Episode 307 – Invisible Work with John Howkins

John Howkins‘Expressing an idea and getting it out there is a very skilful process… the principle is to get the other people as interested in the idea you are.’

Creative work is to a large extent invisible – which makes it tricky for managers to manage. It also means that we’re left with the challenge of making our invisible ideas visible if we’re going to do anything with them. 

In this fascinating conversation I talk to creativity expert John Howkins about that process, the naming, defining and describing of a new idea, together with his best advice for writers (and his confessions about his own writing process…). 

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John’s site: http://johnhowkins.com/

John on Twitter: https://twitter.com/johnhowkins

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Alison Jones: I’m here today with John Howkins, who is a global strategist and an author on creativity, innovation, and work.

His books include The Creative Economy, Creative Ecologies, and Invisible Work. And he’s the founder and chair of InWork, a director of First Person Films and Television Investments and former chairman of BOP, Tornado Productions, and CREATEC and he’s chair at the London Film School.

He’s had a distinguished career in the creative industries and he’s a visiting professor at universities in Britain, China, and Brazil, and a former Executive-in-Residence at the Drucker School of Management, Los Angeles.

So welcome to the show, John. It’s very good to have you here. You’ve travelled a bit, haven’t you?

John Howkins: Well I did travel until two years ago when I was banned from travelling. And so my work, my business work, my company virtually closed down. Not through me wanting to stop travelling but through the fact that I was not allowed to travel, either I couldn’t leave this country, or the countries I wanted to go to don’t want me in at all.

Alison Jones: Yes, no offence. Let’s start with that actually, because the whole point of Invisible Work, the qualitatively different nature of work to what it used to be even 20 years ago, how did the pandemic shift or advance your thinking on that?

John Howkins: I think what happened, without anybody planning it or thinking about it beforehand, was we went through, everybody went through, an extraordinary period of self-examination of what they were doing, what they were up to and what was the role of work in their lives. And if they were in a family what was the role of work, of their particular work, in the family’s life and how they related to their job, to their colleagues, the company.

Everybody responded differently, but I think they all went through this process of why am I doing what I’m doing? Why am I doing what I’m doing and why am I doing it in this particular way?

Alison Jones: And for managers of course, managers who’ve always managed by walking around and looking at people, that was quite a challenge as well wasn’t it, being forced almost to manage somebody when you can’t see what they’re doing day by day.

John Howkins: Which is really hard because traditionally we’ve always valued looking somebody in the eye, responding to their signals, body signals whatever, the way that they look back at us and so on and so forth.

And I was very struck early on by a remark by a Chief Executive of a big corporation who said on the first week of lockdown, this was a UK person speaking, I basically, I didn’t realise it at the time, but I threw away all my business plans, my strategies and I just thought about the people.

I realised I relied upon these people. They relied upon me and I didn’t know them. I knew them as faces and around the table, but I didn’t know really who they were. I didn’t know what they were, what they really liked doing and what they were really good at. And I didn’t know anything about their home situation. So he said, he was saying this some time after this sort of epiphany if you like, and he said I’ve learned more about my people than ever before.

And he said, that’s a really good thing and I should have done it before.

Alison Jones: How interesting. But you were talking about invisible work long before we were sort of confronted with this existential crisis, you know, what it looks like to do work. What was the genesis of that? It’s one of those great things about business books, is when they articulate something that you realize you knew, but you’d never given words before.

You know, what does work look like when it’s going on in here? And actually work looks like staring out the window a lot of the time. Where did that idea come from and how did you articulate it into the book?

John Howkins: It was the result of a slow burn, I’d been wondering for many years, as I wandered around the world and met many, many creative people, all kinds in many different industries including my own business of television and film.

Really creative people, the hardcore creative people who made a big difference, were just different to the rest of us. They worked in a different way. They had different ideas about time, about what was important to them. And they lived their life in a different way and the sort of boundary between work and life or life and work was, it was different for them.

And I was puzzling over this for a very long time trying to tease out the answer. And then one day I remember about 20 years ago, I was chair of a startup in London. We had about 25 people. I wasn’t a founder, I was brought in to be chair and I was two days a week. And I used to go into the office, open plan office, and I’d look around and I would have no idea what anybody was doing.

