Interview with Sir Ken Robinson – international creativity and innovation expert.
Dr. Martyn Newman:
I’d like to welcome Sir Ken Robinson to this interview. Thank you very much, Ken, for taking time to join me today to discuss your presentation ahead of this year’s EQ Summit in London, which explores the fascinating topic of emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and how these skills contribute to creativity and innovation.
Now of course, Ken, you don’t need an introduction. You’re very well known for having the most watched TED talk of all time. As well as that, you’re author of a number of best-selling books, including my favourite book, ‘Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative’. I really love that book.
For those of that have followed your work for some time, you’re known to us for a lot of different things, but particularly for your forthright and outspoken views challenging the educational establishment, particularly with what you describe as the ‘industrial model of education’. Now, I know you also work a lot with business people, Ken. What could we learn from your critique of education that might be relevant to people who work in business and the corporate world in general?
Sir Ken Robinson:
Thank you, Martyn. I’m really looking forward to the conference. I do speak these days almost as often to business audiences as to education ones. There are a couple of reasons for that.
“All businesses now depend on a constant flow of fresh thinking, fresh ideas about what they do and how they do it.”
One is that the issues that concern me most about human talent and creativity, potential, how we discover these things, and how we promote them, and why it’s essential that we should, applies just as much in the business world as in the school. For example, these days, businesses depend to an enormous degree on people working for them who are properly engaged in what they’re doing. They rely on people being able to adapt quickly to internal and external changes in the course of the day. All businesses now depend on a constant flow of fresh thinking, fresh ideas about what they do and how they do it.
The same principles apply. People don’t suddenly morph into a different sort of being when they leave school. They just become an older version of what they were when they were at school. So, I find that the principles apply in just the same way, and often the issues and challenges are similar.
The other thing is that, of course, people I speak to in the business community are also very often parents themselves. They’re very invested in what’s happening to their own children. I really do see this as a continuum.
“Creativity …(is) a way into the larger conversation about human ability and talent.”
There are, I suppose, three areas of research and conversation that I’ve been engaged in, in particular relation to creativity and innovation. I should say that creativity isn’t the whole of my interest, but it’s a way into the larger conversation about human ability and talent. It’s another portal into the maze. I have had a particular interest in it now for some time.
“People collaborating often produce more perfect forms of work and thinking.”
One area, is what do we know about human talent and ability, it’s nature and its diversity. It’s not to break personal focus, I’d have to say – it’s about individuals. I think a lot of people have no great sense of their real talents and their abilities and their possibility.
A second is how people collaborating often produce more perfect forms of work and thinking. I have a lot of interest in that, in group dynamics.
The third is about the overall culture of organisations, whether they’re for profit, not for profit, educational, or straightforwardly commercial. What is it in the culture of an organisation that either facilitates or inhibits these things?
So I’d say I think a lot of the principles apply directly to what’s happening in business.
Dr. Martyn Newman:
Yes, I can see what you mean. Let me just pick up on a couple of those things.
The one you mentioned initially was engagement. I know in your work, you highlight the alarming so-called ‘dropout rate’. I know you don’t like that term, because it tends to be quite pejorative towards people from the school system. You cite disengagement and anxiety and pressure as these contributing factors. Of course, we’re also seeing this in business. For example, a Gallup survey, highlighted the fact that upwards of 70% of employees are actively disengaged in their work, and that there are alarming rates of absenteeism.
In your work, you come back to the argument that practical experience tells us that the critical practise in raising engagement and productivity on all fronts are really to address the motivation and expectations of people themselves. What are some things that employers can do to lift the motivation and engagement in the workplace?
Sir Ken Robinson:
There are a couple of things that I’d mention, again, in relation to those three areas: the person, the group, and the culture.
One of the reasons, I know, that there are such apparently high levels of disengagement is that people don’t feel that the work they do makes any particular difference. For example, if they’re doing a job where they feel that, if I wasn’t here, somebody else could do it equally well, then it’s often hard to keep yourself motivated.
It’s one of the themes in the book I wrote a few years ago called ‘The Element’. I’m always hesitant to divide the world into two groups, but I do meet people in all walks of life who are uninterested in the work they do and to some degrees, they resent it. They simply turn up and take the check and get back on Facebook as quickly as they can.
“I also meet people who are absolutely entranced in the work they do. They live for it and it’s not related to money very often.”
