Changing the logic: trauma release and mosaics in a Syrian refugee camp

We (Artmongers) are just back from our sixth visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. We go with the intention of creating moments of joy and connection.

Here is our report Azraq Report Nov 2018

You might also enjoy these one minute video diaries from our visit

  • Day One: Hamza films from the back seat as we head out to the camp, then see Catherine and Patricio developing and explaining our ideas
  • Day Two: The team bringing fresh energy and new ideas into the camp (and the local hardware shop!)
  • Day Three: A thoughtful day learning t’ai chi together, and how best to make mosaics with minimum inputs
  • Day Four: Catherine intrigues the boys enough to take part in craft and trauma release techniques while Patricio has a breakthrough on the cement front
  • Day Five: Catherine explains a little of how she feels about working on the camp
  • Day Six: using blue for the mosaics was based on three factors: the durability of this colour in the harsh desert climate, it’s visibility and contrast against the natural stone and the fact that this is Azraq camp – and azraq is Arabic for blue.
  • Day Seven: All the world’s a stage… and this world stands out beautifully against the endless metres and kilometres of beige in the camp and environs
  • Day Eight: it’s never easy to capture the work we do with women but here is a sneak peek into the workshop where they created two of the mosaic designs (hearts and wool).
  • Day Nine: after doing several mosaics the team have learnt the best way to make it work. Including this adjustment of using the stones on their side instead of flat, for a more robust mosaic.
  • Day Ten A key success factor for us is what happens after we leave. Her you see the mosaic team (artists and builders) planning their future work.


If you want to contribute to the project you can buy a mosaic here


Caring Colour

A case study about making conscious colour choices in a pre-school daycare facility

The first thing that struck me about Kate and Cher when I talked to them about the nursery they were planning to open, was how strongly they cared about the ethos of what they were doing. They are passionate about offering a creative environment for babies and pre-school children. One which not only keeps safe for the day but also stimulates them to thrive.

As soon as they talked to me about their plans I wanted to have a say in the colours. Luckily they were open to the idea and we started to talk about what they stood for, what atmosphere they wanted to encourage and the functions of the different spaces. We all agreed that the colours should be warm, progressive and hold the space. We decided to avoid the lighter pastels and bright primaries often associated with children’s facilities and instead take a more thoughtful approach.

With a good sense of what they wanted to achieve I set about building a palette. Although thereBe 1a (2) are several different spaces in the facility requiring differences in look and feel, a key base colour was identified to run throughout and keep the continuity of the space.  I chose a pale green, the colour of healing and universal acceptance – making a lot of sense in a nursery that aims to be a good space for children from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures.


For the entrance to the nursery, where there is a reception area that will also serve the Adult Learning Centre, we wanted to create more vibrancy. A warm welcome, especially for children on dark winter mornings.

Be 1 entrance (2)I suggested adding burnt orange – to stimulate appetite (for life, for learning, for lunch) and a rich teal to encourage brain activity (learning, considering). The team were enthusiastic about this bold approach. When you are choosing colours for a space that will be passed through rather than one where a lot of time will be spent, you can afford to increase the intensity.


Baby area

Be 1 baby (2)Next was the baby zone. For the facing wall of the main room I selected a peachy pink to create a feeling of caring while staying true to the Groip III colour palette we were following. Pink involves a sense of being held, reminding us at a primal level of being in the womb. However once we are out in the world, too much pink can feel cloying rather than cosseting so it is best to restrict its use to a feature wall rather than a whole room. Be 2 babyFor the rest of the main room we used the green base colour (calm, healing). One part of the room is a low, cave like space with LED lights. Just the kind of space my own children would have loved to crawl into when they were small. I suggested a forest green for here, and for the adjacent sleeping room, to create a sense of deep peace and cosy darkness.

Children’s Area

Be 1 toddler (2)The other main area is for 2-4 year olds and this will be much more active. Again the base green was used and we introduced a paler blue. Blue stimulates brain activity so is great for any learning or thinking environment. A light blue like this keeps the thinking at a more airy level – more blue sky thinking than accountancy procedures. Part of the space
is like a tree house so I introduced teal again – the same colour as in receptiBe 2 readon – at a low level to give more depth and grounding strength. There is a lot of natural wood in the space which balances the palette with more yellow/orange tones, not to mention all the toys and activity materials – and the children themselves – ensuring it doesn’t feel too cool.

