What Does Quality Need? More Time To Think.

17th December 2018 - Sophie Hunter

As we come to the end of 2018, I’ve been ruminating on the joys of spending another year focusing on quality through IVE’s Getting to grips with the Quality Principles, and on how we can achieve both quality and excellence in our work.   

Since 2014, these peer-support sessions have run successfully three times a year, and the courses are still booking up into 2019.  There is a strong and committed Quality Principles Alumni group who continue to meet to reflect together and to share practice. So, what is it that pulls people in and keeps them engaged, year after year? 

The first of the seven quality principles is “Striving for Excellence” – described as “having a clear vision and striving for excellence, through providing high-quality arts work and experiences, to achieve the best possible outcomes for children and young people.”  It’s one of the principles that is at first a little hard to get to grips with in our sessions, because clearly no one makes a conscious decision to make work that isn’t excellent, and “striving for mediocrity” doesn’t quite have the same ring… 

When we unpick what makes our work by, with or for children and young people excellent, there is often an assumption that it is to do with the quality of the artists we employ, or the strength of the writing, or the dedication of the creative team.  Whilst it is undoubtedly important to have some or all of those things at play, I believe there are other elements that are fundamental to creating consistently excellent work. I believe that there is a direct correlation between excellence and the amount of time we spend planning, reflecting, discussing, exploring and challenging our work with children and young people. 

Each group of professionals that attends the quality principles sessions is full of different personalities, art forms and questions, yet despite the differences in each group, similar themes and topics come up each time.  One theme is that finding time to think is becoming increasingly difficult – we are instead being asked to work at volume and at speed.  In every group, we talk of the issue of diminishing resources (both financial and personnel) coupled with increasing expectations.  There is a desire to produce the very best work that we can, whilst simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by the number of demands on our time. 

So, if finding time to think is becoming increasingly difficult, and there is a direct correlation between excellence and the amount of time we spend planning, reflecting, discussing, exploring and challenging our work, the question is – how can we keep producing quality work? 

A key part of the offer and experience of the quality principles sessions is taking time to think.  Taking time away from computers and phones to really check in with ourselves about what we are trying to make happen, and why – what do we hope each piece of work we deliver will achieve? Allowing ourselves the time (three-hour sessions, each spaced one month apart, over a period of three to four months) to experience the difference that reflection and space can have on the quality of the work we produce.  Allowing ourselves the time to consider what excellence might look like.   

The Quality Principles Alumni group is formed of people who have attended the initial 3 sessions and a public sharing session, and who have chosen to continue to meet to reflect together, to discuss, share and challenge their practice.  They have recognised the connection between taking time out to think and producing excellent work, of high quality: 

I really, really value the sessions. They give me much needed time and space to think, because I don’t find there’s time to do much of that otherwise. Talking to, and sharing with, other experienced professionals really helps too. It’s really useful being able to share concerns, talk about challenges and work out solutions without the pressure, judgement or attempt to be positive that occasionally comes with talking to people inside one’s own organisation.

KF, QP Alumni member

I find the sessions an incredibly valuable forum in which to connect with peers from across sectors, which invigorate and inspire my practice. 

SC, QP Alumni member 

The alumni sessions are hugely valuable to me personally and professionally. They provide a window of time where I can stop doing and I can think, reflect, share and learn. 

JR, QP Alumni member 

I value being able to pause, reflect – it makes the work I do broader and more thoughtful and allows development in a sensitive way.

ES, QP Alumni member 

Additionally, taking the time out supports them as individuals. In a recent publication of Arts Professional talking about the Arts Council’s new report on cultural leadership it said: “In order to weather the pressures that are expected to lie ahead, leaders will need to take care of their own development and mental wellbeing, as well as that of those with whom they work”: 

Everyone who comes to the sessions breathes a sigh of relief when they get through the door and enter the space. This is anecdotal evidence I know, but if I could bottle that air and give it to a scientist they would identify 100% relief content made up of: 30% valuing the time out from a complex work schedule and 25% trusting that what is said in the space remains confidential and will be listened to and 25% realising again that they are not alone. And 19% is that they leave the meeting with a different perspective on what they are aiming to achieve in their work…. And the last 1% in the bottle is “breathe”.  

AH, QP Alumni member 

At a time where expectations are great and resources are scarce, taking the time to hone and craft a piece of work should not feel like a luxury. Stopping long enough to really learn the lessons from a project after it has ended should be standard practice. 

Quality and excellence don’t just happen by accident: they take time and thought and considerable effort.  This is a culture we need to build into our workplaces, both to influence the work we do, and to look after ourselves while we are working.  Getting to grips with the Quality Principles is a great first step towards doing this.

Sophie Hunter 

Quality Principles session facilitator and IVE Associate 

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