Monday, November 28, 2005

More on Conflict and Creativity

I've been considering the wider value of conflict for creativity after the last post. Through what processes can value be derived from something so uncomfortable in contexts other than the arts?

Fight, Flight, or Something Else?

Here's a start: conflict is as much heartfelt as it is intellectually-based, and debate itself implies a winner and a loser. This in itself often affects one's willingness to entertain an alternative viewpoint. Giving ground only happens in battle when there is no other choice.

On the other hand, emotional engagement can be turned to the advantage of innovation, if competitors in business or a classroom can entertain a common goal at the same time as their conflicting positions. Emotional impulse is essential for inspiration, and if, regardless of discomfort, one is looking for new connections and ideas, what better place is there than conflict to find some?

The trick is to entertain an awareness of immediate emotional impulses and the larger picture at the same time. Knowing that feelings pass, change, transform over time, one can train oneself to step back from defending them with eyes closed to being curious about them, their causes, and their alternatives.

Harnessing the Value of Opposition

Clearly, conflict without discipline and an understanding of how to apply its principles will generate stagnant or (worse) growing acrimony. However, what is not done with love can be done with discipline. The same components that go into effective thinking are necessary to generate useful solutions, even if the result solves a problem separate from the conflict at hand.

Conflict is useful when it can be part of a conversation, either internal, external, or both. This exchange must balance the relationship among critical thinking skills, observations, analyses, and emotional engagement. Above all, it requires awareness of process.

Improv: More Than Just for Mimes

There's no trick, there's no formula, and it’s improvisation. Each case is different and participants need the drive to be curious about what's new across contexts. Traditionally, improv is famous for the willingness to entertain an attitude of "Yes AND" rather than "Yes BUT" for long periods of time -- and to just see what happens. It requires endurance, discipline, empathy, and the creativity to see value in situations over which you only have a small amount of control.

This empathy requires courage -- to stretch from a comfortable and long-held stance and exchange it for an unknown -- and perhaps uncomfortable or long-opposed -- point of view. This allows new patterns to emerge, regardless of the last stand you decide to take.

Without opposition, nothing new will emerge. Change is hard because it is unfamiliar, but comfortable, familiar situations rarely breed new ideas.

Chaos Out of Order: The First Step

Improvisation becomes more comfortable with practice. It's harder than it sounds, and requires a great deal of discipline to be curious, to wonder about new patterns, even when the context is unfamiliar.

Those who recognize that a certain amount of chaos is a necessary part of the creative process tend to enjoy it and engage in it more than those who don't understand that learning is disorganizing. You're inevitably walking into unfamiliar territory if you let go of the existing order to find something new.

Take responsibility for creating this kind of chaos, see it as living in disorder as part of a process, and it becomes increasingly easier to remain curious -- even in a hurricane of opposition -- as you gain confidence in your own ability to make new order when the storm has passed.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Conflict: Should It Always Be Resolved?

Conflict can be uncomfortable, no question. How many corporate dollars and hours go into workshops that aim to resolve it?

What happens if you allow conflict to continue exist, even as you apply curiosity and analysis to it?

Getting away from explicit approaches to creativity in business, l found this approach startlingly useful in another context.

A Little Background

Groups like the Creative Arts Team (CAT) in New York do a great service by teaching conflict resolution in schools and giving voice to seemingly contradictory positions to develop empathy and better social relations. It's not news that kids and adolescents can feel particularly confused about their feelings -- and about ways of showing them, articulating them, and behaving when under their influence.

CAT demonstrates that the value of drama here is not theoretical. The group offers ways in which conflict and creativity can develop new insights. Check them out if you know of a school that can use them.

And by the way, their work is much more powerful than their website.

An Extreme But Specific Example

Through CAT, I was involved with in the first Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian adult theater collaboration after Oslo. This took place in New York, by the way. I had spent a few months the year before writing about such productions in Jerusalem, but all cast members in those cases were Israeli citizens. I had written one story for The Voice, and they offered me the chance to do another.

Through an actor with whom I worked with before and my own strong feelings about theater, I gained the trust of the rest of the group and was became the only reporter allowed in rehearsals by the Palestinian Authority.

