I was recently interviewd by Michael Smith, President of TeraTech, on the Conscious Software Development Telesummit on Whole Brain Thinking and Applied Improvisation for Innovation, Ideation, and Creative Problem Solving. Below are excerpts from the transcript of the interview. For the complete interview, along with some techniques to apply, sign up for the Conscious Software Development Telesummit for FREE at http://conscioussoftwaredevelopment.com
Michael: What do you mean by "whole-brain thinking" and why is that important?
Michelle: Whole-brain thinking, or the way I would describe it, is using more of our innate capacities. We were born to both think in linear/logical ways as well as holistic/intuitive/metaphorical ways. Integrating whole-brain thinking is just bringing more of our natural thinking into the workplace, for our intuitive thinking, metaphorical thinking, our capacity to see both the big picture and the details, our capacity to both think from synthesis and integration as well as sequentially, imagining and observing, being able to envision beyond what is, plus in addition to more of the left-brain/linear, proving and verifying, expanding and reducing.
It's using complimentary types of thinking - thinking both in terms of possibilities and strategies and in terms of context and interdependencies…using the visual mind and the verbal mind, not just left-brain/linear-dominant thinking only. By integrating multiple ways of thinking, and using more of our whole-brain capacities even in ways we haven't been socialized or trained or educated in the workplace to do, and by bringing more of arts-based and other different types of thinking into the workplace, it's easier to create new ideas, and create new ideas much more quickly. It accelerates the learning and creativity path that we might be on and expands the mental playing field so we have more options and choices.
Michael: A lot of organizations are pretty left-brain orientated, so how do you integrate this into a company culture?
Michelle: In some ways there's some cultural specificity around it, and in other ways it's more general. I'll speak to the more general ways. For example, resistance. Understanding that once you try to integrate new ways of thinking into any group, individual group, team, or culture, you're going to naturally have some resistance. I call it "natural resistance" because it's the same kind of resistance that you find in nature.
In nature, all systems are designed to maintain the status quo until the new birth starts to emerge. For example, the chick coming out of the egg doesn't feel the resistance of the shell until it's ready to be born. Similarly, you find that as soon as people start to integrate more whole-brain thinking, different kinds of thinking, or different types of practice in the organization, you might initially find some resistance, because there's always those trying to more maintain the status quo while others try to bring in the new thinking.
One framework I like to use is divergence and convergence. Divergent thinking is going big and wide, building on things, engaging possibilities, visualizing, seeking out what's unusual. We hear about it often in brain-storming…suspending judgment as you're expanding the playing field - expanding what's possible - but you do it for a certain amount of time, not indefintely. Then you bring it back into a convergent thinking where you're narrowing the playing field, you're selecting from the ideas, contracting, honing in, discerning, focusing, rating by criteria, making sense of…
Unfortunately, what happens is many people don't leave the convergence to go into convergence. They will get meetings and say, "All right, now let's organize what we have," but they haven't stepped out beyond their current framework to play with and expand possibilities first. When you play with possibilities, it is messy, and it might not make sense for awhile, and it can look a little crazy. Like Einstein said, "If at first the idea is not absurd, there's no hope for it," and while that doesn't mean all good ideas appear ridiculous at first, it really speaks to oftentimes the seed idea is the instinct for something new, it's messy, it's just a seed, it's not refined. It needs to be nurtured into fruition to become something viable. So before you evaluate it and start to converge, begin to explore with it, play with it, build on it, add to it…taking something beyond just convergence and adding in time for divergence.
I'll give an example of how this looks in one organization I worked with, a very large organization, where they used to have meetings that they felt the creativity wasn't their problem, but everybody was vying for who's idea was better. They started applying some of these principles and practices and giving this process lot more divergent space. They started calling their meetings "Discovery Sessions." They allowed for a certain amount of divergence time. If they had an hour, maybe twenty-five minutes was in divergence first. They started finding that they were creating better ideas, more novel ideas, more collaborative ideas…and when it came time to get the convergence, the convergence went so much more quickly because they allowed themselves some divergence first.
