Why I wrote the Mind Manual

The Mind Manual - transparent.png

My new book, The Mind Manual, is out in the UK today. It's an illustrated guide to how your mind works, written in collaboration with Mindapples and published by Octopus Publishing.

You can buy it here.
(hint hint)

It's all new content, using the same accessible approach we took to A Mind for Business in 2015. I'm really proud of it for two reasons.

Firstly, after ten years of talking to the public about mental health and wellbeing, this book has finally given me a chance to share some of the things I've learnt from all the tens of thousands people I've spoken to. I've been sharing what I've learnt and asking people to do the same, and I've learnt a lot, not just about the mind, but about what actually helps people.

In particular, I've found that setting goals and trying to "think positive" is less important than feeling accepted, and accepting yourself. As I put it in the book, "Good mental health isn’t about constantly trying to change yourself, it’s about learning to live with yourself." What people seem to get from Mindapples is a sense that they are normal, that what they experience isn't weird or unhealthy, but part of being human. Understanding that seems to be more important than trying to change it.

The second is that the book itself has been so beautifully designed and illustrated by the team at Octopus (big love to commissioning editor Sarah Ford and all the team there), and particularly by the amazing illustrator Abigail Read. Abi did an amazing job capturing the essence of Mindapples and her work doesn't just explain the content, it illuminates it.

Some authors just focus on words and even prefer plain, classic styles of presentation, but I am the opposite: if I can use graphics, colours, layout and other visual tools to get my point across, I'm all for it. Perhaps that's because I grew up reading graphic novels and guides to visual communication, or perhaps I'm just illiterate. Either way, I'm proud that this new book isn't just informative, it's a beautiful object too. I even like the thickness of the cover, which shows you what a nerd I really am.

Most of all, though, this book is another piece of the process to make looking after our minds as natural as brushing our teeth. I started Mindapples back in 2008 (look out for our 10th anniversary celebrations later this year), and although the mental health sector has changed hugely for the better since then, there's still a long way to go.

I wrote The Mind Manual because I think understanding our minds should be a basic component of modern life, taught in schools and discussed throughout our life and work. In fact, I find it hard to imagine I could live a good life without knowing what I know now.

So I hope people find this new book as illuminating to read as I found it to write. And most of all, I hope it helps get more people talking about their minds, and looking after themselves and each other. What a nice world that would be.

Order The Mind Manual now

UK  |  US  |  Canada

Management Book of the Year Awards

This week I was at the British Library for the CMI's Management Book of the Year Awards

A Mind for Business was shortlisted in the 'Commuter's Read' category, for books which presented important information in easily-digestible forms. Sadly it didn't win, but I was delighted to be part of it, and particularly since the category choice reflected well on the hard work myself and illustrator Owen Tozer had put in on the illustrations and visual presentation of the book. I was also very proud to be shortlisted alongside the excellent Jo Owen, whose work has been such an inspiration to me.

The overall event was interesting. I'm not a huge fan of business academia - my encounters with business schools has mostly left me feeling they lack contact with the real world and are obsessed with making new theoretical models - but there were some intriguing books listed. The winner was Frugal Innovation, and co-author Jaideep Prabhu struck me as a very impressive man, and thorough in his approach. 

It may say something about the current state of the business world that the winning book was about doing more with less (a mantra of many of my clients these past few years), just as it may be significant that all but one of their management articles of the year were about change and uncertainty. Nevertheless, it's easy to forget just how much hard work goes into developing and informing managers in modern business - and just how many business books are written each year.

So thanks to the judges for reading my book and for granting it a lovely Management Gold five star award (and for the stickers!), and I'll get working to see if I can take home the big prize next time.

On being more interesting

Another year, another blog upgrade. Yes I have taken the plunge into the mobile-first generation and switched www.sociability.org.uk to the juggernaut that is Squarespace. It's taken me quite a bit of getting used to, but it does look lovely on a tiny screen, which is how all the best websites need to be these days.

Aside from the platform though, there are a few other changes at Sociability this month. I'm writing this from the rainy south coast where I'd been holed up for much of last year writing my latest book, A Mind for Business (available in all fine bookshops and makes a lovely gift, hint hint). Having spent most of 2014 writing a book, I've been struck by just how rarely I'm posting on this blog, and trying to work out whether that's just because I've been busy, or because there's something not quite right about it.

My conclusion, such as I have one, is that the problem was that my posts back then weren't actually very interesting. I was writing about social media, which frankly hasn't really interested me so much since it got taken over by advertisers and Taylor Swift. Not that I have anything against dear old T-Swizzle, mind. It's just that when I was working on School of Everything and co-writing Social by Social, technology seemed to be the new frontier. Now, I look at the torrent of new dating sites and micro-blogging tools and wonder where the new frontier went after all. Even more worryingly, I look at the hacking and slashing of public services that now lurks behind the 'radical disruption' banner, and wonder just where the invisible revolution we were promising a few years ago has actually ended up.

No wonder, then, that I haven't been feeling very inspired to blog about technology lately. So I think it's time I wrote about the things that actually are interesting me. After all, before we can be interesting, we must first be interested. And I am very interested. In so many things. 

Since starting Mindapples as a business in 2010, I've grown more and more interested in the workings of the human mind, and the emerging and chaotic findings of psychology and neuroscience. I am not so taken with the rather tedious attempts to apply all this amazing research to increasing sales or boosting 'efficiency', but I am interested in the human mind as a design consideration. I am interested in how understanding and harnessing our humanity can help us improve how we live and work, and what society would look like if we designed it around human nature rather than trying to change it all the time.

In the lucky West, we live in a world increasingly dominated by technology that improves our lives, but it is often developed without a detailed consideration of what we need to thrive. Public services are built without thought to their emotional impact, and society is run on some quite archaic principles about human nature, from the myth of rational independent economic choice to a worrying overuse of eye-witness testimony.

So here on Sociability I intend to write about other things I can't write about elsewhere: the effects of society on our minds and our wellbeing; the psychology behind some of the big political and social phenomena of our age; the essential ingredients of human nature that can be harnessed for good or channeled towards evil.

