Embracing Diversity & Critical Thinking to Help us ‘Create’?
I’ve been invited to facilitate a discussion next week with a group of people who are keen to learn more about being innovative and creative in their work. Specifically, the group is interested in the roles that diversity and critical thinking play when generating ideas. In preparation for the session, I’ve prepared this short paper based on the ideas that we will be exploring during the session.
Before I progressed too far in developing my thoughts for the presentation and as with everything I write (or present), I had to get clear on my thesis. That is, what is my point of view on the topic. After a healthy dose of ‘Social Sensemaking’ with good friends this week, I came up with the following thesis:
‘By seeking greater diversity in our relationships and through the encouragement of more critical thinking, we allow different and new ideas to emerge by bringing together different perspectives.’
So let’s explore this thesis further with some of the ideas that I’m keen to explore next week.
To start, I thought it might be useful to examine for a moment the broad idea of innovation which seems to be all the buzz in our modern world. There seems to be an increasing discussion about the need for both people and organisations to be more innovative and more creative. We are continually encouraged to challenge the status quo and ‘disrupt’, in order to ‘do things differently’. There are some serious efforts being made to get our creative juices flowing.
For example, in Australia, our federal Government has established a website outlining their agenda for innovation. Closer to home, in my home State of NSW, the Government here has its own Innovation Initiative, that aims to use ‘de-identified’ data to “help deliver new and improved community services”. In the Safety field in Australia, the Safety Institute of Australia, has a conference dedicated to ‘Disruptive Safety’, where the aim is to ‘disrupt’ in order to do things ‘differently’. And in Human Resources too, a suggestion to ‘Think Innovation. Think People’, where the talk is of “transformation for competitive advantage”. These are just a few examples. But what does this all mean? And what is ‘innovation’?
Is the focus of true innovation, doing the same (or a similar) thing ‘differently’, or is it about new and emerging ideas? Perhaps this is a key question as we explore the idea of innovation further.
For example, many reports and stories I see about innovative practices and ideas seem simply to be just refocusing existing practices and methods to a more streamlined format (e.g. online). While I don’t argue about this type change can be considered in some ways innovative, I’m just not sure that it gets to the heart of what true innovation is. Are we creating ‘new’ or just changing the method. What do I mean?
For example, in my ‘home field’ of Risk and Safety, there are any number of new ‘products’ available that promise a more streamlined and efficient process; however, all they are really seem to do is take an existing process and turn it into an online platform, is this really innovation?
Or, is it just a more efficient and productive ‘method’? I know that in the past, that I viewed such changes as innovation, perhaps you do too; but is limiting our thinking to doing the same thing in a different way what these efforts to be more innovative are about? Having made this point, I will not explore this any further here as I don’t wish to get distracted in this piece on the topic of efficiency and productivity. I merely provide this as an example of how I think the idea of innovation may often be understood in a very limited way and this may not be helpful. So what is another view on what innovation means?
The key to true innovation I believe is to let new ideas ‘emerge’. That is, come from a more ‘greenfield’ perspective rather than simply making an existing idea more efficient. However, allowing emergent ideas to surface can be challenging. So why is this the case?
I wonder if sometimes it is because we try too hard to be innovative. For example, where we have forced consultation forums and systems (methods) that are designed with the intent of allowing a more creative environment, however and ironically, may do the opposite as the very idea of having a ‘process’ may restrict our capacity to think and be creative. Creativity requires less process and more diversity in thinking, perhaps this is where we need to channel our efforts if our desire is to be innovative.
So, if we are interested in allowing new ideas to emerge, and we accept that more diversity in our thinking is key in this, what are some of the critical things that we can put in place that might allow this to happen?
For the sake of brevity, I have come up with a list of three ‘tools’ (or methods) that I will explore with the group next week. These are:
- more effective engagement with others
- valuing and being open to different ‘world-views’ and;
- a reluctance to simplify and be more critical in our thinking
Let’s now take a look at each of these one by one.
More Effective Engagement with Others
When I talk about ‘effective’ engagement (and conversations), I think of times where we seek to learn and understand from, and with, others; not conversations where it only our view that is shared. So how might we recognise when a conversation and our engagement is effective in this context?
While I could, and many have, written an entire book on this topic, in order to keep this paper brief, I think the best way to describe what I am referring to here as ‘effective’ conversations is to refer to Edgar Schein’s concept of Humble Inquiry that Schein describes as:
“Ultimately the purpose of Humble Inquiry is to build relationships that lead to trust which, in turn, leads to better communication and collaboration.”
Edgar Schein in: Humble Inquiry (2013, p. 21)
Schein also notes:
“… the art of questioning becomes more difficult as status increases. Our culture emphasizes that leaders must be wiser, set direction, and articulate values, all of which predisposes them to tell rather than ask.”
