Category Archives: Creativity

The Hundred Languages of Childhood

child-skyEver since watching Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on how schools kill creativity, I’ve been determined not to let school get in the way of my daughter’s education.   I love Sir Ken’s analogy of schools being industrial when they should be agricultural.   Our school models, he says, are linear rather than organic.   We teach children what to think, not how to think.   We put them on a production line, feed them facts and test them to death to see how much they remember.   Where’s the creativity in that?    I once heard Michael Morpurgo talk about why he hated school.  He said he was always told off for looking out the window.    “But why”, he said, “that’s where the world is.”    I came across this wonderful poem by education pioneer Loris Malaguzzi.   I think it pretty much sums it up, but the uplifting finale provides inspiration to all of us.

The Hundred Languages of Childhood By Loris Malaguzzi

The child

is made of one hundred.

The child has

a hundred languages

a hundred hands

a hundred thoughts

a hundred ways of thinking

of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred

ways of listening

of marvelling of loving

a hundred joys

for singing and understanding

a hundred worlds

to discover

a hundred worlds

to invent

a hundred worlds

to dream.

The child has

A hundred languages

(and a hundred hundred more)

but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture

separate the head from the body.

They tell the child:

to think without hands

to do without head

to listen and not to speak

to understand without joy

to love and to marvel

only at Easter and Christmas.

They tell the child:

to discover the world already there

and of the hundred

they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:

that work and play

reality and fantasy

science and imagination

sky and earth

reason and dream

are things

that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child

that the hundred is not there.

The child says:

No way.  The hundred is there.

Test your creativity – No 2

bicycleOne of my favourite creativity techniques is conceptual blending, or synthesis.   It simply involves taking random or unconnected objects/words/topics and blending them together to form new ideas.  Almost every idea or invention is a blend of, or an inspiration from, an existing idea.   Our ancestors would have invented fire after observing lighting strikes.  DaVinci combined the wheel and the horse to sketch a prototype bicycle.   Gutenberg invented the printing press after visiting a vineyard and seeing how the crushed black grapes left imprints on the wine press.  The man who invented the typewriter (Christopher Sholes) was inspired by watching a pianist.   If each key on  a piano could play a different note, he wondered, then why can’t I produce keys that each stamp a different letter?

Creative people look for these connections by forcing ideas and objects together.   In my creativity workshops I play a game with random objects.   Each person finds a partner and selects a random object from a hidden list (they don’t know what object they’ve chosen until the game starts).   They then have to work with their partner to come up with a new object or idea by blending the two selections together.  The key here is to think laterally.   Let’s say one person selects the word ‘cake’ and the other person gets lumped with ‘trumpet’.  Now, at first glance you might think you’ll never find a connection there.   You could just opt for the obvious, a cake in the shape of a trumpet, but that’s hardly creative.   The trick here is to remove the physical manifestations of the cake and the trumpet from our minds and to start thinking more about the ‘concept’ of the objects.  To do this, write down or shout out the characteristics of a cake, or things you associate with a cake – it’s made up of ingredients; baked in an oven; it can’t be stored for too long; icing; candles; eaten at parties etc.   Then do the same with a trumpet – made of brass; blown into, valves that move up and down; part of an orchestra etc.   Then you have more to blend, so you look for inspiration by connecting the characteristics or concepts.   I’ve just spent five minutes thinking about this (because I honestly did pick cake and trumpet randomly for this example!) and here’s what I came up with …

How about a cake icing device that you blow into, or push air into, to enable the icing to flow through the nozzle?   Then how about adding valves, like on a trumpet, so you can alter the thickness of the icing without having to change the nozzle?   It’s saves time, washing up and makes your icing patterns more creative! 

OK, I won’t win any prizes for that, but you get the gist.   Now how about a hose pipe and a spider?  A compass and a telescope?   A wheelbarrow and a firework?   This type of random blending is a great ice-breaker to get the creative juices flowing.   The challenge is to force connections, not to give up.  And you do that by breaking the object down into characteristics, get your mind away from thinking about the object itself and more about what it does, how it works, how it’s made etc.   I’ve done this exercise with dozens of groups and nobody has ever failed to come up with a great idea.

To take things further, introduce a problem, rather than another object, into the mix.  Try blending a work problem you need to fix with a random object from the list.   This brings it into the workplace.   For communicators, a common problem is getting the message to stick.  So combine ‘getting the message to stick’ with the name of an object drawn from a hat.   Let’s say a purse, for instance.  How can we combine ‘getting the message to stick’ with a purse?   You may start thinking of what people keep in a purse, like credit cards for instance.   Could we produce key messages on a credit-card sized piece of plastic so people can carry them round with them?    How about a torch?   Does that give us ideas about ‘shining a spotlight’?    I was looking for inspiration the other day for communicating a project I’m working on to do with performance reporting.  I walked past a Virgin Active health club and it got me thinking about the term ‘active’ – how business performance is not unlike measuring fitness.   I came up with a concept of using the word ‘ACTIVE’ alongside the company logo as a brand through which we’d communicate performance, and we’d use fitness-style graphics like you see on running machines to show business metrics.   It’s a tiny example but it all came about because I happened to look into a window, saw something that caught my eye and blended it with a challenge.

On my workshops, I send participants out into the street to look for random objects to blend.  They go into shops, look at signs, watch people and study products … and they always come back with some incredibly creative ideas drawn from blending or inspiration.   It’s not hard to do.   Play the game in the car on a long journey or walking round a park.  Play it with children for really great results.   And play it with your team when faced with a problem that needs solving.   Go on, Blend it like Beckham!

Test your creativity – No 1

creativityaHenry Ford once said “if you think you’re not creative, you’re not”.   Creativity isn’t natural born or God-given.  It’s not in the exclusive gift of painters, writers, graphic designers and those in the performing arts.   It’s in us all (yes, even you).   The bad news is that school and work suppress creativity, so as we get older we lose the opportunity and encouragement to be creative and we begin to feel we (i) can’t do it and (ii) shouldn’t do it.  The good news however is that creativity can easily be reawakened.  And the start point is to change how you see the world.

Creative people seek difference.  They look for the things that others don’t see.  Our brain – when faced with a stimulus – will always take the path of least resistance.  Have I faced this situation before?  If so, what did I do last time?   What connections already exist?   This obsession with familiarity enables our brain to cope with some ambiguity.  It’s why we can easily read the famous passage below, even with the letters mixed up (incidentally, the research referred to is made-up).


So our brain will do its best to use its existing database rather than seek new data.   The trick therefore, as creative people know, is to break the pattern and establish new connections.   That may mean deliberately changing your normal behaviour – physically sitting in a different seat to see things from a new perspective, changing your normal routines (a different route to work?) or thinking laterally.    Take a look at word below.  What word do you see – flip, or is it flop?    Your brain will jump to a conclusion but is it the only conclusion?


Now look at the FedEx logo below – a very familiar brand to all of us.  But most us look at the image (the stimulus) and just say “oh yeah, it’s the FedEx logo”.   How many of us see the ‘hidden’ brand icon – the image that defines FedEx’s business – within the logo?   Yes, you’ve got it – the white arrow between the E and the X.   That’s because we instinctively look at the letters not what’s within the letters.


Study the picture below and find the hidden tiger.   Give yourself 60 seconds.


We can all see an image of a tiger in a jungle, right?   But I said look for the hidden tiger.  Instinctively, most of us will look for another image of a tiger hidden in the bushes – some of us will even insist we can see one in the leaves.   The answer, if you look closely, is in the stripes of the tiger.   I didn’t say look for a picture of a hidden tiger.  I just said find the hidden tiger.   It’s that pesky brain again, making us do what we’ve always done.

We’re not always in control of our brain, it does most of its work without us (so to speak) so sometimes we need to train ourselves to open our eyes and seek those new patterns, those new stimuli.   Try it next time you’re out and about.  I guarantee you won’t look at the FedEx logo in the same way again.

More next week.

