “sink in” overnight, and to re-merge after a restorative sleep, often improves the quality of the decisions we then make the next day. We may also take our questions into our dream life and new insights can often emerge on waking in the morning.

Visit the Facilitation Zone

The Real Art of Flip Charting


One of the physical meeting tools most misunderstood and misused by facilitators is the flip chart.

Wikipedia gives us a useful reminder of what a flip chart is and where it came from:

“A flip chart is a stationery item consisting of a pad of large paper sheets. It is typically fixed to the upper edge of a whiteboard, typically supported on a tripod or four-legged easel. Such charts are commonly used for presentations. The flip chart is thought to have been invented by Peter Kent who built one to help him in a presentation. He went on to found the visual communications group Nobo plc.” (Reference here)

As a presentation tool it can be used for writing ideas upon “as you go” in a spontaneous way. Pages can also be pre-set- written up, and then pages are flipped over, a bit like slides. As a facilitation tool, it is usually used to collect ideas in small groups, to post agendas, and to draw stuff.

Unlike a white (wipe) board, once you’ve committed to ink, you can only cross out.

Now, that’s the boring stuff out of the way, let’s dive merrily down into hell.

Flip charts are of a certain standard size. They are intended for smallish groups. There is no point in using them if the participants can’t read them. So, here are some of my favourites (and I’ve seen some otherwise very capable facilitators commit these crimes against humanity):

– using the flip chart in large rooms where people at the back have no chance of being able to read the words on them, or see the pictures and diagrams on them

– using the flip chart in a circle where people to the immediate left and right of the chart have no chance of being able to see what’s on them, or have to break their necks trying

– standing in front of the flip chart, blocking it for long periods of time, whilst writing on it and, sometimes, standing there blocking even after having finished writing

– writing illegible, over-small learning to the right scrawl that can’t even be properly read or seen by the facilitator

–  writing the last six ideas right at the bottom of the page, out of view, because the facilitator doesn’t want to flip the page over yet.

– flipping a page over because the facilitator has run our of space or wants to move on and thus consigning participants’ important written up ideas and feelings to invisible,  forgotten oblivion

– writing in lighter colours that can’t be seen from a distance in bright rooms – red, green, even orange, instead of black or dark blue.


Flip charts are not intended for large rooms, They are also not intended for circles. Flip charts are intended for small groups, ideally in semi circles.

Flip charts require a unique skill in writing that is sensitive to see-ability and legibility.

Using them badly is the hallmark of bad facilitation.

Guilty? Read on…

Flip charts can be used in different ways

Flip charts are terrific ways to collect ideas or to present “work in progress” ideas to small groups of no more than twelve.

They work well in versions of a semicircle layout or in small groups where there are rows of raked seating (but beware of the angle of view – it is hard to see flip chart writing from too wide an angle).

They are often put in meeting and class rooms that they are not designed to be in.

They are very good with temporary, transient content. They are for content where you can easily flip the page without alienating participants by removing their contributed ideas from view.

Digital StillCamera

The danger of ripping each page off (this is usually done spectacularly badly with ripping and tearing that has no idea what a straight line looks like – use a long ruler) is that we then have to put them somewhere. That works well if posting them onto walls is later accessible and readable as needed. It works less well if we are parking them and they still need to be read by the participants on the go. Use movable boards on wheels to post them next to the flip chart. Here we can create a dynamic and see-able content well. But don’t just sticky tack them anywhere unless it is that “rough workshoppy” feel that you want to create.

Flip charts break the circle

Flip charts really aren’t much good in a circle of chairs. If you bring the flip chart into the circle so it stands where a chair might have been, you are excluding three of four participants on either side of it from  a clear view. Necks will start to ache as heads have to turn too far, and those people start to switch off.

Use a semi-circle layout instead and test out the view from each chair. Set just the right distance for people to see and read and give yourself ample space on either side to be able to stand without blocking the view of the flip chart.

When a flip chart breaks a circle, the power of the circle diminishes – so make a semi circle. People can still see each other, as well as the emerging content on the flip chart.

Write Artfully – Use the Flip Chart as it was meant to be used

Flip charts work well if you don’t write too much on them. They are good for capturing ideas – dynamic content owned by the participants. They are terrific for small group conversation.

It takes some skill to write onto a flip chart from the side, leading in. Text tends to change in size, start to sink down the page, and get smaller as you write further away from you.

It’s all about angles!

Most flip charts face a bit upwards, at an upturned angle. If the paper is a bit shiny it will more easily reflect strong light. So, be careful where you place it and be ready to turn off a light or two if there is distracting reflection.

Also they are flat on. So, unless someone is directly opposite the flip chart, a bit like watching a TV from an angle, the text will skew a bit. So, ensure it is located, theatre style, in a way that everyone can easily see it. And, as mentioned earlier, create a clear space for you to stand that doesn’t block the view.

Flip charts are potentially good or bad theatre. Place them well. When you enter a meeting space for the first time, take command of that space as much as you can; walk into and about the space. Move chairs and be prepared to relocate the flip chart to a place that optimises participant engagement and access.

There’s an art to it. Placing the flip chart, choosing the pens, the style and way of writing – all can be done consciously, deftly and eloquently, or they can be done clumsily, clunkily and lazily. It’s up to you.

But there is an art to it. There is a skill to it.

You’ll need to practice and adapt. Try these:

– sit in all of the seats and do a sight test. How big does the writing need to be for participants to be able to easily see it?

– practice writing from an angle – it’s a skill you can develop

– write larger rather than smaller and avoid joined up writing unless it is very clear

– practice writing a key phrase clearly then step back and to the side and stand always in a place where participants can all see the entire flip chart page

– don’t use the white space near and at the bottom of the page – it is always a bit hard to see – leave a bit of white space

– create a movable content wall next to or near the group for parking and posting pages you want to flip over, but still be on view

– use colours to underlines and put boxes and bullet points but always write in a clear, thick dark colour or it won’t be seen

– have plenty of spare pens and don’t writing with fading ink. And don’t use white board pens – they aren’t made for flip charts and quickly run out

– get used to flip charting, get comfortable with them and used to being in command of them, placing them consciously in the room

Crap charting

Unconfident facilitators do a lot of crap charting. Crap charting is writing up crap on a flip chart. Crap includes irrelevant information, writing up too much, phrasing participants’ ideas in language that is more your own than that of participants.

Flip charts are made for capturing participant ideas that they feel ownership of. It is made for simple diagrams and short phrases. It isn’t made for writing up a lot of crap, for detailed note taking (though a lot of people use it for this).

Flip charts are great for emergent content. They can help open space for people’s ideas,  capturing important issues, questions and actions. They are good for temporary ideas and should be labelled so. Or they can be good for drafting ideas before they are later typed up.

Examples of crap charting include:

– writing that is too small or illegible

– diagrams that are too complex, hard to understand or see

– collecting ideas for their own sake (bad brainstorming)

– writing up stuff so you don’t have to look participants in the eye (because of nerves or because you are at a loss at what else to do)

– writing up stuff that will be binned soon after and no one really feels ownership of

– writing up others’ thoughts but framing them in your own words or editing them so that what appears does not truly reflect what was said (crap rendering and crap summarising)


Facilitators often flip charts lazily and unskilfully in ways that alienate, exclude and switch off. Yet with a bit of practice and awareness, they can be very useful and vibrant tools. I love paper and pens. Flip charts let you use big paper and big pens! What joy!

They are best used with conscious care and for the right reasons. They are theatre.  Make it a five star show.

Use them consciously. Use them well. Or perhaps, use something else?

Visit the Facilitation Zone.

The Rise of Horizontal Trust

When hierarchies break down or fail us, horizontal trust tends to emerge. A hierarchy is a vertical form of organisation. Armies are hierarchies. Many religious systems are hierarchies. Families are hierarchies. In vertical hierarchies, power increases at highly levels. Often (but not always), accountability also is higher the higher up you go. In a bank, there is a highly paid boss – a chief executive. There are senior managers, middle managers, supervisors, employees etc. If I want a loan from a bank, as the amount of the loan goes up, the level of “sign off” needed is usually higher up in the organisation’s hierarchy.

In restaurants there are chefs and sous-chefs (literally, under-chefs). In schools there is a “head master”. The word “head” gives a clue as to what vertical hierarchies are. We make big decisions with our brains, which are located in our heads. So, the “head” of an organisation is usually at the top of the hierarchy. He or she looks “down” on the rest of the organisation that carries out the decisions. In many vertical hierarchies, power is higher, the higher up you go. The lower down you go the more people are simply obeying the decisions or the higher up “heads” or “head”.

When this works, we trust those higher up. They have authority because we believe in them and have faith in their ability to make the right decisions. We entrust them with the “thinking”, the decision making. In a well functioning vertical hierarchy, those are the top are trusted. When trust breaks down, all kinds of hell can break lose. There are complaints, people go on strike, people leave, or they stay and sabotage or try to cope, with rising dissatisfaction.

If you don’t trust your bank, you can withdraw your money. If you don’t trust your patents, you don’t confide in them. If you mistrust your doctor, you throw the medicine away. Mistrust often arises from episodes where we have been failed, let down, where we feel we were lied to, manipulated or even dmaaged or abused. Trust is easy to lose, much harder to win back. In vertical hierarchies we invest those higher up with our faith. When they let us down, that faith is weakened, even destroyed.

More to come

Mission-driven businesses – a first look


The emergence of mission-led businesses

What is the mission of your business ? The word “mission” is a buzz word that has been around for decades in relation to the business world. Can a business really have a mission? The UK government is getting interested in “Mission-led businesses, stating “new businesses are emerging that seek to achieve social as well as financial impact.” The World Economic Forum pointed to the benefit to both society and the “bottom line” of mission-led businesses. They also offer some examples:

“There are examples from all over the world. Warby Parker, a manufacturer in the United States, distributes a pair of glasses in a developing country for each pair it sells in a developed one. Natura, a Brazilian beauty and cosmetics firm, is working to become carbon neutral. Bridges International Academies, founded in Kenya, educate underprivileged children across Africa and Asia. They’re one of the largest chains of primary schools in the world.”

Defining mission

So what does “mission” mean? A mission is actually a collection of things all designed and operated in accordance with a purpose. There are still missions around the world, especially in the development field. The word, of course, also referred to (and still does) religious missions. There are also missions into space ! All have an established sense of purpose.

To be a mission that purpose has to be aspirational, ambitious, aimed at realising some values in practice. When that happens in practice, the people involved are behaving in a “missionary” way.

Sometimes that mission is imagined in advance. At that stage it is just a vision. It becomes a mission when we get to work, when we put that vision into practical action.

When the mission needs to change

If the vision is too fixed and the world around the mission changes, the mission may begin to fail. If the mission is formed out of a wish to influence the world around it, then it has to be adaptive to remain relevant. Missions evolve and fail to adapt at their peril.

Not all missions need to do that, especially if they don’t have a social element to their purpose. Missions can be very simple and may not need to change if the environment is fairly static.

I could go on a mission to withdraw from the world. yet even that mission may be thwarted if the mountain cave I retreat to is destroyed by an earthquake or turned into a mine!

Missions are open systems in dynamic environments

So, most missions are open systems in changing environments, because that is how our world is.

Missions need to evolve to survive, be realised and to stay needed and relevant. Many missions fail because they don’t respond through innovation and adaptation to the dynamic environment around them. This is a major cause of failure in small businesses.

The elements of missions

Missions are made up of people, vision, values, resources, energy, knowledge, experience and methods.

We form our mission out of these elements. A mission can be started –  initiated by an individual, a group and even a much larger community.

But often a mission is a reaction to a wish to affect something in the world.

Missions often include:

– a vision of where we are trying to get to as a business 

– a picture of the future that describes a desired state

– a passionate statement about the world – past, present and future

– ambitions for our products, services and our “footprint” in the world – ethical, social, environmental, cultural and economic

– clear goals and targets for achieving our purpose

– a statement of what we are restless to change or address in the world

– ground-breaking ideas or thoughts, suggestions and possibilities about technology and the present and future potential of aspects of the world

Moral or Social missions

Moral missions are on a line of “good and evil” or “right and wrong, also “fair and unfair” and are aimed at transforming the world, or part of it, towards a set of moral values.

For example: To improve the environment, to increase freedom, to improve health. But there are other missions that aren’t about “doing the good” for society but may be focused on personal ambition, winning, and even harming others.

Mission-led businesses

A mission-led business is not necessarily a good, well-motived business. In the commercial realm, a business may have a complex mission – it may have a core mission and other missions that relate more or less to it. A business may have profit maximisation as its mission  (most do) but also a secondary mission to benefit humanity through its products. Increasingly new businesses run by “millennials” are putting social mission at least on s par with economic mission.

But that secondary mission can create a kind of cognitive dissonance (a gap between where we want to be and where are are) if it means we will have to compromise, and profit optimise instead of maximise. Of course innovation is also a mission and this can be pursued I order to find ways to both benefit humanity AND maximise profits. However, we may end up having to adjust our mission – either by compromising on how much we benefit humanity or whether we can only optimise and not maximise our profits

Three types of mission-led business

Mission-led businesses can take different forms. There are at least three basic types:

1. Primary social mission-led businesses

A mission-led business can have a social mission as its primary underlying purpose. For example, its mission can be to help homes become carbon neutral. It’s economic mission is put the the service of that mission. Profit, at least in part, is prioritised towards realising that mission. Wealth arises from passion and commitment to the mission. Profit and revenue become a side-effect of realising a  relevant social mission in the world. Many of these businesses take the legal form of a charity or a Community interest company. But not all. Some don’t even realise how socially mission-led they are!

2. Profit-driven social mission-led businesses

A mission-led business may also have a very different mission. It might simply be a fast food restaurant. It’s primary mission might be to maximise profits delivering that product or service. But it might also be led by a secondary mission to be carbon neutral. Here the secondary mission can be more or less prioritised; it can be seen as more or less important. If the secondary mission is strong, or even as strong as the primary one, then the business will focus all of its creative energy on delivering and innovating its product in ways that achieve its secondary mission. If the secondary mission is less important than the primary one, then compromises arise. The business may dilute its mission to be carbon neutral in favour of profit maximisation. Here tensions clearly arise.

3. Social mission opportunist businesses

There is also a third type of mission-led business. here the primary mission and secondary mission are equal. The business might genuinely be committed to providing healthy food, for example. But this is really a business opportunity. It’s there to maximise its returns. The business is an opportunist and the social mission is really just a business opportunity for earning money. Many businesses are like this. Some fake the mission as an advertising strategy. Others start with good intentions but then sell to the highest bidder. Others are simply not very open or conscious as businesses and kid themselves about their motives.

In all three cases there are different tensions between social and financial missions.

The tensions between economic and social missions

Mission-driven businesses have to face these tensions all the time, if their mission is both moral and commercial. There is a tension that requires creativity and dialogue here, that is often lacking in many businesses.

A business driven by a social or moral mission needs to be open to adapting its commercial choices to its moral motives and realities. The moral/social and financial/economic missions will have to marry up.

In other words, if it wants to do good, it may have to accept that comes at a financial cost.

Yet also it can develop a third mission to be an ever-improving innovator in order to find ways of being agile, creative and smart in its ability to authentically achieve its financial mission AND achieve its moral mission.

So, a key challenge for mission-led businesses is to openly explore into,  and dialogue around the tensions between the social and commercial “sub-missions”. Indeed, discernment and the ability to find balance here is going to be a critical skill for leaders and founders of mission-led businesses.

The Danger of Collusion

Here there’s a danger: Collusion can kick in. If, in reality, the economic pressures are greater than the social ones, (for example, if there is pressure from shareholders to maximise short term returns), employees can collude and the business can become biased towards the financial bottom line at the expense of its social bottom line, though its rhetoric may still claim its mission is primarily prioritised in the moral realm. That business  becomes two-faced.

The collusion occurs when leaders, employees, suppliers and other stakeholders play along, often from fear of losing their jobs, losing contacts, or losing influence, and even being harmed in other ways. Breaking that collusion is key if the mission-driven business wants to maintain its integrity.

The Role of Integrity

Integrity is what holds the mission or missions together. Collusion can end up as a more or less weak or strong glue that ‘band aids’  that mission together as it loses integrity.  Those committed to the social mission complain, collude or leave.

Integrity is only truly maintained through:

– evidence-based decision making rather than opinions based on power and influence rather than reality

– honesty and openness, including challenge being welcomed when anyone believes the mission is changing or being compromised 

– creativity and innovation where the business proactively looks to challenge its mission(s) in order to keep everything relevant, real, and responsive

Without integrity, a mission-driven business can degrade. Motivation can fall, and the business can even become “outed” as hypocritical, deceptive or simply weak or dishonest. Integrity is the clear and shared connection between the mission(s) of a business and its practice in the public eye. That public eye is both internal in terms of employees, and external in terms of customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

The Payoff and the outcomes

When missions are shared openly, assessed and measured transparently, avoid collusion and fear to challenge, when they are innovated and open to internal and external dialogue and scrutiny, they can be relevant, purposeful and motivating.

They can energise people, groups and communities and enable the business to be profitable and purposeful beyond profit.

Mission-driven businesses need integrity, and to be able to innovate and adapt, not only their products and services, but also the mission itself.

When it works, society benefits, the business benefits. Mission creates satisfaction, and a sense of purpose and achievement.


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Paul Levy is a writer, facilitator and senior researcher at the University of Brighton. he is the author of the book, Digital Inferno. Paul is the founder of the mission-led businesses CATS3000 and FringeReview


The Graveyard Activity

Overview of the activity

This is a powerful activity that can be used to explore career, personal development and biography. It takes many people into a zone of discomfort, a topic that they may not want to explore, so should be taken with this activity. We should be sensitive in choosing it and also throughout the activity itself.

How it works

In the Graveyard Activity, you imagine yourself at the end of your life. Participants are invited to take a large piece of flip chart size paper and to star the shape of a large gravestone onto it.


