When is a course not just a course?

9 minute read

It does feel like Simon and I have known each other for a long time, however that is not so. It’s surprising to us just how quickly the course and the Foundation have evolved in the past year or so.

Simon has been on a mission to bring the power of Clean Language into business for a long time. If you don’t believe me, watch the early Open University video mentioned below - he had hair then!

I asked him to tell me where it all began, so we can write it down for posterity, or entertainment (take your pick). Here’s what he told me.

Where did it all start?

About 25 years ago, Caitlin Walker came into a company that I worked for to deliver Clean Language training. It was Caitlin’s first work in a corporate setting and it was captured in a series of videos for the Open University. The process she used has since been immortalised as “Metaphors at Work” in her book From Contempt to Curiosity.

I was a middle manager in this small company, and I developed the world’s first Electronic Lab Notebook (ELN) software. In the course of doing that, I met my wife, and we bought out part of that company to found Amphora Research Systems.

Running a software company is fairly hairy and I didn’t really know anything. The only training I’d ever been given in my former company was what Caitlin did. To grow our Amphora, I basically ran around the world talking to potential customers for the new ELN product, whilst designing and coding new functionality in the software to meet their needs. I hired some salespeople to help me but found I couldn’t get them to do what I was doing.

It turns out that what I was doing was using Clean Language to sell this product, in a way that was different to your normal sales pitch.

So I spent about a year trying to track down Caitlin, and found her again in about 2012. She agreed to deliver introductory Clean Language training to the sales team and our senior developer. For the next few years, we were very lucky to have Caitlin come down and train our new people - she’d essentially run specialised training courses for my team. During that time, Caitlin and I ran a Clean in Business session at her annual Clean Language conference. So my ideas about using Clean Language in a business setting were forming and being tested everyday, through our work in Amphora.

As is often the case with such things, the other demands on Caitlin’s time grew and my ability to call Caitlin in at short notice disappeared. At the time, I’d just hired someone who needed to work part-time during school hours. That put a constraint on the external training we could send her on, and there was nothing on offer that could replace the training we’d received from Caitlin.

Then what happened?

It was actually a very interesting problem to have. I’d got a good background in Clean at this point, and I thought, “You know what? I am a techie, I can do this via YouTube!”

And that was my plan in around 2017 - to basically figure out what I was doing in sales and do some 5 minute YouTube videos. So we built TV studio in the Amphora offices (because that’s what techies do) and we had a great time, a great team bonding experience.

Once I started to record videos I realized I couldn’t describe the concepts well enough. And that’s when I started working with Catherine Daley and Sarah Scarratt. Initially the plan was to explain it to people in person so we could refine our explanation, and then record a video. We’d never done a course before, so we structured it into short sessions and did lots of pilots. It turned out that people seemed to get more out of the “live experience”, and so we kept going with that.

Refining the course appealed to my slightly nerdy quality systems approach from working in software: iterate and just get better at it day in, day out. One of my contributions was to make it 5x one hour slots over Zoom. Because then with those constraints, you have something that can travel very easily, you have something that people will sign up to very easily. It makes everything very accessible. So my idea of spreading Clean thinly and widely, which I have been exploring since 2018 has evolved over many iterations.

And is there anything else about spreading Clean thinly and widely?

My early career was deeply impacted by the rise of the Open Source movement, and how it allowed all sorts of innovation which had previously been impossible as well as allowing people to build businesses with very little investment. In the Open University videos documenting Caitlin’s work, the example we’re all discussing is the emerging impact of the Open Source Linux operating system vs the then dominant Microsoft Windows.

Open Source is not about giving stuff away, it’s about everybody within the community using the same basic stuff to raise standards and build collective knowledge. For computer systems for example, you need protocols to communicate reliably between computers and common code bases to keep systems efficient and cost effective. There’s no point in individual companies making their own thing because it’s not a point of differentiation and drives costs up. Open Source allows software companies to focus on innovation in their own area and sector, using a common platform which sorts out the boring and fundamental stuff.

