With business as his main medium, Spencer zeroes in on collaboration as the ultimate technique of his craft.
Our multiple conversations with Spencer Gordon had a freedom of exploration that saw us revisiting several ideas multiple times but in different ways. In the end, we grouped them as seen here.
One of the biggest ideas was this thought that he offered well after the start of our talking: “If I'm really a creative person, I can take the impetus or kind of this nebulous idea that somebody has, and I should be able to build on it in a way that makes it a good idea.”
THE ART OF BUSINESS
Spencer: I love what you told me about how your last issue [WAM #2] seemed to kind of emerge organically. And here too, you had some intuition that I was creative to begin with, when I'm just a business development manager at my family office equipment company. That was the seed of something and you kept watering it and then it grew into something, opening up these ideas.
It's something that I think a lot about in a business context, how can I be more collaborative? And oftentimes I think the people that are the most quiet, the introverted people, often have the best ideas. So it's, how do you draw those ideas out? And as an extrovert, and I am very extroverted, how do you remain open to those ideas?
It's a challenge. It's like, my tendency, when I'm camping and hiking and stuff, to try and fit the landscape to my map, rather than my map to the landscape, if that makes sense. When my boss who's introverted brought me this project I'm working on right now, my tendency was to take it over instead of remaining open to his input. But instead, I need to start out with being open to what comes to me as well.
I think that the most important thing you can do is just be open to that kind of interplay. I did eight months of improv to work on collaborating with other people. One of the big themes for me that emerged is that creating with other people can be very challenging but also really rewarding.
I love the idea that you guys are gonna kind of just remain open here to what comes in our conversation. I think it is really smart that you're not trying to force a theme.
MAKING IT WORK
Spencer: This has been cool for me too, because it's forced me to think about how am I able to exercise my creativity at work when for the past four hours I've literally been working in Excel, which is all rows and columns.
How am I being creative on a day to day basis, even within the confines of something that seemingly is so banal as cleaning data?
Michael: I was going to say, well, I don't know what inspired you to do the improv, but over the years I've done a lot of work with Apple Computer. They believe in that a lot. A lot of their instructors and people at Apple University have an improv background and the whole idea of a way of thinking, which is probably something that came up for you in improv -- building on ideas rather than dismissing them.
Pixar is similar in that Pixar has a set of creative rules and among them are, you don't have to like everything you see, but if you dislike it, only verbalize it if you have some way to fix it. Verbalizing a complaint about something without having any credible way of improving on it is not useful to the creative process.
But if you see a hole in a story or something that could have been said differently, and you offer that difference where that new way of thinking about the story can work, then that is conducive to a creative process.
Malcolm: Reminds me of some of what I’ve seen in work as well. I've had a couple of managers who subscribed to the idea of don't bring me a problem, bring me a solution. That's one face of what you were just talking about, Michael. But here it is an invitation, not an order.
Michael: Well, there's another almost selfish reason, that as a manager you probably can't do whatever it is you're trying to do alone.
To get support and actual willingness, you have to have buy-in from people and to get that they have to participate in how you got to whatever it is, whatever direction you're going into.
When I started working in business, I would tend to dismiss people or debate, trying to hold onto my point rather than elicit creativity from others. And that was, it was stupid… for sure. For creativity in business, I think it is vital to be able to solicit, as you say, the quiet people.
Spencer: I struggle with that a lot. You want to get -- you need to enlist people's cooperation, and the best way to do that is by taking their idea and building on it. And the more they can see of themselves in whatever it is that you're trying to accomplish, the more buy-in you're going to get from it.
I think that also sounds a little manipulative. And it has to be a good idea to begin with, to some extent. But I think that what I've realized in thinking about myself as a creative person is that I really do think everybody is creative to some extent, and that we all as human beings have creative potential or the ability to be creative.
I listened to the audio book Creativity Inc. about Pixar, because I was really curious about their creative process. I guess there was one thing that jumped out at me about Frozen, that when they got to have these initial screenings it was a mess, and it was just, there was no really good plot or theme and it was just kind of a disaster. But then, through their feedback process... that's what I was thinking about in that context, it's, how do you give someone feedback without shutting them down?
Then when it gets down to business, okay, how can I create, (what I think Google's really big on) a place where there's lot of psychological safety, which gets back to that kind of thing about not creating an organization where the hierarchy predominates... where people feel comfortable speaking up in meetings and talking openly, creating an environment that's, I dunno, organizationally, more flat. I guess, in a lot of companies this means you're looking more at a matrix structure.
