Tag Archives: creative problem solving

Copying, Synergy, and the Test Kitchen

30 Jun

I’m thinking about another entry in Maslow’s Eupsychian Management, “Synergic versus Antisynergic Doctrine.”

Here Maslow beings by exploring two ways of seeing availability of resources: as limited and as unlimited or regenerating.  In the general, dog-eat-dog world of life or the office, (or in Theory X, as Maslow would say), we see things as limited, so we have to grab what we can get and do whatever we can to keep others from grabbing it back. The problems with this are fairly obvious in general, but it’s particularly problematic when the “limited” way of thinking is wrongly extended to things which when shared generate more of themselves in an ever-increasing way. Good things, like ideas, knowledge, psychological well-being.

Science, for instance, only works when ideas and learnings and experiments are shared. Of course, that is the whole idea of science. Everyone can build on each other’s experiences in an ever-increasing virtuous circle. The times when we try to limit knowledge–like to keep it out of the hands of the Soviets, for instance–hurt the “us” more than it hurts the “them,” because the us don’t benefit from the virtuous cycle of the knowledge percolating through the aquifer of our collective thought. And the them probably find their way to the information in any event.

To share knowledge is to generate more knowledge; and that’s a “synergic” way of looking at things, from a generative perspective rather than a perspective of limitation. To think “I need to hide the secret in the safe,” that’s “anti-synergic.”

Anti-synergic thinking shows a confusion of the product with the more complex and more beautiful and more fleeting and more valuable and less reproducible people-thought-action-system (my words) that produced it. Ideas in business are a good example. Of course it’s common to develop a product and then want to keep the stuff we learned while developing it secret so our competitors can’t redo it and thus steal our potential earnings and glory, etc.

But you can look at things differently. Take the voltmeter from Nonlinear Systems (Maslow’s example). Nonlinear invented the voltmeter, apparently, and could have kept how to make it secret, but they didn’t. Allan Kay, the leader, pointed out that anyone could copy the voltmeter, but they couldn’t as easily copy the complex system that developed it.

About that “system.” For Maslow, it seems, this system consists of three key parts: a creative disposition, a commitment to iterate, and an ability to perceive things in their truth, regardless of predispositions.  (I guess a fourth necessary part that goes without saying is that the system needs to have people in it). These three, or four, things make a process or flow, a virtuous circle–a thing half ceremony, half discovery, have foundry–from which the particular product is but a kind of snapshot or a thrown-off snakeskin, only marking where things were at a certain point.

Someone can copy the snakeskin, but it would be hard to copy the “snake,” the fluid, creative, productive, self-corrective, honestly-perceiving ecosystem that gave it birth.  And if you did recreate the snake, or Nonlinear Systems, that would be good in any event, because you’d be bringing a “Theory Y,” healing, self-affirming, goodness-making, not-believing-in-limitations, social machine into being, and that would have all sorts of positive effects on the lives of the people that came into contact with it. And your new Nonlinear Systems would probably get along OK with the Old Nonlinear Systems, since good organizations would of course get along with good organizations. You would probably form a system between you of a higher order of mind-process-production that couldn’t have been conceived until then.

The flow of the creative-iterative-perceptive system feels like it has parts in it of my idea of the information “sluice;” but it also contains a built-in doing component (the “foundry,” per me, above), because you’re making things. It feels akin to Basadur’s Creative Problem Solving process, which says an idea is not creative if it’s not implemented. But it’s also meta. I take Basadur’s CPS as a kind of subroutine; whereas the kind of organization or process Maslow is talking here about feels more like a superordinate way of going about things. One that might contain within its parts both synergic and anti-synergic subroutines.

I should stress the observation part. I added it; Maslow doesn’t break it out as such in this entry, but it pops up in others. And it resonates. Perhaps the most important part of this creative synergic flow is the ability to look at yourself or your process with Bergsonian pure perception, or with Maslow’s B-cognition. Objectively and lovingly and without predetermined ideas, but rather seeing the context for the context, the product for the product. Not clouded by a desire for the thing to be good, or for the struggle to be over so that you can coast, or for a desire to defeat your enemies, but just in itself. This ability to step out of yourself would seem crucial to generating the kind of creative ideas that would fuel iterative improvement.

For the record, the idea of sharing things in order to have more of them, for Maslow, works for other things we often assume we have to hoard in work or in life: power and love being two.  He refers to Linkert’s idea (in New Patterns of Management) of the “influence pie:” where managers allowed their reports to have more influence and suddenly discovered they themselves (the managers) had more, too.

