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Back to busyness: 9 interesting reads on innovation, Brexit and social enterprise

12 Feb

2c5888300bc91e05b7053ce1d8bc53adIt’s been an extremely busy start to the year. I know that saying “I’m busy” is often code for saying “I’m important” but I’m using it in the literal rather than the self-puffery sense. We just had one of our flagship events, the Social Value Summit, with 340 people from across sectors, and have our health conference coming up in early March. Both gone/going well, but logistically stretching. Along with some interesting work with members like HCT and SASC and with councils like Staffordshire and Cheshire & Warrington, a new chair, business planning, Buy Social training with companies, the next State of Social Enterprise (& international versions), advocacy with a (new-ish) government, and the core work of membership recruitment and retention. It definitely feels like we are doing more for less (or more with less people, certainly – I’m thinking of including ‘how many people do you think work at Social Enterprise UK?‘ in our membership survey as a proxy indicator for ‘punching above our weight’). And it’s enjoyable as well as hard work.

It’s also been a very non-London January and February, which is great. So far this year, I’ve been to Birmingham (x2), Bolton, Leatherhead, Liverpool (x2), Oxford, Stafford, and Wolverhampton. Cardiff, Leeds, Middlewich, Plymouth and Totnes all follow before the end of the month. As ever, the benefit of racking up the rail miles is a chance to listen and read interesting material, as well as try and catch up on the emails. So here’s a few things I’ve read recently that I found interesting – well worth making time / train trips for.

  1. Dominic Cummings: How the Brexit referendum was won – Amongst the infuriation you may feel if you voted Remain, there is much of interest in this (long) article from one of the architects of the successful Vote Leave campaign – on the use of digital, on the bubble of Westminster / media, and much more besides
  2. A new paradigm – towards a user-centred social sector – interesting provocation from Tris Lumley at NPC on increasing ownership, engagement and accountability with those normally called ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘service users’ in the social sector. I think it goes a bit far towards the end on the potential of investment to scale specific solutions (language we have heard for years without any evidence any of the approaches has worked), but the point about the disruptive nature and potential of tech is well-made and important.
  3. The Year In Social Enterprise – a 2016 Legislative Review – just as scanning the recruitment pages is often the best way to find out what an organisation is doing / planning, so looking at the realities of what is being brought in in different countries can help document progress of social enterprise. For example, ‘renewed interest in L3C’ isn’t something you hear over here from the US. Likewise, a look at the European Social Enterprise Law Association‘s updates reveals new legislation in Greece, with Bulgaria, Slovakia, Malta, Netherlands, Czech Republic and Estonia also in the process of enacting laws to support social enterprise.
  4. Making Technology Work for the Most Vulnerable – the headline says it all really, and although the article outlines the beginning of thinking rather than any concrete conclusions, this will be one of the key debates of our time. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we define productivity particularly ‘labour productivity’ – it strikes me that we need to invert our thinking on this in the same way that Greyston Bakery does in its famous social enterprise strapline: We don’t hire people to bake cookies; we bake cookies to hire people. Might outputs:outcomes be a more sensible way forward, rather than inputs:outputs?
  5. Why Collaboration Does Not Equal Innovation – a nice piece from Paul Taylor who works at Bromford, a Midlands-based housing association. Although the headline should probably be ‘why short-term collaboration does not equal innovation’ as that is the primary thrust of what he’s saying here. I agree with everything else here. [On which note, you could check out the 2012 SSIR article on how Innovation Is Not the Holy Grail in the social sector]
  6. Why Being Results-Oriented is Actually Bad – I’m not sure about using poker as a benchmark for business, but I like the contrarian view here, and the focus on making good decisions and trusting the process.
  7. Faulty by Design – the state of public sector commissioning (pdf) – not cheery reading, but some good detailed analysis of the fragmentation and barriers to getting more from public services. Unfortunately, it is just an analysis of everything that’s wrong….presumably a follow-up with some solutions is coming!
  8. Reflecting on Millions Learning: Lessons from Teach First’s scaling story – Teach First isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I have some doubts about the transfer of the model to social work and policing. But there’s no doubting the scale of its achievement – to become one of the largest graduate recruiters in the UK in 15 years and support over 1 million people. There’s some interesting lessons here from their outgoing CEO Brett Wigdortz on scale: timing, luck, being ready, thinking system-wide, have the right mindset and more.
  9. Industrial strategy and the challenge of inclusive growth – two phrases bandied around a hell of a lot at the moment (in policy wonky, political and media circles): industrial strategy and inclusive growth. For me, this starts to tentatively put some ideas forward on how the two can be sensibly linked, but it’s very tentative and framed within current confines of thinking. There is a lot of think-tank action on these topics, and a lot of analysis – but few looking at those organisations (including social enterprises) which have developed inclusive, growing business models. I find that odd – work to do.

