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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Doug Shaw, Founder, What Goes Around
Episode: 121
Air Date: October 7, 2015


Doug Shaw is a leadership and HR consultant, facilitator and artist. He founded the UK based consultancy practice What Goes Around in 2009, through which he helps people understand and apply the creative process to their work. You can also find him on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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Begin transcript

John :                       Good morning and welcome to HR Examiner Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser, and we are coming to you live from beautiful downtown Occidental, California, where innovation got its real roots in the state of California. Today, we’re going to be spending time with Doug Shaw who is the founder of a UK-based consultancy called What Goes Around. Doug spends his time helping people understand how to apply the creative process to their work. Doug, how are you?

Doug :                      Good afternoon, oh, good morning, sorry. Good afternoon over here, John. I’m very well indeed, thanks. It’s a real pleasure to be able to catch up and spend a little bit of time with you today. Although I expect that the weather and things that you’re experiencing over there are perhaps somewhat warmer and slightly more pleasant than the gloom I’m looking out my window at here in London but a very warm welcome and great to be here nevertheless.

John :                       Very curmudgeonly of you, so in spite of the gloom, it’s good to be here. Tell me about the consultancy. What in the world do you actually do? This is puzzling.

Doug :                      Isn’t just? When I’m able to do my best work, what I’m really able to do is practice listening, practice curiosity, and hopefully practice the art of asking some good questions along the way too. Typically the kind of projects that people will hire me for are interdepartmental collaboration and cooperation. Some people hire me because they’re interested in trying to nurture and develop communities of practice which is knowledge and experience sharing beyond an organization across a broader industry. When people are curious about their work and how they might explore different ways of doing it, not necessarily better, but hopefully some of the differences will lead to business improvement.

The other thing that I’m particularly fascinated and curious about is what happens when we explore elements of our work through an artistic lens. For example, if I was to invite a group of people to consider what a visual vision of the future might be like and invite them to maybe draw it or paint it or tell a story about it, I’m always fascinated by what comes out of those kind of conversations and those kind of pictures that seems to me to differ quite considerably to a typical brainstorming exercise.

John :                       That’s very interesting. There’s 2 directions to go there. I’m going to go dive historical first, and then we’ll come back and talk about method and intent. How did you end up doing this? I don’t think when you were in the 4th grade that you raised your hand and said, “How do I get to be a creativity consultant who dabbles in HR and organizational processes?” What got you here?

Doug :                      I think in the 4th grade what I really wanted to do was be the front man in the greatest punk band in the world. Inevitably, that didn’t come to pass. I clearly wasn’t quite angry or curmudgeonly enough and snarly enough to pull that one off, although I do know the requisite 3 chords on a guitar, so maybe there’s hope for me yet. I’ve done all kinds of things for work. When I first left school, actually the first job I did was I was a draftsman. I’ve been in the habit of putting pens to paper and coloring in for want of a better word for quite some time now. I spent many years in sales and really enjoyed myself. I was very fortunate that I had a number of managers who were willing to invest time both in me and more importantly in the relationships which I built with clients.

I began to learn the art of good listening as a result of being in sales, and I began to realize that actually good selling is not about selling at all. It is about listening, understanding. As in most things, a good dollop of honesty goes a long way. That practice, if you like, just enabled me to develop a really genuine, sincere interest in other people, what their needs and wants are, and how the working environment that they’re in either facilitates those needs and wants or obstructs it. I drifted from sales into the world of corporate social responsibility and sustainability, so I worked in a very big organization at this time. I could see from where I was sitting that the way in which business conducted itself in terms of how it treats its employees, how it treats its suppliers, customers, the environment, community, all those kind of things, were becoming increasingly important.

I felt that those topics were useful things to talk to our customers about. The company I was with at the time had a strong record in that field, so I was able to develop a team of people to explore corporate social responsibility in terms of what it meant for our division and our clients and strengthen those relationships further. What I learned from that is that again a lot of it is about people and how they behave, so, again, my fascination in people deepened. Then, the last role I performed in big business was what I began to realize in time was actually quite a fictitious role. I was attracted by the bright lights and the giant pay check, well it wasn’t that giant, but reasonably large pay check on offer from the global division of this company that I was working for. They were looking for somebody to basically sponsor and run 2 things, if you like.

