Month: April 2017

behaviour changepsychologysocial systems

Healing, by design

WindowMountain_Snapseed

The concept of healing plays an integral part of healthy human development in many cultures, yet is largely unknown or misunderstood in its practice. If we seek to develop, evolve, innovate and grown as individuals, organizations and societies wisely we would do well to better grasp what healing is and how its done, by design. 

To develop, is to heal.

That’s a bold assertion, but one that is integral to understanding how we develop ourselves, our organizations and our communities and societies successfully.

Social and emotional baggage is what we bring with us on our journey. It can create character and strength, while it can also can weigh us down if we take too much of something or unhelpful things. Healing is one of the ways we deal with things to ensure that what we pack on a journey is the most useful for where we want to go and who or what we want to become. Because every journey is different, what is useful or not is relative, which is why a ‘one-sized fits all’ approach won’t work.

For those in developmental psychology,  developmental evaluation or any innovation-related field you’ll recognize this as the norm. But the means in which development takes place is often viewed as rational, logical and linear, despite talk to the contrary. Design thinking is a perfect example of this: it’s an approach that is, in practice highly unpredictable and non-linear, but is often taught as a straightforward method.

Healing across cultures

The traditional Western term for healing is defined around terms like making whole again, restorative, or therapeutic: terms that focus on a return to the status quo. There are other perspectives that view healing as a developmental concept focused on transformation that has greater utility for those interested in change-making. This perspective on healing comes largely from aboriginal contexts worldwide. This approach has been well-documented as part of the !Kung and Ju!hoansi peoples of central Africa, Fijian aboriginal tribes, and many of the First Nations in North America by Dr. Richard Katz. Katz has been interested in the ways in which the practice of healing supports community development and social transformation as well as serving as a vital part of the psycho-social and spiritual life of these cultures.

Within each of these cultures are a series of practices, tools, methods and approaches to healing that are employed by individuals as well as the collective society to not only address injuries and wounds, but use the experience as a means to growth and connection to the world.

The most obvious Western parallel is not psychological, but physiological. Consider muscle growth and development. For muscles to build, they must be stretched and worked in a manner that causes minor trauma to them. Without the traumas, no growth can occur. Healthy muscle development is partly conscious, but also involves the interaction with other muscles and can be a process that is designed (i.e., developing a weight training routine or fitness regimen) or not. One will yield a particular set of intentional results, while the other does not.

An old new design for healing

What Katz’s work does is show us how things are done elsewhere, but also points to how this process is similar across cultures and can be applied elsewhere. This is not about cultural appropriation, but rather an acknowledgement of some common ways in which people relate to the experience of healing that can be designed for different contexts, using local knowledge and wisdom from that cultural situation.

What might that look like? Katz’s work points to a few common characteristics that could form the basis for a healing context. If one were to design such a context, what might that include?

