Spaces for Growth
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Spaces for Growth

Spaces for Growth — Getting Into Action

This is the final post in a series written by Graham Leicester and Maureen O’Hara as part of a collaboration between International Futures Forum and Koreo. In previous posts, Graham and Maureen explored how we might learn to read today’s complex landscape better and considered the kinds of spaces for growth we can create, hold and maintain to encourage the development of our 21st century competencies to operate effectively in powerful times. This final post explores what it takes to express our new-found competence in action.

Transformative Action


If the first step towards becoming comfortable and effective in today’s operating environment is awareness, and the second is growth, the third — the proof of the pudding — is transformative action.

Sooner or later our 21st century competencies must be demonstrated and developed in action. As one of the pioneers of action learning, Reg Revans, wrote, “there can be no learning without action, and no action without learning.” We have found our feet, grown our competencies, now we must act — meeting important challenges in life in a complex world.

We will inevitably be working with others (we cannot be competent alone). We will want to convene together in ways that honour what has already been discussed, designed to bring the best out of ourselves and our relationships.

But what kind of action? In the service of growth and transformation, our actions will disappoint if they are simply expressions of a neurotic defence that denies reality (one more heave) or of psychotic hysteria, high on excitement and confusion (the logic of ‘disruption’, move fast and break things). We will be looking for a transformative growth response, configuring new sources of abundance.

We have written extensively elsewhere about this as a practice of ‘transformative innovation’, grounded in practical hope. Here we concentrate on the human aspects of that practice, the people.

This calls upon a different set of skills — not hosting or guiding but producing. It is a role championed by Roanne Dods, who led ground-breaking work on the producer role in the realm of the arts during her time heading the Jerwood Charitable Foundation.

She saw that the arts are not just about artists and ‘arts organisations’. There are also certain individuals who have the skill and capacity to mediate between creative artists on the one hand and structures of funding and accountability on the other to deliver acts of the imagination that are (by definition) unique and original.

This same underlying challenge also describes the practice of transformative innovation and the exercise of 21st century competence. We need to bring diverse talents together across boundaries, bring imaginative ideas to life, whilst all the time being highly aware of the cultural and psychological context and the challenge of introducing the new in the presence of the old.

The best source book is Kate Tyndall’s The Producers: alchemists of the Impossible. It offers a series of rich interviews with arts producers in many disciplines and gives a flavour of the role and the activities involved.

As noted in the previous post on liminal spaces, we have found it particularly useful to study the example of Helen Marriage. What does she do to bridge the gap between insight and action, to move our competencies into effective, transformative practice? There is a fuller description available elsewhere , but the essence of the approach can be summarised in the following seven practices.

  • Don’t start from “this is impossible”. That is self-defeating. As a producer you must believe that what you are proposing is possible. What drives the system is belief.
  • There are no rules (even where there are rules). The producer is not reckless and operates from a ground of care and responsibility. But they are also aware that following ‘the rules’ will generate only the familiar. Start with an intention and configure the necessary rules around that.
  • Get the fears articulated. This is a corollary to being flexible with the rules. If we do that, people will be anxious. The rules are there as a defence: when it is taken away people will feel vulnerable. Once these fears are articulated it is possible to deal with them. When they form part of the conversation, and part of the design, when they are fully acknowledged, it provides comfort and reassurance, and enables participants to move into creative action.
  • Make friends. Marriage exemplifies the insight that whatever else we are dealing with, when it comes to getting anything done, we are operating in a human system. The fears that are articulated are personal, owned by individuals, expressed as subjective emotion. Like Rogers, the rapport she establishes lives at a human level, not only in technical risk management reports and scenario planning. Transformative work is personal.
  • Take responsibility and seek contribution. The flip side of risk is responsibility. This comes across as Marriage’s primary role as producer, the step that reveals and liberates resources: taking responsibility. Somebody has to do this. It provides comfort to the group. Here she takes on a role we discussed earlier, as guide or director, giving people confidence to follow her into new territory. It is as unfamiliar to her as to others, but she has the courage and experience that comes from having crossed many such thresholds before. And an unshakeable faith in human nature and human capacity.
  • Don’t ask for permission — it cannot be given. In moving into unknown territory, it is difficult for institutions to give permission to go ahead with something that is both unprecedented and beyond their individual domain of control. Marriage pre-empts the question by saying, in effect, “the buck stops with me”.
  • Push the ambition. The temptation is always to compromise in order to get things done. Something is better than nothing — right? That kind of thinking flashes warning lights to anyone seeking the transformative growth response. Compromise will be necessary at times. But the creative producer must start from the principle that anything is possible. If we are bold enough the world will flex to accommodate our ambition and all those involved will grow in delivering it.

