Innovation, Risk, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Driving Innovation on the Fuel of Creativity

When Bill Gates says, as he did recently, that we must “drive innovation at an unnaturally high pace” to transition to a globally-applicable non-carbon source of energy in time (to save the planet), it raises the question (or ought to) of what’s involved in doing that?  If creativity is the “fuel” of innovation, how does one go about gaining and sustaining that fuel source?  Do we wait, in a comfortable sunny spot, for inspiration to hit us?

Zoo sketch 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, graphite and bistre ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Sometimes we think of creativity as something that occurs to us when we are relaxed, doing something routine like driving through a toll booth or even–or most likely–when we are doing nothing at all…  Is that what we must accelerate?  Or are there more reliable means of spurring and sustaining innovation (and creativity) ?  There have been a number of books on this subject, including on the need for “entrepreneurial states,” but in fact there’s been little noticeable tie-in of this material to the renewable energy challenge Gates and others are highlighting.

With the onset of a new university semester (as soon as suitable paths to class are plowed through the snow) looking at some of these issues, and investigating what it means to be innovative, or creative, in the workplace, this blog soon will turn to the experience of Pixar Studios as related by its co-founder, Ed Catmull, in Creativity, Inc.:  Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, (New York, Random House, 2014).  Some of what he has to say may surprise you but all of it is relevant to all of us when tied to prospecting for pathways to a sustainable energy future.  How to sustain a creative work environment is the challenge, and the theme, of this book–to be highlighted here soon.  Given that the author is from Pixar Studios, it comes as no surprise, but still is surprisingly fascinating, to see that he has a lot to say about art, sketching, paying attention, and hand-drawn approaches to animation.  Coming up next…

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Superforecasters and Dragonfly Eyes: Booknotes

Despite my best intentions to get through an ever-growing stack of books, a brand new one crept into the mix and demanded my immediate attention, so here goes, with a few notes on it:

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon black pen and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and Platinum Carbon black pen and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Superforecasting:  The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, (Crown Publishers: New York, 2015).

In this book, the authors, Tetlock, a professor of psychology, political science and business and Gardner, a journalist and author, note that “we are all forecasters,” in the sense that we need to make decisions that involve uncertainty (as when we buy a home or make an investment or decide to relocate, etc.).

When it comes to really big events, like market crashes, wars, etc., however, we expect to turn to “experts.” Unfortunately,  according to the authors’  research results, the experts we might most expect to be able to “forecast” events with precision are less able to do so (against certain types of problems) than “ordinary” well-informed people who are not experts in the subject matter.

These “ordinary” people have some extraordinary characteristics, the authors realized when they analyzed their research results.  These include an ability to step outside of themselves and get a different view of reality, something the authors note is really hard to do.  But the ordinary people who did the best in the forecasting tournaments run by the authors, exhibited a remarkable ability to do just this:

“Whether by virtue of temperament or habit or conscious effort, they [the successful forecasters] tend to engage in the hard work of consulting other perspectives.”

In conducting U.S. government-backed research, the authors found that people such as a retired computer programmer with no special expertise in international affairs  could successfully answer very specific questions such as “Will the London Gold Market Fixing price of gold (USD per ounce) exceed $1850 on 30 September 2011?” People they worked with, such as this individual,  were enabled by the rules of the research project to update their forecasts in real time, incorporating new information in their estimates as they came across it.  (The process is explained in detail in the book.)  Over time, “superforecasters,” such as this retired computer programmer stood out among the pack.  Such people, write the authors:

“…have somehow managed to set the performance bar so high that even the professionals have struggled to get over it…”

The results made the authors inquire into the reasons for the “superforecasters'” better performance.  They write that “It’s hard not to suspect that [so-and-so’s] remarkable mind explains his remarkable results.”

