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The no-mind of creativity

The mind being a collection of experience, education and value judgements, it keeps us safe, structured and sure of the world. But it doesn’t help us to be creative, open-minded and fresh.

It’s Christmas Day and my brother-in-law is playing the piano. In contrast to my mother-in-law or myself, he has no classical training or musicianship and, in short, no idea what he is doing. His music is without scales, without harmony and without structure. But it is beautiful. Since his fingers have not been conditioned by his mind to follow the rules, his music is fresh and different. There is soul and there is innovation.

This “no mind” spirit has created something new. Gone are the 3 or 4 chords of almost every other tune in the Western world. Unaware of how things “should be done”, he is just doing. He is truly creating.

If you want something new, you need first to be free of the old.

The question is how to get this “no-mind” after years of experience, education and value-judgement?

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Default to believe, then conditioned for stability

When we are young we believe anything. If, like me, you have small children you have already seen this in action. They will believe literally anything. They can believe anything.

This inherent naivety or open-mindedness is key to development. Without it, we cannot discover or learn anything new. We need first to be able to treat new concepts before later discarding them as “wrong” or ill-fitting to our own reality.

 

As we grow older, we develop the capacity to distinguish fact from make-believe. We know (spoiler alert!) that Father Christmas probably doesn’t really come down the chimney and we congratulate ourselves on our ability to be reasonable.

But being “reasonable” is in itself the first pre-requisite for being closed-minded and too much of it leads to lack of innovation and inability to change. Copernicus was unreasonable, as were the people who wanted to put a man on the moon and anyone who thought a computer-game couldn’t load faster than a Commodore 64 did it.

 

So why do we trade pure open-mindedness for “reason”, new for old and creativity for stability?

I suspect the answer is about security or “blending-in”. and it is highly linked to values. Classical schools still today prefer to teach everyone to the same curriculum and anyone who doesn’t fit in has failed. Seeing things differently is not the point. Most corporations don’t do much better. Idioms like “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” and the wish to maintain current processes in the name of “quality” and customer satisfaction are designed to ensure that things get done the same tomorrow. Attached to our own ideas of what is “good”, we start to live on autopilot.

 

Wouldn’t a little more childishness do some good?

 

 

Getting to the high ground of innovation through jazz improvisation

John Kao, serial innovator and organisational transformation expert kicked off day 3 of the ASTD2012 ICE with his innovation concert … With enthusiasm and expertise and an approach somewhat similar to “VH1 Storytellers” he helped the 8000 delegates to understand more than the “hand-waving” cheer-leading side of “Yes we need innovation”. He answered the question: “Yes, but HOW !??” …Kao’s short answer to the question? Jazz!

 

According to Kao, traditional music gives traditional results. Jazz brings something new.

In the corporate world, our approach business-music is akin to the following traditional music approach…

  • We get a mission statement (play this)
  • We get a cheat-sheet of where to our fingers to make the sound (training)
  • We get some encouragement from our manager (motivation)
  • We get a little bit of applause when we do what we were asked (feedback, salary)

 

Where does this approach take us? (No answer offered here… 🙂 )

Kao adds a little more explanation as to how the above example is different from Jazz Innovation and adds that, fortunately, it’s something we can define, encourage and enable at work…

 

Innovation is creativity applied to some purpose in order to add value

Or in terms of jazz music: Creating new notes in the moment, that satisfy the demands of the audience, but bring something new, going somewhere we’ve never been before…

 

What are the capabilities of innovation? What is it we need to encourage to help bring innovation to life?

The first thing Kao offers to help here is the idea of using innovation to some solve tension in the environment. An example of this tension might be the dichotomy of structure and invention: Fit in, but do something new. Stick to the rules, but leave from for freedom and modulation.

To bring innovation into the organisation, we need to help people understand what it means to fit in (bringing the big picture) but leave them room to modulate their environment. In Dan Pink’s Motivation 3.0, this might be about giving a general sense of purpose + autonomy in order to allow people to move towards to mastery..

This is NOT possible for people in the organisation when the level of risk associated with moving freely around is too high. If people don’t feel like they can make mistakes, they will not dare to take on the risk of trying something new.

The third ingredient of jazz innovation is the idea of diversity in teams and environments. Kao showed a great slide of the Star-Trek team and compared it to MBTI profiles. The Star Trek team boldly goes where no man has gone before because of the complimentarily of knowledge, skills and attitude. Innovation is not possible without diversity.

Community and context are also important for innovation at work. As Maslow told us years ago, a relevant social context is fundamental to create feelings of self-esteem and to deliver feedback. People need the opportunity to get together with their peers, bounce around ideas like jazz musicians and hear from others about what is good… and bad … in their ideas.

 

Awesome Kao keynote!

 

Off to the Alexia Vernon session on Onboarding for GenY….

Kill your sacred cows

Phaedrus remembered reading about an experiment with special glasses that made users see everything upside down and backwards. Soon their minds adjusted and they began to see the world “normally” again. After a few weeks, when the glasses were removed, the subjects again saw everything upside down again and had to relearn the vision they had taken for granted before.
(excerpt from the philosophical novel “Lila” by Robert M. Pirsig)

In any culture, business or organisation the glasses we wear affect the way we see things. I wrote about this is my blog-post on Active Empathy, noting that we need to be able to put our go in check in order to really show empathy to other people.

In the excerpt above, Pirsig talks about the impact of time on the way our glasses shape the world. After while, our minds adapt to what was at first backwards and upside down. The same is true in business and other organisations. The question is: How can we take the glasses off?

I recently had a training participant in a course on “Proactive behaviour”. She was new to the company and came with her own special glasses, the ones she had formed in her previous company. She encountered 3 major “difficulties”:

  • She couldn’t really see things the same way her new colleagues did – she disagreed with much off what she saw and heard
  • She had difficulty getting herself heard; her new colleagues couldn’t see past their own glasses
  • She wasn’t really truly aware of the impact of her own glasses on her perception of her new environment. She found it difficult to “be fresh” or open-minded

In “Four Hour Work Week”, Tim Ferriss tells us to “kill our sacred cows”. These are the assumptions that we have which form the way we operate and do business. In India, a sacred cow can stop traffic and in some cultures, the sacred cow would never be eaten, even when starving. Ferriss talks about how his own assumptions about the way to do business were crippling his ability for growth. His glasses were the problem. Pirsig says the same thing, although in a slightly more philosophical manner: “In any hierarchical (metaphysical) classification, the most important division is the first one, for this division dominates everything beneath it. If the first division is bad, there is no way you can ever build a good system (of classification) around it.”

If we want to innovate, develop, grow and do things differently, we need to be able to kill our sacred cows. To do this, we need to be able to see our glasses for what they really are. And this is tough.

On a high-level, 2 approaches to first identifying sacred cows may be of use:

  • Go out in the world and look at how other people are doing things – although you will probably do this with your own glasses on, it can still help you to see what you are taking for granted in your own system
  • Get someone from outside to come in to your own organisation and LISTEN to what they have to save

Personally, I find it easy to just ask a few good questions to understand where the sacred cows are:

  • What do you absolutely believe to be true about the way you operate?
  • Which people and processes can you NOT live without and why?
  • In all the business you do, what 3 elements always seem to be present?
  • If an outsider came into your culture and told you to stop doing certain things, what would you really hate to hear from him?

The answers to these questions may be an indication of the kinds of assumptions, glasses and sacred cows that are helping to run your business. But they may equally be the things that are stopping the traffic, development and innovation.

The question is: What are you going to do about it?

Thanks or reading!

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