The Bouncebackability Podcast

Innovation and Creative Problem-Solving with Google’s Kirk Vallis | Episode 5

August 22, 2023 Kirk Vallis Season 1 Episode 5
Innovation and Creative Problem-Solving with Google’s Kirk Vallis | Episode 5
The Bouncebackability Podcast
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The Bouncebackability Podcast
Innovation and Creative Problem-Solving with Google’s Kirk Vallis | Episode 5
Aug 22, 2023 Season 1 Episode 5
Kirk Vallis

Welcome back to the Bouncebackability Podcast with Simon Ursell and Rusty Earnshaw. Today we are joined by a very special guest, Kirk Vallis, Global Head of creative Capability Development at Google. We delve into some fascinating topics, including - the intersection of AI and creativity; the power of experimentation as a catalyst for safer and more ambitious goals, and the concept of Ten X thinking.

Kirk has spent the last 11 years at Google, developing innovation frameworks, but more importantly, helping colleagues navigate the right behaviours, mindset and techniques to unlock fresh thinking.

He consults and speaks for organisations around the world, recently working with organisations such as Adidas, Mastercard and Fidelity. Kirk is a proud ambassador for Moving Ahead and the 30% Club, driving greater diversity and inclusion at all levels within top companies.

If you’re interested in using creative problem-solving to out-think your competitors and elevate your organisation, this episode is for you.

[00:04:49] AI and creativity - can it surpass humans in its ability to be creative?

[00:15:34] Experimentation breeds safer and more ambitious goals. 

[00:21:58] Learning from mistakes, Ten X thinking, resilience and importance of spirit and mindset. 

[00:27:38] The importance of reflection, signposting, and external perspectives.

[00:48:34] Embracing failure playfully; it upgrades human resilience. 

You can connect with Kirk here:

LinkedIn: Kirk Vallis | LinkedIn

Please like, subscribe or follow so you're notified of any new episodes coming up, and if you're keen to reach Rusty or Simon with any suggestions, feedback or comments, you can contact them via the show's LinkedIn page here:

Show Notes Transcript

Welcome back to the Bouncebackability Podcast with Simon Ursell and Rusty Earnshaw. Today we are joined by a very special guest, Kirk Vallis, Global Head of creative Capability Development at Google. We delve into some fascinating topics, including - the intersection of AI and creativity; the power of experimentation as a catalyst for safer and more ambitious goals, and the concept of Ten X thinking.

Kirk has spent the last 11 years at Google, developing innovation frameworks, but more importantly, helping colleagues navigate the right behaviours, mindset and techniques to unlock fresh thinking.

He consults and speaks for organisations around the world, recently working with organisations such as Adidas, Mastercard and Fidelity. Kirk is a proud ambassador for Moving Ahead and the 30% Club, driving greater diversity and inclusion at all levels within top companies.

If you’re interested in using creative problem-solving to out-think your competitors and elevate your organisation, this episode is for you.

[00:04:49] AI and creativity - can it surpass humans in its ability to be creative?

[00:15:34] Experimentation breeds safer and more ambitious goals. 

[00:21:58] Learning from mistakes, Ten X thinking, resilience and importance of spirit and mindset. 

[00:27:38] The importance of reflection, signposting, and external perspectives.

[00:48:34] Embracing failure playfully; it upgrades human resilience. 

You can connect with Kirk here:

LinkedIn: Kirk Vallis | LinkedIn

Please like, subscribe or follow so you're notified of any new episodes coming up, and if you're keen to reach Rusty or Simon with any suggestions, feedback or comments, you can contact them via the show's LinkedIn page here:

Rusty Earnshaw [00:00:12]:

Welcome people to the bounce back ability podcast. We're super excited this time to well, we're excited for two things. One is to go and spend time with Kirk Vallis, who is definitely one of the greatest minds I've ever met. Love the way he thinks about things, helps people think about things. I guess that's his job and he's pretty remarkable at it. The second thing we're looking forward to is the fact that we are going into Google in London and where the energy is amazing. But also, Simon, the food is I.

Simon Ursell [00:00:45]:

Mean, I am pretty pumped for the food. I mean, number one, I'm pretty pumped to meet Kirk because, like you, he's just astonishing. If you can spend some time with Kirk, it's time well spent, however much time he's able to give you. So really excited about that. But, yeah, the food's pretty great. It's quite excited about that, too.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:01:03]:

Well, let's get on with it and get on with the pod. Joining us on the pod today, Kirk Vallis, who is definitely the best dressed man in the room, although, given his current ponchant for a bit of golf, may soon be wearing fashionable knitwear like Simon is currently rocking golfers. How are you, mate?

Kirk [00:01:24]:

Yeah, very good, thank you.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:01:25]:

Yeah. All right. Excellent. And maybe frame it. I'm sure you're going to tell us a bit more in a second, but Kirk works at Google, a lot of stuff around creativity and problem solving. Something that I think would be particularly relevant when we're talking about resilience and bounce back ability. So, I don't know, maybe let's just start with, like, how did you get to this point?

