Deborah: What brought you to where you are now?
James: Okay, so I started working in a big media agency when I was about 30. I grew up there and became a Strategy Person.
Since then, I have essentially been Head of Strategy roles at media agencies, advertising, creative, digital and CRM agencies, so I’ve done the rounds in terms of disciplines.
I’ve become something of a generalist, which is quite useful, I think. You ideally see the bigger picture, but you’re also interested in and observant of the different ways in which work gets made.
You become interested in how you get people to do their best work. What’s the difference between talent and culture, and what’s the role of leadership in all that?
Deborah: It sounds like what you were talking about is what old-fashioned terminology would label optimising productivity – is it that?
James: It’s probably more than productivity in the sense that I think productivity includes creativity and innovation. I think there’s a bit of a misnomer that means being busy all the time. And it’s conflated with busyness. And often busyness is conflated with presenteeism.
In certain small-minded businesses, that conflation is really dangerous.
If there’s a wider understanding of productivity, people feel like they belong. When they’re given permission to think differently and make mistakes, that’s where innovation comes from.
Deborah: That’s a really interesting one about giving people the freedom to be busy or not be busy. Going for a walk for ten minutes round the block might be the most creative and productive time of the day. But that describes a knowledge worker. What about all the other people who do other stuff? Because I think a lot of this is getting muddied.
James: You need to factor in breaks. You know, there’s a reason good ideas come to you in the shower because you’ve stopped thinking about it. It’s a critical part of the process of having ideas. But the way in which those creative businesses charge for the work, is often in time slots of people, so it becomes task orientated, which actually irons out any opportunity for invention and the surprising non-linear nature of creativity.
Some of the biggest challenges I’ve ever worked with were working at places where the output is ostensibly great, great creative but the process and the culture is extremely mechanistic. And it doesn’t make for a good situation for the people caught in the middle.
Deborah: So with computers doing all sorts of things and doing all the procedural things, the knowledge workers will become the norm in a way.
Does everybody have the ability to be creative? Do you think that it’s something we can nurture? What’s the special recipe for creativity?
James: So I think, yes, everybody can be creative. I think there’s certainly conditions. And that’s the first one.
To try training how to do it can feel quite scary. It can feel quite intimidating. I think, you know, a blank piece of paper when you haven’t drawn for a long time is really overwhelming.
I’m being quite flippant there by saying drawing. I think that’s the problem; creativity is seen as being an artistic thing and isn’t necessary.
Creative subjects are either marginalized or minimised the number that you can do.
I despair at that. And I think then you’re invited to specialise quite quick. When you’re in a world where you’re trying to foster a sense that creativity is built on making mistakes, you can’t have good ideas without having bad ideas.
Curiosity brings dividends. It brings different relationships and rapport. It means you get a better working knowledge of where people are coming from. And, you know, it creates a bigger canvas on which ideas can grow.
When you have people you have the opposite, which is “people do this task in this way” you’ve got no serendipity. You’ve sort of almost stamped out curiosity by default because you’re not able to think differently across the process.
Deborah: You know, as a curious person, I find it infuriating that people aren’t curious. Over the last year or two, I’ve heard more of creativity rather than innovation coming through again. Do you think they’re interchangeable?
James: I think they are often used interchangeably. I think to mean the same thing, which is sort of new ideas.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with that.
I think creativity is a mindset and innovation is a process to come up with new ideas that are actionable, that can be implemented.
The danger is when you conflate them, is that people who want innovation in their business think it happens just by encouraging people to be creative and come up with ideas. And it doesn’t, you kind of need to systemize that. You need to find a way to make it work without squashing it.
Deborah: It’s always one of the things we’re asked to create a design that will encourage innovation. And it’s more to encourage creativity that whilst, we can design both, of those to a certain degree, I think it’s very much a cultural thing rather than an environmental thing.
James: People often ascribe cultural problems to environmental solutions.
So “we need more breakout space” might be a code for “no-one speaks to each other”.
Again, it’s a bit like innovation and creativity. The two can become conflated and they can look from a certain distance like they are one and the same. But they’re not, they’re different leaders with different outcomes.
Deborah: Often it’s just seen as a tangible problem that you can fix. But often it’s just not enough. I’ve been so fascinated with physical activity and its role in all sorts of ways. I have seen a couple of things in the news the last couple of days about the connection between physical activity and creativity. What do you think about it?
James: I think I probably understand it as a theory.
The time away from work, meaning you’re giving your brain and making your brain occupied with something else that isn’t work, allows room for your ideas to bubble up and percolate in a different way.
There’s a wonderful book I always press on my teams by James Webb Young. I think it was written in the 1920’s. It’s so old that I think it was David Ogilvy who wrote the foreword for it on its report and its refurbished publishing in the 50’s and it’s how to have ideas. It’s a five-step process, and the fourth step of the process is to stop.
Physical activity, I think, and exercise can be a way of allowing this to happen. I think it’s adjacent to creativity and can be harnessed for it.
Deborah: Ok, so we have managed to go almost half an hour without mentioning the pandemic and now I have to ask, do you think creativity suffered during the pandemic?
James: I wouldn’t pretend to know what everybody’s reality is of how it’s been for them, but I think there’s a particular type of creativity that I think has been adversely affected by the pandemic. And that’s the kind of collaborative creativity which I think certain agencies thrive on.