Rest of the space

Be 2 looFor other rooms such as kitchen, staff room, cloakroom, toilets etc we drew from the same palette of colours to ensure harmony between spaces..

For example I added one orange feature wall in the kitchen to stimulate appetite and light blue in the bathrooms. For all the ‘white’ areas – Be 2 sleepceilings, window frames, skirting boards, I selected a warm off-white. It was a subtle shift from white but Cher, who will run the nursery, immediately understood how it helped. Lastly we identified flooring that would complement the walls and support the colour scheme.

It was a bold palette and I wondered how they would react. But I needn’t have wBe 2 coats aorried, they ‘felt’ why it was right as soon as they saw the sample chips and once the walls were painted they were even more enthusiastic. So many of our public spaces end u
p being white, or maybe magnolia. Yet we can do so much more to support the activities going on in the space and, in this case, the staff and children who will spend many hours there. Walls have to be painted anyway, so why not paint them a colour that helps? I was so happy to hear them explain to me how it had given them greater distinctiveness and gives a clear message to prospective parents coming to see if they want to register their children that this is a place that cares, that isn’t afraid to innovate, that is clear about what matters and that they will do everything they can to create a great environment for the children and staff who will be there.

From Tower to Torus

When I first started work, the lift in our building had buttons for basement and sub basement. Various functional activities took place in these windowless zones. Then after a year I discovered that there was also a sub sub basement. A nether world of hissing pipes and curious cubbyholes. I had to go down there to find a carpenter who was making a piece of a model for our project. It seemed entirely plausible that he had been in there for years, living from scraps coming down the rubbish chute.

On another occasion I was invited to the top floor – cocktails with the chairman, a convivial chap who made us all feel very welcome.

Interesting how 20th century organizations evolved this elaborate interpretation of Upstairs Downstairs. A social order,, a pecking order. At that time there were at least three levels of restaurant according to rank – one was even called the Senior Mess as I remember and different toilets in some places.

Small wonder then that so many senior managers growing up in this world have a hierarchical default when it comes to running the business.

Let’s call this the Tower system. Acme Towers. You all know where you are positioned and have a clear sense of how many floors above and below your desk are open for your interaction. Communication tends to travel up and down rather than across. Silos flourish and middle managers with a canny sense of how to control information can build up a power base, sometimes at the expense of the overall business.

And now lets consider an alternative structure.

The Torus is a mathematical shape developed by Marko Rodin in his quest to find the secret behind intelligence. He started this when he was only 15. It encompasses addition and subtraction, multiplication and division as well as exponentials (eg squared or cubed numbers) in a multi-dimensional version of the magic squares you might have seen.

Imagine if you will, an office on the scale of the one described above, organized in this way. The interconnections are legion, the synergy is clear, the flow is universal.

It requires fundamental changes in attitude and working practices to structure in this way. To create a building like this would be marvellous but probably impractical in the short term. But we could think this way and work this way.

Torus Connectedness

One of the beauties of the torus is that the number in every square is defined by its neighbours. The community of numbers have a relationship with each other that allows them to build on each other. No number has absolute authority over any other.

So project teams could connect easily across this space, knowledge could be joined up – a learning organisation would be a natural outcome.

Torus Mutual Impact

Change one number on the torus and they would all change. There has been lots of research on the impact of networks demonstrating how we all affect each other, even at a step or two removed. As Christakis and Fowler explain in their book Connected, using the example of obesity, having a close friend who is obese makes you 45% more likely to be obese – or 25% if your friend’s friend is obese.  See their TED talk here

I often see this aspect of change management being underused. There is focus on the change management team and what they do, rather than how they are. I often hear of the situation where those TALKING about the required changes are not modelling them. Enforcing change from the outside is one option, but how much easier to allow it to flourish and spread naturally.

