The Maturing of GovCamp and an Iconoclastic Suggestion or Two…

So, 24th January 2015 (also known as “yesterday” on a special one-day-only limited offer) was UK Govcamp 2015. It was really good, in all the ways that such events are good, and not so good in ways where … it could be a bit better.  In some ways it is maturing well, in other ways some of the seams are starting to show signs of pre-burst tension.  That’s what this blog is about, and I’ll drop in some of the other things I learned on the way.

The good stuff about GovCamp is well rehearsed but it’s worth restating sometimes – for me UKGC (and variants such as LocalGovCamp) mean hearing ideas I won’t hear in other places, meeting people ditto, and increasingly it’s about meeting again people I have enjoyed meeting previously and getting caught up.  It is always energising to be in a roomful of people who have given up their Saturday because they care about making the world a bit better, for all.  And a big up for the organisers.  Selflessly to do what you do to create the space for others is a really great and generous thing.

This time I was thinking about not pitching and I am grateful to those who encouraged me to do so (thanks Glen, Catherine) because the session I did was well attended in both people and ideas and has moved my thinking about an issue on a bit (this will be another blog idc).

I went to Andy Hollingsworth’s session about digital leadership and I was struck by the way that, compared to other similar sessions in past years, the change-makers in the room had a much more nuanced understanding of the role of senior leaders, making change happen etc.  The dialogue was no longer “why oh why don’t they realise that if they only just talked to us and did exactly what we said and gave us money to do whatever we want, we could do awesome stuff”.  (I exaggerate to make a point, but not that much, actually). A massively stronger understanding now.

I did an experiment of, for one session, spending 5 minutes in each room in turn, wondering what I’d learn from that.  In the end I learned that it is a pretty useless way of spending a session!  However it did make me think about the format.

And, do you know what, I am starting to fall out of love with the unconference format.  I’m not sure it quite works any more. Or only sometimes.

Here are some symptoms:

– It can be hard to really get a good idea of what a session is going to be about from the pitch.  By the time you’ve half remembered what they said when they were standing pitching (whilst also thinking about your own pitch), mistranslated that into your understanding of the session title, and so on, there can end up being quite a gap between what you think a session might be and what it is.  Now obviously some of that is just the luck of the draw, but I think that some of it is because the nature of GovCamp is changing.

– For example, some of the sessions I saw yesterday were thinly disguised sessions by sponsors to promote themselves and their organisations.  “Let’s get together about how we achieve X”  was sometimes a genuine “I am really up for ideas about X, bring them on” (as in the best session I went to yesterday – Jon Foster’s session about how to get residents of blocks of flats to separate their recycling despite using communal bins).  And sometimes it actually turned into “let me tell you about how we did X at such-and-such a place”.  This might be useful but it wasn’t what was promised.  I understand that sponsors need value (believe me, I do!) but forcing it through the pitch format makes it slightly, and I’m sure unintentionally, deceitful.

– The rule of two feet is being observed in principle much more than in action.  I heard this many times – words on the lines of  “I know I should have left but I’d be walking into another session halfway through and the door was creaky and it would have been distracting to get up from the table and push past others to go, and the seats were big and comfortable and I thought I might as well stay and follow what was going on in other sessions on the hashtag instead …”.  Add in to that the fact that some of the sessions are more like conference presentations really – you can’t really walk into them half way through – there is a narrative thread running through them – then this is problematic and makes session choice all the more important.

The best unconferences I’ve been to are the Brighton City Camp.  One of the reasons for this is that they start with a set of presentations which give a context about the City and its community, and can then inspire people to pitch ideas to help solve problems.  That unconference also makes substantially more use of ideas online first, and initial voting, so that people can refine ideas, and have a more considered view of what someone may be presenting.

So this is building up to a thought – some suggestions for consideration.  This suggestion would mean putting a bit more structure on things.  Yikes!  Sorry about that.

How about this:

1.  Start with the intros and the one word offers / wants.  It was well worth trying out not doing this – excellent to experiment – but I’d like to see it back – and it needs to be really driven hard to be crisp.  Maybe literally just names. Apart from anything else this lets you put names and faces to twitter handles.  The idea of wearing a sticker with Ask me about / Tell me about was good – but I think people could handwrite them themselves (less admin).

2.  If you’re going to have a plenary speaker do it at the beginning so that pitches can develop it and the ideas further during the day.

3. Have a strand of pre-booked sessions – based on online pitching and voting.  People can explain what a pitch is going to be about more, online.  The “7” sessions with most votes 24 hours before it starts get to run.

4.  Then have a strand of completely blatant sponsor-led sessions, again advertised online beforehand.  No need to pretend.  These are sessions where people will try to sell you something, and if they advertise what they want to talk about clearly and accurately, and offer genuinely useful case examples and insights, then that will be genuinely useful, and you might even buy.  As someone who works for a big company that often works with smaller companies I’d find it really useful to decide which to go to listen to, to see who we might be able to work with and bring into our “supply chain”. And as a sponsor having five people in a room who have already expressed the beginning of an interest in buying, who have agreed that they have a problem that you may be able to solve, is much better than having a roomful of people who are uninterested or mildly cross.  One session for each sponsor – all at the same time – and you decide which one to go to, but you have contact info and so on so that if you want to chat with any sponsors offline you can do that.  Suppliers are really proud of what they do – give them the opportunity to explain why, unblushingly.  This will also really help explain to their lords and masters why money spent on GovCamp is a good investment, and so help make it more sustainable.

