posted 1 Feb 1999 in Volume 2 Issue 5
The whole corporate ethos of a company; its traditional structures, systems and relationships sometimes seems to create a corporate cultural straitjacket, stifling creativity before any new attempts have even been made. In this article, Professor Guy Claxton promotes the need for unthinking and space to reflect in order to refresh stultified imagination. Creativity does not need to be the casualty of an out-of-date culture.
The whole 'knowledge management' movement is another escalation in the tyranny of the explicit. Business is in the grip of an epidemic of explication. Everything has to be articulated, communicated and trained these days: written down in manuals, turned into simple little models, programmed into 'expert systems', rendered into bullet points, made the subject of mission statements, action plans and glossy presentations. That shy, elegant creature 'tacit knowledge' has to be captured - and then, presumably, domesticated, tamed and named. The mad attempt to understand everything is running amok, and the only people benefiting are the authors and publishers who are producing all this bottled knowledge, and the army of trainers who pass it on. One shouldn't be surprised. It is after all, the reductio ad absurdum of a society in which people don't think they have learnt anything unless they can remember and explain it. A session that leaves you with no notes, no copies of the overheads to take away, can't have been much good - however much it engaged you and made you think.
The triumph of the last three hundred years of European history is the incredible power of conscious reason to transcend prejudice and create technology. The tragedy is that this cognitive cuckoo has kicked all the other birds out of the mental nest. In the 16th century, and in traditional societies, people knew the value of patience, and of attending without thinking or analysing. They dared to wait, to muse, to let their minds quieten and settle, to watch the world and listen to the whisperings of their own creativity. Now, business runs on frantic busy-ness and endless planning. If you're not running around being 'productive', you aren't earning your keep. If you can't explain what you are doing, you're 'off task'. We seem to have lost sight of a rather important distinction i.e. the difference between being wise, being clever and being merely well-informed. Business schools use the GMAT test to select fast, slick thinkers (only mental cheetahs wanted; ruminants need not apply ! ). Meetings are forever being suborned by people who Bob Bernstein (when he was CEO of Random House) used to call the 'articulate incompetents' i.e. managers with a lawyer's ability to concoct a convincing rationale for anything at all.
Of course a business needs information, of course it needs analysis. But they are not sufficient, especially when decision-makers routinely face non-routine situations. Sure we need our case law and our models, but more than that we need supple minds that are able to think outside the box. We need people who are brave enough to take time to construct solutions that are just right for this unprecedented problem; not trotted out from a Tom Peters or a Peter Senge or a Charles Handy seminar. Information and experience feeds the mind; analysis refines and tests its produce. But the having of good ideas...that is an art that requires subtlety, awareness and patience. Part of the intellectual capital of an organisation is indeed like veins of precious, buried knowledge that run through the procedures it has developed and the minds of its members, which can be mined, refined and processed into explicit understanding. But the vastly more important part of the capital is the ability of individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole, to respond appropriately and effectively to the 'new'. The learning organisation is perceptive and intuitive, as much as it is knowledgeable.
The vast majority of what people know cannot in principle be turned into words. Think of a face. How much of its intricately patterned information can be articulated? 5%? 1%? Less than that? Consider the options that our vocabulary gives us for describing ears and eyes and mouths - and then think of the hundreds, if not thousands of different faces you can recognise. A recent experiment in the States showed that when people are asked to describe unfamiliar faces as well as they can, they recognise them less well when they are later muddled up with some new ones, than faces which they just looked at unthinkingly. Trying to be articulate means restricting yourself to only that fraction of the information that can, approximately, be put into words. The situation facing a management consultant as she goes into a new company, or a sales manager as he tries to craft a response to a fall in market share, is much more like a photo of a face than it is like a crossword puzzle clue. The ability just to be receptive and attentive to experience, to let unexpected patterns and connections emerge over time is one of the core skills of the creative thinker. The pressure to be accountable, to look 'decisive', to appear to know, to be in control all the time may get results - but not very creative ones. (Never mind: the smart operator will be long gone before the cracks start to appear.)
