A question of granularity

The Technology Strategy Board as a separate organisation has been in existence for 20 months.  In that time we have had a lot of feedback.  Some of it told us we were going in the right direction, but maybe not fast enough.  Some of it suggested we were doing the wrong things, although if that was followed by a plea for personal funding it carried less weight!  We had been logging it and acting where appropriate, but we knew that we would have to take stock in a more coherent way at some point.  An important stage in that process started on March 2nd 2009 with our "Gravel Pit."

I should start by explaining the name.  For some time we have been an active participant in the Ideas Factories run by the Research Councils – except that these worthy events are colloquially known as “sand pits”.  They are used when an area for potential activity has been identified but where the definition of the problem that needs to be addressed is less clear.  When we came to address our own future, we roughly knew the questions we had to address – but not clearly enough – so we decided to use the sandpit protocol.  However, since we couldn’t take a significant fraction of the organisation off line for 5 days, we decided to use a coarser approach.  The name “Gravel Pit” was suggested and it stuck. 

Since the first day of a sandpit is designed to get the participants to know and understand the potential contributions of their fellow “pitters”, we thought we could dispense with that, and since we couldn’t take everyone, we broke the event into 2 parts separated by a couple of months.  We discussed this approach with the facilitators, Knowinnovation, and came up with a plan.  Thus the event we planned was effectively Tuesday and Wednesday of a sandpit.  Is that clear?

We started gently, with Andy Burnett (of Knowinnovation) and I telling people “not to worry”.  We were, of course, lying!  That was followed by a warm-up exercise to get people to think about, and vocalise, their hopes and fears for the organisation/event.  This is what is described in the trade as the “bring out your dead task”, where you get people to unload their prejudices and preconceived ideas as much as possible.  The first main event was David Sproxton of Aardman, talking about innovation in the field of animation, and the skills required to tell a good story.  He talked about the development of the company and how they worked on Morph, Sean the Sheep and Wallace and Gromit.  There were lots of important messages contained in what he said – the importance of suspending judgement and generating lots of ideas,not just working on the first one; the key role of teamwork where many different people can contribute to the development of the final “product”.  Part of the process was designed to distract people from the real question by getting them to do other things, so the personal manufacture of a Morph during the talk meant they engaged a bit of their brains they perhaps don’t usually use – to listen without hearing.  David even talked about this, as an important way to unlock creativity.  Having made the Morphs, the next task was to use them to portray any concerns about our organisation. The resulting tableaux were photographed by Scott (the third member of the Knowinnovation team) and are displayed in our internal discussion space. The pictures are nice, but the descriptions were pointed - giving us a number of areas we need to address as a team. 

Eddie Obeng of Pentacle to “mess with our heads a bit” after lunch.  Eddie gave us a mildly personalised version of his “world after midnight” riff.  The idea that the world might have changed and that applying the old rules might not be the most sensible path forward was persuasively and energetically presented and Eddie did the business by unsettling the participants and getting them into a place where they would think differently.  Dinner was followed by “Evil Tim’s” party piece.  I am constantly astounded by the effect this exercise has on people and the link between ”what it is” (I have been told by the Guild of Sandpit Facilitators that if I tell you what Tim does, they will have to eliminate me!!) and ideas never ceases to amaze me. The next day, we started the real business of looking at the slightly more uncovered hopes and fears.  In the run up to the event, we had asked people “If you could improve one thing about the way the Technology Strategy Board works, what would it be and why? “  We took the answers to those questions and asked people to cluster both the goals and themselves.  This produced the first set of questions to address – phrased as WIBNIs (Wouldn’t it be nice if?). 

As is the practice with sandpits, just as they thought they were onto the answers, we unsettled them again – this time with people from outside the organisation but who knew us.  We had invited Nick Knowles from Kizoom and Clive Card from Lotus to give us their perspective on us.  To be honest, we had picked them because they are both relatively good friends, but they still managed to tell us things we didn’t really want to hear – that we are still seen as rather bureaucratic, that they really only want our money, the connections stuff is secondary and so on.  This caused another restructuring of both the goals and the people before lunch and the final straight, where we told them that it was THEIR problem as well and they had to come up with solutions that THEY took part in.  This is always the worrying part, but we got as far as we had hoped – and farther than we had feared – by the time we closed out the event at 4.30.  Apparently, everyone who had taken part looked a bit drained the next day in the office but I can already see the e-mail traffic on working up plans to implement the ideas we came up with and planning for the second event – provisionally titled “Gravel Pit II – This Time It’s Concrete” for late June.  


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:31

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