5.  Then have pitches, just like now.  People pitch ideas that they would like to discuss.  They would need to say whether these sessions were “help me” or “show you” sessions.  As in “I have a problem and I’d like some help” versus “I’d like to show you this cool thing I did”.  Both have value.  But let’s be clear which is which.  And it would be really neat if some of the pitches could be inspired by the sessions just gone.  “In that earlier session it occurred to me there’s a real problem in X but we didn’t have the time to nail it – anyone else have that problem and have ideas to share?”- that sort of thing.

6.  Then have lunch.  Yesterday’s lunch was great.  As a vegetarian I was pleased with how they structured the choice architecture – meaty food before the veggie stuff, so that the carnivores have full plates before they get to the only stuff I can eat!

7.  Then have the afternoon sessions, just like now.  So it’s mostly still an unconference really, for most of the time.

What do you think?

Observations of a World-Class Team Leader

Recently I went to a musical performance by the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.  My seat was in the choir seats behind the orchestra and I was right in the middle so I was directly opposite the conductor and therefore able to see exactly what he was doing in leading the team that is his orchestra.  Dudamel is lauded as an inspirational conductor, though there are some who prefer their conductors grey and more mannered.  I hugely enjoyed the concert, and I hugely enjoyed watching closely as Dudamel did his thing.  It really was a masterclass in team leadership.

When I watch a concert from behind the conductor (as is usual) or on TV, it sometimes feels as though the conductor can’t possibly be leading the orchestra – or not that much anyway, perhaps just giving the beat and key stop and start signals – to some extent it feels as though they are dancing along to the music rather than shaping it.  Watching as closely as I was able to this week, there was a tiny but perceptible gap between an instruction from the conductor and the relevant thing happening – I became more aware than ever before of the rich extent to which conductors (or, this one at least) has a profound and direct effect on the orchestra, on the split second behaviour of 100 skilled and attentive people.

It is a bit of cliche in the management literature to study orchestras as teams, usually in contrast to the style of say a jazz combo.  But I am going to add some observations of this specific conductor, on this particular day, that felt interesting – some of them may have wider relevance, in certain circumstances.  Some of the leadership points are very obvious!

Expressive, modulated, leadership using every tool available.  Dudamel used the whole of his body and an extraordinary array of facial expressions to communicate.  He missed no opportunity to convey his intention.  At times his movement was huge, his facial expression massively contorted, but at no point did it feel over the top, partly because the extent was always directly linked to the need.  For one really quiet passage he – quite literally – conducted the beat with the smallest movement he could do – he conducted the orchestra with his eyebrows

Conducting as though nobody is watching(!).  As a result of this massive expressiveness there were times when he looked really very stupid and undignified indeed!  A freeze frame shot could have been entered into a caption competition.  At one moment his bottom half was doing something like a “Frank Spencer ‘Ooh Betty'” while his top half was going three different ways at once and his eyes were popping out.  And of course nobody did laugh because the results he was producing were extraordinarily good.  A great leader, he only gained credibility from taking a personal presentational risk.

Knowing when not to lead.  There is a short, lovely and important oboe solo in the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  Uniquely during the performance, for this section, Dudamel did nothing.  He stood, smiling respectfully, poised and waiting for the oboeist to finish before bringing everyone else in.

Stopping, waiting, and starting.  In between movements at a concert there is silence.  On this day I was able to detect three distinct silences, one after the other.  There was the silence that is necessary for a couple of beats once a piece has ended, there was the restful silence that was between pieces, and there was the preparatory silence just before things got going again.  These stages were signalled by Dudamel’s body language, and holding the baton straight up against his chest during the middle silence.  This made me wonder whether we do enough to allow that pause for reflection once something has finished, a moment of rest, and then a reflective pause before starting again.  In a concert the total length of the silences is about ten seconds, and I don’t think it need take much longer than that in a work context.  I think some meetings would be greatly enhanced by these three pauses between agenda items!

Individual attention in a crowd.  There were probably about 100 people in the orchestra, yet there were times when Dudamel gave very specific individual attention to one of the players.  Never for more than a few seconds at a time, he gave undiluted attention at particular key points.  His arms kept things going for the rest of the orchestra but his face – and you felt, his attention – were utterly focused on making eye contact with one person.  He would smile, or widen his eyes, or do something, which conveyed a sense to the player concerned – you could read it “now then, like that time at rehearsal that I was happy with” – a quick smile of thanks when the performance was delivered and then on to the next.  Do we give 100% focus to individuals when they need it, even fleetingly, or do we get distracted by the wider task?

Credit.  Dudamel was very generous with credit to the players.  He did the usual conductorly thing of inviting soloists or groups of players to stand and take an individual bow and receive specific audience applause.  But more than others he went to them where they were sitting and he BEAMED at them, shook their hand or patted them on the back.  Apart from the initial applause when the conductor turns round to take a bow, whenever he came back to take more applause he invariably did so from within the body of the orchestra, with his arms around some of the players.

In some of the social media traffic around this concert a friend mused about how Dudamel gets such extraordinary performances.  This is how.

(The specific concert I listened to is/was broadcast on Wednesday 14th January 2015 at 9pm.)