I knew what they were doing in general. I knew what projects we were working on. I knew them very well. I liked them. I’d hired many of them. But at that precise moment, I didn’t know what they were up to. And I realised also, I didn’t know whether they were working or not, they probably were working because we were doing the business and we were all very busy, but I didn’t know whether at that precise moment they were worrying about the guy next door or their holiday or their home situation or me, or, you know, or the boss, whatever. I just didn’t know.

And in a way that didn’t matter, but it did matter in another way, which was that if they had a problem I had no way of knowing that. And so somebody might be unhappy or fed up or frustrated or not making any progress. And by looking at them, I would have no idea about what was going on in their head.

And that was what led me to the idea of Invisible Work.

Alison Jones: And you talk a lot in the book about the ways in which we make the invisible visible. And of course, selfishly, I want to talk about writing because that’s what we’re about and that’s what our passion is.

Turning that invisible stuff that is felt rather than thought and perhaps isn’t always clear to us. What are the stages, do you think, particularly in a work context, which is of course where you’re talking about it, what are the ways in which people make it visible so that it can be fixed, shared, developed by other people?

John Howkins: There are, I write in the book about processes and techniques, and they’re much more to do with one idea of self, of issues dealt with psychology, even philosophy actually, philosophy and psychology are the two areas of research that are the most useful.

There are ways of managing it privately, so that at the right moment you do establish the link with the person you want to share the idea with. And expressing the idea and getting it out there is a very skilful process that people when they start to work don’t know about, it’s completely different from how we express ourselves at school and university.

They have to learn a whole new way of formulating their ideas, knowing how and when and where to express them, in ways that the people or the other person, maybe just one person, will be as interested in their idea as they are. The idea, the principle, is to get the other people as interested in the idea you are.

And then that one-on-one goes into the group, goes into the wider organization. And managing that, you don’t need a lot of, often just a very few words at the right time. And it’s only learnt really through practice, through being with people who respect your own creativity. They may disagree with what you say but they respect that your point of view is worth listening to.

Alison Jones: And you’re right, nobody teaches you this. It’s, you either absorb or you don’t. But you do have, I mean obviously you put a lot of frameworks and processes in the book. And one that really struck me was you talking about the fact that we have the three powers, the power to name, the power to define and the power to describe. Even just separating those out, I thought was very, very helpful and that, you know, seeing what each of the jobs do.

Could you talk a little bit about that? In book terms, just so you know, I reflected this, so you know, you have a title, which is your name. You have the subtitle or the strap line, which is describing, defining rather, and then you have blurb, which describes. And I just thought that was a really helpful model for people to bear in mind when they’re putting a proposal together.

John Howkins: Yes, this idea of the right to name is an idea, I mean I’d had that idea for a very long time. It grew out of my work on The Creative Economy. We talk about giving birth to an idea and we have that moment when we give birth to an idea, I’m not quite sure, I don’t want to draw that analogy too close to giving birth.

Alison Jones: A new neural pathway lights up and something new is there.

John Howkins: Yes, exactly. The light bulb on the top of the head goes up and there’s that precious moment when we’re the only person who has that idea and we can do what we like with it. We can keep schtum and say nothing about it, because it’s not appropriate or it doesn’t help the particular way that we want to do something.

But we do have the right, we have that absolute inalienable right to say what it is, to name it. And it could be a, it could be descriptive, it could be effectual. It could be putting something into a particular category, or it could be a question, why didn’t we do this? And then you say what it is, and the ability to do that is really important.

And I make this distinction between the definition and the description. And the definition is in a way the most important of the triad, because it’s… everybody will come back to it again and again, and again.

Alison Jones: And you’re right, the name can be almost anything, could be metaphorical. The role of a name is just to intrigue people.

John Howkins: It is to intrigue people, it’s to stop the conversation. People looking at me, or you, and then the description, we can make up endless descriptions.

And if you look at the way that an entrepreneur, a founder of enterprise, a company pushes their idea forward, they are endlessly coming up with new descriptions on it, in order to suit the circumstance. The definition is not really, the definition is universal and there it is and it’s you have a little bit of sort of slightly curious and tempting for people to ask what is that all about? What is that all about?

