The Value of Critical Friends

 

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(Picture Credit: Bill Ferriter)

One of the most challenging and enjoyable elements of my work is being commissioned to provide Critical Friend reviews. In the increasingly crowded social space it is even more important that organisations have a digital strategy which connects, speaks and listens to often diverse audiences. Every organisation needs to show how their engagement strategies are generating tangible results and impact through digital leadership and culture. Over the last few years we have been carrying out an increasing number of critical friend reviews for public, private and not for profit organisations.

A critical friend review is an external and uniquely independent opinion of an organisation’s positioning, strategy or initiatives. It comes from a perspective that is sympathetic to what the organisation is trying to achieve and reflects the context whilst identifying opportunities, likely challenges and pitfalls.

A Critical Friend review addresses these fundamental questions:

  • How is your organisation positioned now?
  • Where do you want to be?
  • How are you going to get there?
  • How are you showing that your work makes a difference and has an impact?

In answering these questions, the emphasis is on being honest and ‘telling it how it is’. We recognise that this can be difficult but to be effective a critical friend review must be unafraid to comment on where the chosen approach is unlikely to deliver the desired results and to suggest different approaches.

Why is this valuable now?

The simple reason is that we are in a challenging economic and political climate with rapidly changing expectations of how services will be delivered. Consequently, organisations must develop new and unprecedented ways of working. As senior managers frequently tell me “Our approach to digital transformation needs to be different from anything we have done before”. With fewer resources available, and with more riding on outcomes than ever before, organisations cannot afford to make mistakes in the way they respond to these challenges.  A critical friend review helps organisation prepare for navigating uncharted territory through market intelligence which has been gained over many years of working across the social sector.

I believe it is crucial for proposed approaches to be subjected to independent scrutiny. The feedback will not inevitably be negative: it will identify what is being done well and can highlight strengths and opportunities that may have been missed. A great deal of our work consists in recommending organisations, initiatives and resources which our clients may be unaware of – but which could greatly assist in the achievement of their objectives.

Successive governments have recognised the importance of critical friending for the public sector.  We draw on the ‘Critical Friend Framework’ published in 2004 which identifies three dimensions of critical friending: ‘inputs’ (looking at the skills and experience involved in a project), process and structure (considering the way in which projects are organised) and outcomes (evaluating what the organisation is aiming to achieve and prospects of success).

In acting as a critical friend, we are able to draw upon many years of working with adult and children’s services, health, housing, social enterprises, entrepreneurs, academics and charities. Our knowledge and expertise encompasses policy, research, marketing, communications and digital technology. This ‘width and depth’ – together with an ability to look at a situation from a range of different perspectives – is really an essential requirement of a critical friend. There is little value in being told what you already know!

What this means in practice is illustrated by a comment from one of our clients Barnwood Trust,

 “Embarking on a new website and a whole new approach to the way we were working, and on top of that a new brand for it all, was a big and sometimes daunting job. We spent a long time researching, planning and testing each of our ideas and concepts, making sure that we were developing something that people wanted and felt would be useful to them. It was during this process that we came across Shirley and her work as a critical friend.

“Shirley took on the role of critical friend for our new brand and website, You’re Welcome  and provided us with a completely different and invaluable perspective. Not only did Shirley provide a thought provoking report from which we have been able to develop and also strengthen our ideas but she also provided support throughout the review on the phone. It was extremely useful to talk our work through with someone with as much knowledge and experience as Shirley. To have a report at the end of it really helped with the work and how we developed it. Shirley was an absolute pleasure to work with and we will definitely be looking to draw from her skills and experience again in the future.”

Transformational change across the health, care and housing and social sectors now requires digital leadership, market intelligence and approaches which acknowledge the value of radical thinking. 

Expectations of more openness, transparency and accountability in publicly funded services along with the immediacy of social media in highlighting disconnects between the rhetoric and reality of how organisations present themselves makes the role of  a independent critical friend even more important.

I am often asked to comment on projects, websites, digital products and services but the response often needs more than a tweet (or two!). I am happy to discuss how a critical friend review could help your organisation. Please feel free to contact me. Shirley.Ayres@btinternet.com  @shirleyayres

Shirley is co-founder of the Connected Care Network which supports digital transformation and engagement using technology & social media for social good.

 

 

 

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