Culture Change with Lou Mycroft – Universal Learning with Saj Mohammad
Please Note: This transcript has been slightly edited to improve readability.
Saj Mohammad: In this series, I’ll be talking to professionals inside and outside education, as well as parents, carers, and learners themselves about their experiences of inclusive practice.
I’m on a mission to discover as much as possible about inclusion, because I’ve been a learning support practitioner for over six years and I’ve come to realise that many of the adjustments we make for students with additional needs could benefit all learners. For example, making things easy to read helps dyslexic students, while using clear language can benefit autistic learners. So, shouldn’t inclusive practice be part of our normal routine when planning teaching, learning, and assessment?
In an ideal world, I’d like educators to stop thinking about inclusive practices as another chore to be added to an ever-expanding workload. In actual fact, I believe that inclusive practice can ultimately make life easier by making learning more accessible for all of our students.
If you’re a regular listener to this podcast, you may recall that in the first episode I mentioned the origins of Universal Learning in the ideas room created by Lou Mycroft and Stef Wilkinson. This is an online space that started during the first lockdown that uses the Thinking Environment created by Nancy Klein. The Thinking Environment is a non-competitive way for people to share ideas and crucially it encourages listening without interruption.
In that first edition, I mentioned that I wanted to talk about the Thinking Environment in a future edition, so I’m very glad to say that in this edition of Universal Learning, I’m talking to Lou Mycroft, one of the originators of the ideas room. Lou describes herself as a nomadic educator, researcher, and writer, particularly but not only in the fields of community education and adult education.
I really to talk to Lou about culture change as it is one of her fields of expertise, but I also recognise that listeners may get ideas about how to improve their practice from this series. But effecting positive change in organisations is often easier said than done.
We begin our discussion talking about the start of Lou’s career. She worked in public health when HIV and Aids was at the forefront of community healthcare. This led to her eventually working in adult education at Northern College, a residential FE college serving communities ravaged by deindustrialisation. Lou talks about how her work in public health and adult education was connected by the idea of changing communities which is allied to culture change as a concept.
This developed further for Lout as she moved on to educate education professionals to improve their practice. Lou talks about her work on the #APConnect programme which helps FE practitioners to develop their skills and knowledge. This was Lou’s first opportunity to bring the Thinking Environment to practitioners working in FE and it began to spread throughout the sector. She also talks about her contribution to a seminal book titled Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, which aimed to change the narrative around FE being overlooked. It inspired numerous practitioner-led initiatives as an antidote to traditional professional development which places an emphasis on ‘the sage on the stage’ as Lou puts it.
We then move on to talk about how #JoyFE began during the first lockdown and brought the Thinking Environment successfully to the online world. Lou also talks about how the Thinking Environment can be used to effect positive change in organisations. She also mentions how it can build trust and she mentions the research of Dr Christina Donovan who has researched the nature of trust in FE settings. I’m hoping to talk more about trust in an upcoming episode.
We round off our discussion talking about how simple it is to bring the Thinking Environment to organisations and bring about culture change. We also talk about how organisations can use the 3 Horizons framework to plan their future direction.
We end the conversation looking at how Generation Z are driven more by values than money, which could lead to a generation gap between the new workforce and senior leadership in organisations. Lou also points out the senior leaders need time to think if they are going to develop their best ideas.
Lou covers a huge amount in our discussion and I’m sure you’ll be inspired to make your organisation’s culture more inclusive. But if there’s anything else that you want to know more about, I am planning to answer questions from listeners about inclusion in an upcoming episode. So do feel free to get in touch with your questions via our website at UniversalLearning.education
Now, this interview was recorded using Zoom and the quality is not always the best. However, you can read a transcript of this and every episode on our website UniversalLearning.education where you can also find links relating to each episode to help you discover how you can put inclusion into practice for all of your learners.
It was a real pleasure and an honour to talk to Lou, especially as she had recently gained her well-deserved PhD. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation.
Lou Mycroft: Well, hello, Saj. I am Lou Mycroft, and I think that’s the first time I’ve said Lou Mycroft without it being a joke so that’s quite a milestone for me. I am a nomadic educator, researcher, writer, particularly but not only in the fields of community education and adult education.
