Meritocracy

This morning I awoke to find that some Republican senator or some such had upset a number of those I follow on Twitter by suggesting that people who are sick have not “lived good lives” and thus shouldn’t expect those who have to subsidies their healthcare costs. Which gives me an opportunity to rant a little about meritocracy.

On the face of it meritocracy seems good. It’s sold as a fair way to distribute wealth and power. Instead of doing it based on birthright or some other arbitrary privilege, meritocracy promises that we can do it on the basis of who deserves it most. I mean, that seems fine doesn’t it? Until, of course, you realise that it’s essentially impossible and ultimately tautological.

You begin with the problem of how we define merit. Merit is, according to my dictionary, the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward. So merit is whatever is good. Do you begin to see a problem? Who exactly gets to decide what is good?

The question of what is good and what is bad has been bugging philosophers for thousands of years. It seems unlikely, therefore, that we are close to a consensus on this topic and even if we were would that consensus not be merely a temporary construct? In which case the thing that we currently consider to be “merit” is essentially arbitrary. There was a time when being a strong slave owner was seen as worthy of praise, when beating one’s wife when she got out of hand was smiled upon, when it was good to put people to death for blasphemy, and so on. Would it be anything other than hubris to imagine that our concepts of good and bad will seem any less strange to our decedents?

But, people argue, we don’t need human opinions on this, we can simply use the Invisible Hand of the Market to decide. Which is where we go from impossible to tautological.

If the market decides what is good and what is bad, how do we learn of this decision? Why, we learn of it through how much wealth the market decides to bestow upon various people. Ergo, we know what is good by how much money that thing makes. In other words, if something deserves to make money we know it deserves it because it is making money. See, tautological.

This isn’t the end of it, however. Because once people begin to believe that they live in a meritocracy you start to see the most powerful perversions of the idea. If we are meritocratic then what happens to someone, either good or bad, is deserved. The poor deserve poverty, the wealthy deserve wealthy. Sick people should not be helped by the healthy because they clearly do not deserve health. We should not tax the rich or provide relief for the poor because to do so would be to undermine meritocracy. Why strive if your deserved rewards will be taken from you and handed to those less deserving?

Taken to the natural conclusion a believer in meritocracy should also support eugenics since inferior genes do not deserve to be passed on. To enable someone who is inferior to breed would be to pass a burden to the next generation.

The very idea of meritocracy depends on the belief that life is in some way fair to begin with, that good decisions will always lead to good outcomes and that people have an abundance of control over their lives. The most passing inspection of the world would put pay to that idea in a moment.

First of all, we don’t have control over our lives. Every day decisions are made, forces act upon the world, that are beyond the understanding, let alone control, of any individual. The weather, random fads and trends, infectious illnesses passed around invisibly through a thousand unpredictable vectors. How many people might have invented Facebook had some small variation in history taken place? A chance encounter, a misdirected communication, a car accident, or some other random event?

And that doesn’t even begin to address the question of free will. Even if we allow that we have free will, it’s very difficult to argue that we have actively chosen our starting points. Did Mark Zuckerberg choose to be born in the USA and have the genes that coded for a well above average intellect? And had he been born with the exact same genes only ten years early or later would he have been rewarded so richly for these gifts?

None of this is to diminish the role of hard work and ability. To achieve something we need effort and we need talent. But we also need luck. Had Mr. Zuckerberg been struck down with a nasty ailment at just the wrong time he may have missed the window to create his fortune. Perhaps he’d have found another window but this we cannot know. We can know, however, that with our frail bodies and chaotic universe, we are all subject to the powerful forces of fate no matter how hard we work or how talented we are.

What can we take from all of this? I think there are two lessons.

  1. Be humble when you succeed because no matter how much it feels like the result of your own hard work and abilities any success must come along with a great deal of luck, even if that luck is merely being born at the right time and with the right genetics.
  2. Be forgiving of failure, your own and other’s. Just as the fates must have smiled on those who succeeded, it is likely that failure is as much down to poor fortune as it is to poor choices.

It is right and good for people to strive for what they want. Fulfilling your life’s purpose must be your ultimate goal. I am not arguing in favour of a world of nihilism and self denial. But be flexible in your goals because fate may have other plans for you. Forgive yourself your failures and be grateful and humble in the face of success. You may deserve your success, but that doesn’t mean someone else wasn’t equally deserving but just a little less lucky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Maslow’s Hammer

“If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land

I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.”

– If I Had a Hammer by Peter, Paul & Mary

A lot of people think this song is just a catchy, hippy singalong about peace and love. But I disagree. I think that Peter, Paul & Mary were under appreciated philosophers trying to warn us all about the danger of Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as The Golden Hammer or The Law of the Instrument.

The Law of the Instrument is usually summed up in the following saying:

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
– Abraham Maslow

More broadly the Law of the Instrument applies to the idea that as soon as you give someone a tool to use he or she will begin to see everything through the lens of that tool. Immediately shutting out alternative solutions that would not be approachable via the familiar tool at hand.

