Category Archives: Creativity

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.