Saj: I understand your background is in public health. In the last few months, public health has certainly been at the front of many people’s minds. Tell me a little bit more about what you did in your life as a public health practitioner.
Lou: It’s really interesting, isn’t it? I have certainly tuned in to my inner epidemiology geek over the past 15 months or so and I’ve really found that in myself. To be fair, when I left Northern College and became a freelancer, I wanted to find a public health strand to my work because it goes really deep in me. Probably starts when I was a student so back in the ’80s. I don’t know if people listening have watched the fabulous series, It’s a Sin so you will know if you didn’t already about the AIDS helpline and all the various volunteering initiatives, opportunities, campaigning, protesting that was around that time, and I got involved in all of that.
Lost my way for a little bit and ended up via a temping opportunity really at Sheffield’s Public Health Department. This was the late ’80s by then and early ’90s. In fact, it was the early ’90s and just found my niche really. I failed my honours degree, was lucky enough to be sponsored by the NHS to do a master’s in public health. The way that we worked at Sheffield was to… it was really pioneering. It wasn’t about producing leaflets though there was some of that going on, and I’ve got a little story about that. It was more about community development work.
In fact, by the time I left there, we had renamed ourselves within the Sheffield Health Authority, the Department of Social and Community Development. It was about getting out into communities, doing community health research. We had a course that we ran, there was a particular procedure that we followed, very much co-constructed co-produced projects, working with volunteers, absolutely amazing, close, close working relationships with the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health at the time. I was able to carry on that element of the work and the leaflet-producing side of things.
They were the pieces of work that I swerved because it took six months to get a leaflet approved even locally, even just in Sheffield, never mind NHS England level. Some years later, I went to India on a working trip. We went out into the sticks to this public health centre. They were just producing leaflets left, right, and centre in about four different languages. It just wasn’t necessary. I think that experience got me thinking that actually, it’s not just about the work we do in communities. It is also about the work we do in organizations.
Lee Adams, who was my boss there, who later became a professor, real pioneering woman from the Eastend of London, former primary school teacher, she was a fierce and scary, tiny little woman. She used to say, “50% of this community development, 50% of it is organisational development.” I don’t think I’ve ever really lost that balance. In the last year looking at the confused public health messages, the research has been fascinating and amazing. Research has always been a really big part of public health and getting a sense of what you can trust, what you can’t trust, but it’s left me despairing really about the public health literacy we have in this country. People don’t know what to believe. That’s because of the mixed messaging because also we don’t teach people how to understand that still.
Saj: Absolutely. How did you transition from working in public health into education?
Lou: Well, like most people, it was a bit of a surprise to me that that’s what I’d done by the time I got there. I went to work in more fieldwork-based public health in Castleford and Pontefract in West Yorkshire. We partnered with Northern College to do the community research. I was in that job less than a year. It made myself incredibly unpopular because we went out to communities and we said, “What is it? What are the areas of health that you want to campaign on?” They said, “Well, we want to stop Ponte Hospital closing. They’re trying to close our hospital.”
We ran a campaign to stop the closure of Ponte Hospital. Then I soon found my P45 waiting for me because that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. Luckily, a job came up at Northern College. John Chapman, a late departed friend, and mentor, I still miss him, he rang me up and said, “There’s a job here which would be fabulous for you. Are you up for applying?” I went to Northern College, which certainly was then a very special place, an adult residential college and set up to educate working-class men and women in the South Yorkshire coalfield, the steelworks, and further afield. Amazing place. Mo Mowlam used to be the barrister there. A real radical political history.
I went there to work on the community regeneration program. Still didn’t think about myself as a teacher. I was a community worker. I had a talent for group work, for working with groups of people. It was so weird that on my first day, I sat next to somebody in the, I want to say a canteen, but it was this stately home with this amazing windows, painted ceiling, and everything. They were discussing Shakespeare on the next table, and people were saying, “Are you teaching this weekend?” Or, “Are you going into college,” Rather than, “Are you going into work?” Then I realized, “Oh, my God, I never wanted to be a teacher, here I am.”
