Improvisation, Creativity and Innovation

What happens when you bring two people together?

This isn’t the start of a poor joke unfortunately.

The answer is, we don’t know.

We don’t know how someone will react to us. It’s a true unknown and a true mystery.

We may have an idea based on what others tell us, based on our prejudices and biases, based on our upbringing, and based on the societal values we choose to accept. But it’s never a foregone conclusion.

Bringing two people together is always the start of something new and different. This could mean that something interesting happens, or it could mean that something destructive happens.

Bringing two people together is the genesis of creativity and innovation. Each person has no idea if the other will react well to them or be receptive to their ideas or be a good person to continue a relationship with.

That genesis is the essence of human nature. That co-creation that happened completely naturally. I say something, you respond, and we end up somewhere unexpected in most cases.

It makes me wonder about improvisation. What is improv? It’s taking what you’ve got and creating something useful or unexpected out of it. The old TV programme MacGuyver was completely based around the lead character’s ability to use the tools available to him to find a solution to his dire problem.

Conversations are improvisation at its best. I choose to partake in a dialogue. If I invest in it, it becomes wonderful. If I don’t, then nothing changes.

Change, then, is all about bringing people together and letting them find their own way to make things better.

This blog post is because of a conversation I had with Meg Peppin. She sparked an idea for me and I ran with it to write this piece.

Because we’re improvising everyday.

Because we’re innovating on a daily basis.

Because we’re being creative without realising.

So what creation, innovation or improvisation will you be doing today?


Developing Internal Entrepreneurs to Innovate within your Organisation

There’s something interesting about talking about the future of business in the UK.
The majority of businesses in the UK are now SMEs (small and medium enterprises). Amongst that population, will be entrepreneurs – that is, an individual who has seen a business opportunity, made a success of it, and are positively contributing to the economy.

In a talk from Innocent Drinks, Tom Fraime shared the story of how the company started. To say it’s become the stuff of legends is a step too far, but it’s certainly a good story to share. 3 friends decided to make smoothies and sell them at a festival. At this festival they had two bins with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ written on them, with a sign saying ‘should we leave our jobs to make these smoothies?’. The ‘yes’ bin was filled, they jacked in their jobs on the Monday, and they’re now a £200 million business.

Olivier Leclerc from Alcatel-Lucent also shared their success as a business – primarily that they’re a 14 billion Euro company. For them, the challenge of business growth is about staying relevant, and innovating products that meet consumer needs.

From both, there are some useful learnings to be taken.

Firstly is how they build entrepreneurship into their recruitment. At later stages of being interviewed, you are tested on your approach to making an organisation successful. What better way to give people a sense of the culture of an organisation than to build it into the recruitment process?

I like the idea of the banana phone at Innocent. That is, you can ring the number on the bottle, and it rings on everyone’s phones in the office. It’s everyone’s responsibility to answer and talk to their drinkers. I love that as a concept. They also have a shared chill out space which spreads over two floors. They give everyone breakfast, and there’s a certain time it happens. There’s a ‘baby wall’ where pictures of all employees as a baby are posted up. I think that’s actually brilliant, because what better way to remember that the people you work for are human, than to see them at their innocent best? (see what I did there?)

In terms of innovation, they accept and take good ideas from anywhere, and importantly have the environment which is supportive of it. They have mantras like ‘it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission’. They believe that if you’re 70% sure of doing something you should do it. They believe that if you have that fortitude of belief, then you should act on it, and not listen to all the naysayers.

There were some great taglines from Tom:

“HR should be responsible for encouraging entrepreneurship and the stewardship of the organisation.”

“We are here to agitate people to take risks.”

Olivier shared some great insights into their approach to entrepreneurship at Alcatel-Lucent. A great line was that innovators don’t design a product to be successful, it’s nearly always accidental and unintended.

In their organisation, they realised that giving people on training on how to be entrepreneurs was the wrong approach to take. Instead they put a call out for ideas, and the ones selected are then developed into project teams with someone from Marketing and Finance to help develop the concept into something tangible. I think that’s great investment. Here’s the really interesting thing. They’re not allowed to do this on work time. Why? Because inventors very rarely develop their products in dedicated free time, it tends to happen when time allows, and when you’re facing constraints of various kinds. I’m not sure I agree with the thinking, but I can see the merits of doing this.

