Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketching is Seeing

Illustration:  Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

Illustration: Photo of entrance to Sketching Room at the National Gallery of Art (April 2016)

As the university semester comes to an end, the focus in our class is on tying  strands of inquiry together in an in-class simulation exercise. This week the students received a one-page scenario “sketch.” Scenario practice typically involves multiple (completely contrasting and credulity-stretching) stories or sketches for the purposes of ‘rehearsing the future,”  increasing agility of thinking and planning today, and enhancing readiness for the unexpected.   We do this because our course focuses on unconventional problems which in turn require unconventional approaches to problem-solving, examined earlier on this blog as in here, here, and here.  (The current relevance attached in some circles to the importance of becoming more aware of our decision-making processes, and impediments to solving the complex problems of today, can be seen in projects and events such as this upcoming presentation, “Missing the Slow Train:  How Gradual Change Undermines Public Policy and Collective Action”  at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.)

But, our  classroom process differs from standard scenario practice, though the goals remain similar. Having just considered case studies in the importance of “reframing the question” in order to design more effective problem-solving approaches to complex challenges, the students (who come from all over the world) have been given an intentionally unbounded rapidly-unfolding crisis situation in the form of a very sketchy sketch.  This scenario is ambiguous in terms of ‘ownership’ or national or jurisdictional boundaries or  even the exact facts on the ground  (simulating reality).  The students must even decide “who” they are in this simulation, in devising their plans by next week. Time is short, the situation completely unfamiliar, and two subgroups are working, respectively, in pre-crisis and post-crisis modes.  Within these groups people must work together outside of their usual lanes and routines. There is no one in charge, at least initially.  Usually the results are pretty impressive, surprising, and it’s a fun, albeit serious, way to end the semester.  We all learn something in the process.

Boy sketching

Sketching something imaginary?

We naturally start with sketches whether we are contemplating building a new deck on the house, designing a new organizational initiative, imagining something which we don’t see, or drawing a cartoon. Sketching has a role in seeing, as emphasized quite dramatically this very week (!) by a whole room devoted to sketching (complete with free sketchbooks and pencils) at the entrance to the National Gallery of the Art in Washington, D.C. So sketches can be something we draw, or practice (as on a stage,) or simulate in a classroom or a video game.

tulips and capitol

Photo: U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. taken by Black Elephant Blog author

Meanwhile a gorgeous Spring has provided the perfect palette to practice sketching in different media.

Bridge photo

Illustration: Photo by Black Elephant Blog author

Toggling between so many sketch-able things has produced many “works-in-progress” and aspirations to finish them!

bridge pastel 1

Illustration: Work -in-progress pastel sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

But each one is a step in a path towards hopefully something more polished.  Sketching is also good for incubating ideas, sometimes over a period of many years, in notes, notebooks, doodles, and …sketches… awaiting a moment perhaps involving serendipity when well-honed ideas can finally be implemented.  (Most of us know of people in history who, for various reasons (like survival) kept their own ideas and sketches hidden, like “The Origin of Species” written in the early 19th century, for a quarter of a century or more.)

Lakeside watercolor 1

Illustration: Work-in-progress watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

It turns out, as many teachers have said over the past year, process matters if we are to make progress on tough challenges (whether in art, education, public health, or security matters) and create better outcomes.  Complacency and routines can be deadly in this regard.

How curiously different is the world of artists from the world of those in many other professions.  Artists must be original in order to have a chance at being successful, much as Georgia O’Keeffe was in adopting her various styles.  But so many other professions discourage originality in part because it’s impossible to manage traditionally. As  more and more challenges at the level of cities, regions, nations, and the world at large demand originality and creativity, traditional organizations are stumbling, although some are trying to adapt.  It’s a tall order for most of them, but necessary.  Would we better off  if creativity and originality were emphasized, rather than stifled, beginning in primary school?  One wonders.  Meanwhile, it’s  no wonder sketching is catching on like wildfire:  sketch away!

Standard
Uncategorized

Anniversary Sketch

Lake Neighborhood

Illustration:  Terracotta pencil sketch of a neighborhood lake scene in the early fall, 2015 by Black Elephant Blog author

This week marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, and so–some 80 posts later–it’s been nice to know there’s been some readership (several thousand different visitors from more than 40 countries, in fact.)  The blog’s proven a great opportunity to see and connect with extraordinary talent out there in the blogging, twitter, and urban sketching world.