Examples include medical specialists who will seemingly always interpret symptoms such that they lean towards their own area of expertise, car mechanics who, if specialising in a given part of the car will more often than not come to the conclusion that this part is faulty, or almost any business professional from Lean Practitioner to Systems Architect who will invariably find that whatever ails your company is due to a fault that they have the tools to fix.

In the end, are these people using their tools or are their tools using them?

This should be worrying if you’re either using a lot of creativity tools or processes and even more so if you’re someone who makes a living selling them.

“Just because you’re *allowed* to use magic now does not mean you have to whip your wands out for everything!”
– Molly Weasley in The Order of the Phoenix, chastising Fred and George for overusing their newly gained magical freedom

And if you think about it, isn’t that what Peter, Paul & Mary were saying? After all, if they had a hammer, they said, they’d never stop hitting things. I certainly hope nobody ever gave one to them.

This is why I tell my clients to be very wary of tools. And by tools I mean anything that is designed for a person to use to achieve a certain goal. Tools, you see, can end up using you.

Some things that I define as tools within the world of creativity:

– All idea generation techniques
– End to end creative processes or systems
– Mechanisms for converging around a single solution

I don’t teach creativity tools and techniques as a core part of my business. I’ve actually argued directly against paying anyone to do such a thing. Tools are fine, but we all too often begin with the tools and before long we have fallen foul of Maslow’s Hammer.

And here I am happy to say I can once again join forces with my friend and colleague, David Birss, after last week’s unpleasantness. You see, David has recently written an article on why brainstorms are terrible and we should all stop using them.

He is absolutely right and has happily provided an excellent real world example of what happens when people find a tool they are familiar with and just keep hitting things with it.

They’re much like people who needlessly risk RSI shaking Polaroids. It makes no difference but once the idea is out there it’s hard to dislodge.

Brainstorms are terrible but I would go even further and urge readers to let go of all the tools they use. Or, if not entirely let go, begin to hold them far more loosely.

“My policy is to have no policy.”
– Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1865

To bring this to a more personal level, I think we can all remember a time when we’ve learned some new tool or technique and found ourselves endlessly applying it. I recall when I first learned of The Myers Briggs Personal Assessment and took the test. From that moment I became obsessed with understanding myself and others through the lens of this tool.

I had fallen prey to narrow minded instrumentalist and it has taken me years to fully rid myself of its restrictive effects.

Perhaps I’ve convinced you to be less in thrall to tools, techniques, processes and methodologies. What, then, do I recommend instead?

– Get back to basics. If you happen to have a set of tools or a process you follow, put it aside and improvise. See what happens when you go in with no agenda, no techniques.

– Change the situation so that your old tools don’t work. If your tools are dependant on some kind of technology, switch it off. Need to be in the same room? Go elsewhere. Need pens and sticky notes? Lock the stationary cupboard.

– If you must use tools, mix them up as often as possible. Learn new ones all the time and rethink the use of old ones.

These are useful short term fixes but the only sustainable way to avoid being whacked with Maslow’s Hammer is to get past the idea that creativity is something separate from your normal working life.

Creativity happens now – in the moment. It’s not something that lives in workshop rooms or studios, it’s part of life. If you can find ways to increase your awareness of creativity in the moment, become more flexible and responsive just as a part of how you live, then you’ll find that you no longer feel the need to reach for the toolkit and plan a workshop every time a problem needs solving.

“If you put an empty gourd on the water and touch it, it will slip to one side. No matter how you try, it won’t stay in one spot. The mind of someone who has reached the ultimate state does not stay with anything, even for a second. It is like an empty gourd on the water that is pushed around.”
– Takuan, Japan, 1573–1645

You Don’t fix Hard Not Complicated Problems – they fix you

You know, when David Allen, the creator of Getting Things Done (GTD for short) says that it takes about a year to “get this stuff”, in reference to GTD, it’s easy to imagine that by this he means that GTD is complicated. It’s not. In fact, it’s very simple. That, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t hard.

I’m coming to the belief that the biggest things we have to deal with in life – family, friends, love, loss, death, peace of mind, purpose, the whole general mishmash of existence – largely fall into the Hard Not Complicated bucket. Which is great for me from a philosophical perspective (life appears to be very “on brand” right now) and also interesting from a how we learn perspective.

The question at hand, the thing that I’ve just sort of got my head around, is the difference between actions at projects and, more specifically, how to manage them.

I’ve had an “action” in my list for a while now, waiting to be acted on. This “action” was “Arrange dinner with Laura”. I’ve placed the word “action” in inverted commas because I’ve now realised this isn’t, in fact, an action.

In GTD they say that an action is the next, visible step and it has to be something you can do in one go. Arranging a dinner doesn’t fit this definition because, despite being a small and relatively simple outcome, it still breaks down into smaller actions. Furthermore, it isn’t entirely clear what all those actions will be from the outset.