Kirk [00:01:49]:

Talk about bounce back ability. So I long career in advertising, sales and marketing, and then I kind of was always just slightly annoyed by how much technology was getting credit for all the great work that was going on in my team, in teams around me. There's something wrong there. So started to sort of invest a bit more of my time and energy into performance of us as teams and went on a training course around innovation, skills and behaviors. And I was like, this is game changing. So ever since then, sort of made a decision to kind of change career and go and do that space. And I was offered an opportunity to work for a company called What If, who are now owned by Accenture, who do exactly that. And that was it. Google was my client. Actually. Quite a nice way of Google framing their challenge. So Google's challenge to me was we're brilliant at being the smartest people in the room, which I thought was really nice. It wasn't an arrogant statement. It was like, if we can model it and it's fat, we're the most credible smartest thinkers. We're not very good at unlocking the smartest thinking in the room, which I thought was really nice, because when it's more emotional, when there's not just one right answer, when it's as much about how we collaborate, facilitate, bring groups of people together to get great output, not so good. So, 2011, I built a training program for them to try and address some of those challenges and those skills, and then joined Google actually, eleven years ago this week. Wow. Thanks very thanks very much.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:03:37]:


Simon Ursell [00:03:37]:

Apple, Google versus, say, bounce back ability. You're pretty good on creativity. I think that's fairly okay to say. What I'm really interested in is how do you remain or how do you become creative when you're up against it, when the pressure is on, when something's gone wrong, when you've had a real challenge and you're feeling like this is not working. The temptation, certainly I felt this from time to time, is fight, flight, freeze. Yeah, those kinds of things. How do you become creative in those situations? Because you need to, don't you?

Kirk [00:04:16]:

Actually, I'll give you the extreme that I think that we can all base ourselves on as human beings. So, lots of chat at the moment about artificial intelligence. And actually, interestingly, I do an exercise as part of lots of my talks where I get people to try and come up with as many uses of a paperclip that they can on its own. Actually, it's not that that's a creative act. It's often that people think that's a creative act, but at no point in that exercise do you have to qualify how good the paperclip is at the task.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:04:49]:


Kirk [00:04:49]:

And that's often the bit that's missing for creativity to be a credible skill at work. We maybe talk more about that later. But it's interesting, I asked Bard, Google's Generative AI tool, to come up with as many uses it could of a paperclip, and it gave me five. Now, most people would come up with about ten in 30 seconds, so we're already in a good place versus eight. If anyone is really fearful of AI taking their job, there's some evidence there to suggest it might not. But the example I use is, and this is quite an old one, google's DeepMind created a piece of AI to play the game. Is it super breakthrough. Do you know the one where it's the bricks and you've got the paddle at the bottom, you have to move it across the screen to basically break through the bricks, and essentially it told it the objective of the game and then left it to work it out. Right. The rules. And I think it took it like hundreds of times, thousands even, to learn the game. And then it got to a point where no human being could be as good at it. It's so fast. But the key to that is not at no point did it react and go oh God, I'm not very good at this. Or oh that didn't work, maybe I should give up now. It just went I've learned go again. I've learned go again. And that's extreme, right? That's the extreme. And I think that is example when we talk about being creative and the psychology around it if you like, that's the extreme. That is where technology has the potential to perform better than us because at no point would it let its emotion get in the way. It would just go I've learned now I'll go again. And it doesn't care about trying about it taking 2000 times for it to learn to do it. Translate that to us in work. How often do we does the pressure come on or especially in high performance corporate environments where it's like I can't be wrong. I ask people where does failure live? And people go it doesn't. Oh, it doesn't live. That's a good answer. It's like well that can't be the right answer. So I think that's my sort of.

Simon Ursell [00:07:00]:

Example is that still a common answer in big corporates I mean, my experience now is I think people have really started to get the idea of failure. I mean the cliche first attempt in learning, isn't it? That seems to be but are you still seeing a lot of people thinking failure is just not going to happen?

Kirk [00:07:21]:

I think that if you had people in a room like this and we spoke about it theoretically they would articulate yes, of course I've got to get better and I got to train, I've got to practice and I've got to try things that might not work. But as we know, human beings are complex systems and complex systems can't just be fixed by oh well, we're just going to do that a bit by a very straightforward so we underestimate, I think, human beings complexity. So a human being will stand here and tell us. I'm talking about it like we're machines. Like a human being will stand here and tell us. But people will be able to say, yes, I know I should do this. But then when the reality of all of those internal voices around appraisals performance review my Pay link to my performance. I got a mortgage, kids. I want to get promoted. I don't want to look good. I once had somebody, I suggested to somebody that they go and get feedback from a different manager. I said just get a different voice, right? Not good or bad but go and ask feedback from someone else. I can't do that because if I'm sharing with them my areas that I think I might not be so good at they could use that against me in an appraisal calibration amongst leaders and you're like God, is that what goes on for people? But it does and I got to be honest, it goes on for me loads as well. I'm constantly fighting it to answer your question?

Simon Ursell [00:08:54]:

Sure. So it sounds like fear gets in the way, or fear all these emotions, fear, envy, greed, those kinds of things are really getting in the way of the ability to fail and learn.

Kirk [00:09:08]:

And I don't think anyone should have to apologize. I don't apologize for that. People ask me. So I've had organizations who are trying to employ a head of Innovation or a Chief Disruption Officer, which is quite a cool job title to have in a job, right? Isn't it? Yeah. You'd be brilliant.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:09:27]:

Richard Cockle once said to me, rusty, I love the way you can come in, throw a grenade or two and then leave. I said, I love it as well.

Kirk [00:09:35]:

What a brilliant statement.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:09:38]:


Kirk [00:09:38]:

I'm not sure that's the right kind of language we'd use at the moment. I know what you mean. Oh, God, I lost my train of thought.

Simon Ursell [00:09:48]:

But anyway, so we're talking about emotion and how that relates to.

Kirk [00:09:56]:

No one should apologize for whatever their motivation is. So when organizations have asked me, what characteristics should we be looking for in this selection process? And I'm like, if you truly want someone who's going to disrupt and change things, they need to not care if they've got a job next year. I'm not saying that, but that's my provocation to speak of dropping a grenade and walking away.

