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Tapping into creativity with Natwest's Megan Rowlands
Episode 425th November 2022 • The King’s Fund Embracing Digital • The King’s Fund
00:00:00 00:21:51

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You might think that some people are born creative. You might even think that you are not one of those people. Not true, says Megan Rowlands, Senior Innovation Designer at Natwest. She tells The King's Fund's Sharon Jones that creativity is something you can practice - and that it is the needed skill for the future workforce.

Transcripts

SHARON:

Hi, I'm Sharon Jones, Head of Digital Innovation at The King's Fund and I'm really excited to be speaking to Megan Rowlands, Senior Innovation Designer at NatWest. Megan has worked across the private, public and not for profit sectors but at the core of her roles has been creativity and that's the topic for today's discussion. Can you tell us a bit about what an innovation designer does, it sounds very fancy?

MEGAN:

Yes, it's definitely one of those intriguing job titles, isn't it? So I work across the bank on new and exciting opportunities for innovation. So very much looking at interesting areas or customer needs that aren't being met within the bank and starting to explore those with customers and with people within the bank to look at new concepts and new propositions that we can stand up within the bank. So it's very early stage innovation, it's very unknown and often it's trying to say, "Is this a space we want to play in?" and really is there some meat on this that we want to get stuck into?

SHARON:

Talk a little bit about your background, how it's led to that, you've always been involved in innovation and creativity.

MEGAN:

Yes, so I've worked across corporate sector, started at Heathrow Airport in an innovation role there that was looking at different innovation programmes across the airport which was very exciting because Heathrow is like a mini city, you name it, it happens at Heathrow Airport, and then I moved into a charity role where I was very much looking at designing propositions to get in the hands of children and vulnerable children and then into government in the Department for Education looking at how we better get access to some of our education programmes across the UK. So lots of different roles within innovation but always the same kind of skills, which is helping teams to get the most out of their creativity, think about different ways of doing things, exploring what the customer or the user really needs and having empathy and building products and services that solve problems for people that use them rather than just assuming what people need in their context.

SHARON:

Yes, it sounds so interesting and you're a massive advocate for creativity in all its many forms, how would you define it and what would you say it looks like in the modern workplace?

MEGAN:

So I think creativity in its broadest sense is really about solving problems and finding opportunities. When I talk to people about creativity, I talk about five main hallmarks and they are: curiosity, so the ability to ask questions and get under the hood; optimism which is very much having a can do mindset and think we can solve these problems, there is a way to do this better; it's around courage which is the desire to learn and to be embracing of failure if it means that you're actually striving to do better; flexibility, which is being happy to bin ideas, to change your mind, to seek different points of view; and then finally inspiration, so that's not necessarily inspiration in terms of sparks whilst that is important, it's the ability to look at an idea and start to think how we bring this to action, because ideas in themselves are great but if they don't become something then they're just an idea. So when I talk about creativity I talk to people in those five key hallmarks and how we can build those skills so they have the confidence to bring those skills into the workplace.

SHARON:

I feel like creativity is often viewed as either something that you have or you don't have, you often hear people saying, "I'm not creative," and yet as children it comes so naturally and then somehow as we get older that spark diminishes. How do you think people can connect with their creative side whatever role they do in an organisation?

MEGAN:

As children we're really encouraged to play. I went to a great exhibition called Play Well around techniques to get adults to be able to play because that's something that the older you get the less likely you are to actually just have those inhibitions, let loose. But I think it's definitely something that people can try and tap into their inner child. So it's about having the space to be able to play and create an environment where people feel comfortable to be able to do that and that's brands such as Lego that have so successfully done that which have then been able to design great products because they're tapping into their inner child. For me it's really about building smaller habits to be able to practice creativity. So not seeing creativity as something that someone is or someone isn't and that you have or that you haven't, but more around seeing creativity as this set of behaviours that you want to practice and really build small habits around. So that might be saying to yourself, "I'm going to ask ten more questions today," or, "I'm just going to go and sit in a coffee shop and watch someone's behaviour and think about, oh, well maybe they're seeing these challenges." The minute you start questioning and watching and listening and just giving yourself smaller daily exercises, I think that's how your creativity improves over time. I'm also really interested in children's literature and I think there's this incredible book that I would recommend, it's a child's book, and it's called This Is Not a Stick and it's basically a story about this child who goes through life and he's carrying a stick but every time the adult says to him, "Don't wave that stick," he says, "This isn't a stick, this is a sword," or, "This isn't a stick this a pirate flag," and that's not a technique but I think that's an attitude to have towards life if you're embracing creativity and that's taking an approach of saying, "What can this be?" and using imagination and play to tap into that childlike sense will really help you when you're then trying to be creative in the workplace as well.

