Friday, November 13, 2020

can I be your (not so) secret Santa this year?

The Christmas season usually entails a lot of traditions and conventions, that this year are thrown into confusion by Covid - and the uncertainty about restrictions we'll be under as a country, region, town, college, business, and even household, on any given day.

I therefore want to try and do my bit in trying to bring some cheer and fun to people over the next few weeks, as we try and build some happiness around a time of year that most of us usually look forward to.

Now - to try and manage some expectations here: 

I'm a sole trader, so don't have access to a warehouse full of gin; 
despite what some people may think when we see our greyhound on her walks, we don't have any reindeer; 
and although feedback from clients and learners may indicate otherwise, I don't have any magic dust that means I can get to all of your homes and deliver that toy you've secretly wanted ever since you were 5 years old...

But what I can do, is make use of some of the toys and gifts that I usually throw at people as part of training courses I deliver, (but haven't able to this year, as all my sessions have been on zoom), by sending some of you an early Christmas treat in the post.

If you fancy being in with a chance of receiving one of my (not so) secret Santa gifts in this way:

- Each week starting Monday 23rd Nov, until Friday 18th Dec, I'll be watching my various social media channels (you can get find all of them from this page that links them all here: -

- All you have to do is re-share or do some kind of interaction with anything I post during that week (liking alone doesn't count).

- At the start and end of each week, I'll pick a comment or interaction that's brought a smile to my face in some way, and will send you direct message for a postal address where I'll send your gift to.

Hopefully you'll enjoy getting something through the post that isn't just another bland leaflet, bill, or circular, (and may even feel you can take a pic of yourself playing with it to share back out as a way to further spread some cheer and encouragement to others?).

So what are you waiting for? Go start stalking me on social media!

Thursday, October 15, 2020

celebrating #WorldValuesDay - by exposing that most values are bull!

Today is World Values Day - and typically I'd be using it as an excuse to (re)share the annual impact reports I publish on myself to encourage people to think about how their values affect how they approach their work.

But today, I've decided to be a bit different.

Today I want to call out the bullsh!t that most organisations espouse when they list their values on their websites and paint them into inspiration posters in hallways and meeting rooms.

And it's because of this widespread tokenism that we're not seeing values have their full transformative potential to help us start to all live and share in the sort of world that we'd all secretly quite like to see come about...


Monday, October 5, 2020

When video calls make you feel like a failure before you've even begun

2020 has brought in a new age where video calls have become the default norm for meetings.

But even before the pandemic and the first full national lock-down in the spring of this year, I had committed to seek to do more meetings remotely through this marvel of technology back in 2018, (and been annually reporting on how far I'd been able to achieve this within my impact reports on myself). So in some ways, I've had a head start, but the move to video over in-person seemed to be a trend that was already growing - Covid-19 has simply accelerated it to force us all to start doing it sooner than we might have done otherwise.

However, it strikes me that (as with many things), it's very easy to undermine ourselves in this new format - not just in front of our colleagues, but also damaging our own self-beliefs and sense of worth, in having not fully worked out and adopted what the 'unspoken rules' of this way of meeting are:

1) "you're still on mute" (the tag-line of 2020)

I don't know what the exact figure is, but most video calls would probably be about 10 minutes shorter if we weren't all muting and un-muting ourselves when we want to speak, and forgetting which setting we'd last toggled the mic to. 

I get that in some instances, there's good technical reason for having mics off (some people's laptop's have the mics next to the speakers, and so inspire ear-splitting feedback). But in the main, telling people to turn their microphones off if they're not speaking is akin to being back in school and told you have to raise your hand, and hope that the teacher decides you have something relevant to say. Hopefully we're all a little more adult now than we were in school, and can be trusted to act accordingly - after all, how many physical team meetings have you sat in, where the rule was you couldn't speak without raising your hand, and the chair granting you permission to open your mouth? It doesn't really instil a culture of openness, trust, and respect; and, if our hand waving doesn't get spotted by the person running the video call, we feel invisible and not important.

2) "where have you all gone?"

For people not used to there being options whereby the arrangement of how people's faces are laid out on your screen changes, it's easy to accidently minimise or change the whole view so that while the rest of us can still see and hear the person, they're desperately panicking that they've lost us all and can't find how to 'get us back'.

