Fires, Fishbowls and Faith – A Week of Leading Dangerously

Fires, Fishbowls and Faith – A Week of Leading Dangerously

Guest blog from Clare Armstrong, Academy Project Manager, Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland. The Health and Social Care Academy is a programme of the Health and Social Care Alliance (the ALLIANCE) and is a cross-sectoral platform for transformational change in health and social care using the voice of lived experience.

The Academy is holding a series of events in 2018, around the theme of unleashing courageous leadership at every age, and the next event will take place on April 24 from 5-7pm at the Grassmarket Community Project in Edinburgh. If you would like more details, or to find out more about the Academy and our work, please email .

Faith in people. It’s not a theme that surfaces a lot these days. With all the political turmoil at home and abroad it’s easy to sink into despair at the world; unable to see beyond the next story or scandal. By the Year of Young People’s definition I am apparently still a young person, however I must confess that with each new news alert on my phone I feel like five years is added to my age!

IMG_0258But this is what made the Fire Starter Festival this year such a welcome breath of fresh air. The past weeks have been an opportunity to step out of this familiar bubble of gloom and have a little faith in the world. Not cautious, tentative faith with footnotes and caveats – but a bold faith that always sees the best in people and demands that their voices be heard and listened to. Themed around young people, this series of events has not skipped over the challenges that the future holds for all generations, but has placed faith in our collective ability to empower one another and make a difference.

The Festival started in Kelvingrove Museum, with a quote by Megan Whitley that perhaps best summarises my takeaway from the week overall:

“Sane leadership is the unshakeable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative, and kind.”

Later, as I wandered around the museum listening to a series of speeches through a pair of headphones, I reflected that this was certainly the type of leadership on display here. Whether it was Johanna Holtan recounting a challenging time in her youth when her mother had asked her “So what are you going to do about it?”, or Katie Slavin reminding us to “always, always be humble”, these were leaders that believed in the people they were helping, and saw themselves not as heroes swooping in to save the day – but enablers standing shoulder to shoulder with others and trusting them to help themselves.

IMG_0253The next day, my team at the Health and Social Care Academy had our own experiment in taking a leap of faith, at our Unleashing Courageous Leadership event. Having heard speeches from five inspiring young people, we had opened up the discussion to the audience through a “fishbowl” format (something completely new to us!), with four chairs in the middle for those who wished to speak – always with one free chair so that other participants could swap in and out of the discussion throughout. We held our breath slightly, hoping that the audience would want to share their views… and were rewarded with a stimulating and enthusiastic discussion around what courageous leadership really meant. In fact, we were so overwhelmed by the number of people wanting to share their views that we didn’t even get around to answering our last question!

IMG_0248After worrying that our fishbowl might be met with awkward silence, the event was a necessary reminder of the importance of trusting people and giving everyone a platform to voice their opinions. In the words of our speaker, Rachael McCully, “if you help young people be leaders, you’ll learn more from them than the other way around”. Well, I certainly learned a lot, and look forward to continuing this conversation at our next Courageous Leadership event in April.

My Fire Starter experience was wrapped up a couple of days later, as I headed to the ‘When Open Government Met Co-production’ discussion. Knowing nothing about Open Government beforehand, it was encouraging to hear of the steps being taken to build “an outward looking government which is more open and accessible to Scotland’s people than ever before”, and the progress that has already been made elsewhere. Who knew that in Norway, 1 in 70 people will hold public office in their life, compared to 1 in 3000 in Scotland?! Clearly we have much further to go, but the passion of the speakers and the examples of co-productive decision-making closer to home gives me confidence that we can get there.

No doubt, Scotland and its young people face huge challenges, and this Fire Starter week did not shy away from the tough decisions involved in pushing for progress. But the overwhelming message was not to let these challenges stop us from having unshakeable faith; in others, in our communities, and ultimately in ourselves. The best vision of our future involves more fishbowls, more fire-starting, and more faith in each other. So, whatever the challenge is that we’re facing, let’s all have a quiet, determined voice in our head saying – what are you going to do about it?

Fire Starter Festival in Orkney

As part of Fire Starter Festival, the Scottish Health Council held Voices Scotland workshops across the country. Today’s guest blog is from Gerd Peters, Local Officer at Scottish Health Council Orkney.


Under an angry grey sky on an icy January morning in Kirkwall my colleague Kevin Ward and I carefully pick our way into fierce headwinds towards the Pickaquoy leisure centre for today’s Fire Starter taster session. We’re looking forward to the day, feeling slightly apprehensive now that this weather might well persuade some in our audience to stay away.