A Culture of Transformation

Marriage’s work is also illuminating in that, as previously discussed, it is explicitly about cultural disruption and transformation. Her role is not simply to bring a set of competencies, qualities, tools, techniques and experience to a situation (although she does all of that). She also carries a culture with her. Part of the impact of what she does — and one of the clues to its longer-term effects — lies in implanting a little of that culture wherever she goes.

This is not unusual: we all do it. Every intervention is a cultural intervention in that it carries an often unacknowledged and invisible set of behavioural norms, references, history and worldview with it. The difference is that Marriage is conscious of this. She has a high degree of cultural literacy. She knows that how she gets things done is as important as what gets done. Means and ends are one.

We see in the cultural pattern that she embodies, a number of distinctive characteristics to bear in mind:

The culture is respectful. As noted throughout, it matters how we view the human beings in front of us. Marriage has a deep respect for others — it seems to be one of the things that drives her work. Arbitrary exclusion upsets her — hence her work is public, unaccepting of boundaries, speaking to the best in everyone. That respect helps her to see things genuinely from another’s point of view, to walk in their shoes, to own their anxieties and challenges as if they were her own. It would be easy to write others off as obstructive or bureaucratic or timeserving — but that is incompatible with the culture of ‘joy, wonder and magic’ that her work exists to serve.

The culture is trusting. ‘The Sultan’s Elephant’ on the streets of central London progressed with minimal crowd control, minimal attention to health and safety regulations, minimal infrastructure for such a huge public gathering. That is because part of the culture is to trust people to behave well, to look after themselves and each other and not to do anything stupid. Marriage’s experience is that when we operate from those principles people rise to them — but how often are we given the chance to show that side of our nature?

The culture is responsible. At one level this seems trivial: producers produce and so the culture is one of delivery. This is a culture that gets things done. That is related to the culture of trust: in order to engender trust you have to be trustworthy, and that means you must back yourself and your judgement. When Marriage says that something can be done it is not a rhetorical device: she means it. She takes responsibility for the things nobody else can handle, and in doing so encourages others to take responsibility in their own domains. She keeps her promises, however challenging they might turn out to be. That is a powerful injection into any culture.

But there is also a deeper sense of responsibility — a culture of care for those involved in the process. She treats people with respect, but also with compassion. She does not push people too far, ask them for things they cannot do, add to their anxiety. The flipside is the vital necessity for the producer to create a culture of care around herself. All of that fear, anxiety and worry has to be held somewhere — and the producer ends up holding much of it. It helps to have a buddy, a mentor, a supervisor. We all need somebody else on the end of the rope: no solo climbers.

The culture is meticulous. This is very striking. The planning for Marriage’s events is rigorous in the extreme and can take years. It is as true of the web of human relationships as it is of the physical detail — no stone is left unturned, nothing is too much trouble. The phrase ‘nothing is left to chance’ comes to mind as capturing the detailed nature of the work.

Except that the point of all this preparation is precisely to allow for ‘chance’ to play as great a role as possible. Marriage pays meticulous attention, in other words, to the enabling conditions rather than to controlling every detail of the event. There is thorough preparation but no rehearsal. That stance maximises the transformative impact.

The culture demands quality. “Quality is essential”. Marriage’s work is usually on a grand scale, “the scale of the big entertainment industries”, to make the cultural disruption so big it is impossible to ignore. But what she is trying to produce is an experience of quality not quantity. She trusts people to detect in an instant the difference, the cutting of corners, the shoddy compromise, the artifice, the lack of attention to detail that might break the spell, dispel the magic.