Ten creative ways to energize a project team

charge2What’s the best project team you’ve ever worked in?  Not the best project, but the best project team?  Why was it so good?  What made it special?   Most of us get to work on project teams at some point, very often with people we’ve never met or worked with before.  In fact, some of us only ever work in this way.  But what makes some project teams soar with creativity, energy and shared commitment while others never really ‘click’?   Why do some teams just ‘feel’ right from day one?    No doubt the leader plays a big part, but come on, we can’t put everything at the door of the project lead.   We all want to be part of something good and projects give us the opportunity to do just that – to work with others towards a common goal, to bask in the satisfaction of a job well done.    It helps to get off to a good start – to set the tone at the beginning – but even a mis-firing team can be re-energized.   So here are ten creative ways to put that little bit of ‘oomph’ into your project.

1.  Make your team’s mission visible.   The team is more likely to be focused and motivated if they can see tangible representations of the project objectives around them.  A great way to do this is to create an inspiration board.    Put aside space in the project office as an area where team members can share ideas, inspirations and artefacts that will get them and the rest of the team fired up.   This doesn’t (necessarily) mean Gantt charts and project documents.  Try to be much more creative than that.    Go for cuttings, photographs, newspaper headlines, postcards, drawings, anything that has a meaning related to what the project is about.   For instance, if the project is about ‘delivering service excellence’, ask the team to bring something in that they feel represents ‘excellence’.  It could be a picture of Roger Federer or a Ferrari.    Think laterally.  Try to encourage the team to be expressive, colourful and have some fun with it.   These things really do have a positive psychological impact on performance and behaviour,

2.  Write a press release.   Get the team or each workstream to write a press release about their part of the project, but ask them to date the release two or three years in the future, when the project has finished.    This forces them to forward wind and imagine looking back at the project.    Encourage them to imagine it’s been a great success and everyone delivered everything they set out to do.  What would the press release read like then?   When complete, look at the words the team has used and how they have captured what success means.   Pin the press releases up on the inspiration board.

3.  Turn the project into an adventure.   This brings the art of storytelling into an office project.   Step back from the nitty gritty of the project, strip out all of the detail and think of a metaphor for the change/project.    What, when all is said and done, is this project all about – making something better, introducing something new, fixing a problem, finding a new world, learning new skills?   Boil it down and then ask the team to turn it into a story, with a title, characters, heroes, villains, obstacles, romance (?), locations etc.   Keep the metaphor running through the project, just within the team only, so everyone involved feels part of it.  Use the inspiration board to bring it to life.

4.  Give workstreams decent names.   I always find workstream names to be so dull and uninspiring.   Get the team to think of titles for the workstreams that generate some excitement, maybe linked to the story idea above.    Use imagery, colour and icons to give some character to the team names, a bit like you get in sports and call centres.   Use it to build a competitive element into the project and help colleagues in other teams to understand more about what each workstream does.  Build identity and get people wanting to belong.

5. Do something together.   Even the best and most productive project teams can run out of fizz, so keep injecting some freshness into proceedings by bringing the team together.  It may be work-related or maybe not, it doesn’t  really matter but whatever it is, make it engaging and creative.   Step away from the office every now and again.   Take a problem up a hill, meet over a picnic or chill out down the pub and have a game of darts (in workstream teams of course!).  Use this time to get to know the people behind the job titles, those people who are helping you make this project a success.

6.  Make project meetings fun.   When you ask people about the best team they ever worked in, they will often talk about the characters in the team, fun activities or how the individuals “just clicked” with each other.   Projects can be tough, especially if they’re not going well, so try to keep the team relaxed and motivated with some light-hearted team building.   I know of a project manager who likened every team member to a character from the Muppets.  When they came in for a meeting he had each person’s character stuck to the back of their chair.   I worked on a project last year in which the PM opened team meetings by playing clips of old Peter Sellers films from You Tube to lighten the mood before a heavy discussion.   These little things work.  They make work fun.   Instead of spending your next team meeting going round the room for individual workstream updates, ask the leaders to present their update in the form of an infographic or photo montage.  Try it. charge

7.  Plan in 3D.   Most project plans are on Gantt charts, MS Project, PowerPoint right?   Fair enough, but try planning in 3D.   Think of how they use models in architecture and construction to visualise the ‘end state’.  Think how the military plans its engagements, with those huge table top maps and model representations of forces moved like chess pieces.  Think how the local church roof fundraising committee uses giant thermometers to show money raised so far.    Be creative and turn your plan, milestone, dependencies, risks, workstreams, progress etc into practical three dimensional models to bring your journey alive.   In fact, create it as a journey, like a model railway, with stopping points, obstacles and journey times.  Again, be creative.  Bring in ideas from other worlds.  Make it fun and engaging.

8.  Spring some surprises   It’s easy to get very introspective when working on a big project.   Everyone’s looking inwards and the topic of conversation at project meetings is invariably about things that aren’t going to plan.   It can become negative and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture.   What’s more, morale can drop quickly.   People get tired, irritable and unproductive.    So that’s when someone in the team (not always the PM) needs to break the pattern and do something out of the blue.   It may be as simple as cakes all-round in the office or as drastic as whisking the team away for an impromptu morale boosting activity.   I know a PM who uses any old excuse to celebrate an event or theme her communications to the team – chocolate on Valentine’s Day, Shakespearian style memos on midsummer’s day, fluffy rabbits at Easter, surprise gifts at Christmas, a film quiz in Oscars week, sporting metaphors in the Olympics etc.   Great creativity which really energises teams.

9.  Celebrate the heroes.   Forget formal recognition schemes (well, put them to one side for a minute) and think about more creative ways to celebrate achievements in your project.   Make a big play of good work done well.   Call out the ‘heroes’ and the hardworking back-office grunters who very rarely get the credit they deserve.   Have a Heroes’ Wall in the project office and stick photos up of the good performers in the last week.   Make a point of recognising contributions at team meetings and highlighting individual achievements that have helped the project inch nearer a successful conclusion.  But do it in a creative way.

10.  Encourage creativity.    We all know the old cliché that most projects fail.  It’s well documented that the vast majority of business change projects fail to deliver on at least one of their objectives, and the reasons why projects fail are too many and varied to go into here.   But often they just run out of steam.  They lack momentum and drive.   Projects rarely go to plan, we know that, but they can be rescued under the right conditions – good leadership, realistic objectives, a fired-up team etc.    The best projects have a good ‘culture’ – a can-do ethos and a great sense of common purpose.   They also encourage creativity.    So if you want to energize your project, open the doors to new ideas and diversity.   Create a culture of innovation.   Put up whiteboards for colleagues to share ideas, create and use collaborative spaces, follow principles that encourage creativity and challenge.   Give team members time and space for quiet reflection.   Run creative workshops and create an inspiring environment for the team to work in.   Creativity is key.   Keep trying new things, challenge the status quo and generally just give it some welly.   But always stay focused on the business outcome, of course.


Why we need festivals at work

festival2I walked past my local pub this morning after dropping the car off for an MOT.   Outside the pub was a board advertising an “icons & innovations beer festival”.   When I got home, some tickets had arrived for next month’s Hay Literature Festival.   I then booked a hotel for a quick few days at the Cheltenham Science Festival and while I was doing that I had an email about this year’s Just So Festival – a wonderful weekend of creativity for children in August.    We really are becoming a nation of festival goers.   And I haven’t even mentioned the hundreds of music and food festivals you could pick and choose from this summer.   Anyone for the East Anglian Guitar Festival?  Or the Cornwall Asparagus Festival?   Or the Settle Storytelling Festival?

So this got me thinking.  Why don’t we have festivals at work?   Why don’t we have the “Company X Festival of Collaboration” or the “ACME Innovation Festival”?    There’s something about the immersive experience of festivals that make them so popular.   Maybe it’s about hanging around with like-minded people.  I imagine everyone at the Cornwall Asparagus Festival has a particular fondness for, or interest in, asparagus.   Even spring vegetables can provide a common bond.   People go to music festivals not just to see their favourite band but to learn about and explore other groups and styles.    One of the highlights of our year as a family is going to Hay – five or six days of intelligent conversation, mind-expanding education and relaxation.    I learn more at the Hay Festival in one week than I do in the other 51.   And the ideas I get are endless.   When I’m at Hay, or Cheltenham, or Just-So, or a music festival, I’m 100% engaged.    So, again, why don’t we have festivals at work?