I also meet people who are absolutely entranced in the work they do. They live for it. It’s not related to money very often. If that were true, we wouldn’t have any doctors, nurses, teachers, or social workers at all. I don’t mean to say that these areas of motivation are confined to jobs with some sort of social mission or purpose. I know people who are equally impassioned who are engravers or stained glass workers, or they work in a laboratory.
The point I make in ‘The Element’ is that our talents are tremendously diverse, all of our talents. We all have a great range of talents, interests, abilities. That the element is the point, not, well, you’re just doing things you’re good at, but while you’re doing something you’re good at that you really naturally love to do. Passion is a great motivator. It’s often caricatured these days. I said it in ‘The Element’, that by passion, I don’t mean people going around in a constant sweat with a rose clamped between their teeth. I mean people doing work that they find inherently motivating and interesting.
“It’s worth reviewing what you’re asking people to do and whether the post we’ve tied them to in the organisation is the one that they should continue to be with.”
I think one of the reasons that so many people are disengaged from work is that’s not true for them.The tasks that they’re engaged in are not fulfilling to them. They just get through it as quickly as they can, or they delay and put it off as long as they can.
One answer is that it’s worth often reviewing what it is you’re asking people to do and whether the post we’ve tied them to in the organisation is the one that they should continue to be with. There are areas of discretion in companies. Obviously, there are limits to it, but there are areas of discretion, to move people around into different areas where they’re a better fit. So that’s one specific way to think about it.
Team coaches are used to this all the time, for example. People who work in sport will tell you that for nothing, that often what makes a difference between a great team and a bad team is moving people around into positions where they feel they’re really playing true to their strengths, rather than doing drone work in an area they don’t find terribly interesting.
“The overall culture of the organisation where people work does matter enormously.”
That’s the first consideration. The second is, though, that the overall culture of the organisation where people work does matter enormously. For example, I did some work a while ago with Zappos, the company that’s based in Las Vegas. Zappos is run by a very interesting guy called Tony Hsieh. From outside, you’d think, well, there’s probably nothing much more mundane than the work they do. They’re an online company and they started out selling shoes online. It doesn’t sound inherently exciting for the people who work there. I’m shocked to say there’s some who absolutely do love it. I’m not disparaging it, but it wouldn’t be the first example that would come to your mind of a group that’s doing something that would be highly motivating. They’re doing online sales.
But Tony and the whole team there, not just the management team, which I’ve also begun to reconfigure, they have a great and fantastic culture of inclusion in the organisation so that the actual work that people do is only part of their role in the company.
The company itself is deeply invested in the large community. They have all kinds of internal incentive programmes. They have connections with community groups, with the city at large, with education. They run all sorts of programmes. They do all this as a central part of their being employed by the company itself. In other words, there’s a vibrant culture in the organisation which includes but goes beyond what the call of business is. The consequence is, it actually enhances the motivation and commitment of people in the company to the core business.
There are ways, as well, in which companies can look at the overall culture and how the place organises. Of course it depends to some degree on size and scale and all the other things, but I think more and more companies are realising that if people are spending a lot of their life at work, there are ways of making life at work more engaging and interesting, not only through the actual tasks that people are engaged in, but the climate in which they do them.
Dr. Martyn Newman:
That all makes sense. We’ve seen some wonderful initiatives. You highlight one there with Zappos. We’ve certainly seen Google thinking about the environment and restructuring the environment to ensure people can eat together, have casual conversations, and meet one another personally. We’ve worked for the last few years at the large media giant here, Sky. Their campus is a wonderfully engaging campus where people cross-pollinate and meet. It’s almost like the campus has been designed to throw people together, which leads to the exchange of ideas and mutual support.
Sir Ken Robinson:
Yes, that’s right.
“In our experience, if you want to innovate, then you need interaction.”
Dr. Martyn Newman:
Beyond an individual’s creative process, which often becomes the focus when we talk about creativity – how can I become more creative – we’re finding increasingly that creativity occurs, as you suggest, more efficiently very often within teams. Teams that have these skills, to use your word, collaborate well together, produce more innovative solutions. In our experience, if you want to innovate, then you need interaction.
We just completed a study with 500 leaders where we found leaders’ levels of empathy, the teams’ levels of social skills and relationship skills present in the group were the most important factors in producing innovative solutions because of the greater group cohesiveness, allowing the creative process and ideas to flow freely.
Have you seen any evidence of this yourself?
