Nollind Whachell

Life in Design

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Using Creativity To Articulate Creativity

In further reading Petro Poutanen’s paper on Complexity and Collaboration in Creative Group Work, I came across this quote below which pretty much encapsulates the struggles with my life’s work on creativity over the last five years or so.

Weick (1979) has described how humans enact their surroundings, which means that they react and construct meanings from their environment while in interaction with others. The process of sense-making in which people make sense of the different situations and events they encounter is in effect retrospective and iterative (Weick, 1979). According to Weick, (1995), the process of sense-making is actually not about finding the right explanation in terms of its objective accuracy as much as it is about finding a good and plausible narrative to hold the elements of the story together in order to guide action and engage others to contribute to sense-making (Weick, 1995, p. 58). Following the notion of sense-making, it is the process of constructing novel frames of reference and developing and testing them in practice that yields novelty in the sense of creativity. In this way, creativity can be seen as an interpretative process of trying to make sense of different situations and coming up with novel ways to reframe a situation (without the need to see a situation in a new light, there would be no need for creativity, and the old, habitual ways of behaving would work).

Finding the right narrative to contain all of this knowledge on creativity is really the key. I’ve told others before that it’s like finding the right thread for your life that when you pull it, it brings order to all the seeming chaos thus creating a social fabric of it that you can then easily show others.

What’s interesting is that I’ve experienced this already in my life in a more metaphorical sense. While working at a book store for a while, I was told by our wise floor manager that engaging others to read a book is really about finding the right narrative that encapsulates the story as a whole, thus making it relatable and enticing for them to read. I noticed that it would often take me experimenting with many different narratives before I found the right one that fully connected with others and pulled them into the story.

This is exactly what I’m trying to do in finding the right narrative for creativity, as it needs to universally connect with others and pull them into engaging with their own life story as well. So what I surprisingly realized here is that I’m striving to use creativity to try to articulate creativity itself. In doing so though, others can then reflect on their life, make sense of it in a greater way, and creatively find their own newer narrative to contain it as well.

And finally in realizing that I’m using creativity to articulate creativity, I’d love to help others realize that they are often utilizing creativity without knowing about it as well. Once they do realize it though, have that sense of awareness, they can then reflect back on other situations in their life and see where they’ve used it previously as well. In doing so, this empowers them in going forward to use creativity more easily and consciously in other life situations as well.

The Individual as a Complex System

Petro Poutanen has a fascinating academic paper entitled Complexity and Collaboration in Creative Group Work which strives to show how creativity in groups differs from creativity in individuals. In reading his paper so far though, I’m seeing nothing but comparisons to my own research on creativity within individuals though. In effect, the process and results are very similar.

How can this be so though when a group has multiple people to interact with each other, whereas an individual is just alone? The key is understanding creativity within the individual as though the individual is a complex system as well, a multitude. Thus creativity with an individual is not only a dialogue and conversation with oneself but an integration of the conflicting parts of oneself. One begins to trust oneself over time and even believe in oneself, solidifying ones purpose and vision in life. 

It is the following quote that really grabbed my attention though because it perfectly describes the creative process an individual goes through in understanding oneself in a much greater context beyond conventional means. To do so, the individual has to not just look at their life from a technical perspective, seeing the jobs they’ve done, but also from a social perspective, seeing how these jobs relate, revealing a connection to something deeper within oneself that goes beyond a job to something universal within their life.

First of all, both empirical articles (III and IV) highlight the importance of dialogue, which means that a discussion between participants is most productive when it has the characteristics of reflexivity and criticality; when there is no need to refrain from criticality, as is commonly thought, probably due to widespread ideation guidelines, such as brainstorming. The point here is that ideas are in conflict, not people, and from the conflicts of ideas emerge new ones. Therefore, communication that fosters the criticality and reflexivity of both their own and other’s ideas was found to be important.

Secondly, it was observed that the knowledge people shared had a dual role: on the one hand, it was the information and expertise that people could bring to the situation that allowed them to contribute to the common pool of knowledge through their experiences and background knowledge. On the other hand, it was the ability to build knowledge, i.e. to integrate and build novel constructions of what has been said that was of importance. This finding suggests two important but different group roles and ways of communicating: informants or content-experts who communicate their ideas as clearly as possible and, secondly, creativity experts, who have possibly no content- related information but who are skilful in connecting different pieces of information together to form new ideas and suggest novel frames of references for the reinterpretation of existing knowledge. For the latter group the ability to unambiguously communicate one’s idea is perhaps not as important as the ability to ask questions and make critical remarks and use nonverbal techniques. Of course, there is no reason why the same person cannot occupy both roles in a group.

