Aug 16

Changing change

I was asked this morning – as I often am – to recommend reading materials on change management. I though for a moment then decided to go for a swim and reply later.

Out in the warm sea, relaxed and at ease, I realised my answer was to not recommend reading. How many of those books are written by people who don’t implement or even embrace change?

Over the last few years of working with many organizations – from tiny NGOs to giant multinationals, government departments to community groups, I see that there are some commonalities when it comes to change.

I would sum these up in just two words of advice. Considerate wisdom.

Nobody likes to feel that their point of view has not been taken into consideration. I hear a lot of resistance to change based on this. The senior management may be seen to not know, far less understand, the shop floor. The ‘powers that be’ are often felt to be remote and lacking in compassion or interest in the rest of the organisation. Any kind of listening activity helps melt away this resistance – so long as it is done respectfully, offering a safe space where everybody can be open. And so long as there is follow up – nobody likes shouting into the wind. As we all know from personal experience, sometimes just expressing how we feel is enough to clear the feelings.

The challenge with listening though, is where to go next. Of course it is rarely possible to give everyone exactly what they want. Which is where you will need your wisdom. An elusive quality that cannot be forced or trained. An accumulation of your life’s experiences. Not only in the workplace but constantly – every family row, every personal crisis, every broken heart, every moment of friendship or helpfulness or awkwardness. It’s all part of your well of wisdom that you can draw on.

So that’s pretty easy then. Just two things.

Except as you know, it’s not. Since most organisations are not set up for either of these two things to flourish you will have to be canny about how you make it possible. Pushing for a change in the way of approaching change. Creating time in the schedule for listening – convincing others that far from being a waste of time, this is actually an essential investment. The majority of change programs fail and this is a primary cause. Your organisation can’t afford not to do this. But you will often have to fight for it.

And wisdom. Ah sweet wisdom. You will need space for that. Space to think and space to connect with your intuition. Notice what happens in your body as you consider different approaches and proposed solutions. Does your breathing change or your stomach tense? Do you clench your jaw? These are clues within us just there for the taking.

Wisdom won’t happen as you speed read the business press. Or struggle to focus on page 257 of that highly recommended latest book on the subject. It probably won’t happen in a meeting with ten other people clamouring for airspace and pushing their agendas. It might happen swimming in the sea, or just finding a quiet spot under a tree where nobody will bother you. This sort of activity might be seen as skiving or unprofessional but it can often be the way for you to make your best contribution.

Example 1: overcoming fear
I was responsible for a major product change across South America. There was resistance from the manufacturing plant and the sales force. My marketing team were uncertain, alternating between enthusiasm and doubt. We had done the research – all good. We had done the maths – likewise. I had argued and cajoled and enlightened. All to no avail.
Eventually I thought to ask them. “What’s really the issue here?”. It was fear. Fear that it wouldn’t work. And that they would all be blamed when it did. They expressed their feelings and I listened. “So how would it be…” I enquired, “If I took responsibility? I will take all of the blame if it doesn’t work.” A huge sigh of relief went up in the room. People smiled for the first time. We launched. It was a great success. And I learnt an important lesson in line management.

Example 2: power struggles
I was leading a project team made up of people from different organisations who had never worked together and didn’t have that much respect for each other. We were going to develop and launch a product for young people’s education across all of the universities, colleges, training programmes, employers and local government bodies represented by the 15 people around the table. They had been meeting for a year and not reached agreement.
Taking a deep breath I decided to try another way. We started the meeting with silence. I asked everybody to think about why they went into the job they were in. Who they wanted to help. What gave them satisfaction in their work. It was feeling like the longest minute of my life when suddenly, about 30 seconds in, something changed. The room felt quite different. When we started the meeting it only took us ten minutes to agree the major points. Nobody could quite believe what had happened but somewhere in that silence a shared intention was formed and then the answers were obvious.

Example 3: you
At least it might be worth a try. Considered wisdom. Let me know how it goes.

Sep 13

The power of not knowing

When I was about 8 and on the beach while holidaying in Wales, my father took me to one side for A Talk. I was immediately on the defensive, sure that I was being misunderstood. Again. I dug my flip flop into the sand, feeling the dune grass scratching my toes. He tried to explain to me that saying ‘I know’ (my favourite phrase at the time) could be alienating for other people. It might make them feel embarrassed or insulted. ‘But I do know!’ was my robust retort. ‘I can’t help it if I know things already.’

