Book Worming: ‘A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change’
Occasionally we find a book worth mentioning. We’ll do our best to share both the good and the bad, with a healthy dose of interpretation of how you can leverage the concepts as an Osmotic Innovator.
Douglas Thomas and John Seely Browns’ take on changing ways of learning and educating might seem like a stretch for the Osmotic Innovator, until one considers the fact that innovation is at its heart all about learning in order to explore and combine disparate items to create something new. Thomas and Brown realize this, beginning the book by calling out the fact that learning is no longer confined to the classroom – that ‘it is happening all around us, everywhere, and it is powerful . . . it is grounded in a very simple question. What happens to learning when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the tweny-first century?’
For the Osmotic Innovator, this seems like a potentially powerful concept. If learning has been reassessed as advertised, how can this be leveraged to better enable your current employees and how will this change the way that the next generation of recruits to your team works? And further, given that the pace of change in learning has grown exponentially faster, how can firms cope, not only surviving a potential onslaught of innovation but thriving and growing with it?
Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver fully against some of the most exciting questions and possibilities from this perspective. It does however give the reader a new frame of reference to view the process of learning. This new point-of-view could be very valuable in the hands of the Osmotic Innovator.
Thomas and Browns’ description – backed up consistently through the book – that ‘The new culture of learning actually comprises two elements. The first is a massive information network that provides limitless access and resources . . . The second is a bounded and structured environment that allows for unlimited agency to build and experiment with things within those boundaries. . . It is the combination of the two, and the interplay between them, that makes the new culture of learning so powerful’ is a particularly compelling notion.
Building on this, the authors seek to support the case that ‘teaching’ is no longer the predominant mechanism for growth. Instead, ‘learning’, where students play, interact, and create a culture from and through the process of learning, is the new effective environment for growth. Importantly, and recognizable to the Osmotic Innovator, is that the new culture derives its strength from its focus on learning through engagement with the world. It is this outward looking view that makes most sense through the book and resonates with changes in our world culture (see The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century). The notion that to succeed in this era one needs to look outwardly, engaging with consumers, suppliers, and potential competitors, aligns with much of what we understand about Open Innovation. In calling out the biggest dysfunction with the previous worldview Thomas and Brown could be describing the old era of innovation equally well; ‘the major pitfall of the twenty-first century’s teaching model – namely, the belief that most of what we know will remain relatively unchanged for a long enough period of time to be worth the effort of transferring it.’
Though Thomas and Brown make a few connections between this new model for education and the world of business through the remainder of the book, often connecting with insights that would be recognizable to anyone spending time seriously thinking and considering innovation, they fail to really expound on the model and directly connect it to much of the world outside the classroom. This is where the book seems to miss an opportunity; by becoming overly bound to trying to prove the existence of the model through repetitive examples of it they miss the opportunity to apply it (or project how it could be applied) to the larger world they give the occasional nod to.
It should be rather easy though to apply the lessons of this book. The arguments made in the book could well be reframed as calls to action for the innovator; power isn’t in knowing the answer, but where to find the answer; you can learn more from taking the wrong approach than the right; inquiry is the process of asking “what don’t we know.”
The message and codification of ‘play’ as a learning technique for the 21st century is a powerful one, Beyond the realm of education it gives direction to the Osmotic Innovator about the bounty to be reaped for those who learn how to connect play and imagination in fruitful ways. As Thomas and Brown say themselves ‘the culture that emerges . . . is a culture of collective inquiry that harnesses the resources of the network and transforms them . . . only when we care about experimentation, play, and questions more than efficiency, outcomes, and answers do we have a space that is truly open to the imagination.’
Creative spaces are often cited as examples of how the most innovative companies take their creative processes seriously. We have all heard of the efforts of Pixar to ensure maximum creativity from their staff through the design of their building to maximize unscripted interactions, from centralized bathrooms to freedom to decorate your workspace Pixar lives creativity and its employees wear it on their sleeves. Should your company investigate creative spaces as a means of improving innovation? The answer is not so simple.
The problem of how to organize a physical space to drive innovation is a well-known one, having spawned numerous books (see The Organization and Architecture of Innovation by Allen and Henn) and consultancies. Having spent decades maximizing the value captured from efficiency in the ‘organizational diagram’ leaders were bound to recognize that the layout of the actual physical space is equally important to drive productivity and, ultimately, innovation. The problem with implementing the biggest and boldest suggestions to boost innovation and productivity is that it necessitates huge expenditures of capital in order to refurbish old spaces to new layouts. Obviously, this isn’t always compatible with budget or other goals – thus the appearance of ‘Creativity Spaces’!