The last sentence in the second quote (bolded for emphasis) is the critical one that made me have a leap of understanding in what I was reading. So to become a truly creative individual, not only does the individual have to look at oneself as both a (technical) content expert and a (social) creativity expert but the individual has to begin to start seeing themselves as a multitude, understanding that the conflicts within oneself are actually creative tension that one has an opportunity to act upon and understand better to integrate oneself holistically as a complex system.

BTW another more common name people are calling these creative individuals by is polymaths. In effect, individuals who are cross-disciplinary in nature. But it is more than just being multidisciplinary, it is evolving and becoming interdisciplinary and eventually transdisciplinary. When one reaches these higher states of integration with ones disciplines, one finally begins to understand the greater narrative and relationship that is connecting these disciplines together. More common names for these integrative forces are what people call passion and purpose

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.
Theodore Levitt
You're all right Tia. Even as you are, you're all right. Not everyone fits in this world.
Detective Inspector John River

Understanding the “Relationship” Between Creativity & Social Innovation

The challenges we currently face are without precedent. More people live on this planet now than at any other time in history. The world’s population has doubled in the past 30 years. We’re facing an increasing strain on the world’s natural resources. Technology is advancing at a headlong rate of speed. It’s transforming how people work, think, and connect. It’s transforming our cultural values.

If you look at the resulting strains on our political and financial institutions, on health care, on education, there really isn’t a time in history where you could look back and say, “Well, of course, this is the same thing all over again.” It isn’t. This is really new, and we’re going to need every ounce of ingenuity, imagination, and creativity to confront these problems.

Sir Ken Robinson

While it’s becoming more and more apparent today that creativity is becoming essential within the 21st century, it may be difficult to see and understand how creativity can help us transcend these problems, especially since many of them are often social and inherently intangible in nature (i.e. culture). A simple way to bridge this gap of understanding though and make these social problems tangible is by seeing them as social systems and then understanding how creativity is able to transform these systems as a whole.

Creativity & Innovation

Before we jump into the systems part of it though, let’s try to understand the basics of creativity first by taking a look at one of the definitions of it.

“Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.”
Wikipedia

And just to be on the safe side, let’s get one more perspective and definition of creativity but this time showing how innovation relates to it.

“Creative thinking is characterized by unusual ideas and distant associations. To be considered creative in scientific terms, an idea must be original or novel and also appropriate, useful, relevant to a task. Innovation is a product of creativity.”
Explorations of Creativity

Memory network diagram from Explorations of Creativity showing how "Linkages among distant items may produce innovative output."

Memory network diagram from Explorations of Creativity showing how “Linkages among distant items may produce innovative output.”

Systems

Now lets explore the basics of systems using the following definitions and quotes below.

“A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.”

“Before going too far in that direction, it’s a good idea to stop dissecting out elements and to start looking for the interconnections, the relationships that hold the elements together.”

“A system generally goes on being itself, changing only slowly if at all, even with complete substitutions of its elements — as long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact.”

“If the interconnections change, the system may be greatly altered.”

“Changes in function or purpose also can be drastic.”

Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems

To summarize and simplify the above, a system is a collection of elements organized within a relationship and working collectively towards a common purpose. Transforming a system isn’t achieved by changing the elements of the system but rather by changing the relationship and/or purpose of the elements.

the-nature-of-the-future-distributed

Diagram from The Nature of the Future by Marina Gorbis

Examples of Social Systems

Before we go on though, let’s quickly go over some examples of social systems to help visualize them within our minds.

Systems Thinking, Wikipedia

Systems Thinking, Wikipedia

Networks, communities, organizations, and institutions are often the ones that easily come to mind when thinking about social systems today. More complex social systems that are often difficult to grasp for people would be things like cultures and world views.

What most people completely miss though is that our sense of self-identity is a social system itself. In effect, we are comprised of a collection of elements (i.e. experiences, knowledge) and they collectively define our sense of identity by the way they are organized within a relationship that achieves an overall purpose.

