Friston Forest beech trees by Green Explorer (Tom)

It’s not (just) what you do

Neo’s about finding what matters and making it matter more. If we were a Die Hard movie, the next line might have been: By whatever means necessary.

Friston Forest beech trees by Green Explorer (Tom)

But we’re not a Die Hard movie. Bruce Willis no longer works for Neo (he’s gone client side, into a fundraising role).

Increasingly, what matters to us is not only the goal of the cause itself, but the way it’s being pursued. The advice that activists should ‘be the change they wish to see in the world’ feels ever more important. Seeking alignment between the how, why and what of what we do is hard work, but work worth doing.

We’ve talked quite a bit over the last year about vulnerability and change at work. Increasingly that leads us to exciting work and rewarding relationships.

But in the last six months we’ve had the privilege of working with one particular project that has really challenged and inspired us to work in different ways.

BICS (Brighton and Hove Integrated Care Service) is a large social enterprise, headquartered by Preston Park not far from Neo. Founded in 2007, they’ve grown hugely in recent years, working in partnership with local healthcare practitioners, NHS trusts, charities and the private sector to deliver NHS services.

We’ve been working with BICS since early this year to understand what really matters to the organisation and help it express that more consistently and powerfully. And in that process, we’ve frequently been amazed and surprised. Time and again we’ve been encouraged to rethink many of our usual processes and ways of working.

We want to share some of what we’ve learned.

Slowing down for better meetings

At one of the first meetings we attended, a large senior group took over 20 minutes to go around the circle and find out what was on everyone’s mind. Much of what was shared was quite personal, some of it pretty difficult. Previously, I would never have assigned so much time to that practice in a meeting. I couldn’t have imagined putting 20 minutes on an agenda for ‘checking in’. But it was a privileged experience. And having experienced it several times since, I’m converted to how practical it is, as well as humane.

By bringing wider issues from our lives into the room, we see each other as whole people. By sharing things that make us vulnerable, we build trust among the group.

While initially it may appear to be eating precious time, the platform that it creates means that subsequent discussion and decisions seem to be made with a measure of thoughtfulness and mutual respect that’s so often missing from large group meetings.

Working through meaty issues around shared purpose and identity, we’ve found it hugely impressive.

Challenging who makes good decisions

You know the HiPPo rule? Where decisions are taken by the Highest Paid Person in the room? In many circumstances, it’s not a useful default.

Throughout the brand process with BICS, we’ve been working with a group that’s drawn from many sections of the organisation (services areas) and levels of employment within it. This group has been far more than merely a way of ‘getting buy-in’ from the wider staff team. It’s been empowered to consult on major decisions, trusting that the right people will be in the room.

Defusing language

We came to BICS with a scope of work brimming with the language that made sense to us. We sought to “interrogate” assumptions, to look for “competitors” and talk to “critical friends” of the organisation about “what’s not working”.

We were ourselves challenged from the outset on this emphasis, and worked with the BICS team to refine a brief that humanised the language and better reflected their outlook.

Instead of “interrogating”, we spent more time “exploring”. Fewer “strategic recommendations”, more talk of “what we’ve learned”. And “brand relationships” rather than a “brand hierarchy”.

Taking advice

BICS is inspired by the practices explained in Reinventing Organisations. One of the key tools is the advice process – a way of making decisions that empowers anyone to go ahead and make change, as long as they taken on board advice from experts and those meaningfully affected by the proposed decision. It’s a way of freeing the energy for making change from the deadening effects of consensus, while retaining respect for others.

That’s meant putting our work in front of people a little differently to the way we’re used to – specifically seeking feedback from outside the organisation on messages that have yet to be refined.

The advice process takes some getting used to, but it’s liberating and grown-up, and deserves to play a major role in the way organisations balance the need to consult with the desire to make things happen quickly.

Taking it outside

There’s ample evidence that walking is a catalyst to thinking (see, e.g., Thinking Fast and Slow). It’s also perfectly credible that being in the natural environment, among systems older and larger than ourselves, may help us make better choices.

Even so, so much work is expected to be wrung from desks and meeting rooms.

By taking opportunities to think outside of the physical boxes we inhabit (short circuits of Preston Park, slow explorations of the garden at the Friends Meeting House, or an entire day walking the rides of Friston Forest) we believe we unlocked better ideas in the process.


We’ve found these and other recent experiences are having a deep impact on how we want to work. We know that many other people and organisations are discovering, or rediscovering, these ideas too. That feels like a community worth belonging to.


Picture by Flickr user Green Explorer (Tom), reproduced under CC 2.0 licence