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Tea Uglow: How to Lead When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

About this talk

Tea Uglow gave herself a unique and imaginative title to match the unique and imaginative work she does at Google Creative Lab Sydney. As “Experimental Person-in-Charge”, she has worked with artists, writers, and performers. In this talk, Uglow explains why her success as a leader is rooted not in what she knows, but in what she doesn’t know, including why the best creative leaders value the skillsets they don’t have, why creatives shouldn’t have to-do lists, and how her journey as a transgender woman shows that you can’t truly plan your life or career

Tea Uglow, Experimental Person in Charge, Google Creative Lab Sydney

Tea Uglow works on a range of projects with cultural organizations and practitioners to enable artists, writers, and performers to use digital tools to amplify or augment their artistic, theatrical, or musical practice. Her output includes seven books, 17 websites, six apps, a feature film, three plays, two concerts, four museum exhibits, and some teddy bears that talk.

She is an AGI member, on the board of the Biennale of Sydney, D&AD’s 2018 Digital Jury President, and a mentor to young female creatives worldwide.

Full Transcript

Hi, my names Tea like the drink. This is lovely. This is the first time I’ve ever spoken in New York. I’m rather excited about that. Especially as people in New York don’t go to other places. So I can use all my oldest jokes, and you’ll never have heard them.

What we are talking about? I was talking to Andrea and the rest of the team and mentioning about, about you guys actually, because I always rather like to know what you need to hear. User first I think they call that.  Actually one of the things that came up very clearly was that you like answers. Action items, you know things you can actually do. So I thought I would start with an answer. With the answer that I use all the time, every day. And you can have it for free. And then I thought it would be really useful if I gave you like some sample questions of when that question is…when that answer is appropriate. So those are two sample questions that, again, I get quite a lot. It’s not really a valid answer for any of those. But I dos do stuff, so here’s stuff that I’ve done over the last ten years. And generally, my team work at the intersection of digital, and culture, and information, and humans, and how those things interact if you like drawing graphs.

But I don’t do that. We’re talking about creative leadership this morning and I do this sort of stuff. I talk on stages. So, I’m very much in my comfort zone. I write. I wrote a little book. I write other little books. and I represent because I’m transgender, which if you hadn’t noticed, thank you.

So, what is creative leadership? Well, I think I’ve sort of given you a clue. This is pretty much what I do, like I’m really not good at most of the things I’ve tried to do in my career. Like that’s been the journey of my career has been discovering that I’m not very good at designing. I’m not very good at coding. I’m not very…I can write a little bit. I’m getting better at writing actually. I’m really bad at managing people. That sort of thing. So I have a lot of things that I’m not good at, and I think this has helped me elevate myself to a point where, basically, I draw things on whiteboards that make no sense to people and then I ask them to do it.

This is actually, in fact, a very clear diagram as far as I’m concerned. So, what I generally do is I bring people together and you know, as we were talking, the previous speaker was talking about, there are these people who are figureheads, who are important but they all fall, because actually underneath them all are brilliant people. And my career is entirely founded—shh—on other brilliant people. It’s founded on finding brilliant people and bringing them in and allowing great designers to work with great thinkers, to work with great developers, to work with extraordinary organizations, and artists, and writers. That’s kind of what I do.

I don’t know, does it say in the program that I’m like…So I’ve got a weird title. I don’t know if they put it in the program, sometimes they go, “It’s a bit stupid. Let’s not put that in. Let’s call her a creative director.” And it’s like, yeah, because I am actually a creative director, but once I did a profile piece in China for a Chinese something, and it was on the internet and my Mandarin sucks, so I did Google Translate. And they translated my title which is Creative Director of Google’s Creative Lab as Experimental Person In Charge. And I was like, “Yeah, I’m down with that. That’s perfect, that’s who I am.” So, I put it on LinkedIn and now no one really knows what to do.

The reason I did it is because I’ve got this major issue with the word creative director, because I really don’t direct anyone and I definitely don’t direct them creatively. I generally just kind of gesture and I feel like it’s much more like a form of gardening. So, I like the idea that I find these beautiful plants, and seeds, and things. And I find a garden. And I put the beautiful plants in the garden and I move them around a bit, and then I talk to them, and I water them. That’s pretty much all I do.  And then they grow up into this beautiful garden, beautiful things, and then people come along and go, “Oh, your garden is so beautiful.” And I say, “Thank you very much.”

So here’s another kind of polarity that I have slight issue with, which is this other idea that —and I get into trouble for this one—like KPI’s, does everyone have KPIs? Yeah, they suck too, because if you’re a creative person, knowing exactly what you’re going to do is a really bad idea. It’s just a bad idea. You shouldn’t have a list of things that you’re going to do. Don’t get me started. So, what we aim for instead is like a value system. And this is like at a strategic level. This is like, if you have a strategy, it should be that you believe in something, that you have some values. That you’re aiming for a star. You’ve got your North Star, you always know, and the people around you know. So if there’s any question it doesn’t come back to a list which says, “Oh no, actually we need to put out three films this quarter.” It comes back to an idea that actually what we’re trying to do is explore that way.

