“I am writing a poem. Very strange. I don’t yet understand it altogether.” ~ W.B. Yeats
In making something creative, here’s the thing: you feel compelled to work on something without knowing how it’s going to turn out.
When I used to make work as a choreographer and theatre maker I was constantly leaping into action, on fire to submit some spark of inspiration to whatever techniques I had at my disposal. I got used to the fact that my brain would serve me up the vision of a piece of performance or writing that would make me want to get busy, but then this thing would turn out nothing like I envisioned. The more I worked on it, the more I would find out how inadequate the first idea was. But in working on it I would open up better and more interesting possibilities for myself. I learnt that the imagination is a trickster god, a powerful force that beguiles you into taking action. My light bulb moments were nothing more than my imagination making me get my ass off the couch and into the studio. It was a good trick, albeit a strange one. I didn’t understand it altogether, but I learnt to trust it.
“There are few filmmakers who really understand even their own process of filmmaking. So, when trying to tell other people ‘this is how you should do it,’ they end up expending a huge amount of energy. In all honesty, I think a lot of people on-set don’t really understand what they’re doing either. It’s only when looking at the finished product that they can really see, ‘oh, so that’s how it worked!’” ~ Tsui Hark
It’s one thing to follow your impulses if you’re working by yourself. It’s quite another to take a team with you on the adventure. Working as part of a creative team takes enormous trust. As the notable director and producer Tsui Hark says above, the leader of such a team will expend an enormous amount of energy in communicating with them. But in the absence of good communication, how can you build trust? Or get a group of people inspired by an outcome they can’t see clearly even while they’re working towards it?
There are many aspects to successfully leading a team of people who are working creatively. Assembling the right (and diverse) mix of skill sets and temperaments is one challenge, getting them to gel as a team is the next step. Being prepared to invest the emotional labour into helping your team live with risk and uncertainty is another. Deploying effective communication strategies is yet another challenge. And, regardless of the success of the outcome, being able to guide your team to a moment of realisation – “Oh, so that’s how it worked” – is an essential learning process that will empower the team to carry onto the next innovative project.
Humans are an innately creative species. We are also a herd animal. Leading people to co-create is a fascinating challenge. With the right approach, it needn’t be an impossible one.
I will be modelling a technique that I use to help people reflect on the creative learning process at the Creative Melbourne conference, 18-22 February. More information can be found here.
Friday the 13th is known as black Friday, a day where horrors abound and the weird and uncanny reign.
The 13th of October is International Day of Failure, a day put aside to celebrate our failures and the subsequent lessons learnt and resilience discovered.
This year the International Day of Failure happens to lie on Friday the 13th of October. What better way, on such a date, to examine failure than to look at two famous horror novels – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – which both revolve around a failed experiment.
What do Victor Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll have in common? Both are men of science who stuffed up. Victor Frankenstein cobbled together and gave life to a creature, only to find that it was morally and physically grotesque. Dr Jekyll’s dabblings in potions didn’t turn out he way he intended. The novels in which these characters debuted describes the horror of Victor Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll at the consequences of their experiments and charts their ghastly downfalls.
Join me for a discussion of two classic works of literature, commiserate with poor old Victor and Dr Jekyll, and speculate as to what you would have done with Frankenstein’s creature or Mr Hyde. Using the famous creations of Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson, Conversations of Regret unpack what it means to fail – and fail big – in a way that is empathetic, imaginative, and fun.
You don’t have to have read the novels to take part, just bring a sense of curiosity and some imagination. There will be snacks.
I have recently been cleaning up the bookmarked articles I have stored on my computer – not something for the faint hearted! Among misfiled references, peculiar categories and bewildering placements – why, for instance, do I have the link for a black and white Mexican wrestling movie alongside the link to a website on Japanese art – I found an article from the Harvard Business Review called ‘Why Your Employees Don’t Innovate’ by David Stuart and Jordan Rodgers. I reread it and understood why I had kept it*.
Stuart and Rodgers were reporting back from a survey on innovation they had done of nearly 3,500 companies across the world. They found that although innovation was talked up by, well, nearly everyone – manager and non-manager alike – in these organisations it wasn’t actually being done as such:
“While nearly nine in ten non-managers strongly believe they ought to be involved in innovation, far fewer (roughly six in ten) say they actually are.”
