Wednesday, March 28, 2018

First, Check Operating Assumptions

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world.  Scrub them off every
once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”      -- Isaac Asimov

If you haven’t heard this one before, try to answer it: 

A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies instantly, and the son is taken to the nearest hospital. The doctor comes in and exclaims, "I can't operate on this boy."

"Why not?" the nurse asks.

"Because he's my son," the doctor responds.

How is this possible?

The “Why can’t the doctor operate?” riddle shows how assumptions can block answers.

Only by blocking the idea that the doctor has to be male (the father) can you get to the answer that the doctor must be female (and the boy’s mother).  This is a simple example of extinction: dismissing an unproductive idea masking the solution from being seen or developed.

What assumptions do we routinely make that create problems with problem-solving?  Usually our common assumptions serve us well.  They keep us from having to reinvent reality every time we wake up. This means that every day, we assume thousands of “facts”:  But in the case of open-ended problems, those that are new, unfamiliar, unsolved, or ongoing, preassumptions (as they are called in psychology—assuming you know basically what things and how they work) can actually block or derail our efforts at understanding problems, imagining solutions for them, then working solutions into practical tools or fixes we can apply.

Take the mislaid keys problem, a common real-life conundrum.  When we look for our lost keys, we look in places where it’s easiest and most familiar and well-lit. Most of time we search around our home or office in the usual places—and most of the time, we find them.  But when they are hiding in an unusual or unaccustomed place–when ordinary assumptions don’t serve the purpose–we have to seek answers further afield, like our sports bag, notebook cover, refrigerator, under the dryer, or, sometimes, in the lock outside where we actually left them.  Extending perspective in this way is a quite normal form of creative idea-generation.

This leaving the familiar behind, or out-of-the-box thinking, is all the more important for solving persistent wicked-tricky problems with limited resources.    Think about it this way:  The best solutions aren’t obvious, or they would already be implemented everywhere.  Discover the problem-within-the-problem, the core problem lurking inside, through recognizing the solution (not the usual sequence).  But if we’re taking some concept or belief for granted, problem solving is all but impossible because it’s being very effectively blockaded—outside our awareness and knowledge. 

There is a connection between Intelligence and Creativity.  Intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills for general cognitive tasks – understanding what things mean, how they are related, what information might be missing, and how to fill it in, either to carry out actions or to plan for the future by making correct inferences about what things mean and the consequences of events.  Creativity takes intelligence a step beyond—by questioning ideas and information, ideas, and standing assumptions to generate new ones and forge new connections.  This calls for the act of destruction as well as generation of the new.

To quote physicist Nikola Tesla on creativity:  “The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain.”  This is often a matter of redefining the territory in which to look for the most promising ideas.

A full 40 years were required for Englishman John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker, to solve the Longitude Problem, the age-old problem of east-west navigation that thousands of minds tried to crack without success over centuries of seafaring disasters.  As Dava Sobel explains in her 1995 history Longitude, once Harrison was able to determine that the solution was mechanical (the chronometer) and not astronomical (the lunar distance method), he was able to work out the solution.  After over four decades of daily frustration, and battles with everyone in authority in science and government, Harrison finally managed to win most of the 1714 Longitude prize.  The issue was deciding where to look, and stop looking, for the answer.  Once that territory was defined, he developed his sea clocks (H1, H2, H3, and H4, “The Watch”), the last completely different from the first, a seeming nonsequitor in evolving the most important time keeper ever built. 

Another example of defining the territory is the discovery of the missing planet Uranus. In 1781 William Herschel discovered Uranus under the assumption that it was a star or a comet.   Through a self-made telescope this astronomer instantly doubled the diameter of the solar system as the first to discover a planet since antiquity. Beyond inventing his original lens to extend humankind’s vision of the heavens, Herschel could show other astronomers where to train their focus.

How about these “truths” that “everyone knows”:  In a country with the world’s best water supply, no one would pay for water because this is a commodity that’s practically free (bottled water).  Americans don’t need a scientific computing instrument in their home (the personal computer and androids), nor do they need or want microwaves in their kitchen (microwave oven).  We don’t care much for raw fish and no such product would ever command a premium price (sushi).  And who would think of spending four years of their life working hard to master subjects they don’t understand and will probably never study or use again—for up to $60 K a year (college education), only to end up in decades of debt?  In addition, would anyone pay top dollar (over $130 a day) to walk through a collection of fake buildings (the theme park)? 

Assumptions are always worth checking against.  There’s a good chance we are all making a critical assumption that stands between us and the hunting grounds of a great discovery.  

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Theory as Practice

                                “Nothing is so practical as a good theory.”

             -        Kurt Lewin, social psychologist and Action Researcher

What is theory?

Theory is that insight for guiding educated guesses across complex and shifting conditions, a road map, or the central lens for policy and decision making.  Theory is background intelligence, the logic system that tells us what to do and why we are doing it, in any given situation.  Tell me why, and I’ll then understand what I need to do.  Simply, it’s the ruling premise of anything: person, place, philosophy, artifact, time period, culture.   Understand it, and you have the key to predicting its workings, history, and effects.  And in relationship to other concepts, an added plus. 

