Episode 395 – Bright sparks & damp squibs with Sir John Tusa

Sir John Tusa‘It’s the stories we respond to in life. It’s people’s stories we respond to, and then… you can tease out the lessons. You don’t go for the theory head on.’

There are many, many books about creativity: what it is, how to do it, what steps to follow. When journalist and arts administrator Sir John Tusa turned his attention to the topic, he took a rather different approach.

His book is dedicated to ‘bright sparks who refuse to become damp squibs’, and it tells the stories of people who match that description. Around the world, against great odds, overcoming ridicule and opposition and invariably making many people furious along the way, these individuals achieved extraordinary creative success. From these varied experiences, we see the commonalities emerge and we can’t help but be inspired to do things differently. That is the power of storytelling, and this is a masterclass in how to go about it. 

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Alison Jones: I’m here today with Sir John Tusa, who is a British arts administrator and leader, author, journalist, former presenter of BBC’s Newsnight, also formerly the co-chair of the European Union Youth Orchestra, the Managing Director of the BBC World Service, the Barbican Arts Centre, it actually goes on a lot longer than this, I’m just trimming it down, but his latest book is called Bright Sparks: How creativity and innovation can ignite business success.

So first of all, welcome Sir John, very good to have you here.

John Tusa: Alison, thank you very much. Lovely to be with you.

Alison Jones: I was so intrigued when I was reading your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed by the way, it’s so beautifully written: there’s a dedication to ‘bright sparks who refuse to become damp squibs’ and I thought, there’s a story behind that. Tell me more.

John Tusa: The story is that I’m aware that not just myself, but almost everybody has a wonderful set of ideas. And you know, at nine o’clock in the morning, you know that you’re going to do something absolutely earth shattering and nobody will have done it before and by midday, you think, well, actually it’s not such a good idea and it probably won’t work and I’ve got other things to do and you then subside into being rather wet and pathetic.

So that’s what makes the people that I write about in this book so special, is that they have an idea, almost all of them had an idea which other people either ignored or actively said this is ridiculous and you can’t do it. But they persevered and they did it. And therefore the question of how and why they persevered, how they managed to persevere, and what they had to do to persevere, seems to me to be interesting and important.

Not just for these great individualists but also for people elsewhere in every kind of creative industry and creative organization. So that’s where the origin came from.

Alison Jones: And it is, you raise a really fascinating point because this book is a series of stories, beautifully told stories from very very different parts of the world and very different sectors and so on. And it really struck me that there’s a tension, there’s a dance the whole way through between specific personalities in specific situations doing incredible things and extrapolating the lessons from that.

So, very many books about creativity are quite abstract and they talk about the principles of creativity and the methodology and how to do it. But you’re not doing that at all. You’re saying, isn’t this interesting? This is what happened. And there are commonalities between them. But just tell me why you took that approach and what you noticed as you were writing it.

John Tusa: I think I found, and this is a question of evolution over years, that what I really like doing is telling stories. I believe that you communicate through telling stories. Many, many years ago, I probably started out writing in a far more abstract and theoretical way. And then as time went by, probably through my time in journalism as well, I thought it’s the stories that we respond to. It’s the stories we respond to in life. It’s people’s stories we respond to, and then you can tease out, and there are all sorts of lessons to learn, you can tease out the lessons. You don’t go for the theory head on.

Theory, I do think, is terribly, terribly boring, very often banal, and by the time you’ve created a theory, you’ve probably destroyed any room for action.

Whereas the story allows us to understand how things happen and how people make things happen. That’s life.

Alison Jones: And it captures us at a different level, doesn’t it? So theory is very beautiful and pleasing intellectually, but there’s something inspiring and stirring, I think, is the word. It’s almost like sort of great pioneer stories, that you respond emotionally to stories and actually that’s what creates action, isn’t it?