Our aim for the day is to inspire a diverse audience with a shared interest in health and social care to work and learn together in a supportive environment. Besides, Kevin and I are determined to make the most of the potential for team based interactive learning that is the hallmark of Voices Scotland, and with luck ‘spark’ new ideas as to how the public and services can work together well in Orkney.


By 1pm Karen from our Stromness office has arrived and we’ve finished setting up the venue for the session. As Karen welcomes our first guests, we can see others arriving through the panoramic window that looks out over the car park and Kirkwall Bay. By 1.30pm the sky is brightening up with the sun pushing through the clouds, and there are now 11 attendees in the room seated café style around three team stations. Among them volunteers and staff from Orkney College/University Highlands & Islands, the Health & Social Care Partnership, NHS Orkney, Third sector and community groups.


Working from the Voices Scotland course template, Kevin and I had decided to focus on three activities, including working with emotional touch points; thinking about what is effective public engagement; and working together with members of the public and health and social care professionals. This, we figured, would allow everyone to contribute on their terms whilst enjoying themselves and learning something new.


voices 1Keeping our introduction to a minimum, we begin the session by inviting individual participants to reflect on a recent experience of health and social care. Together with saying a few words about themselves, participants are asked to choose an emotional touch point card, and using this as a prop, share their experience with the group. Everyone does and at the end of the exercise a degree of familiarity among participants has developed that sets the mood for the entire session. It also makes everyone aware that beyond our respective roles, occupations and background we are all users of health and social care service in our own right.


voices 2For our second activity we call on the groups to lend support as Kevin charts the organisational structure of health and social care in Scotland on the wall. For this he uses a comprehensive set of logo cards with concise explanations on their flip sides. With the professionals in the room momentarily identifying their place in the structure, the activity inevitably develops a competitive element, which draws everyone into the excitement. Looking at the completed chart we all become aware of the complexity of the Scottish health and care landscape, and there isn’t one among us who hasn’t learned something new.


Our third and final activity consists of a brainstorming session. For this we split into three groups again, each group in turn identifying traits they believe separate health and care professionals from public representatives, and naming benefits and barriers of working together. The task is soon accomplished and the results shared. With participants having worked together so well throughout the session in spite of their differing backgrounds and interests, it now doesn’t take much for everyone to realise that looking out for differences and obstacles is mostly dealing in presumptions and preconceptions.


Calling this into focus we wrap up the session to laughter and an unexpected round of applause!

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We have achieved what we set out to do: demonstrating the potential of Voices Scotland to empower people who have experienced health and care services to become contributors to making services better


When we say our farewells, the message seemed to have taken hold. Everyone clearly has enjoyed the content and interactive nature of the session, and we have our first taker for the full Voices Scotland session.


Fire Starter Festival in Dundee

Guest post by Open Change Intern Barbara Mertlova. Originally posted at

The Scotland-wide Fire Starter Festival kicked off on Monday 29 January with a speech made by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow. For us in Dundee, however, we Spark(ed) It Up with a free breakfast, as @Mike Press delivered two consecutive events, co-hosted by The Circle Dundee. Following a short introduction on The Festival itself, which you can read more about in this post, the Open Change director facilitated a sparkling conversation between four guest speakers: the youngest ever Dundee Council Leader John Alexander, Development Worker Kirsty Slater from WEvolution, Kirsty Thomson, who is the Founder and current Chief Executive Officer of The Circle Dundee, and specialist Ninewells surgeon Rod Mountain, who also happens to be one of the V&A Dundee Design Champions

dundee blog 1

The first question asked, allowed the guests to explain the motives and drives behind their actions, which led to finding many themes in common, despite all speakers coming from varying disciplines or backgrounds, showing the basis of multi-disciplinary collaboration. Apart from wanting to deliver a positive change, being inspired by the efforts all around the world, or feeling a strong sense of responsibility for the local community, all responses passionately mentioned one key motivation; Frustration.

Although it came from different places for each individual; for example WEvolution’s Kirsty Slater believed every single person “can be a valuable part to the society” and felt “tired of being told otherwise”, the Councillor John Alexander spoke about his parents as one of the major impulses for his involvement in politics and said he did not want to just sit back and complain”, while the NHS’s Rod Mountain emphasised the inspiration he found in Scandinavian countries. Mike summarised the feeling that resonated with most of us: Frustration and anger are healthy – and often required feelings in the process of making change happen. However, being angry alone does not do anything.” Using that feeling as an engine to power your actions, that is what counts.