In short, this blog is going to be about humanity, not technology. Or perhaps sometimes the intersection of the two. I will do my best to write for myself rather than for anyone else, and to write what I find interesting rather than what I think I should be saying. Let's see where that takes us, and if I have to rebrand the site again, so be it. After all, anything's better than being boring. Happy reading!

Why I wrote A Mind for Business

So my new book, A Mind for Business, has recently been published by Pearson. Beyond the commercial and practical reasons for writing it, this book is actually rather important to me. Though my background over the past decade has been more in innovation and social change than the study of the mind, the subject of how our minds work has fascinated me of late, and has become the cornerstone of both the Mindapples campaign and the changes I want to see in the world.

Put simply, my argument behind this book is as follows: I believe our society is operating with a surprisingly primitive and inaccurate model of how our minds work, and this is causing us a lot of problems. (This is true of the UK in my specific experience, but I suspect the argument applies in many other places too.)

We have quite a good understanding of our bodies , but our minds are still, for the most part, the province of myths and hearsay, from throwaway comments about ‘brain chemistry’ to films about using 100 per cent of our brains. These misconceptions are mostly found in pub conversations and pop culture, but they seep into our everyday discourse to affect every aspect of how we live and work, from job interviews and GP visits to law courts and even public policy.

Some of these inaccurate views – such as the economic assumption of independent, rational choices - are being challenged, but many more – the faith in eye-witness testimony for example, or the persistence of ‘left- and right- brain thinking’ – persist, influencing our choices and shaping our lives.

These beliefs interfere with our ability to work effectively and manage people properly. They prevent us from realising our strengths or forgiving our weaknesses. They prevent us from understanding each other, and interfere with our relationships.

The closest term for this in modern psychology is mentalisation – the ability to accurately assess what is happening in your mind, or in someone else’s mind, and relate that to behaviour. Our ability to understand our own mind and the minds of people around us directly affects the quality of our life and work - and more importantly, it is a skill which can be taught and learnt.

So my purpose in writing this book is to dispel the old, inaccurate views of our minds, and replace them with models that work better. By presenting an overview of the most robust, evidence-based models currently on offer, I hope to help us all understand ourselves and each other better, to work smarter, feel calmer, and get along better. The findings collected have certainly helped me, my colleagues at Mindapples, and the participants in our training sessions, and I hope through the book they will help us collectively as a society too.

Models are never perfect of course, and they are rarely finished. We are a long way from being able to make perfect predictions about human behaviour, and perhaps we should be grateful for that. But we all need models, and we use them unavoidably and habitually to make thousands of assumptions about ourselves and others every day – and so I think we should try to make those assumptions as accurate and useful as possible.

I hope this book can contribute to this process of discovering ourselves and others, and help us all harness our minds more effectively, and improve how we live and work.

Buy now from Amazon

New Season, New Sociability

September is here and the leaves are turning brown. As Philip Larkin once wrote, “begin afresh, afresh, afresh.” A time for renewal, perhaps.

Sociability launched in 2007 in a very different environment to 2012. Back then I was part of a small but passionate movement to use “web 2.0” tools to reorganise our social systems, improve public services, connect people together and build the world we want to live in. Now civic responsibility has given way to economic reality, and unfortunately many of those that were leading this charge are now pursuing other strategies to survive in this leaner, meaner world.

But Sociability has persisted, and so too have many of the projects and conversations we were part of five years ago. Being a network has made us more resilient to change, and many of the trends we were part of in 2007 have grown rather than receded.

Three years on from our publication of Social by Social, the Arab Spring, Wikileaks and #Occupy mean everyone is now talking about the role social media is playing in social change. Four years on from starting Mindapples, the Government is now measuring our national wellbeing and there is more talk than ever about the centrality of mental health real venus factor reviews in public health. Two years on from the publication of Local by Social, the Big Society agenda and spending cuts have made collaborating with citizens a key part of the work of local authorities and public service organisations.

Okay, so maybe we didn’t expect the Olympics to be quite as good as they turned out to be - but hey, we can’t get everything right.

So as we enter our sixth year, with a revamped website and a new focus on social business and social technology, we hope that over the coming years we’ll continue to push boundaries and break new ground, and have some interesting conversations along the way.

We hope that our new projects, Lock-in TV and Do a Bit, will turn out to be as prescient as our previous innovations, and that we can continue to help our clients adapt to an increasingly turbulent but also ever-more dynamic new global market.

And most of all, we hope people will keep sharing their ideas with us and helping us learn more about the world we live in, and how to thrive in it.

Expect to see a bit more blogging from me too. I’ve missed blogging.

Happy Autumn everyone.

Andy

The Corporate Society?

This afternoon I was at the Roundhouse in Camden for Business in the Community's "Communities Summit", courtesy of the Big Society Network, listening to Prince Charles and the Prime Minister issue a call-to-arms for British business to step up and take responsibility for the challenges facing the country.

This felt like an important moment in the somewhat chequered history of the "Big Society" policy agenda, and also of the up-and-coming social enterprise movement. Essentially this was David Cameron's most decisive attempt yet to reboot the Big Society as something more tangible, turning it from a rather elusive and abstract policy of community involvement into a clarion call for business to support grassroots action in communities around Britain.

It was useful to hear this new direction, primarily because the greater clarity it brings should finally make it possible for people to take action in support of the "Big Society" project - which, as I have said before, has been hard for many of us to get behind previously.

But this clarity is also helpful because it names something which has often gone unsaid in the Big Society rhetoric, which is that if private funders and volunteers are to play a leading role in delivering our public institutions and improving communities, this will naturally mean private businesses - who are capable of mobilising far more money and manpower than any other sector of society - having a much greater say over the running of our society.

Where I found myself in tune with this thinking was on the importance of businesses stepping up and taking responsibility for the impact they have on society. As David Cameron indicated today, the Government can do a lot to tackle the obesity crisis, but all its public health campaigns and NHS services will fail if corporate interest continues to make it harder to eat healthily than to eat unhealthily. All the nudges the Government can muster will still pale in comparison to the huge efforts spent by consumer brands to push people back the other way.