Then why does the term sound so forbidding, abstract, nonessential, or difficult? 

It shouldn’t be, because theory is “high concept” or theme, detailed as a holistic explanation of why things are, how they work, (or are designed to work), and how they can be expected to operate into the future, making theory immeasurably valuable as predictive as well as descriptive.  “Theory of mind” tells us how to read people’s thinking in order to know what to expect they will do as an outcome, and more important, why.  Theory of negotiation formulates the purpose of deal-making, as in MGA, the Mutual Gains Approach.  Theory of second-best deals with suboptimal systems or system parts to make decisions about how to upgrade effectiveness in a factory, economy, or organization.  As engineer W. Edwards Deming drew the equation, “Rational behavior requires theory.” 

Still – what is the problem people have with the theoretical?  Why is the term so off-putting rather than instantly welcome? 

Theory is comprehensive and systematic …so it’s not enough to explain one event or condition (“I have a theory about why everyone is so depressed today….”).  It must explain not just one occurrence but a whole series, and how each event relates to others as well as the larger environment.  Gravity, for instance, in Newton’s theory.  Evolution explains the origins of life and species development and diversification over time.  Quantum mechanics does the math to explain motion and interaction at the subatomic level, far from the intuitive physics experienced in daily life.  Creative problem-solving theory outlines the way ideas can be generated and selected by groups (primarily) to evolve optimal potentials that can produce workable solutions. 

The best sense of theoretical isn’t speculative – it’s comprehensive intelligence, systematically worked out to describe and explain how and why things operate.    

In another domain, detective fiction looks for a theory to explain how the crime was committed, and by whom, through absorbing clues that make sense within a larger view that will include all important persons, motives, and incidents.  Reviewing the narrative or action, the reader must work to construct and test this theory in parallel with the detective’s speculations and investigations, while forming his own ideas that might vary from the detective’s.  The crime theory provides the handle (grip, focus) that affords the ability to see what fits as well as what doesn’t belong in the solution universe.  Within the crime scene and world of motives and characters, the story weaves a matrix to understand the dynamics of the total system.  In this sense, theory is the discovered mind of any black box that can be reverse- engineered to crack the case.

Design theory acts like a well-conceived theme in bringing to life an environment.  It allows the artist to make optimal decisions for any aspect of that design, because it instantly tells you if things fit in or fail to fit.  Assuming a solid understanding of what you are trying to construct, and for what purpose, creates strategy and tactics.  If it’s a midcentury modern house, then Tudor detailing is out.  Good artistic direction operates by design theory that knows one style from another.  Does any given style or action fit into the theme?  Theory is useful to answering yes or no, seeing direction and where to go next, discerning if it’s on or off-track, working backwards from the mind of the design.  If you want a positive vision of the future, lose the dark dystopian spikey designs from Disneyland Paris; if not, then fine.  Without a good working theory, there is no strategy, no battle plan.  That means no way of relating stock buys, marketing moves, career direction, college choice, even time management must be informed in some way about what you want to accomplish in a day, a month, a year, or, as BF Skinner wanted to plan his life, the next ten years. 

In business, it’s not even enough to know your objective – you need theory to give you a working strategy and the tactics to work forward.  The company directive to “increase profits 20%” sounds good – but directives aren’t directions.  How will this happen, and how will it affect every other part of the system?  Is this a short-time goal that will act adversely against longer-term values, relationships, and objectives?  The adage of social science rules the dynamics of any system: you can’t just change one thing.  What must be measured against this 20% gain?  That depends on your theory of profitability versus success.  If the goal is not just profits but long-term value (as Disneyland proved to create in 1955), this theory approach requires strategies divergent from the most common quarterly guidance to cut costs, decrease risk, and tune up productivity.  And what you measure is what you get more of. 

In the study of culture, this adage couldn’t be more on the mark.  Culture is a master matrix of thousands of systems—run by a basic checklist of values.  Looking at it piecemeal won’t yield any insight.  It is the master idea that drives story-telling.  All parts relate to a major subject and theme, giving a design template for generating ideas and processing information.  Cultural analysts (like us) ask basic questions devised to elicit answers to clarify:  What is jewelry for?  Marriage, children, work, money, time, energy, profit, change, belief?  The research answers demonstrate the essence and power of theory—the thinking framework behind understanding where any culture has been, what it wants, and where it is headed led by its cultural credo, its value DNA. 

There are simply too many facts, choices, agendas, purposes, and goals active at any point to make sense of any of the big picture.  That means we need ways to clarify the big themes that make sense of the detail, to clarify the larger purpose.  Academic approaches tend to make things more complex, not more clearly simple.  We need a theory of culture to do that: arriving at organizing principles to sort out “unrelated” material to profile meaning, purpose, and direction, in culture at large as well as in design and creativity.  The alternative is random file folders without links or logic.  We have plenty of those already.


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Creativity Is More than Imagination, It’s Evolution

 “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” 

                                       -        Carl Sagan, astrophysicist

 “Creativity is as important as literacy.”

-        Ken Robinson, education philosopher


A maxim in the world of applied creativity, attributed to Linus Pauling, is that “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”
Steve Grossman thinks that’s the worst thing you can do. 

