Leaps and bounds – talking to Clare Conroy

One of the coolest things about running this website is being able to chat to interesting people and share their insights with our readers. I met Clare Conroy through work, when she produced a large-scale conference with our team and I was immediately taken by her creative approach to problem-solving, sharing ideas and collaborative learning.

Clare shares her knowledge with others through her consultancy, Sticky Note, and in this profile she discusses the leap into her own business from a comfortable career in the public sector, the impact of motherhood on her perspectives, and the fact that there is no one definition of ‘creativity’.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you first entered the realm of design thinking…

I grew up in Adelaide and had a very ‘normal’, middle class upbringing with a strong focus on academic achievement. When I was in Year 8 I got a C for an art assignment (it was a self-portrait to add further insult!). As a good student, I wanted to succeed academically and felt a strong sense of expectation to do so. But with art I didn’t know ‘how’. So I gravitated toward sciences and maths where there was a ‘right’ answer and if that answer was produced, the ‘good’ grade and the ‘success’ followed. Largely due to this high school experience, I was convinced for a long time that I wasn’t ‘creative’. I ended up doing well at school, got a scholarship to university, studied natural resource management, did my honours year, got a graduate public service position straight out of uni – all the ‘right’ things. Or so I thought at the time!

My mum is amazing, and I can now see that I definitely inherited my curiosity and love of learning from her. She was always giving us great puzzles and fun science activities to do as kids. Searching for birthday presents involved a treasure hunt with a series of clues, and school holiday activities included dissecting hearts and livers!

Five or so years ago I would have never considered design as something I would or could do. Since that high school art class experience, I had conflated being artistic and being creative, and believed that these were words that definitely didn’t apply to me! However, I consistently found myself drawn to solving problems, coming up with new ideas and fascinated by how people think and behave – especially in organisations.

Design thinking is a collaborative and creative approach to solving problems that puts people at the centre of the process. I kind of stumbled across it through people I collaborated with at TEDxCanberra and my husband, who developed the website for one of the world’s leading design schools at Stanford. So I got exposed to design thinking, read some articles and books, and felt like I had my light bulb moment! This was what I loved to do! I had just thought ‘designers’ were people who wear funky glasses and created things like logos and iPhones. The more I learned, the more I realised that design was really about using creativity to solve problems and improve experiences.

I worked in the public service for over 10 years oscillating mainly between positions environmental management and regulation, and human resource management. I eventually found myself working in roles that were about business process improvement and internal staff facilitation and training – work that I really enjoyed. I loved coming up with new solutions to problems, and creating training and workshops that delivered great outcomes in a fun and interesting way. I also go such a kick out of watching people realise their creative capacity and potential.

Although there were some great things about working in the public service, there were also some things I found incredibly frustrating. One of the things that I began to notice was that I’d lost my voice. I felt like I’d lost touch with my personal opinion. I could articulately and easily write about the government position on a certain matter, but I struggled to identify, let alone express my own thoughts. For a long time I’d felt like I didn’t quite ‘fit’ in the public sector, and was increasingly uncomfortable with the conflict between the creative, collaborative, open and iterative way I wanted to work, and the way that I was actually able to work.

You started your own business, Sticky Note Consulting, recently – can you tell us a bit about what led you down this path, and what the process has been like so far?

My daughter was born just over a year ago. Post-election and on maternity leave, prospects were looking increasingly dismal in the public service (both in terms of job opportunities and values alignment), so it was the right time to go! I took a voluntary redundancy and have established Sticky Note Consulting. Sure it’s super scary from a financial security perspective, but I thought about what I’d tell my daughter if she was in the same position, and that would be to back herself and take the leap. Honestly, I haven’t approached this with a clear business plan, but am just jumping in to do things that I like and that create value with people and organisations I care about.