As an aside, cooking shows are connected to this. You can watch the person make a dish and know how to make that dish, but you won’t learn much about the life of their kitchen, or how they relate to food, and what sparks new dish ideas, and how they refine things, and how they get feedback. You might mistakenly focus on sourcing ingredients and getting the right pot and wake up to find yourself in a antisynergic mode. When it’s not about the particular ingredient or pot or outcome, but about the culture hidden behind and among those things. Even America’s Test Kitchen doesn’t really teach you how to have your own test kitchen.  Which is sad because I think a synergic life would be a kind of continual test kitchen.

The Hopper and the Innovation Pipeline

30 Jan

I want to talk a little bit about something we’ve done recently in the Northeast Regional Computing Program (NERCOMP). NERCOMP, like any organization, is faced with a tension between doing things now and doing things later. We’re trying to direct our energy and attention to existing, operationalized activities, while still making sure we save a little bit for new ideas that may one day become wonderful and important activities in their own right. This is trickier than it seems, because it takes a different quality of mind to keep things going than it does to recruit and envision and cultivate new things to do. But you need to do both, because you need to be successful in the present, of course, and you also want to be successful in the unpredictable future.

There are two basic knots of problems you face when you try to both have new ideas and maintain existing services. One relates to the new ideas: How do get them? Where do you put them? What do you do with them? How do you turn them into something real? The other comes from the antagonistic relationship between new ideas and existing operations. How do you keep the crazy, zany, emotional, fad-like, breathless quality of new ideas from disrupting the staid, responsible, serious work of operations, and vice versa–how do you keep the harsh noon-day realism of what exists from prematurely scorching the delicate nocturnal tendrils of the new thing being born?

The solution, in my mind, has two parts: first you need a place to put ideas, and second, you need a process that tells you what to do with them. NERCOMP, I’m proud to say, is working on both.

The Hopper

How do you get these ideas? Who knows when an idea is going to pop into someone’s head, and who knows whose head it will pop into? Apart from those rare people who continuously sprout ideas regardless of how they’re received (I’m one of them), how do you make people comfortable even saying their ideas out loud, given that new ideas tend by definition to sound somewhat crazy? How do you create a culture that says proposing ideas isn’t just OK, but expected?

Well, we’re not totally sure about the answers to any of these questions. But here’s what we did: we thought we might at least lower to the minimum the work someone had to do to get an idea from their head into ours, such that while they’re still in the thrill of the moment, and before they’ve thought better of it, they can dash it off, and we can capture it. We took a simple, one-text-box Google form, put it online, and tested it with our board members, by having them pull it up during board meetings and other NERCOMP activities. Anytime they had a thought or suggestion, they could put it right into the form. We called it the Hopper, because that name made some of us envision a kind of rotating tube full of crazy ideas, like the cylinders of ricocheting ping-pong balls used famously in lottery drawings or bingo parlors. And it worked. We gathered over a hundred ideas in a matter of weeks; too many to process, really, so we stopped encouraging it for a bit while we come up with a way to regularly review and process the contents. Now we have such a process, so we’ve made the Hopper open to all NERCOMP members (here, if you’re a member) and are poised to announce it beginning with our upcoming annual conference.

The Innovation Pipeline

Getting the ideas is the first part of the battle. But then you need to know what to do with them. Here we were influenced enormously by the work of Dr. Min Basadur, whom I’ve written about before. He breaks creative problem solving into four stages– Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing. In the first step you think of the idea; in the second you flesh it out, as it were, in theory; in the third you begin to take that theory and make a plan for its implementation in the real world; in the fourth, you implement the plan.

We took Basadur’s stages as a kind of growth chart for our ideas, if you will, and let the stages tell us what we should be doing for and with ideas as they evolved. We added transition points or firewalls between phases–places you have to check in with the board to move on to the next phase. We made these check-ins progressively more difficult. Moving from having an idea to developing it (or “conceptualizing”), we thought, really only required an interested person willing to think it through. But moving from development to optimizing (which we renamed “testing”) required a legitimate plan for the test. And moving to the final phase–implementation–required data from a successful test as well as some clear ideas about where the resources would come from to operationalize the activity. We called the whole thing the “Innovation Pipeline,” and you can see one of our early (somewhat silly) versions as we were developing it.

The Innovation Pipeline has a lot of great benefits. Most importantly it addresses aforementioned problem knot number two: it protects new ideas from operations and operations from new ideas. It trains us to modulate our expectations and behaviors and feelings towards ideas as they grow–we’re gentler on the new ideas, and we ramp up the prosecutorial rigor as they come closer to operationalization, as is only appropriate. We delay, as they say, our evaluation of ideas–we don’t burden them with premature expectations of perfection. By the same token, there are three check-in points that an idea has to get past before it can really be considered operational and thus rightly become part of our routine activities, and, effectively, force us to drop or reduce some other activity to allow for it. These three check-in points are like police road blocks. Nobody gets by who shouldn’t, thus protecting our fragile operations from the threat of disruption by frivolous novelty. A secondary benefit of the pipeline is that, surprisingly, it helps people get along better. A key flashpoint in every organization is between what the creativity researchers call the ideators (people who generate cascades of possibility and love brainstorming meetings) and the evaluators (people who say no to everything new in order to continue to say yes to what they are already doing): in our pipeline the ideators get their space to think of and develop ideas before they hand them off (at stage 3) to the testers and implementors, who are ruthless. But the ideas by then are ready for reality.