Also thanks to the blogging connections, it’s been possible to locate great people with many of the same interests I’ve had regarding the quality of paints, papers, pens, and pastels, and other such questions.  (Indeed, there is a whole world out there of pure ‘materialists’ when it comes to art supplies–some with stashes of sketchbooks and inks and paints that would put most bricks-and-mortar art supply stores to shame.)  Everyone is eager to share their experiences–and ideas of great bargains.  Full-fledged engineers have even offered their comparative and very detailed analyses of paints, inks, and pens on their blogs.  Whatever your question on whatever subject, clearly someone has likely already addressed it by now.

In addition, it’s been a year of exploring “adjacent possibles”–spaces where creativity and innovation occur despite the pressures of everyday life.  The coming year on this blog will be devoted to the concept of experimental syntheses–putting experiments together to create new possibilities, and even different futures.

Standard
Uncategorized

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.

Standard
Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Face Painting 101

The introductory course to watercolor portrait painting has just concluded. Now it’s time to practice what we learned–and, while we learned a lot, there’s so much more to practice. The teacher gave us a handout (one of several, actually) to take with us, as an aid; it reads:

Illustration:  Studio watercolor exercises in pencil and watercolors by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Studio watercolor exercises in pencil and watercolors by Black Elephant Blog author

“Drawing from life is not about fiction. It is about telling the truth by means of line and space. It is a trace, but a double-track one: the truth from without by the one from within. But how can I reach out there to your face, from within my locked self? Measuring misleads to a dead image. Skill and concept, to a generalization, to a face not yours. In order to get your face to this sheet of paper, a miracle has to occur. The utmost attention, hand and eye at their sharpest, will not suffice. Drawing demands a most intensive state of feeling.” – Avigdor Arikha, July 1983

Standard
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.

Standard
Uncategorized

The Art of Looking Ahead

As the semester draws to a close, students in my course are considering a “super wicked problem,” meaning a highly complex crisis, in the form of a single scenario.  They are working separately in two subgroups; one, on a “before-crisis contingency planning” team; and the other, on a “post-crisis rapid response” team.  In our final class, they will present their findings.

Frankly, the challenges they must wrestle with are simply enormous.  Impossibly enormous, but then again when we look around the world today, such impossibly enormous challenges seem to be the “new normal”.  This scenario-based approach is meant to incorporate much of what we’ve been learning this year about complexity and resilience.  Without this experience, there is a danger we might apply old methods of problem-solving to new classes of challenges.

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

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

Such thinking requires what some variously call “the art of looking ahead,” “applied forward reasoning,” contingency planning, or–most recently–“frame innovation.”  It turns out that these skills generally are not ones that business schools or other forms of higher education traditionally emphasize.  Are such skills needed in the workplace today?  As luck would have it, some new books are just out on the subject, and this blog will look at them.

First up is a new book called Anticipate:  The Art of Leading Through Looking Ahead (American Management Association, 2015), by Rob-Jan de Jong, who is a faculty member of Wharton’s “Global Strategic Leadership” executive program.  There are useful tips in this book, so it’s worth giving a flavor of them here.

Early in the book, de Jong notes that “leaders need the ability to look ahead [but] there’s very little understanding of how to develop this competence and improve visionary capacity.”  Many people mistakenly believe it takes too much time, or you’re either born with this capacity or you aren’t.  Summing up wide-ranging research in leadership and business strategy, de Jong notes that sensitivity to context (aka “context sensitivity”), or something leadership expert Warren Benning, calls “adaptive capacity,” is essential for leaders.  Companies that had a “strong sense of sensitivity to their environment” outlasted many which did not, according to work by Arie de Geus, author of The Living Company.

“Short-termism” is  more typical in the business world, and it’s a disease, according to de Jong.  It means valuing short-term gains “above long-term, somewhat foreseeable, consequences,” he writes. Unfortunately, according to McKinsey research five years after the 2008 financial crisis, “little of that learning” about the need to keep a “clear future-oriented perspective” has occurred in many companies it studied.  de Jong concludes:  “Short-termism is the biggest enemy of developing visionary capacity for both the organization and the individual leader.”  So what can be done? de Jong says it starts with “personal vision.”  This matters, he writes, because without vision, there is no hope.

The Elements of Vision include that it is “future-oriented.”  Many people find it difficult to exercise imagination about the future and to promote beliefs that “cannot be backed up by factual experiences, research, and other quantifiable data.”

Yet, a powerful vision moves “beyond the obvious into the unknown,” according to de Jong. It also challenges the status quo and “breaks through existing paradigms.”  de Jong cites IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, as an example; Kamprad built the IKEA empire on the idea that “design furniture should not only be accessible to the happy few.”  A vision also energizes and mobilizes.   According to management and leadership expert, Abraham Zaleznik, whose work de Jong cites, managerial leadership–as of the time he wrote his article in 1977 on the difference been leaders and managers–does “not necessarily ensure imagination, creativity, or ethical behavior in guiding the destinies of corporate enterprises.”  de Jong proceeds to investigate the qualities of “visionary leaders.”