Cultural Studies colleague Steve Grossman has been working and consulting in applied creativity for decades. To the practice of consulting he brings far more than getting to original answers to solve inveterate problems.  He has spent his time with industrial clients in thinking carefully and consistently about the care and feeding of ideas—how to conceive and nurture them.  And surprising, also, how to kill them off when they aren’t serving a creative cause.   
As a result, Steve finds that he must constantly differentiate between the act of imagination and the act of true creativity.  When people talk enthusiastically about the wonders of being creative (how good it makes them feel, for example, to be in that elite league of the “creatives,”) his habit is to put up his hand in warning and caution them that “You mean that you are imaginative; that’s far different than being creative.”  Because creativity is more than generating free-form ideas, loosely connected, or vaguely envisioned.  It is finding brilliant solutions to problems – from small to overwhelming, from the annoying to the intractable. Or in inventing whole new ideas from which thousands of others can spring. 
Imagination with Purpose

This purposeful solution-finding means allocating time and focus and attention to cultivating “imagination with purpose.”  Rather than spending energy and attention on what is beyond our control, we can, with the right focus and knowledge, shift our energy to what can be created.  Inspirational writer Roy T. Bennett notes that “Change begins at the end of your comfort zone.” 

Allocation of effort means doing more thoughtful perceiving, and noting where you are in the domain of ideas in the process of doing that.  At its core, Grossman says, creativity is “much less a generative act and far more an act of recognition.”  The recognition skill “lies in the ability to look at something apparently unrelated to a problem and discover there an exciting connecting pathway to a solution.” 

And here we come to the killing-off phase.  This is difficult to countenance because ideas are difficult to come up with and work out; they seem too heavy an emotional and labor investment to just jettison.  But this is exactly the reason we have long-term unsolved problems, he claims: we keep trying to find our keys over and over in the places where things are easiest to find: out in the open, under a streetlight, or by the door—those places where we most commonly leave them.  The stroke of genius is to start looking in unexpected places more difficult to navigate and not as well lit – the garage, the back of the sock drawer, next to the curb, even in the trash.  By extinguishing (mentally roping off) the familiar and easy terrain where people are accustomed to thinking and operating, we open the mind and fancy to new hunting grounds where completely novel ideas have a chance of being recognized and taking hold of the imagination in the form of unexpected answers to long-term problems.  

Idea extinction

So first: kill off old ideas.  Why? So that the nonsense, irrelevant, stupid, crazy, impossible notions have a different place to land and take root, instead of rehashing the same old list of ineffective ones. Extinction is the first phase of Darwin’s process of evolution, followed by mutation and selection (survival), as the basis for new idea finding and deployment.

Creativity expert Robert Weisberg has said that novel solutions arrive as we move further away from the very concept of the problem we started with, and that withdrawal or extinction process begins with negative feedback about our first inadequate moves to solve that problem.  In other words, in order to come up with better ideas, the first batch must die off, and quickly. 

Extinction is absolutely essential to moving forward to ideas that will actually work.  But much group creativity, especially, is tied into simply trying to generate tons of ideas and then to somehow prioritize these simply by how attractive they appear out of the gate as potential solutions.  When such ideas are selected with sticky colored dots, put to work as implemented projects, and then fail to solve the initial problem, people are at a loss to explain why--or to come up with a next generation of very different ideas, because it feels like starting over.  But, as it turns out, admitting defeat is exactly the new opening move needed to go forward.

Assumption reversal

There is now far more work waiting even once lame ideas are dismissed.  Once they can concede defeat, the problem-solvers can then begin the next phase of assumption reversal, a concept Steve has been credited for.  In this process, primal assumptions are tested by asking the question:  “What beliefs are we acting on that we assume are so carved in stone that there is no way to even question them?” Hard to do, or even think about, because underlying pre-assumptions are always concealed beneath our conscious radar – we don’t even know we are making them.  This is the essential feature of all cultures, which over the course of long histories of commonly accepted beliefs, act as shared social contracts to honor basic truths about the world and social relations.  Cultural assumptions build mental castles difficult to find our way around and even harder to update, change, or challenge.  

However, once an assumption is reversed--the idea behind it challenged and nullified for the purposes of the extinction exercise--huge new domains are opened up and available for exploration.  At GEON, makers of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), the work group questioned the truth value of “coffins are used to bury people” to open their manufacturing up to plastic pet coffins.  They had been stuck on the horrifying notion of burying people in plastic; once liberated from that construct, they were suddenly able to see the application to pets rather than people.  Actually, the growing appeal of cremation challenges the Western taboo against burning bodies—when the burning is contained and sanctified.  An interesting new burial product is Irish home soil imported to the US designed for its large ethnic population.  The idea is to mix the soil of the mother country with the ashes, or inter in the coffin or grave.  The effect, of course, is to be metaphorically buried in ancestral ground. 

Getting to applied

Creativity is imagination purposefully and productively applied.  Getting to applied separates the intuitive act of imagination from the more demanding rigor of shaping up ideas into recognizable working solutions: first, under a clear definition of the process, then using tools and techniques to make the outputs of imagination real.  This is the mentality behind the magic.

