Episode 214 – The Human Edge with Greg Orme

Greg OrmeThe opportunities for celebration aren’t what they used to be right now (‘I treat myself and visit the kitchen every now and then..’), but Greg Orme is still enjoying his ‘award-winning author’ status after The Human Edge: How Curiosity and Creativity are Your Superpowers in the Digital Economy was named Business Book of the Year last month.

In this conversation he shares not only his thoughts on our human edge over AI (with a special shout-out for my personal favourite, curiosity) but also his writing process, which is reassuringly and helpfully messy.

Plus there’s a lovely insight into the moment when I announced him as the winner – I only wish we’d had a two-way video feed…


LINKS:

Greg’s site: https://gregorme.org/ 

Greg on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gregorme/

Greg on Twitter: https://twitter.com/gregoryorme

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

PI Virtual Writing Retreat wait list: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/virtual-writing-retreat/

PI-Q webinar, All Change – reimagining what’s possible with Grace Marshall: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pi-q-webinar-all-change-reimagining-whats-possible-with-grace-marshall-tickets-102789058842

PI-Q webinar replay: The New Balance with Anna Meller: https://youtu.be/8rJ27sLzv0k

Alison Jones

I’m here today with Greg Orme who is a speaker, award-winning author, and organizational change veteran who helps organizations thrive in a world of accelerating change through creative thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit. The founding CEO of London Business School’s Centre for Creative Business, he now leads organizational change programs with global clients in banking and insurance, automotive, FMCG, manufacturing and technology. And his latest book, The Human Edge: How curiosity and creativity are your superpowers in the digital economy, was just named Business Book of the Year 2020. So welcome to the show, Greg.

Greg Orme

Well, thanks for having me, Alison. I’m delighted to be with you.

Alison Jones

Oh, it’s really good to have you and congratulations on the award. Of course, we’ll talk a little bit about that later. But let’s just get into congratulations because…

Greg Orme

That’s my favourite. You can say as many times as you like,

Alison Jones

So how is the whole award-winning author bit?

Greg Orme

Well, it’s changed my life obviously. Because we’re in lockdown, you know, I treat myself and visit the kitchen every now and then…

Alison Jones

Yes, the opportunities aren’t quite what they were, are they? But let’s get right back to the beginning. Tell me a little bit about where the book came from, you know, where you got the idea from, why you decided, actually, there’s a book here. Just tell me how the idea came about.

Greg Orme

Well, as you explained it comes from the work with my clients really, you know, I work with leaders and organizations helping them to respond to what’s become known as the VUCA, world, volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous times we find ourselves in. And so I’ve been working for a long time on what that means for individual and team creativity as a response to changing times because of course, that’s always a precursor to any kind of business innovation. And three or four years ago I started becoming very interested in what was happening with technology, and how that was becoming one of the main disruptors of business, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence to digitalization datification and all that kind of good stuff. I started using it in my keynotes. And I was giving a keynote at London Business School actually, coincidentally, and afterwards a female executive came up to me and said, ‘Well, it’s all kind of interesting, Greg, about how technology’s changing business models, etc. But what about me? And what about my two daughters? What does it mean for them? What do we need in a world of machines, in this world of artificial intelligence?’ And I just thought it was a really good question. I didn’t really have a very good answer for it. And so that was the start of the research process, which ended up with The Human Edge.

Alison Jones

And what surprised you about that? I mean, I can tell you as a reader, one of the things that really struck me was the pace of change, the exponential speed, you know, the acceleration of the changes coming in was that a shock to you? Were there other things that surprised you about what you discovered?

