There are two things that this tweet reinforces for me:
Using the word ‘great’ 3 times in one tweet does not show off my vocabulary skills at their best.
That failure is not an end but a beginning, and a “profound” one at that.
Some background first: I tweeted the above during the 2018 Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) Annual Oration. Given on 20 November by Professor Lars Coenen the lecture, entitled ‘Resilience in the Face of Sustainability Crises: Is Innovation the Problem or the Solution’, was an enjoyably thought-provoking event.
During his oration, Professor Coenen touched on failure – and the things it can teach us – as part of innovation process.
“Being resilient means being adaptive – learning-by-doing and doing-by-learning. Even though we can’t afford to get this wrong, we will undoubtedly make many mistakes along the way. But to conclude with the words of Yoda, ‘The greatest teacher, failure is’” – #MSSIorationpic.twitter.com/8OLcBIfW2E
Kate Auty, Chair of the MSSI Advisory Board and MC for the evening, picked up on this during the Q & A, and I especially liked the wording Kate used: “a profound place to start.”
There is a growing trend to encourage people to embrace their failures more, to not be embarrassed by them or in denial of them but to acknowledge and welcome them as a chance to grow. I heartily approve of this, BUT to truly learn from our failures – to find that profound starting place they can lead us to – we must go beyond merely acknowledging them or turning them into war stories. Shrugging stuff of with cries of “Oh shit! Oh well… tomorrow’s another day” and then hurrying off to get drunk won’t do. The growth comes from having the humility and developing the capacity to reflect deeply.
I have been meditating on some favourite lines of poetry recently: “Now that my ladder’s gone I must lie down where all the ladders start In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
These are from W.B. Yeats’ The Circus Animals’ Desertion, and speak to a need to find inspiration, especially at the moment when inspiration seems to have dried up. “I sought a theme and sought for it in vain, I sought it daily for six weeks or so. Maybe at last being but a broken man I must be satisfied with my heart…”
In our failures, with our egos bruised and our thinking in disarray, the experience of our failed projects can feel very raw. The potential for gains in status, finances, career advancement, or personal triumph are all stripped away – we are pared back to the bare essentials of our self, our hurt and failing self. The ladder we were climbing to better and brighter things has gone.
The foul rag and bone shop of the heart may not be a place filled with things that are shiny or lovely, but it is filled with stuff nevertheless – the rags and bones are remnants of life lived. In Yeats’ poem, he comments that the great and ‘pure’ images in his famous poems grew out of “A mound of refuse or the sweepings of the street” – beauty or meaning can grow out of compost.
If our failures lead us to the rag and bone shop of the heart, then this is a profound place indeed. For it is the place where all ladders start, and where our next attempt at ascendancy can begin.
I have collected a recording of the oration, a follow up extract, and some other information about the evening into a Wakelet collection. Just click here if you would like to look.
I caught up with artist and arts administrator Tiyami Amum for a cup of tea recently, and we talked about this and that, as you do, except that our ‘this and that’s’ normally revolve around discussions about what it takes to sustain a micro-business in the arts industry.
The conversation drifted onto playfulness, and three things about its importance in business practice struck me during our chat:
As we all know, playfulness gets the creative juices flowing. It’s great for generating fresh and original ideas and approaches.
Tiyami and I agreed that the fun factor of playfulness is a helpful thing when it comes to sustaining wellbeing. Deriving enjoyment from your work, even if it’s hard or intense work, finding and refreshing your sense of inspiration, making your workload feel beguiling instead of a chore or a to-do list, alleviating stress while you work – these are all ways that playfulness can help sustain good mental health.
(This one is the really interesting thought that emerged, and I am not sure if it even plays out the way I think it might. But…) It struck me during our conversation that playfulness might help to build a narrative around an evolving brand.
During our conversation we had been talking about the challenge of developing a brand that allowed for shifts, adaptations and evolutions as a business grew and matured. The nature of creative work is such that creative people are constantly developing their process. Steering the products of the imagination from light bulb moment to tangible outcome stimulates experimentation, learning, reflectiveness, and innovation. The creative people I know are constantly curious, adding new skills and experiences to their repertoire, discovering new ways of doing things, coming up with new ideas. All businesses need to innovate, but I think creative practice is ultra-prone to shifts and growth.