The other interesting thing they do is specifically link the success of the project teams to their corporate strategy. Each team is tasked with making revenue, and that revenue feeds into one distinct income stream for the organisation. This works on a number of levels. People feel they’re actually contributing to the success of the organisation as opposed to fulfilling a role. They become automatic ambassadors of the company because they’re doing something which has potential to make revenue for them. Engagement just happens because you’re asking people to commit to activities to improve the way the business works.

A key learning they had was that these ideas that were submitted had to pass through an ‘innovation board’. This board would vote and the most popular ideas got the investment and backing of the organisation. What they realised though was that this actually goes against the idea of innovation and entrepreneurship. To overcome this, individuals were then allowed to champion an idea and accept the risk of that idea on themselves.

I enjoyed both these perspectives about internal entrepreneurship (or intrapreneurs), as they give a cultural perspective on how to make it happen, and practical perspective. We’re all very aware we’re in times of turmoil and uncertainty. No organisation can afford to sit on its laurels, and what’s important for me is that the HR/L&OD functions champion and help drive the fresh thinking many organisations are capable of.

Content Marketing and L&D

In the digital marketing world, much is touted about content marketing, and how it is driving consumer behaviour in different ways.

What is content marketing? It’s content a brand produces that helps consumers connect with it in different ways. It’s about Old Spice producing the Old Spice guy set of You Tube videos.

With it?

One of the most taxing things about collaborating with L&D professionals is that a lot of practitioners (both internal and external) want to make money from their content. I understand it – they’re being commercial.

Currently this is as far as L&D suppliers go to create content – the odd You Tube video, maybe a white paper, and blogging. If they’re feeling creative, there will be an infographic hiding somewhere too.

That’s fine if you want to be doing what average Joe is doing.

What is great content?

You know what I’d love to see? Things like this being produced in a collaborative effort by L&Ders coming together.

Volkswagen produced that, and I love it. Volkswagen. One of the biggest manufacturers of cars in the world.

And you have L&Ders protesting they need to keep their content to maintain a commercial advantage.

I tell you what, I doubt Volkswagen lost any intellectual property by producing that content.

Which is the point. Content is content. It helps people to learn something. Or to experiment with something. Or to innovate.

L&D could be at its best when it co-produces content. When it comes together and says we can achieve more as a profession when we collaborate.

Imagine the likes of Reed Learning, Power Hour 60, the Mind Gym and etc. venues all coming together to produce content which went out into the world.

Imagine Hemsley Fraser, What Goes Around Limited, OPP Ltd and the Trainers Kitbag collaborating together on a project which produced some content which was unexpected.

Imagine the Learning Performance Institute, weelearning, mylearningworx and Roffey Park coming together to produce content which helps people do something amazing.

Here’s what I’d love to see L&Ders produce:
– a series of learning video podcasts that take people on a journey – not about products, but about a persons learning journey through their daily life
– an art project where pieces of art are produced that evoke personal insight and raise awareness
– a piece of live event content like this

– a set of music sets which lights the heart, sets the soul soaring and lifts the veils
– a short video which inspires meaning and speaks to your inner being

Earlier this year I put out the call for people to produce Learning Stories. I still maintain telling stories is the primary way learning professionals can best help people be their best self.

This call to action is not an easy one.

No-one needs to lose their USP.

Everyone gains by achieving something exciting.

Has L&D stalled?

Today’s the start of the HRD conference and exhibition by the CIPD. I’ve so far sat through two conference sessions, one by Stephan Thoma from Google about Nurturing Creativity and Learning in the Workplace, and the second by Peter Cheese of CIPD, and Peter Bedford from Anglo American about Devleoping Leaders who are fit for the future.

They’ve been interesting in their own rights, and it’s encouraging to hear a few things.

Google get their basics right in treating staff, and having a culture that supports innovation and creativity.

Anglo American are very focused on safety at all levels which ensures they support staff and treat them well.

Google are famous for allowing staff to have 20% of their time to work on personal projects, they aren’t concerned about market share, for them it’s about their products.

Anglo American are a truly global mulit-national who have to work hard at ensuring their leaders go through a robust training programme which provides them with the skills they need to be good leaders.

It’s interesting, right?

Are you doing some variation of the above? Are you as an L&Der / OD professional pushing these same boundaried? Is your leadership programme effective and focsued on developing them?

Here’s what I’m left with so far. Innovation in L&D has stalled. There are some intriguing innovations out there with the likes of MOOCs, but really, L&D has lost its steam. There’s nothing new. There’s nothing different. We’re not being disruptive. We’re not creating a competitive advantage to the organisations we’re part of.