My driving motivation in the business is to help connect people and ideas, and I’m doing that in two main ways. Firstly, using a design thinking approach to design and run conferences, workshops, events that get people connecting and talking and sharing around ideas and issues that matter. And secondly, working with individuals and organisations to deliver training and coaching in design thinking to solve problems and help people to realise their creative potential. The world definitely needs people who believe in their own capacity to design their lives and to creatively tackle challenges and issues that they care about!

Starting a business is hard and the perks of being your own boss and having more control and flexibility over your time, are countered by some very real challenges (and a lot more anxiety!). It’s hard to be the one making all the decisions and it can feel quite isolating. I also have plenty of moments of self-doubt, but I’m committed to ‘faking it until I make it’. But I don’t regret leaving my public service role for a second and I’m really excited about the possibility to create something that I care about and to work in a way that challenges the traditional ideas about what ‘work’ should look like.

All that, and being a parent! Has being a mother changed the way you see the world?

Parenting is like some kind of hyper-speed, full immersion education. I’m learning so much – from the practical to the deeply philosophical – and many of the learnings are probably not immediately apparent and will only reveal themselves in time. One of the many ways it’s affected how I see the world is to approach things with a greater sense of wonder. It’s such a joy to experience ‘firsts’ with my daughter and it makes me appreciate the little things more. A couple of weeks ago we went bush walking together and we stopped along the way to look at and feel the different leaves and the bark on the trees – little things like that that I’d not normally take time to do.

It’s also made me much more aware of gender and how it affects how adults interact with kids. I was surprised at just how in your face gender stereotypes are when shopping for toys and clothes – with the pink and blue aisles – and in those moments when strangers refer to my daughter as a ‘he’ because she is wearing a dinosaur t-shirt. And it’s also made me acutely aware of my own gender filters and biases. I catch myself sometimes praising her for her appearance or expressing opinions and expectations about her behaviour and personality because she’s a girl. As a parent I want to support her to carve an identity that celebrates and recognises her gender, but ensure that her choices and opportunities aren’t limited by it. So I’m consciously trying to practice greater awareness of when and how gender influences how I act and what I say.

Being a mum has changed my relationship with my body too. Sure I have moments where I think it’d be nice if some parts were a little less bumpy or squishy, but the whole experience of pregnancy, labour and birth has made me respect my body so much more. I’m blown away by and so grateful for what my body has done and can do. There’s much deeper familiarity and unconditional love.

You were Executive Producer of TEDxCanberra – why do you love the TED movement?

For anyone that hasn’t heard of it before, TED is an organisation devoted to ‘ideas worth spreading’. Talks from TED conferences (and independently organised TEDx events around the world) are made available for free through TED.com. My ‘signature strength’ is a love of learning, so at a very basic level TED talks provides me with no shortage of interesting idea and information. It’s my preferred form of entertainment!

With the TEDx program, TED has licensed its brand to community organisations around the world to organise independent events. I got involved in TEDxCanberra simply by reaching out and responding to a tweet from the TEDxCanberra licensee, Stephen Collins, seeking people who were interested in helping him put on the first TEDxCanberra event in 2010. Over the next 3 years I worked with Steve and a great volunteer team to produce the event, punching well above our weight to put on a really high quality event.

What I loved about being involved in TEDxCanberra was the volunteer team. It’s amazing how capable and innovative people can be when they’re doing something they love and that plays to their strengths. TED also brings you into contact with people who are interested in interesting things – and that’s a great community to be part of.

What’s your scariest/biggest plan for the next 12 months?

Over the next year I’ll be focusing on building a viable business, which will include producing some great events in Canberra. Big plans are realised through small intentional actions, and so I try to create and practice daily habits that make me a better person and help me realise little goals. I’m not quite sure where the next 12 months will lead, but I’m just going to keep following the ideas and people that energise me and keep learning along the way! But this question has prompted me to set a little challenge for myself – and that will be to get over that Year 8 art class experience, and enrol in some classes to try and discover and develop my artistic talents!

You can follow Clare @webbyclare and @StickyNoteCo, and check out the upcoming TEDxCanberra event here.

Image: Paul Hagon via Flickr Creative Commons

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