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!
In today’s corporate environment, we are expected to be innovative in addition to managing a stressful daily routine of juggling priorities between work (project deadlines, attending meetings, writing reports) and family. Of course, this means we’re often working to meet tight deadlines. This doesn’t trouble some people, who frequently say “I work better meeting a deadline at the last minute” or “I get more done under stress”, but is it really true that some people can perform at their best under stress – particularly when it comes to innovation?
Let’s take a step back for a moment and obtain a better understanding of what stress is. Referred to as the “father of stress”, Hans Selye was an endocrinologist who performed extensive studies of the response to stress by biological organisms. He proposed there were two types of stress: eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress). Eustress is a positive form of stress that provides challenges, motivation, and leads you to an act of fulfilment. An example outcome of this would be returning to college to further your education which provides you with more opportunities in life. However, most of us are more familiar with the negative type of stress. How does this negative stress affect our body and our ability to innovate?
Distress is the physical or psychological demand we respond to and comes from various sources. Although there are two types of work related stress: Physical/Task related stress and Psychological stress, we will focus mostly on the later. Psychological stress is complex as it encompasses the following:
- Lack of control/predictability examines our desire to have flexibility in our work hours and autonomy (extent to which we can control how and when we perform our job related tasks). Many employees who do not have flexible work hours and have little or no input into decision making are reported to be less motivated and less likely to take on additional responsibilities.
- Interpersonal Conflict refers to interactions with any co-worker that is negative or unfriendly. This is perhaps the most common source of distress and can result from something simple like scarce resources to more complex situations where there is personal conflict among team members.
- Role Stressors refer to the stress that comes from the multiple tasks that are required from employees due to their position. Encompassed within this definition is the stress one feels when there is no clear definition to their job tasks, and when demands from work become overwhelming.
- Work/Family conflict is defined when the demands of career and family overlap. Being late or unavailable to show for an important family event due to an excessive workload will certainly be a cause of stress.
Now that stress has been defined, it is important to understand the effect it has on us physiologically. How a body manages long term and short term negative distress has been termed General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). GAS is comprised of three stages: Alarm reaction, Stage of Resistance, and finally Stage of Exhaustion. Placement of an individual into any of these stages depends upon the time duration of the stress experienced, and provides more understanding how the body will handle the stress at the stage a person is in. Without going into too much detail on each stage, essentially it is important to note that continued stress can lead to a weakened immune system, mental fatigue, and even heart disease. In application to innovation, there are behavioural consequences that will also affect the individual. There are numerous studies linking stress with impairing memory, lowering creativity, and causing poor decision making.
Considering all this, why do some people think stress actually motivates them? Because they are unknowingly referring to eustress, not distress. It has been hypothesized that eustress can positively motivate a person to act, but up to a point. Too much eustress, and the performance begins to decline. With distress, Industrial-Organizational Psychologists have found that any amount has a negative effect on performance. This is important to consider when thinking about innovation and how it can hinder creativity. Knowing that eustress is something we all experience at some point in our lives, try a few of the suggestions below:
- Listen to instrumental music – not only will it lower stress, but if you play classical, it may even have the added bonus of increasing creativity.
- Utilize the calming or fun aspect of certain locations to remove yourself from the everyday routine. Go to an arcade, outdoors, or somewhere that is different from your everyday surroundings.
- On a piece of paper, write down all your worries or stressors while at the same time imagining what you are writing is escaping and erasing itself from your mind. Once finished, destroy the paper (light on fire, tear up into pieces, etc) and take a deep breath.
- Meditate. Even if it’s just clearing your mind or focusing on some external object, you are giving yourself a chance to momentarily escape the stress.
In most corporations these suggestions may seem by management to be nothing more than diversions. One must therefore consider the possible need for proper education to encourage everyone to understand the health risks of unmanaged stress and the benefits of finding and practicing ways to alleviate it. Hopefully, with performing some of these suggestions on a daily basis, you (and your organization) can be a less stressful and more creative and innovative environment.
Levy, Paul E. Industrial Organizational Psychology. 3rd Ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2009.
Landy, F. J. & Conte, M. Work in the 21st Century: An Introduction to Industrial and Organizational Psychology. 2nd Ed. Malden, Ma.: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Ever wonder how the best ideas come together? Here Steven Johnson gives a preview of his book on the topic while detailing the importance of allowing ideas to develop, mingle, and grow.