It seemed perfectly logical to me at the time, and as I progressed through the education system, and especially at work in a large corporation, I was repeatedly rewarded for ‘knowing’. In fact knowing, or at least believing you know, has always been an important currency for getting ideas agreed and making career progress. You need to know. Or at least sound as though you do.

I have done a lot of work recently on Inclusion and Diversity. And it strikes me that this need to always know the answer runs counter to organisation’s well intentioned plans to improve inclusion. If I am supposed to already know everything, then I also ‘know’ what it feels like to be from another culture, or gender, or religion, or sexuality. Right? I mean if I’m smart I must already know.

Let’s call this Stage 1: Knowing all the answers. At this stage there may be very little diversity in the organisation because if you already know the answers, you don’t need a different kind of person to tell you. There’s no value to diversity.

Let’s say I get over this block and realise I don’t know. Now I might feel that it wouldn’t be polite to ask. Is it racist to ask a black person anything about being black? Or a person with disabilities. Maybe it is more polite, more ‘nice’ to just ignore it, pretend everyone is equal rather than everyone having an equal chance.

Let’s call this Stage 2: Too polite to notice. Organisations who have moved to this stage may have diversity targets and aim to recruit a more diverse workforce. They may, like one large law firm I worked with, be puzzled as to why the ‘diverse’ candidates stay for much less time than the mainstream.

Now some people will get past this too. They will realise that they cannot possibly know and so they reach out and try to ask. ‘So how do you find being a woman around here?’ I know how I find it being me, and I am a woman, but that doesn’t give me the inside track to how all women think and feel.

Let’s call this Stage 3: New problem, old solution. Organisations I have worked with in this stage have done reasonably well at making their employee base look more diverse. But they are missing out on the magic of all these different perspectives by sticking to their old ways of doing things. Typically they ask for ‘the top 3 actions that will fix this problem’. They want easy fixes, like installing seat belts to reduce road deaths. But forget that unless they change the way people think, only a few people will wear them.

To reach stage 4 requires open mindedness and patience. It means accepting that I don’t know anybody else’s experience of the workplace. So I need safe, open minded, open hearted ways of finding out. And it means accepting some discomfort along the way. Some of what I hear might challenge my view that I am a basically decent human being. Some of it may make me feel defensive or irritated. There will be times on this journey when I think how much easier it would be to just work with people the same as me. Incorporating other perspectives requires us to grow – we can expect a few growing pains, but in the end it’s the only way to get stronger. It won’t be a quick fix.

Let’s call this Stage 4: opening minds. This is where the real gems are. This is where we have the opportunity to open up generative thinking and new ways of collaborating in our organisation. Where nobody ever needs to say ‘but she’s too young’ or ‘I can’t always understand what he says’. It is still rare to find organisations like this, but they are starting to exist. Maybe some have always been like that. The leaders display courage, vision and humility. Everybody feels they have the right to contribute. It’s not utopia – we are all still human after all. We all have foibles and bad days. But the fresh air of honesty and mutual curiosity can go a long way to resolving difficulties. If I say it’s red and you insist it’s blue, maybe by mutual understanding we can find a third definition that opens up new possibilities for our business or service and its users and customers.

Thanks to Ruslan’s Blog for the cartoons.

Jan 17

Colour my creativity

A case study about making conscious colour choices in a pre-school daycare facility

The first thing that struck me about Kate and Cher when I talked to them about the nursery they were planning to open, was how strongly they cared about the ethos of what they were doing. They are passionate about offering a creative environment for babies and pre-school children. One which not only keeps safe for the day but also stimulates them to thrive.

As soon as they talked to me about their plans I wanted to have a say in the colours. Luckily they were open to the idea and we started to talk about what they stood for, what atmosphere they wanted to encourage and the functions of the different spaces. We all agreed that the colours should be warm, progressive and hold the space. We decided to avoid the lighter pastels and bright primaries often associated with children’s facilities and instead take a more thoughtful approach.

With a good sense of what they wanted to achieve I set about building a palette. Although thereBe 1a (2) are several different spaces in the facility requiring differences in look and feel, a key base colour was identified to run throughout and keep the continuity of the space.  I chose a pale green, the colour of healing and universal acceptance – making a lot of sense in a nursery that aims to be a good space for children from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures.