Now the question to shape the future:  How many fixed assumptions are we making as problem-solvers, creators, or designers that just aren’t necessary or even true?  How can venturing outside the lines, then reversing assumptions, change the course of everyday thinking by a block-busting invention or intervention?
Website for Steve Grossman:


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Ideas are Cheap – Wait, No They Aren’t

“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”  -- Linus Pauling, Scientist 

“Creativity is the process of having original ideals that have value.  It is a process, it’s not random.” 
         -- Sir Ken Robinson, English educator, The Robinson Report

Too Many Ideas

What’s wrong with having ideas—the more the better, right?  From very early childhood, people love to think them up and they are at the heart of the human brain’s awesome powers to imagine and create. The human imagination lies at the root of civilization and innovation that makes us rulers of the planet and now the universe.  Even more critical is our native talent for mentally experiencing ideas before they happen-- and the capacity to share with others a vision of what does not yet exist but could.

But first we have to appreciate the difference between creativity and imagination. Ideas come from the imagination, and are all in your head. Creativity is taking an idea and applying it to successfully achieve a desired outcome.
In reality, unlike the imagination, ideas must serve a purpose as applied thinking. Not the ideas that are spun out as daydreams or projected desires – imagining yourself in the movies, or married to Genghis Khan, or running an international spy ring, or walking the beach in Malaga, or having tea with an alligator atop the Empire State Building (my own favorite).  The state of Georgia tourism board used to ask the public to “Imagine yourself vacationing in Georgia.”  Not very demanding, compared to Einstein’s visualization of riding on a beam of light.
Imagination is great – but how does it serve reason and the demands of problems and opportunity on planet earth? 

It’s the fit between the idea and the problem that has to be first recognized.  That’s the problem to be solved – to make the mind more conscious in order to recognize and not reject out of hand answers that have the potential to be big winners.  Often good or great ideas are rejected because we fail to see the true nature of the problem in order to recognize the fit to a solution when it appears.  Far too often this is the “belief barrier” behind idea prevention.  We need to let go of the problem we think we are trying to solve to realize the shape of the needed solution to the true problem at hand.
The Idea Problem
The reputation of creativity has long been based on the image of the solitary genius suddenly struck with a world-changing insight.  But in business, group work poses greater problems to work through.  Chief among these are the labor-intensive processes of idea generation and the tricky labor of ranking idea outcomes to align with issues of cost, production, marketing, or innovation. The normal CPS (creative problem-solving) processes, therefore, are time- and labor-intensive for groups to perform.  CPS requires careful coordination, measured crowd control (in group idea generation), highly focused attention, and a clear common understanding of the target problem. The process also calls for skillful facilitation rarely available, and therefore yields less-than-stellar solutions.  Effectiveness suffers, and groups and their leaders get the feeling that it’s all just too much effort to justify the outcome.  And, over time, the reputation of creative work takes a hit every time an ineffective process is attempted and then fails to produce anything notable.
So idea management in groups is unwieldy –and this is mainly where idea evaluation takes place.  Ask anyone who has ever wrestled an intractable business problem in a high-powered boardroom.Or in the production studio.  Any filmmaker knows how expensive any novel approach can be to execute, even with computer-generated imagery.  Try, for example, generating a back projection through a screen of fog over a high rope bridge in a jungle canopy.  There is not enough time, money, and manpower to even work out the logistical burden of such a shot.  This is one reason even high-budget films routinely find themselves in the red.

What such artists are seeking are fewer, better-vetted, ideas – not more.  We overpitch: intention, interest, cost, sustainability, support, like “summer plans.”  We can’t follow all leads.  The idea of living in Paris or Madrid or Florence for a few months is beguiling.  Will it happen?  Probably not, because there are too many attractive options, too many world cities with magnetism.  People who make this happen in real time (not just in the mind) pick one and execute on that.

So in the creative world there are no lack of ideas.  In fact, there are too many of them.  Blue-sky-ing, brain-storming, and idea generation-- all are aimed by one working assumption:  the more ideas, the better.  This is fine as far as it goes.  We all have a lurking belief that the more ideas we surround ourselves with, the better off we are – that no single idea will get us where we need to go…unless it’s an obvious no-brainer or the idea is so brilliant that it outshines all contenders. 

This is in part a matter of cultural values.  Americans in general are in love with options and choice, the more the better.  We surround ourselves with them.  Which is why malls have so many shoe stores.  We’re never going to buy or even try on that many pairs – we simply want the option to do so, or to imagine we can. This is by the way the most likely reason America leads the world in creative thinking.

The creativity field has always been led by American values and expert consultants.  It’s our national character that has given creativity research and application its emphasis on imagination and idea generation rather than the more European and Asian consensus-seeking, research, or long-term planning approaches.  We really do believe more is better.  We just aren’t good at sorting through all those options. 


Idea proliferation leads immediately to the issue of how to manage so many.  But wait – what do we do with all these ideas on post-it notes covering poster board by the square mile?  The fact is that there is no possible way to act on or even develop even a handful—the time and energy bill is simply too high.  As a young filmmaker colleague of mine puts it, you have to close in on one or at the most two (one for backup) to pursue and develop.  Otherwise the overhead gets too expensive, with too much overtime to play with more than that.  Filmmaking is a high-ticket art, too costly to follow every promising lead.  As is oil drilling, auto production, and foreign policy.   As in the real-estate parable Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s the qualified leads we’re looking for. 