You could also have templates made or sketch the outlines in pencil for people to trace over with a thick pen. This can be worthwhile if people aren’t comfortable drawing.

Invite participants to then imagine their deaths. Yes, I’m serious. Some people have thought about their mortality and the reality that we do not live forever. Others have not, which is why you have to be sure people are up for doing this.

Take a few minutes. Some questions you could ask people to think about and visualise are

How long do you hope to live for?

Who will be at your funeral?

Where will you be buried or cremated?

What do you want to have achieved by the time you die?

What kind of live have you lived – what were the highs and lows?

What do other people think of you?

How do you want to be remembered?

Then ask people to write a short epitaph on their drawn gravestone that they genuinely would like to be written on their grave when they die. This isn’t a literal exercise. On their real gravestone they might just want dates and family members. This is more about capturing the essence of their life in a single statement.

Here are a few positive examples…




Once we have drawn the grave stones, we fill them in as above. These can then be discussed in pairs or small groups. It can also be good to just behold them alone for a few minutes. It can get quite emotional. The activity can be a real wake-up call for some people who realise that their current life path is not heading to the point describe on the grave stone.

We can also share this in plenary. The facilitator should keep things gentle ,light and respectful.

An Applied Improvisation Variation on this Activity


In some groups we can go further. Invite participants to stick their gravestones at real grave height on ther back of a chair. We can then create a graveyard in the room.

We stand around the grave of that person. They can even lie down or they could also play the part of someone giving a eulogy. They read out their own grave stone to the group and  improvise the eulogy.

“Paul died after a short illness. Though he didn’t make a fortune, hhe finally got to publish a children’s novel and also realised his dream of retiring to the North of Scotland. He was loved by his family and friends and loved to tell stories to his grand children. He loved his job and never allowed work to dominate his life. he died with a broad smile on his face…

It can get humorous but very emotional. Be ready for plenty of time for debrief. Don’t do the exercise if you think people aren’t ready or up for it.

Taking the activity further – the dark side

We can take this activity further by imagining a worst-case scenario. What would we not want to have as our epitaph? What would constitute a life badly lived for us? For example…



Take plenty of time to debrief, possibly in pairs or smaller groups. We could start with the negative picture, discuss it and then imagine a positive one, looking for changes in our lives that we need to make to turn the darker picture into a lighter one. Here we can turn the activity into a coaching-type discussion.

Debriefing the whole activity

There are plenty of questions to help debrief and reflection on this activity

What have you learned about your life now and in the future?

How did the activity make you feel?

What are your feelings about death?

is it ever too late to change our lives?

What did you notice about your gravestone compared to other peoples’?

What changes, if any, do you want or need to make in your life?


Twitter Version

Another version of this exercise is to create 140 character Tweets. Imagine the day of your death. What would you like people to be tweeting about you?

These cab be written up on a flip chart, or read aloud.

We could also do this as an improvised activity.

We can also imagine different people on the day of our death and imagine what they would tweet about us? Family members, friends, work colleagues?


Visit the Applied Improvisation Zone



Advocacy and Enquiry – a First Look


A colleague of mine, Pete Burden, recently led a session at a conference in Slovenia on Advocacy and Enquiry.

When we advocate, we assert, we “put out”, we say stuff. In meetings where there is a lot of advocacy, there aren’t many questions. A lot of the questions are actually more advocacy dressed up as questions; they are leading questions such as “Don’t you think we should…?”

Much of the advocacy takes the form of “certainties” and “opinions” about how things are and how they should be. “I think….blah”

Advocacy is the way to express to others what is going on inside our thoughts, feelings and our will. I think, I feel, I want…

When advocacy dominates a conversation, questions tend to not get asked; we stifle curiosity and undervalue “not knowing”. It is all about what we have to say, to “put out” into the room.

Advocacy is the opposite of enquiry.

When advocacy is the dominant form of communication, enquiry stops.

When we enquire (Inquire, in some countries), we ask questions, we open ourselves up to not knowing, to researching, exploring.  Enquiry is about being curious and allowing things to emerge, to reveal. When we enquire, actions and decisions emerge, not out of advocacy but out of ongoing enquiry.

Enquiry leads to further enquiry. Questions give birth to further questions. Sometimes those questions allow a particular line of enquiry to develop, sometimes new lines of enquiry open up. Sometimes we get broader, sometimes we become more focused.

When an enquiry arrives at a possible action or decision point, we usually arrive at a further enquiry into that action or decision: “What would happen if we…?” “Who could do …?” “When might be a good time to start…?”

Occasionally, an enquiry exhausts itself (with no more questions to ask at this stage) and a powerful piece of advocacy can emerge. For the moment, there are no more questions to ask. A light goes on and we have an idea or action which can be advocated. “Let’s do X.”

And then the enquiry starts again:

Who, what, where, when, why and how…

Enquiry, because it is ongoing, is accompanied by action. But in ongoing enquiry, our questions might become more quiet, inner questions, concurrent with action. We don’t advocate action when we are in an ongoing enquiry, we just get on with it! Occasionally we stop and reflect and enquire into how the action is going – either alone or socially.

So, enquiring aids and creates action, and action leads to further enquiry. This keeps the process responsive and conscious.

Ongoing enquiry keeps us responsive, because we respond to our ongoing inquiry – our questions – with further enquiry and with improvised action, occasionally also planned in advance. Occasionally advocacy arises out of the enquiry – it captures something essential in thought, feeling or action. Usually when it does that it is more or less “definitive” and may guide decision, and will always open up further enquiry.

By being responsive and staying in enquiry rather than advocacy, the exploration remains alive, ongoing, continuous and real-time. It is closer to the situation than advocacy because it is always attempting to stay “in touch” with the unfolding situation, in time.

Advocacy can be strong, motivational and truthful. However, if the environment around us is changing, advocacy can become quickly anachronistic, out of touch, and thus unresponsive.

Enquiry, on the other hand, is a more awake state when action is occurring in a changing situation. For our enquiry keeps us in touch, alert and responsive – more conscious.

A conscious business is one that is in a perpetual state of enquiry, skilfully “playing” with advocacy to assist action,  to motivate, to distill purpose into understandable “ways forward”. But the enquiry never ceases for long.

A conscious business is one in which enquiry is its core process. Advocacy serves that process, but never usurps it.

Now, any questions…?

Dance of Breathing 2 – a pure improvisation activity


Purpose of the Activity

 This is a standalone activity but can be linked to Dance of Breathing 1.

This breathing improvisation explores the effect others have on us, particularly exploring closeness and vicinity.It also can be used to explore status, difference and diversity, as well as the simplicity of play.
Work in pairs.
The pair sits close to each other, without touching. It can work well if they sit side by side with the side of their heads almost touching. What is necessary is to be able to pick up on each others’ breathing.
State the importance from the start of being sensitive to each other and not to fall into hyperventilation or holding breath for two long. Be aware before starting of anyone with medical conditions which might affect their involvement in the activity and deal with this sensitively and discreetly.
The activity proceeds in silence, and can run for as long as half an hour, but can also be as short as five minutes.
The pair begin the activity, in silence, by simply remaining still and tuning in to each other’s breathing. Physical contact is ok for this is both parties allow it. If one person is uncomfortable they can say so or simply withdraw. The only reason for physical contact (i.e. allowing shoulders to touch) is to enhance the ability to sense each others’ breathing beyond hearing it.
At first, just become aware of your own breathing but slowly tune in with your awareness to the other person’s breathing and note how close or different it is to your own. Then, slowly, flow into a process where one of you appears to be leading and the other following. You may slow down your breathing with the other person following suit. Then you may quicken your breath and, again the other person may follow, or may take over leadership and chance the rhythm of their breathing for you to follow. One may suddenly hold their breath and you may do the same!
Then the dance of breathing can really begin. It may be that one person takes in a long slow breath and the other takes a few short breaths. The interplay can sometimes feel harmonious, sometimes discordant. It can feel competitive, or collaborative, there can be sudden synergy, sudden chaos. It can feel lovely, or even uncomfortable. Remember not to do anything that can make one of you feel faint or physically in any kind of distress.
After a while, the breathing may become very playful, intimate and even quite musical.
Slowly come back to your own breathing, as at the start of the activity, until you are both breathing alone again.
Then reflect on the experience, together then in plenary.
Some questions for reflection
How did it feel at different stages of the activity?
How did the closeness feel?
How did you tune into the other person?
How did you communicate with each other?
What different modes of interaction were there? Competitive? Collaborative?
Were there times when two became one? If so, how did that feel?
How creative did you find the activity?
How did the process compare to dancing?
When were you thinking and when did you let go of thinking?
How does this activity relate to other forms of communication and interaction?

Dance of Breathing 1 – a pure improvisation activity


Purpose of the Activity

In this activity we focus on the very basic/even primal aspect of breathing, and begin to relate it to being “present”, to “presence” and to improvisation.

It’s an activity to be done individually, can also be done alone, and I recommend plenty of time for detailed after-activity reflection and discussion.
The activity explores the border between controlled and habitual breathing – between conscious and sub-conscious, between thought action and instinctive action.
Each person finds a space and sits on a chair or on the floor.
The activity is carried out in silence with calmly spoken instruction/guidance by the facilitator.
Phase 1
Sitting in silence, eyes closed, calm and minimal movement. Become aware of one’s weight on the chair or on the floor. Allow thoughts to arise and pass.
2-3 mins
Phase 2
Become aware of one’s breathing – the feel of it, the pace and rhythm of it.
2-3 mins
Phase 3
Bring your breath under control. Direct it a little. Stop it for a moment or two. Start it. Play with it (Not deep breaths – no hyperventilating!). Play with longer or shallow breath. The key point is to identify the exact moment when you make a conscious act of will to take control of your breathing. Then let go slowly and just allow breathing to continue. Come back to calmness as in phase 1. You can also introduce a topic of thought that can allow one to “forget” that we are breathing – then breathing becomes subconscious again. A topic might be: what I did yesterday.
5 mins
Phase 4.
Stand up, open one’s eyes and start to walk around the room encountering others. Allow this to happen gently, slowly. As soon as one’s eyes meet another, or one feels some kind of contact with another person, stop your breath for a moment and then bring it back under conscious control – improvise your breathing in relation to your encounter with another. Just be aware of it, and allow yourself the choice to control your breathing. Then as before, just enjoy the encounter and let the breathing become subconscious again.
10 mins
Phase 5
Continue this gentle play until you settle back into a chair or sitting on the floor and repeat the other phases or come to the end of the activity. We can go through three cycles of this activity into an intense and long-form hour or more version of it.
10 mins
Key points
– keep the activity gentle with calm, clear instructions through the phases
– allow yourself to enjoy the play with breath as a kind of “dance” with yourself
– really explore the threshold between breathing that is subconscious and breathing we make choices over. Particularly focus on the point where one becomes the other – is it sudden, clumsy or fluent?
– what influence do others have on our breathing and are control of it?
– how does breathing affect our thoughts and emotions and vice versa?
– what role does our will play in how spontaneous we are?
Breathing is one of many processes of life that mostly run “in the background” – but we can bring them into consciousness and even influence or control them. Physical movement is another. We are often moving all the time and this can be more or less conscious. There is also a place where we can think about what we are going to do, and then do it. There is a place where we just do it. And there is a borderland between where we seem to think and act almost in real time. Breathing is a good place to start to find that special place where we come closer and closer to the present – and where we are able to control AND somehow allow flow at the same time.
This isn’t a neat exercise and will be different for each person. Explore it and allow each person to reflect on it in depth. Some people can let go quicker than others. Some fall back into habit very quickly. Others find it impossible to let go at all – unless it just creeps up on them over a long time. We can have a kind of waking insomnia about allowing our breathing to settle back into subconscious flow.

Crystal Ball – an exercise in present and future improvisation


Purpose of the activity

This is a lovely game for exploring the role of “visioning” and “futuring” in improvisation. When is knowing or deciding the future a help or a hindrance?


Start with a group of five, with everyone else watching.

Decide a scene to be played out. For example, a picnic.

Choose someone to be crystal ball gazer (can be fun if you play this with a real crystal ball – a football or goldfish bowl will do!

At any point during the scene, a member of the audience can shout “Crystal ball!” at which point the crystal ball gazer gazes into the future and announces what will happen in the scene and how soon into the future. For example:

“In three minutes time there will be a loud explosion and someone will get blown up!”
“In one minute two of you will fall in love”
“in one minute someone will reveal a dark secret”

The group then play out the scene, making the prediction come true! Until it does come true, no other predictions can be made (though you can vary this adding as many as you wish, overlapping with each other, but this becomes a different exercise.

The skill is to weave the new future into the present, without losing the playful spontaneity of what is unfolding in the “now”. This is easier if there is shared vision, or inspirational leadership, or if the crystal ball gazer creates desirable futures! But how do we deal with less desirable futures? Plenty to reflect on after this exercise!


Discussion questions:

– does knowing the future help or hinder the improvisation/story
– what kind of futuring is useful and what limits us?
– how does being present get helped/hindered by being told or deciding the future?
– how do future and present relate?


Visit the Applied Improvisation Zone

Climbing down towards Naturalism – a quirky workshop activity to find the right level



This is a very good exercise for finding a natural style of acting or performance.

It’s also a very good exercise for looking at how naturalism can arise out of more extrovert forms of performance, and also how to can have its own unique power both as an acting style and also as a style of presentation.
Audience call out a scenario for two or more volunteers to play out as improvisation.
It’s best of there is one actor already on stage and another can make a dramatic entrance of some kind.
The style at the start is over the top, expressive, loud physically and verbally.
The facilitator can ramp things up by suggesting the performers go even “higher” in the dramatic energy stakes. Essentially we start at full volume which is represented by the number TEN called out by the facilitator.
As the scene plays out the number is decreased and the idea is to lessen to over-drama and “tone things down” where the number 1 should be entirely naturalistic.
It can be fun and challenging if the content of the scene actually builds up to some kind of climax even as the volume, expressiveness and overt energy is toned down. For example, being stuck in a bus which is balanced on the edge of a cliff and slowly tipping over.
By the time we reach ONE, the scene has become naturalistic, realistic, and the improvisation is played out in the style of naturalistic action.
So, the process involves toning down the over-drama by counting every minute or so down from ten to one, slowly changing the style towards naturalism
On debriefing, discussion around the contrast between the styles of acting and the different effects and impact on audience and actors’ inner space can highlight a range of issues for both performers and presenters in business contexts:
– when is being natural the best style? – It can often be best to be very naturalistic in style if the presentational content is already dramatic enough!
– we are more or less comfortable with different levels of drama and style – our strengths and preferences sometimes default to a particular level or style
– sometimes switching between naturalism and expressionism can be a way of creating different kinds of energetic impact and tension
– mixing styles and levels sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t

Exploring Resonance – An Activity


This activity explores the notion of resonance in improvisation. It is a very helpful activity for doing physical theatre work that is based around inter-personal dynamics. In an applied setting it can explore agreement/disagreement and the notion of affinity in vision and values and also in terms of decision making and leadership.

It’s a very simple, activity.

The Process

Participants find a place to stand, somewhere in the room. In the most open form of this activity, participants can simply begin to improvise conversation and movement – there is no theme.

In a more guided version, the facilitator can select a topic and an opening speaker. The group then dialogues on that topic, improvising the conversation.

Participants then move freely, walking closer to, or further away from other participants based on their feeling or sense of “resonance” with that person. It might be resonance with what they are saying, how they are saying it, and/or a less defined sense of resonance.

Resonance is a sense of “feeling with” or “feeling affinity with”. There is a sense of harmonious connection with that person. When we feel it less, we move away, into space in the room, or towards someone else, or a different group.

Resonance may change during the time for the activity. It might be that groups form, that someone isolates themself, or even that the whole group comes together.

Run the activity for as long as you wish.


The process will evolve, its tempo will shift; leaders may emerge who hold a deeper and longer resonance for people. Sometimes that resonance will be group-wide; other times it may suddenly fracture and the dissonant reaction will shatter the group connection physically.

The resonance may initially be “in the head” based on a construct of agreement and disagreement, but after a while that will evolve and become more subtle. Moments of dramatic tension and energy shift will occur. The group will begin to self-organise into different patterns of resonance, shown physically in the room as different group shapes and clusters.

Resonance may be hard to achieve at times, natural and easy at others. In a pure flow state, the resonance between people will seem to emerge mysteriously out of the improvisation taking place.

Sometimes the resonance will bear a close resemblance to status with a leader emerging, or even a number of competing leaders.

Sometimes it will be more subtle and different dynamics will emerge.

In an applied setting, the dialogue may focus on a challenge or question, such as the vision for the organisation. We may use the dialogue to discuss or debate a question. In a team situation we may discuss a topic as a means of allowing different team resonance to emerge. This can be debrief later and the activity repeated.

The activity, in its most open form is really just an invitation to improviser. It can be an excellent warm-up, playing as it does with an archetype: harmony. A high degree of resonance can emerge in a healing, connecting way. It can also be a sign of high rapport in a group, and can aid scripted theatre work, as well as developing physical trust.


How did the process evolve and change over time?

What does resonance mean for you?

How did the resonance appear and disappear?

What’s the relationship between resonance and agreement?

Who did you feel most affinity with, and why?

What triggers resonance?

Why and how did the resonance decline or disappear?

How did you feel mentally and physically during the activity?

How can we apply the idea of resonance to our current organisational challenges?

Variations of the activity

We can explore the idea of agreement/disagreement by simply inviting someone to speak on a theme and for people to move closer to them or further away based on the extent they feel they resonate with the speaker. Some will move away purely because they disagree. Others may disagree but stay close because they still feel affinity and resonance with the speaker.

We could also do the activity silently to music or without, put purely with movement and more or less physical contact.

Do try it. I’ll be posting more activities exploring resonance in the near future.