For the entrance to the nursery, where there is a reception area that will also serve the Adult Learning Centre, we wanted to create more vibrancy. A warm welcome, especially for children on dark winter mornings.

Be 1 entrance (2)I suggested adding burnt orange – to stimulate appetite (for life, for learning, for lunch) and a rich teal to encourage brain activity (learning, considering). The team were enthusiastic about this bold approach. When you are choosing colours for a space that will be passed through rather than one where a lot of time will be spent, you can afford to increase the intensity.

Baby area

Be 1 baby (2)Next was the baby zone. For the facing wall of the main room I selected a peachy pink to create a feeling of caring while staying true to the Groip III colour palette we were following. Pink involves a sense of being held, reminding us at a primal level of being in the womb. However once we are out in the world, too much pink can feel cloying rather than cosseting so it is best to restrict its use to a feature wall rather than a whole room. Be 2 babyFor the rest of the main room we used the green base colour (calm, healing). One part of the room is a low, cave like space with LED lights. Just the kind of space my own children would have loved to crawl into when they were small. I suggested a forest green for here, and for the adjacent sleeping room, to create a sense of deep peace and cosy darkness.

Children’s Area

Be 1 toddler (2)The other main area is for 2-4 year olds and this will be much more active. Again the base green was used and we introduced a paler blue. Blue stimulates brain activity so is great for any learning or thinking environment. A light blue like this keeps the thinking at a more airy level – more blue sky thinking than accountancy procedures. Part of the space
is like a tree house so I introduced teal again – the same colour as in receptiBe 2 readon – at a low level to give more depth and grounding strength. There is a lot of natural wood in the space which balances the palette with more yellow/orange tones, not to mention all the toys and activity materials – and the children themselves – ensuring it doesn’t feel too cool.

Rest of the space

Be 2 looFor other rooms such as kitchen, staff room, cloakroom, toilets etc we drew from the same palette of colours to ensure harmony between spaces..

For example I added one orange feature wall in the kitchen to stimulate appetite and light blue in the bathrooms. For all the ‘white’ areas – Be 2 sleepceilings, window frames, skirting boards, I selected a warm off-white. It was a subtle shift from white but Cher, who will run the nursery, immediately understood how it helped. Lastly we identified flooring that would complement the walls and support the colour scheme.

It was a bold palette and I wondered how they would react. But I needn’t have wBe 2 coats aorried, they ‘felt’ why it was right as soon as they saw the sample chips and once the walls were painted they were even more enthusiastic. So many of our public spaces end u
p being white, or maybe magnolia. Yet we can do so much more to support the activities going on in the space and, in this case, the staff and children who will spend many hours there. Walls have to be painted anyway, so why not paint them a colour that helps? I was so happy to hear them explain to me how it had given them greater distinctiveness and gives a clear message to prospective parents coming to see if they want to register their children that this is a place that cares, that isn’t afraid to innovate, that is clear about what matters and that they will do everything they can to create a great environment for the children and staff who will be there.

Sep 01

Growing your leadership

I was asked recently for my top tips on this topic. Over the last 30 years I have had the chance to observe and work with many very senior leaders in large organisations. And, equally validly, leaders of very small community and not for profit organisations. Leadership can exist almost anywhere. The person who steps forward when a pedestrian falls over or there is an accident. The parent who has to evolve their leadership strategies as their children grow to adolescents. The ‘ordinary person’ who cares about something and suddenly finds themselves heading up a growing campaign.

Whatever the context, I think these three things are true across all of those scenarios I have encountered. And they have helped me more than any management theories.


  1. Know yourself. In my experience the biggest barrier to external leadership is internal leadership. Many of the people I work with have grown up in a world where ‘leaders’ leave their heart and soul at the office door. In today’s climate this is no longer appropriate. Self-actualisation of staff – especially millennials – is increasing, as is their hunger for it. They want to see the real person. I ask people to consider that leadership is what you are left with when all your authority is stripped away. What have you got when you feel completely out of your depth? Without any common language, cultural reference or experience? Find the iron in your soul. Read books, go to talks, walk on the beach. Do what works for you but find out who you are.
  2. Know your people. So many leaders have no idea what is going on inside the heads of their staff. So they try to motivate them based on no data. Unless you know what they want, how can you design a compelling employee value proposition, build engagement or develop loyalty? Why would they give you their very best if they don’t think you are that interested?
  3. Remember what it’s all about. The best leaders I see remember the end game. The children they are educating, the homeowners they are providing electricity plants to, the economic development they are supporting. Everything else has to be secondary to this purpose yet very often I see organisations that have become so introspective, so self involved, that they have lost their sense of purpose.

