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To change or not to change?
Oxford summer school

To change or not to change?

By Rob Husband

Is there an annual event you look forward to? It could be a conference or a show, a festival or a sports match. Perhaps you’re involved in organising and leading or maybe you are just a spectator or participant. My working life has very few routines, but one which give a sense of rhythm to the year is the Oxford Summer School for retail managers. I’m in my fourth year as its programme designer, and I’ve been reflecting on some changes we’ve made and why we’ve made them.

We’ve reached a consistently good level now and feedback has indicated that nothing need change. We are achieving our purpose and people seem to like and value it. So do we stick to the successful formula or do we look to do something different? It’s tempting to play it safe, but we’ve decided to make a few changes. We’re using a new personality profiling system and we’ve brought in a few new people. We’re trying to stretch ourselves and feel this is a good example to the retailers who take part in the Summer School. They work in a complex business environment and are always looking to improve, so we need to do the same to help them to understand themselves in a deeper way within their constantly changing context.

I feel there is some danger in settling with an ‘I’ve got it sorted’ attitude, but there is also some risk in making changes to an approach that works. There is always more to learn and discover so I’d prefer to work with an element of risk, rather than play it completely safe.

One of the values that underpins the Summer School is that we listen. We try to work out what people are saying and respond to it – and this is not just hearing messages that are loud and clear; we’re trying to develop sensitive ears to pick up the subtleties and nuances in the feedback we’re getting: the feelings beneath the surface of people’s comments. If we wait for the message that hits us like a sledgehammer, it’s too late – just as it is when you’re running a retail business. We need to  discern the whispers and be open to reflecting on how we could do things differently to respond.

Otto’s U Theory is about deep listening and sensing to fully understand. He says that we can only get a true picture of what is happening if we allow truth to bubble up and emerge. Then we must evaluate it and ask questions to seek clarity. What could we try? What could we test? How can we do things differently? We don’t necessarily come up with answers or solutions, but we can generate ideas of how we could experiment. And that is what we’ll be doing at this year’s Oxford Summer School. As well as some of the things we know work, we’ll be trying some new stuff too. It’s a great mix, and it should be fun!