So maybe the real problem, famous in applied creativity, is to decide among dozens or scores of promising concepts to isolate the leading ones, those that show very early promise of delivering the best result.  This juncture, in the midst of a “mindfield” teeming with ideas of varying potential, is where the real creativity happens—in the selection process, much like Darwin’s concept of natural selection. Content or area experts always have some notion of what has worked in the past and so can determine what might work in the future.  The difficulty with using established expertise to sort options is that the brilliantly creative solution will by definition be distinctly unlike its past predecessor.  It’s the lack of resemblance to the past that makes it a great discovery, drawn up from a sea of ideas teeming with potential.  And this makes actionable ideas of great worth hard to identify and select out.

The old expression “Ideas are a dime a dozen” is wrong.  They’re ridiculously expensive once you factor in the high production costs in time, money, and human effort to filter out the high-value few from the many that will never see daylight.  When solving problems in concept, themeing, and design, we need far more than a better idea - we need better ways to vet the wealth of ideas we are already generating in the form of pre-qualifying them through a vision of what’s possible as well as intriguing.  That process of idea filtration calls for a well-thought-out problem frame for testing all potential concepts, from filmic effects to health-care interventions to schemes for living on Mars.

Out of the billions and billions of ideas in the universe, we only really need one—the one that will work.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Cultural Competence – The Right Tool for Dealing with Diversity


Training in Cultural Competence is replacing Diversity Training at many American companies, and it’s long overdue. Diversity Training has been around for over two decades now, which gave researchers at Harvard ample data to conduct a meaningful in-depth study of their effectiveness.  An article on the findings of that report in the Harvard Business Review, titled Why Diversity Programs Fail, concluded that Diversity Training not only shows dismal results, but also makes conditions inside the company worse. For full details, the article is available on the internet (HBR, August 2016).

Like many other long-term, research-dense studies out of Harvard, the authors validate conclusions that are self-evident to people on the ground. Ask any parent of a five-year-old and they’ll tell you that children don’t like to be told what to do and will push back when you try to do it. The Harvard study documents the fact that this pushback is part of being human and doesn’t end at childhood.

Diversity Training focuses on awareness and inclusion, taking a didactic training approach that seeks to outline a rulebook for correct thinking and behavior.  Efforts have been mounted to improve DT’s track record of training that shows little difference in outcomes from its first emergence in the mid-60s, and flat results in schools and the workplace for promoting fair treatment and hiring. While the conclusions may seem obvious in hindsight, the study’s significance is that Harvard documented and detailed this dismal result across a twenty-year timeframe. Failure here is no fluke, nor a case of technique, but due to a fundamental flaw in the approach.

As a cultural analyst, I think this is a major achievement and a step in a positive direction. The Harvard study found that people don’t appreciate being told how to think about or how to treat others. 

What is wanting is a deeper education (as opposed to training) that informs everyone first, about their own cultural ways of thinking, and second, about the universe of other mindsets in which they need to live.  The desired outcome is a liberal studies plan for learning about others and how to understand, communicate, appreciate, and empathize with people of backgrounds other than one’s own. This will never be achieved by a forced ruleset about accepting everyone no matter who they are.  There is just not enough “why” included to satisfy our naturally self-biased minds.  We have a deep need to understand why we are learning and how this learning can or should be applied.

In fact, the cliché that learning about foreign cultures (like foreign language) makes it possible to understand one’s own cultural identity is quite on the mark.  Learning about your own culture as a conscious act then makes it possible to see where other cultures line up around yours.  Unfortunately, the ground-floor knowledge of where you yourself stand is tricky to find and recognize.    

Cultural Competence

Culture learning has multiple aspects that make it sophisticated and a lifelong undertaking. Raising your CQ is therefore a complex undertaking. Using the simplest working definition of Cultural Competence as the ability to relate and work effectively across cultures--to communicate effectively and appropriately with people of other backgrounds--bypasses the difficult work of figuring out the rules, norms, ideals, and expectations carried by every culture that explain the ways in which they perceive, think, feel, and act. 

However, this is not ever as easy as just asking people the simple question, “Who are you, and how should I deal with you?”  Because culture operates below the surface of conscious thinking, it requires a close reading of how culture is expressed – in language, food, music, governance, art, technology, business, and domestic life—to derive from the way groups dress, for example, their ideas about appropriate or ideal ways of life and relationships.  The connection isn’t clear, but it can, with some teasing out, be discerned. 

The idea is to get beyond conventions of greeting, introductions, and gift-giving to the values behind those conventions, for example, in the handling of business cards as differing between American and Japanese business people.  What are the rules of negotiation and verbal conflict that are observed?  Of paying attention, listening, interrupting, responding to new information, positive or negative?  What do these tell us about how issues are identified and resolved?