Transforming Social Systems

So within an organization, many people may change within it, coming and going, but those people as elements won’t change the organization much until the collective relationship and purpose of those people change as a whole. And with regards to the Future of Work, that’s exactly what’s happening right now. Silos, boundaries, and borders are dropping within organizations and people are connecting and interacting in completely new ways and with completely new values. In effect, old relationships that previously limited the way the organization worked are now being broken and reformed to create new ways of working.

Stage diagrams from Building Smart Communities Through Network Weaving by Valdis Krebs

Stages from Building Smart Communities Through Network Weaving by Valdis Krebs

In terms of individuals, it’s the same thing. Many of us are being limited today by an old relationship which has us defining our identity and self-worth almost completely upon society’s extrinsic needs and purpose with little value for our own. But with the Future of Work, we are rethinking the extrinsic relationship and purpose that often defines us by others and are now seeing new ways to intrinsically define ourselves through our own chosen relationship and purpose. In fact, another more common word that represents this “relationship” of your life redefined in a more intrinsically unified way is passion (i.e. your passion & purpose).

Creativity: Breaking & Reforming

So to summarize and simplify all of the above, creativity allows us to transform ourselves, both individually and collectively, by redefining the relationships and purpose both within us and between us. In effect, creativity isn’t simply an act of forming new relationships or associations between things but rather an act of forming new relationships between things by breaking and letting go of old relationships in the first place. One cannot occur without the other, as it is this creative destruction which makes the creative construction possible, which is why creativity can often be seen as a divergent act that can threaten the stability of things.

Opening, Exploring, & Closing from Gamestorming by Dave Gray

Opening, Exploring, & Closing from Gamestorming by Dave Gray

But remember one key important thing though, especially with regards to transforming ourselves. The elements which form us stay the same. Thus we don’t have to fear a sense of losing ourselves because we aren’t starting over from scratch but rather are rearranging the way we look at ourselves as a whole and becoming more of who we are. This is the emergence of who we are in action. And I can speak from experience when saying that when you finally shift the way you look at your life, with a new sense of passion and purpose to it, you’ll suddenly start seeing an evolving, meaningful order to it, whereas previously you may have only seen a chaotic, meaningless mess.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Albert Einstein

I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.
Professor Charles Xavier

Embracing Your Craziness

I’ve been trying to keep an eye on the results of this years Peter Drucker Forum and based upon what I’ve seen so far, it appears that things haven’t change much from last year. While it does seem like more and more people are seeing the changes needed to transform the way work works, it seems as though many do not want to accept these changes and then act upon them. Now if it sounds like I’m being judgemental of these people, I’m not. If anything, I want to show how this is completely normal behaviour.

What I’m talking about here is how people deal with paradigms, as described by Joel Arthur Barker within his book Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future. Paradigms effectively act as physiological filters that can prevent us from seeing things, even if they are plain as day under our very noses.

You are quite literally unable to perceive data right before your very eyes.

But it is not just visual. You listen but do not hear. You touch but do not feel. You sniff but don’t smell. All the senses are mediated by the Paradigm Effect.

But as I noted above, I think people are finally beginning to see things. What’s holding them back though is that they still don’t believe what they are seeing. It just still seems too crazy. And that is where the greater problem lies for many. We are fearful and afraid of being seen as crazy by our peers. Any yet to move forward, we need to learn how to embrace this craziness and make the leap.

Making The Impossible Possible

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Alice in Wonderland

You see I’m realizing that the more we ignore what we are seeing, the more crazy and agitated we become. Therefore,  paradoxically it is only by accepting and believing the craziness that we can prevent ourselves from going crazy. If this seems ludicrous then you just have to remember where we are going.

The world is changing rapidly and we must change rapidly with it. We need to let go of the Old World that is dying and step forward into the New World that is emerging. Only by letting go can we grasp and take hold of the new. Therefore, to step into this New World, you pretty much need to be crazy because everything within it has been shifted and works differently than the Old World. In effect, the whole system has changed.

It’s Hard To Let Go

To give one example of this, I keep laughing every time I see a discussion around the problem of managers. They are a social artifact of management that is no longer needed because management, while still existing, transforms and shifts to the entire organizational body with everyone self-managing themselves and the organization as a whole.

