Build up, don’t knock down

This is sometimes described as learning to say ‘Yes, and .. .’ rather than ‘Yes, but … ‘. Any new idea will include lots of problematic elements, and the newer the idea, the more problematic it is likely to be. It is therefore very easy to kill ideas by highlighting their weaknesses. However, this will often ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’. Even the silliest, weirdest or most impracticable of ideas will contain one or two per cent of potentially viable material or can be used as what de Bono referred to as an ‘intermediate impossible’ – a stepping-stone to other, more directly usable ideas.

‘Building’ techniques are extremely powerful, often very portable and can have very positive secondary effects:

  • They allow you to take virtually any input – a random piece of news, a nonexpert’s misunderstanding, a tedious discussion with the office bore or an accidental meeting – and get useful ideas from it.
  • They can help you to remain attentive and interested longer and more often.
  • The other people involved will also tend to feel encouraged by having their tentative ideas valued and being helped to build them into realistic and acceptable plans.
  • This is the kind of experience that people want to try again, from which they learn a lot and which leaves them valuing you and the organization.

Suggestions for techniques to ‘build’ on an existing idea (sometimes called ‘hitchhiking’) are listed below.

  • Give priority to the useful aspects (‘Yes, that idea would let us .. .’).
  • Express problematic aspects in a form that allows them to be tackled (‘That idea raises an interesting problem. I wonder how we could .. .’).
  • Combine the idea with other ideas.
  • Transform the idea in various ways (e.g. bigger, smaller, reversed, changed roles).
  • Treat the idea as an exemplar for other possibilities (what different categories it could belong to, and what other ideas are suggested by these categories).
  • Express the idea in more abstract or concrete terms (‘What is this idea an example of?’ ‘What examples are there of this idea?’).
  • Represent it in a different medium (draw it, role-play it, sculpt it, etc.).
  • Reframe the idea (i.e. see it from someone else’s viewpoint, from a different hierarchical level, in different contexts or on different time-scales).
  • Abstract the idea to a few key terms and then look up equivalents in a thesaurus (this method is the basis of some computer packages).
  • Find analogies to the idea and use these as stimuli for other ideas.
  • Use the idea to start a train of thought (in which case many of the other building mechanisms may be at work in a more or less automatic way – the more practised you are, the more automatic they become).

If you would like to learn more about using creative techniques then you might be interested in the new ‘YES you can’ ebook series which has 48 techniques for you to try.

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Living with looseness

Neither creativity itself nor the issues that demand creativity are tidy or controlled. To handle this, you need a mental framework that is 'forgiving' of a necessary degree of confusion, ambiguity, uncertainty or contradiction, providing, of course, that a sufficient core of structure can be extracted from it to allow your activities to proceed. This article looks at the areas that managers seem to find most troublesome and suggests some skills and abilities that may require development.

There are five areas of ambiguity that managers find particularly troublesome:

  • Where the significance and reliability of information is problematical.
  • Where it is unclear at what level the problem needs to be tackled.
  • Where different value orientations lead to political and emotional clashes among key players, inside and outside the organization.
  • Where contradictions and paradoxes appear.
  • Where symbols and metaphors, rather than logical arguments, are used to advance a position.

If several of the above characteristics combine, the problems begin to disrupt a manager's normal routines, and stress levels climb. Situations like these test the limits of analysis, so strictly analytical skills tend to be less relevant. Skills and procedures such as those listed below often help to provide the 'looseness' needed to manage these difficult circumstances.

  • Problem-finding ability. A combination of judgement, intuition and logic that enables a manager to identify the right problem and to recognize opportunities.
  • Map-building ability. The skill of generating one or more ways of conceptualizing a problematic situation, including the ability to relate the demands of the situation to organizational and personal values and identity.
  • Janusian thinking. This refers to thinking that joins seemingly contradictory beliefs in a constructive way (the Roman god Janus faced in both directions at once).
  • Controlling and not controlling. Knowing when to let events follow their own course versus knowing when to intervene.
  • Humour that oils. This is humour that helps regulate stress and encourages creative juxtapositions, rather than biting, sarcastic, denigrating humour. Laughter is restorative – releasing tension and rejoining people.
  • Charisma. The ability to stir enthusiasm, commitment and confidence. It transforms everyday activities into purposeful pursuit of super-ordinate goals and heightens people's sense of their own power and their willingness to take risks.
  • The use of a core group embedded in a network of contacts and information. At the centre of any exercise in 'turbulence management' you usually find a core group – a few people meeting frequently face to face, working at least half-time in this role so that they can become really immersed in it.
  • The use of domain and direction planning rather than goal-directed planning. Knowing who you are and where you want to go is inherently more flexible and better adapted to the realities of acting under stress than thinking in terms of specific, objective, measurable goals.
  • Use ad hoc structures such as task forces and project teams. These temporary structures allow the organization to depart from old practices and to learn new behaviours – e.g. to examine the fundamentals of the business, or to experiment with the organization's traditional ways, or to educate key players in the new rules of the game.
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Playing in Business – lets do more!

Does this mean that we can all regress into childhood and that making mistakes or behaving foolishly does not matter? Of course not. What we mean in this context is that a certain degree of chaos, learning from mistakes and not playing by the rules is acceptable. But why ‘play’ and not ‘explore’? Adult creativity is closer to childhood play than you might think and also ‘exploration’ still uses our adult rules with built in mindsets.

Play has several important characteristics which I will explore further.

We learn when we play as children, in fact this accounts for most of our early learning. Can you remember some of those early lessons before you went to primary school? Play acts as a learning laboratory for trying out different internal models on an external world. This is not dissimilar to our traditional brainstorming sessions.

Is play a practical task or imagination? A child that pretends his piece of cardboard is a knight’s sword is giving a simple piece of cardboard a set of magical qualities that are potentially limitless. As adults we use metaphor in much the same way.

Play also helps our sense of independence, and shows that we do not have to be compliant. This is an essential part of basic mental health. We need to have our own world and not be simply a part of someone else’s.

Play provides a protected area for our dreams. Once in the play state we do not say ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘don’t be silly’. Does this not remind you of brainstorming and other techniques? When you are free of the rules you are playing!!

Play provides a way of managing tensions between what is and what can be. Such tension can be temporarily reduced by imagining ways of closing the gap. A classical case of this is the technique of Visualisation.

Play is often accompanied by a particular state of mind. Just as a child can become lost in a game, so adults can become lost in a problem solving state once they have left their preconceptions behind.

There are emotional boundaries for children when play. The feelings conjured up by making imagination real must be containable. The same feelings exist when undertaking adult creative workshops and thus we can not play if we feel threatened.

As children, play is our main method of making both friends and enemies. Many suggest that it is only during play that true communication is possible because that is the only time that we share our innermost feelings. Those who have taken part in worthwhile group sessions will relate to the feelings of closeness that exist.

Given that shared culture, values, myths, metaphors, visions and more are the basis of many of our social groupings both inside and outside the workplace, why do we not play more often?

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