Messy work

The messy tale: from idea to actual thing

Messy work

If I was one of those bento types, with everything neatly arranged in my life, I may well have figured this all out a long time ago. I don’t know if that undermines or underlines what I’m now writing about, but it adds a neat (ha ha) level of meta-messiness one way or the other.

Let me begin. A little over a year ago, Spark+Mettle was invited to take part in Brainyhacks, a charitable hackathon modelled on a pub quiz organised by digital agency Pixelgroup. Our brief was finding ways of getting awesome but time-poor professionals to connect with aspiring young people. The teams came up with some *rad* [creative-speak] ideas that we took away with us. And we even got a mega-ace-volunteer-turned-trustee, Rina Atienza, out of it too. Here’s a neat little blog post about it from Pixelgroup. And, of course, there’s a video:

Brainyhacks 2 – Dec 2011 from Pixelgroup on Vimeo.

I’m now going to do fast forward for 12 months. Spark+Mettle and Pixelgroup become firm allies >> we try to figure out how we can actually make something happen out of all the *rad* ideas that have been generated >> we get a bit stuck (and Clare from Pixelgroup goes off and founds Code Club—also *rad*) >> then and then and then… the Design Council and Nominet Trust launch the Working Well Challenge >> we are one of three winning teams >> we spend five months working like crazy to make something kinda based on the Brainyhacks ideas but also a lot more than that >> we even have additional amazing support from the folks behind Good for Nothing in a 23rd hour [is that a phrase?] mad-dash-business-hash weekend >> we launch the site formally on January 30, 2013.

Discoverables from Spark+Mettle on Vimeo.

Discoverables founding teamI’ll no doubt spend the rest of the year talking about Discoverables, the platform that we made to help young people uncover, prove and improve key strengths and soft skills needed to succeed both in work and in life. Elevator pitch over,  here all I want to do is credit the brilliance of Dilesh Lalloo, Arfah Farooq, Gianni Bolemole and about 30 other people for turning it from a scribble on a bit of paper into a living, breathing, usable, exciting, revolutionary thing. If you’re super keen to get the ins and outs you can read about ’em here: But the point really of this blog post is to discover how an idea gets turned into an actual something.

Good for NothingPart of the answer, as put succinctly by Paul Miller of Bethnal Green Ventures, comes down to one long to-do list. That’s the neat part. The only neat part. And after about five minutes, at least in my experience, it doesn’t look all that neat any longer anyway. The rest of the answer is a mess. It’s all about a disorderly mix of brains and a huge amount of energy. Just like Spark+Mettle itself, Discoverables would be nothing were it not for the input and insight of lots of people. Young people, youngish people and definitely-not-young-but-nevertheless-youthful people. Amazing. But there’s a problem: I’m not much of a manager. BUT, as I just learned in fast-forward during last weekend’s Good for Nothing #FutureYouth gig, that doesn’t matter. People self-manage. They do it. They do it all the time. Thank you, Good for Nothing, for all sorts of things, but in particular right now, thank you for articulating and encapsulating what I’ve struggled to define and defend for a while (read: lifetime)—

We’re grown-ups, even the 16 year olds, and we can figure stuff out for ourselves. When we collaborate, there are peaks and there are troughs, there are splutters and flares and dead ends, but they are all important and valid. If people do stuff that they like and they feel valued (and there’s a vision and one centralised, updated list of the things that really need doing) then it all kinda falls together. There’s no need for managey-management or leadery-leadership. We don’t need a thorough understanding of group dynamics. With space and respect (and a to-do list), stuff gets done.

Good for Nothing team chatAnd this is a REVELATION to me. I have been jonesing for leadership and management courses, desperate to know the best way of getting things done, all too aware that in my professional world of education and non-profits, efficiency and organisation are rarely, um, optimal. But I can’t afford these courses and they mostly sound pretty dull. I keep looking at those bookshelves in the WHSmith at Victoria Station and nearly buying the “How To Be The Leader You Can Be” or whatever bullshit title is in the No. 5 non-fiction spot of the week. But I’ve always resisted. And I’ve always thought I’ve resisted because I do judge books by their covers and those covers are always horrendous. But actually I’ve resisted because, because, because… I don’t need a book. I figured I was just slapdash and a bit messy and disorganised, but actually, doh!, that’s what the whole co-creation process is about! If I wanted neat and organised, I’d be regional manager, heading up the corporate ladder at WHSmith, or someplace. I am not neat, I am not organised. Not in my work, not in my thoughts, not on my desk, not in my entire house, or car, or inbox. Especially not in my drawers or cupboards. Come over for tea and a rummage through one of my many bags stuffed full of random papers sometime. But I still somehow mostly get things done. And that’s mostly down to my love for (and dependence on) the brains and input of lots of other people. Lightbulb moment: I am brain co-dependent.

This is my conclusion: getting something from idea to thing, for me and anyone else interested in co-creation rather than decree, is messy and splattered. A bit like my kitchen table after my two year-old has finished his breakfast. And that is how I like it. Efficiency and orderliness? I reckon they’re a bit over-rated.