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Q&A with Spark the Change Conference Organisers

by Shane Hastie on Jun 17, 2014 |

 
The Spark the Change conference runs in London on 3-4 July. The theme of the conference is “Create an Organisation you can Believe in”. Aimed at leaders from across the business the conference aims to inspire attendees to build better, strong businesses, become more inspiring leaders themselves and create happier workplaces.

Spark is run by Gamevy in conjunction with Software Acumen and Dare Fest.
Gamevy is a tech start-up which is employee owned, has no managers and follows radical business methods. It was founded by Helen Walton, Dan Rough and Paul Dolman Darrall. Software-acumen run several conference around the UK, including Agile Cambridge, Lean UX and UX Scotland. Dare Fest is a global movement which empowers people to build happier workplaces.

InfoQ spoke to the Helen Walton about the goals and content of the conference.

InfoQ: The conference theme is bold - what is “an organisation you can believe in”, what’s wrong with organisations today that they need transforming?

Companies around the world are experimenting with the way they structure themselves, with how they recruit, reward and manage their people. As our economy becomes more knowledge-based, so our ability to elicit the creativity and brilliance of workers becomes ever more important. Companies need to be able to change and react fast; game-changing innovation comes along with increasing frequency - no company, however big or successful can afford to be complacent.
The kind of ideas we'll be discussing at Spark are often represented as idealistic - but in fact they are rooted in pragmatism. Organisations whose staff describe themselves as motivated and with a high degree of ‘autonomy’, grow faster, make more profit and reduce costs. Organisations adopting radical business methods are often at the forefront of innovation. It’s no wonder – the ability to attract and retain the best talent goes hand in hand with being able to bring out the finest work each of those talented people has to offer. Traditional organisations, by contrast, create bureaucracies that actually block their own people, erode their motivation and add layers of management waste that make them slow and uncompetitive. We think that not only are those companies no fun to work for, but they are also doomed to be out-competed.

InfoQ: How do employees go about inspiring and influencing such change – surely this is management’s job?

Normally the people who know most about how things could be organised better are those on the front line. Employees need information in order to make good decisions, and then autonomy to carry out those decisions - but information and autonomy can start in a small or a big way. At Spark, there will be companies talking about how they created a radical re-structure and others talking about small steps - like influencing cultural change through your own behaviour. Spark has over 14 workshops - many of which are about helping participants develop the practical skills they need - such as confronting cynics or visualising an idea in order to persuade others. Other workshops are about brainstorming, innovation games, deciding on how to measure change and creating an action plan.

InfoQ: What are some of the key messages in the conference, and who are the speakers?

There are some really interesting and provocative talks. Tim Harford, well-known as the author of The Undercover Economist, talks about the appeal of hierarchies and 'heroic' figures, but also the problems that result from it. Dr Paul Thomas who is known for his BBC1 programme 'Ban the Boss' talks about why management is failing the organisation and which natural human systems can replace it.

Several talks focus on the power of individuals to make big changes - because it can often feel overwhelming when one person tries to shift a whole culture and process! Jurgen Appelo, author of Management 3.0 offers a toolkit of exercises that those who want to manage differently can use. Brie Rogers Lowery from change.org tells some inspiring stories of the differences that individuals can make in the world, while Rupert Scofield of FINCA talks about the trust required as his tiny micro-loan bank grew from 2 people to 12,000.

There's also a very practical bent to Spark - most of the speakers are not academics or theorists but the leaders of companies who are actualy working in a different way already and are happy to share their learning - the success and failures. Gareth Marlowe of Red Gate Software talks about how the employees restructured the organisation; Geoff McDonald talks about how Unilever has redefined its purpose to be about sustainability, not profit; Jack Hubbard talks about the 'extreme culture of employee engagement' that has made PropellerNet the UK's best small business to work in; and Steve Parry talks about removing bonuses and middle management at a really massive IT company.

 And finally, this is a conference that brings together several different communities. Spark does not promote any one methodology or solution. Instead it encourages different people to explore different methods and to think critically about why they work, the unique circumstances of each organisation and then to develop a plan for change and the skills required to make that change happen.

InfoQ: So this is not only a Tech conference?

There are certainly a lot of tech and web companies attending - we have found that they are very alive to the importance of recruiting, retaining and ensuring their people are free to use their full potential - but there is a real mix. You'll find government, universities, housing co-operatives; insurance companies, banks... In all honesty, this is one conference where you will truly be networking with people you haven't met before! We wanted to bring together people from across the business - not just IT or UX - and from every type of industry - and I think we've succeeded.

InfoQ: You’ve announced a competition in conjunction with the conference – please tell us about The Spark Award

As I said, Spark is all about action - not just fine words. We wanted to make that really clear in the form of an award. This will recognise an individual who manages to implement a change and then also allow him or her to take the change further. The prize will be: £1,000 cash to be spent in whatever way the winner thinks best to spread the change; feature in an article in InfoQ; a professional case study and a speaker slot at Spark 2015.

 The criteria for the kind of change we're looking for is very broad - it doesn't even have to succeed! Being prepared to fail, learn and experiment again, is one of the best ways to enable change. The judging panel will include someone from InfoQ, Gamevy and Conscious Business People and we're hoping to see a real range of changes sparked by ideas and inspirational moments at the conference.

InfoQ: Thank you for talking to us today

InfoQ will record some of the conference sessions and will publish an article by the winner of the Spark Award.

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