I’m going to keep this short because you know in your bones what this means for you. You know which one triggered you when you read them. You know where to do the work. Enjoy it!

Jun 26

Your True Colors

Do you know that the colour of underwear that you are wearing will affect your personal power? And of course the colour of your logo, your front door and your website.
Now you do, you might be curious to find out how to get these factors working for you.
In my book ‘Your True Colors’ I introduce some of the concepts and theories behind colour psychology and give lots of real life examples from projects I have worked on that demonstrate the value of getting this right. These range from logos to packaging, personal colours to hospital environments.

Get your copy now

Click on image for Kindle version

kindle cover









Click on image for print version

print cover

Or visit Your True Colors on facebook


Mar 08

Changing the Logic on philanthropy


CTL philanthropyWhile attending an event at the London Stock Exchange (thankyou Rosa!) this morning for International Women’s Day I got to thinking about how we decide to donate. For years charitable giving was, for some, a power play. A way to show greater success combined with a benign attitude towards the needy. The Lady Bountiful model. Libraries and hospitals bearing the names of captains of industry. The restrained smile I used to see on people’s faces when they were able to throw a larger than normal donation onto the collecting plate. Arguably better than those transactions not taking place. And still a productive model in those countries where status matters – a diamond lapel pin showing how much you have donated worn with pride.
I suggest however that it is high time charities got to grips with a wider range of motivations to give. In a world where self actualisation is an ever rising trend. Where the clothes we wear, the postcode we choose, the companies we work for / buy from / follow / like are all part of our own personal brand… Then where are charities in the mix?
We see small glimmers of it. CND and Greenpeace and Amnesty International achieved this in the 80s. The rubber wrist band phase to some extent. Charity branded credit cards for a few years. Can it go deeper? Can supporting a charity (volunteering, championing, fundraising important here as well as donating) become an important part of my personal identity?
I considered this when LinkedIn added charitable activities to profiles. At first I hesitated. ‘They’ll all be after your money if you let on” – my dad’s words rang in my ears. “Don’t be such a show off” I heard from a long dead relative. “Blessed are the meek” whispered Mother Veronica from my schooldays. If I have these resistances, after a lifetime of tithing and volunteering, surely others do too?
So what to do?
If I were a charity I’d start by really exploring the motivations of existing donors. The awkward bits as well. Not the rational explanations we can all concoct at the drop of a hat to justify our actions, but the deeper drivers. The guilt, the shame, the hope, the thirst for change, the rage against injustice, the desire to be useful, the sense of personal achievement, the compensating behaviours… There will be many. It will be murky. But the value of this journey will be identifying some core characteristics that fundraisers can work with. Collaborating with their donors to make giving more satisfying. More self actualising.
Wouldn’t it be great if supporting your charity was part of someone’s identity rather than just a thing they did?

Feb 07

A day in a refugee camp


The strong wind has whipped sand into the air and darkened the sky. It is cold today and everybody is arriving stamping their feet and rubbing their hands together. Of course it is not cold like winter in Northern Europe, but the difference is we are equipped for it there. The thin metal buildings here offer little comfort against the cold and most of the refugees I see, squinting against the wind, are wearing half the warm clothing that I find necessary. The driver spilt his coffee on the way here, and when he threw his cigarette butt out of the window the wind whipped it straight back in. It’s not a good day he observed, turning up the music and smacking the dashboard in time with it to try to change his mood.

I notice the value of continuation as I go into the compound. They are a friendly people, the team here and I see a lot of camaraderie. More of them recognise me each morning and shout a friendly greeting. There is far more greeting in this culture than the classic British nod and grunt in the workplace. People who see each other every day still stop to say hello, with a handshake, a clap on the back, a kiss on each cheek. Though I remember from last time that a man won’t touch a woman unless she initiates first and remind myself to offer a hand. It makes me realise how despite all my years as a feminist I still have a slight, hidden to myself, tendency to wait and see. Which would mean no handshakes or kisses for me if I hadn’t remembered the local coda.

