A Profound Place to Start

A Profound Place to Start

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.

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.

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Taken from ‘Fians, Fairies and Picts’ by David MacRitchie

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.

 

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Playfulness, narrative, and branding

Playfulness, narrative, and branding

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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:

  1. As we all know, playfulness gets the creative juices flowing. It’s great for generating fresh and original ideas and approaches.
  2. 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.
  3. (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.

What do you think?

Horrible Histories: When Projects Go Wrong

Horrible Histories: When Projects Go Wrong

Facilitated Conversations about

Risk Taking and Failure.

Exorcise your inner demons.

Offload, unburden, and get some perspective.

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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.

Book now  to share your Horrible History:

  • 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.

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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. 

Book here.

Resourcing Creativity

Resourcing Creativity

My book Ask for the Moon looks 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.

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A still from Chor Yuen’s film ‘Killer Clans’. Note the yellow carpet…

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.

Note the same yellow carpet underfoot in this still from another Chor Yuen film, ‘The Magic Blade’. I have seen this same carpet in every Shaws film I have seen.

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.

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.

Workshop: Harnessing Creativity Through Project Planning

Workshop: Harnessing Creativity Through Project Planning

“Innovate or die” is an exhortation that has become familiar to many organisations. Underpinning innovation is creativity; creative ideas provide the concepts that inspire innovation. Much advice that is written around creativity is focused very narrowly on ideation or being more imaginative without addressing how these ‘flights of fancy’ can be applied to real life situations.

On 9 August 2016 I will be offering a day long workshop ‘Harnessing Creativity Through Project Planning’. This workshop provides project managers and their teams with concrete and workable approaches that they can apply to preexisting and embedded operational systems or project planning templates. This workshop helps participants understand more about creativity and how it works, and how creative thinking can be used to enhance planning and delivery of projects. During this interactive workshop participants will learn how to make space for creative thinking within a project plan without allowing the free-ranging nature of imaginative thought derail project plans and measures.

Cost:

  • General public $400
  • Members of Association for Tertiary Education Management $300; Affiliates $340

Venue: Deakin University, Melbourne City Centre

Bookings close 3 August. Places are limited so BOOK NOW.

To register or find out more information please go here.

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Apollo on the Sun Chariot by Guido Reni (1575-1642)
Recommended Read: David Bowie – innovator extraordinaire

Recommended Read: David Bowie – innovator extraordinaire

“Musician, actor, icon and entrepreneur. David Bowie was an innovator in every way. He stepped into the vacuum left by the Beatles’ break-up in 1970 and developed an array of strategies that have gone on to become the common sense of popular culture and of business itself.”

So begins Mike Jones’ article ‘David Bowie – Innovator Extraordinaire’. First published on The Conversation on 12 January 2016 (shortly after Bowie’s death) it is an interesting examination of how Bowie was able to meld ground breaking performative and musical approaches with business savviness.

“Through his Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie united the visual and narrative conceits of science fiction with those of pop in a way that allowed him to at once be and yet not be that invented character. Having gained an audience, it was then a business masterstroke to kill off this successful creation and to trust that his audience was now primed to accept and delight in successive incarnations and their associated musical genres.

This allowed Bowie to always be “himself” (whoever and whatever that was), while enjoying the licence to pioneer different genres of music – whether electronica, funk or emergent dance music. He combined print, stage and video design to create symbolically rich and dramatic settings for his different alter egos, using them to carry and complete his latest incarnation.”

I liked Jones’ choice of Bowie as a case study of an innovator in both the business and creative fields; Bowie’s output clearly does demonstrates how canny and imaginative uses of “visual and narrative conceits” underpin strong branding that positions you as an innovator in the eyes of your stakeholders.

Jones’ highlighting of the way Bowie’s performative personae and musical styles kept evolving is also insightful; during Bowie’s life innovation begat more innovation and his “audience was… primed to accept and delight in successive incarnations.”

You can find the complete article here.

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Image sourced from time.com