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Building creativity at work

Building creativity at work

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A couple of major things stifle creativity in the workplace.  The first is that we think what we are observing is completely accurate and secondly that our world view and decision making is somehow better than others.

It turns out that neither of those things is true and these beliefs impede the creative process.

A couple of years back an oil company asked me to talk to their team of geologists about fostering creativity and knowledge sharing at work.  This was vital to the effectiveness of the team.  An error could lead to the drilling of a test rig in a barren spot at a cost of $10 million plus.  The department members were required to work in teams to analyse data over and over again to ensure that an accurate interpretation had been made.

One of the problems with this approach is that once you make a decision about something our brains are hardwired to stick to our first conclusions.  We find it hard to interpret the information in a different light and we find it easier to collect evidence supporting our first analysis rather than looking for evidence pointing to a different conclusion.  This is the confirmation bias- where we scan for evidence supporting our conclusions

The trick is to keep seeing the world through fresh eyes and not to be fooled by our brains.

‘Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.’ Mahatma Gandhi

How our mind plays tricks on us

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David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and explains how limited our perception is:

“We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.”

Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening. There are many examples of optical illusions and false recall by eye witnesses . Illusions demonstrate that what  you think is going on in front of you does not actually represent physical reality but is your brain constructing what it wants to see.

If you don’t believe me check this out

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo

Our construction of reality shapes and alters our view of the physical world. It also limits our cognitive ability because we weigh our views more importantly than others. This blinkered view can often put us in opposition to our friends and colleagues and can be a real impediment when we are in a creative process with another.

Recognizing that our view of the world is limited is an important step in recognising that the truth of reality can only emerge through dialogue. David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt: the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there.

This “umwelt” creates a belief that our world view is the correct one.  At work, in politics and in our home life this can be a recipe for disaster.

 

Our perception of reality is influenced by our culture and language

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How we interpret what we see is subjective and influenced by many factors such as the social context we are faced with and our prior experiences.

For example there are a number of languages in Africa and in Europe (such as old Welsh) that have only a small handful of words differentiating colours.  One African tribe had just five words to describe colours and used these words to group shades of colours in ways which Western eyes could not comprehend.  The tribe lived on the red dusty savannah and had developed a unique way of perceiving their surroundings in order to extract the maximum nutritional value and beauty from their environment.  Their language developed as their perception developed and may have helped shape how they experience the world.

In one study westerners were compared to the tribe members.  Each group were each presented with a range of different colours and asked to choose the odd one out.  Westerners found it easy to pick the odd one out whereas tribe members struggled.  Tribe members however, were able to pick out different shades of the same colour (desert reds) which were imperceptible to the Western eye.  Their interpretation of the world in front of them was very different to westerners and their increased perception in some areas was in order to get the most useful information from their home environment.

What you see is not necessarily what I see.

Our emotional state effects what we perceive

Our emotional state also has an influence on perception.  People who feel in control of their lives and confident about the future perceive a greater range of colours, with a greater degree of accuracy, than people  who feel they have little control over their lives.  Confident people are also better at identifying solutions and opportunities when faced with complex problems.

What we can perceive is very different from the people around us and is influenced by the language we speak and the mood we are in.

We think that we are better at things than we really are

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It’s human nature to think that the way we see things is “the correct way”. We have a tendency to attribute our success to our skills and our failures to external events.

The author, Nasssim Nicholas Taleb, looked at journals which investigated  the difference between what we think we know and what we actually know.  In studies, experts and lay people were asked to provide confidence limits surrounding an assertion.  For example, “I am 98% confident that the population of Brazil is between 100 and 200 million”.  It turns out that on average the 2% error rate is more like 45%.  We are 22 times more confident in our beliefs than we ought to be.

Surprisingly the studies indicate that the more “expert” we are, the greater the average error rate.  The more information we have the greater the confirmation bias (looking for confirming evidence) and belief perseverance (stickiness of beliefs), creates the illusion of certainty.

Staying creative

In order to stay open to other peoples ideas and keep a fresh perspective we need to understand our tendency  to pick up false information and hold a rigid world view. The author Ian McGilchrist describes this false world view  as like living in a hall of mirrors where we constantly reach out to what is familiar,  comfortable and supports the view we have of ourselves and the world around us.

