Monday, February 13, 2012

So What's Wrong with a Choir?

So who amongst us has never experienced a 'brain-storming session'? The ubiquitous newsprint flip chart, the magic markers (usually a full palate of colours -- for emphasis!), and the facilitator's caveat of 'don't hold back, just throw out those suggestions; there are no bad ideas'. The (as it turns out) illusory presumption is that quantity is preferred to quality (if we need to make a choice) and that assessing the merit of a particular idea will suppress the creative flow. Put a group of chimpanzees in a room with full access to (it used to be) typewriters and, with enough time, they'll re-create the Bard of Avon's canon -- it'll just take a lifetime of editing to find it! And so it is with the hallmark technique of Madison Avenue, company board rooms, and a whole host of other groups in search of an idea -- any idea.

To rescue the baby as the bath water swirls down the drain, there is apparent benefit in this process -- but it's not what the originators of the brain-storming protocol thought it was. Evidently it's the group itself that provides the real creative juice; and not the liberty to free associate endlessly without fear of having to justify or defend one's thoughts. So being in community is superior to working (and thinking) in isolation. But it's how we're in community. Apparently we need to grate on each other a bit for the process to be optimally productive.

Charlan Nemeth (U. of California at Berkeley) is quoted in a recent article in The New Yorker: '(Although) authentic dissent can be difficult, it's always invigorating'. The article's author, Jonah Lehrer, elaborates: 'criticism allows people to dig below the surface of imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren't predictable'. Reading this, I recalled a hiring protocol attributed to Nissan which they christened 'creative abrasion'. When interviewing middle management candidates, the company generally attempted to hire pairs of individuals whose perspectives were often in opposition one from the other. The rationale was that the dyads would challenge each other and foster accountability -- rather than just automatically validate and endorse what their partner had proposed.

The article goes on to examine the particular type(s) of group interaction that most fosters creativity. It turns out that (surprise, surprise), Steve Jobs' vision of creating a working environment that promotes (mandates, in his rather dictatorial style) a 'benign collision' of individuals from different departments with different focuses is a 'best way' of achieving this end (increased creative energy). The prototype for this model was evidently created, quite by accident, in the latter years of World War II at a research facility at MIT (somewhat anonymously labelled 'Building 20'); charged with the responsibility of perfecting radar technology. The dilapidated physical home to this critical research, scheduled for demolition immediately post-war -- but lasting decades longer -- has its longevity attributed to the phenomenal string of ground-breaking inventions that continued to emanate from within its drafty walls. The reason for this unique contribution: a host of thoughtful, curious, and critical thinkers from any number of different scientific backgrounds, regularly getting lost (the floor and office numbering apparently grew up with no identifiable logic to it) and stumbling into rarely encountered colleagues, co-tenants. Curiosity being what it is, ideas were shared and 'critiqued' over coffee -- along with directions provided back to one's own work space! In the process, perspectives were given a quarter turn and gently helped 'outside the box' long enough to foster an abundance of 'aha moments'.

On reflection, a few aspects of this process resonated with me. When this blog began, it was intended as a forum to stimulate discussion. The blog site, Hinc Videndum, translates from the Latin (rather generously) as 'The view from here'; and was intended to convey 'one person's thoughts on . . .' -- but inviting comment, expansion, and most particularly, challenge. One of our regular group members, on selecting his seat opposite me a few weeks ago, joked (but not entirely) that he was choosing the 'devil's advocate chair' -- a role he regularly and enthusiastically takes on; and happily so from my perspective! Several writers and teachers of meditation and mindfulness draw connections across the boundaries of different 'brands' of practice, showing how each is enriched by the contributions and traditions of the other(s). When we sit in isolation (or 'sing with the choir'), we risk stifling our creativity, limiting our exposure to challenge (and by extension, the stimulus that gives our practice that quarter turn); we become less vital and more complacent.

Even in mindfulness practice, feedback, questions, and authentic dissent are essential.

1 comment:

NONCENTS said...

Are you suggesting a change in chairs?