It was around the time that FE was professionalizing so it was expected that I would get a PGCE so I went to do that at a local college. I was there nearly 20 years in the transition from community regeneration. Basically, the program was disbanded when the gravy train of European money stopped. By about 2006, I was running a social purpose teacher education program. Still that community focus, we fitted it to a University of Huddersfield framework, but that community work continued. The people who came to us would be youth workers, they might be nurses, they will be community workers in various ways, family support workers, not necessarily people working in colleges. Almost anything but I was there until 2017.
Saj: As you said, probably working in public health, you’ve seen how cultural organizations is so important to the work that you do. At what point did you make the connection between that and your practice as an educator?
Lou: The people I worked with were all working in, if not their own communities, then somebody else’s. I kept this idea with me about how the organisations needed to be developed as much as the community. An example of that, for example, back in the day, everybody used to talk about how to reach people. I hope they don’t do that anymore, but of course, it was the services that were hard to reach and not the people. There was always that sense of turning it on its head.
Certainly, when there was a lot of money in community regeneration, particularly in South Yorkshire, it was a lot about buildings. It was a lot about landscape and greening. Where I sit now, this used to be black, so green in the former coalfields and things like that, and people were very much forgotten. I think all the way through, people have been at the heart of it for me. That’s the great thing, isn’t it, about adult education. People are at the heart of it. In regeneration, the people could be forgotten. Within education, we can’t forget the people. We might not always serve them well but we can’t forget the people. I think that for me was the connection.
Also, we talk now about a mental health crisis coming out of the pandemic. When I first went to Northern College, we were experiencing a mental health crisis. particularly amongst men, caused by the utter devastation of the former industries. People were being laid off wholesale, sometimes with significant redundancy packages, but no real sense of how to housekeep and manage that money. I remember around here, suddenly every other person you know is set up as a driving instructor. Our local economy could only support so many driving instructors. A whole swathe of people my age having difficulties with addiction and mental health, and that stuff has never gone away.
Increasingly, I started to notice that where people were getting engaged with, it might be too big to call it culture change work, but certainly community changing work, that seemed to have a really profound impact positively on their own self-belief, self-esteem, mental health, and not least because they were working with other people, and they had some agency, and they have some power. I’ve come along in recent years to theorise about different kinds of power. Back in the day, I just saw power, and I saw it enacted badly against one another as well.
I suppose another milestone on my journey was starting to teach people explicitly about power and how to manage their own power responsibly without pressing others or me, in fact. I was around this time deposed as the vice-chair of Mexborough community partnership in a coup. I was learning alongside. I look back, I was so naïve that 20-odd years ago. Actually, so many of those lessons are really helping me now, and particularly over the last year through the pandemic.
Saj: So in terms of your work, if you like, in culture change and your practice, you’ve been involved in quite a few initiatives over the years. One of them, for example, is #APConnect. This is for people in FE, and for people who don’t know what #APConnect is, what does it involve?
Lou: Changing organizations, it seems to me that if you’re at the bottom of an organization, and all too often in further and adult education, that might mean a zero hours contracts or some very sessional work, you’re never sure whether the work is going to continue, so it’s conditional, really difficult to raise your voice, to be heard, to challenge and be critical. At the top of organisations, are people just trying to keep the carts on the tracks.
Nancy Kline, who founded the Thinking Environment, which I think we’ll probably go on to talk about at some point, Saj. She talks about how the higher you go up the hierarchy, the more obedient you have to be. You think if you rise up, you get more power, but it’s only a certain kind of power. It’s not an activist power. It’s hard to make new things happen. #APConnect came out of the Education and Training Foundation. They are the people who get the professional learning budget from the Department for Education. They started to notice this middle layer of advanced practitioners. Not always called that, sometimes people have called teaching and learning cultures or quality improvement leads or something like that.
Mostly these will be people on proper contracts. Not always, but mostly. Well respected within the organisation, not necessarily on the management ladder, but maybe on the management path. They would have a little bit of wriggle room. The ETF wanted these people to improve quality in the organisation, in an office that stems off moving towards outstanding. I could see all the parallels with those community animateurs of years ago, animateur meaning activist, to actually animate, make a difference.