Happy reading.



The Future of Doing Good: 7 thoughts

3 Jun

besogoodA couple of weeks back, I attended the Big Lottery Fund’s ‘Future of Doing Good’ event. If you haven’t come across this yet, they are convening and ‘catalysing’ a conversation which aims to step back and think about what the future of doing good looks like – this is important for their own work, but also for the whole of civil society or, even more broadly, society in its entirety. Or as Dawn Austwick, Big Lottery Fund’s CEO puts it on her introductory blog, it’s a chance to think about how we might achieve “a radical rethink of the way people and communities can shape and improve their lives“. They also commissioned a journalist, Sonia Sodha, to do an overview report on the Future of Doing Good as part provocation, part summary, part mapping of some of the main things to think about. I found it a very interesting, if occasionally frustrating read: which may be inevitable when you are trying to cover such a lot of ground in a relatively short report.

 The event itself aimed to continue, expand and grow that conversation. Below are a few of my reflections both on what we heard, and on what I think should be one of the main focuses of work going forward.

Firstly, I should be honest and say it felt incredibly indulgent for me to spend a day away from work just having a conversation – with no clear remit, plan of where it will go, what it might lead to, or whether it would (ultimately) benefit our members. I was glad I was there, but plagued by a constant nagging awareness of the to-do list and the operational realities in what is now a very lean and busy team. I don’t know if others felt the same: what I do know is that this itself demonstrates one of the challenges we currently have – my internal reaction was a microcosm of the current reality: strained (human) resources, an urgent mindset and an increasing divide between those with money and those without: more parochially in this sector as well as in society at large.

Secondly, there was lots of the discussion of relevance to social enterprise – we were given cards with some of the main trends / areas to think about, and these included: creating opportunity from austerity, blurring of organisational boundaries, people driving change, new ways of resourcing, , environmental change, cross-sector working and so on. If this is the future, then social enterprise and entrepreneurship will continue have a significant role – and should be at the centre of people’s thinking, not in the margins or afterthoughts. And that this needs to not be all about individuals – but about networks, about teams, about recruiting great people (millennials, yes, but also those ‘finishing’ their first set of careers at 65 or 70), about investing in better systems, about incentives to collaboration and more.

Thirdly, there was a lot of ‘the future is sector-less‘ chat. As long as we’re ‘mission-led’ it will be OK. Which I go with to a point, but as I said on the day, that blurring of boundaries is being matched by a growth in transparency and actually a growing interest in ownership (and who owns what). It’s fine to say you are mission-led and (plan to) reinvest your profits, as one of the speakers did, but when you can look up their accounts & governing documents before they finish speaking and (if one wished) share that with the world…well, we are operating in a different time: good intentions aren’t good enough. And anyone reading the papers about, to take two topical examples, BHS or Land Registry, might actually think that who owns assets and how they treat them has never been a hotter topic.

Fourthly, I think new technology (is it new anymore?) rightly featured highly: there is little doubt that increasing digitalisation is having a really significant effect on many organisations and programmes (my example above about transparency being one). It’s hugely significant for membership bodies such as SEUK where I work – we now convene, facilitate, broker, advocate, campaign, use data, communicate and promote in totally different ways. But there still seems to be a lot of superficial jargon being lauded over more reasoned, complex thinking. In the last week alone, I’ve read about ‘impact derivatives’ and a ‘refugee impact bond’ – I may not understand either and both may prove wonderful, but I can’t help feeling that, at times, the product name or intervention is coming before any recognised need for it or clear sense of how it will work. Collateralised debt obligations for social value can’t be far away. Karl Wilding and I started the day joking about proposing an ‘uber for charity’ only for ‘uber’ to be the most used word of the day (without any notable reference to the fact that Uber-type platforms arguably entrench inequality, for all that they bring us in convenience & excellent technology).

Fifthly, I was struck by the really interesting conversation about anger – how the original drivers of charity and social entrepreneurs were (are?) anger and injustice, but that now they feel increasingly dissipated by a focus on scale, organisational professionalism and managerial effectiveness. I think there’s truth in that, and there is a challenge to us all to maintain and foster our activist and campaigning edge – the balance between working to change the system from within and from outside, perhaps. It also struck me that, when people were talking about truth to power, the Big Lottery Fund itself is arguably at least as powerful than most government departments now.

