Good and Bad Autopilot

One of the reasons I moved to London was to slow down time.

Your teens and twenties are full of first-times, new experiences, surprising occurrences. We have a memory peak around that time called the reminiscence bump, because it’s such a unique period in our lives. Once you settle into adult-hood however, you start forming regular routines of work, leisure and socializing. And this repetition means the days and months and years can start to blur into one. The experience of being fifteen years old was a lifetime away from my experiences as a seventeen year old. In contrast, was life at 29 really so different from 27? If you’re not careful, it can quickly start to feel very same-ish.

So I’d read somewhere, that moving to a new place makes everything fresh again. You have to figure out a new routine, a new workplace, a new culture. You can’t slip into autopilot. The logistical challenges force you to be aware. And it’s this awareness of the present, that slows down the passage of time.  And it’s true. London has added a new and interesting chapter to my life. But that only lasts for so long, before the autopilot mentality comes creeping back in.

The wonderful words of David Foster Wallace are finding a new lease of life online at the moment, thanks to these guys. And in his speech one of the things he talks about is the evils of autopilot. The dangers of sludging through life in a numb, self-centered cocoon. It’s so easy to do.

Bad autopilot is letting life pass you by, because you live for the end of work at five o’clock, and you live for Friday evening when you can escape the office, and you live for your two week holiday when you can escape your regular life.

What Wallace is encouraging is a conscious awareness of your surroundings and your daily life. It’s the same practice of mindfulness that’s rooted in Buddhism and encouraged by psychologists as a way of increasing happiness. It’s something I have to constantly remind myself to do.

But there’s another kind of autopilot that’s the polar opposite of the type described by Wallace. It goes by many names and descriptions: “being in the zone”, “hitting your A game” or just “flow”. Flow is when you’re unconsciously engaged in an activity at that perfect balance of challenge and mastery. You get so absorbed in a task that it’s effortless and yet you’re completely motivated throughout.

Modern life can make achieving flow really difficult. Our noisy open-plan offices, our always-on phones and our “multi-tasking” conspire against us, and rob us of the opportunity to get into a flow state at work. And after such an exhausting day, it’s no wonder that in the evenings, all we want to do is choose passive activities like watching TV, over more effortful hobbies like playing sport or music or reading or gardening or painting, even though they would bring us more satisfaction.

Yet understanding these two versions of autopilot is so important for happiness. We need to break the mindless version of autopilot described in the video above. We need to slow down the passage of time by becoming aware of what’s happening in the present moment, avoiding the zombie life at all costs. But alongside this we need to pursue the positive, enriching autopilot state of flow, where we sometimes lose all track of time because we are so enjoyably engaged in what we are doing. Because in the end, it doesn’t really matter how much time we have, what matters is whether it was time well spent.

The Holiday Mindset

Islington in sunshine

Islington in the sunshine is one of my all time favourite places to be and I always feel lucky to live here every time the sun peeks out and the streets flood with people in shades and sandals and strappy tops, regardless of whether it’s actually warm enough to brave bare arms.

This weekend was one of those gorgeous sunny gifts.

And no matter how many times I see it happen, I’m always struck by how powerfully this good weather can affect people’s mood. They might have started out the week feeling busy and stressed and completely preoccupied by work and life, but if the sun comes out, all of those concerns are temporarily shelved. Suddenly, everyone switches into a holiday mindset.

Which makes the simplest things like taking an early morning walk down by the canal or sitting on some grass beside a busy road drinking coffee with friends, feel luxuriously pleasant. We savour every moment. We abandon the schedule and let time just pass us by.

And that’s really odd when you think about it, since the canal and the coffee are always there, all year round and cost next to nothing to enjoy. There’s no reason we couldn’t live this carefree lifestyle far more often, if we allowed ourselves to. But it takes the rarity of a sunny day in a country that can’t count on having a summer, to force us into letting go.