A couple of years before #APConnect, my last few years at Northern College, I got involved as a co-author of a chapter in a book called Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, which went on to be a trilogy. It was a wonderful opportunity to write for these three books. What they tried to do, and I think to some extent have done, is turn on its head the Cinderella metaphor. We were always the poor relation, weren’t we, in FE, to schools and universities? Turn that on its head, that individual motif, and look at what would happen if we were collective.
The twelve dancing princesses went out every night, gave the gods the slip, and danced till their shoes were in ribbons. I imagined these advanced practitioners, APs as dancers, as clearing space to do new stuff. That has been absolutely how it’s played out. Over the three years so far of its existence, it has really shifted what professional learning is, I think, in FE. Moving from what our friend, Sammy White, calls the sheep deep, CPD, the sage on the stage, the three grand expert telling everybody about this new method of teaching to actually practitioners working together, putting on sessions for each other, sharing ideas, getting real strength and energy from one another.
The pace that has picked up with this since COVID and going online has been incredible, because now, thinking back to what Lee Adams said all those years ago, it’s not just about community development, it’s about organisational development. People are able to look outside of that slightly stale ideas pool in their own organization, and which always gets stale if you don’t look outside the doors, and look outside and get the ideas and energy from other people. #APConnect is a funded project, but it’s joined a landscape of both funded and increasingly grassroots practitioner-led initiatives, like this podcast.
Saj: On that motif of practitioner-led initiatives, you’ve also been involved in #JoyFE over the last year or so with Stef Wilkinson. What was the genesis of #JoyFE?
Lou: Stef and I have been having some conversations anyway. She was working in a senior position at that time within a big general FE college, and we’ve been having conversations. She knew that I was interested in Joyful work and in ethics of Joyful practices. We’d gotten friendly, and when the first lockdown was heading towards us that weekend, she rang me and she said, “Let’s do something because people’s heads are down, everybody’s frightened, let’s do something, and let’s do something joyful.” Straight away, the idea was there, #JoyFE. We might now expand it wider than FE, it might be Joy for Education.
JoyFE started off as the joyful remaking of education, taking the dancing princesses’ idea of being joyfully critical, but not cynical. There’s no point standing around saying, “I wish this wasn’t happening.” It is happening. Let’s get on with it. We started off with a broadcast 7:00 AM, before she went to work, on Twitter. The tech kept letting us down, but loads of people joined. If you remember, Saj, it was Easter, wasn’t it, after a couple of weeks. People had started to gather around the idea.
We got a WhatsApp group together. Over Easter, a number of us who were the original collective, I guess, started to think together. That’s where the ideas room was born as a crucible for ideas. It can’t just be about people culture change, it’s got to be about practices and processes, too, because otherwise once the people move on, you’re back to where you started. The ideas room, which now runs twice a week, open to anybody, whether they’re in education or not, became the engine room of #JoyFE.
Within a month, we published our first digital magazine, and we’ve published 12 editions of that now. We’ve got a little group that works on the magazine, group of people that works on Twitter. We are now in partnership with #APConnect to contribute an ideas room to the #APConnect Festival Fridays. No money changes hands because #JoyFE deliberately, no money, no management, no hierarchy. The people who are part of JoyFE is anybody who engages with us in any shape or form. We met you through Twitter and then you start coming to the ideas room, you are #JoyFE. Anybody can take #JoyFE and just spread it out in their organisation. It is a movement. I think people really gather around that yellow heart and around the idea of doing something affirmative in dark times because that’s where hope comes from.
Saj: You mentioned the ideas room. The ideas room is based around the ideas of Nancy Kline and the Thinking Environment. How did you first come across Nancy Kline?
Lou: Well, we’re going back now to the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health in Sheffield. Nancy Kline, so romantically, married the CEO of the London Lighthouse, which is an AIDS charity, after many years of transatlantic correspondence. It’s a wonderful story, and so because of that connection, when Nancy married, Christopher Spence, the AIDS campaigning, HIV campaigning space was the first place that the thinking environment came to in the UK.