As usual there is a lot of uncertainty about my day ahead. Managing this is the greatest challenge for me of working away from my normal environment. I am used to being proactive and productive. It feels uncomfortable to be sitting around waiting for people to show up, but I am here as a visitor, I need to respect their priorities.


I sit for a while on the benches where members of the community come to request services. It is one of the more human places in the camp. Because I am using my laptop, and because I am an outsider, kids cluster around me. Typing a report is not much fun for them to watch so I flick over to PowerPoint and let them choose clip art which we pile madly onto one slide, heaping up the outlines. They nearly all know a few words of English – they all know how to say ‘I am…. What is your name?’ and this is used as a greeting. I repeat my name dozens of times. They are much better at this than I am as I struggle with the unfamiliar sounds and names I cannot picture written down. Some of them have even remembered my name from last time I was here. And they know the word Ipad I notice, they must see visitors with those. Years ago working in the slums in Addis Ababa the children would make the gesture of someone taking a photograph to indicate a white person. Looks like ipads have replaced that.

One of them shows me the baby sister she is carrying and hands her over to me, as though she is giving me a gift. I expect this is against the rules too but I respect her trust and hold and admire the baby for a few minutes until someone in a uniform appears and indicates I should hand her back.

So the plan today, maybe I should say the hope for today, is to run a blanket embellishment session with some of the women.




It didn’t work out quite like that. Several women did come at the right time. One was rather offended by the bright colours I had brought with me. “I am an adult!” she announced proudly and asked if I had any black sequins. Of course we in London had loved the jewel like colours I had brought but I understand why she might have different taste. Everybody is entitled to that. Several of the women who came had teenage daughters with them who soon got much more interested in the materials. Some got absorbed in sorting the sequins into colour piles (one of the women only wanted dark blue sequins) and then when I started sewing some onto my scarf they were interested in that too. I started to involve them a bit and gradually the group morphed from a few women to a large group of girls.

2016-01-15 10.32.43They jostled for materials until they all had their piece of fabric and threads and sequins. I then realised nobody knew what to do next. I started drawing a few designs as suggestions. Easy shapes like butterflies and flowers. Once there was a heart though most of them wanted that. The combination of lack of skills and lack of confidence makes for a lot of similarity between their pieces. They are affectionate and demanding. Calling my name or ‘miss’, ‘miss’ and tugging at my sleeve. I keep showing them then handing the work back. They want me to do it for them but that isn’t the idea. After the first hour we all start to see some progress. Some of them have learnt to thread a needle, or remembered that they already knew. I am encouraging them to close the scissors and pass them handles first rather than wildly thrusting them open and blade first. I have convinced some of them that having the longest possible piece of thread isn’t the best idea. I remember all of these things myself when I was learning to sew. The problems of knotting the thread, of what to do when the thread isn’t long enough to finish, of tangles and tension.

Somehow we all end up sitting around a much smaller table. That works better. They are interacting more with each other, helping each out. Showing signs of pride in their own work and that of others in the group. We have fun together. They are much more chatty and smiling more often than at first. They are over their shyness. They are reluctant to leave when we have to wrap up the session. I hope I may have sparked some interest. That with the scraps of thread and needles I have left behind they may do some more work. And they are glad that they have done my headscarf properly, clapping their hands with delight at how much better I look.

2016-01-13 13.21.55The session wasn’t what we had originally intended. It wasn’t among the shelters in the camp and it wasn’t with the women. We had come up with the idea because we wanted the women who had not left their homes when we did our wellbeing research 6 months earlier, to have ways of making connections with each other.

But this compromise is not worthless. These teenage girls are at an important stage in their lives. Anything that can increase their sense of self worth, create connections between them or stimulate creativity may be helpful.

I am reminded of being taught what to do when a car goes into a skid. If you hold the wheel too tightly you will find it harder to control the car. It needs a light touch. Work with the skid, go with it instead of fighting it. That’s a bit how I feel trying to get things to happen here. Whatever ideas we dream up thousands of miles away are only a starting point. The rest is a collaboration with the local environment, the restrictions and of course, most importantly, the people here.

Jan 10

Everything is…

new tube mapEverything is relevant. And everything can be challenged.

That is my premise for how I approach my paid work, my voluntary work, my socialising… in fact my whole life.

