Punk HR? Can I listen to Miles, please?

I have a confession to make. I’m not wholly certain what Punk HR actually is. If you  are reading this and not on Twitter or not connected to the current reflection of HR/ L&D/ OD through the CIPD Hackathon campaign, you too might be bemused.

Now to me, beyond the tartan and safety pins ( I’m Scottish. I can handle both), there is something deeper in the punk philosophy, which I quite like;  something anti-establishment, a questioning of authority, a rejection of the mainstream…that stuff… So fine…. I get it as a metaphor – Rage Against the Machine (more my era);  Question what is, in order to create space for what could be – I’m all up for that as a template for looking at how our organisations could be reconstructed, questioned, reconfigured radically.

I am.  Honest I am.

It’s just – well, Punk doesn’t do it for me. It seems aggressive, shouty, show-y. Lots of yelling and in-your-face provocation. So it leaves me…rather turned off, to be honest; a bit cynical and a bit disappointed sometimes.

You see,  I respect provocation, the notion of radically moving things forward, of saying the unsayable, of pushing boundaries, of trying new stuff….. but punk? To me? A cacophony. A noise. I can’t connect with it….

I’m old school. I was raised on classical music, jazz, blues and some terrible folk music that almost put me off for life (thanks Dad) and though I’m not an aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues fest is kicking off here in the City and I’m off the back of dancing to some low down earthy blues courtesy of Seasick Steve at a festival last week…so let’s see if this can be done without ridicule.

As part of the MSc studies, we were invited to read a paper by Frank J Barrett where he draws parallels between improvisation in Jazz and organisational learning.

In the paper, Barrett points out that what seems like formless “improvisation” (the Jazz part that is often jumped upon and pilloried as being “not proper”) is actually highly skilled musicianship.

The musicians (HR practioners?) actually have to learn rules, theory, rhythm, pace of the music before they can start to improvise. Once learned? Rules and theories can be adapted, shifted, turned into something new.

Barrett outlines 7 characteristics you need for true Jazz Improv:

  1. Provocative Competence : interrupting Habit Patterns
  2. Embracing Errors as a Source of Learning
  3. Minimal Structures That Allow Maximum Flexibility
  4. Distributed Tasks
  5. Reliance on Retrospective-sensemaking
  6. Hanging out – Membership in Communities of Practice
  7. Alternating between soloing and supporting.

Barrett then goes on to explore how using these characteristics can really support organisational learning and change. Including my own favourites: Create Organisational climates that value errors as a source for learning and Cultivate Serious Play: too much control inhibits flow.

For me?  This Jazz metaphor works ( in as much as any ever do) as a means of understanding how individuals AND groups must work to interplay with each other and produce something tuneful, meaningful.

And not just that – but if I’m cooking up a storm or about to go into a potentially dissent-heavy meeting, I’d rather have Miles playing than the Sex Pistols… or I MIGHT JUST GET A BIT ARSEY

My version of change? Understand the rules, so you can bend them. Improv.  Trial and error stuff – and be honest that that is what you are doing. Encourage minimal structures, maximum flexibility. Work by learning and playing together.  Hang out with ideas and people. Recognise the skills of the soloists and the whole.

Shall we?

Thanks entirely to the learning offered through Ashridge Masters in Organisational Change ( AMOC) and specifically through faculty member Caryn Vanstone who works with improv and jazz as a lens to generate change in organisations



I was at  a Napier University Event at the Scottish Parliament last night – I’m alumni of Napier  and it  holds a special place as one of the four Universities in Edinburgh – much of the emphasis is on knowledge & research into practice –  linking students with commerce & work, but with an academic underpinning. It’s a model  that worked well for me when they put me on placement in HR at Russell Athletic and I was shadowed by an excellent HR professional, who really helped me see how the theory needs to be adapted and used lightly to fit with the reality of the HR Practice ( a Twitter conversation I sort of had with @HR_Cass recently about using SWOT & PESTLE lightly… anyway)

Professor Helen Francis is passionate about dialogue. Through Napier University business School and the Edinburgh Institute, she is looking to set up a cadre of practitioners that can work with big business and SME’s in Scotland to improve the quality of conversation, raise the capacity for holding difference and debate in the workplace and get a better working life for the majority of people in organisations. This is music to my ears. I attended her Professorial debut a few weeks ago where she mapped her research and thinking for the future and I got really enthused about what could be on offer here in Scotland. Helen used to tutor me when I studied my CIPD at Napier, back in the day and I have the utmost respect for her, so I sought her out at the Scottish Parliament event we attended last night.