And to evidence that the four people, sharing their story with an engaged audience of approximately 25, have put their frustration into great use already, they each mentioned some of their key achievements, along with what was on the agenda next. This is just to highlight a few:

Kirsty Thomson, who has raised £12million for local social enterprises, turned The Circle into a resource for the community, and is one of the main reasons why we could be there, sparking new projects similar to hers, such that would lead to making work better. Rodney Mountain sees Service Design as a mindset change, which allows him to look at ways in which we can work together. In his particular case, he talks about NHS not being just a public sector, emphasising the need to collaborate with their private and the third sectors. Kirsty Slater, as someone who works in a non-profitable sector, tries to create groups not reliant on external funding. This is an idea coming from India, where it naturally arises from the necessity to be self-providing. Finally, John Alexander explains why he had kept a weekend customer-service job, even after having been elected. A twoway communication is really important to me and I try to be as accessible to the community as possible.”

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After this inspiring hour, the room took a short break as a few more visitors arrived for what was on the programme next – a Rip and Mix Workshop.


Rip + Mix is an idea generation tool developed by Open Change, which anyone who wants to encourage creative thinking can use. If you are interested in learning more about it, all the details and “What you need’s” are available here. That morning, however, as many other times previously, Mike, acting on behalf of Open Change, provided a workshop which kicked off with a presentation, where Service Design in general was introduced, highlighting the importance of listening to citizens, clients and service users, and giving some evidence of the real impact innovative thinking has had. The existing problem of companies, authorities and service providers in general not being able to see the world through the user’s eyes is the reason why Open Change’s workshops are organised in such a way, that forces people to challenge themselves and to understand their customers’ perspectives.



That is when the participants were shown how the idea generator works and what was expected from them. Post-it notes and sharpies, yes, you guessed it! But even that has a purpose, as visualisation serves a powerful tool. Split into groups, every table got a “Pleasurable experience” card, which they then analysed over the course of 5 minutes. Afterwards, for the same amount of time, each group discussed the ‘pain-points’ in their existing lives and had to come to an agreement on which issue they can all sympathise best with, and subsequently analysed it in the same manner as the previous card. The last time-limit was 7 minutes – slightly longer, but still producing a fastpaced environment as that seems to evoke the most efficient innovative thinking, stimulating the real world – during which the participants “ripped and mixed” the two columns, aiming to create a better experience out of the presented problem. Once time was up, the room shared the outcomes and had a motivating discussion, hopefully having sparked up an idea for innovation or improvement in more than one of the attendees.

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Wrapping it up, collaboration and the importance of diversity and inclusion was highlighted one more time, as the benefits of them are infinite, and that was the first day of Open Change events as part of the Fire Starter Festival 2018, over.

If you would like to learn more about the Fire Starter Festival, you can have a look at the official website here, or alternatively, you may want to browse through the #fsf2018 on Twitter.

However, if you particularly regret having missed the igniting Breakfast, we’ve got good news for you! Next Tuesday 6 February, there will be other brilliant speakers, again directed by Open Change’s Mike Press, which you can read the details about and sign up for here. What’s more, whether you’re part of a business, or are simply interested in how planning in such areas works, the Breakfast Talk will be followed by an interactive workshop introducing you to the Business Model Canvas. Still not convinced? We are giving you a little taster of what you might expect there!


Collaborative learning at the Fire Starter Festival 2018

Guest blog from Cat Tabbner, Glasgow Centre for Population Health. This blog was originally published on

Cat Tabbner reflects on the launch of Fire Starter Festival 2018 and how it has set her up for the year ahead.

It all started with music. As I was handed a pair of headphones, a memory came into my head. A blast from the past that I had mostly forgotten. The last time I had headphones on in public was in a silent disco tent at a music festival. Memories of my younger self (more distant than I wish) dancing to the music in my own private soundscape came flooding back. Rather fitting given that 2018 is Scotland’s Year of Young People.

This was not how I expected my Monday morning to kick off. Especially not at a ‘work’ event. But that is one of the great things about the Fire Starter Festival – it opens you up to new possibilities. Colleagues across the country are sharing their discoveries and taking a leap of faith to explore them with you, right there and then.