The culture promotes freedom. In her producer role Marriage provides for a group of people just enough structure for life to reveal itself. And life is full of surprises, wonderfully abundant and free. It seems that the minimal structure she creates — by naming a time, a place, a number of artistic collaborators and then taking responsibility for making the event a reality — in effect creates an otherwise unfettered space for contribution.

After an encounter with Marriage individuals somehow discover resources — capacities, ideas, connections, inspiration — that they hadn’t previously recognised. Her minimal structure coupled with maximum ambition frees up people and resources to behave differently, to contribute in novel ways in a new context. That is what she is seeking to demonstrate in all the urban environments she takes over: that when freed from the need to serve “toil, trade and traffic” our urban spaces can just as easily enable joy, wonder and magic.

The culture feeds hope. This too is explicit and all-pervading. Part of Marriage’s stance in the world is that anything is possible. The experiences she creates are intended to awaken that feeling in those who participate in them — or even just hear about them. For those who participate — from the child swinging on a giant puppet’s arm in the Mall, to the passing witness, to the civil servant drafting the memo that bent the rules to allow them all to be there — that feeling once experienced is never forgotten and can be called upon again and again. This is part of the source of the work’s longevity.

The way to shift a culture is through conscious cultural intervention. Small acts of creative transgression that carry a culture with them. Marriage is in effect bringing all the aspects we have described for creating and sustaining a ‘space’ for human development and growth together into a cultural pattern.

This she first embodies (I am sure it is largely unconscious), then radiates to encompass others, then scales through dramatic production to manifest in streets and communities.

We can see the same essential practice manifest in other areas — particularly in the public and social sectors where this accurately describes the practice of transformative innovation. Patterns of novel practice, underpinned by a strong set of values, can usually be traced back to a committed champion. That champion has used her producer competencies to configure diverse people and resources into a viable operating pattern, the demonstration at a small scale of a new culture, getting something new and inspirational off the ground. This is a manifestation of the transformative growth response.

The First Move

Start Where You Are

If you have read this far you likely agree that creating and maintaining spaces and practices to help everybody develop their innate ability to flourish in the 21st century, and then to demonstrate their competencies in transformative, creative action, is both an urgent and a vital task. You may also feel that it is a daunting one.

It does not have to be complicated. Our best advice is to start where you are, with those around you. Just as the 21st century competencies are innate, so too is the capacity to provide the ‘facilitating environment’ to enable their development in others.

We can take an initiative at any moment. In a world of flows, once we decide to take action we have already started. We maintain or disrupt the wider patterns in the culture through our participation in them. As living beings we are always growing and always inevitably intervening in the culture. Always responding and always influencing.

It would be good to establish and maintain scores of spaces with all the characteristics discussed in this series of posts, hosted with grace and guided with the subtlety of a master.

At the same time, that will never be enough. The challenge is pervasive: we all need to find the facilitating environment, the enabling conditions, to help us flourish in today’s world.

Which is why Koreo and IFF are collaborating to curate simple, intuitive tools and frameworks that can bring this approach to human growth and development into any setting, any conversation, any group, any relationship. Street-level practice.

Three resources in that category are already available from IFF and Koreo: a deck of prompt cards and a mini-Kitbag from IFF that are already in wide use, and a set of coaching cards Koreo use in many of their learning spaces. All three provide simple reminders, calls to become more conscious and aware, artefacts to create space, the essentials of the transformative growth response to carry in your pocket (even if all you have in your pocket is your phone).

These are just three examples of simple, entry-level resources and ‘micro-competencies’ that can help ease us into this vital work. Curating and sharing other simple resources will be the ongoing work of this partnership over the coming months. We invite you to share, critique, and use these resources in practice in your own contexts. Just find a friend, and get started.

Take inspiration from George Saunders, the award-winning writer of short stories — beautifully crafted, liminal, temporary worlds. A short story does not start with an idea, or a programme, or a plot, or a plan he says. “It starts with a sentence.”

By Graham Leicester & Maureen O’Hara, International Futures Forum



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