Greg Orme

Yes, it was because if you think about the structure of the book, Alison, obviously, something like  70-80% of it is about humanity, it’s about being more human at work, and I’m sure we’ll get on to the four Cs, these superpowers that I was talking about, I think you need to differentiate yourself and future proof your career. But then there’s this wrapper, this introduction, in terms of the technology and I am not a technologist. So I was writing about that from the perspective of someone who’s working with organizations on change. So that was a big surprise. And I think… you use the word exponential. I think that’s one of the things that people and organizations aren’t prepared for because the human brain doesn’t really understand exponential maths, you know, if something doubles every day, what that can do and you know, it’s so bizarre, isn’t it that ‘exponential’, since I’ve written the book, has become part of the common parlance with dealing with the Coronavirus, because, of course, in many ways it’s an exponential contagious disease. So we’re seeing the effects of not understanding what happens when something’s exponential in our day to day lives now,

Alison Jones

Which is, of course, one of our fallacies as humans and you use that wonderful analogy of pulling onto a motorway and driving at five miles an hour, what that’s going to do to the people around you, but then you decide to double your speed every five minutes, I think it is, and what that means for how fast you’re traveling in an hour’s time. And with Coronavirus I remember that same sort of sense of dislocation, you know, they say you can give this to three people, whereas normally you’d give it to one person, which doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but when you model that out, well…

Greg Orme

Yes, and there are many analogies to try and understand exponential mass, you can look it up online. There’s the rice on the chessboard example where you just literally double the amount of rice each time you go round a chessboard, or the one I use, which is accelerating, or putting a drop of water in the middle of a sports stadium, and suddenly the sports stadium is full. And I think what’s interesting to me is we’re making this analogy between Coronavirus and the effects of AI, and what’s underlying AI to make artificial intelligence so dominant in our world… we’re seeing that across society. And the superpowers that I identify in the book, I think, actually are just as pertinent to responding to what’s happening now, which is, could well be the biggest disruption we ever see in our careers, as to differentiating yourself from machines, which is the focus of the book.

Alison Jones

Well, let’s come on and talk about those four Cs then: what are our… I want to say defence, but then I’m sort of setting up a metaphor of battle here, which I’m conscious that I don’t really want to do, because it’s not how you approach it. But certainly, what are our superpowers in this relationship with AI?

Greg Orme

Yes. And I think, well, let’s go back to the human vs AI kind of trope, which I tried to avoid in the book. I don’t think it’s true. I think actually the opposite will work with machines. But we can talk about that a little bit more later, maybe. So, just to establish the foundation stones of what the book’s trying to do, I used four Cs. So the first was consciousness. The second was curiosity. The third was creativity. And the fourth was collaboration.

Alison Jones

And you’re going have to unpack this for us a little bit.

Greg Orme

Yes, sure. Okay, so for each one of them I wrote a chapter which was effectively what I call two dance steps underneath those four Cs. So…

Alison Jones

I did love that.

Greg Orme

The reason I used dance steps, because effectively, I see the third C, creativity, a little bit like they talk about the British Prime Minister, ‘the first amongst equals’; it’s the one that we’re all heading for, and the other ones either support it or collaboration, I think, accelerates it. So, under consciousness, we were talking about meaning, purpose, and also focus. Under curiosity. I had a chapter on lifelong or as I prefer to call it everyday learning, and also asking great questions. And creativity is really how you can have more ideas, and then how you can sustain those ideas. So the ideation process or individual human beings, and then collaboration, I talked about two things, really, having a network of fellow human beings to test and accelerate your ideas. This is so important. You see it in the lives of all great scientists and entrepreneurs and artists. And then the final chapter is on a really important concept, I think, in business right now, which is the idea of experimentation. So thinking big, starting small and then learning really fast. It’s a kind of Silicon Valley kind of concept that’s now spread to all my clients. And I work with automotive and manufacturing and some really big global businesses. So the experimental idea sits alongside their strategy: what’s the smallest possible thing you can do in order to learn faster about the world around you to move forward and then pivot rather than having some big planning process and then finding out the idea didn’t work at all well in the real world?

Alison Jones

And what I love about the way you described as dance steps is that you have a very clear structure. So you have four pillars, and each one has two skills, the specific things that you draw out underneath them. It would be very easy to see that as a linear sequence. And you’ve obviously fought hard against that. How did you come up with that metaphor of the dance step where you can kind of combine them in different ways, and it’s a bit creative and playful, and as you say, you know, you’d take a jump to the left, you’re not quite so bothered about it, because it’s just part of the dance?

