Are you following unnecessary rules?

There are many conventions and rules which govern our lives and which we mostly don’t question or think about. Most of these rules are there to protect us and maintain a civilised society. But did you ever stop to realise how many rules we impose on ourselves unnecessarily? I had a great experience of realising this the other week during a course.

As part of the course we played a game called ‘Diminishing Resources’. It works like this:

Summary – The floor of the room is set up with various sized squares, made of newspapers, or flip charts or A4 or 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper. Participants are asked to move from one square to another. After two or three moves, begin to remove papers, forcing participants on to a smaller number of squares until new and different solutions are arrived at.

Instructions –  To begin, everyone must have both feet in a square; when I say “change,” you must move to a new square; we continue when everyone has both feet in a new square; be brief in the setup, refer questions to the guidelines.

When I was playing this game I realised my self imposed rule of standing only on the paper squares (it wasn’t in the instructions, they only said to stand on a square) when I saw a fellow participant standing on a chair with a square seat. After this I realised the carpet tiles were square, and then that the room was square, so I could stand anywhere and be on a square.

This was a powerful realisation for me – how often am I hindering my creativity by these subconscious, unnecessary rules?

My learning from this game is to try and be more aware of all the possibilities when considering a problem or idea. I will try to ask more questions about how and why particular solutions are created.

I encourage you to use this game with your team or teams/groups you work with – it’s a fantastic kinesthetic and experiential way to realise the power self imposed rules have over our creativity.

If you have experienced this game, what did you think? How else might we expose those self imposed rules?


The power of empathy

“What would Madonna do?” – an example of a type of question you might ask if you’re stuck with an idea and need to look at it from a different perspective. Obviously you can substitute Madonna for a variety of people/things e.g. a teenager, Nelson Mandela, a robot, an organic farmer…The key is to consciously step outside yourself and take a different viewpoint.

This led me to wonder whether people with strong empathy skills (i.e. more easily able to step outside themselves and see the other viewpoint) would be better equipped for coming up with new ideas.

To consider this I needed to break down what exactly the skills of empathy are. Fortunately, I discovered that Roman Krznaric has already done this, and gave a great talk about it at the RSA.

The six ‘habits’ Roman talks about are:

  1. Cultivate curiosity about strangers.
  2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities.
  3. Experiential empathy.
  4. Practise the art of conversation.
  5. Inspire mass action and social change.
  6. Develop an ambitious imagination.

These habits seem to me to be fundamental to idea development. To start with, being curious about others and having good conversations would certainly open you up to new ideas/connections. Then, an ambitious imagination about, for example, the future could help spark ideas/inspiration. Also, challenging prejudices helps to open up new ways of thinking about a problem. Whereas discovering commonalities can help bring together previously unrelated issues to solve a problem. Getting experiential – really trying out what it’s like to live how someone else lives is a rich and powerful way to inspire ideas. And all of these habits could create an idea which would lead to social change.

Everybody would agree that empathy is a good thing. But perhaps this very simple, human ability, when actively practised could power meaningful, deep ideas and change.

Do you think empathy should be more actively practised? Which of the habits do you currently practise or would like to practise? Can empathy power change?

It was the best of teams and the worst of teams…

“What was the best team you’ve been on?” I struggled to answer this when it was asked on a recent team coaching course I was on. Then, when I heard others’ answers, I felt as thought I had missed out on a really great experience. I believe many other people have not had the joy of being on a ‘high performing’ team, so I was keen to learn the team coaching skills which could help more people have a better team working experience.

The course was on ‘Team Diagnostics’ and run by Team Coaching International. They have four guiding principles for working with teams:

  1. Teams exist to produce results
  2. The team is a living system
  3. Team members want to be on high performing teams and want to contribute
  4. The team has within it the means to excel

Teams are measured on their positivity and productivity, and the team coach will debrief them on their results using graphics such as these:











The key is that the team is treated as a system, there is no focus on individual team members.

This course made me realise the importance of the state of the team for how creative it is. If ideas tend to happen in fluid networks (see ‘Where good ideas come from’ by Steven Johnson), then the team strengths (in the polar diagram above) of communication, camaraderie, constructive interaction, values diversity, respect, trust, goals and strategies, and accountability are fundamental.

The overall ratings on positivity and productivity (see the quadrant diagram above) could also be considered important for idea development. Ideas need to be nurtured, so require a positive, ‘Yes, and…’ environment to thrive. Ideas also need a productive environment – some momentum and hard work in order to develop.

Two of the guiding principles I mentioned earlier struck a chord with me in terms of creativity:

  • ‘The team is a living system’ – creativity is abundant in vibrant situations where “bundles of potentiality manifest their potential in relationship with each other” (from Margaret Wheatley). Creativity needs a ‘living system’ of relationships to survive.
  • ‘The team has within it the means to excel’ – A quote from Steven Johnson’s book mentioned earlier is appropriate here: “This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.” (p.58) Creative ideas exist within each team member, and this creativity will grow and expand just by each individual being connected to the team network.

After three days of learning about teams, I feel I not only have the skills to coach teams, but also, more ideas on the behaviours which encourage creativity.

Is your team a positive and productive fluid network which nurtures ideas? How important do you think teams are for engendering creativity?



Seek first to understand…

My dad has always said: “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason” – a simple but effective way of reminding me how important it is to listen (as does this picture by David Shrigley!).

This is underlined in a book my dad gave me – ‘The 7 habits of highly effective people’ by Stephen Covey, where the fifth habit is ‘Seek first to understand, then to be understood’. This is about empathic listening, really deeply listening to the other person without any ‘autobiographical’ responses such as probing, evaluating, advising or interpreting. The main practical skill to use in empathic listening is rephrasing content and reflecting the feeling e.g.