To break free of these chains we need to do at least two things:

–       Increase our field of perception

–       Understand that a closer proximity to truth can only come through dialogue

Increasing our field of perception

 

There are a number of strategies for doing this:

  • Rearrange your home environment and take different routes to work
  • Set goals which are slightly outside comfort zones but are attainable
  • Change how you present yourself – dressing differently makes you feel, think and act differently
  • Reintroduce play into your life – being happy fosters neural plasticity which helps us develop flexible minds – you are 30 times more likely to laugh in the company others compared to being alone
  • Construct goals and “to do” lists which are divided between maintaining your existing world view and developing a new one
  • Human touch fosters neural plasticity – its associated with a hormone called oxytocin which is related to a flexible thinking style – so get a massage!

Seeing the reality that others see

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Our view can never be perfect but a more accurate view of reality comes when you weave together different stories:

  • Explore the differences between dialogue and debate – what are the characteristics that harden opinions in one and foster creativity in another
  • Identifying strengths of colleagues – spend some time thinking about what they are good at
  • Force yourself to think from alternate points of view in situations
  • Write about your day from another point of view  – try and gexplore your experiences from the view point of another person
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How our biases get in the way of making good decisions

This week’s newsletter briefly explores our biases and tendencies and how they can get in the way of good decision making and collaborating with people.  In an earlier newsletter I looked at the limited spectrum of information that we are able to comprehend.  This is what I wrote a few months back:

It seems that what we think we are observing around us is such a small percentage of reality. Not only do we miss the “big picture” as well as the fine details, we actually fail to observe and recall hardly anything at all.  In an amazing experiment students were asked to observe four differently coloured shapes for a fraction of a second.  The shapes were flashed momentarily again and one of the shapes was rotated either to the left or to the right.  The subjects were then asked to state whether there had been a rotation to the left or right.  Most people failed at this task, and in fact average people were only able to tell if there had been a movement to the left or to the right if there were less than three objects to observe… Imagine that! We think we can know all that is going on around us but in fact at a conscious level we can hardly observe or recall anything.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and explains how limited our perception is:

“We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.  Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening.”

There is simply too much information out there for us to process.

When we observe with limited perception we tend to believe in what we see, smell, touch and hear and we form rigid views based on that perception.  For a simple example of how optical illusions play tricks on us check this out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo

Take a look at the clip before reading the next bit.

If you followed the task how many of you saw the gorilla?  If not take another look.  This is a great example of the importance of attention.  When our attention is diverted by a task we can miss the obvious.  As Daniel Kahneman says “we can be blind to the obvious and blind to our blindness”.

Just think how often your attention is taken by a task at work or stolen by advertising images, and then imagine how the world is misrepresented by your senses and your captured attention.  That’s one of the reasons why its useful to train your attention to make it less easily manipulated.  We’re surrounded by optical and other sensorial illusions and these become cognitive illusions as we process the information.  Our thoughts and feelings are therefore based on an illusion.

That does not mean that all is illusion and to lack confidence in your thoughts and actions.  However it is useful to cultivate more humility and understanding that your view of the world is just one impression and that others have an important perspective that can provide you with amazing insights.

This brings me onto the second point about how we develop cognitive illusions based on the illusions of our senses.  Heuristic biases are the environmental factors that have influenced the way we interpret the information flowing from the sense organs to the mind.  Up until the 1970s scientists broadly accepted two ideas about human nature:  First, people are generally rational  and second emotions such as fear and love explain departures from rationality.  In the 1970s Daniel Kahneman documented more than twenty types of systematic errors in the thinking of normal people which were not based on deviations from the norm caused by strong emotions.

I’ll provide you with one example of an heuristic bias – the amount of media coverage on a particular topic impacts the importance that people place on that topic, its potential economic impact and the likelihood that it will impact them personally. That’s one of the reasons why Silvio Berlosconi benefits from control of the Italian press.  There are many other biases, such as how our parents encouraged us to perceive the world. So what we see, or think we see, is influenced by the way we have see that thing before.  We experience the world in an increasingly rigid way and thats why its so good to travel and experience different cultures or learn a new language so that you begin to think and express based on a different set of cultural norms.

These heuristic biases, combined with illusions of the senses (influenced by our ability to pay attention), creates an imperfect impression of the world and leads us to imperfect thinking and decision making.