SHARON:

Definitely, I guess it's a perspective in looking at things differently with a fresh pair of eyes. So creative thinking is one of your strengths, can you tell us what it is and what it isn't, and how can we harness it in all our roles at work?

MEGAN:

I think it's easier to say what it isn't. A lot of people define creativity as people that are good at art or people that are good at design, people that potentially could be good at performing arts, that's the challenge where people say, "I'm not creative, I was never good at art in school," and for me creativity isn't about being good at art, in fact I'm absolutely rubbish at art in it's kind of most traditional sense. It's really about being open to new possibilities and being open to changing the status quo if you think that there's a better outcome. It's about collaborating with people and thinking that your ideas in isolation aren't the best way of doing things. Working together with people, bringing in diverse perspectives, being inclusive with your approach. Creativity has so many facets it's hard to pin down an exact definition of creativity. I think it's more of an approach and an outlook and a mindset that you take into the world and that's why when we think about, how do I harness creativity, you can start to break down your behaviours and your approach into the world and think, what am I putting out there and which of those things can I change and adapt and improve or learn new techniques to be able to start to think about things differently?

SHARON:

So what do you think the barriers are to creative thinking? Have you ever noticed any themes seeing that you've worked in private, public and not for profit sectors?

MEGAN:

Yes, I would say that there's twofold barriers. So the first is barriers with the individual and often this is … I've seen across organisations no matter the size, the shape, the industry, and that's a fixed thinking mentality. So that is statements like 'this is the way we've always done things', 'this is how it's done in this organisation' and that barrier comes from the individual. It comes from a fear to embrace change or potentially a fear around thinking that if there was a new way of doing things that they would be negatively impacted by that rather than seeing the opportunity within that. So I've seen that a lot across individuals and I think that that's something that can be changed because that's a mindset and a behaviour that can be worked on. I think some of the harder barriers to creativity are the more cultural barriers within our organisation. So people not having the space to be creative, that might be within time, people thinking creativity is just an exercise that can be done within a 30 minute slot in someone's calendar, we can run this workshop and you only need 45 minutes and we'll come out with these great ideas. Often that's not the case. It might be the space in term of the way that we're working now with a lot of things being online and people not having the right environments to spark new ideas and creative thinking, but it also might be organisational risk appetite or things like innovation theatre where you've got high level exec buy in to have a more innovative organisation but actually are they really getting to the root causes of the customer and user needs or are they interested in innovation theatre which is we can roll out this new product, it might not be that innovative but it's a great technology or it's something shiny and exciting but it doesn't actually solve a need? So they're the kind of barriers that are slightly harder I think to try and understand and that really requires really transformative changes within an organisation, but people have the power I guess as a collective to help shape those things too. I really do believe that. Innovation is everyone's responsibility within an organisation and you will create that momentum if you are starting to put the practices in place and the behaviours in place to demand a more innovative environment as well.

SHARON:

So sometimes just coming up with ideas in a group situation can be really challenging, it can be quite hard to think on the spot, you might be introverted, you might have a range of barriers to thinking of a topic to try and solve a problem, or you just default to brain storming. Do you have any particular techniques for teams to help generate ideas?

MEGAN:

That's a great question. I think the first thing is you need to think about your environment if you're going to run an ideas session. So you need to make sure that the environment gives people the opportunity to be creative. That's before you even start. Just make sure that you're pulling people out of their day to day life because people can't be creative if they've also got their Microsoft Teams channel popping off notifications here, there and everywhere. They're in the same space that they do deep work in. So think about the conditions for creating ideas, and then I would really think about the purpose, process and pay off. So the purpose, what you're trying to achieve with that workshop or that ideas generation; process, which is something I can give more techniques around which is actually how people do ideate; and then the pay off, like what are you trying to get out of doing in that session and I think really with the process that's where you can build in some great techniques for ideation which is always starting with an energiser. Have some brain sparkers, have some icebreakers, get people into a different mindset. Then think about the dynamics within an ideation session. So I say to everyone at the start of a workshop, "We're not playing HIPPO here," which is highest paid person's opinion.

SHARON:

Okay, yes.

MEGAN:

So I always create frameworks for people to be able to share their ideas no matter what level of the organisation they're at and some great ways to be able to do that is to give people individual time to think and to contribute before anyone speaks about their own opinion on it. Also another great technique is to make sure titles are left at the door. So you just create structures within your exercise to mix up groups and mix up different people within the room and then I would say ideation has to happen with lots and lots of stimulus. I think people can't ideate in isolation. You can't come up with loads of ideas just by having one question. You need loads and loads of sparks. So make sure you're really preparing for workshops if you're going to generate ideas or sessions where you're going to generate ideas, bring in future trends, bring in customer insights, bring in what other competitors are doing, bring in lots of different material and you might even think this isn't completely relevant for what we're trying to generate ideas on, but it could seed a spark of an idea for someone else. So the more you can bring to an ideation session the better your outcomes are going to be.

