A decade of Thinking Practice

Thinking Practice is officially 10 years old today. It is, to put it mildly, an odd time for an anniversary. As it became clear the virus was heading our way, I was in one of those phases all fortunate slashies (writers/ researchers/ facilitators/ strategists/ etc) have every now and again: working weekends, getting up earlier and going to be bed later to try and fit in all the work, conversations, events and travel, alongside board and other voluntary commitments, and holding on for April when deadlines would slip into the rear-view one way or the other as I took a few days off. As life tightened, I had to pull out of giving a keynote at a conference because of an awful cough. 111 told me lack of other symptoms meant it was probably nothing to worry about, but I didn’t want the room emptying before my eyes. (Not the first time I’ve worried about that happening, of course.) 

Since then, I’ve experienced the uncertainty, anxiety, and general unease many others have, even though I am very used to – and ordinarily enjoy – working from home, meeting with people by phone or video to avoid unnecessary travel, making sourdough bread and getting my hair cut by my wife. I have work to do, which is fortunate and reassuring to the brain, and understanding clients. There have been complications and stresses in life, but I am in general, and touching wood, alright, as my Dad would sum it up.

I find myself, though, unable to do quiet the forward-looking reflection about Thinking Practice I thought I’d write today, but still wanting to mark the occasion. 

Things are still changing rapidly in the cultural sector, as people work out how best to meet the new challenges brought by the lockdown – or the old challenges put into fresh light by the crisis. I will write more about those another time, but in all areas of life it strikes me this crisis has mainly highlighted the baked-in flaws and strengths: what, if it weren’t too tender a phrase, you might call the underlying conditions and vulnerabilities. This applies domestically, politically, economically and culturally. One is a tendency to rush to judgement, so I am going to hold off that today as it’s too soon, or too late, for me to talk about a new normal. No doubts it’s revealing my own baked-in qualities too, including a tendency to want to fall quiet at times when it seems others are pushing forward to say something. (This may be a flaw, a virtue, or both, I’ve never been sure.) 

From today’s position of uncertainty – mid-lockdown, mid-shift, mid-change and yes, middle-age – it’s been a good decade. I used to say I wanted to be useful, interested and paid, and I’ve consistently been all three. (One rather less than when I worked at ACE, mind.) I’ve worked with great people – too many to list without it turning into a long list of names – but not too much with The Great and The Good, which is fine by me. I’ve avoided working with repressive regimes, whilst being able to do some things internationally. I’ve also, I really hope, been able to make and share tools for others to use and adapt in making culture in the broadest sense of that word. For me the tools of writing, planning, facilitating, creation become more powerful the more they are shared, rather than locked down behind paywalls or TMs. 

I hope this is visible in my publications which illustrate a large chunk of what I’ve achieved in the last 10 years. (It doesn’t reflect the work with individuals and organisations that often can’t be written down.) You can see some areas of focus: adaptive resilience, leadership, diversity, engagement, and trace elements of poetry.

I started Thinking Practice writing about adaptive resilience, which I think has been helpful more than unhelpful. Though I’ve at times felt a bit guilty for helping popularise the term, I know the frameworks and thinking have been useful to people running organisations in the real world, and have helped make some organisations adapt to work and last as they need to make their cultural impact. The notion of resilience may not make the walls of neoliberalism come tumbling down, it’s true, but it can be useful in the meantime

I think what we’re seeing right now demonstrates the emphasis on core purpose, assets, networks and other elements of adaptive resilience. (Not to mention reserves.) It also brings out the need for change which was always there in my writing on adaptive resilience – perhaps especially in the paper co-written with Tony Nwachukwu – and the connections to artists’ livelihoods in the co-written paper The Art of Living Dangerously

(When I get to it I will be reflecting more on the uses of adaptive resilience thinking in framing responses to the virus crisis that might lead to positive change not just retrenchment. There are things in those papers which have been ignored – especially around undercapitalisation – which we will see the effects of in the coming months and years.)

I’ve also done a lot of work on leadership – most recently Multiplying Leadership for Creative People and Places, but also Inside Outside Beyond for The Bluecoat, both of which include frameworks I know leaders I respect and admire have found helpful in their work. Of course, the frameworks also draw on the work of such people, trying to describe it in ways that make spread the example, and I’ve been really grateful over the last decade for the generosity of many people in sharing their experiences. 

Looking at those publications, I’m pleased that there’s a strong strand of work around diversity in different ways, a term which has changed in emphasis and meaning a lot over the last decade: it’s become more complex, more urgent, more contested. I design my involvement in such work increasingly carefully, but maybe still not always carefully enough, as a now older, straight, white male. I have the tangled knots of inclusion and exclusion that come from working class childhood and bookshelved, sourdough and cultural capital-heavy maturity, but have generally concluded there’s a place for me in opening up possibility rather than opting out, if I choose collaborators carefully. (Also, I note, I don’t tend to get commissioned by men who broker their own power against change, of whom there are plenty.) That’s not always comfortable, but comfort is not a priority. You can still see online a film made with me about Arts Council England’s ‘creative case for diversity’ by Sarah Pickthall and Abbie Norris. I might put some things differently now but I still like it a lot. (Stockton people: please don’t ask why I keep walking over that bridge…)

I have done a lot of work since 2013 with Creative People and Places – starting as Critical Friend to the bait programme in South East Northumberland and then various research papers and learning summaries. CPP is, I think, probably the most significant policy intervention in England over the last decade, and it’s been a privilege to observe, report and describe how it’s evolved. I’m very proud of Faster But Slower, Slower But Faster as a piece of writing – definitely one where I tied myself in knots in order to (try to) escape Houdini-like to make what I was saying stick. Multiplying Leadership is my most recent big piece of public writing and will, I hope, be useful to people in and after the corona crisis.

Finally, you can see from my publications I did find time to do more with my poetry – not necessarily to write more, as the world, I have learnt, does not need me in poetry-production mode very often. I look at the last 10 years and am pleased it includes How I Learned to Sing, a chunky New & Selected Poems, put out and sold out by Smokestack Books, and a New Writing North Read Regional Choice in 2014. (Click on that last link for a free pdf version.) I continue to add poems to a pile for another book one day, and to write to commission given half a chance. 

This is a different kind of writing than the research, or the unpublished board development reports, reviews, business plans and strategies and options appraisals I’ve done, and a different kind of imaginative thinking than the coaching and mentoring I trained in and love doing. But they are, for me, all part of the same drive: to make and pass on the skills to make fair and healthy cultures. To use my entire self and be useful to others, no more important than anyone else, no less. As I said earlier, it’s been a good decade, for all its challenges, and the next one is undoubtedly going to be different – as was this last from the more besuited decade that preceded it.

The biggest of the poetry commissions I’ve done – literally – is The Infinite Town, a public poem on a plinth on Stockton-on-Tees High Street. I’ll close with it, partly because like everything else at the moment it takes on an extra resonance as I imagine it on a silent high street, partly because I sense some people would find it less confusing if I stuck to the consultancy talk rather than poetry, and I want to assert that life’s too short for that kind of adaptation. 

THE INFINITE TOWN

A slice of future
Has tracked us down
The river’s freshness
The after flash of fireworks skies

These stones listen
To the infinite town
In the rasp of morning
The slow breath of dusk

A hope
That now and here
May be somewhere to settle
And train ourselves to dream

So, happy birthday to me, thanks to everyone I’ve worked with, and, of course: stay well, stay safe, stay home if you can.