Are you the type of person who listens to their iPod while working? What about when you are at the gym? Is the music different depending upon what you are doing and when? It is often said that music is the soundtrack of our life, and has the ability to make us smile, cry, feel energized, or relaxed. What about color? Are there certain colors you like or dislike?
Applying this thinking to structuring an innovation session, you might want to find a way to provoke an emotional response. In this post, we will explore how incorporating (or manipulating) our sense of hearing and sight via music and color may assist in enhancing peoples creativity.
All of us have at some point studied the physiology of our eyes and ears. Different frequencies and vibrations in the air reach our eardrum and produce what we term “sound”. Light gets focused, forms an image, and the image is converted to electrical signals that tell the brain of what we “see”. Understanding each of these organs could require extensive study of Anatomy & Physiology and Physics by themselves, but putting the complexity of the human physiology aside, do these senses affect the individual psychologically?
Starting with music, there are numerous papers that examine its impact on intelligence and creativity. You may be aware of the studies regarding pregnant mothers playing classical music and the belief they will have more intelligent children. Although this is still debatable, fundamentally it stands that soothing sounds can induce creativity and increase intelligence. What exactly is defined as soothing? According to Dr. Jeffrey Thompson from the Center for Neuroacoustic Research, Delta rhythms of 0.5Hz induct meditative-like states of consciousness and “whenever there are extraordinary meditation states present, brainwave electrical activity between the right/left hemispheres tends to synchronize. This synchronization of the cerebral hemispheres seems to only happen in special circumstances of consciousness – the “aha” state, the moment when the answer to a problem occurs, creative inspiration, great insight, and moments of awareness of ones own existence.” Although a majority of us can not measure the frequency of music we listen to, it is safe to assume that sounds of the harp, Tibetan bowls, recordings of nature, and slow instrumental songs will certainly put us in this required state of mind. It has also been shown that learning how to play an instrument can improve our intelligence and abilities. In a study performed by the Association for Psychological Science, children taking music lessons scored higher on verbal memory tests than a control group without musical training. Although not explored in this blog, it is important to note that music is additionally linked to reducing pain after surgery and is strongly suspected to increase/decrease the violent tendencies of people depending upon the kind of music listened to.
There are many articles and studies explaining how color can enhance mood, productivity, physical performance, and what we purchase (to name but some of the many examples). Several ancient cultures are known to employ what we now term color psychology for healing. Although viewed with scepticism, studies have been conducted that suggest a link between different colors and the state of our mind. One such study performed by the University of British Columbia (UBC) demonstrates how brain performance can be enhanced. According to Juliet Zhu from UBC’s Saunder School of Business, researchers tracked more than 600 participants’ performance on six cognitive tasks that required detail orientation or creativity. Most experiments were conducted on computers, with a screen that was red, blue, or white. As it turns out, red boosted performance on detail oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31%. When confronted with creative tasks such as brainstorming, blue environmental cues were shown to produce twice as many outputs as compared to the other colours. According to Juliet Zhu, “Thanks to stop signs, emergency vehicles, and teachers red pens, we associate red with danger, mistakes and caution. The avoidance motivation or heightened state that red activates makes us vigilant and thus helps us perform tasks where careful attention is required.” Blue, however, encourages us to think outside the box and be creative she says. “Through associations with the sky, the ocean and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace, and tranquillity. The benign cues make people feel safe about being creative and exploratory.” Other colors are also believed to affect the body and mind in certain ways – just do a quick Google search and you will be amazed at the abundance of information on both the positive and negative aspects assigned to each one.
For the Osmotic Innovator, this information is yet another technique to add to the growing toolbox of ways to bring out creativity in people during innovation sessions. Some examples include:
- Keep people creative and energetic by alternating between classical and dance music. Use the classical music when you need them to be focused and creative. When needed, inject energy into the room by playing something with a faster beat.
- Place the challenge statement on a blue background and hang it up so everyone can see
- Play with the emotions different colors can evoke by use of colored lighting, and/or making available colored paper, crayons, and pens. Have no “traditional” white paper available.
- Form teams and force each one to be immersed in a particular color as they innovate (have them wear that color shirt or other type of clothing and use supplies of only that color). Allow the groups to experience being immersed in different colors.
- Do the same thing as described in the previous suggestion, but with the addition of music. Maybe subject one group to Jazz, another to Classical, and another to Dance/Rock.
These are just a few examples of what could be done to improve creativity. Experiment the incorporation of music and color with your own sessions and see what happens.