Prince Charles, who I've always rather liked, bless him, also spoke very passionately about the opportunities that businesses have to make a positive impact on the world, and challenged all of us to do more to use our resources to do good. And he's right. Businesses have so many assets, and so many skills in delivering quality products at scale, that to point all that infrastructure solely at wealth creation seems like a wasted opportunity. Business in the Community's new "business connectors" programme is putting resources from major UK businesses like BT and Greggs on the ground, in communities, doing excellent work joining things up and making things happen.

And this is all good stuff. The PM's call for businesses to take more responsibility is very welcome at a time when there is so much pressure on the private sector to give back to the communities from which it profits, and in which it resides. I was even vaguely in agreement with the Prime Minister when he said:

“In recent months we’ve heard some dangerous rhetoric creep into our national debate that wealth creation is somehow anti-social, that people in business are somehow out for themselves... Business is not just about making money, vital as it is, it is also the most powerful force for social progress that the world has ever known.”

The point at which I felt a little uncomfortable though, was when he attacked what he called:

“the snobbery that says business has no inherent moral worth like the state does, that it isn’t really to be trusted, that it should stay out of social concerns and stick to making the money that pays the taxes.”

Of course there is a value to these corporate-sponsored projects to deliver value to communities and improve society, even if it is mostly felt by the people inside Government who are aware of just how much large-scale public services are starting to cost. But when Mr Cameron spoke out firmly in defence of the value of, for example, great schools run by banks, and workplace education placements delivered by supermarkets, I felt uncomfortable. So I was surprised when he questioned the motives of people, like me, who feel uncomfortable about such things.

I felt it was disingenuous to suggest that anyone who is suspicious of corporate-backed social projects is some kind of snob, acting not in the public interest but according to a misplaced and rather grubby ideology. This attitude seems uncharacteristically dismissive of the natural vigilance that many people display over our civic institutions, always checking that our public institutions are being run in the interests of the people and not private interests, ensuring that democratic processes are followed, and championing the most vulnerable so that they are not left behind.

When talking about the contribution business can make to improving society, we would do well to remember what private businesses are created to do, which is to maximise profits for their shareholders. I am a Director of two for-profit businesses, and that is my job, as laid down by statute: to make money, not for the wider community, but for the few people who are hard-working or fortunate enough to own shares. In some businesses, the beneficiaries are the staff, such as in partnerships or staff-owned co-operatives; in others it is the customers, such as in Industrial and Provident Societies; but for most, the beneficiaries are the shareholders. Not the public. Not society. Just a few private individuals within it.

And that's fine. I'm quite happy to make money for my shareholders, if I can, particularly if they have taken risks with their own money to back businesses which I believe should exist in the world. What isn't fine is to pretend that the company structure we have built to do that work has any other higher purpose, or to criticise people who are suspicious when companies that are legally obliged to maximise profits for their owners claim to be interested in anything else. I can talk all I want about my desire to improve society, but when I go to a Board meeting I am bound by company law to put those considerations to one side and focus instead on growing the profits of the business.

This is not purely a problem that affects for-profit companies. Just in case anyone thinks I am being an anti-business snob at this point, I should add that even non-profit businesses have their own agendas too, whether that's to serve a vulnerable minority or to champion a particular agenda.

There is only one institution in this country that is legally obliged and institutionally accountable to act in the interests of all the people of this country, and that is the State.

That's why we have a State.

I know it is hard to argue with a well-intentioned project that is persuading private businesses pledge £750m over four years to good works in communities, and I don't wish to denigrate the excellent work that is taking place in the Corporate Responsibility world. The more businesses can be involved in the work of improving our society the better, because our businesses are part of our society just like anyone else. Bring it on guys, you are very welcome here.

But I think it is just as important for us to have a strong "Fourth Estate" of journalists, scrutiny bodies and concerned citizens, a proud tradition of so-called "snobs" checking that if our public institutions are to be funded by private interests, they do not end up acting in them.

To do anything less would be an admission that we can no longer afford democracy.

5 #bigsociety questions

Interesting news this month that Steve Moore has taken over as Director of the Big Society Network, and that the Network is poised "to launch a new series of events, projects and partnerships over the coming months which will showcase an array of new innovations in support of our remit." Having worked a little with the Network already on their NESTA-funded Your Local Budget platform, I think it's time I posted a few of my thoughts and questions about the Big Society project. Like many others in the social innovation world, I've been tentatively exploring what the "Big Society" actually means and whether I want to be part of it. I think I have a general understanding of what the Big Society is (unlike most of my friends, who have never heard of it at all!), that it is about clearing the way and providing support for individuals and communities to solve their own problems, rather than waiting for the government to save us. Part of this I assume is about removing the regulation and bureaucracy that gets in the way of citizen action and involvement, and part of it is about creating the conditions for individuals and community groups to contribute more to the running and improvement of the society we live in.

This is all good stuff, and certainly my conversations with the individuals involved has confirmed my general sense that there is good work being done here by good people. However, I still have a few significant questions about how it will work in practice, and these are questions to which I need to know the answers before I would be happy to say the Big Society will be a good thing for this country. By posting them I do not intend criticism (and I'll also post some positive Big Society ideas shortly), but to trigger a debate and get some answers, so that we can all be clearer about what we are supporting here. So here goes...

