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In our last blog,we wrote about the questions our clients are asking us about navigating the future as the UK plans to exit the European Union, acknowledging that accepting the uncertainty and asking questions is the right place to start. But we also know that facing uncertainty can be very stressful for organizations and the people within them, because it can be difficult to make decisions and judgments in those conditions. It is a time when we have no playbook to follow; we must rely upon our imaginations and creativity as a source of inspiration to cope with what could happen, which is why working together can produce far better results than going it alone.
It used to be that predicting the future was fairly straightforward for many organizations; by looking at current trends and evaluating the existing landscape, they could make educated guesses about the future, as if the graph would continue in a straight line. However, because of the necessary confidentiality and evolving nature of the Brexit negotiations, there are multiple uncertainties circling, each with its own rich store of conceivable outcomes. Furthermore, it can be difficult to lead in such probabilistic situations: no one wants to hear, “there’s a 68 percent chance we won’t go out of business,” from their boss. No approach will make the challenges of uncertainty go away, but by using collaborative design thinking, scenario planning, and rapidly testing possible hypotheses to explore the challenge in depth, we can help prepare leaders to make more confident strategic decisions when opportunities and or threats from disruption present themselves.
What is Design Thinking with Innovation Arts?
When we work with an executive team on a collaborative design session, we stress the importance of working together as a high-performing team (like those of an emergency room, Everest climbing expeditions or Formula One pit crews) to cope with new information. This relies upon building knowledge of an unfamiliar landscape, exploring the need for collaboration and trust, and seeking out opportunities for innovation, to help anticipate what will be necessary to make the right decisions before the actual need arises. Moreover, we like to work with large groups of 50 or more so we can explore as widely as possible, test and discard many different options before narrowing in on the right solution we can build together to embrace what comes.
Navigating an uncertain future with an approach that is often new to the team can be unsettling. However, the Innovation Arts process is designed to deliver against the objectives we set together with the sponsor team at the start of the process. Your main question might be, “how do we plan for Brexit?” but by working together, we will also uncover a myriad of other relevant questions that will influence your future direction. Using a rapid-iterative, collaborative approach based on the design thinking methodology, we will uncover the forces driving your current organizational approach as well as the likely probable futures to identify how your system will respond. A useful analogy is how the various harmonies of a complex piece of music would sound if one or more different chords are struck.
In a collaborative design session with a client facing Brexit questions, we would encourage them to engage in a scenarios exercise, which would allow them to explore their response to the plausible but unexpected outcomes of the negotiations that might affect their business. In the case of Brexit, this would likely mean understanding which of their structures, frameworks, initiatives and timeframes will be most impacted by Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. After working with the organization’s major stakeholders to understand the basic trends and driving forces in the industry, we would use the information to unearth the key uncertainties in the disrupted landscape. We’d then take the driving forces to the extreme: drastically reduced time frames, radical numbers, dramatic actions—for example, is it possible that a process that today takes twelve months could, in the future, be completed within five days? What would enable that to happen? With whom would you have to work and what would need to be in place? Think about it like training at high altitude for the marathon you plan to run at sea level—similarly, working through a scenarios exercise is about maximizing fitness and readiness for the run ahead. The next step in the process is to work backward to close the gap between that imagined future and the way we work today to start readying ourselves for any eventuality.
Working collaboratively on a thorny problem is an ideal way to get a team prepared for a future they can’t quite envision.
The Innovation Arts process allows an executive team to practice making decisions based on available knowledge, and to build and test flexible systems to manage future events. Even if a team doesn’t know what to expect from the changing environment, working together will prepare them to face any challenge, identifying what to have ready to cope with any new situation (technology, cash reserves, new ways of working, effective communication systems, etc.). By practicing as a high performing team in a scenarios exercise with IA, executive teams who do not normally work together can have the chance to work through the tough questions and make the challenging decisions an uncertain future will inspire, making them more fit and ready to cope when the actual need arises.
For any company working in, or doing business with the UK, this is a deeply turbulent time, full of emotion and predictions about what might happen next. But it is also an exciting time, packed with new opportunities waiting to be explored. It will be impossible to guess the outcome of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, but with careful planning and forethought, major surprises or unexpected disruptions can be avoided, and that is where we can help.
