Category Archives: Me

8 Characteristics Supporting Success

Not strictly about artists working in education, but Helix Arts work extensively with young people. Over the last four years I have observed and reflected upon their implementation of a major organisational development programme. As part of the final report I pulled eight organisational characteristics which seemed to be key to their ability to thrive as an organisation.

I think it is really valuable for organisations to understand not just how but why they succeed, and encourage all of you – whether self employed or part of a large organisation – to spend time thinking about the conditions which help you to do your best work. The better you understand them the easier is to ensure you create or recognise working situations where they exist.

Robert Laycock, Helix Arts Chief Executive until he left to set up an consultancy business in April this year has written an article for Arts Professional drawing extracts from the my report, below is an extract from the article to help example some of the things you might consider for yourself or organisation:

Adapt and thrive  (Arts Professional issue 237, 23 May 2011, page 11)

Learning how to embrace change and achieve it on its own terms has been hugely beneficial for Helix Arts. Robert Laycock explains:

In December 2006, Helix Arts was one of 21 projects awarded funding for organisational development as part of Arts Council England’s Thrive! Programme ….. Thrive! aimed to provide “A systematic approach to developing organisational performance in order to build capacity to respond to and influence a rapidly changing environment”. Helix Arts’ ambition was to move from being a reputable regional organisation to one with national and international influence. We defined the business outcomes as: leadership – becoming a national leader in the field; growth – becoming a larger organisation; and sustainability – becoming a successful charitable business. To achieve this we invested in five key areas: market development, organisation development, product and practice development, research and building capacity.

Between April 2007 and March 2011 we grew from six to nine permanent staff. 2009/10 was our fifth consecutive record year in terms of turnover, project volume and earned income, and our reserves are now heading towards 25% of annual core cost. We have a new vision and mission that is attracting new stakeholders; we have an integrated business plan and robust finance, legal and ICT systems in place. Perhaps most importantly, we have developed a greater, more nuanced understanding of quality in relation to our practice and the practices of the artists we work with, and we are beginning to embed research into our programme.

We commissioned our own evaluation of this process in order that we could reflect on the journey and better understand the success factors. The report summarised the following eight characteristics that appear to have contributed most significantly to our success:

1. Size – Helix Arts has grown, but everyone can still fit around the meeting room table: “Things didn’t get lost in translation,” Rowena On, Head of Operations.

2. Work in balance – all of the staff work part-time: “At least 75% wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case,” says Toby Lowe, then Head of Programme. Andrew McIntyre, Fundraiser and Business Support Manager said: “It is just so healthy, people come in on time and leave on time, they never seemed really stressed.”

3. Empowerment – everyone in the organisation has a voice. It is a hierarchical model, but staff sees that as a management strength, and not something that gets in the way of dispersed leadership. “It is unusual for a small arts organisation to have such strong hierarchy… but it is a strength. It makes our roles very, very clear. We each have a very specific role to play in the organisation… It helps us to know that what we say counts,” says Kate Roebuck, Senior Project Manager.

4. Desire for improvement – “The key people when I arrived were all passionate about improving the organisation, and the way they do their bit of the organisation,” says Toby Lowe.

5. Interest in business practice – “I like working in this organisation because it runs as a business… It feels organised, it feels like a proper company in the sense that it is structured, has a clear focus on where it is going, plans in place and the right staffing structure in place to deliver that” (Kate Roebuck).

6. Using systems – “When I arrived and saw the rolling archive shelves I knew this place was going to be organised… there is a lot of clarity. But crucially it is that everyone is happy to work to those systems, no-one sees them as a hindrance,” says Andrew McIntyre.

7. Open to challenges – The team copes well with challenges, it is the people who do this – that is why we thrive – they are up for considering new ways, and are willing to explore them.

8. Trust and Support – “We do look after each other and look out for each other, that keeps the stress levels low and the trust high,” says Yvonne Dobson, Finance and Administration Officer.


1‘A Story of Change, Helix Arts’ implementation of Arts Council England’s Thrive! Funding, An Organisation Development Programme’, Gayle Sutherland, A Creative Touch, December 2010.