SHARON:

Obviously many people are still hybrid working, have you found this has hindered or encouraged creativity or creative thinking?

MEGAN:

It's had, like most things, some great benefits and also some significant disadvantages. I think firstly the great thing with remote working is there's people that you can bring into the conversation that previously would be excluded from the conversation, that for innovation is incredibly powerful. If I think about some projects that I've done we could bring in customers or beneficiaries that previously we would never ever have the resources to go and access to be able to bring into a design session. So I think there are a lot of benefits around who can be included in the conversation and that should be something that's taken forward regardless of how (s.l continue 00:15:10) ways of working. I think some of the disadvantages are people to be creative need to be in an environment that's different. So if I'm working in my office environment all day and then I'm expected to go into ideation session, then it's very hard for me to change my mindset because I'm not being dragged into a different environment. So I think you have to be conscious of that because that's something. That's definitely a barrier I found in getting creative outcomes out of my team is they're in the exact same environment that they then have to go and do a call that's a governance call, so it's very hard to be in a different mindset. So there are pros and cons to every approach, but I think take some of the good bits, different people being able to be involved, ideation not taking a whole day, people being able to be creative in little chunks of time, but then also really think about what you're trying to achieve when you're trying to be creative and put some measures in place to make sure that you get the best outcome from that.

SHARON:

Talking about a space as in if you've just had a Teams call and then you've got to go into another meeting or something and you've got to try to be creative, as workplaces kind of shape their offices, is there is an optimum type of space that you should have if you're having to work in the same place, ie the office, and then you're going to another space to come up with creative ideas? Is there anything that you think, well you need to have this type of space that is conducive to that kind of thinking?

MEGAN:

So I think for me it's all about creating adaptable spaces where people can do different types of work. I don't believe that creativity only has to happen in a workshop, so you only need a collaborative space where people have whiteboards and people have space to break out into different groups. People can also be creative when they're having deep thought and they're going and taking some time away from a group to really think about a problem or to really unpick some of the things that they've heard and to dwell on that. So I would say businesses need to be cognisant that people come up with creative ideas or people are more creative in different spaces and that I might have my best idea when I'm walking to work or if I go and sit in a coffee shop in the middle of the day, and I think that's the best thing about flexible working or businesses that truly embrace a more agile and flexible culture is that they're saying, you can have brilliant ideas and great outcomes no matter where you are, where you're sat. So I would say if you're trying to be collaborative in your creativity then, yes, you need spaces that are adaptable, you can break out, you can really dive into the materials and there's space there and that's something if I was ever running a workshop I'm always cognisant of, but I would also say you need to allow people to have creativity on their own terms and what one person finds is their best space to be creative another person wouldn't. So encourage your team to explore where they feel most creative and then allow them opportunities to go and be creative in that space and give them the time to be able to go and practice those behaviours.

SHARON:

So my final question is when it comes to creative thinking, what three things could people take away today and apply to their roles regardless of the department that they're in?

MEGAN:

The first thing I would say is go and get inspired, whether that's going outdoors, going and noticing something, taking yourself away from your day to day, go and find some inspiration, listen to a podcast, read a book, don't do something that's necessarily obvious or directly related to your role. Find something that interests you and inspires you and make a new connection because that's the first step to being creative because you're opening your mind to new possibilities and new ways of doing things. Think about your attitudes and behaviours. So innovation is your responsibility, it's my responsibility, it's everyone's responsibility, so really think about what behaviours am I putting out to my team, what behaviours am I putting out to my organisation, and are they aligned with a more creative organisation? We know that creativity is the needed skill for the future workforce with the rise in automation, with the more uncertain volatile world that we're living in and because of the incredible positive wellbeing impacts of creativity and mental health. I think everybody knows that creativity is the needed skill for the future. So really think are my behaviours aligned to creative behaviours and, if not, how do I start to shape and change that? So ask more questions, be more optimistic, embrace failure, things that I mentioned earlier and then the third thing I would say is practice makes progress not perfect. So do something to practice this, do something small, do a fun game, play something, play with someone, have a conversation that you might not have, watch a movie and think if I was the producer how would I completely change this ending, or play a fun little game if you had a wooden stick what would it be for? Creative behaviours are only going to improve over time so, yes, practice, practice and hopefully you'll see change within your teams, within your organisation and definitely within yourself as well.

SHARON:

That's so fascinating. Thanks so much for taking part Megan, that was really, really interesting, and thanks to everyone for listening. I hope that sparked a bit of creativity while people have been listening. This is just one of a series of in-house podcasts for The King's Fund all about various aspects of digital workplace transformation. Bye for now.

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