Indeed, some of their superforecasters have multiple degrees in various subjects from various top-notch universities, speak several languages, and lived or worked abroad, and are voracious readers.  But, assuming that knowledge and intelligence drive strong forecasting performance would send us down the wrong path, concluded the researchers.  To be a superforecaster “does not require a Harvard PhD and the ability to speak five languages,” they concluded.  Many very well-educated and intelligent participants in their study “fell far short of super forecaster accuracy.”  They continue:  “And history is replete with brilliant people who “made forecasts that proved considerably less than prescient [citing Robert McNamara — defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson as one example].”  So, the authors conclude:

“Ultimately, it’s not the [data/brain etc] crunching power that counts. It’s how you use it.”

Well, duh, you might say.  Isn’t this obvious?  Apparently not.

Dragonfly Forecasting So how do these superforecasters do it?  What do they have in common?  The authors survey a number of case studies from their research to provide some insights.  What they discovered is a capability they call “dragonfly forecasting.”  The researchers observed that the super forecasters, while “ordinary” people, have an ability to synthesize a large number of perspectives and to cope with a lot of “dissonant information.”  They have more than two hands, write the authors, because they are not limiting themselves to “on the one hand or the other hand thinking.” (Sidebar:  I just attended a seminar on energy and climate challenges where one of the speakers, an engaging, colorful and normally compelling orator, clearly), made the comment that “on one hand you have total environmental disaster or, on the other hand, total commercial disaster,” concluding that “we need to get on the right side of this.”

Illustration: Seminar sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Seminar sketch using Black Sharpie pen on Stone Journal notepaper by Black Elephant Blog author

This sort of binary thinking can be quite limiting, particularly when there is no “right side” as is the case, more often than not, when facing a world of increasingly complex challenges.  I heard more examples of this “either-or” thinking problem again just yesterday in an all-day conference, with people literally saying that they don’t see an option beyond the frame they’re in.)

“I’ve Looked At Things From Both Sides Now” 

By contrast, the dragonfly eye in operation, according to the authors, is “mentally demanding.”  (Already,in this mere statement, we run up against some cultural and cognitive realities in many large organizations where everyday urgent matters and matters only perceived as urgent (possibly because of this very binary winners vs. losers thinking) take up almost all available bandwidth.)

Superforecasters “often think thrice–and sometimes they are just warming up to do a deeper-dive analysis.”  Forecasting is their hobby, write the authors.  They do it for fun and also because they score high in “need-for-cognition” tests.  These tests rate people who have a tendency to “engage in and enjoy hard mental slogs.”

There also is an element of personality likely involved, they conclude.  The traits involve “openness to experience” which includes “preference for variety and intellectual curiosity.”

The authors conclude, however, that this dragonfly eye capability, which involves synthesizing a growing number of perspectives, has “less to do with the traits someone possesses and more to do with behavior.”  These behaviors include “an appetite for questioning basic, emotionally charged beliefs.”  Interestingly, the researchers have concluded that, without this behavior, individuals (forecasters or not) “will often be at a disadvantage relative to a less intelligent person who has a greater capacity for self-critical thinking.  [emphasis added]”

Those with a dragonfly eye cultivate their ability to encounter different perspectives.  They are “actively open-minded,” write the authors.  There is an actual psychological concept around this cognitive behavior.  For superforecasters, therefore, “beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasured to be guarded,” conclude the authors.

There are too many implications of this work–important implications–to cover in a blogpost.  But it must be said that the book raises implicitly at least as many questions about how to proceed in a complex interconnected world as it attempts to answer.  For instance, fewer enduring problems of real consequence can be addressed with a simple forecast, no matter how accurate, in a bounded time-wise constraint.  Inherently complex “super wicked problems” discussed earlier on this blog do not lend themselves to this sort of forecasting.  Tougher choices involve immersing ourselves in deeper questions of values and longer-term perspectives.

Nonetheless, what the authors have demonstrated with their research offers us the opportunity to pursue these challenges with greater awareness of individuals’ different cognitive and philosophical outlooks, and perhaps–from a corporate human resources point of view–to allocate jobs and tasks to people based on comparative evaluations of their cognitive and behavioral strengths.

