What I Now Know About Lighting Fires

The Fire Starter Festival 2017 drew to a close last month after 35 events which attracted around 1500 participants. Over the coming months we’ll reflect on the evaluations, and have many conversations about what went well, what could have been better, what inspired people, and what actions have been taken to light some small fires of change.  As the inspiration for the festival came from the Seven Steps for Lighting Small Fires of Change, I thought I would share seven things I now know about lighting fires and what it takes to light a Fire Starter Festival.

A festival of fire and ice

As winter arrives, many of us are drawn to the magic of making fires. Personally I love this time of year. There is something about the stark beauty of the landscape, stripped back and illuminated by winter sun, with breath taking glistening frost. It feels elemental in the way that fire, light and dark play with our senses, providing an opportunity to take stock, reflect, let go and prepare for what emerges in the new year.

The upcoming Fire Starter Festival  provides an opportunity for us to share what we personally and collectively what we want to leave behind, and share some of the small fires of change we have ignited. And given that we are holding it in the last week in January (23rd – 30th) there is a strong chance of snow and ice as well as all of our fires! fire-snow

Already we have fourteen events open for registration, with the same number almost ready to be ignited. It’s wonderful to see the energy and enthusiasm of so many colleagues across public services, evidencing a paradigm shift in how we collectively share ideas, resources, and reimagine the future of public services in Scotland.

Here’s a small sample of what’s on offer but please do check out the Eventbrite Page and watch as the small fires of change emerge over the next few weeks.

Fire Starter Festival: stoking the small fires of change

“We cannot wait for great visions from great people, for they are in short supply. It is up to us to light our own small fires in the darkness. ”  Charles Handy 

Recent research and reports (21st Century Public Servant, and Rethinking Pubic Services) indicate a paradigm shift in public service: one characterised by services co-designed with citizens and with a far greater emphasis on experimentation, improvisation, cross boundary collaborations, and where public service workers “engage with citizens in a way that expresses their shared humanity and pooled expertise” (Needham & Mangan, 2014).


Does this resonate with you and your experience of public service? Whilst there may be consensus on a more human service, the transition can be fraught and small fires of change can be extinguished before they have the chance to burn brightly. However, we also know that there are lots of small fires that are having a positive impact on public service: fires worth spreading.

The Fire Starter Festival provides an opportunity to explore this shift in paradigm. It is unique in that it is being co-produced by services themselves, illuminating the ways in which we are already changing: the small fires that have been kindled; the learning about how these are impacting on professional identity; as well as considering the bonfires of practices and procedures that no longer serve us well. The aim is to inquire into what is happening, as it happens, with openness and curiosity, and a willingness to use the learning to shape the future of public service.

The festival launches on the 23rd January with an exploration of what is emerging for the 21st Century Public Servant and public services – a more human service?  There will be an opportunity to hear about the underpinning research from the authors  of the report and from many services who will be sharing the creative, disruptive and innovative ways in which they are transforming themselves.


Who better to help us launch a Fire Starter Festival, than the Chief Officer for the Fire and Rescue Service, Alasdair Hay, who will be sharing how the service responds to the diverse needs of communities, from engaging with street gangs to homework clubs.

There are still opportunities to contribute and be part of this self-organising fire starting  movement.

Contact Karen Lawson or Kirsty Merriman for information. Or check out our Fire Starter Festival page.


Needham & Mangan. 2014. The 21st Century Public Servant.


How do you light your fire?

This is a question that seemed to dominate my holiday with my new (to me) camper van as my partner and I weaved our way through the Highlands.

Lighting fires isn’t just a lovely addition to a camping holiday, it’s a necessity to ward of the millions of midges intent of eating campers alive. However it is my favourite pastime, and one that I have been giving a lot of thought to both in terms of the practical skills needed to light fires but also metaphorically in relation to public service transformation and leadership and what it takes to create and sustain change: the underpinning aim of the Fire Starter Festival.