Greg Orme

Yes. Well, I think as I was saying, creativity, you know, sits at the heart of this whole book, the other Cs support and precede it, if you like, but the truth about anyone’s creativity is it’s not some kind of linear straight line. It’s a very zigzaggy kind of path, you go forward three steps and then come back, and anyone who’s written a book will know this messy process. And so I think actually embracing the mess and jumping into the mess is really, really important. The only linearity if you like about these four Cs is I think, if you want to see it through that lens, you can think about meaning giving you the courage, and the motivation to want to be creative. So that’s under the consciousness. And then I got really interested in focus, because I didn’t intend to write about focus or attention when I first started writing the book, but the research took me there, because I realized, if you want to be curious and creative, which are the two Cs that make it onto the front page of the book, into the title, you have to put aside time and energy. And so the way this sums up and I think I use this quote in the book, is creative minds think like artists, but they work like accountants. So effectively, they make time for their creativity. So you get the energy, the motivation and the time that allows curiosity, which is the fuel, so that’s the learning and the questioning, then the fuel takes you on to the creativity, the ideas that come out of creativity then can be used. The collaboration is used to either kill the really bad ideas – and let’s face it, most of our ideas aren’t great ideas, we only have a few good ideas – to kill the bad ones and then accelerate the good ones.

Alison Jones

And of course, now that you explained it all it all makes perfect sense and you’ve got that lovely post-hoc rationalization of what you’ve done. When you’re in the mess, what was the experience of forging that structure?

Greg Orme

Well, you’re good. Alison. That’s a very good comment. I think that’s so true: post-hoc rationalization, perfect. And I think it is a mess, right? When you’re writing a book, you try and have a central idea, that’s your North Star, which you’re following. And I was trying to answer the question of the lady after the keynote, you know, what’s in it for humans in a world of machines? That was the kind of question I was going to answer. And, you know, we changed the title, we changed the subtitle, the structure comes and goes, it was a three-part structure. It’s a four-part structure. And then slowly – I mean, this is the way I work anyway, there might be some absolutely brilliant people out there that it just pours from their mind onto the page and they can do it – but I just kind of write in circles, write parts of the structure, come back to it and revisit it constantly. And then the actual structure, the four Cs, only really solidified some time about six weeks before I had to submit the book…

Alison Jones

That is working to deadlines isn’t it…

Greg Orme

I was still working on it, and I was still thinking about it. Because I love the rule of three as a writer, you know, I think that works. So I’m always very wary about becoming too complicated. But I just felt I had to separate out those four big ideas of almost… meaning and time, sort of putting that aside, curiosity actually was always on its own because I think that’s an undervalued capability, and it’s becoming more valued. in the workplace. Creativity was always going to be a part on its own. And then collaboration. I rather stretched the term I think, to put experimentation and effectively networking under there. But then when I stood back from it, it kind of made sense and the response I’m getting from readers is really fantastic and very gratifying.

Alison Jones

And when you say rather stretched collaboration is that because it had to be a C, right?

Greg Orme

It wanted… Well, it had to be a C, I nearly called it connected. Because that makes sense. Really I wanted to write a book that wasn’t simply a leadership and management book, which is how I make my living. And my first book, you’ll know, Alison was called The Spark: How to Ignite and Lead Business Creativity. So that was a book about how you lead. I wanted to write a kind of a subversive manual that you could keep underneath your desk in case you had a toxic boss, who wasn’t going to support you in developing your own human superpower. So you could just do it on your own. So this is the book essentially aimed at individuals, but because I do a lot of seminars and keynotes and sessions with people who are hierarchical leaders in organizations, actually what I say to them is if you take these superpowers personally, they’ve got a huge amount more leverage for you because you’ve got the power and you can allow other people to happen too. And so yes, it became collaboration because it nicely covered the concept of experimentation, which I think is really important. And this idea of connecting to other human beings to amplify your own creativity.