As more and more issues require deeper thinking and appreciation of systemic interconnections, it may become ever more important (even if not acknowledged in organizational priorities) to find ways to incorporate “dragonfly eye” sense-making behaviors.   The authors have observed that “belief perseverance” can make people “astonishingly intransigent–and capable of rationalizing like crazy to avoid acknowledging new information that upsets their settled beliefs.”  When people have a greater investment in their beliefs, it is harder for them to change their views.

There is important stuff in this book which requires a great deal more reflection. So, this thread of inquiry will continue in the next post’s look at another new book called Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, by Jamie Holmes (Crown Publishers, New York, 2015).    Not at all “nonsense,” thinking about thinking matters.  Even if these books fail to provide us with concrete next steps, the relevance of these works to current challenges facing decisionmakers, and their advisors, in all sectors cannot be overstated.

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Back to School, With a Magnifying Glass

Illustration: Still-life workshop exercise by Black Elephant Blog author after a painting by Cezanne

Illustration: Still-life workshop exercise in watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author after a painting by Cezanne

It’s back to school, right into the weekend, in an intensive art workshop with an accomplished artist and art historian as our excellent teacher. People have come from far-flung places, even Canada, for this class, including the instructor.  We have poured through the works of the “masters,” including a rare original sketchbook of Cezanne’s. We traversed through some highlights from about 600 years of art history in the National Gallery one day.

In an exclusive setting not open to the public except by reservation, we peered through magnifying glasses at the original sketches (not under glass or protected in any way) of Rembrandt and watercolors of Constable, Delacroix and others.  (If you felt a cough or sneeze coming on, the archivists warned, please turn away from the art work!)

Cezanne’s sketchbook disclosed the opposite of today’s multi-tasking “monkey mind.”  Page after delicate page, it reveals intense concentration on drawing heads, houses, hearth implements, and landscapes…in pencil mostly…and a single-minded focus which must naturally banish other concerns.  (His other concerns were evident in lists and notes–possibly shopping lists, even– written on the inside flaps of the notebook, however.)  These sketches are maps, and problem-solving schemes, in some cases for later studies in other media.  In what other profession, do we first do “studies” for studies for, possibly eventually, some final product?

Swatches 1

Illustration: Color swatches made in workshop exercise to match (or try to match) colors used in de Kooning painting (copy to left) of “Seated Woman”

We are learning about palettes, color theory, and so much more! In art, as in most fields–despite the tumultuously quickening pace of change–it is folly to think that one can master in a short time (or ever, frankly) what others spent lifetimes perfecting. One can enjoy creating and be an “artist” without being a professional artist, though the distinction can sometimes be hard to make.  (It is clear that there are quite professional artists in this class, for instance.)

For the novice especially–but also the more experienced artist–there is much to learn from studying others’ works. Today, the whole day was spent on still life painting–which is not much time considering that some artists whose work we examined spent their entire lives painting still lifes. The approaches different artists take are more meaningful when we are taught to appreciate what is being done, or attempted, in a painting. It’s clear now that the humblest table setting, a piece of cake,or a half-full water glass, can–either alone or together–serve as props for an interesting painting.

We saw still lifes from above, below, at eye-level,  and at varying other angles, and noted how the “ellipse” at the lip of a jug, jar, bowl, or bottle would change, depending on the perspective.  In addition, the “composition” of a painting was a subject of great scrutiny in this class–as were values, color complements and contrasts, and shapes.

After such an intensive overview of still life painting through the ages, it will no longer be possible to glide thoughtlessly through galleries of still lifes in the museum, unimpressed by paintings of ceramic jugs, plucked fowl, and dead furry creatures adorning peasant tables.  The same goes for “landscapes” which was yesterday’s focus, painting in “plein air” in the riverside gardens and meadows of an elegant 18th century Virginia estate which now serves as the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society.

Little by little, we progress to a deeper understanding of what the “masters” in art were seeing, and trying to convey. In a group of similarly motivated people, it is possible to learn more quickly about different styles, insights, and experiences.

What would a world without art look like?