If you have questions about how your organization can use collaborative design thinking exercises to be better prepared for Brexit and would like to work with our team, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fewer than 1 in 10 businesses have cultures that are understood. Why does this matter and how to address it?
The primary function of scribing is to visually capture a conversation into a clearer and more digestible form. The visual map of a discussion aids those present by providing visual interest and capturing the flow of ideas, so the participants can see what they are saying. It works afterward to help those who weren’t there access the overall themes and shape of the session. Visual capture brings the messaging to life and makes it more approachable and memorable, particularly to those who employ a more “right-brained” way of learning. A mixture of iconography, graphic forms and metaphors instantly bring meaning to the words, and visualizing complex messaging and strategic thinking also helps to align people in a way that simply talking can’t. This is most useful when graphic facilitation is employed to capture a group discussion as it breaks down the barriers of language and terminology, different levels of understanding and engagement. Ultimately, we know through research that people are most susceptible to learning when they are in a “childlike” state, and the playful medium of drawing stimulates this, enabling the audience to access their collective inner child.
A typical day in the life of a scribe goes something like this…
It’s the first day of a three-day conference so it’s an early start. I wear comfortable shoes and do a few stretches to ensure I’ll be ready to spend the whole day on my feet. I have a healthy breakfast and check my emails on the way into work. Among the messages in my inbox is a client request to graphically capture their wedding (this is not the first wedding I have scribed)!
The three-day conference I’m headed to today is located in central London and involves the construction sector, a sector I am familiar with because our team has had a lot of experience across a wide range of disciplines. We have scribed everything from child soldier experiences and talks about music in schools, to economic conferences outlining the latest trends in the industry, business strategy collaborative decision-making events where the content is being created as it is being scribed. Besides large media events such as TED Global or Wired’s annual Innovation Lectures, we have also scribed private and public events ranging from business leadership away days to global banking summits. Ultimately, the nature of the content makes no difference, because no matter what it is being discussed, we are experts in listening, understanding, and presenting the messaging in a way that everyone can understand and be excited by. That is why scribing is such a powerful tool.
There are many different reasons for using graphic facilitation, and many different contexts in which it can be employed. Primarily, scribing is a tool to break down the complexity of strategic conversations. The visual content acts as a record of that moment in time, which could afterward be used as a piece of communications for a larger audience who were not present at the event. Sometimes, the scribing will be developed into an infographic, an annotated illustration (what we call a “rich picture”), animations, storyboards, etc. Our scribing lives on in large murals at the London Transport Museum, and the offices of News UK, and Microsoft.
In preparation for the construction event today, we have spent the past few days speaking with the client about their agenda, speakers and content, and getting a feel for the images and metaphors that will both reflect the intent of the discussions and resonate with the audience. We also research the speakers, their style and presentations so that we are comfortable with the content once the session is underway. Sometimes, a shorter event conference will only allow a brief research period, but however much time we are given is enough, as the real art of scribing comes from listening and making connections between the different discussion points to track the conversation. For clients who want to achieve a specific outcome or output, we will spend a much greater period of time in preparation to ensure we can help them achieve their objectives.
I arrive at the venue around two hours before the session begins to prepare the area where the scribing will take place. This time it’s a large ballroom including a stage and seating for 1,000 people. I will be scribing on my favorite medium, a white board system called MovingWalls, portable, erasable white work walls on wheels, which are easy to transport and link together to make a wall several meters in length. My tool of choice is a whiteboard marker, and I tend to carry an array of different types to ensure I’ve got a good supply for the entire job. The Innovation Arts style is usually monochrome, but it depends on what is right for the session.
We are often asked, “How do we scribe? Is it difficult to listen, capture the information, and then turn it into an illustrated InfoMural with the key messages? How are you always so sharp with the content?” The only way I can explain is that it is a craft you learn and perfect over time. Although I have done a lot of preparation for every scribe I’ve done, just before the presenter starts my mind stills and I listen carefully to her speech. As an avid rock climber, I used to jump off cliffs for fun—to do this successfully, you can’t walk up to the edge of a cliff and over-think it, you need to empty your mind and take the leap. That’s similar to how I approach the start of every scribing job.
