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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.