Decentring as Innovative Practice
This is World Creativity and Innovation Week. To mark that, I wanted to write something short and practical about my approach to creativity and how to embed it in an organization to fuel innovation.
For me creativity is, very simply, doing new things. And it is the most important practice we can foster as societies for precisely that reason. So many of the existential threats and wicked problems we face are the result of our existing practices. If we carry on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll never solve those problems. But more than that, if we carry on following the practices, building on the assumptions, embodying in action the biases, having the same composition of team making the decisions that led us to the bad places, we are unlikely to escape rom them.
What we need are the voices least often heard within current systems. Those whom our current systems marginalise we need to bring to the centre, and those whom the current systems centre we need to move to the margins.
The practice of doing this we can call decentring. And it is the most important part of building a team or founding a venture to tackle wicked problems. When it comes to making our innovation teams more creative, we don’t need to teach our teams creativity — we need to build new teams.
Or we need to redistribute the empowerment within our existing teams so that those whose ideas are currently least likely to be heard, nurtured, and implemented are enabled to express, grow, and test their ideas free from fear of judgement or failure. It can be very easy to think we give everyone in our teams a platform because everyone at some point has access to a chance to pitch or work on a project. But how many times can those on the periphery have an idea fail and still have their next ideas welcomed and supported? And what about those who are senior? Or not even senior but centred (such as the junior member on a fast track programme)?
In fact in any innovation environment, one of the very best metrics of assessing your structure is to ask of each team member, “How many times are their ideas permitted to fail?”
Decentring can’t be a one off action. Rather it has to be a constant process. Think of it like kneading bread, stretching out from the centre and then folding the edges back in and then stretching out from the centre and folding back in.
It’s something we know intuitively, and something that’s become a cliche in art and politics: that today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s establishment figure. And in business we sort of know that an early stage founder often makes a bad CEO as the company grows. And the environmental movement is an example of this in practice, as the necessary recalibrating of debate around our relation to our surroundings has helped frame a solution to climate change while at the same time creating new exclusions for disabled people among others.
Ideas become fixed and inflexible not because they are bad ideas. Nor because bad people push them forward. But rather because that’s what ideas do. The energy that drives new ideas forward to break through existing endemic barriers, solving the wicked problems caused by the previous set of ideas, hides the incompleteness of those new ideas.
New ideas appear complete because they are seen in opposition to a problem. So we assume that when the problem is solved we will reach a point of stability that we can simply sustain. But without the old problem, the idea loses the thing that made it appear complete, and its own gaps emerge. These push a new set of people to the margins, and it is now those people whose perspectives become increasingly needed. And the institutions that embody the once innovative ideas fail to recognise that because they have become a system like the one they replaced. Because all an established system really is, is an incomplete idea without a counterweight. The content of the idea doesn’t really matter.
So the truly innovative organisation needs to make sure, even as it embarks on a new path, that it has the mechanism in place to decentre that path once it reaches a certain point.
What does that look like in practice? It’s very hard to say, but I feel as though life with ADHD has given me some insights. ADHD means, for me, adopting a hyperfocused approach to one particular problem or interest at a time, getting inside it, bringing something genuinely new to it,m then pursuing it relentlessly. For about 3 years. Before moving on to something else, drawing on that past experience in the new field but essentially letting it tick over. For me those phases of intense interest have included bridge, bodybuilding, luxury flooring, pudding wine, and performance poetry, among other things over the course of 50 years.
The result is that my interests never go stale, but I also enter every new field with a distinctive perspective, built on a background unlike anyone else in that field.
Another metaphor I use is the rolling maul in rugby — a group of players that moves persistently up the pitch. Players join the group and players drop out of it constantly, meaning that the make up of the group is never the same, it’s always fresh — even though the group remains intact.
I have a feeling that an innovative culture that has learned decentring as a conscious practice in order to use ideas to crack problems without letting them solidify and form problems of their own would work something like a rolling maul. Something like a life with ADHD, a series of sometimes overlapping and sometimes sequential areas of hyperfocus that enter and then exit the stage leaving their shadows casting a rich texture on the stage.
But what I am more confident of is that vigilance is a large part of the journey. Be excited at the idea from the margins you have never heard before, bring it to the centre, empower its originator, nurture and implement it. But always be aware that it will only ever be centred temporarily, that it is the latest in a line of necessary but provisional innovations.
And as founder/CEO, make your role to be simultaneously ambassador and champion for the new idea and advance scout seeking out its potential cracks and putting the mechanisms in place to find ways to correct them.
If you are interested in finding out more about my approach to innovation and creativity, you might enjoy my book Our Dreams Make Different Shapes