The description will vary according to your audience. And I think by separating out those three elements in the first few stages, of bringing your work, making it visible, getting your communities to support it, the way you continue to describe it is a way not only of telling people what it is, but it’s a way of retaining control of the process. That’s really important.

Alison Jones: I wonder, just to make that a little bit more concrete for people as it’s such a helpful framework, can you get us a worked example of something that, what is the difference between the name, the definition and the description of a thing that you talk about in the book perhaps?

John Howkins: Well, there’s the example that I remember, which was a particular kind of new medical invention, a new medical device. It was a medical device and it didn’t have much of a shape or a form or a defined shape or form to begin with, so people in the company both in the development team and elsewhere, used to describe it as that big yellow thing.

‘That big yellow thing’, ‘the guys who, you know that big yellow thing they are working on’. You know, slightly dismissive actually, the big yellow thing. This was not sort of bells and whistles, but a fantastic invention, was that big yellow thing. And that was a very comfortable, I quite like ideas to be introduced in a slightly, not condescending, but slightly in a dismissive way.

You know, how about this? Don’t bang the table, never bang the table. Be slightly jokingly dismissive about your idea, and that will make people feel they’re not threatened by it. It’s rather interesting and fun to talk more about this.

So the big yellow thing stuck in people’s mind and they quite liked it. It was very, it was very sort of friendly and comforting and joking.

Alison Jones: Accessible, isn’t it? Doesn’t feel at all threatening. Yes.

John Howkins: Not at all threatening at all. And it sort of stuck in people’s minds, and as the circle of those that knew about it widened they rather liked it, the big yellow thing and so that in the end they decided to make that almost a brand.

And they now use that phrase in the advertising. It’s quite a complicated device, but they have summed it up in a phrase, in a description, like accurate all the way from the initial idea through to branding and marketing and selling. And I think that’s a wonderful example of how you can, in a way, cross those categories, but they did very clearly have those three categories in mind and they decided at each stage to use the same phrase.

Alison Jones: Yes, and it’s a great example of how the name actually, as I say, almost doesn’t matter. It’s just it’s got to have the hook.

John Howkins: I mean, my first job after university was working in Unilever, in marketing in Unilever and our brand was, OMO, O M O you know, and Omo was I think the best or at the top or the second top selling detergent brand alongside the Procter and Gamble equivalent .

OMO, what is that? Tells you nothing about it. It tells, you know, it doesn’t even, I mean, it could be the name of a bird, like emu or it could be the name of a car. It just, I mean, who would have guessed, but it worked and so this idea of naming and defining and describing is something that not only is very useful, actually it’s the way successes are achieved.

But it’s something we can all do you know, it’s not difficult to do this.

Alison Jones: And I think having that framework in your head is hugely helpful actually, because you can decide sort of what you’re doing at each point, which is always useful.

I would love to know about you and writing as well, as obviously you’ve written several books and imagine you have written a huge amount during your career and as an academic. When the light bulb goes off and you have the thing that needs naming and finding and describing, what’s the role of writing in that for you? What does that look like?

John Howkins: I worked as a journalist for about 10 years. And then as also a bit of an editor and I got into the habit of being able to write 700, 500, 700 words simply by sitting down and starting the first sentence and finishing it and I could do it. And that was fine.

Although I did learn one very good lesson from a friend of mine who said, John, the first paragraph doesn’t work. Throw away the first paragraph. And then he said, always throw away the first paragraph.

Alison Jones: I think to me, this is like making pancakes. You know, when you make pancakes, you’ve always got to throw the first one away. It’s always rubbish.

John Howkins: Love it, it’s a brilliant analogy. A lot of people put a lot of effort into their opening paragraph, they think it’s incredibly important.

As the result, it gets very constipated and elegant, but not elegant and there’s too much going on. Write your 700 words, throw away the first paragraph.

Alison Jones: Great principle.

John Howkins: Writing a book, I thought I could do that in the same way as writing an article. I was so wrong. With a book you have to have structure. You have to have a sense of where the chapters relate to each other and how the chapters flow. It’s a completely different thing.