There were several things that occurred to me when walking around camping sites and beaches about fire starting. Everyone has their own techniques in terms of preparation – the styles of laying the foundations for fires are diverse and somewhat related to future purposes. Is it a fire that lots of people will be sitting around, or one for cooking, hence the use of flat stones or one where the stones will be used later on for warming up the inside of a tent (my own personal tip for wild camping)?  There was also a much admired technique of building a wall of slightly damp wood around the fire that both acted as a shelter and a means of drying out the wood. Neat. So, having a sense of what purposes your fire may serve is essential but also recognising that these can change over the course of an evening – keep it going to ward of midges.

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

Dangerous Ideas and Starting fires…

‘Days of Danger’ have come to Scottish Government!

I’m sure every day, is a day of danger for someone in Government but these particular days were created to stimulate and identify ideas that could challenge our thinking and orthodoxies of working in a large organisation, such as the Scottish Government. We asked “What is your dangerous idea for the Government as an organisation that we work in?”

Why a Day of Danger? What is a Dangerous idea?

Pioneer Peer Learning Network – 30 November 2015

A major element of the Enabling Collaborative Leadership Pioneer Programme is sharing the learning from the Pioneer Sites through a Peer Learning Network which is programmed to meet three times during this year of learning.

The first Peer Learning Network meeting happened in June 2015. Our focus was hearing stories from people who helped develop the initiative. Those who came also generated lots of questions, which we grouped into themes which began to show the hot issues that many of us are eager to delve into together as we learn about ‘what works’ in collaborative leadership.

On 30th November, you are warmly invited to come along to our next Peer Learning Network, from 1.00pm – 4.30pm, at Victoria Quay, Edinburgh.

Our intention is to build on the buzz, and themes of our first gathering, in ways that welcome newcomers, share recent news and thinking. This will hopefully help us all to then delve into some of those hot or tricky issues by learning directly from the experience of people working in pioneer sites. As before, our focus will be on stories – sharing our own, hearing others, and practising story-telling as a practice of action inquiry. Expect a content and networking-rich event – sign up soon to secure your place. We will be hearing from Pioneer Sites, like the Musselburgh Total Place Project on how Enabling Collaborative Leadership has helped them so far.

The Musselburgh Total Place Project have been actively inquiring into families experiences of receiving public services. Using a variety of methods they have been considering two key questions:

– What is like to “me” in this family? What does it offer me?
– What is like to be a practitioner working with this family?

At our Enabling Collaborative Leadership Peer Learning Event on 30th November we will be hearing from members of the Board, and the Project team and the facilitators about what it’s like to be part of the Pioneer Programme and what difference this has made. By working collaboratively what ideas have emerged and what might they do differently?

This is a fantastic opportunity to hear about their learning journey and engage in conversations with peers about pioneering work in working collaboratively.

To register for the Peer Learning Network please click the button below.


Play: a serious role in organisational transformation?

The role of creativity has long been established as pivotal to individual, organisational and business development. Scotland’s national learning creativity plan highlights that creativity is needed to see things differently, find new approaches to the challenges we all face, and understand how it can shape our future.


What about the role of play? Is it the same as creativity? Does it have a role in organisational change? I’ve been pondering this for some time, particularly in relation to the challenge of how we move from what is already known (and which we know doesn’t work) to finding new solutions. We recognise that we need to change, but how do we leave the old ways behind and explore the borderlands to something new: the unknown? We need to be more creative – but how?

Collaboration, Curiosity and Creativity – My first month with Pioneer

Thanks to everyone who got in touch about Enabling Collaborative Leadership Pioneer Programme and also to share their stories about collaboration.

It’s now a month since I started as programme manager for Pioneer, and an apt time (as any) to reflect on what I know now, or rather what I have begun to inquire into.

Collaboration lies at the heart of the programme and I don’t think anyone would disagree that in these complex times, with less public resources, and a desire for a fairer society and better outcomes for all, that’s it’s not a good thing.

My first week with Pioneer… Exploring new territory

My first week as Programme Manager for the Enabling Collaborative leadership Pioneer Programme draws to a close so I thought I’d share some thoughts in the spirit of inquiry!

My initial thought –that’s a long title job title that leaves people confused even before I get to the end of it.

Need to think of something shorter! Suggestions very welcome

For those not familiar with the Pioneer programme, it’s about testing out and learning about new ways we can collaborate more effectively in public services.