“Waxing ever more lyrical though, English novelist Tom McCarthy in his first novel, Remainder, had this to say:
‘… all great enterprises are about logistics. Not genius or inspiration or flights of imagination, skill or cunning, but logistics. Building pyramids or landing spacecraft on Jupiter or invading whole continents or painting divine scenes over the roofs of chapels: logistics.’”
I thought this was an interesting perspective, lyrically expressed. These days you can’t spit, so to speak, without hitting an article or blog or website extolling the virtues of innovation for business. To state the bleeding obvious, when we talk about innovation we are talking about a range of activities starting with creative ideation and then progressing through all of the operational processes through which that idea takes tangible form to, somehow, add value to either process or product. In other words, logistics is definitely a part of innovation and the development of creative, value-adding ideas.
And this is not just the case in business either. As someone who started out as an artiste before progressing to arts management work, wherein I helped others realise their creative projects, I am coming to grind my teeth when I hear business folk describe artists as flakey and crazy, inferring that they indulge in wild flights of fancy and lack the practical nous to implement their ideas. Don’t you believe a word of it: good artists, performing and visual, are red hot implementers. Their practice is all about taking their creative ideas and expressing them in tangible or experiential forms. If they don’t do this they are merely day dreamers. While artists may not have the same skill sets as business people, they have their own range of logistics to wrangle and their own different but comparable sorts of ingenuity to get the best results from these.
Do you agree with McCarthy’s view? Feel free to leave a comment below. For me this quote alludes to that alchemical moment during any creative enterprise when you get the imagination and intellect talking together, when day to day processes and real-life circumstances can be lined up or wrangled to facilitate the expression of a new creative idea. What I have always called ‘my choreographer’s brain’, by which I mean a brain that likes arranging people and things in time and space to express something, gets a kick out of this. It’s what makes the area of innovation such a fun thing to play around in. Fun, and for the business world, vital.
Millennials tend to be described either as paragons of empathy and creativity or narcissistic over-indulged brats. To borrow a phrase from Jane Austen, they “deserve neither such praise nor such censure”*. They’re just people. Respect them and talk to them in the same way you do with your Boomer and Slacker reports and colleagues. If your normal way of managing, co-working and communicating doesn’t provide the optimal conditions for a Millennial to function creatively and collaboratively then the bad news is that your normal way of working has not provided the optimal conditions for anyone of any generation to fulfil their potential.
I have come across articles from time to time mentioning the differences between the generations. I feel as if there is a theme I am spotting where millennials are being praised for their super-duper capacity for empathy and creativity. There is a lot of well-meaning advice out there for folks (it seems to be pitched at boomers and slackers) who feel they need to hire and then manage these millennials so that the young’uns can work their magic and create innovative STUFF for the businesses these old folks own and / or manage. I have been wondering why I find these articles so damned irritating. I don’t find millennials irritating. I have worked with lots of millennials in my time and had a ball doing it**. But these articles irk me; recently I realised why.
There are amongst us oldies out there a cohort of people who figure they have an issue or problem in that their companies need to ‘innovate or die’. They figure they can help to address this by hiring packs of millennials who, so they are told, are extra creative. I think my problem with this line of thinking is that it offers a solution to a problem that allows current managers to ignore an underlying problem.
Which is this: You can hire millennials by the truckload, but if you insert them into the culture or hierarchies that already exist in your business then you are not going to be able to harvest the insights or ideas from them that you crave. If you figure that your current staff is so bereft of the ability to innovate that you have to outsource this most human of functions to a whole other new generation then the problem is not that your current staff are a pack of dullards. Your problem is that you treat them as if they are. You, as a manager, have failed to generate opportunities for your fellow Boomers, Gen-Xers and the older millennials already on your staff to engage with innovative process. Your work culture, your communication processes, your hierarchies, have all worked to estrange or silence innovative people on your staff. Your problem is not that you don’t have the most creative millennials on your staff. Your problem is that you have been unheedingly walking past the most creative boomers and Xers on your staff every day for years and not doing a bloody thing about that. Unless you address that failing, all the promising young talent in the world is not going to be able to make their ideas known to you.