Simon Ursell [00:10:22]:

That's true. That's the truth.

Kirk [00:10:25]:

And I've seen some really good, especially in the US I was working with. I met the head of Disruptive innovation at Lowe's, the hardware store chain, who always stands in my mind. And the guy was brilliant. And whatever it was, it's not my place to pry, but whether he had family wealth or didn't care about money, but whatever it was, he clearly had no paying the mortgage was not up on his priority list at all. Here's my bias, because I would compare that to me and I go, oh, my gosh, that's all I worry about every morning is paying the, you know, and other things for the kids and.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:11:05]:

Your handicap at golf.

Kirk [00:11:07]:

Well, I worry about that at the moment.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:11:09]:

Yeah. I was just a couple of things that made me think about well, one was Brian Clough. So, without swearing, when he lost his first job, he got paid out, didn't he? And he talked about it as being his F off money. So he said, that allowed me to be a better coach. I can definitely experience my experiences will be similar to yours. So worked for an NGB who's currently having an existential crisis. Sent an email to someone two levels above me, got shouted at down the phone, got sworn at down the phone. I was never, ever going to do that again. And that was around innovation. That was to try and break the rules, do something differently. I guess self employment gives you maybe a little bit more freedom to do that stuff. So what I was thinking about was and you work with a lot of leaders around this, so what are the implications? So if we're going to talk about failure existing, there's got to be some implications for maybe flattening the hierarchy, how as leaders we react to stuff going wrong, how aware are we of our own emotions and triggers and body language? Because those little things and again, if I go to the world of sport, like selection conversations, like that type of stuff that we're doing all the time, like those little conversations that can basically make someone go, I can fail here, and I can learn or I can't fail here.

Kirk [00:12:28]:

I heard Chris Kamara on the radio the other day, sorry, this is another going down a sport path. And he was talking about when he used to be managed by Ian St. John, the famous Liverpool player, and then managed. And what was really funny was when he was doing selection, the way that he would choose, when he was choosing who was in the team, because there's only twelve players in those days, eleven and a sub. And he'd go to the other players and go, the ones that didn't make it, he'd just tap on the shoulder and go, you can have chips for lunch today. And that was his reboot. And it was almost like but it was like that was his because there's lots of things that the point being it's like, what are you doing to whether it's a jovial thing like that or that's your little mannerism, or bigger, more sort of far more deliberate and poignant acts, if you like. But what is it that you are doing to say that it's okay and it's not permanent? I think especially in corporate environments, you have a setback and it can stay with you forever. You can go that's it career defining.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:13:34]:

What are you doing, Simon?

Simon Ursell [00:13:36]:

I'm just thinking about that because we're setting a lot of targets at work and it's interesting, isn't it? Because I'm sat there.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:13:42]:

Well, let's go back historically first. So historically, at times when Tyler Grangers had some bumps or like COVID hit or the game changed, what have you been thinking about intentionally or either like retrospectively, you can say it was intentionally around your behaviors, your actions, to make.

Simon Ursell [00:14:02]:

Sure that I personally place a big emphasis on emotional safety. You've got to feel safe to be authentic, so you've got to display your own. I mean, that's why we do dream catchers at Tartar Grange, where we encourage people to talk about their dreams and what they want to do inside or outside of the business and feel safe to do that and know it's a supportive environment because it allows people to be authentic and that is going to make them happier and potentially deliver the very best for the business. But I was just thinking as you were talking, I own Tyler Grange and I'm the MD of Tyler Grange I'm not going to sack myself. I'm in a fairly safe place, aren't I? So I can do crazy stuff like start a four day week and do these things and think, well, if it doesn't work, that's okay, I'm not going to fire myself. But how safe do the guys at Tyler Grange? And we're in the process of setting targets and we're doing something that sits alongside the dream catchers called C Three POS, which is much more about performance and that's much more target driven. And I'm wondering how much emotion goes alongside that, how much fear, envy, greed, those kinds of emotions are being provoked. And is that providing an emotionally safe environment for those guys to make mistakes and to say, yes, it's provoking me, to be honest, but I'm thinking, now.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:15:30]:

We'Re safe tables, I'm enjoying this. Like, what have you learned about yourself, Simon?

Kirk [00:15:34]:

We're supposed to be no, this is good, this is better. I wonder whether a couple of things I've learned the word experiment is a safer word than, what are you going to try? Where's your risks? Or whatever. And also, as well, that can slot quite easily into any corporate jargon, list of objectives or appraisal system. It's like, what's your one experiment you're going to do this year? Or what's the biggest? So I found that that's quite nice. So getting people to push for an experiment, google's been quite google's Grange is going to be doing some experiments, exactly right. And also that's language is a bit safer for folks, right? If you task them and go, I want you to give me two experiments you'd like to try this year and what you'd hope to achieve from them, but what you're going to learn from them. And that plays quite nicely to that spirit of sort of almost like moonshots that you might have heard. It's a Google expression that's sort of now sort of been adopted in lots of certainly Silicon Valley. And there's something a bit weird about that term, actually, because it says if you shoot for the stars, you might just still land on the moon. And I go, we'll call it starshot then. But anyway, I don't know, there's something there. But overreaching objectives, that was Google's history was set objectives that are clearly overreaching because then you immediately kind of reframe people's mindset around it. I can never meet that. That's unrealistic or certainly unrealistic to do them, to meet them all. I might hit one right? We might just do something, but the rest of them, it's always again, the conversation is never, oh, how great are we? What have we done against that really hard goal that we set ourselves? So I think there's something in that, getting people to have experiments setting deliberately overreaching when I say, by the way, targets, any sales leaders on the call, ignore what I just said, the spirit of it, if you like, you're still pay out on a realistic quota, please. But set ambitions that are like, this is what we're shooting for, because you change the tone of the conversation that.