Torus Flexibility

In mathematics, the torus is a flexible shape. It can be twisted, stretched, made as slim as a rubber band or, in the opposite way, a sphere. It can even become a propeller. Make your own here

You might see this in action watching a flock of boards or shoal of fish swooping through the air or the water forming and reforming. And in today’s fast changing world flexibility and adaptability are key survival techniques. Doing that smoothly and gracefully like a flock of birds intuitively feels so much more effective than dismantling and rebuilding blocks.

Torus Scope – adding dimensions

This gets a bit obscure if you are not a mathematician but bear with me. We are used toliving in 3 dimensional space. Maths lives in infinitely dimensioned space and one of the things that is examined is how shapes and facts can exist in different numbers of dimensions. For example a knot exists in 3 dimensions (as we know from our everyday experience) but not 2 (try drawing it!) or 4. But it does in 7. OK, why doesn’t really matter but the torus is one of the shapes that can exist in more dimensions.

The internet might be seen to have added a new dimension to the way we work, evolve ideas and connect with each other. There will be more to come, as yet envisaged. So this characteristic is likely to be an advantage.

Creating a torus organization

Now here is the less obvious part. Either you will be starting from an existing Tower based organization that you wish to convert, or you will be creating a brand new organization. Either way, given our social conditioning, you are more likely to end up with a Tower than a Torus unless you set the intention and create the conditions for the latter.

A good start will be sharing the idea with those involved. Getting new language into our networks is one of the ways new ideas develop and take hold. Giving members of the organization permission to ask “Tower or Torus?” in a meeting or brainstorm or when reviewing a piece of communication will already shift the way people are thinking.

The very essence of the Torus model makes it unsuitable for a centrally driven change program with webinars and instructions. Co-creation will be at the heart of the shift, empowering everybody – every number on the torus – to realize that they have an influence not only on their own behaviour but on everybody around them.

Now what are you thinking? Make like a Torus and let me know what thoughts this has sparked for you

Colour Culture

As well as colour psychology, certain parts of the world also have symbolic associations with particular colours.

If you are going to launch your product outside of your own familiar culture, you might need to know that your lucky green suggests corruption in North Africa or your wholesome brown is a mourning colour in India.

See the table below for more cultural cues – and remember that whatever the cultural association, the physiological reaction to the colour will still be the same (eg red raises the heart-rate) so both need to be considered.

Happy Christmas [first_name]!

The season is over and the Christmas cards are being taken down. I glance fondly over a few – especially the ones with a handwritten page of updates from people I see less than I mean to.

And then there’s the corporate cards. What are they about? It’s nice to hear from Lee the milkman – he does a great job, come rain or snow. But the building society? The bank I’m in the middle of a major row with? Some printer I used once 8 years ago? I wonder what these are meant to achieve beyond mild irritation.

Even lower on the ladder of meaningful communication is the corporate email. Finding it a bit of a drag to keep in touch with your customers? Do it the dirt-cheap super-convenient way. You don’t even need to design an original card, just scoop some clip art off the Office floor and add a bland message. For added vibrancy incorporate a few different fonts and a couple of clashing colours. And…. Send!! Job done. Who cares that we don’t care, at least we act like we care (a bit). And that’s the main thing.

Is it though?

Is a message that isn’t heartfelt worth the screen it is written on?

Time was when Christmas card exchanges were highly formal. There was a correct greeting depending on the social relativity of the sender and the recipient. There was very little demand for effusive sign offs. The most important issue was process management. The job was considered complete only if everybody who should get a card got one. Not in November, that would look foolish. But certainly not after The Day Itself.  And panic would ensue when That Card arrived from the unfortunate neglected individual who had been forgotten or deemed unworthy. The social quandary of non-response vs trigger response. Which is the lesser of the two evils?

Onward and upward

These days, thanks to a combination of time pressure, facebook and my children’s incisive judgement, my card sending is much diminished. If it’s somebody I would give a warm hug to if I bumped into them, then they get a card. (Assuming of course that I have organised cards, written them, found the addresses and remembered to post them)

If only some of the companies I hear from applied the same rigour to their customer communications just think how different the world will be. I know you’ll have your own ideas already so just for my own amusement I include here a few phrases  that would have a whole new meaning if only they were heartfelt

“your call is important to us, we will answer it as soon as we can”

“how can I help?”

