I am currently preparing a new lecture that I will be giving in Vienna next week, “Diversity work as Emotional Work.” I will be drawing on some old material that I published in On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional life (2012). It is interesting going back because you arrive with a slightly different lens, and you notice things even in your own interview transcripts that you just hadn’t noticed before. I have so enjoyed it: that reminder that projects are never over, that our materials are as full of life as we are. Or maybe more full of life, because sometimes we can feel depleted.
And that is what I am thinking about right now: feeling depleted. It is not that feelings are themselves being depleted (the rather economic model of emotions that is evident for instance in some uses of the concept of “compassion fatigue,” in which is…
“He painted all the time to do a really good painting and, like any artist, sometimes he did great works and sometimes he did not so great ones.” Brett Lichtenstein on Brett Whiteley, p. 81, Whiteley on Trial, by Gabriella Coslovich
I am currently reading (and enjoying) Gabriella Coslovich’s book Whiteley on Trial, a fascinating account of the biggest case of alleged art fraud in Australia. As well as providing a detailed retelling of the court proceedings, Coslovich also includes accounts of her interviews with a fascinating cast of characters, all connected with the late artist Brett Whiteley, or his artworks, or the apparent forgery of his style.
The above quote comes from a conversation the author had with the master framer Brett Lichtenstein. It caught my eye because I have been lately ruminating on the willingness of artists (from any discipline) to embrace experimentation and risk in their work. In my life, I have worked in both the arts industry and other sectors. It came as a rude shock to me, when I left the arts to go and work in the community and tertiary sectors, to realise how risk averse a lot of people were in comparison to the artists I was used to working with.
There is a myth that artists are woefully chaotic and badly disorganised, and spend their lives mucking about ineffectually to make all kinds of weirdly arcane stuff. The older I get the wearier I am of hearing this, usually from people who have no experience in the arts industry. The truth is – take it from one who has worked both within and out of the arts industry and can compare – that the percentage of artists who are bimbos and flakes is no higher or lower than the percentage of bimbos and flakes in other sectors.
The process of making art is messy; the process of creating something is full of trial and error. Perhaps this is why, to the outsider, artists look disorganised in their work. Whiteley was a great artist; many of Coslovich’s interviewees call him a genius. But as Lichtenstein attests above – and as Whiteley’s favourite framer he developed an intimate knowledge of Whiteley’s work over the course of many years – this genius “sometimes did not so great” work.
But to get to that “really good painting” Whiteley had to paint “all the time”, had to keep painting pieces that fell a little short until he produced a great work that didn’t. And as Lichtenstein says above, this is “like any artist”. Any of us working creatively are going to churn through this process of trying to find that sweet point where technique aligns with inspiration. In Whiteley’s case, his great works were really great. But even if most of us can never match his outcomes, we can still learn from his process.
“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, … I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.”
I wish, I really really wish, someone had given me this advice when I was a young dancer and choreographer. Being creative is tough. You constantly have to weather the disappointment of not being able to reproduce the inspirational thing in your head as a real tangible outcome, you come up short, or it doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would, or you try too hard and overcomplicate things.
But to make the thing you are capable of making, you have to keep trying, make some bad work, move past that, keep trying, make some OK work, learn from that, keep trying, make some bad work again, reflect some more, keep trying, and then make that capable (even great?) piece. Then move on from that. Keep trying. Make some more bad work. Keep trying. And so on. And so forth.
If you want to experience insight into creativity, especially in how to apply it to innovation, then come along to the Creative Melbourne conference, 18-22 February, which offers a unique experience in creative co-learning. For more information, please look here.
“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?