Creative Leadership – Essential Reading – #1

What’s black and white and red all over?

A newspaper? A sunburnt penguin?

Or maybe…it’s this lot.

Creative Leadership - Essential Reading

These four books which I have been reading and rereading for the last few months have each proved to be outstanding. Rarely do I discover such a rich vein of reading form, and I’d like to share it with you in the form of a brief review of each book, in the order they arrived in my hands.

101 Things to Learn in Art School – Kit White

Carole gave me a copy of this book as a birthday present last year. It’s a thing of wonder, oozing with creativity, simplicity and ideas. Each double page has an illustration on the left, and a thought, idea, practice or provocation on the right. Whilst at first glance this book feels like it’s squarely aimed at the aspiring artist, it’s full of ideas that cross borders into other disciplines too. When applying the book to my practice, I often find myself replacing the word art with the word work, after all – I do believe our art is our work and vice versa. For example:

Making (work) art is an act of discovery. If you are dealing only with what you know, you may not be doing your job. When you discover something new, or surprise yourself, you are engaging in the process of discovery.

Clear sight makes clear (work) art. Observation lies at the heart of the (work) art process. Whether your art derives from mimicking nature or extrapolating a mental construct, your powers of observation are critical. Unless you can see what lies before you, you cannot describe it. Train yourself to eliminate preconceptions and received understandings when observing anything. Try to see what is before you, not what you think you see or want to see.

I have the hard cover edition of the book. It’s a solid, rubber clad, square shaped thing of beauty. I can’t imagine enjoying this volume nearly so much on a Kindle. On the creative leadership dial it points more towards the creative, and I think your work will be all the better for reading it, enjoying it and practicing it. So much has it resonated with me, I have bought several copies of this book for other people as gifts.

Have a great day, next up it’s the turn of The Year Without Pants.


Moments Like These

It’s Friday – how’s your week been? I feel like I’ve been on a particularly mountainous stage of the Tour de France, culminating in a flat, sprint finish towards the weekend.

The Work

I love my work. Ohhhh noooo – shut up with the happy clappy crappy willya! Truthfully – I love some of my work, and I’m just like you, in order to get the love, you have to put in the hours and the effort. I’ve forced myself through to do list hell this week. Proposals, admin, marketing – the beginning through to the middle of the week was full of productive, useful slog.

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Thursday produced a welcome change of pace and direction. I was a guest of Herman Miller at one of their excellent Scenarios 2018 workshops. I’m going to write a post about what I learned soon, for now suffice to say this was an excellent session full of insight, humour and good conversation. I walked from Victoria to Aldwych to get to the workshop, and returned to Victoria on foot again afterwards. It’s great to find time to get out, walk and think.

The Recognition

Keira showed Carole and me around her class and the new library at school yesterday. It’s great seeing Keira and her work in the school environment. After we got home – Keira gave us her school report – the last one she will get at Stanley Park Junior School, as she leaves next week to start at a new school in September.

Progress: Outstanding. Well done Keira. And here’s the thing that really does it for me. Effort: Outstanding. Talent is nothing without effort. Here’s what her head teacher had to say…

‘This is an outstanding report for an outstanding student. Keira displays a sense of pride in so many areas of learning: sport, drama, music and the academics. She is also a caring and supportive member of the community. Thank you for all you have given your school. Well done Keira! Celebrate your successes and believe in yourself to achieve your dreams.’

In the evening we saw the year six production of The Trial of Mr BB Wolf, a play written, produced and performed by the whole school year. It was great fun with lots of twists and turns, and as you can see, the bulldog prosecutor was a very stern character.

The Prosecutor

Proud Dad? Yes – definitely.

The Celebration

Twenty two years ago today Carole made what many of our friends would consider a grave error of judgement. I can’t lay my hands on our wedding photos just now so whilst you miss seeing Carole’s radiant beauty – you are at least saved my car crash of a haircut!

In truth, the whole of life is like the topography I described earlier. And I’m thankful that someone as smart, kind and patient as Carole has chosen to accompany me. We are celebrating our wedding anniversary today with a visit to see Jools Holland at Kew Gardens.

Have a great weekend!

Five Steps to Help You Reach Your Potential

This is an edited version of a post I first wrote for HSBC Bank, primarily for their small business customers. I was asked to write about a few things that I’m doing to help make work productive and enjoyable. I hope you will find something useful here too.

1 Be open to possibilities

In business as in life, there is no right or wrong, there is right and wrong. Absolutes are rarely the answer, and we are never in as much danger of being wrong as when we are sure we are right. At that point, just remember that all your other options go out of the window. Be mindful of the possibilities, and open to the reality of not knowing what comes next. You can plan for the future, but you cannot predict it. I am just like you. I am sometimes right, sometimes wrong. I rarely know which is which and I reserve the right to change my mind.