None of this is a problem!  By definition it’s impossible for us to observe everything in a perfect way.  All it means is that all of us, especially the experts and leaders in our society, need to develop the strength of humility.  The more we learn, the more we realise there is more to learn and that others have an interesting perspective. Deepening our knowledge about misperception and heuristic biases enables us to explore each others thought processes and idiosyncrasies with humour and playfulness . It enables collaboration and fosters dialogue.  It reminds us that we all have a story to tell, each as precious and as valid as the next

PS. when I  studied the Bhagavad-Gita in India there was a conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna about the impossibility of humans being able to take in the reality of their surroundings.  When Lord Krishna enables this briefly Arjuna is flooded with knowledge, colour and beauty.

“O Arjuna, I have innumerable forms of diverse colors and shapes. There are many miraculous things that you have not seen before. The whole universe, both animate and inanimate, exists in one part of My divine body. You are not able to see the whole of My form with your sense perception. Therefore I will give you a divya chakshu (divine eye) through which you can see the form of the Lord as a whole.”

Reading ideas :
The invisible Gorrilla Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Positive Psychology – dialogue & debate

Difference between dialogue and debate

This is the ninth in a series of blogs/newsletters about the courses, teachers and books that have inspired me in the past ten years.

Our view of the world is imperfect
This week I’m continuing to explore the idea the idea that our perception of reality is narrow and imperfect.  As I mentioned in an earlier newsletter, David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, explains how limited our perception is:

 “We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us. Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening. There are so many examples of this such as optical illusions and false recall by eye witnesses . Illusions demonstrate that these really simple things that you think are going on in front of you are not actually representing physical reality but instead your brain is constructing something.”

Recognizing this limited view is an important step in recognising that the truth of reality can only emerge through dialogue. David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt : the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there. In yoga this imperfect view is described as Avidya (basically ignorance).This umwelt creates a belief that our view is the correct one and also an arrogance about our abilities compared to others.  Part of yoga training is to start to understand this veil of ignorance.  Our brains can never be equipped to understand the universe and that it is only through dialogue between people, between communities and between humans and the rest of the natural world that something approximating to a higher truth can emerge. Yoga training also teaches us to be confident about our place in the world and to play to our strengths whilst also developing humility ie. we need to be humble because our singular view of the universe will by definition be imperfect

How to explore a more perfect truth through dialogue
Take a look around the people at work and spend some time listening to what they say and what you are saying.  Begin to start analysing conversations and decide whether conversational exchanges are debating (ie. arguing a case to support a particular view of the world) or dialogue (ie. developing and exploring someone else’s ideas).

We find that many conversations are defensive in nature where we seek to find evidence to bolster our world view and we also align our world view with our sense of confidence and position in the world.  Authentic leaders have the ability to separate their feelings of confidence with the dialogue that unfolds around them.  They listen to emerging truths and don’t hold rigidly to a set world view.  Allowing ourselves to accept that others have difference insights (and sometimes greater knowledge) can be unsettling.  It requires great courage and real internal confidence to listen to others even when they might be in more socially junior positions to us.

Over the next few weeks at work listen to others and what you are saying and ask yourself whether ideas are being created or positions bolstered. To help with this process these may be some of the differences between dialogue and debate:

The conditions for good dialogue at work:

Hospitality
The group is welcoming, everyone matters and is included, being ‘in dialogue’ is celebrated, participants are attentive to the physical environment.

Participation
There are many ways to contribute, no one is compelled to talk and each kind of contribution impacts on the group. Each person’s contribution is acknowledged.

Mindfulness
Paying attention at many levels, of what is said, how it is said, how it relates to what has already been said. Attention must also be paid to what is not said.  Mindfulness is also about an awareness of the discussion as a whole and how well it is addressing the issues being explored.

Humility
No one person’s knowledge and understanding are total.  Participants accept that there is always more to learn and the group’s collective wisdom benefits each individual.
Humility demands deep listening; humble participants listen at three levels, to self, to others and to the group for shared learning.

Mutuality
The more each person is free to contribute the more everyone else profits.  Mutuality also suggests a commitment to inquiry, raising questions to foster individual and collective understanding.

Deliberation
This refers to the willingness of participants to explore issues as fully as possible, offering arguments and counter arguments.  Deliberations obliges us to take strong, well substantiated stands unless there are good reasons not to.

Appreciation
Taking the time to acknowledge a useful insight or contribution.  The opportunity to discuss difficult issues is life-enhancing and so we should seize opportunities to express gratitude to others as part of that.

Hope
Hope is a mainstay of good dialogue.  It assumes that good can come of people taking the time to discuss important issues.  It affirms our collective capacity to use dialogue to envision new possibilities and act towards the common good.