We started talking Dialogue – what fuchsiablue is up to, what Napier & the Edinburgh Institute are up to – and  we reached a conversation about David Kantor’s 4 player model of conversation ( a foundation stone in some of the work we do – much like the GROW model in Coaching or SWOT in strategy). I’m fond of the Kantor model. I like it’s simplicity, it’s fluidity…. so I’m nodding as we talk about how this can be used….

and then we reach a point in the conversation where Helen is talking about a questionnaire and tool to help measure the extent to which folk move, follow, bystand….. and how we can use this tool to analyse conversation in organisations and offer gap analysis to Boards… and I  made this noise: ” nooooooooooooooooooo”  and then I blushed deeply…..

here was my response ( not all spoken out)

Please? Please not another tool to measure and analyse? Not another MBTI/ Here is your box solution?  Please don’t let’s keep going to Boards and pointing out the gaps? Please let’s not do this with Dialogue? My Dialogue is lively and human and contextual. My Dialogue depends on who is in the room, who speaks, who shuts up. It is dynamic and unpredictable. It is emergent and creative and connected and argumentative and edgy. As a practitioner, I want to be able to stand in front of Boards and say quite simply and categorically that you cannot measure the dynamic of a team. You can watch it and nurture it and nudge it and challenge it but you cannot quantify it.

this is about joie de vivre, je ne sais quoi, magic, chemistry – the chemical reaction you have in your body when you are angry or lit up. The chemical reaction I had in my body when I said NO and blushed to the roots of my hair at the boundary I’d overstepped.

Please? Can we just trust ourselves as human beings that we “know” intuitively, intellectually, emotionally – what is going on around us and whether that is right or wrong, with out a measuring stick or a sodding tick box?

And trusting ourselves, can we then go back to leaders and Boards and shareholders and say “you know what? this just doesn’t feel right”

Oh Lord… I can Hear John Lennon again…..


A different story….

I’m working off a theory that there is a paradoxical need for slow time to talk in fast-paced organisations. Even as a card-carrying, fully committed member of The Impatient, this Slow Time notion is strengthening through reading Nancy Kline’s Time to Think, David Bohm’s classic On Dialogue, and the beautiful, lyrical i-thou concepts of Martin Buber.

What i notice is this: If you crash diet, you might get leaner for a while, but long-term you’re likely to get fatter. You go for fast food? Fine, it might satisfy you for a bit, but you get hungry and it’s unsatisfying (not to mention heart attack inducing) You send your Leadership team for a 1 day “experience” or a 3 day Programme? The effects will be marvellous, but fleeting.

We know this. What’s going on with our thinking?

How are we in a situation where our Boards and Leadership teams often put no value on taking time to build the relationships and the conversations that would enable decisions to be made quicker, allow meetings to flow with greater ease, or performance conversations to be appreciative and constructive? Where does the rush come from?

Oh.. but we’re really busy….

Busy? Who SETS that story? What does it mean? Surely we already know that thumping along at a fiercesome pace means stuff gets missed. Voices get lost. Common sense becomes a rarity. In that “busy” frame, it becomes permissible to see the role of “The Board Conscience” as someone a little boring or risk-averse – too slow, not compelling enough. The guy in charge of “people” is not perceived to be commercial: ergo unimportant…. Let’s move on….

And then LIBOR happens. Or Nick Buckle is stuttering in front of the Commons Select Committee because no-one knew how to point out the massive big elephant lurching about the middle of G4S, indicating that there was a recruitment issue 3 weeks before the Olympics kicked off…..

Too busy, huh?

At what cost?

This busy-ness is surely costing companies both on the bottom line and in terms of their reputation? Help me out here. Am I missing something?

As a Consultant, I notice a temptation to be swept up in the orthodoxy that says Boards are too busy, too important, too powerful to worry about the details, like…..relationships, or really understanding what’s happening on their shift. I get that it’s hard not to be impressed by status; or sucked into that whole “too busy” trope….I really do….

And I beg to differ. I seek to challenge. I want to offer other ways of thinking and working.

I want to work with dialogue as a direct response to the speed and single-story narrative I perceive around organisations. I’m making a bid for slow time, considered conversations and building real relationships which will hold up to dissent, to disagreement, which will be more respectful of difference-of-opinion. Conversations that can hold debate and allow time to be taken to hear all the voices in the room.

And before anyone throws out notions that I’m being idealistic or overly simplistic, (evoking John Lennon..again) I’m seeking to do this in ways that fit with the needs of an organisation. This work can be done without going to a retreat in the country – it can happen in meeting rooms and requires only the commitment to take time to talk and listen more carefully.

I’m happy to be told I’m wrong, of course, but my view is basic:

We need a different story in organisations.

“Too busy” demonstrably doesn’t work.

Huge thanks today to Phil Wilcox for his Blog post: “I am Humble, Fallible… and I LEAD” and to Rob Jones for his post “The one where honesty is the best policy” – Blogs which, I believe start to show there are other, more compelling stories to be told within organisations.


And the word haunting me at moment seems to be Connection.