In order to meet the demand for a place within the office environment where workers can think freely and openly – trying to capture that eureka-in-the-shower moment – old meetings rooms get refurbished with TVs, games, bold colors, and comfy chairs. These places can be easily dismissed as places to waste time. However, for the relatively limited capital requirements they have to be considered as a positive first step. Just having one place in the office that doesn’t feel like the office can encourage teams and meeting groups to think more freely and creatively. Many articles on this blog advocate drastic steps to get free thinking and creativity into your team; the message that should be taken forward is that anything you can do to shake things up and break people out of their typical role is great for boosting innovative output. Doesn’t that align perfectly with having your lead chemist showing everyone their newest moves on Dance Dance Revolution? For the Osmotic Innovator making do with less is an art form – perhaps Creativity Spaces aren’t a Picasso but they’re at least an easel and a brush.
Creative spaces are really the result of creative cultures. When people work in a creative culture they build their own creative spaces and in some instances these spaces may not even look (to the casual observer) very creative at all. We are talking about the water cooler, the original “creative space”. “If you build a creative culture the culture will build their creative space” is probably a better approach for most businesses to take. Without the right culture the creative space discussion shouldn’t even be started.
Can you really define what a creative space should be for your business? What works for Pixar might be useless for your company. Can a laboratory or engineering shop be a “creative space”? Sure it can, and in many companies these areas are far more likely to be creative than any artificially designed space of bright colours and soft furnishings. Don’t fall for the idea that if it looks fun then it must be creative; many companies have demonstrated phenomenal creative endeavour simply by giving their employees access to the same old facilities but without corporate agenda.
Creative spaces must be built; your work environment is unlikely to have been designed with creativity in mind. Creativity feeds off networking so is there a way of causing more cross functional interactions within your employees without going to the extremes of building redesign? Maybe careful placement of coffee bars or mixed function open plan offices would work better than prescribed “creative spaces”.
Overall the design of creative spaces within corporations should be seen as a means of reinforcing a strong corporate innovation culture, not as a means of creating one. There are many more cost effective ways of doing that.
Is the traditional conference room really a good place to hold an innovation session? Are creativity, energy, and involvement from participants predicated on where the event takes place? In this post I will show you how it really is all about “Location, Location, Location” – a phrase realtors often use in explaining how the value of a home can increase or decrease drastically depending upon where it is.
Many times when planning an innovation session, a lot of attention is given to the structure of the events, schedule for the day, and participants. There are lots of ideas all over the internet and available from consultants on what events to include and their proper implementation. However, when it comes time to find a location, typically a conference room within either the company or some hotel is booked and no more thought is given – the task is done.
Although many hotel conference rooms are convenient due to their catering, climate control, and familiar corporate setting (think large well lit room with table and chairs around it) they still fall short of being an ideal venue for holding an innovation event for the following reasons. First, they keep participants within a familiar surrounding enabling it easy to remain in the corporate mindset. Because of this, participants tend to check emails, talk to colleagues about projects, and in general not be as completely immersed as they should be in the creative process. Secondly, people equate conference rooms with long tiring meetings, and so innovation sessions can unfortunately fall victim rather easily to this psychological association. Overcoming this requires numerous breaks throughout the day to keep peoples attention span at peak performance and hopefully prevent them from fatigue. This takes valuable time away from actual ideation and can become a factor which limits the number of activities that can be done in the allotted time span. Lastly, nothing beyond ideation effectively happens outside the planned events. If you want little extra bonuses like team building or people getting to know each other better, they would have to be built into the events in some way – and even then it is not completely effective. This also takes time away from the main goal of generating new ideas and tends to make it seem as though the team bonding aspect is in some way forced.