Visit the Applied Improvisation Zone

Finding Our Connection – A Simple Applied Improvisation Activity



This is a very simple and powerful activity for people who don’t think they know each other. You might have played a version of it before, though not in this exact context. It’s really just a conversation exercise and can work well in small groups, but also with a group working the activity in front of everyone else in the room as an audience. It’s about making connections, finding links, common ground and overlap between people.

How it Works

Groups of 4-5 people sit in a circle and converse with each other. The purpose is to find people in the world that everyone in the group also knows and, ideally, has met.

It can be amazing to discover the “degrees of separation” in idea revealing itself in the conversation. We may even reveal mutual relatives. Also look for places we’ve all been to, organisations we may all have worked at, bands we all share a like of, etc. We discover as much common ground as possible, but make sure we do focus on seeing if we ALL know the same person.

Run the activity for 15-20 minutes.


How do we make connections between each other?

What types of common ground do we all share?

How did it feel when we discovered common ground?

How useful is it to discover common ground and overlaps between people?


There’s also a version of this activity where we make up the connections as fiction! We hold a fictional conversation, we can even assume fictional personalities, names etc. Here the fun can be added of play and drama. It can be performed as a short scene in front of the rest of the group as we try to discover what we all have in common. Yes, and… comes into play here.

We can also mix both versions of the activity, where one or two people are making it all up, and we try toi discover common ground and also who is real and who is acting!


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Verbal Tweeting – A Fun Improvisation Game Exploring Less is More



This is great fun and has the added benefit of exploring the world of virtual improvisation. It focuses on saying as much as we can in as few words as possible.

The activity can be used to explore the notion of “less is more”, of getting down to the essential and the importance of “Lean” thinking. It can also be used to explore virtual communication using tools such as Twitter.

How it works.

The game is done in a pair, in front of an audience. Each person in the pair has 3 lives. You need a PC on hand open in Microsoft Word or any programme that can count up letters. Hootsuite is a good free program.

The pair improvise a conversation on a given subject.They alternate sentences in a classic transactional conversation. Each reply must no exceed 140 characters, nor must it be less than 40 characters.

At any point in the conversation one of the pair can challenge the other by shouting “Challenge”. They do this when they believe a reply has broken the rule – that it is less than 40 or more than 140 characters.

When there is a challenge, the spoken sentence is quickl typed by a volunteer at the laptop into the program and checked. If the challenge is correct the challenged person loses a life. If the challenge is incorrect, the challenger loses a life.

With practice we can get close to controlling the length of our reply and getting an intuitive sense of 140 characters.

Allow the game to run for as many pairs to have a try as there’s time or need for. There’s a competitive element here but only for the purpose of realising the learning possibilities of the game. With practice we can get better at speaking eloquently in 140 characters. We can find out way towards “essential” speaking and the simple improvisational part of the game allows for plenty of creativity and also improvement over time.


This can be an excellent little training exercise for tweeting!

But we can also go deeper and look at the notion of less is more, and also that sometimes too little is a blockage to dialogue.

How did it feel when we went over or under the word limit?

How much can really be said in 140 characters?

Do we tend to use too many words? If so, why?

How smart can we get with choosing our words?

How could we make this exercise more collaborative?

What helped or hindered flow?

Getting an instinct for the length of a sentence can be a valuable giftfor presenters and communicators. This game can create a kind of time yardstick. 140 characters is enough on Twitter to say almost anything meaningfully. I’ve written more about that here.


For someone who wants to reduce their verbosity, you could vary the character limits, for example, down to 100 characters; for someone shy or too minimal we can set a higher minimum, say, to 200 or 400 characters. You could also specify a number of words rather than characters.

Try it! It’s a bit different and gets into the virtual improvisation realm.


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Fingertip Connection – an activity


Purpose of the Activity

This is a rather unique exercise taking applied improvisation to the borderland between face to face and text-based communication

Work in threes (one to observe – you can swap around)
Sit face to face.
Required: each participant has a mobile phone with plenty of credit for texting.
Set up a scenario as in a typical two-hander improv. Two people chatting about a topic, arranging something, getting into an argument etc.
(To do this at zero or low cost, use instant messaging on your mobiles instead)
Phase 1
The improv takes place and is only texted. But debrief the impact of the physical proximity of the other person on the text conversation. You can experiment with different levels of physical proximity and even touch (knees could be touching). You can also compare this to a more classic version of texting with each person in as different room to each other.
Phase 2
During phase 2, participants are allowed to react to each other phase to face, though not verbally – the only words exchanged are via fingertips! How does this change the dynamic?
Phase 3
Participants can now “explore” by sometimes speaking, sometimes texting. Where does the text message have more or less impact and how does it sit with face to face communication? Is face to face always better? Do new forms of interaction emerge through this technology?
Discuss and get feedback from the observer.
What’s the difference in the texting when you know the other person is near to you physically and can even see you? What do we lose and gain from virtual forms of communication?
A variant on this activity is one which I am currently exploring in a new performance piece called “Text”. In this variant, the pair carry out their text based conversation but also, as soon as they have pressed “send”, they also deliver the line or lines directly, face to face, with the other person. Thus we get two versions, one texted, one delivered verbally with voice and physical presence. This can really put the different modes side by side with each other.
Plenty to reflect on. I think there are many more exercises and activities that could be explored here and I’d love to hear yours.
Some reflection questions:
– how do thoughts reach our fingertips
– does fingertip connection ever run ahead of our thinking?
– do our fingers hold memory of past use of them – do we type cliches more easily when we text?
– do our fingers help us shorten communication?
– how does the pressing movement of our fingers impact on our wish to express emotion via text?
– how do emoticons and text language help us or hinder our improvisational communication skills?
and so on.
Comments, as ever, welcome. And please share your experiences of “virtual improv”.

Aftermath – an exercise for exploring a difficult organisational or business change


Purpose of the Activity

This is a simple and respectful exercise for helping a group to begin to come to terms with a difficult change.

In essence, it is based on the idea that speaking words in a group, in a collective activity, can be the start of a “making sense”, and a moving on, and possibly healing.



Words are powerful and this is an exercise that can go through different phases – some easier and more difficult. The exercise can “explode” into a kind of brainstorm, and sometimes even feel rhythmic and poetic. At other times there are dialogues, monologues and even “Battles” of words.


This activity follows a kind of simple word association activity.

Each member of the group finds a space and sits down. Eyes closed can work best but isn’t essential.

The group is invited to reflect on the organisational change that has taken place.

Then, anyone is allowed to speak a word that arises for them in relation to that change. It runs for about 5 minutes but can run as long as 15-20 minutes or even longer!

Different patterns will emerge:
– some people will speak more than others
– some will trigger each other
– some will repeat or contradict

Words can be spoken in a neutral way or with any level of volume or emotion. The only rule is that you cannot speak again until at least X number of people have spoken (I’d recommend varying it if you do it more than once – three works well).

The facilitator can record the exercise and play back to the group – either through a written record, or using audio.

The words can later be group, discussed very much as in a brainstorming exercise.

It works well for its simplicity and avoidance of phrase or sentence, focusing on the essence of the single word.

Respectful silence and focus on the exercise are necessary. You can set ground rules about swear words and personal names if this is appropriate.

Debrief Questions

Here are a few guiding questions for debriefing the activity:

– how did you feel about the exercise?

– how much did you contribute?

– what words came up most and why? What themes emerged?

– did the way different words were spoken reveal anything about the situation?

– what repetitions and overlaps in words were there?

– what different perspectives on the situation were revealed and did common ground emerge?

– were there any pointers in the words to moving on and finding resolution from the difficult situation?


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The Golden Value of Confusion


Confusion can be a wonderful thing. It is a state of mind that most people don’t enjoy, and certainly don’t want to stay in for very long. Confusion can paralyse us from action. We can get lost in it, slowed down by it, depressed by it.

Yet it is also possible to be excited by it. Confusion can be a sign of change, that we have entered new territory, and, though that can mean new risks and dangers, it can also mean new possibilities and opportunities.

Confusion is an opportunity to explore, to approach something from another angle, to get another viewpoint, to acquire new skills and knowledge. What might be experienced as confusion in the short term can emerge as wisdom in the longer term. Confusion can be a sign that we are missing a piece of the puzzle or that the piece we have is from the wrong picture!

Confusion can be a sign that we should pause and reflect, that we need to ask new and different questions. Confusion is essential to solving difficult problems.

Confusion in one area might be a signal to do something entirely different for a while, or even for life.

But should we ever create it consciously? Confusion can be a place we need to go to get more creative. We are unsure what career we’d like in our lives. We head to the library and take out twenty books. We print off a hundred articles from the web and we dump them all in a big pile in front of us in our room. It looks daunting. It looks exciting. We dive in.

Confusion is about throwing things up in the air and seeing where they land differently. Confusion can be a place to play for a while. Often patterns appear in the confusion and they can be signposts to our future.

Many organisations and people attempt to prevent confusion and even design it out of their lives and systems altogether. They seek clarity and certainty all of the time. The danger of this is that, when confusion comes, it is unwelcome and traumatic – we are not ready for it nor geared up to deal with it. Building confusion in as part of a welcomed creative process tunes us into its golden value in seeing things from different points of view, in refreshing our thinking, and also in being patiently humble, realising and accepting that we are human and don’t always have all or the right pieces of the whole picture puzzle.

Confusion can tie us up in knots. It can also set us free.

“I used to go away for weeks in a state of confusion.”
Albert Einstein

Reflecting on your group’s performance

breakout 31sm

Here are some resources and activities to help you reflect on groups you are a member of…


Write down…

two practical things that you’ve found helpful in your group

one problem you’ve found working in groups, for example, on a university course

For example:

Practical helpful things: we use a shared communication platform (We use a closed Facebook group), and also we support each other when we are under pressure

One problem: one of our group members doesn’t really contribute to the group

A SYSTEMATIC APPROACH to group performance


What is the purpose of the task?
What will the end product look like?

Gather information
What has to be done?
Action plan with timings

Carry out the plans
Modify if necessary along the way

What did we achieve?
How did we achieve it?

(Source: Bob Thomson, University of Warwick)

Activity: The Marshmellow Challenge


This is a group/team exercise that really gets to the heart of how groups work more or less well together.

You have twenty minutes to build a structure which will suspend a marshmallow above your table.
The marshmallow must be at least ten centimetres above the table.
You can only use the materials provided.
The structure must be free standing.
The group which suspends their marshmallow highest is the winner.

Find out more about this classic activity here. And watch the TED talk.

Reflections on the Challenge:


On a scale of 1 to 10, how pleased are you with the quality of your end product?


What behaviours helped the group to do this task?
What does the group need to do differently to be more effective on a future task?



A team is a small number of people with complementary skills committed to a common purpose, performance goals and ways of working together for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.
Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith
The Wisdom of Teams

Qualities of High Performance Teams
(Katzenbach and Smith – read more here)

All teams need a sense of purpose and a clear cut mission.
All teams need the mission to be broken down into meaningful performance goals for each team member to pursue.
All teams need to develop certain work approaches, procedures and processes to ensure that they accomplish a task efficiently and effectively.
All teams have to support the common mission and take their individual responsibility seriously to do their part in accomplishing a task.
All teams need a mix of skills, experience and expertise, in order to meet the challenges of the team task.

Chairing a Group Meeting


Group meetings are usually better when they are disciplined, when they follow an agenda, and when someone leads or chairs them. Here’s a useful model to help you remember. It’s the POST model.

Purpose – Write down the purpose of the meeting.
Outcomes – What do we want to achieve by the end of the meeting?
Structure or agenda – What are the issues or questions we need to address to achieve these outcomes?
Timings – appropriate time to cover each item on the agenda

(Source Bob Thomson, University of Warwick )

And here are some more useful tips. And also here.

ACTIVITY: Exploring group problems

First, appoint someone to chair your meeting for the next fifteen minutes.
Choose one of the problems in group working which was you thought of earlier earlier – this may have been your own or one from another group
Write on a piece of paper or flip chart which shows:
The problem you’re addressing
The effects that this problem produces – why does it matter?
Three practical things that a syndicate can do to ease or eliminate the problem

Use some of the ideas presented above.



Many organisations are piloting a new process which asks people to assess their behaviour in a group and to assess the behaviour of the other members of their syndicate.
This will produce useful feedback to each person on their contribution and on how their colleagues see their behaviour in the group.
It can also help the group to discuss how they have been working and to identify how they can be more effective

Let’s try this out now. Work through these positive behaviours…

Please rate yourself against each behaviour pattern

Asks for and shows an interest in team mates’ ideas and contributions

Improves communication among team mates. Provides encouragement or enthusiasm to the team.

Asks team mates for feedback and uses their suggestions to improve.

Listens to team mates and respects their contributions.

Communicates clearly. Shares information with team mates. Participates fully in team activities.

Respects and responds to feedback from team mates.

And what about these more negative behaviours…?

Interrupts, ignores, bosses or makes fun of team mates.

Takes actions that affect team mates without their input. Does not share information.

Complains, makes excuses, or does not interact with team mates. Accepts no help or advice.

Based on these answers, reflect on your individual group behaviour and then discuss each answer with your group  (if you all feel safe to do so)

Further interesting links (specifically for student group work and projects)

Ten Tips for Working in Student Teams

Dealing with Team Conflict

How to design an agenda for an effective meeting

Ways of dealing with free riders in groups

A form for discussing team performance and giving each other feedback

Some tips on managing group projects and some useful planning sheets here

Visit the Group Dynamics Resource Page









Ideas that are too bright for their own good


A friend of mine once set me a riddle. He asked “What do you do if someone you really care about is about to make a big mistake?” I remember a range of answers popping into my head:

Stop him?

Warn him?

Try to talk him out of it?

Point out the risks?

And so on. My friend (a wise professor) then offered this answer: You help him along that route as fast a possible.

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Do we really help people by standing in their way, even for the best motives ? Surely yes, if we save their lives. But is it really helpful if we simply get in the way of their opportunities for learning and development?  I have certainly used this approach suggested by my friends more often than not. We need to flow with the creative impulses of those we care about.

Yet there can also be occasions where someone is shining so brightly that they are actually blotting out their own view ahead with the glare. Light can help us to see better in the dark, but too much light can blind and even burn.

In nature, shadow is a vital element. Shadow is a place to shade from the sun’s glare. Shadow protects moisture from evaporating and shadow is a place to hide. Shadow creates softer shades of colour and is part of Nature’s beauty.

Shadow has a role to play.

If someone we care about is shining too brightly, then the brining of shadow can create a more sustainable and gentle light. If our ideas are too evangelistic, and we are even mad with them, a reality check, some devil’s advocacy, some well placed doubting, can rebalance a person’s awareness – both of themselves and the world around them.

We can become so positive that something will work, often because we are shining wishful thinking all over it, that we can lose our touch with probability and even certainty. We do not spoil then we cast shadow over something, especially where the opportunity to learn from mistakes isn’t possible or beneficial in the situation.

It’s no use letting someone test their wild idea if the result is they will be fired. or if they might end up in deep legal waters. There’s an intuitive skill here, which requires awareness and sensitivity to the needs of the other person. We may well let them flow with their brightly lit idea, or we may well be the “yes but” that just saves their life.

Shadow can make glare more bearable, and in this softer light, the person can see more clearly. They may still progress their idea, or they may “think twice”.

Often we become so fired up with an idea that we are closed to any questioning or challenging. Here we are like a powerful beam, shining our will into the future. Yet, away from the light is an environment we are unable to see, so trapped are we in the bright glare of our own wishes and vision. Hope can motivate, and it can also blur.

Then shadow can be a softening gift, something that frees us from our own too bright place in the world. We come back to a more balanced place, and can make more conscious choices. Often our ideas are all the better for it in the longer run.

We can become obsessed with our ideas and decisions. We can convince ourselves we are into a sure winner. The more obsessed we become, the more we bathe in the glow of our own optimism. Only a friend might see the dangers. Here they might appear to be trying to bring darkness to our impulse, to spoil the party. Yet their questioning and challenging seems dark only because of our relatively much brighter position. They aren’t bringing darkness to spoil, but to offer balance. They are bringing us back to the centre of the way. A good idea is rarely too bright – it will survive the challenge of shadow to its shining.


Visit the Innovation Realm

An exercise in falling into impro

Purpose of the activity

Many facilitators of improvisation work with the metaphors of “energising” a group or “ice-breaking” early on at a workshop. A friend of mine, Jack Martin Leith critique ice-breakers because they assume there is “ice” – people in a default state of coldness, stuckness, and that they need “un-freezing”.

I agree with Jack on this. I don’t believe there is ice to be broken in a room. Nor do we need to inject energy into people who may simply be in a mood of nervousness, expectation, or even hesitant openness.  I like the idea of a simple activity to allow us to fall into an improvisational state – a state of falling where we know there is a soft landing waiting for us. Leaping in also works for me! And that is what this gentle activity is all about


This is an activity for a group of just about any size of group.

Stand in a circle.

Simply focus on breathing calmly at whatever personal pace suits. Quiet breathing.

At any point someone can say the word “beat”. When they say beat everyone must look at them and hold their breath. They breath out after a second or so.

Slowly the breathing returns to normal.

In discussion afterwards, explore what triggers a person to instigate the word “beat”.

Repeat the activity for longer until the moment when beat is said is not managed or planned but arises in the moment.

The exercise is very simple and can run for quite a long time. In moments of pure “reaction” there can be an electric feel to the exercises. Spontaneous drama arises.

When two or more people say “beat” at the same time, simply allow the exercise to settle, but also explore impressions afterwards when this happens


How did you personally experience the activity?

What happened to you when someone said “beat”?

When was “beat” predictable and when was it a surprise?

What happened further into the activity? Did some rhythms emerge?

How “in the moment” did you get and when were you still planning ahead?


Visit the Applied Improvisation Zone

5 Ways to Refresh Your Thinking


The start of a new year can be a good time to refresh your thinking about your business or creative project.

We can all get stuck in our modes of thought. We can end up recycling the same ideas and this can stifle needed innovation. The world is changing all around us and our business can soon get out of touch with the external environment. That can quickly hit sales and revenue as what we offer is out of sync with the market for our product or service.