  1. Mind, body, spirit. No matter what the source of ill-health, dis-ease, or mental unwellness, the mind, body and spirit are all assigned a role, even if those roles might be uneven in their contribution to the problem and solution. Further, these three elements are not disconnected from the environment in which they exist. Personal problems are always, to some extent, social problems and vice versa. This acknowledges the systemic effects of the environments we create and the interconnection between mind-body-spirit and our world around us. This thinking is the forerunner to what we often consider as the psycho- and social determinants of health and the biopsychosocial model of health that is now widely applied within health sciences.
  2. Participation and engagement. The most central distinction between the indigenous approaches to healing that Katz has explored and Western ones is the role of the community in the healing process. Unlike Western allopathic approaches, the healing process is not viewed as the responsibility of the patient and healthcare provider alone, but the family, community and beyond. This perspective acknowledges that, if one is to believe that the environment is a contributor to illness and recovery, there must be engagement from that domain in the healing process. Across the examples that Katz explores we see the involvement of the community in the prevention, treatment, post-incident care and development and as one solid continuum of practice. Healing is social and therefore the benefits are accrued to everyone.
  3. Ceremony & ritual. This engagement through the healing process is guided through the use of ceremony and ritual. This is part of every healing practice, even allopathic medicine, but the role of these is made explicit.  In this case, healing is a conscious act that is shared with everyone involved. In Western societies, we too often fail to acknowledge ‘developmental moments’ properly, because we’ve not built in the spaces to do this. I’ve written about this in other places looking at the role of mindfulness in developmental evaluation and how there needs to be spaces for that to be built into regular practice — through ceremony and ritual, if you will — for it to work, otherwise things pass by.
  4. Mindfulness / data gathering. The act of paying attention is a prime source of data in healing practice. This goes beyond the simplistic view of diagnosis, which is not an appropriate means of viewing a problem if it takes place in a complex environment anyway — see the Cynefin Framework for reasons why. These cultures are using sophisticated means of assessing situations that are highly social, involve much sensemaking and, in keeping with appropriate practice for complex conditions, using multiple means and methods for capturing data about the source and context of a problem.
  5. Wisdom. While healing is done in the present, the cause and consequence have some roots back to the past. All of the cultures that Katz spent time with drew on wisdom from the elders, understanding of the past, and how what happened before sets the stage for what is happening now to some extent. This is where baggage can come in, personal history (including genetics) and ‘institutional memory’ in the case of organizations or communities. While we may think something is long finished and wrapped up, that might not be the case and if we’re not aware of our history we might be doomed not necessarily to repeat it, but to create a future we don’t want.
  6. Artifacts. The tools of ceremony and healing involve artifacts. While we might think of things like the couch, the medical bed, or the white coat as artifacts, so too does any healing situation have theirs are means to connect to the process and support healing. Many people, regardless of their background, draw on indigenous artifacts like burning sacred woods such as palo santo, or sage brush or sweetgrass, or perhaps incense of different types. More Westernized models such as candles or prayers might be involved. Used out of context without skill, these artifacts may not have the full perceived influence, but they allow those healing to recognize the act of healing as it takes place, creating a sacred space among the ordinary, transforming a space like a home or office into one that is suited for healing, demarcating the intentionality of healing. Whatever the artifact, even a mascot (e.g., toy) these things can create a space of sacredness where one didn’t exist before if used consistently and respectfully.
  7. Ongoing practice. Healing is not something that just happens and goes away. While the ritual and intensity of the healing act might change, there is a culture of healing that is created, just as we would seek to create a culture of learning, evaluation or innovation in an organization.
  8. Positivity. Richard Katz’s 1997 book looking at the Kalahari Ju!honansi peoples was entitled Healing Makes our Hearts Happy. The book details how the act of healing is a positive force in the community, despite the many challenges and pain that is experienced at times. The process of coming together, sharing and working on the process of creating a world for their people, not just reacting to things as they happen, allows for something that Rumi called ‘unfolding your own myth’. It provides agency and focus and keeps the community attuned to what is and what it wants to be on a regular basis. The process of coming back from dis-ease or dis-ability and creating a stronger next step is something that is always done from a place of positivity. In tactical terms, this is acknowledging what we know from psychology that it is more effective to ask for what you want, rather than what you don’t want. 
  9. Energy. The final piece is energy. This can take the form of some spiritual force, but also reflects an intensity and active engagement with healing. It’s not a passive thing, but something active that requires work and focus. The cultures Katz spent time with put this as a priority, not as a ‘nice to have’. How often have we decided to ‘just put things behind us’ not facing the real implications of something traumatic? I knew someone who lived with terrible emotional and social abuse who, upon leaving a harmful environment, decided to seek some therapy to work through the issues. This brought insight and clarity and that convinced her that only a few sessions would be needed and left therapy (the healing space), claiming she was all worked through that stuff and could manage on her own. Sadly, before long, that dark shadow from her past came back only not at a time of her choosing and only re-imposed the traumas of the past in a way that she wasn’t prepared to deal with. The process of healing requires a lot of energy and focus, but the benefits are enormous if they are sustained. Sustaining the energy is perhaps the hardest part.
  10. The role of the healer. Involved in all of the approaches explored was a healer (or two). These are usually wise, well-skilled, and compassionate individuals with expertise and experience in guiding the healing process. Like Western approaches, these healers bring tremendous assets to the healing encounter, but unlike them they are more conductors of the symphony — integral and important, but only one part of a larger whole. We are seeing more nurses, doctor, psychotherapists recognizing this, but more is needed. The healing approach is truly done from a systems perspective in many of these indigenous cultures, where the healer plays a critical, connected role, yet is impotent without the system’s engagement around her or him. This is also true for the self-as-healer. While we can do a lot, we can’t do it all on our own, no matter much we try.