Sessions vary, and if it’s a complex one there will be new information delivered every few seconds. It’s an intense experience, and scribes try to simplify the content by drawing from the mental image bank each of us cultivates, working from muscle memory. The strongest image that links to the information will shoot to the front of my mind, and I commit that to the board. It’s difficult to explain how any creative process happens, but experience, creativity and imagination have helped me and our team of scribes build up a vast bank of visuals in our heads, so we know we can draw the right picture, quickly.
The theme of the conference provides me with a nice frame for the InfoMural on which I hang the content, in this case the journey of the event. Metaphors help to clarify the content and add visual interest, and can come from anywhere, from a carefully considered likeness, or a sponsor’s recent safari holiday, to a nearby magazine illustration which, once contemplated, seems wonderfully right for the situation. At the end of the day, with the InfoMural a third of the way completed, I meet up with the client sponsors for a debrief to chat about the outcomes of the day and prepare for the next day’s session. It’s important that the space on the InfoMural is planned in my mind so I leave enough room for all the speakers throughout the event, and for more ideas and connections to emerge as the content develops.
The final task of the day is to take a call from an American client who wants Innovation Arts to come to Atlanta to scribe their large international conference. We talk about the event and their expectations and arrange a Skype call for early next week.
I get home and decompress with a family dinner, and a quick run with the dog. The next day I will do this all over again—what a great job!
Like many companies, yours probably has a set of values to inspire employees and serve as a code of honor. Corporate values statements are a great thing, because they can clarify a company’s identity and serve as a rallying point for its people. But values themselves do not drive your business, rather, they drive the people within the business. No matter how they were written or by whom, they are not based on the people who run the company, they are in the fabric of everyone who works there—from executive team to new hire. Here’s the question: if your company does have a compelling values statement, how truly meaningful it is to your people? Are your company values powerful tools embodied in everything you do, or are they just words?
Here is a real-world example: when I first started work in the early days of the dotcom boom, retail giant Walmart came to 80-person strategy event at my then-employer’s workshop space in Chicago. In those days, our clients typically spared no expense to bring a team to our offices, including business class flights, luxurious hotels and expensive dinners at fine restaurants. The works. Walmart, on the other hand, flew its party up from Arkansas on a budget airline and stayed two-to-a-room at a bargain hotel a few blocks from our office so they could walk to the workshop each morning. They catered the event through Walmart’s store deli (think tubs of potato salad and vats of barbecue), and in the evening the participants headed out together for a modest supper within a strict budget.
Why? At the time, Walmart was the single largest retail company in the world by several degrees. It’s not that they didn’t have the money for a more comfortable trip, it’s not that they didn’t have the power. It’s because their company values—a simple message of putting the customer first, personal responsibility, and teamwork—obliged them to adhere to a certain code of conduct. Expressing those values didn’t stop at store-brand cola and walking to work, it also meant that when it came time to develop a solution for an important strategic initiative, the workshop team in Chicago included representatives from all levels of the organization, including a woman who worked the checkout at one of their stores. Walmart had adopted that approach since Sam Walton opened his first store in 1962 in order to keep their promise to provide the lowest prices to its customers. The employees we spoke to about it at the time seemed to accept that attitude at face value, because they were doing things “The Walmart Way,” and it chimed with their own personal value code.
Values, in a true sense, are basic, fundamental and enduring and mean something to the people who articulate them. They must be internalized, and importantly, this does not mean they can be pushed in from the outside. Morality and ethics are central to the issue: think of your personal values and the decisions they compel you to make. Start by drawing up a list of what you personally treasure—don’t be constrained by words like, “integrity,” or “respect,” but think of action words and phrases that mean something to you. Making family a priority? Maintaining lasting friendships? Doing work you are proud of? We each have different fundamental values; that’s why writing values statements for an entire organization is so tricky; how can five or six core values have meaning for thousands of individuals?
Innovation Arts has taken many different approaches with our clients in order to help shine a light on their organization’s true values, from company-wide Barratt Surveys as well as from delivering facilitated consultation and discussions during Employee Values Weeks to allowing a significant proportion of an organization to articulate for themselves what they really hold true. It may be that you have already defined your values, yet somehow, they don’t seem to be mobilizing your organization in the direction you would expect. Often, the trouble with values statements is not the values themselves but the corporate language chosen to express them, which can be so openly worded as to be vague. To play a meaningful role in creating an enduring organization, corporate values must be simply expressed and derived from fundamental philosophy about what constitutes the good for people both inside and outside the company.
