Tightropes and Pivots

Tightropes and Pivots

“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.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart
Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

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.

Field Notes: Wellbeing and Positive Leadership

Field Notes: Wellbeing and Positive Leadership

A few days ago I went to the Victorian Workplace Mental Wellbeing Collaboration Business Leaders Breakfast, the theme of which was ‘Positive Leadership through Change’.

The panel was chaired by Mark Dean, CEO and Founder of En Masse. The panel consisted of:

  • Dee McGrath, Managing Partner, IBM Global Business Services for Australia and New Zealand
  • Nick Nichola, Managing Partner Australia, K&L Gates
  • David Fitzgerald, Director, LOPUS Pty Ltd
  • Simone Wilkie, AO- AFL Commissioner / former Major General

It was a great session and below are a couple of interesting points that arose during the discussion.

Qualities of positive leadership include:

  • Developing trust;
  • Caring for people;
  • Being available to your team;
  • Showing respect;
  • Showing humility and
  • Being able to shore up psychological safety for your team (create an environment where people feel comfortable speaking out).

There was a lot of interesting discussion about showing vulnerability as a leader – showing your human side is OK and may well elicit trust and open up discussions with your teams.

A really interesting topic that was well covered in the discussion was that of getting enough sleep in the interest of maintaining positivity and avoiding a tendency towards abusive behaviour (a manifestation of feeling tired and frazzled). David Fitzgerald advised leaders to pare it back to basics – do get enough sleep, do allow for recovery time from work, turn off your phone from time to time, don’t send or answer emails at 10pm at night, make time for one to one conversations with members of your team.

I am fascinated with culture and how it affects creativity in the workplace. I have a growing interest in wellbeing and its importance in maintaining good workplace culture. It’s really great to be able to get along to events like this and hear discussion about such an important topic.


Extract from ‘Ask for the Moon’

“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. “Strange things happen in the night fog. This is ‘Moonlit Sky’, a well-known scenic place by […]

via Extract from ‘Ask for the Moon’ —

Feeling Depleted?

Feeling Depleted?

I am sharing this blog because it is so beautifully written and contains powerful insights for anyone pondering diversity and inclusion within their organisation.


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…

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Great work; not so great work

Great work; not so great work

“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.

The Balcony (2) by Brett Whiteley
The Balcony (2) by Brett Whiteley

On the Brainpickings website, Maria Popova included some insights from writer Ann Patchett on her creative process including the following:

“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.

Trust and creativity

Trust and creativity

“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.