Inside Out, Not Back to Front

While thinking about my Sabre Tooth Panda Curriculum, [Sabre Tooth Panda School](, Ladina and I began discussing how best to organise the syllabus. In the end we settled on a bunch of module or topic headers and four overarching themes:

1. The individual
2. The team
3. The environment
4. The process

We found that all of our topic areas touched on at least two of these themes. But I was unhappy with the process part. Something has always bugged me about the word.

When I talk about what many would call the creative process I tend instead to use the term creative flow. On one level I think this is because the word process has a certain rigidity to it. It comes burdened with the idea of arbitrary restraints. But I think that more than anything else it’s the fact that process is so frequently done back to front rather than, as I would have it done, inside out.

When I think about processes in the workplace what comes to mind isn’t simply “how we get stuff done” but rather “these are the hoops you need to jump through to achieve something”. Where in theory a process is something that supports your work, in practice processes are often experienced as burdensome and inflexible, something to either put up with or try to subvert.

If you’re like me, you probably feel your hackles rise at the very mention of following a process. The image that comes to mind might be a series of boxes to tick, of busywork and arbitrary requirements. You might feel, as I do, the same about hierarchy. It’s not useful. Worse, it gets in your way.

In reality we all follow our own processes. But these processes are not top down, arbitrary and restrictive. They come from us and we have the capacity to shape them, alter them. These processes are bottom up processes. Or, to put it another way, inside out. They come from within and shape the outside world. Our behaviours come first, the process follows.

Processes in workplaces are almost always top down. The process comes first. The behaviour is supposed to alter to fit the process. This is back to front. The tail wagging the dog.

It may well be that I have to make peace with the word but I will continue to try to find a better one, a word that more properly represents the ever changing state of how things get done, that places behaviours and intentions ahead of rules and busywork. Until then I’ll continue to remind people that processes should be inside out, not back to front.


The Sabre Tooth Panda Curriculum

I’ve started to compile a curriculum of sorts, a reading list, a set of topic areas, everything you’d need to learn about if you wanted to follow in my footsteps and apply the Sabre Tooth Panda approach to enhancing creativity. The reasons for this are fairly obvious.

Partly it’s for my own personal development. I am by no means the finished article. By compiling what I’ve learned and what I am learning still I can place my own development within a context. It helps me to spot gaps in my knowledge, new areas for expansion, so on.

Further it’s my hope that other fellow travellers might help me to add depth and breadth to my curriculum. It’s, in a way, an Open Source learning project. Others can add to it, fork it, do what they wish. Either way value is added.

But probably the most important reason is symbolic. I made a decision when I started Sabre Tooth Panda that I didn’t want to make money by producing and selling IP. I don’t want to rifle through the learning of others, rebrand it, repackage it and paywall it. I want to make my money applying what I know and what I am. By placing the complete works of my learning in the public domain I’m setting out my stall. You can, if you wish, read and listen and watch all the stuff I’ve read and listened and watched. You can have the same conversations, within reason, do the same work and same thinking, and then apply it yourself. You needn’t pay me for what’s in my head. What’s in my head is free.

It is my firm belief that this gesture will be recognised as a strong, authentic stance. I may be giving away some opportunities to make money but by the same token I may find other, better ways to make the world a better place. What’s more, I’m shaking off the baggage that comes with trying to protect IP. Not only does the protection of IP place me in the role of obstacle to the free movement of information but it requires that every time I do something waste energy seeking out ways to obscure my sources and confound my audience. This is a drain on my resources and puts me at odds with those I wish to help.

So please look out for the Sabre Tooth Panda Curriculum or whatever I end up calling it. I’ll begin with a structure and brief reading list some time soon. Over time I’ll expand on this.

I’ve no desire to hide anything. I tend to blog and soon I’ll podcast pretty much any insight I have. Perhaps over time I might even go so far as to run a course or two teaching the Sabre Tooth Panda methodology. Why not? If people want to follow my path then I should help them where I can. But for now the least I can do is show them my map.

Creative Baseline

With the new year on the horizon, my first full year as an independent practitioner in creativity coaching, it feels appropriate to think and talk a little about how creativity begins. What I like to call the Creative Baseline.

Imagine a machine into which you can feed various materials. Depending on how you set this machine up and what materials you feed in it will spit out different widgets. The Creative Baseline is the machine before configuration.