“best wishes”

Do share your inspired ideas (twitter @cshovlin, #heartfelt) and I’ll add some of them to this posting.

Meanwhile I wish you an excellent and heartfelt 2012. And hope you will join us in our first Thinking Tank of the year “Out with the old, in with the new” see here for more.

4 top tips for a community organisation

I was recently asked by a community organisation for my top tips to how they should be structured based on my personal views, Bold Vision, business / third sector / life experience. I decided to share them here…

1. If people don’t know why they are there they’ll stop showing up

It’s a bit awkward not having a role. My first boss would not allow anybody in a meeting unless they had a role since no role = no value = no self esteem.

  • SO –> deciding on the roles after an early settling down period (which I would argue you are coming to the end of now) is likely to make the group more effective AND more motivated.
  • TIP: make the role 12 months so people don’t feel like they are signing their lives away. They can always do another 12 months at the end if they want to.

2. Operational issues will always crowd out strategic ones

Whatever our good intentions, very few people can develop the battle plan at the same time as digging the trench. Committees that try to do both end up having frustrating meetings and never quite getting round to the difficult questions

  • SO–> it helps to have operational teams and strategic teams. Both types of teams report back to the full committee (concisely!) especially regarding action items / key decisions.
  • TIP: this requires some trust and some “letting go”. Usually in the early days everybody has done everything. That’s not sustainable

3. Ground rules shape the space

We identified our values in Bold Vision early on (openness, courage, mutuality and potentialising) and this gives a good yardstick for decision making and process management eg “are we being open enough?”, “is that the courageous decision?”. We also found we needed rules of engagement about respect for others’ efforts, looking out for each other, honesty and so on.

  • SO–> spend an hour in a brainstorm together to identify the values and ground rules of the group then stick to them (I can do that for you if it helps, it’s part of my day job)
  • TIP: it seems like an activity that can be postponed when there is a lot going on (ref 2 above!!) but it saves a lot of time and unnecessary grief so really worth investing an hour in

4. Less is more

In Bold Vision we want maximum engagement AND decision making capacity. So we have several layers.

  • 3 directors + company secretary.treasurer (for formal stuff. More would just make admin more complex)
  • 9 on management team (we try to not use the word committee coz it makes me feel bored already). We have had more and less but this seems to be a good number. The only formal roles are chair and company secretary
  • 5 or so action teams, each led by one of management team and involving a loose gang of 5-15 volunteers
  • 70-100 Bold Backers (who have given money or time/effort) who will shortly be invited to be members. This will give them voting rights at AGM, ability to nominate directors or mgmt team members and a hopefully an increased sense of ownership
  • 500 people on our mailing list
  • SO–> consider a structure that is manageable for your group, will be transparent to the outside world and includes all the relevant interest groups somewhere
  • TIP: go for a next-12-months structure first, it can always be amended as the organisation finds its feet

If this is not specific enough then shout, otherwise have fun with it 🙂

Lastly, in my view, don’t start with what the council/funder wants (they may have no track record in this field!) it matters what works to deliver YOUR objectives while giving those involved a chance to flourish too (and not get burned out)

Abundance or scarcity?

Like many aspiring children of lower middle class families, my driving force for the first decade or two of adult life was to Do Well. Promotions that gave me a 15 fold increase in salary in as many years, houses of increasing magnitude, shoes of increasing cost.

Yet when I review the moments of joy in my life, it seems that many of them are associated with beautiful management of scarcity rather than the pleasure of plentitude.

It strikes me – and as a behavioural researcher I now fall prey to the menace of the sample of one – that the satisfaction of maiming something out of, if not nothing, then close to that, far outweighs the skilful allocation of more unlimited resources. The dinner for six conjured up from a mostly empty pantry on the spur of the moment, the brilliant marketing campaign that was born of a 75% budget cut, the friendships triggered by the necessity of knowing nobody in a strange city and needing a place to spend the night. When I imagine my potted history, these moments triumph over the relatively uncreative task of having money and spending it.