In a world of “bigger,” faster data and technologies, culture and cultural sensibility matter more than ever.  This is because no amount of data can tell us what to do, or ensure that we will do anything as must be patently obvious by now.  Determining the right thing to do, moreover, will take more than data.

People can communicate through art across the boundaries of cultures and centuries, unless that art is irreparably destroyed.  It will take excellent teachers (and excellent school systems supporting them)…and, perhaps, some high-powered magnifying glasses–to mainstream the insights of the world’s greatest artists and humanists into contemporary educational and organizational systems.  What would this look like?  Fortunately, in my school these days, students range in age from 6 to 80-somethings, all learning new things with gusto. In such an environment of human creativity, it is impossible not to be optimistic.

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Innovation, Surprise, Uncertainty

Drawing From Life

In an open life studio, where all types of artists gather to practice drawing or painting from a professional model’s pose, it is striking how differently the participants depict the model in their artwork. No “analytical objectivity” is possible here; everyone sees the same model quite differently.  It  is impossible for any two people’s drawing to be alike, or even for the same person to repeat exactly the same drawing a second time.

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

In what ways might this process of deciding what to draw, and how, be related to “design thinking”?  From considering the future of countries and even economics, there seems to be more attention being paid to the need for thinking differently, if not even ahead. Some experts on international affairs seem to be exercising design thinking, for instance, when they posit alternative futures for a country like the United States, as in the new book by Ian Bremmer, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World (2015). What is different about the thinking processes that enable us to consider alternative futures or to plan for the consequences of unpredictable developments?

Certainly art students are encouraged to have a plan and to think ahead to where their brush is going, where the light is coming from, what kind of paper they have, and to pay attention to the shadows, “cools” and “warm” values. Splashing colors on a page may work for some but for most of us learning how to think about techniques, and gaining confidence through practice, are necessary. It’s a sort of strategic thought process. It is difficult to get the hang of it at first.  Being comfortable with taking risks is part of the process, clearly: an ink blot here or a dribble of water there might damage what seemed before to be coming along just fine. Alternatively, that ink blot or water stain might make this painting really special!

In art as in life, the decisions that must be made seem endless, and each one bears heavily on the final result.  But the artist gets to make his or her own decisions usually, and must live with the results.

In a more populated context with many people potentially affected by the outcome of decisions, what is the process of consultation and deliberation that must be followed? How to deal with the inevitable inkblots, and their unintended consequences?  Is the factory-model of organization helpful or hurtful in such times; what are the alternatives?  With highly integrated challenges mounting (along with the rise of intricately networked systems riding on technologies few people really understand), what insights could we be drawing now to build upon in the future? Who will create these insights, and how?  How will we know where the brush is going, and to what end? Who will be wielding the brush in an interconnected age such as ours? …  Per request a future post or two will list some reading possibilities.

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Sketching and Frame Innovation

Anyone who sketches or attempts to create anything new is attempting to create a new way of seeing something, even if just for themselves, in their own sketchbooks, or–as I did last night–on the back of an envelope.  They are, to varying degrees, storytellers.   Urban sketchers certainly are storytellers or, if you will, citizen reporters, and “plein aire” artists, drawing and coloring what they see! Those who tell stories about their sketches, their sculptures, their jewelry-making projects, their workshops, or other sorts of creative endeavor are providing narratives to put a frame around the effort.  So sketching leads straight to frame innovation…which is getting serious attention in some business and academic circles.

Illustration:  Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

It appears that artists have a lot to teach those of us who have depended primarily (so far…) on our analytic brains to carry us forward. And who, after all, isn’t an artist, given a chance? What happens when our analytic brains are simply not up to the challenges (some of which may be “black elephants”) ahead?  A few posts back began to look at a book on this subject published by MIT Press recently.

This post thus will segue back into the discussion of frame innovation raised a few weeks ago here on this blog (and to which there may be a few more unanswered questions by now).  One question so far raised, for instance, is whether the ideas behind “frame innovation” are, in fact, anything new?  The next few posts will consider this and related issues.