Alison Jones

Yes, and I’m not going to argue with any of those. I think they’re wonderful. The one I have a particular fondness for is, and it’s interesting that you pick up on it as well, curiosity. And I think it’s fascinating that you show how important that is as a human superpower, when, actually in many organizations, it’s seen as troublemaking or it’s seen as slightly negative. It’s not always recognized for the greatly valuable gift that it is.

Greg Orme

Not at all. And we’re seeing that in political environments. We see that in organizational environments, that curiosity, you know, killed the cat and all that – it has had a bad rap over the years. And it’s a way that hierarchies suppress dissent, because curiosity in the lower ranks is not something to be encouraged. However I think enlightened organizations, who realize that’s where the ideas come from, that’s where the big step forwards come from, want their people to be curious. It’s much more difficult to manage. But you can release the curiosity of people. That’s the big idea. And I think one of the other big ideas I’d really like to mention, Alison, is that creativity is one of those terms, isn’t it? It’s often seen as something for someone else, or creative artists or for geniuses. But actually, I think a way into it is through curiosity, because if you go below the word, creativity, and start thinking, what are the things that precede it – learning things, learning across domain boundaries, asking interesting questions – these are things that we can all do, anybody can do. It’s highly democratic. And you are then guaranteed to have ideas if you have exercised your curiosity. And curiosity of course, what’s the wonderfully inspiring thing about it? There’s been there a lot of deep psychological research into it, is it you have to think about it like a muscle. If you exercise your curiosity and surround yourself with fellow curious people, your curiosity muscles become stronger. And if you don’t, I’m afraid they’d become weaker and you become more incurious. So it’s catching, you can catch it from other people, and you can exercise it and I think that’s a just an inspiring concept to me.

Alison Jones

Yes, it is wonderful, isn’t it? I do love the idea of surrounding yourself with curious people. I think I’ve nailed that one.

Greg Orme

Yes, curious in a good way.

Alison Jones

And let’s talk about that award, Greg, because how can we not? Just take us inside your awareness, what’s going through your head, the night of the business Book Awards?

Greg Orme

Well, it was just, it was just amazing. I’m literally speechless. And that’s it. As you know, it was a Monday night and we were all supposed to be down in London for a big black tie do. And I was so looking forward to that. But I had absolutely zero expectation that I was going to win anything. There were 270 entrants, I believe with some seriously good writers and books. Certainly the ones that made it into those categories. I was so impressed by them. So I just was really pleased to be part of it and wanted to go along. Sadly, the Coronavirus robbed us of that experience. So I think they did a Facebook Live event as you know, that was really exciting. So, my wife and I and my two teenage sons who are 17 and 16, I had it on the dinner table. My sons you know, as kids, whoever, like what’s going on with… you know, they had nothing. They didn’t know anything about it. So we watched it as far as the announcement for the category, I was in the sustainable change category, and the book won and so we were just jumping around In the kitchen, I was excited. I couldn’t believe it. And then I thought, well, you know, there’s no way anything else will happen here. But effectively what we did we just thought, well, we’ll watch the rest of it, but we’ll see what happens. We’ll see who wins the final thing. It won’t be me. And then they announce ‘The H…’, my wife started jumping around. Then I started jumping around and we’d won. So it’s been a fantastic moment, a real game changer for the book, I think.

Alison Jones

So we got to the ‘H’ of human and you started leaping around?

Greg Orme

Yes, on the H of Human. Actually I didn’t, I just stared at the iPad screen thinking, surely some some mistake.

Alison Jones

I wish we’d had some sort of capability of watching the response.

Greg Orme

It would have been such good… welll, not television, but whatever you call it when you’re broadcasting on the web. It really was an amazing moment. I just… and I’m so pleased obviously because you spend three years or so writing a book. It’s wonderful to know that some really clever people have read your book through those panels. And they’ve all thought, hey, that’s pretty good. That’s a real confidence boost to go and write your next book or your next blog. So it was…. Yes, big deal. And thanks for asking about it. I do love talking about that night.

Alison Jones

‘Let’s just talk about that moment you became the award-winning author.’ Now, there’s going to be a lot of people who are aspiring to that moment, Greg, listening to this, but they are deep in the weeds, deep in the mess of their first book, perhaps. What one tip would you give them?