Since FB came into being at the kitchen table in a flat in Edinburgh seven years ago, I have seen myself as lone wolf, freelancer, outsider, Other… and it sort of worked to start with. Sort of…. and then in time, work-life just got lonely and heavy as I tried to do everything myself.. and I kind of drove myself a little nuts, if I’m being honest.

I had no real community in my work-world. I went to networking events to get business (I rarely did get business). I tried to formulate my USP (darkly chuckling to myself at the memories of the wasted ink on THAT particular fairytale) What WAS my sales proposition? Where was I positioning myself in the market? Which important person should I be talking to? A ton of pressure. Trying to speak a language of markets and commerce of which I had an unconvincing pidgin articulation of… Love it.

What has changed is connection. I started talking to and working with people who were less interested in what I did.. and more interested in who I was…and I tentatively began to show people Me. Real me. I experimented with connecting. Risky… and rewarding as all hell.

Over the last couple of years I have been challenged, cajoled, appreciated, told straight, laughed with, laughed at (kindly), questioned, listened to, provoked, pushed, held and.. well.. kind of seen, really… by a host of brilliant, kind and inspiring colleagues, peers and clients. Over countless glasses of wine, cups of coffee, mugs of tea ( non liquid alternatives are allowed) I have experienced the sheer human joy of good conversation and connection. I inevitably leave the conversation feeling energised, warm,  fuzzy (no. not just because of the wine) and I will have learned something, formulated something – seen something new in myself or a situation. It happens every time.

AND it doesn’t have to happen face to face. People offering out their stuff on twitter and commenting on my random tweets. Discussion boards on Linkedin. Sharing music on Spotify. People commenting on the blog. If it’s about sharing, for me,  it’s connection. Being seen. Being heard.

It boils down (mostly) to this: I’m interested in who you are as a person – I’ll be honest, I’m borderline disinterested in what you do (unless you get all lit up & shiny about it, it which case, speak on, good friend). I want to know your stuff. Want to be able to talk to you about mine. Up for it?

And what I want? What I seek and quest for and hope for? More and better connected conversations in work-spaces. Time to talk. Use of dialogue techniques, coaching conversations, facilitated team discussions, café conversations, action learning opportunities…. All those great things where we invite people to speak up and out – where the invitation is to connect. From where I’m sitting work can surely only be a better, more productive (more profitable?) place if there were opportunities for conversation and slow-time to understand each other a little better. Surely? or am I missing something?

And I know I’m getting a bit John Lennon over here – You may say I’m a dreamer and all that.. I get it… but in an ever shifting, rapidly moving world, surely what we need is the ability to connect authentically, as people?

It’s tiny… It’s huge.

ps: the instragram-ed photo is of 2 sugar lumps found at Balgove farm cafe outside St Andrews, having a cuppa following a very cool coaching conversation. The rest of the sugar wasn’t this shape…It felt like a wee gift.


Monday’s post felt a little shouty. Today, I’m blogging out in a different space, trying to occupy more gentle, expansive territory, trying to think of the things that inspire.

Tomorrow (Sunday 1st July) I undertake a mini Triathlon, a physical challenge inspired by my family’s very real, very long and very raw struggle to come to terms with early onset dementia suffered by Margaret Drybrough (AKA my Mum) over the last 10 or so years.

As I swim, bike & run my way round Hawick in the Scottish Borders, I’ll be thinking of my parents and brothers and my husband, my sisters in law, nieces, nephew…I’ll be carried by every single person who has donated sponsorship in a recession. Everyone who has sent encouragement on the JustGiving site.

I will be inspired to move.

For me, to be inspired by something means I stop in my tracks a little and connect to something bigger than myself. When I’m inspired, I want to stand a little taller, do something a little better, breathe a little deeper, create something a little more meaningful.

I’m laying out inspiration so it too will carry me round tomorrow and in the hope that other people will share their inspirations & thoughts back with me.

Here’s my list of Things That Inspire:

Seeing true bravery in people – massive bits of bravery like speaking up or speaking out or little bits of bravery, like trying something new

The ocean

Meaningful lyrics

Melodies which haunt

Words which move me

My nieces & nephews – for their energy, wisdom and ability to make me belly laugh

Cities at night


Flying… I get weirdly lyrical & thoughtful on flights…

Anyone who asks these sorts of questions – stopping me in my tracks & asking me to think….

And a good, balanced wine – how do they do that?

Gorgeous scents like orange peel or perfume or cut grass or aftershave

Shameless eye contact

Bright, cold, clear mornings….

A fast ski run

Old gnarly trees

Running freely

Hearts on sleeves

A good coffee

A great conversation


Dancing with a dirty big grin on your face

Staring up at a massive star-filled sky

My folks still being loved up after a lifetime together

I’m running on behalf of Alzheimer’s Scotland for the support, research and work they undertake: http://www.justgiving.com/joolstri2012