And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

On being #woke (or: privilege, minorities and ignorance)

I’ve experienced being a minority twice in my life.

The first time was in 2014 (when I was 27) at a Guardian event featuring Sheryl Sandberg promoting her “Lean In” book. My girlfriend bought me a ticket and I attended in solidarity despite not being the target audience. In a room with a capacity of perhaps 500, I was one of maybe 20-30 men in the room. As I looked around me, all I could see were women (both on the stage and in the seats).

I began to feel uncomfortable, feeling that I was taking the seat of a woman who could’ve benefited from the talk content more than me. As the talk began, Sandberg asked the men in the audience to raise their hands. She got the audience to applaud us, making some crack about us being boyfriend material. It was cute, but immediately afterwards I felt that guilt return as I realised that I’d been given extra credit for showing up and contributing nothing, solely because I was a man.

This was balanced somewhat by the brilliant Jemima Kiss who was interviewing Sandberg on stage – in the Q&A section I debated asking a question but decided not to (with the same reasoning as above). In the pub afterwards I mentioned this to Jemima who immediately said “good – because I wouldn’t have picked you”.

The second time in my life that I experienced being a minority was midway through 2017 (when I was 31) at an event called Wile Out in Birmingham. It’s an open mic night aimed at (and run by) women of colour performing music, poetry and live art. I went along partly to support a new event in my city, partly to hear some new music/poetry, and partly because I realised there was a huge subculture in the city I lived in that I knew nothing about.

I was one of perhaps four white people in a room of 50 or so people of colour – the first time I’ve ever experienced this. Of course this speaks to the lack of diversity in my own social groups and events, and I’m embarrassed to admit it. At no point did anyone make me feel unwelcome (quite the opposite) but throughout the whole experience I felt—for the first time in my life—like an imposter. This event was intended as a safe space for people of colour, a gathering for their community and a space to be together and collaborate. As a white man entering that space, was I breaking it apart just by being there?

Again, nobody there made me feel unwelcome and I chatted to folks and enjoyed the music and poetry hugely. I was again reminded of my own cultural ignorance: as poets performed and dropped lines that resonated with the audience, people clicked their fingers in appreciation of strong words well-spoken. I’d never come across this before—in my ignorance—and was impressed. At the equivalent white events I’d been to (okay, so nobody markets an open-mic night as being aimed at white people, but we all know the kinds of performers you typically see here) there was nothing like this; just po-faced performers with Radio 4 intonation.

Bridget Minamore performed and read some fantastic work, and she introduced her poems by talking about how she felt she was at home and with friends who’d get her references – again, I felt that imposter status: I wasn’t part of this world and she was only comfortable performing like this because there weren’t more people there like me. At one point she asked for a beat and audience members clapped out a bass rhythm while someone beat the wall with their feet to make a snare noise while she spoke over the top of it – it was like nothing I’d ever heard before.

Getting out of your comfort zone is important and attempting to get a feeling for what actual minorities experience every single day is essential. I can never claim to know what that feels like and I never will thanks to my privilege and status.

Even in my pathetic two instances here, I was given treatment above and beyond what others would experience because of my status playing life on “the easiest difficulty setting”.

I walked away from Wile Out feeling both inspired, embarrassed at myself and motivated to do more to support this kind of stuff and to offer up the spotlight that disproportionately targets me (and other folks like me) onto others.

I’ll still fail and I’ll still embarrass myself at my ignorance but knowing that ignorance is there to be eradicated is the first step in itself, I hope.

Buying a house

We left London in 2015 because getting on the housing ladder seemed impossible. Our landlord in our small 1-bedroom flat in zone 3 offered us “first refusal” on the place he was kicking us out of to sell – £370k. We refused.

Birmingham was a place that seemed on the up: interesting job prospects, a large, diverse city with a good food/arts scene, and close to all the places our friends/families lived. We moved and began saving in earnest.

Two years later we were in a good position to buy a house. This post summarises what we learned along the way.

1. House-hunting takes ages

We spent 2-3 months doing house viewings, which quickly became exhausting as we spent entire weekends trooping around Birmingham on public transport, or leaving work early trying to squeeze in a 2 bed in Kings Heath before 5.30pm. Maddy liked the very first place we saw (located on the street we already lived on) but I felt like we needed to see quite a few so that the novelty wore off and we got a bit more discerning.