  1. Does anyone ever get paid? If good work is now to be done on a voluntary basis, then what is the future for those of us who currently earn money improving society? I believe that if we can make improving society something that financially sustains and rewards those who do it, we will get a lot more good done. For many years now, I have been proud to be part of the social enterprise movement, working to create new ways to use business principles and revenue generation to achieve greater social impact. Yet now almost every week I seem to be approached by another public sector organisation asking me to give my time for free to help them transform their business, because "it's a good thing to do". So is money now only to be used to reward people who are not delivering social benefit? Must we all become lawyers and bankers to fund our expensive habit of improving the world? Or should we look instead, as Windsor and Maidenhead have proposed, to alternative currencies to support ourselves? And do we really know what the socio-economic impact of all this will be, particularly on the voluntary sector and the social enterpreneurs that the Big Society claims to support?
  2. Who's in charge? One of my consistent surprises about this Government is the top-down nature of many of their announcements, which seem to be the continuation of New Labour's behaviour change programmes rather than the traditional free-market Conservative approach I was expecting. If the Big Society is to flourish, it cannot be led by the Government, or the credit claimed by the politicians. The role of the State should be to support the activities of communities and create the conditions for the activities they want to encourage, and make things easier - through funding, infrastructure, resources, support. Yet it often feels as though by launching this initiative (and particularly in a time of radical cuts) the Government is calling on citizens to work for the State, to help out with public sector projects, deliver public services. So do we, the Big Society, work for the Government to help them achieve their aims, or will public servants become what their name suggests, and support us to do what we think needs doing? And if it's the latter, how do we decide what the State should support?
  3. Who is accountable? Schools, hospitals, policing and the like are the responsibility of the state: we pay our taxes on the expectation that critical services will be provided to all of us on a fair, equitable and democratically-accountable basis, presumably because we grasp that the wellbeing and prosperity of the people around us is important for our own health, wealth and happiness. Ensuring greater involvement from service users and community groups in public services is fantastic, but it takes time and money to get right, and proper democratic accountability to ensure vulnerable people remain protected. Volunteers also have their own agendas and problems to worry about, particularly in a recession, and the Government still remains ultimately accountable if things go wrong, so are they just creating more problems for themselves later by not taking responsibility now?
  4. Who pays for volunteer management? Volunteer management is a complicated task and requires a considerable amount of work to get it right: not voluntary work, but full-time work by reliable staff who aren't making their money elsewhere - and this work must be paid for. My experience of running voluntary projects (and I've run a large one, unpaid, for two years now, in Mindapples) is that getting people to volunteer is the easy bit, especially in the internet age; the hard part is finding time to tell them what to do and make their efforts join up properly. I don't need more volunteers, I need money to pay for staff to organise them and scale up our efforts. The Big Society Bank is excellent, but the sums being proposed are tiny compared to previous state funding for the voluntary sector, so what is the plan for sustaining and strengthening our existing voluntary infrastructure in a time of social change and fiscal constraints? Unless we have a plan for how this is going to be paid for, I will be relying on the only people who have any spare cash (or Nectar points) these days: wealthy philanthropists and large corporations. And that isn't the Big Society, that's Victorian England.
  5. What happened to democracy? The Big Society aims to "take power away from politicians and give it to people". But the State is us. The public sector exists to represent the views of the whole population, serve the interests of the many whilst protecting the interests of the few, and answer to the people for its actions. How have we become so alienated from our State institutions that private, independent organisations seem now to offer more possibilities for putting 'the People' in charge? Democracy and equanimity are difficult and expensive to achieve, and by cutting away these layers we may achieve greater efficiency, but do we leave ourselves vulnerable to increased social injustice, and subservience to the needs of the wealthy and the confident? There are tools for ensuring this of course, democratic organisational structures and community governance models, but when I hear talk of creating "the U.K’s biggest mutual: to which all citizens will be able to belong", it feels like we are trying to rebuild the State in parallel, not because it will be any better, but because we have lost faith in the current system. And replacing it... well, that sounds very expensive indeed.

I believe in the aspirations of the Big Society. I believe that the people of the UK are the state, and the Government serves us and should help us achieve our goals. I believe people are basically good and can be trusted, and that current public service culture disempowers vulnerable people and makes it hard for individuals to contribute to their own lives and communities. I believe that passionate individuals and grassroots organisations outside the Government should step in to solve problems which cannot be tackled by top-down authoritarian solutions, such as community and social care, public health promotion, invigorating communities, guiding the cultural and social development of our children, monitoring the activities and efficacy of the state infrastructures. However, I do not think that this work should be free, nor that paid civil servants can hand over their jobs to volunteers and remain in their lofty positions. And I continue to believe that the running of our state infrastructure is ultimately the job of a democratically-elected body of paid agents acting in the service of the people.

These are just my current questions: I have heard many others, and doubtless others will emerge as we go. The message for some time has been that we are in charge and we must find the answers to these questions. As Steve says, "it is a work in progress". However, if the Prime Minister and other prominent figures are prepared to say the Big Society is a "Good Thing" for Britain, I'm presuming they must have thought these issues through first? If the leaders know the answers, please let them share them with us - after all, they're part of this Big Society thing too. If they don't, then I would question why they are telling us how great this will be when so much remains uncertain. Either way, I believe these questions need to be answered, and that means we need to get on with it together.

The devil, as they say, is in the detail.

to launch a new series of events, projects and partnerships over the coming months which will showcase an array of new innovations in support of our remit.

Public Sector Online 2010

psonline Just a quick note to say that today I’ll be speaking at The Guardian‘s Public Sector Online conference.

I’m on the closing panel at 3:30 titled “Innovation in social media”, along with Dave Briggs, Sarah Drummond, Lauren Currie and Gordon Scobbie, asking:

As more people use social networking sites to keep informed, and organisations use them to spread information and market services, what are the best ways for public sector bodies to engage with the public?

Hope to see you there - come find me on Twitter if you want to say hello.

Some thoughts on facilitation

Gosh, what a long time it's been since my last post. I've been busy over here developing Mindapples(check out our lovely new website, as funded by UnLtd and Nominet Trust), and also doing various writing pieces which will hopefully see the light of day soon. Meanwhile, I've also been doing more facilitation and speaking work lately, and it's been a while since I posted anything about that side of my and Sociability's work. I've done a fair bit of work with the amazing The People Speak over the years, and I recently spoke to my good friend Saul Albert there about facilitation as part of their research project into the subject. Here's what I said in response to his questions:

Saul: What is the first issue on your mind when you have to facilitate a highly diverse group?

Andy: People are often very suspicious of the facilitation process. They have their own agendas, and want to know immediately that the process will accommodate them. People come into the room with clear ideas about what they want to achieve, they want to see whether the day will give them that opportunity. So I'm mainly trying to read the room, get a sense of where people are at emotionally and intellectually, how happy they look about being there, and how vocal they will be if they feel the event isn't meeting their needs. Figuring out why everybody is there is the first job of any facilitator, and speaker for that matter, and it's an easy one to miss.

Saul: How did you deal with this?