So how do you develop a brand that at one and the same time marks your business’ identity out as distinctive and coherent, while allowing wriggle room for that business to change services and markets as it evolves. I wonder if you embed playfulness as a central value in your brand, and manifest this in your marketing strategy (say through content marketing?), then you are better placed to nudge your branding strategy in new directions. If you signal to your networks that you are playful – experimental, joyfully random, prone to toying with new things – then those same networks might be more inclined to travel with you as your brand changes.
I have written a book on innovation called ‘Ask for the Moon’. In it I use Shaw Brothers Studios and their production of kung fu movies in the 60s and 70s as a case study to interrogate the tension between business model innovation and artistic innovation. People might think that chopsocky and innovation are odd bedfellows. Well, they’re wrong. Read this blog from the book’s website to find out why I chose innovation as a theme.
“An astonishing number of kung fu movies are about innovation. A common feature of the genre, and one that is often held against it, especially by Western viewers, is a recurring plotline that underpins these movies time and time again. If classic Hollywood movies relied on the boy-gets-girl / boy-loses-girl / boy-gets-girl-again story arc (and, funnily enough, this isn’t held against this genre) then kung fu movies often have the following:
Villain slaughters hero’s entire family and nearly does for the hero, who escapes by the skin of his teeth;
Hero, knowing he can’t beat villain, as he is a far technically superior fighter, goes into hiding and broods on how he can extract revenge on the bastard;
Hero has a flash of inspiration and discovers or invents or adapts a technique or weapon that can counter the villain’s technical advantages;
A blog I wrote about a collaboration I was involved in earlier this year. I re-post it here for its insights into the process of creative collaboration.
Ask for the Moon has wonderful illustrations and cover art, created especially for the book by Rebecca Stewart. Prior to working on this book I had never collaborated with an illustrator before and I found the process both fascinating and rewarding.
Why illustrations? Why not just stills from Shaw Brothers films?
It felt important to have images in a book about a visual art form like film but, working with a tiny budget, I was concerned that I couldn’t afford to pay fees for copyright licences to use stills from the films. Perhaps, more importantly, Rebecca and I both agreed that it just didn’t make sense to populate a book that had innovation as its overarching theme with reproduced images. We felt that illustrations that were an original response to the book’s content would better honour that overarching theme.
Not all projects go the way we want them too, but we live in a society that tends to be risk averse and squeamish when it comes to talking about failure. Too many people carry untold history, denying themselves, and others, the chance to reflect, learn, and recover.
This is a chance for you to talk about risks you have taken, failures you have endured, and fools you have suffered.
Small, intimate groups of fellow risk takers (maximum of 4 plus facilitator);
Creative-based facilitation model to inspire insights.
What is it about work that has made you wake up at 3am with a pounding heart?
The world of work can be tough to navigate at times. I help people make sense of the emotional labour involved in navigating workplace culture. After a lifetime of working with teams in high pressure environments, I have developed a facilitation model that uses gothic themes and stories to provide both structure and inspiration.
For this Halloween week, think about the things that have gone bump in your workplace: the Jekyll and Hyde colleagues, the vampires who suck the life out of your projects, the monsters you have created.
This is an opportunity to bring them into the light of day.
Cost: $25 / person Dates: 29 Oct. – 2 Nov. 2018 Time: 5.30 for 6-7.30 pm Place: Pop-Up venue in Melbourne CBD (directions supplied after booking) I am keeping numbers small to keep the conversation intimate, so book soon.
My book Ask for the Moonlooks at creativity and innovation in organisations, and the conditions that nurture or constrain these. As a central case study for the book, I chose to look at Shaw Brothers Studios and their production of martial arts movies in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s.
Shaw Brothers had a business and production model that was unique for the time and place in which they operated. Their artistic workforce – directors, cinematographers, editors, martial arts choreographers, performers, writers, production designers, etc. – were extraordinarily creative and some of them even managed innovations in their art form.
