Natalie Nixon, PhD, has been called the “Creativity Whisperer for the C-Suite,” a top change management keynote speaker, consultant, and a strategy, foresight, and innovation expert. She is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning book The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition.
Seth Godin said that Natalie “helps you get unstuck and unlock the work you were born to do!” In 2021, Fast Company named her a World Changing Ideas Honoree and Real Leaders named her a top 50 Keynote Speaker in the world for 2022. Featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and INC, she advises leaders on unique approaches to process transformation and leverage creativity as an innovation resource to more rapidly achieve priority business goals. A hybrid thinker, Natalie consistently applies her background in cultural anthropology, fashion, design thinking and dance.
Natalie is an early-stage investor at two social impact ventures, valued for her ability to work at the intersection of commercial value and stakeholder equity.
For more on Natalie or to book her to speak: https://speakers.calentertainment.com/profile/34773.
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Natalie Nixon: C-Suite Creativity Whisperer on Unleashing Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition
Joining us in this episode is Dr. Natalie Nixon. She’s been called the “Creativity Whisperer for the C-Suite.” She’s a speaker, consultant, and strategy foresight and innovation expert. Natalie is the author of the critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning book, The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work. She’s been featured in Forbes and Inc. Magazine and contributed to Fast Company.
Seth Godin said that Natalie helps you get unstuck and unlock the work you were born to do. In 2021, Fast Company named her a World Changing Ideas Honoree, and Real Leaders named her a Top 50 Keynote Speaker in the World for 2022. A hybrid thinker, Natalie consistently applies her background in cultural anthropology, fashion design thinking and dance to advise leaders on unique approaches for process transformation and to leverage creativity as an innovation resource to more rapidly achieve priority business goals. Please join me with the awesome Natalie Nixon.
Natalie Nixon, thank you for joining me here on the show. How are you doing?
Chris, I’m doing well. Thanks for having me on.
I’ve been looking forward to talking to you. I’ve been enjoying getting to know you. You are a wonderful breath of fresh air when it comes to one of my favorite topics, which is creativity. There are many ways that people come at that topic, but obviously, I know there was a publication or media that named you the “Creativity Whisperer for the C-Suite,” which I like. Also, your awesome book is an award-winning book called The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work. One thing people quickly get to know about you, which I also love, is that you love and were inspired a lot by jazz.
Yes, absolutely. My dad was a big jazz head, and he learned to play the acoustic upright bass in the service. He joined the Air Force right out of high school. I grew up listening to the catalog of Blue Note Records that he owned and had collected over the years. At the same time, my mom had studied and trained to be an opera singer, so I also had in our home a lot of European classical music. Our home was a music haven for R&B, jazz, and classical. I continue to have a soundscape wherever I go in my life.
You did become a musician, though. Did you tiptoe your way into it, or did you think, “I just want to listen to it?” How did that conversation go?
My intersection with music is through dance. I’ve studied Dance since I was four years old. I liken music to dancers, what a frame is to a visual artist’s painting. Dancers always will wait until the end of movie credits to understand who did the score because dancers love finding those gems of musical compositions that help them tell a story through movement. I studied modern dance. I danced in college. I danced a little bit afterward in New York City for two years. It’s not that long at all.
The challenge with being a dancer is that if you don’t continue professionally, you are SOL in terms of the options to continue to take the class. There are either classes for thirteen-year-olds or for the professionals who are trying to audition. What I have found and focused on in the past few years is ballroom dance. That and hip-hop are my go-to now.
Do you dance at all during your keynote? I’m just kidding.
Maybe I came up with a new idea. I’m just kidding. I don’t think you need to because your keynote is so awesome and everybody is transfixed. The reviews are always through the roof for you. Tell us, when did you start looking at creativity in the business world and in that scope? This was way before you wrote your book, but when did you start combining the knowledge of music, dance and creativity with the business practices that we go through at work?
I have an incredibly loopy background, which I found myself constantly defending through my 20s and 30s, and finally settled into understanding that I have a loopy background. I have a background in cultural anthropology, fashion, dance, and academia. I’m a qualitative researcher. I started my company, Figure 8 Thinking, as a side hustle on the side of my academic practice. I was a professor for sixteen years, and I gave a TEDx Philadelphia Talk in 2014, which catapulted me into going to companies to help them develop cultures of innovation.
What was that TED Talk called?
That TED talk was about how the future of work is jazz, and it was the 7 Rules For Improvising At Work.
That’s the one I’ve seen. I liked that one.