I usually begin by stating my agenda very clearly, what I'm there to do and what I want to get out it myself, personally. Making it personal to me is very important: I am just one person and what I want is just one of many voices, so if I claim to be an authority or representative of the establishment, I deny people the space to claim the event for themselves.

After that, I'm really open about asking each person/group what their agendas are. I don't necessarily expect answers, but by creating a space where people feel able to say that the process isn't meeting their needs, people feel that they can articulate their critique immediately, that there's a space where they can be critical if they need to be. This means they don't sit there waiting for things to come up that they can bend into a critique. They say their piece, then they kind of forget about it and get on with the discussion. As long as people know they can influence the agenda if they need to, and they trust me to be true to that commitment, then they can relax and engage.

This might sounds strange, but there's also an important element of amateurishness involved. If I'm too slick then people feel they can't shape the structure, they become afraid of "getting it wrong". By stepping out front and being human, even making a few little, light-hearted mistakes, I give people the confidence to step forward and contribute. It's very important to step into the role of leader, and hold uncertainty.

Saul: Who do you know who does this that you admire? And what other techniques / technologies do you know of?

Johnny Moore does a lot of work in this field and I like his style. He's very explicit about what the process will be, what will happen and how it will work, so people can understand whether it will meet their needs, get over that question and then get on with it. He's quite rigorous about getting clarity on structure, which is an important thing for me to remember to do too.

Theres also the unconference approach where there's no plan, and if you're not getting much out of it, it's your fault! But you don't really learn very much in this situation, and I think people often end up having the same conversations they'd be having anyway - it's nobody's job to bring any fresh content to the party.

Saul: At your events, is facilitation all your responsibility? Who else shares that responsibility?

In one particular example where I felt this worked well, I had an 'assistant'. She was actually my client for the event, a part of the development team of the organisation, so like me, she was interested in everything working well. I gave her the task of taking notes to make sure that everything was recorded, which she did brilliantly. She sat with a laptop and wrote up notes on a projector for everyone to see. The audience could see whether their points were making it into the notes, and I would also keep an eye on them and when I saw something important that hadn't been noted, I'd bring people's attention to it and make sure it was included.

The interaction between what's happening and how it's documented is really important, because it's how people become part of the official chronicle: they need to feel that history is including them.

Saul and the team at The People Speak are evolving the art of facilitation all the time, and I really enjoy working with them because for my money they're the only people who really know how to let a crowd run an event for itself. If you'd like them, or Sociability, to run one of your events, drop me a line at andy[at]sociability.org.uk.

Q: What is the first issue on your mind when you have to facilitate a highly diverse group?

- People are often very suspicious of the facilitation process.
- They have their own agendas, and want to know immediately that the process will accommodate them. People come into the room with clear ideas about what they would achieve, they want to see whether the day will give them that opportunity.

Q :How did you deal with this? 

I start off by naming my agenda very clearly, then I'm really open about asking each person/group what their agendas are.

By not expecting answers, by just creating a space where people feel able to
say that the process isn't meeting their needs people feel that they can
articulate their critique immediately, they feel there's a space where they can
be critical. This means they don't sit there waiting for things to come up that
they can bend into a critique. They say their piece, then they kind of forget
about it and get on with the discussion.

There's also an important element of amatuerishness. Not being too slick means
people feel they can shape the structure. It's very important to step into the
role of leader, and hold uncertainty.

Q: Who do you know who does this that you admire? And what other techniques / technologies do you know of?

Johnny Moore who does a lot of work with the RSA. 

He's very explicit about what the process will be, what will happen and how it
will work, so people can understand whether it will meet their needs, get over
that question and then get on with it.

Theres also the unconference approach where there's no plan, and if you're not
getting much out of it, it's your fault! But you don't really learn very much
in this situation, and tend to have the same conversations you'd be having
anyway - nobody brings content to the party.

Q: At your events, is facilitation all your responsibility? Who else shares that responsibility?

In the example I was thinking of, I had an assistant, who was also my client
(internal to the commissioning organisation). She sat with a laptop and wrote
up notes on a projector for everyone to see. 

Like me, she was interested in everything working well. I gave her the task of
taking notes to make sure that everything was recorded, which she did really
well. I would also keep an eye on the notes and when I saw something that
hadn't been noted, I'd bring people's attention to it and make sure it was noted.

The interaction between what's happening and how it's documented is important
so people see how they become part of the official chronicle: they need to feel
that history is including them.

Poor social entrepreneurs

Tonight it's the launch of the RSA Social Entrepreneurs Network, and I'm actually rather looking forward to it. There's been a very interesting discussion on the group forum already about how social enterprise can reward the entrepreneurs behind it. Social enterprise is one of the fastest-growing sectors in our society, and I think it has a lot to teach the policy world, traditional charities and the commercial sector. The problem, as I see it, is this though: social enterprise is good at generating revenue through doing good, by selling products and services, delivering contracts for the public sector and so on. What it isn't so good at though, is looking after the people who make it happen. The sector suffers a lot of burn-outs, and many people who are starting successful social enterprises can only do so because they have made money in the commercial world, or because they are able to live cheaply without overheads like children or sick relatives. The sector is thriving, but at the expense of the people at the heart of it - and without the money from the lucrative public and private sectors, much of it wouldn't exist at all.

I think what's needed is greater liquidity in the social enterprise sector, which starts with making it easier for successful entrepreneurs to set up their next venture. Social capital is great, but it doesn't pay the bills while we work for free for a year raising funds and building brands. We need to make sure the people who have set up organisations with strong social impact get a return on their "sweat equity", or the sector will always be parasitic on the commercial world and dogged by burn-outs and drop-outs.

I think there are two obstacles to allowing this "liquidity" to happen. The first is the psychology around "non-profit": how can I as a social entrepreneur claim my financial reward when my project is based on goodwill and channelling profits back into the community? The second is structural: how can non-profits pay dividends on in-kind investment, in the way they pay a return on cash investments? Time invested for free in building an organisation should always be regarded as a loan, to be recouped with a reasonable return when the venture is successful. I don't want to be a millionnaire, I just don't want all my hard work to go unrewarded. And I think we need new corporate vehicles, and a new culture around money for good causes, to make this possible.

