Inspiration is Everywhere
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Why the Arts are so important – to business

Alastair with Nancy Adler

We’re all born creative. Then through education or life itself, that creativity gets whittled away. As adults, many of us believe we’re not creative. Others are not given the space to express themselves through their work. This is a huge problem.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Pablo Picasso

The World Economic Forum identified creativity as the third most important work skill needed for our times. Creativity’s star has dramatically risen in recent years. And the home of creativity is the arts.

“I am not a businessman. I am an artist.”

Warren Buffet

Creativity often gets bad press particularly in business. It’s the narrowness in how it’s viewed and used which is the challenge. And this is our opportunity. You can apply creativity to most areas of life and harness it to many purposes. Creativity can be taught. It benefits from being practiced. And it’s available to all of us despite what past teachers and bosses have told us over the years.

“Creativity is the process of having original ideas that have value.”

Sir Ken Robinson 

When we work with a business on their culture, we draw on the arts to enable people to find fresh perspectives, to see that there is more than one way to do something. The process of working with the arts is engaging and personal. The creative process is a safe space for people to explore ideas and, in turn, re-discover themselves.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

Our mission at Creamer & Co is to demonstrate the value of the arts in all our lives and inspire people to use them at work. The arts are about storytelling and the power of metaphors, listening and looking, being curious and unlocking all our senses. They also teach us how to be fully present in a situation, another of the great challenges of our times. 

“If you want to build a ship don’t gather people together to collect wood and assign them tasks, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

And, of course, our imagination is rooted in the arts – yearning to dream up and create what doesn’t yet exist.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world.”

Albert Einstein

Nancy Adler holds the S. Bronfman Chair in Management at McGill University in Montreal. We have known each other more than 20 years. Nancy conducts research and consults on global leadership and cross-cultural management. She is also a superb ceramicist and artist. I asked Nancy for her thoughts about the role of the arts in our lives, and she was very clear: 


Society needs the arts now more than at any time in recent history.

Today, when so many societal structures are being challenged we need new approaches. Will we, for example, continue to view the 70 million refugees now living outside their home country as a threat or an opportunity?

How does business flourish when everything is changing? Marshall Goldsmith is right, “What got us here won’t get us there”. How do we proceed? Rather, and perhaps surprisingly at least to some, we win by inviting the traditions of great artists to guide us. Great artists have always had the courage to see reality the way it is. Great artists have always seen opportunities when others saw none.

Great artists have known how to inspire us when others remain trapped in the cynicism, fatalism and defeatist attitudes that force them to repeat what they have done before.

“You can find inspiration in everything…and if you can’t, look again!”

Paul Smith


Business needs the creativity of the arts to form new, profoundly meaningful relationships with society – relationships that lead to doing well by doing good. Business needs the courage of the artist to embrace perspectives and paths that neither they nor their competitors have previously dared to adopt.

Finally, business needs the arts to learn how to inspire and thus attract and retain the best employees from around the world. Business needs the arts to inspire their clients and customers.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

Alastair, Emma & Mary

Here are some thoughts from the team about what home means to each of us. 

What is home? Most of the time people pause and say, “I’ll get back to you on that.” Their answers are varied and revealing: 

“It’s wherever I belong.”

“I’ve never found it.”

“It’s a particular landscape, a constant that doesn’t change and that I can return to.”

“I wish I knew. I’m still searching.”

We’re interested because the idea of home, and feeling at home, sits at the heart of Creamer & Co’s work. In business, people want to be part of a team or organisation where they can be themselves. If you can bring more of yourself to what you do, you are more likely to do your best. Being allowed to be yourself is many people’s definition of being at home. Our cultural transformation work is all about creating that feeling of being at home at work.


Having boarded at school from the age of 8, it’s no surprise that home is often a place which I leave to come back to. And it’s the returning that I appreciate all the more, whether that’s after the daily commute, a business trip or holiday. Sensory triggers play a huge part in this. They are constant indicators as to whether I’m at home, coming home, close to home or homeless (travelling). A piece of music, the slant of light in the mornings, a cup, the smell of a room…

My definition of home revolves around three needs: it must allow me to be myself (a place of safety, comfort and beauty); to re-charge and re-group (a place of energy); and to get inspiration (a place of stimulation). I cherish my physical home and those close to me, but I realise that being at, say, a music festival or losing hours in my garden, also feed me in important ways. I’m always interested in where people get their energy and ideas from. That’s prompted me to think about the combination of sources that work for me.


Home is safety from familiarity, where the bogey-man can’t get me.
Home is strength from love and connection.
Home is the ever familiar view as you drive off the motorway.
Home is the twists and turns the road makes to take you there.
Home is the diagonal stripes mown into the lawn every weekend.
Home is the feel of the carpet on my bare feet.
Home is the smell of absence when returning from holiday.
Home is where I go when I close my eyes.


