As I write this I am somewhere over the middle of Australia, flying back to Perth after participating in a 3 day event that was fun, challenging and highly insightful. The conference was Creative Melbourne, and I am proud to say I was one of the inaugural speakers. If they want me back again, I will do it in a heartbeat, and I hope a lot of you come along for the ride.
The premise: practical co-creation…
First the background… I have known the conference organiser, Arthur Shelley, for a few years. We first met at a Knowledge Management conference in Canberra and though I have no recollection of how we got talking, I do recall we clicked fairly quickly. At the time I was starting to explore the ideas around ambiguity, which eventually formed my second book. Back then I had a chip on my shoulder about how topics like complexity, Design Thinking and collaboration were being taught to students. I felt that the creative and fun parts glossed over the true stress and cognitive overload of wicked problems. This would produce highly idealistic students who would fall flat on their face once they hit a situation that was truly wicked. I therefore questioned whether anything was being built into students mental armory for the inevitable pain to come.
Now for some people who operate and teach in this space, making such a statement immediately and understandably gets their defenses up. But not Arthur – he listened to everything I had to say, and showed me examples of how he structured his courses and teachings to deal with this challenge. It was impressive stuff: every time his students thought they had a handle on things, Arthur would introduce a curveball or a change they were not anticipating. In other words, while teaching the techniques, he was building their capacity for handling ambiguous situations. Little did I know his conference was about to do the same to me…
One thing about Arthur that blows me away constantly is his incredible network of practitioners in this space. Arthur has long had a vision for bringing a constellation of such practitioners together and he hand-picked a bunch of us from all over the world. The premise, was to create an event that had a highly practical focus. He wanted practitioners to help attendees “Discover creative techniques to enhance performance and engage your team back at the office to increase productivity.”
Now where did I leave my curiosity?
While I am a sensemaking practitioner, I’ll admit straight up that I get irritated at the “fluffiness” and rampant idealism in this space. A good example is Design Thinking in this respect. While I like it and apply ideas from it to my practice, I dislike it when Design Thinking proponents claim it to be suited to wicked problems. The reality is the examples and case studies often cited are rarely wicked at all (at least in the way the term was originally conceived). When I see this sort of thing happening, it leaves me wondering if proponents have truly been in a complex, contingent situation and had the chance to stress test their ideas.
Now I don’t apologise for critically examining the claims made by anyone, but I do apologise for the unfortunate side effect – becoming overly contrarian. In my case, after all these years of research, reading and practice in this field, I am at the point where I see most new ideas as not actually new and are rediscoveries of past truths. Accordingly, it has been a long time since I felt that sense of exhilaration from having my mental molecules rearranged from a new idea. It makes sense right? I mean, the more you learn about something, the more your mental canvas has been painted on. In my case I already have a powerful arsenal of useful tools and approaches that I call upon when needed and more importantly, I was never on a spiritual quest for the one perfect answer to the mysteries of organsiational life anyway.
In short, I have what I need to do what I do. The only problem is somewhere along the line I lost the very sense of curiosity that started me along the path in the first place. It took Arthur, fellow presenters like Stuart French, Jamie Bartie, Jean-Charles Cailliez, Meredith Lewis, Brad Adriaanse, Vadim Shiryaev and a diverse group of participants to help me rediscover it…
Disrupting the disruptor…
Imagine someone like me participating in day 1, where we did things like build structures out of straws, put on silly hats, used the metaphor of zoo animals to understand behaviors, arm-wrestled to make a point about implicit assumptions and looked at how artists activate physical space and what we could learn from it when designing collaborative spaces. There was some hippie stuff going on here and my contrarian brain would sometimes trigger a reflexive reaction. I would suddenly realise I was tense and have to tell myself to relax. Sometimes my mind would instinctively retort with something like “Yeah right… try that in a politicised billion dollar construction project…” More than once I suppressed that instinct, telling myself “shut up brain – you are making assumptions and are biased. Just be quiet, listen, be present and you might learn something.”
That evening I confided to a couple of people that I felt out of place. Perhaps I was better suited to a “Making decisions in situations of high uncertainty and high cognitive overload” conference instead. I was a little fearful that I would kill the positive vibe of day 1 once I got to my session. No-one wants to be the party pooper…
Day 2 rolled around and when it was my turn to present. I held back a little on the “world according to Paul” stuff. I wanted to challenge people but was unsure of their tolerance for it – especially around my claims of rampant idealism that I mentioned earlier. I needn’t have worried though, as the speaker after me, Karuna Ramanathan from Singapore, ended up saying a lot of what I wanted to say and did a much better job. My talk was the appetizer to his “reality check” main course. He brilliantly articulated common organsiational archetypes and why some of the day 1 rhetoric often hits a brick wall. It was this talk that validated I did belong in this community after all. Arthur had indeed done his homework with his choice of speakers.
That same afternoon, we went on a walking tour of Melbourne with Jamie Bartie, who showed us all sorts of examples of cultural gems in Melbourne that were hiding in plain sight. The moral of the story was similar to day 1… that we often look past things and have challenge ourselves to look deeper. This time around my day 1 concerns had evaporated and I was able to be in the moment and enjoy it for what it was. I spoke to Jamie at length that evening and we bonded over a common childhood love of cult shows like Monkey Magic. I also discovered another kung-fu movie fan in Meredith Lewis, who showed me a whole new way to frame conversations to get people to reveal more about themselves, and develop richer personal relationships along the way.
Petcha Kucha – Getting to a point…
Day 3 was a bit of a watershed moment for me for two reasons. Months prior, I had accepted an invitation from Stuart French to participate in his Petcha Kucha session. At the time I said “yes” without really looking into what it entailed. The gist is you do a presentation of 20 slides, with 20 seconds per slide, all timed so they change whether you are ready or not. This forces you to be incredibly disciplined with delivering your talk, which I found very hard because I was so used to “winging it” in presentations. Despite keynoting conferences with hundreds of people in the room, doing a Petcha Kucha to a smaller, more intimate group was much more nerve-racking. I had to forcibly switch off my tangential brain because as soon as I had a thought bubble, the slides would advance and I would fall behind and lose my momentum. It took a lot of focus for me to suppress my thought bubbles but it was worth it. In short, a Petcha Kucha is a fantastic tool to test one’s mental muscles and enforce discipline. I highly recommend that everyone give it a go – especially creative types who tend to be a bit “all over the place”. It was a master-stoke from Stuart to introduce the technique to this audience and I think it needs to be expanded next time.
I presented the first Petcha Kucha, followed by Stuart and then Brad Adriaanse, who described the OODA Loop philosophy. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act, providing a way to break out of one’s existing dogma and reformulate paradigms, allowing you to better adapt to changing circumstances. Dilbert cartoons aptly shows us that we all have incomplete (and often inconsistent) world views which should be continually refined and adapted in the face of new observations. Brad put it nicely when he said OODA was about maintaining a fluid cognitive state and that assumptions can be a straightjacket and dogma can blind us. This really hit home for me, based on how I reacted at times on day 1. Brad also said that the OODA loop can be internalised by adopting a lifelong learning mindset, being curious and become more and more comfortable with ambiguity.
It was at this exact moment where I rediscovered my latent curiosity and understood why I felt the way I did on day 1 and 2. It was also at this moment that I realised Arthur Shelley’s genius in why he made this event happen, who he brought together and what he has created in this event. All attendees need to be disrupted. Some need their idealism challenged, and some, like me, need a reminder of what started us on this path in the first place.
I have returned a better practitioner for it… Thankyou Arthur
p.s Arthur Shelley is still a giant hippie