Trying to get a feel for a place you’ll spend a significant chunk of your life (and income) in/on is quite difficult when you only have fifteen minutes and there’s three other couples wandering around and examining the boiler. I knocked on walls and switched on taps, uncertain what I was meant to be looking for, but conscious that I might miss something obvious.

Some estate agents left us to it, while others followed us round pointing out obvious things. Some were rude (one openly laughed in my face when I asked if he thought the house would go for the asking price). Some were sick of trying to sell impossible places (one house we viewed was filled with cabinets of the current owner’s collection of little statues of dogs dressed up as historical figures) and looked unsurprised when we left quickly.

Soon it became a case of making a booking to view a place on-the-spot because they were being snapped up so quickly, and Rightmove alerts became our friend. You know within seconds of walking in whether the place is right for you, but after a while the process deadens you to the reality.

2. Making an offer is rubbish

Once the mystery of trooping around someone else’s home and trying to imagine it as yours is over, you’ll be faced with the poker-like scenario of making an offer on the place. Better experts than me have written about the tactics and techniques to master this. All I can say is that it’s rubbish. As a first-timer, you probably have no idea what everyone else is bidding (and estate agents will say anything they can to stoke the fires), and likely won’t have enough experience to really sense when you should—or shouldn’t—improve your offer.

One viewing we did surprised me when the agent told us exactly how many offers they’d had and what the highest one was. Nobody else had ever been as upfront as this – every other agent was very cagey about this (“can’t tell you” was a common refrain). In the end we had to just work out what we could afford and take a gamble on how close we could get to/from the asking price for the seller to accept.

3. Chains are as frustrating as everyone says they are

We lost six months waiting for a chain to resolve before we found a better house and pulled out. It was massively frustrating (not least for the sellers, who lost their onward purchase almost immediately after accepting our offer) as we just felt time ticking away. Not all chains take this long but the lack of updates made things difficult to bear, and the sense that the sellers didn’t seem to be doing much to find their next place or keep us happy (though this is difficult to blame them for – their place was lovely and would be quickly snapped up again if it went back on the market). We asked if they’d consider moving out and renting, but no dice.

In the end a bigger place came up for a good price which was chain-free and we jumped at it – after waiting half a year in the previous chain to progress little further than surveys/searches, we progressed from viewing to completion within two months on the second house (which included Christmas/New Year).

If you’re like we were and first-time buyers, consider holding out until you find a chain-free place. Otherwise be prepared to wait. Indefinitely.

4. The entire process is stacked against the buyer

I was surprised at the amount of things we had to pay for that seemed like they should be the seller’s responsibility. I understand that a survey on a house is in my interest as the buyer, but it seems bizarre that if we decided not to purchase based on its results, someone else might come along, commission a similar survey, and make the same decision. Is it not possible for the seller to commission a single, independent survey, and provide this to (serious) buyers? We lost hundreds of pounds when we pulled out of the first purchase on the various searches and surveys that were completed – all of which would presumably be paid for again (returning the same information) by whoever ultimately purchased the house. I guess this kind of thing keeps the property industry going.

Likewise at the offer stage, we were being asked to make “blind” or “best and final” offers against others with no context or knowledge of their circumstances. This can result in nervous one-upmanship where there might not even be any counter-bids (for all you know). Many estate agents asked to see proof of our funds, which handily meant they could make reasonable guesses at our total budget (and therefore encourage us to increase our bids).

5. Nobody tells you about the guilt

Compared to my friends where I grew up in Nottingham, we’ve purchased a house quite late (at 30/31). But other groups of friends (eg. most of my London mates) aren’t in our position due to the costs there, and I feel a quite strong sense of guilt for our privilege despite buying our home with our own money and savings.

On the day I went to pay the deposit for the mortgage I was waiting outside the bank when two homeless men stopped me to ask me what day it was (for real). After they left I reflected about how I was about to go and transfer tens of thousands of pounds for a house, while they didn’t even know it was Friday. As soon as we moved in I set up a regular donation to Shelter, but even then I felt like a middle class wanker.

We also benefitted from some Conservative government policies – a couple of weeks before we exchanged contracts the Tories axed Stamp Duty for first-time buyers, which saved us a couple of grand. This was great news and basically bought us some furniture, but we didn’t need the policy change – we were planning to buy anyway and had budgeted for paying it. Criticism of that policy suggested it wouldn’t help the people who really need it (what’s £1300 or so when you have to find £20k?) and we certainly felt like it.