When we performed our own values exercise at Innovation Arts, our team came up with some unique individual values. And, like most companies, we also defined the values that we share, and that link us to the clients with whom we work. These values are also easily translatable into specific behaviors that bring them to life in our organization, which is an excellent test of their worth. Over the years, we have discovered that if our clients can’t relate to our values then—given how closely we work together—we may not be a good fit for them:
Intellect: You learn rapidly and eagerly
Imagination: You create new ideas that prove useful
Impact: You accomplish amazing amounts of important work
High Performance: You care intensely about the success of (y)our business
Honesty: You are true to yourself and others
Humor: You take (y)our work seriously and yourself less so
If your organization has the right values—core values that cannot be compromised; aspirational values the company will need in the future but currently lacks; behavioral and social standards required of any employee; and accidental values that have arisen from the common interests or personalities of employees (i.e. “fun”)—they have to be integrated into everything. From the first interview to last day of work, employees should be constantly reminded that values form the basis for each decision and action the company makes.
From our work on corporate values, we know that values discussions are best had by small teams; better if they can include a cross-section of the organization. Better still if they involve the CEO, any founders still with the company, and a handful of employees who have to make a lot of on-the-ground decisions. When you are working out how to really embed your values in culture and process, leadership and employee collaborative work can be vital to agree on nuances and behaviors, and how they work in practice to reinforce your strategy and objectives. We engage entire organizations on bringing values and behaviors to life in practice with our custom-designed game Dilemma,® which is the perfect venue for having meaningful conversations about values. Do you stick to your values no matter what, or do you cut corners because there is no one there to see? It’s the discussion about those decisions that ultimately proves to be the most valuable part of the experience. What do your company’s values really mean to you? What do they mean to your colleagues?
Thinking back to that event with Walmart many years ago, seeing their corporate values in action was an exciting part of working with them. When they talk about customer service and respect, they mean it. Remember the checkout lady? At the end of three days of high-stakes design and collaboration, she drafted the final plan the entire group—including the senior management team—signed up to develop. From company cheers to employee training and benefits, the retail giant’s management constantly stresses its values not only for their employees, but for themselves. What does that mean for you?
We asked our clients about the evolutions and transformations that are on their radar. Here are six hot issues that cross sectors and industries and will have noticeable impacts on both operating systems and culture:
Data and information are allowing brands to target individuals in a bespoke manner; no more will we see the need for mass marketing such as TV and print advertising. Instead, tailored messaging across dynamic channels and based around the needs of an individual or business will become the norm. We are seeing it already online, but this will advance rapidly over the next few years. Organisations that develop frameworks to capture and analyse data will be best-placed to develop leading marketing and selling approaches in the future. This requires digital transformation in tandem with a reworking of traditional organisational structures and job roles that need to be addressed quickly in order to remain competitive.
Artificial intelligence is already here; from roboadvisers (Nutmeg, Wealth Wizards and Wealth Horizon) to voice technology (Alexa, Siri and Cortana) we are already affected by new technologies that are rapidly permeating our daily work and personal lives. Despite some push-back from consumers and organisations progress in these areas is inevitable and those that resist may well lose their competitive edge. No-one knows how much AI will impact our homes and workplaces and even Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, admitted at this year’s Davos meeting that he did not foresee the artificial intelligence revolution that has transformed the tech industry. What’s clear is that organisations must still embrace and harness new technologies to at least replace mundane, time-consuming daily tasks that are not profitable or satisfying for individuals. This frees up its workforce to spend more time thinking innovatively and being more productive as echoed by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google who said: “I would hope that, as some of the more mundane tasks are alleviated through technology, that people will find more and more creative and meaningful ways to spend their time”.
We’ve heard a lot about what Millennials want and how they are re-shaping the way we do business. Now Generation Z is bringing their influence to the global economy as they come of age . We know, for example, that Millennials are demanding more of their brands than ever before; from ethical sourcing and environmental considerations to real and deep & meaningful community activities. Basically, they want brands to hold relevant values and exhibit behaviours that meet their expectations like no generation has done before them, and this applies to the Brands they work with too. At Innovation Arts, we spend a considerable amount of time talking to our clients about how their brand can evolve culturally and strategically and we advise building in responsiveness and agility to allow for these shifting needs.