Healing our perspectives on healing

This approach to healing is something that we can all engage in. What we need to do is find the means — personal, social, organizational — to fit into the context we live in. That’s not a simple task and the easy, simple – and wrong — approach is to simply copy the Indigenous cultures’ practices, tools and traditions. What is necessary is to create a healing culture that is appropriate to the context it’s used.

In a pluralistic, diverse, largely urbanized, secular, Westernized world, this is a challenge that isn’t easily addressed. It means getting to know yourself and the environment we work in. The ‘model’ of healing above may share common features with those of many indigenous cultures and, as Katz has noted in his forthcoming book, these are often connected deeply to healing practices that were overrun and buried by modern allopathic approaches to medicine — denying that these practices are part of all of our history to some extent.

It’s worth also adding some subtext to what has been mentioned above with a personal note. I’ve met Richard Katz on many occasions. He was the mentor to a brilliant psychologist who mentored me and taught me many approaches to healing that I’ve had the privilege to work with and through in my work. Dick would always say: “speak about what you know” meaning that your stories are yours, not others and vice versa. Be humble.

Richard has lived and worked among healers his entire professional life and told the stories through his books at invitation of the communities he’s worked in. He fully acknowledges the cultural problems that this introduces, the timing and clash of worldviews they embody, the role of colonialism and the Westernization / sanitization / dramatization that often comes from Western scholars reporting on indigenous affairs and has been cautious about claiming anything about these communities worlds as his own. It’s a delicate situation and one that, when we engage in healing work, is one that needs discussion. It’s important to respect and honour the sources of our wisdom and knowledge and the means in which we come to know what we know.

Get in touch with what you know and may it help with your — and our — healing work, by design.

References of note: 

Katz, R. (2017, forthcoming). Indigenous healing psychology: Honoring the wisdom of the first peoples. Healing Arts Press.

Katz, R., Biesele, M. & St. Denis, V. (1997). Healing makes our hearts happy.  Inner Traditions.

Katz, R. (1989). The straight path: Ancestral wisdom and healing traditions in Fiji. Park Street Press.

Katz, R. (1984). Boiling energy: Community healing among the Kalahari Kung. Harvard University Press.

 

innovationpsychologysocial systemssystems thinking

What’s in your baggage?

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Social and emotional baggage is what we bring with us and, like the real thing, it’s all in what we pack, how we pack it and how aware we are of what we’re packing it for. And like the real thing, individuals and organizations can’t go on much of a journey without carrying some of it with us.

Social and emotional baggage is a concept that has been drawn from psychology to metaphorically represent the things — memories, expectations, experiences — that we bring from our past into our present context, usually in a negative, debilitating or otherwise limiting way. It’s something that is attributed to individuals, but may also fit organizations, too. But baggage is a part of any trip and looking at it as part of the journey might provide us better ways to use it, rather than ignore it.

Metaphors are useful ways to take what we cannot see or touch, but nonetheless are experienced as real and makes the concept more tangible. The metaphor of baggage is useful because we can look at it in many different ways.

Baggage is what we bring with us on our journey and, like real baggage, it matters what we bring, how much of it, and how amenable it is to being moved.

What’s in your carry-on?

Let’s consider what we might bring with us this journey of ours and consider what roles these items play in our lives and organizations. What’s going in our bag?

Clothing: Different outfits allow us to transform our appearance, to stand out or blend in, or express ourselves in creative ways (along with keeping us comfortable while avoiding the whole “naked in public” thing that’s a bit problematic in most cultures). Spare clothes provide us with the ability to envision ourselves in different forms. They represent our ability to adapt and to dream new futures. There’s a difference between having the latitude to transform and having so much stuff that either it’s not all that different or is so different, we lose our sense of who we are. When we’ve packed too much of anything, we get lost in choice and focus. If we don’t pack the right stuff, we lose our ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Toiletries: A basic toiletry set allows us to care for ourselves, maybe even make ourselves up a little. These are the things that repair the damage from day-to-day wear and tear on the body, heal, and protect ourselves from the wear to come and prevent future damage (hello, sunscreen!). We might also wish to make ourselves up a little sometimes, too (hello, lipstick or cologne!). If we pack too much of these things we can get vaingloriously trapped in what others might think of us and present a face that’s less authentic than our true selves. We might also be so focused on repair and prevention that we fail to recognize what’s in front of us in the present moment (the only moment when we can do anything to change the game).