Some of the recaps of the Drucker Forum have pretty much stated this outright as well (i.e. everyone is a manager) but in the same breadth of saying that managers are no longer needed, they continue describing how managers should work within these new organization. This only shows how strong a hold the old ways of work are so ingrained in our minds that it is almost next to impossible to let them go, even when we want to do so.

Leading By Example

Finally, the most humorous thing I noted of all about these recaps is this foreboding sense of “What now? Who’s leading the charge?” In effect, for those who do seem gung ho about stepping into this future, it seems as they don’t want to be the ones taking that messy first step and landing flat on their face. But that’s the only way to move forward because every first step is always a difficult one and that’s how we learn through failure.

Therefore, the people leading the charge will need to be everyone everywhere to make it a collective momentum and tipping point. This in turn is the future of leadership and how it shifts to the entire collective or organization as well.

To close things off, I’d like to enclose a quote below that I wrote back in 2013 after last years Peter Drucker forum. While people are finally starting to grasp my first two points about everyone being a manager and leader, it appears that it still might take another year before they understand how everyone is a customer.

Transforming work. Everyone is a manager. Everyone is a leader. Everyone is a customer.

When The Many Become One

In the past, I’ve tried to express that I keep seeing all of these patterns around me and I’m noticing that these patterns are converging into a greater narrative. For example, I keep seeing all of these notable people writing books around seemingly diverse different topics. Yet if you go deeper below the surface of what’s being said, all of these books are talking about the same thing but just from different perspectives or disciplinary languages.

Today, I feel like I’m going insane with the weight of what I’m seeing because I keep seeing all of these patterns around me and they are almost everywhere I look now. Why it’s overloading is because of the repetition of the pattern. It’s like a tornado approaching me and everything is being picked up and tossed into the air. You don’t know which way is up anymore because you’re overloaded by all that you see.

Copernicus' Solar System from De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium

Copernicus’ Solar System
from De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium

And yet what I’m slowly realizing is that all of these patterns have a commonality in that they overlap and connect with each other. The best way I’ve tried to describe this in the past is imagine what it was like being an early astronomer studying the heavens. At first, you just saw a jumble of patterns that seemed chaotic. But over time, after seeing the patterns over and over again, you begin to see a relationship between them and behold the chaos transforms into a unified and integrated order of our solar system.

The Web of Life

Now while the above patterns are almost effortlessly for me to see on a daily basis, the difficulty of course is trying to explaining what I’m seeing and put into words. One thing that I can be sure of though is that this greater narrative goes way beyond just business and changing the way work works. It almost goes to a more universal level and changes the very notion of what it means to be human and our potential both individually and collectively.

To put this another way, I’m seeing how this greater narrative relates to both not only organizational development but also personal development. In effect, the pattern and approach is the same for both. Therefore collectively combined together, it is a social development approach that can help humans take the next step in their evolution.

Therefore just as our organizations today are trying to break down their silos and boundaries to release their untapped potential, so too are individuals doing the same very thing. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t want my identity to be tied to my job title because my past jobs have never adequately encompassed all that I am. Therefore, I’m trying to express myself, all that I am, in a new way by taking all of the seemingly fragmented aspects of myself and making them one integrated whole.

Value The Marginal

Now while this may seem grandiose, it doesn’t feel this way to me. If anything, it feels simply essential. And more importantly, it is not something I’m so much creating as something I’m just seeing emerging. Therefore I more often feel like a messenger than a creator, witnessing this emergence. And in terms of communicating, my struggle is in trying to simplify what I’m seeing and trying to put it into words that anyone, even a child, could understand because I want it to be understood just as universally as I’m seeing it.

What I’m also realizing is that this is not something new. In effect, life is cyclic in nature and to me it seems like we are not discovering but instead rediscovering these development approaches, just in the same way that we are rediscovering ourselves. In effect, some of our best potential often arises from the aspects of ourselves that we have discarded within ourselves in the past because society didn’t deem it of value.

It is only when we take these marginalized aspects of ourselves and of our society and integrate them completely together that the many fragmented parts finally become one purposeful entity. This relates to what I’ve said before about the need for leaders with sight and vision. It is not about recruiting new talent out there. It is about seeing the potential and talent already within your organization and already within you in your personal life.