The Cultural Question

The cultural question is always this:  What are people in any culture trying to do, and to become, to themselves and each other?  Once you have hold of this core Value principle, it then becomes far easier to read and understand what people are doing and to relate your own behavior to theirs in effective and even productive ways.  And yes, it is far easier to understand what you yourself are doing, and how that comes across to others within and outside your own group, if you can discover what your own culture is about.  That’s never easy to do—it requires breakthrough insight that’s (in my experience) relatively rare.  We each see the world through our own cultural lens and think we understand it.  Only when that vision stops working is it clear that something is off in our ability to read and navigate the territory. 

For example: Muslim culture has for three or more decades been the focus of world attention in its contest with the West for world attention.  Cultural differences exist within as well as between cultures.  So despite the headlines of terrorism that make this contest look like East versus West, the violent upheavals are far more an expression of intra-Moslem faith feuds than they are outward-directed attacks.  The task of understanding these cross-Islamic conflicts is an arcane and arduous one, far beyond the grasp or ability of media journalists and reporters (or even well-versed scholars).  The East-West story is far easier to outline and populate with villains, and that’s what we get in the Western press.  So Cultural Competence could bring real intelligence to the global conflict between Islamic v. Christian (Enlightenment) values.

There are other differences to navigate as well: by Gender, Age, Class, and Context.  These cultural aspects are just as real as national / ethnic friction. Gender is the only biological factor that directly influences how we perceive the world around us. This is why males and females perceive stimuli with brains that are configured differently, influenced by different chemicals, and transmit information to different arrangements of receptors. The human age-stage development chart bristles with value changes that occur every four to five years in twenty-year cycles over a lifetime.  Class differences are the root of racial and ethnic prejudice.  And cultures are framed and nurtured--national, regional, and local--by climate, landscape, agriculture, industry, craft, and commerce.  Culture is an outgrowth of its physical and psychological ecology and the values engendered by desert, ocean, mountain, forest, or plains.  One reason America became its own culture was that its temperate character offered such ridiculously higher opportunity than Europe, where land had been divided up and locked-in for generations.  The US open-ended frontier offered the chance to think outside history, to value creativity and enterprise, and to focus on the future potential rather than on frameworks of the past.


Diversity Training has been conducted over the past several decades by schools and workplaces driven by the need for functional teams that include diversity in demographics, belief, and hierarchy, expressed as gender, ethnicity, age, religion, class, and power relations of role and rank.  The goal of this endeavor has been to foster regard for differences and to facilitate strategies targeted to better decision-making and group performance.  This objective has to take into account the nuances of style, assumptions, communication, and autonomy needs within social situations.  A very useful theory base for this work can be found in the positive psychology movement of Self-Determination Theory.

Here at The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, we’ve been studying culture for a quarter-century, always starting from the perspective of fundamental questions: What is culture for? Why does it exist? How do we use it? How does it shape our fundamental assumptions? How does it work? What are its assumptions based on?

And we have found answers to many of these questions. They are not unknowable. When we started our work we thought we would be explaining American culture to foreigners. It turned out that we spend our time explaining American culture to Americans because culture operates below our conscious horizon. We don’t think about it, we just have it.

Which leaves us with one basic conclusion: You can’t understand someone else’s culture unless you consciously understand the cultural assumptions on which your own thinking is based. So we wound up explaining our own culture to Americans. That’s the basis of cultural competence.

While groups made up of people who are homogenous find it easier to arrive at consensus, diverse groups typically come up with more ingenious solutions to problems.  The issue is that diversity is more challenging to manage, takes longer, and requires more tools and techniques.  There is a broader horizon beyond the usual diversity mandate.  What does it mean to be competent in culture?  Here the aim is applied: to answer how people of diverse backgrounds and values can work together as effective teams. What is needed are new forms of social intelligence for the way we relate to each other  Elite professionals practice this all the time in the arts, sciences, technology, and business; ways can be found of deriving what they do intuitively to determine how human differences can be a source of competence wealth rather than conflict.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Collegiality: The coming wave for work and learning

Photo: Siansa National Concert Hall Dublin

“What do you call a co-worker these days? Neither teammate nor confederate will do, and partner is too legalistic. The answer brought from academia to the political world by Henry Kissinger and now bandied in the boardroom is colleague. It has a nice upper-egalitarian feel, related to the good fellowship of collegial.”

 A new exploration in the world of work and worklife is emerging: the discipline and skill set of colleagueship.  Starting at the university level, Michael Fischer wrote an impassioned piece in Inside Higher Education (April 30, 2009) on why colleagueship is important--in fact essential--to the rewards of teaching and research.  In his article, ”Defending Collegiality,”  Fischer explains the value and essence of the collegial life, noting that this is in many respects what makes college teaching careers so worthwhile.  Especially in academe, educators enjoy a “remarkable autonomy,” as distinguished from other kinds of work where people are considered employees rather than professionals.  But the social backdrop for this autonomy, rather than the boss-peer dyad, is the flatter dynamic of peer-to-peer empowerment.

Even deans and department heads, the boss level in higher education, are considered colleagues first and bosses second.  In his book The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007), Robert I. Sutton details the extensive morale damage that can be done when power-personality-driven faculty or executive staff decide to treat colleagues like despised hirelings rather than respected fellow professionals. 

