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InfoQ Homepage Podcasts Wade Jackson on Great Culture and Unleashing Creativity through Collaborative Disruption

Wade Jackson on Great Culture and Unleashing Creativity through Collaborative Disruption

In this podcast recorded at the Agile on the Beach (New Zealand) conference, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Wade Jackson of Inspired Learning about playfulness, enabling great team and organisational culture and unleashing creativity through collaborative disruption.

Key Takeaways

  • Playfulness is a key aspect of effective team formation
  • It takes courage to be yourself, to live a value aligned life, living according to your purpose, of being purpose driven, that you can be comfortable being unliked and unpopular, if you're living in accordance to your own values.
  • The skills of improv are directly transferrable to life skills and into the business world
  • Playfulness enables collaborative creativity and the generation of new ideas
  • With people you want to be effective, with systems and processes you want to be efficient. With creativity it's a people thing, so you want to be effective
  • Five principles for creative collaboration: have a generative spirit, co-creation, know the rules, be aware of what's going on around you, disrupt the rules


Shane Hastie: Hello Folks. Before we get into today's podcast, I wanted to share with you the details of our upcoming QCon Plus virtual event, taking place this May 17 to 28. QCon Plus focuses on emerging software trends and practices from the world's most innovative software professionals. All 16 tracks are curated by domain experts to help you focus on the topics that matter right now in software development. Tracks include leading full cycle engineering teams, modern data pipeline and continuous delivery, workflows, and platforms.

Shane Hastie: You'll learn new ideas and insights from over 80 software practitioners at innovator and early adopter companies. Spaced over two weeks at a few hours per day, experience technical talks, real time, interactive sessions, asynchronous learning, and optional workshops to help you validate your software roadmap. If you're a senior software engineer, architect, or team lead and want to take your technical learning and personal development to a whole new level this year, join us at QCon Plus this May 17 to 28. Visit for more information.

Introductions [01:31]

Shane Hastie: Good day folks, this is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ engineering culture prodcast. I'm at the Agile on the Beach conference in Taurange, New Zealand. I'm sitting down with Wade Jackson. Wade, your business card says, sexy monkey pants.

Wade Jackson: That's my official job title.

Shane Hastie: Yes. All right. So what does the sexy monkey pants do?

Wade Jackson: Kida the role of the CEO really, but I think it sounds more interesting and more playful than calling myself the CEO of the company, Inspired Learning as our company. My wife and I are in business together and we run that.

What does Inspired Learning do? [01:59]

Wade Jackson: We’re a high-performing coaching company. So we work with companies, mainly corporates, large corporates in New Zealand and overseas. And we have four pillars of high-performance. Self-leadership, so being able to lead yourself, resilience and mental strength, being able to deal with the curve balls that life throws at you, collaborative creativity, so, as my mother would say, play nicely with others and storytelling, so being able to have that effective communication.

Wade Jackson: So, we run programs and coaching and facilitation programs around those four main areas under the banner of high performance.

You gave a keynote this morning here at the conference, which has kept us all in stitches for a good 45 minutes. What was the key message? [02:29]

Wade Jackson: The key message while I was delivering play up, which is our collaborative creativity work. So how to boost that kind of creativity. I think what the key messages is that if you want to be successful in any area of your life, out of my focus area obviously is business, there's the importance of connection and working with others. So, we're a social species and a big part of that is the playfulness, a team that plays together, stays together.

Shane Hastie: And we know from things like Google's project Aristotle and various others, the importance of the psychological safety stuff. In fact, you could almost say that's been beaten to death likely.

Wade Jackson: Yeah, well maybe in theory, a whole lot of teams that have that high trust. I mean, I think there's a step before the psychological safety, which is my message around it takes courage to be yourself. I think, especially in today's society, with all the social media with like, like, like, like, everyone’s trying to be liked now. I think having the courage to live a value aligned life, living according to your purpose of being purpose driven, that you can be comfortable being unliked and unpopular, if you're living in accordance to your own values. I think that takes courage to be yourself.

