A technologist develops soft skills - Issue #00009

They don't teach vulnerability and active listening in computer school, but they're the skills Keith most frequently pulls out of his innovation toolbox.

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Have you ever been told: “You should get a more sensible career"? I’m Timi and in each issue, I interview a storyteller, artist or creative entrepreneur in Asia who ignored this advice to pursue a creative career instead. The goal: zero generic fluff. 

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INTERVIEW: A technologist develops soft skills

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When I asked Keith Timimi for an interview, it was going to be about his experience as a pioneer and respected leader in Asia’s digital industry. 

We’d have the drama of joining one of Asia’s first digital consultancies, raising then losing many millions of dollars in the dot-com bust of 2000 (easy to do when you spend $1 million on a golf tournament), followed by a humbler second attempt in starting an agency in 2004 and redemption through an acquisition in 2011.

Keith would also tell us about his work as Chief Innovation Officer at VMLY&R Asia and his own incubator, Stanley Street Labs, set up to invest in online media and marketplaces and now focused on sustainability.

The model of a modern digital executive and entrepreneur.

Then Keith said, “I should put my real life story on LinkedIn. Because everyone’s LinkedIn is a lie.” 

So our conversation took a different direction. Keith spoke about leaving Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime (and the ensuing survivor’s guilt), a year as student council president that ended in chaos and required him to resign, drifting into the grey economy and getting arrested for drugs.

“Behind it all, I was lost. People have realities they don't talk about. The more I've gone on, the more I feel it's important to be able to express that. My darkness wouldn't have been quite as dark if there were ways and means to talk about it.” 

Through self-inquiry, Keith has embraced vulnerability and emotional honesty for a more meaningful career and life. “I'm 50 years old, I should know better, but I don't think the learning journey ever ends.” 

And he incorporates these ideas into the robust innovation workshops he designs for clients seeking to imagine meaningful customer experiences. While the work requires academic rigor and practical experience working with organizations and ecosystems, Keith says “quite often, the soft skills are actually the difference between success and failure.”

There’s a lot more substance than can fit in an email so if you want to go deeper, listen to the full conversation on Spotify (just click play) or wherever you listen to podcasts.

6 emotional tools to encourage openness and creativity:

1. Remember we are all impostors.

In Keith’s world, there are two types of people: 

Those who know they don't know what they're doing— they’re aware of it, and it gives them anxiety. And those who don't know what they're doing and don't realize it — they think they're brilliant. 

“Truth be told, how many bonafide experts are there who've researched a topic deeply? And everything that they've ever pitched to anyone, they know a hundred percent it's right, bang on, it's going to work? That's going to be less and less what life is about because change is happening faster and faster. So we're all just making it up as we go along. It's better to have a little bit of honesty about that.” 

2. Recognize and support vulnerability in everyone...

In his school days, Keith was found with weed and arrested. As a minor, he was given a caution and released. After university, Keith drifted into the grey economy and experience dark days. Telling his parents about what had happend was the first time he truly had to face his shame.

“Telling them it wasn't just weed. It was acid and crack cocaine and I'd been a dealer. A very bad dealer, I have to say. That was a really hard thing to do. But it's also liberating once you're able to deal with your hurt and the hurt that it causes other people.” 

Shame breeds fear. Fear prevents vulnerability, which stifles creativity.

So before we can be vulnerable, we need to address shame. “Shame is a deeply powerful thing. The people who feel disconnected, it's because they have a fear, they have a shame. There's this excruciating feeling around vulnerability. You feel so vulnerable that you're trying to hide.” 

For anyone who struggles with this, Keith recommends Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability

Keith applies vulnerability research in the workshops he runs, creating processes that call for radical openness. 

“If I'm sharing with you now some of the skeletons in my closet, we're also asking our clients to share some of their skeletons. If I'm going to ask them to really listen to each other, I need to really listen to them. If I'm going to ask them that maybe their insight will come when they dream about it, then I also need to be ready to go that deep and kind of dream about things, because I don't know what the hell I'm doing.” 

3. …and instill a childlike desire to play.

“Now, all of that can be crushing. So we also need some positivity, some optimism in order to have some fun going through this process, to take us to the point of prototyping and coming up with our best guess of what we can do.” 

This mindset is crucial when clients test their ideas with human beings that will ultimately use whatever they’re developing. It gives them the courage to admit when an idea is wrong. Giving people the freedom to fail ultimately leads to those elusive aha moments.

“My favorite projects are the ones where we just don't know what the end result is. We work together and there'll be aha moments: That's what our customers are looking for. This is what the employees care about. This is the opportunity. The new technology enables this. This is what our brand really stands for. We could do this. I love that journey.” 

4. Use vulnerability to improve planning.

The pandemic has wiped out the illusion of linear growth projections, those charts that go up and to the right year after year. 

“Now we can finally admit to ourselves, all our projections were just made up stories. Something like this allows an opportunity for people to say, there are certain elements where we just don't know what's going to happen.

It doesn't mean we won't put in our projections. We have to, we're an organization. But we should also be honest with ourselves, our communities, our stakeholders, that there are unknowns and we're trying to put the best plan in place to mitigate those things.”

5. Instead of a post-mortem, run a pre-mortem.

Many of us are familiar with post-mortems, those reviews at the end of a project. Sometimes they become blame games. The good ones identify the things that can be done differently.

“Maybe you institute some of those, maybe you don't. If you do institute, it often just becomes bureaucracy. Which is like a sledgehammer for a job of a scalpel.” 

A pre-mortem helps the team identify possible failure areas while a project is still in the planning stage. Here are Keith’s pointers for how it’s done:

Imagine we're a year's time in the future and we've launched the program, and it failed. Why did it fail? Try to think about all the things that could have gone wrong.

  • What should we have done more of?

  • Are there areas we should have spent more time amplifying? 

  • What should we not have done? 

  • What could have caused each failure? Cultural reasons, marketplace reasons, our customers didn't even want it, things we just didn't think about.

You work through that and then update the plan. What else can we do to make our plan more robust?

6. Get to shared clarity through active listening. 

In Keith’s work, he needs to ensure teams have shared clarity: Everyone must know exactly what success should look like and how it should be achieved. 

The challenge: few of us truly listen. “When we're listening to people in a work setting, we feel like there's a problem we need to fix. And so we're going straight to the solution. And quite often, people aren’t looking for a solution. In fact, we don't understand what someone’s really saying, because our heads are full of our own narratives.” 

Active listening addresses this. Here are some tactics Keith uses: 

  • Say to yourself: “Right now, in this conversation with important people in my life, I'm not trying to fix a problem. I'm just going to listen, really seek to understand.” 

  • Extract specifics. You can use a phrase like: “Just help me to understand, what do you mean when you say something.” 

  • Repeat the thought or story back, by starting with: “Okay, so you're saying this.” Then pause and let people talk more.

When done on a consistent basis, listening (to each other and to ourselves) builds self-worth, which in turn strengthens emotional resilience. 

“We all have shit to deal with and we've all got this highly critical voice in our head. When you get that everyone has that, you can relax a little bit, and be a little bit open, and we can share with each other. That helps relieve some of the pressure. The difference is being able to talk about things. It's such a simple thing, but it's amazingly transformative.” 

Keith is on LinkedIn. He is Chief Innovation Officer, Asia at VMLY&R and incubates ideas at Stanley Street Labs.

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