Am I oversimplifying things? Of course I am! This is just a one page blog, after all. But I really can’t shake the feeling that older business leaders and their managers are working themselves up into a lather over how to hire and then how to communicate with these rarefied beings called millennials; article are written and talks are given in the same fomenting but hushed tones certain people might use in describing that time they saw an extra-terrestrial or a unicorn gambolling on their front lawn.
Futurist Jeremy Scrivens has a wonderful story he tells (see the YouTube clip below) about how a company dealt with a sudden challenge by reaching out to, and then discovering new things about, their existing staff. Watch it and have a ponder about just how well you know your own staff. Do you think they could surprise you? Instead of looking outside your organisation and assuming the answer to the future lies in people as yet unhired, do you need to actually look closer to home first?
I wrote (and then forgot about) this blog months ago, actually. It was a companion blog to one I wrote at the same time and posted last year – On Problem Solving and Black Mould.
*Lizzy Bennet dealing with Miss Bingley in Chapter 9 of Pride and Prejudice.
**For the record – as a contractor I worked at student services departments at RMIT University from 2003-2010 doing stuff that ranged from project management, volunteer management, event management, arts administration and included supporting and / or mentoring student leaders. Lots of fun! Number 1 tip for working with millennials? Um… treat them like any other human being? Empathy and respect works for anyone of any generation.
I have recently been dipping into a book called Imagination and a Pile of Junk (“A droll history of inventors and inventions”) by Trevor Norton. The chapter ‘Full Steam Ahead’ deals with the development of the steam locomotive. The following excerpt describes popular (mis)conceptions about steam travel in the 1820s or thereabouts:
“For a generation that knew of nothing faster than a galloping horse, speed was a concern. Stephensonassured a House pf Commons committee that his trains would run at a stately 12 mph (19 kph). He lied, of course: he had no choice because ‘experts’ prophesied that travelling at more than 20 mph (32 kph) would suck all the air from your lungs or you would go mad. Even watching the landscape rush by would damage your eyes. The hiss and clank of the engine would cause women to miscarry and leave the male traveller ‘in a state of confusion that it is well if he recovers in a week.’ Daily commuting would be out of the question.
Even innocent bystanders were in danger. A passing train could wilt vegetables in the fields, kill birds in flight and dry up a cow’s udders. An objector collared Stephenson on the danger of a cow on the line with a train approaching. ‘Surely,’ he said, ‘that would be a very awkward circumstance.’ ‘Aye,’ Stephenson replied, ‘very awkward… for the cow.’
… A cartoon captioned ‘The Pleasures of the Railroad’ depicted an exploding locomotive with detached limbs flying in all directions from the torsos of surprised passengers… It took the public some time to get used to the speed of trains. Some believed that the locomotive really did get bigger as the train approached. Others leapt from the carriage when they were close to their destination and were rewarded with a broken leg or worse. When the train reached 23 mph (37 kph) a passenger found it ‘frightful… it is impossible to divert yourself of the notion of instant death for all.’ Nevertheless, the public soon learned to sit back and enjoy the thrill of speeding ‘swifter than a bird… when I closed my eyes, this sensation of flying was quite delightful.’” pp. 30-31, Imagination and a Pile of Junk by Trevor Norton.
What busy, urgent inner lives we humans have. We are blessed with the imagination to come up with innovative ideas alongside the capacity to play out lively scenarios of risk and doom within the confines of that same imagination. As a species we veer between pushing back the boundaries and being terrified of the monsters that live under our beds.
I guess most new things have to run the gamut of suspicion and wild surmise before they get the chance to be accepted. Being sensible about risk is an important survival trait our species has had to develop over the millennia but in the worst case scenario, risk aversion kills off new things before they even get off the ground.
What do you think? Have you had experience with seeing some new invention or innovation challenged or even undermined by undue amounts of caution or scepticism? How do we avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water?