It was a remarkable experience in its extreme focus on the question of whether or not it's possible to resolve conflict and the kind of creativity required to remain curious about the question, both personally and professionally.

Like the Palestinian/Israeli productions about which I had previously reported, individuals were forced to simultaneously sustain their emotional histories as citizens while as professional actors they had expressly come to collaborate with those they considered the enemy for artistic reasons.

All of the Israeli participants had served in the army and continued in the reserves. Many had lost family and friends to these wars. All of the other participants had lost at least one family member as well to the Israeli armies.

What made it more complex is that even those of the same nationality didn't agree on politics or share the same socio-economic background. Artistically they differed as well -- the Israeli acting style was more European and naturalistic while the Palestinian and Jordanians had a more presentational approach.

Rehearsals were built on each cast-member's stories. Although the specifics varied widely, they all shared a great deal of pain from trauma that felt fresh. Clearly, there was a desire to move forward or none would be working on the show in the first place. However, in each case, there had been a history of both nursing specific grievances and of healing them.

The national stories and mythologies complicated the interactions further, and arguments broke out regularly. However, as days past and everyone began to understand each other's perspective, respect and genuine affection grew amidst the anger and pain. One comment I heard a lot: "I love these individuals, but I hate their countries."

Amazing Insights But Bad Theater

Ultimately, the play's story comprised a fictionalized collective history of the group. Unfortunately, the production was a lot less complex or interesting than the rehearsals to which only I was privy.

However, I don't think it's for the reason Tristan Tzara says in Tom Stoppard's Travesties: "the odd thing about the revolution is that the further left you go politically, the more bourgeois they like their art."

Most of these artists were heavily influenced by theater more abstract than Anglo/American contemporary work, so the social constructivist sort of art they produced was not really what any had in mind when they started.

It seemed that the energy it took to come to a common language among themselves made it important to be clear about their intentions onstage for themselves as much as for the audience. The internal disagreements and conflicting national loyalties remained side-by-side with the personal connections and affection each felt for the other. They had come too far in their respect for each other's differences to harbor any ambiguity of purpose when it came to the production.

Still, A Creative Coup

However, there were remarkable creative insight that could only have resulted from this deepest-felt constant conflict, pain, and argument. It was the emotional understanding that each gained into the otherwise abstract principles and experience of the others they considered enemies. The fact that intellect and feeling could combine while holding opposing points of view -- enemy and friend -- simultaneously was the insight that came out of this work.

Unfortunately, it's one of those experiences that might be hard to understand on a gut level without having lived through the details. My point is that conflict can generate insights creatively that would be impossible to discover otherwise.

After all, inspiration is the meeting point of intellectual and emotional insight. The ultimate results -- good art, bad theater, applicable solutions, theoretical impossibilities -- come from the skill with which one works with other necessary elements for innovation. This usually holds true across contexts.

More in future posts.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

One More Thought On Sustainable Solutions

After a stimulating conversation with an admired colleague who is both an ethnographer and business executive, it seems a shame to abandon the notion of sustainable solutions for innovation where it was left yesterday. Based on our discussion, I'd like to add something that occurred to both of us.

Even if there is no time immediately to go into schools where learning starts -- and this is something I recommend highly -- sustainable solutions for innovation can be achieved by crossing silos within the business community alone.

Creativity is the ability to learn continuously across contexts. Begin with culture, research in situ and find out what works in the language of each discipline or field. Present the results on film, through blogs, on radio -- in whatever medium has the most immediacy for those involved. Then take the various languages of different cultures and translate what works across contexts.

Cross disciplines and see things new. Then leverage the resources that have been available all along but hidden in foreign languages and cultures.

A Note on Best Practices

Professional researchers should oversee and analyze the various processes who have no direct allegiance to any of the cultures being studied. Although there is no such thing as objectivity, it's important to have analysts who do not directly benefit financially from any particular process among which the different cultures are negotiating.

The Sustainable Part

As with learning of any kind, the discovery and introduction of new ideas is only the first step. Persist, develop, experiment, collaborate over time with diplomats from each culture continuing conversations both in person and through further research.

As new ideas become old hat, introduce new voices, unfamiliar disciplines, surprising alliances to force yourself to see things new. Patterns and processes will emerge as a kind of cross-disciplinary literacy that can sustain innovation across contexts.