Hanging around the Clean Community gave me an insight into the training business, and I sensed that a Creative Commons approach (which is the Open Source approach to content) would be a good way to go. So we’ve released the course materials under a Creative Commons license, an approach which I feel is likely the future for training courses.

And whilst working on Better Conversations, Catherine and I started to run the Systemic Modelling online practice groups, because we wanted to practice and there was nothing online. These not only caused us to meet lots of lovely people from around the world, but also started us on the learning curve of running events reliably over Zoom and running them for a global audience. A lot of the people who now work with the Foundation came through those practice groups, including you!

And where did the idea for the Foundation come from?

I basically phoned everybody up that I knew and asked them “Now I’ve done this, what else is needed to make this fly?” And it was fairly clear that they needed some sort of organisation to do basic training, provide sales and marketing support and to host a community around this.

It was very natural to set up a non-profit to support this because I didn’t want to run a training company. I just wanted to solve my problem. And I know you don’t want to be a full-time trainer either, and you have lots of ideas about what else the Foundation can bring to people.

And the other thing is, I helped Catherine, who was working for us full time, to transition back to working as a freelancer. And you have moved from corporate to freelancer to corporate in your career. We’ve got a really good idea of what being inside an intact team and a company gives you as an advantage over working on your own.

I’ve got an enterprise sales force. If someone has a potential gig and wants to go and bid into the NHS or into Vodafone, say, I have people who handle that kind of process every day, whereas the average freelancer will usually come up against some fairly large obstacles when they try to do that.

Over the past year of us working together, we realised that together we have the skills and resources available to really help this fly. And we know we will find the time to do this because we would like this to spread, we’d like the world to be a better place.

Anything else about the past year?

Well, you’ve came alongside me on this journey! As you know, after Catherine left Amphora to develop her own coaching business, I was trying to document everything we’d been doing and was struggling. Partly because of time and partly because I’m not a trainer. We’d had met in the Systemic Modelling practice group and I think you originally agreed to “come and help out for 6 months to write stuff up”. At the time I didn’t realise you had 2 Masters degrees, are an epic nerd and we’d become good friends along the way!

And we spent 2022 refining and simplifying the course, as well as making sure we’re on solid ground with regards to the intellectual concepts. Along the way we’ve had some great conversations with people like Caitlin, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, and we’ve also been able to bring in some of the latest thinking from the Clean Community. It really helps that your Clean experience is mostly from Angela Dunbar’s work, whereas mine is via Caitlin.

The challenge was to standardise and document the course to make it reliable and repeatable. We’ve done that and I think it’s even more impactful than ever. It’s gone from working out how you and I can deliver the course to answering questions like “How can we help people be successful in their own thing?” and “How do we build a team to take this to the next level?”

Now in 2023 we’re focusing on the mission which is spreading the course and making it accessible. Together we’re able to execute really well and it’s a pleasure to be able to leave most of the day-to-day running of the Foundation to you.

And what do you know now?

What I’ve realized about the course is those two breakout rooms are where the learning happens and we’re just giving people skills to make those meaningful experiences.

We have had so much interest from people who want to translate this into their own language and take it into their own communities. I could not have imagined that would be happening, even a year ago.

For our team at Amphora, it has given them opportunities to work in both a stable software company and in a startup, and to develop the skills needed in each situation. That has a significant impact on how we develop our team. Everyone at Amphora is on board with this, which makes a huge difference in us both feeling supported as well.

And as long as the Foundation stops making a loss, over the medium term, that’s a good thing and I’m happy. And because doing this still excites us, we are able to double down on our mission, asking “How do we cause this to spread?” and “How do we support people in spreading it?”

And I guess finally, I’m so grateful for all the help and support we’ve had from the Clean Language Community and now from others new to Clean. This has been a real community effort with contributions large and small, and I don’t think we’d have got this far without it. I hope it inspires others to adopt a more open, community-based approach to their work.

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