As a digital immigrant I am one of those arrivals who take the citizenship oath misty eyed and with a lump in their throat. I plunge myself into the yearly national celebrations with a patriotic fervour that leaves the natives far behind. I am a happy, secure and grateful immigrant who flies the flag in my front yard and tries to use the colloquialisms correctly.
I am an old Gen-Xer who can clearly remember growing up without the internet or mobile phones. My first (free) classes in how to use the internet were at the State Library of Victoria* and I remember being terrified that I would hit the wrong button and melt down the computer. My first email account was a Hotmail account opened in May 1999 just before I went to live and work in Japan for two years; this was also done on a free computer at the State Library as I didn’t have the internet on at home. My very first mobile phone was acquired in Japan shortly after. It was a gloriously stream lined pearl coloured affair and I felt very smug at owning it as I thought of a few affluent friends back in Australia who had started to equip themselves with devices shaped like bricks just before I left.**
A couple of years after I returned to Australia in the early 2000s I did a lot of project management work for a student services department at RMIT University***. At this stage we only used email and the odd web page to promote programs or events we were running. Even when the Great Myspace Craze swept our offices individuals were using it (covertly) for personal use only, not as a promotional, collaborative or community building tool. We used other – mostly offline – methods for these. I was introduced to an early unadorned Facebook by one of the students I knew at RMIT; I responded to his friend request and found myself looking at an arid blue and white site and thought “It’s all just bloody American college kids. This’ll never catch on.”
Prior to this, during the 90s, I worked as a freelance choreographer and dancer, independently devising and producing my own small performances. Back in those days I relied on mainly non-techonological means to promote – PR (mainly newspapers and radio), fliers, posters and promotional appearances. Much of my later work at RMIT involved planning and / or facilitating and / or promoting stuff for other creatives. During the years from 2009-2013 I worked in project management in the community sector and also managed a small not for profit business and watched how the growth and availability of technology such as social media and cloud based things like Dropbox or Google Docs changed the way we could do things, and the way these changed processes then impinged upon traditional strategies and models.
On the 24 October of this year I ran a small event (a workshop) for myself. I realised that it was probably the first event I had run since I left RMIT. What struck me forcibly were the changes that technology has wrought in event management, and more broadly in project and business management, over the last few years. Using a suite of resources such as Eventbrite****, Twitter, Facebook, Hootsuite, email, my blog, Surveymonkey, and Dropbox I slapped together, promoted, ticketed and evaluated my event for only the cost of the internet and my labour and in a fraction of the time it used to take me. The implementation stage was better coordinated and with less human error, leaving me more time to respond to other opportunities that popped up. Importantly it left me with more time and creative energy to devote to developing my workshop.
And this is what struck me: time was saved, but saved for what? A lot of the pesky administration that used to make me grind my teeth was gone and that’s great. But the time I had left over was not just filled with more administration. I was able to replace it with the things that will enable me to move my professional practice forward – more and better creative thinking, research, planning, and writing.
It makes me wonder what it would have been like working on some of my old projects and within some of my old teams (and I had some great colleagues) if we had had access to this technology back in the years prior to, say, 2009. I have no doubt that our approach to our work would have been radically different. We would have had the capacity to allow ourselves more time to plan more thoroughly and communicate more effectively, releasing ourselves from the pressure of ‘shaved monkey work’ to prioritise more creative and / or critical thinking around our task making. Who knows if this would have been the case, but the potential certainly would have been there.
I guess this is the (positive) challenge available to businesses these days. As you access more technology, how are you using it? What sorts of labour is it freeing up, and how are you replacing that labour? Are you taking the opportunity to come up with new ways of working, are you allowing shifts in the ways in which you work? Or are you cleaving to processes or structures that have always been in place, preferring the illusion of safety to the reality of the possibility for change and growth?
*God bless our public library system and all who sail in her!
**I must admit that I’ve always preferred using the term ‘skymail’ as was done in Japan in 1999 as opposed to the more prosaic ‘text message’ I found us Westerners using when I came back.
***Formerly known as RMIT Union Arts, a department of an independent student association called RMIT Union which has now been merged with RMIT University. Union Arts is now called RMIT Link.