So then if the traditional conference room is ineffective, what are some good alternatives? Here is where creativity on the part of the session planner is required. Take some time to choose completely different and non traditional locations. Try to think of places that would either be challenging to the senses or elicit an emotionally uncomfortable environmental response. Off the top of my head, some suggestions may be using an abandoned building, going deep in an underground cave, or ideate while on different rides at an amusement park. Going even further, why not consider renting out an empty space and transforming it into the surface of the moon or some distant planet. Why not be innovative in the construction and planning the innovation event? Recently, Osmotic Innovation was made aware of a large global company within the NJ/NY area that took participants out into the middle of the forest to innovate. No comfy climate controlled conference rooms here – but just imagine the ideas and team building that came from camping overnight while trying to avoid bears and other wildlife! As I am sure most Social Psychologists would agree, a highly effective way to brings teams together while simultaneously engaging different parts of the brain would certainly be that of everyone experiencing and overcoming some sort of emotional experience together. Can you visualize how different the environment would be sitting with colleagues in an old abandoned building? What do you think the ominous sounds, musty scents, and graffiti sprayed on the peeling wallpaper would contribute towards forcing participants to forget about work and be in the moment? Imagine the unique and effective events one could plan while in such an environment (taking safety precautions, of course). I don’t know about you, but I know for sure if I were there, checking work emails and worrying about project deadlines would be last on the list!
Therefore, as Osmotic Innovators, lets push ourselves to think of ways to overturn the traditional (cookie cutter type) innovation session and find ways to challenge participants beyond the events by immersing them in new and stimulating environments. Retire the thought of using boring conference rooms and make innovation sessions both an event and experience. Why do we expect participants to provide creative ideas if the innovation sessions themselves are not dynamic? After all, wasn’t it stated that insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results? Well, the same phrase can certainly be applied to innovation sessions. Push participants even further by removing their comfort zones and you will be amazed at the output and level of engagement you will begin to see in response.
There are many in the field of Psychology and Neuroscience that point to the benefits of solving puzzles. Claims of increasing memory and cognitive performance to delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s all point to solving puzzles as a key factor. In fact, one such professor of neurology at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dr. Richard Restak, published a book called Think Smart: A Neuroscientists Prescription for Improving Your Brain Performance. Among many of his tips, one of them is to simply solve puzzles. By doing so, Dr. Restak argues that different parts of the brain will be used depending upon what kind of puzzle you work on.
Within innovation sessions, I have personally observed the increased creativity in individuals when given a riddle or puzzle to solve before being asked to generate ideas. The act of solving something abstract removes the mind from its common everyday “rut” and opens up fresh ways of thinking that are non-linear.
With that in mind, I would like to challenge your creativity and get your brain thinking a bit by providing you with the following mix of riddles and puzzles. How many can you solve?
Hands I do not have, yet I grasp so tight.
I love darkness, my enemy is light.
Both the mighty and low know me well,
For in the hearts of men I dwell!
What am I?
Echoes from a shadow realm,
whispers of things yet to come.
Thoughts strange sister dwells in night,
is swept away in dawning light.
What am I?
I am spelled by three
Two letter the same in me
I am double or single
Or brown, blue, or green
I am read from either end and understood
What am I?
I can be touched,
but I hurt those who touch me.
I move swiftly through a dry forest,
but die in a mountain stream.
Where I pass, I leave a black shroud.
What am I?
A boy and a girl have some candies. If the girl gives one candy to the boy, he will have double the amount of candies that the girl does but if the boy gives the girl a candy, they will have the same amount. How many candies does the girl have and how many does the boy have? Hint: The boy and the girl don’t have the same amount.
If you put a coin in an empty bottle and insert a cork into the neck of the bottle, how could you remove the coin without taking the cork out or breaking the bottle?
You must cut a birthday cake into exactly eight pieces, but you’re only allowed to make three straight cuts, and you can’t move pieces of the cake as you cut. How can you do it?
Whether you recognize it or not, you have heard it before. The six-second long break beat, known as the “Amen Break,” is claimed to be one of the most sampled loops in music history. It has appeared in such diverse settings as Oasis’ D’You Know What I Mean, car commercials, and the NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. Some claim its inherent popularity is due to the loop’s waveform aligning with the mathematical Golden Ratio. Regardless of why it is so ubiquitous, the history behind it is a valuable lesson for the innovator.
The Amen Break originally appeared in the song Amen Brother by the Winstons in 1969. The track itself was the B-side to their single Color Me Father, recorded more out of necessity than anything else. Though the Winstons won a Grammy for Color Me Father, the band had already split up and the record faded from the public eye. It wasn’t until almost twenty years later, with the advent of the sampler and hip-hop, that the Amen Break rose to prominence. The sampler allowed producers to record and loop music to provide backing for a rapper’s performance. Amen Brother appeared on a compilation album of break beats for easy sampling, and took off from there.