Sir Ken Robinson:
Yeah. There’s actually a wonderful book published, I can’t remember how long ago it was now. I could check it for you, but I’m sure you could check it yourself. By Warren Bennis, who is one of the great thinkers and leaders around leadership itself. He wrote a book about creative teams. I love the title. I’m very irritated with him for having thought of the title, frankly, since it’s a title I would like to have used myself, at some point. It’s a brilliant book about how you make innovation, how you create the conditions for innovation with groups of people, not just with individuals.
It’s a wonderful title. It’s called, ‘Organising Genius’. It’s a fantastic book. It’s really a book of case studies. The examples range from Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, which was responsible for, as you know, developing the atom bomb, to Disney, by way of Thomas Edison and various other people.
“Of course, … the challenge, when a company gets to be very successful and very large, is how you keep that creative energy alive.”
I’m not applauding the outcome of the Manhattan Project any more than the people involved in it eventually did, but it’s a very interesting account of how teams form and become mutually motivating, if they’re excited by the task and intrigued by the capacity of the other people in the team. It doesn’t follow that people in a creative team have to like each other. I think it’s important to know that, often, very productive things come from friction between teams. I’m not suggesting you should go around telling people to be at each other’s throats, but it’s not all about having a happy time with the team. It’s about being stimulated by the task at hand. Also, building on to the people’s expertise and finding what they bring to the table exciting enough to drive you to do better yourself and to contribute to the group effort.
It’s interesting in Disney, for example. When Walt Disney started the company, clearly, it was a time of tremendous excitement and ambition and possibility. They’ve gone on to create the most extraordinary organisation, of course, now. The challenge, when a company gets to be very successful and very large, is how you keep that creative energy alive. I think I talk about it somewhere in ‘Out of Our Minds’.
“(Teams) thrive precisely because there’s diversity in the group”
I did some work a number of years ago with John Cleese, of Monty Python. We did some workshops together on creativity. I was asking him about the internal dynamics of Monty Python. Of course, it does illustrate the point as all great teams do, that they don’t thrive because of homogeneity within the group. They don’t thrive because everybody looks the same or thinks the same or works in the same way or have the same talents. They thrive precisely because there’s diversity in the group.
It’s like an orchestra. You can have an orchestra made up of entirely the same instrument. There are wonderful banjo orchestras and string quartets, and so on. But a fully-fledged orchestra has a whole range of expertise, of the people on different instruments, probably from different towns, working together to create a common experience. That was true, if you look at some of the obviously famous greater teams like Monty Python, they were very different in their sensibilities but they were excited by the same task.
I also asked John how long he thinks a creative team lasts, because actually the thing I talk about in ‘Out of Our Minds’ is that creative teams are not like committees. Committees on the whole are where good ideas go to die. But a creative team is a group that’s brought together for a specific task with a specific activity or purpose in mind, and they stay together for as long as the task is interesting and they can contribute to it.
“What makes creative teams thrive is initial diversity of talents and ability, mutual respect for what people are bringing to the table, and a process where these differences become strengths, not inhibitions, not weaknesses”
In John’s view, I’m not saying it’s definitively true for all teams, of course not, but he felt creative teams have a life, best case scenario, of about 10 years. That’s not true in an organisational company. The shelf life for creative teams might be two weeks or a day and a half. Just depends on what they’re doing. The important thing about that is that what makes creative teams thrive is, initially, diversity of talents and ability, mutual respect for what people are bringing to the table, and a process where these differences become strengths, not inhibition, not weaknesses.
You often see that. Creative teams often blow themselves apart after a while because people can’t work out … It’s eventually what happened with The Beatles, one of the greatest creative teams in recent history. Eventually their differences pushed them apart.
Dr. Martyn Newman:
I’m wondering, listening to you describe that, particularly John’s experience that he shares, to what degree do you think creativity among teams is built upon a platform of trust? They don’t obviously need to like each other, necessarily, or even be the same, but I would assume that there’s a degree of trust, a certain sense that there’s character that I have confidence in and competence that I have confidence in. Together, we’re well motivated. In order to collaborate, and particularly take risks associated with fresh ideas and new directions, it seems to be that it’s predicated to a degree on the dimension of trust in these teams. Would you agree with that?
Sir Ken Robinson:
I do, yes. I do. It’s also important to bear in mind that all of these qualities are, as it were, specific to the task.