A festival is different from a one-off event or conference.  A festival provides an over-arching ‘reason why’ for a number of activities to take place.  It connects different events through a common theme and provides an ‘experience’ for attendees and participants.   A festival creates a buzz, a bond and a sense of collaboration.   Isn’t this exactly what we try to do to engage people in the workplace?   Don’t we want to provide an environment for learning, collaboration, interaction, discussion, engagement and innovation?   A work festival doesn’t have to interfere with business.   It doesn’t have to be ‘Glastonbury in Accounts’.   It could be a week-long series of lunchtime knowledge-sharing events, or a fortnight of after-work talks on relevant topics.   It could be a period of competitions, idea jams or innovation sessions.   It could be a festival of learning, with new subjects unveiled every day.   It could be a ‘CommsFest’ with daily features and presentations.    People like festivals.  They like the atmosphere, the belonging, the social interaction and the excitement.   Festivals are perfect for internal comms – imagine the concept of the settle Storytelling Festival brought in-house.   I’m a big believer in being inspired by ‘other worlds’ to bring difference and freshness to our really rather sanitised corporate environment.   That, to me, is creative communication.    I’m glad I took that walk today.  And the car passed its MOT too.  Yay!

Could you pass the 60-second challenge?

60seconds[1]This weekend at Manchester Museum, researchers from the University of Manchester gave one-minute microlectures to the public on the subject of biomedical research.   The ‘Manchester Minute Microlectures’ event challenged the researchers to explain aspects of their work in just 60 seconds, followed by tea, cake and questions.   It was a real eye-opening event (part of a day of family activities at the museum on the subject of the human body) and a great way to gain insight into an area of science most of us wouldn’t normally be exposed to.    The challenge for the speakers of course was to crystallize their message and ‘sell’ their research to an audience of people from eight to eighty years old with no knowledge of the subject whatsoever….. in just one minute.

The microlecture format is growing in popularity in education.  Of course, in comms we have the rather tired but effective ‘elevator pitch’ concept in which we encourage teams and functions to memorise and sell their vision/project in about 40 seconds …. the scenario being that you bump into the CEO in an elevator and he asks you what you’re working on.  You’ve got until the doors open to make your impact.    Microlectures offer greater variety.   They can be in video, podcast, presentation or ‘stand-up’ format, from one minute to (roughly) five or six.   As refreshers or ‘quick dip’ exposures they can be really effective.   For the ‘seller’ or presenter, it forces the selection of not the ‘important’ messages or the ‘really important’ messages, but the ‘most important’ messages.     And it encourages creativity.   If you’ve got one minute to make an impact, wouldn’t you look to do something different?   Microlectures can be fun too, by pitching competing or diverse topics together in a Dragon’s Den environment, or inviting the audience to vote on the talk that made the most impact.

In Manchester at the weekend, some lectures succeeded, other’s didn’t.    The speakers who did well were (surprise, surprise) the ones who told stories.   In their best-seller Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath recall an experiment in which they asked Stanford students to give a one-minute presentation on crime patterns in the United States.   They were all given the same source material but half the group was asked to deliver a one-minute persuasive speech to convince their peers that nonviolent crime is a serious problem in the country.   The other half were told to take the contrary position – that it wasn’t particularly serious.    After each speech, the presenters were rated on their delivery and persuasive ability.    Not surprisingly, the eloquent, polished and charismatic speakers rated highly.   At the end, the experiment appeared to be over and the facilitator moved on to something else.  Then, ten minutes later, he stopped abruptly and asked the students to pull out a piece of paper and write down, for each speaker they heard, every idea or message they remember.    Guess what?  The students could barely remember anything!   They only heard eight one-minute speeches and it was only ten minutes ago, but they could hardly remember a single message from each talk …. EXCEPT for those who told stories.   On average, 63 per cent remembered the stories, while only five per cent remembered the statistics.   They also found that the polished speakers did no better when it came to remembering the messages.   It was the story, not the delivery, that made the difference.

So why not consider the microlecture format when you’re thinking of ways to share knowledge, explain a project, debunk some jargon, impart some learning or build a community.   It’s good for the speaker, good for the audience and great for the organisation.   Just remember the stories.

Five animals that will unleash your creativity

HawkA few days ago I ran a short workshop for the Institute of Internal Communications in Leeds called ‘unleash your creativity in two hours.’   It turned out to be a really enjoyable session, with a great group of people and some fabulous ideas.  In the opening few minutes of my workshop I asserted that everyone has it in them to be creative at work – creativity is not the exclusive domain of those of us who ‘create’ a tangible output like a piece of writing or design.   The accounts clerk tapping numbers into a PC all day is just as creative if he/she comes up with an idea to alter a business process to improve efficiency.  We then talked a little about how the human brain works – with its 86 billion cells and one quadrillion nerve connections – and how it both enables and stifles creativity.    These connections are the key to creativity.   A newborn baby’s brain will form a million new connections every second.   Every experience, memory, activity, thought and movement creates connections which are stored in the ‘database’ for future reference.    For the most part, these connections keep us alive and make us who we are, but they can also make us (or our brain) lazy.   The brain loves a short cut and likes to jump to conclusions.   Daniel Kahneman explains all this in his bestseller ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.   If it’s faced with a new stimulus, it looks into the database, pulls out a pre-programmed response and offers it up, almost without ‘thinking’.   It’s why we do what we’ve always done.    So the challenge – if you want new ideas – is to create new connections and deliberately break the patterns of existing thinking and behaviour.

In the workshop, I suggest a five-step process to having great ideas – each one characterised by an animal.

We start with the hawk – which is all about focusing on the problem or challenge you’re trying to solve.   It may sound tempting to ask people if they have any ideas on any subject, but you won’t get much back because the frame was too wide.   Narrow it down and define the challenge clearly before looking for ideas.   They call it ‘squeezing the problem’.   Einstein once said “If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it.”   Ooh, you curly haired Germanic genius.

What you do next depends on how much of a kitten you are.   Now that we’ve focused on the problem, we need to start finding ideas – and that means being curious.   Here’s where we seek new connections, new stimuli, new perspectives, new angles.   Creative people always try to look at things in different ways.  They step outside their own world into other industries, places, experiences and styles.   They seek learning and freshness.   In the workshop, we tried out a technique called ‘other worlds’ to see what we, as communicators, can ‘borrow’ from other industries.  It’s an enlightening exercise and you’ll be amazed at how many influences you can find…. if you look.

Taking things further, we then look at team creativity by becoming puppies and being playful.   Play stimulates creativity.  It creates a safe environment in which people can take risks and try out new things.   We looked at a technique called ‘conceptual blending’ in which we take two random objects and force them together to create a new idea.   A toothbrush and a fishing rod, a boat and a tent, a spider and a bottle etc.    It’s a fun group exercise which forces new connections and lateral thinking.   The trick then is to ‘conceptually blend’ a random object with your work challenge.  For instance, blending a cake with a challenge to get a complex message across may make you think of the way cake recipes are communicated and whether you can use the concept of recipe cards, or the way individual ingredients come together to form a big picture (or a big cake in this case!).

Step four is the owl.  Up to now, the whole creative process should be an entirely open and positive one, with all participants suspending their judgement.  There’s no room for negativity in the ideation phase.   But at some point we have to start applying a bit of discipline.  It’s a business after all, and we do have budgets, pressures, logistical barriers, resource issues and practical limitations.   So now that we have all these ideas, we need to start sifting them.   Being an owl is about being wise – filtering what you have, nurturing (or greenhousing) the ideas, applying some business rationale.    Only now do we start to apply some judgement, so we need criteria and process and all those left-brained qualities we’ve ignored up to now. Shark

Finally, it’ll all be for nothing unless we actually make it happen.   A good idea that doesn’t get implemented is just a good idea.  So here we introduce the shark.  Here’s where you need a whole new set of behaviours –  determination, risk-taking, collaboration, COMMUNICATION, negotiation, boldness.  The great innovators of our time had these qualities in spades.  They didn’t take no for an answer and they weren’t deterred by adversity.  They were sharks.

