The Truth in the Moment

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SDF Festival of Learning and Development 2020: Facing the storm, navigating together



By Cindy Vallance, Assistant Director, Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery, Advance HE


The opportunity to host the final session of the first SDF Festival of Learning and Development 2020 as keynote listener was a was both a privilege and a responsibility.

Why did I suggest engaging with this event as a ‘keynote listener?’ In addition to references by Henry Mintzberg to the concept of keynote listening, French and Simpson (1999, 2006)[1] talk about the idea of allowing your mind to be changed by the ‘truth-in-the-moment.’ I didn’t want to use the final session to simply summarise or replicate what each of the five speakers had said. Instead, my reflections focus on how the individual themes from each keynote speaker contributes to a greater whole of learning. Approaching the Festival as a listener, as a learner, I was keen to orient myself to the creative insights of each moment as it occurred and to then make sense of these moments as they accumulated. This is the result. My hope is that this blog will also help you to consider what your own learning over the course of the Festival means for you.


A framework for application

As I dialled into zoom for the first Festival keynote on Monday by Chris Lever, I began, not with a blank sheet of paper but an entirely new journal. Listening to the five keynote sessions throughout the week required me to undertake intense listening – never an easy task in an era of distraction and busy-ness – and took place right down to the wire of the final session too since Nita Baum finished her Friday keynote just fifteen minutes before the final highlights session.

I framed the final session using a simple framework. Firstly, all around us is the external environment; whether we call it a VUCA environment – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous; or to use Doug Parkin’s term from Futurist Jamais Cascio of the BANI environment – brittle, anxious, nonlinear and incomprehensible. Alternatively, it might be the rough sea that Chris referenced in his session. And of course, the external environment includes the policy and societal environment which Nita discussed in her session.

Now, draw a circle. Put yourself in this circle. This is the frame of you as a person with everything that means, including your history, your friends, families and personal interests, your human body, mind and spirit. Now, draw a second circle beside the first circle. Place your organisation as you see it in your mind within this circle. Finally, draw a third circle in the middle that intersects and joins the other two circles. This is you in your role in your organisation. This isn’t your job title although that could be a good starting point. This is what you are there to accomplish as a person within the organisation.



The person

So, using this framework, what from the keynote sessions particularly resonated for me? Magdalena Bak-Maier took us through a deep dive to understand how we approach the challenges that face us. She asked us – where do you feel nurtured and resourced to deal with adversity and change? She shared a host of tools and frameworks to support us and empower us as individuals. She encouraged us to consider how to increase our resourcefulness levels by contemplating our levels of self-efficacy and agency, our risk of burnout and even our individual traumatic histories and the mechanisms we have developed to adapt to these. If we add in the cumulative impact of what goes on around us, then we see how critical it is to develop a back pack of resourcefulness.

Magdalena also talked about the gaps in the idea of work / life balance which excludes the two equally important areas of career and self-care. These four components help us to balance our needs at any point in time to design for resilience. We can combine these ideas with the realisation that we can recover and heal and replace unhelpful patterns with new behaviours and habits, and at an even broader level, we can cultivate our personal sense of spirituality and personal meaning which will enable us to develop our resilience

Nita reinforced and expanded on ideas initially shared by Magdalena. She told us a little about her personal story and lived experience of feeling safe as a young student around black people in the US, growing up in an environment where the surrounding narrative was exactly the opposite and then how she went on to experience the challenges of racism in other environments.

She encouraged us to consider ourselves in a more embodied way, beyond simply thinking, to feeling and sensing our minds and our bodies, including how to locate ourselves in our own nervous systems and to recognise states when we are in modes of flight, fight, freeze or positive social engagement.



Intersections between the person and the role

Considering ourselves in the circle of the person does not mean that we are alone. Social engagement, communications and relationships are part of our lived reality and Jenny Garrett showed us the importance of these when she discussed belonging and the three cs of inclusion – comfort, connection and contribution. Comfort rarely comes first – connection is what makes us comfortable and having a sense of making a contribution keeps us connected.

I know the SDF community well from my own many lives in UK higher education – the word Staff Development Forum itself indicates how critical belonging and inclusion is within your roles – whether it focuses on educational development, researcher development, organisational development, leadership, engagement, culture change, equality, diversity and inclusivity, or any of the other myriads of roles that you hold. In these roles it comes with the territory that you understand the power of relationships, the power of belonging and the power of something as seemingly simple as a conversation.