Leo Babauta from Zen Habits wrote a great post recently about cultivating a vacation mindset at work.  It seems like a crazy paradox on the surface, but actually you can see the productivity benefits immediately. Working without anxiety, fully immersed in the present, thinking about the big picture rather than sweating the small stuff and letting go of our clock watching obsession. Those behaviours are the recipe for flow, and high performance work.

But actually I would go one further. Not only could we all do with a bit more holiday mindset at work, I think many of us could use some more holiday mindset in our leisure time too. I know I have a terrible habit of turning my weekends into the same busy, self- pressured affairs as my working days. Feeling guilty if I waste away a precious day on nothing (even if excused by a hangover). Or else packing my weekend full of socializing and errands but watching the clock tick by until Sunday evening comes around again.

So, inspired by the kick in the ass this good weather has given me, I’ve decided to start practicing my holiday mindset. I’ll certainly give it a go at work, but most importantly I’m going to reclaim my evenings and weekends. And I’ll try to make the most of that lovely canal and coffee, whether or not the sun is shining.

Mudblood Planners

Thats-a-really-mudblood-Thing-to-say

Not so long ago I was talking to a well-respected planner, who spoke with pride about the day his colleague told him that he had successfully “shaken off that media guy reputation”. He, like me, had started his career in a media agency. At the time I was genuinely surprised to see that he carried this upbringing like it was some kind of stigma. I wondered why he felt so ashamed.

Another planner, who started out working client-side as a brand manager, told me she had toyed with the prospect of a communications planning role in a large media agency and was fiercely warned against it by everyone she met from recruiters to Heads of Planning. When it comes to industry reputation, it was made clear to her that media would be a backward career step.

This perception is at odds with my own experience – having worked on both sides of the fence I would still maintain that some of the smartest and most creative people I’ve ever worked with, are in media agencies today. But the prejudice is ingrained and though subtle, is hard to miss when you’re on the receiving end. Similarly the same once client-side planner spoke about the biases she sometimes faces. She isn’t seen as a “pure-bred” planner.

When it comes to planning, there’s definitely a preferred pedigree. It works off the assumption that more years in “traditional” planning, in the right kind of agency, will make you a superior planner. I wonder whether this is true?

Most interestingly, this assumption disregards the advantages that come with being a mongrel, mudblood planner. There’s a strong skill-set that people from client-side, digital, media or direct bring, from understanding research to understanding broader marketing and business, or the role of return on investment in advertising. These skills are often surprisingly weak in traditional planning departments despite their importance to making effective work and crucially, to selling it in to senior stakeholders.

But this assumption also overlooks another critical advantage. The creative advantage that comes with being an outsider.

Throughout history many of the best known creative thinkers have been outsiders, whether as foreign immigrants in a new country or misfits at the edge of mainstream culture. And there’s a good reason for this.

Outsiders see things differently. They don’t take the accepted way of doing things as agiven. They look at problems from a different angle. They identify new problems or solutions which insiders can’t see.  And they come with a bundle of unique influences, ready to collide and connect and form creative ideas.

There’s a whole host of mudblood planners out there now. They have muddled career pathways and it’s exactly this diversity that make them so valuable to both creativity and business. And as our industry evolves to take on new tasks and revenue streams, to regain a foothold in the C-Suite, these people may be offering exactly what agencies have been missing.

When you change your clocks, test your smoke alarm

Our newest installment of the Fire Kills campaign.

Please pass it on and help reduce the number of people who die tragically in house fires every year.

People who could have survived if they’d just had a working smoke alarm.

Forcing it never works

marissa-mayer-hope-poster

I feel sorry for Marissa Mayer because if she was a man, no one would expect her to be anything other than the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

But she’s not a man, she’s a woman. One of the only women to hold such a powerful post. One of the few female leaders in silicon valley. And because of her rare achievement, she’s now a high profile role model – whether she likes it or not.

Which means everything she does will be scrutinized from the perspective of gender, in a way it literally never is for a man. And as unfair as that is, it explains why there is such disappointment when she appears to be setting back progress for working women. Hard won gains like time flexibility and remote working, which have allowed mothers to take care of children while also maintaining a career. The fact is however, while it’s clearly a hot issue for women as long as they are still the primary caregivers in the home, at it’s heart it’s an issue for everyone.

