The Value of Critical Friends – Guest Post from @ShirleyAyres

Only 17% of companies identify their social and digital strategy as “mature” – Brian Solis , The State of Social Business


This is a guest post from a Super Connector.

Shirley Ayres is one of those people who have taken advantage of digital to develop a new way of working – uniting like minded people regardless of which sector they work in. As co-founder of the Connected Care Network , Shirley has formed a movement aimed at developing digital engagement strategies using technology & social media for social good.

The reason I’ve asked Shirley to guest post is that I’m increasingly concerned that not enough of us have a fit for purpose engagement strategy. Too many think it’s about Twitter and Facebook when it’s actually about generating business results through digital leadership and culture.

As the social space gets increasingly crowded we’ll have to develop more sophisticated approaches to getting and keeping attention.

Here Shirley describes the benefits of having a review:

“Over the last few years we have been carrying out an increasing number of ‘critical friend’ reviews. These have been for a wide range of organisations – public, private and not for profit. But what is a critical friend review and what value does it have for organisations?

A critical friend review is an external 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. But it should reflect the context in which this positioning, strategy or initiative sits and be able to identify opportunities as well as likely challenges and pitfalls.

It addresses three fundamental questions:

  • Where are you now?
  • Where do you want to be?
  • How are you going to get there?

In answering these questions, the emphasis is on ‘telling it how it is’. To be effective a critical friend review must be unafraid to comment on where the chosen approach is unlikely to deliver the desired response. It must also suggest improvements which can make it more fit for purpose.

Why is this valuable now?

The simple reason is that we are in a challenging economic and political climate with rapidly changing expectations of care and support. Consequently organisations have to develop radically new and unprecedented ways of working.

As one Assistant Director of Adult Social Care said to me recently: “Our approach to the Care Bill 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. Yet this is often means going into uncharted territory.

So it is crucial for proposed approaches to be subjected to independent scrutiny. However 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 project 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 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 the Barnwood Trust, one of our recent clients.

“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 sectors requires digital leadership and  new approaches which encourage radical thinking.

To explore how a critical friend review would help your organisation contact ”

(Picture Credit: Bill Ferriter)


4 thoughts on “The Value of Critical Friends – Guest Post from @ShirleyAyres

  1. Life is full of lovely accidents and the timing of this post is uncanny Shirley.

    My colleague Wendy and I have just finished a series of Roadshows where we got out to talk with and listen to about 350 colleagues providing support and supported housing up and down Central England.

    One theme we came back to again and again was that the funding may change, the language/jargon may change but that support remained fundamentally the same. It is about 3 things:

    Establishing a relationship with a customer.
    Helping them articulate where they are now and where they want to be.
    Helping them get there.

    Your description of an organisational critical friend chimes perfectly.


  2. Thanks for the comment John and I agree that irrespective of the language used the reality is that “people do business with people not organisations”. Good to hear that you and Wendy have been talking to front line colleagues who are so often an underused and overlooked source of knowledge and wisdom in many organisations.

    I recognise that it takes courageous and brave leaders to allow their own hierarchies to be disrupted and to encourage more open and transparent engagement internally and externally.

    I hope that 2014 will see more organisations move from having a token social media presence to becoming really social businesses. Digital leaders able to build new connections and collaborations, question and challenge, summarise and simplify will play an important role.


  3. I enjoy Shirley on Twitter and she makes some great points here, and echo experiences I have encountered in my housing IT working life and as a board director on a local community library we have resurrected from closure.

    The ‘critical friend’ is a key component for any organisation, as staff, users, customers, peers and competitors never provide the same type of feedback, that will be acted upon. Strangely, sometimes advice is more generally acted upon when it is paid for, that if it is free. Although in most cases, the critical friend involved in the review, has only soaked up, sponge-like, concerns from staff and users.

    As Shirley rightly points out, to work well, suggestions of how to improve and move forward must be part of the process. While a critical friend might not come cheap, to keep them on to oversee resultant plans to improve/recover the situation is often a worthwhile investment.

    In some cases, I have carried out a review and returning many months later, found a project encountering other issues, slowing down progress. Alternatively, in other cases, I have followed projects through to completion, sometimes as an unpopular project leader or manager, although getting the job done. When I leave the project, the team members often respect what I have achieved with them, but with no love lost.

    So I would suggest considering utilising your critical friend (if you have a good one) in an extended role. This could be good for your project and your organisation.

    Tony Smith

  4. Great post! We held a tasty Ideas Day back in December where we asked people to come in and tell us what worked and what didn’t in 2013, which has helped us to develop our approaches somewhat. It basically involved bribing people with food for feedback, which generally worked well! That helped create an informal atmosphere, which did seem to help people to be both ‘critical’ and ‘friends’.

    It’s something we can definitely improve further though, and we look forward to taking it on!

    – Dyfrig

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