Gifts: These are things we bring to others based on our experience and are shared best through acts of service, kindness, generosity and love. They may be souvenirs, stories, photos and keepsakes – things given and transported with care for others and might include sharing our knowledge (tacit and explicit) and experience with others through storytelling. Our fellow travellers benefit from our gifts, and so do we as they often bring joy to the giver through the giving. However, if we pack our bags with too many we may wind up looking more after others than ourselves. Our focus is on giving to others at the expense of caring for ourselves. Our bags only have so much room and gifts take up some of that room.

Memories & Experience: This is our past. This is the part that accumulates over time as we get older and experience the world. It builds on and continually adds to our carriage, meaning we need to consider how we pack it, what we choose to hold on to from this vast collection, and what we might want to discard. This is where wisdom resides. It’s also a seat of some of our biggest problems. If real healing — that integration of experience with understanding, reflection and growth through our social life — doesn’t take place, we might find ourselves with things in our bag that we’d thought we’d discarded, but didn’t. It’s like finding the scorpion that might have hid in your luggage from your tropical vacation as you go home. If we’re not careful and mindful about what we pack, we might let in things we thought we’d left behind.

Cargo: This last element is cartage from one space to another. This is the stuff we bring from one place to another that may or may not have any purpose. It’s ‘stuff’. It’s trivia, the news, pop culture, or the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. It seems like this would be the easiest thing to disregard, but it’s not. It can take up a lot of room. Consider where you put your attention and what you consume in a day — your social media feeds, gossip at the office or the dog park, advertisements, broadcast media — and what you hang on to. This is the stuff that can make us lose sight of what we think is important, so it’s critical that we are mindful about what cartage we add to our baggage.

As my colleague Alex Jadad says:

Nothing really matters apart from what matters to us. Therefore, we must be very careful about what we choose to matter to us.

Packing what matters most

Our baggage represents a system. We create the boundaries by the shape and size of the bag (or bags) we choose to bring with us and all of what goes in the bag interacts (it all has to work together to fit). What happens when we pack piecemeal, we throw all of the stuff above into a bag and try and organize it. Sometimes we seek to bring more bags or getting a bigger suitcase; maybe that will work. But things don’t fit, it doesn’t go together. Or we find ourselves laden with luggage, slow to move, strained in the back and joints from carting it around…but at least we have our stuff, right? (if we can find it).

The problem with that ‘add more’ strategy is that, the more we have, the slower we are, the more encumbered, and the more confused. We add to complexity, rather than create simplicity. We need to design better.

The best packers are those who create extra space for things they’ll pick up along the way, put in things that go together (e.g., outfits that mix and match), and they determine their essentials ahead of time. They spend the time considering what is most important, most used, most necessary and organize around those things: they employ strategy (and they adapt their strategy along their journey). They know what they need, what they like, and what makes them comfortable, safe and happy on their journey. Why? They’ve paid attention and collected data to support that decision (e.g. through ongoing evaluation, reflective practice, mindfulness, personal therapy).

This is all about being mindful about our work and life. For organizations, there are things you can do to create mindfulness in the way you work to help understand the choices you make and their consequences. For individuals, it’s about doing self-development work and engaging in reflective practice — in work and life.

If we don’t know what’s in our bags, we might be surprised what comes out. The subconscious works that way: it will pop things out at times of its choosing when we are often not expecting it or desiring it. Subconscious processes work at the individual and collective levels — it’s not just a personal thing.

Mindful packing

We are contributors to the story of our lives, but not the sole authors (despite what many seem to think). What has happened to us because of others matters as much as what we create for ourselves. It’s not about labeling those experiences as ‘good’ things and ‘bad’ things, rather dealing with the consequences that those experiences bring to our life in the here and now and asking if they are helpful or unhelpful to living the life we want.

Were you under appreciated by your colleagues or family? Bullied? Neglected? Think it’s all in the past? Replicate that situation in the present and see how you feel — it might not be all in the past. Abuse and neglect are common experiences at home and work and how we integrate that into our lives — or whether we do at all — can be a key factor in determining how we relate to the experiences in the present.