I give this talk, and I started getting invited into organizations to help facilitate, advise, and speak about improvisational organizations. I was doing it so much that my husband said, “This is a thing. You should formalize it.” I did, and I created Figure 8 Thinking. It was a side hustle until I looked up a year later and realized I was having more fun with my side hustle. In 2017, I made the decision to leave academia and build out Figure 8 Thinking full-time, and I’ve not looked back.
What was happening is that the majority of the engagements that I was invited to do were to help build these cultures of innovation. In the hallowed halls of Corporate America, rarely do we utter the words, creativity, but what I was observing is a couple of things. Number one, we didn’t all have the same definition of innovation, and we ended up talking over and around each other. That was a challenge.The old halls of corporate America rarely build these cultures of innovation. Click To Tweet
Secondly, I was observing from my experiences that in order to consistently and sustainably innovate as an organization, you need a capacity for creativity. The challenge was that if I had led with creativity, they would have looked at me like I had three heads because in most organizations, especially in corporate environments, when you say creativity, people think of dance, music, theater, and sculpting. I realized I needed to develop a simple and clear and accessible way to explain the connection between creativity and innovation.
Here’s how I see the connection. First of all, the way I define innovation is that innovation is an invention converted into scalable value. That value can be cultural, financial, or social value, but how do you go from an idea or an invention to an innovation? The conversion factor is creativity. What I landed on was the idea that creativity is our ability to toggle between wonder and rigor to solve problems and produce this novel value.
That converted later into the book because I used a lot of my speaking as a way to prototype ideas. As I was developing these ideas, people would come up to me after my talks and say, “That was amazing. Where can I learn or read more about it?” I quickly realized I needed to summarize and distill all that I was thinking about into a book, which turned into The Creativity Leap.
You’re also a contributor to Fast Company. I know you’ve been featured in Forbes and Inc. Magazine as well. You’re a thought leader in this space, which is so exciting to the people who hire you and for me right now to be talking to you. I think that it’s great that you have looked at it differently, and you realize the word creativity might not be the best foot forward into talking in Corporate America. They’re not going to get it right away. It’s about inventing. When you say inventing, you’re talking about is it a strategy? Is it a product? Is it a solution? What are we inventing?
It’s a yes to all. One of the areas in my background is design thinking. Design thinking is a problem-solving process. One of the things that design thinking offers is that you can design not only tangible objects like furniture, dresses and garments, but you can also design the intangible. You can design experiences, processes, and services. Similarly, I look at my role as an advisor in organizations as I do a lot of acts of translation.
Sometimes, when my clients are in the midst of their work in financial services or healthcare or technology, it’s understandable that it’s hard to Zoom out and see the forest for the trees. You get so into the weeds. I have jokingly said at the start of a lot of my keynotes that my husband says that one of my superpowers is my ability to fall asleep anywhere.
That’s good because you’re on planes a lot.
That’s a great superpower, but my other superpower is my ability to help people think differently about the ways that they think. Specifically to help leaders in organizations where they’re feeling a bit stuck to think differently about the way they think. The reason why that matters is that for most of these organizations with whom I’m working, they’re churning. They’re putting out a lot of fires, and they’re in a reactionary mode.
I learned from Esther Perel that creativity is the opposite of being reactionary. When you’re being reactionary, you’re doing a lot of copy-pasting, but to be creative, you need to be super generative. To be able to help them pause, to zoom out, give them tools and frameworks and facilitate ways for the leadership team to think differently about the ways that they think is golden for figuring out how to innovate, disrupt and shift. Sometimes the shift doesn’t have to be monumental. Sometimes it’s a small tweak in the way that you’ve gone about delivering a service, process or experience. It’s very much what I say inside-out work.The shift doesn't have to be monumental. Sometimes it's a small tweak in how you've gone about delivering a service, a process, or an experience. Click To Tweet
I love what you said about the reactionary versus the creative approach because the reactionary also seems to me like it’s a little bit angry. It’s a little bit scared. It’s fearful. It’s circumstantial rather than the changing process being an opportunity and something that’s hopeful.
I love your insight about that. The direction I’m taking my work next is I’m building out these ideas about wonder, rigor, improvisation, intuition and curiosity to think about flourishing and think about how we flourish in what feels like unprecedented amounts of change. Every generation feels that way.
We have more change than anybody right now. It feels like that. In every area, from sports to work to government, everything is, “Let’s start over. Let’s change everything. Let’s go back to the way things were.”
Speaking of going back, don’t you find it interesting? I’ve been thinking a lot about how we’ve made a big deal about how in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, how are we going to make sense of this hybrid workplace and working from home, which has a whole host of challenges, do not get me wrong. I understand it can be incredibly nuanced and complicated. What I started to think about is that it’s a relatively new concept that we wake up in the morning. We travel miles away from our homes to go to work for centuries in more agricultural economies. You wake up in the morning, you do your oblations, you eat some food, you cross the threshold, and then you’re at work.
