My letter to Bill Gates

On Tuesday afternoon (24th January) I found out that my application to be a Global Poverty Ambassador had been successful.  The programme, which is run by the NGO Global Poverty Project is currently touring the United States.  This year they have partnered up with The Cooperative Group, in the International Year of Cooperatives, to help communicate the importance of understanding global poverty and to keep focus on this importance issue.  A key elememt of that delivery strategy is the selection of 100 Ambassadors who’s role is to take the message out into their local communities, to reach out to groups and help answer people’s questions about global poverty.  At the heart of this message is the 1.4 Billion Reasons presentation.

Launch of the Global Poverty Project

I’m really excited about this opportunity and I’m looking forward to challenging myself to help connect with local people and communities, in a way that is meaningful and engaging.  I’m also looking forward to being challenged by other people because it’s a sure sign that people care, and want to do more.

As part of my application I had to write a letter to Bill Gates (Co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), outlining my objectives and focus for 2012 (in less than 300 words), but also to suggest what the objectives of the global community should be when considering how to tackle extreme poverty.  For now I want to publish my letter, so you know what my thoughts and feelings are, and to open up the debate on how we can work together to eliminate extreme poverty – I welcome your comments!

My letter to Bill Gates:

The 21st Century has always been the century of technology, innovation and mobilisation.  How often have we seen images from the past that show us what life would be like today; flying around in spaceships, living on Mars and being able to control our lives with the touch of a button?

The reality is surprising isn’t it?  No-one thought that at the beginning of this century there would be over a billion people living on less than two dollars a day, that millions of children would die needlessly through simple, preventable diseases, and that clean water would be a luxury.  The question that begs to be asked is why, and more importantly what can we do about it?

The answer, I believe, requires a quantum leap in our current thinking.  Today we can see that innovation and technology can provide so many solutions to so many problems, but they’re not the complete answer.  For those of us who live in the rich-world, it would be easy to fall into a trap in thinking that now is the time to baton down the hatches, and ride-out the financial storm.  But counter-intuitively now is the time to focus on ways in which we can help those who are most impoverished to be much more self-empowered.  Not because of moral imperative, as often put forward, no the quantum leap we need to bring about is that there is a business case for eradicating poverty, for developing sustainably.

As a Global Poverty Ambassador I would seek to lead that education at a grassroots level within my community.  As more people start to understand the challenges better, the more governments will be mandated to lead that process within the international community.  Start small and local, the real 21st century has just begun!

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Planning your next innovation

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Innovation can be nurtured in a planning framework

I follow lots of different people in the Twittersphere, as it’s known, who tweet on subjects as diverse as project management through to community development, innovation and technology, culture, and international development.  Quite a range!  Serendipity recently presented me with two independently generated tweets almost next to each other in my timeline.  The first was a project management tweet ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail’, the second a community development tweet “if failure isn’t an option, innovation isn’t an option”.  As a project manager this got me thinking, does having a plan mean that your project can’t be innovative?  Surely, if you know what you want to deliver you’re not open to new ideas, concepts and opportunities?  You’ve effectively closed off innovation!?!

Well, let’s think about that more clearly?  If I had no plan at all would I be more open and innovative, or would I simply be a headless chicken in crisis management mode?  Through an insightful conversation I had recently with a project management friend, it was pointed out to me that if your project doesn’t have a plan then you can’t fail, there is no criteria against which to assess whether you have achieved your initial objectives or not.  This was an interesting observation for me, and very true!  Having a plan means that you have objectives, you know what you want to achieve but you don’t necessarily have solutions.  A plan means you can innovate in controlled way, and then assess your progress against the objectives.  Ultimately your project may fail, that is a risk but being open and upfront about what you want to achieve actually enables and encourages innovation.  It allows your project team to be creative within a defined structure.  Of course, your approach may change over time, depending on how your project evolves, new ideas and inputs will come in.  The challenge for any project manager is to know how to manage these.  When is a great idea a change in scope, when is a different approach a new risk?  These are the skills of a project manager.

So to go back to the two original tweets, in actual fact I would argue both need clarification – having a plan doesn’t mean that your project can’t fail, failure is always a possibility.  However, project plans and innovation are not mutually exclusive a project plan provides a structure in which innovation can be managed and nurtured,  the key is how you bring these two competing elements together, manage the risks and deliver your project successfully.

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Community Organising, the Big Society and John James

Who’s John James I hear you ask…..or maybe you know already.  Personally, I’d never heard of the guy but I now have a CD of his on my ipod thanks to a fortuitous conversation I had with Andy Smith at the Sounds guitar shop in Rugby. I love playing my guitar but the strings had become tired so I took them off thinking I had a replacement set only to find that my replacement set was missing a string.  A couple of weeks passed and I was dearly missing playing my guitar so I made it a priority to go get some new strings.  And so I found myself in Sounds buying a set of strings for my guitar.  Big deal you might ask, and that would be the end of this story if it wasn’t for the photographs of John Lennon and George Harrison on the back wall of the shop. They were taken by the legendary Beatles photographer Bill Zygmant who now lives in Rugby; one of his photos was projected onto the Albert Dock in Liverpool to celebrate what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday last year.  Being a big Beatles fan myself we soon started swapping stories and talking about our shared passion for their music. The conversation then moved on to classical guitar playing and then onto John James.

