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Being grounded in itinerant professional practice

Recently, I have started writing a series of blog posts with my colleague Martin Hawksey. It’s an interesting undertaking in which we take an open approach to leadership, to sharing our perspective on leading the organisation we work for through a period of change towards adopting a virtual mode of operating. And it’s got me thinking on parallel lines about my own professional practice and how it’s developed over the last 20 years, from being a practising artist making stuff, to being an anthropologist studying cemeteries, to being an academic and learning technologist and now to working in a leadership role.

My work has been on the move constantly. I have changed countries, cities, institutions, offices, roles and colleagues. I like change, and having new challenges, but I also take things with me. Some things remain constant, part of my routine no matter where or how I work.

That isn’t too say that my environment, technology or company doesn’t have a big impact. They do. But they don’t define my practice. What really matters, what makes me work well, what helps me achieve, that I take with me. A bit like the suitcases I used to create as a sculptor or draw in my sketchbooks, I think I have a carry-on of essentials that I don’t leave behind. They help ground me and my work when things change or I do. In my experience everyone has an equivalent of those types of things, but here are my top 5:

Reflective writing
Whether it’s in a journal, on loose paper, on my private blog or digital doc, at least once a week and often more frequently I sit down, reflect and write. It doesn’t matter where I am or how busy things get, reflective writing forms an essential part of my practice. It helps me gain perspective, empty my head and make time to enjoy what’s gone well or give myself a break for things that have gone awry. I write around 80,000 words a year, so cloud storage is a good thing. 

Long term list
No matter what shape my daily to list may take, I always keep a list of ideas, links and actions to consider in the long term. It’s a dump for anything important, but not urgent, as well as more creative ideas or plans. I review it periodically, maybe once a month or so, to mark things as completed, delete and re-order. Some items take years to complete… .

A visual record of what I am working on, where I go or whom I meet is really important to me. It’s useful to be able to look back, revisit particular conferences or trips or lunch. That also includes images or artwork I (help) create – in particular if I have been working on something for a while.

Making time to listen
Harder to make the suitcase metaphor work with this kind of thing, but still an essential. It sounds very obvious that listening is important, but so few people actually do. Most of the time, it’s all about talking, transmitting, being heard. The busier things get the more difficult it becomes to find time to listen and make space for others to find their voice, share their thoughts. So from train journeys to coffee breaks, I make a point of putting my laptop or phone to one side and really focus on the people I am with.

Complete something fun
As often as I can, I dedicate some time to doing something fun. For example, I enjoy making a web page and publishing it. Or making an image for something. Or reading/writing something. It doesn’t really matter what it is, it’s about completing it and getting a sense of achievement from it. A quick win. A lot of what I work on is a) long term, b) invisible or c) collaborative and so in order to balance these with feeling that I have accomplished something I often do ‘something fun’ and see it completed. It reminds me of how good I am at making things happen and often helps me see bigger, more complex things through to completion with a greater sense of confidence.