Be brave! Lessons from Dare

Success in digital requires a few different ingredients. Technologies and platforms, yes. Technical knowhow, of course.

But it’s increasingly clear that just as essential are top-notch people skills, because digital projects often bring people with markedly different motivations and ways of working into the same room.

That’s the starting point for Dare, a refreshingly different kind of conference that began with a two-day event last autumn, and continued with a one-day ‘mini’ event at Sadler’s Wells theatre earlier this week.

The day began with content strategist Elizabeth McGuane unpicking the tendency to inflict self-imposed ambitions to perfection at work, and all the anxieties that attend it. Best advice: give yourself a break, and avoid the temptation to expect your life to read like a novel, with one overarching narrative. How about a collection of short stories, in different genres?

Self-described ‘geek manager’ Meri Williams drew on her love of sport and experience looking after teams at the government’s digital service to talk about the arts of mentoring and coaching. Meri reminded us that the GROW model is a proven problem-solving technique you can practice in conversation with colleagues or peers, and that while it may feel weird at first it can really work. So no excuses: go find a willing partner and give it a try.

Coaching? No excuses: go find a willing partner and give it a try.

Rob Hinchcliffe talked about helping brands to share control with their users. He began his career as a journalist and desk editor, founded the hugely successful Londonist blog, and recently worked on J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore website (so he’s sifted a lot of dodgy Harry Potter fan fiction). He recounted his regret in not taking more of what he knew from creating Londonist into subsequent jobs with Yahoo! News and later the review site Qype – mainly because he didn’t feel he was in a position to tell more established staff what he could see going wrong.

His advice now for digital projects? Figure out early on what’s sacrosanct in a project, and the rest you can have fun with. Let the structure develop with the input of your audience, as well as the people you work with. And keep things flexible.

Anger-prone UX consultant Chris Atherton (who wins best Twitter handle for @finiteattention) explained how she (mainly) keeps the hulk inside. Standout tip: work extra hard to find something you like in the person you can’t stand.

Standout tip: work extra hard to find something you like in the person you can’t stand.

Next church leader Tim Chilvers related how a family crisis led him to ‘drop the mask’ in front of those he works with, and how being honest about his own vulnerabilities has enabled deeper trust between him and those he leads.

Sustainability consultant Penny Walker began her career campaigning with Friends of the Earth, but found herself thinking more about the ‘grey areas’ of environmental progress. She now specialises in helping find common ground between apparently irreconcilable positions.

Sharing techniques she’s used in work with the Environment Agency and elsewhere, she advised us to listen properly and to work hard to understand precisely what we’re being told: “We move from conflict to collaboration when we listen louder to the things we don’t understand; when we move away from being right, towards the uncomfortable truths.”

“We move from conflict to collaboration… when we move away from being right, towards the uncomfortable truths.” – Penny Walker

In one of the many highlights of the day, content strategist Gabriel Smy shared the excuses he had given himself and others to avoid taking the plunge and writing his first novel. Considering the nature of disruption and the Jungian archetypes we can draw on to give us strength and inspiration in pursuing our goals, Gabriel urged us to make a genuine commitment to our objective, and so change the way we go about our work. And to remember that in a world that likes to keep things neatly plotted with zebras and giraffes, we should never forget the okapi.

Finally web entrepreneur Lee Bryant gave an entertaining whirlwind account of his company Headshift, and the way that a self-initiated, productive culture developed in its workforce. Apparently this didn’t translate well to corporate takeover and reorganisation, and, via disdain for HR managers and sales teams, Lee gave us a bunch of examples of alternative organisational structures (such as Valve, Medium) that are proving why digital businesses don’t need to adopt tired old organograms as they grow.

I can’t remember leaving a day’s conference feeling so inspired and well-equipped to do better work. Thanks Jonathan, Rhiannon and the team for daring to be different.

Dare 2014 takes places on 22-23 September –

Picture credit: Paul Clarke – see more of his pictures from the day.