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Weighing up scale

14 Feb

laserfocus Just before Christmas, I was invited by NPC to speak at a breakfast discussion/debate about scale in the charity and social enterprise sectors. It was to go alongside a publication from them called Growing Pains – which is worth a read. Scale is something we seem to come back to over and over, always looking for the answer – how can we share / replicate / grow what works, and solve more of the problems that we face? Is it about letting a thousand flowers bloom, or should we be consolidating and encouraging organisations to merge and combine to be more effective? How do we help grow what exists and works whilst being open new ideas and solutions? Are we talking about scale of organisation, scale of turnover, scale of entrepreneur’s ego or (what we should be), scale of impact or value created?

Yes, lots of good questions and few answers. I’ve been grappling with this stuff in theory and in practice for lots of years now – I was trying to remember when I’d presented the idea of the Long Tail of Social Entrepreneurs at the Skoll World Forum; turns out it was 2007. Here’s the presentation:

Later, I grew (a bit) and ran SSE‘s franchise, and helped develop the brand and evaluation system to help it grow. And then tried to help other organisations replicate, first with a replication learning programme (which is still running) and then a social franchising manual for my current employers, SEUK. I also did a few bits of consultancy as a freelancer, trying to help organisations grow and scale directly. There were some minor successes, but also a dawning realisation about how hard this stuff was: there are a hell of a lot more toolkits, guides, pieces of research and learning programmes (yes, including from me) than actual organisations that have scaled or replicated. Successful social franchises are still extremely thin on the ground – and that’s with good people (like ICSF) trying to make it happen; but still it’s mostly research + accelerators, not organisations growing their impact on the ground.

Now of course the focus is all about how social investment can help you scale – it’s just been the wrong type of finance till now that has prevented scale. But if we combine the right type of finance with the right type of support, it will happen – there’s limited evidence this is the case (albeit there are some individual successes emerging from the likes of Big Venture Challenge and the raft of incubators that have been supported). As I said at the NPC debate, finance and support are absolutely necessary, but so is market readiness. If commissioners or the general public or private sector supply chains aren’t ultimately buying/paying for the products and services provided, then scaling is inevitably difficult or impeded. The other point I made in relation to the incubators + accelerators was that most of the evidence pointed to one common factor in the charities and social enterprises that had scaled: time. Most had taken time. So, unless technology allowed something to grow at a more exponential pace, the most common thing the scaling debate has lacked is a reality check about time – even if we are impatient for things to change.

So, any answers? Well, after making my usual reference to Forces for Good (still the best book on scale / charity + social enterprise I think) I had a stab at a few things I thought might help the sector in my presentation. These were:

1) Collaboration Prize – this one dates back to PopSE! days; there used to be a US prize which rewarded and recognised the best piece of collaboration in the sector. I think a trust or foundation could usefully set up something along these lines to foster, encourage and recognise the sort of behaviour and action we need.

2) Systems Fund – as I say above, finance is obviously important; but it’s often the timing and the type that is key, not just finance per se. Most of the small-to-medium social enterprises we work with who are looking to grow their work are grappling with when to invest in: new CRM systems; bringing HR functions in-house; new technology; new measurement / impact systems; and so on. Where is the investment fund that suits these needs, or focuses on them?

3) Buy Social commitment – small piece of organisational promotion, but the point is a general one. We can all help grow the market and grow the potential impact of organisations by changing how we buy. The sector itself has huge collective purchasing power – channelled for good, it can help us all achieve more (and change the reductive overhead debate).

4) Peer networks – a bit banal this (every support document I read always has peer-to-peer in at the moment….but probably with good reason), but I do think networking organisations at similar stages, and networking the people within them who do similar functions and are facing similar challenges might help. Trade associations and support organisations have a role in making this happen well.

5) Big-small mutuality – this is connected a bit to 3 + 4 above, really; we have started to see more of this, between housing associations and local social enterprises, or between big healthcare organisations and smaller peers. There is much more that could happen though – secondments of people at difficult times; sharing of documents; help with cashflow + bridging loans (without an intermediary); etc. Some of this can be facilitated and brokered; but much is also about relationships and providing the space for trust to be built.

All of these are thinking a bit more systemically, even if still thinking about finance, support and markets – while I don’t think we necessarily need a new buzzword (“systempreneur” ahoy), bringing an entrepreneurial mindset to systems makes a lot of sense to me. And that’s got partnership and thinking beyond just our sector at its heart. More of both would help get us towards the answers (and putting them into action) on scale, and not just generating more questions.