Similarly, we both had Help To Buy ISAs which earned us about £2.5k in bonuses. Again, we were just using the system as intended and saving money for several years, but I still feel somehow complicit with the Tories by benefitting financially from policies that shouldn’t be helping fortunate people like me. I still don’t really know how to feel about this.

Closing thoughts

So, with all of that said, was there anything good about the experience? Well, getting the keys to our own home that nobody (well, besides the mortgage provider) can kick us out of was fantastic. Not having to put up with someone else’s bizarro decorating choices is awesome. And feeling like I’ve levelled up as an adult was pretty cool too. But I don’t want to do it again for quite a long time.

Things I’ve learned organising events

I’ve been running a regular music meetup event for over two years now, across two cities (London and Birmingham). While it’s a small event and a bit specialist/niche, I’ve learned a thing or two while running it and thought I’d share some learnings here.

Put it on Facebook

I know, I know – this sounds obvious. Maybe it is – I’ve not had a Facebook account since 2011 so for me personally, I don’t tend to discover events there. It turns out that everyone else does, though. A few people persistently nagged me to create a Page for the event, which I eventually did – it allowed me to tap into a wider network (I was previously just using Twitter), and I did a few paid ads right at the start to grow a bit of an audience. The first time I saw a user share an upcoming event with some of their friends without me knowing anyone involved, it was all worth it.

Rope your friends in

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I’m very lucky to have a loyal band of friends who come out to the things that I organise – those folks are worth their weight in gold. If you’re starting something, make sure you rope in a few trusty people to come along and even promote the event amongst their own networks. It’s helpful to have a few friendly faces there for your own sanity, but also means conversation can flow a bit at the start as people arrive, rather than a roomful of complete strangers sitting in awkward silence. Just avoid it becoming cliquey where it’s a bunch of folks who already know each other just catching up instead.

Find a good venue and make friends with the people running it

I’m very grateful to Cherry Reds in Birmingham which has hosted Off The Record since late 2015. They gave me a small room for free which we’ve eventually outgrown, and they’ve repaid our loyalty by upgrading us to the bigger room (which used to carry a hire fee). I’ve gotten to know the staff a little and they’ve been super helpful, letting me come in to test out sound systems, sharing our promotional posts on their social media, and being really perceptive and accommodating about the event itself (eg. being sensitive to the fact we’re an album-listening event and not disturbing the room during quiet moments etc). It also makes it easier for attendees that they know where we’ll be each month. Take the time to track down a good venue, look at where other events host theirs, and explain to the owners your goals and schedule. They’ll be happy to have regular business if you can prove to them you’ll bring an audience.

Experiment with different promotion

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I’ve already mentioned Facebook, but there are other tools. A fellow event organiser suggested I use Meetup.com, which would apparently help me reach a huge new audience. I paid my $15/month and, yep, I had 40 or so signups within a couple of days. Sadly, almost all of these people are no-shows when they list themselves as “attending”, or just never sign up to attend in the first place. It’s only because of the loyalty of three or four regulars there that I keep paying the subscription price. I’ve also learned to be brutal and delete people from the group who never turn up, as once I pass 50 members I have to pay even more.

I also tried getting coverage from local Birmingham music promoters/press, but none of them ever featured anything I sent them. I didn’t chase hard on this and I’m sure they’re more concerned with promoting live music (and fair enough) – I think if you already have a good social media network, though, you can work around this. Sometimes a good tweet can reach a relevant local audience regardless of what account it’s from.

Word of mouth works too – quite a few people I’ve spoken to recently have heard about my event now, even if they’ve not been. That’s partly because I’ve been running it on a monthly basis for the last year or so – at the start, it’s going to be difficult to build it from nowhere, but getting some momentum (and keeping it regular, not sporadic) will help.

Host it properly

My event is a discussion forum: once we’ve heard the album of the month, we talk about it. I’m not a strict moderator but I do try to intervene if someone gets a bit self-indulgent with their thoughts on 1970s prog, or dominates the conversation somehow. Equally I try to keep things moving along before the event just turns into people chatting down at the pub – this is fun of course, but makes things feel less like an event and more like, well… just being at the pub, and therefore people might be less likely to come back in future specifically for your event.

posterI always introduce the event formally (well, semi-formally), standing up at the start to greet everyone and introduce the concept, even though half the room are usually regulars who’ve heard me say it before. It helps contextualise things and set the tone. I also do a quick, fun intro where I get everyone to introduce themselves along with a quick, music-related fact that changes each month (eg. the first album they bought, their favourite Christmas song, etc). This helps loosen everyone up a little, and again, emphasises that we’re here to share an experience together, not just sit in a pub for a bit.