The next part of my workshop was meant to go on to talk about how we communicators can apply these five-animal-techniques to our role – becoming creative communicators.   But I ran out of time.   If anyone’s interested, I’m doing a full-day creativity workshop for the IoIC on 13th June in London – details here.   Or contact me if you’d like an ideas workshop for your team.

The biggest communication barrier might just be the one you’re sitting on

ChairA recent post on HBR warning about the unhealthy consequences of ‘sitting’ (in other words, the amount of time we spend on our backsides!) in the workplace and the healing and creative advantages of walking has got me thinking about how much good communication is lost by chair-based apathy.   The post, from businesswoman Nilofer Merchant points out that we spend an alarming 9.3 hours a day on a chair as opposed to 7.7 hours in bed.   That’s a lot of sitting.   Certainly, when I think back to my early working days (in an insurance office) I would spend much of my day walking up and down stairs and across the office floor to actually speak to people (oh, how retro).    Now I work from home and I sit down for most of my day.  No wonder I have back trouble (although since the new year I have taken to walking at least three miles every day, which I’m loving).   Nilofer’s HBR post neatly sets out (as if we didn’t know) the impact on our health of ‘too much sitting’ (a “lethal activity” according to one doctor), so why aren’t organisations doing more to stop their workers from spending so much time on their derrière?   And is there a role for us communicators here?

We could start by encouraging stand-up and walking meetings.   As Ms Merchant discovered when she started holding ‘hiking meetings’, the quality of interaction and outcome actually improves when you meet on the move.    Your concentration improves, mobiles are removed and creativity goes through the roof (well, it would if there was a roof!).   There’s plenty of evidence about the creative benefits of walking too, as I have mentioned before.    The great outdoors removes the physical barriers of the workplace and exposes us to natural stimuli, which feeds our brain with ideas, inspirations and perspectives.   Team walking, or just generally meeting standing up, is more sociable too.   It gives us the opportunity to interact with the whole team, collectively or individually, rather than just the ones who are sitting up our end of the table.    Walking allows for natural periods of silence, during which we can reflect and think – all very healthy in a creative context.    In a typical sit-down business meeting, we don’t tolerate silence.   We expect someone to be talking the whole time.   Not everyone wants to be dragged out on a five mile hike up a hill (I do) but it could just be a stroll around the block or a walk in park.

I once worked in Berkeley Square in London and we would sometimes use the square for impromptu team meetings.   It was the most creative time of my working life.    We communicators should team up with the people who look after health and wellbeing in our organisations and do more to encourage comms on the move – walk ‘n’ talk.   We should be pushing, and role modelling, new and creative ways to interact.   For most organisations, encouraging people to undertake the serious business of work in anything other than a corporate environment is too big a leap of faith for them to take, which in many ways underlines the way companies suffocate creativity.    Most managers would be worried about peer judgement if they were seen to be taking their team out for a picnic meeting or a creative hike.  That, of course, is not a reason to not do it.    Maybe we can start by running a few campaigns to encourage innovative interactions?   Putting all our comms online may have its benefits, but the health and wellbeing of the receiver is not one of them.

Ten new year resolutions for communicators

2013Human beings are hardwired for optimism, and never is our tendency to look on the bright side more in evidence than when we’re approaching the start of a new year.    For most of us, our success rate in living up to new year resolutions is pretty shocking, but every year we adamantly insist that the next 12 months will be different.  It’s in our nature.   So here, with a heaped tablespoon of positivity, I present ten new year resolutions for internal communicators everywhere …

1. Unleash your creativity.   Make 2013 the year you open the dam and let your creative juices flow.   Soon, creativity will be high up on the list of required skills for communicators, so make a start now.  Learn how to have great ideas, understand where creativity happens, know how to encourage others to be creative, open your eyes to fresh perspectives, change the way you look at the world.    You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find.

2. Find your Reason Why.    Purpose is the new money.   It’s what people search for, at work and at play.   Most organisations struggle to explain why they do what they do, which is why they resort to bland and uninspiring vision statements.   So start with your own team.  Talk about why you’re here.   What’s the point of you?    What’s the point of your whole organisation?   Remember, most companies give their people something to work on, inspirational companies give their people something to work towards.

3. Be more playful.   Workplaces are so serious, but they don’t need to be.   Make 2013 the year you introduce some play and fun into what you do.   Try breaking the mould and doing something a little different, something with a sense of spirit and playfulness.    If you want to get your message noticed, you’ll need to break a few patterns of behaviour.

4. Chill Baby Chill.   I don’t mean to come over all Austin Powers here but we really do need to relax and step back from trying to control everything.   The future of internal comms will be much less top-down and managed.  It’ll be personalised, networked, self-directed and collaborative, so we need to change the way we approach our role in the mix.    We’ll need to learn to trust more.   And we’ll need to stop doing some things.

5. Learn something new.   Set yourself a goal to learn something new about our craft.   In my experience, we communicators tend to plough a fairly narrow field of established best practice and we can be slow to embrace new ways of working and thinking.    As the world around us changes, we need to adapt to survive and prosper, so take this time to build your knowledge.  Learn about creativity, change psychology, social media, authentic leadership etc.   Or add some business acumen to your armoury.   Go visit that part of your organisation you know least about.

6. Look again at print.   Printed communication material is coming back into fashion, and not before time.   Of course it needs to be part of a channel mix, including online, but go on, dust off those old label templates and give your printer a call.    You’ll make his day.

7. Review the way you ‘use’ your middle managers.    Line managers may be your biggest frustration but have you considered that maybe they’re just a bit misunderstood?   They may be an important part of your ‘process’ but they are also human beings (most of them) and they can’t be controlled like a piece of machinery.   Cascades never work, so stop trying.   Back off, support them from a  distance and encourage them to express themselves. 

8. De-clutter your message cupboard.    New year is the time for a detox, for clearing out the old and unwanted ‘stuff’ that clutters up our lives.    It’s the same with our comms, so take some time in January to take a look at what you’re communicating.   Be prepared to dump some of the unclear and unnecessary.   Take a deep breath, review your top line messages for 2013 and get rid of any message that is either ‘not important’, ‘important’ or ‘really important’… leaving only the ones that are ‘most important’.

9.  Fall back in love with language.    Let’s make 2013 the year we made a concerted effort to break free of corporate jargon.   It has to stop.   Let’s get some authenticity into corporate communication.   Let’s use language that lifts hearts and boosts spirits.  Let’s show some emotion for God’s sake.   Read Dickens or Shakespeare to remind yourself how powerful the written word can be.    It won’t be easy to break this terrible affliction, but let’s not be afraid to try.

10. Don’t be unoriginal.   If you’re putting your 2013 plan together in January, take a moment to stop and think before you re-hash last year’s template.   Do you really want to do more of the same?  Maybe so, but just take time to think about the impact of each activity.   Was it worth it?   Will it be worth it again, or do we need to try something new?   Much of our industry is templated, structured and managed.   It can make us lazy.   Be original in 2013. Be creative.  Be bold.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Creative New Year.