Use edges and value the marginal.

Permaculture Principle #11

Integrating Ourselves

While starting to read the book No Boundary by Ken Wilber, I stumbled across something that I’m surprised I never noticed before. In the opening of the book, Ken describes five levels of consciousness which we traverse through in struggling to identify ourselves. This wasn’t that new to me because it mirrors closely with what I’ve learnt from action logics.

What did differ though was how I was looking at the different stages of action logics. I was perceiving them as a linear line or arc of progression. In reading Ken’s elegant description though, it became apparent to me that these stages weren’t a linear line but rather a circle. In effect, our progression is like Life itself, the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning.

I find it elegant because it removes this sense of levels, of one person being higher or elevated over another if they are at a different stage of development. Instead it creates this sense of a circular 360 degrees of awareness instead (which fits with his usage of the word spectrum). Thus the more stages you achieve, the greater your sense of awareness and perception of the world around you. This reminds me of a documentary on Ancient Egypt and how they perceived an evolved and empowered individual.

Moving Beyond The Deconstructed World

What also struck me as interesting is the way Ken described this progression. Over our lives we create more and more boundaries between things as we further analyze ourselves in relation to the world around us and even within us. For many of us, this is the world we grew up within and learnt of from history. In effect, the world is like a machine, a great clockwork with many separate parts.

Yet this isn’t reality. It is paradoxically everything and yet nothing, all at once. Thus we struggle to make whole again that which we have ripped apart through analysis. This is the synthesis we desire, not only to make sense of the chaotic world around us but also the chaos within us. We seek to be whole again, integrated, rather than something with so many pieces that we feel like we are going to dissipate into nothingness like some ethereal creature.

Opening, Exploring, & Closing from Gamestorming by Dave Gray

Opening, Exploring, & Closing from Gamestorming by Dave Gray

And in thinking of this, it struck me how poignant Joseph Campbell’s cyclic Hero’s Journey is and how it relates so closely to what Dave Gray describes in his book Gamestorming. The first “opening” part represents analysis, a breaking down of things, until we enter this middle limbo world of chaos, where we don’t know which way is up because we are swimming in so much information. The final “closing” part represents synthesis, a reforming of our ideas, our world view, and of our very selves, as we re-enter the world once again, albeit a completely new one, having crossed the “bridge”.

Designing Your Life

I think this is what I’ve always found lacking in so many books that I’ve read. Many of them are technically focused on business or design, yet what they are missing is that their techniques can actually enable people to design their own lives. For example, Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work has a section which talks about “Stock and Flow” which is just another way of describing the flow and emerging structure in your life.

Stock and Flow from Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

Stock and Flow from Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

For many of us, we seek out flow states because that’s when we seem happiest. Yet we are happy not because of the flow state itself but because of what is created from that flow state: structure. In effect, we’re productive and have created something that flows from the creative expression of ourselves, our sense of identity. Thus we have not only created something, a product for example, but in the act of creation we are creating ourselves.

And like Life itself, this structure doesn’t just magically appear overnight but instead slowly emerges via emergence which is how larger complex things arise from simple patterns and interactions. This mirrors with my Connect, Empower, and Inspire mantra of creation whereby Connecting is about seeing patterns in the flow (which is the easy part) and Empowering is seeing the structural relationships between the patterns (which is the hard part) until it all comes together like a map and Inspires you into action (because you finally see the way).

Moving Forward By Letting Go

Now here’s the final icing on the cake. While some might say that an emphasis on analysis has caused the “break down of this world”, I don’t think it is something that should be discarded but rather it should be seen as a stepping stone in our development. In effect, for synthesis to occur, you have to have analysis first. Therefore the deconstruction leads to the reconstruction and the transformation as a whole.

To put it into another perspective, without this ability to deconstruct ourselves, we lack the ability to flexibly adapt and reconstruct ourselves for the changing times. Thus this analysis and synthesis combined together allows us to make the evolutionary leaps we need to continue growing and surviving.

And we do survive. We are not disappearing and we’re not starting over from scratch, losing our identity in the process. Instead we are reshaping and transforming ourselves, our identities, for the times, so that our story can continue. Paradoxically by letting go of what we were, we become more of who we really are.

It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.
W.B. Yeats

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