Let's think of our audience, technical influencers,  part of a team, maybe leading a team, what would be some useful messages for these people? [03:43]

Wade Jackson: I think leadership gets overblown because we're very kind of complex. I think if you boil it down, I think a leader's role is to basically one, set the vision, the direction of where you want people to be moving, and that should be in accordance with the company's purpose. So, this is the vision guys and girls, that's where we are heading. Two, is to set the right environment for everybody to thrive. So, what resources do you need and right team culture, which is where that kind of the play-up collaborative creativity comes in, around the culture of the team, and then get out of their way. And then step in when coaching, when you need to, that's kind of, for me, that's the essence of leadership. So I think if you're a technical leader, your focus should be on having the right culture, for that team to do well.

This is the culture and methods area of InfoQ, but what is culture? [04:28]

Wade Jackson: Culture has often been summarized as the way we do things around here. That's kind of the standard one. I think it's little bit more than that. I think it's almost like the shared values and shared beliefs that exist. You can come into a culture and it can slightly adjust around you, but often there will be those pre-existing beliefs and ways of behavior that you'll need to adapt to. So, I think that's kind of what culture is. It's the stories that we have. I think the culture gets revealed by the stories that you share around an organization. So, it is really the shared beliefs and values and behaviors of a group.

Shane Hastie: How do you influence that, if perhaps that culture is not something that you're entirely comfortable with, maybe it doesn't fit and you would like to see some change. Maybe there's been, let's pick on some things that we hear a lot about, maybe bullying or other types...

Wade Jackson: Yeah. Culture is a human thing. So when you go home at night, it's not as if the culture is there and the desk and the chairs and so forth. So the biggest thing is that, Ghandi said it best: be the change you wish to see in the world. You have to lead yourself first, before you can lead other people. So, I think you can only really focus on what you can control and what you can do. I've been coaching some people.  One person was talking about, I've been told I need to be more resilient. And I just fed back to them - It's like, I think you've got a choice to make. Do you want to be the type of person that is going to thrive in this culture? Or do you want to be somewhere else?

Wade Jackson: Because the culture is quite ruthless, of this particular team in this particular organization. And so, she ended up making a decision to get out for her own mental health. It wasn't that she needed to be more resilient. That was that culture. She's not going to influence it just by herself. So she needed to get out. So that's for you to decide, what’s the saying FIFO - you fit in or you exit. But if you are the leader of it, you're going to have more ability to influence people simply because you've got that positional authority. If you're the leader and you're the problem, if you're the bully, that's a different conversation.

Let's go back to this morning's talk on effective collaboration, and you took us through some activities and exercises, a lot of it from improv. And you mentioned that you actually have an improv theater? [06:19]

Wade Jackson: Yeah we're building an improv theater and often at the moment. So we're launching next month in April. Yeah. So my background has come from improvised comedy, which is one of the most collaborative art forms. And what I love about improv is that it's directly transferrable into life skills into the business world, you don't need to play an instrument or learn Shakespeare or play a sport. You just bring you, your imagination, your life skills and English doesn't have to be your first language to do improv in New Zealand, at least. So, deconstructing the art form of what we do around the collaboration. I came up with what I call theses five foundations of collaborative creativity. The very first to be a generative spirit; we go through an education system where we're taught to be competitive all that time. We don't work collaboratively and so forth. We work by ourselves, and as soon as we get out of the school, we're told to work collaboratively, work in a team, yet we've been socially conditioned not to do that.

Shane Hastie: Yeah. But then even in our organizations, we tell people work in a team, but then we stack rank them against each other. Correct?

Wade Jackson: Yeah. Yeah. You've got like look at a sales team. Where you reward and recognize people for the individual yet tell them to work as a team. Like why would you, if you're being rated, ranked and recognized by the individual pursuit. So be of generative venture of spirit as our first foundation, which really means come with the mindset to co-create that you don't have all the answers. You don't need to know all the answers, you have to work collaboratively. You have to come with a sense of co-creation.

Wade Jackson: So, that's our first one. And that takes a lot of pressure off, mentally, you don't have to go, Oh, I have to have a good idea. You just have to have an idea, then creativity becomes a numbers game, where you can throw things out and bounce around, but you can see why you need to have a high trust environment, because you're not going to put yourself out there if you're in a low trust environment, because through fear, fear of rejection, fear of being criticized, whatever it may be. So that's the first kind of foundation.

