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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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

Stepping Stones: a meditation on the nature of creativity

Today's post is very short. That's because I want you to spend less time reading and more time reflecting on what you've read. For the reading allow about 60 seconds. A good rule of thumb is to spend ten times that long, ten minutes in this case, reflecting.

Last week I shared some thoughts on the danger of Maslow's Hammer; the tendency for the tools we use to narrow our perspective and leave us blinkered, rigid, and predictable.

This brings us to the single hardest problem for creativity:

  • We use tools to help us express creativity
  • Over time we get better at using the tools
  • The better we get the more we rely on the tools
  • The more we rely on the tools the worse we get at expressing creativity

In my view it's wrong to think of creativity as a set of skills or tools. I see creativity as a relationship, a way of existing in the world. People who have a strong relationship with creativity are somewhat like children, driven by curiosity, open to change; keeping a beginners mind, ready to receive. Tools can help us to achieve this relationship but they aren't a substitute for it.

Where last week I shared the intellectual basis for this argument, this week I want to share with you a meditation that I find helps me both to understand this idea more deeply and to communicate it more clearly; I call it 'Stepping Stones'.

Stepping Stones

If we want to get to the other side of a deep, fast flowing river, it would be very risky to try to swim unaided! Instead we look for stepping stones leading to the other side.

With each stone we come closer to where we're going. The stones feel solid and safe but the river is rushing past and, with each moment, a stone might slip and we might fall in!

It's wise to use the stones but it's foolish to stand on them for too long. Remember our confidence will only grow until the moment we fall.

Keep them guessing

This morning I attended Jabber, a local networking group in St Albans. And I came away with a completely unexpected insight about communication.

I worry constantly that when I tell people that I’m a creativity coach they immediately put me into a bunch of boxes, many or most of which aren’t quite right. The issue is, you see, both creativity and coaching are frequently misunderstood concepts.

Many people think that coaching means giving advice or guidance, being the expert in a given field. The truth is that traditional coaching is more about helping the client think and solve his or her own problems.

Creativity… well, I suppose it’s a good thing for me that so many people believe so many wrongheaded things about creativity otherwise I wouldn’t have a job. Here’s three:

  1. There are too many rules and regulations in my industry for me to be creative
  2. Creativity? You either have it or you don’t
  3. Creativity is art and stuff, right?

So when I call myself a creativity coach I fear that many people assume they know what that means but get it entirely wrong.

My response to this has been to attempt to make what I do more and more clear and, in fact, my coach of the term “creativity coach” was the end result of trying to find two words that were easy to understand. But what if I’ve been going about this all wrong?

Speaking to a couple of chaps at Jabber we got on to the problem of pigeonholing and how people are quick to try to stick you in a box and then, once they’ve done that, stop thinking about you. This is, as it happens, exactly the problem we face often when trying to express creativity; we have a desire to solve problems quickly and save mental energy. This kind of thinking is effortful and so we have a strong drive to want to simplify and categorise.

Perhaps, in using these plain English words, what I’m actually doing is reducing the cognitive load of my listeners at the expense of them failing to understand what I really do.

We know that when something is too simple, too easy to parse, people have a habit of not thinking about it at all and delegating it to their automatic systems. To stimulate recall, therefore, it actually helps to make something ever so slightly harder to parse. Simply printing something in a smaller font can increase recall in the reader.

All this is to say that perhaps I should be using a description, a title that is less apparently clear, that people will not assume they understand even if they don’t.

Maybe I should call myself a conceptual relationship manager or a solutionisation bridge builder. Or possibly an unseen value materialiser…

This may take a little more thought. But the point remains: perhaps in struggling to reduce the complexity of what we do into words that others will believe they understand we run the risk of miscommunication. It comes down to this question:

Is it better for someone to wrongly believe they understand or to correctly believe they don’t?

The Powerful Play is Improvised

Errors, mistakes, unexpected problems for which we not only are unprepared but could not possibly prepare come up time and time again in my work as I help people to build stronger relationships with creativity. Today I want to share one of the techniques I've used to explore this challenge.

Several weeks ago I lead a workshop for a group of young people at Trestle Arts Base, in partnership with my good friend Shayla Maddox. The concept was simple – we asked the children to draw a circle in a single stroke, similar to the Japanese enso in that you must complete the circle without removing your pen from the paper and without going back and cleaning up any imperfections. It's worth noting that even this unchallenging request was met with some anxiety, so deeply ingrained is our need for perfection.

The next step was to ask the children to draw inside and around the circle any image they wanted to draw, importantly, to use the flat bits, the wobbly bits, the "mistakes" in the circle as the basis for what they chose to draw. The desired insight was that the children would come to see errors as opportunities for creativity rather than value destroying limitations.

I had three experiences on the day that stuck out to me and I want to recount them here.

A little boy in the group looked despondent when he was finished with his circle. In his words it was "rubbish". A young girl, similarly, was very upset with how flat her circle was at the bottom, how lopsided it was. Finally another girl was irritated by the way her circle spiralled in on itself. At this point all three of these children felt very unhappy with their artistic skills.