Simon Ursell [00:17:51]:

You'Re having around it, then I think that's terrific. I'm definitely stealing that. I've heard you talk about ten times better as well.

Kirk [00:17:59]:

And that's a technique that would help you. So on a corporate or on a sort of strategic level, what are you doing as a leader to set overreaching ambitions, let's call it ambitions and stating them so that actually the conversation is never like, oh, look how amazing we've done. It's always just a review. But then a technique in the moment when you want people to look at a problem in a different way would be what would be the ten x version of this? So I extreme articulation in the positive or the reverse? Again, let's take the commercial example. What if we had to hit the annual target in January? What would we do a bit different, right? Where does your brain go there and allow people to have that space of thinking? So I think that's a really good leadership tactic in the moment, to be able to re express a problem to such an extreme, massively signposted that it's a playful intervention to give people permission to look at it in a different way.

Simon Ursell [00:19:02]:

That's cool. Rusty, you and I, we've worked with, I don't want to swear, f up cards where you give Google.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:19:12]:

It was.

Kirk [00:19:12]:

Something from my past, actually.

Simon Ursell [00:19:14]:

But I'm wondering whether that is maybe we're talking about safe language again. People don't want to f up, do they? And maybe giving them permission to do that. Okay. But they're still thinking, I'm not supposed to f up, so it's quite hard to get them to actually use their card. So maybe experiment is so much nice.

Kirk [00:19:33]:

So actually, that story came from a yellow fats business, a dairy business in Germany whose salespeople weren't pitching hard enough to the grocery stores. That's where that came from. And it's probably about 20 years old now. So it's a brilliant you're right? Yeah. Make the language work work for you. But what I thought was brilliant, why I love that story and I sort of share it with whoever will listen, is if nothing else, it forces the leader. Because a lot of this is about how people are managed, right. Everyone deserves a good manager around. If you don't have a good person managing for this or leading for this, then forget about it. Right. But actually thing I loved about it was it forced the leader to have the conversation in the appraisal or the one to one or whatever it be, to go, what have you tried? Because that was the big thing was people weren't using their cards and their assumption was no one's trying. They go, I've tried to use it ten times, and actually it's kind of worked, so I didn't. So also, it reframed. People's sort of reset them on what was risk because actually it did its job. It allowed people to realize that they could go swing bigger than they perhaps were without messing up and it just forced the conversation. So I just thought that was lovely about it. But it's in the hand of the leader. I'd say the Effed up cards or the experiment cards are a leadership tool, not an individual tool. It's a leadership tool to use with their teams.

Simon Ursell [00:21:01]:

Sure. It's about environment, isn't it? I mean, this is coming up time and again with Rusty and I talking to people about performing well in setbacks. If you've got a safe environment, you're much more likely to perform well than if you're in an environment that feels really dangerous. Safety. Being a safe person isn't all that great when you're up against it. You've got to be prepared to take some risks and be resilient to that.

Kirk [00:21:28]:

But if we take the sport analogy or comparison where I'd say resilient, I'm thinking right now, I'm trying to think who can I get to come in and talk about resilience to some of my folks from a sport environment? Because I think it's a good parallel world and I'd argue that the natural psychological safety within most elite sport environments is quite low. Rusty.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:21:58]:

You get to have chips. Some people get to have chips every week, don't they? Definitely. My last year at Bath, Andy Robinson gave me chips every week. Yeah. The reality is you're being judged against your peers. Am I better than this player or not to get in the team? Then your team is being judged. So the best environments the Saracens of this world are actually amazing at. I watched Mark McCall speak to a player for 90 minutes two days before a really big game and the player wasn't in the 23 said it was his most important conversation of the week. So with Joe in Oynak, we've done a lot of work around like selection conversations. He probably has 20 a week, 20 bad ones a week, so those are important. While you're speaking, I was thinking, just thinking about the language again, I think it would be the environment of the language doing some stuff with someone and they do mistake of the week. Like which one did we learn the most from? I heard someone talk about experiments as being small, sneaky and specific. I love your ten. X thinking. I also recognize that Ten X thinking might feel far away for people, but if we had a commitment that we would do something in the next hour and then something in the next week towards that, then we might start to get some progress towards that as well. And then it also got me thinking, and I know we're talking about bounce back ability. One thing I see in sport, and it was sport that got me thinking about it, is when a team's losing, they abort the game plan. When a team's near the bottom of the league, they try and think differently, probably more so at that point than ever. So that is almost the point in sport where people go, we need to think differently, we need to Google X this, whereas actually, I think sometimes it's harder to do it when you're on the way down, almost. But it'll be fine. We've only lost a couple of games, we'll be back on it. So I've just been thinking a bit about that and I guess for me, I know it's environment, but it's just that spirit and mindset around this is, like, so important.

Kirk [00:24:04]:

There's a great saying, isn't it? Necessity drives innovation. The problem is that, to your point, the point that most people think it's necessary, they're at the bottom of the league, is too late. And that's what always happens. You're almost like people are really good at disrupting themselves when they've actually already been disrupted by somebody else. They go, all right, we need to change that. Now, no one's very good at doing it when things are going well, or when they're not going well, but they're not going catastrophically badly either, or when.

