Encouraging simplicity and creativity in reports and plans

For some strange reason – and I‘m convinced it’s serendipity (another future blog) – on a number of occasions when a potential blog theme emerges, there’s some quote or article relevant or thought provoking in the UK Sunday newspaper The Observer.

In the business leader, under the title Time British bosses started engaging posteriors, too the article welcomed plain talking by chief execs, giving an example by the CEO for Anglo Mining, Mark Cutifani, who, when presenting financial results, declared ‘We have got to get our arses into gear and start making a difference’.  The article goes on to give examples of management speak such as ‘in store navigation’ (layout and signs) and the boss of Barclays Bank referring to the programme to create the ‘go to’ bank  as the ‘transform programme’ (turnaround, return acceptable numbers and sustain forward momentum).

Although the ‘in store navigation’ approach could be seen as amusing, the Barclays Bank example doesn’t foster understanding or simplicity. Unfortunately, much of our strategy planning and business planning is often presented in such language and jargon that it’s just not accessible.

In my professional career, I’ve been guilty on many occasions of using regeneration speak and management language, often responding to the status quo. On reflection, it’s clear that such an approach encourages plans to go off the boil, or sit on the shelf gathering dust. Such plans don’t encourage ownership and contribute to the oft-spoken criticism by staff and community residents about failure to communicate, or lack of ‘ownership’.

Working on the Big Local programme – an England-wide £150m Big Lottery initiative, that supports 150 neighbourhoods to design and deliver a community- and-resident led programme – we have to provide a plan. The Big Local Trust has been radical in not setting out the requirements for the plan, promoting the idea of different approaches. So far, some of the plans have stayed in the ‘comfort zone’ of regeneration speak, but there are signs of a different approach.

In one of my neighbourhoods, Northwood in Knowsley, the vision statement and initial plan was created as a visual minute – a picture capturing everyone’s thoughts, suggestions and involvement – on a mug. The developing three year plan is now building itself on the ideal  ‘If a local resident picked up the plan, would they easily understand and support its ideas?’ And this checkpoint could be widened to staff members and new employees: both relate and support the organisation’s strategy and business plan.

Visual minuting makes a significant contribution to simplicity and better understanding for many people – the visual is a better communicator and the language used encourages accessibility.

The vision and intentions plan for Imagine Anfield – the people plan exemplifies the simplicity planning approach. Created in a Simplicity of reportsone day workshop composed of a combination of local residents and stakeholders, the resulting plan has a number of key elements:

  • A determination by participants not to use language like ‘raising aspirations’, but replace it with phrases like motivated men and strong woman and replace ‘tackling social behavior issues’ with honouring people
  • Use of poetic language, fostering a strength-based and positive message
  • Not be afraid to use words that stretch, are emotive and push the status quo

The effect of this work has been twofold: one, an understanding that the culmination of six months’ work has brought about a plan that meets the original intentions in a understandable language; secondly a proposal to display the visual plan on bus stops across the Anfield neighbourhood.

It was noticeable in the planning process that the majority of workshop participants had been trained in Appreciative Inquiry and we were seeing the practical application of the AI anticipatory and poetic principles. See below for a brief description of these two principles edited from the AI essentials cards…


The anticipatory principle: ‘image inspires action’

We all live in a future state to some extent, projecting, wondering and agonising over ‘what will be’. We’re constantly looking forward to what might be prompting us to make decisions, which influence our present condition and actions. Our future is a constructed reality created by our present thinking and imagery.

When we create positive, uplifting images of our future we’re more likely to make decisions and act to help us reach that desired future.

When we constantly anticipate the worst, we fill ourselves with a sense of foreboding, fear and limitation and when we hold back on looking forward positively and embracing opportunity, we’re sending a powerful negative message to our minds.

In this age of technology and globalisation we are constantly bombarded with images of others via the internet, media and people around us, all of this can influence our thinking, so it’s helpful to filter this and hold our own mental images of how and where as individuals we would like to be and travel.


The poetic principle: ‘what we focus on grows’

We make sense of our lives through the stories we tell and hear, and what our imaginations lead us to aspire to and innovate to achieve. Just as in a poem, painting or piece of music, there are endless meanings and interpretations.

Great poems, stories or art touch us on a number of sensory levels. In any moment we can choose to find bad, right, beautiful, ugly, perfection, imperfection, opportunity, or barriers.

Be mindful of imposing your own assumptions and beliefs on what is positive, successful, and what matters. Deliberately choose provocative language that questions people on a more than everyday basis, and touches people at their core.


Reflections and thoughts 

  • When producing and creating your plan, engage as many people as you can in the process
  • Foster plain and simple language – road test the drafts with front line staff and local residents
  • As well as the written word, utilise visual minutes, film, social media to present plans
  • Look at the Appreciative Inquiry principles anticipatory and poetic principles
  • Follow the principle ‘keep it simple and lean’