The Art of The Possible : Working Out Loud

A story about showing your work, adapting your work, and being open to the possibilities.

I recently wrote about the art of the possible, and how analog tools (pencils, paintbrushes etc) still have powerful relevance in a digital world. I wasn’t suggesting that one is somehow better than the other, rather that both matter. An analog, artistic inquiry of our work can be a very powerful thing. Equally, lots of the work I love to do is generated through connections initially made online, and then nurtured in real life, and the idea of working out loud, something I love to practice, is made simpler thanks to the digital spaces we inhabit. Analog and digital. Both matter.

Last year, my friend Neil Usher kindly agreed to give me some feedback when I was compiling some information about my work to share with people interested in hiring me. Part of this work was a series of visual images, which I gathered together using the haikudeck presentation tool.

What Goes Around – Principles of Work 

The simplicity of the deck worked well enough, and Neil suggested that I could make it stand out more by creating another version. ‘Use your own stuff – not stock photo type images’, Neil offered. I took the idea on board and began what became a long process of drawing, tracing, and colouring my own version of the slides.

Though the general idea remains the same – there is a big difference between the two pieces of work. The second one is better. It’s me, showing my work, and what you can expect of me. I’m grateful to Neil for the suggestion.

I figured that was it. The work was done, things move on, and I was wrong. Crystal Miller, another friend in my network spotted my hand made slides and asked if I would consider drawing a set for one of her clients, who was seeking a visual representation for some values/principles. We talked, agreed the creative basis of the project, and some general terms, then I got on with it. Part of the deal was that I could represent these ideas as I saw fit. At first, I struggled to get going with such an open remit. Would the work be liked? That question quickly took me to all the usual ‘I’m not good enough’ places we experience, particularly when doing something new. My client was very supportive and though I wobbled a few times – the work began to flow. In time, a series of 16 images emerged.

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I learned a lot from this process. Some days the pens moved freely, some days not. At times when I got stuck, I asked for help, and I got it. Ideas, nudges, confidence – many things came from asking. At times I practiced the art of ‘it’s good enough, move on’. And at times, I redid images completely. Trying to balance satisfaction with deadlines can become an interesting tangle, and what emerged is a body of work the client is really pleased with. So am I.

Importantly, if I hadn’t responded to Neil’s suggestion, if I hadn’t been open to the possibilities, and if I hadn’t worked out loud, we wouldn’t be looking at these pictures now. And if I can work like this, you can too.

I Need You To Know Who I Am

Staff surveys, and why forced anonymity sucks.

In a previous life working for Megacorp Inc., I shared some responsibility for surveying staff on how they felt about working there. In common with most employee surveys, we forced anonymity on our people. Apparently this was done so that staff could speak up, and feedback honestly and openly, without fear of retribution.

original artwork by Doug Shaw
Artwork by yours truly – with apologies to Rene Magritte

What this enforced anonymity indicated to me is that the business has a deeper problem, a lack of trust. I took a look at some of the data from the previous five years surveys, which showed me there was growing, strong disagreement to statements such as:

  • It is safe to speak up
  • Change is managed well here
  • Megacorp Inc. keeps things simple

Conversely – the number of people strongly agreeing with these statements had flatlined over the same period of time.

I’m no expert, but I’m seeing things here that make me think maybe enforced anonymity isn’t the key to unlocking open honest feedback.

I showed my findings to the divisional Managing Director who agreed to meet with me and talk about what I was seeing. He never showed up for the meeting, then cancelled a rearranged meeting before telling me I should take the information to HR. ‘People stuff – that’s their job’. In this case, I think you can add a total lack of interest to the lack of trust I mentioned earlier.

This data shows me there are people at work who do not feel they can speak up for fear of retribution, and I have experienced that myself too. However I’m no fan of anonymity, and I believe this fear is something we need to help people through. Forcing anonymity on people is not helping. In it’s own way – this simple act reinforces the kind of behavior we are saying that we don’t want.

When I worked on the survey team, I always asked if we could make anonymity optional, so that those who choose to stand by their comments can do so. My request was always refused, though never with a satisfactory explanation.

When I completed the survey myself, I used to frig the system by adding my name in every open comment box I could, knowing that colleagues would go in behind the scenes and redact my name, and the name of anyone else trying to be heard. My reason for doing this was not purely mischievous, more importantly it was driven by a desire to be engaged in making our work better.

If I have ideas about how we might work differently and you really want my opinion, then you need to know who I am so we can act together. In these circumstances, anonymity is completely disempowering. What your enforced anonymity says to me is that you don’t really want to work coactively with me and with others; you are just using the opportunity to survey our feelings and attitudes as a means of satisfying yourself.

I often spent time on the road, visiting colleagues in offices all over the country. When I asked how they felt about the surveying process, two things regularly came up:

We don’t trust that the survey is anonymous

Nothing changes as a result of what we say

Pretty much says it all, huh.

The next time you are tasked with surveying the attitude of your staff, or asked to complete the survey, consider this: I need you to know who I am; otherwise, what’s the point?

Note: A version of this post first appeared on HRExaminer in January 2015.

The Ebb and Flow of Creativity – V1.3

Creativity is not binary. You don’t just switch it on – you adjust the dials and tease it out. Don’t fear it, play with it, iterate it.

Many organisations desire the benefits that creativity and innovation offer them and yet they are put off by, and often even fear the messy consequences that creativity brings with it. In June 2014 I published the first version of the Creativity Ebb n Flow Meter, a tool designed to help people see past that fear.

Creativity Ebb n Flow Meter

The purpose of this machine is to highlight the fact that creativity is not binary. You don’t just switch it on – you adjust the dials according to your organisation’s prevailing culture, and tease it out. Don’t fear it, play with it.

I received some great feedback when V1.0 was published and I incorporated much of that feedback into V1.2. This is the first time I have shared V1.2 on here, previously it has appeared on Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook, but not the blog. As you can see – V1.2 contains a few improvements, namely a wider choice of beverages, a suspend judgement button, and it is now powered by imagination. Sadly the ham and eggs option had to go – it made a funny smell and was just too messy.

Creativity Ebb n Flow Meter V1.2

Once again I benefitted from a lot of encouragement and feedback when this second version saw the light of day, and I have finally got round to incorporating that feedback into this, the third version of the Creativity Ebb n Flow Meter.

Creativity Ebb n  Flow Meter V1.3

This time the main changes are the inclusion of feedback, a pain dial, a deadline alert and a scarcity slider, necessity is the mother of invention and all that jazz. Wine is also now available. I’ve had a lot of fun designing and evolving this machine, and in addition, the three versions that have emerged also demonstrate the iterative nature of many creative processes. As you can see – I’m getting tight for space now, but if I was to make further modifications, what changes would you suggest?