Hey, this could be a play AND a conference paper.

This is an odd piece. Two academics sit down to write a short play for a conference, to demonstrate their theories on entrepreneurship. Through the course of that conversation, they have a business idea of their own. This exchange then becomes their short play. Which they then present and comment upon in this journal article. There’s something going on here about unfulfilled theatrical ambitions.

What they’re seeking to demonstrate through their play is that entrepreneurialism is often seen as set of personal traits within people lucky enough to be gifted with the ability to spot and convert opportunity. The reality, they say, is that the emergence of business ideas is far more complex, and more iterative. One idea builds on another. Elements of the idea are explored, discard and developed depending on who you’re talking to and where and when.

This rings true to me and chimes with my experience of helping people develop and realise their business ideas. There’s also something weirdly meta about these academics creating narrative versions of themselves which express their own foibles; teaching but not living entrepreneurship, growing tired of their jobs, gently niggling at each other throughout.

But it is also familiar territory for me as a playwright. The central concepts for my own plays are often a combination of ideas. Often one is not sufficient to sustain an entire plot, but the juxtaposition of two or three key ideas can present something novel and intriguing.

So if the process of being entrepreneurial is similar to the process of narrative construction (unpredictable, piecemeal, gradual, collaborative), then perhaps all we’re talking about is the iterative process of developing any idea? The single sole lightning flash of perfect inspiration is probably rare. The slow development of an idea bit by bit over time, with input from a range of people and stimuli, might be the standard.

In any case, I think the dialogue could do with a little tightening up. But my favourite line is this one, which might betray a prejudice about the prospects of a career in the creative industries:

I’ve never settled into what you call ‘a proper job’ but, as you keep observing, I do have talents with photography, video and music.

Yeah, don’t call us. 😉

 

 

 

The polished image and the messy reality

In a lifestyle magazine, casually discarded about our house, I came across an article about a person who runs a company. It’s an a-day-in-the-life piece. It starts with breakfast with the kids. Then a meeting with the sales manager. Then a review of a product in the workshop. Then exercise and walking the dog before dinner and bedtime and catching up on admin on the iPad and so it goes. Calm, elegant, controlled. Idyllic.

I’m in a privileged position, getting to see inside businesses. I’ve seen inside that one and met that person. The difference between the article (the polished prose, the conversational tone, the carefully styled photos)… and the tense, uncertain, fraught, it’s-my-house-that’s-on-the-line reality is what sticks in my mind.

A business person, an entrepreneur, is a prized label. Like sports stars or rock stars, a handful of them with profiles and media exposure become household names. To be a business leader is in some senses to be a pin-up. It has its own celebrity.

This dichotomy between the truth about being a leader and the narrative told about leaders, is what this journal article is about. It’s a critique of ‘authentic leadership’, a management theory which suggests that there is an individual’s adherence to closely held values and beliefs is the basis for good leadership. I won’t pretend to have gotten to the essence of the article, but a couple of things jumped out at me.

One is that to have an authentic self suggests the existence of an inauthentic self. So the supremacy of one necessarily means the other has to be supressed. Which calls into question the authenticity of those qualities which make up the authentic self.

Then there’s the idea that this tension between the two requires the invention of a narrative about the authentic self. That in fact for leaders to behave in an authentic way, there has to be a story for them to project onto themselves about being a leader. As it says:

The telling of life stories is concerned with the management of the reproduction of meaning. To project oneself outwards as a leader, to position oneself within a narrative as a recognizable leader in a recognizable leader ship narrative, one must construct oneself within existing frameworks of characterizations and narratives of leader ship.

We could easy replace ‘leader’ with ‘entrepreneur’ in that quote. And that article, showing the idealised, Real Living version of the messy, stressful, high stakes game of running a small creative business, is surely one of those ‘existing frameworks of characterizations’ within which ‘one must construct oneself.’

 

Don’t call me creative.

Not everyone’s happy about creativity. Lucy Kellaway of the Finanical Times is one of them. In fact, she’s cranky about it.

In this blistering piece, she calls creativity a “plague” which has infected management and recruitment processes to an extraordinary and unnecessary degree. Confronted by scores of job ads which include the word “creative”, she says “being polite and co-operative are vital traits for every job I’ve heard of, whereas most companies have no use for real creativity at all.”

Kellaway notes a current trend for “creative worship” which leads to patronising and misleading labels (such as Subway calling its workers sandwich artists) or time wasting team building exercises (such as Lego play sessions for staff). As she goes on, she gets around to talking about creativity’s role in “making things new”. Here she expresses a familiar blurring of the lines between innovation and creativity, the first of which is often seen as essential to business success but without the Lego constructing nonsense associated with creativity. (See also James Dyson’s umbrage with the term “creative industries”, again drawing a defensive line around innovation.)

Kellaway concludes:

To survive, companies need to change from time to time. They need to do things slightly differently from how they were done before – but for that they don’t need creativity. They need people with intelligence and judgment to work out the right variations on existing ideas. More than that they need people with the determination to test those ideas, tweak accordingly and turn them into sales.