Malcolm: Actually, what you just made me think about is an article I read a couple of days ago, which was talking about how many people, how many employees say that they would rather quit their job than go back to the office, despite the aggravations of working from home.
Working at home, they've now learned to appreciate a different dimension of their experience as workers. I'm convinced, although without evidence, that they feel more “free” in some important ways. And they think that they're going to lose that if they go back to the office.
Spencer: One of the reasons I've switched jobs a lot -- I guess a lot for a millennial, not a ton -- is because I think that, when I am really wondering or coming to a place of impasse in my career, I always want to be a writer and I think, oh, I should have been a writer. .. I'm, guys I've really sold out. That's my feeling.
But I think creators have a hard time picking something that they want to do. You could almost choose anything, but then how do you handle that choice? Well, I think this in terms of creativity and work.... if I'm really a creative person, I can take the impetus or kind of this nebulous idea that somebody has and I should be able to build on it in a way that makes it a good idea.
I think if you want to see the most creative people at work, it's the entrepreneurs. I did my first job, which I think I was most happy about, out of college, building, starting a business, and running that business. It allowed me to be more creative. I think about that a lot. Should I quit my job and go do something entrepreneurial again?
It definitely was hard for me. And this also is maybe a larger tie-in… A lot of founders who ended up giving up equity to get outside capital, end up regretting it because they're so creative and they're so tied or married to their vision, that's of detriment to them. What this guy, Harvard business school professor Noam Wasserman, found was that there's a conflict in startup businesses between control and wealth and that to really have a really good wealth outcome, you have to be willing to put control at risk. But there's a really strong correlation between age and control. Males in their twenties are the most controlling demographic of founders.
I think that might be getting back to your point about why I took the improv class, Michael.
Michael: But let me comment on one other thing. You've mentioned hierarchy a number of times and yeah, I would say the hierarchy still needs to be there. Matrix management is problematic in that people wind up not knowing who they work for, which can lead to different kinds of issues. But instead of thinking of your place in the hierarchy as being “the boss” of the people, being at whatever point in the hierarchy you are, you have the responsibility for whatever it is that's going to occur, and you have to manage the resources of those people.
Not so much to get it done yourself, but to orchestrate more like a conductor, or someone to, to pull out from the people below you in the hierarchy and relating across the hierarchy in terms of people at a similar level to get things done. Anyway, that's just perhaps a different, a slightly different way of thinking about it.
I don't know. Yeah, the traditional -- the accepted approach is changing a lot. It's weird how the pendulum swings back and forth on this, but at one point it was the buck stops here and then Thomas Friedman wrote, now it's the buck starts here. Am I going to be the guy who says yes and no, or am I the guy who sets the strategic direction for the business and then has people figure out how to execute it? There has to be a balance between the top-down and the freedom to be creative.
THE CREATOR vs. THE CREATIVE
Malcolm: If you think about your day-to-day sense of self at your work, if you entertain or imagine, Hey, next month I'm going to break loose. I'm going to start another business without saying what business you would start, what comes to your mind right now in terms of how the way you see yourself would suddenly be different?
Spencer: For me, it's finding the right people to do it with, but I guess, how would I see myself differently? Or how would it change the way I see me?
The whole time I've worked here, for a little over three years, I've been looking at different startups. Yeah, I think, I think as you get older, you realize you lack certain capabilities or maybe you get to the point where you realize, okay, here's what I'm good at. Here's what I'm not good at.
I mean, being in a startup, it's just so all consuming. It was seven days a week for a year or two. And I ran the business for six years. But man, it was a lot of fun. I definitely would feel a lot more freedom.
The weird thing, though, is that right now no one asks me what I'm doing. I don't report to anybody, really. Our company actually is run by managers who tend to be more introverted, my manager and the other managers as well. And as I said earlier, my tendency as an extrovert is to take over other people's work. So I do have a lot of freedom and autonomy.
I mean, what I come back to is it's more for me that the stress is existential.
Our business is based on paper and with digitization, our core business is going to start -- has already started going away. Okay, well, we've also tried other things, other ways to innovate and sell into our current customer base, but I don't think those other things have really taken off.
So, my feeling would be that my stress would be a lot different if I was to go out on my own. It would be more, a lot more responsibility, a lot more risks, but potentially a lot more fun and a lot more potential upside. I guess the thing that's really been holding me back after having done it in my twenties is really, essentially, that I did not have a good outcome.