That memory of my younger self stayed with me for the rest of the event, as I listened to the speakers tell me their experiences of transforming themselves and others to create a better and fairer Scotland. The headphones gave me back that spirit of exploration, of pushing boundaries – I like to think I still have this spirit, but there’s something about being young (at least for me anyway) that made that fire burn, well, brighter. Over the years I’ve learned how to stoke my inner fires, but every now again it’s good to be reminded how bright we can be.

And you know what? With a pair of headphones on and with the permission to walk freely around Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, our home for the morning, I listened more intently than I ever have. And I’m a good listener. I felt like I was walking through the exhibits with the speakers by my side.

Every speaker inspired me, and their stories will be added to my community engagement toolbox for the year – to be shared with researchers, communities and boardrooms across Glasgow. These stories are signs of hope and proof of possibilities! Memorable tips were Katie Slavin (Shining Stars Theatre School) telling me to “always, always stay humble” when working with (young) people or Fiona Duncan (The Corra Foundation and Chair of the Care Review) replacing “hard to reach” with the insight that “it’s the reachers who aren’t trying hard enough”. Liam Murray’s (MCR Pathways) story of becoming a Graduate Surveyor and Kate Polson’s (Rock Trust) goal to end youth homelessness in Scotland in ten years got me thinking on how my community engagement role can contribute to more ambitions like these from voices we really need to hear. That was the power of headphones – I really felt like the speakers were to talking to me, encouraging me to take action.

Headphones and papers at the Firestarter festival

It’s with this spirit of youth, exploration, boundary pushing and ambitions that I have been approaching the rest of the festival. And I’m listening more too. At ‘Unleashing courageous leadership at every age’ this week I particularly took Rachael McCully’s (Communic18 and Year of Young Person representative) tip away with me: “if you help a young person to be courageous, you’ll learn more from them than the other way round”. There was also the chance to try the fishbowl facilitation technique, but that’s another blog!

I’m already wondering what my next Fire Starter event (‘Facilitative leadership’) will bring. And I have already started a few work ‘fires’. 2018, here I come…

The Fire Within

Guest blog by Martin Crewe, Director of Barnardo’s Scotland


This morning I was lucky enough to attend the launch of Scotland’s Fire Starter Festival: ‘a series of collaborative learning events, illuminating creative, disruptive and innovative ways in which we can all transform ourselves, our organisations and the wider system’. Although still a relatively new event, it has grown rapidly in content and profile. This was underlined when Nicola Sturgeon gave the opening speech, emphasising high quality public services and community engagement.

The event then took an unusual turn as we were invited to put on headphones for the ‘silent launch’. As someone who has watched W1A, my first thoughts were of the creative PR agency Perfect Curve. However, my anxiety was unjustified and it was a refreshingly different experience to listen to inspiring speakers whilst wandering around the exhibits of Kelvingrove museum.

FSF launch 2

We are lucky to have passionate leaders like Kate Polson, chief executive of Rock Trust. She spoke of the aim to end youth homelessness in Scotland within the next 10 years – not just a vague ambition but a concrete plan to do herself out of a job. Other contributors spoke movingly of their own struggles to overcome adversity and their subsequent determination to give something back so today’s young people have better chances than they did.


The final thought-provoking input was from Fiona Duncan, CEO of Corra Foundation and independent chair of the Care Review. She considered how the perception of a ‘fire starter’ shifts with age. A middle aged fire starter is someone who challenges the system and hasn’t lost the spark of youth but a young fire starter might simply be viewed as idealistic or abrasive.


Fiona talked explicitly about power and how we need to challenge the established rules, systems and language if we really want to shift the balance in favour of the people we are aiming to support. In the Year of Young People these are powerful messages for all of us to continually challenge ourselves if we are to truly transform the lives of Scotland’s most disadvantaged children.


This blog was originally published on Barnardo’s website.

The Silent Launch – First Speaker Announced!

The first of our series of speakers at The Silent Launch has been revealed! We are proud to announce that we will be joined by Jo Horton, Program Manager at Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program & Director of Go Jo.


Currently the Program Manager of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at The University of Edinburgh, she is also the Director of Go Jo and Cofounder of Penny in Yo’ Pants, CycleHack, TEDxPortobello, TEDxUniversityofEdinburgh, and Tbilisi’s first ever Race for the Cure. She is also on the board of Tribe Porty and Edinburgh Tool Library.

Johanna has spent over 15 years creating cultures, programmes, and experiences that are rooted in values.  She has worked all over the world and across numerous sectors including higher education, international development, active transport, sports & culture, and design.

If you would like to hear Jo, and our brilliant line up of speakers, join us for The Silent Launch on 29 January 2018 by registering now.