It could go like this:

  1. Send email to Laura suggesting dinner
  2. Read email response with suggested dates
  3. Ask wife about availability
  4. Respond to Laura with preferences
  5. Read email response and confirm with wife
  6. Confirmation email to Laura
  7. Add to calendar
  8. Buy bottle of wine to take

On the other hand it could go like this:

  1. Send email to Laura suggesting dinner
  2. Call to follow up email after three days as no response
  3. Find out that Laura has had to go out of town on business
  4. Defer action until Laura comes back in two weeks

And there are, potentially, endless other ways that this could go. Even here, something that looks like an action is in fact a project with multiple steps and since one cannot do a project and can only do an action it’s unsurprising that so many lists that are, on first glance, full of actions, end up being hard to engage with.

Separating out the thinking and the doing is one of those Hard Not Complicated things that take discipline and time, not talent or brains. And when this is the case it seems that the only reliable path to success is through a period of immersion and multiple passes at the same question.

Hard Not Complicated things are problems that require a change takes place in you rather than a change taking place in the thing you’re trying to solve. You don’t so much solve a Hard Not Complicated problem – you adapt to it.

Self Limiting Assumptions

They say that you need to ask why five times to get to the nub of any given issue. This is the famous “Five Whys” approach to route cause analysis. It’s good. You should do it.

I’m starting to believe that, when it comes to creative problem solving, the whys, whats, wheres, and any other interrogative pronouns you like, can be almost infinite.

Presently I’m working on a little bit of branding work. As always I like to collaborate as much as I can with my clients so I find myself asking lots of questions. Today I was wondering about wellbeing – a central element of the brand – and I realised something. I wasn’t sure what wellbeing meant to my client. I had assumed that I knew. But, of course, wellbeing means something to me but that doesn’t mean it means the same thing to my client. My assumption had closed off an important avenue for thinking about the problem at hand.

Assumptions are pretty much always the enemy. And so it has proven when it comes to my own work; specifically business development.

It’s a little embarrassing for a creativity coach to admit this but I’ve been rather uncreative when it comes to my market. I’ve been assuming all sorts of things about who will and who will not be interested in what I have to offer. This is despite the fact that much of the work I am doing has come from unexpected sources.

Because of these self limiting assumptions I have missed out on business development opportunities, closed off conversations too early and generally been too picky about who I spend the time to talk to.

Don’t be as silly as me. If you have something of value to offer, don’t assume you know who will want or need it. Don’t be afraid to ask the question or explore a possibility that you had previously considered out of bounds. Sure, we have to rule out some things when we need to focus our time and energy but when you’re starting out, as I am, one thing you tend to have plenty of is time and energy. What you need are clients.

 

The Magic of Asking for Help

I just did something embarrassing. I’ve been fiddling about for a day or so trying to figure out how to set up an app which for some reason didn’t seem to offer me any way to tell it I had a paid up subscription. It just kept telling me that my trial had expired. Very frustrating.

So, finally, I relented and sent off an email asking for help. Then, literally 30 seconds later, I figured out what I needed to do. My problem was solved before the email had collected even a pixel of digital dust. If ink could be wet in cyberspace, then mine still was.

I felt silly. And then I felt curious. Why was it that I had struggled for so long and then the moment I had given up the answer came to me. Was this the universe playing silly buggers with me or was this something more?

Casting my mind back I can think of other examples of these moments in my life. Calling out to my wife to ask how to do something and then finding that the solution revealed itself almost at once. Calling a helpline to find that I’d solved my dilemma while still on hold.

And then it hit me. Problem solving requires a wide focus. When we feel under pressure we tend to get narrow in our focus – seeing only the items we expect to see, those right under our noses, going around and around in circles, blind to the alternatives around us.

Consider the behaviour of people when they’re panicking – head down, oblivious to anything around them. Similar behaviour can be seen in people trying to achieve some large, extrinsic reward; a sort of attentional blindness driven by stress and pressure.

This, I think, is part of my answer. By asking for help I reduced the pressure on myself. I let my brain off the hook. But there was another side to; this was the first time I had stated my problem clearly. By writing down what I was struggling with I provided new clues to my brain.

By asking for help in this way I both increased my capacity to think clearly and provided myself with new information with which to work.

Maybe asking for help is the simplest form of self help there is.

Learning to stop helping

Coaches are often very smart and insightful people. This is to be expected because coaching isn’t easy. If you're a coach like me then you practice design thinking and creative problem solving as part of your daily work. But coaches, when they’re coaching, aren't supposed to solve problems for people. No matter how smart they are. They're supposed to help that person process they're own thoughts and come to a solution for themselves.

Then comes the dilemma; what if you know the right answer?

