Creative leadership: a co-created agenda

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24 / 6 / 2015 11.21am

By Doug Shaw


Together beats apart. Flow beats worklife balance. Productive beats busy. Work is an art form. Connection gives us meaning, conversations are the bond. Those words you’ve just read - they’re my Twitter bio, and much more besides.

*Credo: A statement of the beliefs and aims which guide someone’s actions.

Right now, my work is in flow, and I am superbly fortunate to be working right across my credo. There are many differences in my current work, and some common threads too. One thing nearly all my recent work has in common is that is has no fixed agenda. We have a rough idea what each piece of work is about, plus a good sense of start, finish and break times, and from a structure perspective, that’s about it. We co-create outcomes and more, together, as we work. What requirements and opportunities are created when working like this? Here are a few things I’ve observed:


Everything starts with trust. Trust that we are looking out for one another, trust in what little process there is, and trust that something interesting and useful will emerge. Uncertainty is often created when working in this emergent way, so how do we establish that sense of trust with no agenda?


This isn’t a rose tinted blog post, so let’s recognise and find a way to work with the inherent uncertainty that comes with open frameworks. Some of this work relies very heavily on contracting – agreeing on how we are going to work and what we need for ourselves and each other. At times, this contracting process can be quite protracted, and that’s because we are taking the approach that working out how we are going to be and what we need are the essence of work. Sorting this out takes as long as it takes, which is fine, until you seek to constrain that vital conversation with an agenda.


A strong thread in my work is humour. I’ve laughed a lot in recent days. A short while ago when working with Neil Morrison in Louisiana, he suggested, that for our work together to succeed (we co-presented at the state HR conference), it needed some humour. Judging by the reaction we got – Neil was right. When I ask people ‘How do you want to be in our work today?’, they often request fun as part of the atmospheric mix. I can’t recall anyone ever asking for dull and miserable. I am serious about my work, and I’m sure you are too. And I think we can be serious with our intent and allow humour in as a part of that. Not always, sure – but then I’m not saying that working with no fixed agenda is always the right thing to do, far from it. Find out more about the materials from the Beyond HR presentation.


Good work is very often iterative and it emerges through a series of steps, one forward two back, two forward one back. Earlier this week I benefited hugely from a phone call with someone, who listened as I sketched out the flow of a talk and workshop I’m running, in Chicago next week. This flow has a few anchor points and a lot of space in between those points. As a direct result of describing my loose sketch over the phone, it became clear that something wasn’t quite right. I’ve since made a couple of tweaks and I now have an interesting mix of sequence and looseness to play with, derived from a check in call, a call with no fixed agenda.

Freedom of Movement

When you work more freely and co-creatively, it becomes easier to work without some other mechanisms too. Loosening the corporate shackles a little can be hugely beneficial. No agenda = no slideware, or at least a heavy reduction in them. A result of this is that we are no longer tied to staring at the wall feigning interest while Bert does his bit before I do mine. Some of our current work has been done outside, and at times, people have come and gone according to their needs and wants, the often slavish obligation to stay until the bitter end has been alleviated.

Collaboration and Co-Creation

Collaborative and co-creative, two very powerful words for me. In essence, they represent a real sense of doing work with each other, not to each other. Expertise and experience in these environments feels self-selecting rather than preordained. There is a sense of improvising, of taking an idea and building on it through an often random series of exchanges.

Ebb and Flow 

What if you’ve got this far and this concept isn’t resonating? When I get stuck in similar circumstances I find it helps to think of the ebb and flow of work, like a moving tide, or maybe an electrical current being modulated.

My thinking on this is further provoked by Julian Stodd writing about the enemies of innovation in organisations, and in particular his observations about dichotomies, for example the tension between trust and rules. These tensions brought to mind the knobs and dials on a mixing desk, and with this in mind, I invented a new toy. Ladies and gentlemen (drum roll please) I give you the patented, ‘Creativity Ebb n Flow Meter’ – V1.0.

Creativity ebb and flow meter

As you can see, the device is a series of complex tensions, adjusted through a series of knobs and sliders. On the far left is the all important panic button and a limited choice of beverages is available on the right. All this magic is contained in an old cereal box, which is a bit crunked because I sat on it by accident. Playing with these dials and tensions, in conversation and even via some kind of simple visual methodology (moving post-it notes along a scale on the wall perhaps), helps you recognise when you need to shift the atmospheric mix, and is a key to doing great collaborative and co-creative work. 


There is no right or wrong way to work, there are right and wrong ways. Working with no fixed agenda all the time is as wrong as working with one all the time, yet in my experience we default to the latter. The world of work exhorts creativity, collaboration, community and even, *shudder*…engagement. But how often do we generously invite people in, and generously give them the much needed permission to co-create, converse and at times of course, get it wrong? From experience, I think the answer is – not often enough. So why not try a few meetings with no fixed agenda beyond the start and finish time. Maybe start by exploring what’s important right now and just see where that takes you.

Doug Shaw is the founder and CEO of What Goes Around, advising a wide range of businesses and business leaders on how to improve employee and customer experiences through smarter, collaborative work practices. Doug speaks at conferences all over the world, writes for a number of publications and was recognised by Huffington Post as the UK's top expert on social HR in 2013.

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