It spread out through centres like the Centre for HIV and Sexual Health. We all had to do thinking environment training. It was quite unformulated. No, it was not unthought-out, but I think the clarity and discipline of the thinking environment has emerged over the years. I know exactly when it was because I was pregnant when I started my thinking environment training. Once Fraser was born, he used to come along with me to those sessions in a beautiful room in the West End of Sheffield. That’s where it came from, and I always practiced it.
In 1999, Nancy wrote her first book, Time to Think. Then in 2009, just when she was writing More Time to Think, which is probably the nearest to a manual, that’s got most of the practical stuff in, I bravely contacted her. Now perhaps I’d be a bit bolder about this, but it’s such a massive thing to contact her and ask if she’d, first of all, come to speak at Northern College, and secondly, could I write a Wikipedia entry about it? She did, and that was it. That was the start of my relationship with Nancy. She made it easy for me to do all the training with her, which is like really expensive, at a cut-priced rate.
I just went through learning how to become a thinking environment coach consultant in my own organisation. I was at Northern College by this time. Of course, I’d come from a very thinking environment organisation into Northern College, where there was a lot that was so brilliant about Northern College. If you think about where it came from, from the trade union and labour movement, it was hierarchy-high. The labour movement loves its hierarchy, it loves its committees, it loves its rank and file. Northern College was built on those lines. Outside of my own team, which ran as the thinking environment, I wasn’t able to get a foothold. It was resisted because people didn’t want to give up that power because in a thinking environment space, we enter the room and we leave role, rank, and ego at the door, and that was too hard, not for everybody, but you had powerful enemies.
It wasn’t until I became a freelancer. Part of becoming a freelancer was to free myself up to work in a thinking environment. Then Joss Kang, who is my boss on #APConnect, she gave me the opportunity. She gave me 50 minutes, Saj. I had 50 minutes to bring the thinking environment to FE on the first year of AP Connect. 25 years of learning and experience distilled into 50 minutes, but it was enough. I lit a fire, and it hasn’t gone out. In fact, since lockdown and the move online for professional learning, the thinking environment has spread like wildfire through FE.
I think its discipline seems to really suit this online space. It’s much harder to fidget, to not give attention in professional learning, where it’s a reasonable expectation that you keep your camera on. People just really get it. It’s become this really efficient process. If you’d asked me, back in February, 2020, if we could do the thinking environment online, I’d have been like, “Well, we can give it a go.” It’s been brilliant. People are now learning to be thinking environment practitioners in their own rights, running ideas rooms in their own organisations, and engaging their colleagues in understanding how taking a little bit of efficiently facilitated time can actually save so much time in the long run because you think things through properly.
Saj: For those people who’ve never experienced the ideas room or a thinking environment, how would you describe it to people?
Lou: Its reason is to enable you to do your best thinking and for people to think better together. That’s much deeper than it sounds, isn’t it? Because actually, all sorts of oppressions and biases and prejudices stop us get in the way of us thinking together. It’s very disciplined. It has a few rules, but they are 100% observed. For example, it’s set up in a way which you will never be interrupted, and the facilitator will interrupt the interrupter.
That matters because when you’re thinking, the fact that I know you won’t interrupt me, not just that you won’t by chance interrupt me, but I know you won’t, it means that I can get through just saying words, and I can get to what I really think, and then maybe I might go quiet and think, well, actually, or maybe I think this, and you can get to the end of your thinking knowing that nobody’s going to interrupt you. That’s actually a very efficient process.
In an ideas room, they’re only open for an hour. We never going to extend them. We don’t put parameters on them. We don’t do a what’s-next round at the end or anything like that. We just set up a space in which maybe about a third of the people there have got an idea they want to think through, the rest of us we come along because we want to offer the gift of our listening, knowing that we will get so much out of it too.
We do a round, role, rank, and ego left at the door, no interruption, people learning to be succinct because they’re not having to fill silences with non-words. We ask people what they want to get out of the evening. We ask them how they are, and we’ll listen to the answer. It’s a practice of care. Then there’s a process of selecting into breakout rooms for around 30 minutes, and that’s where the idea gets really explored. Three people might go together in a room because they want to think about trust in their organisation, or they want to think about induction or they want to think about apprentices or something.