Why? Turns out that managers aren’t actually backing up their visionary words by resourcing people properly:
“But how many CEOs really mean what they say? Do they truly believe that innovative work can be left to the non-management ranks – and do they give individual contributors the time and resources they need to do so?”
I have witnessed this myself. Without naming names, I could describe team meetings I have seen where management have been grandly exhorting their teams to innovate – to be daring – but not taking into account that these same teams simply do not have the time, means or corporate culture within which to experiment or play. I have heard more than one manager in more than one place use the phrase “It is better to seek permission than to ask forgiveness.” I reckon this is a great phrase, actually. But in the instances I am thinking about it wasn’t; it was being flung in the faces of (overly) hard working people who had the reduction of risk written into their position description, work plans and KPIs, and comprehensively embedded in the narrowly focused procedures they were expected to follow.
“What we found is that although a majority of employees say innovation is everybody’s responsibility, not everyone actually gets the resources needed to innovate.”
When you speechify about innovation to people who have no time or energy to do so, and when you follow up your audacious words by prosecuting a micromanaged work process, then not only will you not get innovation but you will actually teach your team that it is a fantasy thing; something the boss craps on about but which never actually gets done.
“The problem? Most employees believe that management does not inspire them to do great work — or give them the opportunity to do so. Fewer than half of those in the lower ranks who have the chance to think through an idea believe they have access to the necessary means to execute it: money, staff, and support.”
My project management work in the arts industry was about deploying the resources of money, staff and support so that people could deliver projects of quality on time and within budget. And hopefully without setting the theatre or any of the performers on fire.
None of the projects I worked on ever had much money or large pools of resources, human or otherwise, but they were all creative and often innovative as well. So I know that innovation does not have to take a lot of money or other resources to pull off, rather it needs highly strategic deployment of these things. And, overall, it needs a carefully nurtured culture: one which creates room for play or experiments and the inevitable mistakes and mess that arise. What my work in the arts – a whole industry based on making products of the imagination tangible – taught me is this: if you want to realise that creative vision in your head then you have to follow thought with action and align the use of whatever resources you have with the expression of that vision.
*I kept the Mexican wrestling movie and the Japanese art too.
An interesting piece of trivia in this article is that
“The word ‘toxic’ comes from the Greek ‘toxikon’ which means ‘arrow poison’. In a literal sense, the term in its original form thus means to kill (poison) in a targeted way (arrow).”
Which means that ‘toxic’ is indeed the perfect word to describe leaders who use abuse their power in order to increase it:
“Toxic organisations and leaders therefore are those who deliberately destroy the fabric of the institution.”
Read this article if you are after an emphatic description of how toxic leadership works and what its effects are. If you yourself have been exposed to toxic leadership, and too many of us have been, then best read this when your blood pressure is nicely under control.
If Veldsman’s article induces a bout of teeth grinding and white knuckle fury then read Simon Terry’s The Life-crushing Magic of Hierarchy, which is pretty much about the same thing as Veldsman’s piece except that it’s very funny and will make you laugh. A mock advice column, it absolutely skewers the nasty behaviours and thoughts of toxic leaders:
“Humans are inherently messy creatures. We accumulate history and the entanglements of human relationships and emotions. As a manager this human mess can interfere with the joy of the unrelenting execution of your will. A cluttered organisation shows no respect to a manager’s inherent expertise and power.
My life as a manager was transformed when I discovered the life-crushing magic of hierarchy. Your life and organisation can be neat and orderly, if you follow these simple organisational principles.”
Do you think, though, that if a toxic leader were to read this they would recognise themselves? And if they did, would they care?
Krupka is a teacher of meditation and a PhD candidate with the Faculty of Health Science at LaTrobe University. In this article on The Conversation website she takes aim at the dark side of the current fad for mindfulness in corporate settings. She rails against the use of mindfulness techniques as a way of stifling manifestations of stress rather than addressing them.
“While there can be little doubt that the practice of mindfulness can lead to significant health benefits, its current prominence in corporate culture is nested within a social, cultural and political context where stress is now seen as a failure of the individual to adapt to the productivity demands of the corporation. In other words, if you’re stressed out, you’re not working hard enough on your personal focus strategy. You’re letting the team down.”
And it’s worse for women, apparently:
“The current translations of ancient mindful practices are also highly gendered. In a culture where women are much more likely to be encouraged to apply acceptance, silence, stillness and the relinquishing of resistance to their problems, the trap of mindfulness can be set to stun for those who may be much more in need of speaking up, resisting and taking space in the workplace.”