For example, a band I’m sure you know, the Eagles, a fantastic band. We had the pleasure to get to know Don Henley. He was one of the key members of the band. Well, it’s famously known, it’s no secret, that for years, they didn’t like to be in the same room together, the band. They were so exhausted by being the Eagles. They all had their own lives outside the band eventually. They all arrived at the stadium in different cars, had separate dressing rooms.
It went up and down, as these things do. The temperature rose and cooled, and relationships shifted around as their lives evolved. In the end, this wasn’t a group of people who … For a very long time, they just didn’t really get on. They didn’t want to be in each other’s company very much. But when they were onstage, there was an absolute bond and trust. It interested me, I went to a couple of their shows. They used to stand, I think it varied, half an hour, maybe more, before every show, the band, the main group, the four of them, sitting on the stage, running through their harmonies. You think, you’ve been doing this now for 30 years. Why are you still practising it? Don said, well, because it has to be right every night, and we all have to feel that we’re going to give our best performance tonight.
“I think there has to be a level of trust and mutual confidence to get the job done.”
Of course, there is a tremendous level of respect and trust within the band to achieve what they’re trying to do. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t like each other in order to be productive. I’m saying it’s not necessary that, in a personal way, people always get on. It’s a bonus if they do. It’s not always essential to the task, but it is essential that people have a level of confidence in each other and in their abilities and trust that they’re all focused on the same outcome. Every group, of course, ends up to some degree being prone to internal politics.
I think there has to be a level of trust and mutual confidence to get the job done.
Dr. Martyn Newman:
I’m wondering, Ken, about your views on mindfulness as a technology. I think about mindfulness as a technology, because at the heart of it, it’s about being able to develop a stable and clear, non-judgmental attention, which really enables you to monitor your own feelings and emotions, which really lie at the heart of the creative process.
What’s interesting, was in my discussion with Susan (Baroness Susan Greenfield), when she said that there are three essential factors that are often overlooked in current education, which I found surprising. She said, firstly, we have to have a strong sense of our own individual identity and respect it in others. Secondly, she said we have to have a sense of individual fulfilment. And thirdly, to be useful to society.
She went on to suggest that these rather abstract goals were realised primarily through creativity. It reminded me of a number of the things that you developed in your book. In your view, could you just give us a quick sense of how you imagine emotional intelligence and say the recent discovery in the west, in particular of mindfulness, as skills which contribute to and foster the creative process in people.
Sir Ken Robinson:
Well, thankfully mindfulness has been having a positive press of late. I say that because there’s so much evidence around that people are in distress, that depression is on the rise in all areas, suicides are at appallingly high levels among all sectors, particularly among young men. It isn’t that there is not a crisis feeling. Patently there is.
Susan’s right that these issues originate within the individual. One of the distinctions that Robert Witkin made in ‘The Intelligence of Feeling’ is that we live not in one world but two. There’s the world around us and the world within us. Feelings of stress and distress originate within us in response to the world around us.
“We live not in one world but two. There’s the world around us and the world within us”
We can hardly take it on ourselves always to sort out all external factors in the world around us that cause us stress. What we can do is take more control of the world within us so that we respond differently to them and have a more settled relationship with them.
Mindfulness is a current iteration of that. It’s related to the broader idea of well-being, which, among other things, has come out of the work of people like Martin Selligman. For years psychology was about emotional illness and disturbance. As R. D. Lang once put it, we have a negative psychology of affect. He meant that psychologists have largely been focused on mental illness, not mental well-being. The positive psychology movement is an attempt to counter that and recognize that we don’t just need to deal with illness, we need to create the conditions of emotional health. Well-being is a larger concept wrapped around this idea of emotional health.
“The positive psychology movement is an attempt to counter that and recognize that we don’t just need to deal with illness, we need to create the conditions of emotional health.”
In many spiritual practices, there have long been techniques that are focused on the very same thing. It’s what meditation in Buddhism is about – it’s what yoga is about. They’re ways of calming your mind by reconnecting it with your physicality. We too often think that consciousness is something that happens between our ears, in our skull. For a very long time holistic practices in all fields have told us that we are embodied creatures. Our bodies are not incidental to our sense of well-being. If our bodies are in distress, or if we’re out of kilter with them, then our life of feeling is also disturbed.