However, while the Amen Break was used considerably in early hip-hop, its influence was even larger in the UK. Producers began to experiment with the break sample; rather than simply looping it, they chopped and layered it to create an entirely new sound. The genres of jungle and drum-and-bass were essentially born of this manipulation, with producers participating in an “arms race”  of sorts to see who could do the most with the sample. Sometimes they pushed the envelope too far and made tracks that were impossible to dance to. Though the popularity of these genres waned, the Amen Break continued to live on in countless productions, and has become such an integral part of the modern audio landscape that it’s often taken for granted.
So what can we learn from the Amen Break? I’d say the first thing is never to throw out something just because it isn’t immediately useful. Sometimes it takes a fresh perspective, or new technology, to truly make the most of an idea. Hip-hop artists looking through old funk tracks rediscovered it, and along with the sampler, utilized it to meet their needs. Furthermore, innovation isn’t necessarily coming up with new ideas, but adapting existing ones. Using the same building blocks, producers were able to create completely different tracks. Though there is an entire debate over copyright law pertaining to this sample (that I won’t get into here), the fact is that sampling created entire genres of music through a mere six second loop. And if that’s possible, think of what you can do with even more time and resources.
When most companies build their staff they focus on identifying the best talent in their industry, proudly trumpeting this as both a reason to join their company and for stockholders to take heart in their capacity to stay ahead of the competition. As discussed previously in this blog this can lead to a very narrow focus within a team, limiting diversity of thought. Can an organization work around this by finding someone that can force teams to stretch outside their comfort zones while still being a productive and regular member of the team?
In fact, the skills required for this role have been recognized for millennia. In mythology, stories are full of trickster gods that challenged the status quo, whose role seemed on the surface to be spreading discord. Take Loki from Norse mythology. In the stories, he appears to fill many roles and is even able to take many forms as a shape shifter. His role is not to govern but rather to disrupt and to agitate. Alternately the other gods love and hate him. The role of Loki is as an antagonist – his appearance in a story drives it forward and forces the other gods to take action. Even today scholars debate his intent in the stories – his presence still causing discord, discussion, and ultimately ideation. The trickster figure is complicated in myth – they are often seen as rule breakers, sometimes malicious and sometimes not, but often to positive effect. They are problem solvers and deliver solutions – often times being the source of the innovation of fire.
Even the stolid courts of the medieval period recognized this skill: the “fool” was expected to not only be funny, but to also deliver insightful and truthful commentary that would allow the leaders to more thoroughly see the world. This was the living embodiment of the trickster, an antagonist that creates change through disruption.
But what type of person can serve as the trickster or fool on your team? How can a person like this fit without being a disruption to the team and group dynamic. I would propose that this role can be filled by what we’d know as a generalist. The generalist is an individual with broad knowledge. Much like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin they can fill multiple roles and careers in their life, having interests as broad as writing a new bible, creating a university, and governing the nation in the former case and writing and publishing (including the everything-you-ever-needed-to-know Poor Richard’s Almanack), amateur science, and diplomacy in the later case. The generalist has knowledge on a variety of topics, being conversant in them while having the ability to learn and acquire subject matter expertise quickly in order to leverage their broad base of knowledge.
The generalist must also have the confidence to speak up. This is because the generalist also benefits through naivety – unencumbered by the certain knowledge of the status quo they are able to call it as they see it. When an idea has no clothes, but those close to the industry or technology are unable to recognize it, the generalist can demonstrate true sight, asking questions and revealing truth that will allow others to recognize something that can (with hindsight) seem rather obvious.
Retaining this skill is difficult though. The generalist is at a disadvantage to peers with expertise and experience in a field and needs to have the confidence and personality to speak their mind in the face of a well-organized and entrenched opposition. Further, the complex nature of the Fools role requires them to be a very special individual, curious enough to question every detail, competent enough to understand a vast array of topics, skilled in communication to deliver their true message, and social enough to be welcomed into a team without being a threat. Ignoring this critical role can ensure that your team smoothly rockets toward mediocre innovation. Having a powerful voice in this role can boost the productivity and quality of output exponentially. The successful Osmotic Innovator knows how much resource a fool can save through practical knowledge, common sense, and deep insight. The question isn’t how to get rid of the fool on their team, but how to get more of them.