All the evidence there is shows that innovation requires creativity plus implementation. If you have creativity without implementation, good ideas never get the chance to bear fruit. If you have implementation without creativity, you get tinkering with the known: new wine in old bottles; shallow fads that fizzle out. Implementation requires incentives. For people to actually change, there needs to be an effective mixture of sticks and carrots. You need pressure to get things done, but to come up with an idea worth implementing you need a mind that is not on the run; one that is, for a while, relaxed and receptive enough to muse and ponder. Everyone knows that people get their best ideas in the bath, on a country walk or on vacation.
The document that revolutionised customer services in the US banking industry was aptly titled 'Memo from the beach'. Everyone knows the value of 'sleeping on it'. In their off-duty lives, people rely on intuition and incubation all the time. When a forgotten name is 'on the tip of your tongue', you know that the smart way to recall it is to stop trying. But when people walk through the office door, they all too often step into a culture, and adopt a mindset in which this folk wisdom is quite neglected. The rewards and the recognition go to the slickest talker, not to the most creative thinker. The slave-driver, like the lawyer and the critic strangle the delicate progeny of creativity at birth.
The key to a successful company in a changing world is not knowledge 'management' but knowledge generation. By drawing on the lessons of the past and not being hamstrung by them, the creative thinker constantly looks not for what has worked but what is needed. To do this he/she needs to be able to move rhythmically between an inward and an outward orientation, and between focused and relaxed attention. When attention is inward and tightly focused, you get analytical, articulate 'hard thinking'. When the focus is inward but relaxed, you have 'soft thinking'; the rumination and reverie that are known to be the breeding-ground of creativity. When attention is outward and tightly focused you get scrutiny, the kind of perception that segments a scene and examines it bit by bit. Scrutiny knows what it is looking for, and makes quick decisions about what is relevant to its current quest, and what is not. With outward but soft attention, you get contemplation, an inclusive gaze that sees holistic patterns, and spots the significance of small, incidental clues, in a way that scrutiny, in its purposeful search for the truth, never can. Inward and tight is the mind of the philosopher. Inward and loose is the mind of the poet. Outward and tight is the mind of the scientist. Outward and loose is the mind of the artist, or of the kind of intuitive detective exemplified by Morse, Columbo and Sherlock Holmes.
The creative manager or consultant needs to be able to move fluidly between all of these four minds. But there are both psychological and cultural barriers that may get in the way. Psychologically, many people in business are comfortable and familiar with tight-focus thinking and seeing. They are far less adept at harnessing the mind that is relaxed and receptive, yet still alert. Some people just do not see the value of it. And some experience great difficulty in giving up the feeling of being in mental control, and the compulsive search for a 'solution'. Voluntarily to enter a state of confusion, to dare to go without an opinion for a while can even feel scary, almost like a loss of identity. ('Cogito, ergo sum' so no thought, no me?) To become creative, one must learn to enjoy and to notice the drifting mental state that sometimes occurs just as you are falling asleep, when the mind seems to have a mind of its own. You must practice not being frightened when you don't know.
Culturally, most support the modes of the philosopher and the scientist. Far fewer recognise the vital role played by the poet and the detective. In a workplace that is pressurised, critical and unsupportive, creativity is always the first casualty. When 'not-to-know' is equated with being 'indecisive', or when decisions are always taken at speed, whether they need to be or not, people are not going to dare to move into the low-focus, low-control zone that creativity requires. On the other hand, when managers and leaders realise:
i. that the bottom line is good ideas, not glib argument;
ii. that faster is not always better;
iii that all the spreadsheets and web searches in the world are not going to tell them what to do;
iv and that the human mind is not an inefficient information processor, but a brilliant pattern detector and idea generator - if it is allowed to be,
then their teams might start playing with a full mental deck, and 'knowledge management' may become more than another passing fashion.
Guy Claxton is Visiting Professor of Learning Science at the University of Bristol. He is the author of 'Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less' (Fourth Estate, 1998).