What I learned in a Paris art gallery

I spent a few days in Paris at the end of last week on a short break with my family. We visited the wonderful Pompidou Centre, which was showing an exhibition of modern art by a bloke called Bertrand Lavier. Now modern art isn’t usually my thing, but coincidentally I’m reading a book at the moment about conceptual blending as a creativity technique so I was prepared to be open minded about the works on display and the artist’s own approach to creativity. At first glance, it’s hard to appreciate the creative ‘value’ of a lump of rock on a fridge (one of the works on display). Or a huge square panel painted entirely in dark blue (cleverly entitled ‘Dark Blue Panel’). Or a white canvas with 12 Phillips spotlights shining on it. Or a garden leaf blower mounted on a chest of drawers. Or a teddy bear on a stick. Or a portable fridge mounted on a metal safe. Or a TV in a dark room playing a recording of a firework display. Or a crashed car. My ten year old daughter got quite angry at what she perceived as ‘lazy art’. “Daddy,” she said, “It’s not fair that people like Monet spend months on a painting and yet this man can get away with just putting a teddy bear on a stick.” We had a long conversation about creativity and how it comes in different guises, and how you have to take a ‘leap of faith’ with your mind to appreciate this stuff as art. It’s not about how long it takes to make. It’s whether it’s original and whether people will get pleasure from looking at it – i.e. does it have value. Judging by the queues at the door and the entry price, rocks on fridges clearly do have appeal.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am always banging on about the fact that we all have creative abilities and that we shouldn’t fall into the common trap of believing that creativity is in the exclusive gift of those who work in the creative arts, like Lavier. We consider artists to be creative because the output of their imagination is a tangible piece of creativity, like a painting, a sculpture, a performance or a piece of music which didn’t exist before they ‘thought it up’. We can see the result of their creativity, whereas most of us do jobs that don’t require us to produce a ‘piece of creativity’ in this way. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re not creative or we don’t have the opportunity to apply creative thinking. If people say to me “I’m not creative” I just ask them if they’ve ever solved a problem in their lives – at home or work. If they have (and they have), then they’ve been creative. Organisations seem to be more comfortable with the term ‘problem solving’ then they are with ‘creativity’ because the term feels more at home in the business environment. Whatever. Call it what you like. The fact is, we solve problems by thinking them through, seeking solutions (ideas) and applying them to deliver value (i.e. no more problem). Creativity is simply the act of applying our imagination to conceive an idea. That idea may just as easily be a new business process than a piece of modern art. Bertrand Lavier doesn’t have a monopoly on imagination. He sits in a room and thinks of mounting a leaf blower on a cupboard (for some reason!) and sticking it on a wall for others to take pleasure from looking at. You might sit in a room and think of an idea to improve your next team meeting. You’re both using your imagination. In fact, the two needn’t be mutually exclusive. It’s well documented that visiting art galleries can improve your creativity by exercising the right side of your brain. When looking at art, our eyes dart around randomly, detecting patterns and concepts. We use our imagination to interpret what we’re looking at it, to make sense of it (hard in Lavier’s case!). It’s why some medical schools in the US and Europe are sending students to art galleries, so they can hone their powers of observation and learn to spot subtle differences in a patient’s condition. The learning from my Pompidou visit was that creativity comes in many forms. For some the output is a teddy on a stick, for others it’s a business problem solved. Don’t for one minute think that the artist is any more creative than the office innovator.

The six essential skills of the creative manager

I’ve been working on a series of learning modules and workshops for leaders called The Creative Manager designed to encourage managers to be more creative in the way they lead, engage and get the best out of their people.  It’s not easy being a manager, particularly a middle or line manager, in a large organisation nowadays.   We ask them to communicate corporate messages, facilitate discussion, lead their people through change, maintain motivation, drive up engagement, inspire innovation, role model behaviours, improve wellbeing, solve problems, manage performance and many other things.  It’s a big ask, that’s for sure – and in my opinion one which requires a much more dextrous and creative style of leadership capability.   So I’ve been looking at how we can ensure our managers have the modern communication skills to meet these expectations as well as the techniques to exploit the creativity that exists inside them and their people.  In doing so, I’ve talked to leaders, listened to experts, read books, attended talks, followed the latest thinking and generally used my intuition to finally plump for six core capability areas which I think define the Creative Manager – storytelling, novelty, play, empathy, affinity and purpose.   Of course, these are not ‘new’ skills in themselves and many managers already have a natural tendency in one of more of them, but for me they comprise the six areas in which a manager’s creativity can best be harnessed, exploited and shared.  Let me explain:

Storytelling – This is the art of using stories to release creativity, motivate, inspire and share knowledge.  Of course, storytelling has always been a natural part of the human psyche – from cave drawings to Hollywood – and storytelling in business is not a new concept.   But do most managers really understand the power of a good story and do they have the techniques to both tell and encourage stories as an engagement tool?   Stories make people care.  They help people visualise and simulate, they provide context and they inspire people to act.  A lot of storytelling ‘training’ is patronising.  If you’re human, you can tell stories.  But I do think managers could benefit from a few simple techniques to enable them to communicate the company narrative through creative storytelling.

Novelty – This is the term I use to sum up the skill of bringing freshness and perspective into the workplace in order to drive up engagement, productivity and innovation.   Most organisations are logical, analytical, left-brained environments with their standards, guidelines, set processes and repetitive behaviours.   Unfortunately, these environments can stifle creativity and make office life dull and boring.   People sometimes don’t feel they have the ‘permission’ to raise new ideas or they don’t have the right stimulus to innovate or do things differently.  I think managers need the skills, techniques and imagination to inject some new thinking into the way they connect with their people and inspire them to action.   To me, novelty is about looking at things in a different way, injecting some ‘newness’, being curious and inspiring creativity by drawing out and developing the ideas that can lead to innovations and engagement.   It’s not the manager’s job to come up with all the ideas, but it’s very much the manager’s job to facilitate an environment where ideas can surface, grow and flourish.

Play – There’s enough evidence now to prove that happy people make productive people, and that people who are encouraged to laugh and be playful make more creative and engaged workers.   Most business communication is about serious messages delivered in a serious way, so this skill is all about how to inject some playful behaviour into the workplace.  When we talk about play at work, it’s not about bringing a board game into the office or putting a snooker table behind the filing cabinets.  Play in this context is about creative problem solving, collaboration, laughter, knowledge sharing and experimenting.   Managers shouldn’t be afraid of being playful.   Play is a perfectly valid and effective way of learning about the serious business of work.   One day managers will be appointed on their sense of fun.

Empathy – The best communicators make an emotional connection with their audience, but you don’t have to be Gandhi to make an impact.   What’s more important is the ability to empathise with and understand the people you’re communicating with, so you can tailor your delivery and engagement style to match their needs and preferences.   This skill is about listening, understanding and relating to individuals – behaviours that will make every leader more effective.   Empathy is sadly lacking in many organisations today and there’s compelling evidence that the next generation of managers who have grown up in the digital age are going to be particularly poor at empathic relationship building.   We need to get this bit right.

Affinity – Why is it that some messages stick and other’s fail to connect?  What makes a good message and what makes a great communicator?   This is a skill I am calling Affinity – the art of connecting with an audience so that they listen, understand, trust, value and act upon your words.   This doesn’t come easy to many managers but you don’t need to change who you are to make a connection and build affinity.  I believe managers need a creative toolkit to help them to bring messages alive, to liven up their team meetings, to inspire their people to act and to cut through the noise.   A little bit of imagination can go a long way.

Purpose – Ever since the first human beings looked up at the sky we have pondered our place in the universe and our reason for being.   Today the ‘search for meaning’ is stronger than ever and in business the desire to see purpose in what we do is becoming a critical area for leaders and communicators to respond to.   For managers, the challenge is to not just communicate the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of company strategy, but the ‘why’.   If people care, they will act.   So how do you make people care?   I see the ability to build a sense of purpose as a key leadership competency for the future.

As I said, some managers already excel at these skills and many more have the creative drive to keep their people engaged and motivated in other ways.  But all I’ve tried to do here is to put a simple framework around the answer to the question “how can I be a more creative and engaging manager?”.    I say here are six ways you can start.

Why sarcasm makes you creative

A recent paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology points to the creative effects of sarcasm and the numbing impact of anger.  An experiment with engineering workers found that those who witness incidents of anger, such as abusive customers or frustrated bosses, tend to focus their minds well on analytical tasks but are hindered by activities requiring lateral thinking and problem solving.  On the other hand, workers exposed to sarcasm, such as a customer complaining about service being “as fast as a snail” or a co-worker offering high praise for bad work, tend to do better at creative thinking.  The suggestion is that when confronted with angry situations, we concentrate hard on preventative measures, risk-aversion and fire-fighting so we don’t expose ourselves.  Sarcasm, on the other hand, is less threatening and a form of creativity in itself – requiring the listener to make sense of abstract comments and look at things from different angles.

