And What Do You Do?

mackerel_4So here I am sat at my aunt’s wedding and every so often a family member will ask ‘so what do you do?’.  They mean well and are genuinely interested when I say that I run my own business and I am an event manager. And some then ask ‘so what kind of events?’ And then the polite glaze descends as I explain that we do large-scale and complex projects as well as training programmes…..

None of the tasks we undertake in themselves is difficult and nor do they require high intellectual capacity (although the outcome does improve with experience). However, it is when we increase scale, risk and complexity that these tasks are not as simple as may be first thought. Event management is a kind of intricate magic (at times) that is the product of experience and hard work. Because it often appears simple, this hard work and intricacy can be hidden and this is where we have a dilemma. We want to make it all work, make it slick and effective but not everyone recognises the work and expertise required to make that happen.

Having said that, our clients who are creative and ambitious recognise the value in our support and skill and how we can help them achieve those ambitions to deliver quality, engaging event projects. That’s not to say that things always go brilliantly, but that’s why we’re involved. If there was no risk, then there would be no need for us.

But this is not what people want to hear when they ask ‘what do you do?’. I wonder what they expect in reply? More than ever, our society does not have standard careers (although there remain some exceptions) so why see we using this as a reference point in finding out more about people?

I am really proud of what I do and what we have built up and the projects we have delivered so this discussion also provokes another line of thought for me – are the wider Mackerel Sky team proud of what they (and we collectively) do? And how can we create a business to be proud of? It’s not just about meeting targets, it’s about being valued, about the people we work with, the impacts we achieve and the engagement of self in it all. I believe that the whole person comes to work and therefore the question of ‘what do you do?’ Is irrelevant because we are trying to create a business where we are ourselves – open, honest, skilled, communicative, positive, flexible and adaptable. Some of the best qualities for event management, particularly when we are dealing with large scale and complex projects.

Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky

We Will Remember Them

Candle on the window sillA couple of weeks or so ago we marked the centenary of the start of the First World War. An important date to remember for the lives lost, the lives saved and the lessons learnt.

Aside from the moving reportage on the TV and on social media, the most impactful aspect was at 10pm when the lights in my village went out, as did lights across the country. There was this sense of ritual and remembrance and it brought to mind the same collective action that must have happened at the same time a hundred years ago. With the men and boys of the South West keen to go to war, little knowing what was to unfold.

This concept of collective acts is hugely powerful and is the same driver behind many of our large community events. It is important to us as humans to mark particular moments together and in this case to pay our respects. There is something inherently respectful about lighting a candle in the darkness; a means of collectively expressing our thanks. Light in darkness is very powerful as a symbol of hope and inspiration and that all will be well.

There is always a reason to light a candle. A purpose. Whether it is simply providing light, a marker, an act of remembrance, creating intimacy, providing warmth or showing the way for safety, a candle provides a focal point and draws our attention. Light is powerful tool in creating an event environment that engages and focuses our audiences in order to achieve the event objectives. Light sets the feel for the event, sets expectations, and provides an important safety function. And yet it is one of the last things that is thought about or included in the budget.

So let’s light more lights, remember the fallen, and create special moments that mean something…

Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky

Time to Talk

megaphone silhouetteWe all know that communication is one of the most challenging aspects of any project or business. It is cited in hundreds if not thousands of business reviews as being “something to sort”, but it is far more than something to sort. Communication depends on personalities, complexity of activity, skills and capabilities of individuals, company culture, leadership styles and stress/pressure.

Think of how easily communication can go wrong….just the wrong tone of voice can destroy a relationship, create tension and distract from our core purposes and tasks. We all have high expectations of communication capability whether it’s from a service provider like a hotel or restaurant or from product information or within project management and business activity. The reality is that it is impossible to meet these expectations all the time with everybody but it doesn’t mean we should stop trying!

There are some great examples of communication from and within businesses but there isn’t a single organisation who have it sorted! It varies according to the culture and structure of the business and to a certain extent on the output/sector of the organisation. Think of the Armed Forces – phenomenal teamwork, highly structured hierarchy, clear lines of communication and command but no room for individuality. Yesterday I was speaking to a potential new colleague who is currently a junglie and about to go through resettlement as he leaves the Navy. In our conversation we recognised the challenge for him moving from this structure and this level of resourcing into the risk and flexibility of the events industry and small business.

So, given that we are working in different cultures and contexts, what makes for great communication?

From my experience, it’s a simple appreciation of who I am communicating with and a bit of emotional intelligence as to how the message might be received. The challenge is that there isn’t always the time to consciously think about this before the communication bit happens…so we need to develop constructs in our brains that enable us to automate this thinking; we need to develop that emotional intelligence that enables us to read the situation and the people and adapt our communication accordingly in terms of language, format and route.

There isn’t a quick fix and this intelligence takes time and experience to develop which makes creating great communication in an organisation of any size even more challenging because we (as leaders) need to encourage and support the development of that intelligence. This is made even more difficult when we layer on our own personal context and stress. It is hard to leave one’s own challenges behind and I would argue that we should actually use these personal experiences as part of our leadership, recognising that we are merely human after all!

Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky

Dolly may have made the phrase famous but is working 9-5 all it’s cracked up to be?


Flexible working- a new world of possibilities or an employer’s nightmare!

With the recent change in legislation and more prominently for me an introduction of a new little man in my life, I have been forced to look at my career and work life balance. I knew that I wanted to return to work and continue my career after having a baby but I also knew that going straight back to five days a week 9-5 may be a step too far (he didn’t sleep!).

Cue Mackerel Sky …..

I joined Mackerel Sky and soon learnt that flexible working was the norm and a key factor to growth and development (as individuals and as a company). As an event management company the hours we operate are rarely 9-5 and so flexible working seemed to be a logical move.

I understand the thought of flexible working practices may cause headaches for some employers depending on the industry and it may not be a viable option for all, but if embraced it can allow them access to talented and skilled people that may not previously have been available to them (those unable to work the traditional 9-5, 40 hour week).

I’m not saying that flexible working is a seamless, easy to manage progression for everyone. It can certainly have its issues and I think there is a fear that suddenly everyone is going to want to work flexibly, that human resource departments are going to be inundated with requests and that there is going to be a huge rise in disgruntled employees having their requests turned down. In reality I doubt this is going to be the case.

I’m not going to dwell on all the potential pitfalls of flexible working but I am talk about what my biggest concern was when adopting the practice. I like to be involved and feel like part of a team and I worried that there may be a lack of communication and cohesion and that morale may suffer. From previous experience a lack of communication is a problem that faces a lot of organisations whether large or small, employees feeling left in the dark; a problem that could be exacerbated with more flexible working practices. However we have taken measures and made investments in technology to help improve communications within the company and with our clients and it works well.

I love working here, I feel very much part of a team and remote and flexible working is having a really positive impact on our company. It has helped us to evolve. Employees are able to work virtually, we can stay open for longer, travel further all whilst managing the work/life balance, very important factors in running an (happy) event management company.

Holly Patton, Operations Manager, Mackerel Sky

Livin’ on the Edge

gas_gaugeI have discovered that I don’t deal with scarce resources very well…. I was driving from Bristol to Cornwall and the fuel light came on 46  miles from my destination.  No problem thought I, there is a fuel station about 30 miles away, should have enough to get there.  And get there I did. But the fuel station was out of diesel. Completely.  Cue sense of humour failure.  Next nearest fuel station is 4.8 miles away but I’m not sure I’ve got enough to get there….

I set off with a sense of trepidation and my brain buzzing with ideas of how I’ll handle it if I run out of fuel.  I am desperately thinking of alternative routes that will lighten the demands of the engine for fuel and avoid waiting in heavy traffic or creating a road block if I do run out.  I think about how I can drive as economically as possible by keeping the car in neutral and turning the air con off….I find a route through and less than a mile from the fuel station, I mean about 500 yards, I have to stop at traffic lights. And the engine stops. My heart sinks and I get out of the car to talk to the vehicle behind (thankfully a considerate taxi).  My voice has become a little high pitched, I am shaking a little and I don’t know what to do.  I can only think of trying to glide it into the fuel station that is just around the corner.

The lights change and I take off the handbrake.  I glide around the corner and just as I can feel the car slowing down to stop, then engine springs back into life with just enough juice to get us through the next set of traffic lights and into the fuel station.  The sense of relief is palpable (I perceive by the car as much as me – or am I anthropomorphising too much?)  as I lift the nozzle and the grateful fuel tank guzzles.

So after this incident of self-induced stress I have learnt two important lessons. 1. I am a very lucky person. 2. Never leave it that late to stop for fuel again.  I suspect I have shortened my life by several years.

One of the projects that we are involved with is about scarce resources, specifically water.  Now I am sat in the office, by the river, and it seems that this is not a scarce resource at all so why should I worry? Much as I was sat driving earlier today with half a tank of fuel and not at all worried about running out.  It seems that it is only when we don’t have it (or access to it) that we are concerned.  The LEAT project (which will taking place in 2017 if the funding bids all come in) is looking at how we value water (or not) and what the consequences might be, how we can use it more effectively and why we should bother.  Irrespective of the resource that we might be needing, we are a complacent society, expecting that our needs will be met and our expectations exceeded on a daily basis.  The LEAT Project will be part of bringing that complacency into focus and maybe changing a few minds about how we use our resources.

Hopefully it won’t take all of us running out of what we need to make us realise how important it is.

Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky

Life may be a series of patterns, but let’s keep trying new patterns

A_Beautiful_Mind_1Have you ever heard of game theory?

John Nash? Beautiful Mind? Prisoner dilemma?

Might not mean anything to you…..

But the thing is that you are using game theory every day in every decision that you make.  Game theory is about understanding how we (as humans) weigh up the benefits that we receive by virtue of the decisions we make.  And it’s way more complex than that but presents some basic principles that are useful to understand how we work and engage with each other.

There are various research studies that show the impact of considering game theory and the concept of making decisions that benefit all, not just the individual. What’s particularly interesting is that our decisions are relative.  That is, it depends on the personalities involved but that only influences the degree to which we are prepared to give.  As a general rule, we humans will seek a decision that benefits all involved.