This is when I got to feel like a hero (yeah, that is why I do this). To the little boy who's circle was full of irregularities and lumpy bits I said that all those imperfections made his circle, as far as I was concerned, the best one in the room. He was taken aback by this but I told him that I knew he would be able to see something great to draw in that shape. By the end of the workshop he had drawn a giant rhino, the nobly bits serving as his horns and ears.

The girl with the squashed and lopsided circle needed something a little more analytical so I asked her why her circle might be flat at the bottom and leaning to one side. Immediately she brightened and said that it must be sitting on something and, she added, leaning because it's falling off of the edge. By the end of the workshop her circle was indeed sitting on a table and being pushed off the edge by a small figure.

The girl with the spiral circle actually didn't need my help at all. By the time I spoke to her she had already decided that spirals were beautiful and had chosen to draw an intricate pattern growing from that one, inadvertent spiral with which she had begun.

All of these children and the rest who took part, it is my hope, took one lesson away with them; that mistakes can lead to something beautiful. And I have some evidence that at least some of them did internalise the concept.

We were carrying out this workshop specifically because the next weekend these children would be performing at the Fun Palace, a weekend activity for school children. Four of the girls, Erin, Elyse, Elizabeth and Fola, would be performing a show about the early days of midwifery. I was fortunate enough to watch their hilarious rehearsal and I was sure they'd be fine on the day… but disaster struck! Fola was sick and unable to attend (ironic since she was playing a doctor). So the group had to improvise a new show on the spot.

Improvising a show is hard. And they found it hard. But they used the unexpected challenge and, by the end of the day having performed this new show three times, what they had created was possibly better than the original show. This creative challenge might have stopped a group with less robust relationships with creativity.

I'd like to think that, in a small way, being able to think about their circles and how imperfections lead to beauty might have played a part in helping them roll with the changes and make something great out of the unexpected.

Creativity means solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. That's a very nice definition of life, too – solving problems under conditions of uncertainty. In this sense, being strong with creativity is about being powerful in life. I feel very confident that these children, if they maintain their present relationships with creativity, will have no trouble dealing with whatever life brings their way.

Three Quick Tips for Making Creativity Normal

On Monday we talked about the social multiplier effect and I promised you some quick tips on how you could make use of this effect to boost creativity in your business by making creativity a normal part of life. So here goes.

One: don't imply that people aren't able to or expect to be creative

Many companies have teams or departments with words like creative or innovation in their titles. While this in and of itself isn't a problem, unless you're clear that you don't consider those and only those people to have what it takes to be creative then you're probably sending the signal that everyone else in the "uncreative" team.

Two: Champion and recognise self directed learning

Self directed learning is a creative process. Give some one a piece of clay and ask them to learn to sculpt they will have to be creative, experimental, self orienting. This is as opposed to learning through instruction in a classroom which can be anything but creative – relying instead on our ability to listen, memorise and reproduce what we have seen.

Unfortunately most businesses only recognise this second type of learning. If you have a personal development plan it probably only includes formal learning with standardised tests. This is fine but it only rewards learning what is already known. Self directed learning can lead you to places nobody has been before.

If you want creativity to be normal where you work, find ways to champion and recognise self directed learning. Encourage your teams to go off book. Maybe even make self directed learning an integral part of how appraisals work.

Three: Find the intrinsic motivation

Motivation is important in work and while they say that necessity is the mother of invention I don't agree. In fact, while we may well solve a certain class of problems under pressure from external requirements most of what is most creative in the world flows from intrinsic motivation. A delicate but powerful force.

Intrinsic motivation simply means to want to do something for its own sake. Words like meaning and purpose become important whereas reward is a secondary consideration.

What's the quickest way to make meaning important? Make it OK to talk about it. Right now I suspect most people in your place of work don't talk much about their motivations. If asked they might mention the company bonus scheme or the promotion they're after. But those are external motivators. To be creative at work it helps to be driven by something a little less rational.

Help people discover and follow their true motivations by making it OK, even essential, that this is a part of all conversations when setting goals or making plans. Build the motivation muscle little by little, day by day.

For more tips and ideas, why not book a free thirty minute consultation? Find out how at http://www.sabretoothpanda.com

The Flynn Effect and the Social Multiplier

I'm not so keen on over reliance on simple metrics for quantifying people – call me a romantic but I think you lose something when you try too hard to plot a human on a graph. But when used carefully metrics for various human traits can be enlightening. One such metric is IQ.

IQ is one of the most controversial of metrics and we won't here delve into why that is. Suffice it to say that IQ tests appear to be decent predictor of certain kinds of ability. What's more interesting is that, especially when it comes to abstract reasoning tests, human IQs appear to be increasing rapidly.

This is known as the Flynn Effect – the rapid and sustained increase in IQ since the 1930s – and there are no doubt many reasons for it. We could probably put some of it down to better healthcare and diet – healthy body, healthy mind and so on – and perhaps to a decrease in things like lead in the water (yeah – that stuff's not good for the noggin) but a significant contributor, at least according to Flynn himself, is likely to be what is known as the Social Multiplier Effect.