Another bit of interesting related psychological research I’ve come across suggests that a funny incident in the workplace can have a positive cumulative effect on employee engagement and satisfaction by setting in motion a ‘Humour Wheel’.   In the theoretical paper published last month, two US academics wrote: “Drawing on theories of humor and emotion, the Wheel Model suggests that humor-induced positive effect results in transmission of emotion to social groups, which in turn creates a climate that supports humor use and subsequent humor events”.   To you and me this simply means ‘laugh and the office laughs with you.’  Humour is one of the most intense human emotions.  It’s an inherently social phenomenon with positive benefits stretching from motivation and relationships to relaxation and wellbeing.   As we all know, laughter is highly contagious; it spreads fast, even without context.   You might start smiling simply by seeing someone else laugh, even without knowing what they’re laughing at.   Our brains respond to laughter sounds in the same way as they respond to something funny.  And in the workplace, one person’s laughter can remove cultural inhibitions and give others the permission to laugh too.  We are still too stuffy about laughter at work, but there are signs that some organisations are at last taking fun seriously.  A dose of sarcasm might not be a bad thing too.

Take a lesson from history’s losers

The next time you have an idea shot down by your boss, or someone tells you “it’ll never work”, take a deep breath, close your eyes and take inspiration from some of history’s great losers, like Leonardo DaVinci, Thomas Edison, Beethoven, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Steve Jobs.   Sorry, did you say ‘losers’?   Surely these are some of the greatest creative thinkers ever whose ideas have changed the world, defined mankind and brought pleasure and inspiration to millions?   Well, it depends who you listen to.  Let’s look at the facts:

Steve Jobs was the son of single mother, put up for adoption as a child on the proviso that he gets sent to one of the best schools in the country.  His adoptive parents scraped together all they could afford to send him to college, only for Jobs to drop out half way through.   When he approached Hewlett Packard for funding to build a personal computer he was told he didn’t even have a college education and knew nothing about technology.  He was advised to go back to college and come back when he had a degree.   So he built a PC in his own garage and the rest is history.

Leonardo DaVinci was also the son of single parent and therefore banned from going to university.  Because he was self-taught he didn’t learn in subject blocks, he just absorbed knowledge from different sources and blended science, art, philosophy, language, numbers to produce amazing ideas.   Thomas Edison said his greatest blessing in life was a lack of an education, because if he’d been to school he would’ve been taught that what he wanted to do was impossible.   He came up with 3,000 ideas for the electric light before selecting the best one.   The other 2,999, he said, were not failures, just ideas that didn’t work.

Albert Einstein’s parents were told he was mentally retarded.  He was thrown out of school for being a negative influence on the serious students.   Beethoven’s parents were told he was too stupid to be a composer.   Isaac Newton’s teachers said he was the most unlikely academic they’d ever seen.   Walt Disney was fired from his first job on a newspaper for ‘lack of imagination’.

You see, adversity taught these people to think differently.  They weren’t ‘special’ in any way other than that they refused to be negative.   Creative thinkers have what creative guru Michael Michalko describes as a “tolerance for ambiguity”.  For them, nothing is black or white.   They suspend their judgement.   People all too readily equate negativity with intelligence – if I can knock your idea back it makes me look more intelligent, or more experienced.   It’s why creativity struggles to surface in the workplace.   Michalko says:  “It’s easier to think of reasons why things can’t work.  It’s the way we’re taught at school, we’re taught to be judgemental.   Our first thought is ‘what’s wrong with it?’.   The only difference between a creative person and one who is not is belief.  If you believe you are creative you define yourself as a creative person.  It’s easier to say you’re not creative because then you won’t have to come up with ideas.”

So, following on from yesterday’s post, let’s try and nail this myth about creativity.   There’s far too much negativity about nowadays as it is.   Fighting it starts in the mind.   To quote Michael Michalko again:  “Your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your character and your character determines your destiny.”

Time to pull back those curtains

One of the things that really frustrates me about work is the stuffy attitude that many people have about creativity.   Many leaders are clearly afraid of creativity.   Either they’re frightened of not being taken seriously or they’re frightened of what they might get if they encourage it.   But this totally misses the point.   Don’t talk about innovation unless you’re prepared to invest in and encourage creativity, otherwise where are all these added-value ideas going to come from?   It drives me nuts when I hear people say “I’m all for creativity, but ….”.  No you’re not.   I’ve written before about the image problem of creativity in the workplace.   People are too quick to equate creativity with the ‘creative arts’ – music, design, art, entertainment etc – and therefore they think that if they can’t draw, act or write a sonata they’re not creative.   We often don’t help by having ‘creativity rooms’ at work full of bright colours, bean bags and rubber chickens.  For some people, that’s just too soft, too trivial, too unprofessional.  “Besides,” they say, “I’m just not the creative type.”   That’s rubbish.   We’re all the creative type.   I think one of the blockers of creativity at work is the wolf in sheep’s clothing we call ‘specialism’ – that instrument of creative suffocation.    Before the industrial revolution, workers tended to be characterised by their profession – farmer, blacksmith, miller, sailor, trader etc – but the arrival of factories and mass production changed all that.   In his book, The Wealth of Nations, the eighteenth century economist and philosopher Adam Smith famously set out the 18 stages required to manufacture a single pin.   He argued that the best way to increase production and economic prosperity was to divide complex tasks into tiny isolated segments.   In the case of the pin, a single worker would probably take a whole day to produce one pin, whereas a production line of specialists, each performing one or two tasks, could knock out 5,000 pins a day.   This was the ‘miracle’ known as the division of labour.   Ever since, we’ve been obsessed with creating more and more specialist roles, ultimately producing a workforce of high achievers in specific disciplines rather than wide achievers in many disciplines.   The average big-company IT department probably has more than a hundred roles.   People don’t work as IT generalists, they work in service management, data architecture, application support … the list goes on.  In comms, we have channel managers, event specialists, business partners, change comms experts and “people who only do strategy”.    There are clearly lots of advantages to specialising in any industry, but creatively it has one big, bad downside.   With too narrow a focus, people tend to lose perspective, imagination and stimulus.   Our brain is hard wired for repetition.  It seeks certainty.   So when it comes to solving problems and finding new ideas, we can often find ourselves stifled by the narrowness of our frame of reference.   It’s like having a view from a widow obscured by partially closed curtains.  We only get to see and judge the view allowed by the curtains.  If we pulled back the curtains we see things we’ve never seen before – things that may well change our entire perspective and open up a world of ideas.   That’s what creativity is – the willingness to open one’s eyes to new worlds, new perspectives, new stimulii.    I really believe that we internal communicators can learn a lot by pushing back those curtains.   In the last year or so, I’ve tried to make a conscious decision to open my eyes (metaphorically speaking!) to the ‘outside’ world to see what I can learn as a communicator.    And there are ideas everywhere, right under our noses!   Shops, airports, sport, events, the media, travel, literature, science, philosophy, history, entertainment – they all offer ideas for creative communication in the workplace.    All we need to do is to open our eyes and use our imagination.   Creativity is not a special skill that only ‘creative people’ can do.   It’s an attitude.  It just takes a willingness to try something different – a new route to work, new magazines, new TV programmes, new sports, new conversations, breaking habits, connecting random ideas.   And a conscious effort to look at everyday things in a different light.   Don’t be afraid.

