Strange Times

David Hurst, Director of Operations at Mayday Trust, explores the power and importance of relationships as he embarks on his own transition away from Mayday and onto his next adventure.

Strange times indeed, after four and half years I am now just about to enter my own transition, it’s time for me to move on and start a new journey. I’ve been thinking hard about my time working alongside the amazing Mayday Trust team and how I could acknowledge their unbelievable commitment. I could write about their talent, passion, determination and humanity but I genuinely believe the team would not appreciate being so highly praised in public. The Mayday crew are a very humble lot who will always put others before themselves; so what do I say, how do I reflect my feelings as I step away and leave behind a team of guys whom I hold in the highest possible regard.

So maybe I am going to confuse you for a few minutes but please stay with me. For 17 years I worked in prisons and managed to find my way into a comfortable leadership position, a steady role with a decent enough pension. I had a good team who were settled, systems worked well and the people we worked with generally took a positive view to their imprisonment. So what took me away from this relatively cushy position?

I was on the wing one evening as I would often stay back because it allowed me to observe how the staff worked and sometimes I would just chat to the men in our care, without the barriers of the daytime routine. On this particular evening I was making a cup of tea when the alarm sounded. I emerged to find two men fighting.

One of the men involved had been a heavy weight trainer for 10 years, he was very intimidating and very angry. Staff jumped in to separate the men and a female officer took a blow to her face. More support arrived, a shank was found on the floor and the other prisoners were becoming agitated. The situation was escalating rapidly. One of the men was removed leaving the angrier individual, who was now highly distressed and quickly becoming threatening. Staff surrounded him in preparation to restrain him. Tension was now so high I could almost taste it. He was screaming “..C’mon then, you lot want it, c’mon do your thing, c’mon let’s have it….”

At that very moment whilst assessing the situation, I noticed Alfie, a prison officer of some 25 plus years. He walked quietly up to this man and said very gently “Paul you need to come with me, this is not good and I’m not going to allow you to embarrass yourself further. Now c’mon let’s walk to your cell, we can sort this out”. He was tender yet quietly assertive, but in a very respectful way. It was like this officer just knew what was going on in this man’s head, he knew Paul and how Paul would respond. It was clear he understood that Paul was scared and his heightened anxiety was causing his anger towards staff.

The staff surrounding Paul were stunned to see this 6ft 20 stone mass of muscle meekly walk away with his head down alongside the officer. No more words were exchanged, but I noticed that Alfie walked alongside Paul, they were in step together, it was like the he was sharing the fiery intense space that Paul was in and sharing the anxiety and stress Paul was experiencing.

So what am I saying, why does this event from several years back still resonate. What does this episode got to do with my decision to join the Mayday team?

Well it’s all about the relationships. The situation described here would not have ended the way it did had Alfie and Paul not had a trusting and respectful relationship, with clear boundaries based on a shared unwritten agreement. Because of the power of their relationship, the officer knew what was going on for Paul. He was confident he could support Paul in a way that was non-judgemental or hostile. Paul was able to respond positively because he knew Alfie genuinely cared, there was a mutual respect.

Back in 2015 someone I really appreciated showed me a job advertised in the Guardian, Assistant Director of Operations Mayday Trust. I was encouraged to apply but to be honest I was only curious and when I submitted my application, I didn’t even expect a reply. So you can imagine my surprise when a week later I received a formal letter inviting me to an assessment day. An assessment day, what was all that about?

It was my first experience of Mayday’s unique approach. A day where I was challenged to look at myself, share who I was as a person not just as a potential employee. I remember being asked my favourite song, easy question you might think, but when you’re in that interview mind-set and tasked with explaining why Hotel California is your all-time favourite it’s quite a task! It was definitely not a conventional interview and the method, although now slightly more developed, is still used by Mayday today.

What was clear from that day was the Mayday team, like Alfie, walked alongside the people they worked with. It was an organisation that strived to create an environment where Coaches could form trusting and honest relationships with people, not tarnished by power imbalances or the traditional constraints of the job. It was something I could whole heartedly get on board with, something that resonated with everything I’d experienced in my time with the Prison Service.

Spoiler alert.. I got the job!

I suppose what I’m trying to say is for me the most impressive element of Mayday and what I’ve enjoyed being part of the most is the relationships the team have with each other and the people Coaches work with. It’s about being able to positively influence without disrespecting, disempowering or dehumanising an individual. Take my memory of Paul and Alfie. Paul initially felt he couldn’t walk away from that situation because he would lose face in front of other prisoners, his position or status on the wing would become vulnerable and his anxiety was building. However, his relationship with Alfie gave him the reassurance to see things rationally, to understand the situation and allow himself to walk away with Alfie by his side.

The Personal Transitions Service (PTS) creates an environment where relationships come first. Where someone going through a tough time is treated with humanity and respect. Coaches look beyond the crisis, the barriers and the labels. Power dynamics are balanced and focus is put on a person’s strengths and passions. People are not segregated into service led activities, instead encouraged to build positive relationships within their local communities, relationships that last beyond their tough time, relationships that can support them through the next bump in the road.