The first of them was this mythical beast called employee engagement. The second one was something around the people elements of transformational change. Those things both sounded very grand and important at the time, so I began to realize over time that they’re largely mythical certainly when it relates to work. I had a rather uncomfortable final 18 months in big business because I moved into a division that actually was very low on trust, very high on micromanagement. My final 18 months, couple of years, of working for a very large company were a bit tainted compared to a lot of the really exciting and joyful experiences I’ve enjoyed through most of the rest of the time. I left that organization, but I left it convinced that people and how we are with each other, is the cause of and the solution to most of our problems.

I took that knowledge, and I am still on a learning journey trying to absorb it and reflect it through my own practice with clients I work with. What I mean by reflect it through my own practice is I’m a big believer in trying to do the work on myself first, so that I can experience how challenging something might be before I have the temerity to suggest that it’s something that a client and I should investigate together.

John :                       That’s one of the things that people remark most about your work is that you don’t recommend things that you haven’t tried. That’s an unusual position for somebody whose work is fundamentally consulting to take. It’s often the case that what the consultant does is goad the client into jumping off the bridge with the bungee cord with him, so it’s refreshing to see what you’re doing. Talk about some of the projects that you’ve been involved in in the last couple of years that get you excited.

Doug :                      Thanks for the opportunity. That’s a really lovely invitation. I have done some fascinating work with a global community of project managers and their clients and colleagues for a very well-known brand who operates in most parts of the world as far as I know. I’ve been fortunate to work with them in London, New York, Minneapolis, and also in Dubai. That’s been a wonderful opportunity in so far as it’s allowed us to explore amongst quite an analytical group of people. A group of project managers, that’s their discipline, people who typically would like to operate in quite a structured way. It’s been really good fun working with them, encouraging them to step away from some of the structures that they’re more familiar with sometimes toward new frameworks.

I’m not asking them to abandon hope and leap into the wide blue yonder, but we’ve used a number of different conversational and artistic methods with this group of people to bring them closer together to get more comfortable with sharing their work experiences. One of the things I’m a really big believer is that the knowledge and the wisdom to solve most people’s problems or most group’s problems nearly always exists in that group already. It’s about trying to create the time and space and the right environment for that recognition to arise. Getting that blend of being gentle and encouraging and then knowing when to be a bit more courageous and determined, for me is a fascinating, ongoing experiment and experience.

This particular group of people have embraced elements of that really well and to the extent that actually I don’t have a huge amount to do with that project any longer which in a way is disappointing because it’s great fun. Actually what’s really interesting is that I can see it sustaining itself. I’m in touch with people who are part of that community, so we keep in touch. We share stories and we talk, but it’s lovely to have been involved in the development and nurturing of something that now has a life of its own. I don’t like the notion of an organization becoming dependent on a consultant or a consultancy. That’s quite a poisonous relationship. One of the questions I explore in my own head and sometimes explicitly with clients is, “How are we going to make me redundant and when are we going to do it.”

For me, that’s part of what good looks like, “How can we get me out of the mix to prove that this thing is working without me needing to keep spinning it.” That’s been a really fascinating project. I spent some time with the Latvian government last year  helping them think through what a smart use of social media strategy might look like because they were due to take over the EU presidency for their 6-month tenure. They wanted some help on the communications broadly; more specifically on the social media front. We did some really good artistic work with them again some stuff around helping them think about what their values and key principles were and trying to visualize those. We also did some good photographic projects in the capital city, Riga.

We were trying to encourage people to think about the values and principles that their EU presidency program was going to deliver and how might they visualize those and weave them into the fabric and the story of the capital city which was a great fun thing to do, and they embraced that really enthusiastically. That was one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved in measured by smiles per minute, if you like. It was almost off the chart. A couple of other things I’m busy working on a civil infrastructure community of practice at the moment which is really fascinating trying to measure the tensions of delivering a significant piece of construction work across London with the need for people to get to know each other better and share knowledge more effectively in a very busy environment.

