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!

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Innovation, Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Bridge Over Colored Water

Spring is finally here. This sketch made just yesterday in a bright and glorious sun is of a bridge with its destination obscured.

Bridge Over Colored Water

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author

In other developments, experimenting now with Strathmore Aquarius II paper, converted into an accordian sketchbook, per instructions generously provided by urban sketcher Marc Taro Holmes on his blog, Citizen Sketcher; the sketchbook is for an upcoming trip out West later this week and will be featured here in the future.

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Uncategorized

Learning from the Urban Sketching Masters: Anton Pieck

While at a dinner party over the holidays, the gentleman next to me, who was originally from the Netherlands, told me that the illustrations of Anton Pieck, a Dutch artist (1895-1987), had made a big impression on him as a boy growing up in Holland.

Illustration:  Graphic of "Christmas market" by Anton Pieck (Source: Wikipedia)

Illustration: Graphic of “Christmas market” by Anton Pieck (Source: Wikipedia)

Pieck’s illustrations were in his childhood books, he said, and everyone knew about his work then.  Pieck was an urban sketcher before people used the term, said the dinner guest. When I later looked up the work of Anton Pieck, what I found was something fantastic, inspiring, and somewhat familiar–surely I have seen some of these illustrations before. But what a “Master” to inspire the urban sketchers of today!

There is enormous detail in the work of Anton Pieck, sensitivity, and cheerfulness. In his illustrations, he recreates the feeling of the towns and cities of Holland in the 19th century and still keeps a fairytale atmosphere throughout his work. Pouring through his drawings, you will find whimsical details on both the architecture and in the market baskets people carry with them shopping. No subject escapes his notice, it seems. In the 1950s, after spending much of his professional life so far teaching and illustrating, Pieck was asked to help design a new theme park in the Netherlands called “Efteling.” This became his focus for the next 22 years.  Throughout this time, he was responsible for almost all the fairytale aspects of the park, which is still popular today but I’ve not heard of it before now.

Anton Pieck

Illustration: Tekenaar Anton Pieck 85 jaar; Anton Pieck in zijn werkkamer *18 april 1980 – Source: Wikipedia

There is much to learn from in the work of Anton Pieck, of course, and to immerse oneself in some fairytale worlds is tempting, (especially given the deeply disturbing nature what passes for news in the news these days).

So, while immobilized by some sort of bug going around, I opened my sketchbook to do these practice pieces of excerpts of Pieck’s work.

AP practice sketch 1

Illustration: Practice sketch (in watercolor, bistre and platinum carbon pen and ink, and Micron pen in a Stillman  & Birn “Epsilon” series sketchbook) by Black Elephant Blog author of excerpt of watercolor by Anton Pieck called “Christmas market”

It surely would be like a fairytale to be able to adopt some of his style to sketch the modern  street scenes of today–perhaps a “stretch goal” to work towards in 2016!

AP practice sketch 2

Illustration: Practice sketch by Black Elephant Blog author (using bistre ink and wash, and a limited palette of watercolors) after an excerpt of a painting by Anton Pieck

 

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Uncategorized

Carousel Study

The fall’s been spectacular here, with nearly every day too nice to spend inside. Between meetings, a fantastic opportunity to see original John Singer Sargent watercolors up close, and driving from point A to point B, however, it’s been tough to get a sketch in.

But here’s an attempt this week to capture the twilight and the fading but still beautiful fall colors as a carousel made its last rounds of the year opposite the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Carousel 4

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

Next up on this blog, coverage of an excellent in-town and in-home salon event this week–an event that gathered attendees from diverse fields including the military, art, the media, consulting, energy research, and psychology–featuring the author of a new book on Strategic Intelligence: Conceptual Tools for Leading Change, Michael Maccoby, (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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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

Charleston Doodles

Charleston, South Carolina is a city with something for everyone, especially doodlers and sketchers.  Drop into any downtown art supply store and the people there will be happy to share with you their favorite sketching places. This city is known as the “Holy City” due to its many churches; the skyline is dominated by steeples. From expansive beaches to cobblestone streets, graceful buildings, breezy balconies, and beautiful flower boxes and fountains, there is so much to see that it can be overwhelming.  It’s best to try to soak in the sights from many vantage points.

Charleston 2

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

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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.

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