We’ve all been there, watching someone struggle with a difficult dilemma and having this overwhelming urge to point out a very clever solution that has occurred to us while we’ve been listening. Some of us, in moments of weakness, have even gone so far as to subtly manipulate the thinking of our coachee to help them arrive at the answer that we’re so sure is the right one.

But here's the rub; you don't know the right answer. Or at the very least you can't assume that you do. It may well be that you have a good idea but are you sure it’s the best idea? And by best I mean not only objectively optimal but the right fit for your coachee.

That’s the crux of it – your answer may be perfect for you but coaching assumes that the best solution for the person with the problem will come from that person. It’s the foundation of the coaching approach – boost awareness, facilitate thinking, ask questions and then help the coachee stay the course.

Further more, when you give advice, consider what you're assuming. You're assuming that you're smarter than your coachee, that you understand his or her life better than they do. This assumption is unsafe. It's also arrogant.

When you find yourself tempted to give advice, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What if I'm wrong?
  2. Even if I'm right, should this solution come from me?
  3. What might I be destroying if I speak now?

You could perhaps sum all these up with one position question?

  • What would I do if I assumed my coachee is as good a thinker as I am?

In fact, this question goes far beyond coaching. What if you assumed that everyone you spoke to was as capable of thinking as you are? What if you believed that the homeless person on the street could be as insightful as the founder of the latest billion dollar tech breakthrough?

A short while ago I wrote about the feeling of relief that I felt when switched from believing that people needed me to save their problems for them to believing that the world is full of good and powerful people, filled with potential.

Apply that same thinking to your life. Would you feel a sense of relief if you knew the people around you were capable of solving their own problems and only needed you to believe in them? How would you manage your team differently if you knew they were smart and ready to use those smarts? How might you treat your children differently?

Coaching isn’t about teaching, but being a coach teaches us many things. The first lesson, of course, is humility.

This is how we do it

This is how we do it
This is how we do it

I think, at last, I've done it. OK. So it's still just a basic pen sketch but this, after well over a year of trying, is a pretty damn good visual representation of the Hard Not Complicated method from Sabre Tooth Panda.

This weekend I was distracted a little by constant thoughts about mindfulness. Irony aside, it wasn't clear to me exactly why this was. I've been meditating lately, no more or less than usual. I've not been reading much about it or talking to anyone. I don't know why my mind was on my mind.

On Sunday evening, during a walk in the local park, I struck up a conversation with my wife about this feeling of distraction. I think, by that point, I'd realised that it was telling me something. I was stuck thinking about this because there was a thread I needed to keep pulling. I told my wife that I feel like I need to emphasise mindfulness more as an element of my process which lead us to discussing how we might showcase that visually.

That's when Ladina suggested the Loop-de-Loop. With awareness, mindfulness, running from start to end, with practice, application and moments of change all driven by and part of a consistent state of awareness, suddenly the visualisation made sense!

When visualising a process it's hard to show continuation at the same time as showing phases. It's easy to make it seem as if there is a hard stop at the intersection between stage x and stage y. By creating a loop that twists around and intersects with itself we have finally found an image that clearly shows both clear stages and continuity.

And, in a fun sort of way, this breakthrough came as a result of applying the method I champion.

Distraction is a state in which many of us live every day. But we're rarely aware of it. Being distracted, as I was this weekend, but aware of that distraction, was an element of my practice of mindfulness. I was able to ask why I was distracted, able to feel it and interact with it, because I practice what I preach.

Awareness leads to insight. Insight leads to a change in behaviour. A change in behaviour leads to a change in ability and reinforces new awareness and new insights.

By practicing mindfulness I achieved an insight which I was able to use. In a sense I simply allowed this solution to come to me by being ready to see it when it was ready to be seen. And by practicing drawing every day, as I have been, I was better able to think in visual terms and to render what I was thinking. This let me solve a problem that I have been stuck on for a long time.

The system works people. Use the system! And you can find out how here.

This is how we do it

This is how we do it
This is how we do it

I think, at last, I’ve done it. OK. So it’s still just a basic pen sketch but this, after well over a year of trying, is a pretty damn good visual representation of the Hard Not Complicated method from Sabre Tooth Panda.

This weekend I was distracted a little by constant thoughts about mindfulness. Irony aside, it wasn’t clear to me exactly why this was. I’ve been meditating lately, no more or less than usual. I’ve not been reading much about it or talking to anyone. I don’t know why my mind was on my mind.

On Sunday evening, during a walk in the local park, I struck up a conversation with my wife about this feeling of distraction. I think, by that point, I’d realised that it was telling me something. I was stuck thinking about this because there was a thread I needed to keep pulling. I told my wife that I feel like I need to emphasise mindfulness more as an element of my process which lead us to discussing how we might showcase that visually.

That’s when Ladina suggested the Loop-de-Loop. With awareness, mindfulness, running from start to end, with practice, application and moments of change all driven by and part of a consistent state of awareness, suddenly the visualisation made sense!

