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March 01, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 4

Founding editor of Fast Company Bill Taylor: Leadership today requires innovation, collaboration, and joy

By Marilyn Cavicchia
Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor

The pandemic drags on and on, it’s become clear that things will never be quite how they were before, many or most of us are feeling a bit drained—and yet, there’s still a lot of work we have to do. If we’re in a slump, how can we rouse ourselves and those around us so we can deal with what’s happening now and thoughtfully move toward whatever the future holds?

Bill Taylor believes that creativity and joy are key in boosting morale and cultivating the kind of ideas that can help move us and our organizations forward. In a recent article for Harvard Business Review, he shared some insights on how people at every level of an organization can avoid burnout and renew their energy by breaking out of their typical routines and taking time to talk about the future—together.

In his article, Taylor, a co-founder of the business magazine Fast Company, consultant, speaker, and author of three books on creativity, leadership, and change, cited examples mainly from the corporate sector. Bar Leader recently spoke with Taylor about how some of the ideas he shared could be applied within bar organizations.

An urgent question for our time

Because the pandemic has upended so many people’s habits and expectations, Taylor says before anything else can happen, it’s important to consider this question: “What is it that you are doing that people can find truly urgent, compelling, and interesting?” It’s no longer enough, he believes, for leaders to think in terms of doing things “a little better” or “a little differently” from how the bar has done them in the past.

A spirit of inquiry is needed, he says, because it’s in keeping with what the whole world is experiencing: “In industry after industry, field after field, people are asking questions about their careers, their lives, and their organizational affiliations that they haven't asked in a long, long time.”

The pressures that many bars are now feeling, with potential members choosing to go elsewhere for continuing education or to informally meet online, are true across the board for professional associations, Taylor says—and those trends were accelerated by the pandemic but began many years earlier.

While Taylor is a fan of creativity and joy at work, he says the kind of conversation that needs to occur doesn’t start with doodles on a white board, but with “intellectual clarity” and a commitment to “rethinking and reimagining what’s possible” and to developing a “clear, compelling, modern, relevant, timely definition of success for what this organization is all about.”

‘Learn fast—learn from outsiders’

Because so many different fields, in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, are experiencing similar challenges and a similar need to make changes, Taylor believes the time is right to dramatically broaden the idea of who should be involved in discussions of the future and innovation.

Taylor’s most recent work is focused on a concept he calls “learn fast—learn from outsiders.” All too often, he believes, leaders in traditional organizations such as bars get locked into tunnel vision and hierarchy—which is the exact opposite of what the current moment demands.

It can be terrifying, he adds, to face that blank white board and try to come up with an idea that’s completely new. One way of “unfreezing” people from that kind of fear, Taylor says, is to think in terms of, “Can we find ideas that are already working in other fields, with other kinds of associations? If we were to lift those ideas out of that setting and shift them into our setting, what might they look like?”

While it’s important to set a big, inviting table for people who are already within the bar, Taylor says the real magic comes when people are invited in who have nothing to do with the bar at all. And this is where it’s important to break down hierarchies, he notes: The junior-level bar staff member might not only have specific knowledge that the president lacks, but he or she might also have connections to other people in other fields whose perspective could be helpful.

Today, Taylor says, it’s important for leaders to build what he calls “an architecture of participation,” which involves “connecting lots of different people with lots of different backgrounds and lived experiences who together might be able to see opportunities for change, ways to solve problems, new offerings and services, that no individual bar president—no matter how talented he or she may be—would be able to see.”

Memorable, exciting work

More than ever, Taylor believes, all of us want experiences that are something other than a task to be done or a meeting just for the sake of having a meeting. “We're all on such sensory overload, such burnout and exhaustion,” he says, “we are looking for opportunities in our professional lives and in our personal lives to have experiences that are genuinely memorable and exciting.”

The effort to come up with ideas of how the bar can move beyond being merely “competent and efficient”—via a team that breaks hierarchies and includes outsiders from different fields—is in itself memorable and exciting, Taylor says. What you would be proposing to a prospective team member, he notes, is not just another task for someone who is already busy, but a chance to learn what’s going on in fields they might not know about and to meet people they might not otherwise have a chance to meet.

The pressures of the legal profession—and the health consequences of those pressures—are widely known and well documented; Taylor says that in other “high-profile, high-performance” fields, too, such as medicine and finance, “much of the joy has been sucked out” of work.

Thinking innovatively and collaboratively about the future of the organization can be a way to put some of that joy back in, he believes; it’s “an opportunity to exercise different muscles, to exercise different sides of their personality—to be more intellectually playful or experimental than their day-to-day work allows them to be.”

Inviting a wide variety of people to participate in this work—building an architecture of participation—also takes a lot of pressure off the president, Taylor says. Instead of thinking, “I’m only president for one year; I’ve got to fix this thing come hell or high water,” Taylor believes it’s better for everyone if the president thinks, “My job now is to design conversations and orchestrate connections so lots of people can help us solve this problem together.”

The chief morale officer

“It's really hard to unleash exciting ideas in a low-morale environment,” Taylor says. “it's really hard for people who are feeling ground down and burned out to rise to the occasion and come up with exciting new opportunities to make sense of the world and offer things to members.”  

A big part of being a leader, he believes, is “being the chief morale officer”—the kind of leader who creates and maintains a space where innovation and joy can flourish.

One way to do that, he says, is to resist “omission bias,” which is the tendency for people to think less about a potential missed opportunity if they don’t mention a new idea they have, and more about the punishment they might receive if the organization tries the new idea and it fails. “The most creative organizations I know understand that part of having a culture of innovation is getting people of all levels comfortable with the idea that you don't pay a huge penalty around here if you make a genuine effort at something new and it doesn't work out,” Taylor says. “Most of the things we try aren't going to work out, but it's what we learned from it that lets us get to the successful idea.”

Another mindset that saps joy and creativity, Taylor says, is “negativity bias,” which means it takes four pieces of good news to outweigh just one piece of bad news. To combat this, and to “keep people’s spirits high even when times are tough and demanding,” a leader can break a complex problem down into smaller pieces—and then share the good news as things are achieved.

“The road to big change,” he says, “is paved with small wins.”

For further reflection

Taylor recommends the following resources for anyone wanting to learn more about how leaders can cultivate innovation and joy:

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