****Oh WOW Eventbrite where have you been all my life. I used to have to do what Eventbrite does from scratch with no other resources than Excel spreadsheets and my poor tired brain.
During my work history I have heard the term ‘community consultation’ bandied about freely. The meaning of the term should be pretty obvious, and it doesn’t take much cogitating to understand why it is so vital a component for success when planning a policy, strategy or project. If you are wanting to reach or empower a certain community of people and engage their support and/or develop their capacity in some area, you need to really understand them first. You need to do this by talking to them, and developing a variety of means and forums in which to do this that allow this community to speak honestly and without fear or anxiety. You need to be absolutely open minded about what the community has to say, even if they are proving your assumptions wrong or saying things you are uncomfortable hearing.
However, I have seen instances where the community consultation strategies that have been mapped out in funding applications or strategic plans have been carried out in a way that is tokenistic, unthinking or even manipulative. The word ‘consultation’ carries with it connotations of thorough communication and having deep conversations. But I have seen people in charge of running projects who have talked up their ‘community consultation strategies’ in front of their reference groups or Boards and then, in practice, just have a few superficial conversations with some cherry picked community members, fishing for vague statements that suited their own personal agenda. Sometimes I feel as if the words ‘community consultation’ have become weasel words – words that no longer carry any real meaning, words that have been appropriated by managerial or bureaucratic types to mean anything they say they mean.
By carrying out community consultation in a rushed or insincere way, talking at (rather than to) a few bewildered community representatives, these workers or managers rob the community they are supposed to be empowering of the opportunity to be really involved with projects that should engage them. Not being listened to, in the first instance, is extraordinarily disempowering; to then have your presence at some half-baked conversation be appropriated to endorse the planning of a project that has no appeal for you or your community, and to then have that project promoted to you and your community as an opportunity for your development, just adds more layers of insult to deeper layers of injury.
Remember when you’re designing for social change – you’re not necessarily designing for people like you! – Chris Vanstone #changefest
Remember when you’re designing for social change – you’re not necessarily designing for people like you! – Chris Vanstone
What is behind this trend of shallow or insincere attempts at consultation? I am sure that I have seen a couple of people deliberately manipulate the community consultation process so that it gave them answers that furthered their own selfish agendas, but I think the majority of people who stuff it up don’t even know that they are doing it. I think it has to do with the fact that, as a society, much of our history of leadership and organising groups of people has been done in hierarchies, with information and decision making flowing from the top to the bottom. Even well-meaning people can be guilty of riding to the rescue of other folks in such a way that they undercut their own good intentions. Flushed with the confidence of knowing they intend altruism, they can rush in to inflict ‘solutions’ on the beleaguered that arise out of their own assumptions as to what is needed. The problem with this is that these assumptions can be based on a lack of deep understanding, and a feeling of pity rather than empathy. Thus power can continue to be hoarded by the empowered, and denied to the disempowered, and all because of a lack of will to really make the time to talk and listen. Those in authority or vested with societal privilege have got to stop seeing themselves as above or separate from unfortunate or inferior others. Regardless of the sector, the success of group undertakings relies on a flow of knowledge and empowering activity.
When designing for social change, you must step outside of your own concerns and be prepared to lay aside your own assumptions. Only by adapting your communication methods and really listening to others can you be assured of successful consultation.
I will talk about the importance of community consultation, along with other things central to starting up a project or organisation with social outcomes, as part of my workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – on Friday 24 October 2014.
I have always described myself as a ‘structure freak’, that is to say someone who is fascinated by the shape of things and the frameworks we develop around our activities to express our ideas. When I was working as a choreographer I was as intrigued by the challenge of developing the structure of the narrative or flow of impressions of a piece as I was with coming up with the right combinations of movements.
As much as I am this structure freak so too am I creative, in love with ideas, my own as well as those of others. I started moving into project and business planning and strategizing via working in arts management, where I was supporting other creative minds in realising their projects even when I wasn’t working on my own.