What Happened Next (And Why It's Important)

In the first workshop at the primary school conference, participants went around the room offering names, experience, grade level, and reason for attending.

As the other teachers introduced themselves, it became clear that they all knew each other either because they taught together or because they shared colleagues elsewhere. Typical dialogue went something like this: "Hi, my name is Sophie, I teach third grade in Bedford, and I'm here to find out how to get my kids to like writing." You'd then hear, "Oh, Bedford -- I worked with your first grade teacher on phonics." And so it went until it was my turn.

Crossing Silos

I was the only attendee who consulted to teachers rather than who currrently occupied a classroom of my own. I gave my name, and said, "I taught at Brown for five years and am here to investigate the reasons for which my students were so sophisticated in certain thinking skills and so weak in others."

For a moment, I was afraid I had insulted everyone in the room. However, I was immediately flooded with handshakes and enthusiastic welcomes --none of these primary school teachers had ever spoken to someone who taught on the college level.

I was stunned -- and it raised this question:

How can a primary school teacher prepare her students to be effective writers and critical thinkers if she has never spoken to a university teacher about the standards and demands for which her students are headed? And worse yet for employers, how can future workers gain the skills necessary if no one is talking to them from the beginning of formal education?

Although there are exceptions, the situation turned out to surprise me even further: No teachers of any age group speak about common goals to the teachers in the next school to which they directly hand off their classes.

In other words, pre-school teachers don't seem to talk to primary school teachers. Primary school teachers don't talk to high school teachers, high school teachers didn't talk to university teachers, and university teachers don't talk to the people in business who would provide the context for these graduates learning lives ever after.

Sir Ken Robinson claims that our current education system is an elongated preparation for university -- to create university professors. I would agree that this is the implicit principle, but even without taking into consideration preparation for employment, even Sir Ken's idea is not well executed.

Cultural Silos are the Norm

According to these teachers and some in England with whom I've worked, there are exceptions on the academic level. Districts sometimes bring teachers together, although their priorities are often so different that there need to be special meetings just to find common ground.

Businesses, too, create forums in which they speak to students -- about careers, about particular business needs, and other topics that concern them. But these business leaders don't speak to teachers.

In fact, it's administrators who remain the only connections among learning environments -- from primary school through their first jobs.

A Sustainable Solution: Start with Culture

To understand the obstacles to conversations among key stakeholders, it's first essential to investigate the cultures that keep each group of isolated from the others when it comes to developing sustainable practices for innovation. The language high school teachers use to express successful thinking is quite different from that of business management, but the concepts are strikingly the same.

Once cultures were studied and investigated, what if there were regular conferences to which college professors and business leaders came together with primary, middle, and secondary school teachers -- and employers -- to discuss their expectations, needs, and challenges?

What if the cultures were discussed explicitly -- and common challenges and needs translated into common terms -- to leverage the resources of multiple fields all aiming toward the same goals?

If we could keep the conversation going among the key stakeholders perhaps we could crack this dearth of critical and creative thinking. Understand how to translate process among cultures, and this problem can be solved.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Innovative Thinking: Working Toward a Sustainable Solution

In three plus years of conversations, leaders across contexts articulated the process of successful thinking somewhere within the parameters of the creative process I outlined in the last post. This sample included prominent educators, psychologists, small business owners, parents, and corporate giants.

So if international leaders -- from primary school teachers to CEOs -- want to develop the same innovative capabilities in their charges, why are creative thinkers said to be so scarce?

Conversation as Best Practices

The first step is for stakeholders in different fields to begin conversations about common needs and find a sustainable solution together.

Let's start where learning begins formally. It became strikingly clear to me that crossing silos can be a sustainable solution to innovation when I attended a primary school conference on writing skills in a New York suburb last year.

Why a Conference on Teaching Writing?

For those of you who have never had the challenge of teaching communication skills, writing is one of the hardest processes to model or teach. It involves the complex network of creative thinking skills which are challenging to develop and sustain.

They are exactly the skills sought by business leaders.