A few months ago I found myself sitting in a room in a refugee camp in the Middle East. There was a circle of us (I had insisted they lose the classroom layout) and 25 Syrian teenagers were looking at me. Some curious. Some bored. Some puzzled. This had not turned out at all as I had expected and I felt very exposed. The original plan wasn’t gong to work at all in this context. I had a bag of coloured pens and an unsure interpreter.

My first reaction (concealed of course) was screaming panic. What happens here? How does this work? Nobody was coming to save me. This was on me. I went back to my core. For all the years of running focus groups and giving presentations, for all the technical expertise and professional experience, the thing I most needed, in that moment, in that room, was authenticity. To step back into my own self and be that in front of these young people. They had been to hell and back. They were displaced and disoriented. The least I could do was be present for them.

I felt the energy in the room change. I breathed and looked at them. One by one. Honouring them. It was the least and the most that I could do.

It was a crazy couple of hours but we got somewhere. Despite the language barrier and some of the behaviours borne of stress and distress, we had explored the concept of joy together. We had some ideas. We had moved forward. And it meant we started the next day in a better place.


In this case, what could be challenged was myself. My professional tricks and strategies (tear those up). Their expectations. The interpreter’s insistence that if there wasn’t a strongly directed process it wouldn’t work. What I had been told that boys and girls wouldn’t be able to work together. My old belief that I had to be in control and know best.

And as for relevance. I feel this is relevant to many aspects of my life. Relevant to my development of my own leadership. When you’re up against the wall, you only have yourself. Relevant to the times when I stand in front of the leadership of a multinational with difficult messages to deliver based on the work I have been doing for them. Relevant to the many moments as a parent when you think – I really have no idea what I am supposed to do next. And I still have to decide and then do it.


In the last 12 months, among other things, I have climbed a small mountain, been chased by a shark and been arrested. I have worked with these young people, slept in a Bedouin camp, published my first book. I have analysed sexism in large companies, strategy in charities and become a runner. I have rediscovered my love of creativity, fallen in love and driven a large van. I have been shocked and heartened and challenged and inspired.

I believe that all of these things are relevant to each other. That each time we challenge ourselves, step out – or are kicked out – of our comfort zone and remember to breathe, remember to stay present, draw on all we know, without any sense of compartmentalisation… each time we do these things we become better prepared for all the other things.

The world needs specialists. Of course. People who are prepared to spend hours and hours on detailed programming or staring at cells under a microscope. Astronauts and neuroscientists and orchid farmers. I am not any of those things and I greatly appreciate that other people are. And our world also needs connectors, people who sometimes join up the dots in new ways, change the logic, transport ideas from one tribe to another. I value that I have been able to create a life where I get to do that. Where my experiences are so diverse and my opportunities so stimulating that I can constantly encounter new combinations of thoughts and ideas.

Everything is relevant. Everything can be challenged.


The combination is important. Because with a sense of connection comes compassion. I cannot criticise you in the same way if I feel we are part of a connected system. That gives space for challenge with good intent. With the purpose of improving.




Dec 10

Art and wellbeing in adversity

This article first appeared onexpatsinbiz.comm

Catherine’s story in a nutshell:

I have travelled extensively throughout my adult life. 70 countries and counting. Mostly for work. Many of them are beautiful, others I can cross off the list and won’t be going back to. All of them have taught me something and some have changed my life. I blog about my experiences on

Earlier this year I made my first trip to Jordan, staying with a friend who is an expat in a big NGO. We did a bit of tourist stuff (who could go to join and not see Petra?)  and I also got a chance to spend a day with the woman in their NGO responsible for community support for refugees.  Like everybody else I was aware of the ongoing challenges Syria is facing and the refugee problem felt most keenly in neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan at the time, though since then awareness in Europe has increased significantly.

As we talked I couldn’t help but notice how much we had in common. I am also a director of a community charity in New Cross, an area of multiple deprivation, high transience and enormous diversity in inner London. Each time I mentioned one of our projects or she mentioned an issue they were tackling, we echoed each other’s thoughts. By the end of the day I had decided I was definitely going to find a way to make this happen.

I got back to the UK and we (Patricio, the artist, creative genius and co-director of Artmongers) decided that we would do a project in one of the refugee camps, in less than ten weeks time. It was an outrageous target. We had no place to do the project, o plan for how we would pull it together and no funds. But sometimes you need an outrageous goal to get motivated. We made a film and set up a crowdfunding campaign. I got working on the NGO and we arranged two local fundraising events with some extraordinary musicians who gave their time for free.