Simon Ursell [00:24:37]:

Their environment changes massively. I'm thinking FA Cup ties, when you've got very low league teams hundreds of places below, beating aside, way above them, they have to innovate, don't they?

Kirk [00:24:47]:


Simon Ursell [00:24:48]:

Because they know they're not going to win unless they do something radical.

Kirk [00:24:51]:

Yeah. Now, the data would probably say that 95% of the time it doesn't work. Sure. And by the way, that's not me dismissing it again. It does still make that statement true, that often when necessity is the driver of innovation, it's probably a bit too.

Simon Ursell [00:25:10]:

99% wouldn't work if they weren't trying to do something.

Kirk [00:25:13]:

It's a great point. Yeah. It doesn't mean we shouldn't. That's almost like but I'd say that the FA Cup tie is almost that's an opportunity for the lesser team. Not a problem. Right. They're not sitting there going, oh, we've got a problem, because we've been but.

Simon Ursell [00:25:31]:

All that fear, all that emotion is almost taken away from them because they can't lose.

Kirk [00:25:35]:


Simon Ursell [00:25:35]:

And it's a great day out and they're up for it and their fans are up for it, and there's a lot of buzz around and you're going to go for stuff, aren't you, that you wouldn't normally do.

Kirk [00:25:43]:

So there we go. So how as a company leader, how do you create the FA Cup day out every day? That's an extreme, but that's the environment you want, where it's like, look, it's an FA Cup day, we're playing like.

Simon Ursell [00:25:56]:

Yeah, you got a big pitch, you're going after, give it a go contract that's ten times bigger than you normally would.

Kirk [00:26:01]:


Simon Ursell [00:26:01]:

Then you can't fail because you're not expecting to win it. So you're going to be more innovative and you're going to go for stuff, aren't you?

Kirk [00:26:10]:

It's got to help. And the I've F D up cards or is a great example of turning even a business as usual situation into that moment. Because it's like, okay, yeah, you're going for your normal sales pitch, blah, blah, blah. But this intervention, this little trick that I've got, might just help that person to then view it a little bit more like it's an away day out, but not as big pressure as it would.

Simon Ursell [00:26:37]:

I mean, I would normally present this kind of project in this kind of way, but because it's such a big deal, I'm going to do something radically different. And that's great, isn't it? I mean, how wonderful is that? And then you can take that kind of experience into all of your other pitches. You've suddenly learned that doing something radically different stands you out, and you might win more projects, win more games, whatever your context, because you're just trying to do something different, because you feel safe to do it, because it doesn't matter.

Kirk [00:27:08]:

And that's a practice. You know, Rusty, like your cards, for example, that's just such a brilliant tool at forcing people to go, I'm going to change the rules. I'm going to change the situation here. That forces you to think a bit different. Maybe that's a nice way of framing this whole little area, is what are you doing as a leader to change the rules in a positive way so that it positively affects the mindset of the folks, the people that you're trying to get to perform better?

Rusty Earnshaw [00:27:38]:

Yeah, there's a couple of things it's making me think about. Certainly when I've seen you working Kirk is like and I think we've spoken about on the other, like so you often would come into an environment sometimes they might be like, doing well, sometimes they might be like having to bounce back, but who you reflect with is super important. So suddenly bringing in you with an external viewpoint to maybe take three steps back, to maybe go, what is the question we're trying to answer? And then the second thing is, like, signposting this. So I think you're really good at signposting mindset, which I think is an underused skill of leaders. So I've definitely seen you talk about and it might be Lego, like, how they might even signpost a room with the colors on the walls, but actually, when are we going to be divergent? When are we going to be convergent? I know I've asked you two questions, but I guess I'm thinking, what's it making you think about the signposting, but also bringing in this external view of the world?

Kirk [00:28:36]:

Oh, my God. I think if there's one thing that I'd say is the most powerful leadership tool or that I try and use and would advise anyone else to, is the power of signposting or signposting signaling or what does that mean, helping people to navigate mindset? That's what we're trying to try to do is when do you need to be this? When do. You need to be that and being explicit with people so that they know how they need to be. Most people show up without knowing how they so you've got a meeting where we want to totally rip up the rulebook here. We've got a new proposal we're pitching for. We're going to try and do it in a totally audacious way and then leadership go, oh, that didn't go as well as I thought. And I was like, did you actually do anything to let people know how you wanted them to show up to that? Because the reality is, unless you signpost that, they will show up with their business as usual mindset. Right.

Simon Ursell [00:29:32]:

What would you signpost in that situation where you want someone to go radical? What would the sort of things you'd do?

Rusty Earnshaw [00:29:40]:

Would we be sat in this room?

Kirk [00:29:42]:

Well, I was just going to say so firstly, you probably wouldn't do it in meeting room 3.2 where you normally sit there and look at the weekly sales figures. Right. Like that environment, if environment affects our thinking by 80% or whatever it does, then that would just suggest business as usual and probably quite deep analytical. So go and do it in a space that doesn't matter what you go and do it in the park. You go and do it for a.

Simon Ursell [00:30:08]:

Walk around the spoke. I don't know if you remember, but you spoke to Tyler Grange. We had a load of guys in and you met us in a comedy.

Kirk [00:30:14]:

Club that's right, just around the corner from me.

Simon Ursell [00:30:16]:

And I thought that was fantastic because immediately people thinking, well, this is pretty good. What's going to happen here? He was still on the stage doing stand up. I mean, it was superb, actually.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:30:26]:

Kirk was doing the stand.

Kirk [00:30:29]:

They were a generous, non heckling crowd.