Here are five ways to add a bit of newness and originality into the way you think about your business or creative project…

TIP 1 – Read something new. Buy a book or do some online research into areas and themes that you wouldn’t normally look into. Get out of your comfort zone and explore subjects that you’d normally avoid. For example, one business trainer started to read up about comedy and improvisation and ended up redesigning entirely his training courses in presentation skills, leading to a big jump in new client work.

TIP 2 – Meet someone new.  Get new perspectives on your business or project. Go to a meet up you wouldn’t usually go to, start a conversation with someone you have never spoken to before. New ideas often come from fresh perspectives from people that aren’t part of your established network. So, set a resolution to get some new ideas on your business. For example, Steve, web site designer, spent one morning a week in a local cafe and soon enjoyed conversations with locals. One turned out to be a retired teacher who ended up giving him invaluable advice about organising his time better. Jan, a maker and seller of knitwear posted some questions on an online business forum and got a host of useful answers.

TIP 3 – Breathe out the old. Reflect back over one year, up until this point in time. What hasn’t been working? Where are you stuck? Take a piece of paper and make a list of the things in your business that make you frown. Put them in order of importance and resolve to finally take those problems on this year. These “blockers” are better out in the open. They can lurk below the surface of awareness and de-energise us. Get them on the table. Share them with colleagues to get new perspectives and ideas. Form the  into “how to statements”. For example, “too many unread emails” becomes “how to declutter my inbox once and for all, and how to keep it clearer and cleaner..”

TIP 4 – Change the space and the place. We often get stuck in the old because of where and how we are physically located. Have a clear out, move your desk and even consider moving room or even office. Also visit somewhere you have never been before – a  change of location can often add a new perspective or feel refreshing and new. Sue, a hypnotherapist, moved her business from Brighton to Guildford and doubled her client base overnight. John moved his desk to a larger, more airy room in his house and it literally felt like a breath of fresh air as he now had a view over the garden. It all felt more open and positive.

TIP 5 – Get artistically and creatively inspired. Art is the realm  of creativity and originality. Holding your problem or questions in your mind, go visit an art gallery, or even do something creative – some sculpting or painting. Get into your “right brain” and find new perspectives and impulses through a dose of creative inspiration. You don’t have to be good at art to benefit from it and we can all stuck in technical, repetitive modes of thinking. Stephen, a owner of a small business, goes to a sculpture group once a week and also loves to visit art galleries. “It clears my mind and often I find answers come to questions I’m grappling with, just be being in a different, more creative space.”

The next year in the life of your business could be a more successful one if you increase the level and quality of originality and creativity in your business or project. It might just fuel the innovation your business or project needs. So, get going on that refresh!

The Christmas Chain

She was a new parent at the school.

Even though this was the last day of their first term, she felt like a newbie. Lisa had settled in well at her class, though she still felt as if there were some things they weren’t doing right at home. She’d never baked in her life before, and this school seemed to demand cakes on a near-weekly basis, and they had to be home made.

Her first attempt had been a disaster and her upside down marmalade cake had been upside down for all the wrong reasons. Her ginger cake had been a cheat and it had cost a fortune from Waitrose. She’d put almonds on top to make it look a bit more home-made and had been admonished by her class teacher. Had she forgotten the nut free policy in the school? Well, in truth, she had.

What mattered was that Lisa was happier than she’d been in a long time.

Ellen, her mother, stood near the gate. She never quite came right into the grounds unless she really had to. She smiled shyly at those who smiled at her, but there were also groups she didn’t feel part of and wasn’t sure how you got invited into them. One parent, at a parents’ evening had said that fundraising was the way to meet people or the craft group. But she was having enough trouble fundraising for day-to-day living, and she couldn’t sew or knit for toffees. Her own mum and dad had been firmly planted in front of Strictly or Eastenders when they weren’t out at work.

The last day of term. It was cold. Freezing. She knew the temperature wasn’t anywhere near as low as zero, but she always felt cold in winter. When they’d moved into the flat, the agent had pointed to the wood-burning stove, but she had no idea what to do with it, even though it had been safety checked and was ready for use.

Just her and Lisa again this Christmas. Of course, there were friends at the end of Facebook and a few relatives on Skype; her sister in America. And Ian would be over on boxing day.

There was some sudden laughter near the sports shed, and some tinsel was being worn like a king’s crown. Lisa would come running out soon, with all the other children spilling out from the school’s main door.

Ellen knew there were other parents here, struggling or sometimes thriving on their own, with barely enough money to get by. She could tell by some of the new four-wheel drives, and Mercedes baby buggies that there was also money here, wrapped in Barbour Jackets and Fat Face jumpers. She didn’t resent that. But she really didn’t know how she could light up Lisa’s Christmas this year. They were closer to zero than they had even been.

Ellen felt welcome at the school. It was a breath of fresh air from the dinosaur institution Lisa had gone to before they’d moved here. The exam sausage machine. Then Dan had died, and they just had to flee those awful memories. So here they were. And all the life insurance money going on the school fees. Maybe it was her, not yet ready to bind to a new community and make new connection. They might have ordinary names; Just plain Ellen and Lisa, no Hiawatha or Star in their family. She felt on the edge of this colourful world, not yet part of it.

The door burst open, and children spilled out of the door, like water from a bubbling spring. Lisa’s class came out a few moments later, each child clutching a more or less squashed home made cracker, shaking hands with their teacher before leaving. Lisa saw her mum and ran towards her.

Suddenly Lisa stopped and stood very still. Ellen thought something was wrong and started towards her young daughter. But something made her stop.

Lisa was staring at her, more than she’d ever stared at her before. It unnerved Ellen and she mouthed the word, “Lisa?”, in the form of a question.

For a fleeting moment a flash of anger lit up in the child’s eyes. Ellen saw it, like a flash of lighting focused through a prism. In a breath it was gone, to be replaced by a look of mischief, the child’s lips curling up into a smile. Then the smile was gone and Lisa turned to a parent who was standing next to her, a parent of one of the older children, and she held out her hand to him – a stranger!

The man looked down with curiousity, wondering what the little girl wanted. “Are you okay? Are you looking for your mum or dad?”

Lisa said nothing but continued to hold out her hand, hardly moving. And then Ellen heard Lisa say these words to the man: “Make a chain with me!”

The man seemed to freeze for a moment before reaching his hand toward’s the little girl’s and taking hold of it. In that moment, Lisa looked up at her mama and smiled such a warm smile, it brought tears to Ellen’s eyes.

But it didn’t stop there. Lisa proceeded to pull the man towards another woman, who was standing with her partner, waiting for their twins to come out of the school door.

A few seconds later, the chain was now made up of three adults and a child. A few of the youngers ones, seeing that some kind of game was afoot joined the little line, and soon there were a dozen souls snaking around the school entrance. Sometimes the whole line stopped, yet there was never a word spoken until someone hesitated and then, sometimes Lisa alone, sometimes a trio, and sometimes the entire line of people would say: “Make a chain with me.”

It happened in less than three minutes. Ninety seconds was all it took for the every person in the school grounds to join the line. Only Ellen was left.

“Come on, mama! Make a chain with me!”

Lisa wanted to run, to flee this place, to perhaps run all the way to the sea and then, where else? A hundred and sixteen pairs of eyes, young, older and even very old were fixed upon her, as her usually shy little daughter looked with a wintry twinkle and the invitation was there to be accepted or refused.

Her cold hand was reaching before her fuzzy thoughts could fog her up any further. And Ellen was last in the line, clutching the bony but warm fingers of a puffing and laughing grandma. Ellen thought this was some kind of madness, or perhaps a spell, but she didn’t let go.

And that’s when the teachers who stepped out of the school door gasped, only for a moment, then looked at each other and did what teachers need to do. They stepped briskly, confidently, as if they recognised these moments all of the time,  and joined the end of the line.

The chain walked a fancy figure of eight around the basket ball court, led confidently by a little girl called Lisa. Mum held hands with some, some who’d been firm friends for years, others connecting for the first time.

Where would Lisa take them next?

Out of the gate of course. Right. Past the Co-op and up the hill, which was where  Ellen found her voice, born on the wings of dawning realisation and panic.

“But its just a bedsit! And we don’t have a thing in the fridge!”

That’s when a mustard yellow van turned the corner near the bus garage and Matt, the school maintenance wizard, seeing what was afoot, leapt out, abandoning it to the attentions of a stunned parking attendant, and joined the back of the line. Jack, who led the school community choir,  was just stepping out of the Co op, nodded in recognition at what was clearly a Christmas Chain. Matt and Jack knew all about Christmas chains.

Soon they were past St Cuthman’s and entering the doorway to a small block of flats, the stairwell, echoing with the sounds of laughter and chat, and someone humming “Last Christmas”.

Not everyone could fit into the stair well and half of the chain waited in the cold of Whitehawk Road.

Up to the third floor, up to a red front door and Lisa shouted: “Stop, Chain! I think my mama has got the key!”

Quickly the key was fitted it into the lock of their flat front door.

One large room, a small plastic Christmas tree, dressed, courtesy of Lidl, for under a fiver.

And that’s when the mums and dads went to work. They crowded in, fast as flowing wine, hurled a patchwork rug over the flat screen television.

Then they upended their bags. Pine cones and flapjacks, spiced buns and tissue paper. A quick jog to the shop and soon there was mulled wine and juice brewing on the stove. Magazine paper became paper chains and mince pies were soon warming in the oven.

Ellen stood there, looking on, the last to enter the packed room, A now thoroughly Christmas room, decked out with holly and mistletoe from rummaged parents’ bags. Some had been shopping and now they shared it all. Most of the school choir were there and they sang carols as an impossibly tall dad scrunched up a copy of the Metro,  fished a log from his rucksack and lit the stove. Soon flames were dancing the eyes of all who sang and a few who were laughing.

Mistletoe and blushes appeared and even a sprig of holly. IPhones flashed and the table was laid with all that was found or brought, which was much.

Ellen looked on, into her crowded, tiny home. She saw Lisa whooping with delight as she pulled a home-made cracker and gathered up a marble and a riddle.

“What tea is the warmest of all?” “Community!” she cried! “I don’t get it!”

It went on beyond early sun set.

Then they were left alone.

Yet somehow, never alone again.


The Christmas Chain

She was a new parent at the school.

Even though this was the last day of their first term, she felt like a newbie. Lisa had settled in well at her class, though she still felt as if there were some things they weren’t doing right at home. She’d never baked in her life before, and this school seemed to demand cakes on a near-weekly basis, and they had to be home made.

Her first attempt had been a disaster and her upside down marmalade cake had been upside down for all the wrong reasons. Her ginger cake had been a cheat and it had cost a fortune from Waitrose. She’d put almonds on top to make it look a bit more home-made and had been admonished by her class teacher. Had she forgotten the nut free policy in the school? Well, in truth, she had.

What mattered was that Lisa was happier than she’d been in a long time.

Ellen, her mother, stood near the gate. She never quite came right into the grounds unless she really had to. She smiled shyly at those who smiled at her, but there were also groups she didn’t feel part of and wasn’t sure how you got invited into them. One parent, at a parents’ evening had said that fundraising was the way to meet people or the craft group. But she was having enough trouble fundraising for day-to-day living, and she couldn’t sew or knit for toffees. Her own mum and dad had been firmly planted in front of Strictly or Eastenders when they weren’t out at work.

The last day of term. It was cold. Freezing. She knew the temperature wasn’t anywhere near as low as zero, but she always felt cold in winter. When they’d moved into the flat, the agent had pointed to the wood-burning stove, but she had no idea what to do with it, even though it had been safety checked and was ready for use.

Just her and Lisa again this Christmas. Of course, there were friends at the end of Facebook and a few relatives on Skype; her sister in America. And Ian would be over on boxing day.

There was some sudden laughter near the sports shed, and some tinsel was being worn like a king’s crown. Lisa would come running out soon, with all the other children spilling out from the school’s main door.

Ellen knew there were other parents here, struggling or sometimes thriving on their own, with barely enough money to get by. She could tell by some of the new four-wheel drives, and Mercedes baby buggies that there was also money here, wrapped in Barbour Jackets and Fat Face jumpers. She didn’t resent that. But she really didn’t know how she could light up Lisa’s Christmas this year. They were closer to zero than they had even been.

Ellen felt welcome at the school. It was a breath of fresh air from the dinosaur institution Lisa had gone to before they’d moved here. The exam sausage machine. Then Dan had died, and they just had to flee those awful memories. So here they were. And all the life insurance money going on the school fees. Maybe it was her, not yet ready to bind to a new community and make new connection. They might have ordinary names; Just plain Ellen and Lisa, no Hiawatha or Star in their family. She felt on the edge of this colourful world, not yet part of it.

The door burst open, and children spilled out of the door, like water from a bubbling spring. Lisa’s class came out a few moments later, each child clutching a more or less squashed home made cracker, shaking hands with their teacher before leaving. Lisa saw her mum and ran towards her.

Suddenly Lisa stopped and stood very still. Ellen thought something was wrong and started towards her young daughter. But something made her stop.

Lisa was staring at her, more than she’d ever stared at her before. It unnerved Ellen and she mouthed the word, “Lisa?”, in the form of a question.

For a fleeting moment a flash of anger lit up in the child’s eyes. Ellen saw it, like a flash of lighting focused through a prism. In a breath it was gone, to be replaced by a look of mischief, the child’s lips curling up into a smile. Then the smile was gone and Lisa turned to a parent who was standing next to her, a parent of one of the older children, and she held out her hand to him – a stranger!

The man looked down with curiousity, wondering what the little girl wanted. “Are you okay? Are you looking for your mum or dad?”

Lisa said nothing but continued to hold out her hand, hardly moving. And then Ellen heard Lisa say these words to the man: “Make a chain with me!”

The man seemed to freeze for a moment before reaching his hand toward’s the little girl’s and taking hold of it. In that moment, Lisa looked up at her mama and smiled such a warm smile, it brought tears to Ellen’s eyes.

But it didn’t stop there. Lisa proceeded to pull the man towards another woman, who was standing with her partner, waiting for their twins to come out of the school door.

A few seconds later, the chain was now made up of three adults and a child. A few of the youngers ones, seeing that some kind of game was afoot joined the little line, and soon there were a dozen souls snaking around the school entrance. Sometimes the whole line stopped, yet there was never a word spoken until someone hesitated and then, sometimes Lisa alone, sometimes a trio, and sometimes the entire line of people would say: “Make a chain with me.”

It happened in less than three minutes. Ninety seconds was all it took for the every person in the school grounds to join the line. Only Ellen was left.

“Come on, mama! Make a chain with me!”

Lisa wanted to run, to flee this place, to perhaps run all the way to the sea and then, where else? A hundred and sixteen pairs of eyes, young, older and even very old were fixed upon her, as her usually shy little daughter looked with a wintry twinkle and the invitation was there to be accepted or refused.

Her cold hand was reaching before her fuzzy thoughts could fog her up any further. And Ellen was last in the line, clutching the bony but warm fingers of a puffing and laughing grandma. Ellen thought this was some kind of madness, or perhaps a spell, but she didn’t let go.

And that’s when the teachers who stepped out of the school door gasped, only for a moment, then looked at each other and did what teachers need to do. They stepped briskly, confidently, as if they recognised these moments all of the time,  and joined the end of the line.

The chain walked a fancy figure of eight around the basket ball court, led confidently by a little girl called Lisa. Mum held hands with some, some who’d been firm friends for years, others connecting for the first time.

Where would Lisa take them next?

Out of the gate of course. Right. Past the Co-op and up the hill, which was where  Ellen found her voice, born on the wings of dawning realisation and panic.

“But its just a bedsit! And we don’t have a thing in the fridge!”

That’s when a mustard yellow van turned the corner near the bus garage and Matt, the school maintenance wizard, seeing what was afoot, leapt out, abandoning it to the attentions of a stunned parking attendant, and joined the back of the line. Jack, who led the school community choir,  was just stepping out of the Co op, nodded in recognition at what was clearly a Christmas Chain. Matt and Jack knew all about Christmas chains.

Soon they were past St Cuthman’s and entering the doorway to a small block of flats, the stairwell, echoing with the sounds of laughter and chat, and someone humming “Last Christmas”.

Not everyone could fit into the stair well and half of the chain waited in the cold of Whitehawk Road.

Up to the third floor, up to a red front door and Lisa shouted: “Stop, Chain! I think my mama has got the key!”

Quickly the key was fitted it into the lock of their flat front door.

One large room, a small plastic Christmas tree, dressed, courtesy of Lidl, for under a fiver.

And that’s when the mums and dads went to work. They crowded in, fast as flowing wine, hurled a patchwork rug over the flat screen television.

Then they upended their bags. Pine cones and flapjacks, spiced buns and tissue paper. A quick jog to the shop and soon there was mulled wine and juice brewing on the stove. Magazine paper became paper chains and mince pies were soon warming in the oven.

Ellen stood there, looking on, the last to enter the packed room, A now thoroughly Christmas room, decked out with holly and mistletoe from rummaged parents’ bags. Some had been shopping and now they shared it all. Most of the school choir were there and they sang carols as an impossibly tall dad scrunched up a copy of the Metro,  fished a log from his rucksack and lit the stove. Soon flames were dancing the eyes of all who sang and a few who were laughing.

Mistletoe and blushes appeared and even a sprig of holly. IPhones flashed and the table was laid with all that was found or brought, which was much.

Ellen looked on, into her crowded, tiny home. She saw Lisa whooping with delight as she pulled a home-made cracker and gathered up a marble and a riddle.

“What tea is the warmest of all?” “Community!” she cried! “I don’t get it!”

It went on beyond early sun set.

Then they were left alone.

Yet somehow, never alone again.