So what are the properties of this baseline?

– Presence
– Clarity
– Acceptance

Some of you might recognise this set of qualities. In many ways this mirrors the mindset of mindfulness.

**Presence** simply means allowing yourself to be focused, to concentrate. But without the effortful quality associated with these ideas. To be present simply means to be here, undistracted.

**Clarity** is an ever growing quality. The idea is simply to develop ever greater awareness of whatever it is you’re present with. If you place the attention on your breathing then as you remain present with your breathing you should be ever more aware of the nature of the breathing. Like turning up the resolution of an image. See, hear, feel more.

**Acceptance** is the most important element of the Creative Baseline. Presence and Clarity are about perception. Acceptance is about how you relate to what you perceive. Acceptance doesn’t mean approval. It doesn’t imply any form of value judgement. In fact, Acceptance is the absolute lack of judgement. In essence the Creative Mindset must begin as a judgement free space. This is because not only does judgement interfere with the flow of awareness, constantly stopping us and asking us to apply labels, sort and assess, but judgement also prevents us from seeing things we do not want or expect to see. Acceptance is like removing filters. Without it we are unaware, distracted and easily confused.

So, what do you think? Satisfied? Don’t be. This might all seem plausible and perhaps you do me the honour of trusting my expertise. But before you accept the above you should test it for yourself. Try the following exercise.

1. Choose an object to which you wish to apply creative thinking.
2. Now find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and somewhere comfy to sit. Alternatively go for a walk. The important thing is that you won’t be disturbed.
3. Begin with **Presence**; just allow the mind to settle on the object of your creativity. Don’t try. Just allow the mind to be there. Spend a few moments here. Notice how distractions come and go. Notice how they come and go with decreasing frequency.
4. As the mind begins to settle and **Presence** becomes easier to maintain, move to **Clarity**. Allow a sense of curiosity to guide you. This is, in a way, like interrogating reality. What you’re looking for here is a feeling of growing understanding, a series of little clicks, noticing what was previously hidden. “Getting it” bit by bit. This is not a linear process. Let it happen in its own higgledy-piggledy way. And don’t attempt to memorise what you notice. Trust that it will still be there later when you go back to look for it.
5. As **Clarity** forms bring to mind the concept of **Acceptance**. As you notice new elements of the object of your focus, simply accept them. You might find that gently repeating the phrase “OK” to yourself, either in the mind or aloud, helps. A cousin of **Acceptance** is kindness. Be kind to what you see, hear, feel or in any way become aware of. Smile. It helps.
6. Continue this for ten, fifteen or even twenty minutes. Then, without any jarring changes in mental repose, move to the problem you’re trying to solve or outcome you’re trying to achieve. With the same sense of **Acceptance**, begin to deliberately manipulate the object playfully. Just to see what happens. This is the beginning of the **Creative Flow**.

Try this once or twice at the start of a creative exercise. In fact, since it is my belief that every day is a creative exercise, try this at the start of the day. Allow the day itself to be the object of your **Presence**.

This is the Creative Baseline. The starting point. Learn this well and everything else can follow.

The Minds of Others

Creativity exists within and between human minds, both deliberately and unexpectedly. In this post I explore how I have worked to make my clients more aware of this often unconscious element of the creative flow. 

So last week was a fun one. I ran a No Wrong Answers for a pretty huge company but that’s not the reason I’m excited. The exciting part was that I got to try out a new game!

Since No Wrong Answers was invented with the pub in mind most of the original games were relatively simple. I had to ask myself what would work with a rowdy bunch in a pub after a couple of pints. Anything too complicated would likely go wrong. But as I’ve begun delivering the event to businesses where teams are a little less rowdy and a lot less tipsy I’ve added new wrinkles to existing games to enhance the opportunities for learning.

For instance, in a simple idea generation game which for my after work audiences I would offer without additional rules I’ve begun o break down the thinking time into silent reflection, group discussion and incubation. This not only allows players to try out different thinking styles but more importantly offers them the chance to notice how hard it is to stop the mind racing towards answers.

The new game, however, was a different beast.