I don’t know about you, but I work from home. I wake up in the morning, I do my oblations. I have something to eat. I cross the threshold and I’m at work. In some ways, this is something that as humans, we’ve been in this place before. What’s interesting is thinking about how we flourish in the midst of a lot of ambiguity where there are a lot of blurred boundaries.
I think one of the answers and something I learned working in the fashion industry is to zig away from when everyone else is zagging. What I mean by that is we have a tech crush right now. Everyone is in love with technology, be it AR/VR, robotics or Twitch, whatever it is. That’s cool, but in my view, the organizations that are going to flourish and thrive are the ones that understand how to work at the intersection of productivity, technology and meaningful human connection and experience.
One of the ways they’re going to do that is by making room for the capacity for all of us to be much more creative in the way that I’m defining creativity. It’s not just picking a paintbrush. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but thinking about creativity in terms of that capacity for wonder as well as for rigor.
I’m interested in finding out what was it that you were teaching when you were a professor and were you teaching. Also, what were you doing in fashion? Because these are both interesting jobs that you had that lead you to be who you are now. I’m sorry to go backwards here, but I’m curious. What did you teach and what did you do in the fashion world?
Before I was a professor, in my twenties, there was a five-year chapter where I was a middle school English teacher. I only half-jokingly say that was probably the best setup and experience for everything I’ve gone on to do because when you’re a middle school English teacher, you must have an incredible sense of humor about yourself. You must love learning. You must be improvisational, a good researcher, etc.
The teaching chapter for sixteen years as a professor, the first ten years, I taught the business of fashion and that’s because my background in fashion was as an entrepreneurial hat designer. I had a business small business called Nat’s Hats when I was a much younger woman living in New York City. After that, I worked for a division of Limited Brands, and it was a company called Mast Industries. It still is around. My former boss, James Schwartz is now the President of Mast.
Mast was primarily the sourcing arm of the Limited. Sourcing is the side of the fashion industry where you figure out how to make a t-shirt at the highest quality, lowest cost and shortest lead time. What that meant in a world where now the cost of labor is cheaper outside of the United States and this was a company that had a lot of strategic partnerships around the world. That took me to live and work in Sri Lanka and Portugal making bras and panties for the Victoria’s Secret brand. That was the account that I was primarily focused on.
It was just life-changing because fashion is an industry that most people underestimate. People, either think fashion is glamorous or they think it’s frivolous. It’s neither glamorous nor frivolous. It is a business and I learned working in fashion to appreciate having financial acumen, the role of technology and logistics, but also the role of beauty and desire and aesthetics in building consumer insight.
Fashion is so good at figuring out what we desire. If more industries operate in that way and got into the consumer’s heads in that way, it would be a game-changer. In academia, because I love ideas and learning, essentially I got paid to learn is how I look at that chapter of my life. I started out teaching the business of fashion for the first ten years.Fashion is so good at figuring out what we desire. If more industries operated that way and got into the consumer's heads that way, that would be a game changer. Click To Tweet
In the middle of that, I naively decided to earn a PhD while working full-time because I thought, “It’s just a big paper at the end. Let me try it.” I ended up doing that. I did it in four years and that’s when I started studying improvisational organizations through the lens of jazz music. I was also exposed to the field of design thinking, creative activity and strategy design and design strategy. I got so enthusiastic about it, I said to the university, “We should be doing something in this space.”
As what often happens in organizations, they said, “Cool. You do it right.” I created and launched a Strategic Design MBA program. It was an executive MBA that integrated design thinking, how people learn strategy, leadership, finance and branding. That was the final six years of my academic career. I was a very entrepreneurial academic and I loved my time doing that.
It makes you who you are now. One question I have for you is whether you did talk about the Seven Rules for Improvising at Work. Is that something people are asking for now or what is the most common thing you’re hearing clients ask you for or do they want you to cover with their audiences? Because change, invention, creativity and innovation are absolutely essential and hugely present in our world now. What are you hearing? Do they want those seven rules for improvising at work or do they want something different?
It’s funny that you’re asking because I had a call with a potential client who is interested in The Future of Work is Jazz talk, which is one of the talks that I still get invited to give a variation of that this. Those Seven Rules for Improvising come from the work of Frank Barrett. He is a jazz musician. He’s an academic based in San Diego. Those seven principles are things that Frank Barrett identified as being present in the way jazz musicians work and are super helpful if we transpose them and transfer them over to org design and management.
