Honouring the grout

As we began our summer holidays in early December, my 7-year-old went to a mosaic-making workshop. When I picked her up, she held up her creation for me to admire. I asked her to explain the mosaic-making process to me. She happily described choosing the shape of the mosaic, the colours, cutting the glass, and the process of assembling it all. But she also described something I wasn’t expecting — the role of the grout. She explained that the grout was the part of the mosaic that I couldn’t see, which actually held everything together and made the mosaic possible.

“Without the grout, mummy, the glass couldn’t stick, and I wouldn’t have been able to make my seahorse.”

This got me thinking…

Photo of a seahorse mosaic, filled with blue and green glass tiles
My 7-year old’s mosaic

Just the week before, we had sent out the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) ANZ end-of-year email. In the process of drafting and sending the note, something hadn’t felt quite right. And this conversation with my 7-year-old clarified why. Our email highlighted only those achievements which are easy to describe, and which society tends to value — the reports we wrote, the events we curated, the podcasts we featured on — and neglected to celebrate the less tangible aspects of our work. I realised we had fallen into the trap of forgetting to celebrate and honour our equivalent of the grout — the relationships we build, and ways of working which we foster — which are actually the things that matter most of all.

What does it mean to honour the grout?

Honouring the grout means paying attention to the things we can’t see in our work, and in our lives, and acknowledging the critical role they play in enabling those which we can.

Honouring the grout requires us to value and celebrate not only that which is easy to measure and describe (a report with hundreds of downloads) but also the values, ways of working, and relational fabric, which act as the foundation upon which everything else proceeds.

Honouring the grout means attending to the conditions which make good work possible. It means investing in, and intentionally cultivating the invisible elements — such as a warm and inclusive culture, psychological safety, trusting relationships — without which the end product could not have been created.

At the CPI, our approach to reimagining government is strongly influenced by the notion that how we are in the world has a profound impact on what we do in the world. As Adrian Brown has written, “if we really want to see enduring change in government, this requires more than simply focusing on what government is doing. We must reflect on the being of government — the underlying values, beliefs and assumptions.”

This belief permeates everything we do at CPI. Yet, because there is such a strong tendency to celebrate the visible shiny “stuff”, it can be easy to forget this. And so, our email slipped into the trap of forgetting to honour the grout.

Why do we need to honour the grout?

But why do we need to honour the grout? What difference does it make?

It matters because it’s not possible to bring about change without paying attention to the system as a whole — even those bits which we cannot see. As Donella Meadows highlights in her essay “Places to intervene in a system”, the most effective leverage points tend to be those that are less visible. For example, introducing (visible) subsidies, taxes, standards will be less effective at bringing about enduring change than working to redefine the (invisible) mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.

It’s important to honour the grout because the unseen elements of our work have a significant impact in their own right. Maya Angelou famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If you create something impressive and purportedly impactful, but damage relationships and goodwill in order to get there, can you genuinely claim to have made a positive contribution?

It’s also important to honour the grout because emphasising the more ephemeral aspects of our work directly challenges neoliberal economic orthodoxy which fails dismally in this regard (negative externalities, anyone?).

Honouring the grout is critical because, put simply, the things we can’t see matter. And until we grasp this, we can’t make the progress that so many of us want and need.

All of this was made abundantly clear in our partnership with Hands Up Mallee and Dusseldorp Forum around Storytelling for Systems Change which, as it happens, was one of the things we called out in our end-of-year email.

The grout of storytelling for systems change

For the final few months of last year, CPI ANZ worked closely with Hands Up Mallee and Dusseldorp Forum to research and curate a report which we called Storytelling for Systems Change: Insights from the Field.

The report certainly was a part of what we created through our partnership. But it was not, in fact, what stood out for the project team as our greatest achievement. Instead, what emerged from our reflection session late last year was that the relationships we built, and the ways of working we established, were actually the features of this project that the team valued most of all.

But what does this mean? What did we do that felt different, and good?

Firstly, we spent time upfront setting the parameters for how we would work together. We worked collectively to craft a team charter, which acted as a guide for all of our work. As Rachel Fyfe observed, “this often isn’t done, but it built alignment of values from the start, which laid solid foundations for the future — with each other and with interviewees.”

Our storytelling for systems change team charter. Key ideas are that as a team we value: trust and coordination; feedback, evaluation and improvement; diversity, equity and inclusion; collaboration and empowerment.
Our Storytelling for Systems Change team charter

Once we had developed the charter, we kept circling back to it. Often documents like these become empty artefacts; people go through the motions of creating them, because it’s the right thing to do, but then file them away, never to be seen again. We wanted our team charter to be our North Star. We wanted to hold ourselves accountable to it. And so, we scheduled a number of sessions where we took time as a team to reflect on whether we were being true to the values set out in the charter, to discuss what we could be improving, as well as what we were feeling proud of.

We also created space and time to get to know each other as people. As part of our weekly 30-minute catch-ups, we always spent the first few minutes on a check-in question. Despite the apparent silliness of some of the prompts, it was through this process that we learnt more about each other as people, beyond the confines of the project. We learnt about each other’s families, favourite desserts, whether we were dog-or-cat-people (most of us were dog-people, thankfully), and more. It made our conversations feel authentic, rather than transactional, and resulted in a sense of openness and trust amongst the team. As Jane McCracken noted, “check-ins made sure we were living the charter — allowed us to change our approach as needed, because of the honesty it enabled.”

For all of us, the report we created wouldn’t have been possible without our grout — the relationships we built, combined with the processes for constant learning and reflection which we all committed to. And yet, our end-of-year email didn’t mention those less-visible features of the project at all.

And now, to rockpools

As we reached the end of our summer holidays — almost a month after the mosaic class — I was reminded of my daughter’s description of the grout again during a long (and rare) walk alone on the beach.

The tide was low. As I stopped to look at some of the rockpools, I was struck by the life they contained. At first, they looked like no more than rocky pools of water. But when I stopped, and paid attention, I saw that they were teeming with life. I noticed flickers, specks and movements which were only visible because I cared to see them. And I realised that the invisible life of rockpools was perhaps a different metaphor to describe what I had been thinking about.

While grout is static and inanimate, rockpools are dynamic and alive. Like mycorrhizal networks for the ocean, they operate as part of a complex system on which the more visible parts of ocean life depend; if rockpools and all that they contain didn’t exist, whales and fish and coral wouldn’t either.

So, I kept looking. I noticed the tiny crabs, shellfish, the lichen, and the almost imperceptible movement of things I don’t even know the names of. I heard the little pops and crackles of these micro-universes, punctuating the sound of the steady ocean swell.

Picture of a crab in a rockpool
Rockpools (I)
Pictures of shellfish in rockpools
Rockpools (II)

And I realised that this is what we need to do more of. We need to make time to discover, recognise and acknowledge that which isn’t immediately obvious. And then we need to focus on more consciously attuning ourselves to these essential elements of our work, and our world, which so often go unheard and unseen.

One way to do this is to give these elements a language; to give them shape, colour and purpose through describing, calling out and honouring them.

As R.D Laing explains, “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

So, this year, our end-of-year email will look different. It will probably be less shiny. Almost certainly less punchy. And perhaps even not quite as easy to understand. But I truly believe that our greatest contribution at CPI is not what we create, but how we create it. This is worth celebrating. And this means writing end-of-year emails which honour the grout.

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