I did not have a good wealth outcome from running that business, and it’s really difficult to move on from that. In many ways, there is scar tissue from that experience. I am a lot more careful now I guess.
I learned a lot from that business. I'm trying to be really patient. In reflecting on that experience, I was talking about wealth and control but I think the biggest thing is the alignment and the team. When I have these conversations with the people that I'm going to do this with, or when I think about it, it needs to feel right.
Ultimately what we were talking about a minute ago is, how well can I collaborate with these people?
NECESSITY AND INVENTION
Spencer: If I went out on my own versus continuing to work in the job that I'm in, there's certainly a lot more creativity being an entrepreneur and working with a small team of people.
This is an almost 80 year old business. So the opportunities for creativity are just not as wide ranging as when I was starting a business and having to figure everything out from scratch.
The business is at a turning point in terms of -- the railroads didn't think of themselves as being in the transportation business, right? They thought of themselves as being in the railroad business. So they didn't get into automobiles or whatever was coming next.
Here on the horizon, you can probably interview your customers and find out what they're substituting out, as your traditional businesses are losing business to other things, What are they losing them to? And are there things that you could replace? Are there services that your customers need? There are possibilities from where you are.
It seems to be very creative to figure those out, and you probably have some latitude in doing that, but it also is possible that the skill sets inside your business do not give the ability to make those kinds of changes.
So it's a big challenge. For you as a creative, the challenge is to figure out -- well, if you can affect things, what should the change be?
My manager has been doing this for 16 to 18 years. I think in many ways, I can't come in and have a lot of ego about it and be like, oh, well, you know why this hasn't gone anywhere? This is your fault. I don't think that.
In many ways, it's been a very hard position for him to be in. Because there are things that are not in his control, like the commission structure or the compensation structure for our sales team, it's all on hardware and the margins of these small printers. So there's not really an incentive for them to sell it.
And so I very much feel that tension in my day to day here is, okay, well, if I really think the best strategy for this place is to do something [based on the past] that I might have a hard time really getting excited about.
How can I work within these constraints?
I definitely am going to continue to work down parallel tracks, which has always been my solution for kind of fleshing out those dynamic tensions.
Malcolm: Yogi Berra infamously said, “if you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
Spencer: That's where it gets back to the collaborative. The importance of collaboration and empathy is getting my boss to feel comfortable opening up to me, to tell me about some of the issues that have held him back for 16 years and his frustrations. And then for me to earn his trust by solving those problems.
BARRIER OR OPPORTUNITY
Spencer: I do think of the firm or a company or organization as an organism, so maybe there is a kind of a lifespan to it, which is really hard for me.
I've walked through the halls of this place every morning. I walked past a portrait of my great grandfather and my grandfather, and my uncle runs the place, and my cousin runs our sales team.
The Lexus and the Olive Tree [a book by Thomas Friedman about two forces in globalization], talks about that tension -- between the Olive tree as the roots of history, that give land life so much meaning, culture, and context to what might otherwise be considered mundane -- and the Lexus being the newness and the novelty of the future.
Malcolm: You remind me that we talked before about these dualities and tensions, and we thought it would also be about strategy.
Certainly, conventionally in business, there's always the risk versus reward thing to worry about. By nature, I'm a high risk high reward personality, but also by nature, I'm loath to ask other people to come along for the ride unless they already want to.
If I think of myself mainly as that individual contributor, I have a completely different self-image than I do when I think of myself as a manager, which is also necessary. So for me, there's the tension.
I have a fairly short attention span for anything that's operations maintenance oriented. So, almost as an ethical thing. I have to not allow myself to be given those responsibilities, because there's a much higher risk that I'm going to let somebody down. If people want something new or they want to change something, I’ll say I'm your guy. Then I have to figure out for myself, well, how badly do you want this? I mean, there’s saying it, but do you really, really, want it?
I try to somehow harness that tension into more energy for my natural impulse to make new stuff.
Spencer: One of the things that has come up for me in the context of my career is that most of the problems that I've run into are in organizational behavior. It definitely relates to the empathy thing, right?
This all ties back into that tension, the dynamic tension between tradition or culture, and progress.
I was talking about this with my boss. Sometimes I get really frustrated that this business hasn't been moved forward more.
But looking for someone to blame is not going to be the solution.