At least that’s the message I’m hearing. What I’m hearing is we’re doing business as usual, doing a good job of it and being very safe in that delivery.

There are a lot of people in the social space who advocate challenging and innovating their practice, but who’s actually doing it? Where are the internal practitioners who are blazing a new trail for their organisations? Where are the external practitioners who are shaking up the world of learning and development to provide something new and exciting?

Part of me says, you know what, I shouldn’t be complaining. As a profession we’re doing a good job. Some practitioners will be trying to be the trailblazers. Some won’t know what that looks like and unsure how to start. Some are on the path of doing it, but staying safe. And all of that is ok, because we all have secure jobs and income. And it’s mildly encouraging because it means we’re not missing any tricks. We’re not behind the curve. We’re not doing any worse than the likes of Google.

And if we believe that’s ok, then we’ve already lost the end game.

The Hard Sell

People from the UK are known as a dry-witted, self deprecating, stiff upper lip sort of people. We don’t do emotions, we don’t do passion, and we certainly don’t be positive. Those are for… other people. We’re an expressive people, very opinionated, and love a bit of pomp and circumstance. We’ve got brilliant engineers, a world leading creative industry, and top class medical professionals. What we don’t need is a group of people spouting mumbo jumbo, or getting you to help yourself in three easy steps, with little or no knowledge of what they’re talking about.

And yet amongst all that, here’s me trying to hold and promote an event on Positive Psychology to a group of professionals in the UK, many high earning, many very qualified, and many bloody intelligent. I may as well take a herd of elephants to the North Pole and convince them it’s their natural habitat.

And yet, I’m being doggedly determined to bring this thing to fruition and make a success of it. As of today, I have 13 people signed up to Positive Psychology in Application, and we’ve got 29 days before the day itself. To say I’m feeling the pressure is an understatement. Not pressure to get people signed up, but the pressure to ensure I help impart a set of practical tools and interventions that people can use immediately after leaving the workshop.


If I throw on my L&D hat for a moment, what are the key learning objectives for the workshop? Or put another way, why should you book your ticket?

Here’s some big themes prevalent in the workplace today affecting HR professionals:
– Health and well-being
– Employee Engagement
– Innovation
– Redundancies

I’m laying the gauntlet down for myself, by aiming to provide some ideas on ways to help address those various themes using a Positive Psychology approach.

Ultimately, Positive Psychology is about an individual set of interventions to help a person increase their sense of well-being and take part in activities that create long lasting effects of feeling positive. By engaging in a range of activities that help you to do this, the research has found that it has a knock-on effect in other areas of your life. You start to feel more energetic, you become more conscious about your body and how you’re keeping physically fit, your interactions with others become meaningful and you focus less on things which annoy you. These are a result of actions taken which positively influence your behaviour, your perceptions, and further has an influence on those around you.

There are some well researched and developed approached such as Appreciative Inquiry and the use of facilitation techniques such as Open Space or Positive Deviance which build and allow for full and robust discussion on topics important to a group of people. At work this could be topics like having an on-site day care service for parents wishing to bring their children to work, it could be about developing a work-life balance policy which everyone has a vested interest in, it could be about addressing concerns about health and safety in the workplace by creating a group of people at work who are responsible for it.

In wanting to be innovative/creative/fresh, the culture of the company has to be supportive and have the right mechanisms in place. Actually, what needs to happen is the belief in the company that good ideas can come from anywhere. You create that by helping people feel like they have the autonomy and responsibility to do it. Having unofficial work-groups spend time throwing ideas together, or an internal community of practice which meets fortnightly, or a social club where like-minded people can come together, are all helpful and useful ways of building that environment. In the main, good ideas come from collaborating and discussions with others.

And sometimes we have to accept that bad things happen. At the end of the day businesses will do what they must in order to survive. The procedure of redundancies are not pleasant and not very positive. Yet there are still things which can be very useful during stressful times like this. My own experience of redundancy from several years ago helped me to see that being able to discuss things with others in the same boat was highly beneficial. The company didn’t do this for us, we did it ourselves. There were those in the group who were more than happy to spend time in giving support to others. Those conversations and discussions were very helpful. The CEO was quite removed from the process and left it all to the HR Manager to deal with. On the last day the CEO tried to come around and talk to everyone individually. You might think this is a good thing except he didn’t know our names, the work we did, or what value we provided. This isn’t going to be an easy time, but more care can be given to providing the right support within and from the leadership team.

So there you have four key things which you will be able to apply the learnings from Positive Psychology to.

Now go book your ticket.