Debriefing Your Group


When a group has been established for a while it can be useful to stp back and reflect onhow the group is progressing. We meet for an hour or so and work through some questions. Below is a list of questions that can help your group to reflect on its development and how well it is performing as a group. Some questions around cultural difference and diversity are also included

Group Debrief Check list

Group Discipline

How we organised are we as a group?

How efficient are our meetings?

How well do we communicate between meetings?

Do we have ground rules that we stick to that help us work consistently and effectively?

How well do we record actions arising from group meetings/ How effectively are we administrating our group?

Are we using a common communications platform and how well is it working ? (E.g. A closed Facebook Group or a Slack Group)

Group Decision Making and Leadership

How effective is our group decision making?

How do we manage conflict and differences of opinion?

Are we using leadership as well as we could? Is one person making all of the decisions or is everyone involved?

Has anyone dominated the group – how have you dealt with that?

How does your group let leaders emerge as needed?

How do we ensure all views are heard?

Group Performance

Are we getting the results that we should be getting and, if not, why not?

Are we using good time and project management? Are we using any project management tools?

Are we prioritising time and tasks effectively?

Are we leaving things until the last minute or working proactively and in a balanced way?

Do we take time to reflect on what we have and haven’t achieved?

Are we using technology as well as we could to optimise our performance as a group?

Are we learning from our mistakes and building on success?

Is everyone pulling their weight? Are their any free riders? How are we dealing with that?

Group Mood and Morale

Is the group in a positive frame of mind? What is the atmosphere like in the group?

Is the group stressed? How do we deal with stress?

What’s the group motivation like? What causes it to fall and how to we lift the level of motivation?

Do we celebrate success and socialise appropriately to build the team spirit in our group?

How are you dealing with disrespectful behaviours, lateness and regular absence from meetings, as well as people under-performing?

Is there collusion in the group; do you avoid saying how you feel? How do difficult issues get raised and discussed?

Group Diversity

Are difference respected and tapped into in our group?

How do we deal with the different cultural backgrounds, values and perspectives represented in our group?

Do we talk openly about our differences and our commonalities?

Are we making best use of different language capabilities in our group e.g. when we do online research internationally?

Are there any issues with gender or age differences and are we dealing with those well? What different assumptions and habits in out group affect this?

Group Improvement

Think of examples of when the group was at its strongest and when it was at its weakest. Share those examples in your group and discuss how the strengths can become more consistently present.

What does our group look and feel like when we are performing at our best?
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Visit the Group Dynamics Resource Page



A rather different Impro warm up



Needed – some large paper (perhaps flipchart paper), pens or crayons)

A group of 3 to 5 people.

Put the paper on the floor, give everyone a pen or crayon and ask them to gather around a large piece of paper.

Touch each person on the shoulder and allocate them one of the following each:

– circle
– square
– line
– dot
– squiggle (a chaotic line)

Then say “start”!

The exercise can have as many rounds as you like. Start with 3 rounds and then stop, look at the pictures and share a bit of discussion.

Once the exercise starts, in each round, at any time (even at the same time as someone else), each person draws their allocated form onto the paper – as small or big as they like.

In one variation of the exercise they can do it only once; in a second version, as many time as they like until a round is over. A round is over when the facilitator says stop or when everyone has drawn (or decided not to).


A lot of dynamics are played out here and the resulting pictures can tell a lot about:
– who was plotting and scheming
– who was improvising alone
– who was reacting and responding to others
– who was collaborating or drawing inspiration from others
– who had developed rapport
– who was being constructive or destructive
– who was in an abstract space and who was “designing”


Visit the Applied Improvisation Zone

The Breath Improvisation


Purpose of the Activity

This is another strange and wonderfully minimalist exercise.

Minimalist improvisation really can create a non-verbal experience of improvisation in its most essential form. This is an example of a minimalist improvisation activity that can be enacted at almost any stage of an improvisation workshop or event. It is also very good if the session has become too complex and cluttered and you want to find a simple, clearer space.



This activity is best done in threes, sitting in a circle, close together, set apart from other groups.

It can also be done VERY close together with foreheads touching.

It can also be done standing in a circle with hands on the high back of the person in front of you.

The aim is to be able to feel the breathing of the others in the group.

Agree who will start.

Find a safe pace for breathing so as not to hyperventilate.

The person who starts, starts to draw in a breath, and the others follow. The person breathes out and the others follow. At first we simply follow. As time goes on, one person’s breath may drag slightly behind the others or run ahead and the others gently follow this until we are all in “breathing harmony again”. Play with different rhythms, it can become almost musical. Keep the overall place slow, with allowed pauses to keep it safe.



This simple exercise, devoid of words, movement and even eye contact short circuits all the usual thinking activity, as we enter the music of breathing and really come into the improvisational moment. It’s a great team or group bonder and also there’s plenty to debrief around leadership, synergy, playfulness, the power of minimalism, non-verbal communication and harmony.

In debrief you can ask:

– how did you experience this activity?

– what did you learn about yourself?

– what happens when we become conscious of our breathing?

– what happened to the way we communicated?

– how might this serve as a metaphor for the way we work together?


Visit the Applied Improvisation Zone

A neat little breathing exercise

Purpose of the Activity

Sharing breathing is a foundation of all communication. This exercise is a great prep game for singing and generally for improvisation work.

It is also good in conflict and communication resolution activities, as well as group and community building.

This is another fairly minimalist activity whose power lies in simplicity. Breathing is a primeval process, mostly unconscious, but we can bring it into our conscious control. Within the safe boundaries of allowing everyone to break away if they have breathing difficulty during the activity, people can have an extraordinary sense of collaboration and connection through  simply breathing together. It is because we are sharing a very unique and vital life process!

The aim of this exercise is for a group of 3-7 people to complete a breath together.

Stand in a circle.

The exercise proceeds around the circle in sequence and should be done gently (to avoid hyperventiliating!)

The first person breathes in a little and everyone breathes in a little with him/her, following the pace and amount of breath. The second person is tagged with eye contact (or takes over spontaneously) and continues, taking a little more air in. This continues round the circle until the whole group has breathed in together.

It’s a wonderful feeling.

It can then be done with eyes closed.

– do an in and an out breath together
– do it in pairs
– vary with short and longer breaths.

Take rest between breaths to avoid dizziness. Allow people to drop out if they feel uncomfortable.


Visit the Applied Improvisation Zone

Effective Group Working


Produce a flipchart which lists SIX behaviours that will help a seminar group to work well together during your Masters course.

Each statement should be positive and begin with a verb.


Listen to each other fully, without interruption

Offer constructive rather than destructive criticism

Set an agenda for each meeting.

Behaviours that can sabotage working effectively in groups and teams on a course

Here’s my list of behaviours that can sabotage a group. I’ve collected them from students and teachers in recent years. You may want to add your own!


Visit the Group Dynamics Resource Page

Conversation and Listening in Groups



When groups meet they engaged in different types of conversation. Conversation in groups as all about skilfully listening and speaking. Here are four things to remember when engaged in a conversation with others.

Listen in order to understand their views

Play back to check your understanding

Inquire into their position

Voice your own position and views assertively

(Source: Bob Thomson, University of Warwick)



There are different levels of listening. In an effective group, we listen in order to understand. Active listening involves calming our own “Inner voice” and really “giving” our attention to the other person. How well can you do that?

Some resources on listening

Some very useful tips of how to skilfully listen.

An article on tuning in to others in order to listen more effectively (from the Wall Street Journal)

Ten Steps to Effective Listening (from Forbes Magazine)

An interesting article aimed at teaching staff at university on hoe to get students to listen more effectively!

An academic journal article about listening skill for communicating in teams (from  The International Journal of Communication)

Here are 6 Listening Skills Exercises To Promote Stronger Communication

Visit the Group Dynamics Resource Page

What is a team?


A team is a small number of people with complementary skills committed to a common purpose, performance goals and ways of working together for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith

The Wisdom of Teams

When you work in a group – in the work place, in your community, at university, or even among friends, a spirit of effective collaboration is often called “team work”.

Team is often a word used in sport. We also speak of a “team of oxen”. It is when a group does something together, often where there is something that emerges called “synergy”. Synergy arises when doing something together is better and more effective than doing it individual and separately.

Here are a few more quotes about teams and team work.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” Andrew Carnegie

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” Henry Ford

“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.”
Vince Lombardi

“The nice thing about teamwork is that you always have others on your side.” Margaret Carty

“When your team is winning, be ready to be tough, because winning can make you soft. On the other hand, when you team is losing, stick by them. Keep believing.” Bo Schembechler

“Individuals play the game, but teams beat the odds.” SEAL Team saying

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”
Babe Ruth

“If a team is to reach its potential, each player must be willing to subordinate his personal goals to the good of the team.” Bud Wilkinson

“People have been known to achieve more as a result of working with others than against them.”
Dr. Allan Fromme

“When he took time to help the man up the mountain, lo, he scaled it himself.” Tibetan Proverb

“Even eagles need a push.” David McNally

“In order to become a leading home run hitter, a batter must be surrounded by good hitters, otherwise, the pitchers will ‘pitch around’ him. Likewise, many successful people became that way from being on a good team.” Laing Burns Jr.

“A group becomes a team when all members are sure enough of themselves and their contributions to praise the skill of others.” Anonymous

Some more quotes and resources about teams

Team Building and Teamwork Quotes from Teampedia

42 Team and Teamwork Quotes

111 Motivational TEAM Quotes

Some useful tips on working in groups from a college in the United States

The Challenge of Working Across Cultures – a very useful article about working with people from different cultures





Zin Obelisk


Zin Obelisk is a powerful group dynamics exercise that explores group dynamics. The original version of this activity appeared in “Improving Work Groups: A Practical Manual for Team Building” by Dave Francis & Don Young.

“In the ancient city of Atlantis a monument called a Zin Obelisk was built in honour of the goddess Tina….”

There are slightly different versions of the activity. For example, at the University of Warwick, Bob Thomson has developed a simplified version of it which is easier for groups who speak different first languages.

How do we work both collaboratively and effectively?

How do we share information in a group?

How do we get things done in a team together and immerse in the task without losing a more strategic overview?

If you have been part of this exercise, here are a few links and questions to help you reflect further.

Questions for reflection after the Zin Obelisk Exercise

How did you organise yourselves as a group? What worked and what worked less well?

Did you identify group roles? Who did what?

How did you collect, share, record and organise information?

How well was information shared?

How collaborative was the team? Were there any competitive dynamics?

How well did you listen to each other?

What questions were most useful?

Did anyone dominate the group?

Who contribute most and who least, and why?

How reactive was the group? Did it panic or remain calm?

Did anyone keep time?

Did you check your answer and the steps you took along the way?

How did you sit as a group? In a circle? What seating arrangement (or standing arrangement) works best for a group?

How did you draw on the strengths of each team member?

Overall, how well did you communicate with each other as a team? 

How well did your group use its time?

Did any leaders emerge and did leadership change during the activity?

How well did you manage your time? Did you divide up the task into chunks of time and develop an overall, shared time plan?

How did you deal with disagreement in the group?

Did the group ever stop, as a group, pause and reflect?

What would you do differently next time?

If you reached the right solution what behaviours enabled that? If you didn’t reach the right solution, what behaviours got in the way?

Did people from different cultures behave differently and bring different attitudes, values and behaviours to the task? How do you ensure difference is recognised, respected and best utilised?

What lessons from this activity apply to other groups you work in?


Visit the Group Dynamics Resource Page

New iPad? Tech firms have abandoned radical innovation for mediocrity











Paul Levy, University of Brighton

The dust has now settled on the latest product launch from Apple, which for many trumped headlines about refugees, poverty and the battles for the Republican nomination and leadership of the UK Labour Party. We have new iPads, iPhones and more. But how new are they really?

Innovation is often characterised as being either “radical” or “incremental”. When it is radical, it sets new precedents and fundamentally changes the way we do things. From self-administered insulin to solar powered houses to driverless cars, radical innovation releases potential. Incremental innovation on the other hand builds upon what is already there in small steps.

In the world of mobile phones and tablets, incremental has become the new radical, and true radical innovation has been relegated to the sidelines. Incremental innovation has become the norm because of a belief that “slow and steady wins the race”, that people don’t like the risks that come with big dramatic changes. That seems to be Apple’s long-term strategy and, as a dominant player, it is setting the culture for other players in the market.

Using staged marketing in the form of annual or biannual high-profile media launches, tech firms have groomed us as consumers to accept small change as normal. More radical innovation, such as a modular phone that can be continually upgraded, is seen as crazy, quirky or even science fiction.

No radical innovation

The new iPad Pro that is a few inches bigger than the last one is being hailed as a “big leap” when it’s really just tinkering with the old design. Despite the new features, it in no way represents a radical innovation worthy of ecstatic celebration. The whoops of delight at its launch were followed by voices of disappointment online.

It is primarily for commercial reasons that Apple has institutionalised incremental innovation and tried to convince us all it is radical. iPhones and iPads are brilliantly designed things. Incremental innovation requires expertise and excellence in design and improvement. Phones and tablets play a major part in millions of peoples’ lives. But continued innovation happens at a slow pace designed to suit the supplier not the user, who is nonetheless pushed to pay significant amounts of money each year for minor changes.

When they said the new iPad was bigger they weren’t kidding.
Beck Diefenbach/Reuters

Fear of failure may have also contributed to the disappearance of radical innovation. The struggles of more unusual designs such as that of the Amazon Fire phone may have made innovators more cautious, delaying and lengthening product development and rollout to compensate. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that virtually none of the radical (labelled “crazy” at the time) concept phones of 2010 have never appeared on the market.

We may have also reached a point where phone design is so good that truly impressive change has become much harder to achieve. So we continue to buy similar looking products, putting them to our ears (just as we did with landlines), snapping cameras with slightly better picture clarity, and getting slightly more intelligent answers from Siri. Same game, tiny changes, price hike.

A smartphone revolution

At the same time, major new challenges are emerging for smartphone makers, from evidence that current phone designs may be fuelling unhappiness and reducing productivity to the worrying environmental impact of manufacturing them. Radical innovation is needed so that phones fully serve customer interests in a sustainable way.

But for the time being, more radical products, such as the Yotaphone 2, (which offers a dual screen), or the Runcible (round, beautiful and rather different), will be at best seen as quirky and niche. The existing market leaders will only change their tortoise-speed approach to radical innovation if a major new player genuinely disrupts the market with fast, penetrative changes.

For example, Chinese company Xiaomi is creating a range of products for the home (from TVs to air purifiers) that automatically link with their smartphones in a single, integrated system. This is the kind of radical idea that could shock Apple into becoming more radical and adventurous.

We could eventually see mobile computing move away from hand-held, screen-based devices towards seamless interaction across different devices and platforms such as wearable technology and projected holograms.

For the foreseeable future, however, innovation in the mobile and wearable space is going to be dominated by incremental and fairly mediocre approaches to innovation. Radical thinking will be consigned to concepts for the future and the iPhone 7 will probably look a lot like the iPhone 3. But the launch will be offered as another revolution.

The Conversation

Paul Levy, Senior Researcher in Innovation Management, University of Brighton

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Five Examples of Conversifying in Action


Conversifying a Conference


At the 2014 Management of Innovative Technologies Conference in Piran, Slovenia, we loosened a traditionally fixed agenda and created spaces for emergent conversation and unplanned workshops and sessions.


Potential research projects and partnerships emerged that would never have come about had the opportunity for conversation not been created. We also used one of the sessions to explore the notion of “inquiry” which forms the basis of much interaction and energised dialogue at conferences and events. The conference still respected its traditions of key note speakers and talks, but we designed more time for discussion with speakers and ensuring that presentations were more responsive to the emerging conversation on the day.

Opening Space at the World Fringe Congress


The World Fringe Congress brought together organisations from all over the world to explore the future of Fringe Festivals and to identify potential links and common ground. Sandwiched between two more traditional days of talks and panel discussions, we conversified the middle day! During an Open Space Conference format, participants created the agenda and decided their own sessions.

os3The conversation caught fire and there were some passionate discussions and even the formation of the fledgling North America Fringe Festivals Association.


The agenda was “owned” by the participants and the conversation created an impact that still reverberates to this day.

Unconferencing at the Digital and Social Media Leadership Forum


During 2015, we’ve been working with the Digital and Social Media Leadership Forum, conversifying their more traditional format gatherings of over 100 leaders in the digital and social media field. We facilitated their first ever unconference which trended on Twitter in the UK.

Helping Small Business to Grow and Innovate through Purposeful Conversation

IMG_2545Our drop-in action learning process is rooted in conversation and recently won an Excellence Award from the University of Brighton. Known as the DIAL project, we’ve worked with over 300 small businesses and freelancers, bringing them together in a cafe-based conversation process that enables them to exchange knowledge and experience, ask questions of, and challenge each other, identifying purpose and practical actions.

Visit the main Conversity page


What is Conversifying?


Conversifying breathes conversation into a meeting, conference, gathering or event.

When we conversify an event, we increase the level and quality of interaction, adding energy to the dialogue.

We ensure that any communication serves the purpose of all who are taking part.

We look to simplify the over-complicated and be create with clunky, over-fixed meeting design.

We unblock and facilitate flow – flow of thoughts, feelings and actions.


We’ll take your presentation and talk-filled conference and help transform it into a participant-led real-time conversation


We’ll help unborify your meeting or event

We’ll turn advocacy (telling and selling) into inquiry (exploring, exprimenting and questioning


We can breathe life into a tired conference format

We can take a fixed, static and stuffy agenda and energise it

We can ignite conversation – from one to one, to hundreds, even thousands


We can take a fixed agenda and open space for a self-organised conversation

We can turn a conference into an unconference


We can turn a low energy meeting into a highly engaged one



Visit the main Conversity page

Conversify – Meet the Conversifiers


Paul Levy

Paul has been conversifying meetings, events and conferences for over 20 years. He facilitates and helps to design conversations all over the world, in the private, public and voluntary sectors. He’s worked with organisations as small as one and as large as hundreds of thousands.

Paul is an experienced facilitator of Open Space Technology, Unconferences, action learning groups and all kinds of interactive meetings.