I don't know if you guys listen to [journalist] Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain. It's a great podcast. He interviews these people who have written books, and he recently was talking about this book The Master and his Emissary. I don't really know what an emissary is, but I gathered that it was the person who is kind of the day-to-day tactical operational person versus the emperor or leader or manager or whatever. The Emissary looks at the manager or the emperor or the leader and says, “Oh, I could do that…” without really realizing the value.
I'm a millennial, I'm almost a Gen X-er, and in my generation -- I've started to recognize this as I've matured in my job here -- there’s a real tendency to discount the importance of all of the people who have built this place. That’s not just my family, right, I put them up on a pedestal, but it’s also the people who are managers here.
I get really frustrated at the lack of progress because a lot of it is a lack of having an open mind, because people have been doing things a certain way for so long. But, that frustration is not going to get me anywhere...
If I can try and become empathetic to the challenges that my bosses face, which are in many ways structural in this organization, I might see there are things that have perhaps prohibited them from being able to move it forward.
I guess that's the thing, getting back to strict strategy. There are creative solutions of how to honor the fact that some of these people have worked here for 40 years and literally given their life to this place. But also realize that in order to preserve or, to move the organization forward, we need new people to do that.
Same thing at Westminster, right? I mean, I think what Westminster did was they bought out all of the old faculty, you know. They were, okay, we can't change until the people change. So we're going to pay you guys to leave. And I'm, can we do that already here at my company? I've been wondering. Like at Westminster, I feel for a lot of the older people. When they retire, they don't know what life is going to look like. This place is such a big part of their life.
Being empathetic to the fact that we have people in their sixties that are managing, there's also a level of culture that they've built. And I'm trying to get to a place where I can fully appreciate it, that without them could potentially disintegrate. There's a lot of tribal knowledge and comfort and whatever, it's the trust, it's all that stuff.
So that's been a big challenge for me, how we do that.
AUTHENTICITY AND THE WAY
Malcolm: But one thing I think of when I imagine you at work going through this, is that you're trying, in a way, to become more a part of them as a solution.
Spencer: There's another dynamic tension, one about appearance, about how you present yourself or interact with other people.
It’s assimilation versus authenticity. If I'm going to assimilate your values and project that into the world, it's an internal negotiation about what parts of myself are not negotiable? And then what parts of myself and my belief system can I start to rethink or start to question.
I wonder if maybe one of your motivations for doing WAM is to reconcile, to figure out, like me, your Westminster experience versus what came later.
I think for me the duality and the dynamic tensions started at Westminster and started with Christianity. My experience was that Westminster was very religious. But Colorado College was extremely secular.
Going to a secular liberal arts school after Westminster was so hard. I should have been ready to fit in in every way, shape and form, but I wasn’t. In many ways, it was my own doing. I was so resistant to changing, and I was really pretty close-minded.
Maybe I'm so analytical that I get in the way of myself sometimes, but I really have always wanted to know what the truth is. I wanted to know what was real, what is true? What is Christianity? Is this the right way to live life? Is this true, the values as a story and narrative? And I wanted proof and evidence or whatever.
But at Colorado I kind of got the opposite, and I really threw the baby out with the bath water -- if Christianity is not true, then there, I'm an atheist.
I've tried really hard to reconcile that experience and more wholly integrate that into my person.
Colorado College did give me a lot of my values. Today I'm definitely a lot more left leaning than my friends and family because of it. And I'm pretty grateful for that.
But now, I've also really come back into believing in God. Ahead of me -- belief in Jesus? All that stuff.
What are the implications of that? My most recent conception of Christianity and a lot of the world religions is that they are cultural narratives that help us understand and make sense of the world. I think Christianity's idea of self-sacrifice, I mean, that's kind of part of almost every world religion. To me it means a lot! I was steeped in that tradition. I can appreciate it and understand it. And then it gives me rules to live by that are really important.
In talking with my friend about this conversation yesterday and just about Westminster, we saw that what's going on in the world at large, too, is that we're becoming so polarized. What I've found as I've gotten older, is that the truth is in the middle, there's truth on both sides, you know?
So what is the solution to polarization? How can I try and get outside of myself and see to get some perspective? I think in many ways, that's the problem. In my opinion, is the answer is empathy.
Malcolm: I’m sure we’ll talk again and pick up on some of the things that may be the biggest influences on your next decisions about work.
You’ve given us an interesting view of how you creatively incorporate what you learn outside of business into what you do inside, and it’s one of the things that you practice being able to do well.
As the saying goes, history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes...
Thank you, Spencer!