Here’s my slide set from the debate:

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The 3 productivity apps that work for me

6 Feb
reinventionAs January begins, so bookshops and app stores alike throw self-help books and productivity apps at you like they are going out of fashion. All promise instant results, and a swift route to a new effective, productive you  – and a successful 2015. I won’t dwell too long on the many self-help books, which are largely a waste of time unless you believe in empty quotes and chakras. Oliver Burkeman is the man who can help you wade through, and pick out the nuggets – I heartily recommend his The Antidote and Help! (How to become slightly happier and get a bit more done), which are funny and insightful in equal measure.

As for the apps, well there are enough to-do list apps now to confuse even the most technophile of lifehackers. I used Remember The Milk for to-do lists for a while, but found that it was too divorced from everything else (although this may be down to my own lack of investigation) and didn’t work with what else I used, so I dropped it. Then I became an Evernote devotee (app no. 1) – I can’t speak highly enough about Evernote: I genuinely wish I was on commission, because I recommend it to everyone, including my team. It’s just extremely intuitive, reliable and easy to use, as well as on phone, tablet, desktop and laptop. I’ve set up an IFTTT to send useful docs + links from twitter straight to Evernote when I use a particular hashtag too, so it becomes a searchable receptacle of reading.

So I no longer have a notebook for day-to-day use, but capture everything on Evernote – and this is starting to change how I work with the organisation’s systems. I have shared notebooks with other team members for particular areas of work, and am trialling syncing notes straight to Salesforce accounts. The latter, if it was a bit smoother, could be great – I could be meeting a social enterprise member, or a new business lead, and sync the notes straight to their Salesforce account, providing a trail of activity that doesn’t require me to log into the Salesforce platform and replicate what I’ve just done….

There are decisions ahead, I think, about spreading this throughout the team and investing in the technology; we’ve already moved to cloud-based 365, and I can foresee more decentralisation / cloud-based sharing ahead. Already, I use Dropbox as much as I use the organisational shared drive (Dropbox is app number 2), and I can see the whole thing moving soon. I know there are other cloud-based server systems, but I haven’t found any that work as well as Dropbox for either group or individual work. Again – intuitive, reliable, easy to use and seamless on every device.

The 3rd app is a new one which is my Remember the Milk-replacement, the new to-do list app….and I’ve plumped for Wunderlist. Again, good syncing across platforms, simple interface, easy to upload tasks (by email or directly by app / desktop), easy to share lists, and easy to prioritise. Ultimately, I find I need a long list of to-dos (emptying the brain of everything I know needs doing), and a shorter list of prioritised to-dos (to keep focused on the important, not the urgent). Wunderlist makes this easy. But it also works with Evernote – to do lists haven’t really worked for me in Evernote (I tend to end up with actions at the end of different notes, and I can’t make Reminders work for me in a way that makes sense), but now I can just add a task box next to an action, tag the note with TaskClone (which syncs between the two apps via another IFTTT) and it appears in my Wunderlist to-do list.

The key for me is that apps like this work with the way I already work, so that it’s seamless and doesn’t involve inventing a whole new set of habits and behaviours. For me, that means across devices, integrating + syncing between them, but being relatively simple – notes, to-dos, access to files. And when I think back to writing notes in a book, drafting + re-drafting a to-do list (on paper, naturally) and saving files onto a USB for transport, I can almost feel the time being saved. My only area left now is email – I’ve resisted all the various email apps so far, although I’m looking hard at SaneBox

Would love to hear which apps work for you. What have I missed? Do they pass the simple, seamless, sensible test? Do they genuinely free up time, rather than absorb it in ‘productivity procrastination’? For now, I’m sticking with Evernote, Dropbox and Wunderlist and (hopefully) going to have a productive year.

