Developing a pipeline of creative talent through collecting butterflies

Creative Alliance

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2018 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. This involves 20 free events, workshops and training sessions along with thought leadership blog content such as this.

Thanks to our Official Partner and Sponsors – The West Midlands Combined Authority, Aston University, South and City College Birmingham and Curium Solutions - all events are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more here.

Don’t flick on just yet. I’m not going to talk about filling your business with musicians, dancers and contemporary visual artists.

The creative talent skill set we mean include the abilities to:

  • Generate ideas and explore possibilities;
  • Try out alternatives or new solutions and follow ideas through;
  • Adapt ideas as circumstances change;
  • Ask questions to extend their own and others thinking;
  • Make fresh connections between concepts, ideas, viewpoints and actions.

These are skills that are core to artists and creatives but are essential to anyone working in a business. A quick on-line search of creativity & business brings up a whole load of books and resources. One I have used is “The Business Playground: Where Creativity and Commerce Collide” by Mark Simmons and Dave Stewart (aficionados of 80s music will know which Dave Stewart it is!)

If you’re bringing new staff into entry level positions as apprentices, interns or directly into junior roles the last thing you might want them to be is creative. ‘Learn how to do that, this way and quickly’ is something many senior manager and business owner wish of every new starter.

I’m in the business of talent development and I’m often prone to wishing every new starter at Creative Alliance was as easy and reliable as an M&S ready meal: plucked off the shelf, stuck in a microwave and 240 seconds later ready to go.

In those first few weeks of anyone starting a job, what we’re all really after is that the new person has got a good understanding of how things are done in our company.  In those first few weeks I don’t want much improvisation. I don’t want someone making things up when I don’t yet know if they actually know what they’re doing. 

We know that they are getting it when myself or a manager can name something that new starter knows, something they can do and something in their behaviour that shows it. That’s the point I can then I can introduce the creative skillset I need them to develop. Apprenticeships are currently undergoing the biggest reforms since 1642. We’re all working, all the time, at the edge of what we know. I need people around me who can see how we might do new things in effective ways.

So, one of things I ask is for them to draw me a mind map or a flow diagram of their job: the tasks they do on a daily or weekly basis. Then I ask them which parts on that diagram are working well and which parts could be better. I then ask them what they could do differently. It doesn’t have to be radically different just a little change. I ask them to have a go and then let me know if that makes things better or worse.

Birmingham’s former education chief, Sir Tim Brighouse, introduced the notion of collecting butterflies of good practice: little changes that had significant impact. It wasn’t just the butterflies that were shared but the habit of conscious collecting. It’s one of the many things the visionary educationalist introduced that helped transform schools in both Birmingham and London.

Butterfly collecting is one of the many things I’ve learnt from Sir Tim. For it to work I have to accept that a number of the butterflies will be duds: the ideas won’t get beyond the chrysalis stage or might flutter in life and quickly die. That’s fine. It’s the price worth paying for those that do have wings.

So, my job is allowing failure. Obviously not all the time and in every circumstance: I’d be quickly bust and Ofsted and the Education and Skills Funding Agency would have me quickly shut down. But if someone tries something and it doesn’t work or targets are missed because we’re trying a new approach, message, tactic or technique then shouting at people is about as much use as pushing on a rope.

New starters are particularly vulnerable to clamping up under negative feedback. Feedback doesn’t have to be soft and encouraging. Actually, it shouldn’t: that type of feedback is not much use. It should be challenging and supportive: ‘that’s working well and what would be even better is if ….’

Under that type of feedback a few fragile butterfliers might develop that are worth collecting.