Home means Ireland, where I was born and raised. It is always a joy to return to my ‘home-home’ as we Irish abroad call it. When I go back to Ireland, I refer to England as my home, so I have two homes! But there’s such a strong, gravitational pull to Ireland. It’s where my roots are and where my culture is and I can’t argue with that. Nothing makes my heart sing for home more than the journey towards it, flying over Dublin Bay in a window seat looking out through the inevitable grey clouds, at the flat, cold Irish Sea, spotting the outline of Dun Laoghaire harbour.

This is my brain on painting

Alastair with Jenni Newcombe

Instead of taking selfies in front of famous buildings, I paint them. It’s how I slow down on holiday. Whilst Jane sits in a café reading and watching the world go by, I try to decipher a Tuscan tower and put it on paper. But in recent years, things have started to change with the way I draw and paint. So, I spoke to Jenni Newcombe, who’s been exploring how brains work, particularly within the context of education. 

This is how my drawing and painting process has evolved. I now draw a building in pencil, correcting as I go along. This might take 30mins or so. Then I need to walk away, go for lunch, rejoin Jane.

When I return to the building later I see all the errors I made earlier. This results in much correction. I then take my glasses off (I’m short-sighted). This eliminates detail and fore light and shade, blocks of colour, contrast and in drama – what should I accentuate? Further corrections and changes ensue. I make a few notes on colours and then stop. 

Later on, I return to the drawing and ink it in, setting it in stone.

(Nancy Adler, talks about an artist-tutor who would take her on evening walks when the light was fading to get an essence of a landscape, its overall shape, before painting it the following day. It’s the same principle – stripping away detail in order to ‘see’.)

Once it’s drawn, I move on to other things. I might paint the picture the following evening. I tend to do a job lot, painting several pictures at the same time.

Here are Jenni’s thoughts about what’s going on.


Let me first talk about dusk walks and short-sightedness! What the brain does naturally, on its own, is edit. It’s called inhibiting. As you say, it’s stripping away the detail to enable you to see something without the cacophony of surrounding visual information as well as other sensory triggers that may distract you from seeing something more clearly. Minimalist music and abstract painting do the same thing. Both are examples of something being reduced to its essence.

When you describe your painting process, what your brain is doing in the breaks is being highly creative. It’s making loads of connections about what you’ve just seen, drawing on memory, past experience, other visual and sensory cues. So, when you sit back down in front of your Tuscan tower, your brain is in effect ahead of you. It has so much more information about that tower than the first time. This is why it’s easier for you to see where you can make your corrections or bring it more into proportion, or indeed distort it if that’s what you want to do.

As far as we know, REM sleep has the same effect of removing some of that visceral and emotional reaction to something and leaving our minds in a clearer state. We talk about “sleeping on it”, and there’s a truth in the clarity and more balanced view of something after a good nights’ sleep.

Another point I’d make is around conscious attention. Your brain determines how long you concentrate for and is distracted or goes off task when it needs to. So we use the idea of interleaving. This is the process of changing tasks on a regular basis in order to help us focus better. The timing is flexible but 20 minutes on one task should be complemented with 10–20 minutes on a completely different activity such as something manual, before returning to the original task. 

In schools, we have lesson lengths for a good reason. We know that children can only concentrate for a certain period of time. However, adult brains aren’t much different in this regard. After a while there’s only so much more information we can take in. It makes perfect sense to run shorter sessions with breaks. This is hugely important for all of us but especially for introverts and those who need to digest and reflect before responding. 

If you’re truly wanting to be a diverse organisation, you should bear this in mind to help those people who think differently.

“We live in a front foot world of instant answers and lightning reactions but not everyone is built like that.”

And as we now know, all brains need to rest and then return. Great innovative thinking often occurs when thinking is slow. Neuroscience also shows us that brains at rest are just as active if not more active than brains that are focused. It’s an extremely effective way of working. Business is driven by time slots. Meetings are an hour. Why? Ideally, they should be no longer than 45mins. 

We’ve fallen into bad habits. What you’re discovering with your painting is what we all need to apply to our work. Allow people to ‘walk away’ and let the brain do some of the heavy lifting in-between sessions.

Eyes Wide Opened: a Talking Cure

Alastair with Dr Debbie Street

For many of today’s stress-related conditions, there are wider, more imaginative solutions than medication. Parents with their own work-related anxieties, along with concerns about their children’s careers (or lack of), are particularly prone to feelings of being overwhelmed, sleeplessness, 24/7 worries and imposter syndrome (not least as parents) which all lead to a draining of confidence. Cue – go to the doctor! 

Debbie and I have been in discussion about Eyes Wide Opened (EWO) for 5 years. Patients, friends and family have either attended weekend courses or had one-to-one coaching. I remember Debbie once mentioning the phrase – “the talking cure” – when describing EWO. I asked her about what she meant.


The constant presence of worry, stress and anxiety is so pervasive that, for some of us, it’s claustrophobic. There is no avoiding it. So, the process of talking about your concerns or experience is powerful. You have to tell your story from the beginning to make it understandable to the listener. Your brain listens too. It can be cathartic. 