Wade Jackson: The second one is about being present, and through all my work, because I have a background, not only in improv, but also in martial arts and in healing as well, and being a clinical therapist.  Being present is the one principle that kind of goes through all my work, obviously you’ve got to be present. I'm fully present here with you now.  If I'm doing improv, I have to be forced into that present moment with somebody else.  Martial arts, you get immediate feedback if you're not present, usually a punch in the head. So, you have to be fully present. We have a saying in improv that you don't invent the gold, you discover it.

Wade Jackson: So how do you get out of your head to be fully present? All the ideas that are actually floating around, all the information or the resources that may be at your disposal to really observe and be present to that, so that's our principle around being present. Our third one is being mentally agile, so we need to be able to constantly adapt to our ever changing environment. It's always changing.

Wade Jackson: I've got COVID-19 now, boom, our environment is changing. If you have this kind of rigid idea of this is how things must be. You only have to look at nature, anything that doesn't evolve in nature becomes extinct. So you'll become extinct in your role if you go, this is what I've always done things.  Which cones to your point, that can be in technical expertise, that can be your downfall. If you don't evolve with the technology, if you want to go, but this is the way we've always done things and I like the security and I invest my self-esteem and self-worth into knowing this particular thing. If that particular thing changes, you have to be able to adapt. So that's that mental agility.

Wade Jackson: I think of paraphrasing Charles Darwin, when he said it's not the strongest or the most intelligent species that will survive, it's one that can adapt to change the fastest, and that's what we need to be able to do. So that's kind of catch that as being mentally agile. Our fourth one is about being attuned. So tuning into people around you, tuning into the infrastructure, the systems and processes that you have, being attuned to your environment and so forth.

Wade Jackson: That's that kind of the attunement piece, in nature is called entrainment. You know how like geese fly one moves and they all move. So you're really locked in with each other. And once you know the rules, once you're really attuned, then the last foundation kicks in, which is be disruptive. So how do you change things? How can you change things? Give up control, do something different. It doesn't mean to be disruptive, has been being annoying. Disruptive.

Wade Jackson: I always think of creativity like the reverse gear in your car, driving around in reverse would be like being disruptive all the time. That gets annoying and would be a waste of time. Whereas being able to, if you get stuck and you back and go in a new direction, that creative thinking is so important. And we're seeing this now the World Economic Forum, Davos said one of the most important skills now in businesses is creative thinking.

What does creative thinking look like? [10:42]

Wade Jackson: I think when teams are relaxed, having fun this way, I'm a big proponent of play because when you're playing, you're being creative, the brain works incredibly quickly and we slow it down by trying to present ourselves as safe because we don't feel safe in that environment. Hence going back to the psychological safety and high trust required. So it's easy, creative thinking is easy. I think it's playful, I think it's when you're bouncing ideas around, and very much aware of the concept of collaborative creativity is quite tautologist because creativity for me is collaborative. It is a group activity. It's not a solo pursuit. It's something that you need to be working off others to bounce ideas.

Shane Hastie: But we think of the artist...

Wade Jackson: We think of the solo artist locked in his room, tortured and doing that. That's probably one element, but I think even that artist doesn't work alone, they've come with influences in their life. So they're not just doing that all by themselves. They're coming with their own life experience and history which has been influenced by many, many other people. Those people may not be in the room with them, but they’re carrying carrying them with them.

Wade Jackson: So I think especially in businesses as well, they're having that diversity of thought of your life experience mixed with my life experience and something magical comes out of that intersection. So for me, it really is that one plus one equals three, as opposed to me trying to come up with all the ideas by myself. It's a horrible pressure. It’s like me saying to you "You have a good idea Shane. Go." You're like, "Ooh, a), what's good?" You got to compare it about something. So I think.

Shane Hastie: Coffee would be good though.

Wade Jackson: Coffee would be good. Yeah. Coffee, whatever stimulates; every culture has a stimulant. For sure. So to answer your question, what does it look like? I think it looks easy. It's fun. It's playful. It's when we're relaxed and it just flows. As opposed to sitting there crunching on a pen, trying to have a good idea by yourself.