I would like to take a moment and discuss a topic that is probably not a favourite among the majority of the population: Mathematics. I will now give you a moment to compose yourself and allow the nauseous feelings to subside. You may now be wondering why in a blog about corporate innovation and promoting an innovative environment I choose to talk about such a dreadful topic. My reasoning is rather simple: in reading about innovation and how to get people to be creative, the benefits of Mathematics are never mentioned and yet it is in everything from Art to Music. We focus so much on allowing free thinking and encouraging others to look beyond and outside the box. What about Math?
Unfortunately, many assume that thinking about Math will place a person in an analytical rather than creative frame of mind and may inhibit innovation. Is this true? If you’ve struggled with Math in the past you’re probably hoping that it is! Sorry…I am going to prove otherwise and hopefully convert you to a Math lover. No, I am not intending to turn you into the next famous Mathematician, but rather to develop in you an appreciation of this complex subject and show you how something perceived as “structured” can actually promote abstract and boundless thinking. Weird, huh?
When we think of Math in a general term, it includes complex subtopics like Calculus, Multi-variable Calculus, Geometry, Algebra, Differential Equations, and so on. Yes, these are very complicated in application, but one need only look at a picture or painting or listen to a symphony or rock song to appreciate them in real life. In addition, there are more advanced topics like Logic, Abstract Algebra, and Linear Algebra but these are for enhancing logic, reasoning, and visualization and their benefits will be addressed in another post.
To see the complex but paradoxically simple beauty of Math, you can look at almost any masterpiece of painting or sculpture. What is the best part about this? Knowing how to solve complex differential equations and triple integrals is not even necessary. In fact, most of the beauty we see is more from applying simple geometric patterns over and over in some sequence. When done this way, it gives rise to what Mathematicians term Fractals – a detailed repeating pattern that makes itself obvious when zooming in on the picture. One person in particular, Benoit Mandelbrot, has become known as the father of fractal geometry. As stated in a Wikipedia article about him, Mandelbrot “emphasized the use of fractals as realistic and useful models of many “rough” phenomena in the real world. Natural fractals include the shape of mountains, coastlines and river basins, the structures of plants, blood vessels and lungs, the clustering of galaxies; and Brownian motion. Fractals are found in human pursuits, such as music, painting, architecture, and stock market prices.” I encourage the reader to type into a search engine the term ‘fractal’ and enjoy all the interesting pictures that result.
Besides fractals, another interesting common mathematical wonder (for lack of a better term) is the Fibonacci sequence – a sequence of numbers defined by the linear recurrence equation Fn = Fn+1 + Fn-2. Although it looks really complex, it basically means you get specific numbers: 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21…(to infinity). So why is this interesting? Well, if you are a fan of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code or the TV show NUMB3RS, then you may already have some familiarity with this. Fibonacci numbers are found in the structure of crystals, the spiral of galaxies, and in the design of a nautilus shell. A rather new innovative application is found in the song “Lateralus” performed by the progressive metal band Tool. Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of the band, not only sings of spirals but the syllables of the lyrics follows the first few Fibonacci numbers. It is worth sharing, as it is rather cool to see:
(2) white are
(3) all I see
(5) in my in-fan-cy
(8) red and yel-low then came to be
(5) reach-ing out to me
(3) lets me see
(2) there is
This is just part of the song, but you can already see him following the Fibonacci sequence 1,1,2,3,5,8..and then reversing back…5,3,2,1,1 etc. Watch the video below to hear mathematics in action:
So what does all this mean to the osmotic innovator? Many times we are faced with what seems like an insurmountable challenge. We attack it head on and think that with enough critical thinking and brainstorming we can somehow solve it. We may even go so far as to call in specialists and technical experts for their point of view. Does this really help us approach the problem differently, or are we just getting lost in the proverbial complex landscape? Instead; take a problem, break it down into its constituent parts and handle each one of those separately. Mathematics teaches us to take a step back – don’t get lost in the extreme complexity, for even in something as complex as the nautilus shell there is a simple structure to be found. We don’t all need to be a mathematical genius to solve something that seems rather complicated. Remember, the lead singer of Tool, James Maynard Keenan, used the Fibonacci sequence in a song. He took something difficult, simplified it, and turned it into music. Now think of the possibilities available to you as osmotic innovators…they’re infinite!