These things have all improved with time: I’m still improving on things like branding (I think we’ve outgrown the A4 paper and blutack for the event posters, for example) and promotion (my Twitter friends are probably sick of me posting about it at the end of every month).

Running an event can sometimes feel like a massive chore: you have to persuade loads of people that they should come out to your thing, you have to discuss with venues about audience size and room hire fees if you’re unlucky, and you have to stand up and do some public speaking. At the end of mine I’m always knackered, although this has been improving – again, great friends who are regulars often pitch in to help me out with setup tasks.

But on the other hand, I always get a massive buzz from doing it. Usually at some point in the night when I know things have got off without a hitch, I look around the room and smile, feeling proud that I’ve brought these people together for an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise had. You too can bask in that warm glow! Organise something, rope in some mates for moral support, spam everyone on social media – then have a beer at the end. You’ll have earned it.

#harkive 2017

Note: this blog entry is for the #harkive project, an annual popular music research project that asks people to tell the tale of HowWhere and Why they listen to music on a single day each year. You can find more about that project on the official site.

I wake up to the sound of Radio 4, perhaps the most middle class of awakenings. It’s on the alarm clock and I quickly switch it off: sometimes you need a coffee inside you before you can stand an extended John Humphrys monologue.

I travel to work in silence besides the noise of the bus, preferring to read a magazine without musical distraction until I arrive at work. My first proper music listening of the day doesn’t start until 11am when I finish all of my just-got-to-the-office catchups, discussions and meetings and am able to escape into my headphones.

I’m quite bad when it comes to listening to old favourites rather than new music so I start off with a classic: At The Drive-In’s 2000 album “Relationship of Command”. I was obsessed with this band in the early 2000s—just after they split—and was a bit disappointed by their recent new album, so I return this one for its sheer urgency and power. Every time I hear it fires me up and takes me back to being 17 and angry, presumably at something.

After this blast I need something a bit more casual so I decide to turn to Wikipedia to see if there’s any musical history happening today. It turns out that July 25th 1965 was the date that Dylan went electric at Newport Folk Festival, so I pop on “Bringing It All Back Home”, some of which featured in Dylan’s controversial set. I was all set to listen to a playlist of the actual songs he performed that day but it turns out nobody’s created one on Spotify and since I’m too lazy, I stick to the album. It’s a good mix: some ballads, some stompers and a classic or two. I still love the laughter at the start of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”.

After lunch I decide I should probably listen to something recorded in the last decade, then remember reading an interview with HAIM the other day which means they probably have a new record out. I caught some of their set at Glastonbury in 2014 and enjoyed it so I give their new release, last month’s “Something To Tell You” a spin. I end up adding “Nothing’s Wrong” to my “class” Spotify playlist (eg. good songs) for its Fleetwood Mac-esque soft rock beauty (and those backing vocals). The rest of the album blurred past as I worked and a few songs piqued my interest, but I find myself more interested in the code I’m writing for most of its duration.

With a post-lunch slump setting in, I decide to take a coffee break and head outside. Before, though, I banish an earworm and play “Ghosts” by the Jam, a song I habitually noodle whenever I pick up a guitar. I first came across it via a cover by Ted Leo, but the original version has a neat horn section in the back of the mix which really picks it up. This song also got used in an episode of Eastenders as the funeral music for Kevin Wicks (aka Phil Daniels of Parklife fame). Trivia!

I spend a little time paging through my music collection for an event I’m running tonight, “Off The Record”. It’s a record club (like a book club) with a different theme each time. This month our theme is “A European Union” so I scan through my library for bands made up of Europeans. It’s harder than I thought – turns out I listen to a lot of North American artists. Amongst the Euros I do track down, though, are Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, The Tallest Man On Earth, Jaga Jazzist and Django Reinhardt. I add these to my playlist for later and leave the office to head to the pub where I run my music event.

On the way there I listen to the ITV Cycling podcast on my phone. They produce a daily show for the Tour de France, recorded by the same staff who produce the TV commentary and daily highlights package for TV. They must do the podcast last and every episode is hilarious because they’re either desperate to wrap up, rehashing stuff they’ve already said on camera, or taking the piss out of each other (probably after a few glasses of wine, too). This might not sound like a great advert but it’s a fun show and the camaraderie between the presenters makes it an engaging listen.