John Tusa: Yes. Yes. And you see, although I say there’s no theory. In fact, there’s an awful lot of commonality in the characters of these very, very different people who did very extraordinary things in many different parts of the world. And when you dig a little deeper, and I think it emerges from all the stories, a number of things come out very, very strongly. They’re all visionary, of course, you take that for granted. You have to have a vision, but they’re also extraordinarily practical and you need to be practical in order to make the vision work. And they have a big picture. But they also have the local detail, they master the detail, and without that, I think this is where bright sparks become damp squibs.

If people don’t have the detail and the practicality, then nothing can happen, and all the people I write about knew exactly what they were doing and the detail of what needed to be done. And then, by the way, they then don’t do it. I mean, they do a great deal, but they then devolve the actual practice of how an institution is created to other people.

That’s also, that’s leadership, isn’t it? Big picture, but you do it and you trust people to do it.

Alison Jones: Yes. And I’m thinking particularly of the story about Rory Stewart talking about ‘management by walking around’ and just having this extraordinary, very conscious tension between being the person with the big picture and trusting people to get on with their stuff, and noticing along the way that people often have better ideas than him, which of course is a great lesson in leadership too, but also being able to zoom in to the grittiest of the nitty gritty detail and and suddenly having an opinion or directing something down there. And I thought that was really interesting that sense that you’re modeling not just the vision, but also the rigorous attention to detail that is required to make this thing happen.

John Tusa: Yes. None of the people that I write about were sloppy about the practicalities. Joy Bryer, the wonderful woman who created the European Union Youth Orchestra, she knew exactly what was needed. You know, she knew that it had to be the best young musicians from all around Europe, coached by the best musicians, conducted by the best musicians.

And if you didn’t have that, and if she didn’t deliver that, then the orchestra would never have been so good that people wanted to copy it. And 50 years later, it still continues. So that sense that it’s all, of course it’s the big vision, but then it’s also down to the detail. And lots of people don’t understand that.

Sorry, lots of people don’t understand that.

Alison Jones: The detail doesn’t have quite the same sort of sexy appeal as the big vision sometimes, does it? But actually that’s where it happens. And what also really interested me was that, and you talk about the commonalities that come up through the stories, another one of those was the resistance of established players in the space to these young upstarts making things happen.

Yes, you’re shaking your head. Tell me a little bit more about that and what your thoughts are on that.

John Tusa: I feel a mixture of sort of tiredness and occasionally anger. You know, when George Carey, a very bright television producer in 1980, said, the way in which television communicates to audiences about the world is completely out of date. You can’t have two approaches, one which says, this is the news, and these are facts, and the other which says, this is the interpretation.

He said, you’ve got to bring them together. Now, he had lots of people, junior people, who believed that. Nobody, nobody except one in the senior BBC management was prepared to support him. They didn’t actually stop him, but they didn’t support him. And all these all these people. Rory Stewart at the Turquoise Mountain in Kabul. It never got money from the Department for International Development. Never, never, never. They actually hated what Turquoise Mountain did, because they didn’t produce the metrics. Well, they didn’t produce the metrics, but as General David Petraeus, the American commander in Afghanistan, once said to Rory, he said, Rory, you’re the only goddamn organization in this place that’s actually doing anything.

And large organizations, they like their theory, they like their order, and somebody who says no, no, no, I’m doing things, they find very, very uncomfortable, and almost everybody I write about had to overcome resistance and opposition.

Alison Jones: It’s almost disruptive, isn’t it? I think there’s a very strong parallel between founders setting up disruptive organizations and the pushback that you tend to get from established players in the space. And it’s something to do with governance and scalability and fear of change. It really struck me that there was this constant tension between getting something done on the ground as an individual, just by sheer force of personality, which, you know, many of us are using all the time.

And creating something that a bigger organisation or a bureaucracy can learn from and implement, given their constraints.

