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Collaborative Sensemaking and Creative Solitude

On one side of the coin is Rich Corbridge, collaboration advocate and on the other is Sam Shah, who finds creativity in solitude. When it’s getting the best out of people, is there a place for both? 

Rich – debating with Sam Shah is always an exciting thing to do, he’s probably one of the best sparring partners out there today. Off the cuff, he mentioned the phrase “Creative Solitude”, and I didn’t know what it meant! A quick search and even the concept made me shudder with fear – it’s centered around collaboration being key to creativity but exceptional creativity actually happening in solitude. The one thing I have missed during to my own time in ‘Pandemia’ is being able to share and grow ideas in a team from diverse backgrounds – making the most of collaborative sensemaking. I guess that’s why I talk about it as much as I do, much to the likely horror of those who thrive in creative solitude, flourishing by being unplugged and disconnected. I wonder, is there a way of understanding both ways of working?  

Sam – Who better to have a virtual spar with than Rich Corbridge! London Tech Week in 2017 was when I was first introduced to the creative solitude concept, and it’s stuck with me since, influencing the way I support and manage my teams. Whilst I could sit here and describe collaborative sensemaking and creative solitude like chalk and cheese, the truth is they need each other to produce the best outcomes. Our way of working demands it; whether we’re on a messaging platform or in an open plan office, we’re always connected.  

Planes, trains and thinking-mobiles  

Rich – There was a study a couple of years back which showed that social withdrawal can actually have a beneficial outcome: increased creativity.  I know that my ability to write creatively has certainly been hampered over the last 12 months, and surprisingly when I think about why, it’s because I haven’t had the two and a half hour journeys back from London on the ‘wonderful’ LNER trains where I’m alone with my thoughts. This is perhaps where my solitude becomes creative; it’s slightly less busy, the brain emptied of tasks from the day and just maybe a glass of M&S’ very own le Froglet in hand. It makes me think that as much as I desperately need to be together with brains to solve problems, perhaps it’s the time alone that gets a creative idea going in the first place.  

Sam – The buzz of meeting others whether it’s in the office, over a group video call or through a conference is a great way to ideate, share and design together. I certainly miss getting together with friends and colleagues to work through a problem and come up with solutions. Over the last year, I realised as much as I miss getting out dry markers and post-it notes with groups of people, I also miss those long train or plane journeys where I have quiet thinking time, away from my normal setting without any distractions. There’s something special about escaping the constant ping of emails, phone calls and instant messages, about not feeling guilty for keeping people waiting to have conversations, or not having to rush to the next meeting. 

In collaboration or solitude, what’s the best way to lead your teams? 

Rich – The mix between collaboration and solitude to create in isolation has an impact on your leadership style. When I think through the past year, I have missed collaboration and been so keen to foster it that I have taken the opportunity for creative isolation for granted and not really taken a step back to think. Worse still, what if my attitude to collaboration has pushed people into a space that they aren’t comfortable with? I’ve never considered the fact that the forced isolation brought on by the pandemic could see some people flourish, as it suits them as a way of working. The flurry of lockdown borne solutions and innovations that have appeared in the market are a case in point.  

Sam – I think this is the very conundrum that many leaders find themselves in. I expect there is no right or wrong; I’m sure it changes with the role, team and will depend on the problems that need solving and the lifecycle of the organisation. Each one of us probably thrives under different conditions depending on the outcome we are looking for. As much as I consciously plan for creative solitude, I also need to consider collaborative sensemaking.  I wonder if complexity affects the amount of each that we need? If I think back to my time running major digital transformation programmes at scale, I certainly needed to carve out more time to think alone compared to when I’ve been in a start-up or scale up. As human beings, we’re pretty good at finding equilibrium, so as much as we might push creative solitude or collaborative sensemaking, team members will probably find the balance that works for them. 

The solitude of the CIO 

Rich – A colleague recently described the role of CIO as being a lonely one, and I do believe that. You are regularly on an isolated quest to improve the understanding of technology in your peers and spend almost the same amount of time representing the business need in your own teams to stop everything you do being driven by technology. In the NHS, where Sam and I know each other from best, this isolation is a real problem inside local organisations.  The saving grace is the network of CIOs and CCIOs who are there ‘on tap’ to support each other almost daily. I know in my time at Leeds I was a lonely voice on the Exec and often turned to the likes Mandy Griffin, Cindy Fedell and Dylan Roberts to get local views and support and even when I left the NHS, that support didn’t stop. The likes of Rachel Dunscombe, Andy Kinnear and Joe MacDonald were there for me. Not a professionalised collaborative network, but a group of people with a common goal who wanted to try to be there for one another. Now, did we form that network through collaboration, or seek it out in isolation?  

Sam – Now, we’re running the risk of our debate becoming an echo chamber! I find myself agreeing about the loneliness that comes with senior digital leadership roles. My experience at the centre of the NHS was that you have your allies, but there are just as many sharks. Yes, regional and national organisations have ‘digital teams’, but it’s a different kind of loneliness. That’s why a proper support network across the NHS, in industry and overseas is so essential. It helped shape my thinking, develop an approach and form a view. Whilst I don’t think many of us can solve problems in isolation, we probably need some occasional space to work out the some of the questions we need to ask to tackle the problems we need to solve.  

It’s a game of give and take  

Rich – So what I take from this is that we need both. Rather than choosing one or the other, they’re both essential tools for solving problems as a team and driving new direction across our organisations. I think we need to find a way to better promote creative isolation, as a way of arriving at the collaboration with enough thought to drive new directions and appreciating the successful and avoiding the mistakes of the past. I’m so pleased I can give a name to my frantic tapping at the latest idea as my LNER cruises through the south and into the north, thank you Sam.