Sixthly, it was interesting to listen to a lot of the conversation turn to local systems and place-based change (Immy Kaur from Impact Hub Birmingham was spot on with her thoughts about key leaders across sectors driving change, I thought, as was Diane Coyle saying that system change didn’t happen top-down). I entirely agree: it’s increasingly clear that the mayors of big cities have the most interesting jobs and portfolios and power. And that one of the effects of austerity in central government combined with various pieces of devolution is that Whitehall has diminishing relevance. The most important work we do (such as the Social Enterprise Places programme or our Health & Social Value work) is all with and through local partners, trying to change things in local areas.

But it requires infrastructure, particularly because devolution can actually mean aggregation at regional or city level (as things join up into ever bigger bodies…) – and I was amazed (at least in the conversations I was in) on the lack of discussion about local infrastructure. The sector seems, largely, to have spent nigh-on 7 years analysing the problem in as many different ways as possible without genuinely committing to trying new approaches and solutions (NB – of course not true of all!). We are piloting a whole load of different approaches and joint deals with local networks and partners to try and work out what might sustain us all: what does a lean, local, effective, cross-sectoral infrastructure look like? and how is it resourced? Given the huge need for such networks and organisations with the way things are heading, it should be front and centre for foundations and those thinking about where they put investment. And let’s act not analyse on this one: we know what the problems are, and there are solutions and great examples out there.

Finally, I ended the day in a really interesting conversation about money (who pays) with a range of colleagues from a diverse range of backgrounds (charity, infrastructure, youth, foundations, entrepreneurship etc). It was a more tangible, realistic conversation that covered a lot of interesting ground. For me, the main thing I took away was the ongoing need to maximise the opportunities and value from all of the assets we either have already or can influence now and in future: which means everything from the small charity switching to CafeDirect coffee through to how a foundation manages its endowment; from a big social enterprise providing a standby facility to a smaller peer through to big charities and universities buying social in their supply chain; and from a local council applying social value across all its services to a company using its reserves to invest in new innovation.

It is these last two which for me have to be key elements of the Future of Doing Good. Place-based plans and approaches will only work with significant investment and innovation (in the real, rather than novelty sense) over the long-term in (new) infrastructure. And we will only be able to tackle the problems of the future if we mobilise all our collective assets and resources and skills towards them. That is a future worth trying for, and to start building now.

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:

Luck and doggedness

20 Oct

findsomethingKatie and I went to see a play at our local theatre the other night, which doesn’t happen that often – but it was excellent (see here for details of The Herd, written by Rory Kineear). And like all good books or plays or films, we came out talking about it, and it set me thinking.

The bit that stayed with me was late on in the play (#notaspoiler) when the grandfather says that life ultimately comes down to “Luck and doggedness…nothing more than that; sometimes good luck, sometimes bad, and doggedness either way”  – I may be slightly paraphrasing, but you get the gist.

It got me thinking about how this applies more widely than family + relationships (which is what the grandfather was talking about) and particularly how it applies to success in the world of work. My gut feel is that we tend to be extremely impatient in the world of social enterprise – that’s no great surprise, because most people work in this sector / movement in order to change things…and because the problems being tackled remain huge. And, on the one hand, that impatience can be harnessed usefully – it motivates, provides urgency, prompts innovation, and can lend a focus to action. But I’m increasingly thinking that it leads us to ignore history, not wait long enough for results, and be on the constant hunt for things that will accelerate change…rather than those that will sustain and deepen it in the long-term (see this recent article on social enterprise accelerators). And that we therefore underplay the role of both luck and doggedness.

I remember reading Forces for Good (a US book about the six practices of high-impact non-profits) which detailed how one thing the organisations featured had in common was a) the length of time the organisations had been going and b) the length of time their leaders had continued with that organisation. [Interestingly, I heard Andy Street from John Lewis speak last week, and he made the point how most corporate CEOs last around 2 and a half years, an extraordinarily short period of time; he’s currently in his seventh year…and is approaching 30 years total at John Lewis] Doggedness  – which I think of as commitment allied to persistence – played an important role in scaling impact….over a long period of time. Similarly, looking at the ‘scaling social innovation’ literature, one finds that most of the featured ideas or innovations that have scaled have one thing in common – they were at least a decade or more old. Doggedness and keeping at it, and making incremental improvements constantly, and big decisions when necessary, are a key part of success in this world.

The luck can manifest itself in various ways – it is well know that the amount of time you put into a bid or proposal is often inversely proportional to the likelihood of you being successful with it; chance encounters lead to opportunities where planned blueprinted approaches do not; the right government Minister at the right time can make huge change in an area of work (and vice versa); the perfect person can apply for that role you’ve struggled to fill…and so forth. Some of this, of course, comes through doggedness – keep articulating the impact of what you’re doing, keep going to those events, keep improving the quality of what you do, keep building relationships…and the ‘luck’ follows. But sometimes it is pure chance – and, like Royal Mail shares, luck can go down as well as up.