When visualising a process it’s hard to show continuation at the same time as showing phases. It’s easy to make it seem as if there is a hard stop at the intersection between stage x and stage y. By creating a loop that twists around and intersects with itself we have finally found an image that clearly shows both clear stages and continuity.

And, in a fun sort of way, this breakthrough came as a result of applying the method I champion.

Distraction is a state in which many of us live every day. But we’re rarely aware of it. Being distracted, as I was this weekend, but aware of that distraction, was an element of my practice of mindfulness. I was able to ask why I was distracted, able to feel it and interact with it, because I practice what I preach.

Awareness leads to insight. Insight leads to a change in behaviour. A change in behaviour leads to a change in ability and reinforces new awareness and new insights.

By practicing mindfulness I achieved an insight which I was able to use. In a sense I simply allowed this solution to come to me by being ready to see it when it was ready to be seen. And by practicing drawing every day, as I have been, I was better able to think in visual terms and to render what I was thinking. This let me solve a problem that I have been stuck on for a long time.

The system works people. Use the system! And you can find out how here.

Get to know creativity in 15 minutes

The Hard Not Complicated Quick Start Field Guide

Welcome to the Hard Not Complicated Quick Start Field Guide.

This guide offers you everything you need to start building a strong relationship with creativity. When you’re ready for more, you can download The Hard Not Complicated Field Guide to Designing Your First Daily Practice which you can find at http://www.sabretoothpanda.com/resources

For now, this guide will take you through a high level look at understanding your relationship with creativity and thinking about how you could change it for the better.

What is creativity?

Many people think of creativity in a narrow way. They think about art and design, inventing new gadgets and pursuing the pure sciences. We agree that all these things can be creative. But creativity itself is much broader.

We define creativity as: solving problems under conditions of uncertainty.

A problem is anything you wish to change or achieve. It could be the problem of how to express an idea in song or the problem of how to build a tree house, make a paper plane or wire up your home theatre system. Some or all of these problems may require creativity. That depends on whether or not you’re facing them under conditions of uncertainty.

So what do we mean by that?

Broadly speaking, when it comes to solving problems, you either have a right way to do something or you don’t. For example, making a cup of tea is a simple, step by step process. You can write it down and assuming the kettle works and you have access to teabags, cups and water, all you need to do is follow the steps and you’ll end up with a cup of tea. This is an algorithmic problem.

But what if the kettle doesn’t work? What if you have no cups? Now the problem of making tea becomes a creative challenge, something that requires heuristic thinking, learning, experimentation and the willingness to fail smart. In other words, creativity.

Take a moment to think about your life. Try to think of a dozen or so problems you’ve had to solve in the last week and then sort them into two columns:

  1. Algorithmic – problems you can solve with a step by step script
  2. Creative – problems solved under conditions of uncertainty where there is no obvious right answer

If you’re struggling to get started, here are some common examples of algorithmic problems:

  • Choosing a shirt or blouse to wear
  • Driving to work
  • Finding a plumber

Similarly, commonly given examples of creative problems include:

  • Keeping the children entertained on a rainy day
  • Resolving an argument with a friend or work colleague
  • Choosing a career

Remember, any problem that can’t be reduced to a simple set of instructions requires some degree of creativity to solve. Even if it’s just realising that a solution you’ve used elsewhere could be applied here too, or figuring out who to ask for help.

In reality, most problems require a little algorithmic and a little creative thinking. But the ones that make a real difference to the world are problems that lean towards creativity. So, if you want to put a dent in the universe, you need to have a strong relationship with creativity.

Your relationship with creativity – part one

Performing well on creative tasks isn’t about what you know. Learning every last creative technique in the world won’t help you to be creative if you don’t have a strong relationship with creativity.

Let’s explore what that means.

Going back to our tea making example. Imagine that you’re on a motorised boat in the middle of the ocean. You have fresh water but no working kettle, loose leaf tea but no strainer and no cup. Fortunately you do have milk and sugar.

Making tea in this situation isn’t algorithmic. You have some problems to solve that require creative thinking.

  • You need to figure out a way to boil the water
  • You need to work out how to strain the tea
  • You have to find something to drink from

Allowing for the constraints above, can you imagine a way to solve these three problems?

There are no wrong answers here, you can be as liberal as you like with what you have on board the boat, as long as it’s at least mildly realistic and don’t just say that you happen to have a gas cooker and a pot – where’s the fun in that?.

To help you to imagine what you might have at your disposal. Here’s a picture of a motorboat.

A picture of a large and rather fancy motorised boat
A picture of a large and rather fancy motorised boat

Try to think of a solution to the three challenges above. And, as you do so, be aware of your emotional responses as you:

  • Explore your resources
  • Widen your options
  • Overcome obstacles and deal with constraints
  • Narrow down to the best approach

Don’t worry if you struggle. Creativity is hard. Struggling is a sign you’re getting better at it.

