By Edwin Colyer, Founder and Impact Lead
21 September 2023
A few years ago I first encountered the practice of “checking in” at the start, middle and end of meetings and workshops. My instinct for cynicism and preference for being the “dark horse” in a team kicked in. It felt far too touchy-feely; why would I make myself open and vulnerable, even to really close colleagues, let alone teams with strangers?
Suffice to say that my perspective has pivoted – just one of many transformational shifts I have experienced in recent years. I now use the technique, perhaps framed in different ways, in many meetings, training events and workshops. It’s a great opener when we use our collective mosaic method: people get to sift through piles of pieces, ascribe meaning to a broken bottle or cracked corner of tile. But they get some psychological safety by expressing their thoughts and feelings through the metaphor of a mosaic piece.
On 19 September 2023 my colleague Jaimella Espley and I travelled to London for our first in-person workshop as part of our Mosaics for Policy project, funded by Wellcome. This was a dry run to test out approaches, questions and logistics prior to first adventure in the wilds of policy making in October.
Jaimella facilitated the workshop with extraordinary expertise. Her calmness and gentle prompts created an oasis of creative thinking as the project team familiarised itself with the mosaic method and how a workshop could be structured to build shared understandings of a policy area.
My role as official recorder was to take photos of people’s builds and capture the essence of conversations and discussions when people shared their different perspectives.
Here are a few key insights from the day.
We’ve observed this from the beginning, but our team confirmed how much they enjoyed exploring the colours, textures and shapes of pieces. Jaimella started the session by asking people to choose one piece, which they then kept for the duration of the workshop. At the end, several people said they had enjoyed feeling their sliver of brick in a pocket or had clutched onto their ceramic chip. “I have my original powder blue tile,” someone said, “partly because it’s been a bit of a security blanket throughout the whole process. And I’ve pretty much held on to it the entire time.”
The element of surprise
One participant described the session as “transformational” as it had shifted their thinking to appreciate the depth of conversation, sharing and insight that the collective process enabled. Another had an epiphany when they turned over a plain piece and discovered a wonderful pattern on the reverse: “I chose this piece because one of my anxieties was about what the outcome would be. And turning that title over was, whoa, it doesn’t actually matter, it can be something as exciting as that tile. Or it could be something completely different. And that’s equally exciting on that side, but it’s a very different outcome. And that, for me, was a lightbulb moment.”
Freedom of expression
Giving meaning to inanimate objects through the metaphors of size, shape, texture and weight created a freedom of expression. One team member explained that by focusing a group’s attention on a mosaic piece or the bigger collective build takes attention away from the individual. It frees them to speak up to contribute without judgement or recrimination.
We are not Romans
Another surprise moment: discovery that our mosaic-making is not constrained to archetype Roman villa flooring or “pictures in pieces”. You can layer, you can stand chunks upright! The scope for metaphor in 3D!
Dynamics of space... and time
Indeed, our collective mosaics evolved over time. In one exercise, we all took elements from each other’s personal builds to create a shared model for collective mosaic-making. Our visual representation was respectfully tweaked, pieces moved, consensus formed. The evolution of a mosaic over time is as important as any end product.
Hidden depth of emotion
Policy development is dry, right? No so, one member remarked. MPs, officials, advocacy groups, they all come with certain biases and backstories. A layered mosaic told the story of hidden emotions that drive people’s passions. We need to keep these in mind, ensure our mosaic space is safe, and signpost people to help and support if discussions trigger strong emotional responses.
Lean in and listen hard
Most people observed the depth of active listening taking place. You needed to really “lean in” to people’s contributions and work hard to collaborative build from and on people’s ideas, rather than knocking their creations apart. Health warning: this level of engagement with others is intense and tiring, you need physical breaks and shots of humour to sustain momentum!
I do not take kindly to workshops that are all talk and no action. Jaimella carefully planned in a section that enabled the project team to focus on future intentions based on their learning. These intentions were represented by a takeaway mosaic piece. I know one piece now sits in a sea glass jar at home, but even here it silently shouts a double nudge: first, remember to take action. Second, you are just one piece in a much larger system – so hold yourself and others to account.
The joy of making
There’s a lot of doom and gloom around us: climate anxiety, the threat of war, the cost of living. For a few hours people discovered the joy of making. Not just the creative thinking required to build meaningful visualisations of abstract ideas, but the joy of discovery, of new and shared ideas, of building trust and strengthening relationships.
I remember the taster day we attended at Wellcome a few weeks previously where we met other projects leaders funded alongside Scientia Scripta. We explored how humour, imagination, circus skills and games could also support inclusive policy development. That day I wondered what might happen if policy-makers spent more time building trust before developing their shared goals.
Collective mosaic-making does exactly this. Through the joy of making, connections form. And that’s exactly what you need to shift policy from good ideas to great outcomes.