Growing an enterprising culture

26 May

Image[originally posted on SEUK website]

I’m looking forward very much to speaking at the forthcoming Evolve conference organised by NCVO and partners (including ourselves at SEUK). I’ll be leading a workshop on ‘Building a culture of enterprise‘ which, for me, is at the heart of building a sustainable, enterprising organisation. To put it simply, a legal structure or nice mission statement doesn’t guarantee you will deliver anything; or to quote the mighty Peter Drucker, guru of gurus, “culture eats strategy for breakfast

It’s also all too easy for those looking at social enterprise, whether they are starting up or starting out in the charity and public sectors, to view it in a very technical way: is it a trading arm? should we be a CIC CLG or CLS? can we TUPE the staff across? what board + governance will work best? And so on. Or the temptation (especially for start-ups) is to get obsessed with the business plan, with forecasts, with modelling and more – this ‘paralysis by paper’ was a not uncommon sight in my time at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, as people tried to get everything sorted before they started. Plans are important frameworks for overall direction and strategy – but, as the saying goes, no plan survives first contact with the customer…

So we are really talking about culture here: that people within an organisation feel the ability to spot, develop and pursue opportunities (in line with the mission), to take and be comfortable with risk (and reward), to be creative and problem-solve, to be flexible and responsive in their approach. I tend to think of culture as like an organisation’s ‘personality’ – like people, a culture can be rational and objective, shy and introverted, or outgoing and gregarious. Sometimes there are visible signs of this ‘personality’: how people dress, what the workspace feels like, mission and value statements. At other times, it is through actions and interactions that a culture becomes apparent: actions that say “this is the way we do things here“.

Over the last few years at SEUK, we have worked with lots of groups from the public sector spinning out as social enterprises, and many charities exploring a social enterprising approach: to all, the mantra has been that the culture is the important bit, not the technical process. At the same time, as an organisation ourselves, we have been undergoing a similar shift: the transition from having a large core government grant to being a real social enterprise ourselves with mixed, diverse income streams would not have been possible without a more enterprising culture – in every person, in every team. Many of our members have also likewise successfully developed a more enterprising culture – from 100+ year-old charities to 2000-employee spin-outs from the NHS.

How? Well, you’ll have to come to Evolve and the workshop to find out – but it involves strategies around challenge, validation, recognition and communication. And a surprising amount of repetition. And a surprising amount of repetition. And the willingness of great, committed, skilled people to come on the journey – fortunately there is no shortage of them in the charity and social enterprise world.

Social enterprise listening…

2 Mar

listenLast week I was getting the rail miles in – Cardiff, Manchester, Exeter and Cambridge planning, discussing, representing and speaking about social enterprise. Apart from giving me an in-depth knowledge on the exciting topic of “which railway company’s wi-fi is worst?” and checking out which parts of the country are still underwater, it also meant I had the chance to listen to some podcasts I’ve been storing up for a while or which I haven’t got to on the commute. There’s a lot out there (they’ll let anyone have a go these days – see here). So here’s some recommendations from recent listens:

Peter Day‘s programmes are always worth listening to; one recent one on ‘disability in the workplace’ featured John Charles of social enterprise Catering2Order >> download here

– The magazine Monocle has always struck me as the paper equivalent of a Hoxton hipster with an asymmetric haircut, but it’s actually a decent read with interesting content. I recently discovered their Entrepreneurs podcast. Episode 73 (they are now on 124) was on social entrepreneurship, and featured the House of St Barnabas >> download here

– Analysis is always worth a listen, though requires a bit more concentration than some of the frothier radio out there. A recent episode that was more interesting than I thought it might be was ‘The Philosophy of Russell Brand’, looking at the philosophers and thinkers behind the Occupy movement and more >> download here

– While we’re still on Radio 4, the Bottom Line is still a winning format: 3 CEOs / leaders discussing a particular industry or area of business, hosted by Dragon’s Den / Today maestro Evan Davies. It remains an aspiration to get an episode renamed ‘The Triple Bottom Line’, but until that happens, I’ll have to enjoy episodes like the recent one on MBAs or something that I remain unmoved by and sceptical of, the ‘Sharing Economy’ >> download here

 

– I enjoyed the Freakonomics books, and I enjoy the podcast too – it’s still a bit superficial and I still occasionally find myself ranting at it, but it’s well-produced, takes different approaches to subjects, and gets me thinking. And that’ll do me. Recent episodes have looked the Pope dissing the free-market economy and a conversation about how to Fight Poverty with real evidence >> download here

 

– Social Good is a podcast from the Chronicle of Philanthropy which looks at social media for the social sector (broadly). It’s not bad, if completely US-focused, for a UK audience – still some good tips + nuggets of practical advice to take away in amongst the mutual congratulation. And occasional stand-out episodes like the recent one on big data >> download here

