Front Line Creativity – In Conversation with Paul Nanson

Front Line Creativity – In Conversation with Paul Nanson

Image by: Catarina Fonseca Chaica

For the second of our articles on creativity, we’re exploring creative thinking in an unexpected place, the military. What can this unique environment teach us all about creativity in the workplace?

To help us answer this question, we’ve enlisted Paul Nanson, CB CBE – the recently retired Commandant of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and Director Army Leadership – who gives us his thoughts on spotting, nurturing and getting the most out of creative recruits.

About Paul Nanson

Joining the army straight out of school in 1986, Paul witnessed the dying days of the Cold War from his first overseas posting in West Germany. From there, his served in the first Gulf War in 1991 – where he witnessed some major changes in how operations were conducted – Iraq in 2003 and took part in his final tour in Helmand Province in Afghanistan with the US Marines in 2008. Today, Paul brings his experience of command at most levels of the armed forces to his consultancy, coaching and speaking work, focusing on leadership and leadership development.


Some may be surprised, but creativity runs through the armed forces. It needs to, because people are often thinking on their feet in life or death situations. Paul stresses that, on operations, people of all ranks have always had to think two-steps ahead, innovate and solve problems. People can’t always wait for orders from above.

And Paul believes that if the army is to solve the problems of the future – both at war and at peace – it needs to attract the right talent from today’s more-informed and entrepreneurial generation.


Recruiting the creative generation

Paul told us that, although every generation is different, there is something about the way recruits today have experienced the world that makes them unique. This generation asks ‘why?’ and that is the foundation of creative thought – Paul thinks it’s up to the army to bring this creativity out.

“In minutes, they can get out their iPhone and find a different way of doing things. They are therefore perhaps more connected, willing to learn and take more risk.”

The forces need to attract and nurture these people if they are going to grow and adapt in a changing world – especially one where technology will play such a major role. The army is no different to our own organisations in that respect.

Paul is certainly excited by how this better connected generation of recruit can be developed into creative leaders, but admits they may appear sometimes appear undisciplined to the traditionalists.

“We need to think differently about the way we lead these people.”

Paul believes this perceived lack of discipline can be overcome – it’s simply a case of discovering how best to nurture and tap into this generation.


Creativity from the bottom up

“We need to think differently about the way we lead these people.”

Army recruiters are looking for many things at the Selection Centres. Among them, and high up the list are creativity, leadership and self-discipline. And they have only a couple of days to determine whether a young woman or man has the potential to display all three.

We can all study CVs and ask probing questions that tease out creative individuals. The army has a harder task – here’s an organisation that needs to recognise that creative spark in school leavers and immediately help it burn.


The power of ‘intelligent disobedience’

‘Intelligent disobedience’ is what Paul was looking for during recruitment – the ability to say to a senior office, “I think we should do it this way.” How many of us could do that at a young age? For Paul, that is what leadership is all about; it’s definitely not all about telling people what to do. And he goes on to makes the distinction between leadership and command. The former is about taking the initiative, solving problems and bring people along with you. The latter is the authority vested in a chain of command that ensures discipline, rigor and focus.

Paul makes it clear that looking for creativity in recruits is not about turning the army into a flat structure where everyone is free to go off and explore. Far from it. There are times when people need direction – structure and hierarchy are there for a reason. The army must have a chain of command, but that chain should be full of leaders willing and empowered to take the initiative.

In our own organisations, we also want creative people to take the lead – solve problems, strategize and communicate ideas. The Army calls this Mission Command and it’s of the upmost importance out in the field.

“On operations, lives are at stake, so we need to be creative in our thinking if we are to stay a step ahead of the enemy .”

Troops can’t always wait for permission to act and they need to be working in a culture where their leader will trust them to come up with solutions to problems and put those solutions into action. “It’s about what needs to be achieved, not how it is achieved,” explains Paul. “If they can do it, let them get on with it.”


Bringing creativity to peacetime

Paul admits that while the army’s great at unlocking that potential during operations, it’s less good at doing so in peacetime. We can all relate to that, surely. When there is less immediacy, it’s much easier to allow projects to sit on the back burner. It’s so easy to get bogged down in process and bureaucracy.

But Paul believes bringing mission command and empowerment to peacetime projects is key to empowering this new generation and unlocking their creativity. He also believes it’s becoming a necessity. The army needs creative thinkers who can get the most out of the artificial intelligence and robotics that will be a big part of all our futures.


‘Mission command’ and the pandemic

Creative thinking in peacetime became a necessity during Covid-19.

“We had 4,500 youngsters in training and were told to carry on. We tried to adapt and made everything Covid-19 friendly. Then a young doctor, a captain, says to me, ‘Send them home or you’re facing a disaster.”

That young doctor didn’t ask for permission, but he did have the foresight to see what was coming and took the initiative. Paul sent the troops home.

You may not be aware, but the army then became one of the first organisations to adapt to remote working and learning. Young corporals immediately started arranging virtual parades and training – being really creative about their approach to a new situation. Thinking around the problems is what we all want to see from those employees working at home – looking at the situation, finding out what works and even what might work better once the pandemic is over.

Paul retired from the Army 6 months ago, but wants to see the army continue to thrive in an increasingly complex world. To do that will require a culture that engages young people, because they are the ones who can embrace change, find solutions to today’s problems and clearly communicate their ideas.

In the end, Paul tells us:

“Creativity is not a nice to have – it’s essential.”

To find out more about our creativity series in partnership with the University of Arts London, please click here.  To understand how you can harness creativity in your own organisation please contact Tim McEwan or Ben Johnson.

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