The Revolution will be improvised

Recently the stewardship of the Workforce Scotland work streams transferred to a new team at The Scottish Government, and along with it my role as Programme Manager for the Enabling Collaborative Leadership Pioneer Programme and Chief Fire Starter for the Fire Starter Festival.

Now seemed a good time to share a bit of what we are learning on this journey into collaboration, co-design and co-production, and highlight a couple of upcoming events that have grown out of that learning.

What is abundantly clear is that we are all  working in a rapidly changing and complex landscape.  A revolution in public service is underway, but  is there more of a sense of improvisation rather than a well-orchestrated dismantle or restructure?


improvisation 3

My engagement with partners in all areas of public service reveals a strong desire to do things differently with  a belief that we can achieve more by working together than apart.  There is also an increasingly  awareness that, what was once  framed as a desire for co-design and co-production with citizens and practitioners is becoming a requirement.

Though there is a will to work collaboratively and creatively, the pressure to act decisively and quickly often means we lose the opportunity to inquire into our different perspectives and different priorities.  Those in leadership roles often find themselves leading numerous changes, at different levels and across different systems, with varying degrees of engagement with partners and differing  agreement on desired outcomes.  There is a tension between two separate and competing demands: be creative, innovative through collaboration, not just with leaders  of other public services but with practitioners and citizens, whilst also a demand to get the job done quickly.  There is largely an acknowledgement that we need to step into a space of the unknown in order to see what emerges, but when the pressure is on, there is a tendency to revert to what is known and familiar.  Can we stay with the messy, experimental process – ‘work in progress’, rather than going for a final production?

To support improvisation in a complex space there is increasing demand for a particular type of facilitation and with that in mind we have a created a peer facilitation network  (our first meeting is on the 18th May in Edinburgh) to enable those involved in complex facilitation to  have the opportunity to reflect on experiences, share tools and techniques as well identify a programme for development.

We also recognise that it’s important to have a space to explore what we are learning about collaboration: our stories of what’s working as well as highlighting the challenges. When has collaboration not worked and why?  When have we improvised and what has been the outcome? How far can we  let go off dancing to the bang of our drum ? When  does it feel right to be part  an orchestra playing a  scored composition , with one conductor?  Can collaboration actually undermine our creativity and what we were once passionate and energised by, be reduced to a compromise that doesn’t improve anyone’s outcomes?




On 22nd June we will be hosting a Peer Learning Network event on collaborative leadership to share our learning of the Enabling Collaborative Leadership Programme, featuring the work of Musselburgh Total Place Pilot and also some of the work of  Alison Trimble from the Systems Leadership Steering group and King’s Fund in England where we found  recently and the similarities between our  experiences and approaches was both gratifying and illuminating. It was Allison who drew our attention to the Leadership Centre’s  fantastic reports  The Revolution will be Improvised, Part 1 and Part 11,  which echoes  much of our experiences north of the border.

We also welcome Lisa Pattoni who will reflect on the journey of IRISS (so far) working to improve collaborations between people living and working locally in Scotland. This project aimed to model a collaborative approach as well as an enabling one – a process that has been complex and surprising!

Like all our events, this peer network event is aimed at honest and reflective sharing about what works and what are we learning. Please come along ready to share and improvise!


  1. Great post Karen – both scary and exciting to imagine improvisation at the heart of all our work in some way or other…. I can see us coming back to this time and time again….

    Sparked a great memory of Stephen Nachmanovitch talking about how improv can be taught (or has he prefers, ‘released’). Based on his book ‘Free Play – improvisation in life and the arts’…. hes got a youtube clip here ….

    Thanks again. Great to be working with you:)

    1. This is a phenomenal piece and describes the work we are all involved in really well. He talks about being truly present and responding to what is actually happening in the moment. He also draws attention to holding the space, giving permission to release what is already there. Very much what we are all trying to do. Thanks for sharing this – I can’t quite believe I haven’t come across it before!

  2. Hi both. Thanks for the youtube clip Nick – happy reminder of improv trainings I’ve done as an adjunct to psychodrama. Moreno’s concept of spontaneity is powerful and related. Watching the clip I connect to the idea of reflexivity – me as an intimate part of whatever intervention I am “making.” So starting from a place of giving permission to ourselves and being present to ourselves – – – as well as paying attention to everything and everybody else. Awful easy to say of course – – – :) Best wishes, Alan

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