John Tusa: Yes, and that’s the trouble with big, big organizations, that they have so many rules and they think that the more rules and practices you can actually lay out and tie down, the better things will be. But it’s all the moments when you break away that actually produce something different. And George Carey and Newsnight from 1980, that actually shaped the nature of television communication about the world for 40 years. So he did an enormous favor to not just BBC, but to ITN and Sky and everybody. So he wasn’t just an innovator in a local way, he was an innovator on the entire scene of television journalism. And there are all sorts of things, you know, lots of people could have done in the world of development, what Rory Stewart did, unfortunately there’s still so much bureaucracy surrounding these projects that it is quite difficult to break away from the rules and regs and just say let’s do it on the ground.

Alison Jones: Very energising, and that really, really comes across in your storytelling. I want to talk to you as well about the writing, because obviously, I’m sure you have written in many different contexts during your professional life. You’ve written for business communication, you’ve written other books before. How did you approach this book and what perhaps most surprised you about it?

John Tusa: In a sense what I was doing was following on from the way that I had written my previous book which was about boards and governance called On Board. And I found there because I write about seven major arts institutions such as the British Museum and English National Opera and I described, again I was telling stories, what happened at a particular time and what do we learn from that period of history in an organization.

And so I was talking to people who I knew, but who had been part of that experience. So they were describing their experience. And I think I knew this would probably happen, but I didn’t realize how intense their description of experience would be. They wanted to tell their stories about, what is it like on the BM? What is it like on the National Portrait Gallery? All these things. Because they were describing what it was like to live it. And of course there’s some theory there but again it is the intensity of, as we now say, the lived experience.

So I found that what I had was stories and various people said, how did you get people to tell you these stories? I said, I didn’t have to get them. They wanted. People actually want to describe their experience.

That was certainly the case for On Board, and it was certainly the case with Bright Sparks. Nobody had been and asked any of these people, what was it like when you started? So they said, My God, it was difficult. And if you…

Alison Jones: Let tell you about it.

John Tusa: Yes, if you invite people and say, what was it like, please tell me, they tell you a story.

And that is lovely. People were telling me stories.

Alison Jones: And what’s interesting as well because there’s a collection of case studies in there, you might be thinking, dear listener, that Sir John was talking to individual people, you know, one person for each case study, but no, there’s actually it’s almost like a patchwork, an impressionistic sort of, you’re drawing in different people’s perspectives.

Sometimes you’re telling the same story from two different perspectives, which I found really fascinating. Quite an editorial job though.

John Tusa: Well, fortunately it didn’t seem so at the time. It was terribly enjoyable. And, of course, at a certain stage, even with, to take the Turquoise Mountain, I knew I needed to have people who were not part of the team to say, viewed from the outside, this looked impossible. Rory was a strange, maverick, egotist. What on earth was he going to be able to do? I needed that element as well.

And I just found that extremely, extremely satisfying. Actually, I describe what I tried to do in the book as psychobiography. Because I tried to get inside the psychology of the Joy Bryers, the George Careys, the John Drummond at the Edinburgh Festival, or the wonderful, wonderful Shakespearean scholar in Jerzy Limon in Gdansk.

To get inside their character, as well as the biographical part. How did they manage? And in some of these cases, the case of Jerzy Limon in Gdansk, who built a Shakespeare theatre, it took him 25 years, but he stuck to it.

Alison Jones: You’ve almost created a new genre in fact, and you talk at the beginning about, quite unapologetically, about it’s a sort of a hybrid. There’s a bit of autobiography in here, there’s a bit of biography, there’s a bit of business extrapolation of lessons and so on. So it’s really interesting to see that.

I think you could only, it’s hard to do that with your first book, isn’t it? As you say, that’s very much about how you bring together the things that you have learned.

John Tusa: I couldn’t have, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to write like this 20 years ago. So perhaps there are some advantages of having time to evolve how you write and how you think and the experiences that you’re examining.