Why your next team meeting should be up a hill

I have a t-shirt on which is printed the slogan “Better a rainy day on a hill than a sunny day in the office”.    OK, it’s not going to win awards for originality but the sentiment appeals to my love of the outdoors and of hill-walking in particular (I’m working my way through the 214 fells in the Lake District – part of my rather obsessive blokey love of lists.  I reached 63 at the weekend).   Anyway, I blogged a few months ago about the healing powers of the outdoors – a scientific phenomenon called biophilia – and how we humans are predisposed to be attracted to wild places as a cure for stress and anxiety.   But it seems there is some evidence in neuroscience that a good walk can make you more creative.    The thing is, thoughts and ideas pop into our heads all the time – hundreds, thousands of them come and go, some stay around for a while others pop in and out in seconds.   We can’t possibly evaluate and connect up the infinite number of thoughts, memories and hunches that fire away in our brain at any one time.   Great ideas and insights come when neurons, or thoughts, collide and a connection is made.   One way to increase the chances of that happening is to ‘free your mind’ (stay with me, I’m not going all hippy) by removing yourself from the day-to-day tasks of normal living, changing your environment and avoiding the physical stimuli that would normally drive your thinking – the office, TV, bills, the in-tray, email, newspapers, internet.      Some of the greatest innovations in history have come from ideas that have appeared when the thinker is not actively ‘on the job’, like in the shower, in the bath (in Archimedes case), on a walk or when reading a book on a totally unrelated subject.    In his best-seller ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’, Steven Johnson recounts the story of French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare, who suffered a distinct lack of ideas while sitting at his desk one day, so he went for a stroll and found that “ideas rose in crowds”.   In his autobiography, Poincare tries to explain the sensation using an analogy of atoms hooked to a wall, stuck in some form of logical configuration when the mind is consciously addressing the subject (or problem) at hand.   But when the environment changes, and the brain is ‘resting’, the physical action of walking literally loosens the atoms and shakes them from the wall, flashing them in every direction, where they collide and lead to connections (and possibly new ideas) that would otherwise never have occurred.   We sometimes call this serendipity – the apparent random connection of thoughts and ideas when we’re least expecting them.    Many organisations already offer ‘creative spaces’ where teams and individuals can go to brainstorm ideas and ‘be creative’.   These will often have brightly coloured walls, bean bags, some toys and the odd rubber chicken.  Nothing wrong with that (although some ‘innovation rooms’ I’ve seen leave a lot to be desired) but in my view they don’t go far enough.   To go further, you need to go further.    Go for a team walk.    Arrange a hike up a hill or alongside a river, talking and debating as you walk.   I’m always amazed at the ideas I come up with while I’m struggling up a thigh-burning incline or walking along a ridge at 3,000 feet.    I’m thinking of starting up a company offering facilitated idea workshops ‘on the move’.   Mmmm, I like that idea –  take a team up a hill to solve a problem.   Not only would they probably come up with some great ideas, but they’d bond like never before and feel better as a result.   This needs some more thought … where are my walking boots?

So, what’s it like being in the zone?

One of the best books I’ve read in a while is The Element by Sir Ken Robinson.   The sub-title is “How finding your passion changes everything”, which pretty much sums up neatly what it’s about.  Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Sir Ken and his views on creativity and education and this book is full of witty, inspiring and insightful stories about people who have found their own ‘element’ – be it in sport, politics, music, arts, business, whatever.    But this isn’t a book review.   I wanted to pull out one passage that really struck a chord with me.    Sir Ken was recalling a time when he watched his brother play in a band in Liverpool many years ago.   After the gig, a young Sir Ken approached the very talented keyboard player, Charles, and said “I’d love to play the piano like that”.   “No you wouldn’t” replied Charles.   “Er, yes I really would” said a surprised Ken, to which Charles responded:  “No you wouldn’t.  You like the idea of being able to play the piano.  If you’d love to play it, you’d be doing it”.    And he’s right.   We all like the idea of being really really good at something, of obtaining mastery in a particular skill, but how many of us are truly prepared to put in the hard work and dedication to reach the heights to which we say we aspire?   In his bestselling book Drive, Daniel Pink describes mastery as one of the key motivating drivers for the 21st Century.   But as Dan says, “only engagement can produce mastery”.    We’re not going to achieve excellence in our personal lives unless we become engaged.   I won’t become a scratch golfer because I can’t get excited about golf but until recently I was prepared to work hard to be as good as I can be at tennis.  Why, because I love the sport and I had role models (Sampras and Federer).  I was engaged.  By the way, I still love tennis but I’ve ‘found my level’ and I’m comfortable with my own level of mastery!    But what about professional mastery?   We all want to be as good as we can possibly be in our jobs, right?   But we have surveys up to our eyeballs telling us that so few people are engaged at work (as little as 2% in some organisations) so where’s all this mastery going to come from?   According to Dan Pink, the magic formula is autonomy, creativity and purpose.   Give people the freedom to take control over their jobs and careers, allow and encourage their creativity and provide them with a sense of meaning.   By doing so, we enter the world of ‘flow’, famously invented by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state of mind of being ‘in the moment’ – what athletes call ‘the zone’ – when you are so consumed with what you are doing that you fail to notice time passing and you can think of nothing else.   When was the last time you were in flow?   For me, it’s when I’m writing – when I know I’m writing something good – or when I’m running a workshop and you can tell things are happening in the room.    Progressive companies are recognising the business benefits of flow and enabling their employees to seek mastery (mastery is never obtained of course, the struggle for perfection is all part of the attraction) through creative performance management, collaborative technologies and playful environments.    This is where communicators can make a big difference – not only by seeking their own mastery, their own moments of flow, but through telling stories, reinforcing meaning and sharing creative anecdotes.   Let’s interview colleagues and ask them what being ‘in the zone’ means to them, when they are most fulfilled at work, what motivates them and what part of their job they most want to master.   Let’s draw a clearer line of sight between the organisation’s objectives and the actual on-the-ground capability it requires to deliver them.  And then let’s celebrate that capability.  Who are the experts and why are they good at what they do?  Who are the learners and what do they need to get better?   So many business communications are too impersonal.   Let’s get real people talking about their aspirations, their pursuit of excellence, their ‘element’, their passions and motivations.    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the deep sense of engagement that comes from being in flow as “the oxygen of the soul”.     Now that’s a story I’d like to hear.

How to create an Inspiration Board

I love the idea of an inspiration board – a tactic often used by fashion designers, stylists and interior decorators to inspire them and keep them focused on a particular product or project.   Very popular when planning weddings at the moment, apparently.   Basically you take any visual medium (usually a physical board but it can be virtual) and you use it to pin a collection of visual references of anything you find compelling or inspirational that will help you deliver a goal, complete a project or generate ideas.    Whenever you see something that would work on your inspiration board, cut it out and pin it up – pictures from magazines, headlines from newspapers, photographs, tickets, letters, fabrics, patterns, drawings, colours – anything that means something and which has a connection with what you’re trying to achieve.    Before long you’ll start to see connections between images that will offer inspiration and stimulate creative thinking.   Inspiration boards are great for project teams trying to focus on a challenging goal or for new teams building consensus around a vision.   They can act as a focal point for the team, by providing a very visual articulation of the end-product or the spirit the team is trying to portray.    I also think they can be really engaging – not just for the team but for the rest of the office.    There are no rules to creating an inspiration board so let your creativity run riot.   Encourage team members to think laterally.   If your project is about new ways of working, look for images or visual indicators that convey a message of freshness or transformation.     Pin up images that remind you of previous successful business or personal changes, display prompts to help you focus on the key themes of the project and use visuals that motivate.   Make it big, make it colourful and make it inspirational.

If your team has an inspiration board, I’d love to see it and find out how it’s gone.  Please let me know.

Let’s see some ‘creative acumen’

It’s great to see the futurist Anne-Lise Kjaer named as the keynote speaker at this year’s Melcrum Summit in October.    I’ve never heard Anne-Lise speak, but from what I can see she champions the ‘whole brain’ approach to developing a healthy and productive workplace, in which we learn to utilise both our analytical left and creative right brain to get the best out of our leaders and colleagues.    Of course, I don’t claim to be in Anne-Lise’s league by any means but this is the very theme that lies behind this blog – urging greater right-brained thinking to enable us and our leaders to become better communicators.   To me, the next-gen skills for communicators will be things like creative storytelling, empathy, novelty, meaning and play.    We dabble in all of these at the moment, but they aren’t yet core attributes.  And we’re not nearly as creative as we could (and should) be.   I think communications professionals should be the most creative people in the organisation, constantly pushing the boundaries and encouraging creativity in others.    We often see ‘business acumen’ on the list of desired skills for comms people (quite right too) but I’d like to see ‘creative acumen’ on there too.   This isn’t just about being creative communications professionals ourselves, it’s also about identifying and exploiting opportunities for creativity in the workplace, particularly in terms of leadership and culture.    It’s a skill, and it requires a different kind of thinking.   I’m sure Anne-Lise’s talk will be an eye-opening insight for us communicators, so well done Melcrum for such an inspired booking!   I just hope the audience doesn’t just see it as a novel and entertaining side issue before the ‘real action’ about (yawn) intranets and measurement.

