The most interesting and challenging work I am involved in, often arises when I’m engaging with people looking to think, feel and act differently in what they do. The business world often applies labels such as innovation and creativity to this work. As the work unfolds, I observe the need for us to be creative in our work is often focused on by people as a thinking process.
Thinking creatively and differently is a necessary part of change, but what about how we feel, and how we act too? People often struggle to talk about feelings at work, seeing them as something to be boxed up and left with security at the front door on the way in, and collected from lost property on the way out.
And when it comes to taking action, people often dream up bold strategies, to which they harness grand intent, before applying the faerie dust of meaning and purpose. Often when we peek behind this visionary curtain, everything appears a bit blurred. I can’t quite see the detail, everything is…specifically vague? Matthew Crawford writes about this notion of organisational opacity in his book ‘The Case For Working With Your Hands’, asserting that corporate vagueness has become intentional, in order to prevent people (typically those hierarchically senior enough to have architected the strategy) from actually being responsible for anything. How depressing.
So how might we take the good intent behind creative thinking, and activate it, give it a better chance of becoming useful? One answer could lie in partnering creative practice with creative thinking, taking the work out of your head and into your hands?
I recently spent time with a group of people who came together to imagine what the future of their workspace (aesthetics, form etc) and workplace (culture, behaviours etc) might look like. The group asked for guidance to create an invitational, encouraging environment for us to make, as well as think. My part in this was to share a few basic principles of creative practice, invite folks to get making, then to a great extent, get out of the way.
As a facilitator, I need to be clear about my role – whilst I am in the room and therefore a participant, I take care not to exert and impose undue influence. This post by Meg Peppin contains some excellent ideas about facilitation design. Before we got started in the room, I spoke about this with the people who hired me, because sometimes my apparent lack of guidance and direction can signal…a lack of interest? Far from it. What I’ve learned is that people are extremely capable, and too much guidance can quickly become patronising. This process may feel uncomfortable at first, indeed one of my sponsors reflected this back to me, saying ‘when you made the invitation for people to get started – we worried, and wondered…will they?’ They did. Trust me, trust the process.
As the day unfolded, people were asked to think about and discuss a series of workplace related questions – and the art continued to flow. This was not prompted, people simply chose to continue to offer artistic interpretations into the mix.
These examples are visual representations, and it’s worth noting the art of storytelling became a big part of the work too.
Afterwards the group reflected on what they’d done, and acknowledged the richness of the conversation, enhanced by feeling encouraged to bring creative practice to bear alongside creative thinking. For me – part of the challenge is keeping the practice going, which is one of the reasons why I continue to love my free art project, despite it now being in its 95th consecutive week. Practice, practice, practice. If you want progress, if you want change, you need to keep turning up, keep working.
As a closing thought, I offer you this excellent piece by Rich Watkins called Dignity, Resilience, Vision: The Value In Creative Practice. Rich wrote this after a conversation with myself and several other RSA Fellows, and he asserts that the notion of creative practice in its own right is something we can all benefit from. I agree, and I’d love to hear about your creative practice, and how it shapes you, and those around you.
A version of this post first appeared over at HRExaminer.
The Brook is a lovely community arts venue, bar and restaurant, owned by Andy and Thea Brook. As a family we started visiting The Brook about two and a half years ago. Since then Keira has had a birthday party there, I’ve hidden free art there several times, and we’ve enjoyed food, drink and music more times than I can remember.
On June 1st 2017 – having dithered over the idea of performing live there for several weeks, I delivered my first faltering open mic night performance at The Brook. I survived week one, and came back again, and again, and again, having resolved to persist, and over time, to experiment with an ever expanding body of songs.
Since that first performance in June, there have been 32 open mic nights, and I’ve only missed four of them. Despite being a nervous performer, I’ve persisted with this project largely because of the welcoming atmosphere, nurtured by everyone in the room, and led chiefly by Dan Smith. Dan takes care of sound and set up – and is a master cajon player, regularly providing the beats for numerous acts. The crowd offers encouragement, any criticism is left to the performer. As the weeks progressed I noticed I became more accepting of this encouragement and began to use it as building blocks for more adventurous work.
