Our host for the day was the brilliant Andy Swann

The future of work: notes from the Creative Summit 2017, Skellefteå

Human and tech insights to inspire

Last week I witnessed the midnight sun in Skellefteå, northern Sweden. The reason for my visit was to speak at the Creative Summit, whose theme this year was the future of work. Throughout the day we heard about new ways of organising, tools for teams, the motherhood penalty, AI, VR and the future of learning.

Our host for the day was “over-excited work explorer” Andy Swann, who seamlessly facilitated introductions, panels and even an interview with Swedish minister Ardalan Shekarabi.

To open the conference, Mike Arauz from August Public ran his talk from a Trello board. Gathering audience answers to the question “When you think about how you work, where do you get stuck?” in his virtual inbox, Mike riffed off each point with stories and tips, moving them from “Active” to “Done” as he covered them. We heard the story of the Swedish Vasa warship and the dangerous consequences when no one dares tell the king that the ship isn’t sea worthy. Mike’s suggestion is to run regular and timely team feedback sessions, asking three simple questions:

  1. What worked?
  2. Where did we get stuck?
  3. What might we do differently?

Inspired by agile, this process allows us to break the work down into smaller pieces, making it easier to take risks. Mike shared lessons from his improv comedy training, namely that we should make it ok at work to sometimes say “I don’t know what I’m doing!” and the value of embracing failures because it’s often when we can admit these things that we discover the best answers.

Next up was Alison Coward from Bracket sharing her five skills for the future of work:

1. Self-awareness — it might seem paradoxical, but collaboration is about affirming the individual AND the team

2. Talk about how — team habits, routines and rituals are essential; experiment until you find the ones that work for you! (Here are some examples from Nordnet)

3. Building trust — cultivating a culture of psychological safety creates high performing teams at Google. For a tool to help you do this, try the 36 Questions designed by Dr Arthur Aron and by the end of 45 minutes, you’ll trust each other

4. See the big picture — as a team, look back, look outside, and look forward

5. Facilitation — Alison described this as the killer app for collaboration. Try to facilitate workshops rather than hold meetings

Helge Tennø from Jokull took the stage next to discuss the idea that “a responsive organisation is only as good as what it’s responding to.” (You can read the blog post version of his talk here.) He warned that experts are a “dangerous species” and the risk of hyper-rationalisation and living in an echo chamber. And my favourite quote:

“Our imagination is taken hostage by the current system.”

In the Q&A afterwards, Helge and the panel talked about the value of running hackathons and seeking new information in order to challenge and shift our mental models in order to respond to changing customer needs and environments.

Lydia Nicholas, who works with the Futures team at Nesta, followed up with a thought-provoking talk about AI. She posed some provocative questions like, “Are we training people to work with robots or for them?” and concluded by saying: “What makes people work better is not being surveilled, it’s about trust. It’s about safety, connections, fun.” She encouraged us to teach the next generation to be more human; that humans have more to offer the world than being robot assistants.

After lunch, we changed tracks and Joeli Brearley, founder of the project and campaign Pregnant Then Screwed (perhaps the best name for anything, ever), opened our eyes to the motherhood penalty. She opened her talk with this video with Kristen Bell mocking the gender pay gap:

She then shocked us with some statistics: workplace discrimination against mothers is on the rise in the US and has almost doubled in the UK. Even in Sweden, which is arguably very progressive when it comes to maternity and paternity leave, 80% of managers are men and the gender pay gap is 13.2%. We heard some heartbreaking stories from competent, successful women whose bosses had urged them to get abortions or bullied them into leaving when they announced their pregnancies.

What struck me most was the tragic waste of talent. It reminded me of this article I read recently about how the pioneering women programmers were pushed out of the industry with ads like this one for Optical Scanning Corporation: “What has sixteen legs, eight waggly tongues and costs you at least $40,000 a year? Your team of 8 female programmers, that’s what.” I commend Joeli for starting this campaign — real societal change starts with awareness and it’s about time we face up to these facts.

Following the family theme, The Learning Gypsies were next to inspire us (here’s the transcript of their talk). Concerned about the state of the education system, parents Iñaki Escudero and Hazel Swayne decided to transition from workaholics in the advertising industry, to learning researchers. They packed their things and together with Hazel’s mother, Julia, and their three children (Alani, age 11; Amaia, age 8; and Iker; age 6), they are spending a year travelling the world to explore and document different ways of learning. The Learning Gypsies are now committed to helping societies to move forward by empowering everyone who has access to the next generation to have healthy relationships with themselves, their families and their communities.

“We should be teaching kids HOW to think, not WHAT to think.” — Hazel Swayne

Hazel asked us to think about what we are modelling for our children when it comes to our relationship to work. Iñaki invited us to write on a piece of paper the work habit that we would most like to let go of, make it into a paper plane, and launch it at the stage. Incredibly liberating!

And then we had a special panel made up of the children from The Learning Gypsies, Alex Neuman from Hyper Island, and Mike again from August.

Some highlights from the panel Q&A:

Alex: What do you think the future of work will look like?
Amaia: I think the future of work will be run by robots, but I don’t want that so I’m not gonna let it happen.

Alex: What does success mean to you?
Amaia: A big smile in your heart, face and body.

Alex: And what would your advice to adults be?
Alani: Listen and trust kids more.

After lunch, I took the stage to share my views on why the next era of leadership is human, how our brains are wired to be social, and the value of talking about what’s under the surface in teams.

And finally, Jeremy Dalton from PwC gave us a glimpse of the possibilities of Virtual Reality. Beyond gaming, he shared examples of what it has to offer for industries like healthcare, sports, and education. We each got a cardboard VR viewer and were able to play around with some of the Google cardboard apps. It’s a whole new world!

I’ve been to many conferences around the world but there was something special about this one. Perhaps the person who deserves most thanks for this was the man quietly watching in the wings but never claiming the stage, Peter Mandalh. I admire the fact that he refuses every year to release the schedule because he wants everyone to be present for the whole day together. That the talks aren’t filmed is deliberate too — all part of creating a unique, shared experience. Peter also caps the ticket sales at 300 because this, he has found, is the optimum number to catalyse new connections and conversations between participants. As speakers, we were beautifully hosted and we have formed our own sort of family. So thank you, Peter, and your wonderful team for curating an event centred around togetherness.

Thank you to all of my new friends, the Creative Summit 2017 speakers, and our host Andy Swann — I learnt so much from all of you and it was a joy spending time with you in Skellefteå!
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