Paul is the founder of the award-winning DIAL project, a pioneering meeting process for small businesses and freelancers. His work with Open Space Technology includes facilitating the World Fringe Congress. He has also facilitated open space gatherings in the UK, Ireland, Denmark, Slovenia and the United States. Paul recently facilitated an unconference for the Digital and Social Media Leadership Forum (DSMLF). Paul regulalrt facilitated for DSMLF as well as the Bitcoin and Blockchain Leadership Forum (BBLF)where he energises conversations. Paul was Head of Interaction for the Digital Workplace Group where he also invented DW24 an online 24 hour conversation attended by over 3000 people around the world.

Paul is regularly asked by individuals, groups, organisations and communities to energise conversations, to make meetings more interactive – to conversify!

Pete Burden


“I act as a sounding board, and help teams develop their collective intelligence, helping them deliver business projects of all kinds. I help develop strategy, culture, capability and processes to help embed a more purposeful way of doing things.” Pete Burden

Pete ignites conversations with inquiry. Pete is a conversifier that uses questions, penetrating dialogue and exploration. Pete energises conversations towards purpose.


Pete is co-author of the book, Leading Mindfully. “We believe that leadership is about changing the conversation” says Pete. “We can’t stop the river, but we can speed up, slow down, or change course.”


Pete Keywords: sounding board, inquiry, purpose, explore

Paul’s Keywords: energise, opening space, interaction, enliven


Visit the main Conversity page


Customer Needs – Known and Hidden


The following is inspired by a model called The Johari Window, created by Joseph Lutt.

Here’s a useful way of looking at how to meet customer needs.The model has four different ways of viewing a tenant.

1. The customer as needs that they make known to you and are aware of them as well

“I know what I need and I share it with you”

2. The customer has needs that they are aware of but don’t overtly share them with you.

“I know what I need but I am keeping it private.”

3. The customer has needs that they aren’t aware of but are known or clear to you.

“I don’t know what I need but you do you.”

(The customer  may or may not be aware that you know what they need.)

4. The customer has needs that neither you nor they are aware of.

“I don’t know what I need and neither do you.”

How can you deal with these different situations?

What causes them?

There are a number of ways you can deal with each of these four situations.

1. The customer has needs that they make known to you and are aware of them as well

“I know what I need and I share it with you”

This is best done with sensitivity to the tenant who is showing openness and trust in you. The customer  trusts you and is demonstrating self-awareness and confidence to share their needs.

2. The customer has needs that they are aware of but don’t overtly share them with you.

“I know what I need but I am keeping it private.”

There could be a lack of trust here, a shyness, or a fear of sharing with you. The customer may be unassertive, protecting others, fearful based on past experience. They may be naturally untrusting, cautious or just private.

3. The customer has needs that they aren’t aware of but are known or clear to you.

“I don’t know what I need but you do you.”

The customer  isn’t aware of what they share. They may be very open with others but a bit blocked inside. They may often be in denial in their internal dialogue, or they may lack self-awareness. They may show a lot more to others than to themselves. They may wear their heart on their sleeve. They may be naive and innocent. They may see you as a parent they want to parent them.

(The customer may or may not be aware that you know what they need.)

4. The customer  has needs that neither you nor they are aware of.

“I don’t know what I need and neither do you.”

The customer  isn’t very self-aware and behaves very minimally, privately, doesn’t express themselves clearly and finds it hard to put thoughts, feelings and wants into words or body language. They are confused, don’t think logically, or find it hard to think in logical or rational terms. They give out “mixed messages” and swing in thoughts, moods and decisions.

What actions might you take to help in each situation?

The System Default – The Hidden Diversity Killer


Behaving according to the “system default” involves always putting the process above the person.It ignores both visible and hidden diversity in favour of what the system’s rules require. The system default often ignores or suppresses diversity.

It is a sure way to alienate customers.

Sometimes there is flexibility within a process, sometimes the process can’t be changed. There are some rules which can’t be changed for legal reasons, others for reasons of fairness or cost.

“Computer says no!”

The fixedness of the system is often the biggest cause of a customer’s frustration.

Yet people know that all organisations have rules, budgets and must operate legally and fairly.

Do you or your organisation take these steps?

1. Prevent the frustration as much as possible through clear induction of new customers before signing any contracts.

2. Communicate effectively to all customers, listening to their concerns and answering questions, and, most importantly acknowledging frustrations and concerns

3. Anticipating problems and adapting where possible proactively, instead of firefighting later

4. Ensuring systems and processes join up and that all staff communicate across and within departments so that mixed messages aren’t received

5. Backing up verbal communication with online and printed information that is accessible and easy to understand.

Often these are not in place and anger and frustration that could be prevented spills over to the front line of customer care – the telephone, the email and the reception.

When a rule or procedure must be upheld…

Many organisations have spent time training their staff in empathy, enabling them to emotionally connect and tune into a customer’s needs. Empathy is one of four possible responses to a customer. if we rely only on empathy, we can miss out on what a customer really needs especially any diversities that are hidden, or harder to use empathy to connect with. The four responses are:

  1. Sympathy
  2. Empathy
  3. Antipathy
  4. Apathy

This diagram tries to capture the essence of all four…


What happens when a decision doesn’t go according to a customer’s wishes? How do you deal with their frustration, angry reaction, or their feeling their needs aren’t being met.

The two approaches which make things worse are:

1. Antipathy

Here the choice of words or tone of voice make the customer feel that you are glad they are feeling as they do, that you revel in their situation. Of course, this is rarely in your choice of words and often in your tone of voice. Antipathy is a way of communicating that can make a customer feel:

– it is their fault/they on’y have themselves to blame

– that you are looking down your nose at them from a position of superiority

– that they are an annoyance in some way

– that “people like them” deserve what they get

– that they should shut up and comply

– that they are somehow in the way of you getting on with your work

The tone of voice can be accompanied by impatient sighs and a tone of talking down to them, or talking to them as if they are less intelligent than they really are. It can also involve ignoring or belittling their unique needs, personality and their wish to at least have their wishes acknowledged.

2. Apathy

Apathy is a choice of words and tone of voice of detachment and not caring. It is often a monotone voice and you come across as indifferent to their expressed or implied needs, and their current or past emotional state. You come across as if the system is always more important than the person – you sound official and without emotion. None of your words connect to the customer or attempt to acknowledge them or their emotional state. You make them feel as if they are:

– just a number

– simply a cog in the system

– a process and not a person whose emotions are irrelevant

– only allowed a fixed number of minutes of the organisation’s time

– an illogical interruption to the needs of an efficient system

You come across as minimal and focus only on the technical needs of the interaction. The result is that people don’t feel cared for, and also not antagonised – they feel ignored.

The reaction of customers to both states will be either withdrawal or increased anger and frustration, possibly even tears or attempts to speak to another member of staff to get a different reaction. Often their compliance will be minimal in the short run but lead to further claims on the organisation’s time in the longer run.

The two approaches that tend to make things better are…

1. Sympathy

Here you use a choice of words, tone of voice and body language that suggests you “feel for” the other person. You will always acknowledge their emotional state and their needs, even if you can’t “bend the rules” for them. You’ll make attempts to explain and persuade, but always on the ground of their emotional state. Don’t underestimate the power of simply acknowledging someone’s needs or state, even if you can’t meet their needs. The anger or frustration in the short run will nearly always dissipate over time when people feel they have been heard and acknowledged.

A sympathetic voice makes use of the language of the customer, phrasing things in their terms, reaching out to them, ensuring they know you care.

What if, deep inside you don’t care – what if it’s been a very long day? You may have to make the effort, act a little, but ideally you shouldn’t be on the frontline if you are in that state. Flexibility and the ability to “bat for each other” is vital when staff are dealing with irate customers. Get someone else to take the call if you can, if you are not up to it and sympathy is what is needed.

Sympathetic voices tend to go up and down in tone with the customer, or may be more calm and straight, but will have a concern and warmth to them. The other person will feel acknowledged and “reached out to”, actively listened to, and feel they matter to you and the organisation.

Tough to achieve sometimes? Yes.

When you are in sympathy, that doesn’t mean you always comply or agree. But it does mean you reach out with understanding and authentic are.

2. Empathy.

You can only be empathetic if you have experienced something similar to what the client has gone through, at least partly. It enables you to go beyond sympathy and not only feel “for” the customer, but also feel “with” the customer – and there’s a danger here that you can get too emotionally involved and lose your perspective as a service provider. So use this only when appropriate.

But it does enable you to connect with a customer and they will feel you know where they are coming from because you have “been there” yourself in the past. “Yes, I’ve had to wait for ages only to get to an answerphone myself”.

Empathy is a choice of words and tone of voice that puts you more alongside a customer than in front of them. It can create trust and also the sense that “we both need to solve this together”. Empathy is born over time, as you spend time with one customer. Empathy is often not used by service providers because they see it as unprofessional. But it can be fine and effective, within the bounds of confidentiality, to let customers know you value and understand what they need or how they feel, and that you are “in touch” with their unique and diverse needs.


It isn’t about one – it is about all four. It is about flexibility and the ability to adapt and respond in the moment!

Making Hidden Diversities Visible


Often someone’s real needs are hidden behind their stated ones.

A person may come into complain, but really they are just seeking someone to acknowledge and listen to them.

A person may be complaining about a letter they received, when in reality they need help with managing their finances.

A person may be asking for someone to ring them, when in reality they are having trouble with their reading and wish they could solve that problem.

A person may be seeking more communication from your organisation because they are in need of company at home.

A person may be asking a lot of questions, because they are confused generally in their life or about something completely different that has dented their confidence

Our hidden “diversity” – sometimes hidden from even ourselves – often influences and plays into our behaviour more than we are aware of.

Sometimes it is the hidden needs that really need noticing, acknowledging and meeting, and the more stated needs are just a symptom of a deeper problem.

Hidden diversities can include:

– other things going on in our lives that need sorting as well as our current stated need

– our physical and mental states that help or hinder us in life

– undiagnosed physical or psychological conditions that affect us but haven’t been named or treated

– fears, phobias and past traumas

– our sense of who we are in life, and who we really want to be, and the gap between the two

– our energy level and level of motivation

– the “constellation” – our family, friends, work situation and the demands and stresses of these upon us

– our secret wishes and goals in life

– the things that trigger certain positive or negative emotional and behavioural reactions in us

– the labels we attached to ourselves, or that are attached to us: “ethnic minority”, dyslexic, lazy, a winner …

– our affinity with people, place, culture, job, social group or setting, cause or set of beliefs or values

Any or all of these can play into our behaviour – in different ways and in different situations. They are often hidden and it is a real skill to be able to see them, name them, and adapt to them if needed. We can do this through:

– asking questions

– observing and listening actively

– creating and practising self-awareness

– learning to read body language and looking for clues in styles of speaking

– “flushing them out” through directness and challenge (where appropriate)

– looking for patterns over time and learning to identify them

– being able to be flexible in our own behavioural repertoire

– being able to improvise in different situations

– learning about different diversities – being informed and aware through training and research

– helping people self-observe, putting them at ease to look inside themselves honesty and reflect

Adaptation, flexibility of response and appropriate naming and assertiveness can all help us deal with hidden diversities.

Which of these skills do you have?

Which of these behaviours and skills are built into your organisation’s approach to dealing with tenants?

Behavioural Flexibility – The Key to Working with Hidden Diversity


Recent research by a team including a colleague of mine, Ray Richards, showed that people who get stressed at work often have less behavioural flexibility than those who don’t get stressed.

Behavioural flexibility is the ability to respond in different ways to different situations. You might choose to be more assertive, or to step back a bit. You might choose to listen more actively or to interrupt. You might say a strong no, or you might call for help quickly and confidently. You can stay calm. You can ask the right questions. You can delay something until you have more information. You can withhold judgement or you might adapt to the mood of the person in front of you. You might calm a situation down with humour or with setting out some clear boundaries. You can be warmer in your communication style or break an explanation down into understandable bits.

The more behavioural flexibility you have, the more able you will be to adapt to different people in different situations.

Behavioural flexibility is something you can develop

Behavioural flexibility is something you can develop over time through practice, experience and through being able to learn from that experience. Behavioural flexibility increases when, over time, you do something different.

In social housing, especially on the front line, you will need as much behavioural flexibility as there are different people using the services of the organisation. Often there are tenants from different ethnic backgrounds,age generations, people with special needs, and also people with different values and expectations of you as a service provider.

Behavioural flexibility allows you to deliver better “customer” care, and it also helps you to cope with the stresses and pressures of the job. When you answer the phone to, or meet customers, you are presented with a dilemma. And this dilemma can be stressful. We tend to categorise people and respond based on our past habits. We make an intuitive guess about how to respond. Often this works. If we develop skills such as “empathy”, we can connect with the other person and respond “through and with” them, not just to them. Empathy connects us with other people. But people change from day to day, from moment to moment. So we also have to be able to totally improvise, to throw away habits and preconceptions. We may even have to throw away empathy because the person before us has feeling and needs that are volatile, unclear and changing. So, we have to be able to draw on what we know but also to start with a blank slate and be totally fresh. The needs of the person before us my not be apparent, may conflict with what appears to be true and may even be more or less hidden from the person themselves! Flexibility in the moment is critical.

How to develop it

To develop behaviour flexibility you’ll need to be prepared to try new behaviours, to be open to feedback from colleagues and friends, to break old habits – it might take you out of your comfort zone and that discomfort of trying something new might seem to increase your stress in the short run. Over the longer run, you’ll find a deeper confidence and calm as you have more of a “behavioural repertoire” available to you.

Behavioural flexibility allows you to work more effectively with diversity. People are all unique – there will be commonalities, but each new situation is unique, and if we only have a small number of ways of responding and reacting, these will often “miss the mark” and that is where stress can arise on both sides of a customer relationship – misunderstanding, frustration, irritation and annoyance. Behavioural flexibility lets you adapt and be creative with the ways you can respond to different situations. You become better a dealing with change.

Key Questions

How much behavioural flexibility do you think you have?

What causes you to feel stressed at work and how do you tend to react?

What flexible responses are most needed on the front line of customer care in your organisation?

Approaches to Dealing with Difference and Diversity


Approaches to Managing Diversity

We’ve worked with the following model a lot over the years and it can be applied both “behind the scenes” inside the service delivery organisation and also directly on the customer front line.

Work through the list and identify where your organisation, department or team sit along the “line of quality”.

Exclude / Deny

At work and in management…

People who are different from the majority may not be recruited or invited to join a team in the first place as managing diversity is seen as too much trouble. If invited to join an organisation or team those people who are different from the majority may simply have their differences – including strengths and needs – ignored. This is because responding to these differences is seen as too much trouble.

In customer relationships…

People who are different from the majority feel excluded and not understood nor accepted. They feel their differences are denied by the housing provider and its associated service providers – either in front of them or privately, behind their back.  Key processes don’t seem to take them into account, making them feel ignored and left out.

Assimilate / Suppress

At work and in management…

Differences in the workforce are acknowledged. The management approach sends out a clear message that whilst there are some differences, everyone is expected to conform to the majority norms of the organisation – ‘be like us’ syndrome.

In customer relationships…

Differences in tenants are acknowledged but it is made clear to customers that it is they who have to fit into the processes, rules and ways of doing things of the provider and not vice versa. “Whilst we recognise X< it is our policy that you do Y”.

Isolate / Tolerate

At work and in management…

Those employees who are different from the majority are ‘in theory’ welcomed. However, to avoid any difficulties with integrating them into the majority cultures and norms they tend to be placed in isolated jobs/roles/areas of the organisation. These may be specialised areas that the minority are thought to have particular knowledge or skills in.

In customer relationships…

There are clear efforts to tolerate and accommodate special and different needs and wishes, but these tend to be separated off. Customers feel attention is unnecessarily drawn to their need by it being named and isolated. For example, a separate entrance for wheelchairs round the back of a building.

Build Quality Relationships  and  Foster Mutual Adaptation

At work and in management…

This approach is characterised by its acceptance, understanding and valuing of the differences that exist within the workforce. It is recognised that in a diverse working environment – everyone has to change – not just those in a minority – in order to adapt to each other. Out of the mix of differences and similarities something new is created that is greater than the some of its individual parts.

In customer relationships…

Customers feel acknowledged and part of a two-way processes of seeking understanding through flexibility and adaptation, as well as attempting to incorporate difference into “normal” service delivery. Also the difference are a creative opportunity to enhance the experience of both receiving and delivering service.

A Work-Based Example

Use the scene below to work through the above model.

Scene – On Stage

A potential freelance employee reveals a phobia which results in him being dropped from a job after an offer is accepted

A conversation in the street

Amy: Hello Sam, long time no see!

Sam: Oh, hiya! Yes, I’ve been on tour. Back now. How’s the world of corporate training.

Amy: Busy busy! Actually I am glad I have bumped into you. We’ve just won a contract to do some communications training with Eurostar.

Sam: That’s great. Are you going to use role play again?

Amy: Yes, I am working with three actors and the good news for you is that I am stilling looking for actor number 3. What are you doing in November?

Sam: Free the whole month. Surprise surprise.

Amy: Well, how about 14 days work at £150 a day?

Sam: Oh brilliant. I’ll put it straight in my diary.

(Sam gets diary out and starts to write dates in)

Amy: Yes, we have 14 days; we’ll be working with all staff, even train drivers and for half of the workshops we go through the Channel Tunnel to work in Calais.

(Sam stops writing)

Sam: Oh.

Amy: What’s up?

Sam: I am not sure I ever told you. Tunnels are out for me. Bad Claustrophobia.

Amy: Oh, I didn’t know.

Sam: No, it hasn’t ever really come up before.

Amy: That rather screws things up.

Sam: I don’t have a problem with cross channel ferries.

Amy: No, but the client might. I mean, that’s one of their major competitors.

Sam: Ah.