In any event, there you have NERCOMP’s approach to the age-old problem of new vs. existing activities. We’re implementing it now, and we expect some iterations and tweaks before it’s perfect. A key test will be when our rank-and-file members embrace it and put ideas in the Hopper that really challenge us to grow, be creative, and innovate. Will we be able to rise to the bold new vision they propose? Only time will tell. It’s a start, and we’ll report along the way.

As a P.S. let me give a shout out to the Learning Organization Academy–NERCOMP’s intensive new professional development program. It was LOA thinking (“how can we learn better as an organization?”) that led us to tackle the problem in the first place, and research for a LOA workshop that pointed us to a solution.

Being Creative Together

12 Jun

Have just read Min Basadur’s article “Leading others to thinking innovatively together: Creative leadership,” in The Leadership Quarterly 15 (2004). It’s interesting!

Basadur suggests that the big task before all of us in this global, fluid, disruptive age is to manage our organizations for adaptability rather than for efficiency (the traditional focus). Adaptability requires being creative together. We’re not good at being creative together, however; says he: “the attitudes, behaviors, and skills necessary for creative thinking are underdeveloped in many people” (106).

There is fortunately an easy-to-understand creativity life-cycle or process that’s made of four stages, each with its own kind of thinking, and people, it seems, orient to one of these stages by preference (111). The stages are Generating, Conceptualizing, Optimizing, and Implementing (112). (Which, I note, seem to generally correspond to the Learning Cycle and areas of brain processing; see my previous post on the topic.)

The problem is that, not knowing the different phases of creation, nor their preference for one or the other, people generally jumble all the phases together, achieve naught, and annoy each other.

Basadur describes the kind of meeting this leads to as “undisciplined discussions where facts, ideas, points of veiw, evaluations, action steps, and new problems are interjected randomly” (110). The person oriented to optimize, which calls for “rational, systematic, and orderly analysis” of a project-moving-towards-implementation, for instance, is not open to the incomplete and weird ideas unleashed by the person oriented towards generation (I have that orientation, for the record), who uses engagement with the world, emotions, empathy, and other unpredictable things to concoct “problems, opportunities, and projects that might be worth solving” (112, emphasis mine).  This of course, leads to the famous “how to kill ideas” situation, which Basadur describes as an insufficiency in the basic creativity-thinking skills of “deferring judgment, keeping an open mind, and thinking divergently” (106).

On a side note, Basadur aligns with Chris Argyris in seeing defensive reasoning as another block to creativity: people, says Basadur, “wait for others to find problems for them to solve,” (108); avoid “unsolvable” or cross-functional problems (108); desire to be seen as “practical and economical above all things,” and thereby tend to shut down strange new ideas (106); and “get mired in arguments about functional issues to protect their ‘turf'” (110)–all different ways of prioritizing political safety over productive thinking and creativity. Not good in an age of change.

The way to slash through all this is simply to help people with process.  A leader who knows the phases of creation can act as a creative “process coach” (111) making sure the group knows and honors the phase they’re in and uses and appreciates the particular cognitive skills the phase requires (106).  A good process-focused leader can even go so far as to predict the kinds of help individuals would need based on their orientation, and be prepared to supply that. Such a leader helps the strong optimizer, for instance, “discover new problems and facts.” In my own case, my creatively-oriented leader would help me (the generator) “convince others of the value of [my] ideas and push [me] to act on them” (116).

Importantly, Basadur notes that the highest-performing teams include a representative mixture of people orienting to the four phases of creation (115). But he also notes that people tend to gravitate towards people of like orientation, such that work teams and even professions tend to be made up of one dominant orientation (117). AND he notes that people report higher satisfaction in teams where they’re with birds of a feather (115). So there’s some natural resistance to be overcome: the leader has to consciously combine people with different orientations and help them work together; the diverse team “may experience more frustration initially” but “will achieve more breakthrough results as they learn to mesh their styles” (117).

There are some work-related processes that probably don’t fall under creation (maintenance of existing functions), but these seem less important now than in static environments of years past; Basadur’s model seems helpful for a wide breath of challenges we face at work, and should make up part of any workplace’s ethos. Thinking about the normal flow of creative–or cognitive–process  in the development of ideas and initiatives, and seeing our own orientation towards phases within that process seems particularly helpful.