Not only money of course. How many of us have had that urgent desire to do other things when we have a busy schedule of work / childrearing / exam preparation / deadline meeting… then when the urgency passes and we have time to pause, maybe do whatever we like for half a day somehow none of it is quite so appealing?

As humans we are strivers. We are survivalists. We love a bit of adversity. So if you are on a path to abundance, you might pause for a moment and consider… but will it make me happy? Maybe scarcity is a kind of abundance.

Plus ça change… is Change Management more of the same?

The more things change the more they stay the same goes the saying.

Yet Change Management is a growth industry and fretting about change a constant source of debate.

The first change management program I was involved with affected the nature of the business, and hence jobs, of hundreds of staff in dozens of outlets. We used a consultancy called Intract and their incisive director Dee Rowe startled me by her announcement “People don’t need help managing change! They deal with change from the day they’re born. But they might not LIKE the changes you want to see. That’s where the work is.”

I recently reviewed work I had done for a multinational company implementing a technical, cultural and strategic change program across many country based operations on a rolling basis. We carried out dozens of in-depth discussions (on-line using Synthetron) with hundreds of staff over a couple of years. In each case, the change program was the same, the company and the products were the same and yet the story was completely different in each country.

In every case, the change story was the same as the history story.

If there was a history of management misleading staff, they didn’t trust the management in the context of the change, if there was a history of triumphant adoption of new ideas, they were confident about triumphing with the new change, if the history was about ignoring customer needs and losing market share – then that was also their concern about the change.

Yet often, the change management team are focusing strongly on the CHANGE and scarcely at all on the CONTEXT, the history of the people who need to embrace and implement the change program.

In every case, by running a virtual debate ahead of the first meetings in each country, we were able to give the Change team clear insights into where their audience was coming from. What has happened to them? What are the sore spots? What is the right language to use to win over the hearts and minds of this particular country.

In some cases this context was driven by events ten years previous. No head office team can be expected to have that level of understanding of multiple countries across time. And with a tool like Synthetron they don’t need to – they can discover the insights from the people themselves and shape their approach to fit. People listen when the message matches their concerns. They switch off when it doesn’t. And they love feeling listened to…. just by asking them about their hopes and fears the tide can already begin to turn. Typically we see 15-25% uplift in their feeling about the change program after a one hour online group discussion.

Quick. Easy. Thoughtful. Meaningful. And aligned with what may be the most important principle of all in change management: you can’t change anybody without knowing something about them.

Can we ever reliably judge ourselves (let alone others)?

In yesterday’s Thinking Tank debate on ethics, I was struck in particular by the change in self evaluation between the beginning and the end of the discussion. It seems, as the writers of the book we referred to (Bazerman and Tenbrunsel’s “Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It”), that we are all prone to some self delusion on this subject. Full results.

So if this is true when it comes to ethics – and other studies show it also to be true with respect to driving skills, sexual prowess, frequency of exercise, moderate drinking etc – is our own opinion ever to be trusted?

When I run a Thinking Tank, or an online or traditional focus group for a client, I always try to hold back from jumping to any conclusions. With a subconscious that filters out 99% of the evidence in order to fit in with our expectations, first impressions can be hazardous.  The good thing about having all the data to analyse afterwards is that it gets much harder to substantiate conclusions that reflect the analyst more than the subjects.

I notice the same in dispute resolution.  Both sides can be utterly convinced that they are right, yet hold conflicting memories of what has happened. Unless there is an independent third party account or other objective evidence, the only way forward seems to be to assume that both parties are indeed right about their view of events.  And instead discuss what needs to happen next. My kids always feel that track record should be taken into account “you KNOW he always lies about everything” but that can be just as arbitrary, and in research projects, usually neither available nor useful.

So when it comes to understanding behaviour, it seems to me that the most rigorous approach is to carefully observe and consider everything that is said and done during the research process. Then add the client’s historical knowledge as a checkpoint. “do you recognise this?” can be one of the most useful health checks for the feedback from a study.

By the way, if you would like to join our monthly Thinking Tank, get a brain workout, see if you can put your finger on the pulse and risk reconsidering your views, just email me and I will invite you to the next one.

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