Andy was pleased he had managed to track down John, now living back in his home country of Wales, and had persuaded him to play at this year’s Rugby Music Festival.  He assured me that a quick Goole search and I would soon discover who John James is, and he was right.  Back at home I was surprised to come across a detailed Wiki page of his personal history and YouTube videos of his amazing guitar playing.  All this research was then promptly followed by a trip to Amazon to find a CD and 2 days later I have it on my ipod.  However, it was whilst talking to Andy that he mentioned that he was coordinating the Music Festival committee, the plan is to hold the festival in the summer and to involve as many music groups from across the town as possible, including the local children’s choir.  The library in Rugby is modern building that also houses a small museum, the architecture is sensitive and being central it’s a natural place for people to attend a community focused event – the least said about the ASDA opposite the better.  The Festival will be an afternoon/evening event to allow people to join after work, stay out in the summer evening and enjoy a drink or just get to know each other better.  Andy was telling me that the plan was to house the children’s choir in the library building but to do this they need the council to extend the opening hours of the library from 5pm (normal close) to 8pm.  However there is a glitch.  The council need to pay staff for the extra time that they need to work, they also need to charge for the extra heating and lighting costs, and of course insurance.  The estimated bill given to the Festival committee for this one day community event is £800!  And there we see a challenge presented to all of us, how are we to organise ourselves, our communities and create a bigger, better society when plain old insurance and basic heating and lighting costs get in the way?

I was fascinated to read this blog post on Big Society’s biggest problem by Samuel Middleton about how Haringey council want to grant planning permission for the local outdoor, Seven Sisters market to be re-generated into a shopping and housing complex; a modern solution but also something that will rip the heart out of the community.  It seems to me that Haringey council are out of touch with the voice of the wider community.  Or put another way, the community hasn’t got a sufficiently strong, coherent voice that the council can tap into, listen to, engage with and actively support.  So how can we better organise ourselves to make sure our voice, our communities have a clear coherent message that will be listened to?  There is lots you can learn on how best to help communities to organise, Mark Parker explains well here what the difference between community organising and community development is, certainly I’m not professing to be an expert on this subject matter at all, but one thing that does strike me is that any organised community will be well connected, it will know about each other, be emotionally connected and part of each other’s lives.  How can we achieve this, where to start, through grand community events?….or maybe it’s much simpler than that, perhaps we just need to lean over the garden fence and get to know our neighbours, spend 5 minutes chatting to the shop owner, pursue our interests and hobbies in social groups, find people we can connect with and I’m sure out of all of these pursuits we can find the common issues that we need to be coherent on.  We can self-organise so that when it comes to putting on the grand events or standing up to the council, we can have a clearer sense of what we want our community to be and how those in power can empower us.

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Out of the corporate frying pan into the world of community empowerment

For the past 18 months I’ve had the privilege of delivering the Community Voices programme at Media Trust.  There is a lot I can say about the programme, its achievements, and challenges, how proud I feel to be part of it, but for now all you need to know is that it’s about supporting disadvantaged and isolated communities to become more self-empowered using digital media.

When I started on Community Voices there were few examples around of others having done something similar before;  today David Cameron’s Big Society is becoming increasingly familiar to more and more people but just two years ago, when Community Voices began in March 2009, it’s fair to say it was ahead of the curve in terms of supporting community-led projects.  I joined the programme in September 2009 and can honestly say it has been unlike any other programme that I’ve experienced or imagined previously.  For those of you unfamiliar with the terms programme and project let me explain briefly; programme management is what you do to manage a number of connected projects, and project management is about creating change – be it a change in process, organisational culture, a change of product or service, or a change in skill level or understanding.  Whatever the change is it has to be something new, not routine, or done before.

In the business world programmes and projects are driven by a business case (a need to make or save money), which is usually owned by a senior manager (someone who benefits from the change).  Within the business organisation there are employees who have responsibilities and a job to do, they are listed and contracted to projects and programmes to get a job done and contribute to the delivery of the change.  Fundamentally they get and buy into what the programme or project is about.  However in the voluntary, not-for-profit world, projects and programmes very often aren’t driven by a need to make money or indeed to save it, but usually for more personal, emotive reasons such as the need to have a voice, to challenge attitudes, to raise awareness, or to help empower someone to change their own circumstances for the better.  Still at least in the not-for-profit sector people are employed, contracted and listed to projects and programmes, they have a reason to be involved.  However in the community development world very often the project team is the community itself – it is the people that the project is trying to help as well as others that are bringing about the change.  There is no contract, salary or any other ‘carrot or stick’ that keeps people involved with the project – the buy in is much more emotive and personal it’s a feeling that circumstances need to change and that they want to be part of making that change happen.

Stepping back for a moment and being objective, that’s a whole heap of risk to be conducting a project or programme under!  There are lots of ways in which a community project team may change, or fall apart even – changes in personal circumstances, health reasons,  family commitments consuming time available (as it often does), or even demotivation (perhaps halfway through a sense that whatever the change that is need it won’t happen – it’s too big, to overwhelming or complex.

