Connection, Development, Embodied practice, Reflecting, Staying Curious


Improv and I have gone another round. 

It and I never seem to encounter each other without some sort of profound learning moment on my part….By profound learning moment, I mean snot and tears on my part. Oh joy.

Improv itself seems relatively untouched by my unravelling; which, frankly, pisses me off beyond measure. It remains relaxed and absolute, generous and expansive in its purpose and process. I on the other hand, wriggle uncomfortably, muttering at Improv suspiciously, giving it the side-eye. Grudgingly knowing that there is something in it, but wishing it were altogether less tricky to be around…mostly wishing it would sod off because I tend to end up visible when I mess with it. I’m awkward around Improv, shy, clumsy, defended…yet even though it’s not an equitable or easy relationship, I can’t quite bring myself to leave it alone….

I see others dance with Improv in very different ways to my ludding side steps. It can bring them inspiration, unlock creativity, confidence, locate words or actions they forgot they had. I love watching those who are an open channel, willing and able to jump in with an idea, an experiment, I love their lightness, their playfulness, their deftness in the moment. I’m all admiration and envy…

Alex and Karen are leading a Jazz Improv session on Zoom with the Gameshift Partners. Over lockdown we’ve gathered every couple of weeks for Extended Hangouts, where we bring our stuff for each other to try. From zen doodling, to walking, to dreaming and meditation, to discussions on inclusion, climate, purpose in organisations, deep systemic change… we bring and cover a world of topics. It has been a profound thread of learning, connection and community for me for months and I love it and being part of it.

You would think Jazz Improv on Zoom would be impossible. but Alex runs the session at pace, he on piano, Karen on Sax, taking us through experiments that show how equipped we are to create in the moment, how errors and omissions create moments of possibility, how connected we can be – even at a physical or digital distance. 

These are the conversations for the here and now, right? The need to be able to respond without knowing what will happen, to take chances. To trust ourselves, to back those around us that are trying. Never has this stuff been more necessary or poignant. Part of me thinks about all my HR/ OD contacts who are heads-down, noses-pressed to the organisational sandpaper, giving themselves a hard time about having The Answer or An Answer and I wish we could find ways to give them time for some of this stuff, these conversations….

And so we work through the experiments and as ever, Improv invites me to dance and I stumble, clumsily and grumpily with it, my reluctance to embrace it the very mirror of a hundred colleagues I know…. And Alex asks for a volunteer for the last experiment and I am resolute that it won’t be bloody me… and at the exact same moment a part of me says: this the practice, step forward, challenge yourself… so I thank my resolution for keeping me safe and I grit my teeth and say Yes.

Alex says he and Karen are going to paint a musical portrait of me. My response is What In The Name Of All That Is Holy Have I Agreed To Here.

I am fear. 

I am NO. 

I am regret…. 

….I am curious.

All I have to do is sit on screen and they will play. It’s simple.

It starts with a soft sax and gentle piano chords and I am holding my body tight, feeling spotlit and stupid. I can see the other Partners on screen. I don’t know anyone well enough for this. I don’t know myself well enough for this….At first I can’t hear the music over my own internal guff, my relentless, defensive chattering…but after some moments, it reaches into me and I smile.. the musical response to the smile is bubbling little piano riffs and I start to giggle, embarrassed but I can hear something in this….and it softens again and I think I sound softer, sadder than I know myself to be… and then I know myself to be sadder and softer than perhaps I admit… and the tears slowly rise and it’s OK and awful all at once…..I have my left hand pressing onto my right shoulder, hiding my heart and I cannot move….

In the aftermath, it takes me a while to speak. Others speak and I’m grateful for the space to find my breath and my words…I’m liquid inside – my solid resolute state melted and swilling about. I will reform differently, less rigid for the rest of the day, maybe even the coming days, maybe even always…..It was a gift. An exquisite gift. One I’d recommend to anyone and everyone – sod Christmas socks or Tik Tok… buy your loved one a musical portrait….let them be bathed in notes and kindness…nothing will ever quite be the same again.

Later, Chris sends through some photos he took and a poem…I find the photos almost unbearable to look at -I’m soft and I don’t recognise myself fully….

Oh to be visible when you are so deft at hiding. What a thing.

The session was run by Alex Steele as part of the gamehift partner network. I thoroughly recommend you check them all out

Business, Dialogue, Organisational Change, Reflecting, Staying Curious

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