Your relationship with creativity – part two

Did you come up with an answer that you’re happy with. Good. But, in fact, the point of this exercise wasn’t making tea on a boat. The point of this exercise was for you to explore how you responded to the challenge.

People who have a strong relationship with creativity tend to approach challenges like this with certain attitudes, assumptions, emotional responses and patterns of thinking.

Explore your resources

Everything is more than one thing. People with a strong relationship with creativity don’t just see a brick, they see a doorstop, a paperweight, a way to measure lengths, a stepping stone, something you can use to swing a rope across a river or grind up into sand to make an hour glass. They do this by being playful and curious and believing that there is always another angle as long as they look hard enough.

When you explored the resources on the boat, how many ways did you think about each object? How long did you spend exploring what you could do with the seat covers, the lightbulbs, the life vests and the captain’s hat? Did you take things apart and put them back together again or did you accept them as just what they appeared to be, just what they were presented as?

In psychology circles, getting stuck like this means you’re suffering from Functional Fixedness; seeing something as only one thing based on how it was presented to you. The cure for this isn’t to learn more about psychology, it’s to notice and to allow yourself to question; is this fishing pole useful kindling? Does this first aid kit contain bandages that could be used to strain tea? This sort of open minded thinking is typical of someone with a strong relationship with creativity.

If this part was tricky, you might want to work on being more:

  • Playful
  • Curious
  • Experimental

Widen your options

They say to have a good idea you need to have lots of ideas. People who can generate a lot of different options are more likely to find one that’s great or stumble on something truly unique and interesting.

Thinking about this section, did you find that, once you had a solution, it became harder to move on to another one? Did you feel the need to answer the question quickly and close down before you’d explored far beyond the obvious? Was, in effect, a good idea, a weight you carried with you or a stepping stone?

When we coach people we often find that once a team or individual has hit on one good idea, they tend to circle it, sticking close to it with only minor forays into newness. It’s as if the mind wants to close the loop as quickly as possible because leaving questions open, holding multiple alternatives in mind at one time, is tiring.

Someone with a strong relationship with creativity may have considered using the magnifying lens from a headlight to direct the sun onto a surface to heat water but then considered that passing electricity through a wire would be more effective. Then, unhappy even with that, he or she may have decided to combine the two! Rather than feeling that a strong idea is the end point, he or she would have found each idea pushed them further to find an even better one.

If you found yourself grabbing on to the first solution you were happy with perhaps you should consider working on being more:

  • Comfortable with uncertainty
  • Open to being wrong
  • Able to let go, even of things you like

Overcome obstacles and deal with constraints

Since creativity is solving problems under conditions of uncertainty, there’s one thing you can always rely on; obstacles and constraints.

If you were really playing fair, when you were thinking of your potential solutions, you were also thinking of how they might not work and what might go wrong. Maybe you decided to heat the water by running the engine really hot and placing a bucket of water on top? But what about the risk of an engine fire? You’ve heard of people dying for a cup of tea but that’s a little much. Perhaps you intended to use a glass light fitting as a cup? But what if it got hot? How would you hold it?

In improvisational theatre, one of the best places to go for a live, dynamic demonstration of creativity in action, they have a saying: everything is an offer. What that means, when acting out a scene, is that whatever you’re given, you accept and work with. Someone tells you he’s in your bookshop to buy some pork chops, that’s an offer – maybe he’s short sighted or maybe it’s a code word for something else and he’s a rather odd sort of spy?!

In creative problem solving, constraints and obstacles are information. Someone with a strong relationship with creativity will see them as offers, more material to work with, extra data points on the graph

If you came across obstacles and constraints and found yourself annoyed or irritated by them, feeling a sense of resistance and rejection, maybe you might want to look at:

  • Acceptance, even when you don’t like what you see
  • Reframing of events and ideas in different ways
  • Having a positive approach to flexibility and change

Narrow down to the best approach

Some people find it really easy to have ideas. These people are often referred to as having a great level of creative fluency. Often this is seen as the whole of creativity – just having ideas. But, in reality, having ideas is just part of it. As we have seen, you need to be able to have ideas and the have the flexibility to alter them when the world demands it.

And, at the other side of the process, you need to choose a direction. After all, you might have a dozen good ideas and not enough information to know which one is the best. For many people this can cause paralysis!

Thinking back on this part of the process, did you find it easy to narrow down or did you have a nagging sense that you were choosing a suboptimal option? Did you struggle to let go of one solution in favour of another? Was there a feeling that you might be making a mistake and you didn’t know how to deal with this practically?

This fear response is one of the main reasons that ideas fail to get off of the ground but if you have a strong relationship with creativity you aren’t afraid to try something out even if you aren’t certain it’s the right path. You see failure, like constraints and obstacles, as information, not as a sign of personal failing or weakness. You know that being wrong for the right reasons is a huge step towards being right.

While diverging (opening up and seeking new options) requires us to find smart ways to rule things in, converging (closing down and narrowing in) requires us to find smart ways to rule things out.