They’ve got a shared interest around it and they just do rounds, rounds, rounds, rounds, rounds until the time’s up, and then we just come back together to say goodbye. We hit on it as a process by chance, but what makes it a thinking environment is that whoever facilitates and that’s very open so anybody can facilitate if they’re a regular so… and the regular is only so that they’re used to it. It’s harder than it looks because actually, we’re not really very disciplined in real life, are we, in conversation. Once you feel what it’s like not to be interrupted, in normal conversation when people are interrupting you, you get really irritated by it.
That disciplined space, the facilitator holds together all the values of a thinking environment so that you can really bring yourself. That’s what Nancy says. She says, “We all say we’re interested in independent thinking. We want students to think independently. We want our colleagues to… Then we do all these things to stop it like interrupting. When I’m thinking, it’s my responsibility to step into the arena to bring what I think, not worry what people think about it, not worry what people think about me.
When you are listening to me, Saj, like you are here so beautifully, what you’re doing is you are completely accepting of the fact that what I’m going to say next is more significant than anything you could possibly say because it’s my thinking. The thinking environment is not a place where people advise one, that strikes such a bomb nail, honestly, when people try and do it, and everybody has to get used to it. Nobody’s made to feel bad, but just unpacking your thoughts. Amazing.
The ideas room is just one application, there’s the diversity process. They obviously can coach in a thinking environment, teaching in a thinking environment, do interviews, tutorials, lots of different ways of using it. It’s been really powerful. We must’ve had hundreds of different people throughout FE and beyond coming along to our ideas rooms.
Saj: In this series, I’m encouraging people to reflect on their practice and hopefully get some advice about how to make their practice more inclusive. I do recognise that people have to work in organizations as well, and it can not always be easy to effect change in organisations. Just thinking about the thinking environment for a moment, how can people listening take the thinking environment into their own organizations and use it as a catalyst for effecting positive change?
Lou: In a thinking environment, no matter where you are in relation to one another in the hierarchy, you’re equally as thinkers. Once you can hold a space like that in the organisation, I think what comes rushing in through the door, first of all, is diversity. We’re all the product of all of our identities, experiences, opinions, and they’re formed from where we live and who brought us up, and all of that stuff.
Most of us don’t bring all of that to work, do we? Because we’re a little bit, “I don’t know,” or, “I’m a single mom,” or, “We’ve got imposter syndrome over this.” We genuinely experience depression and prejudice in that space or other spaces too. How that comes out is, “Who wants to hear from me? Who wants to hear my voice? Who wants to hear my opinion?” The thinking environment wants to hear your voice and your opinion. That’s diversity right in there.
Because you can’t be interrupted, if it takes you a little longer to find your words, to gather your words, then that’s alright. My son Fraser has Tourette’s and that is not the verbal tic, it’s physical tics, so if he’s under pressure then he will twitch, he was raised in a thinking environment. He just relaxes into a thinking environment space because he knows that everybody is there, not waiting for him to perform, but genuinely waiting to hear what he’s got to say. It’s an anti-competitive space.
Suddenly, you’ve got 100 more ideas than you would have had, and ideas which actually recognize the experience of the neurodivergent student, of the student of colour, of the single mom over here because we’ve got all those identities in the room, they’re just not necessarily expressed. Then we start to think about, “Well, what’s the absent identities? Which voices are we not hearing in this decision-making space?” I used to teach parent-support workers, they used the word parent interchangeably with the word mom. Well, where were the dads? Thinking about that, 10 components are present in an ideas room, but for me, diversity is the one that most gets heard that would not get heard elsewhere.
That is the start of culture change because it builds relationships, it brings a calmness to proceedings as well. We’re not in a panic and scarcity environment in a thinking environment. Out there, colleges they’re all about panic and scarcity, aren’t there? Not enough money, not enough time, dah, dah, dah, too much markings, dah, dah, dah, with that noise going on, how can you think? It just carves out this time-limited space where people can do that thinking. It makes, I think, decisions are braver and are more measured. It’s easier to be risk-positive because you’ve actually taken time to think things through.