Simon Ursell [00:30:30]:

We weren't rude, everyone was on best behavior. But it was cool. I mean, you're right, the environment was brilliant for that because people were instantly wondering what was going to happen. And that makes everybody excited.

Kirk [00:30:42]:

And just to sort of, I guess, dispel that or just go into that bit that was actually just because I couldn't get a room here. So even my natural inclination was, right, let's go to a space. Now, I knew that even you folks coming to Google would have been a different fresh environment for you. So it's just difference is the point here. Yeah, exactly. And how many probably leaders sit there going, oh, God, I can't get a room. We've got to go and book a room above a pub. Oh, my God, that's so uncorprorate. And you're like, amazing.

Simon Ursell [00:31:10]:


Kirk [00:31:10]:

So I think space would be one thing you do to sign posts. It doesn't have to be even wacky. If you want to have the best way to have a great new option is to create as many options as you can. Right. Because that's the only way you like, I think this is a volume exercise. So actually just getting people in a room and going, got 40 minutes, I want us to have 20 ways in which we might do this proposal a bit different and then we're going to have a coffee and then we're going to come back and judge them. Just that just helping people go. Most people struggle to get expansive or divergent in their thinking because they don't know when they get to be reductive or convergent, right? So they fear they go, well, what if that idea actually left this room and happened? I can see loads of problems with it. So just helping people to know when the process right. This is how it's going to work. We're going to spend an hour having as many options as we can. We're going to chuck in a bit of stimulus. We're going to hear from somebody who's faced this challenge in a totally different context before, et cetera, et cetera. We're going to go away. We might sleep on it for a night or two because we know that just giving that gestation space will help. And then we're going to come back and then we're going to review, score, judge, analyze, pick one and refine that to make it as perfect as it can be. Just if we think about it, how explicit. So I think that's the language, if I'm using a lot of sort of buzz terms, signaling, signposting, it's essentially just being really explicit with how you want people to show up in that moment and not leaving it to chance. Environment, language. The invite, the wording of your title, of your invitation to that meeting will influence how people show up. If I was coaching somebody the other day, there's a big QBR, do you have quarterly business reviews at Good Good? You probably do. It's become an acronym QBR. I've heard MBR now monthly business reviews. But people have these QBR and I was asking them, what do you want to achieve in that QBR? And they told me, I was like, why don't you just call it that? They were like, oh, we just really, really need to knock 2023 out the park. I went call the meeting that don't call it because QBR, people will show up. The same analytical, judgment, business as usual mindset, sleepy. Call it how we're going to knock 2023 out the park. Sorry, it's a bit of an American Colloquial expression, but that will change how people show up.

Simon Ursell [00:33:45]:


Rusty Earnshaw [00:33:45]:

Can I give you a couple of examples from my world and then definitely a couple I'd love you to expand on Kirk, one is I was saying, I was in the city on Tuesday and actually the meeting was called the plane crash.

Kirk [00:33:59]:


Rusty Earnshaw [00:34:00]:

People turned up and they checked in. They were given a life vest, already changed their mindset. They used a lot of slides in their business. I had no slides. They sit at tables like this we zeroed the room, so there was nothing in the room. I did have sore knees by the end of the day, I can confirm, but people just ended up sitting down and almost like it became quite primal. Like we were, like, gathering around campfires type stuff, discussing sharing stories. I know, I've heard you use some, but even when you said just one more option is helpful, isn't it? But 20, I guess, is your version of Ten xing. It's like because people go, we can't do 20. But actually, once you start get into it and then the other thing I think you've done that I would probably be a great thing for people to think about is so, for example, I got to jump on the zoom with you around confidence, and you just brought in some. We didn't have to even be in the room with the people that had the problem and needed to bounce back. You actually got I think there was like, a reformed pickpocket, maybe a comedian as well, and people just got to interview them for like, 30 minutes and then use that fresh thinking to go, okay, how do we bounce back from this problem?

Kirk [00:35:10]:

Yeah, I'm laughing because we've spoken on a few topics and I tend to tell the same stories, so it's always the same thing. But the point I made around, like, who else has faced this challenge in a totally different context? And can we go and dig into their brain a bit more? There's a great book by Matthew Syed around Rebel Ideas. It just talks about just having cognitive diversity, having as many different people around the table, looking at the problem in as many different ways. And that's one of the experts, right? That's it exactly. So how do we get more naive experts? And that example there, Rusty, was just yeah. So I was working with a team at Google, actually, who were really struggling with confidence, and they were having to work with more senior people than they had previously, and they were having to work outside of their core area of so I got some of them to come and have a coffee with you. So, Rusty, in your context, how do you build confidence in elite professionals? Because that was your job. We spoke to somebody from the RAF, a squadron leader who had led missions in Syria and Iraq. How do you get confidence in life or death situations? We spoke to the first heart surgeon in the UK who performed heart surgery of a robot and the person died. How do you get back your confidence? Actually, that's a nice one for bounce back ability. Headlines were trusted. My processor who said, I would have done it, I'm definitely bottom of this list.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:36:40]:

No speakers at the last some people who did some cool stuff, and then.