2 Take care of your body and mind

Never underestimate the power of a short walk to clear your mind or gather your thoughts.
Never underestimate the importance of a decent lunch break, with decent food.
Never underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep.

Health and wellbeing are essential – if you are not in good shape, neither is your business. And for me, part of wellbeing is about remembering to be you, not someone else. Apple, Google, Ikea and Accenture are current successful businesses, which have become successful by being themselves. I don’t think the point of going into business is to be like them. What works for them may not work for you. Be yourself.

3 Take risks and experiment

A small business should be agile. The ability to adapt and experiment should be one of your key strengths. After all, you don’t have layers and layers of well-meaning, yet restrictive bureaucracy, do you? No you don’t, so take advantage of that. A key competitive advantage should be your ability to respond quickly. In my role as a consultant to much bigger businesses, I make responsiveness a principle of my work. Let me give you an example.

I ran two business development events for a client, and after the events, I prepared the post-event summary: words, pictures and charts, all drafted and turned around in double-quick time. The speed of response was intended to help extend the post-event half life – and to prevent that inexorable enthusiasm decay that comes after the high of being together and co-creating new work ideas together. As a result of the quick turnaround, people were able to suggest tweaks and improvements while the ideas were still fresh in their minds, and a small group of people formed who were willing to take these ideas to the next level. The result? Stuff got done.

When we extended the project to a third location, I was asked to cut costs. I offered the client the option to dispense with the immediate post-event summary for a small reduction in fees. They accepted, and it subsequently took the client more than a month to process the post event summary, by which time day-to-day work, and the pull of the familiar had got the best of most people. The enthusiasm and action we made use of at the first two events failed to materialise on the third occasion, at least to the same extent. Could we be certain the delay was responsible for this? Not entirely of course, but we were in agreement that it didn’t help.

Did the client really ‘save’ anything from this exercise? I’m not convinced they did, and subsequently we agreed that I would revert to preparing that initial speedy response. I learned three useful things from this experience:

  • Don’t cut your price, reshape your service
  • Sometimes you have to let something go to get it back
  • Always be willing to experiment – we didn’t resist the client request and we all learned form trying a different approach.

4 Aim for “Flow” rather than work life balance

Working in a big business often means sticking to traditions like nine to five and wearing a tie, regardless of whether or not these traditions actually help you do better work. In your smaller business, these traditions don’t have to be compulsory. Be where you need to be, when you need to. Wear what you need to wear, when you need to.

A lot of people talk about the importance of work-life balance, and I’m not a fan. Balance is a tough thing to achieve – try standing on one leg for a while. Stay standing on one leg and start reciting multiplication tables. Now keep those things going and shut your eyes. If you are still with me, the chances are most of you will have fallen over by now. Balance is tough. Instead, think of your life as having flow.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

So when I’m talking with you, I’m attentive, listening and contributing. I’m not playing with my crackberry (do they still have those?) or staring out of the window pondering my next appointment. If I’m writing something, then my email application is closed. So are my social media channels. I’m focused on writing this, now, for you. And if and when I do start to run out of steam, I take a break.

5 Think about your direction of travel

Having a plan matters. Often I see people invest huge amounts of time and effort into planning, and I’m not convinced they get a good return on their investment. I think there are three reasons for this:

  • Things change quickly
  • We are not very good at predicting the future
  • We get wedded to things we invest heavily in and so are reluctant to change, even when we’re not convinced the plan is working anymore.

What I find works better is this:

  • Have a direction of travel. For example, I help people increase business performance by improving their ability to collaborate. Is what I am doing moving me and my customers along that journey? If it is, I’m not too worried about timescales, if it isn’t, then why am I doing it?
  • Be adaptive. I like using the Business Model Canvas as a planning tool. It is simple to use and quick, and you can use it as a framework to evaluate your whole business, or a particular product or idea.
  • Introduce unpredictability. I find it helps to be open to possibilities and to expect the unexpected. In support of this, I use a set of cards which contain a random set of thoughts and ideas. When I get stuck, I just draw from the cards, and change tack depending on what the card says. It might encourage me to reach out for help via a phone call, or sketch out that problem I’m having, in order to see it differently, or go for a walk to clear my head. The point is that I get snapped out of my rut and often return to the opportunity refreshed and with renewed vigour.

What have I missed? If there’s something you’d like to share about how you’re making work better, feel free to drop a note in the comments section, thanks.