Amy: Sorry, Sam. I think I might have to ask you to pass on this one…

(Model drawn from Thomas, R. Redefining Diversity, AMACOM, 1996, Gillian Shapiro, SHAPIRO Consulting, Research and Training 2002 – Gillian is one of my co-authors on the book: “E:Quality”)

Some Killer Diversity Quotes


Here are some of my favourite diversity quotes. They are useful for discussion in training sessions and as a warm up for a meeting about diversity.

“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”
Margaret Mead

“No single tradition monopolizes the truth. We must glean the best values of all traditions and work together to remove the tensions between traditions in order to give peace a chance.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and Scholar

“The wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men.”
John F. Kennedy

“America is not like a blanket—one piece of unbroken cloth. America is more like a quilt— many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven together by a common thread.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”
Judy Garland

“We may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
Whitney Young, Jr.

“We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, even alone in genders.”
Maya Angelou

“Men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they are often separated from each other.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Diversity is not about how we differ. Diversity is about embracing one another’s uniqueness.”
Ola Joseph

“A good way to start a conversation about whether a corporate culture is inclusive is to ask, “What would your daughter think about working here?” or, “Do you think your daughter—or niece or granddaughter—would find it easy to make as successful a career here as you have?”
Alison Maitland

“All landlords know that the quality of their repairs and maintenance operations, above all their services, determines how they are judged  by their customers. These customers are an increasingly diverse group  – including households headed by women, individuals with disabilities, elderly or young residents, people of different ethnic or  faith backgrounds, or households comprising lesbian, gay or bisexual people.”
Rt Hon Nick Raynsford

Diversity Collisions


We call the colliding of one person’s culture with another a diversity collision. A diversity collision occurs when there is a lack of knowledge and a lack of role clarification.

In a multicultural environment there are so many conflicting values and messages about the way to do things that communication and job performance may be negatively affected.


When the person does not get the response he or she expects or when the rules are not clear, one or more things will happen:

  • Anger (or frustration, impatience, etc.). Tensions develops in a relationship when the person whose expectations are not met attributes that failure to deliberate efforts on the part of the other person to disregard the injured person’s values or moral standards. The injured person might become angry or aggressive, might try to convince others of the unfairness of the offending culture, and might even act out feelings of rage.
  • Lowered expectations. When hostility continues to build over time in a relationship, the injured person develops chronic lowered expectations of the other person, especially with regard to the other’s role in the organisation.
  • Withdrawal. Another response is to try to repress feelings and withdraw from full participation. The isolated person may feign understanding or acceptance but really feels like ‘a stranger in a strange land’.
  • Termination. Another response is to terminate the interaction or the relationship. In an organisational environment, the employee resigns, hoping to find a new job with people ‘more like me’ or people who are ‘more accepting of me’.
  • Assimilation. Assimilation results from ongoing diversity collisions in which a person is expected to learn and conform to the dominant culture’s way of doing things. In a work setting in which an employee feels different and devalued for the difference, the employee may eventually learn to ‘fit in’. In this situation the learning is one-sided; the person who is different is expected to abandon his or her way of doing things, thus losing some of the different perspective that might have been valuable to the organisation.
  • Competing Factions. Another phenomenon to be aware of is that if cultural collisions in an organisation continue over time, the injured parties may seek and find allies, people who are more like themselves. The resulting factions may turn the organisational environment into a tension-filled arena for competition over scarce rewards or resources such as promotions, money, training and development programs and recognition.

from the work of our colleagues, Gillian Shapiro and Jean Woollard 2002

All About Identification – The Diversity Mix


Identity is my sense of who I am. Identity is my sense of my self. Identity is what I associate myself with, link myself to. Identity is what makes me me. Often, identity is what I call myself, and, if I am influenced by it, it is what others call me.

Identity can be a choice. I can choose to identify myself with a cause. “I am a vegetarian”.

Identity can be something we haven’t chosen, something we inherited or were born with: “I am a woman”.

Identity can also be relative. We gain it from our comparison with others, and with “standards” and prevailing attitudes and values:

“I am short”

“I’m not very academic”

“I’m not a go getter”

The strength of how we emotionally associate ourselves with something determines the strength of our “identity” in terms of that something.

In a way, it is the extent to which something “bothers” us that creates negative identity, and the extent that something “energises” or positively motivates us that creates a more positive identity.

We don’t have just one identity, though often one or more tend to dominate. They also change with situations. My different identifications are my “diversities”:

I Am I Am I Am

I am a man.

I am middle aged.

I am a manager.

I am a cancer survivor.

I am an owner of property.

I am not good when asked to speak in public.

Each of these will come more or less to the fore in different situations and they could even be mapped, like slices of a cake representing their importance in any given situations:

I am a man (60%)

I am a manager (20%)

I am a cancer survivor (10%)

I am an owner of property (5%)

I am not good when asked to speak in public (5%)

This is a rough estimate of my diversity “mix” on a typical day. Of course, if I am asked to speak at a business conference, on that day, my diversity mix will change as I become identified mostly with being a manager who is not good at speaking in public! If I go for a check up at the doctor, the fact of me being a cancer survivor may shoot up in terms of identification.

So, it can be dangerous to fix our view of someone’s diversity mix, because it changes from day to day – more in some people than others.

Reading the diversity mix

However, being able to read the mix in any given situation is a key skill to managing diversity – some of which is overt and clear, some of which is more hidden.

What does your own diversity mix look like?

What different situations change it?

How do you like to be treated when different diversities come to the fore?

Our approaches and responses also have to be diverse!

Sometimes I want one of the diversities in my diversity mix to be acknowledged and respected more than others. Sometimes that mix changes even during one conversation! It can change from day to do, with mood and circumstances. Empathy is one way to tune into it. We get into the shoes of the other person, reaching out with our attention, our listening and we try to feel with the person. Sometimes empathy doesn’t work. Sometimes we have to maintain a distance and simply wait, enquire. Often the needs of a customer aren’t even obvious to them! Then, empathy is the last thing we need as we might get too drawn in or become selective in responding only to “feeling”, to emotional information. Sometimes customer care isn’t about empathising but in being in a different state. The customer might want us to be apathetic (without fellow feeling), detached and even “cold”. Sometimes this is what patients want when they just want facts from their doctor. Sometimes we may even play a bit of a “game” of being antipathetic, telling the customer off or holding a firm line that stops unacceptable behaviour.

The Real Challenge of Equality and Diversity


Businesses are well aware of their responsibilities to comply with equality and diversity legislation. For example, in social housing, various frameworks exist to help with this. Yet, I’ve often been witness to high level conversations where the differences between equality and diversity are not clearly understood. The danger of using the phrase “equality and diversity” is that the two words become a kind of single phrase, a more general term, and the specific and important differences between equality and diversity are ignored and skated over.

Quite a few years back, I co-authored a book called “E:Quality“. Here we began to really explore the differences and overlaps between the concepts and practices of equality and diversity. That book was based on research across Europe within the telecommunications sector. In more recent years, I’ve been looking at equality and diversity more closely within social housing.

So, let’s get back to basics. Equality is about fairness and equal right of access.  Diversity is about the right to be different, and for that difference to be acknowledged and reasonably taken into account in practice.

Here it is again: equality – the right to be treated fairly. Diversity, the right to be treated differently.

The Right to be Equal or Different?

Now, we are on dangerous territory here, especially with the word “diversity”. In purist view diversity, everyone has the right to be treated as a unique species of one.  In a more realist view, diversity is about how we self-identify and what categories of difference we put ourselves into, and are put into by others. Ethnic diversity, ability and disability diversity, sexual identity, age, to name but a few. Our “diversities” can be as simple as “male and female”, or as subtle as “shy or outgoing”. Some diversities are enshrined in law and linked to equality legislation. For example, age or sexual discrimination legislation.

At the most basic level, our approach to diversity must comply to all relevant legislation and accepted codes of practice. Already we may have a problem here, because some tenants may not identify themselves exactly with what the law labels them as. I may not see myself as “elderly” even as I draw a pension. I may not see myself as disabled, simply because I am in a wheelchair. The recent Paralympics transformed many people’s images of what diversity means generally, and they certainly heard a wider and deeper range of self-definitions coming from the sports men and women themselves.

The Right to Be Me

Equality is the right to be treated fairly. Diversity is a dual concept. At one level it represents the society-defined (and sometimes enshrined in law) categories of difference between us. At another level, diversity is how we define ourselves, sometimes, but often not entirely in tune with, legal definitions. Where the law doesn’t allow any room for self-definition, (for example, tax breaks for women, or the age at which you draw your pension), then self-definition comes into play at the border of legality. Where the law does allow room for self-definition, there is an opportunity for enhancing tenant and customer care by offer a flexible response and making adaptations to those self-defined diversities, not only to comply with the law, but also “delight” the customer.

So, what can that mean in practice?

I’m in a wheelchair. I work and feel myself to be fully able. I want this acknowledged and it is for me to call attention to my wheelchair, not you.

I prefer face to face conversations that phone conversations, and I don’t really use email.

I’m a quiet person. I tend to get stressed and sometimes can lose my temper when I’m given too much to do or think about too quickly.

My English isn’t very good, but I’m English.

I don’t want to be called by my first name.

I understand things better when they are written down.

I work night shifts so I can’t always speak on the phone or attend face to face meetings during the day.

I don’t want to be hurried. I want proper time for a conversation.

I  am a tenant and my rent pay your wages, so you should listen to me.

I don’t speak English very well, but I understand it a lot better than I speak it.

I’m not an aggressive person, I’m just quite full on sometimes.

I am a tenant, not a customer.

I’m a professional person and expect to be treated so. I want  my knowledge and experience acknowledged.

Some of these may seem more like attitudes. They become “diversities” when they persist over time and when they are valued highly by the person. The person identifies strongly with them. It’s a big part of “who am I”. The test of this is when the diversity is experienced as being devalued, ignored or undermined. The response is “you are ignoring ME”. The result is an experience of the housing association delivering a lower level of customer or tenant care.

The Importance of Acknowledgement

A big part of this is acknowledgement. We may not have the resources or the wish to meet all diversity needs in a person, but acknowledging their existence and respecting their right to exist goes a long way to creating a positive reaction in a tenant.

Acknowledgement, when authentic, is a big part of perceived customer services. Denying or denigrating a diversity is a major cause of tenant dissatisfaction. Where we can, as well as acknowledging a diversity, we also show flexibility and willing adaptation, the tenant then feels that the organisation is responding to, and valuing their difference, their self-defined uniqueness.  The result is a perceived high level of tenant care.

The ability of an organisation to read, acknowledge and respond to diversity, is the one of the keys to satisfied, and even, delighted tenants.

Often these diversities are small in our view, but huge to the tenant. Slowing down, speaking more clearly, holding a door open, allowing  confusion, going with a chosen nickname, using a preferred communication method, being patient, joining in with humour, allowing and emotional reaction, being aware and sensitive to someone’s background or upbringing, giving leeway to a person, all of these things need not take up too much time, and may cost little or nothing.

Others require adaptation that may draw upon resources we don’t have. Here we may have to stop at acknowledgement of the diversity even as we have to create clear and respectful boundaries of refusal and non-adaptation. Acknowledgement is the key here and it is a skill that can be learned: the skill of active listening, summary and feedback, empathy and emotional intelligence, and clear boundary drawing. Many front-line staff, especially under stress, don’t have this skill.

The Challenge

The challenge for leaders in customer care is to meet equality requirements, comply with diversity legislation, but then go further, and to see tenants as unique, self-defining human beings. Many of these diversities can inspire and enrich a housing association and its community. Some diversities simply lay down the challenge for us to respond smartly, wisely and be prepared to innovate.


The Hidden Diversity Workshop










The Agenda for the Workshop

This workshop starts with the baseline. Customer care needs to ensure that staff are informed and also have “bought into” the underpinning values of equality and diversity and gone beyond the minimal legal requirement of making “reasonable adjustments”. There’s a difference between technically and correctly “doing” reasonable, and also “feeling” and “being” reasonable.

The workshop will  uncover and explore staff beliefs and values about what customer care is, and link it to their stereotypes and values concerning disability. This adds “disability awareness” to “disability compliance”. We’ll look at the difference between visible and hidden disabilities, also “labelled” and “unlabelled” disabilities.

But we have to go further. In a diverse customer base, customers are all unique and see themselves as both individual and members of groups with “equal rights”. Training here is about staff really “getting”this idea, and seeing how we need to be skilled at “multitasking” in this area – being able to see the customer simultaneously as an individual AND a member of a demographic group with generic rights and needs. This is about being able to be both situational and contextual, individual AND organisation focused, able to “juggle” different needs and know when to apply systems clearly and rigidly and when to flex and use individual initiative.

Here the workshop will be experiential and interactive:

– enabling deep and meaningful discussion and reflection on organisational expectations and personal values and beliefs around what diversity really is

– allowing participants to practice new skills in recognition, diagnosis of situations, prioritising issues, and knowing how to be flexible to each individual, yet assertive of procedures and the law

It is a training in recognising, valuing and working with diversity, within the context of understood and authentically bought-into values and processes.

“I’m visually impaired but don’t want to be treated as if I can’t see.”

“I don’t want or need all of these “reasonable” adjustments. I just want “this” in my house.

“I need a ramp around the back of the house, not the front. I don’t use my front door.”

“I want to feel someone s really listening to me here.”

Some disabilities are clinically diagnosable. Others are more self-labelled. We all have a different mix of diversities, some of which may help and some of which may hinder our ability to act in the world in ways we would call satisfactory to ourselves or to others. Some have names, some have therapies, some have “reasonable adjustments” made for them. Others are hidden, sometimes even from ourselves. We are all born perfect in our imperfections! We are on very dangerous territory when organisations and “others” label those imperfections even AS imperfection, and when they label them and impose those labels onto us. Yet, in a customer-deliverer interaction, often it is the hidden diversities that may be at play – our inability to take in information, a “trigger” that makes us respond fearfully, an inability to read tables of numbers or understand money matters over the telephone. We may not be aware of our quick temper, or we may not be well physically coordinated.

We may also be pre-diagnosis – we may stumble on stairs or during a conversation because of a medical condition yet to be identified, or never diagnosed in the first place. The important thing is not to label the diversity but to be able to become aware of it and, as a supplier of service, to respond sensible, sensitively and helpfully to it, whilst maintaining the standards of the organisation we work for.

This training in customer care relating to disability will also connect properly with the wider customer care processes for the organisation. There will be standard processes and staff will also need to learn how to “switch” between different types of customer. This ability to switch and change is hard for some staff used to one way of doing things. So, training also needs to identify how we learn new skills, and change in real time, how we switch between processes and then quickly switch back. It’s as much about our tone of voice, our ability to observe ourselves, give and take feedback, learn from mistakes and deal with pressure and stress.

Training Approach

This session of training will need to stick, be real, engaging and challenging. It has to be done in workshop, not classroom format, and it can feel energising and enjoyable. It can change lives, not only for the staff, but also for the customers. Some of the best organisations I have worked with in this area are training their staff to move beyond the notion of “reasonable adjustments”. The term itself already locates a section of society as “off-normal”, needing to be adjusted to! Making “Reasonable adjustments” is still the main approach used when adapting buildings and carrying our upgrade work.

Elsewhere, especially on the front line of customer care, the skill is really about, not adjusting, but in meeting each customer anew, whoever they are, with the ability to listen, quickly and efficiently identify the need and formulate a truthful, valuable response that meets the customer’s individual needs within the clearly explained and mutually understood boundaries of the organisation’s policies, procedures and customer “promises”.

In this case, we don’t “adjust”, we simply meet each customer as an individual with skilful flexibility. We “customise”, and allow the customer to feel they are doing the same. It is kept “real” and in-budget by clearly understood standards and expectations, with clear and assertive communication and active, respectful listening.

The workshop will be:
– interactive
– challenging and based on real examples 
– hands-on
– focused on action and real change back at base

We’ll draw on plenty of stories and examples, as well as useful and usable approaches.

Outcomes of the session will include:
– a deeper dive into customer care
– a more profound and challenging look at this aspect of customer care
– new attitudes and behaviours that will benefit tenants
– new ideas and approaches to take away

We’ll be working during the day with actors working with different scenarios (It is not the dreaded role play!). No one will be getting up on stage and being embarrassed. We work in small groups, informally around real examples. Don’t expect Powerpoint. And we’ll treat you as grown ups. This is aimed at being a highly useful, adult conversation about diversity and customer care.

Managing Diversity – Hidden and Visible



Quite a few years ago, I co-authored a book that reported on our research into Equality and Diversity. That book identified a conundrum that lies at the heart of delivering quality service to those who are variously labelled as “disabled” or “with special needs” among other politically more or less correct terminology.

In our research, which explored equality and diversity in six different European countries, we found that companies were becoming more focused on the need to offer equal opportunity, not only in their internal systems, but also in their dealings with customers and suppliers. In customer care charters, words such as “equality” and “fairness” began to appear, often a mix of text lifted from various “Acts” from government such as the Disability Equality Duty and Disability Discrimination Act 2005. At one of the spectrum is the notion of equality – providing equal and “fair” access to an organisation’s products or services – not only the product or service itself, but also the associated promotional materials and administrative procedures. Discrimination would there be defined as any action or intention that in some way diminishes the customer’s experience of that surface in a way that is unreasonable compared to other customers. Providing “equal” access for example, might include providing tenancy agreements in Braille, or also ramp access to buildings.

Here “equalising” was also about normalising and create an experience of sameness in terms of customer service quality standards. In more commercial sectors, often minimal legal compliance was sought. In other sectors and organisations, a “compliance plus” approach was sought where best practice went beyond minimal compliance.