Maybe you have several solutions; which is the least dangerous option? Which has the fewest moving parts? Is one clearly quicker than the others? Is one of them more certain to work? Depending on whether you’re most interested in safety, simplicity, speed or dependability, you can narrow this list down to the best option. Perhaps you don’t know enough to make a clear choice; could an experiment tell you what you need to know?

Creativity is meaningless unless it leads to action. Which means not just having fun in the world of blue skies and free association, but also being disciplined and rational when it comes to making decisions and moving forward.

If this element of the process made you uneasy or you noticed a resistance to it, you might benefit from working on:

  • Remaining detached and focused on the problem at hand
  • Thinking of life as a series of experiments
  • Remembering that there are no real certainties in life so you need to be OK with uncertainty

What did you feel?

We’ve now explored an example creative problem and looked closely at different ways people often respond to the component parts of a creative problem solving process. In this section we will look at what those responses mean and how they can help you to build a strong relationship with creativity.

Building a strong relationship with creativity begins with self knowledge. You need to really understand how you currently relate to creativity before you can focus in on the parts you want to change.

And we must be clear, we’re not asking you what you thought, we’re asking you how you felt. Thoughts and feelings aren’t the same thing. Thinking is great. We love thinking. But feelings are far less likely to mislead you when you want to understand how you relate to something.

For example, some people get very stressed about money. When it comes time to deal with the bills and the credit card they struggle. They don’t want to face it, they pull away and put it off. They might rationalise this as simply not wanting to do an unpleasant task but if they are really in touch with their feelings they may notice that the stress is due to uncertainty, perhaps they aren’t really sure what they spend and how? Some may realise that guilt has something to do with it, maybe because they know they spend money they shouldn’t on things they don’t need.

Being more aware of how you feel can allow you to get to the bottom of a problem far more quickly than thinking about it. That’s because feelings are a guidance system, evolved to help us understand the world and guide us in what to do as we go through life.

Some struggle with this question but if you allow yourself to just sit back and replay in the mind how you worked through the exercise above, with a soft focus on bodily sensations, you’ll be amazed what you notice.

Did you initially feel a knot in the stomach when faced with the task? Perhaps tension in the shoulders? Or maybe you got a rush, a tingling feeling, from the opportunity ahead of you?

Maybe you felt deflated, heavy when you realised that your idea didn’t work? Or maybe you felt even and calm at that point, quickly letting go and moving on?

And when you had to narrow down; was there a sensation of jittery, unsettled energy? Maybe this was you not feeling OK with letting go of some old ideas you really liked.

If you allow yourself time to reflect on your experience you’ll start to spot these telltale signs of emotional responses. Resistance or heaviness, acceptance or lightness, energy or deflation, warmth or coolness, calmness in the chest or jitters in the stomach.

And if you think back at other examples, other times you’ve had the opportunity to be creative, you may notice similar feelings there too.

And it doesn’t matter if these feelings are pleasant or unpleasant. What matters is that you are aware of them and realise that they are guiding you. If you feel positive emotional responses to creative challenges that means you’re relationship with creativity is strong and working for you. If you feel negative emotions, there’s likely something you should try to work on.

How to work on it

This is the part where a lot of these kinds of documents would pull the old bait-and-switch and offer you a big slab of pricy coaching but that’s not Sabre Tooth Panda’s style.

Coaching works on the principal that you can solve your own problems. All the coach does is help you to think through the challenge, make a choice and then hold yourself accountable for what you do; awareness and responsibility.

With that in mind, how you work on the problems you’ve found in your relationship with creativity is entirely your choice. But we do have some tips for you, to get you started on your first Daily Practice.

Your first Daily Practice

Your Daily Practice is simply a set of activities you carry out to alter and improve how you relate to creativity. Some of them may be daily (hence the name) while others may be weekly or occasional. What matters is that they:

  • Build good habits
  • Fit into your lifestyle
  • Remain fresh and fun

Getting into the habit

A habit is simply a behaviour loop that starts with a trigger and ends with a reward and that is driven by a craving of some sort.

A trigger can be anything. Maybe when you get home from work you get to your kitchen and you see your little wine rack on the side. This trigger leads to a craving because you associate a glass of wine with relaxation after a hard day. So, without really thinking, you reach for the bottle and pour a glass – this is your routine. The reward is closing the loop with the pleasant taste of the wine.

When it comes to changing your relationship with creativity you need to think in terms of habits because creativity happens now and there’s no point being a creative genius if, when now comes your habitual response is uncreative.

Your Daily Practice should be built to reinforce good habits and that means understanding the triggers of your creative response.

Perfect fit

Your Daily Practice has to fit into your life. We can all imagine how spending our Sunday mornings at a watercolours class and cycling to work a different route every day while listening to Bach would pump our creative juices, but is that a realistic option for you?