In a time and place where plenty of us are coming to understand the need for diversity of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc. in our workplace communities anything that leads to people being held back from “taking space in the workplace” can’t be good.
I’m particularly interested in what makes workplace cultures more humane; not only is this obviously a kinder way of living but it also leads to better staff retention, more productivity and more creativity. Part of the creative process often involves what some call creative fiction; discussion of divergent opinions within a team can lead to breakthroughs. But this can be a little stressful – not necessarily bad but still adrenaline inducing. In my own head I call this kind of stress ‘positive stress’ – not comfortable and not sustainable over long periods but certainly productive in the right time and place and, among the right people, exciting and even fun.
Negative stress is the kind of thing that can be caused and / or exacerbated by bad work conditions and / or poor culture. It is important that the causes of such stress be highlighted and dealt with. Prolonged exposure to this kind of stress can be damaging, physically and emotionally.
Krupka’s concern with the way mindfulness techniques are being embedded in corporate culture is that they are being used to stifle expressions of stress:
“It’ll fix not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you… mindfulness has been rebranded as a kind of gentle harness to help us heel to the corporate leg.”
Managers who tidy away any manifestations of stress that threaten to subvert the status quo – either the discontent of those feeling negative stress or the outpourings from those in the grip of positive stress – are selling their organisation short by squelching personality, cauterising tolerance for difference, allowing problems to fester and bad conditions to become entrenched.
As Krupka states in her closing paragraph “Mindfulness is a way of living, not a substitute for taking action.”
Managers need to take action that results in psycho-social space being opened up for honest conversation, rather than imposing a regime that demands silent compliance.
“Just be quiet, listen, be present and you might learn something.”
So wrote management consultant and author Paul Culmsee in his blog – Rediscovering my Creativity at the Creative Melbourne Conference.
So: how do you build community when you are gathering together a group of strangers from diverse backgrounds?
The Creative Melbourne conference took place 13-15 February earlier this year. The aforementioned Paul was one of the conference’s inaugural presenters and so was I. This was a real honour – as Paul describes in his blog, the conference director, Arthur Shelley, assembled an amazing group of presenters. Despite having very different presentation styles and covering a broad range of topics there wasn’t a dull one amongst them – rare, in my experience of conferences. Speakers and attendees alike constituted an amazingly diverse group of people with backgrounds in education, academia, visual and performing arts, learning and development, management consultancy, government… you get the picture.
Arthur’s purpose was to create and connect creative people so that we could all enjoy the sharing of inspiration, ideas and knowledge that inevitably flowed. While there were some fascinating ideas to ponder and some great new techniques I saw modeled, as I write this in May the loveliest thing about attending this conference, my warmest memory of it, was the very genuine feeling of community that quickly, but emphatically, emerged among those who attended.
There was plenty of bonhomie in the conference room, no doubt about that, and, despite disparities in background or professional discipline, common areas of interest were identified. But that realisation that you are immersed in a little community of people who are operating out of firm intentions of displaying good will and exploring new experiences came to me during one of the more challenging aspects of attending the conference, namely: presenting.
In his blog Paul admits to feeling nervous about the impact his presentation would have on the tone of the conference; quite unnecessarily, as it turns out, as he is a superb presenter who is able to frame his provocations in a way that are engaging rather than alienating. I too found presenting more challenging than I usually do for reasons that are too tedious to go into here but… in the final analysis that didn’t seem to matter. The folks attending my session participated with gusto and provided some lovely feedback afterwards.
Creativity is nurtured by or in certain conditions. Building a community of open minded and mutually supportive people is one way of creating favourable conditions; Creative Melbourne actively modeled this and I am grateful to have been included.
Perhaps homogeneity of profession or background isn’t so necessary when it comes to building communities, and in building creative communities diversity is, I think, much more helpful. Perhaps the commonality we need to establish is more in the area of shared values: good will, open mindedness, curiosity, playfulness. These are the things that can bond a creative community.
Paul Culmsee in collaboration with Kailash Awati has written a terrific book about ambiguity called ‘The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity’. You can find out more about it here.
Arthur Shelley plans to bring Creative Melbourne back to Melbourne again. If you would like to attend then keep track of his website.