We’re not talking about the latest iPhone or Samsung iteration but a flexibile, nimble approach that allows organisations to constantly be on their toes responding to customers, consumers, their stakeholders and wider communities. This requires a new way of thinking and a corporate culture that is designed against a new model – maybe a model that we haven’t yet experienced. The organisations that puts innovation at its core will win; whether your sector is financial services, charitable, education or manufacturing.
Leveraging the creativity and innovation within your teams should be a priority. If that means a blend of at-home and office workers, then so be it. If your teams are scattered across the globe and speak different languages, then your organisation’s design must be able to effectively support and benefit from this. Modular working, part-time and flexible working will reinvent themselves. Your teams may already be thinking (and hoping) that you are planning and designing for an agile and flexible future!
A combination of artificial intelligence, a changing workplace and a redefining of roles should lead to a more productive life-work balance. But where does work and life start and end? Whose responsibility is it to support employees in eating well, getting fit, productive relaxation time, enjoying their family and friends? The lines will blur as employers and employees merge to support one another – look at Google whose sole job is to keep employees happy and maintain productivity. Their efforts may just be the start, but they go beyond a couple of bean bags thrown into a brightly-painted corner and free gym membership. Their offer to employees includes free breakfast, lunch and dinner, free health and dental, free haircuts, free dry cleaning, gyms and swimming pools, hybrid car subsidies, nap pods, on-site physicians and death benefits.
We believe that leadership teams should already be investigating, imagining and modelling for their own organisation in order to prepare for and capitalise on these issues. But the way we do that is changing too:
In the past, responsibility to reshape corporate culture, values and behaviours was the domain of the leadership team, and the leadership team only. From our experience of working with many leading global brands, your employees and teams are often one step ahead in their thinking when it comes to the future of their organisation. That’s why our Design Thinking approach is so effective at helping organisations to re-design their culture as it requires the wider team to design, model and iterate a brighter and more effective future. When strong leadership engages with all levels of the organisation, nothing can stop you. If you would like to know more about how our Design Sessions and Games Science can address issues around the future of work within your own organisation, please contact us for a free consultation at email@example.com.
For a recent design event, we looked long and hard at the idea of “tipping points,” or the instant where the forward motion of a movement increases to the point at which it becomes unstoppable. In his bestselling book, “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell defines tipping points as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point,” when a collection of small events suddenly “tips” over like a wineglass, and the resulting contagion becomes inevitable. Inspired by Gladwell, we studied a number of different movements, from the US Civil Rights movement, the rise of streaming media, the mainstreaming of hip hop music, the adoption of the hybrid/electric car, to the improbable rise of Donald Trump, and discovered that within each, there was a specific point at which the movements tipped, and the subsequent outcome became unavoidable.
And yet many times have you experienced efforts to create a movement – perhaps to launch a product, a way of working or create a whole new culture shift – and seen them fall flat? What about that restaurant you love that despite your best efforts at evangelization has closed anyway? Or that time you tried to get your team to go paperless? What is it that movements with tipping points achieve that these efforts have not?
Gladwell’s research indicates that a tipping point is reached by three very specific means: the “law of the few,” or the involvement of people with a particular set of social gifts which allow a small number of them to influence a wider population of the rest of us. Perhaps the most influential of the three, the “law of the few,” relies upon connectors, the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions—the kind of people who know everyone, know who needs to know someone else, and whom everyone is happy to see (word of mouth epidemics are the work of connectors). Secondly, mavens, the information specialists we trust and rely upon to connect us with new information. For example, the friend we all have who knows everything there is to know about computers or television sets or restaurants. And finally, salesmen, who are just as they sound, the persuaders with charismatic personalities and powerful negotiation skills who have an indefinable trait—beyond what they say—that makes others want to agree with them.
