Creative Leadership – Essential Reading – #1

A brief review of 101 Things to Learn at Art School – by Kit White.

What’s black and white and red all over?

A newspaper? A sunburnt penguin?

Or maybe…it’s this lot.

Creative Leadership - Essential Reading

These four books which I have been reading and rereading for the last few months have each proved to be outstanding. Rarely do I discover such a rich vein of reading form, and I’d like to share it with you in the form of a brief review of each book, in the order they arrived in my hands.

101 Things to Learn in Art School – Kit White

Carole gave me a copy of this book as a birthday present last year. It’s a thing of wonder, oozing with creativity, simplicity and ideas. Each double page has an illustration on the left, and a thought, idea, practice or provocation on the right. Whilst at first glance this book feels like it’s squarely aimed at the aspiring artist, it’s full of ideas that cross borders into other disciplines too. When applying the book to my practice, I often find myself replacing the word art with the word work, after all – I do believe our art is our work and vice versa. For example:

Making (work) art is an act of discovery. If you are dealing only with what you know, you may not be doing your job. When you discover something new, or surprise yourself, you are engaging in the process of discovery.

Clear sight makes clear (work) art. Observation lies at the heart of the (work) art process. Whether your art derives from mimicking nature or extrapolating a mental construct, your powers of observation are critical. Unless you can see what lies before you, you cannot describe it. Train yourself to eliminate preconceptions and received understandings when observing anything. Try to see what is before you, not what you think you see or want to see.

I have the hard cover edition of the book. It’s a solid, rubber clad, square shaped thing of beauty. I can’t imagine enjoying this volume nearly so much on a Kindle. On the creative leadership dial it points more towards the creative, and I think your work will be all the better for reading it, enjoying it and practicing it. So much has it resonated with me, I have bought several copies of this book for other people as gifts.

Have a great day, next up it’s the turn of The Year Without Pants.


Simulacrum : Looking Beyond the Data to the Human

‘Simulacrum – a likeness or simulation that has the appearance but not the substance of the thing it resembles.’ Kit White

Spring MagnoliasHere is an extract from a water colour sketch I made of some spring magnolias. It bears a likeness and simulation to one of my favourite flowers, and it is quite clearly not the substance of the flower. You can’t smell the flower, or touch it.

The notion of a simulacrum not only applies to art, but to all other things as well. I think there’s a reason why, even with all the technology now available to us, that face-to-face contact remains so important to us. That reason is the substance beyond the simulacrum.

Occupying the same physical space is transformatively different from any other shared experience. Seeing eye movements, sensing the air move as you and others physically shift, talk and laugh. All this stuff gets you closer to the substance. I once worked for a boss who used a cost cutting mantra as a reason to avoid getting the team together face to face, for a whole year. I recall few things about that time, but I clearly remember how much the team unraveled over that period, and though we shared information and data, just how little teamwork we did.

All too often, we lazily assume the data that is placed before us at work, is the real thing. It isn’t, yet we often use that data to make decisions that affect people’s lives in work and beyond. It’s scary enough when we unquestioningly decide to increase widget production without checking the figures, but when we make these choices about people, we risk pushing disrespect to a whole new level.

It’s so temptingly simple to make decisions based on a set of numbers. Everyone knows and uses the phrase popularised by Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” yet we seem to have a scarily easy time believing the data when it’s placed before us in a work context. I think this is at least partly because we measure that which is easy to measure, not that which is important. And I think this is partly where HRTech is currently failing us.

When making decisions about people, working to get beyond the simulacrum really matters. And in order to do this, we need access to so much more than stats and data as we currently think about them. How might that look?

John’s performance rating is a 2 out of 5; Doug’s is only a 3. John gets the pay rise and all that glitters, I get told to pull my socks up.  What’s behind my 3? Do you know or care? Maybe I was a dead last 5 the last time we looked and boy that divorce was tearing me apart but you know, I knuckled down and hauled my previously productive ass all the way back up to a 3 again.

Here’s another dilemma. Good work often reveals itself slowly. You think you don’t have the time for slow so you push for data, push for fast and make do. Those that keep up survive, the rest, well you don’t care because you don’t have the time, remember?

Wherever possible I like to invest as least as much time looking and thinking as I do making.

I know you think you’re too busy to look and think and what the hell it doesn’t matter anyway. And maybe it doesn’t. In which case, don’t create any pretence about it, just openly treat people as pieces of raw data and see how that works out for you. If it does matter though, try investing the time to gather, build and understand a richer picture so that HR has the data it needs in order to do what it should do best. Help people make work better.

A version of this post was first published at