With Mindapples, my second social venture after School of Everything, I'm looking at ways to write in profit-shares and bonuses for founders and volunteers if we build a successful revenue model for our non-profit community organisation. Does anyone know any good examples out there of when this is done well that I could base our model on?

Local by Social published

I'm pleased to announce that Local by Social, my new policy pamphlet about government and social media, was published today by the Improvement and Development Agency and NESTA. Social media is changing the world in which we work, socialise and govern. From Twitter to eBay, Facebook to YouTube, new tools are emerging every year that place the connecting power of the internet in the hands of every one of us.

In this context, the expectations on councils to engage, work openly, be accountable and move more quickly on issues are growing. Meanwhile, councils are facing the biggest cuts in spending in the post-war period and are being asked to do more with less just as demands from local people are rising. Higher expectations combined with drastically fewer resources make the imperative to innovate critical. A new set of tools is needed to meet this challenge.

The pamphlet outlines how local authorities can use social media to achieve more for less. It also highlights the risk to councils if they ignore the technological advances of social media and the people using them, and the importance of government working sensitively with the community groups and social enterprises who are developing great new projects in this space, which is rather timely given the current MyPolice saga. It's designed to be read alongside our 2009 book Social by Social which can also be downloaded from the Social by Social website.

You can download the pamphlet from IDeA's site now, and also discuss the content on the Social by Social network too. There are some more links and examples on the IDeA website too, and printed copies will be available from NESTA and IDeA shortly.

Activity round-up for October

Consistency has never been one of my strongest points, and consistency of blog posting especially. I've had quite a lot of things going on lately which merit a post though, so here are a few of the headlines. The main thing to announce is that Social by Social is now in print and also available to download in PDF at socialbysocial.com. It's a detailed practical guide to using social technology for social impact, and it's intended to be especially useful for civil servants, social entrepreneurs and campaigners. It lists the best software to use, explains how to use digital tools to engage communities, and tells some stories of the what happens if you do. Thanks to contributors like Euan Semple, Steve Bridger, Dominic Campbell and many more.

My co-authors Amy Sample Ward, David Wilcox and I have also decided to put our ideas into practice by building an online community of people who are using social technology for social good. If you're involved in trying these tools out, sign up to the SxS Network at socialbysocial.net and connect with others in this field, share best practice - and get personal advice from us too.

Mindapples is progressing well. Tom, Ana, Sangeet and I have been working on a new brand and a new website and we'll have something ready for alpha testing next month ready for a beefed up PR campaign in December. The team is growing and we've been analysing the results to produce some interesting stories for public consumption. The next step is to secure some seed funding to accelerate the project, so please do introduce us to anyone who wants to fund public mental health education programmes. Read more on mindapples.org.

There's lots going on at School of Everything too. This month we've launched School of Everything Gifts, which means you can buy your loved ones some lessons with hand-picked teachers in anything from breadmaking to Twitter lessons (with personal tutoring from yours truly).

And finally, I'm very pleased to be working with Futuregov on a consultancy project for the DCLG on ePetitions. We're writing some data standards for all local government petitions systems to ensure our collective efforts to call the Government to account are processed and shared smoothly. More on how to get involved with that on the Futuregov blog.

So, lots happening, especially in my favourite areas of education, democracy and mental health. There's more, including fun (and occasionally cheesy) things going on with the Courvoisier Future 500, plus interesting plotting with Luke Nicholson at Kept, and some new writing projects in the pipeline. Watch this space for more, when I have time to post.

In the meantime, a little plug for my friends at Castle Galeazza, where I will be spending a few days this weekend to unwind. Reading retreats in rural Italy - the perfect antidote to all this high-tech sociable London living.

Social media and social conventions

On Friday I spoke at Sadlers Wells at the Arts Council's Art of Digital event, Do the arts speak digital? The topic of the talk and the subsequent Guardian PDA panel discussion was "does the phenomenon and the tools of social media change expectations and relationships with audiences?" A few people asked me to blog it, so here's (roughly) what I said. Having recently published Social by Social, I didn't want to focus on the details of the tools and how to use them - anyone looking for information on technology tools and how to deploy them should check out the book. Instead I focussed my thoughts on the new ‘social conventions’ being created by these tools, and the implications on our culture and power structures as a result of all these technologies. How does it affect my relationship with my audience if the audience can talk back, and talk to each other?

I began with a story my friend Charlie once told me about a speaking job he did in Finland. He arrived to find he was speaking to an audience of one man. He gave his talk anyway, as best he could, and was rewarded with a large and pleasing round of applause from this audience member. Moderately satisfied, he gathered his possessions to leave but was stopped by a cry from the man: "But you can't go yet: I'm the next speaker!" Because that's the thing about audiences: you never know who's in them or what they might have to say.

I was speaking here to a silent audience in a darkened theatre: a common format for these events but actually a relatively recent convention. Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man (thanks to Dougald for putting me onto this) narrates the shift in the 19th Century from performances where the audience talked and participated, to a new social convention of a silent audience. But in this talk, I had a Twitter feed behind me showing the things the audience were saying to each other about what I was saying. So what are the conventions for interacting with that? Is it rude of them to interrupt me, or is it rude of me to ignore their comments?

The point is, it's not the tools that matter: it's the impact they have on our social structures and conventions. The media has changed: we already have a completely new ecosystem of news. It’s changed marketing too, with sites like Dell's Ideastorm and Skittles turning their website into a Twitter feed for conversations about their product acting as living proof of the Cluetrain Manifesto's "markets are conversations". Organisations and work have changed too: my various friends and followers on Twitter act as a distributed consultancy and community of practice for me.

I see this as a time to play with social conventions and find new ways to interact, with and without technology. A conference is a set of social conventions of audience silence, expert performance and public conversations - and these can be played with, as we do at the People Speak with things like the Twitter stream visualisation, or the talkaoke table. A blog is another social convention, in which we agree to listen patiently to what the author has to say before making our comments on their ideas. Discussion forums are flatter, with no hierarchy except a custodian keeping the space active and safe. Twitter is more complex again, a vast multiplicity of asymmetric relationships, public and private conversations and even old-fashioned broadcast. With each of these new tools comes a set of new conventions, each of which - as Rohan Gunatillake rightly observes - eventually leaks back into the rest of our society.