Life has been pretty up and down (in some ways much more down than up) over the past year or so, and open mic night has served me well as a safe and encouraging place, sometimes just to relax, other times to go nuts. I’ve enjoyed the experience enormously, and while I felt sad when hearing the news of the closure – I quickly decided to make the most of the time left, rather than mourn the passing of something I’ve grown to love.
On December 28th 2017, I and many others, played there for one last time. After serving the local community for five years, The Brook in Wallington closes its doors tonight (Dec 31st) – before reopening in Hackney in January 2018.
This has been an excellent adventure. I’ve grown to enjoy performing, I’ve made some good friends and listened to lots of amazing live music, thanks everyone. This chapter now closes, and we are looking forward to what promises to be one hell of a New Year’s Eve party.
Photo above by Peter Ball
Footnote: Songs I can Remember Playing.
When I Grow Up* : Tim Minchin
Where In The Hell Did You Go With My Toothbrush* : Reverend Horton Heat
Bankrobber *: The Clash
Wreck Of The Old 97* : G B Grayson, Henry Whitter
I Met A Man : Various Artists
Midnight Special* : Traditional (I played guitar, accompanying Keira)
Royals : Lorde (I played guitar, accompanying Keira
Sound of The Suburbs : The Members
Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavour : Lonnie Donegan
Watching The Detectives* : Elvis Costello
Speed of The Sound of Loneliness : John Prine
Pretty in Pink : Psychedelic Furs
Green Green Grass of Home : Curly Putman
City of New Orleans* : Steve Goodman
Good Year For The Roses* : Jerry Chesnut
Down In The Tube Station : Paul Weller
Bela Lugosi’s Dead : Bauhaus
Top Of The Pops : The Rezillos
Wallington Prison Blues* : Johnny Cash
Highway To Hell : Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Bon Scott
It’s A Long Way To The Top : Angus Young, Malcolm Young, Bon Scott
Pablo Picasso : Writer Unknown (I played as guest guitarist on this one)
Disco Man : The Damned
Dozen Girls : The Damned
Sound of The Suburbs : The Members
Peter Pumpkinhead : Xtc
Ever Fallen In Love : The Buzzcocks
Wait For The Blackout : The Damned
There Ain’t No Sanity Clause : The Damned
White Christmas : Irving Berlin
Sign Of The Times : Harry Styles and others (I played guitar, accompanying Keira)
Stay Free : The Clash
* indicates a song played on multiple separate occasions over the seven month period.
I caught up with Robert Ordever recently, we enjoyed some art, some great conversation and good food together. One of the things I admire in Robert is his ability to spot, and focus on the positive, on what is going well. He doesn’t do this in a chintzy way, or in a way which is blind to other things which need attention, Robert’s approach is simple, and genuine. I appreciate him very much.
We shared stories of our recent adventures, and what Robert helped me realise, is that I’ve been involved with some great projects this year. I don’t like to shout about what I do yet Robert helped me realise I can reflect and share in a suitable way. I’m writing this as a way of reminding myself of some excellent work, thanking those people who support me, and reviewing what I’ve been up to this past year. In case you’re worried, this is not a prequel to a ‘Predictions for 2018’ post, I wouldn’t do that to you!
Customer and Employee Experience : Smith+Co & eNett
I spent a week in Melbourne Australia, delivering some workshops designed cocreatively to join some of the dots between the customer and employee experiences. I’ve long believed that the two are intertwined, and for the customer to feel good about their relationship with an organisation, those working there have to feel that too. This work was the culmination of a couple of months of designing and delivering, and it was great fun. The client was full of energy and pace – they had a great eye for design, and though they stretched us, they looked after us really well too. Our key objective was to help move the customer’s net promotor score in the right direction, and we exceeded their expectations which was lovely. Equally lovely was the chance to explore a city I’d not visited previously, and catch up with a few old friends. What an amazing start to the year. Thank you to Flora Marriott, Tim Wade, the folks at eNett, and to Carole and Keira for encouraging me to slightly extend my stay.
