By coincidence today is Gynefin day (we think Beth Smith coined that name) an annual ritual in which UK based Cynefin Centre staff and some friends get together at my house at Lockeridge with the intention of reducing my stocks of gin. The Lockeridge gin lake now extends to several cupboards and can be traced to three origins: firstly I can’t resist a new or novel craft gin, secondly conference organisers know I like local gins and thirdly everyone brings more exotic gins to Gynefin so instead of reducing the lake expands. I provide lunch, we then have an invigorating walk and return following a pub list to Turkey Terrazzini prepared by yours truly which as least reduced the cold turkey mountain. Then I say a ritual I mean we have done it three times but have no intention of stopping. This year the walk was from my house through West Woods to the ridge overlooking the value of Pewsey then the Ridgeway to Kennet. Most of the party dropped out halfway round, a car having been left for that purpose, which was a good job as by now Beth was barefoot to manage blisters. The price was to come and pick up the rest of the party from Kennet. Almost seven miles but it felt longer and the mud made walking difficult and chalk produces an especially clinging form of mud. 2018 saw a walk over a more easterly section of the Ridge ending up at a pub on the Kennet and Avon Canal at Pewsey Wharf. The previous year was a snowy and windswept walk to Avebury where most of the party decanted to the pub in Avebury itself while ‘management’ walked back to collect the cars and pay the bill! This year we had the added benefit of the local pub having re-opening so we ended up the day at the Who’d A Thought it. The new tenants are doing an outstanding job so far. For the first time in a few decades, I can just pop in of an evening and have a chat; the essence of a village pub and it is just across the lane.
The idea of community is the theme of this sixth post (halfway and going strong) in the Twelvetide series. It also brings me away from student days and into the world of work. This isn’t an autobiography but a set of posts around places that have some special significance. To fill in the gap after leaving the SCM I had an interesting period of employment as Permanent Secretary of the student union at Middlesex Polytechnic. I was appointed by one political group and when they lost conflict ensued the new result was an Employment Tribunal and nine months of unemployment which while stressful allowed me time to install central heating and more or less restore an Edwardian terrace house in Feetville. in those days unemployment benefits and the humanity of mortgage lenders were better than they are now. I also helped restore the community centre of which I became Chairman (that just missed this list of places). I then got a job (in the nick of time for retaining the house) in HR and Training with Hunting Surveys and Consultants. I had two great bosses there ending up as Development Accountant with responsibility for the new computer. I may write a post on great bosses when I have finished this series as I have been very lucky in that respect. It was an interesting period but I had achieved all I could there; while I was completing an MBA in financial management and had a Diploma from one of the Accounting bodes the career route to Financial Director did not appeal so I took a job as a programmer/consultant in financial systems with Datasolve. I did well and my story today starts after I had been promoted to General Manager for a range of decision support business units, and during which I was also one of the Executives who in a management buy out merged Datasolve and Software Sciences along with Corporate Management Services into a new entity Data Sciences in 1991. That was then bought by IBM in 1996 and became the core of what became IBM Global Services. My post-acquisition role (I had moved from General Management to Strategy in Data Sciences) was the springboard for Cynefin and Cognitive Edge when I left in 2004.
But back to Datasolve/Datasciences; my first contract had been with the Vesty group which meant I spent a lot of time in Smithfield; the Fox and Anchor pub was almost a subject in this series there was almost a single post in this series. It was a convenient location as I was still living in St Albans and computing to Sunbury on Thames. That meant a 25-minute walk, a 35-minute train to St Pancreas, half an hour across London on two tube lines, 45 minutes by train and then a fifteen-minute walk reversed at the end of each day. So working in London where the St Albans train stopped at Farrington made my life a lot easier! It meant I was not tightly connected to my colleagues though. Either way, I converted a one-off £20 contract to a £150 a year one and learned a lot about sales consultancy and the critically of relationship building and knowing when to ignore a client. that got me promoted to business unit manager but all of my reports were former colleagues, three of whom with considerable seniority over me. One stayed the others found ways to leave but we won the most profitable business unit several years running so we worked around that and got in some new, young and enthusiastic staff. A reorganisation gave me two other business units and the status of General Manager. They were another internal decision support group and MURCO which became a passion, it was a stock forecasting and inventory management system that originated in Cranfield University and over the years we rewrote it created a series of links with people like the Met Office along with clients such as Coca Cola, British Aerospace and Nato. Kath (who was my Marketing Manager and lead consultant), Penny Tranter (from the Met office and went on to be a BBC Weatherperson) ran a dozen seminars a year to generate and qualify leads; staying in pubs with Bed and Breakfast (they give you one bill for food and accommodation and it was cheaper than any hotel) and generally drank too much armagnac at company expense. I always planned to write a guide to such pubs and that could be another series on this blog! Field research to validate the entries would, of course, be necessary. More family than a business.