Kirk [00:36:46]:

The last one was a reformed confidence trickster. So somebody who a con man, somebody who falsely gained confidence from others in order to defraud them and spoke about that. And there was some good stuff there. And the point was, there were a few people in the group that were like their reaction varied from some people were going, this is amazing. Like, absolutely love it. Going to go and be playful. Just going to be in the moment, not try and second guess what we're going to learn. Just go and get curious. And that's the way to be. The other end of the spectrum, there were some people who were ranging from everything from this is really inappropriate. So some people said to me, I feel uncomfortable. This is inappropriate, because they didn't feel like it was right for us to be talking to a heart surgeon that had lost a patient with regards to a corporate L and D confidence issue and right through to other people just almost going, Where's the relevance? I just share that because, again, as leaders, just know that you got to think. The learn is, how do I think through this? And again, a bit of signposting just helping people to go with it. At the end of the day, we're not trying to sort of all of these people wanted to tell us their story, so it wasn't like we were paying them an amount of money to go, we need you to help us. They wanted to tell their story. So just be mindful that if you're having that reaction, listening to this going, oh, my God, that doesn't feel right. That's exactly it. We're going to other worlds where, right, get uncomfortably excited, go and but get curious. That's the key to that exercise.

Simon Ursell [00:38:34]:

That's fascinating. Suzanne Brown, who's been on the pod, she talked to me before about she's got a six three one theory with things like that, where you're going to have three people massively into it, six people on the fence, and you're going to have one person that absolutely doesn't want anything to do. And her advice is go and hang out with the three because the six will come over and just be interested, and they'll probably turn around. Don't spend your time with the one person because that's where everybody tends to gravitate towards because they're agitated and stressed and upset. You tend to go and spend a lot of time with them. That's the wrong way around. Go and talk to the three guys who are really into it because everybody else will be excited and come and see what you're doing.

Kirk [00:39:19]:

The squeaky will gets the oil, was an expression I heard.

Simon Ursell [00:39:23]:

It's a great analogy. I now see it in so many aspects of stuff I've been doing. Don't hang out with the one, hang out with the three.

Kirk [00:39:34]:

And to give it a different take, don't design for the minority. And that sounds like sorry, let me clarify that because that can sound like a really non inclusive statement to make, but let's say you do something and you get feedback. So I'm not talking at all about being inclusive to the protected characteristics that we need to protect in work. I've just clarified that. What I mean is, how many times have you done a program, a session, you've asked for some feedback and all of it's amazing. And one person says, I didn't like that. I didn't think this was very good. And then you go and try and change everything to make it good for that one person, which might actually even impact the impact that it had on the other nine. Or you do an exam at school, 100 questions, you get 90, right? What do you do? You go and look at the ten you got wrong.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:40:27]:

So just be careful.

Kirk [00:40:28]:

That's what I mean about design when I say don't design for the minority, don't design for that, go and gravitate towards where it's where it gets the positive working. Although, actually, my flip on that would be just in my world, because I work in learning development, so we're designing development initiatives all the time and I talk about this apathetic middle. So actually, my one challenge yeah, right. Because what happens is, so firstly, feedback. I think the average percentage of people that give feedback in company environments around training is about 30% or something like that. Right. It's quite low. So, firstly, we make decisions on our training based on a huge minority of people, and that might be statistically robust, but there's still something in that. More potentially worrying is that we make those decisions. They are the people that have had an emotion around it, right. Good or bad. So they will give you those good or bad. So you're getting the extremes. Now, if you were doing a Net promoter score study or work in other spaces, you normally discount the extremes to give you validity around the middle. So a big thing that I'm trying to work on, and we're trying to work on with my team at Google, is how do we learn more from that apathetic middle. Right. Or certainly they're apathetic enough to not bother giving feedback. Right. Which probably suggests they don't hate it, but might suggest as well that they're like, I wasn't loving it either. Right, yeah. And I'm not saying that I want them all to become the three. I don't want all the six to become the three. I don't expect them to there's something in their makeup, their relationship with learning things that are beyond my ability to control, certainly in the space of time that I have to affect them. But I want to learn and understand from them probably more than as much as I do from the two extremes.

Simon Ursell [00:42:28]:

Sure. Fascinating stuff.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:42:31]:

It just got me. And just thinking about when you're under pressure, who do you need around you? And then also thinking about, if I see someone else under pressure, would I be helpful for them? Because they might not be reaching out. And I would probably I think a lot about when I see people under pressure, like, do I go towards that? To just let them know I'm here, or I'm here if they need me, or I'm just thinking a lot about that and reflecting on a few situations that are in my head at the moment around people who I know are under pressure. And we've had a conversation earlier this morning about one Simon and the people around. I think if it was different people around, it would make a huge difference.

Simon Ursell [00:43:11]:


Rusty Earnshaw [00:43:12]:

And again, you see it in sport, don't you? Like the people that progress through some of those bumps along the way. You look around them and you go, I got some good people around them. And actually, some of the people that actually fall out of the bottom probably didn't have some people to help them at their moment of need.

Kirk [00:43:28]:

I was having a big debate the other day with debate?

Rusty Earnshaw [00:43:34]:

Were you wearing fashionable knitwear? We were discussing with all the Lectern.