What hope then does our community, the community we’re part of right now, have of becoming more empowered, being more active, in control bringing about change that we want not imposed change that we don’t want?  Without the insight that I’ve gained through Community Voices I would be uncertain that any community could realise this dream, but I know differently.  In all, 25 community led projects were supported through Community Voices, seven of which were followed by a very small film crew who captured some of the insights, thoughts and motivations of some of the key community members with the aim of understanding more about their reasons for getting involved, for bringing about a change that they wanted, and more importantly wanted to own – what was their buy in and why?

I’ll leave you with this short 4 minute film which offers a glimpse of some of the fantastic work that has been going on, and I hope that you’ll feel inspired to watch the longer documentary (45 mins)…….and then?……then go be a change maker in your community!

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PRINCE2 – less paperwork, more communication required

As I near the completion of the Community Voices programme I have found it helpful to reflect on my performance over that period, in particular what I’ve learnt about programme and project management.  My view of project management methodologies has changed during the course of the past 18 months and it is this story that I want to share with you today, having been encouraged to tell it following a conversation with a friend over a drink.

I first encountered the mysterious world of PRINCE2 ten years ago whilst working at Vodafone as a Graduate Engineer, delivering software projects and hardware solutions to help the mobile network cope with the ever increasing demands for greater capacity and sophistication from its users.  Vodafone UK’s Technology arm had just embraced PRINCE2 with open arms, seeing it as a way through this challenge.  I confess that I too had become consumed by this new initiative, and the mantra that seemed to circulate around it’s rollout – from now on all our projects would run to time, to budget, they’d never slip because risks were managed, issues logged and project boards updated – well perhaps that is a slight exaggeration but it shows how much I’ve learnt since then.  It was during this time of great change at Vodafone that I forged my first impressions of project management and PRINCE2 in particular, how it can help and hinder an organisation to deliver new ideas and solutions.

Fast forward to 2009.  My first weeks as Community Voices Project Coordinator started well, I introduced a project plan, risk log, issue log and PID to the programme, next came the communications plan and then the detailed work began, but what I’ve come to learn is that my experiences at Vodafone had left a distinct nervousness in me that altered my approach to developing the project management structure for Community Voices.  There had been a very strong negative reaction to the introduction of PRINCE2 at Vodafone because there was a lack of understanding as to what a project is.  PRINCE2 was applied to all business changes, including operational work, which merely created additional paperwork and processes around the operational change and added extensive delays to everything.  It became a time of power shift, the once unheard of role of Project Manager seemingly overnight had become all powerful.  No-one understood this weird world of PRINCE2 except the PM, no-one could generate new project codes except the PM, business cases were delayed because officious PMs could insist on further details being added before they could be viewed by the project steering group.  And so with this experience very much at the front of my mind I tried to look objectively at what management products, to use the PRINCE2 terminology, I needed for Community Voices.  I was nervous about introducing unnecessary documents or processes, I was nervous of a backlash from my team mates because I was delaying  the development of the programme, so I aimed for what I thought would be the minimum – a PID including the project plan, a risk and issue log and a comms plan.

But actually, looking back I realise that I missed the point, my nervousness was missed placed and had distracted me from concentrating on what a project is fundamentally about – communication.  Without effective communication the paperwork and processes become redundant, they get in the way instead of supporting and facilitating communication.  What is a project plan if not a communication tool?  With a project plan you as the PM can communicate not only the extent of your project, the resources required, but also show the impact of change, monitor risks as well as report progress. But so too can your project team, they can see visually what’s happening, what’s not happening, they can sense where the risks are and be active in controlling and mitigating them.  The project plan can be not only a reason to communicate but also a means of communication.  Don’t get me wrong I’m not advocating that the project plan can substitute the need for clear, face-to-face conversation, it can’t, far from it but I have learnt not to see all these management products as barriers but to think of them as opportunities to communicate.  Not all of them are required or useful, it depends on what’s needed on the ground, but I think in future I will approach any new project or programme with a different view on the paperwork and processes that I want to introduce by asking myself ‘for this project how do I want to communicate?’

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Cola Life

As part of some research I was doing on digital inclusion, just over a year ago, I was reading the blog posts of the highly respected social reporter, David Wilcox, who I had met a few months earlier at the digital engagement event. In his blog post David had caught up with Simon Berry at a recent event to find about more about his Cola Life campaign, something which David was clearly interested in. I can only say that having been suitably distracted from my research I was hooked, from the word go, at what a great and simple idea Cola Life is. Having had the good fortune to travel myself I knew from first hand experience just how extensive the Coca Cola distribution network is. Since then I have followed develops with great anticipation and was delighted to see Simon give a great, and understandably nervous presentation at TEDx in Berlin. This is a great idea and as Simon says in his presentation, they need more followers and generally more people to be aware of start talking about this idea for it to gather momentum. So here I am doing my bit; watch the video, like it on Facebook and tell your friends. Prepare to be wowed!

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