Interview: Dr Nick Udall, Chair, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership

Jamie Lawrence
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HRZone
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Who is Dr Nick Udall?

Dr Nick Udall is co-founder and CEO of nowhere, a founding member and the current Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.

Nick is also the author of Riding the Creative Rollercoaster (published by Kogan Page).

1. What defines a successful culture of innovation?

For me there are four cornerstones to cultures of innovation.

First, they have a ‘creative fire’ – a passion and purpose that is radiant and infectious. This is about valuing and leveraging not just the intellectual and cognitive, but also the emotional, social, physical and purposeful aspects of human experience needed to fuel the creative process.

Second, they work with ‘wholes’ – the whole person and the whole organisation. This is about knowing how to work with, and at, creative intersections as opposed to fragmenting things into bits, silos and disjointed functions. 

These first two cornerstones respectively value difference and put difference into creative relationship.

These in turn enable the third cornerstone of ‘seeing and working with the unknown’. This includes the capacity to hold tension, work with ambiguity, get lost, meander and wander with wonder without collapsing things back to what we’ve always done.

And, finally, the fourth cornerstone is ‘elegant action’. This is the capacity to leverage the previous building blocks in ways that lead to swift, decisive, joined up and beautiful action. A culture of innovation is therefore also time-rich, highly productive and energy efficient. 

2. How would you define creativity?

Let me start by highlighting what creativity is not. It is not ideation or brainstorming. Nor is it the arts (which are outputs of creativity) or something artistic in general. And it isn’t problem solving.

For me, creativity is the capacity to dance between the known and the unknown, or between that which is currently visible and conscious, and that which is still invisible and unconscious. Through this oscillation, or dance, we create, shape and make new meaning in the world.

Unfortunately we have been conditioned to flat-line through life and work, staying close to what we already know. We have therefore developed many skills for traversing the known, but have developed almost no skill or competence in traversing the unknown.

3. Is traditional leadership dying a death?

No, it’s not as simple as that. Different parts of the world are at different stages of evolution regarding their leadership needs, whether in business or in government.

What I would say is that we are in a crisis of leadership when it comes to facing into the super-wicked problems of our time, like poverty, climate change, the global monetary system … which require entirely new patterns of thought and collective action to be established.

This need is mirrored entirely in the way in which businesses of all kinds need to increase their capacity to innovate, and where conventional leadership skills are reaching a ceiling. The leadership challenge of our time is to develop the post-conventional skills needed to create containers and hold spaces where we can tap into the collective intelligence of complex stakeholder groups and create eco-systems of talent and resource. This is how we can catalyse more purposeful, innovative and sustainable breakthroughs – fit for generations to come.

4. What key skills do leaders of tomorrow need?

Post-conventional leaders know how to ride the highs and lows of the creative process – what we call riding the creative rollercoaster.

Some of the subtle skills that this entails include: ‘presencing’ – the ability to be still and appreciative, and through heightened awareness feel into what is most needed or missing; ‘patterning’ – the ability to find pattern in complexity, order in chaos, and to allow innovative foregrounds to emerge from strategic backgrounds; ‘story-ing’ – the ability to use the power of intention to subtly affect the future by literally story-ing it into reality; and ‘de-signing’ – the ability to transform energy into form so we can make and shape new meaning and new action in the world.

5. What’s the secret of productive meetings?

It is scary how much time, energy and money is wasted in meetings, and how unproductive and uncreative they can be.

For example, I have seen companies stuck in one-hour meeting cultures where groups never have the time to get to the real issues. They are then seemingly happy to put another meeting in the diary, convinced that this is what it means to be productive.

I have also experienced meeting cultures that completely shy away from any real-time issues or tensions, because the norm is to socialise all issues through consensus prior to the meeting. Unbelievably, I have seen this lead to the minutes of meetings being distributed before the meeting has even taken place.

Fortunately, we are now seeing an ecology of new meeting forms emerge: from operational meetings, to strategic meetings; from creative meetings to speed meetings. Each has a different rhythm. Each requires a different type of preparation. And, each uses time, space, energy and information differently. Each meeting form also deploys a set of foundational micro-skills designed to maximise self-awareness, deepen the quality of contact and relationship, increase empathic listening, develop pattern-recognition, and align behind an effective choreography of key decisions and next actions.

6. Where are companies going wrong when it comes to innovation?

I could offer a long list of responses but let me highlight two misperceptions and a critical correlation.

  • Misperception #1: It’s an ideation game There’s nothing wrong with ideation per se, but in my experience it is very rare for large-scale ideation processes – like idea jamming – to actually lead to anything really worthwhile. While they require an industry of work to execute, the more worrying issue is that ideas are generated, selected and implemented through the dominant culture. This leads, if you are lucky, to some continuous improvements, and, by complete accident, to some discontinuous innovation.
  • Misperception #2: You can manage the innovation process Most high-performance cultures think they can manage the innovation process with tunnels, funnels and stage-gates. They typically set up committees and steering groups, who often fall into the trap of managing risk, rather than maximising the chance of success. This obsession with control kills creativity, and in turn innovation, collapsing anything new and different back to existing, normed references of achievement. This means that notions of ‘success’ also need to temporarily become more fluid so as to allow something new to emerge and take root in the collective mind. For if we can’t bring the new to mind, we have no chance of bringing the new to the world.
  • Critical correlation – Meanwhile, organisations too easily forget that the dominant leadership style is THE determining factor of an organisation’s capacity to innovate. For example, put in place a leadership model that has layers and layers of competences built into it, and you will slowly kill your organisation’s capacity to innovate, let alone the will to live!

7. Team are getting more multi-cultural and more diverse in terms of generations and beliefs/thinking styles. What effect is this having on teamwork and team success in general?

There is no doubt in my mind that diversity (of thought) is foundational to both creativity and innovation. It is the ‘heat’ or tension that is generated at points of difference that generate creative sparks of new possibility.

As teams become more multi-cultural, the challenge is to simultaneously increase their capacity to see and value difference, to seek out new and novel intersections and to lean into the creative space between. This means learning to interrupt superior attitudes and judgemental mindsets that take us out of creative relationship with one another, and instead introduce new ways of working and meeting that help people listen behind the words, and to challenge their own beliefs.

When you activate this phenomenon with groups of 50-70 of the most senior leaders in an organisation, you can create an engine room for innovation and productivity that is truly astounding. 

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