What about that project at work that got everyone excited and failed to deliver the value that everyone expected or felt promised? Is that going to temper the willingness to try again, to innovate or risk something new again? Organizations and teams might be tempted to ‘lower the bar’ to avoid disappointment, despite suggestions that an organizations’ settling for ‘mediocrity’ drives quality people away from work. 

What about that romantic relationship that was perfect, but ended because it was too perfect? How is too perfect even possible, you ask? If you’re not accustomed to being loved and cared for you might find it very uncomfortable to get exactly what you want (and need) and find (invent?) reasons why the relationship won’t work and end it (or sabotage it so you don’t have to end it). The issue isn’t that you don’t aspire for this ‘perfect love’, it’s that you’re not used to it; maybe the only way you were loved before was through neglect, abuse, or simple disinterest and partner disengagement. When that changes, so does our narrative about what real love is all about and if we don’t ‘flip the script’ we’ll write the new story into the old one and that just won’t work. (And if you’ve not experienced this in romance, how about a job? A friendship? An opportunity at work? — self sabotage is very real and underexamined).

None of this is crazy-making: it’s just how some people deal with the intense sadness of not knowing how to be loved or to achieve real success.

Like anything in life: change challenges us and these experiences (fears, hopes, unrequited dreams, and victories) go into our luggage and often not by choice — or awareness. But knowing this can happen will help us understand our baggage and how our past and hopes for the future affect the present.

The temptation is to make some sort of judgement about baggage and assume its a problem. We bring what we need with us and that means that we each will have and will need baggage differently. What we wish is for it to serve us, not debilitate us or keep us from growing. Being mindful, reflective and careful about what we have already packed is another critical step.

The next is realizing that, like real baggage, we can re-pack. We can discard things, re-organize, re-prioritize what goes inside. It’s never too late, but it does require work. The best thing of all is that, when we reorganize our baggage we create more of what we want — what matters to us — and less of what we don’t want or others want for us. Our baggage is our asset if we allow it to be.

Reflective practice, healing (to be covered in a future post in more depth), compassion (because we all have things we wish weren’t packed for us in our bags – be good to ourselves), systems thinking (and design thinking — creatively considering how we pack, not just what we pack) and healthy social engagement are all ways to improve our relationship with baggage.

And that’s something to hang our hats on.

Happy, healthy travels.

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Image credits: Author

 

 

art & designcomplexitysocial systemssystems thinking

A Beautiful Idea

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Is what you do, where you work, or how you organize, beautiful? Among the many words used to describe our work lives the most neglected and maybe necessary might be described that one word: it’s time to take it seriously. 

For those working in design one of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand that good design isn’t just about making things pretty, but making them better, more useful, more responsive, sustainable, and impactful. Good design is too often seen as a ‘nice to have’ than a ‘must have’ and is thus invested in accordingly.

‘Beautiful’ as a concept has it even worse. In my entire working career I’ve never heard the word uttered even once on a matter of professional importance by others. That’s a shame and it speaks loudly to our present situation where innovation is hard to come by, organizations struggle to attract and retain good people, and the battle for attention — of the market and our workforce — is maybe the biggest one of them all.

But beauty is worth a look, particularly because it is, well, beautiful.

A beautiful term

What is beautiful? Consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition.

beautiful |ˈbyo͞odəfəl| adjective

pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically: beautiful poetry | a beautiful young woman | the mountains were calm and beautiful.

• of a very high standard; excellent: the house had been left in beautiful order | she spoke in beautiful English.

Note two key features of this definition: pleasing the senses or mind and high standards. The first part might sound a bit hedonistic (PDF), but when you consider what motivates us at the most base level of existence: it’s pleasure and pain. We are attracted to people, experiences, objects and environments that generate pleasure. In an environment described above when attracting talent, eyeballs — attention — is so hard to come by, why would we not amplify beauty?

The second term is high standards. It’s not enough to attract attention, we need to hold it and to inspire action, loyalty and persistence if we wish to succeed on most counts. Quality is a competitive advantage in many environments, particularly in human services where the complexity associated with poor quality decisions, processes and management are potentially catastrophic. (Enron, anyone?).