Trying to help them see how important slowing down is in order to speed up, there’s some really interesting charging tensions there. I suppose the other one that I’m really excited about is an ongoing, I suppose you might call it a research project. I’m very privileged to work with the US-based furniture designers, Herman Miller, in their London offices. We work together exploring the art and science of various aspects of work. We run a session, a facilitated consultation on social capital looking at it from a scientific and an artistic perspective. We’ve done one on the broad world of work, and we did one recently on well being and happiness. The next one in the plan is possibly work-life balance.

Again, that’s a mixture of applying some of their more scientific research and some of my artistic research and practice and comparing and contrasting the results which is a really, really, really, good fun, rewarding thing to be involved in.

John :                       It sounds like you have a good time when you go to work, Doug. That’s a delightful position to be in. What are some things that you’re interested in thinking about that you’re not currently doing in projects that you wish you could get on your list?

Doug :                      That’s a good one. The thing that fills me with the most curiosity currently is this space where art meets work. Although I’ve talked enthusiastically about it with you in terms of some of those projects I’m involved in, it isn’t something that I do all the time. One of the things I’m really curious about is why is it that we’re all born artists, and, yet, as we grow, we shelve and lose that capability. I know there are various clever people included among those being Dr. Brene Brown whose done a whole bunch of research on things like vulnerability and shame that look into those things. Indeed, the late Gordon McKenzie in Orbiting the Giant Hairball observed some interesting uncreative behaviors, if you like, going on particularly as people get older and edge themselves towards the world of work.

If I could spend some time looking into that space more deeply, I’d be keen to do so. The other thing that I’d like to do and certainly do more of, and this is something that I’m just exploring now, but I enjoy the act of giving. When I first set the business up, I called it What Goes Around, because I’m very interested in the reciprocal nature of good relationships. I’m learning that actually the art and act of giving is a really interesting and fun thing to do, and I’d like to explore that more intentionally. Some of that will be through funding or donating to important projects. There’s a charity here in the UK called Arts and Urgency, and I want to use some of my Art For Work’s Sake income to help fund that project because I think the 2 are very strongly linked and related. I see that as being a nice reciprocal way of encouraging more investment into that important area.

That’s an aspiration right now. I’m just slowly turning the tap on. I’d love to do more of that kind of work, so that I could fund more of that kind of social enterprise stuff. Those are the things that are on my mind. The other thing, and this will probably make people cringe because it’s not like we don’t have a shortage of books already, but my wife keeps saying to me, “You know, you should write all this stuff that goes on in your head down on a piece of paper one day and maybe try and squeeze a book out of yourself.” Watch this space. If I ever find the time, I might go down that road as well.

John :                       You are providing a counterpoint to an HR-tech oriented environment. I believe HR is increasingly becoming about technology, and there’s precious little room for art inside of a rigid, binary world. When you do art with technology, you get something that’s very pixelated. You don’t get something that’s very organic. There must be some evangelical components of your work, or you wouldn’t be doing this because you are a counterpoint in a world that may not exactly be looking for a counterpoint. It’s impressive that you stay upbeat and extend your reach all the time. That’s really, really impressive. Do you see other people who are doing similar kinds of things?

Doug :                      I actually find the process, the manner in which I choose to work, I’m going to drop down a couple of beats here just for a second, if you don’t mind.

John :                       Not at all.

Doug :                      I actually find it quite painful in so far as, you’re right, I do offer a counterpoint. There are times when that’s a very lonely place to be. I think we are social animals to a greater extent, so I don’t particularly welcome the loneliness that can accompany that. I really feel quite driven to explore these notions that I see, not just in a working environment but typically in a working environment. When people say to me and to others that they want to work openly and honestly, typically what I then observe is behaviors that are completely counter to that. I see lots of organizations not withstanding their need for technology to crave creativity, and at the same time, demonstrate all the kind of behaviors that are likely to make us as uncreative as we possibly can be. I find that whole dichotomy fascinating.