Kirk [00:43:39]:

I was at the Lectern, and no, somebody was challenging this term around equitable leadership as being different to equal. And equitable is about recognizing that people will need different will be at different starting points. Right. So actually giving people the same and let's take at school, if somebody is Dyslexic, they will be given slightly longer to complete the exercise right. Or the exam. They're not given a lesser mark, they're not given an ability, they're not given an allowance where they don't have to score as high. They're not given different conditions. There's just a recognition that they would require a little bit more time in order to be at the same point. And we were just debating whether or not that was whether that's right. Some people was there, but I'm a big believer. It's probably the biggest thing I've learned as a leader over the last couple of years is this need to be truly equitable. And I don't think it has to go I'm going quite deep around what does that mean? It just means that I just think it's about recognizing that everybody needs different things. So to your point, who do people need around them? What you can't do is go, well, all my team will need this. And the problem is, it's hard because it's not efficient. Equitable is not as efficient as equal because it's about recognizing everyone needs different things. So to answer your question, what do I need around in my work when things aren't going well or haven't gone well? I need the reassurance of the person responsible for my performance. And pay is the honest truth. Listen, I'm quite materialistic. I more just have a real sort of fear of poverty and so on, even though I'm extremely privileged right now. So I know I need that. And actually, my bosses, the last few bosses I've had have been amazing at recognizing what I need, but not all have, even though I've potentially told them. And some people have even gone as far as weaponizing it. Right. Leave them stewing, right, that kind of thing. But the point being is, like, as a leader, how do you invest the time to know as much as you can about what everybody needs? There's a tool that's used in business around leaders, there's a tool that's used in business around leaders almost writing manuals of how to work with them and then giving it to their team. This is how you work with me. And that's never set comfort. I'm not saying it's wrong, but it's never set comfortably with me. I was like, surely the right way is get all of your team to write a manual of how you should be working with them.

Simon Ursell [00:46:26]:

Specific, tailored.

Kirk [00:46:27]:


Rusty Earnshaw [00:46:28]:


Simon Ursell [00:46:28]:

That's why small business are agile, isn't it? Because you can be you can do that.

Kirk [00:46:32]:

I get it's harder.

Simon Ursell [00:46:34]:

As you get bigger, it gets more challenging. And you have to create small teams within a big organization to still be agile, don't you?

Kirk [00:46:40]:

Or small, whatever. I've heard it called posses or tribes or even if you can't do it on actually a traditional organizational level, you can create some. It's a bit like when they have different houses in school. My eldest son has just started school and I love the fact that even within his class, there's different sort of subgroups based on their house and the color of T shirt they wear at PE and their book bag.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:47:03]:

You're going to hate the subgroups later when they start setting them and putting them into teams. Max is in the D team and you think he should be in the A team. I just want an analogy, actually. And again, you just again, have been speaking to a couple of leaders recently who've actually been because of a previous experience with a leader. Like, one of them she was talking to me about, like, it's taken me 18 months to get over this and at no point has the other leader approached her during that time and could have just solved it. And I heard someone describe equal as we all wear an XL top, the quality is we all get a top that fits us.

Kirk [00:47:37]:

I love that.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:47:38]:

And so maybe we just think about what top is going to fit the people that you're working with. And again, it's not like always the same sizes at different times. People need different things.

Simon Ursell [00:47:48]:

Yeah, cool. Thanks so much for talking to us. It's been fascinating as ever.

Kirk [00:47:56]:

Appreciate it.

Simon Ursell [00:47:57]:

Joy hanging out and yeah, look forward to speaking to you again really soon.

Kirk [00:48:02]:

By the way, Rusty, we only had you on that naive expert panel because Marcus Smith was busy.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:48:09]:

I did notice that no one showed up.

Simon Ursell [00:48:14]:

Awesome. Thanks, Kirk.

Kirk [00:48:16]:


Simon Ursell [00:48:16]:

Bye. Well, thanks for listening to that. What an amazing guy that he is. I mean, there's so much there, isn't there, to try and unpack a few things out of? I mean, out of all of the stuff, there is a couple of things that really resonated with you.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:48:34]:

Yeah, it's probably like a jumbo bag of chicken nuggets, I would say there's a lot of nuggets in there. Two that have resonated with me. Well, let's continue the food theme. So, Ian St. John, you can have chips. So I love the idea of when failure or something goes wrong, then actually just normalizing it in a kind of a playful way, but also helping people understand that it's not permanent. So you can often see when stuff goes wrong, people might tie that to their identity. And I loved his way of making sure that wasn't the case. Second one, probably with the rise of AI, that kind of AI versus the human element of stuff. So maybe thinking about how could we upgrade our operating systems as humans to make sure that we could be as maybe as resilient as the computers are.

Simon Ursell [00:49:25]:

Yeah, it's great. A couple of things for me. Environment keeps coming up, doesn't it? And I really loved his sort of environment is 80% of how creative you are, how many leaders are actually thinking about that and the environment they're creating, or getting frustrated that creativity and risks and failures aren't happening. It's environment. It was just fascinating to hear his take on that. And kind of related to that, I think. Are we getting our teams to write manuals and how we can get the best out of them? Are we telling our teams how they should be getting the best out of themselves? Or are we asking them to write something down about how we get the best out of them? I think that's something I'm definitely going to take away and try and use.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:50:13]:

Yeah, amazing. I've probably spent I was just trying to add it up. Let's say I've spent 40 days of my life with Kirkfellers and I'm still learning new stuff. Probably a good reflection. Again, like, the man who is in charge of creativity at Google is continuing to be creative. So maybe a nudge to everyone around, like, how are you going to keep getting that fresh thinking?

Simon Ursell [00:50:32]:


Rusty Earnshaw [00:50:34]:

Thanks so much for joining us on the Bands Back Ability Podcast with Simon Russell. We've really enjoyed your company. If you want to reach out to us, Simon, where can they reach you?

Simon Ursell [00:50:43]:

LinkedIn's. Best place? Simon Ursul. U-R-S for sugar. E-L-L. Send me a message. Rusty, where can we find TikTok?

Rusty Earnshaw [00:50:50]:

No, not really LinkedIn. Russell and then the same on Twitter, but please ignore all my political thoughts.

Simon Ursell [00:50:58]:

Yeah, second that.

Rusty Earnshaw [00:50:59]:

Over and out.