Greg Orme

Oh, that’s a really good question. I think, can I have two tips?

Alison Jones

If they’re good you can have as many as you like.

Greg Orme

So the first one is really fall in love with the question you’re trying to answer, or you could put it a different way, the problem for a business perspective, maybe not other books. So you can say, what is the problem I’m trying to solve for people? You really want to love that problem, because you’re going to spend a long time wrestling with it and the sub questions in terms of the process, I’m fascinated by that. And I would just summarize it like this: find your own creative process. I know I have mine now after two books, and trust it, because you will need that trust in the dark times. And for me, and I can only speak about myself. I find myself when I’m writing at 6am on a Sunday morning, because I’ve had to get up because that was the only time I could find during that weekend. And thinking really, what am I doing here? Is this a good use of my time? You need to be able to fall back on your process to say no, I’m just going to write 500 words this morning and for good or bad. I love writing and I love the process. Love’s a bit strong sometimes but I am enjoying this and the process matters more than the outcome. So if you can find your process you will produce 60, 70 80,000 words, whatever you need for your book. And it will stop you giving up, which I think is a very strong, strong, emotional urge at times.

Alison Jones

When you say process, just tell us a little bit more about that. Was that a commitment to write a certain amount a day or to write for a certain period of time? You know, what was your creative process?

Greg Orme

Well, it might be too grand a phrase for it, but I just think, just write. You obviously, you’ve made a sort of sandpit playground for yourself with the question, with the premise. So you know, there’s going to be lots of little sub areas in that that you need to write so don’t worry about the order. I was writing things about experimentation, which was in the final chapter, in the early part, and I didn’t know where it was going to go. But I knew if I had chunks, I think of it… There was a guy who came, we live in the countryside in Warwickshire, we have one of those old houses with the old bricks, you know, that aren’t all the same size. And they have to mortar around them. I think about writing like that, you make your different-sized stones and bricks, and then you put them in the wall. And then slowly you start to mortar round them so it looks like a whole. And I do a lot of speaking obviously, as a keynote speaker and I always think they don’t know what you planned to say, they only know what you said.

Alison Jones

That’s a great tip.

Greg Orme

Same with writing. Nobody has to necessarily see any of your writing. You should then write it, put it to one side. A week later, look at it and think is that any good? Where does that go? Where do I mortar that into my wall? So that’s my process. It’s pretty messy. I’ve got a big pile of bricks, I’ve got some mortar and towards the end, I have to start making it into a really strong wall but I just assume if I’ve made the bricks strong enough, and I can make a red thread, sorry, I’m mixing my metaphors here, but strong enough mortar, this will stand up to the scrutiny of… you know, I assume my readers are really highly intelligent, really highly curious people who are very experienced. So I need to make that a strong wall for them to push against.

Alison Jones

And what’s lovely, of course, is once the wall is built, you can’t see how it could have been in any other way.

Greg Orme

Well, that’s right. And you look back at it, and I look back at The Spark, which is now six years ago. And I look at that, and it seems neat and tidy. And that’s the other thing because I had these questions of doubt in my mind thinking, you know, that’s a mess, who’s going to think about that, and then you hand the manuscript over to people and then to the reader in terms of the book, and you realize they see this thing as a whole. They’ve followed, thought by thought and sometimes they’ll dip in the book in different orders, but they see it as a whole. So even though it’s messy to you, you have to dispel that and realize it’ll seem much more cogent and coherent to your readers.

Alison Jones

Well, it will if you put the work into the mortar, I think that is an important point.

Greg Orme

Yes, yes, it has to be because otherwise… you do read business books by really brilliant people who are clearly absolutely outstanding in their field, but they haven’t really – loving this metaphor – they haven’t put enough thought into their mortar or how the thing hangs together. So it becomes a little bit episodic, and however good those you know, three or four pages are, unless it’s part of a whole, it’s not as satisfying as you’d want it to be.

Alison Jones

Yes, it’s not as useful for you cognitively. It’s just a sort of idea stack, isn’t it.