Every time we speak it’s an improvisation. We don’t speak from scripts. The words we use are slightly different, the order changes, the accentuation and energy we put into a story is nuanced depending on the context. We’re often searching for words, phrases and metaphors to explain what something feels like to us. In that moment we understand ourselves a little better to move forward. To work out who we are and where we want to go. To the trained ear, like the coaches at EWO and many of us in the health service, there are trigger words, pauses, rushed sentences, a change in volume that tells you as much about what’s going on as the story itself. However, what you have in EWO, which I don’t have with my patients, is time. It takes time to unravel or formulate a thought that hasn’t yet been expressed. 

We talk to our children about their careers and opportunities. There is a lot of emphasis on results. Very little is about their future. It is similar in the work place. People jog along a path unhappy without direction: “How do I see myself doing this?” “What am I good at?” “Am I enjoying this?” “What is sustainable for my means and energy?” What EWO does is give people a framework for talking and then give them practical tools for helping them through the labyrinth of options to find their own path forward. It’s the talking and the tools.


We always start by saying we don’t have the answers. 

“Each person has the answers within them. We’re just good at drawing them out.”

The longer we run courses and coaching the more I feel we’re about two ideas. On the one hand we encourage people to get interested in themselves, see themselves differently, listen to themselves, build their self-awareness. On the other, we help them get interested in the world around them, to see that a bit differently. EWO is a bridge that connects these two pieces of thinking in order that they can see themselves in the world, differently.


You literally empower them to take responsibility for their next course of action. You work with them to build their self-awareness. And it’s in the talking about themselves – articulating what they’re good at, the learning from all types of experiences, understanding what they stand for and care about – that then enables them to narrow down their range of choices. This sounds restrictive but actually people are overwhelmed by choice. With fewer choices it’s easier for them to make better decisions.

A passion, compulsion or conviction?

Alastair with Amy and Ella Meek – co-founders of Kids Against Plastic

Amy and Ella Meek founded Kids Against Plastic three years ago. Now aged 16 and 14, they have a TED talk under their belt, numerous keynote speeches behind them, a book deal and a regular slot on Sky Kids – FYI – along with their successful campaign of litter picking, and schools action programmes and teams.

I have been mentoring them for the past year and I’ve been struck by the surety of their focus, the eloquence of their arguments and the determination of their activism. This is a far cry from the usual lack of conviction I see in many people, no matter what their age. I wanted to ask them about the beginning of Kids Against Plastic. What got them started? Was it passion, compulsion or conviction? 


I remember a combination of factors over a period of time. We were being home-schooled and travelling around Europe. Learning about the UN’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals was a significant moment for us. 


And then there were these two Indonesian girls – Melati and Isabel Wijsen – who had created the movement ‘Bye Bye Plastic Bags’. We watched their TED talk. They blew us away and helped us realise we could make a change like they had.”


We just felt we had to do something, however small. But Melati and Isabel made us believe that we could do something. So we started picking up litter.


The walks around where we live in Nottinghamshire had the usual plastic rubbish strewn along them so we set out to clean them up. And then we heard about how 100,000 mammals would die through plastic pollution so we decided to collect 100,000 pieces of plastic litter as an immediate response. I’m passionate about wildlife so this made sense to me. I also remember watching the series Blue Planet II which raised a lot of awareness with the media and the public. It had a huge effect on us.


When we started out we wanted to eradicate bottled water from UK supermarkets. That was our goal. We still have that as a vision but now we understand much more the complexity of that. I remember feeling angry when we understood that plastic bottles that were said to be recyclable actually weren’t being recycled at all. The system was broken. Our whole ‘Plastic Clever’ campaign came out of this need to help more people, particularly young people understand what’s going on and what they can do to change things.

As they get more well-known, the girls are in demand, their voices sought out. Already, there is the choice of where to speak, which meeting to attend. Government, big business, third sector, festivals are all leaning in. Recently, we’ve secured two keynotes speeches for them with Danone Water. 

Both girls have spoken about finding their passion. I’m a great believer in being in the right place at the right time. I don’t think this is just down to luck. I think you make your own luck by being alert, curious, aware, interested, empathic. In short by paying attention and noticing what’s going on around you. And Amy and Ella have all these qualities. 


If we can inspire more young people to become responsible consumers and demand change in their schools and communities that would be cool.


And I don’t think this is just about plastic. It might be about sustainable fashion. If we can inspire young people to take action in whatever area interests them that would be great. Just take action.

What does it take to take action? First, you need to notice what’s going on. Second, it has to speak to you, get you angry, frustrated, feel compelled to do something in response. Third, what’s the difference you want to see happen? This is an act of imagination – envisioning something that doesn’t yet exist. Out of this progression comes a passion, compulsion (we must do something) and finally conviction that what you’re doing will make a difference.

Listening to Amy and Ella I’m reminded of a phrase I used when I started the Catalyst programme at Unilever – 

“I didn’t know what I couldn’t do.” 

I simply couldn’t see the barriers, the cul-de-sacs and dead ends. I was driven by an idea of how things might be. Amy and Ella are driven by a huge idea and that focus will give them the momentum they need to overcome whatever distractions are flung their way.

Amy and Ella Meek were one of the 2018 Roundtable Global Youth Award Winners.