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Uncategorized

Taking Liberties with Urban Sketching

Sometimes it is tempting to take liberties with the look of a scene by sketching and then watercoloring it afterwardsafter, that is, departing the scene of the target image–thus, breaking a cardinal rule of the urban sketchers’  manifesto.  So, speaking of liberties, here is a sketch (also taking some liberties with respect to realism) of the back of the U.S. Supreme Court on a beautiful day in May in Washington, D.C.  True “urban sketching” follows guidelines that include sketching on the scene in real-life (“plein air,” so to speak) but, in the case below, having a photograph of the elements of the scene helped to fill in the image afterwards.  In any case, whether or not this qualifies as real “urban sketching,” it is clear that a walk in just about any city produces a great many surprises (the subject of this blog, after all); Washington, D.C., is no exception, particularly with respect to the astounding beauty of its many buildings, parks, statues, hidden alcoves, and often gorgeous landscaping.  (The sculptures of urns with the rams head handles have now popped up in a couple of places–another surprise!)

Illustration:  Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Frame Innovation in Change-Resistant Organizations

An important book has accompanied the traveler/doodler author of this blog, making it possible, at least, to consider taking some notes on it.  The book is called Frame Innovation:  Create New Thinking By Design, by Kees Dorst (The MIT Press, 2015).  Dorst is a Professor of Design Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia and at Endhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Illustrations:  Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Sketchbook on-site illustrations: Pen and ink and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

As one reads the book, it is clear that the book’s author has been researching and developing case studies of the concept of design thinking–as applied to practical and often seemingly intractable social and urban problems–for many years.  Although the text of this book is necessarily abstract in places–explaining, for instance, the difference between traditional analytic approaches of “deduction,” and “induction” and design thinking approaches of “abduction” and design abduction”–the author is quick to remedy this through his use of case studies and helpful word-graphics. ((To fast-forward a moment to the topic of a future blog post or two, the basic issue here is a very big and momentous idea.  It is that our traditional methods of analytical reasoning, deduction and induction, “are not enough if we want to make something. If we want to create new things–or new circumstances–we need different approaches, for which even “normal abduction” (the reasoning pattern behind conventional problem-solving using tried and tested patterns of relationships) is insufficient.))

As explained in the series foreword by the editors of this new MIT Press series on design thinking and theory, design challenges today “require new frameworks of theory and research to address contemporary problem areas.”  Often problem-solving for modern challenges requires “interdisciplinary teams with a transdisciplinary focus.”  According to the editors, three contextual challenges define the nature of many design problems today.  These issues affect many of the major design problems that face us in whatever field we’re working.  They include:

–a complex environment in which many projects or products cross the boundaries of several organizations and stakeholder, producer, and user groups;

–projects or products that must meet the expectations of many organizations, stakeholders, producers, and users; and

–demands at every level of production, distribution, reception, and control.

Past environments “were simpler,” write the editors, and “made simpler demands.”   To meet modern challenges, experience and development are still necessary, but “they are no longer sufficient.”  “Most of today’s design challenges require analytic and synthetic planning skills that cannot be developed through practice alone,” they write.  What is needed, they say, is “a qualitatively different form of professional practice that emerges in response to the demands of the information society and the knowledge economy to which it gives rise.”

Designers today confront complex social and political issues, the editors note, quoting the work of Donald Norman, (“Why Design Education Must Change,” 2010).  What the authors are talking about is the fact that education today is not training professionals in ways to take integrated approaches to solve complex, inter-sector problems and imagining new futures.  The book by Kees Dorst is the first in the series and, based on this writer’s close reading of it, it represents an excellent start to this ambitious (and profoundly needed) project.

Dorst argues that society today is being “tripped up” by the “emergence of a radically new species of problem:  problems that are so open, complex, dynamic and networked that they seem impervious to solution.”  He writes:  “What all the news stories show us is that it makes no sense to keep trying to tackle these problems the way we used to.  The trusted routines just don’t work anymore.  These new types of problems require a radically different response.”

In the spirit of the focus of this blog–understanding “surprise” and the ways and whys for when we get “tripped up”–future posts will examine some of the important ideas in Dorst’s book.

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