It has been an essential part of my philosophy that creativity is a flow that exists best when people don’t try to own or hold on to ideas, thoughts, insights and inspirations. We are not always aware of it but we don’t think entirely inside our own heads. We are social animals and we use the brains of others to remember for us, think for us, connect things for us. We do this so naturally that we often don’t notice how much of “our” thought process has gone on inside the heads of other people. My new game was designed to help make the players aware of this often unconscious element of creativity.

I had five teams to work with. To begin with I gave each team a simple task: write a short poem about a foodstuff you all enjoy and write it on a specially prepared form. Then things got interesting. The teams were instructed to pass their form to the next team along. In an envelope I had written a range of short transformation instructions. For example ‘What if this were a political campaign?’ or ‘How would this work as a piece of furniture?’. We chose an instruction at random from this set and each team would apply that instruction to whatever they had been given by the previous team.

This carried on until the original team had their own form back at which point I gave them an instruction which pertained to a real world challenge. They had to then take the output from the prior team which itself had been derived form the collective creative transformations of each team in turn, and use it as inspiration to solve a real world problem.

All five teams came up with something unique and surprising at the end but when I asked them who’s idea it was they had to admit that, in reality, no one person could claim it. Whereas in real life the creative flow between people is often subconscious here we had elevated it, placed it under a spotlight. Together we had increased our awareness of the true nature of the creative flow – something we take part in but cannot and should not try to own.

No Wrong Answers is a format which was designed to be fun and accessible. But ever since I started running these games the potential to use it for greater purpose has been apparent. Which in and of itself is an example of the creative flow between the me who was bored and needed a creative game to play and the me that exists now. I have passed myself the baton, so to speak. I can’t wait to see what the me of the future will do with it.

The Creative Mindset -course


The following is an email I wrote today outlining a course entitled The Creative Mindset which I wish to begin delivering at a local adult education college

This course will be based on the same principals that underpin the work I do with my business clients. I’m sharing the email here because I want to practice what I preach. The mission of  Sabre Tooth Panda and No Wrong Answers is to make the world a more creative place and this is a baby step in that direction.

Would you attend a course like this?


I would like to propose a new course that I would design and deliver in collaboration with my wife, Ladina.

I am full time self employed as a creativity coach and consultant having worked for seven years in innovation and communication centric roles for a large IT company. Ladina is a business process specialist currently working as a senior Lean practitioner for Bupa. She also holds a Masters in creativity. Between us we have over 20 years of both practical and academic experience in creativity, business change and related fields.

The Creative Mindset (working title) would equip students with a practical understanding of how creativity works, beginning with a brief overview of the main academic points, running through the general tools and skills of creativity before getting to the main thrust of the course; how to unlock, develop and apply the creative mind.

The Creative Mindset differs from the toolset and the skillset of creativity in that rather than treating creativity training as a knowledge transfer activity it focuses on the qualities of mind that are necessary for us to express our innate creativity in everyday life. This could be understood as akin to the challenge of healthy eating. Learning what is good for you and how to cook is relatively easy but your capacity to apply that knowledge depends on your relationship with food; in the moment, whether you will choose the steamed greens on the chips comes down to your attitude and emotions more than your knowledge.

This element of the course will help students recognise different types of creative challenge, correctly select the appropriate mindset for that challenge, understand the elements of mind associated with that mindset and apply practical steps to bring the appropriate thinking style to bear.

For example, many will recognise the Blank Page problem – that is to say, starting a new project can lead to creative blocks as the subject is paralysed by the overwhelming number of unknowns or by the number of potential directions any given project can take. Such a challenge requires a mindset typified by curiosity and playfulness, a willingness to make mistakes (often called Beginner Mind) alongside an awareness of what those mistakes may teach us (an idea popularised by The Lean Startup). In our course we will explore various strategies for dealing with this and other challenges using coaching methodologies, mindfulness and game mechanics to help students develop and sustain the mindsets necessary to be creative under any circumstance.

We believe this course will be appropriate for anyone seeking to live and work more deliberately and more creatively, anyone who has ever felt trapped in a loop, repeating the same mistakes and grasping for a way out. We do not believe that learning about the Creative Mindset is a miracle cure! But we do believe that it can form a valuable part of anyone’s journey of personal or professional improvement. We also think it will be great fun.


Aran Rees
Founder – Sabre Tooth Panda

Mob – 07896169448
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