– Finally, of course, you have the ubiquitous TED talks. To be honest, these vary substantially in quality and level of insight, particularly with the rise of TedX. And I think there is something to recent critiques of boiling everything down to neat soundbites. Arguably you know something has reached peak hype when it gets a talk (for example…). But there’s some gold in them there hills too – recent highlights have included a talk on ‘how to make companies productive in an increasingly complex world‘ (ignore the fact that TED felt the need to add subtitles because the guy has a French accent speaking English!). You should also check out Michael Porter (on business / shared value) and Michael Sandel (on morals / markets) – Sandel wins, IMHO. But I’m a sucker for self-deprecation and unassuming big achievements, so here’s Paul Pholeros on, well, fixing homes to make people healthy:

 

A brighter shade of fail: openness, adaptation and learning

17 Jul

I was on the phone the other day to an organisation, discussing the challenges of maintaining culture at a time of growth,  when I was asked if I could give “a couple of examples where organisations had failed to do so successfully“. Having shared a couple of examples where I felt that had been the case, it got me thinking how we continue to only discuss failure in closed conversations, back-channel discussions, confidential peer-to-peer programmes, internally within organisations, or privately over drinks. And yet it is a truth universally acknowledged that the best learning comes from mistakes, missteps and failures; indeed, that was why the question was asked on the call: “can we learn from other organisations, so we can improve and do things more effectively“….

 

Of course, it’s completely understandable why failure stays mostly behind closed doors. When something goes awry (be it big or small), people want to move on from it, not do a speaking tour on the ins and outs of the mistakes they made. There may also be reasons behind something not working that either can’t be made public or are simply due to unavoidable external circumstances. And it is also rare that something is simply “a failure”; it’s rarely that black and white or binary in nature, and the reality is often messier, greyer and more mixed: an organisation that closes down may have achieved huge impact (and a huge legacy), while an entrepreneur may make both mistakes and inspired judgements in close proximity. How often do you look back and say you would go back and do it differently if you could?

 

I’m intrigued by this relationship between failure and success: the fact that small ‘failures’ actually help us learn and achieve more, and achieve it more effectively….and avoid ‘big’ failures. This is something at the heart of Tim Harford’s book Adapt…which is an illuminating read for those interested in business and problem-solving alike. Harford’s central thesis is that the way to solve complex problems is to experiment and adapt. Or, more precisely, to try new things in the sure knowledge that some will fail; to make those failures survivable; and to evaluate (aka knowing when you’ve failed and why).

 

This starts to give us an indication of how we can build failures and learning into our organisational processes, to really get to a position where continuous improvement (and incremental innovation) is a reality not an aspiration. And to a point where this moves beyond piloting and testing the market by individual entrepreneurs who are learning-by-doing; instead, we need to move to a place where this is built into our internal systems and processes.

 

As for the public side of failure, maybe it just needs reframing, or included in future awards ceremonies: best comeback, most resilient social entrepreneur, most dignified exit, finest legacy….until we get to these levels of acceptance, we’ll continue to not only miss out on the richest, most practical learning but also risk giving an overly positive (or narrow) view of a sector that suffers the same range of mishaps, closures, successes and comebacks as the commercial world.

Pop-ups, truths and language

16 May

I spent the whole of last week as one of the POPse! collaborative, helping create and run the world’s first pop-up social enterprise think-tank. It seems to these biased eyes to have been a great success: providing some fresh thinking (formal reports forthcoming), building new networks, and helping regenerate the local community (via the physical space) and the social enterprise community (via the posts, reports and events) a little.

[you can find a short video of me and another collaborator Henry Hemming talking a bit more about POPse! on the video page (scroll down)] 

It was also, crucially, great fun. And although I’m knee-deep in finalising a report about social impact measurement, and how we can move that whole space on, I confess to having enjoyed helping create the social enterprise playlist and  the 100 social enterprise truths a great deal. I think the latter has been tweeted and re-tweeted more than anything I’ve ever written or been involved in. Most people seem to be finding something of amusement / irritation / resonance (or all three), and it’s great that it’s being so widely read.

It makes me think about whether the reason something like that gets read more is because you approach it with a sense of fun and openness rather than approaching it as ‘work’ with ‘seriousness’. In that context, this recent Peter Day podcast about language and business is well worth a listen; a reminder to all in communications not to let words, jargon, language and our mindset get in the way of the job in hand (or to dull all creativity).

POPse! certainly did the opposite, allowing creativity and fun to give life to the work; and was one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling weeks for me in a long time as a result. Now we hope that the various policy reports and recommendations that have been produced also have an impact on the audiences they are intended for.