Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Creative, meaningful work is the goal. For everyone.

This post first appeared on the Creative Huddle blog.

If you didn't need to earn money, what would you do? You'd be on a permanent holiday, with all the free time in the world. It would be amazing for a while. Lots of travelling, seeing the world. But after a year or so you'd get bored. You'd have to find something to do to keep yourself busy, something to give your life meaning.

Meaningful work is our goal. When our work is meaningful, it doesn’t feel like work. When we are involved in a creative project that matters to us, we are completely engaged, we lose track of time, and we have a clear sense of purpose. So imagine if we could get paid for it as well. How amazing would that be?
In our recent Creativity at Work survey, we asked people to state how they felt when they were being creative. They said things like:
  • Happy and sometimes exhausted
  • Good. Fulfilled. Inspired. Motivated
  • I get motivated, feel fully invested in wanting ideas to succeed and thoroughly enjoy it.
  • It makes me feel an integral part of the success of the company.
  • Empowered, challenged, free
  • Free. capable. excited about possibilities. Energised.
  • Keeps me motivated and keeps the fun in work. If you have the space and freedom to be creative it gets the mind going and makes you feel passionate.
As the modern workplace becomes increasingly complex, it can be harder for employees to feel a sense of purpose. The combination of multiple projects, distributed teams, online communications and shifting deadlines can often obscure the meaning of our work. It is easy to become disengaged as we become overwhelmed by the noise. And disengagement leads to lack of motivation, unhappiness, lower productivity, and ultimately lower profits.
So how do we help ourselves and our employees rediscover the meaning in work? Here are a few suggestions:
  1. Take a moment to think about why you go to work. What makes you get out of bed? How do you feel as you walk out the front door each morning?
  2. Make sure you’re absolutely clear about why you are doing the job that you do. Do you love the work? Does it provide you with a good work/life balance? Why do you keep showing up day after day? What are you looking forward to?
  3. Take a step back and picture your role in the wider context of your organisation. Why does your job exist? And your department? Look at your organisation’s vision and mission statements – how does the work that you do help your organisation deliver its vision and mission?
Now, if you’re a leader or a manager, take a moment to think about how much input your employees have had in shaping the organisation’s vision and mission. Or their departmental strategy. Or even just the work that they do every day. How much autonomy do they have – and do you have – over your work? When was the last time they had the opportunity to be involved in a creative project that they cared about?
Here’s the thing: people are amazing. Full of creative potential. Even the most disengaged member of your organisation could be s potential leader – if you can encourage them to use their natural creativity and find meaning in their work.
We are all inherently creative, we just need a little time and autonomy to find our purpose. To find our ‘why’. So think twice before you send that employee on another training course to improve their performance, you may need to just allow them a little breathing space to be creative, and help them find out why their work matters to the organisation.
With the right questions and encouragement, we can find meaning in our work. And if we can’t, we should be doing a different job.


The real difficulty...is in escaping from old ideas

Or to give you the full quote: “The real difficulty in changing any enterprise lies not in developing new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones” (John Maynard Keynes)

If you have twenty minutes, make a cup of tea and take a peek into the future. In this short video, John Seely-Brown (JSB) - a futurist, formerly of the XEROC-PARC research centre – highlights the many ways in which the intersection of people, information and technology is transforming how we understand knowledge.

In the video, JSB begins with the above quote from J.M. Keynes to illustrate how we struggle to move away from old, trusted ideas and into new, uncertain times. Although delivered at a conference on the future of Libraries JSB goes far beyond this to grapple with knowledge management and innovation, highlighting that progress in the 21st century now follows a rapid series of 18-month s-curves driven by exponential advances in computation. The implication of this is that we no longer have the time that we had in the 20th century to reinvent social practices and adapt to change – today, change is rapid and unrelenting.

I’ll do my best to provide a summary of the key points (please note that although I wish I was as smart as John-Seely Brown, almost all the ideas that follow are his...)

We are moving from knowledge ‘stocks’ to knowledge ‘flows’

As change speeds up, we are moving from a paradigm where we ‘stored’ knowledge to one in which we participate in ‘knowledge flows’. Perhaps the most important implication of this is the difficulty in storing the tacit knowledge created by these flows – we no longer have the time to identify this knowledge, make it explicit, and store it. This poses significant implications for organisations who are investing significant capital in trying to capture and store knowledge (an example of how we have difficulty escaping from old ideas).

The half-life of our skills is shrinking to about 5 years

The speed of change potentially renders our skills obsolete every 5 years. This highlights the major problems this poses for formal schooling and the need to move away from education that is based around learning content. Instead, we need to learn the critical skills that enable us to dip into relevant knowledge flows in order to find and apply relevant content to a given problem. We also have to learn how to participate effectively in the vast, complex networks in which we increasingly find ourselves.

Homo Sapiens is becoming Homo Faber
Or rather, ‘Man who Knows’ is becoming ‘Man who Makes’. The default mode of operation in networked societies increasingly involves making and sharing knowledge, not simply consuming it. But rather than just building content and things, we are now able to build contexts as much as content. JSB highlights how maker culture, blogging and remixing enables us to change the context of a message or a piece of content. Millenials with increasingly sophisticated devices now expect to be able to remix and adapt content, and the implication of this is that we have to learn how to read ‘context’ as well as simply ‘content’. Maybe ‘context marketing’ will soon be on the horizon…

‘Effective play’ is needed to help us un-learn

If our skills will become obsolete every 5 years, JSB points out that ‘unlearning’ will become just as important as ‘learning’. He argues that our ability to learn through play is integral to helping us unlearn and develop a new, flexible and creative mindset. At the heart of the triangle of knowing, making and playing, are ‘imagination’, ‘curiosity’ and ‘agency’. This need for millenials to learn through doing, playing, and making should be shaping how we conceive of the future of work.

How imagination, curiosity and agency are shaping how we work (adapted from John Seely-Brown)

Reverse mentorship is a source of innovation

We may have instructed those young graduates we just employed to make the tea and hang out on social media. But instead we should be creating opportunities for them to mentor us so that we can learn about how they see and understand the world. If ‘yesterday’s cutting edge is today’s dust bin’, as JSB argues, then we need to be embracing the mindset, energy and inquisitiveness of those new to the workplace in order to stay as close as we can to the s-curve.

We need to ‘leverage the edge’ in the exponential age

Echoing the practice and language of lean startups and entre/intrepreneurship, JSB highlights the need to create now and seek forgiveness later. Leveraging the exponential power of social media, easy access to computing power and micro-financing and crowd-funding, JSB argues that the aim should be to excel on the edge and use this success to draw the core towards us. This is another way of escaping old ideas and making sure we are at the start of the new s-curve rather than on the tail of the old one.

So there you have it, a whistle-stop tour of some of the concepts and ideas that will shape – and are already shaping – our future. It’s scary to think that my skills are already slightly more out of date than they were when I began typing this article…