For me, and this may be a very personal view, it is about remaining open whilst being dogged – too often, the latter can mean ‘heads-down, narrowly-focused, on-to-the-next’…which can mean that opportunities, or lucky moments, are missed or not seized. Or the doggedness is only applied to operations rather than business development….this was part of my theme on a related topic, which I spoke about at the excellent Social Enterprise Wales conference in Cardiff last week. I was asked to speak about how social enterprises could innovate to grow and sustain themselves….the powerpoint is embedded below, but my key points were that innovation was about

– implementation, not a nice new idea…(innovation is often incremental, not radical + disruptive)
– staying open to new ideas and new learning
– making time for it to happen amongst the day-to-day
– collaboration – it’s easier to be ‘lucky’ the more people you know and work with…

and, of course, that change is both relentless and continuous…so you have to keep doing it. Or what another person on another day might call  being dogged.

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.

Do charities need intelligence analysis?

26 Feb

Catching up on reading is one of the side-benefits of a freelance lifestyle, and I’ve been enjoying Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw. I felt that Blink and Outliers were more like extended magazine articles than books (unlike the Tipping Point), so this book is perfect as it’s a collection of his magazine articles. Having skipped through chapters on the Talent Myth and Why Job Interviews Don’t Matter (all a bit too pertinent right now), I was fascinated by his look at intelligence analysis.

He writes about 9/11 and the oft-reported intelligence failures that allowed it to take place (aka why didn’t they connect the dots of all the various relevant pieces of information they had). His take on it is that intelligence has changed: from solving a ‘puzzle’ to solving a ‘mystery’. By which he means that in the past, intelligence officers would receive information, then work out the ‘answer’ to whatever the puzzle was. So the key task was getting enough information, then working it out.

But the opposite is now true: all the intelligence agencies have more than enough information; in fact, they have too much. It’s easy to look back after the event (as with 9/11) and connect the dots, but at the time there were hundreds of thousands of dots, all of which could have been relevant or a red herring or completely unconnected. In essence, therefore, intelligence has shifted from being one of passively receiving information and using it to get the answer (solving a puzzle) to actively utilising networks, information and data to ‘write’ the story / narrative, work out the players, the next steps to follow and undertand the complexities of the whole picture (solving a mystery).

What occurred to me reading it is that this isn’t a million miles from the realities of what is needed in many organisations, in public, private and social sectors. The ability to:

–       be well-networked (on- and offline) to receive and transmit information

–       assimilate and collate that data and information

–       read and review it at speed to identify what is key

–       edit and summarise it into manageable / usable formats and documents

–       relate and integrate it to mission, strategy and impact

–       communicate it clearly and simply to influence and inform decisions

In working with people across the social enterprise and charity worlds, it soon becomes apparent that, in regard to most questions, challenges and problems, there is no right answer. They are not puzzles, but mysteries in an ever-more networked world full of information and data.

Which makes the role of the intelligence analyst a key one not only for the FBI, CIA, MI6 and the rest, but also for organisations seeking to be neither overwhelmed by an unrelenting flow of information, nor left behind because they missed the key moves, shifts and opportunities. The stakes might not be as high (to say the least) but charities and social enterprises should be thinking about which person or persons plays that role for them; it could be key to the future of the organisation.

And a (Big Society) network newsflash: people are very nice

8 Feb

It’s not been the easiest of weeks Chez Temple, but sometimes that’s when  you start to realise what and who is important. Having beavered away for nigh on 6 years in the world of social enterprise (by the way, it has always been ‘zeitgeisty’ or ‘the next big thing’, every year…), I’ve worked with lots of people and with lots of different organisations. And, by and large, had a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding time. For all the knocks and criticism the sector takes, it is also populated with genuine, committed and authentic people who are powered by a sense of purpose and social mission that is inspiring and impressive.

What particularly impresses me at times like this is that the people I assume are the busiest, whose life can be counted by the red flashes on their Blackberry, who if you cut in half like a tree trunk you would find rings of to-do lists, these are the people who make time to make the call, send the e-mail, point out the opportunity, or buy the beer. I’m particularly grateful for the beer.

I don’t know whether this is evidence of what Big Society is aiming for, of (bridging or bonding) social capital, of weak ties, of associative network, of trust relationships, or of a community of interest. Or, more plainly, of good old fashioned friendships. I do know that I’m pleased that you seem to get out what you put in, that generosity is prevalent, and that, well, people are very nice.