Our experience with the movements we’ve helped create within client organisations backs this up: it’s the people within any movement who are most likely to make it tip. We know that you are more likely to follow that lone nut if he is a friend of yours, or even, if you have seen his work and likes what he’s doing. The 2016 US presidential election was swayed by content shown on Facebook’s news feed, a mechanism so massive that it filters content by what your most active friends are saying. You don’t read what the larger population is saying, only what your friends post. And if your friend is voting one way, you are more likely to follow her. Simon Sinek, in his book “Start with Why”, says between 13 and 15 percent of a population must be affected in order for an idea to catch fire. In most of our social networks that’s a small enough number to reach personally, and indeed, within the movements we studied, we found that when people were influenced and supported by their friends or people whom they knew personally, the movements were more likely to gain momentum.
The implications for creating a movement – culture change, employee engagement or reinforcement of core values and behaviours – in a large organisation are therefore clear. How do you meaningfully reach those hundreds and thousands of people who will be your firestarters?
The other two criteria for a tipping point are the “stickiness factor,” specific content of a message that renders its impact unforgettable, and the “power of context,” or the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which the epidemic occurs. When Gladwell says that the environment must be right for a message to spread, what he means is that there must be a critical mass within the population already, such that it is ready to tip on a slight change. For example, my efforts to get my family to adopt a vegetarian diet were destined for failure because none of them enjoys eating vegetarian food (in our case, vegetarianism was neither sticky nor in context).
A common problem we’ve seen within a lot of the populations we touch is the misleading idea that “if we build it, they will come.” A fantastic, world-beating idea doesn’t necessarily guarantee people will rush to embrace it. If that were true, everyone would eat healthily and get 30 daily minutes of brisk exercise. When you’re trying to create a movement for lasting change, great content must get into the hands of the influencers who will touch other influencers, who will bring their whole tribe with them, and only human connections can make that happen. It’s because his best friend was sitting next to him that black student Ezell Blair was brave enough to sit at the Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in 1960, an episode widely regarded as the tipping point of the American Civil Rights movement. It’s because my friend encouraged me to buy an iPad Pro that I did. Without specific personal connections, any movement will ultimately fizzle, because accountability is weakened: there is no one to answer to when you make a decision, no one to get you up out of bed when you just don’t feel like marching, no one to encourage you to reach for the next level, the next flag, the next victory. So, if you’re trying to get a movement off the ground, make sure you count among your number the connectors, mavens, and salespeople with infectious personalities who will spread the idea like a virus. Then the next step is working out how to mobilise them…and even in this day of virtual connectivity, nothing works better than face-to-face interactions.
This is not to say that social networks don’t have their place, if there are genuine connections between the people within them. You might be able to have a thousand Twitter followers, but it’s a person within your real-life network who will be able to tell you which restaurant to visit, or who will connect you with the right person to get your project off the ground. Twitter and Facebook make it easier for activists to find other activists, but harder for their activism to have any impact, because social networks favor the sharing of information over accountability.
What happens next? The main thing to remember is that ideas will travel faster through personal networks than they will through institutional ones. In January, the original Facebook post about the Women’s March was posted on a specific group page with millions of like-minded followers, but I probably wouldn’t have put on my pink knitted hat and marched if I had seen only that. I marched because my best friend and my sister told me they were going. If the idea of stomping around outside on an icy winter’s day can spread throughout the world by word of mouth, it’s hard to imagine what couldn’t.
Do you want to create a tipping point in your organisation but not sure where to begin? Give us a call, we’d love to help.
The answer lies in the way the teams are working together. There is a tendency to look at the output of a team that is generating a lot of ideas in a non-judgmental, uncritical way — no idea is a bad idea — as being very productive. And it’s true that a team that is cooperating in this way will deliver an abundance of possibilities and possibly finish the project quicker than a single person working alone. However, a team that is debating, challenging, building upon one another’s work and questioning the ideas presented will produce more creative ideas of higher quality because critique allows people to dig beneath the surface and come up with ideas that aren’t predictable. Creativity is ignited when diverse ideas are united, or when ideas from one domain influence those of another, which is the true meaning of collaboration. We said in a previous post that creativity is the process of eliminating options; through collaboration this is not achieved with voting but with hard-won convergence. A team cooperating will make light work of solving a problem. But a team that argues, influences on another, inspires and connects—collaborates—will achieve a more satisfying result.
