I want to take this opportunity in mid-engagement to let you know how the consulting work we’ve been doing has gone. I hope you’ve heard by now that it’s gone well, but I’d like to fill in some of the gaps and catch up on my own understanding of how it has worked.
So the introduction was made by Rohan G (then at NESTA) with whom I’d already talked about who we as a loose network could construct a consulting offer. Rohan suggested that we talk to Catherine Fieschi at Counterpoint about what they wanted to do to build some form of platform for discussing and engaging with people about what cultural relations mean in the twenty-first century. I’m glad to say that after I’d explained what we would do in some detail, Catherine agreed with me that our Crowds, Tribes and Teams methodology would be an interesting way to unpick the brief and get to something practical.
We initially agreed to carry out two half-day sessions at the Crowd and Tribe levels. For those who haven’t been paying attention, that means:
10-15 of our members meet with a similar number of your people in a relaxed space for free conversation. People are briefed beforehand on the issues facing the client, but the conversation is allowed to wander in the same way that it does at the Tuttle Club itself. It’s an opportunity for blue-sky thinking.
7-10 more specialist contributors are identified to drill down further into issues raised in the Crowd session. These people meet again with a similar number of representatives from the client in a series of short facilitated conversations. The main output is a document detailing what we’ve learned so far, a strategic approach to untangling some of the problems and a few immediately realisable benefits and projects.
We agreed that if team work were required and there was something we could do for them we would discuss that after these two, but that either side could walk away after this first bit of work if things didn’t work out.
Now, the process for bringing a crowd together had already begun a few weeks previously. I had been through my address book and chosen the people that fell into the following categories: had been to tuttle a few times; in my address book; freelance/flexible; I would trust them to take in with me to a client. I e-mailed them and asked for some basic information that I could use in marketing materials: a profile pic; a 140-char biography; a summary of skills and interests; and the tribes to which they feel they belongg. I e-mailed 99 people – if you’re reading this and think you should have been included let me know. Exclusion is a bazillion times more likely to be about my poorly managed gmail address book than to be about my discomfort with taking you into a client.
Anyhow, about 45 people came back to me and a few more trickled in since then. At least when I went to pitch the idea to Counterpoint, I had a pretty good idea of the high callibre of person I might have at my disposal. And then having secured the engagement, I e-mailed the 45-ish to say “this is what the gig is and when, the first 14 people to e-mail me back get to come and play” or words to that effect. I then went out for an afternoon walk. And when I got back I had 22 messages in my mailbox from eager tuttle beavers. You are lovely.
So the quick-draw 14 were, in order of alacrity: Steve Lawson,
Al Robertson, John Dodds, Ben Mason, Brian Condon, Suw Charman-Anderson, David Jennings, Patrick Hadfield, Andy Roberts, Caroline Bottomley, Alison Wheeler, David Wilcox, Richard Stacy and Ben Walker. I knew that I could take any one of them into the client for a half-day and create something very good, but to have 15 of us had mind-blowing potential. I’m glad to say that we fulfilled that potential, and minds were blown (including mine).
I’d suggested that we meet in a neutral space. Both sessions were held at Wallacespace in Covent Garden. Lovely, lovely space, thank you. And we started with one of their excellent lunches. Then we went and sat in the “living room” for the afternoon. I facilitated. Catherine gave a brief intro to the brief and we did introductions – it turned out that we had a surprising number of musicians in the group both tuttlers and BC people, though as Steve Lawson was among the first to say hello, perhaps he just set the tone!
We went into conversation. As with Tuttle on Fridays there was no more format than this. From time to time, I would ask them to pause and take the temperature to see if everyone was OK or if people needed a chance to move and talk to new people, but I resisted the temptation to “do” more. After 3 hours of these chats I started the process of convergence to create some placeholders so that we could recall the conversation later. I stressed throughout the afternoon that it was about having the conversation rather than creating a document. And I tried to keep this documentation process true to that. Firstly, I asked people to write (preferably longhand) a paragraph or two describing what they’d learned or found out in the afternoon. We had a wander round the room and had a look at what each other had written.
Then I suggested that people get into Tuttler/BC pairs and come up with three bullet point ideas that needed to be captured. We then played the “same or different” sorting game on a big table to create some concept groupings. And that was all.
It feels uncomfortable to go into the details of the feedback we got without specific permissions, but they loved it. Everyone went away smiley and energized. I’ve asked for some feedback that we can use publicly.
So then a week later, six of us went back for more. The second session was still conversational but with more structure to help us boil down to a set of projects for consideration. Into the pot I threw a couple of exercises stolen from my improvisation idol, Johnnie Moore – for those who know Johnnie’s repertoire these were the collaborative face drawing and the fast-draw product pitching exercise. I threw these in when it felt like time to encourage people to keep thinking together and get away from judging ideas too quickly. We did a coupld of rounds of conversation focusing on getting ideas down and then trying to grow them organically (next time I’ll also use Johnnie’s “Yes… and…” exercise)
And then we split. I put the BC people on one side of the room and brought the Tuttle team to huddle around a table together. The BC people were tasked with bringing together all of the (potentially duplicated or overlapping) projects into a simple list. We, on the other hand started looking together for a way forward, a way to add further value. After some meandering and group contemplation, Brian Condon gave us the lead by suggesting a frame for categorising the projects: a y-axis of difficulty or perceived difficulty and an x-axis continuum of novelty between “Yawn! I thought they’d do that” and “Wow! I never thought they’d do that”. We plotted projects on this frame and by doing so developed the ideas a little to see how they could be made easier and have more wow!ness.
Right now, we’re in a process of choosing, defining and costing the Team projects that will kick off very soon in time to create a social platform for engagement by November.
I really enjoyed doing this and am looking forward to the project work – we’re now looking for more, appropriately open-minded clients to engage in more Crowd and Tribe activities.
And it feels like a time to say something of what I’ve learned or remembered during the process so far. Here are some snippets:
Patience is a virtue, both at the micro level of allowing people time to settle, talk, think and reflect before expecting them to “produce” something, and at the macro level – this is the style of work I’ve wanted to do for at least seven years, but in 2002 I had no idea where on earth I might find 15 likeminded collaborators or be able to convince a client that we could do something useful.
I’m most at home serving the group, allowing them to flower. It’s a beautiful process to observe.
Everyone is creative, capable of creation in one way or another. Categorising people as creatives or managers is fake and doesn’t serve us well, especially in a space where we require innovation and change. People are amazing.
It is possible to bring thirty people together and have a productive conversation without constantly telling them what to do.
My years as a jazz kid have paid off – sitting in smoky cellars in the 70s with a bottle of coca-cola and a packet of crisps, watching and listening to men come together in scratch bands and make beautiful music together is a great preparation for this sort of work.
We could have done this at any time – it’s an obvious move to make to create a consulting offer out of a network of smart people. What I’m pleased about is that we let it emerge, we didn’t rush and we’ve ended up with something far more congruent with the general vibe of the network.
[UPDATE 01/10/09: We've started blogging about the projects that were commissioned as a result of this process]