It’s all about trust… isn’t it?


“If you don’t know what to do, there’s actually a
chance of doing something new.” Philip Glass

“It’s basically about trust”

“What is?”

“Well, everything. Strip out the buzz words – ‘transforming public service’, ‘open government’, ‘co-production’ – it basically all boils down to building trust doesn’t it?”

“Well yes I suppose so”

“EXACTLY! Scratch the surface, every story of positive change worth its salt … has building and sustaining trust at its core – the leaders who earned it; the friends and colleagues who are sustained by it even when things get tough; the organisations that go out of their way to create the conditions for it”.

“And so…?”

“So why then do I get the feeling so many of us are confused about what it is and how to build it? Why isn’t it at the top of everyone’s job description (who works in public service)? What is getting in the way?”

“And so what are you going to do about it then…?”

“Well good point I suppose I’ll have a think”

That is pretty much a summary of a few different conversations I had at an event called ‘Shaping Scotland’ in November 2016. The event was run by the same team who run an online change course called ‘Ulab’ (see which thousands of people across the world do every autumn.

A week later, I saw how I could try something out.

My team in the Scottish Government – called Workforce Scotland– hosts a ‘Fire Starter Festival’ – all about sparking new ways of working (then fanning the flames etc. – you get the idea). The deadline for proposing events loomed. I sat down and wrote:

Action Inquiry (AI) offers a way to narrow the gap between what we say and what we do. It involves practical action experiments – and the personal and group learning these provoke.

Why focus on trust? And who is this for?

Many people across Scotland are working to transform communities, public services and enterprises. Time and again, we say that building/enabling trust – between citizens and government (local and national); between managers and workers; between sectors and ‘silos’ of all kinds – is at the heart of this work. Often it’s easier said than done.

What happened

A month later, fifteen of us came to the Melting Pot between 10 and 1 on the morning of 24th January. This included folk from the Improvement Service, health, local government, Scottish Government, third sector, consultants and community activists. During a ‘check in’ it became clear that we all shared questions about how we could better build trust – especially across disconnects, silos, or ‘bubbles’.

For my part I gave some extra context:

  • about how the team in Scottish Government – ten of us – are charged with ‘enabling and supporting the transformation of Scottish public service’ at a time of budget pressure and growing demand;
  • about things I learned from a five year piece of work I led at Carnegie UK Trust into how rural communities can build their resilience (report is at;
  • about a story of two years working for Scottish Leaders’ Forum to discover and connect ‘disruptive innovators’ showing what the future for public service in Scotland could look like – and highlighting lots of their learning in films – see ; and
  • flagging up a current example called ‘Buurtzorg’ ( ‘humanity over bureaucracy’) which has reinvented the home care system in the Netherlands – and how Scotland has begun to follow in the footsteps….

About Action Inquiry


Although the topic of the session was on trust, the approach we used was ‘action inquiry’. This is another way of saying learning by doing. It starts with people finding a gnawing question –something we can’t somehow let rest; something that seems to demand our attention, doesn’t let us go, maybe comes from left field or strong feelings of frustration or anger or maybe even excitement.

The question can be quite personal (‘how can I have better conversations that build trust?’). Or it might be at the level of a team (‘how can we do team meetings better so we come out with more rather than less trust in each other’?). Or it might be much bigger – ‘how can we redesign the health system/democracy/local authorities to put trust at their heart?’.

The point about action inquiry is that, once we have a question, we do something about it: trying things out, and seeing whether they make things better. But there’s an important step before rushing out to try.

This is crucial: the next step is about slowing down. This is where action inquiry tools can really add value – prompting us to be aware of how our existing ways of seeing things, listening, and knowing might actually be getting in the way. Opening us up – as Philip Glass says (see quote above) to not knowing and unlearning what we thought we knew.

By seeing existing patterns/habits/ways we’re stuck … we can have more of a clue as to things to try to break out of those ruts.

The session made me really think about ‘trust’ and particularly the conditions required to create it. There was a lot of discussion about trust having a connection to a willingness in a person/organisation to share/show their vulnerability. A revelation for me is that in a work/organisational context, this feels counterintuitive – in business/work there is often a pressure to not show vulnerability – particularly to clients or stakeholders – particularly in times of turbulence -for fear that it would look unprofessional and unworthy of trust. What if, in order to really create trust, it might be necessary to show vulnerability – personally  and professionally? What if, to be able to work together, instead of showing off our credentials, for us to trust each other, we need to admit that we don’t know what we are doing? ‘Trust’ feels like a rich seam to mine – with lots of repercussions for making changes, trying new approaches and re-visioning what we do and how we do it. 

As the session progressed, we tried out a few tools that can help with this ‘slowing down’:

  • Freefall writing’ is stream-of-consciousness writing that can show us more of what we’re really feeling and thinking and sensing bout things.
  • Four ways of knowing’ is a prompt to stay more with experience, and more with creative ways of making sense of it, before leaping to our existing ways of making sense.
  • Four parts of speech’ is a tool that can make us more conscious of whether we are balancing four elements that can make for better communication when they’re in balance: framing, advocacy, illustration and inquiry.

Trying these out, and debriefing them, took most of the session. As is often the case, it’s when we got into trying some powerful reflection tools out that we began to get animated, excited about the potential, and motivated to try some of the tools with the idea of coming back next time to compare notes.


I really enjoyed the session. It felt like the beginning of a really interesting conversation – where you begin to explore the things you don’t know (the Action Inquiry Approach) and begin to share the things you do know (your own experiences of trust)

Before we left, folk had a chance to say whether it had been useful. By and large we seemed to agree that

– we had begun to dig into ‘trust’ in powerful ways relevant to our own contexts, and also across the piece, and that we had only begun to ‘scratch the surface’; – we found the action inquiry tools really interesting – and said we were up for more – including trying them out between now and next time; and – we thought that the format of the session itself seemed to build trust – and this could be something to bring back to our own organisations.

Next steps

The group has agreed to meet again. Dates are 30th March, 25th May and 27th July, 10am-1pm at the Melting Pot, Edinburgh. If you would like to join us, sign up here:

In addition, there is real potential for this group to start to share insights, tools, models, results of early experiments more widely – including online. Perhaps this might inspire many more people to join our growing inquiry into trust through 2017?

1 comment

  1. A rich reflection Nick. Wish I could have been there. Delighted to see that the inquiry into trust will be continuing into 2017. A great focus, and a great inquiry method. I have recently been inquiring along these lines myself in the context of the ‘circle-of-trust’ ‘courage and renewal’ work of Parker Palmer’s Centre for Courage and Renewal . In case they might be of interest to folks in your ongoing inquiry I am providing this link to their c-o-t ‘touchstones’ … maybe they can be tweaked for your setting. I’d be curious to know what folks make of these… if they seem to be of use. The CCR has really evolved its approach – circles of trust – to a finely nuanced degree (core values, principles, practices – and the touchstones ). I am wondering if they might have greater application in today’s Scotland… in some form or the other. Keep up the good work.

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