Let's talk about the space, the mental or physical environment where this can happen. What are some of the preconditions? [12:26]

Wade Jackson: I think you both need a space where you can work together, but also you need space to reflect as well. I think back to a story I heard was about Saatchi & Saatchi in Sydney and they put a pin in the map where they have all their creative ideas, a couple of pins in the office, but all the pins were at the Italian restaurant down the road where they went for lunch. Very few of us have our creative ideas in the workplace, because we're too busy doing rather than thinking. It's when we get to relax and we're in that nice relaxed space. And if I talk about it from a brainwaves point of view, at work  we're in beta, we're just doing, doing, doing, and then we get to the alpha state, the relaxed over a glass of wine and the shower, bath coming in and out of sleep, going for a run, mowing the lawn, something where we're in the kind of alpha state and the neurons connect and boom that's that kind of satoriat moment of inspiration, whatever it may be, the creative solution. I think you need to have both in the workplace and time to work together, time to be alone. You can't force it. I think if you do like idea generation sessions, that's fine, but make sure you capture them like a week later, because that's when you're going to have the real ideas, the most powerful ideas, like a week later, rather than that in session itself, that’s just a stimulation session. So trying to put a time limit and kind of go, we must have all the good ideas now, I think as folly, I think you need to have a creative culture with it. So time together, time alone and take that pressure off. We don't work well under that pressure. Hence that playful state is useful.

Shane Hastie: In many organizations though, there would be a perception that people aren’t busy, we're not getting the efficiency when we're making this space.

Wade Jackson: I think there's an important difference between being effective and being efficient. I think it was Stephen Covey from Seven Habits wrote something about that I think it was... With people you've got to be effective, with systems and processes you want to be efficient. I’m trying to think of … I think the example was his son trying to break up with his girlfriend and he's like, I'm allowing half an hour for this, you're trying to be efficient during an efficient breakup with somebody as opposed to being an effective one.  We find it with call centers, three minutes I've got to get you off the phone. So all I do is, in order to be efficient, I'll pass you to somebody else and the problem still hasn't been resolved. I'd rather you talk seven minutes, one phone call and resolve the issue, rather than keep passing me every three minutes to be efficient.

Wade Jackson: So I think there's an important difference with people you're effective, with systems and processes you're efficient. With creativity it's a people thing, we want to be effective. That doesn't mean, and when I talk about play in the workplace, I'm not talking about goofing off, surfing the internet for seven out of your eight hours at work or however long you were there. I'm talking about not just an activity, but also a mindset. How do you bring a playful mindset to it? Because when you bring that you are relaxed. The ideas are going to flow rather than if you're tight and rigid.

Shane Hastie: It sounds to me, like you’re saying, creativity sort of just happens. But a lot of us perceive ourselves as not being creative. Personally, I compare myself to my wife. She is an artist.  I’m learning to say, I can't draw well yet. for a long time, I just said I couldn't draw because I was trying to compare myself to her.

Wade Jackson: Yeah. I'm sure you could draw, it was Theodore Roosevelt who said comparison is the thief of joy, right? So you're comparing yourself to someone who does that professionally. People look at me when I do improv and go, Oh, I can't do that. I say, you could do that with 26 years’ experience. I’m not anything that special. I think, my recommendation, don't think of creativity as a noun, think of it as a verb. It is something you do. You don't go to the gym once, lift weights and go, I'm fit and strong. You continually do it. So, the same thing with creativity, the creativity workouts. We're all creative, but there can be a small c and a big C. There's a continuum between less creative and more creative. So we can all shift ourselves down that continuum towards the being more creative, and that’s way you follow those foundations, come with that generative spirit, co-creation, know the rules, be aware of what's going on around you, disrupt the rules. How do you disrupt the patterns?

Wade Jackson: You can do little things. Like, you're wearing a watch in your left hand, take it off, put it on your right hand. We have thought patterns, emotional patterns, behavioral patterns, disrupt those, because I believe as is the microcosm so is the macrocosm, if you do little things at each day to disrupt your patterns then you're growing, because the essence of creativity is really growth, personal growth, interpersonal growth within the team, organizational growth, industry growth. So as I said, if you're not growing, you're becoming extinct. So do you want to be using the creativity to grow. So anyone and everyone is creative, it's a muscle you must work out.