So if it's a time to play with convention, it's also a time to challenge some of the 19th Century assumptions about how things "should" be done. At the same time as the silent audience emerges, so too does the culture of street silence, the shift from the noisy, sociable marketplace to the silent, impersonal shop as the context for commerce, and the shift from consumer-commissioning to mass production of products. Amidst technological revolution, economic recession and climate change, all of these conventions are now open to challenge.

School of Everything is a social marketplace for face-to-face learning. We're moving from a 19th Century broadcast model of teaching to a social media approach where everyone can be a teacher. Similarly, Mindapples is about respecting everyone's "expertise" about what works for their minds. As I say in the introduction to Social by Social, it's about helping people do things, not doing things to people.

So for cultural organisations, what is cultural production when it’s not mass production? What are the conventions and power structures for facilitating social production of and around the arts? And what are the implications for expert practictioners when they are not stood in front a silent audience? Someone asked a question in the following panel about quality control on School of Everything, and also about quality in arts production, and my answer in both cases is that just because an organisation isn't taking responsibility for quality control, doesn't mean individuals aren't doing it themselves. We can all take responsibility for assessing expertise, curating content and making our own judgements; and the price we pay for moving up the power chain is that we must sit through more poor quality material. Thanks to these new tools, the choice is ours.

I believe that social tools make the invisible networks of our culture visible, and therefore possible to engage with. A good arts organisation can rally a community around a cultural event, but all the ripples in the pond become visible too and arts organisations can engage with them. At what point does it become rude for them, and me, to ignore what the audience is saying? Cultural production can create meaningful culture, but it is social tools that embeds it and makes it diverse and relevant to a wider audience.

I think the biggest issue for arts organisations within these shifting social conventions concerns the role of performance. Social media is most certainly performative: when I Twitter I speak to a larger audience than were present at Friday's event, so don't for a minute think I'm not performing when I tweet. In fact, if you want to understand Twitter you could do a lot worse than read Keith Johnstone's Impro. But there are times when it is appropriate to improvise together, and others when it is better to be silent and listen. I don't want to send text messages during a play, I want to really watch the play (unless it's a really bad play...).

Arts organisations, like the rest of us, now need to consider the role of silence and performance in all their work, and deploy appropriate tools to assist the performance and embed the culture it creates. But that doesn't mean the moonlight sonata is improved by twittering through it or making Domain Exploration easier.

Announcing Social by Social

Yesterday I was at the Reboot Britain conference to launch Social by Social - my first book, co-authored with David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and Nigel Courtney and Clive Holtham of Cass Business School.

The book, which was commissioned by Nesta and published by Openmute, is a practical guide to how to make use of the amazing opportunities of social and digital technologies for social impact. We've collected the most useful resources around and woven them together with some inspiring stories, practical advice and thoughts on the future.

The book is aimed at anyone working in the public or third sectors, plus campaigners, community groups and even concerned citizens. It's 250 pages of practical advice and reference materials, and it's available to buy here for just £7.99.

We've also released all the content free online under a Creative Commons license. Read and download it, add your comments and remix it for your own purposes now at www.socialbysocial.com. We want you all to make use of these resources in your projects and consultancy work, so as many people find out about these technologies and what they can do as possible.

After the launch itself, David Wilcox and Drew Mackie ran another version of the Social by Social Game, which introduces people to new technologies and helps them develop their own social by social projects. If you'd like us to run a similar event in your organisation, or if you'd like more tailored advice, please drop me a line.

Real world marketing

I'm at b.tween in Liverpool today speaking on a panel with Adam Gee at Channel 4, Andy Bell from Landshare and Lucy Willis from Battlefront. We've been talking about using online and broadcast media to create action in the real world, in relation to School of Everything and other "social by social" projects. My main point was about the intersection of social tools and media content. Battlefront helps young people campaign and then tells their stories on TV and online, and so creates action in the world. Meanwhile, School of Everything is creating action by building tools to enable and inspire people to teach and learn from each other: the existence of the tool is the trigger for creating the stories. Landshare is the model I can see emerging between the two: an integrated commission of TV content and social platform, with TV content to inspire people to grow things on spare land, and a social tool to help them find and use land near them. In other words, the TV content is creating a culture in which the tool will thrive, and providing marketing for the site.

Web 2.0 can also feed back into traditional media by creating and locating stories for cultural programming. Whatever the model of commissioning, if you are fortunate enough to be creating real activity in the world, you can use that activity to create a feedback loop which rallies more and more people to your movement. Here's how it can work:

  1. Create a tool which helps people do something in the world - share land, teach each other, campaign for change, or whatever. Write the stories you want your tool to create, and build it so it supports those things to happen, smoothly and simply.
  2. Collect stories of the activity that results by engaging with your community, and share these stories back with the community through newsletters, blogs, Twitter etc. - and also with the public through any media channels available. Tell these stories in a way which makes audiences feel they could do it too.
  3. Give users a way to share and promote their activities too, to amplify the effect of the activity and let your users help you market the tool. Help the people who have figured out how to do it share that with their peers.
  4. The stories and media activity then become valuable resources in recruiting more users to the platform, which creates more activity to use in promoting the movement, and so on. By creating activity in the world, you create news; and by telling the stories through the media, you create a culture in which that activity is commonplace.

That's what we've been doing at School of Everything: we talk to our users (or rather Claire does), find out what they're up to, and tell those stories to encourage more people to join in. The media, social or otherwise, helps us turn the isolated interactions into a social movement.

As for media commissioning, I think there's a rich seam here for media companies to invest in start-ups, and also in media content to tell the stories they support. The question of legacy is problematic - Landshare and Battlefront are commissions that need to generate stories, so what happens to their community when they have to stop "broadcasting"? So I think you also need a business model to sustain the existence of the web platform (School of Everything relies on real-world transactions for its business model), and finance it as an autonomous start-up that isn't dependent on the continuation of the commission. We need more integrated partnerships between broadcasters and start-ups. And with the mutual benefit a well-designed broadcast and social campaign can bring, a TV-financed web start-up with broadcast tie-ins looks like an increasingly smart business proposition.