Related blog entries:

Ten ways to be more creative

Let’s get serious about laughter

Forget vision, it’s purpose that counts

Hey lazy brain, get some perspective

Why Aristotle didn’t need PowerPoint

Time to ditch those job titles


Ten great Olympic inspirations for communicators

OK, the Olympics are here and I’m more excited than a roomful of Pointer Sisters.   So here, for communicators, leaders and managers everywhere, are my top ten inspirations we can take from the Olympics.    So please, spread the word, share this post and let’s inject some Olympic spirit into the workplace …

1. The Olympic motto – Faster, Higher, Stronger – means something.   They are values that inspire.  Why?  Because (i) they are adjectives, (ii) they can be measured and (iii) they endure.   Too many organisational values are bland nouns with no call to action and no “reason to get up in the morning” quality about them.   When employees start tattooing their organisational values on their bodies, you know you’ve got something special!

2. The Olympics brings communities together.   The torch relay has shown us the power of community and the inherent human search for meaning.   I stood in the rain in Tatton Park for over an hour to see a bloke I’ve never met jog past me with an 800g aluminium flame-holder surrounded by bodyguards and a massive convoy of police, coaches and sponsored vehicles.   Why would I do that?    Of course, it’s not what it is, it’s what it means.   It’s what it symbolizes.   And anything that can bring communities together like this has surely got to be a good thing.   Our organisations are full of human beings searching for meaning and striving to belong.     Remember, the best things in life are not things.  They’re experiences.

3. Athletes understand that performance is as much about the mind as the body.    The ability to carry out the physical requirements of the job – the tasks – is only part of what makes an Olympian.   The job title for a sprint hurdler is to run fast in  straight line and jump over some sticks.   The real work though goes on in the mind – the focus, the motivation, the concentration, the dedication, the commitment, the relentless pursuit of excellence, the confidence, the sense of occasion.    For athletes, high performance is a whole-body and whole-brain concept.   As it should be at work.

4. The Olympics is a triumph of diversity.   I don’t just mean racial, religious and physical diversity, I mean the diversity of sports.   Ever since the industrial revolution and Adam Smith’s theories about the division of labour, we have become obsessed with pigeon-holing people into jobs, roles and professions.   We tend to stay stuck in one occupational sector most of our lives and we focus on becoming a ‘high achiever’ in one area rather than a ‘wide achiever’ in many.    Not only does sport celebrate the concept of a multi-discipline approach (decathlon, heptathlon, modern pentathlon, triathlon etc) but the Olympics exposes us to sports we would never normally engage with.    It’s a time for learning new skills, expanding our minds and gaining new experiences.  So if you work in Marketing, reach out to your colleagues in Accounts.

5. Sporting metaphors work.   Whether you’re stepping up to the plate, raising the bar, passing the baton or punching above your weight, you can’t deny that sporting metaphors work.   According to prominent linguist George Lakoff, metaphors are key to understanding and reasoning.   “Human thought processes are largely metaphorical”, he said.   So in business, using metaphor and storytelling to convey a complex message is a powerful way to communicate.   The Olympics provides us with metaphors and stories in spades.  So, on your marks …

6. Cynics exist – get over it.   Our workplaces reflect wider society, and in all walks of life there are people who are cynical, critical, indifferent or just plain grumpy.   The Olympics brings out the best and the worst of human behaviour, particularly in terms of public perception.    To some it’s a once-in-a-lifetime celebration of sport, endeavour and human spirit.   To others it’s a commercialised, regionally-biased, elitist waste of money.   Logos, mascots, ceremonies, slogans, designs, processes … they all incite opinions.  So do strategies, corporate comms and change programmes.    It’s a fact of life.   Don’t let them get you down.

7. A communicator’s Aladdin’s Cave.   Imagine the amount of information and data swirling around an Olympic Games.   Twenty six sports, 300 events, 14,000 competitors, 20,000 media people, all with stories to tell and messages to get across.   But do we complain about information overload?  Of course not, we pick and choose the messages we want to engage with, and how we want to consume them.   And what a choice we have!   I’m a big believer in learning from other worlds, and the Olympics offers us communicators ideas and inspirations around every corner –the clarity of symbols, the importance of identity, the discipline of campaigns, the power of stories, the integration of channels, the layering of information, the opportunity for interaction, the thirst for education, the demand for speed, the need for accuracy.    Watch, learn and steal with pride.

8. Sport is creative.    If you look at sport as a ‘job of work’ like any other, you clearly see the importance of creativity and innovation to achieving high performance.    Athletes are continually on the lookout for innovations that will make a difference.  Some are legal (aero-dynamic cycling helmets), some are illegal (performance enhancing drugs) and some are controversial (hi-tech swimsuits).  Gymnasts, divers and synchronised swimmers are actually judged on their creativity.   Training regimes, diets, equipment, scoring systems, venues and techniques are continually reviewed and improved.   There’s no such thing as business as usual in sport.  In sport, as in business, it’s change agility and relentless creativity that makes winners.

9. There’s nothing wrong with having fun.    The Olympics is the ultimate playground but the office can be playful too.   Anything which gets people playing, having fun and laughing has got to be a good thing.   Play exercises the right side of our brain.  It makes us more productive, it builds relationships, it breaks down barriers, it brings people together, it encourages competition and collaboration, it harnesses creativity, it MAKES PEOPLE HAPPY.    From flicking paper clips into a cup to baking Olympic cup cakes, let’s use this opportunity to inject some play into our working lives.

10. It’s what you do that counts.    Athletes, like organisations, are continually striving for competitive advantage.    At the Olympics, being world class is not enough.   The difference between success and failure can be a fraction of a second, a twitch on the start line, a pull of an oar, a wobble on the beam, a puff of air in the pool, a millimetre of sand, a subjective opinion of a judge.   Four years of training can come down to what happens in ten seconds.    Sport reminds us that whilst strategies, visions, business cases, presentations, briefings, PR messages, structures, policies, standards and operating models all have their place, it’s ultimately grit, boldness, sweat and human endeavour that makes the difference.    Let’s finish with a quote from Goethe:  “What you can do, or dream you can, begin it.   Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Enjoy the Olympics everyone.

Let’s get serious about laughter

In 1940 Henry Ford sacked a worker for “smiling on the job”, having already committed a previous offence of “laughing with other fellows”.   Ford’s belief that “play and work don’t mix” was the prevailing view then and for decades after.   And although, 70 years on, we’ve come a long way, there still seems to be a bit of a reluctance to embrace the power of laughter and fun in the workplace.     A recent Harvard Business Study says:  “More than four decades of study by various researchers have proven that humour, used skilfully, reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale and helps communicate difficult messages”.    Laughing and playfulness exercises the right side of the brain.  It releases creativity, builds relationships and generally makes people happy, and happy workers make productive workers.   But still so many companies can’t make the leap of faith to actively encourage and facilitate fun as part of work.   Many of those who do value fun will go no further than tolerating cakes on a Friday and the occasional quiz night in the canteen.   How many big companies are prepared to go all the way and to really use humour as a strategic engagement tool?  Of course, some companies do ‘play at work’ well, but in many industries, especially the traditional left-brain professions like law, accountancy and financial services, with their cold, ‘hear a pin drop’ offices, fun and laughter brings disapproving looks of unprofessionalism and immaturity.    How can we break this and get employers to lighten up?    Surely we could all benefit from taking work a little less seriously and not be labelled as uncommitted?   Research has shown that people with a strong sense of humour do better in business than the stick-in-the-muds.   So let’s see a sense of humour as a leadership capability.  Let’s start recruiting people on their sense of fun.   Let’s use comedy as a morale booster.   Let’s play panel games and light-hearted exercises to embed messages.   Let’s train line managers on the art of play and the value of laughter.   Let’s invest in bringing Laughter Clubs into the workplace.   Some people are allowed smoking breaks, why not tolerate laughing breaks?  I’m serious.

We need to start somewhere, so here are six simple exercises to get people laughing in your team:

  1. Play business charades – get team members to act out a business process, department or comms message through mime
  2. Ask people to ‘make up’ a new process or department – the dafter the better
  3. Start every meeting with a joke or a funny story
  4. Get everyone to ‘doodle’ their week or communicate it via a comic strip
  5. Take photos around the office and ask people to come up with captions
  6. Have regular competitions and daft office games, like jargon bingo or see how many song titles you can insert into a team discussion

It’s worth remembering that children laugh 100 times a day.  Adults laugh barely a dozen times a day.   Funny eh?