I would say allowing conscious time, consciously creating a space to diverge, where no one can judge or evaluate ideas, you just build on them, explore them, and expand them, before you go into the convergence where then you rate it...then you connect it to the criteria and the objectives of the problem that you have. Then, just knowing that sometimes you have to practice low-risk, low-stakes exercises, practices or games, they might seem frivolous, but by practicing low-risk, low-stakes
exercises, then that better prepares you for high-risk, high-stakes problem solving. With this practice, you become more nimble and flexible and adaptive inside yourself. That piece is connecting to, looking at new, perhaps non-conventional principles and practices to sort of break those patterns, so you begin to think differently.
Michael: Earlier you mentioned using applied improvisation and you talked about you take part in improvised plays for 10 years. I'm not sure everyone here has even attended an improv session or knows what that means. When you say "improvised plays" does that mean there's no script whatsoever for the play and the actors just make up the play on the spot?
Michelle: Yes, I'm glad you brought that up, because that distinguishes improvising, like improv theater, like you might see on Whose Line, or improvised plays like our performing group used to do which the goal, the objective, was to entertain the audience using improvisational theater principles and practices. We would use the improv principles, but there was absolutely no script. We would completely improvise a full-length play, and that's when I discovered the power of the improv principles…because by adhering to the principles and the practices of improv, you truly could self-organize and create something out of nothing, and you'd begin to learn that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is a big facet of Emergence.
Applied improvisation, in the way we use it in organizations, is taking the same principles and practices, but with a different goal or set of objectives. The goal isn't for entertainment, the goal isn't to be improv theater performers for people who go out on a Friday night to watch you. The goal with Applied Improvisation is whatever your business goals are: better leadership, solve problems more quickly, think more creatively, adapt, have more cohesive co-creative teams, reduce turnover, more novel ideas if you're doing product development, or any kind of development, etc.
Your applying improvisational theater principles and practices to something larger than performance. For example, in my work with organizations I don't throw people up there to perform improv because the goal isn't to teach them to be performers. I often get them working either as a whole group or with partners or in small groups using various improv practices and games, but, most significantly, embodying principles to work on real-world issues or problems they're solving or visions they're creating.
The practices are simply a way of embodying the principles, but it's the principles in action that are what's transformative. For example, "yes, and" except most organizations live by "yes, but". So "yes, and" is very good in the divergent space. Heighten and explore, allow yourself and your ideas to be changed by what's said and what happens. Those, and may more, are a big part of improvisation. You're up there and something new emerges and you have to adapt instantly. You don't fight it, you don't resist it, you just adapt to it, and you allow your character to be changed, you allow your ideas to be changed, you allow the direction to be changed. That's a real significant part of the creative process when developing anything.
Another thing about improv, because it happens in real time, you're focusing on presence over polish. Oftentimes, in brainstorming sessions or ideation sessions, people are afraid to speak up or they wait until their idea's fully formed. In improv, literally the practices force you to be so present, you have to say something, you have to say something right away, and by practicing that, you truly bypass the editor, and you become more comfortable with throwing things out there. If people have to, for a certain agreed upon amount of time in the divergent space, "yes, and" it, go with it, explore it and expand it, the first idea thrown out often isn't the best idea. It may be, but in many cases, it's just a seed idea
or it's has a messy fragment of a good idea, and by expanding it and exploring it, and "yes, and-ing" it, you give it the chance to become something new and different.
There are many more, but one other very significant part of doing a lot of creative activities and improv-based activities with people and organizations is that you begin to have a different relationship to failure and the concept of making mistakes. Mistakes become invitations to create. Mistakes are simply iterations in the creative process. They're not binary finalities, like "yes/no", "good/bad", "right/wrong". They're invitations to modify, to explore, to grow. A lot of people know that when you're prototyping, you then try it out and you modify it. One of the things that improv-based practices allow you to do is get a lot of practice in realtime with instant modification, instant trial and error, and so then you become less resistant to change, and more adaptive when you're doing it around a real world project.
Michael: Do the principles, in your experience, make a difference? Does it really make a difference whether you literally say, "yes, and" to someone's idea instead of "no, but"?
Michelle: Literally saying the words "yes, and" can be helpful at first, and is simply a good way to remind your mind to do it, but it really is more the concept of "yes, and-ing" - the concept of accepting an idea as it is offered and building, adding onto it, before you negate it, before you hone in and say, "Well, that won't work, because…" that makes the huge difference. That, to me, is the difference between generative thinking - which is connected to the divergence process, and critical thinking - which is often connected to the convergent part of the creative process.