This time I’m catching up on the final episode from Sunday’s stage into Paris, and at one point, presenter Ned Boulting makes a joke about what he can hear in his earpiece from his director when broadcasting live. He jokingly makes a radio fuzz noise into the mic, when suddenly my headphones come loose from the socket and the audio becomes muffled and just emits an irregular clicking noise. I listen to this for almost a minute, thinking it’s an extended joke about how bad their in-ear audio gets, before I realise it’s a problem at my end and plug the cable back in properly. Oops.

Soon I’m at the pub and get the equipment set up for that night’s Off The Record event. Our theme is “A European Union” so we’re listening to music from the continent. I switch on my playlist from earlier for background music but after a while I find Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros a bit too soft (sorry, Joe) so I put on Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (“Shake The Sheets”, perhaps their best record) to liven things up.

Eventually it’s time for our album: each month a group of 20 or so Birmingham music nerds get together and we listen to an album together, then talk about it. It’s an event I’ve been running for two years now and it’s a fun night. This month we’re listening to The Whitest Boy Alive’s 2009 album “Rules” which I’ve never heard before. It’s a danceable, upbeat affair with introspective lyrics and a clean, simple vibe. I enjoy the album, and the songs everyone else plays after it’s done (see the official site for that playlist!). I also contribute a song myself: “Day” by Norwegian jazz fusion pioneers Jaga Jazzist. I can’t stop myself from picking out the piano and guitar notes with my fingers on the table as it plays: it’s that kind of song.

The night draws to a close and I’m probably a few drinks ahead of where I should be, given I have an early flight the next morning. We grab a cab and hear the sound of the city receding behind us as we head home. The last sounds I hear before drifting off are a brief excerpt from the Alan Partridge audiobook—read by Steve Coogan—which is as ridiculous as it is funny.

With the exception of Off The Record this has been a typical day for my music listening, albeit one a little more focused than usual. Deliberating over what to listen to can turn into a Netflix-esque “nah, I don’t fancy that” so it’s refreshing sometimes to just jump into something without thinking too much, like I did with HAIM. Spotify is great at recommending me things I’ve missed, and perhaps I need that gentle nudge to avoid rehashing things I’ve heard a thousand times before. I’ll be checking out the collaborative #harkive playlist to see what other things I missed today.

Five things I’ve learned being on an innovation team

For just under two years now I’ve been a “Digital Guerrilla”, working as part of a team of six in Birmingham, created by the BBC to “pilot and prototype new storytelling ideas”, and help the broadcaster to “engage with its audiences and to deliver unforgettable content”. I’m leaving this month for a new role, but wanted to share some learnings from being embedded inside a huge organisation and being tasked with—that dreaded word—innovation.

1. Ask forgiveness, not permission

I’m kicking off this list with some hypocrisy, because this was something I wish I’d done more of at the BBC. It’s a large, complex and embattled organisation and therefore is famed for its processes, bureaucracy and policies. Most of these are understandable—even laudable—but they can certainly make for challenges when trying to push boundaries.

For example, releasing webapps that use public APIs like Twitter’s or Facebook’s require a custom development agreement to be put in place, because the BBC can’t sign anything granting unlimited indemnity (eg. if our Facebook app broke your computer somehow, the BBC could be liable to pay all your costs). This means that before we can release apps using these platforms, we have to get custom, BBC-specific agreements in place with Legal first.

Other concerns are around editorial policy: some parts of the BBC’s web properties I’ve worked on contain sex/drug reference. In one quiz we built (aimed at a middle-aged audience), we had multiple meetings to solve the (mostly theoretical) issue of an under-16 browsing our quiz and finding a link back to BBC Taster (which sometimes contains this edgy content) and being exposed to it. Lots of people were consulted on this before we signed off on wedging some copy into a text box intended for a survey, which warned curious youngsters not to click any further.

I mention this not to moan about the BBC (which, after all, is trying to protect the license fee payer), but to suggest that the world might not have ended if we’d just put these things out and taken the risk. Two of the apps I worked on were blocked from release at the end of the project for these kind of reasons. Clearly better up-front planning and discussion could have avoided this, but sometimes when you’re being asked to innovate, you have to ruffle a few feathers. Just don’t get sued.

2. Know your audience

Being asked to build things for a demographic you’re not part of is challenging – more so when that demographic is “young people” / millennials / your-epithet-of-choice-here. Everyone kids themselves that they know what teenagers like online (“oh, it’s all about Snapchat, right?” they say confidently), but really, it’s a mystery.