Why blogging works for me – part 1

When I set out on this process of having a blog, only a couple of months ago, I have to say I was a skeptic. I knew that I ought to have better awareness of these technical things – not then even knowing the phrase social media. My move to action was mainly because I was shamed by Ewan McIntosh at a conference pointing out that being technology illiterate limited the role you could take in designing effective education processes and enabling young people to be well placed in the contemporary world. I’m not one to naively jump on board when it comes to technology, after all I don’t even have a TV!, but this was tempting…..

That keynote was four days before a deadline to apply for a regional Creative Partnerships learning bursary and before I knew it I had put the two together and was off – with funding to enable Ewan to hold my hand along the way. What had seduced me into thinking it might all be a good thing was Ewan talking about using this ‘stuff’ effectively, to support what you wanted to do and save time. Now that was a radically different take for me – from the outside it looked like a time sink not a time release.

Ewan's how to...

So anyway out I set on this journey, with a list of activities set by Ewan and the promise of continuing support. As far as I thought we were in the set up phase – building a blog. No-one was going to be reading the blog as they wouldn’t know it was there and I dreamed of the benefits coming by the time we were a year in and this ‘learning network’ was up and running. How wrong!

What I have been amazed by is how quickly the process has been useful. In trying to understand blogs better I read  some other people’s in the spheres I’m interested in – and immediately some of those posts were useable in school project meetings, for instance:

  • In a project planning meeting a teacher spoke excitedly of “that place where pupils build things, they built a rollercoaster” I knew she was talking about  Gever Tulley’s work at Tinkering School – because I’d be reading about it only the night before. A small thing – but the joint understanding we had meant we could travel far quicker in planning discussions and the trust she had in me sharing her vision was invaluable.
  • Sharing school and pupil websites informed discussions with both a primary and secondary school about ways of capturing learning from a project – and in a format that encouraged parents engagement. With the potential of posts and videos being sent directly to parents e-mails and facebook accounts. Seeing other schools doing some of it made it feel much more possible for these schools. Showing them (found thanks to a post in Derek’s blog re-posting Richard Byrne’s slideshow)  helped them think about ways blogs could still be evidenced in pupil’s portfolios.
  • Having followed a link to Professor Sugata Mitra’s TED talk I discussed with a Headteacher about to equip his school with IT the value of group activity around computers rather than one computer per child – he shared the talk with his staff and they are considering buying better equipment but less of it to support group dynamics within child-led learning.

That is only the tip of a small but definitely present iceberg…And then there is the excitement of knowing what people you respect are reading – and reading it yourself. I didn’t expect to feel that sense of connection, or that people would inspire me so easily – simply being open with what they are curious about. Twitter has way more going for it than I would have thought – once I’d given myself permission to be okay with not having to read everything!

It is still very early days, I have my next list of ‘McIntosh tasks’ to take me forward. But I’m starting to let people know the blog is here and to get into conversations on other blogs, twitter and the like – moving out of the comfort zone of observer to participator. I’ve set up google reader to help monitor RSS feeds and the share the juiciest bits. I’m looking to build a team of people to blog with me, and  – well heaps more.

I’m even starting to talk about my learning and advocate the value of what I’m doing. The first session is tomorrow to colleagues at a Creative Partnerships meeting in the Tees Valley, and then next month I’m doing the same for Hull CP colleagues – who would have thought it.

Still no TV though – not in a hurry to change that one!

And we are off!

Argghhh – it is real. Here I am blogging. Setting up this blog has felt like stepping into the unknown but it has been fun exploring the possibilities.

I met with Ewan McIntosh in August, Ewan is an international name in new media and education so his kindness in talking me through the very basics – including correcting my spelling of youtube (whoops – we were talking basics you see) and smiling sweetly when I called him Ewan McGregor by mistake (deep cringe!!!) – was  very generous. I heard terms such as ‘social media embassies’ for the first time in my life before he sent me off with a long list of things to think about.

I spent what felt like for ever pondering names, finding out they had already been taken and getting back around the drawing table. I came up with Makes Me Excited….. because I heard myself saying it when describing to someone else what I wanted the blog to be – a place where all sorts of inspiring snippets exist that get me excited about the potential of artists and the education world working together.

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