Penelope Trunk, who I always enjoy reading though frequently disagree with, wrote a piece on the issue which was incredibly depressing, with passages like this:

The reality of today’s workforce is that if you want to have a big job where you have prestige and money and power, you probably need a stay-at-home spouse. Or two full-time nannies. Which means most people don’t have the option to go on the fast track, because most people have not set their lives up this way. So let’s just admit that most of us are not on the fast-track. Stop bitching that people won’t let slow people on the fast track. Stop saying that it’s bad for family. It’s great for family. It means people will not continue operating under the delusion that you can be a hands-on parent and a top performer. People will make real choices and own those choices.

This is definitely a reflection of professional America’s unhealthy relationship with work, but it also spills into many fields across Europe. The idea that people are either fast track or slow track is ludicrous. There is a huge spectrum in between and often the most talented and creative people are exactly that because they have a wide range of interests and influences in their lives. They’re out in the world, aswell as the office.

So a reality check.

It’s the 21st century and in the affluent developed world at least, we are fortunate to have never lived in a more peaceful, comfortable and educated society. Technological innovation has given us unprecedented ability to work effectively and efficiently at any time or location. Why  on earth would anyone want to work like a slave in shackles, or only develop one aspect of their lives at the expense of all others?

Coming back to Marissa’s main issue however, she clearly is trying to figure out how to galvanize Yahoo and stimulate creativity and innovation, and this is a valid problem. What both she and Penelope are missing however, is any simple human insight into how companies instill this passion and dedication in their staff. Because their strategy definitely won’t work.

Whether you lead with the autocratic perfectionism of Steve Jobs or the geeky humanistic spirit of Sergey and Brin, people make a decision to buy into the purpose of a company and give their time and skills towards building it. As Penelope herself writes:

In Silicon Valley, home to Facebook, Google, Airbnb, none of most desirable companies make room for a personal life. They don’t have to. They have plenty of people hoping to give up their whole life to the company.

The point here is that this professional commitment is voluntary. It can’t be forced.

And if passion is lacking in your company, as it evidently seems to be in Yahoo, sending a mandate isn’t going to fix that. Especially one that in reality only affected a small fraction of employees, yet sent a huge message to the rest of the company. A message which frankly smacked of self interest on the part of their management team. It sounded like they cared more about the company, than the people within it. And that’s never going to win people’s hearts and minds.  Richard Branson says for him the priorities go: staff, customers, shareholders. If I were Marissa Mayer, I would put that on my wall.

How Creative Agencies Can Become More Creative

Beethoven Mind Map

Advertising agencies talk a lot about their culture. They’ve rightly identified that getting the culture right is half the battle when it comes to getting the work right. The tricky part is that it’s so damn elusive. And often our attempts to influence this sensitive eco-system have the same results as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 

One of my favourite London organisations, the innovative School of Life, are running an interesting sounding seminar on “living with a creative mind” and they’ve identified five principles for getting the best out of creative people. It makes for an interesting checklist when assessing how well your agency is set up:

 1.   Affirmation

Apparently creative people need a lot of encouragement. Because they may appear confident but are also plagued with insecurities. I would say this rings true, but is also true of pretty much every human being – some people are just better at hiding their self-doubt. Affirmation (real, genuine, positive comments rather than false flattery of course), is the easiest and cheapest way to motivate your staff. And yet so many managers haven’t mastered it yet.

 2.   Permission to Fail

I imagine this varies quite a bit from agency to agency depending on their appetite for risk and glory. For an agency like Wieden & Kennedy, embracing failure is part of their DNA. Whereas the established safe pair of hands BBDO, may have more to lose from a wild departure from best practice. At a more micro-level, agencies need to watch out for blame culture. The best managers protect their teams. This gives people the security to fully focus on the win, instead of obsessively guarding against minor losses.