Autonomy
We have a responsibility to stand up for what we believe.  It doesn’t negate the value of learning from and with the group, but there are times when we feel we must defy the group and go our own way.  The importance of autonomy reinforces the idea that groups are strongest when individuals are affirmed and allowed to voice their views.

Dialogue vs Debate
with

common meaning

listen for meaning

enlarge and change

complicates issues

flexible

stresses skills of synthesis

multiple perspectives

temporary suspension of belief

everyone part of the problem

mutual learning

open minded

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

vs

at

oppositional

listen for flaws

affirms own views

simplifies issues

rigid

stresses skills of analysis

singularity

invest wholeheartedly in own belief

one solution wins

competition

final answer

Positive Psychology and staying open to new ideas

This is the sixth in a series of blogs/newsletters about the courses, teachers and books that have inspired me in the past ten years.  This week I’m looking at Positive Psychology and staying open to new ideas.

We can only see a fraction of reality

It seems that what we think we are observing around us is such a small percentage of reality that not only do we miss the “big picture” as well as the fine details, we actually fail to observe and recall hardly anything at all.  In an amazing experiment students were asked to observe four differently coloured shapes for a fraction of a second.  The shapes were flashed momentarily again and one of the shapes was rotated either to the left or to the right.  The subjects were then asked to state whether there had been a rotation to the left or right.  Most people failed at this task and in fact on average people were only able to tell if there had been a movement to the left or to the right if there was less than three objects to observe..Imagine that! We think we can know all that is going on around us but in fact at a conscious level we can hardly observe or recall anything.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine and explains how limited our perception is:

“We open our eyes and we think we’re seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that’s riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.

Even though we accept the reality that’s presented to us, we’re really only seeing a little window of what’s happening. There are so many examples of this such as optical illusions and false recall by eye witnesses . Illusions demonstrate that these really simple things that you think are going on in front of you are not actually representing physical reality but instead your brain is constructing something.

Our construction of reality shapes and alters our view of the physical world. It also limits our cognitive ability because we weigh our views more importantly than others. This blinkered view can often put us in opposition to our friends and colleagues.

A lot of this happens unconsciously. We don’t know how much we’re interpreting. The world presents itself like it’s reality and we don’t know how much we’ve already filtered that. We perceive the world as real, but we’re doing a lot of interpretation of  the data as it comes in. This can be a real impediment when we’re in an argument because each person sees the world as real and thinks the other must be crazy or deliberately trying to destroy things when in fact they’re just trying to bring their own expectations and facts to the table.

Recognizing this limited view is an important step in recognising that the truth of reality can only emerge through dialogue. David Eagleman describes this as the umwelt: the assumption that our reality is the only reality out there.

This umwelt creates a belief that our view is the correct one and also an arrogance about our abilities compared to others.  At work, politics and in our home life it can be a recipe for disaster.

 

Our perception of reality is influenced by many factors including mood and language

As a further illustration of how our interpretation of reality is illusory and not constant our perception of colours is influenced by our moods. Over the last few decades there has been a growing body of research suggesting that how we interpret what we see is subjective and contextual, with many influencing factors such as the social context we’re faced with, and our prior learning and habits.  For example there are a number of languages in Africa and in Europe (such as old Welsh) that have only a small handful of words differentiating colours.  One African tribe had just five words to describe colours and used these words to group colours in ways which Western eyes could not comprehend.  The tribe lived on the red dusty savannah and had developed a unique and useful way of perceiving their environment in order to extract the maximum nutritional value and beauty from their environment.  Their language developed as their perception developed and may have helped shape how they experience the world. When faced with a range of similar colours and asked to choose the odd one out, Westerners typically found it easy to pick the odd one out whereas tribe members struggled.  Tribe members however, were able to pick out different shades of the same colour which were imperceptible to the Western eye.

Recent research suggests that in addition to the construction of language and social preferences, our emotional state also has an influence on colour perception.  People feeling more in control of their lives, confident and upbeat about the future can perceive a greater range of colours with a greater degree of accuracy compared to people feeling they have little control over their lives and the future.  They are also better at identifying solutions or opportunities when faced with complex problems or decisions.  Positive Psychology suggests that we can use these influences to alter not only our perceptions of the physical world such as colour perception, but the construction of our mental world – attitudes, biases and ways of representing information.  When we experience a healthy balance of positive to negative emotions we are able to process information in a more accurate manner than people who have a lower ratio of positive to negative emotions.

So what we can perceive is very different from people around us and is influenced by the language we speak and the mood we are in.