And I can’t write, I can write an article in a noisy cafe. I can’t write, writing a book I have to hide and close the door and I can’t, some people love music, I can’t stand music. I hate it. And I mean, when I’m writing and or thinking and so hide, for me and I talked to other writers about this, including a very close friend of mine two days ago, we both agreed. We’ve got to hide away.

Alison Jones: I have to leave my family, I mean, temporarily, but yes.

And that idea about the balance of the structure and the writing, how do you get to the structure?

John Howkins: It’s basically a sales document. When you’re writing an article the people are in the frame of mind to read the article, because it’s published on a platform or it’s published on some print. They’re not buying you, they’re buying the platform. And then you’re part of the platform.

When they’re buying a book, it’s a big decision to put down cash and buy that book. And there are a thousand books on the same subject. So it’s much more of a sales document. Why is it that people will buy my book as opposed to someone else’s book?

And you have to think of the title, think of the argument. The title, the subtitle and the argument. I have an editor who was one of the best editors in London. He was a wonderful revered editor and we were talking about book proposals and he said, it’s all about the title. And the rest of the proposal is justifying the title.

And the two key things in buying books now for most people are the title, the jacket cover if it’s a physical copy and the author. Some people follow authors. It’s a title that does this, not only for the reader, but for the agent, the publisher, the book seller and the people that might review it.

Does that title spark an interest? For an article, you don’t have to think about that.

Alison Jones: I’m going to push you on the structure though, because once you have named it, you have to do, in a sense that the book itself is it’s one long description, isn’t it, of what you’re talking about and you are right it’s a sales document you’re targeting at the reader. But I still want to know how you get from sitting down and just writing text, which is what you can do in an article, to having that scaffolding to having that progression of ideas.

 How do you do that in a book?

John Howkins: Well I’m not sure I do that very successfully, I have a temptation when I come across something that is at all relevant to the topic and that I’m interested in, to try and squeeze it in somewhere Really bad tactics, one should absolutely keep the main topic in mind and every sentence should relate to that. And every sentence should follow logically from the proceeding one. So you write a sentence and then the next one follows and that’s the way to do it.

 So you have your structure, which you’ve created out of the research. And then you’ve got a very clear idea of what that means in terms of the words, chapters and paragraphs and sentences and words. And you follow that plan. Yes, I mean, I’m so bad at following my own advice.

I read something that’s really interesting, wow, and I just bung it in. I have to sort of slap my wrist and say no, no, it’s fascinating but no. And actually it weakens the book because it’s a sort of interesting detour, but if you have too many interesting detours, you know, no, no to interesting detours.

You’ve got to keep the argument churning along very fast, very fast, without any detours.

Alison Jones: Which is awful, isn’t it? Because good conversation is made up of interesting detours.

John, I always ask my guests to give a tip. Their best tip for a first time business book author. You’re far from that now, but imagining yourself back there, sitting at the computer with the cursor blinking, starting your first book, what would your best tip be?

John Howkins: Well, I was late to business books, I have to say. And I read about a hundred business plans or more before I read a single business book. And I am actually fascinated with corporate finance and business planning and governance and shareholders. So I’m fascinated with all that.

And I learnt a lot about business from business plans, how people present an idea in order to persuade someone to say I will put money into this. I’m fascinated by that process and how that is done and demonstrating good business plan. There’s a book that is called How To Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric. And it takes a humanist approach to work, which I try and do as well. Work is a humanist enterprise. It’s just not primarily economic enterprise or business enterprise or an organization enterprise. It’s a humanist enterprise. And I thought that was extremely good.

I also, one of the books that really struck home with me, so I’d also like to recommend it, is, Bullshit Jobs written by a man called David Graeber, who is a very interesting anthropologist, worked in an American university, was a bit too radical, asked to leave, came home to the LSE. Very sadly died at a young age last year. He wrote this book Bullshit Jobs, and I liked that because it shows us what not to do. It’s wholly about what not to do. And a lot of business books are about how wonderful this is and how these are the five principles or seven principles or twelve principles or whatever number of absolutely golden rules to follow.

And then you’ll become whatever you want to become.