Lots of agencies probably didn’t realise how much they relied on it and perhaps are wondering what now, why their thinking isn’t as clear or they cannot convey what they’re trying to say to clients or the stuff that doesn’t land with as much impact.
So, you know, that’s not all to do with creativity, because that’s just to do with a simple connection problem, I think. But I think personally I found more opportunity to shut up the laptop, just sit down, lean back with multiple notebooks and take a step back.
Deborah: Yeah. Have you managed to feel like you’ve managed to keep relatively sane during lockdown, have you got any tips?
James: I think it’s come in waves. Yeah. I mean a good place. Now I wonder if that’s because I haven’t yet this year had a drink, or had any coffee – or been on Twitter.
My dad told me on that the first proper lockdown in the summer last year, he said:
“Prisoners will say that the days are really long, but the months are really quick.”
And I think there’s something of that going on here, isn’t there? Because the days feel like they drag and then you turn around because everything is even, flat and the same there’s no sense of, your up and down and difference and variation, which we all need for memories and experiences.
I start to realise that sort of two types of call. One is especially when you’re working in a service industry like an agency into a client.
There are sort of conversational ones away you might be on receive.
This one’s a more performative sort of presenting something and they’re different. But then in the same way that a meeting would be different to a presentation meeting that you were doing it.
Not all Zoom’s are created equal. Not all video calls are created equally, and I think acknowledging when you use up more nervous energy than others is important.
I wonder if there should be more policies around how many people are allowed to happen if you’re freelancing and then you can’t do much about that, we’ll start to see policies creeping in where people will put in 45 minutes, not hours.
I live in Bristol, but I spent most of my career living and working in London and enjoy working with those agencies, and now it’s more of a flat playing field. I can work with those people again. We’ll probably see quite a big shift now, and I realise the opportunity that comes with remote working and flexible working that happens to be administered, enabled technologically.
But I’m in a position where we have our networks were able to do that, reconnecting with people or connecting from a point of, you know, from a place of strength.
Whereas people who are 20, 25, or just out of university and going to the places that don’t have that. And they need osmosis to learn the culture, but mostly to learn what their job is, they need to learn what work is.
By being around people doing it. And I think that’s because a lot of how we learn is from modelling ourselves and what other people do. And I think if you’re not able to do that, you stagnate. I think we might have a whole cohort of people who’ve come into the workplace who suddenly have to be acclimatizing and habituated in a way that they never had to do before.
And this is where I wonder whether the creativity will drop because all the communications we do at the moment are purposeful, whereas creativity is often the bits that happen in between.
Businesses want to retreat back into what they knew, what they believe that teams want, which is everyone back together.
And that might put me back where I was before, living in Bristol, but left a long way away from the physically from the work.
I think about how hard it is, how hard I’ve seen it to be for some leaders to just manage the idea of a team culture with the people who are paid employees, let alone factoring in flexible working for anybody who wants. It’s for multiple locations, for factoring technology into that and for planning the process.
There’ll be some businesses who need to work out now what their culture actually is if people aren’t together. A business really is a collection of people on the same side at the same moment.
But I wonder whether the pandemic would have been an awakening or even a reckoning for those sorts of businesses and those sorts of leaders where they’ll see that it’s worth putting in the effort to kind of create a culture, to create a sense of belonging, something purposeful and meaningful.
I think that might be an irony here, which is the organisations with the strong cultures can afford to do that and will work it out as they go. And then critically, they trust their teams to do it.
The really strong cultures are the ones where the leaders aren’t fearful. In fact, they’ve hired the right people and they trust them to get on with it.
The fearful cultures haven’t really got confidence in where and who they’ve, you know, hired and what they try to do or have the ability to lead them in a way that really inspires confidence and trust.
Someone posed a question once about 10 minutes trying to answer what makes a leader. We all came up with all sorts of different definitions of leader. And the guidance really is only one thing is that is: is anybody following them?
And I think if that exists in your business, I suspect you’ll be able to manage the complexity because you won’t be able to, you won’t be trying to micromanage it, you’ll be trusting people to do what’s needed. I think if you don’t have that, you’ll be drawn into micromanagement.
And that’s when all the kind of challenges come running.
As the leader, you have an obligation to do what people need you to be doing for them, giving them something to follow.
You’ll have the people who will grasp that obligation with both hands and kind of really run with it.
Deborah: Yet do you think we’ll have a two-tier culture? We’ll have a virtual culture and a people one
James: I think, again, it comes back to what is the glue that binds you together? What is it that makes your business? If it is only location, then you get a two-tier culture.
I had some time on my hands I got made redundant. So I wanted to see what it was like for people. And I spoke to the creatives, I spoke to strategists, I spoke to business leaders. I spoke to clients. And end up writing a bunch of a bunch of interviews and a series of articles and it kept taking me back to another EM Forster quote, not the Machine Stops, but from Howards End; “live in fragments no longer.”
There’s an idea that sort of living in fragments is what we’re doing at the moment and there is a danger that we might choose to live in fragments because it feels easier. It feels more convenient. There’s less friction. Friction can be ultimately rewarding. Anything hard is worth it. And I think there is a danger that we’d end up individually fragmented and collectively fragmented. We should try to avoid that and we should focus on connecting with each other.
Well, that’s a very nice philosophical way to end.
If you liked this, why not watch James and our panel discuss ‘Can Creativity Survive Remote Working’ on our YouTube channel here.