This innovative focus on the relations among professionals has been insightful in looking critically as a cultural analyst at a couple of leading professional schools: one in the arts and one in music.  The mandate was to design in-service seminars to teach the basics of what is being called Cultural Competence.  CultComp has become a requirement across colleges and universities intended to reflect and magnify their diversity profile, leaning toward students.  Such training serves to raise awareness and appreciation in order to improve communications to bridge language, value, belies, and ethnic differences. 

At both highly selective institutions, rather than researching their student identity brand at the Student Life level (the customary approach), my team determined that their selective student body was like the theory that informs Marine Corps recruiting: that recruits are born with the special aptitudes that make a Marine and then they find the Corps.  In the same way, students at highly selective institutions are born rather than made, deliberately rare and different from the ordinary in dedication to their métiers.  These academies, like the Marines, are looking for a few, not the many, very good students.

Also like the Marine Corps, specialized institutions are turning out graduates who will work in the same field, as friends, colleagues, and competitors – often over an entire career – and it is collegiality that makes that possible. As basic training, Cultural Competence makes crossing all sorts of borders the bridging tool.   

So rather than design Cultural Competence courses at the expected level of undergrad through senior, I recommended developing the “expert student” concept on a higher track – that of professional development.  Even at the entry level, these elite trainees are already performing at the expert level, expecting to continue along the fast track into their graduate and post-graduate careers.  From there to take their places in the front ranks of the arts, both visual and performance-based. 

The needed cultural learning bridge isn’t student life skills (study, time management, club activity, athletics) but the startup toolkit of a working professional, including agency (self-management), career management, competition strategy, teamwork, and long-term tactics for understanding the needs of colleagues and mentors alike.   Asking and answering lifelong questions along the career path within the studio or classroom takes the broader vision of student life as a career already well-launched. 

Photo: CalArts: U.S. News and World Report
Such questions that inquiry and training can address early on include career-building, networking, work/life balance, the ethics of competitive performance, publication, and service.  The emergent meaning is in discovering how to be and behave as a worthy colleague (including reputation-building, maintenance, and repair).  These concerns begin at the graduate level and project decades into the future of any professional career.  A Higher Education Research Institute study at UCLA in 2004-05 ranked “being a good colleague” as “very important or essential” at 91.6%, versus 80% fifteen years earlier.  

Collegial life is increasingly militated against by scarcer public resources, the alienation of faculty from their schools and each other by the pressures of squeezed budgets and time-scarce schedules, a buyer’s job market, increasingly fragmented adjunct and part-time “piecework,” and amidst growing pressure to publish and perform, increasing introversion and disengagement—all tending to community disintegration.  And there is increasing need to create engagement and networking designed for independent scholars and freelance professionals, including still-active retirees, who labor in isolation or project by project or course by course. 

Overall, the skills of colleagueship can be ranked as basic social skills, which are not taught explicitly but picked up and practiced as group norms or far more rarely, by leadership example.  In collapsing-hive cultures, however, where norms have gradually sunk to abysmal, collegial relations can deteriorate so severely that the only solution is a complete escape and a fresh start in a better-kept hive.  But community disintegration is definitely one of the least-desired concomitant outcomes of the breakdown of social mores among professionals in any field.   Negative interactions, at the micro level, exert five times the effect on mood and morale than positive ones, a finding often cited to show the high importance of supportive environments of compassion over those of distrust and intimidation. 

To address these pressures, colleagueship is poised to become the mainstay skill of any successful career as well as school or department.  It is not graded per se as a skill area for promotion and tenure (as are research (creative activity), teaching, and service.  Yet the human relations demands of the professions, from the arts to music to medicine and the law, are based on their increasingly collaborative nature, within and across disciplines—especially in closely concerted enterprises such as studios, stage, R&D labs, and orchestras.   In these sophisticated venues,  understanding how to approach, analyze, and resolve the inherent conflicts of highly competent people working within the paradox of closely competitive as well as cooperative conditions—including issues of gender, religion, politics, class, ethnicity, nationality, personality, opportunity, and styles—is all activity seasoned professionals do intuitively.  That skill is why they are seasoned and therefore successful.  Sensing and solving for conflicts and avoiding confrontation is just a part of “expert system” thinking by pro collaborators, which operates consistently and without overdue conscious deliberation. 

Making that expert system visible and conscious by analytical exploration and explanation can reveal the principles of diversity, self-awareness, and negotiation involved.  What is called for are ways to codify what expert colleagues do naturally as part of a process of knowledge transfer for the upcoming generation (and Millennials reputedly do this, so far, poorly).  Treating collegiality as a skillset, as an art and a practice essential to the profession itself, can open out to understanding how differences operate to support and further creative effort and environments.   




Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Omni-arts and Imagineering

CalArts: the first degree-granting institution in the country specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts.
 Photo: California Institute of the Arts

“I love Walt Disney’s original concept of creating a school in which the arts could intermingle with each other. “
–Rick Haskins, CalArts Board member

Last month I toured California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA, and began to reflect on its meaning.   

The school came into being out of budget hardship in 1961, with the merger of the Chouinard Art Institute and the historic Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, when both had financial troubles. One of the benefactors of Chouinard was Walt Disney, who had been training and finding his artists there since 1929.  His vision culminated in the merger of the two institutions to create the first degree-granting institution in the country specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts.