But we know all conversations are not created equal and all conversations do not create connections. Jenny shared Brené Brown’s definition that connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued. Connection is when we give and receive without judgment and when we derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. In fact, sometimes our roles can be of the deepest value when we have conversations with others that are not about work, regardless of our organisational role. We know that transactional interactions on their own, if those are our only interactions, reduce connection. As Jenny encouraged, how often in our roles do we ask others the question: what do you really like to do outside work and family? The intersection of all that makes up the person and the intersection between the person and role is important, and not just because it benefits us. By being ourselves, we help others to be themselves

Nita challenged us to engage with others in an informed and embodied way and not simply to have conversations that create comfort but in parallel to engage knowingly in more challenging and difficult conversations that place importance on taking an empathic view of considering the experience of being ‘other’ and that enables us to become and un-become. Our goal should be to create safe conditions for others, including a more equitable environment and, ultimately, a sense of liberty for all.



Intersections between the person, the role and the organisation

In his session, Chris talked about the seemingly intractable data of 30 years of change initiatives that are deemed to have failed and encouraged us to use the language of navigation to chart a way forward in our organisations. Where are we now? Where do we see ourselves going and how are we going to get there? He shared the importance of triangulating a range of diverse and inclusive perspectives to create intersections of knowledge in order to see things differently. The more complex the issues, the more views we need as we move from cooperation to concordance. At the same time, we must appreciate that this requires patience and a continual series of steps and trade-offs to work through changing circumstances. Not everything goes to plan and in the intersection of our roles and organisations, we must be ready to create back-ups and a series of plan Bs.

With a particular focus on our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, Doug highlighted how change is impacting all of us at person, role and organisation levels. He shared ten truths about how change is about our personal truth, about our emotional and rational responses in relation to others and about our organisational culture and expectations of fairness that can be measured in different increments over space and time. It was also interesting to note in the poll about changes in response to COVID that colleagues felt a balance needed to be struck between some things that are worth holding onto even in the face of change while simultaneously seeing the value of breaking a few moulds on how we do things.

In considering change at an organisation level, Doug also solicited participant feedback about their organisations with the results of a quick and informal live poll confirming that participants generally indicated that their department / organisational cultures tend to be structured and controlled at 36%, results oriented and task driven at 28%, clan or community oriented at 22% and dynamic and enterprising at only 15%.



In conclusion

In combination, all of the keynote speakers discussed opportunities to combine the intersections between person, role and organisation for positive outcomes. We can navigate the uncertainties Chris outlined if we face our bow into the waves, facing reality head on and with just enough power to go forward and make progress. We do this by showing ourselves the self-compassion and human centred approach that is key to the personal resilience highlighted by Magdalena. We can then wok to cultivate Jenny’s three c’s of inclusion to create an environment of connection, comfort and contribution in our roles. At the same time, we take on the challenge provided by Nita of growing our somatic capacities to learn, heal and mobilise through storytelling and actively working through conflict. As outlined by Doug, if we then connect what we do and how we are in our roles with a sense of values and purpose, we can create just enough of the organisational change that we want and need while maintaining the value of what really matters.

We work in higher education to create positive change for students and for society today and to support generations to come. Let’s not lose sight of that. This is a purpose worth the journey of traversing a thousand rough seas.



A few questions for reflection

Are you managing a balance of time, effort and energy between the circles of the framework – you, your role and your organisation and the intersections between each?

If there are elements where you would like to change the balance, how might you do so?

Who might you connect with to do so?

What’s one action you can take today to realise this balance?

I would like to extend my personal thanks to the whole SDF Festival team, including Rossana Espinoza, Antonia Goodall, Joan Ward, John-Paul Ashton, SDF Executives and Council as well as all contributors and participants.


[1] French, R. and Simson, P. (1999) Our best work happens when we don’t know what we’re doing. Socio-Analysis, 1(2), 216-230. And Simpson, P. and French R. (2006). Negative capability and the capacity to think in the present moment: some implications for leadership practice. Leadership, 2(2): 245-55 as quoted in Sievers, B and Brunning H. and De Gooijer, J. and Guld L., (eds) Psychoanalytic Studies of Organisations, Karnac Books, 2009.