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Guest Blog - A tale of clear purpose, a bit of disruption and heaps of courage

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Robert Ritchie is Head of Organisational Development at Salford University. He took time out to pen this fascinating blog on​ the organisation's innovative approach to giving their people freedom to create and the subsequent benefits they have reaped.

A tale about how clear purpose, a bit of disruption and heaps of courage can fuel great content, creativity and human centred design.

Every year, thousands of people gather in the Nevada desert to experience ‘Burning Man’   -  This is not a festival; more a global cultural movement, a temporary city.  People who come along create their own content and experiences.  There are no rules; there are principles.  There are no paid acts, nor corporate sponsorship.  Participants are invited to contribute and collaborate as a real ‘citizen’ of the gathering.

Three years ago I invited 10 different people from across my organisation to meet me at in room 10 on the 10th of October at 10 o’clock.  They didn’t know each other, but they knew me individually.  In the header of the invite email, I wrote ‘Igniting Fires, come and find out’ and in the body of the email, ‘that’s all.’  I pressed ‘send’ and waited!  Can you imagine how much confusion and chaos this created in an organisation that loves its agenda, memos and to do lists?!!  I ignored all calls.  I answered no emails requesting more information.

To my surprise, on the day, everyone was in the room on time, peering into a box containing 10 items that I had prepared for them.  Pens, a ruler, postcards, an old banana  -  stuff you find at the bottom of your drawer!  There was also a long piece of paper which simply said ‘What’s this take 10 thing all about?’  There were no more instructions.  I left them for 30 minutes. 

On my return, I found everyone was busy creating different content  -  lists of ‘top 10 leaders’ ’10 new approaches for getting healthy,’ etc.  I asked them 3 questions:  ‘Why did I do this to you?’ ‘What did you learn?’ and ‘What will you do next?’  They told me that they were really clear about the purpose of the experiment; they loved the freedom to create and design what they wanted.  They also said, could we do this again; actually let’s create a brand, a movement.  I did the same experiment with 9 other groups.  One day I looked over my shoulder a 100 people were following me; creating content and experiences in this new and bold way…

These are what we now believe to be the truths about our work:

  • It’s about mindsets and behaviours

  • Be human; don’t overthink

  • Be curious and courageous

  • We build the bridge as we walk on it

  • The answers are in the room

We have developed many pieces of work using this approach.  These have included: 

  • The Salford Behaviours – A set of 10 behaviours we identified as being the most effective to ‘turning the dial’ and getting things done across the University.  

  • ‘Leading without Masks’ a leader-led Leadership approach which invites senior leaders to ‘drop their masks’ and lead from their true selves.  Leaders
    get real masks too! 

  • And the Sandpit  -  an intense day in which we developed a degree programme in just 1 day.  This normally takes over a year!

 And as for the burning man? 

He’s still here igniting fires and changing mindsets and behaviours in organisations.