First, it is necessary to enhance one’s ability to “tap the imagination,” and de Jong cites, with examples, the work of world-renown creativity guru and expert on “lateral thinking,” Edward de Bono, in this section.  The needed imagination depends on “perceptual capacity.”  When we are too busy to notice changes in our surroundings, we can be said to be living in the “permanent present,” de Jong writes, which was the state of man in the earliest stage of human evolution.  Fortunately the development of the “frontal lobe” over time enabled more reflective (and strategic) thinking capacities (so the basic equipment is there).

Based on his own extensive research and interviews with hundreds of senior leaders, de Jong has concluded there are two critical developmental dimensions for growing your “visionary capacity.”  They are:

1) Your ability to see things early–those “faint warning signals” often “at the periphery of our attention.”

2) Your ability to “connect the dots” and to create “coherence in the future you face and turn it into a ‘bigger picture’ story”.

de Jong quotes Alan Mulally, a former CEO of Ford:  “The first thing a leader does is to facilitate connections between the organization and the outside world.”  Mullaly, as CEO, took steps to institutionalize the process of “context scanning” through the creation of a weekly Business Plan Review meeting.

The second step of connecting the dots involves more than detecting things that might be changing. It involves connecting and integrating these signs into a larger coherent context of future possibilities. “Trend hoppers” are different from “visionary leaders,” de Jong explains, and “historians” and “followers” are also different in important ways.  There are, moreover some real dangers in “over-reliance on the past,” he writes, in a section that deserves a lot of attention these days.

de Jong notes that making sense of the weak signals in the noise is harder because “the average person consumes about 34 gigabytes of content” and 100,000 words of information in a single day.” He continues:

“Without specific effort, you will only be able to identify events that were early manifestations of change in retrospect.  But that’s usually when it’s too late.”  Therefore, the effort to “connect the dots” must be focused on the implications of changing  realities for one’s business or other professional or life endeavor.

It is necessary to have “context intelligence” to identify and make sense of early signals of change, de Jong writes. The people who do this with the highest levels of adaptive capacity are called “first-class noticers” by leadership and management experts he cites, including Warren Bennis.  Strategic advantage depends on this adaptive capacity.

Developing our ability to notice novelties or things we typically filter out takes effort, even training.  There are many methods for this, and de Jong has created some of his own.  In general, however, he recommends methods for envisioning future facts, and discusses the power of scenario planning, as developed by Pierre Wack and Kees van der Heijden, as central to promoting strategic conversation and awareness. He identifies the psychological obstacles to strategic capacity as including “frame blindness,” or a loss of peripheral vision.  Overconfidence is another culprit.  “Mindlessness” occurs when we “are trapped by categories,” run on “automatic behavior” or operate from a single perspective, according to Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer, whose work de Jong cites. Such mindlessness can occur–indeed, might be more likely to occur–when we are fully focused and aware of what we are doing.

Clearly, the art of looking ahead requires some practice but is indispensable in tumultuous times.  Next, this blog will look at another new book: Frame Innovation:  Create New Thinking by Design.

Standard
Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Drawing the Dark

Today was the first day of a class in “Faces in Watercolor.”  Again the focus is on the shadows, the darks, and not, at first, the light.  (This was in contrast to a session earlier this year which focused on “Drawing the Light.”)  It is about finding those shades of difference.  Much easier said than done, this process is a powerful demonstration of how much we really do not see.

The class is so full that people and easels are crammed together. Frankly, in this congestion, it’s amazing we can see anything, but it works somehow. Everyone is extremely motivated (as ever, in courses with no “credit”)–and talent shines out in all corners of the room, even though we are focused on shadows.

Demand is quite high apparently, in these digital times, for something that art, and maybe only art, can provide.  In addition, the teacher has an excellent reputation, which probably is the main reason the class is so full!

portrait test 1

Illustration: Pencil and watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

Of what possible use is this? It probably doesn’t matter. Is art ever really “useful” in a modern sense of valuing what we can measure? What is useful is a can opener when you need it.  Art is valuable for expanding our ability to think by first perceiving more sensitively.  It is hard to quantify the value of this, but it probably would make a difference on a larger stage.

But here with an individual sitting in front of us on a small platform, it is surprisingly hard to get it right–even with all the eyes in the room.  The tests of thinking and seeing are formidable.  Again, we were told:  keep your eyes on the model, not the paper!  Do not let your hand leave the paper.  There is something about seeing and then drawing that requires keeping too much thinking out of it. And, there were as many vastly different images of the model as there were people in the class. No two drawings were alike! Looking forward to the next session!

Standard