 3.   Freedom from Fear

Linked to number 2. Fear and anxiety cause the brain to narrow in on the immediate threat. That’s convergent thinking, rather than the expansive divergent thinking that’s required for creativity. In other words, when our backs are up against it, survival is the only thing we can focus on. That doesn’t leave much brain space for connecting random interesting thoughts. So if you want to increase creativity, look at the daily interactions of your teams. If they are tense, anxious or defensive, the resultant work will be shit. It’s also another reason why “talent doesn’t excuse temperament”. Regardless of technical ability, if there’s someone who’s a negative influence on others, they’re dragging your overall creative output down.

 4.   Room to Explore

This is a principle most agencies seem to be quite aware of – in theory, if not in practice. Creative people need both time and often physical space to explore random ideas and stimulus so that they can make new connections. It’s why we’re all allowed to watch Youtube and pop out to a coffee shop for a meeting every so often. But it’s also the first thing to fall by the wayside when people get busy. Given that creative thinking is part of what we’re paid for, this should be a mandatory requirement and way of working, not a luxury.

 5.   Sticking with their Tribe

Now this one has implications for agency layout. A number of people I’ve spoken to recently have mentioned the benefits of putting the creative department back together. And arguably the planning department too. There are clearly benefits from sitting in account teams, but I suspect they err on the side of efficiency rather than creativity. Putting like with like, raises everyone’s game within their discipline. Both through comparative competition and more innocuously through casual chats and sharing inspiration. The downside of course is finding other ways to encourage good working relationships across departments and avoid ghettos. But as the advertising process becomes more collaborative and iterative, hopefully this will follow naturally – from necessity if nothing else!

Learning from Everyone

Wisdom-quotes-by-William-Shakespeare-The-fool-doth-think-he-is-wise-but-the-wise-man-knows-himself-to-be-a-fool.

It’s funny how it’s usually the meetings where you’re completely lost and haven’t a clue what’s being talked about, that you’re most reticent to ask a question. A stupid question will just expose your ignorance. Better to stay quiet and be thought a fool, than speak and remove all doubt.

And the more senior you are, the harder it is to reveal a lack of understanding or expertise in front of colleagues. Part of this is because our cultural image of great leaders is about being in control, all knowing. We’re programmed to think that asking for advice or asking for help, is an admission of weakness, instead of strength.

In the real world though, the greatest leaders are those who show humility and often vulnerability too. You can’t inspire people if you don’t connect with them. And it’s hard to connect with superhumans. They’re just too different from the rest of us.

That’s why one of the biggest things holding back leaders today is that pressure to maintain an unflappable public face. It creates distance between management and staff. It creates barriers to open conversations. And it’s an out-dated approach from a different time. A time when companies were run on top-down authoritarian leadership. Where employees did what they were told, stayed in their boxes, clocked in and out, left their soul at the door every morning to be picked up again at 5PM.

Now we live in a different world. It’s a world where education and access to information are no longer the preserve of the powerful few, but are increasingly democratised. Which means the person at the top may no longer know best. It means more people will be questioning authority and the status quo. It makes it likely that people won’t be content to keep their head down and climb the progress ladder step by step. After all, that’s what happens in the kingdom when the peasants learn to read…

And rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, the best companies are evolving to gain the benefit of a workforce with higher expectations for their jobs.

Like having reverse mentorship schemes where management buddy up with junior staff, not to appease them, or pretend to be listening, but to genuinely learn new skills and new ways of thinking.

Like abolishing performance reviews (which if we’re really honest, are more about keeping salary costs down than genuine staff development – they tend to be quite rubbish at that), and even replacing them with bottom up staff appraisals of how the company is performing and what could be improved.

There’s a lot to learn from everyone if we’re open and interested enough to want to listen. None of us is smarter than all of us – the collective knowledge of all staff will only help businesses do better. And it comes with the happy side effect of happier staff too. Motivated workers and shared responsibility for success.

The only wonder is that in 2013, this is still relatively rare practice. So there’s definitely a first mover advantage up for grabs – the best leaders will take it.

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