And what David Graeber did was to say, actually, a lot of people do bullshit jobs. And he investigated that and he got a lot of response from people who are doing bullshit jobs. That book is about people who told him their job is bullshit. And I think that’s a very interesting way of understanding what a bullshit job is.

And therefore also what a worthwhile job is.

Alison Jones: Reverse engineering something. That’s another great example of a title as well. Love that.

You have, of course, very presciently answered my next question, which was about recommending books. Let’s loop back and that tip for a first time author. I’ll kind of press you again on that.

John Howkins: Yes, it’s the corny stuff of writing about what you know, and sharing that experience with the reader. So in Invisible Work, I thought it was interesting and relevant to write about my experiences in the years after I left university. For about four or five years, I took a succession of jobs in London. They were all very different. I mean, very, very different kinds of jobs. I was wondering, I was perfectly happy. I was having a great time. I was testing out different kinds of organizations, different kinds of industries, different businesses. And looking back, I was sort of experimenting. I didn’t really see that at a time. I was just doing stuff that was interesting. And somebody asked me to do, or I found myself doing.

 And I actually then took a job, rather reluctantly, because my deal was that I would do what they asked me to do rather reluctantly, but I would then be able to do what I really wanted to do. I then discovered in a few weeks, that the thing that I was doing rather reluctantly was utterly fascinating and that introduced me to the world of television. And I became besotted with the world of television and that took about four years of, I was going to say intense, intense trial and error. It was intense because I was working hard and loving it, but it wasn’t, I had no idea that I was going through a training period or a series of experiments.

So I put that in the book because I felt that helps people to try to work out what it is that they want to do. And I think that’s one of the hardest things, when you stop your education to work out what it is that you really want to do. I think I say in the book that it was as much about the people as about the task or the business or the sector, or the industry.

When you go into an industry, you don’t really understand what it is like, but you do have an immediate rapport with the people or not. And if you have an immediate rapport, you want to say, these are the people I want to be with tomorrow. I can’t wait to be with them tomorrow. I can’t wait to get on and be with them and do this thing that they’re going to do or help them do it. And it’s the people, it’s that feeling of you’re joining a group of people or one individual person who is doing something that you think, wow, that’s fun. I’ll do that.

Alison Jones: You could be describing publishing as well, actually.

John Howkins: Yes.

Alison Jones: And I love that sense of, I mean, as a tip for would-be writers, that sense of bringing in your own experience and also the curiosity that even when you do something that seems really unpromising, who knows what you might discover as part of that.

So keeping that really curious, open, adventurous spirit when you’re doing something that you don’t particularly want to do. I love that. Thank you.

So John, if people want to find out more about you, more about Invisible Work and your other books, where should they go?

John Howkins: My other books is the answer actually, The Creative Economy is still around and has been revised three times. And I do a lot of talks, but I don’t do a lot of social media.

I do talks, a lot of my talks were outside of this country. I’m writing another book which is, it’s a short, succinct guide to everything you ever wanted to know about creativity.

Alison Jones: Does it have a name?

John Howkins: It has a working title, which will not be the final title: The Creativity Cookbook.

Alison Jones: That’s quite nice, I like that. I love getting that early stage insight. Brilliant.

John Howkins: Yes, well, I don’t think that’d be the final title. It’s a bit too sort of coy really, but it’s going to be an accessible, short thing. And at the moment I want to, I tried to work out when creativity started. So I’m struggling with that and I’m defining it and it’s fascinating, I’m defining it in all sorts of ways I never thought of defining.

And so I’m around, you know, I live in London and I’m around if anybody wants to get in touch with me

Alison Jones: And he’s not going anywhere much at the moment, but hopefully that will be changing soon.

Brilliant. And I think it’s really encouraging for people who do struggle with titles. This is what you do, and you’re not there yet with the title for this book. So I think that’s hugely encouraging. You’ll get there, but you’re not there now. So yes, it takes time, doesn’t it? Brilliant.

I can’t tell you how much fun it’s been talking to you, John. Thank you so much for exploring Invisible Work with us and talking about writing and just telling us a little bit more about you.

John Howkins: Thank you very much, a great conversation. Thank you so much.

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