Once we've done a few calls, and had this mishap ourselves, its easy to avoid, but for the un-initiated, making what feels like a novice mistake can be a serious dent to our confidence in ourselves: after all, if we can't manage to keep a window open on our laptops, how can we be trusted with anything more involved?


3) "please ignore my laundry"

Working from home is a mixed bag - I video blogged about this recently, whilst laid under my duvet... not everyone has the luxury of a space in their homes where they can easily set up an office, or have a wall that isn't covered in their kids drawings, or has an airing rack in front of it.

As part of instilling confidence in others, we strive to create a professional image for ourselves (after all, we wouldn't have normally turned up to work in our dressing gowns, would we?). Having to apologise for what people are seeing of our lives, before we can even start to address the topic of conversation for the call puts us on a back foot in questioning our own value and importance (especially when we see how beautiful some other's people's kitchens appear to be...).

4) "I'm sorry about my kids"

Even physical meetings were never completely immune from occasional interruptions (people confusing room numbers, lunch or drinks being delivered, and such like). And most of us also had our phones on in case our kids' schools needed to contact us in an emergency. So why do we feel we have to apologise for our kids now, when they're not doing anything they wouldn't normally do, and neither are we? 

If I'm leading any call where someone's kids wander by, or try and get their parents attention, I'll either invite them into the call, or use it as a prompt for a short break for the rest of us. Treat kids like human beings, and they'll have a better chance of growing up like ones we can respect and be proud of.

Parents shouldn't be made to feel guilty for having their children in their lives.


5) "try turning your camera off"

Just because everyone is now doing video calls, doesn't mean that everyone lives in an area where there's sufficient internet bandwidth to handle it smoothly (only 12% of the UK has access to fibre broadband). Similarly, not all video conferencing software is the same - there can be notable differences between things like Zoom and MS Teams as to how much internet speed you need to be able to hold a call.

And there's also other factors, like what sort of magic computer chips live inside your computer, if your home Wi-Fi router shares its signal between how many people are on-line at once, and such like - all of which means that in any given group call, there's usually always at least one person who can't be visible because to turn their camera on would mean that everything freezes for them. And to be the only person in a meeting that's essentially 'hidden' in this way, when everyone else has managed to remain visible, means that they can be easily forgotten and overlooked. And they'll usually feel it's their fault for having chosen to live in a poorly digitally-connected community, or not having been able to buy a laptop that's able to handle streaming video calls.

All of which point to video calls being potentially very damaging to our belief in ourselves as being able to be taken seriously as a 'working professional', before we've even opened our mouths to say hello and introduce ourselves. And this only further damages our belief in our own competence, and undermines how we build (or maintain) working relationships with other people.  

So perhaps the next time you're on a call and someone's background looks a little cluttered, they're struggling to be able to share their video, or they need to find how to re-size the window on their screen, you can remember how it was for you when you started doing video calls. And you can offer them some encouragement and validation that they're not the failure they think they are, just because no-one thought to explain to them where all the buttons are?


Monday, September 14, 2020

an awkward question about how we're making sense of the pandemic...

As some people may know, I was quite active during the national lock-down earlier this year - supporting a range of colleges, businesses, social enterprise support bodies, and others to consider, plan, and then enact their respective responses to the first wave of the pandemic.

And as part of my own practice of 'professional reflection', rather than another 'pithy blog' or twitter snippets about what I'd done and thought about during this time, I thought I'd do something a little more in-depth, and draft a white paper. This paper is still available on-line (just share and confirm your email and it should automatically get sent to you). And I was surprised at not just how many people downloaded it within the first week of it going out but also the sheer variety of roles and sectors they represented.

Many who read it also kindly offered some thoughts as to how the paper had prompted them to think further on their own respective responses and current thinking about the coming 6 months. And in the spirit of trying to openly keep encouraging conversation and discussion, I elected to share the themes of these comments in a Facebook Live.

The Facebook live also served another purpose - to act as an addendum to the white paper: after all, a lot can happen in a few weeks during a pandemic, and more data is coming out all the time about how different communities and ways of working are being affected.

