Finding the neutral zone and failing fast

Posted on November 5, 2014

The social sector is full individuals with unparalleled compassion for and dedication to the improvement of society. That dedication, however, often leaves little room for reflection or horizon scanning. Unlike the private sector, the social sector struggles to find the time and resources to provide good training, the creative space to develop new thinking or the ‘fail fast’ philosophy to prototype new ideas. Not only does the nature of the sector generate little appetite for a culture of risk taking, but social impact measures leave little room for learning through failure.  

Clore Social Fellows are handed the rare commodity of ‘time’ to pause, reflect, assess and improve their skills. As my Fellowship drew to its conclusion last year I had personal decisions to make about my future but, more significantly, my Fellowship had uncovered a renewed hunger for change. Disruptive ideas and organisations were going mainstream: from Airbnb and the Khan Academy on a global scale, to pop-up shops and mini maker fairs at a local level.  What did this mean for me? 

My own opportunity  to be disruptive arrived at an ideal time: The Knee High Design Challenge launched by the Design Council. Thrown open last year to anyone with a novel idea, it was a call for radical new approaches to improve the health and wellbeing of children under five. Here was my opportunity to apply my thinking. I submitted an idea that, before my Fellowship, probably I would have dismissed as idiosyncratic. Post Fellowship, I was fearless. A year later after several rounds of seed investment my Pop Up Parks project has just been awarded £100,000 to be scaled up. 

As the social sector continues to evolve and reshape in response to public sector funding cuts and a shift to social investment, the lean philosophy - adopted initially by the manufacturing industry and now more broadly by businesses - appears to be increasingly significant to those delivering social good. But I believe three things are needed. 

First, social sector leaders need the support and the scope to experiment. Change can be uncomfortable but iterative change is a powerful learning experience where the rewards can be hugely beneficial. We need more foresight like that shown by the Design Council (link) and The Clore Social Leadership Programme. 

Secondly, social sector organisations need to direct funding rather than just receive it. Some already do this well and I believe their success is due to demonstrating and showing evidence that they are able to deliver a service differently and more effectively. 

Finally, the ‘C’ word: ‘courage’. The sector is awash with courage but not always when it comes to change. Those candidates fortunate enough to receive a Clore Social Fellowship quickly appreciate that their future paths will be underpinned by a courageous attitude toward societal challenges. 

In William Bridge’s Transition Model, he refers to the three stages of transition when experiencing change. The third is ‘the new beginning’, but crucially, this is preceded by ‘the neutral zone’, an uncertain space that can cause anxiety.  Finding my neutral zone  changed everything. It wasn’t always comfortable but it was one that provided me with the confidence to experiment with change, enabling me to  transform the lives of others. 

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Tom Doust

Tom Doust

Digital education innovator

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