Not much to argue with there. But does this mean creativity should be treated with disdain and hostility? There’s also something going on here about identity; Kellaway starts her article with the declaration, “I’m not a creative”. Who is allowed and not allowed to be a creative? Why is it good or bad to be one? And does distinguishing innovation from creativity help  – either with management or with identity?

 

The creative process and The Code

Film and TV production is a practice I’ve been close to for many years. In particular, I’ve seen plenty of films and TV programs in production, and I’ve worked with a number of filmmakers to help achieve business sustainability. One part of the lifecycle of a production that I haven’t had much exposure to is the commissioning and development stages where many key creative decisions are taken.

This journal article reports on interviews held with some of the key creative personnel behind The Code, a well regarded tech conspiracy drama from Playmaker which aired in 2014. By talking to the producers, the commissioners at ABC, a lead actor, the writer and director, the authors identify a set of practices which contributed to the success of the series: wise partnering, collective visioning and stakeholder empowerment, underpinned by a set of common social values.

The authors pick out these traits as aspects of creative leadership which emerges through a collective process. Two thoughts occur to me about this. Firstly, it seems that the process of commissioning and developing  The Code was a fairly harmonious process (the interviewees are quick to praise each other and their respective contributions). What might the authors have found on a production where the personalities of the key creatives didn’t mesh as well?

Secondly, the collective collaboration model is necessary during the commissioning and development stage; not only because such projects must take into account the creative input of many contributors, but also because these contributors often control the finance to produce the work. But when a film or TV series moves into production, a much more hierarchical leadership structure exerts itself (from my observations).

The nature of production (technically complex, and involving many people working to tight deadlines and with limited budgets) mean that leadership power shifts to a different collective – the producer, the director and their key staff – and a more traditional ‘command and control’ structure moves in. It would be interesting to interview some of the crew of The Code to see how their experience of working under that model of creative leadership worked, and how it contrasted with the commissioning/development stage.

Story as an element of success

So the AFR runs an article about how leaders use storytelling to get their message across. And I imagine it’s a really good match for its readership; there’s an ongoing interest in what business people are doing to succeed. Who has the secret to success and what is they do? Is it mindfulness? Is it design thinking? Do they work four hours a day? Do they work shoeless? (I can’t remember if the working shoeless thing was something I actually read somewhere or a spoof article I threatened to write one day.)

We can add storytelling to that list. And there are a variety of people wanting to help. This article lists three consultancies designed to help business people tell their stories. There’s a market in helping smart, successful people tell stories.

We seem to want leaders who are polymaths. It’s not enough that you’ve excelled in your field or you employ a lot of people, we now expect you to also be able to tell stories which excite and inspire. I can imagine this could be challenging, if there’s been no exposure to storytelling in your training or work experience.

In a marketing sense, this article and the consultants featured in it, are positioning storytelling as an element of success. But they are also manufacturing a problem to solve. If one of the ingredients for success is communication, and you’re rubbish at it, then you should fix that. Immediately! Right after jogging 20km before breakfast, hitting your revenue target for the month and distributing home made muffins around the office.

Storytelling as a corporate must-have.

 

 

 

 

 

Stories: types and purpose

As a consultant, you get used to having a go-to set of examples for a range of different situations. Got an HR problem? Here’s one another client had and how they overcame it. Customers won’t pay? How about trying this which has worked for me. Need to change your organisation’s culture? It’ll be slow and gradual, like turning a big ship around.

Reading this article, about seven types of stories leaders should tell, made me consider this grab bag of examples again. I hadn’t considered them as “stories”. Though, of course, they are. Interestingly, mine mostly fall into the categories outlined in this article.

They are targetted stories. They are designed to illustrate a problem, illuminate a solution, establish credentials, build rapport and yes, sell services.

Perhaps storytelling, at a business level, is intrinsically about selling. Selling a product, or an internal change, or an idea. Even the act of convincing itself is sometimes expressed in terms of selling and storytelling. When a government’s policy agenda is unpopular, you’ll hear commentators say, “they’ve been unable to sell their narrative” or “they couldn’t sell that idea to the public”.

So types of stories, yes. But how they’re deployed – to convince, cajole, entice, reassure. Is it all just selling in the end?

A work already in progress

Here’s an interesting find. Kim Goodwin, a PhD candidate at UTS, is looking at “the concepts of leadership, development and identity within Australian creative industries”.

A key part of the methodology employed is a narrative analysis of the interviews of creative leaders, and how the subjects “impose order and construct their meaning of leadership”.

This is clearly a work in progress, and one which is changing as it goes along. This observation caught my attention:

The complex relationship subjects have to leadership prompted the inclusion of identity within this study. Of the three emerging leaders interviewed to date, two rejected the title of leader.

It will be interesting to read if any conclusions are drawn about why these interviewees didn’t self-identify as leaders. This paper also notes that leadership training and self-confidence are emerging as key themes, suggesting that the final piece of work is going to have a focus on personal or professional development ‘gaps’ amongst the interview cohort.

Watching this space.