Having time and space to pause, reflect and recalibrate is so important at this moment in time. I’ve had an intuitive sense that I am at the close of a decade-long cycle, and an urge to take stock and consolidate my work, practice and inquiries and really think about what that means for the next steps. I’m lucky enough to have had a month-long sabbatical from my work at Forum for the Future to do a bit of that through April and May 2021.
There’s a number of reasons I chose for taking the time to do this now:
A year+ of living in a pandemic
Sensing that a year into living in pandemic is forcing things open and a rewriting of the stories we have held dear. Including my own. Things can’t go back to how they were — now is the time to reassess and take stock of what is really needed now. With things easing, at least for now in the UK, this feels like a timely moment before defaulting back into the ease of what was. If my work is about supporting and enabling change and transformation then I feel I need to live those changes too. To ask what I need to shift. To stop. To change. And where I really want to focus my time and attention now.
The rush to the new and the next
I can sense myself rushing straight into the next big multi-year project and the next exciting and emerging work that seems to be bubbling up from all around. I know that taking the time to close things well is so necessary, but also how hard it is to put it into practice. The reflection part of the action inquiry journey can be the hardest part, so I’m practising intentionally focusing there.
There is wisdom and learning to be had in taking stock and really paying attention to the undercurrents that have connected the sometimes seemingly disparate pieces of work I’ve done. I’ve worked across a whole array of sectors, topics and issues, from shipping to consumer technology, circular economy to civil society, citizen-led and climate action, with Forum for the Future being the hosting space for many of these. I want to honour and value the experiences, lessons and mistakes found within all of this, to discover the threads flowing into this next cycle, and to share these with others who are working in similar ways. And to explore the recurring patterns and what is really needed now.
Guided by intention
I want to be very intentional about where to put my attention and energy now — for both the work and for myself. In many ways I see the work I do as a lifestyle choice, as I aim to live out the questions and inquiries I’m exploring. So I’m seeking alignment between my personal values and energies and the wider needs that are out there. I am also very aware that overwork and burnout are common traits of the fields I find myself in, and I need to be careful about this too — this is a life’s work, made up of many marathons, and it is certainly not a sprint. It is all about pace and balancing energy.
10 years of Inquiry: inquiry as strategy
Much of the work I have been doing over this last decade has been underpinned by an action inquiry approach — in initially small but increasingly important ways. Inquiry allows us to work with complexity and uncertainty in real time, where other approaches seek to simplify, deny and ignore the inherent complexity of our world. Living life as inquiry is a way to navigate the changes we’re experiencing and will continue to experience, allowing us to adapt to whatever surprises may come.
“I don’t need to know the answers but I need a way to work with the questions” 2017 reflections
What this has meant is pursuing questions, combined with action, to unlock new insights, ways of doing things and ways of being. These questions and actions evolve over time, as you do more and learn about what works and what doesn’t. In a sense inquiry is an alternative, embodied approach to strategy.
“a way of simultaneously conducting action and inquiry as a disciplined leadership practice that increases the wider effectiveness of our actions”. Torbert (2004)
Any inquiry will follow a common and repeating cycle:
While it’s easy to keep doing, acting and testing things out, it is much harder to stop and reflect and be honest about where that leaves you, particularly if you need to change course or direction. So that is what this time is about for me.
Action inquiries are a form of action research. There are well-defined academic disciplines and methodologies that sit behind this too. My work has been strongly influenced through much guidance and co-inquiry with Anna Birney, drawing on the work of Danny Burns’ Systemic Action Inquiry and Bill Torbet’s Action Inquiry.
What have I done
Through April and May I’ve slowed down; made space for reflection and conversations; spent more time outside; had a holiday; and completed the Apprenticing to Grief course. From all this I feel — somewhat — clearer and more energetic.
“We may need time out from the old dynamics of relationship before new dynamics emerge”
Meg Barker — Rewriting the Rules
On the surface my day to day hasn’t looked wildly different to the days I am ‘working’ — I’m still predominantly at home, on my computer with zoom chats (although far fewer). But I have been using my time to go back through old notebooks, digital notes, sketches and photos. Making new notes, drawing out threads, having less clustered headscape between many meetings to fuse those connections. I have tried to spend mornings writing and reflecting — and resisting the temptation to throw my all into the next exciting piece of work.
Shaping narratives: Outputs of inquiry
While I strongly believe inquiry and emergence are absolutely key and necessary at this moment in time, one of the challenges is that it’s not always clear what it manifests into, or where the sense of achievement comes from. It offers less clarity about what to gravitate around. From one perspective, inquiring can look like an overfocus on the process — if you’re not seeing or valuing the process as a necessary part of the journey and as a destination in itself. To overcome this, I wanted to have something tangible to show from this time.
I’ve had a strong urge to write this year, so have spent some of this time doing that, turning the threads of reflection into imperfect pieces — mostly for myself as artefacts, reminders of this moment in time. But I’m sharing these as inspiration for others who are living and enabling change, and to offer my own contribution to a burgeoning field:
→ a twitter thread of real-time reflections through the month
And a series of blog posts which are to follow
I’ve also made some personal decisions about where to focus my time now. I’ve made the hard decision to leave Forum for the Future after 13.5 years; I’ve written a letter to my son which curates some of my aspirations for the coming 10 years; and I’ve saved some notes of my most interesting reflections from this period of time, acting as a supplement to our family photo albums.
I guess much of this is really about distilling my own narrative and the story of this last cycle, as well as setting the intention of the direction for the next. I’m sure I will cringe on looking back on this in another 25 years — but we will see.
With much gratitude to all the people I have been co-leanring and inquiring with over the last decade.
Special thanks to Anna-Roase Hughes for her support editing and this series