Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Improvician

For Rob Poynton, improvisation is not just the preserve of actors and musicians, but rather something we all do everyday. According to Rob, “only the dead don’t improvise”. Learning to improvise better, can help us learn to live better. If I sound slightly evangelical, that’s because I am (who’d have thought playing Slow-mo Samurai could be so, erm, edifying). Rob shares  his insight all over the place, from Oxford University’s Said Business School, to London-based brand gurus Eatbigfish, to the remote Spanish hilltop he calls home. He’s written a book too… Don’t cue the lights, or camera, or action. In fact don’t cue anything… Ladeez & gents, it’s Rob Poynton.

THE LESSON: This came thanks to a complete stranger I met by chance at the Jazz festival in Copenhagen. He was in software and when I mentioned I worked with improvisation he started talking to me about Agile Project Management and SCRUM – two forms of highly flexible working that are used in the software industry (which I had never heard of). This got me very excited and sparked off a whole chain of associations and inquiry.  What I learned was that there many stories of improvisational ways of working (the ones that I am interesting in spreading) already out there, we just tend not to see them. I have since found plenty of other examples. My idea is to collect and compile improvisational ‘case stories’, in order to re-frame how we think about what it takes to be successful in the messy world of everyday reality, not the idealised world of business school post rationalisation.

THE QUESTION: For me, this is the year of hosting. The question I am fascinated by is what it takes to design a rich, learning experience.  This means asking other questions, like –  How much do you need to structure and organise? How much do you leave open?  What kind of stimulus do you need? Of what kind?  And so on.

I am engaged with several experiments in this area.

  •  The Creative Tapas Experiment here in Spain, which is an exploration of the conditions needed for co-creativity with a group of about fifty people.
  • My work with Marshall Young on the design of the Oxford Praxis Forum, another ‘container’ designed to explore how senior leadership practioners can interact with a research University for mutual benefit.
  •  Using the space I have in Arenas to host personalised retreats for individuals, called ‘Parenthesis’.  The idea is to give people time-out to think and reflect deeply on intractable dilemmas, in surroundings that allow them to reconnect with themselves and with nature.

THE INSPIRATION: The Leonardo at the Court of Milan exhibition at the National Gallery.  It had everything stacked against it because it was so difficult to get in and so crowded once you did (rather like looking at art on a rush hour tube). Once I got over that, I found it truly inspirational.

For me it was the sketches and drawings combined with the explanations on the audio guide of how Leonardo worked that I found inspirational.  He was incredibly collaborative, would allow ideas to emerge and evolve enormously during the process, and was happy to leave things ‘unfinished’. Here was somebody at the very highest level of creative endeavour, yet he worked in a way that was very adaptive and improvisational.

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The zen advocate

When I first met Marianne Elliott, she was standing on her head as part of my upside-down New Zealand welcoming committee.  I’m not the only person to get to know an inverted Marianne. This accomplished human rights advocate is also a yoga teacher, with a focus on helping those who do good.  And me oh my, has she done a lot of good: from creating the Action Plan for Human Rights in New Zealand, to helping the government of Timor-Leste craft their human rights strategy, to heading a UN office in Herat, Afghanistan. You can hear more from her in her book Zen Under Fire , on her blog or on the Huffington Post.

THE LESSON: There is always a new frontier. Whether in the causes I care most about, my writing, my various enterprises or my spiritual path, there will always be another mountain to climb. There is no finish line in this race. In fact, I’m slowly coming to realise there is no race. So I might as well enjoy the journey. And, you know, stop to smell the roses from time to time.

THE QUESTION: Only one? I have so many. I’m a little burning-question-generating machine. Here are a few from this morning: Is reducing a narrative to a level comprehensible to a four year old the only way to get 70 million people to watch your video about child soldiers in Northern Uganda? Did I go too far in simplifying the narrative in my own book to make it accessible to a non-expert readership? What will I write about next? (That last question prompted by the fact I’m off to have lunch with my editor in 30 minutes)

THE INSPIRATION: I’m inspired by people and projects that explore new stories, and new ways of telling old stories, about places and people affected by conflict. In the past year I was inspired by the Face2Face project in Israel/Palestine (not new, but new to me) which uses humour and juxtaposition to retell an ancient story, the exquisitely beautiful Touch Down in Flight video of Afghanistan by Augustin Pictures and Gayle Lemmon’s book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, which tells the true story of an Afghan woman entrepreneur. I’m also reluctantly, begrudgingly inspired by the Kony 2012 video. I have no end of questions about the ethics of that style of story-telling, but I cannot deny being deeply impressed and, yes, inspired by just how catchy and compelling the video has proven to be. There are some lessons in there.

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