One of the core principals of the Hard Not Complicated method is that creativity belongs to everyone. I love this principal because it's actually a two-for-one deal; it means that creativity is something that everyone can and should take part in and that the results of creativity are most powerful when we don't try to monopolise them. But when we add in the Social Multiplier Effect, we might start to think of this principal as a three-for-one big value pack; getting more people involved not only gives you more creative heads it also increases the capability of the collective; the creative company becomes more than the sum of its creative parts.

The Social Multiplier Effect is described neatly by the name – the effect of any given thing can be multiplied when it takes place within a group. For example, have you ever noticed how you work harder at the gym when the place is busy and full of dedicated gym-bunnies? Or how you learn more when you're in a class full of enthusiastic boffins? I certainly have. I also eat more when I'm around my more gluttonous friends and complain more when I'm with a bunch of Moaning Myrtles – it's a double edged sword in this regard!

Flynn argues that since the 1930s our work and educational circumstances have evolved such that we have more intensely focused, more concentrated groups of people working on abstract reasoning challenges. This focus on abstract reasoning, not alone but connected in groups, creates a rising tide that floats all ships higher. Put another way, when less capable abstract reasoners spend time around more capable ones, it rubs off. And, furthermore, the increased abstract reasoning skills of the formerly less capable person rub off, in turn, on those around him.

Bringing this back to the principal that creativity belongs to everyone, I can't help but think about my clients and how they work in their organisations – about how creativity can either become something for the elite or something for everyone. It seems obvious to me that abstract reasoning skills, if they can be improved by the Social Multiplier, would massively boost creative output and it therefore behoves all of us to get as many people involved in the creative process and thinking about abstract problems as humanly possibly within the constraints of our working lives.

Normalising creativity is my North Star and it seems that normalising anything begins with language. That's why I try to avoid words like "talent" or "gifted" as well as placing greater emphasis on ideas like grit, attitude, and embracing imperfections as a strength. I also advise my clients to be careful about the signals they send through the choices they make in how they name teams or hand out awards.

Pop back on Wednesday for my quick tips on normalising creativity. Until then, remember, creativity is Hard Not Complicated!

Convergent Innovation

Last week I posted the first episode of my podcast in a very long time. It's a big moment for me because, when I began the show I didn't really know what I wanted to do with it. Now I do and with my new co-hosts I even have a format of sorts.

I realised that a moment like this called for some new podcast artwork and for some time I've been searching for a way to visualise what Hard Not Complicated means. For a while I had this rather fun loop-de-loop graphic but it just didn't work. Then, last week, I found out about enso.

Actually, I should say less that I found out about enso, I already knew about them to a degree. It's just that it became clear to me how neatly this symbol, ancient and culturally powerful, aligned with what Hard Not Complicated is all about.

An enso is a symbol associated with Zen Buddhism which is drawn in a single stroke with ink and a brush. It connects with the ideas of impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness, especially in the broken form where the ends do not meet.

When I began Sabre Tooth Panda, it wasn't a coaching company. I developed my approach and philosophy and then I realised that what I was doing was coaching! Similarly, I didn't intend to design a company that is so deeply connected with eastern philosophies. But, the more I develop Hard Not Complicated and the more I think about how Sabre Tooth Panda is different, the more I notice these ideas seeping through.

Just as an enso can never be perfect, the Hard Not Complicated approach is based on the idea that building a strong relationship with creativity is an ongoing process, not something you begin and end with a three day workshop or by completing a set of coursework.

Similarly I try to stay clear of the idea that there is one correct way to have that strong relationship with creativity. While many approaches to boosting creativity in the workplace seem to want to teach standards and processes, the Hard Not Complicated method focuses on enabling teams and individuals to develop their own, organic relationship, seeking out the tools and techniques that support their own preferences after the fact, rather than teaching tools and techniques and requiring the person to adapt to the tool.

I could list endlessly the ways in which my approach to helping people get creative seems to conform to all manner of ideas steeped in ancient and modern learning, but that's not my point here. What I am more interested in is what I'm calling Convergent Innovation.

You may have heard of convergent evolution. This is the process by which two animals with no recent evolutionary connection end up with very similar appearances. The most commonly noticed one is the shark and the dolphin.

There are huge differences between sharks and dolphins but considering that one is a mammal and one is a fish it's interesting to note how similar they are in some of their more visible features. This is despite the fact that they share no common ancestor for billions of years.

The explanation is simple: when you have the same problems to solve you are likely to end up with similar solutions. Which brings me back to Convergent Innovation.

The creative process is as much a journey of discovery as it is of invention, despite the popular out-of-nowhere myth of creativity. When I realised that my challenge was less to do with creativity itself but more to do with how people learn, our habits and how they form, our emotional responses to various things such as failure or difference, our attitudes towards ourselves and the outside world, it became clear to me that I my creative journey could be greatly enhanced by following in the footsteps of others who have faced this same challenge.

The Not Invented Here Syndrome is one of those horrible and entirely avoidable problems in creativity. But the concept of Convergent Innovation should put our minds at ease. After all, if the most creative force in nature, evolution, can share ideas, then why can't we?

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.