Alison Jones: Yes, and of course you bring the full force of your journalistic background to it as well. So that it is very much a product of who you are and what you’re talking about. And it just feels fitting that you create a new way to talk about this if you’re talking about innovation strategy. One of the things that I always ask my guests to do and it’s a bit brutal sorry, but I’m going to ask you to give your best, your single best tip, if somebody is very much at the start of their journey, they are considering or they’re starting to write their very first business book particularly, what advice would you give them?

John Tusa: You ask a brutal question and I give a brutal answer. That is, have you got anything to say? And there are an enormous amount of people, and again, an enormous number of books have been started. I mean, I’ve thought I’ve started several books. And then it turned out that actually there wasn’t anything there.

I think you have to look very hard indeed and say, have I got something to say? And then you have to say, is the material there? Then can I get the material? And pretty early on, unless you think, I really want to write this, I’m almost in love with the subject. I believe that for a lot I was in love with the subject of how you work on boards because that was so psychological and so personal.

But if you, unless you’re convinced that you have something to say, which people will want to read, don’t actually start. And it’s probably a very good idea to throw your first three ideas away, then four or five. And then finally you say, aha, now maybe what I really want to write about is this.

Alison Jones: It’s great advice, it is brutal as you say, but it’s spot on and I remember talking to Robert Cialdini a few years back on this podcast who obviously wrote Influence and then Pre-suasion, but there was a 30 year gap between the two and his publisher had been on at him for most of those 30 years saying, you know, could we have the second book please?

And he said quite simply he didn’t have a book-sized idea until Pre-suasion.

He’d written lots of articles.

John Tusa: Yes, yes, that’s absolutely crucial. Now, I know a couple of people who had a very successful first book. And I said, how are you doing and what are you doing? They said, well, my publisher wants another one. And publishers, who are wonderful people and very important, usually want another version of the same.

And of course, the point is that you shouldn’t do another version of the same. You should do something different. So they have to say to the publisher, No, no, no. Let things sediment. Let me find out what I now need to write. Yes. Time.

Alison Jones: And publishing is a really interesting example of that sort of dance, as we were talking about, between the way that you do things. It’s a very low margin business. The processes matter. The sure bets are important, and it’s also a creative industry. How does it find the next thing that nobody knows is going to be the next big thing?

So maybe your next book could be about how we do that as publishers. Could you?

John Tusa: Yes. I wouldn’t presume to tell anybody in the publishing business because I admire it and I’m puzzled by it. I’m just very glad when I’m at the receiving end of very good publishing which at Bloomsbury, I am.

Alison Jones: Good. Yes, it is baffling. I can’t agree more. Yes. I’m also going to ask you, Sir John, to recommend us a book. Now, you’re not allowed to recommend Bright Sparks, obviously, but I would love to hear a non fiction book, ideally, or even a business book that you think is one that people who are listening should read if they haven’t already.

John Tusa: The book that I’ve almost finished, and I do hesitate to recommend a book which is 800 pages long, but it is a book called 40 Days on Amur Bagh, B A G H, and what it is, it’s about the expulsion of the Armenians from Turkey during and just after the First World War, and it is an epic tale, but it is both an epic tale about a piece of history and an extraordinary piece of psychological writing about the interplay of the people who were in the Armenian community and were trying to resist expulsion and total death. All I can say is I have been reading it probably for the last 5 to 6 weeks, very happily and intensively every single evening, and it has the full range of things.

The human experience, the historical experience, the psychological understanding of human behavior. And that has enriched me enormously. I wouldn’t tell you the previous book to recommend, because that’s also 800 pages, and I don’t normally spend my time reading 800 page books. I’m very lucky, I’ve now done two.

Alison Jones: There is something very different, isn’t there, about immersing yourself for that long in a piece of sustained long-form writing. I was interested, you said, I think you used the word nourished.

John Tusa: Yes,

Alison Jones: Tell me a little bit about, we’ve talked about writing in your life.