These techniques are not an instant fix. They have to be practiced and refined. It’s like learning to drive a car. You can just get into a car and crash it into a wall, but there are ways of making the car do what you want it to do by understanding how it works and what the dynamics are between the car and the environment you’re driving through. Similarly, the practises of mindfulness have to be learnt and controlled. They have evolved over a very long time in human experience and are all focused on becoming more centred, more balanced internally, and more connected to ourselves and the world around us.
“There are practises which we evolved over a very long time in the human experience which are focused on becoming more centred, more balanced internally, and more holistically connected to ourselves and the world around us.”
In schools, where these practises have been introduced, there is often a remarkable shift in behaviour, in empathy and compassion within the school community. You see reductions in violence. You see children becoming more focused on the joy of learning rather than on the drudgery of testing. It’s what lies behind some of the practise you see in companies like Google. Some people may think these are just fashionable, trendy things that happen mainly California. But these principles aren’t local to any place or time. They are timeless principles of becoming centred in yourself and calming the noise of the world around you so you can feel the energy of the world within you.
Dr. Martyn Newman:
Ken, we’re almost out of time. I know you’re a very busy man. You receive lots of invitations. So, we’re really glad to have you at this year’s summit. We’ve got some extraordinary people coming along this year, some big thinkers, and everybody in the room will be a very busy person.
They’re really looking to take away something that will stimulate their thinking, that will give them some fresh insights, I guess, and re-energize them in many ways. What are some of the big questions that you think that our summit on emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and creativity needs to address and discuss that might have a lasting value for years to come – some of the themes that are exercising you at the moment that you’d like to see addressed?
Sir Ken Robinson:
I’ve been pressing for a long time for forms of education that are based on principles of human growth and development, which are humane and humanistic. I think the issues in education are desperately important, because education is the way in which we aim to cultivate the talents and sensibilities, compassion and citizenship of each rising generation. For a whole range of reasons and in various ways, we have applied a set of ideologies and practises to schools, which are antipathetic to the ways in which people flourish. I think it’s a very big deal because of the complexities of the world that we now live in and the challenges that we’ve collectively generated and have to overcome.
But it’s not only about schools. It’s about companies, organisations and business practises. It’s not just a matter of the bottom line for companies to understand why so many people are disinterested in the work they do. It’s not an incidental issue to think collectively about how businesses function in the lives of our communities and their roles in the long-term sustainability of our existence on the planet.
I think it’s as big as that. Our economic activities are central to the conditions of our own continuing survival and success as a species. Education has been cloaked in the linear ideology of industrialism and output for too long. I’m arguing that we need to change that metaphor and apply more organic principles.
“Our economic activities are central to the conditions of our own continuing survival and success as a species.”
Most of our businesses are still focused on a narrow conception of profit and shareholder value. I’m not saying those things aren’t important, but companies have a major role in the life of the people they employ and in the communities they inhabit. We have a very linear model of business at the moment. We take resources out of the ground and we make things that are dispensed with and have a limited life. But there are other ways to do business. There’s a movement called Conscious Capitalism that came out of John Mackey’s work with Whole Foods and is now a network of organisations that are looking for more socially responsible, environmentally engaged ways of being profitable.
Dame Ellen MacArthur was one of the world’s first round-the-women yachtswomen. She’s now set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which is committed to the idea of the circular economy and the need to have sustainable economic practises in the interests of the planet and our own well-being on it. It’s urgent that we look at how these principles of human flourishing can be applied more widely in how our communities live and work and that they are practised in and promoted by businesses everywhere.
Dr. Martyn Newman:
Ken, I think you’re going to find the EQ Summit this year in London a wonderful forum where you’ll be among a lot of friends who will very much enjoy your company, because these are the issues which are central to all of us in this movement of EQ Summit. So we’re very much looking forward to your company.
I really thank you for your time today. You’ve given us a little teaser and a number of very deep perspectives, really, on some of the quite revolutionary ideas you’ll address. I have to say that your latest book ‘Creative Schools’ is quite a manifesto. You certainly don’t confine yourself to talking about chalk and talk in the classroom. You really do discuss some of the revolutionary changes that are going on in the world around us that need addressing, in very, very practical and insightful ways. In that book ‘Creative Schools’, you really pushed the envelope and call for organisations to be based on a wholly different set of principles. We’re really looking forward to hearing some of the details around that. Thanks for your time today.
Sir Ken Robinson:
My pleasure, Martyn. Thanks so much, by the way. I enjoyed it.