A week before we had planned to start the project in Jordan, it was still touch and go. Then the NGO suddenly got on board and even offered to hep with some of the costs. Along with a donation of airmiles which reduced travel costs suddenly it all became possible. With a whole hour to spare I submitted our applications for a permit to go onto the camp.

The first thing that strikes you about the refugee camp is how colourless and desolate it is. The wind howls through, it was over 40 degrees without any shade in sight and there are few signs of life despite the tens of thousands of people living there. Over the next couple of days, s we got to know the place and the people we were struck by the lack of interaction. There wasn’t a single place to sit with another refugee and have a conversation. Apart from the official sources of information, food, medical care and so on there was no way to just share experiences. The refugees seemed lost. Shocked by what had happened to them in their recent past, bewildered by their powerlessness to shape their own destinies. Fed, kept alive, but lacking in human experience. We decided to use colour and co-creation to make art that could change the feel of a communal space and maybe – as we had seen in our own neighbourhood of New Cross, London – start to change behaviour too.

We started to run workshops with staff, refugees and volunteers. I trained a group of young people – mostly girls – to do the baseline and follow up evaluation. I loved watching them grow in confidence and stature. The role of women is not straightforward here and many of them had even less freedom in the camp. A good number, when we asked in the evaluation how many people they had interacted with the day before, other than their immediate family, gave the answer of zero. Patricio headed off to the paint shop and we started getting the permissions organised.

IMG_0340By the end of the second day we were ready to start the first project. Stones are one of the few things in plentiful supply there – and of course a weapon in the Arabic world. So dipping them in paint and glitter to make ‘peace rocks’ was doubly significant. We were transforming violence into beauty. When we hung them on the high, barbed wire topped fences to dry and they transformed those fences from exclusions to artworks, the impact was especially poignant.

We had meant the rock dipping to be an activity for the children, and indeed hundreds of them joined in. But so too did volunteers, clerks, even the head of camp security. One senior manager said “you made joy for us. That is the most joy I have felt since I started working here.”

The next morning though we realised we would have to work on a second idea. There wasn’t a single rock left.  When your home consists of standard issue UNHCR grey blankets and the few items you could carry when you fled your home, a glittering coloured rock is beauty beyond temptation.

More walking around the camp showed us the answer. Each block (the camp is divided into six villages, each of which has 15 blocks, each of which has 100 shelters) had a tap. Twice a day the women would come to collect water in improvised containers. It was the obvious place to create a sense of community. Patricio devised a design that draws from traditional Syrian craftwork and colours while being simple enough for quick execution by a team of volunteers and have a good impact. We wanted to shape the space and give it a sense of identity, a sense of place. After a few days hard work in gruelling conditions, the opening party for what they decided to call Hope Square was a foretaste of the possibility. Of the development of a new sense of community.

Our next challenge is to expand the project. I am going back in a couple of weeks to do the post-evaluation and then write the report. We hope that this can then be used to raise further funds and expand the idea. We would like to work with local artists too. Not just in Azraq but in other refugee camps. As they said to us “What we need more than anything is hope”.

Who are your cheerleaders?:

Right at the beginning my sister said to me “you are the prefect person to make this happen”. That kept me going when I didn’t know what to do next.
Everybody who I talk to about this project is SO encouraging. It is incredible. We seem to have tapped into a source of compassion and positive action that is very sustaining.

What are your words of Wisdom?:

Just because they say it can’t be done doesn’t mean they are right. You have a unique combination of experiences and skills and it may be that you are the very person the world has been waiting for to bring something new along.

Cultural differences:

After a few days I did start to wear a headscarf.  They hadn’t minded that I didn’t but they were delighted when I did. It was a curious experience.

Overcoming fear:

At the first workshop I had a big crowd of challenging teenagers to work with. I don’t have expertise in this area and we had no common language. I had to rely on an interpreter who also didn’t understand much about what I wanted to do and was very confused by the idea of not having a solution already but wanting to find the solution in the community. I realised I had to just present myself with integrity and hope that the young people could recognise that enough to go along with the uncertainty.