The good thing about working for big studios was that you got classy, quality support. Even if you asked for the moon, they could get the moon for you, which was amazing. ~ Shaw Brothers Studios director Chor Yuen
One of the components of the Shaw Brothers production model was their organisation of resources. Whether it was a gobsmacking array of lavish costumes and set dressings, state of the art equipment, or a large and dedicated corps of human talent, Shaw Brothers could, as shown in the Chor Yuen quote above, support the vision of their directors with terrific resources.
They did this by pooling these resources centrally, and then mandating their re-use across a number of films. This kept costs down but, because the resources themselves were of high calibre to begin with, also ensured a decent quality. As a former creative worker and arts manager, I can completely empathise with Chor Yuen’s appreciation of being able to ask for his moon (and I know he got it because I’ve seen it in many of his glamorous looking movies). In my personal history I saw many arts projects get produced on shoe string budgets, and artists frequently worked miracles to produce material despite this, but this isn’t ideal for nurturing sustained creativity or producing good quality and well realised work. Shaw Brothers were able to churn out hundreds of handsome looking films in two and a half decades, of consistently good quality, and their strategy for managing resourcing played an important part in this.
(Producer) Run Run (Shaw) calibrated the resourcing of his production model… and then aligned it with producing a certain quality of product geared towards satisfying a certain audience need. ~ Ask for the Moon
Good, and certainly great, creative work needs to be adequately resourced. If it’s not, then potential is constrained, and your creatives will be distracted by stretching resources rather than doing the very best work they can do.
Shaw Brothers’ production model, and its particular approach to the management of resourcing, did have a down side: Shaw directors were constrained to using the same resources again and again. While they did good work, and this is commendable, this could also limit their ability to experiment and innovate (and this is one of the core things I look at in my book). This led to a certain sameness in aesthetic in the films – the same costumes, sets, actors, and even plots were recycled – and induced a feeling of staleness in some of the filmmakers.
Many Shaw Brothers’ films are eye-catching and fun, but only a few of them managed to be actually innovative, rather than just imaginative, under this regimen of controlling resources.
So, the lesson is plain: if you want ground breaking work, resource it properly.
Ask for the Moon is on sale now and you can buy it here.
“In the film industry, one walks a tightrope, satisfactions, and dangers. That is perhaps why the business of making movies has given me the pleasure, the excitement, and the fulfilment I have always craved.” ~ Sir Run Run Shaw
I used this quote in my recent book, Ask for the Moon. Sir Run Run’s company – Shaw Brothers Organisation – was a market leader in the filmmaking and distribution industry in Asia in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, and, although it is not as busy producing films, is still a successful corporation in various sectors even today.
The Shaw Brothers manoeuvred their business into a position of predominance through a combination of clever strategy and calculated risk taking. My book is about innovation, both in terms of business modelling and artistic (filmmaking) output, and Shaw Brothers Organisation is a perfect case study for this.
The history of the organisation is a fascinating one: the brothers had to outlast cut throat competition, war, political instability, geopolitical complexities, and rapid social change. This they did, over the course of many decades and across China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
One aspect of their history that interests me, and which I tried to amplify in the chapter in my book in which I describe their history, is their ability to pivot in response to both obstacles and opportunities. Actually, their pivots often changed obstacles into opportunities. They were willing to try new ways of doing things and / or new locations of business, and this saw them succeed where other businesses failed.
Sir Run Run mentions walking a tightrope, and I can only assume, given their history, that the brothers must have had nerves of steel and an appetite for adventure. But the other thing that struck me about them was their strategic nous and uncanny ability to read their market. On top of this, Run Run managed his business with a micro-manager’s attention to detail. So, in considering them as personalities – and as innovators – it is interesting to consider this complex mix of the adventurous and the meticulous.
Oliver Cromwell apparently said, “Trust in God but keep your powder dry”, an interesting reflection on balancing faith in the ineffable and cultivating the practical. The Shaw brothers trusted in themselves and made sure they controlled the production of their own goddamned powder. They built a business that was able to adapt and shift, and this ensured success and longevity.
If you would like to know more about my book, Ask for the Moon: Innovation at Shaw Brothers Studio, then check out the website here.
I am presenting on some of the themes of the book at the Knowledge Management Leadership Forum in October 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. More information here.