Things like embracing mistakes, soloing and supporting hallway moments. Something he calls retrospective sense, making the ability to draw from the past, and it’s a brilliant heuristic because it helps people to understand that they have to shift away from micromanagement, and what I call a permission slip culture to build what I call more fluid and flexible structures.
It’s not that you want to do away with structure. We need the boundaries, but we need to know what the boundaries are so we can press up against them, and we can extend them. The topics that I generally get invited to speak on are around the idea of like, “How do we navigate ambiguity, and how does creativity in a very applied practical way help us to do that? I also get invited a lot to talk about the future of work from a slightly different perspective. We know that technology is ubiquitous, but what else in terms of the human element can we optimize to flourish in the future of work?
You have a pretty positive outlook for the future of work. What are you most excited about right now that you’re seeing happen or that you’re proud of that business cultures are doing, creating and innovating? What is it that’s got you excited about the future right now?
As a foresight practitioner, foresight is less to do with predicting the future. It’s much more about being hyper-observant of the present. Because when you are super observant of the present, you begin to identify patterns. You can dream up and imagine what might come next. What’s interesting to me and what I think more organizations should be paying attention to is what not just Millennials but what Centennials are doing to engage with each other.
We have a 21-year-old daughter who’s a member of Gen Z. She’s a Centennial, and the Centennial generation sometimes gets a bad rap because they’re digital natives. They can be perceived to constantly on their phones but one of the things that we must pay attention to is what we might learn from the ways that they are engaging in technology.
This is something I’m still learning about. If you look at a lot of the game design that high school and middle school students are involved in, using platforms like Twitch, what they’re engaging in is improvisation and co-creation using their imagination in ways that we don’t get the same opportunities to do. Rather than fight against that, when we think about the future of work, I think it’s very important to understand what, from those environments, we could integrate that could help us do a much more imaginative and innovative job at building consumer insight in building our own team culture.
The other thing that I’m interested in and excited about is exploring more neuroscience and creativity and intuition. This is an example. Zigging away from where others are zagging, and exploring embodied work. I’m not sure yet how all that will play out, but I do discern and what I’m observing and what I experience among my clients is that in these virtual environments where we have more opportunity to let technology take over basic tasks, we must pay attention to a more embodied work to understand how intuition can be optimized.
What if, for example, more of our KPIs were tied to curiosity and intuition? What if we incentivized creativity? What if we figured out ways to design technology? I know there are some platforms out there that helped us to step away from the laptop and from the phone to do some of the things that I advocate, such as daydreaming, taking walks, and being strategic in the breaks that we use so that we can energize our brains to have the much more dynamic neural synapses that make us think in a much more generative way. That’s something that excites me.
We do need the zigs and the zags because it seems like in the world that we live in, there’s a lot of, “That worked for that person and this is the new hot trend,” and everybody goes and does that. We then find out later it wasn’t such a good idea. People are sheepishly following articles or thought leaders who may be outdated or closed-minded or think they know everything there is to know.
Certainly, people like you are welcome on our stages and in our media, our books and our magazines. I love the content you put out. This has been such a great conversation. I feel like we scratched the surface a little bit. I’m looking forward to you being in California, so I can see your keynote in person. I’m looking forward to that. Thank you so much, Natalie, for coming on. This has been awesome. You are amazing. I appreciate your time.
Thank you so much, Chris, for having me. This was awesome. I appreciate it.
I’ll talk to you soon. Thank you so much.
- Dr. Natalie Nixon
- Figure 8 Thinking
- The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work
- 7 Rules For Improvising At Work
About Natalie Nixon
Dr. Natalie Nixon is the Creativity Whisperer to the C-Suite, helping leaders achieve transformative business results by applying wonder, rigor and foresight. Marketing guru Seth Godin has said that she “can help you get unstuck and unlock the work you were born to do.” As CEO & Creativity Strategist at Figure 8 Thinking, Natalie is a highly sought after global keynote speaker & advisor, author of the award winning “The Creativity Leap” and editor of “Strategic Design Thinking”.
Real Leaders named Natalie one of the “Top 50 Keynote Speakers in the World” and her clients have included Google, Salesforce, META, New Balance and Deloitte. Profiles on Natalie as well as her writing have been featured in Forbes, INC and Fast Company. As a magnetic keynote speaker, Natalie shares why creativity is not a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must have’ and leaves audiences with practical tactics to upgrade their organizational and individual creative capacity in the midst of ubiquitous technology, hybrid work environments – always with an eye on the future of work. She received her BA from Vassar College and her PhD from the University of Westminster.
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