Neil Usher is a fellow artist and mischief maker. He approached me with a request, could I step in at a week’s notice and take the after lunch slot at the forthcoming Corenet conference in London? Neil’s a good friend so I accepted, put the phone down, then had a mild panic about how I might approach the subject of resilience, the theme around which the event was based. On the day I gave a very short talk which explored the main subject from three approaches:
Coping With Loss
Community and Creativity
The Beauty of Impermanence
I stepped so far out of the comfort zone bubble I thought I was going to suffocate at times, and of course, I didn’t. I survived, and on reflection – this piece of work now represents a pivotal moment for me. It was the first time I’d been seen in public with my art and was instrumental in helping me realise that I am, in fact, an artist with a fascination for organisational and people development, not the other way around. Thank you Neil, and the audience at Corenet.
The Art of Innovation : Sponsored by Herman Miller
Mark Catchlove and I have a long standing relationship – both as client/customer, and as friends. We also share a curiosity in exploring how we make work better, and it was this shared curiosity which enabled a series of Art of Innovation sponsored events to take place this year. I partnered with Stephanie Barnes and Phil Dodson for this work, which included:
Live painting in Euston
A creative workshop hosted by BDG in London on election night
A two-day deep dive workshop into creative practice in Berlin
A creative workshop hosted by Babbel in Berlin
This was a fascinating body of work, touching on diverse subjects including what it means to be creative at work, playfulness, mindfulness, creative practice, and more. The work informed my artistic and facilitation practice and was a great learning and doing experience. Thank you to Mark Catchlove, Andy Swann, Stephanie Barnes, Phil Dodson, Antje Hein, Hermann Hafele, and everyone who came along to help us explore.
My friend Niki put me in touch with Daniel Barnett, a barrister who runs the HR Inner Circle. It was a very kind introduction which led to me talking to a conference full of HR people about art and creativity, and how we can use these things to make work, and life in general, better. The conference itself was very well facilitated by Daniel – people I spoke to felt welcomed and included. A good atmosphere was created and I was given the opportunity to build on and speak about the earlier work done at Corenet and with Herman Miller et al, and integrate my free art project into the mix. Thank you Niki, Daniel and everyone who came to the event.
Saint Gobain International Forum : Gameshift
I met Chris and Philippa from Gameshift toward the end of last year. Two lovely people having interesting adventures with successful, curious clients. Together with a couple of associates, Jess and Beatrice, I spent three hectic days working with Gameshift at a senior leadership event in Berlin. During that time, Jess, Beatrice and myself delivered all manner of artistic collaboration and output. Some of it was representational, some abstract. Some of our work was participative – taking and sharing ideas and artistic contributions with those around us. We embodied leadership as a dynamic force, letting it flow to where it needed, rather than rest with a named person. This was a hugely creative expression. Challenging, satisfying and exhausting. Thank you Chris, Philippa, Jess, Beatrice, Valerie and the team at Saint Gobain.
Carshalton Artists Open Studios (CAOS) : Neal and Helena Vaughan
I took part in my first artist open studios event this year. Our house was open to all for two weekends, and we filled some of it with my art, and the ongoing story of the free art project. This was a fascinating time, occupying space with my artistic work – greeting strangers and friends, showing people round or not as the case may be – I tried not to be pushy! I made a commemorative short run print series for the festival and learned so much about what it means to be an artist in my community. Thank you Neal and Helena for including me. Thank you to all my fellow artists and everyone who came to visit. Special thanks to Carole and Keira for being OK with our house open to all for two weekends.
Creative Practice : Walt Disney Company
I first met Jose Franca on Twitter. We stay in touch – meeting up from time to time in galleries, and occasionally over a G&T. Jose called me over the summer asking for help. He was working with a team of people immersed in strategy and planning. The work they were doing was necessary, and quite cerebral. Could I help unleash some of the team’s latent creativity – get them out of their heads and into their hands? We spent a little tie talking, most of the time making. My observations included some wonderful silence as people worked, times of laughter, playfulness, relaxation, sharing what feels important, reflection, and more. This work really amplified a key learning point for me – creative thinking is often what I get asked to include in my work – and the real power lies in blending thinking and practice. Thank you Jose and the team at Disney.