An associated term to this is aesthetics, which is defined as:

aesthetic |esˈTHedik| (also estheticadjective

concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty: the pictures give great aesthetic pleasure.

• giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty; of pleasing appearance.

Aesthetics is the more active appreciation of beauty — the application of it in the world. Organizational aesthetics is an emergent area of scholarship and practice that seeks to understand the role of beauty in the organization and its implications. Steven Taylor describes organizational aesthetics through storytelling, outlining the way he came to know something through connecting his work with his senses. His story points to different ways in which organizational aesthetics is experienced and understood, but ultimately how its sensed. It’s that attention to the senses that really sets this field apart, but also how practical it is.

Practical beauty

Organizational aesthetics are about practical realities of organizational life, brought to bear through our five senses, not just the mind. Strange that so much of what is produced in the literature and scholarship is so cognitive and devoid of discussion of any other sensory experiences. Yet, we are sensuous beings and most healthy when we are in touch (literally!) with our senses in our lives. Consider the cortical homunculus and you’ll know that we feel through a lot more than we often use in our work lives.

Organizational aesthetics is about using methods that tap into these senses and the qualities of physical, social, psychological spaces where they can be used more fully to contribute to more impactful, healthier and happier environments for humans to work and thrive. This approach is rooted in design and the hypothesis that, as human created (thus designed) constructs, the modern organization can design in beauty as much as it can design beauty away. Like design itself, organizational aesthetics is practical, above all.

Citing earlier work from Roozenberg & Eekles (1995) on the topic of design causality, Steven De Groot, from the Eindhoven University of Technology, points to the way in which design is a responsive means to helping an organization adapt.

By fulfilling functions a design satisfies needs, and gives people the possibility to realize one or more values. Transferring these fundamentals, the design of the organization needs to change as a consequence of changing roles and needs of the employees in this case.

Roozenberg and Eekles assert that form follows value and thus, as De Groot sought to explore, explicit value of beauty can produce beautiful organizations. The reasoning for this research comes from earlier studies that show that when organizations value and nurture beauty within them, employees are happier, their commitment increases and the organizational function is improved.

Dispelling beautiful myths

Despite the reams of research that has emerged from a variety of disciplines showing the connections between beauty and positive outcomes and experiences in organizations, there will be many who are still troubled by the idea of integrating the word ‘beautiful’ into the serious world of work. It may be tempted to rely on a few myths to deny its utility so let’s dispel those right away.

  1. Promotion of beauty is not denial of the ugly. Ugly is everywhere: in the news, on social media (spent time on Facebook lately?), and embedded in many of our global, social challenges. Embracing the beautiful is not about denying ugly, but drawing our focus to areas where we can create change. As I discussed in a previous post, good design is increasingly about reducing information overload and focusing on areas we can influence by creating positive attractors, not negative ones. It’s based on attention and human nature. We stop and remark on fresh cut flowers. We comment on a colleagues’ attractive new outfit or clothing item (“I love your new socks!”). We see something that is well designed and we admire it, covet it or just enjoy it. Beauty captures something of the most rarest of commodities in the modern age: attention. We won’t change the world by yelling louder, we’ll change it by speaking beautifully, better.
  2. There’s no single definition of beauty. Beauty is truly subjective. What I might find particularly beautiful is different than what someone else will, yet there is much evidence that there is also a shared sense of the beautiful. Pierre Bourdieu’s work on taste and taste-making (PDF) points to the social means in which we — fair or not — share perspectives to elevate ideas, concepts and artifacts. We are social and thus share social rules, tastes and ideas and that this might be done across cultures, within ‘tribes’ or tied to specific settings or groups, but there is always something shared.
  3. There are shared principles of beauty. What makes for a shared cultural experience is something that we refer to as simple rules in complexity studies. These are rules that may be explicit, unconscious or tacit that guide collective actions and shared experiences. It, combined with history (and something we call path dependence – a driver of stability and stasis in a system), is what allows us to have some collective appreciation of the beautiful. It’s why natural elements (e.g., plants) or use of certain colours can create a positive atmosphere and psychological experience within a setting even if those plants or colours are universally loved.
  4. There is plenty of evidence to support the case for making changes based on beauty. This ‘absence of evidence’ myth will take a while to dispel as people will see (or not see) what they want to. All I would suggest is that you take a long hard look at some of the research — in particular Steven de Groot’s doctoral work — and put that up against any other theory or program of research and explain how it’s less than — particularly given how young of a field it is. There is an entire academic journal devoted to this topic (and, like in any journal, not all the evidence is top-notch, but there’s good work in there and throughout the literature). Consider how management theory, a well-established area of scholarship, is already becoming ‘a compendium of dead ideas‘ given the paucity of solid research behind it and yet something like organizational aesthetics hasn’t taken hold? The battle is long, but adoption of some new, beautiful thinking is one that will pay off. I’ve not even started getting into the arguments for environmental and organizational psychology or design.

