I’ve recently been on Twitter, attempting to understand how the dynamics of the medium, which are definitely different than Facebook, work. As such, I’ve picked up a few followers in the complex systems application community. All these seem to be in health care, which is interesting to me, as I’m mostly embedded in the generalized aerospace/AI community, and hadn’t thought much about complex systems in the context of health care. It’s obviously my problem of linking awareness, as I’ve written about diet pretty extensively, and how all this linked to a decline in the aggregate mind, so it’s obviously an oversight on my part.
One of my new followers posted the following article from MIT Sloan School of Management Review, titled Leadership Lessons from your Inner Child, by one of their instructors, Douglas A. Ready. It’s the standard stuff about how children are bold, take risks, and other such icks. It’s centered around the individual (egocentric) and almost needless to say, centers around a mythic view of the past. If you want to be creative, be as a child.
Another book espousing occasionally a similar philosophy is the best-selling book, The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle. In his book, he leads with a chapter about how creative young children are, in that they can build a taller spaghetti and marshmallow tower than some laundry list of executives, like lawyers and bank officials. I gave back the book, so please forgive my incorrect listing of professions. If we could just be like those kids, Coyle asserts, we’d be more creative, and better professionals.
Inevitably, advice like Coyle’s and Ready’s is enshrined in games that people are made to play at corporate trainings, and, unfortunately, design professor get-togethers as “icebreakers”. You’re given an assortment of random items, or a box of spaghetti, and told to go at it. Some people gleefully leap into the milieu, seizing their child mind because they’re what I call ‘puzzle people’, or alternately because that’s their actual stage of development. But you can’t dodge the social physics of this blog. Design professors that can’t build tall marshmallow towers, or can’t generate a cute group nickname, inevitably feel shame. You don’t just jump out of a status-based Legalistic/Authoritarian social structure because someone hands you a box of pasta.
When I read things like this, however, I’m busy pondering the deeper “Why” of the Matrix. Let’s get at the core of the fundamental validity question. If kids are supposedly so much better at leadership than those hospital executives, why don’t we let 6-year-olds run hospitals? Of course, this is a laughable idea, and not because I’m a traditionalist. We’re never going to get to run the experiment because people would DIE. What’s funny is how our brains have enshrined this myth of childhood creativity so deeply that people from MIT bring it up and preach it as gospel truth.
What it really shows is that we don’t understand creativity, even at an egocentric, individual level very well. And that we have some pretty deep cultural sidebars that lock in that lack of understanding. Our standard process of dealing with the ‘creative child’ myth is to let the nostalgic emotions flow while we’re daydreaming through the inevitable speech, not say anything against the dominant paradigm, and get back to work.
The deeper truth behind the ‘creative child’ myth is not all B.S., however. Children do possess a greater amount of neuroplasticity, that brain flexibility thing that means beliefs (and the meta-linear, incremental single solution sets that accompany them) are more easily overcome, and multi-solution thinking, with its meta-nonlinear characteristics is far more possible. Neuroplasticity comes mostly naturally to kids, but once we’re over the age of 25, it starts to decline, unless it is triggered by trauma, and what I call a grounding validity crisis. If you’ve been mapping yourself to single solution thinking forever, that doesn’t have much to do with reality, when you think you might die, it’s a wonder how creative you can get in order to avoid expiring.
Calling out this transition in individual neuroplasticity can be a good thing. But it still needs the larger adult processes of incorporation and scaffolding in order to be meaningful. Kids exist in what Ken Wilber called the Preconscious stage. This maps to a Spiral Dynamics level of Tribal Authoritarianism, with lots of magical thinking. Counting on adults who have personally evolved to what Wilber would call the Conscious stage to maintain the same level of neuroplasticity, if those same adults have a limited experience base and haven’t really grown empathetically, doesn’t happen. They’re used to being surrounded by people who look like them, figuratively or literally, and that lack of empathetic development means that their neuroplasticity is going to go into the toilet.
What it also means is that in order to get to some level of Wilber’s Post-conscious development stage, which requires self-awareness, means they’re going to have to wait until their mid-life crisis, or until someone they love gets hit by a bus. Not particularly valid methods for building egocentric creativity in your work place, if your needs for multi-solution thinking are more immediate.
I found the picture below in my Facebook feed, and in many ways, it is a.) deeply tragic, and b.) a great example of the stuck-in-lower-stages of development hell. The couple pictured likely wanted to impress their friends by telling them they took a plane trip, which is beyond their means. Instead, their photo of their superficial creativity has gone viral on the Internet, making them a laughingstock. (Maybe — maybe their intent was to fool someone like me and have an image go viral!)
How, then, do we as leaders, unlock real creativity? The answer is creating conditions that march up the Spiral developmentally. Safety matters, at the bottom, and to be fair, Daniel Coyle mentions this. But further up the developmental chain, the main thing that starts making a difference with creativity is an increase in personal agency. You have to trust yourself to make good decisions, and being given by leadership decision-making heuristics and processes where that agency matters. That experience of personal accomplishment can ground a person, and then make it far more possible to merge into a creative community and contribute. You’ll feel assured you know what you know. But you’ll also look out and realize that others might know stuff as well.
What then follows is a far more complex creative dance. When multiple people are involved, think of people exchanging ideas freely as throwing a ball back and forth, with no end in sight unless everyone can agree, or at least agree to disagree, on a final concept. That blending in the design space is highly meta-nonlinear, and I write about this extensively in this post. Be forewarned — it’s a bit of a deep, systems-goodness deep dive.
The short version is, though, that meta-nonlinear dynamics, naturally produce multiple solutions, with a little piece of everyone synergized as a whole when the group finally reaches conclusions. Because fundamentally, creativity, outside the ranks of flashes of genius, is inherently an emergent group process. When you couple this with noble purpose and meaning, also keyed to the developmental needs and place of the group, things will really take off. And you, as an empathetic leader, can facilitate that by setting up your social structure with more profound empathy.
And the more independently generated relationships you can help your people make, to build their empathetic capacity, the better off they’ll be. So put away the box of spaghetti, the Legos, or (heaven forbid) the Plasticine clay. Next time you’re working to stimulate creativity, crack open a nice bottle of wine and let people talk and get to know each other. Give them a task with deeper purpose, that maps to their ability to contribute and find meaning. Stop any inner urge you have to have your engineers jump on one foot while they brainstorm. They’ll appreciate you for it. They’re not children, after all.
P.S. Not wanting to get into a big discussion re: alcohol, because, well, it’s complicated — but alcohol is much more of a ‘We’ drug when used in moderation, than an ‘I’ drug. Something to think about, creativity-wise. There’s a reason for the old saying ‘when the pub closes, the revolution starts!’