Jun 03

Declutter your strategy

I have recently embarked on a de-cluttering process in my home. It has been frankly astonishing the amount of detritus my children and I have accumulated. So far 50 sacks of stuff have left the house. 10% to the trash, 20% to recycling and the rest redistributed via charity shops and the ‘Giving Wall’ system we use around here (a benefit of living in a very mixed inner city area that it never takes long for everything to find new homes). The house feels lighter, happier and with a greater sense of new possibilities.

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I admit too that I had underestimated the skill of the activity. “I’m not just coming to tidy up for you” explained Sarah of Free My Space, my professional de-clutterer, somewhat ominously. “We need to change your relationship with your stuff to make this sustainable. We need to find out why you still have it so you can make a deeper shift.”

It occurs to me that a similar need for de-cluttering is being expressed by my clients when they talk about burn out, too many initiatives or the need to prioritise. So often our organization’s activities include everything we need to do today, plus all the things we needed to do last year, or ten years ago. Like long forgotten board games and outgrown clothes they fill up our mental cupboards making it hard to find the things we really do want and adding to stress levels every day. How refreshing it would be to have a cleaned up version of the corporate cupboard. One where every item is in the best possible place, grouped to enhance synergies and avoid duplication. Maybe even with a completely clear shelf ready for new projects. Sounds appealing doesn’t it?

Over the last year I have noticed an increasing amount of reference to overload in the employee dialogues  I have been involved with in a dozen or so large organizations. The exhaustion is palpable. And unsustainable. There’s only so long people can keep up that level of overwork. Even if absenteeism or resignations don’t increase immediately there is a price to pay. Creativity and innovation does not thrive in such an environment and collaboration between different parts of the organization decreases as heads go down and everyone struggles to stand still. Tempers fray, flexibility decreases, trust erodes.

Machine-Gun-Salesman-001I am often asked about prioritization in organizations. We all know how easy it is to be distracted by noisy or urgent problems, losing time to the more fundamental needs of the medium to long term. It’s all too easy to identify with the overworked overstressed manager in this well-known cartoon even though from our position of calm, wise outsider his error is so obvious.

My de-clutterer made a valuable observation “to ALWAYS declutter before trying to organize”. It can be very tempting to think the answer lies in better storage solutions – another trip to IKEA in the home or a new web-based filing system in the office – when it really is a big waste of time to organise things you’d be better off without. So start by reducing the inputs with a good clear-out of defunct strategies and vestigial procedures. Then organise the high priority things that are left for easy access and more synergy.

Maybe there needs to be a business ‘shed’ for some of the other things that are not used often but occasionally useful (it might be your Christmas decorations in the home or procedures for expanding into a new country in your organisation. The principle is the same – by moving the ‘rarely used’ to a different space, it makes it easier to find and work with the ‘often used’


Where to start?

So I took a look at the questionnaire my de-clutterer sent me before we started working together and – with her permission – have adapted it for business use. Let me know how it works for you and any suggested improvements. Or, even better, fill in the questionnaire online so we can all share our experiences – and maybe I can help with something. Anyone doing this will get a free copy of the report that comes out of this work.

Bear in mind that by de-cluttering in this context I don’t just mean stuff (though clearing out some filing cabinets and store rooms could be a useful element). I am including strategies, policies, initiatives, staff, organizational structures, governance and reporting lines, behaviours, culture… it’s all up for grabs.

  • What are the main aspects of your business that feel most overloaded? Congested? Where does de-cluttering feel most urgent?
  • Think back to a time or role when you successfully de-cluttered an aspect of your organisation. Why did it work? What was gratifying about it?
  • What are the main obstacles to de-cluttering in your organisation? How might you or your colleagues sabotage these goals? What or who will get in your way? (in yourself and in the organization as a whole)
  • Imagine you wake up tomorrow and your organization’s strategy and day to day activities are miraculously de-cluttered. What feels different? How does it feel different? What works differently?
  • What is your short term (one month) and long term (6-12 months) goal for de-cluttering your organization?
  • What are your secret weapons? What are the 3 most important strengths you personally have that will ensure this is possible?
  • What’s going to be your first step?
  • Is there anything else you want to share on the topic?


De-cluttering your business strategy could be just what you need. So many employees complain of initiative overload and the struggle to prioritise so many competing actions. Why not take a deep breath, get out the trash can and have a good clear out. Chances are the most important things will get done better, employee engagement and motivation will improve and there will be space for new and better ideas to flourish.


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