Change in a complex system is about creating, finding and amplifying positive attractors and dampening and eliminating negative ones (and in complex systems positive isn’t always good and negative bad, it’s about what the goals are in the system — what you wish to achieve within that system. In society, these are almost always socially negotiated, somewhat contested).

Attracting attention, ideas, and energy is one of our biggest social challenges at the moment and a huge barrier to change.

Everyone’s looking for a way to capture attention and hold it when there is a beautiful solution right under their noses.

Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike” – John Muir, 1869

Image Credit: Author

art & designcomplexityinnovationsocial innovationsystems science

Seeking simplicity among complexity? Go Dutch!

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In a world awash in content and the resulting complexity that comes when it all intersects the viable options for how to manage it remain few. The Dutch De Stijl art and design movement might offer some lessons on dealing with complexity that we can apply beyond products to creating beautiful, functional, and effective services, settings and policy options.

Are you informed about the world? Chances are the answer to that question is both no and yes. There’s no question that you’re informed, the question might be more on what you’re informed about, to what extent, whether that’s of your interest (and relevance and need) and whether it’s an accurate (and useful) depiction of the world around you. That’s a much more complicated set of questions with a troubling set of answers. But one group (the Dutch) may have found some solutions… but we’ll get to that in a moment.

First let’s look at what we’re up against: data streams of distraction.

Data streams of distraction

Consider the many information sources we’re presented with daily.

Consider mine in no particular order, starting with digital : Email (multiple accounts), two course management portals, Instagram, Twitter (two accounts), LinkedIn, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Whats App, comments on my website or Facebook company page, about 2 dozen apps (on my iPhone and iPad), myriad websites I visit, text messages and, oh yes, occasionally the phone will ring. Next, there’s physical magazines, books, radio or music streams and television, too. Looking out my window I see cranes and buildings and billboards from my downtown loft apartment (and hear birds singing, above it all).

I also encounter real-life human beings, too and they have things to share and more information for me. Funny, that.

This is based on what I choose to look at (even if some choices are rather constrained, such as knowing there is only one way to reach someone and that means engaging with a particular media form I intensely dislike — I’m talking about you, Facebook). Travelling through my day, others will approach and engage, I’ll encounter new things that present themselves and will be handed, shown, flashed or spoken to plenty of other information. The volume of information keeps growing with every encounter.

Then there’s the information stored in memory, the remnants of all of those other days, experiences, and a lifetime of events and information.

This will all happen in real-time, refer to present situations, the past, many possible futures, contain truths, lies, myths and be incomplete in parts all over. It is, in short, a perfect representation of complexity. And it’s causing us a lot of problems.

Information overload

The term ‘information(al) overload’ has been coined to describe the exposure to too much information or data. Information overload and the design problems that information abundance provides has contributed to . Engineers, the builders of much of our critical infrastructure (including, ironically, information technology), know this firsthand and are growing in their concern over how they see that influencing their work. In 2012 the IEEE published a book (PDF) that looked deeply at the role of information overload where the authors note that information overload is not just when people seek new information, but when it information searches for them. The authors argue that:

Information overload “places knowledge workers and managers worldwide in a chronic state of mental overload. It exacts a massive toll on employee productivity and causes significant personal harm, while organizations ultimately pay the price with extensive financial loss”

Annual Reviews, an academic publisher of multidisciplinary research, was motivated to write a piece on information overload in their industry (PDF), noting the present problem is partly one of removing intermediaries:

“…the removal of the intermediary (typically the librarian, but sometimes the publisher) from the information seeking chain…means we are all librarians now, and have to behave like them—constantly reviewing and validating data.”

