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

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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.

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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.

“Big conversations are often typified by the same issues that bedevil conversations further down – a lack of openness, an inability to listen, a default to old patterns and behaviours.”

Margaret WilliamsonWritten by: Margaret Williamson

The Right Conversation: Spotlight on Dialogue,
What conditions enable effective conversations at work? 

Whether they are strategic conversations in the boardroom or conversations between front-line team members, two things matter: a conducive environment and well-developed skills.  The Right Conversation’s Spotlight on Dialogue, research report identified four necessary conditions and three essential skills for dialogue to take place.

“Dialogue facilitates multi-agency working in the criminal justice system”

Margaret WilliamsonWritten by: Margaret Williamson

The Right Conversation: Spotlight on Dialogue,
Promoting the right conversations at work

Over the past year I’ve been researching the impact of using Dialogue for organisational change, both in the published literature and in conversation with people working with dialogue in the public sector.

There are few, if any, systematic research studies of the overall impact of dialogue on organisational or personal change but there are many individual examples of where dialogue has been employed successfully to:

How do we know that dialogue is an effective way of generating effective change in organisations and individuals?

Margaret WilliamsonWritten by: Margaret Williamson

In 2011 The Right Conversation published a research report on the importance of the quality of conversations in organisations.   The organisations they interviewed all reported a positive correlation between the quality of conversation and organisational effectiveness.  The argued that the quality of conversation impacts directly on:

  • Employee engagement
  • Relationships with key stakeholders
  • “The richness and inclusiveness of strategy development”

Given that there is general agreement that conversation matters – what are leaders doing to develop the skills of dialogue in their organisations?

The Beehive Experiment

Fire Starter Festival

With over 1500 people attending 35 events during this year’s Fire Starter Festival we know that there is an appetite for sharing creativity, innovation and burning questions around how we can transform public services. However, we were conscious that many people were restricted in the number of events they could attend and we didn’t manage to capture the ways in which people were inspired to do something differently: on and individual, team or organisational basis.

For next year’s festival we thought we could try a ‘Beehive Experiment’ which we hope would allow greater sharing of learning and the opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas. Groups will be formed with members drawn from a variety of public services. Each member of a hive would go along to a different Fire Starter Festival event and then review the impact with their hive.

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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Facilitator

One of the great benefits of our Facilitation Network is the opportunity it gives us all to connect with our peers in what can, at times, be quite an isolating role. The Edinburgh Facilitation Network met for the fifth time on the 26th September, and once again, we had a fantastic meeting of those interested in and practising facilitation in public services.

This is very much a collaborative network that uses an open space approach, so that those who are practicing and learning about facilitation are both hosting and participating in sessions.

We covered a range of topics including mindfulness in facilitation; both in relation to how to incorporate some mindfulness practices into any events we are facilitating; and also the use of mindfulness for facilitators. There are some resources on mindfulness at the end of this post if you want to find out more.

We also had a wonderful graphic facilitation session from Emer O’Leary and a stimulating discussion around how to engage a large number of participants. Our discussions also touched on women in leadership roles and the isolation of the lone facilitator. Many thanks to everyone who hosted and contributed. We were delighted that so many people new to the network joined us and were so willing to share their experience and skills. Here’s what people valued most.

  • The opportunity to learn about a new skill or approach.
  • Hearing about people’s experiences of facilitation in a safe environment
  • The opportunity to be with other facilitators in a room. There was acknowledgement that virtual spaces have their place but there was much to be gained by being and practicing together. There was also the recognition that facilitation can be an isolating experience so there was real value in coming together , particularly for those who work alone.
  • This tapped in to a recognition of the importance of support and encouragement people felt they had received.
  • There was also a theme around being brave, taking risks, trying something new, keeping it fresh. This can be particularly important if you want to try out a new approach. The facilitation network can act as a ‘testing ground’, allowing you to gain practice and feedback before you use the approach in your work.

If you are interested in out Edinburgh Facilitators Network, you might also be interested in the following opportunities:

  • We are excited to announce that due to demand, there is now a Glasgow Facilitation Network with their first meeting due to take place on the 27th October 2017.
  • We are also exploring the possibilities of a Facilitation Network in the Highlands. If this is of interest to you please get in touch:
  • The next Edinburgh Facilitation Network is on 7th February 2018 in Edinburgh, and will be part of the Fire Starter Festival – so please hold the date in your diary. If you are interested in finding out a little more about the Fire Starter Festival you may be interested in attending one of our upcoming information sessions.
  • In between sessions we have a LinkedIn Group where people can discuss facilitation and ask for and offer help.
  • The Facilitation Network was born out of a need to support facilitation in and across public services to help support our Pioneering Collaborative Leadership Programme. If you are interested in this work please contact Karen.

Mindfulness Resources

Leadership Exchange – Don’t Miss Out!

Application Deadline – 29 September 2017 – apply now

We welcome you to apply to the next application round of our FREE Leadership Exchange Programme.  The initiative pairs leaders at middle, senior and executive levels to offer them brief cross sectoral exchanges to learn from each other, develop an understanding of other sectors, encourage collaborative working and improve leadership skill capacity.

Over the last 5 years, we have matched over 260 leaders across public, private and third sectors, including representatives from; Scottish Government, Local Authorities, NHS, Scottish Natural Heritage, various Scottish Universities and Colleges, Local and National Charities, Police Scotland, Scottish Prison Service,  and Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.  With individuals from more organisations engaging with our programme every week, we can offer a wide range of exchange and sector experiences for all our participants.

We received 41 new applications in February, our first cohort this year, and look forward to exceeding this number in September.

New-LEx-branding-image smallSome of the key programme benefits include:

  • Insight into a different sector – its culture, language and environment
  • Seeing the challenges other leaders experience
  • Offering a fresh perspective on your own leadership role
  • Gaining peer support and the opportunity to share best practice
  • Developing your own leadership skills
  • Building relationships and connections in another sector
  • Collaborative partnership working potential

Testimonials from previous participants include:

“It’s a refreshing way to take time from the day to day of your organisation’s operations to reflect, share and learn from a leader from a different sector – outcomes on both sides are very positive.” (Geoff Leask, Chief Executive, Young Enterprise Scotland)

“Having people working together from different organisations and backgrounds is an incredible enabler of learning.  I would recommend the programme to anyone who genuinely wants to develop their professional practise. ” (Ian Elliot, MPA Co-Director & Senior Lecturer in Business & Public Services, Queen Margaret University)

“You’re not going to get many opportunities like this one, so I would take it right now.” (Louise Macdonald OBE, Chief Executive, Young Scot)

To find out more about the programme, watch our videos, phone Phili Wetton on 0131 243 2755 or email

To apply in time for the 29th September deadline you can complete the short online application.