Tag Archives: generation

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 Second Phase of Creation

12 Aug

When you think about doing new things, there are a few phases. Four, by my count. First comes the part where you conceive of the thing to do–call it the idea phase. In the beginning there was the word, etc. Then there’s a phase where you actually do the thing you conceived of. The doing phase, which is number three. These two phases are self-evident I think to most people, and I’m not going talk about them here, although I note they get really interesting as you peer into them (How do you actually get that idea? What is it you’re doing, when you’re doing, anyhow? Is there any thinking happening in there during that doing? Etc.)

Less obvious than these is a post-doing phase, phase four, where you reflect on how the thing went and look for ways to improve before you try it again. This phase is crucial because with it comes the feedback loop that is at the heart of all learning and improvement, and that turns your isolated action into something that can grow in meaning and value indefinitely and form associations with other things and attract people and change them and be changed by them and on and on in wondrous convolutions and permeations of beauty influencing beauty forever. Having a loop is really the only way to (eventually) achieve goodness and approach perfection, in my opinion, contrary to the semi-conscious belief of many that excellence precipitates from nothing with no precedent. That good teachers are born, not made, etc. I am not sure you can be or do absolute good; but you can improve relative to yourself, and you should focus on that.

I could talk a lot more about this reflection or feedback phase, as I love it dearly, but I won’t, because I would rather draw attention to a phase between the idea phase and the doing phase–which makes it phase two–a phase that is in my opinion the least well known, and least respected, and most suspected, but it’s important, and it’s poised for a comeback, and it’s worth thinking about.

In phase two, which is hard to name, you go from idea to endeavor. And to bridge that chasm you do a certain kind of applied abstraction, or practical dreaming, or ethical scheming. A spiritual machination, maybe. You continue the generative feeling of the creative thinking mode that started the whole thing and produced the wondrous idea you’re working with, but you begin to arc that generation towards your actual physical, local, empirically-confirmed environment with its tangible stuff and laws and real people and moods and everything.

First you start by asking my favorite kinds of questions: “OK, about this new idea. If we did this, just what would it look like?” Or, “Imagine we did this–how would it feel?” Etc. The answers usually come in little pieces that you build slowly into a larger picture that becomes clearer and clearer and more palpable and more real.

And as it becomes clearer and clearer, look out. Experience teaches me that this is the place where people start to get nervous. The idea was no threat as long as it was just a crazy idea. But now it’s growing into reality–particularly if you’re doing a good job of answering the “what would it look like” questions–and it’s starting to bump into people’s assumptions about life. It’s amazing how easily the defensive mechanisms are triggered in this regard–as soon as the slightest whiff of palpable novelty is intuited, up go the hackles. Why? Who knows–the imagined thing could change the existing power dynamic, we could be asked to do something we’re not good at, the things we think we care about might suffer, someone might say we’re incompetent, it might take more energy than we currently choose to expend, it might put us out of a job, etc.

Usually you don’t even know what is so threatening about the idea. Often the toes being stepped on are so buried in the sand that the articulated objection spurred by them seems disconnected and comes across as irrational. Did I say sometimes? It might be more than sometimes. I’m not attacking this quality of self-preservation (see Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change for an examination of it and a praise of it and a way to work through it), I’m just noting that this is where it comes in.

In any event, after this nervous and visceral, slightly animalistic reaction (which happens to us all, I might note, me as much as anyone), this part of phase two often salvages itself by what David Perkins calls “bracketing,” or asking people to put aside objections to just float along in the happy land of possibilities for a bit longer. This simple move is surprisingly effective–who wouldn’t ride with Willy Wonka on the boat a bit just to see what happens? It’s also akin to the magical cape of the bullfighter. “I’m not going to argue with you about that thing you think,” you’re saying. “It might be right, who knows. I’m just asking you to imagine this very interesting thing over here . . .” Wave of cape. Bracketing comes in handy: without out you can’t keep going.

Keep going, that is, to the bricolage stage, where another fun thing happens: you start to look for ways to interweave reality and your idea. Outlets to plug your idea into; bits of spare fabric in which to clothe it. You ask “What do we have lying around that might be put to use? What existing knowledge, procedures, resources, ideas, experiences?”

Here to my eternal delight we get to have a Rumpelstiltskin moment and to transform mundane things into nifty things. Nifty because they buttress your new idea. Here we find resources forgotten, ideas never hatched, people’s skills untapped, cheap back-door strategies, etc. And we see how we can put them to use. It’s as if the unappreciated constellations reform themselves into new provocative shapes right on the faded star map and right in front of our eyes. This transmutation, repurposing, reuse, resuscitation, re-constellation of old stuff is just fun–addictive really–it might even be the main reason people ever want to do new things. Why? Maybe because it means the world is generative, restorative, salvageable; that there’s eternal capacity for creativity, growth, development. That we’re not actually after all trapped, doomed, predetermined, constrained, and locked in a pit of inescapable despair. Maybe because if you can re-associate the stuff around you, it means you’re alive. I’m not sure.

Anyhow, the end of phase two is marked by another particular kind of question that I love. This is the classic “What’s the first step?” Or the “What achievable thing can we practically do, now?” Key here for me is the now part–that is, doing that accessible thing right then. There does seem to be a kind of clock ticking. And there is the sense that if you don’t act, that bracket that temporarily held back all the objections to the idea will start to loose structural integrity like Star Trek shields, and will no longer be able to fend off the glittering blob of worry pressing in through the windows and under the doors.

But I won’t follow that thought, because here we are at the end of phase two. Of course once you do something, even just the first accessible step, you’re technically in phase three, doing, which I said I wouldn’t talk about. So ends my blog post: think about this phase the next time you set about doing something new, and see if you can’t see it at play.