What Makes Writing Hard

Writers need to feel a sense of ownership and purpose, and often in a classroom, the subject matter or process doesn't offer obvious connections to personal connections. Mentors need to offer frequent and rich feedback over time to develop a process can internalize and use across contexts.

Furthermore, effective writing requires the ability to think clearly and then articulate those thoughts in a form whose importance hasn't been emphasized outside of schools, particularly since the advent of email. If any further evidence of this challenge is required to persuade other than everyday living, the language of Edward R. Murrow in the recent Goodnight and Good Luck makes it clear enough when compared with that of today's television broadcasts.

Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

Writing is hard to teach because developmental issues and goals can be muddy. At what age do you emphasize grammar and at which age free expression without formal constraint? Teachers, too, must help their charges succeed on tests that require no more than a five paragraph essay with rigid requirements of evidence and format. By the time most students reach high school, they are taught to make patterns on a paper in order to fulfill the needs of an assignment.

If that weren't challenging enough, persuasive writing also demands fluency of grammatical and stylistic conventions often overlooked in spoken language. The process can intimidate both teachers and students, and the result is often that ideas are discussed while the mechanics are neglected.

And Back to Our Story . . . .

For connections between all this and innovation, please see the next post.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Creative Thinking: In Business and Elsewhere

A banking executive told me recently that she's having a hard time hiring people who can "really do the job." In addition to having industry knowledge, she wants to find "types" who are creative thinkers. But she couldn't define exactly what that means.

I considered this challenge in the context of other recent conversations, particularly with two impressive CEOs and a Senior Partner in a financial services firm. This is what I've concluded:

Creativity is often thought of as a singular quality -- an attractive intangible, a soft skill, a gauzy perspective. At worst, it's thought to preclude common sense or practical application.

In fact, innovative thinking is not nearly so obscure. Most obstacles to creativity seem to come down to a breakdown of one of the following practical behaviors or skill sets:

Curiosity -- In order to see things new, it's essential to sustain a drive to investigate.

Emotional Connection -- Own the ideas about which you feel passionate and in which you feel engaged. Inspiration and curiosity are driven as much by emotional as intellectual impulses. Thinking is associative, so it's easier to create connections with the unfamiliar when you can connect it with an inventory of information to which you already feel an explicit connection.

Strong Critical Thinking Skills -- Observation and Analysis --Observation requires the ability to see what's in front of you, without looking for answers or drawing conclusions. Analysis involves wondering about the patterns and their meanings in the raw data. Each skill requires practice separately. When used in conversation effectively, they provide innovative perspectives that are practically applicable.

Awareness of One's Own Learning Process -- Familiarize yourself with your own learning process through observation and acceptance. What engages you? How do you stimulate your curiosity when it flags? Are you stuck because it's time to find a fresh perspective? What helps you see things new? Or do you just need a break?

Persistence -- Coming up with new ideas requires trial and error over time. It requires space to observe, reflect, and engage. Curiosity can drive you, but discipline works, too.

Braving Change -- In order to learn something new, you need to let go of the familiar. Curiosity can help because fear is rarely present when it's fully is engaged. Confidence also results from repeated and successful forays into the unknown.

An Environment that Supports the Learning -- If immediate solutions are what you're after, there won't be room for creative thinking. Demands for immediate answers don’t leave room for process and discovery. Burnout will inevitably ensue.

The Doppler Effect

Observing your own process changes it and allows it to evolve. Every new and useful connection makes another connection possible. This is true for at least three reasons. First, each new idea allows others ideas to be built from it. Second, clarifying the strategies that help you innovate make it easier to do the job well. Last, each succesful solution builds the innvovative skill sets and the confidence to try again.

Conclusion: How Do You Make it Work for You?

Creativity is the ability to learn continuously across contexts. It demands a curiosity about where meaning resides across situations -- coming to understand and then revisiting the places where significance might lie in different situations.

Creativity comprises a kind of conversation among your own processes and the world outside in which you listen carefully and respond effectively. Once you've identified patterns and arguments, you can construct new perspectives by reframing the terms.

By activating a series of behaviors and tendencies -- curiosity, critical thinking, persistence, awareness, and engagement -- it's almost impossible to avoid creating new connections among familiar ideas. Sustaining and developing these behaviors offers a road to innovation.