So all we need then is to come up with ideas for really compelling things we want to happen in the real world, that are interesting enough to make good way to learn how to buy twitter followers. Anyone?

The Social by Social Game

David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and I ran an event on Tuesday night taking non-profits through a process of brainstorming and developing projects using social technologies for social impact. The event, called the Social by Social Game, was inspired by the Social Media Game and also by the book we've been writing for NESTA called Social by Social.

Rather than repeat the details here, those of you who are curious should check out David's excellent blog post and videos documenting and explaining the event. The whole game is Creative Commons but still in development, so please take it and rework it, and let us know how it might be improved. And if you'd like us to run a similar event in your organisation or community, please do drop me a line.

Why I'm standing for the RSA Fellowship Council

The RSA is an Enlightenment institution, but progressing the Enlightenment today does not mean perpetuating the beliefs of the past. A modern enlightened approach requires a richer understanding of the human mind and an appreciation of the new values of our digitally-enabled age: an enthusiasm for collective action, a more participatory view of membership and a fundamental belief that people are inherently good and should be trusted. The RSA has worked hard to embrace these values through the RSA Networks project, on which I was a consultant and volunteer. However the level of culture shift is great and the support of an engaged fellowship is essential. In standing for Council I intend to represent the energies of a young, digitally-savvy, ethically aware generation that is already reshaping the world in its own image.

I bring to this all my experience as a reformer and innovator in education, democracy and mental health. I am Founder of the Mindapples '5-a-day for your mind' campaign, recently featured in the RSA Journal, and a Co-founder and Company Director of the innovative education start-up School of Everything, which won both a New Statesman Award and a Prime Minister's Catalyst Award in 2008.

I am also co-author of a forthcoming NESTA handbook on the use of social technology for social impact, a fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, a long-standing volunteer at Social Innovation Camp and a pioneer of new models of social enterprise, digital campaigning and democratic participation.

All my voluntary and commercial activities are directed towards building a fairer, healthier and more sustainable world. I challenge old structures and assumptions, not through opposition but by building more compelling alternatives. I hope that with my support the RSA can lead the charge and help us build the society we all want to live in.

I hope you will endorse my candidacy, or disagree with my ideas, by leaving me a comment below. If you're an RSA Fellow, I hope I can also count on your vote next month. (I've always wanted to say that.)

Shine 2009

The Shine UnConference for Social Entrepreneurs starts today at Kings Place, York Way, London. If you're there already, you may encounter me helping out Anna Maybank of Social Innovation Camp with a short session on developing your own SI Camp ideas. And if you're coming tomorrow, please join David Wilcox, Amy Sample Ward and I at The Hub Kings Cross for the Social Collaboration Game. We'll be showcasing a new event format based on the content of our forthcoming book Social by Social. We'll be brainstorming ideas for how collaboration technologies can solve social problems in your neighbourhood, and then developing your proposals into a full pitches for funding - in just 2 hours.

Hope to see you there!

Community Consultancy

I'm looking for a research intern to help me develop Mindapples and other Sociability projects, so I wanted to know where I should post the opportunity to attract a bright, enthusiastic graduate (if you know anyone, please let me know). Rather than trawl the web looking for good sites and hunting out advice in forums and social enterprise communities, I twittered the question to see what my friends and contacts would suggest. Almost immediately, here's what I got back:

tomstafford@gandy mindhacks.com could do you a shout out if you'd like

adamrothwell@gandy W4MP works really rather well for us, even though we're not (err) an MP...

tomnixon@gandy Brighton and Sussex unis would both be v. happy to talk to you and help you find a graduate

noelitoRT @gandy looking for a bright, enthusiastic graduate to be my research intern on @Mindapples and other projects.

And because my Twitter is linked to my Facebook status too, I also got these responses through Facebook:

Aly Ripoarts jobs Imran Khanw4mp? Anthony McCannwww.jobs.ac.uk

Great stuff - thanks to everyone for providing such valuable advice and offering to help, you've solved my problem perfectly.

So what's just happened there? It's the sort of knowledge that isn't quite worth paying a consultant for, but which is still incredibly important when building an organisation. Traditionally you might get it from peers, mentors and other people in similar situations; you could also get it from Yahoo Answers, LinkedIn Q&As or potentially School of Everything. But Twitter is simpler and quicker than talking offline, more personal than the normal online solutions and well-suited to the tiny drip-feed of questions that comes with running a business. It's not a replacement for these other tools, or for mentoring, training or consultancy. It's something new, or rather a scalable version of something old: a peergroup of fellow professional supporting each other.

I have around 500 followers, plus various overlapping Facebook friends - not many in the grand scheme of things but they're generally quality people who know their stuff and with whom I have genuine relationships. They didn't cost me anything to acquire except time in being friendly and creating valuable content, and now they provide me with free consultancy that is worth a huge amount to me and my projects. In return I help people out and the whole 'economy' seems healthy and mutually beneficial.

The point is, there's far more to Twitter (and Facebook) than brand awareness and self-promotion. In engaging with a community of peers, I gain not just a media channel but an educational resource too. Much like a guild or professional association, Twitter allows me to build my own network of specialists with whom I share knowledge and swap industry insights. It allows me to build my own personal "guild" directed entirely to the skills and industries that interest me. They can teach me how to do my job better, whatever my job happens to be today.

So the next question is, how can you put a value on that? And the question after that is, why on earth isn't your business on Twitter?

Webby, Steady, Go!

School of Everything has been selected as an Official Honoree for the Education category in The 13th Annual Webby Awards. Yay! This is what they say: "The Official Honoree distinction is awarded to the top 15% of all work entered that exhibits remarkable achievement. With nearly 10,000 entries received from all 50 states and over 60 countries, this is an outstanding accomplishment."

So well done to our hard-working team and thanks to the Webbys for giving us a well-timed boost of publicity following the launch of our new payment system last week. We'll put the award in our growing trophy cabinet alongside the New Statesman New Media Award and the Catalyst Award we won last year. Onwards and upwards!