What are some of those workouts? If we think, go to the gym, you work or run on the treadmill or...[16:57]

Wade Jackson: Physical workout. You go to the gym, you can go to yoga, go for a walk. You can lift weights. You can do all sorts of different things for a physical workout and the same thing for a mental workout. One of the things like read magazines you wouldn't normally read, go to places you wouldn't normally go to, having those new experiences. How do you bring things from your personal life into your work life, where's the crossover?  That intersection can be a great thing for growth as well. How do you bring your hobbies and things like that, and how do you explore those? And what kind of principles are in there that you could then apply? If you like surfing, how does surfing tie in for leadership, for example.  Those types of things, crossing over different ideas, different industries, different ways of thinking so important.

Shane Hastie: So again, we're coming to diversity now, in a wide variety of ways

Wade Jackson: We talk about diversity as far as gender ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability and so forth. And they are all important, because what they give you is that diversity of thought. And I think that's what's important.  If we look, if I look at my improv group, Improv Bandits, and when we improvise together, we all think differently. We're all different people. Who've got different values and so forth, but in that safe environment, we feel that we can support each other. And that just creates things that you cannot create by yourself. And that's the joy because there's that diversity of thought and experience there. So, that diversity is crucial.

Shane Hastie: Tell us a bit more about your improv group.

Wade Jackson: So I have the Covert Theater, which is the improv company. So, I've got over 65 members in there. And then I have the improv band, which was kind of like the Navy seals. So we've been together for 22 years. The majority of us been there for 20 years, which is unusual in the improv world to be together for so long. But it is because it's such a rewarding experience for us. So we've traveled the world, performing, teaching improvisation. We won the world champs in Chicago in the format in 2002. And we have invitations to travel to different festivals around the world. For me, that's where I get a lot of my principles around high-performance, is this deconstructing what we do. And I'd say we're not the fastest, quick witted or the funniest improv group, but what I would put us up against any other troupe I've seen in the world would be our support play our ability to really have each other's backs. And so therefore, when you feel really safe, then you can do the risky creative stuff.

Let's explore that safety and support play. What does that feel like or look like? [19:14]

Wade Jackson: I think it's incredibly liberating. I think when I think of improvisation for me, I think it's like my spiritual practice now because for me the essence of spirituality is connection. Whether it's connection to the universe, nature, higher power, whatever, if you believe in a higher power, God, it's about that connection, that relationship. So I find that improv is my spiritual practice because I'm getting outside of myself, getting out of my head, being fully present with somebody else. And we have that very strong connection. And the thing that we're serving in this case, is the story we’re serving something bigger than ourselves. So we have to learn to sacrifice our ego for the sake of the story, for the sake of the group. And that's incredibly freeing. Yeah. So it's like an outward meditation and then act of meditation.

Shane Hastie: So coming back to our audience and teams, how could they get there? Do they all have to be together for 20 plus years? 19:59

Wade Jackson: No. No. Well, it kindof helps as far as the longer together, as long as you're growing together. I think it is about having those conversations, really understanding each other. What's important, knowing people's values. I think that's more important than saying whether you're a dove, owl, peacock, a Myers Briggs test, I think that's not the way to go in my opinion. Let me know what you value, what you believe, we share that. That then creates that kind of trust and that's the foundation for it. So then we know each other, when I've truly connected with you, who you are, and this is why human play is so useful, so important. It brings out the best in me, the best at giving, we have a shared experience and it's the quickest way for us to really get to know each other, is to get alongside each other. I think if you're the leader of that, I believe your job is to create the right environment for that to happen. Not just focus on technical expertise.

Shane Hastie: Get alongside each other. You actually had us physically standing alongside each other this morning. In that session doing a really interesting activity, letting go and allowing a story to tell, but between two people,

Wade Jackson: Yes I did that on purpose. I didn't have your face in each other because when you facing each other, you're very differently two separate people. When I had you shoulder to shoulder, side by side, you become one person. You don't have that eye contact. It takes a lot of pressure off you. If we had the space I would have had you walking doing it because the movement is the mind body relationship. When you move you're free and it just frees up the mind. So sitting around an office desk trying to have a good idea is not necessarily the best way of doing it, get out and moving around.

Thank you very much Wade if people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you? [21:31]

Wade Jackson: I'm on LinkedIn, so you can find me on LinkedIn or, find us there the best way.

Shane Hastie: Thank you very much.

Wade Jackson: Pleasure. Thank you.


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