A Daily Practice that sticks is a Daily Practice based on what you already do. If you like to watch movies, why not consider watching ones that involve stories about creative people? If you like to cook, could you try tossing out the recipe book once a week and improvising with the leftovers?

And a Daily Practice needs to be grounded in your reality and what creativity is to you in your life. This will make anything you choose more meaningful and so more likely to stick.

Finally, remember the Minimum Viable Change (MVC). This the golden rule of life change and it goes like this:

The MVC is a change no larger than it needs to be to produce a meaningful difference. Any smaller, and you won’t create momentum, any larger and you increase your chances of failure and frustration.

When building your Daily Practice, keep it realistic, keep it grounded, and keep to the MVC.

Keeping it fresh and fun

Finally, don’t get boring. Regularly reviewing your Daily Practice, looking at what’s working and what isn’t, reassessing your relationship with creativity, should mean changing things up, adding in new games, trying out new routines and adding new wrinkles to what you’re already doing.

Some ways to do this are simple, like changing locations or timing. Some ways require more work, like finding a new way to make what you do tricker (adding in extra constraints can be a great way to start here). Also, including friends and family in your Daily Practice can be a wonderful way to keep things fresh. It also keeps things fun.

Fun matters. It isn’t self indulgent to want to be happy, despite what so many seem to believe. Creativity is, in part, about having a sense of control over your own future, designing the life you want. So why design a future where you’re bored?

Learn to notice when something brings you joy and when something piques your interest. Then make it part of your Daily Practice.

Conclusion

Here we have only scratched the surface of what it means to have a strong relationship with creativity. But that’s fine, because this isn’t a one-pass solution, fixing everything with some magic trick. This is a journey and you’ve just started out. We like to say that the Hard Not Complicated method offers instant change, gradually. And that’s really the only way to do it.

You can apply what you’ve read here over and over again and each time you’ll see something new. And don’t feel the need to stick slavishly to these words. We don’t claim to know how to solve your problems better than you do. All we offer is a way to think about them and a nudge to get started.

If you take only one thing away with you, let it be this: being creative is all about having a strong relationship with creativity. Having a strong relationship with creativity starts with exploring how you respond to creative situations and then gradually working on changing those responses through focused practice.

Now stop reading and get practicing.

Get in touch

If you’d like to learn more, have a chat or hire Sabre Tooth Panda to help you and those you work with to get creative, then go to http://www.sabretoothpanda.com/contactus

Chaos Chairs at Clerkenwell Design Week

On Tuesday this week Adam Burtt-Jones, Steve Brewer and I ran a special little session hosted at Davison Highley as part of Clerkenwell Design Week 2016. The idea was to bring to life one of Burtt-Jones & Brewer’s core principals while allowing me to show off and confuse people. It was, in this way, a win-win.

When Adam, Steve and I podcasted together a few weeks back we briefly touched on the challenge of getting the client fully engaged with the design process. The problem is that many clients and designers seem to take a transactional view of the process – client poses question, designer delivers answer.

But as work becomes more complex, does this approach really work anymore? As far as we are concerned, the answer is a resounding no.

It really isn’t possible, in the space of a 45 minute session, to address this entire issue. But one thing we felt we could do was really open up the idea of complexity and let the participants extend their thought process. So we played a game I call Chaos Chairs.

The game is very simple. A group of people sit in chairs with one empty chair. The “Sitters” work as a team, moving between chairs to prevent the “Walker” from sitting in the one empty chair. Sitters can run and talk and shout and do whatever they please (as long as nobody blocks the walker). The only restriction is that once a Sitter has stood up they can’t sit back in the same chair again. The Walker cannot run. The round is over when the Walker sits in the empty chair.

What the game does, alongside increasing opportunities for personal injury law suites, is it brings to life the reality of complexity.

In round one people really don’t know what to make of it. On this occasion the round lasted about ten seconds. By about round three we begin to see strategies emerging and usually one or two players trying to put a cap on the chaos by proposing structures to keep to, rules to follow.

“What if we put our hands up before moving so the team know what’s happening?”

“How about only the person nearest to the empty chair is allowed to move to it?”

“If one person moves we all move with them.”

These are all good ideas and, pretty much every time, the outcome is not exactly as expected. Some players misunderstand the instruction, others have a different idea of when each rule applies, and the Walker responds to the way the team plays too! So everything the team does leads to unintended changes in the game.

What we see is that even in a very simple situation complexity can arise which makes it almost impossible for one person to predict and control the outcome. And because this is all happening now, for real, not as a purely mental exercise, everyone gets to see how they react to the situation.

Some commented that they felt a great deal of pressure. Some felt nervous, others were worried about letting the team down. And this was just a game. A simple game. Those emotional responses inform us both about an often hidden layer of the design process and about how we personally relate to the creative process.

This is a simple game which gives rise to complexity and the opportunity for deep insights. I encourage you to play it yourself. Just be careful. It can get rowdy.