Greg Orme

Yes, and we’ve got enough of that, we’ve got enough confusion and incoherence in our lives. I think we go to thought leaders or whatever you want to call them, people who write, for some kind of framework and I find the framework…  People like the four Cs because they can remember it. They don’t have to remember every single one of those human experiments that I wrote, which there’re about 60 or 70 in the book, because it’s quite a practical book, they just have to remember the four Cs and they know, then they’ve got away back into it, they know that they can keep it, keep that with them and carry it with them.

Alison Jones

And I’m looping back a bit here. But it just raises… An important point, which I think is worth touching on, is that you didn’t have that framework before you started writing this book. So there’s a very powerful job that writing the book does for you, as a human, as a professional as well, in terms of forcing you into that clarity about your ideas, isn’t there?

Greg Orme

Absolutely. I always say, because I do a lot of, I guess it’s teaching. I work in business schools. So that’s kind of like teaching although I don’t like the word because the people in front of me have often got so much experience. It’s more like facilitated learning. But I always say if you really want to understand the subject, teach it. And I think if you really, really want to understand something write it, because I find in the writing for each… you know, to go back to our metaphor, I understand the bricks fully only when I’ve written them, and for each brick I try and have some good solid scientific research, neuroscience psychology, some kind of social study or business study, then I try and leaven it with some kind of story. I think stories help get into people’s brains and then makes it sticky. And then I try and give have at least one practical way that you can use that in your life. And that that is a brick To me, that’s the smallest possible brick. There’s the you know why this is important, which is the research. There’s the and then there’s the how you can use it, and the story helps you remember it.

Alison Jones

I was going say it’s the atomic structure of the brick, but actually, it’s a riot of metaphors. I think we should probably just stop, we’re leavening bricks as well.

Greg Orme

We’ll get off now.

Alison Jones

And I always ask people, Greg, to recommend a book that everybody should read; clearly everybody should read The Human Edge, but apart from that one, is there a book that you found particularly helpful? It doesn’t have to be a business book. But you know, the people listening to this show, perhaps would you recommend that we should read?

Greg Orme

Well, it’s a good question. I think in the honour of curiosity, I think you should be constantly reading something. And I’m lucky at the moment because the book I’m reading right now is really good. And it’s by a colleague of mine who I’m working with and doing some webinars with. She’s a German neuroscientists called Friederike Fabritius. And she wrote, I’m not sure how long ago it was, I think four or five years ago, she wrote a book called The Leading Brain. And actually, you’ll notice in The Human Edge I use findings from neuroscience quite heavily because I think it’s exciting that… we used to rely on Applied Psychology in the game of leadership and, and change but now we can rely on biology. How exciting is that? We can actually see what’s happening. So, Friederike and her co writer really unpack a lot of the studies around neuroscience and make it accessible in how the body supports the brain’s functioning, and creativity is just one part of that. So it’s a really good book. I’m reading that, I’m on chapter three, I’d recommend that one.

Alison Jones

Brilliant, and that’s not just recency bias, no?

Greg Orme

Probably. But I think it’s a good book. And I’m looking behind me on this. I mean, I’ve got heaving stacks of books, I mean, writers are readers, right? So, right, forgive me for not mentioning all my other…

Alison Jones

I’m the same. Somebody asks me what book to read, and I’m just, ‘Oh, I’m reading this brilliant book at the moment…’

Greg Orme

‘The shiny thing that I like right now.’

Alison JOnes

Yes, the shiny thing right now. And Greg, if people want to find out more about you more about The Human Edge, where should they go?

Greg Orme

Well, I’m really active on LinkedIn. I you know, I would welcome listeners of this to follow me on LinkedIn. I’m also on Twitter. You can find me at Gregorme.org online and find out a bit more about my work and that’s probably the best way I think.

Alison Jones

Brilliant, and I shall put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com, but Greg, thank you so much for your time today. Absolutely fascinating conversation.

Greg Orme

It’s been just a delight being with you, Alison, what a lovely conversation. Thank you very much.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent discussion, packed with insights and really vibrant discussion. Thank you.

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