At a sort of tactical level, on a day to day basis that becomes even clearer to me, because you have these goals, which again are things that are written down—and you have to forgive me here—like an objective. Now they might feel like the same thing, but a goal is a fixed point in space, right? You’re going there. There’s the goal We’ve got to the hockey ball, puck, thing in the goal. An objective is like going on a walk. It’s like, “We’re going that way.” You start from a fixed point. You know where you are, “We’re here. Here’s all the things we know and here’s all the things we don’t know that look really interesting. Let’s go that way and explore them.”

So I’ve spent a lot of time trying to actually get my juniors to forget everything they know about making me things, and doing decks, and doing these kind of very specific things, and aiming towards a point. Especially developers, like allowing them to remember that we don’t know where we’re going and that’s fine.

So I actually also get asked this a lot and, again, it’s pretty simple. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing, but I do base it on two very simple models. The first is broad curiosity. This is my favorite physicist because everyone should have a favorite physicist, and this is Feynman. A lot of interesting…I think it’s also very useful to care about lots of things that aren’t design. There you go, that’s just a subtle hint. You go back to that KPI thing. All of that stuff is very logical: you do this, then this, then this, then this. We all know that actually creativity is more like a lateral chain. It’s a lateral analysis. It’s not a logical analysis. You go across. So physics, quantum physics especially, but fluid dynamics as well—Einstein talked a lot about just being a very curious person—and they start from this fabulous place of just being interested in the world, observing and wanting to understand. Feynman’s terrific. He’s even got a Twitter account and he’s dead. And almost all he talks about is how we don’t know what we’re doing. How doubt is at the core of all scientific inquiry.

The other thing I do is I drink a lot of coffee and I talk to people. Again it seems like that’s a weird thing to do for a job but, what can I say?

So, I don’t know. Lots of people want to know and I wish I knew. So, I thought, “Well what do people say, and what do people say, especially at conferences, things like this?” You know this is stuff like you take a photo of this one and you go do stuff. Have you got those down? Because that translates. I got fired, like quite a few times because I wasn’t very good at what I was being asked to do. But I learned loads from being not very good, that was really helpful. I worked out that I was broken, which was a really interesting journey. And my therapist says I’m not allowed to use the word broken so don’t tell her. But the most important thing is I found myself…I did actually always take risks, and always do the thing that I didn’t think was probably going to be the least interesting option. So actually when someone said, “Do you want to come and do a month at Google making PowerPoint slides?” I was like, “No.” And then I was like, “What’s PowerPoint?” I even did the interviews before I’d used the program. It was hilarious. I went back and thought, “If I don’t get this.”

But it was extraordinary because they were like, “There’s great food and the money’s not bad.” And I was like, “It’s a month, what can a month hurt?” And again, like our previous speaker that was like 12 years, see this is not…that’s a theme. You start something, you don’t know where it’s going to end. So, you can imagine this is not a slide I’m particularly fond of showing. It’s also the first time I’ve shown it. I know that’s great. I’m going to show it again now. So I started as a boy called Tom. And I was a contractor and I really was meant to be there for one month, three months, etc. etc. and then they made me full time. Then I got fat, and then I changed my name. And it was really difficult getting them to change the photo. And that photo we’re just not even going to look at. But the point is that you do not know what is going to happen to you. I did not know, this quite cute little boy over here had no idea that…I mean I really came in as a design manager and then we did other things. Like you don’t know where you’re going to go. You don’t know what this opportunity might look like. You don’t and you shouldn’t try and design your career. That’s not a sensible way forward.

Oh, I get asked this a lot and I just find it really funny so I stuck it in, because like, yeah modern technology’s good. But it’s also bad. It’s not really the technology that’s the problem. It’s how you use it. I don’t know how many of you are using pencils, but that was modern once. And I like stamps because that was modern once, and I particularly like this stamp because it’s about another piece of technology that was modern, and they’ve done a ye olde version to show the modern technology, using a new technology, which is stamps, which is also technology. And all of these things are good, right?  We just don’t know yet whether today’s technology, which is kind of what I work with, is fundamentally a force for good. But I bet you won’t go all day without using the internet. Oh yeah, slightly more interesting. So this is what I do. I work with this tech, modern technology, and I try and bring it to a place which is actually ye olde. So, I had this interesting relationship with reality and information and how we deal with it. And actually, the way in which we deal with it as designers is this rather linear thing where we put the information here, and either print it, or VR, or whatever form, but it’s a very static, one way, kind of linear thing. Movies start at the beginning and end at the end and so do books. But I actually know from real life, because we do that every day, that that’s not how information works. That actually, information has multiple perspectives and actually reality is a very confusing thing that exists in three dimensions. And that time is just a really rather interesting constraint that makes us think that we’re going along, collecting our daily Trump update. But actually, if we hadn’t been around for the last two years you could come and get your whole version of that story today, and it would be your reality. We all have our own reality.