Deciduous Scissors

11 Jun

We recently made up a game called Curly Cravings for our grandmother for her birthday.

Here’s how it works. You make three teams. Your team is given a noun, an adjective, and a problem randomly selected from hats filled with pre-populated items of the respective categories written on slips of paper by players in advance. You’re required to conceive of a solution to the problem you draw that makes use of the noun and the adjective you draw. You then give your solution to another team, who draws a picture of it, and then to a third team, who dances it. All the while, you’re drawing and dancing other people’s ideas, too. At the end you have a “Curly Craving,” which is the 3-part combination of an idea, a picture, and a dance.

For more information, here’s a link to the instructions; and the “Picto-Instructions” image from those instructions is below. Note: the instructions make intentional use of alternate English spelling conventions adapted by our game-development team.

By way of example, in the legendary first game, one team was asked to solve the problem “Keep People From Killing the Animals” using the adjective-noun team “Slippery Eyeball.” The solution involved a rapidly moving eyeball keeping watch on all would-be animal killers, and flashing them to sleep with a powerful wink method immediately prior to the act of killing, at which point the animals would escape. We’ve lost the remarkable picture drawn of this solution, but we remember still the actor in the role of an wild, but gentle, animal grazing contentedly, the actor playing “Eye” and his dramatic wink, the actor playing a hunter overwhelmed by drowsiness even while in the very midst of aiming his rifle.

Some things I like about the game:
  • It’s an exercise in constrained problem solving. You inherit problems and try to solve them with components you have no real control over the selection of. In this way it’s like life.
  • It makes you creative. You put together things that generally don’t belong, which is the essence of creativity. “Deciduous Scissors,” one such unlikely combo, was a favorite noun-adjective pairing from another past instantiation of the game. There’s a mad-libs-like, surreal quality to the combinations and the solutions developed from them that helps people escape, as it were, from the dictatorship of conventional psycho-realism and its social restrictions, fixed attitudes, beliefs, group think, anxieties.
  • You care about other people’s ideas. You receive the ideas of other people, and you interpret them by drawing. You interpret someone else’s interpretation by dancing. This has a funny way of making you feel like the solutions are part of you, too. In this way Curly Cravings draws on the core power of other idea-sharing structures, like World Café facilitation methodology.
  • Memory is engaged. You’ll never forget a Curly Craving once you’ve drawn it, danced it, or seen it danced or drawn. Something about seeing my friend Richard (name changed to protect her identity), for example, embodying the role of a Deciduous Scissors as it “healed” a Rusted Combine-Harvester (played by me) will never allow itself to be forgot.
  • It’s inclusive. Curly Cravings uses verbal, visual, and kinesthetic thinking. As such people of almost any age and learning style can be involved.
  • Nobody wins. Even though the instructions say “vote on best” at Step 6, everyone essentially wins, because they’ve contributed part of each solution or its representation. Also, by the time you get to voting, everyone has had to dance, which serves as a kind of positive cathartic moment. After the dance, the voting is an emotional denouement and nothing more.

But the thing I like about it the most? It’s very much unlike work.

In the average workplace we generally don’t dance, draw, or combine unusual things. We generally don’t hand off our naked new ideas to others for safekeeping, nor do we act as stewards for someone else’s thoughts. On the contrary: new ideas are more likely seen as destabilizing threats to our status quo that we mush squash or commandeer.

The world, however, is slowing realizing that workplaces which overly reinforce a status quo are at a disadvantage in a context of change, when learning, experimentation, and risk are all to be foregrounded. We’re realizing we need more ways of developing new insights, creative solutions, and unexpected combinations, as silly as they may at first seem; and we need to treat these insights and sometimes-crazy thoughts, these Slippery Eyeballs, as carefully as we might treat babies, because they might just grow into the bold strategic plans that reinvent our work and reshape our industry, etc.

Use Curly Cravings at work? That sounds crazy . . . until, that is, you imagine yourself replacing the random problems like “Keep People from Killing the Animals” with an equally difficult problem that’s relevant to your work, or until you imagine replacing the randomly-chosen nouns and adjectives with resource components you have in place at work or skills your staff happen to have, etc. Then you begin to see that the solutions people playing this game might develop could be the kind of thing that helps you rethink the way you do work. It might even be the kind of place you would think of adding the “repeat” to lather and rinse (to refer to a famous case of creative problem-solving in the shampoo industry).

So maybe we won’t see Curly Cravings itself, but I suspect we’ll see a proliferation of similar kinds of simple processes designed to help us conceive of and honor new ideas. And won’t they be fun to play? I hope they keep the dancing part.