So, what is the perfect template for a collaborating group? Many years ago, I worked in the theatre, as an actor, designer, and artistic director of a theatre company, and believe one of the best models of group collaboration comes from the Broadway stage (stay with me here). I can tell you that no matter how ambitious you are, no single person can create a Broadway show—there are simply too many different kinds of talent required: a composer has to work with a librettist and a lyricist, a choreographer has to work with a director who is probably getting notes from the producer; there must be actors, an orchestra to play the tunes, and a small army of designers and craftsmen who bring the world of the play to life. And the most important collaborator of all, the audience, whose reception of the work can change the entire course of a production.
Setting all the razzamatazz of Broadway to one side, play-making at its core is an important collaboration between the actor and the text and music. The playscript sets out the words and the score sets the music, but neither is meant to live on the page—it is the actor’s voice which brings them to life. And when both are put before an audience, who receives it in a certain way—boom! Something new is created. Not completely of the playwright, not completely of the actor, not completely of the audience, but something wholly of each. To add further complication, a successful production must be financially viable as well as artistically creative, and each party involved in the making of it has his artistic reputation riding on the outcome of every performance, so the stakes are high. A forgotten line, a missing prop, a door that doesn’t open, or a wardrobe malfunction can stop a show, and that is a risk no one is willing to take.
Successful collaboration in the theatre also relies on the interconnected webs of people in the relatively small universe in which that world revolves—there aren’t many degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and anybody, or between the librettist of “Guys and Dolls” and the choreographer of “Cabaret.” In my experience, certain directors often chose to partner with an artistic team they had worked with before, a pattern often repeated in theatrical collaborations, as producers view “incumbent teams” as a safe financial bet (Elton John and Tim Rice, I’m looking at you). However, intimacy with an artistic collaborator doesn’t always guarantee success, because knowing each other too well could mean that ways of working become stale. The opportunity for real magic happens when a new variable is injected into an already established collaborative relationship—a new set designer or an unknown actor, or possibly even when an old team works on a debuting play—when fresh thinking challenged already established ways of working. A famous example of this collaborative alchemy is the creative team behind “West Side Story,” one of the most commercially and artistically successful Broadway musicals of all time. The concept of a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” was the brainchild of composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins—all Broadway legends—but the project, in 1957 a departure from theatrical conventions both for its focus on social problems and its extended dance scenes, made history thanks to the fresh talents of 24-year-old Stephen Sondheim, a then unknown lyricist who had never worked on a Broadway musical before.
Can collaboration work with other types of team work the same way it works in the theatre? Of course, because on any given project the high stakes are the same—it must be completed, the reputations of the people working on it depend on its success, and each person involved will have a view on the best way to deliver it. Assemble a team with strong opinions and a defined amount of time, stimulate conversation, criticism and conflict and fruitful interactions will happen. And do this in a communal space—large and open so that any one person can talk to another, but not too precious that it can’t be altered as necessary. From the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the National Theatre, Building 20 at M.I.T. to the public spaces at Pixar, the most creative environments provide opportunities for one idea to bump up against another.
Bit by bit, putting it together, diverse teams trust each other to work in parallel, the only way to make a collaborative work of art. Whilst in the theatre the entities are all answerable to a director with a vision for how best to serve the play (and who in turn is answerable to the opening night audience), at work we look toward project owners and visionary leaders to provide clarity on objectives and help guide us toward success. Having just a vision is no solution, everything depends on execution, and in both worlds, failure is not an option.
The lesson we can take from the theatre is that when there are enough people with different perspectives and skills influencing one another in unpredictable ways, the group dynamic will inspire excellence from each person working to put the show on the road. In this creative process, every moment makes a contribution, every little detail plays a part. All those hundreds of micro-interactions add up…but don’t expect them to be without friction. In fact, the challenging conversations you’ve been avoiding so long could well be the most important part of the process. They might be confrontational and not always pleasant, but it doesn’t mean they can be avoided: collaboration is not about getting along, it is about getting it right.