And just as the original white paper has attracted more interest than a dared to hope, the Facebook Live had more people watching the broadcast as it happened than I thought might have , and continues to be shared by others and the watch count keeps going up...! (If you missed it, here's the link to catch it again).

Now don't worry - there is a point to my regurgitating this precis of my new life as a one-man policy think-tank.

And it's this - based on how people engaged with the white paper, and the comments and ongoing interest to my Facebook Live, it seems to suggest that we're not satisfied in seeking answers from within our own usual circles. We're starting to realise the benefit of going 'outside' our own marketplaces, industries, and sectors in seeking perspectives and understandings. And when we do, what we find seems to generally help assure and better inform us about the ways in which we're now making decisions about the future.

So my closing challenge to you, dear reader, is this - who can you talk with, or what can you read, that is outside of your usual daily work or life in offering you a fresh perspective in helping you make your own sense of the ever-changing world we now find ourselves (trying to) live and work in?  

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

zoom-ing from our beds

At the start of lock-down, I started do video calls from the toilet, then in my dressing gown, and now from under the duvet - for many people forced to work from home, the space to create a home office anywhere other than their bedroom may be a luxury they don't enjoy; and whilst doing zoom calls from our beds can be helpful, there's also a hidden risk in doing it that no-one seems to be talking about... 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

introducing... a pole dancing lion tamer!

As always, it was supposed to be straightforward.
But, as always, it's turned out to be by turns shocking, touching, encouraging, worrying, and more...

And no, it's nothing to do with Covid-19, but my biennial 360 degree feedback, that I introduced 7 years ago as part of the CPD* framework I've created for myself.

Every 2 years (or so) I invite a selection of collaborators, clients, contacts, and other non-carefully selected characters to tell me what they really think about me. 
But rather than open the flood gates to emails and messages that will leave me in need of therapy and extended counselling (as often seems to be the case in 360 degree appraisal processes), I only ask 1 question.

This single question approach has always seemed to go down well with people in the past - asking what my 'super power', and 'niche' is; what picture comes to mind when people think of me; and this time: how would people introduce me?

There's always a reason behind my choice of questions, and this one about introductions is based on a university enterprise start-up session I ran a little while back. 
In the run up to the starting time, the course leader asked me how I'd liked to be introduced? To which I glibly replied - well, they don't know anything about me, so you can say whatever you'd like. Which they took as a challenge, and promptly cued me in as a 'pole dancing lion tamer'. (I don't know what it says about either their students, or what type of other speakers they usually get in, but no-one batted an eyelid or looked surprised at this).
As an immediate learning point, I then started to use this approach at meetings I'm invited to - at the start when everyone goes around the table to say who they are (which is usually understood by at least 1 person as a demand for them to recount their life story and impress everyone with all the great responsibilities they now have in their role), when it comes to me, I ask someone who's there who knows me (in some capacity) to cue me in. And it's not for laziness, but actually an easy way to test my branding and understand how I'm being perceived and understood by different people in different places.

So this time, the survey question to people was "how would you introduce me? (at either a networking event, parliamentary reception, cocktail party, or bail hearing...)"

And as in previous cycles, some people re-interpreted the question (which I'd always encourage), to include new hashtags about me (which now brings the total number of tags other people have created to describe on social media to 4!); stylistic delivery of how they'd deliver the introduction; and a range of short and sweet (9 words) to rousing speeches (142 words).

In trying to make sense of what messages seemed to come out of this about m
e, I tried a word cloud approach. 
Interestingly this showed not only the sorts of things I do that people like to talk about:

- business
- advice
- charity
- enterprise
- knowledge
- strategy

but also the way in which I act and conduct myself when I'm working with people:

- values
- can
- will
- always
- expect
- help
- social
- talk
- underpinned

But a word cloud doesn't do well at pulling out the recurring sentiments that people are sharing.

All of the responses are recreated in full are below (and just as in previous cycles, anonymised to protect people's embarrassment). And I think that reading through them, the messages that come about about my 'brand' and why people like working with me are:

1) I'm not 'traditional' - people like my being unconventional, and bringing new approaches and ideas. Not all of which may always be comfortable, but they will mean there's a better result at the end of the work.