In working with various groups and organisations in different contexts I experienced and witnessed how much power underlying structures could have. “Culture follows structure” (Craig Larman) does the rounds a lot on Twitter, and culture is not the only thing.
But the imagination doesn’t follow any damned thing and new ideas can be odd, awkward, engrossing and compelling things that take some careful handling when they emerge out of the glorious protective sanctuary of someone’s head and start getting manhandled through brainstorming sessions or operational procedures, being judged, all the while, against a context and agenda set by the structures defined by an organisation’s governance model or business strategy.
The trick is to come up with structures that define space into which new ideas can emerge, and then provide a supportive and protective framework within which these new visions can be worked on. If the structures are too rigid, tight or proscribed then any creativity will be squelched; too lax or inconsistently applied then unproductive chaos can ensue.
Getting the balance between structure and creativity can be tricky, especially when by ‘structure’ you could mean governance or business models. These things belong to the world of logic, and can seem to be opposite to the world of creativity (although some of us creative find an organic flow between the two as was the case with my own choreographic practice). I have come across both business people and artists who talk as if the two were mutually exclusive.
There is often a tension between addressing the need for both structure and creativity but I don’t believe that this has to always be an unhealthy tension. The right kind of tension can, itself, be a spark that ignites more innovative thinking and elicits intelligent problem solving. I think the answer lies in thinking deeply about both. Spend the time understanding what the glorious images on that cinema screen inside your head are really trying to tell you. Don’t treat choosing your governance structure or writing your business strategy as a tick the box activity; do your research and think about the ramifications.
My workshop – Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise – is part of the Changemakers Festival. It is free and will take place at 6pm on 24 October 2014. For more information look here; RSVPs are required and you can do that here; to check out the Changemakers Festival program go to their website here. The workshop venue is at Naturalis Clinic, and you can find their website here.
My recommended read is The brilliance of asking incredibly naïve questions by Megan Hustad. I am preoccupied at the moment with putting together a workshop I will be presenting in October called Getting to the heart of running a social enterprise in the Changemakers Festival. This workshop is aimed at people who want to leave the bureaucratic or corporate spheres and set up a charity or social enterprise, but who don’t know where to start. During the workshop I want to help these people clarify what it is that is driving them – their passions, their inspirations, the shape in their minds that their sense of altruism and / or adventure takes – and then to give them some context and some practical suggestions as to where their researches might start. The challenge for me as workshop facilitator will be in making sure that I ask the right questions. I checked my email shortly before starting to write this and found that a good friend had sent me a call for papers for a conference on “The role of design in building a competitive business advantage” which seeks to “examine how design as a strategic resource adds value to business.” She did this because she knows that design thinking – what I have been used to calling ‘my choreographer’s brain’ all these years – in business is something that fascinates me to the extent that I have been doing a lot of research on it this year. The idea of submitting an abstract made my head buzz simultaneously with terror and delight. I think I might set myself the task of developing an abstract, just for the challenge of forcing myself to get some of my observations down in tangible form. The key to writing a good abstract and paper will be to ask myself the right questions. Furthermore, I would like to use a paper to ask my audience (at this stage, hypothetical audience) the right questions. But what are these ‘right questions’. The welcome discipline of both of the above is the necessity of winnowing down my thoughts to their clearest and most essential forms. The challenge of asking myself “but what does that really mean, why am I lead to think that?” is helping me to locate and articulate ideas that have had to be teased out of years of personal history, experience in multiple work places and different sectors, and learning both formal and informal. I was looking in my scribble library today when I came across an article – The Brilliance of Asking Incredibly Naïve Questions – published in Fortune Magazine and written by Megan Hustad. It’s a really nice piece, and discusses the need for a “questioning culture” in our workplaces where folks feel free to ask each other questions without worrying about whether those questions are too simple or make the asker look dumb. It makes the point that ‘simple’ questions can highlight essential gaps in knowledge and / or elicit profound answers. It was a good piece for me to read today because it reminded me that what I am doing right now, in putting together workshops or writing papers, is trying to find a way to ask myself the right questions so that I can ask these of others. If you want to read Megan’s piece, click here.