With that in mind, the projects I’m most proud of are the ones where we got out of our comfort zone (and studio) and met the audience face-to-face. Lacking a proper UX process, we did it guerrilla-style: popped over to the local university and plonked our stuff in front of them. Watching a bunch of first years mercilessly tear apart a D&D-style Twitter game we made was sobering but powerful: we learned more that day than in the months of development we’d spent up to that point.

We also got to see the real people behind the glossy personas or the faceless demographic charts. Real people are messy, unhelpful, resistant to pigeonholing and a thousand times easier to make things for when you’ve spent time with them. Every time we put our work in front of people and waited to see if it could stand up on its own, I felt nervous, defensive, proud and informed all at the same time.

And on the projects where we didn’t? I rarely felt much at all. Unique users on a chart are nice, but almost meaningless at an organisation the size of the BBC. We don’t need vanity metrics when we’re innovating, we need to see a real person recognise the value in the thing we’ve built. Get in front of them.

3. Throw things at the wall and see what sticks

I’m a firm believer in the agile/lean manifestoes – release early and often. Innovation should encompass this: you’re supposed to be trying new things and by definition, not all of that stuff will be relevant to your audience. Maybe some of it will become so, but it’s your job to work out what that might be.

With that in mind, life’s too short to lock up ideas in a lab while you perfect them. The sunk cost fallacy quickly creeps into the picture when you do this, too, and we were victim to spending too much time (and cash) getting something done, and releasing it knowing it wasn’t great but had to be launched.

The quicker you can drop professional pride and just get used to putting things out and seeing how the audience reacts, the quicker you can drop the stuff that isn’t working and focus on what is. It sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how hard it can be to switch to this mindset when you’re not used to it.

Case in point: 360° videos. I can’t think of a single other technology where the ratio of interest from publishers to users is so highly in favour of the former. The BBC loves them. Sure, it’s cool the first time you see one, and when the entire world is wearing an Oculus Rift at all times then bring ’em on. But the high cost of production (in terms of both time and money) means you could pilot three or four quicker, more agile ideas for the same cost.

It’s all about not being afraid to set a target for an idea (number of social engagements, time spent on average, or plain-old hits if you want to go all 90s) and then releasing it, interrogating it, and iterating – it’s the digital equivalent of cutting a path through a dense jungle. Let someone else airlift a cement mixer to the forest later.

4. Be a unit

This was the first time I’d worked on a small team – in previous roles I’d been part of teams of a dozen or so, but here there were just six of us.

Geography played its part in challenging us – we weren’t based in a mainstream BBC office (just on our own in Birmingham’s “creative quarter”, Digbeth), not all of our team were located in Brum, and frequent trips to London to work with other teams sometimes got monotonous.

However, the moments when the whole team were engaged on an idea: everyone focused on improving it, testing it, developing it – these were the standouts for me. You’re more invested in the success of a concept when you’ve had a hand in shaping it, and you’ll fight for something you know is a strong idea when you’ve sweated on the details and partnered with your teammates to make it better.

We had a few periods like this – all cylinders firing, everyone contributing to each others’ ideas, everybody willing an idea to succeed. It’s hard to capture and difficult to regain when it’s disappeared, but team unity is paramount and correlates directly to the strength of your output: you need to be greater than the sum of your parts.

5. Innovation is relative

Finally, the dreaded I word. Explaining your work on an innovation team might become a millstone around your neck when you speak to certain folks – they’ll think you’re either trying to be the next Elon Musk, or about to sell them a VR headset. It’s easy to get down about your work and think “this isn’t innovative, someone could’ve done this three years ago”.

Innovation, though, is relative to the organisation you’re doing it in. When I started at the BBC they’d never been able to embed a Disqus commenting widget on a site. Small an achievement as it was (I’m not putting “embedding an <iframe>” up there with “inventing SpaceX”), it represented a step forward in navigating the BBC’s legal/editorial policy framework (see above), and perhaps helped show the organisation that the sky doesn’t fall in when these things happen.

If you’re in a team tasked with innovating within your company, remember that you’re not being measured against the entire digital industry. What are the things your organisation is afraid of or “unable” to do? Prove to them that it’s possible and build those future paths for other people to follow.

By next month I’ll be off on a new role, helping another organisation to challenge boundaries and explore new ways of working. Not everything worked the way I wanted it to at the BBC (though when can you ever say this about a job?) but I learned several useful things about how we work, how we develop ideas, and how to approach challenges in a huge organisation – I’d happily do it all again.