Creativity And Chaos

Chaos and creativityAccording to an anonymous quote I read recently “Chaos is not merely a mindless jiggling, it’s a subtle form of order”. Chaos theory is closely linked to creativity so I will provide a brief introduction. In reality there is no chaos, just different levels of order!

There are some fundamental concepts which I first need to point out:

  • The key for us to perceive or observe order is perspective
  • There can be order in apparent randomness
  • It only takes a very small change to move from a chaotic system into an ordered one and vice versa. Such events have been labelled as a ‘strange attractor’.

Imagine you are inside a system which appears chaotic, for instance an atom. You will observe electrons whizzing around your head like insects in a random fashion. Step up a level and you will notice that everything appears more ordered. If you step up to the molecular, you should notice that things will appear more ordered still.

In science lessons at school we have all observed Brownian motion. Here molecules apparently move in a random fashion when heated. Later we discovered that they conformed to a mathematical formula after our teachers conducted a random walk experiment.

It seems that if we can attain a high enough vantage point then we can indeed ‘separate the wood from the trees’. Slip low down and once again we become lost in chaos.

How can we make use of this knowledge within our organisations and businesses? Well layers of hierarchy do remove those at the top from the apparent chaos. At each level those within the organisation must learn to recognise the patterns of the adjacent level.

Insert too many layers and you cannot see what is happening, and if we insert too few will result in brains frazzled by complexity. For an organisation the implications are profound. To improve the performance of an organisation we must do a little pruning. We must remove some of the layers that build up over time that merely act as sticking plasters.

Too many attempts to interpret or understand is a little like Chinese Whispers, and then to make sure we have it right we begin writing everything down as procedures and red tape takes over. We then restore order, but we may lose creativity forever.

We must learn to walk that fine line between complexity and order that allows us to both implement a strategy and make use of chaos at the same time.

This is the key principle of the creative organisation.

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Creativity – It’s All About Perspective

As Albert Einstein noted, a problem cannot be solved within the same frame of reference in which it was created. This does not mean that we have to employ Einstein’s methods and shift ourselves into outer space or become time travellers, it simply means that our problem must be reframed or looked at in a new way. You can get someone else to look at your problem or just change your own perspective.

My good friend Gerardo Porras, based in Mexico, created a very useful metaphor for this very situation. We are inside our house looking out and what we see is governed by the shape of the window and the colour of the glass. To add to this metaphor, our view through the window is also governed by the laws of physics, we can only see what is in our line of sight so to look in a different direction we must choose a new window.

We could, of course, leave our ‘house’ and take in all of the scenery by turning around and looking in every direction. If we were exploring then that is exactly what we would do, but within organisations we need to make decisions and too much information can make those decisions difficult to take. So whilst we might need to change the way we look at a problem in an organisation, generating too many options or business ideas may be unhelpful.

So how can we change our perspective in a simple way? There are many creative techniques that you can use, many of which are known by different names but you can use the some of the approaches below:

  • Random stimulation – introduce a random or bizarre objector thought which will give your brain a shock (what happens if I paint it yellow?)
  • Experience the problem – create a model and walk around inside it
  • Look at the problem boundaries and then change them or blur them
  • Increase or decrease the amount of knowledge available – introduce your problem to older people or even children

Once you get the idea, you can soon work out your own ways to change your perspective.

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Innovation – There’s a head in my shed, starting out from scratch

Many fledgling businesses do actually start out from a shed at the bottom of the garden. Hewlett Packard started this way and many other technological breakthroughs too (remember Marconi?). The shed is, however, just a metaphor for that inappropriate and often cluttered place that we find ourselves in with our good ideas. We are simply a head in a shed!

It does not matter whether you are a lone inventor who really does have a shed at the bottom of their garden or you work for a large organisation and your ‘shed’ is your office or laboratory. You have the same problems either way.

Take a look at this news article. The student in question is obviously talented but so what? She has very neatly illustrated our problem but in reverse. We are so familiar with the appearance of our shed, its contents and immediate surroundings that we see nothing else. We need a fresh perspective, new glasses (ditch the rose tinted ones) and a new mode of thinking. To go back to the first article in this newsletter and the concept of putting animals in places where they are not supposed to go – we have an elephant in our shed with us. It is an idea that has barged in and seems too big and well formed to be moved. We must replace it with a giraffe, something more suited to the marketplace, but how? And why a giraffe?

To continue using metaphors for a moment, the elephant is the easy option. Our minds often conjure up ideas that our egos build up into great and unbeatable business opportunities. These then take over our lives and we try to turn them into reality at all costs. These have barged into our lives like a stampeding elephant into our shed. In the world of inventors, elephants are ten a penny and we find them difficult to shake off. The giraffe is altogether more elegant and not so common, but how do we replace one by the other?

Here is a list of questions that we might ask ourselves:

  • Do I really want to do this or am I just running away from something else?
  • Is my idea well formed?
  • Is this really different, does it solve a problem, has it been done before?
  • Do I know what I am talking about, do others get it when I tell them about my idea(s)?
  • Do I really understand the target environment/marketplace?
  • Do I wish to retain ownership, am I willing to share?
  • Have I sought views/opinions from others?
  • How will I put this into practice/production?
  • Have I got the right skills?
  • Have I/we got the right environment?

Unlike the case of the disappearing car in the news article, you should now be more aware of what you are trying to do. Your grey elephant should have turned into something more elegant and more well formed. Why not take a look at some past newsletters and use some creative techniques to help investigate your new ideas in case you have missed something?

Good luck with your transformation!

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