Most people who provide some kind of creative service to the business world long for a client who will say yes to their more extravagant ideas. But such clients are extremely thin on the ground. General anxiety, paucity of imagination and lack of budget are among the more common obstacles.
And then, once in a blue moon, someone turns up who is ready to go for it. In Gillian, I’m lucky enough to have one of these – which might sound as if I’m keeping some kind of exotic animal. Well, in a manner of speaking, and she won’t mind me saying it, she is.
Several years ago I wrote to her out of the blue, having been given her name by a neighbour. She was intrigued. We met and there was one of those rare instant connections. She simply got what I was talking about. At the time she was working for a big company in the food and drink industry. A takeover was in the air and her team was feeling vulnerable.
Through the writers’ organisation 26, I was just embarking on a creative project to explore what Shakespeare might have to say about the modern business world. More in jest than anything I suggested that maybe she and her team could get involved. I practically fell off my chair when she said OK.
We had lunch yesterday, not having seen one another for a couple of years, and reminisced. The Shakespeare project had been a career highlight for both of us, we agreed, and apparently also for one or two of the team members with whom she’s still in touch. It’s not every day, after all, that business communicators get to take on a character from Romeo & Juliet, visit the RSC at Stratford to see the play, write a 1000-word story linking their Shakespearean character with life in their 21st century business, and finally see the whole project described in a book (The Bard & Co, Cyan 2007).
Soon after the project, the takeover happened and Gillian moved on. Next time we were in touch she had resurfaced in the financial services sector. By now we had christened our creative experimentation ‘mischief’ – and to my delight she was ready for more. We spent a day with her team working entirely in metaphors. In one exercise we gave people art materials and asked them to illustrate where they felt the team sat within the organisation in terms of a classic story or fairy tale.
One group chose The Little Mermaid. Their scene had shipwrecks, fish, sharks, an octopus, a submarine and in the bottom left-hand corner, a dark cave from which a cluster of eyes were anxiously peering. ‘Who are those?’ I asked. ‘Our leaders,’ came the reply. ‘They don’t like to come out much.’ I’ve never forgotten that. The other group picked the Jungle Book and King Louie’s ruined temple, swarming with monkeys. No further explanation was required.
Since then Gillian has had a career break and is now back in a different neck of the financial services woods. We’re agreed that there will be more mischief in due course. But for the moment I’m left wondering why she is so much the exception rather than the rule.
We have proved, to ourselves anyway, that it’s possible to be unashamedly playful while also asking serious questions about purpose and values. Team members have got to know one another better. They’ve been creatively and personally stretched and have practised skills that will help them communicate more effectively. They’ve had fun and felt better about what they do. And their companies’ reputations are still intact. Where, pray, is the danger or indeed lack of return on investment, in that?
A propos nothing in particular, but pretty well everything I ever blog about, I came across this wonderful quote from Tom Waits in the pub this evening: “The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”