I asked my friend Renée Koch, who was a faculty member at the Whistler Retreat earlier this year, to contribute a guest blog reflecting on her experience and learning at the retreat and beyond. I love her focus on the peripheral; extravagance; and paradox. What struck me is how the notion of extravagance again challenges our over-focus on efficiency and highlights the need for slack (or a requisite inefficiency) in complex systems to enable exploration, failure and learning.
Design and Emergence. Whistler, Canada.
The Whistler unconference on Design and Emergence was a rare (re)treat. Welcomed generously into the natural beauty of Squamish territory; we indulged in rich conversations and challenging dialogue, taking thinking further. We were placed in a complex conversational system and soon became aware that Dave Snowden was doing everything he could to prevent premature convergence into the space of comfortable knowing.
With that as a disclaimer, I will try to recount the learning that deepened for me around the presentation I delivered, though to be sure, the months that have elapsed may prevent me from keeping strictly to that time. These ideas have since taken on a life of their own and I came away from the Whistler conversations having deepened a number of concepts, of which I will mention three: the peripheral; extravagance; and paradox.
I think it’s fair to say we know, instinctively, that the most creative ideas are not those that lie at the end of the straight line called process, but rather, that they are the ‘shiny thing(s) seen out of the corner of our eye’ . We may also be aware that so many of the ‘breakthrough’ ideas we glimpsed in this way turn to dust when we place them in full focus. In physical peripheral vision, from which the metaphor is drawn, this can be explained. Peripheral vision exaggerates light-dark patterns, while our centres of vision offer fine detail and the possibility of scrutiny. The dramatic patterns seen out of the corner of the eye and their associations allowed our ancestors to respond to potential threats, even before they could identify them. In the cognitive domain, similarly exaggerated patterns from the edge of consciousness safeguard us from possible dangers; they also signal potential opportunities outside the field of our regular focus. Fortunately, uncertainty provides us with multiple opportunities to develop one of these into something useful.
Emergence in a cognitive space has much in common with evolution in biology. One similarity that should not be underestimated is the extravagant way nature provides for potential. When trees propagate, thousands of seeds are cast on the wind; a few take root and grow while others are eaten by animals or carried off to unreceptive environments. The peripheral ideas that seem so profound in the spaces between our dreams do not always deliver innovations that scale, but learning to generate and follow those thoughts trains our minds to find and develop patterns.
Frustrating though it may be these two ideas do not resolve into a neat saleable package. Maintained in a paradoxical state of tension they continue to generate and to elude. To engage in the creative is to become distracted by possibility, with primary regard for sense making and only secondary interest in productivity. However, maintaining this paradoxical relation to our own work can be very difficult in societies that run on efficiency. Ironically, the more extravagant the system is as a whole, the greater the likelihood that useful or productive ideas will be generated.
The question for learning organisations intent on evolving is how we create the kinds of environments and experiences that make it possible for our cognitive systems to notice peripheral shiny things; explore meaning as a paradoxical space between oppositional stances and tolerate the discomforting generosity of the paradoxical space.
1. Tim Minchin (2013), UWA commencement Address. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoEezZD71sc