That most of all, what I’m getting to here, Saj, is these thinking environments spaces, these ideas rooms, and other ways, they build trust. Trust. Being trust forward is what our organisations need to change cultures because there is very little trust in many hierarchies. I’ve nothing against a chain of command. I’ve worked in a hospital, A&E. You need to know who’s in charge, you need to know who you’re taking your orders from. We don’t have to operate like that in FE, and so we begin to build trust.
I work really closely with a wonderful trust researcher, Christina Donovan, her work is in FE as well. When Christina and I sat down to talk about what builds community and what builds trust, it turned out to be exactly the same things. Do something different like introducing a thinking environment, people will start to unify around that. In thinking together, they will begin to thrive. It’s in that thriving that brings hope and the courage, I think, to try new things.
It is a simple intervention that doesn’t cost anything except an hour and a bit of training, which can have really profound effects because that trust ripples out. If it doesn’t, I always think that you can… These thinking environments, they can be sabotaged, but at least you see what is happening. They can be subverted, so if you try to ripple it out, and you’re coming up against barriers, at least you can see what those barriers are and you can make the decision now, is it worth trying to go under, over, around this, or do I just try and do this somewhere else?
Saj: At the moment, we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, but people are looking forward into the future. There are different methods and techniques for organisations to think critically about where they want to be in the next few years, like Three Horizons. How have you used Three Horizons in your own practice to help organizations visualize their future?
Lou: I love Three Horizons. It’s a great notation. If you think about writing down musical notes, what’s the notation for change? Part of the problem we have in any organisation and public service in FE is we call things by certain names, which bring a whole range of expectations about what that thing is. It’s very difficult to change because we think we’ve got to have this, we’ve got to have that.
I can remember a few years ago organising an event where the word plenary kept popping up. I’m like, “We said we wouldn’t have a plenary. We’re having a plenary?” “No, no, we’re not having a plenary.” Then somebody else said, “Plenary,” just because everybody thinks, “Oh, events, conference, plenary.” Why do you want to tell people what they’ve just heard? Why not do something new at the end? It’s really difficult to get rid of this stubborn language.
What Three Horizons does is provide a different notation. The first thing is that you would look at where you are now and you would look at what you didn’t want to lose, and just be really clear-sighted, affirmatively critical, not cynical about what you don’t want to lose. Then, that would give you the platform to say, “Where do we want to be?” We do that all the time, don’t we? Goal-setting, vision, dah, dah, dah.
The difference in Three Horizons is you don’t mess about trying to put too much flesh on the bones of that third horizon, that third goal. You say what it looks like, that’s 1% of your time, 1% visioning, and then 99% aligning your path to that vision. What’s really important in Three Horizons is, yes, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, understanding what you want to keep, understanding where you want to get to, but it’s the journey. That’s why it works really well with thinking environment spaces because you’re spending time looking at the journey.
You’re thinking about, “Okay, if we do this invention, it’s not getting us very far, but this will get us farther, but if we do this we won’t frighten too many people.” It’s having those conversations about how to move one step forward, two steps backward really, but how to align because inevitably, you will have some value’s worth in where you want to be because that’s what we do. We write it, we laminate it, we put it on the walls, it’s in the mission statement, it’s the slogan on the outside of the school, and then we forget to think about how we’re going to do the 99% alignment.
In Three Horizons, you’ve got the chance then to make your progress be a practice of values. How do we make developing a new curriculum a practice of care, for example? How do we make T-levels a practice of equality? Let’s break it down. How do we build trust in this team? All of that is happening in the middle, and all the things are coming together. The culture change, which is about developing the organisation alongside developing the people, the relationship, first of, which is about practices, how they impact on people, the emotional wake of practices. You don’t forget where you’re going, but you don’t give it all the time in the world.
We are all, I’m sure, sick of sitting in meetings where the mission is reiterated and then you do something completely different. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes. Well, how is that going to get us to here, but it’s going to assure the survival of the organisation. It’s the bottom line. Well, what if there was an emotional bottom line? What if our outcomes were written in terms of what’s the emotional wake of that? I think Three Horizons is a lovely framework to bring all of these thinking together.