Son: “Dad I give up! School is boring.”      Dad: “You’re really frustrated about school.”

Here frustration is the unsaid feeling being reflected and school is the content.

It seems that listening is becoming a more important topic of thought today, probably partly because our world is so noisy/frenetic. A good recent example is the BBC/British Library collaboration ‘The Listening Project’. Although its aim is to build up a picture of our lives today, its focus on doing this through recorded conversation serves as a reminder of the power of one to one conversation to create deep connection.

This focus on conversation is vital in a world where, according to a recent TED Talk by Sherry Turkle, we “…sacrifice conversation for mere connection.”

This talk also feeds into the growing need to think more about the level of our listening skills today. Turkle addresses this through the use of technology – one point she makes is that tweeting and texting doesn’t allow us to really learn about each other, to understand each other. She suggests we can end up hiding from each other even though we are constantly connected to each other. Certainly my life has more texting than talking nowadays.

However, I think its OK to have a world with texts and tweets as long as they exist alongside conversation and listening. I think what would help is a more conscious focus on listening skills – I have found that since I started focusing on my listening skills I realised how much I wasn’t really listening before. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of waiting for the other person to finish so you can share your related experience.

Improving listening skills will also help with creativity and idea generation – as Covey says in his book: “When we really, deeply understand each other, we open the door to creative solutions and third alternatives” Who knows what great idea you might miss if you’re not listening properly?

Do you practise empathic listening in your facilitation? How can you improve your everyday listening skills?

Introverts and ideas

“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas” – this quote from Susan Cain in her recent TED talk stuck in my mind.

So much of the way we do things at work is designed for extroverts to thrive – bosses are expected to be dominant and out spoken, we are expected to be ‘team players’, we work in noisy, busy open-plan offices. Where does this leave people who need some solitude, some time for reflection in order to their best work?

As someone who Susan Cain would probably describe as an ‘ambivert’ (my learning styles are also equally activist and reflector), I can understand the benefits of both an extroverted and introverted way of being. It’s just that the extroverts’ way of being will naturally be more dominant as extroverts are more dominant. However, as the TED talk suggests, I think it’s worth actively promoting the positive things about the introverted way of being.

For example, Cain suggests that introverts make good bosses. This was based on the work of Adam Grant at Wharton School ‘Analysing effective leaders: why extroverts are not always the most successful bosses’  His article suggests that the best boss for a very proactive team is actually an introverted boss. This is because an extroverted boss may feel threatened by proactive staff, whereas an introverted boss is more likely to listen and support their team’s ideas.

Just as introverted bosses can help encourage ideas, introverts are also better equipped to come up with ideas themselves. The TED talk alludes to Darwin going for long walks alone and Steve Wozniak working alone on the first Apple computer – examples which emphasise the need for solitude in the creative process.

Overall this TED talk made me think about my facilitation work and whether I am fully enabling the more introverted participants to develop their ideas. Am I doing too many group activities? Could I build in some solitude?

What about your work? If you consider yourself introverted, are you able to express yourself properly? If you manage a team, do you consider the needs of the more introverted members?

Managing the unknown through questioning

The title of this post comes from the International Foundation for Action Learning , as this week I had my first taste of Action Learning. This is all about groups (or ‘sets’) working together on real problems, using the current knowledge of the group and ‘questioning insight’.

In the session I attended one member of the group described a problem and everyone else wrote down one ‘open’ question about the problem. The person with the problem then answered some of the questions, and these answers sparked more questions from the group. This way, the person with the problem was realising the answers and ideas she already had hidden in her brain.

This gentle, yet powerful, process underlines the importance of asking questions when trying to come up with ideas.

In the book Gamestorming five types of idea sparking questions are outlined:

  1. Opening – to generate ideas/options and provoke thought e.g. What kinds of things do we want to explore? What are the biggest problem areas?
  2. Navigating – to summarise key points and check the group is aligned e.g. Is this helping us to get where we want to go? Are we on track?
  3. Examining – for observation and analysis, to narrow your enquiry and focus on details e.g. What is it made of? Can you give me an example of that?
  4. Experimental – to invoke the imagination and make unlikely connections e.g. What else works like this? If this were an animal, what animal would it be and why?
  5. Closing – to gain commitment and make decisions e.g. How can we prioritise these options? Who is going to do that?

Often people equate questioning with interrogation, but when trying to come up with ideas questioning is about collaboration. Having a group of open people asking open questions around a real problem is a simple, but highly effective, way of finding solutions.

How can you build open and exploring questions into your work?

Meaningful images

I’m currently reading ‘The back of the napkin’ by Dan Roam, about solving problems and selling ideas with pictures. Roam says that visual thinking is all about making “…the complex understandable by making it visible – not by making it simple.”

This made me wonder what is going on in our brains when we look at images/diagrams that they can provide us with those ‘a-ha!’ moments.

In thinking about this I came across a TED Talk by information designer Tom Wujec:

In the talk he explains how a good visual will engage three parts of our brains:

  • The ventral stream – engaged when our eyes are invited to dart around different parts of an image.
  • The dorsal stream – engaged when the image encourages interactivity.
  • The limbic stream – engaged by colour and motion in an image.

He concludes that there are three key elements which are needed to make an image meaningful. The first is that the ideas need to be clearly visualised, the second that it needs to be somehow interactive and the third that to make it memorable there needs to be visual ‘persistence’.

For me, thinking about these fundamentals can really help if you have a complex idea you would like to visualise. If you can engage people’s brains well that must surely be half the battle!

Have you tried using images to explain a complex idea? Do you think knowing these brain fundamentals would help?