Both are essential, but the key is not to go immediately into the critical thinking, until you've gone into some generative thinking. I like to think of it in terms of the way nature generates and creates. The branch "yes, ands" the tree, the leaves "yes, and" the branches. Nature creates generatively. Our mind is designed to create generatively, and unfortunately, we are not socialized and educated into doing that. But we have nature on our side - remember back to when you're a little child or watching kids play…someone throws out an idea, and others instantly add onto it. They start creating fantasy worlds and they're "playing pretend" and they're building on each other's story. Then all of a sudden, we go to school and we get thrust into binary thinking, so we leave our natural beautiful, multidimensional way of creating and making associations and connections, and we get into binary thinking - right/wrong; good/bad; yes/no.
People begin to associate that if you get the "right" answer, you're a good person or a smart person - so then people freeze up, afraid of saying something wrong or silly. "Yes, and" is simply a way, a tool, of getting back into your natural generative, creative self. Then, you generate more ideas, you think of them and then you can use some of the more critical thinking to put it up against, "What are the criteria we're trying to beat here? What are the objectives we're trying to create?" Absolutely. "Heighten and explore" is another big improv principle which fits into that.
The principles, it's been my experience, are what create the container for new ways of thinking, new ways of interacting, new ways of being, and therefore, new and more accelerated ideas to emerge. It allows people to be safer, to put ideas out there, so you do get the most of your teams, and you get the most of yourself.
Michael: Is this more a team or co-creative way of solving problems vs. a hierarchical way as well?
Michelle: It's very much a team and collaborative and cocreative way. It can also be a very individual way. You can "yes, and" your own thinking. Often we, in the shower or running or doing something, get an amazing idea and in that moment we get excited. Then all of a sudden, before we allow ourselves to "yes, and" each other or "yes, and" our own idea, we find all the reasons it won't work, and we start "yes, but-ing" our own creative ideas, so individually it works.
Even within a hierarchies this can work if the leaders are embracing the principles. It becomes challenging if you have a "yes, and-ing" team and a "yes, but-ing" leader of that team. I think it's less that hierarchy impacts it, it's more the way of being in the mindset and the principles that the leaders within the hierarchy embrace - that creativity is there available for anyone, no matter who you are in the organization. It always behooves a leader to be able to embrace principles and practices that will allow the most creativity to emerge from their employees.
Michael: How do the rules of improv fit in with a more conscious way of being and creating software?
Michelle: I love the improv principles because they lend so well to a collaborative work culture, a collaborative team, and collaborative groups. First of all, you don't have to agree with someone. There's a difference between accepting an offer and agreeing it, and the idea of acceptance allows an idea to be heard before you jump down on it.
You don't have to necessarily like everything about a particular person, but if we agree on some principles of engagement - that for the next twenty minutes or the next two days we'll apply them - or that we want to embed in part of our ongoing culture that we're going to do, then it creates more spaciousness and more safety for people to think of ideas.
A big part of consciousness, in general, is becoming conscious of what is in front of you. It helps you become very present. You listen more. You listen more deeply, you listen more generously, and by that meaning you're not listening for what you're going to say next, you're listening to what the person really has to say, and in that, if you are completely present, you then have so many options of how to respond. If you're present within yourself, which improv principles and practices help you access your own presence, when you're more present within yourself a well wellspring of options and possibilities emerge that you know would not have previously imagined.
You are not trapped by a pre-designed agenda, although that can be a guide and a starting point, but you're interacting with truly what's happening in the moment, whether it's in your own creative unconscious as you're generating ideas or if you're collaborating with others. By being completely present, you have access to an abundance of creativity that you don't have, if you have an idea you're going to be set on the idea, and then your only goal is to push that idea forward.
It may happen that you have a great idea and you do push it forward, but by being present it becomes much more clear if there are other options and other people can contribute better to that idea. I think presence and consciousness go hand-in-hand, and these principles are simply a way to help activate more presence in a group or a system. Another thing is, by practicing a lot of these in low-stake, low-risk environments, you begin to naturally embody it more in your everyday life.
For the complete interview, along with some techniques to apply, sign up for the Conscious Software Development Telesummit for FREE at http://conscioussoftwaredevelopment.com