A similar challenge faces businesses who employ workers with non-traditional relationships to the home office such as distance or home working, part- or flexi-time, or the project-by-project contracts so popular in today’s so-called “gig economy.” No matter where your employees are, they represent your brand. So how do you keep your employees involved and engaged when you only see them occasionally? Non-traditional work models are popular because they suit a mobile and flexible workforce, whether maximizing available skills, creating more opportunities, or just a good way to keep people working, consumers spending, and the whole economy moving. The gig economy has existed for a long time in the corporate world where freelance designers or IT professionals, too expensive to keep on staff, are frequently hired temporarily for their unique skills. However, increased connectivity and improved mobile services also mean that even permanent employees don’t need to come into the office every day in order to maintain links to the organization. For the first time in history, employees are in a unique position of being both their own and the company’s person, a state that can be difficult for any manager to cope with: they wear the uniform, but they’re out on the town. So even though a chunk of your employees enjoys a non-traditional career path, what’s the best way to engender values and behaviors across boundaries to ensure distance workers live and breathe your corporate culture?
At Innovation Arts, we rely on a talented network of freelancers to support and deliver the work we do. We value their individual expertise, their unique talents, and their ability to bring a distinctive point of view into our design events, which benefits the process of collaboration. We depend upon varied and deep experiences in order to bring the best ideas to life, so by employing contractors to help us out occasionally, we can add the specific skills our business needs to thrive. On any given event, you can be sure to encounter at least one, if not several, freelancers adding a particular spice to the Innovation Arts recipe. Our events are supported by pop-up teams of people who may have never worked together before, but who, from the moment an event kicks off, rely upon and trust one another to get the job done as intensely as in any hospital emergency room. What allows this to happen is a specific pattern language unique to our industry, our philosophy of self-reliance and self-determination, and a simple set of systems and culture that everyone accepts.
As someone who used to “gig” for Innovation Arts before I came onto its staff full-time, I can say there are downsides to a free and flexible mode of working. The unstable hours, feast-or-famine workloads, and don’t even get me started on accounting. However, as part of the extended Innovation Arts family, I always knew that if I accepted a freelance project I’d know exactly what I was getting into, specifically what the work would be, and precisely what role I was expected to perform. And that comes down to the values and behaviors Innovation Arts promotes, which are clear and easy to understand, rather than a restrictive management structure. Thanks to our values of “High Performance” and “Honesty,” I always knew my work was valued, I knew I’d be expected to make my own decisions and be honest about the work I was doing and if I needed help, to be collaborative and creative, so I delivered. Because iteration is a key part of our ethos, I knew that if I messed up I would have the chance to try again, to fail better. The unspoken laws of team-working never varied from gig-to-gig, manager-to-manager. And now that I work for IA full time, the same rules apply. By embracing a simple and clear values statement and promoting a desired mode of behavior, Innovation Arts has made working easy for me and other colleagues who have made the switch from freelance, both as full-timers and as contractors.
So how do you know if your company’s values are filtering down into a workforce you might only see occasionally—or in the case of app-managed Deliveroo, never—and yet who undeniably represent your organization? How can you engender loyalty and a sense of belonging if you only come in contact now and again? It comes down to the behaviors accepted and promoted for each person who answers to your company’s name. What behaviors do you expect from your employees, whether full-time or contracted, and how do those behaviors reflect your company’s values? We have worked with a number of organizations who have used our game Dilemma® to test how behaviors on the ground map back to the corporate value statement in the company’s lobby, and found that whether you are the CEO or a temp, the action should essentially be the same. By playing through the workplace scenarios in Dilemma®, employees have a chance to explore the preferred responses as well as the actions they might take if pressed for time or to deliver. We’ve discovered that companies who value “respect” will have employees who are respectful, no matter if they are in the home office or on a client site, and that those who embrace “diversity” will employ people who are diverse in ethnicity as well as in attitude. But, if your employees—no matter how entrenched with the company—can’t make sense of your values, or don’t know how the words on the plaque in the lobby translate to day-to-day actions, then you’re in trouble.
There can be a distance between the narrative surrounding labor and success, and the lived experience of workers. In our work with a variety of organizations we know that the culture envisioned by the leaders at the top of the tree can sometimes be very different from the culture lived by the employees at the bottom. In our experience, only a small percentage of companies are getting it completely right with respect to values, and that has a knock-on effect to distant parts of the company culture few leaders ever see. The gig economy is certainly working for the employers who want to have special skills on tap, but in order for it to truly work for the entire company, especially those temporary or distance employees who are a long way from head office; there must be something to sweeten the deal. Treating your workers—temporary, part-time, flexi or full—as you would treat the CEO is a small step, but at least it’s a step forward.