I also, at the same time, acknowledge that I choose to use the yin and yang type of symbol in my head, because for every piece of joy, there’s a piece of despair. These things are inexorably bound together. One of the parts of my work I find challenging is blending those kind of things and trying to hold those almost conflicting thoughts and ideas together in my head as I share these explorations with other people. The honest truth, John, is that some people find that incredibly curious and compelling. Equally, there are an awful lot of people who just look at it and just choose to not respond, and don’t blame them. It can be quite a painful inquiry which is why I think it’s really important to do the work on yourself first.

If nothing else, when I can share the proof that it hasn’t killed me yet, so sharing a bit more of yourself, going a little bit deeper, might feel uncomfortable to a lot of people, but if we can create the time and the space and the environment within which to do it, then my experience shows me that there are significant benefits to be gained from that.

John :                       Let me broaden that out a little bit. You and I have a long, ongoing conversation. One of the things we’ve started to talk about is the importance of trust as the foundation for organizational agility. It would be my observation that many things, diversity comes to mind very quickly, but many things that are at the edges of HR are really exercises in teaching organizations how to trust or probably more precisely how to trust again. It seems to me that trust is the thing that gets lost as companies grow and become big and complex entities. It seems to me that your work is really about helping people find the edges of their trust and growing trust like it’s an exercisable muscle, something you can articulate rather than an accident of timing. Does that make sense to you? Is that a fair characterization of a bigger view of your work?

Doug :                      Yeah, that’s lovely. I think a couple of things that you prompt in my mind there, so I love the visualization of trust and indeed of other things as some kind of muscular strength-building capacity. Actually, one of the things I notice on the artistic side is that I find that when people take the time to actually craft their work, so whether they’re using a paint brush such as the one I’ve got rather holding rather tightly in my hand right now, or it’s a pencil or whatever it is, that nature of articulating what they’re thinking actually with a real tool rather than a keyboard stroke is a really interesting thing. To think of these things as organic, developable strength is a really lovely thing.

You’re right that we run the risk of losing trust as something grows because to some extent there’s the weakening of links as that growth pushes us, might push us further apart. In a start-up environment when everybody is working in the garage, we can always see the whites of each other’s eyes. As things grow, that becomes less easy to do, so we substitute those methods of communication-

John :                       Accounting.

Doug :                      … which is so-

John :                       Accounting. It’s-

Doug :                      … powerful. Sorry, go on?

John :                       We substitute accounting for trust. Yeah, we substitute accounting for trust.

Doug :                      Yeah, we do, and there’s this notion that trust is something that has to be earned, and I can totally relate to that. I was with a team of people last week, and we were exploring the notion of high-performing teams. When it came to talking about trust, a couple of things that this group said, offered up, that I thought were really powerful, and I’ll share them with you. They were very simply this: There’s the notion of giving trust first, which I love that idea. That’s what wholehearted work is all about. The other thing that another member of this group said that really lit my fire was, “You know when it’s around when people are willing to sincerely and genuinely offer up when they’ve made a mistake, so that we can actually talk about it and learn from it rather than talk about it and beat the crap out of each other for it.”

John :                       It’s important to frame the trust question like this: Trust has to be earned in a prison, trust has to be earned in the army, but for God’s sake, if trust has to be earned when I go to work, how am I ever going to get there? How am I ever going to get there? If the beginning of the relationship is you’re going to keep score about whether or not you trust me, well, yeah, I’m not going to be a very flexible guy at your company, and I’m going to see management oddly. If you open the door and you say, “Wow, we’re happy to have you here, and we’re delighted to see what you’re about to learn,” you get a very, very different result. It seems to me that you’re carrying the torch for that idea. Did I lose you? Doug?

Well, my goodness. We have lost Mr. Shaw, and that’s okay because we have come to the end of our time, and it’s been great having you on board. You can find Doug Shaw easily through Google. I don’t have his contact information here right now. Thanks so much for listening today. This is John Sumser, and you’ve been on HR Examiner Radio. We’ve been talking with Doug Shaw who is the founder of a UK-based consultancy called What Goes Around. Thanks very much for tuning in. Bye-bye.

End transcript

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