3 lessons from Sir Ken Robinson on creativity and innovation

11th of Oct 2016

Michelle Bourke


Cane in hand, Ken Robinson (world renowned authority on innovation and creativity) shuffles confidently out onto an empty stage, his face displayed in the highest of definition across a screen so large it fills the peripheral vision. As he approaches a solitary, almost naked looking chair, over 4,000 eager souls hold their breath as a single light illuminates his silhouette, wondering what his first inspirational words might be. He makes a joke of course! And a lot of them after the first.

Ken Robinson is witty, frank and often hilariously irreverent as he effortlessly weaves stories and well thought out analogies together in a way that makes listening effortless. And just when you think he might have gone off on a tangent, he says something so on point it’s as if he never left it.

Human life is the beat of a wing, fleetingly brief

Ken talked about the distinctly human traits of imagination and creativity. Elements of our nature that are most important but also so often the most neglected – particularly in business when there are so many other behavioural drivers to consider.

“A lot of people don’t enjoy what they do, they wait for the weekend (70% of workers are disengaged from what they do). In fact a study by WHO (World Health Organisation) reported that by 2020, the largest cause of mortality will be depression. And what is most interesting is that this is while we are living in a time of material abundance. Even the poorest in AU are better off than most people who lived in the early 19th century!”

As Ken sees it, the myth that we are told (or that we tell ourselves) is that we can plan things beforehand. That we have control over our own future. But the truth is that we rationalise it afterward and it is a constant process of chaotic improvisation.

In fact, according to Professor Steven Novella of the Yale School of Medicine, humans are hardwired to want to exert control over their own lives, and they will in fact create fabrications of reality in order to keep that control and that sense of thematic consistency (source). How fascinating, and yet utterly terrifying!

Sir Robinson suggested an exercise to bring the point home to the crowd: Tweet a summary of your life in 140 characters and ask yourself truthfully, are doing now what you’d expected to be doing at 15?

The connection that Sir Robinson wished to make for those thousands of business professionals in the room, was that what’s true of our personal lives is often true of the business world.

In fact, this humanistic theme spanned across the speaker line up at Telstra Vantage 2016. It was an impressive feat of organisation by the Telstra team. The move to create a raw and honest approach to the summit was bold, but it paid off.

Ken Robinson moved from the broad brushstrokes into details that the audience might grasp with a well known example. Kodak.

“Before the Brownie camera was invented, you had to go to a photo studio and sit still for 20 minutes until someone set up a an explosion in front of your face. Kodak made money from processing fees on film, not the camera itself. Kodak went broke not because people stopped taking photography, but because they lost interest in Kodak. They (Kodak) thought digital was a sideshow, they still saw their business as a chemical industry.”

This brings up an important point to all studies of innovation and change: businesses who dehumanises the lens on their own products can no longer empathise with the real reason behind why their customers want to interact with their brand. Maintaining that closeness to the true motivation for customer behaviour is essential to being able to change, grow and innovate. Especially given we are now living in a time when the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company is 40 years. As Ken Robinson puts it,

“Companies are also mortal. They thrive in certain conditions but not in others. They are organic creatures that without those conditions, will otherwise die

There are old guilds in Europe stretching back over 400 years, but our ability to create something sustainable, something that truly stands the test of time, seems to have diminished along with the increase in the speed of change and the increase in human life span.

The challenge that most companies find in the face of such a pace of innovation is the constant threat of obsolescence. “Our technology today is about to become ancient relics. Our grandchildren will have the same patronising smile as we have for those who marveled at the Brownie camera of their day.” Ken noted wryly.

Sir Robinson had a call to arms for the room. The pace of technological advancement and the growth of the Earth’s population and the strain this is placing on our resources as a global economy, necessitates innovation.

Consider that by scientist’s standards, were we to all live like the average person from India, the Earth could sustain a population of 15 billion, but were we to consume resources like the average North American, the Earth would only be able to sustain 1.5 billion of us. That is, we’d need four more planets! Yet in a time where time-saving gadgets were supposedly going to put us all out of work – we are all working longer, harder and innovation for the average company often feels as elusive as ever.

Sir Ken Robinson

So What is Sir Robinson’s Core Message?

Innovation comes from imagination and creativity so you need to cultivate those traits to bring it into its true existence within any organisation.

Ken used the apt analogy of the image of a tiger. Those from an Asian background in a 2005 study when shown an image of a tiger in the jungle and asked to describe the image – described it as a tiger in a jungle, or just a jungle. While those of European descent described just the tiger.

“Humans inevitably live in virtual reality. We live in the world of ideas, values, languages and theories. Lots of theories are absorbed through the languages we speak and the company we keep. We create the world we live in. We become so absorbed with how we see things that we don’t understand other points of view.  Culture is a filter on everything we do. Every organisation, community and family creates one. Culture is a set of permissions about what’s ok. As a leader, getting culture to change is about “moving the lines of permission”.

This idea that it is a leaders role to move the lines of permission within an organisation is an important one. This requires leaders to understand what their resources actually are. Rather than thinking of creative people as “special people that we don’t have here”, we need to start thinking of creative people as an innate trait that exists in all of us as long as the conditions are right.

How many times have you seen a bright individual leave a corporate environment after trying to create change unsuccessfully, only to succeed at their own startup? Talent is so often undervalued and unrecognised, as happened to many music greats across their careers from Elvis to Paul McCartney.

Key takeaways for leaders

1. Develop Individual Personal Creativity

A leader’s role is to develop the creative abilities of every team member and enable an work environment that can create a sense of “flow” (Mihaly Csikszentmihaly). It is about reframing the talent that is already there to drive innovation.


2. Understand how creative teams work

Innovation in organisations is often group activity, not solo genius. Great creative group differ from a committee – which is, as Ken puts it “where ideas go to die”. Creative groups bring ideas to life! They are diverse, dynamic and born from a variety of genders, ages, experience levels and backgrounds.


3. Accept that organisations are living, breathing organisms, not machines

This might mean redrawing and rethinking about the way the organisation works and reframe the organisational management chart to say something about culture rather than hierarchy.

Ken used the analogy of “Death Valley”, a below sea level basin in California in steady drought. The basin began teeming with life after rain when no one thought it was possible for anything to grow there. His lesson? If the conditions are right, life is inevitable.

So in this context, the role of a leader then becomes “Climate Control”. That is, creating the conditions that make innovation, inevitable.

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