Creative Leadership

How to use experimentation to become more creative and collaborative

Mount Etna Erupting July 2011

Creative Leadership – From Joining the Dots to Creating a Masterpiece

Creativity, innovation, collaboration. Three essential ingredients for most businesses that have come to mean almost nothing. Buzzwords at best.

If you took everything written about creativity, innovation and collaboration and stacked it all up you could climb the pile of paper to the moon, maybe. Yet if you took all the real work, the real action around creativity, innovation and collaboration and stacked all that up, you could slide it under your average CEO’s office door, possibly.

A key challenge for modern organisations is this: we desire these attributes of creativity, innovation and collaboration to help us create new opportunities, solve problems, and deliver better service, yet we leapfrog most of the basic skills needed to accomplish these purposeful behaviours. Basic skills like conversation, experimentation, practice and persistence. In business we tend to punish mistakes and in so doing, we blunt our creative potential. We are reluctant to acknowledge that time is needed to develop the art of leadership, so we try and rush toward a finished product, and we miss so much as things blur past us.

So how do we get to a more creative, collaborative place? For years we have admired work produced by artists from all across the world. Whether it is your favourite grand masterpiece, an ancient cave painting, or that wonderfully impossible daubed finger painting your child just made for you. And what about the simple poetry of a powerful conversation? Some of the best work we do emanates from something as simple as the right conversation at the right time, with the right people. I think we are missing out on some simple and powerful methods that can help us achieve much better results at work.

You can gain huge value from practicing creative leadership, and What Goes Around launches a new service on February 28th designed to help you do just that. We’ll provide a safe environment for you to take risks, try new things, and make mistakes. It will be experimental, artistic, practical, conversational and powerful. Perhaps more importantly, it will be bold, fun and useful.

More to follow.

photo credit

Innovation Incongruence

It’s no secret that I don’t have a lot of time for Vance Kearney. He comes across as a really poor listener and I don’t think his arrogance serves him, his colleagues or his customers well. And in the interest of balance it seems I’m in a minority if his fourth placing in HR Magazine’s influential list is anything to go by.

I and others have previously challenged him in response to two articles on HR Magazine. The first where Kearney seems to want to bury his head in the sand and ignore reality and the second where he just seemed to make no sense on engagement being quoted as follows, “I like employees to be engaged and motivated. I like them to be dead and not dead. I don’t think anyone’s ever tested it. There is a lack of rigour around the subject.” The written challenges made to Mr Kearney which he never responded to are now gone. When HR Magazine changed owners recently they tell me that a switch from two servers to one meant they lost all their article comments and discussions. Oops!

So when I learned that Vance Kearney was in a panel discussion at the CIPD conference I ummed and ahhed and decided to give it a miss. He and I rub each other up the wrong way and I had plenty of much more enjoyable stuff to see and do. I kept an eye on the emerging Twitter feed and learned that he chose to insult one of the delegates (disagreement is the food of life, but calling a conference attendee an arsehole is going too far for me). The tweeter may have misheard but something unpleasant was certainly uttered as you can see here over at Jon Ingham’s blog.

In September this year when I spotted Jon had tweeted Vance Kearney had been booked to attend the most recent ConnectingHR unconference I confess I was worried. I don’t care how influential Kearney is I don’t think his rude, arrogant approach sits well in a community focussed set up. For whatever reason he never showed and I for one am very pleased he didn’t.

Kearney also said “No significant innovation has ever come by asking a customer what they want – they will have no concept until you present it to them”. If you Google Oracle Customer Innovation you can see that Oracle were running customer innovation days as recently as last month. Perhaps Kearney should tell the rest of his colleagues they’re just wasting their time and money, or maybe he could just cuss at them instead – I guess that at least is quicker.

I and doubtless many others have spent years innovating with customers. When I worked at BT we innovated with customers on communications and product  solutions to meet their needs, joint sustainability innovation to improve supply chain standards, and plenty of other things too. And more recently we (that’s me and my customers, and their customers) invest time innovating and experimenting with better ways of working together. Sure they don’t all succeed but hey – that’s the point of innovation ain’t it? And of course we innovate without customers sometimes too.

Ask, listen, innovate, execute and repeat. It’s a simple enough process and the ask at the start, yes the bit that Kearney dismisses, is a great place to begin as far as I, and seemingly Kearney’s employers are concerned.


You will fail

the cane - a school punishment device from the 1970s

In my early years at school I loved learning French. The fact that my first French teacher was a kind, enthusiastic woman who drove a yellow Triumph Spitfire had no bearing on my enjoyment whatsoever. Miss Draisey was an excellent teacher, encouraging and trusting. I remember how shaken she was when discovering two girls cheating in a French spelling test. You just didn’t cheat in Miss Draisey’s class, she was too…nice.

Jump forward a few years and I’m sitting in the exam hall at Purley High School for Boys, aka Colditz. With a few notable exceptions, the teaching staff led by DGS Akers, our thoroughly unpleasant cane wielding headmaster, were a similarly grim bunch. They made Severus Snape look like Mr Tumble. My French teacher at this school was Madame Ananin. She came across pretty miserable most of the time, and seemed to have a loathing not only for all of us school boys, but her beautiful native language too. How odd.

Back to the exam hall. I’m at my desk, just one boy in an anonymous swathe of rows and columns. The teachers responsible for adjudicating the exam stalk the rows and columns as we prepare to start ‘O’ Level French (yeah I’m really that old!). Madame Ananin is on duty and she walks purposefully along the row of desks. She stops, puts a hand on my desk and leans over. She speaks four words, ‘You will fail Shaw’. She moves away from my desk and carries on. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

I passed ‘O’ Level French. I got a B grade and an A grade for spoken French. I won the inaugural Bruce McCallum Memorial Prize for spoken French that year too. My love for the French language was and is too strong for Madame Ananin.

Nowadays in the pursuit of helping people and teams to develop I encourage people to push themselves, often to and beyond the point of failure. Through failure we learn. To make mistakes and to fail is simply human, and in an encouraging environment it is a most powerful thing.

Know this. Creativity and innovation are forever locked in a whirling dancing fling with failure and chaos. As a leader, when you tell me you want creativity and innovation that’s great. And when you join the dance you never know whose hand you’ll take. You will fail. If you practice, you will learn and you will improve. And I will be there to celebrate that with you.

Thank you Madame Ananin.

photo c/o theirhistory