‘Good enough for now, safe enough to try.’

Earlier this month the Creative People and Places Network hosted a roundtable discussion of my recent paper Multiplying Leadership in Creative Communities, at Watermans Arts Centre in West London. (Intrusive-Sid James-inner-voice: ‘Turnham Green?’ Me-in-Tony Hancock-inner-voice: ‘Well, folk said some nice things, but I don’t think anyone was actually jealous…’*)

The idea behind the event was to bring together some people who might be interested in discussing the ideas in the paper, develop the thinking further and consider how it might apply to their work and their own connections, collaborations and multiplications. The people who came ranged from arts organisations, CPPs, trusts and foundations, Arts Council, and various networks. 

The feedback I’ve received directly in the report has been very positive, with more people than I expected (i.e: more than none – thanks again) taking the trouble to email to say they’d found it useful in articulating their own practice. A couple mentioned it had helped them think through how to describe their work in funding applications. This has been gratifying and reassuring, especially as I’ve had moments of thinking all I’d done was describe the bleeding obvious at length. (This is a feeling not unknown to me. I tell myself it visits other writers too.) Even so, I was nervous the tough-but-fair-tacklers we’d asked to give responses might reveal fresh flaws. Or worse: people would feel obliged to come but metaphorically shrug.

Anyway, that didn’t happen. I’m not going to try to summarise the whole discussion, or repeat the generally positive comments, but share a few thoughts arising for me.

It was said – quite rightly – that the kind of practice described was not new but had a long history, both practical and theoretical. I hope that is clear in the report. People responded positively to multiplying and amplifying as more useful terms than accelerator and scale up. I wondered afterwards if the latter words are more tied up in ownership/exploitation of asset/property and growth mindsets, and therefore ultimately about extraction of value rather than creation of common value, which at least my own take on Multiplying Leadership is more interested in.

An important challenge raised was about the relationship between ‘learning’ and ‘impact’. This came, I think, from the ideas about funding for learning in the paper – a formulation stemming from Toby Lowe and Collaborate’s work. ‘Is learning enough?’ is a fair question, and connects to discussion around measurement which some felt the paper was ambivalent about, which is probably true. The point was made that the sectors involved in creative communities need to be able to talk clearly and powerfully about impact – not least with communities themselves. It was suggested that it may be better to consider CPP as a ‘pioneer’ type project – breaking new ground etc – rather than purely an action learning project. (In reality CPP has arguably been an action research project with a strong ‘impact’ focus.)

Mental health and resilience of people involved in multiplying leadership was a big concern in the discussion, with a strong interest in greater articulation of unacceptable behaviours of ‘leaders’ and the larger system. (The report is clear the onus to be ‘resilient’ should not be pushed on to individuals.) The section in the report which I described ‘dividing leadership’ was felt to be mild compared to some behaviours people had experienced or seen, including bullying cultures. This was, I’d say, deliberate: I described ways of working which are ‘acceptable’ but not as productive or creative. I agree with the need to state what’s not acceptable, and that this is more common than most would commonly say. This applies even in hierarchical, target-driven situations. Some argued for a push to ‘clear things out’ in #MeToo fashion, rather than ‘toxic leaders’ simply moving on to the next job and the knowledge about them being only informally shared.

There was some consensus about the need to develop practical tools that support a positive ‘multiplying leadership’ culture, or to share more effectively ones that already exist. An example was given of the Transition Towns Network which has moved to entirely collaborative decision-making. This had been a long process but an important one. You can read more about this approach on their website. I especially like the idea of ‘dynamic steering not predict and control’. A phrase from the discussion which resonated was ‘Good enough for now, safe enough to try.’ 

Things don’t have to be perfect to be worth doing: actually that might be the main idea I take away from this. From the discussion I took that idea – not new to me, but reinforced – the need to push beyond learning to what learning makes happen, but not to skip over learning, and a commitment to work more with others to get a real range of different Multiplying Leadership practice out there, including practical tools. 

* I know you may not come here for the lols, dear reader, but I had to get that out of my head. Put it down as me doing a bit of self-care and forgive me.