We think we are observing truth

As we observe the world it is a human tendency to think that the way we see things is “the correct way”.

The asymmetry of human perception means that we have a tendency to attribute our success to our skills and our failures to external events causing us to have a strong belief that we are better than others at what we do for a living.  Nasssim Nicholas Taleb reviewed journals
investigating the difference between what we know and what we actually know.  In a series of replicated studies, experts and lay people were asked to provide confidence limits surrounding an assertion.  For example, “I am 98% confident that the population of Brazil is between 100 and 200 million”.  It turns out that on average the 2% error rate is more like 45%.  We are 22 times more confident in our beliefs than we ought to be.  The studies indicate that the more “expert” we are, the greater the average error rate.  The more information we have the more a confirmation bias (looking for confirming evidence) and belief perseverance (stickiness of beliefs), creates the illusion of certainty.

Compounding our errors

The problem of limited perception may be exacerbated by the asymmetry of our brains. Iain McGilchrist has written about this in his brilliant book, The Master and His Emissary.  The conventional notion is that the left hemisphere is for fine processing of information whilst the right is more holistic and big picture.  This is a vast over simplification but hold this thought for a moment!

 

The book’s title comes from the legend of a wise ruler whose domains grew so large that he had to train emissaries to visit them instead of going himself. One of these, however, grew so cocky that he thought he was wiser than his master, and eventually deposed him. And this, says McGilchrist, is what the Left hemisphere tends to do. In fact, the balance between these two halves is, like so many things in evolution, a somewhat rough, practical arrangement, quite capable of going wrong. The bifurcation seems to have become necessary in the first place because these two main functions – comprehensiveness and precision – are both necessary, but are too distinct to be combined. The normal sequence, then, is that the comprehensive partner (right) first sees the whole prospect – picks out something that needs investigating – and hands it over to the specialist (left) , who processes it. But, once those pieces of work are done, it is necessary for the wider vision to take over again and decide what to do next.

Much of the time this is indeed what happens and it is what has enabled brains of this kind to work so well, both for us and for other animals. But sometimes there is difficulty about the second transaction. Since it is the nature of precision not to look outward – not to bother about what is around it – the specialist partner does not always know when it ought to hand its project back to headquarters for further processing. Being something of a success-junkie, it often prefers to hang on to it itself. And since we do have some control over this shift between detailed and general thinking, that tendency can be helped or hindered by the ethic that prevails in the culture around it.

 

McGilchrist  notes that there is a tendency for the left brain to dwell in detail that it believes to be real and seeks confirmation of its world view ( a process perhaps enhanced by personalised google searches  which reveals the world to us based on what an algorithm thinks we want to see.)

This tends to narrow our field of vision further and makes us strongly attach to our ego and beliefs making us difficult, cantankerous and old. So not only is our perception flawed but we tend to seek confirmation of misperception as we get older

Staying open to ideas

So in order to stay open to the ideas of others  and keep a fresh perspective we need to know about the tendencies we have to pick up false information and hold a rigid world view. McGilchrist describes the left brain delusion as like living in a hall of mirrors where we constantly reach out to what is familiar and comfortable.

To break free of these chains we need to do at least two things:

–       Increase our field of perception

–       Understand that a closer proximity to truth can only come through dialogue

 

 

Increasing our field of perception

There are a number of strategies for doing this:

  • Rearrange Your Home Environment and take different routes and find new areas to explore
  • Set goals which are slightly outside comfort zones but are attainable
  • Change How You Present Yourself – dressing differently makes you feel, think and act differently
  • Reintroduce play into your life – being happy fosters neural plasticity – you are 30 times more likely to laugh in the company others compared to being alone
  • Construct goals and “to do” lists which are divided between maintaining your existing world view and developing a new one
  • Human touch fosters neural plasticity – its associated with a hormone called oxytocin which is related to a flexible thinking style – so get a massage!

 

Seeing the reality that others see

Our view can never be perfect but a more accurate view of reality comes when you weave together different stories:

  • Explore the differences between dialogue and debate – what are the characteristics that harden opinions in one and foster creativity in another
  • Identifying strengths of colleagues – spend some time thinking about what they are good at
  • Force Yourself to Think from Alternate Points of View in Monotonous Situations
  • Write Out Your Day From Another Point of View – explore your experiences from the view point of another
  • Edit Your Own Story – examine a challenge that you have in your life and write about it on three separate occasions.  Note how your mood, the time of day and other factors influence your interpretation of the issue

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