The Challenge

The conundrum arises when we enter the field of “diversity”, which overlaps with the field of “equality”. If (at least in part), equality is about treating everyone the same, then diversity is about two things: Firstly it chimes well with equality in recognising everyone’s equal right to access a service at the same level quality, no matter who they are, or from which of the many diverse groups in society there are, which includes notions of “able bodied” and “disabled” (These terms have in my view rightly – fallen out of favour, yet we have failed to find new terms that have embedded well). In our book we identified many diversities beyond those of race, gender, ethnic origin and “disability”. We also found diversities in terms of education, locality, attitudes, technology-affinity, experience in life, and many more. Here we arrive at the second aspect of diversity in which “each human being is an unique species of one”. Part of the right to equal access, is the equal right to be seen, to see oneself and to be treated as an individual and different.

How do we offer a flexible customer service that creates equality in terms of consistency and fairness and, at the same time, allow every customer or tenant to be an individual?

This is the challenge of customer care in business and public organisations. Many disabled people do not wish to be tarred with exactly the same brush as others with similar disabilities. Some want to be called disabled. Some don’t. (Some don’t want to be called customers!).

Our book found that there is a profound and vital competence that needs to be, and can be developed in staff – a diversity competence that is able to locate the right balance in each individual situation that homes in on the specific needs of the customer whilst upholding legal and ethical equality requirements. It requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, an ability to diagnose in real time the needs of different people, and an attitude of openness and flexibility. It also requires induction and education of the customers themselves. Good customer service is always a two way process of mutual respect and understanding. It isn’t only about delivery – it is about interaction.

At the heart of a lot of customer service in social housing when catering to those with disability and special needs, is the focus on how to make “reasonable adjustments.” There are plenty of guidelines for this. For example, in social housing, the Disability Rights Commission points out:

“Because buildings and programmes have been designed in a way which excludes disabled people, they are instead often catered for by ‘special’ services. Too often this has resulted in disabled people finding themselves trapped in poor housing conditions, completely unsuitable to their needs. From December 2006 landlords, both private and social, will have new duties to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people, as will those who control or manage rented property. ”

Here’s a bit more: “The law requires landlords to respond reasonably to the requests of disabled occupiers or would be tenants. In order to do this it will often be necessary for (especially larger) landlords to prepare in advance by making arrangements to respond to requests – whether for extra assistance or alternative formats – or simply providing training for staff so that they know that they should implement rules flexibly where there is a disability issue. “

Examples of the types of adjustments which could be made by landlords
in the case of housing include:

· providing tenancy agreements in alternative formats, large
print, Braille, audio tape, easy read
· providing a British Sign Language interpreter during meetings
with tenants who use British Sign Language
· waiving a no pets policy for a disabled person with an assistance
· spending extra time with tenants who have learning difficulties
to ensure they understand their tenancy agreement and general
rules, etc
· a temporary ramp could be provided for a wheelchair user who
has a small step up into their flat.

So, these are the legal “reasonable” requirements that go with customer care. They are the “push” elements of customer care based on a generic view of fairness. Meeting these become the “baseline” for customer care. Staff need – to varying degrees – to know the law here, and how to make the “reasonable” adjustments” necessary.

But this can be done reluctantly, in a minimal compliance kind of way, or with energy and motivation, in a way where “reasonableness” is seen as a useful tool in helping a housing association to discharge or even exceed its duties, creating a sense of “customer satisfaction” that goes beyond the expected minimum.

Hidden and Visible Diversity – the learning challenge

Visible diversity can be, literally, physically visible to us. In different situations we can (often dangerously) label someone by their physical appearance to us, their voice, what they are waiting, how they move, what they say. What is presented to the physical senses is different in each person. It can be tempting to base our response on these visual and auditory clues. Other diversities are hidden. For example, the state of mind or feeling of the person, what has just happened to them before we met them, their history, and the constellation of people and issues around them. The person may identify, more or less, with their physical and emotional state. They may be more or less aware of their own hidden diversity. I may be confused but think I am not. I may be scared but identify myself as brave. Hidden diversity plays into human interaction (which includes customer service) as much as visible diversity. Learning how to respond to hidden diversity allows us to respond to humans an unique individuals. here we go beyond categorising and move into the need to improvise our response for each individual ,in real time.

The Poetry of Change


An anthology of poems exploring the light and shadow side of change

Writer, philosopher, and theatre maker Paul Levy shares fifty of his poems inspired by his work in the field of change and transformation. Founder of the theatre publication Fringe Review, and author of the books “Digital Inferno” and “Technosophy”,

Paul has spent over thirty years researching change and helping people to understand and bring it about in their personal and working lives. These poems can be read for pleasure or as tools to help you reflect on change in your own life. Drawing on the lighter and darker side of human experience, these poems will entertain, educate, disturb and inspire. This book offers a very different and creative way to explore change in your life.

Praise for Paul Levy’s book, Digital Inferno: “‘An exciting book, full of hope for the future.” Sue Palmer, Author of Toxic Childhood “A fascinating and thought-provoking survey of our digital times.’ Cliff McNish, author of The Doomspell Trilogy “Brilliantly conceived and written.” Angus Jenkinson, author of From Stress to Serenity


Order The Poetry of Change

In the UK: (In paperback) (On Kindle)

In the United States: (In paperback) (On Kindle)







Paul Levy




The Real role of the Flip Chart in Unonferences and Workshops


Flip charts are powerful workshop tools.

They don’t work well in a large room with a large group if they are being used by a presenter to present information to an audience. Just a few rows of seats back and people will struggle to see and read what is on them.

I’ve sat in many a conference and workshop room and found a facilitator or presenter misusing a flip chart. Their tiny, illegible writing seems to serve little purpose. People in the audience soon switch off or zone out.

Even when a facilitator is being more interactive in their style, using a flip chart at the front of a room rarely works well. There is a skill to it:

– writing clearly and big enough using dark ink pens (Red is impossible to read in a large room)

– writing less rather than more

– capturing ideas from a group in ways that truly reflect what they are saying

– not blocking the view of other people as you write

It is hard to get these things right and there are better ways to do it.

When the Facilitator or Leader Grabs the Pen

When a facilitator locates a flip chart at the front of a room and grabs a pen, he or she is claiming status and setting up the flip chart as a tool for presentation. Even when they collect ideas from the audience, it is a status driven activity (“I’ve got the gun!”).

I’ve noticed that when, later, in the same meeting, a large group breaks out into smaller groups, then can be a reluctance to use the flip chart as the facilitator has modelled control and not empowerment earlier. When they do use it, many mimic the facilitator’s behaviour – one person grabs the pen, stands up, and then leads the group, often writing their own ideas or versions of others’ ideas on the flip chart paper.

This stifles self-organisation and undermined group collaboration. It unbalances the group.

Don’t grab the pen. Don’t lead from the front at the start if you are hoping for the group to self-organise the conversation in an unconference mode. Leave the flip charts to the groups. If you must present ideas, be direct about that – either talk or use as few slides as possible. The best self-organised conversations I have attended have no formal presentation, and the conversation begins in a circle.The facilitator is humble, speaks for as little a time as possible and then aims to disappear. When we head to our group conversation, the flip chart is a tool belonging to the community, not the organisers.

A pile of pens on the floor or in a box is better than pens already set out on the flip chart shelf. Let people get what they need, choose the colours and numbers of pens they want. Don’t do it for them. In one unconference, the flip charts were an option not a default. A group  could go and get one from a corner of the room and had to assemble them themselves! All of this modelled self-organisation.

A Tool for an Unconfence

A flip chart is a much better tool for group work, in the self-organising hands of a smaller group. We gather around the flip chart and pens are readily available to all of us. There may be temporary facilitation or leadership but ultimately the form is one of a circle, gathering around the paper of the chart. What we create, we create together, it belongs to us, and it serves our conversation. When we reach the end of a page, we rip off that page and put it on a wall or lay it on the floor, depending on our needs.

Flip charts are tools for informal, emergent conversation. They can be used for a small group briefing, as long as the proper skills are employed – white paper ready for anything to be written or drawn on it. By anyone. At any time. For an reason.

In my experience, flip charts serve self-organised conversation much better than organised conversation with pre-determined content.

The Flip Chart stands ready and waiting…

In an unconference, flip charts stand waiting for each group. Or they can even be stacked in a corner and only used if needed by the group. In a workshop, flip charts should never dominate the space but instead serve that space. We should be able to move them aside or not use them at all. We need wall space for used pages if captured content is key to the meeting. So the flip chart needs to be placed in a well designed physical space, to get the best out of them. Pens need to be easy to use, not smudgy, and not white board pens that will run out of ink quickly. They should not stink of chemical and we should be able to move the flip charts around easily. They should not fall apart or stand at weird angles.

Flip charts can be lovely pieces of furniture or clunky, annoying ones. It’s all about treating them seriously, with care and skill.

For a small group, they can be a perfect blank canvas for ideas and decisions.

Unconference Quotes








Here are some of my favourite quotes about unconferencing. They offer insights into unconferencing as a way of encouraging self-organised conversations.


“The sum of the expertise of the people in the audience is greater than the sum of the expertise of the people on stage.” Dave Winer (source)


“Unconferences are about empowering attendees to share their expertise. They give participants the opportunity to have an unfiltered exchange of innovative ideas.” Rebecca O. Bagley (source)


“What is an Unconference? It is an exhilarating whirlwind of spontaneity in which participants pitch, select, organize, and deliver sessions all in the same day. A lack of a planned conference agenda keeps audience anticipation high – and organizers a little uncomfortable – right up until the moment it gets published.” Noel Pullen (source)


“The best unconference sessions are led by people who see themselves as facilitating a conversation, not giving a presentation.” Transparency Camp (source)


“If you convene a session, it is your responsibility to “hold the space” for your session. You hold the space by leading a discussion, by posting a “first question,” or by sharing information about your program. Be the shepherd – stay visible, be as involved as necessary, be a beacon of sanity that guides the group.” Kaliya Hamlin from (source)


“All unconferences have good sessions and bad. Ask anyone who has attended one – they’ll tell you about dud topics, confused session organizers, and the guy who kept taking the floor to talk about his company in session after session. For all their benefits, unconferences have their bad moments too.” Scott Berkun (source)


“An unconference creates an egalitarian moment in time where people from all walks of life (and all levels within an organization) can simply share, learn, communicate and grow.” Mitch Joel (source)


“Don’t bother vetting speaker material and judge quality.  Unconference attendees vote with their feet.” (source)


“Unconferences are known for their flexibility, creativity and ability to seamlessly change course at any moment.” Meetings Imagined (source)


“We all know the best parts of conferences are, of course, the coffee breaks and social events, where you get a chance to pore over someone’s laptop for 15 minutes and learn one new really cool thing you can actually use, have late-night discussions over serious stuff, helped along by a few drops of amber. Why not just make this the conference itself? Provide coffee and tea all day long, lots of muffins and biscuits.” Ewan McIntish (source)


“Unconference sessions are conversations, not lectures. And if you can…
Speak about your own experiences and knowledge, chip in, and share what you have. Unconferences (unlike most traditional conferences) are for sharing.” Andy Mabbett (source)


A critical view of unconferences…

“Why is it necessary to do away with planned and efficient presentations just to get the discourse going? Unlike dinner conversations, presentations are packaged to deliver clear messages (or ok, should be designed to). Sure, unconferences can begin with presentations but because of the informality of it all, no presentation is ever thought out.” and open the floor. I can do that over a dinner.” Kevin Cheng (source)


100 Links to Unconference Images


Here are links to a range of unconference images to be found in the public domain. They all give a different perspective and flavour of unconferencing.

I’ll try to keep the list up to date, as links can go dead after a while. Please do add your own and I’ll include them.

Images of Unconferences in action

Co-creating the agenda

Signing up for sessions

A more formal space – we can still create agendas together

Unconferences can have a very informal feel

An opening circle, another, another

We can use found spaces to meet together

An unconference “half circle”

Too many unconferences still focus on a top table and a projector

A huge unconference and another here

Meeting round the table

The simple circle of chairs – it’s all you need!

We can open the circle outdoors – and here too

A very well designed unconference space (using Open Space as a method)

Spaces can open for a conversation anywhere

A small circle of chairs – how to claim a formal room for an unconference

You don’t even need chairs!

A well signposted breakout group

Unconference agendas

This agenda uses post it notes for sessions and for signing up to attend

A well laid out agenda

Multi-coloured and very informal agenda

Handwritten, home-made feel

A simple, single colour agenda

Another agenda

An agenda that has been co-created in advance of the event

A pre-designed empty agenda looks smart but can reduce the feeling of empowerment on the day

Write ups and reports

A lovely blackboard, graphic write up of an unconference

Use of graphic illustration to record an unconference

Some cartoons about unconferencing

About the purpose of an unconference

About the spirit of “un” in an unconference

Logos, signs and symbols

(Please ensure you seek relevant permission from the owners of these signs before using any of them)

Post-it logo

A little unconference equation

A conference no entry sign and another here

An unconference logo using the London Underground as a sign

The “unrules” of an unconference – also here

A bold invite

An evocative invite

Another invite/flyer using social media style graphics

A pitch for unconferences

A stock photo style image for an unconference – yeuch!

A definition graphic

A lovely circle image 

This one focuses on “un”

Flip charts rather than projector screens

A graphic linking collaboration with unconferencing

An example of an invitation

Checking in to an unconference – this looks too organised for me!

Visit the Unconference Realm

Creating Your Own Unconference – A Viewpoint


Sadly unconferences have become a fixed model in the minds of some people, just as Open Space Technology has become fixed in the mind of some OST facilitators.

Open Space Technology is a method often used under the title of an “unconference”. It is described in detail in this “users’ guide“.  There are less fixed definitions of what an unconference is, but you’ll often find the idea that there should be no charge for it, fixed in some people’s minds. For others there is always an agenda that goes up on a wall somewhere.

For other people using unconferencing and open space, they see it more as an “impulse” or a “spirit”. Opening space means allowing people to open up their own conversations and work together in ways they self-organise. Unconferencing means whatever is the opposite to designing in advance without participant involvement, in letting participants set their own agenda. The spirit of “opening space” and “unconferencing” is about letting go of hierarchical control, releasing, and getting into a circle to design our own agenda.


Many fix unconferencing as a model by referring back to its first ever appearance in the world. Yet others see unconferencing as a spirit, a new way of thinking and doing meetings. But that way can take different forms in different situations.

Harrison Owen, the originator of Open Space Technology says the label “technology” was not created by him, but was a label stuck to it by someone else, early in its development. He says that Open Space “escaped” one day. through him. Unconferences similarly have a history rooted in Legend.

But opening space is no single method, and nor are unconferences.

The spirit of unconferencing, however it is done, seeks to place control of the agenda, the content, and as much of the process as possible into the hands of the community, the self-organising group.

As soon as we fix an unconference it turns into a conference.
As soon as we fix open space, space closes down.

The “un” in unconference, unravels, undoes, unwinds and unties. It frees up, simplifies, and releases. Control becomes spontaneous, developing and emergent and ultimately spurious.

There are no permanent rules for either unconferences or open space. Even their minimum structures may prove unnecessary, irrelevant, or “one less thing to do” on the day. The facilitator is open, responsive, playful and humble.

Unconferencing opens space. Opening space is essentially improvisation. The minimal methods of Open Space Technology and Unconferencing have proved fairly durable over the years. They become useful tools in practising the spirit of opening space. But that doesn’t mean they must become generically applied dogma. For then open space and unconferences die.

Are you ready for an Unconference?


This is a short, direct and cheeky checklist to help you decide if you are ready to go for an unconference. If you tick most of the items, an unconference might well be your next step

The Unconference Readiness Checklist

The Unconference Readiness Checklist

Our conference last year was a day of boredom

People left at lunchtime at our last conference because the content wasn’t relevant or engaging for them

We need a conversation that people really feel ownership of

We can’t predict what people are going to want to talk about

We need to refresh our next conference

We want to energise the conversation

We are prepared to risk not knowing the agenda at our next conference

We think that the people in the room need to create the agenda

We want to empower our staff

People in our organisation are tired of being presented to

We need an event where people can explore what they are passionate or restless about

People are cynical about our current ways of meeting

An unconference will make a refreshing change to our usual way of meeting

It’s time to do things differently

People are ready for a conversation on this topic

There is support for this from senior managers and an openness to listen to and embrace what might come out if it

We need to respond more quickly to what is going on in and outside our organisation

We need  more creative buzz in our organisation

We need tp practice less top down ways of communicating

Our last conference felt too complex and over-designed

It’s time to breathe some fresh air into our organisation


Visit the Unconference Realm

Do you need a facilitator for your unconference? I can help.

Unconference Gallery

Here are some images from my work in unconferencing. They evoke the spirit and practice of creating, facilitating and participating in an unconference.


The circle – a place of emergent possibility


Participants ready to create the agenda


Unconferences have space to be informal


We can unconference in cafes, not just conference rooms!


We once held unconference breakouts in boats on a lake in Slovenia…


A space to share what we are truly restless about


Getting down to action…


The energy of the group conversations


Sharing ideas and experiences…

A Visual Flavour of Open Space

Creating our own agenda


Groups can be small or large…


We met in a theatre space at the Edinburgh Fringe


Intense huddles…


A participant announces a session


Yours truly…


Insights into actions…


Choosing sessions


The purpose of facilitation is to disappear…

“Take a Nap!” Harrison Owen, creator of Open Space


The circle awaits…

breakout 31sm

Participants choose topics they are passionate about


Transforming the board room into an unconference space


Circles within circles to open space for a real conversation


Unconferencing begins in childhood and gets lost as we grow up into hierarchies


We find our conversation opening up in the circle

Visit the Unconference Realm

Do you need an unconference facilitator?


Paul Levy, facilitator and author of the book, Digital Inferno

Help with your Unconference

I’ve been facilitating unconferences for many years, all over the world, with different organisatons in different sectors.

Clients include

The Social Media Leadership Forum

The World Fringe Congress


The University of Brighton

The Science Policy Research Unit

BBLF – The Bitcoin and Blockchain Leadership Forum

National Housing Federation

Legal and General


Digital Workplace Group

Why not energise or re-energise your next meeting or conference?

If you’d like help with creating and facilitating an unconference, do contact me.