Live Painting : Workplace Trends
Building on the success of the Saint Gobain event, I took easels, canvases, brushes and paints to London to live paint at Workplace Trends. Workplace Trends is organised by Maggie Procopi and Nigel Oseland, both of whom I’ve known for a while now. Their events are often a little different from your run of the mill conferences, and they’ve kindly supported some creative collaborations between myself and Neil Usher before now – how would this one work? I had an excellent day, listening to speakers and interpreting their work into artistic output. It was great fun, a real challenge (fear of the blank canvas), and the work stimulated some lovely conversation. I loved being a part of this, thank you Maggie, Nigel and everyone at the event.
Future Workplace : NATS
I’ve known Debbie Sanders for a few years, we don’t see each other much and we do stay in touch from time to time. A couple of months ago I received a call from Debbie which led me to some really interesting work with National Air Traffic Services. The organisation wants to think and plan ahead to what a future workplace looks and feels like, taking into consideration a wide range of needs. Function, form, purpose, aesthetics, behaviours, interactions, a real broad sweep. They want to do this inclusively and creatively, so we gather together, and explore a series of questions. We do this in a less than usual way, starting by setting the mood and tone together, then we make work designed to help us get to know each other better. We share food together, and we talk and make some more, a lot more. Together we create a huge body of work, full of ideas, art, doodles, sketches, maps, lists, icons, and more. We facilitate lightly, trust the process, trust each other, and get on with it. Shortly before this event I read Meg Peppin’s excellent post about OD and facilitation design, reflected on it and integrated some of her thinking into my work. Meg and I have worked together a few times, she is very thoughtful and considerate and I see her holding space for people to think, feel and act. Powerful stuff. Thank you Debbie, Jo, Darren, Sean, Meg, and everyone who got stuck in so enthusiastically.
Enjoyable Life Series. What’s Your Story 2017 : Yetunde Hofmann
At a meeting with Yetunde earlier this year – I shared some of my story around the free art project, and Yetunde kindly asked If I would be a part of an event she was running later in the year. For anyone how has yet to meet her, Yetunde has a kind enthusiastic way of encouraging folk to say yes (many more people have since shred this observation with me) and so it was that on Friday 8th December, I was one of the many people who took part in the first ‘What’s Your Story?’ I can honestly say I’ve never been to a conference like it. Several things stood out to me. The stories, and the tellers of those stories, had power, authenticity, and diversity the like of which I have not seen at any other event. I often find myself in discussion with conference organisers highlighting a lack of diversity and inclusion in their speaker line up. Not this time, this time it was a joy to be part of a genuinely diverse group. I enjoyed that hugely, and it served as a reminder that I need to keep raising this as an issue, until far fewer older white men like me are given air time at the expense of others. I live painted at this event too, though not much as the stories I heard were just so absorbing. Thank you Yetunde, all the story tellers and everyone in the room.
We Are All Artists : Free art
I could go on for ever about the free art project. A simple idea about making and giving away art, started in April 2016, and persisted with ever since. I’ll cover this over at my artsensorium site in more detail. Suffice to say for now – this project is transformational. Thank you to everyone who voted for me at our recent community awards, and thank you to every single person who has searched for the free art – whether you are a finder or not, you help bring this adventure to life and I’m truly grateful.
I’ve done other things besides the above this year, and these are the times where I’ve really felt things shift, excite, challenge, and fulfil. I realise I’ve already rabbited on for over 2,000 words, so if you’re still here, well done and thank you. Thanks again to Robert Ordever for the suggestion I write this. Thanks to Carole and Keira for your unending support and thank you to everyone who has commissioned me over the past 12 months. I have some exciting plans forming for 2018 and if having read this you think we could do good work together too – I’d love to hear from you. I’m always keen to explore ways we can cooperate and help people make work better, together.
Have an excellent break and an adventurous 2018. xx