Schein (2013, p. 5)
If our aim is to elicit new and different ideas, perhaps instead of focusing on creating a perfect collaboration forum, system or process, our energy could be spent on being humbler in our discussions? Perhaps, as Schein suggests, we need to be more aware of the power in ‘status’ and the impact that this may have on how other people share ideas?
Of course, being humble in our discussions is not easy in a world of the ‘privatized self’ where we are constantly presented with opportunities to go ‘one up’ on each other, or worse still in many corporate environments, operate in a social context that is rife with ‘battle of the fittest’. Hardly an ideal environment to practice being humble. However, if we truly want to be open to new and different ideas, surely we must set aside our own agenda in order to listen to the views of others. Maybe that would help in being more creative? Speaking of the views of others, this is the next important thing I have identified.
Valuing Differing Worldviews
If we really want to create new and different ideas, valuing diverse views is key.
That is, we should invite different worldviews into our discussions and actively seek out and genuinely try to understand, how others think. Socrates knew a thing about this in his style of ‘Socratic questioning’. Of course this is not easy to do, it is much easier to sit within our won comfortable little bubble in the world we know, but as we do this, how could we ever be open to new and differing ideas? Let’s face it, for some of us, discovering new ideas and being more creative in thinking can be a real challenge, it requires change, and we now that change can in itself create discomfort.
Valuing different worldviews is not always easy, particularly in today’s world of ‘mass communication’ and the ‘24 hour news cycle’ where we are constantly bombarded with so many differing views and opinions (e.g. social media). It can be hard to sift through all of the information that we are presented with, and much easier to stick with what we feel comfortable with. However, if we are to take new information in order to create, the key is discernment of the information and ideas that we are presented with. This requires a more critical level of thinking and engaging in ideas. Not simply developing arguments against other ideas, but to take a dialectic approach, where we step aside from the easy position of being ‘right’, and take on the much more challenging role of ‘seeking the truth’. So let’s explore briefly, the idea of being more critical in our thinking in order to understand the complex mix of information that presents itself to us.
A Reluctance to Simplify and More Critical Thinking
Firstly, let me acknowledge up front, I’m about to write a few paragraphs to suggest that in order to be more creative, it can be helpful not to simplify, yet I am writing about this in a brief article that doesn’t go anywhere near providing enough thought, nor detail about the topic. The irony is not lost on me and I do this reluctantly….!
What does ‘reluctance to simplify’ mean, and how does it relate to innovation and creativity?
When I refer to this term, I consider the work of Professor Karl Weick who proposed the idea in his construct of ‘Collective Mindfulness’ from the book that he co-authored with Kathleen Sutcliffe, Managing the Unexpected. In the book they explain that organisations who are best equipped to deal with the ‘unexpected’ (risk/uncertainty) understand that;
“Knowing that the world they face is complex, unstable, unknowable, and unpredictably, HRO’s (High Reliability Organisations) position themselves to see as much as possible. They welcome diverse experience, skepticism toward received wisdom, and negotiating tactics that reconcile differences of opinion without the destroying the nuances that diverse people detect
Weick (2007, p. 10)
While Weick and Sutcliffe’s construct was developed from the perspective of supporting people and organisations to deal with uncertainty and the unexpected, the same principles apply in creative new and creative ideas, as these are based on risk and on taking a chance about the ‘unknown’.
I suspect that there is something we can take out of Weick and Sutcliffe’s idea if we wish to be more discern information with the aim of being more innovative. In order not to fall for the seduction of ‘simple’, we need to embrace the complexity and messiness of ‘grey’ in our thinking and resist the path of ‘simple’, as this may not be conducive to new ideas and could be the reason we get stuck in our thoughts in the first place.
Not that we ought to actively seek to complicate things either (complex is different to complicated), but we may need to move away from the simplicity of binary (black/white; good/bad; safe/unsafe) thinking if we expect new ideas to emerge. A world where we consider trade-offs and by-products is more complex, but also more conducive to critical thinking and creativity. Binary thinking on the other hand is simplistic and limiting. So how might you go about this?
In the discussion with the group next week, we will be exploring these ideas in a way that we have coined ‘Social Sensemaking’©. This is our way to bring together the unique blend of semiotics, listening, learning, life and critically, conversation, to an understanding of the tackling of any challenge you may face. This is an approach that leads to sharing ideas, experiences and information in ways that cannot be achieved through traditional meeting arrangements.
Social Sensemaking© is a tool that has a unique methodology to draw out and share, listen and facilitate, map and ‘prime’, reflection and maturity in responding to risk and challenges in the workplace. The use of graphic design and art, social psychology, dialogue, language and listening all work together to create Social Sensemaking© and offers organisations a way to explore more critical thinking.
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How do you go about creating the space for innovation and creativity in your relationships? What does innovation mean to you? What challenges have you faced in allowing new ideas to emerge?
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