Mission Impossible?

She may be a little lacking in finesse, but 62 year old Silla Carron is certainly not short of determination and zeal for her cause.

Following the outstanding success in leading a project that transformed the fortunes of her own estate in the Camden area of north London, England, some bright spark from the BBC decided to see if her home-spun methods might be able to help other disadvantaged areas. It’s one thing to do this on your own estate, where you know everyone, you know the area, and you know the community, but how much of Silla’s experience would be transferrable to other areas? I’m pleased to report that not only did she pull it off a second time in Plymouth, but she’s gone on over the past year to have just as much success in a grimly despondent area, the Lawrence Weston Estate in Bristol, England. The story of this latest case was told over five episodes of a recent BBC series called ‘The Estate We’re In’.

I’m always wary of the term ‘change management’. I am not sure, when people are involved in a change process that ‘management’ is the right phrase to use. What’s more, the term implies that the Change Manager is somehow ‘all knowing’ about what they are implementing. But in these three cases, whilst the problems are sadly familiar  – deprivation, anti-social behavior, hardship, isolation – the solutions are far from obvious. Anyone kidding themselves that they knew the answers to these problems would be brought down a peg or two before too long!

Watching Silla set about her challenge is a masterclass in making change happen. She’s quick, by the way, to insist that she is not the architect of the changes – the residents, the local council, police and local businesses get the credit as far as she is concerned. But if the success is not solely down to her, the energy to get things done certainly does spring from Silla.

Silla’s Golden Rules

Undaunted by the lack of a Change Management model (!), Silla’s impeccable instincts have led her to develop her own Golden Rules. These rules are simple and she encourages residents to use them too. Here are a few that were vitally important in the recent Bristol case;

  • Listen

Even if you think you’ve heard it all before, Silla is a massive advocate of hearing the truth from everyone involved in the troubled area. And she wants to hear it from the people themselves, in their own language. If they won’t come to meetings, she goes to them, or puts out suggestion boxes. It’s the first step in getting the whole community to take ownership of their environment.

  • Build the community spirit.

On her first visit to Bristol estate, many residents would not even answer their front door to Silla. They were locked in a fearful state, and there was a complete absence of any community feel. This became the starting point of the project, and from the pitifully small turnout at the initial residents meeting, they built up the momentum by responding one at a time to the declared frustrations of the residents. As they began to see results, the Residents Association was able to thrive and grow.

  • Establish strong partnerships

Her campaigning tone might not make this golden rule so obvious, but Silla knows that the only way to make fast progress in such grim settings is to appeal to as many players as possible to make a contribution. In some cases, these are groups like the council and the police, who have an obligation to offer a service, but she spreads her net wide, appealing to any other players who will benefit from an improved community – other charities, local businesses.

  • Ask for what you want, and keep asking

Silla has developed a reputation for herself as a stellar campaigner on behalf of residents. Her own local council have apparently drawn up guidelines for their call centre staff to help them deal with Silla and her crusading approach. She encourages residents to demand the services to which they are entitled, and then some more.

  • Take responsibility for – have pride in – your own environment

Self help is also an essential part of Silla’s approach. She encourages residents to campaign for and then use the resources they manage to win. If you can persuade the council to clear a piece of waste ground for you, organize resident groups to take on converting the area into a garden that everyone can enjoy. If you can wheedle a meeting room for your Residents Association, turn it into a hub of community activity.

  • Don’t give up

The word ‘can’t’ doesn’t exist in Silla’s vocabulary. ‘Hopefully’ is equally frowned up. Her positive mindset is clearly a tonic for everyone, and if she can’t get what she wants from one place, her next thought is, where else can she get help.

What’s the Legacy?

You get the feeling that no-one is more surprised at her celebrity than Silla, but by sticking to her simple principles, she has become an iconic and credible figure in the lives of people whose needs have been ignored for many years.

The simplicity and obviousness of her Golden Rules make it easy for the residents she befriends to have their own success with the Silla approach to change management! And unlike so many changes imposed from outside, these three cases are a living example of a lasting legacy that has a shelf life way beyond Silla’s original involvement.

If that isn’t a WOW! Project I don’t know what is!