My mum was a research mathematician into game theory and she worked with John Nash during her masters.  She was one of the first people to use computers for mathematical processing in the 1970s.  I am incredibly proud of her and proud to be her daughter.  She has always loved playing games and still does now.  I talk in the past tense because my Mum has multiple sclerosis and she is now in a home where she receives excellent care and support.  She can no longer consider the complexity of game theory and her short term memory is shot to pieces but d’you know what? Ask her about calculus…. it’s somehow built into her brain and she knows it like the back of her hand.  Complex, ordinary, she’s not fussed.  She can still make it make sense and that was always what made her a fantastic teacher.

This post is not some kind of pre-emptive memorial for my mum but rather a recognition of the spark that makes us who we are.  We are capable of so much and yet we understand so little.  Game theory has always appealed to me as the fun side of mathematics and I don’t think I ever really appreciated how relevant it is in understanding people.  If we think about decision theory, critical path analysis and game theory (have I lost you now?), then we are really contemplating how we humans process complex situations and that tells us how we can respond to ensure a productive response.


Game theory will not provide all the answers but it does provide a framework in which to consider the wider network and the impact/response of others in our networks.  If we do x, then what might the y response be?  In order to accurately understand the response of others, we need to get to know them (there are limitations to modelling that can never take account of human nature to be contrary!) and we can then apply game theory to consider their response to circumstances or changes.


There is something in the idea of game theory that is about play.  Our patterns of play can be mapped and can be predictable. Perhaps we need to try different patterns, different responses to  find new perspectives, gain insight, challenge ourselves, face failure, engage success and who knows, enjoy ourselves?


Irrespective of our individual circumstances, and inspired by Playday this week, let’s keep playing games…..just like my Mum!


Claire Eason-Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky

Events … All Work and Lots of Play!

PLAY DAY 2013 2 - chris bahnThe Event Manager Blog recently posted about events being grown up play and to a certain extent I agree.  We get to create activity and experiences that are all about enjoyment and often learning too, exploring our environment, trying new things, stimulating our brains…

This week, we are managing Bristol Playday – a 3 hour event with attendance of over 3,000 children and families on College Green.  This is an event that is definitely all about play in all its forms! We have circus, music, dance, Ping!, libraries, arts & crafts, space hopper racing, canoes, cardboard city, parkour, playbus, kite making, hula hooping… The event is being delivered on behalf of Bristol Youth Links, part of Bristol City Council, and so this event is also a manifestation of their play policy and practice.
Designing Playday is not just about putting on a heap of activity that is related to play in someway but rather is a considered plan working with providers and partners to create activity that engages all in play but also demonstrates for example the practical implementation of the risk benefit policy.  This idea of risk benefit is that undertaking risky activities can be beneficial in terms of play and learning and that such activities are entirely valid on the basis that the risks are considered effectively.  We know this from corporate team building activity where collective risk taking is a valuable learning experience in terms of team cohesion, decision making, personal challenge and skill development but it is rarely considered in this way in public sector/council contexts.
Playday could be an event that was ‘enforced fun’ and become play without any fun at all!  But it really isn’t – it is a space where all are welcome and all can enjoy, where play is free in every sense, and where the formality of Council meets the chaos of play!  We could all do with a bit more play in our lives so we can suspend our formality, our stress and all the grown up stuff to let ourselves be creative and feel that freedom.  Bring on Playday!

Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky Events

Staying Calm in Silly Season

fish-aquarium-coralsThe Summer holiday season is upon us and whilst lots of people around us are relaxing and enjoying themselves, we are working hard to develop and deliver a number of big projects over the next few months.  It feels like any kind of break from it was a long time ago and there is a kind of collective exhaustion seeping in….

Almost all the team are taking some time off over the next month which is a good thing but it can be easy to procrastinate and leave it until we come back from holiday with a renewed sense of drive and purpose.  But the deadlines that we have to meet are absolute – there is nothing quite so motivating as the deadline of an event start!  From that point onwards, there is no ‘I can do that tomorrow’; it simply has to be done.  It has to be done in order to meet the requirements of the client, or of the project, or of the audience; all of which are vitally important, so there is no room for the quality or quantity of work to change just because we are feeling a bit tired.

So it comes down to how we handle this collective lethargy and manage ourselves through the challenges.  One school of thought might be to ‘man up’ but that’s not always the most constructive way to respond when looking at one’s to-do list induces panic.  It is times like this when we need to manage the stress, find space and time to gain perspective and relax, prioritise and get on with the job.

We are looking after some fish for our next door business and these simple little creatures are introducing a sense of calm to what is an otherwise busy and occasionally manic office.  Such a basic thing of looking at fish swimming just gives enough space in our brains to create a moment of perspective and give clarity.  For the next hour or so anyway!  So, although we are well into silly season and it’s hot and busy, we all need to make a bit of time to chill, look up from the keyboard and see that wood as well as the trees (to mix my metaphors!)

Claire Eason Bassett, Managing Director, Mackerel Sky