Even when faced with a system that goes against everything that the PTS stands for, the relationships between the team, the people we work with, our PTS Innovation partners, commissioners and funders are the driving force for change – a change that will see systems actually work for those going through tough times.

Everything I have described here explains why I will absolutely struggle to move on. I am now entering my own transition and I feel vulnerable, a little anxious, unsure of the future all the emotions that are normal and understandable. The difference is I will not be sucked into a system of support that will set me up to fail. I will not find myself being fixed by others who are paid to support me. I will have networks of people around me who can help and protect me. I am resilient and determined that things will be ok.
The power of relationships cannot be underestimated.

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Ciara Killeen, Executive Assistant and Quality Assurance Manager, looks at the importance of being okay with being uncomfortable when prototyping.

I have worked at Mayday Trust for five and a half years and during this time my colleagues have come to understand two things about the way I work:

  1. I will always try everything at least once as I see the value in saying yes. I get stuck in with prototyping something, seeing the result and trying again. You learn through the experience of doing; sometimes what you learn is that something doesn’t work – but at least you know that now!
  2. When I say, ‘Ok…yeah…great’ in response to a request, no matter how cheerily I say, it means that things are definitely not ok or great. It can mean I feel uncomfortable with the concept. It can mean this is going to be a lot of work on top of the lot of work I already had. But I say yes anyway.

I do not say yes to be a people pleaser. My role as Quality Assurance Manager and working with Innovation Partners to develop the framework of the Personal Transitions Service, is often anything but people pleasing. When I think I have done a fabulous job of developing a policy or template which really captures frontline feedback, and then everyone hates it, I am definitely not pleasing anyone. Or when I make teams go back and re-review a process or trial a form again, for the 5th time, in order to probably create version 6, no one is particularly fond of me. But my colleagues and partners also say yes.

So, the question is, why do we all say yes? Why do we agree to work together to prototype something new when it would easier to say no? When maintaining the status quo would save us all time, effort and, honestly, save face sometimes. Sticking your head above the parapet to offer something new means your work will be subject to scrutiny and when prototyping things can and will go wrong. We all work together as a partnership to prototype because it is the right thing to do for people experiencing tough times, who should have access to personalised, transitional and strength-based approaches. These approaches should be led by the real-world feedback from those we work with and the experience of frontline teams who see the systemic barriers that need to be removed. Prototyping starts from this feedback, not from a preconceived idea of what we should do. And what’s more, we know from experience that prototyping works, even if it’s a lot more ‘yeah’ and not so much ‘great’ to begin with.

The Personal Transitions Service (and Innovation Partnership) started, grew and developed from prototyping. Wisdom from the Street told us the two main problems people experienced when they entered services;

  1. Current systems and processes are dehumanising, humiliating and can end up institutionalising people.
  2. This way of working is not effective. The outcomes are not good enough. Too few people move out of the system and sustain positive life changes.

Once we heard this and saw the systemic barriers trapping people we had no choice. We had to start prototyping. It began with accepting that we were not separate from these issues but part of the system creating them. That definitely was an, ‘Ok…yeah…great’ moment for all of us. No one likes to believe they are causing the people they want to help harm. But the numbers of forms we asked people to fill in, with the level of personal sensitive information we requested, just so they could access support was doing just that. Tweaking parts of the broken system was never going to make change happen; we needed to prototype and develop something completely different.

So the first question I was asked was could we reduce the number of forms? Then could I incorporate the feedback from frontline teams who had used the new forms? Then could I attend a meeting to hear more feedback….reduce the number of forms again….think of a new layout….change the language….remove this section….get rid of these questions….look at this form again….now the policy that goes with it……

In the beginning it was relentless. Every week I was asked to consider something new, listen to more feedback, review our language and update the form or policy or process again. The updated version was tried, feedback sought, updates made and we continued on the merry-go-round. It took 18 months to complete the first DRAFT (not the final version, like painting the great bridge, it’s never truly finished if it is led by the grassroots) of the Personal Transitions Service Framework and people got very used to me saying, ‘Ok…yeah…great’. My colleague printed the words onto a poster and hung it by my desk.

But slowly there was a move from being just ‘ok’ to ‘yeah…I am starting to see where we are going with this’. Then one day I reached the Holy Grail. I received an email from an Asset Manager saying the new document is great. It works for people (it has since been updated, of course, but that’s prototyping!).

Prototyping is, let’s face it, a lot of continuous, sometimes hard, work. It can be frustrating. It can mean you are left for spells when there is no framework at all to guide you because you haven’t developed it yet. That is a sink or swim moment and you get used to muddling through as you listen to feedback, you learn, you adapt and you eventually do what you are there to do; provide something that actually works for people.

And prototyping can be exciting, refreshing and engaging too – bringing everyone together as one team in the quest to turn feedback loops and frontline influence into a meaningful framework. Nothing builds team spirit more than a good old debate lasting 30 minutes about whether we need someone’s contact number AND email address on the referral form (just in case you’re wondering, we just added a blank contact details box and people can decide what information to share. Feedback tells us it’s working really well).

So the next time you hear me say, ‘Ok…yeah…great’ then be assured that I actually believe it will be great in the end and that I am in it for the long prototyping haul with you.

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