CalArts was imagined by Disney at the end of his lifetime in the mid-1960s as a tribute to the many arts that supported his studio empire-enterprise.  Now nearing its half-century anniversary, CalArts has already graduated major talent in music, graphics, film, and theater, besides its best-known suit, animation.  It is also a hub for advancing the global reach of avant-garde communities across Latin America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.  As one example, CultureHub is an international streaming incubator linking artists and audiences to promote collaboration across continents., with studios at CalArts, SeoulArts, La MaMa NYC, and Manchester UK.  

The school’s deliberate one-building design, mandated by Walt, provides a single-planet creative space for a unified arts experience.  Part of the arts interplay is learning one’s way around the tunnels without signage—much like the infrastructure at Disney World park.  The CalArts mission for the arts is interactive, integrative, and international.  The curriculum reflects the broad as well as intricate knowledge base of the original Disney Imagineering team who were tasked to think like storytellers and filmmakers as they executed on architecture, city planning, wayfinding, exhibitry, and ride design.  By this method of imagination plus engineering (Imagineering), they pioneered the gold standard of themeatics as “venu-ology,” the creation of meaning out of space. 

Imagineers were constantly asking questions about the ideal forms to match up to the demands of the exhibit, ride, landscape, parade, or pavilion on the drawing board:  how would any given artform or effect, drawn from the treasury of cultural history worldwide, fit into and advance the story and theme?  It is the ongoing question of every filmmaker everywhere.  Disney’s talent was to apply that question in three dimensions on the ground. 

To respond, the Imagineering studio had to know how the guest—the theme-park arts audience—thought and felt about an array of themes and stories, and the potential of each art form to bring it to life as a design suite.  Leading portfolios of their solutions can be experienced as Main Street, USA (Hometown, childhood), Adventureland (exotic places and people), and Tomorrowland (the imagined future as it blends back into present-day technology).   These theme cores actually form the heart of the Disney parks and re-create the core values of the American experience in symbolic form, choreographed to be experienced in small (mainly family) groups.

Such in-depth insight called for a solid grasp of culture as it exists in the collective imagination—the way people perceive and value the world as a shared mental and artistic expression.  This turns out to require approaches and appreciation going far beyond replication of authentic and documentable reality.  John Hench, as lead Imagineer, outlined this archetypal understanding of the park guest psyche in his career portfolio, Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show (2003).  Hench lays out the operating principles of theme design based on human perception and behavior as his Theory of Constraints.  This theory runs what designers can and cannot do--by defining and drawing the limits, first, to describe the range of physical and cultural spaces that human beings experience, and second, to understand that creativity has to take place within those limits of perception, expectation, thinking, behavior, and social awareness.   

Disneyland was an entirely new artform in 1955. Critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.
Photo: J. G. O'Boyle, The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis 

The Disneyland proto-park concoction was first unveiled in 1955.  This was a new artform/ critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.  It was clearly far more than an amusement park.  By now it has far overreached its original concept of public space drawn from film, pollinating and breeding dozens of new design platforms across the past six decades (malls and history museums are just two).  It is also the most comprehensive artwork ever devised, conflating and incorporating every other known art within the theme-space berm. 

These range from the folk arts to the fine arts, performance (dance to speech), graphics in every mode from murals to signage to digital; architectural innovation, film, sculpture, light and sound, and of course, special effects of every sort imaginable, and hybrids of all these derived from Ars Mixto technology.  It is the complexity from pairing-up of forms that makes up the native creativity of Themeatics.  “This model of creative exchange,” says the college’s outgoing president Steven Levine, “the crossing over of different perspectives and influences, has always been in our DNA,” at the root of the college’s dedication to cross-pollination. 

Now CalArts has a new lease on the future of design and the creative imagination that feeds the “arts in concert.”  Elsewhere in Creative Intelligence I’ve written about Visioneering as the coming phase of creative artsmaking, outlining the interplay and interbreeding of formats, history, and styles.  As these become a working assumption, the school, with its already global reach and reputation, has a jump start on becoming the place where Visioneering grows and thrives.  

How, then, should this new Omni-arts vision be instructed and practiced within an arts academy?  The professional organization for theme park design, The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), will hold its annual SATE (Story + Architecture + Technology = Experience) conference on CalArts’ campus this year in October.  Design now operates within a world in which the theme park is an established arts institution and in fact a core concept of practice and collaboration that has spun off its magic into the many arts that created it.  However, there are still few academic centers dedicated to this vision, taking it apart to make sense of its dynamics, preserving and curating its process and histories, or teaching it. 

An engine of the new age of the arts is the strength of the colleagueship behind any project and its operation for multidisciplinary specialization. Here Carnegie Mellon, Savannah College of Art and Design, and Valencia College are in the forefront of entertainment design.  Programs and majors are so far a rarity.  Most theme-park designers are the self-made product of their own CalArts-style personal programming in the tradition of project-based experimentation.  The challenge is to find more systematic ways of capturing, curating, and transmitting their hard-won work and knowledge to take it to the huge stage that off-screen entertainment will occupy for the coming century. 

The lead role is now open for the perceptive institution that can envision itself inventing and reinventing  the theme parks of the future—and other launching pads and creative platforms to come.