2) I make things easier for people: be it understanding what might seem an overwhelmingly complex issue, or helping them see there's a different (easier) way of coming at it.

But so what? Well, this all helps reassure me that how I'm putting myself out there to do what I do is still largely working (in that people enjoy it and want to talk about it - either that, or they think people should be warned about me...?). And it also cements something that came out of a similar '1 question' in a previous cycle of this, which is that people find I can help them simplify things to a point where they're comfortable to take it on.

*CPD: not what you think it means... see

All responses received in full:

"When I was founding XXXXX, 23 years ago, a Chief Executive #Founder of another social enterprise said to me "Forget about mission, objectives and plan - what are the values of this new organisation - they'll last longer" They lasted quite a while. Today, I'd like to introduce you to someone who is not only a multi-award-winning business adviser and facilitator but someone who measures his impact daily against his values. Adrian's values will last forever. He can be zany, funny, creative and always deeply thoughtful but you'll buy his services, particularly as a social enterprise or charity, for his total professionalism underpinned by these values. It makes the buying decision easy, what you see is what you get and that is why Adrian is always in demand - top advice, training and facilitation underpinned by values you can see and touch.

"Here's a guy you can go to for looking at problems or issues from a perspective you may not have thought of or from" #AlternativeAdrian

“A gifted genius who turns complexity into simplicity. “

"This is Adrian. He will ask you awkward yet very useful questions".

“This is Adrian, he is our mentor and a great source of knowledge. He is helping us on a wide range of business strategy and governance support as we transition from a community group into a charity and alter our focus. He can be a little bit ‘out there’ at times but because he really listens and considers his advice before imparting his wisdom to you – you feel re-assured and that he is trustworthy. I’m really enjoying working with him and feel like he is a member of our team. He is incredibly patient and tries to make work more fun. I think you’ll like him.”

“This is Adrian Ashton, you have come here today to hear a talk which will help you with your business. Be prepared! It is not what you expect, or the way you expect this sort of a talk. But I am sure that it will help you!!”  

“Entertaining and charismatic fountain of knowledge, about organisational structure and strategy. Mainly academic, public bodies and not for profit.”


Thursday, July 23, 2020

why do we theorise in isolation from each other?

Over the last few years, there's been growing encouragement for the charity and social enterprise world to uptake the 'theory of change' approach more.

For many who approach this model of thinking and presenting how you work for the first time, it appears daunting with a lot of jargon, technical diagrammes, and an apparent infinite number of ways to 'do it'...

But ultimately, it boils down to what (finally) got me through my maths exam - showing your workings out: laying out in a (hopefully simple and logical manner) why you're doing what you're doing so that anyone can understand it, and (hopefully) get behind it (and you) more.

As I've alluded to above, there are lots of examples and models out there - but as sometime who delivers training and learning around this, as starting points I usually recommend 2 templates to start:

1) The 'DIY' toolkit approach, developed by NESTA, and profiled by Innovation for Change:

 2) and this framework developed and agreed with The Treasury and DCLG as part of a national programme:

And the reason I suggest using these, rather than come up with something from scratch, is:
(a) it's easier to get started by using an existing template, and 
(b) the provenance of these frameworks is pretty 'sound', and as such, it means that whomever you share your Theory with subsequently will find it easier to take it more seriously.

But it strikes me that there's a huge problem with all of the guidance, training, consultancy, and such like, that all of the websites, sector bodies, and expert consultancies seem to have missed - and in doing so, means that the Theories created will always be stunted and never really have the transformative impact they're seeking to realise.

And the thing that seems to be missing is recognising that whichever charity, social enterprise, or other creating their Theory, isn't operating or exists in a bubble - they're co-located, work closely with other groups and services, and the people they support will be being impacted and engaged with by other organisations in parallel to themselves... and this is also something which the principles of reporting social impact and value already recognise: do not over claim - the people we support will also be being supported by other services, groups, and activities.

So if recognising that our creation of impact and benefit to people in need is co- and inter- dependant upon others, why aren't we encouraged to develop our Theories with them (or at the very least, do a 'sanity check' of them, by sharing them with our key audiences and partners)..?