That takes a lot of work. Both of these works are from 2011-2012 and since then the continued expansion of broadband and mobile technologies, facilitated by cameras and cheaper access to technology, has only added to the amount of information available. The content generation capacity of the public has increased, the consequences are no different, and the solutions fewer.

Perversely, one of the strategies we use to battle overload is to throw more content at the problem as Tom Fishburne shows in this cartoon. We create greater complexity by adding more complexity.  This is the tension. We want to add more information to clarify, rather than strip it away, and end up doing the opposite.

Yet, there may be hope and it is rooted in pragmatism and a desire for beauty: the Dutch design movement, De Stijl.

Designing away complexity: going Dutch

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To the untrained eye (which, until a few weeks ago, was mine until I met Corrie van Walraven) the image above would suggest a modern styled home built in the last 20 or 30 years.  Rietveld Schröder House, pictured, was actually built in 1924 and reflects a Dutch design ethos that’s continued through to today of keeping things clean, organized, efficient, flexible, and beautiful.

By many standards the Netherlands has shown itself to be an expert in complexity. Holland is among the most densely populated countries in the world, manages to grow food, survive and thrive in a physical environment that shouldn’t even exist (it is, after all , situated mostly under water). They’ve become masters of adaptation, because they’ve had to be. Dutch design reflects much of this and De Stijl is a perfect example.

Though Dutch design has had many facets and movements De Stijl remains popular partly because of it’s ability to create simplicity amid complexity while creating beauty. Beauty in a designed artifact means it has an evident function, but also elicits a positive aesthetic experience. As Steven de Groot’s research has shown, beauty does not only have intrinsically attractive qualities, but its presence in organizations can lead to higher productivity, employee retention and satisfaction, and overall institutional effectiveness.

Beauty provides an experience of positivity, generally free from confusion, and often clarity. It is lack of clarity and the presence of confusion that is what complexity often brings. Anything that can increase the first and reduce the second while remaining adaptive to the realities of complexity (e.g., information seeking you out) and the data stream is something worth paying attention to; that’s where De Stijl and examples like the Rietveld Schröder House provide guidance.

The house, pictured above, was designed to create a fluid, adaptive space that could configure to a variety of situations and evolve over time. It deals with the amount of content — people, furniture — adaptively, within the boundaries of its walls, in ways that preserve form and function, yet do not get bound too tightly to any particular model. Another distinction is that it is designed to provide the least distinction between the indoor and outdoor spaces. Thus, the design feels somewhat less visible through its simplicity.

Coherence within boundaries

What the De Stijl movement does well is integrate complex ideas together, beautifully, and subscribing to a design philosophy that mirrors Dieter Rams’ belief that we should design as little as possible. De Stijl is about creating coherence – beneficial coherence in complexity terms — within boundaries. It’s work doesn’t seek to integrate the outside and inside (indeed, the criticism of the Rietveld Schröder House is that it doesn’t integrate well within the neighbourhood), but it does exceptionally well within the boundaries of its walls.

What we can take from this is the emphasis on internal coherence within our informational and organizational spaces, because those are the areas we can place boundaries. Systems thinking is all about boundary setting otherwise the focus becomes incoherent. This means being deliberate about where we set up our personal boundaries, professional boundaries and learning boundaries, but in keeping with De Stijl, keeping those flexible and adaptive and always moving, yet in a system that strives for coherence. One of the reasons information overload happens is because we have too much to create coherence with and because we’ve lost what our intention was with the information in the first place.

So a takeaway is this: be intentional about what you’re looking for and what you use. Be mindful of the things that give you coherence in your work and life and create a learning space where you can adapt. Strategy and purpose can help determine this — connect to this. Use the principles of Dutch design through De Stijl to design the conditions that support meaning making.

And if you want a great example in the personal realm, check out another creative thinker with Dutch lineage, Leisse Wilcox, on how self-love through better personal, environmental and social design (my word, not hers) can make you a happier person. That might be the best design you can create of them all.

Acknowledgements: A big thank you to Corrie van Walraven for sharing with me a piece on the De Stijl movement that inspired this post. Corrie’s a great representative of how wonderful the Dutch are and her generosity of spirit and great job as a host is greatly appreciated.

Image Credits: Author and Rietveld Schröder House by frm_tokyo used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.