Here's to the crazy ones by Alex Butler

How I learned to lead a creative force within.

Many of you will have come across this quote from Apple's 'Think Different' campaign. I’ve always loved it; I suppose because I like to think I am one of those misfits. It’s why I love being in the middle of projects that catalyse big changes and give us the freedom to be creative. It’s because I’m a round peg that I’ve struggled to find a role that feeds my soul in a consultancy or back working ‘client-side’ for one of the big corporates. 

Some of my favourite career moments are of loosely knit creative and innovation teams that have emerged out at the edges of the corporate hierarchy to deliver an innovation project or a campaign. I developed this at Saatchi & Saatchi, this restlessness, and the ability to create alliances and connections where we bonded over something special, something that broke new ground. In one of my first interim jobs, back in the early noughties, we pulled together a small ‘resistance’ team inside BT to support a network of over 3000 individuals who were campaigning to get broadband to their villages and towns. This underground effort accelerated the rollout of broadband so rapidly that the organisation struggled to keep up with the demand. That was a team of 5, all working from home most of the time, and 3000 broadband enthusiasts. We all bonded over our dial-up connections, trying to change the world one telephone exchange at a time. I did it again in the UK Civil Service, or at least laid some of the tracks that ultimately led to the creation of GDS and again at the BBC with another small team of maverick digerati.

These teams worked because we were inside the organisation, feeling the pain acutely, so in a really good position to be pragmatic about the existing culture. Our colleagues felt that we were ‘one of them’, but we had the latitude to break a few things.

If only you could bottle it; that very special, fleeting thing that catalyses real innovation and causes seismic shifts in organisations and in markets.

Recognising that I am essentially unemployable now, at least in the permanent fixture sense, I decided to try and ‘bottle’ that and bring that into the work that I do now with organisations who want to become fit for a digital future. Some call it Digital Transformation. A little bit of me dies inside when I use that term out loud.

Stop. What does digital transformation even mean?

The term ‘Digital Transformation’ is now officially on the management-speak bingo card of doom. It’s meaningless. It’s lazy and it’s simply not helpful. Sadly, for our algorithm driven personal profiles, we have to boil our skills and experience down to keywords and other search friendly terms. But there you are. That’s what I do.

For starters, it’s a misnomer: It’s not about digital or technology, it’s about how you do business. It’s got a lot to do with people, culture, leadership and change.

 

Which brings me back to the magic.

So, here I am. Between a bunch of wildly optimistic, creative problem solvers and an organisational brick wall that just won’t budge. Trying to digitally transform businesses with sexy innovation methodologies. We’re trying to fit in by giving ourselves job titles that seem to work in the corporate environment. ‘Agile Coach’, ‘Experience Lead’, ‘Head of Pathfinding’. I kid you not. 

Social Collaboration and Design Thinking practices are far more prevalent in larger businesses now (there I go with the buzz words). But the challenge now is that although our people are generating ideas and sharing them widely, the ‘powers that be’ haven’t read the manual yet. What they want is for the innovation lab team to give them new ideas to help them keep doing what is already done. Just cheaper and faster. Cue the innovation cliché that is often attributed to Henry Ford:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The World Economic Forum, has identified that Creativity will be third most important skill by 2020.

Source:  The Future of Jobs Report (World Economic Forum, 2016)

That’s why it’s really important to focus on the creative soul of your organisation. To nurture those people who are demonstrating the ambition and the guts to be your innovators. To recognise that real innovation is messy, disruptive, upsetting.

If you really want true innovation in your organisation, and deep cultural change, you need to understand what makes these people tick:

  • That innovation really happens when your people are prepared to stick their necks up above the parapet, knowing it’s highly likely that their heads will come off. 
  • That they’ll be prepared to argue strongly for vague concepts and ideas that can’t be honed into a business case.
  • That it’s deliberately going against the grain and that’s going to challenge their colleagues sense of worth, their position in the hierarchy, their jobs. 

I have found that the only way to achieve this kind of balance in your organisation is to grow and nurture that capability in-house. Sure, work with the funky new consultancies, but that’s spreading pixie dust around the office, not real, sustainable cultural change. To do that companies have to think beyond a broad-brush approach to innovation and start thinking about everyday business processes, business models and even the way the organisation is managed. Innovation practices, (constant and quick ideation, testing, and feedback), need to be an integral part of the corporate culture, not done on an ad-hoc basis.

 

So – what did I learn about growing and nurturing those creative and innovation teams in-house?

1. To quickly identify the fire-starters and intrapreneurs

They exist. Right now, right across your organisation, from top to bottom. The first thing I would do is to make it easy for them to come forward and create new ways for them to contribute and stay involved.

2. To forget the hierarchies – this is about partnership

A sure-fire way to demotivate your ideas people is to expect them to work with the same processes and management that they’re aching to change. So, I would always try and create a sense of partnership, that you are in this together – just playing different roles.

3. To let them shine

Create opportunities to show off the work that you’re doing. More and more employees will want to be a part of it and it’s incredibly motivating to get the internal and external accolades. Encourage them to enter for awards or create your own awards! Push them out onto the Meetup scene to pitch their ideas to others outside the organisation.

4. By giving them new tools

Although many will be natural entrepreneurs, you are more likely to create a more sustainable innovation culture in your organisation by giving the team access to innovation toolkits (business model canvas, Lean Start up etc), which simply help them ground their ideas into something that will ‘land’. 

5. By connecting them to successful (and not so successful) entrepreneurs and mentors

One of my most successful projects was an innovation exercise for UK government communications professionals where I ran a ‘startup Bootcamp’ for civil servants. Sounds implausible right? Well simply by exposing civil servants to serial tech entrepreneurs, I was able to demonstrate how big, world-changing ideas happen and gain traction. Those connections are beneficial for both sides and create long-lasting mentoring relationships for your innovators.

I learn more and more about the transformative power of creativity in organisations each time I go there. I try and hang onto that nagging irritation about the way business is still done, because it means I constantly want to make it better. 

People like me are destined to keep on trying though. So, hold onto your intrapreneurs, look after them. Give them the love they deserve. Your future as a business really does lie in their hands.

Good luck! Let me know if you want me to be a critical friend on your journey.

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Alex Butler has a broad range of board level experience in marketing and digital technology, and is a specialist in digital innovation and transformation, working across a number of industries.

Until 2010 she led the transformation of the UK Government’s approach to and use of digital technologies establishing a programme of activity to improve the UK government’s online services. Responsible for the original service proposition for Directgov, the UK Government’s citizen website, she also established and ran a new digital delivery division, the forerunner of the UK’s Government Digital Service.

Since then, as an independent consultant, Alex has worked with the BBC, Argos, the Guardian and the RIBA leading significant digital transformation and organisational change programmes.