It’s not scary. It can be quite visual. People want to find out more about it. Public Health Wales, so going back to public health, they have produced this little online workbook. If you just put Public Health Wales Three Horizons, gives you all sorts of different ways of using it. It’s a great process. People get it, and they’re getting with some relief. We’re not just saying words now, we’re actually thinking about what’s important. When I do this, what is the values impact of that on the people that is going to be affecting? Everybody’s interested in that. Everybody’s interested in expressing the values and figuring out how to enact them.
Saj: Absolutely. I think, certainly, younger people coming into the world of work now, I think are less motivated by material rewards and would much rather do work that aligns with their values. This kind of attitude is only going to spread further, but I think there’s a… How can we say that? I think there’s a slight time delay or lag between the upper echelons of management and how they see the world and how, as I say, the new workforce sees the world.
Lou: In public service, that is absolutely true. Out there, there are enterprising young people who are doing amazing stuff, but they’re stepping outside the normal workforce, the portfolio working, they’re doing their gig economy job and setting up a social enterprise, they’re working for a charity. They’re just finding different ways of doing it. I was listening to Brené Brown’s Daring to Lead podcast this morning, and she talks about Gen Z as she calls them, Generation Z. My son’s one of the older end of Generation Z. I am the last Generation X.
She talks about just how brilliant they are. Just doing it for themselves really, but being absolutely values-led. I’ve got the privilege of working with some great younger people, my son’s friends amongst them, who they’re going to get into these organisations and they’re going to think, “This is not a fit for me.” Sooner or later, FE has got to realize it’s missing out on all this talent because it makes you ask permission if your line manager if you wants to take a day off for your kid’s graduation or whatever. This compliance culture is ridiculous.
I’m really, really interested after we know the changes that are coming to FE and the desire for things to be employer-led. Well, Amazon might want somebody to act as a robot and judge them on how long they can hold the bladder before they have to go to the toilet, but you know what? There are plenty of employers out there who are telling us and have been telling us for years that they want young people who can act on their initiative, have ideas, be team workers, do critical thinking. Are we going to be up for that?
Is FE going to be up that when we have organisations that privilege compliance above anything else? It’s quite a challenge. I cannot wait to see what my son’s generation does with this world. I really can’t. I think my job increasingly, so has been about equality, but these days, when I think about my mission, my world-changing mission, I just want to get what I can influence to a place where my son’s generation can come and pick it up and do the work.
Saj: People are rude about young people sometimes, but from what I know of Generation Z, they’re probably even more socially aware than my generation, so I’m Gen X like you. They volunteer more than previous generations. They worry about things like climate change much more.
Interestingly, their role models are very different from previous generations as well. Previous generations might have looked up to celebrities, footballers, that kind of thing. Today’s generation generally looks up to their parents and their carers as their role models. I think there is a huge squandering of that in organisations. Probably because you can’t capture social justice on a balance sheet very easily, so it tends to get missed, I think, by the upper echelons. What would be your message to senior leaders in organisations? How can they really capture that lightning in a bottle, if you like?
Lou: I want to tell them to just stop, pause, and give themselves time to think. Barack Obama, even when he was president of the United States of America, had thinking time in his diary every single day. Learn to think with others and listen. I would say, go and read pages 74 and 75, I think it is of Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead in which she shows a continuum between armoured leadership, defensive, competitive, and daring leadership, and it is brilliant. If you’re not a reader, then listen to her podcast.
Senior leaders have all been on training courses which have taught them how to be leaders, and they’re doing their best, but it’s a different form of leadership. It’s a different appreciation of what talent is that we need in FE now. Go and talk to your kids. Your kids will be Gen Z, go talk to your kids, see what their vision is, and learn from them.
Saj: I could not have put it better myself. It’s been wonderful to spend this time listening to you, Lou Mycroft, so thank you very much.
Lou: Thank you, Saj. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Saj: Thanks again to Lou for sharing her insights on how we can all change communities and cultures for the better.
You can find Lou on Twitter @LouMycroft.
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