John Tusa: Yes.

Alison Jones: Just reflect for a moment on reading in your life.

John Tusa: It’s being taken into completely other atmospheres, situations, environments, psychological relationships, and particularly the latter, when you think, when the author is describing this interplay between two people, how true is it? Would I have done that? And on the whole, I find that if I say, yes, I would have done that, I think, well, it’s not a very good author.

When the author says this is how these people behaved and I think I wouldn’t have thought of that, but that is psychologically true. So you learn an enormous amount. I don’t want things to be sort of glibly shocking and unpredictable but I certainly want to have a deeper understanding of how people behave and a completely different environment.

And by the by, the idea that authors should only write about the environment that they know about and they’re not allowed to imagine anything else, I find absolutely preposterous. So it is enriching because there’s somebody when you read a good book saying this is a different world and you immerse yourself in it and say yes. I think, I hope I understand a little bit more as a result of reading this.

That’s why I read.

Alison Jones: It’s a wonderful articulation and what really strikes me as well, we talk a lot about reading for self development, but you’re also saying we read for self disruption, which I think is really exciting.

John Tusa: You know, I’m not at all sure about reading for self development. Really, really not. I think you can kid yourself very easily that, you know, you’ve read something and now you’re going to behave differently and you probably won’t. You never, you know, you won’t behave differently because you’ve read something. You may have learned something painfully and you may behave differently, but not because you’ve read a few rules or a book.

Alison Jones: It’s interesting though, what’s your hope for your book? If you don’t believe that people will behave differently having read it, what do you want it to achieve in your reader’s life?

John Tusa: I certainly want them to understand more. I think I want it to enlarge their imagination. I think I wanted to, I want them to say why is such behavior, such actions, these people, so rare? How do we organize things that we are more imaginative in our responses to big ideas and to slightly maverick people?

I think there is a learning, a learning process, a rather deep learning process, and I would like to think that… first of all, it’s actually, it’s very important to admire these people who’ve done extraordinary things, and I admire all of them. And if all I did was to admire, I’m enriched by that. You said nourished, I also say enriched.

And I think that is important, but there’s a lot of learning there as well, if you are so minded. And actually, we should learn more about how irritating individuals, and some of these people were very irritating, by the by, a lot of them were enormous egotists. Somebody said to me, but they’re terrible egotists, and you also say that they were altruists.

See, that’s the point. They use their egotism in the service of what they believe. And I think that’s an absolutely fantastic human combination. Lots of egotists around. Egotists who say, I’m doing it because I want to do something. That’s pretty special, but it does happen. And when it happens, I think at the least we can all cheer and say thank you.

Alison Jones: Fabulous and thank you for producing such a fascinating book. I absolutely admire those people. I can imagine they weren’t always easy to work with, but then that’s not the point, is it? Thoroughly enjoyed it.

John Tusa: Thank you very much indeed, Alison. Lovely to be able to talk about it with you. Thank you.

Alison Jones: If people want to find out more about what you do in the world, Sir John, and the book and so on, is there anywhere they should go?

John Tusa: Somebody said to me, your Wikipedia entry is nonchalant to the point of irritation. So I have not put my Wikipedia entry into any sort of order. No, I think you just have to pick up a bit here and a bit there. I don’t think you can promote yourself in that way. No, sorry. I can’t help you on that.

Alison Jones: No, it’s fine. I would say to anybody listening who’s like, that sounds like a really interesting fellow and I would like to know more about him, frankly, you just need to enter Sir John Tusa into Google and you’ll come up with all sorts of interesting speeches, as I did, and talks and events and so on.

So yes, you’re not invisible on the internet, which is good.

So thank you so much for time. I genuinely could speak to you all day. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation, but thank you so much.

John Tusa: Thank you very much. I’ve very, very much enjoyed it. Thank you.

Very searching and it’s made me think very hard.

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