So a lot of what I play with is this idea of information. It’s about an obsession actually with location and orientation, which is really about this idea of moving away from the screen, moving away from a flat visual form. Where this is the little square that we are using to get all of this information through, and understanding that we actually use all of our senses in getting information. One of the things being like we’re standing here.

So audience became a really important thing. Audience became a really important thing a long time ago, so I started working with theater. So we did a project with the Royal Shakespeare Company called Midsummer Night’s Dream, where we tried to let the internet bleed out. So it was a play. It’s a play. I’m sure you know it’s a play. They were so sweet about it. I mean you need courage from your partners, that’s actually what you need. They did it over three nights in real time and then we had like the internet, like the Twittering going on as if it were in real time. Because loads of this mental stuff happens, although in 2013 we hadn’t had Trump, and it felt a little bit more mental. But now it would feel kind of normal, because the king turns up with a new bride, and then says he won her in a war. And then tells someone else they’ve got to go to a monastery because that always happens, then someone gets in a fight, and that’s in like the first 20 minutes.  So, you know, pretty normal. But what would the internet be doing? It would be going nuts. Mainly because there’s a royal wedding coming up. And so we began to play with this idea of nonlinear theater where you can come into the story from lots of different angles.

With this project, which we did in Adelaide, we wanted to give people the opportunity to be able to see, to move with the information. So we have actors who move and we basically stick a phone to the back of your head and it tracks because that’s the easiest way to do it. It’s a small computer. I mean we could have got a computer and stuck it to the back of your head, but we had one and it’s called a phone. That lets you hear the actor that you happened to be looking at. So you can read the minds of the actors which was fascinating, both for the actors and for us.

Then we end up with, the last thing we did was a project with Punchdrunk, which I think was like a little prototype for how things might move forward, where actually we move between a game environment and a theater environment, both of which are real in their own ways, especially for kids. They both play back into one another, so when you do things in the real environment which maps exactly into this game environment there’s kind of reciprocity.

I did a project, started a project four years, starting from one of those same principles which is like what is a book? Why do we use a book? A book is 16th century technology, like this whole binding down the edge and going from page 1 to 273, that’s not how a book would exist if we invented it today. So how would it exist? And what would the story telling components be because if want things that always were and always will be, then storytelling’s right up in there along with ideas of community, like the idea that you come together to hear stories because it’s a richer experience. You might want to go away and think about that. And also that there are moments of ceremony in this process. So weirdly, with books there are moments of ritual, and ceremony, and you need to understand what that bookness is that makes the book process that much richer than a digital book.

So we did four books to begin with. We did one which works through Street View, and another one which is kind of a dual book where you work back and forth through. Then last year, we did one which is very, very linear. It’s this beautiful, dynamic story and another one which uses blockchain, which is very complicated, because it was blockchain. But it’s about ownership and access. Then this year we did a ghost story which sort of knows where you are, because that felt kind of obvious actually. And then this one which—we haven’t launched it, which is why you haven’t seen it—which is about this dimensionality of perspective. About how we all see the same stories, so we’re taking classic stories, Ovid, and bringing them to life using new authors, and new perspectives, and allowing you to pick your way through those things.

So I do have favorite projects. That’s not really—I don’t know. We always start with like dumb games, silly small things and this was about turning the phone and making it more of a magic wand and less of a phone. So, you turn the phone into a proxy, and then that leads to quite interesting things like that. It’s better than that now. In fact, we’re using it in a few weeks’ time I think at the YouTube music-y thing.

Then that turns into like really bizarre stuff, like we did this project at the British Museum with monks and a really old stone, and it was cool because we managed to a 2,000-year-old piece of stone into something which was like one of the top ten age of exhibits of 2017. Which is bizarre, because you’re just opening it up for people to experience it in new ways.

And then this is the last piece I want to show and it’s a little video about a project we just completed, funnily enough with Ai Weiwei. But I’m not going to talk about him. And it’s called Belongings.


This purse is an old purse from my great grandma.

My mum told how to do beading, the one in my hand.

And this necklace was made by my mother.

And this is one of the most precious things in my life, why?

My name is Amal, I escaped war from South Sudan.

Somehow we survive, God gave me second chance to live.

It’s really simple, you can start with stuff that feels dumb and stupid, and you can play with it. And maybe you’re doing PowerPoint slides at the same time. That doesn’t matter. But you will get to places where this becomes potent, and becomes powerful. And as with all questions, you can. I totally know how you do it. It’s really simple. It’s really straightforward. You just do it. Right, you have values, you have beliefs, you have ideas, you share those ideas, you drink lots of coffee, you talk to people. You just do it. And then you do it again, and again, and again, until people just start letting you do that thing. So that’s what my idea of creative leadership is.

Thank you very much.

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