With a bigger unit, I needed to do more to build and maintain a team. I wasn’t the easiest of managers in terms of expectations but if you wanted to be left alone and would tell me if I needed to be involved in a problem early enough for me to do something about it, then the unit was the place to be; staff retention and internal recruitment showed it worked well for some people. But as a manager, you need to do more than that and I started to get the whole team together offsite. The full team photograph is here – apologies for the odd line running through it and the organe/gree rohan outfit. Very early on I decided we needed something of a ritual here and a mix of having fun together while resolving issues. So I started the practice of hiring a cluster of holiday cottages adjacent to a pub and using that for a weekend plus two working days get together. Te first was in Buckden in the Yorkshire Dales and we took all of the units in Dalegarth Holiday cottages plus all the accommodation in the Buck Inn which also provided lunch and dinner. Breakfast was very different in that my job was to cook a full english breakfast for everyone. That meant sausages, black pudding, mushrooms, bacon, eggs in many guises together with all the trimmings. It meant getting up an hour before everyone else and also doing most of the washing up. Shopping for the ingredients while traveling up with the advance party Friday was a part of the ritual; ideally, a local butcher and farm bought eggs. I just did it the first time because I fancied it but then I realised that the symbolism was also important. We were living and eating together and the boss did the cooking. In the pub, we could all relax and it wasn’t conference centre of hotel cooking. I always chose a pub with character.
The weekend was for relaxation and fun. The first year we went on an extended walk over the Dales which involved descending the waterfall at Goredale Scar (pictured) That was interesting and challenging for several members of the party and getting people down without stress was a challenge, intimate at times! Ending up at the pub in Malham Tarn and the stories started … We didn’t reflect on what we were learning, there were no exercises we just got together and muddy and exhausted together probably the best way to generate stories. On Monday and Tuesday, we went through the past six months and reflect on what had happened and talked about the next year. John was an external facilitator as we used him then – he just had fun on the weekend. We used the old seven archetypes Belben test on each occasion and looked at how people had changed to help determine training and recruitment. We also had another token psychometric test picked each year some of this had utility others not. At our second event in Totnes, we had a treasure hunt for people traveling down and used that to capture their date, time and place of birth. That was one of two occasions when I used horoscopes to make sure people were not taking things too seriously. Buckden was the first and one of my treasured possessions is a framed print of Gordale Scar that the team gave me at the end to say thank you. Hence the association of place that provides the title to this post.
The second event saw us spend the weekend pony trekking on Dartmoor and the third canoeing on the Wye. Then we made the mistake of using a facilitator for the weekend activity who wanted us to engage in trust exercises (rafting up and swapping kayaks). More or less everyone fell in and we restored unity by throwing the facilitator in and telling him to stop. One thing I have noticed in education and training (and that includes schools) is that all learning has to be explicit and articulated rather than implicit which is more profound. if people are in a situation where they can learn leave them to it and collectively tell stories of what you have been through together. Articulating learning is, in the main, counterproductive unless something profound or threatening is revealed. it can also too easily be a power game and put people in difficult positions. Being there at the weekend and the weekend activity was by the way always voluntary, the work meeting compulsory. Volunteers are better and conscripts.
It was very cost-effective. A small proportion of my training budget and a good use thereof. It excited jealousy amongst other managers – in part because their staff applied for any job we advertised and there were numerous attempts to have be stopped. I could prove the cost-benefit but when the recession hit, even though I was making money, a general clampdown on training meant I was told to stop, and when I carried on anyway, threatened with dismissal if I didn’t. As a predicted conflict and engagement because a problem as we no longer had a collective release point. Oh, by the way, we never had a mission statement or goals we all sort of knew where we going and could adjust. Ironically by boss tried to replicate it with his management team but we all suffered. Firstly cheap is good but we had a feast or famine. One event we stayed about a dry cleaning shop with all its smells. We protested that so next time it was a five-star hotel. Then after we had spent a whole day working through some difficult issues and agreed to give up our business units for functional roles he thanked us for our efforts and presented the solution he has worked out before we even got there. We got revenge when he went to bed early (the hostility drove him from the table) we ordered the most expensive wines and stayed sober enough to evacuate the hotel in the morning before he was presented with the bill. We knew the MD would never sign off the expense and refused to contribute. I need a few drinks to talk about the bread rolls in a truly terrible hotel in Northampton or the attempt to hold a management meeting in a strip joint and the skinflint authorisation that almost killed me and three colleagues but both stories are available.
With Cognitive Edge our staff are distributed around the world and we simply don’t have the cash to get everything together. But I have always admired the way Marion and Andrea (our current investors) pull the whole of Agile42 together for a major gathering every year in a resort. Social togetherness is all about creating an unstated alignment, empathy, and relationships to survive the bad times as well as manage the good.
So Gynefin is special, as were the Institute for Knowledge Management Conferences in IBM and the first IBM Cynefin gathering at the Hotel Del in San Diego. But those first sessions were special and centered on Gordale Scar so I have selected it.
Sunset from the Avebury walk on Gynefin Day 2017 seemed a good endpoint Horses on Dartmoor by Antenne Springborn on Flickr used under a creative commons license Picture of Goredale Scar by Andrew Boggett on Flickr used under a creative commons license Sunset picture by yours truly