Creativity Under Pressure

[In the fall of 2013, I completed a course on Coursera titled “Creativity, Innovation, and Change” presented by Drs. Jack V. Matson, Kathryn W. Jablokow, and Darrell Velegol at Pennsylvania State University. It was an excellent class. At the end, they invited the class (How many tens of thousands of us?) to submit short essays about our experience. The plan was to select the best of these essays and roll them into a free Kindle book. The following spring, they sent out this update:

We are sorry to inform you that we have decided not to proceed with the publication of a CIC eBook. The submissions were read and commented on by four reviewers.  The consensus was that the manuscripts for the most part would take efforts far beyond our capabilities and means to edit and upgrade to meet the standards for publishing.  We are very sorry that the plan did not work out.

What follows is slightly edited version of the essay I submitted for consideration.]

Creativity Under Pressure – When necessity drives innovation.

Background

When you hear someone speak of an individual they know as being creative, what images come to mind? Often, they spring from stereotypes and assumptions about such an individual being an artist of some sort. Someone unconstrained by time or attachment to career, family, or a mortgage. My personal favorite is the image of a haggard individual wearing a beret, a thin cigarette balanced on their lower lip, and busy being inspired by things us mortals cannot see. A foreign accent adds the final touch to firmly set the speaker’s creative individual in the “That’s not me.” category. Our preconceived notions and assumptions assure us we are not creative.

The truth is all of us are creative. The artist’s Muses are not the only source of inspiration. Chance can inspire creative ideas by the convergence of seemingly unrelated circumstances and events. An activity as passive as sleep can lead to creative ideas. Moving away from beauty toward the other end of the inspiration spectrum, the source may not necessarily be pleasant. Frustration and irritation may inspire us to find a creative solution as we spend an inordinate amount of time searching for a way to scratch a just-out-of-reach itch. Crisis, too, can be a source of inspiration, often of the very intense variety. Chance surrounds all of us. We all sleep. And alas, we are all subject to frustrating or crisis situations from time to time in our lives. We are immersed in opportunities for creative inspiration.

Perhaps the least obvious or explored opportunities for applying creativity and experimenting with innovative ideas happen when we are under pressure to perform. At first glance, the tendency is to think that such situations require extensive knowledge, abundant prior practice, and scenario rehearsals in order to navigate them successfully. It’s fair to say that the chances for successfully responding to a crisis situation are greatly enhanced by deep knowledge and experience related to the situation.

The Apollo 13 mission to the Moon is a familiar example of crisis driven creativity by a team of experts. Survival of the astronauts following the explosion of an oxygen canister depended on NASA engineers finding a way to literally fit a square object into a round hole. The toxic build-up of CO2 could only be prevented by finding a way to fit a cube shaped CO2 filter into a cylinder shaped socket using nothing but the materials the astronauts had with them. Of course we know from history the team of engineers succeeded in this exercise of creative improvisation.

Individual experts have also succeeded in devising creative solutions in crisis situations, and in doing so introduced critical changes in protocols and procedures that have saved lives. For example, smokejumber Wagner Dodge’s actions in the Mann Gulch forest fire on August 5, 1949, introduced the practice of setting escape fires as a way to protect firefighters caught in “blow-ups.”

What I’ve always found interesting about these and similar examples is that, although the creative and innovative solutions were found while “on the job” and using established expertise, the solutions were counter to what the individuals and teams were expected to do. The NASA engineers were paid to design and build an extremely high tech solution for sending three men to the moon and bringing them safely back to Earth. Their job descriptions likely didn’t call for the ability to “build a fully functional CO2 scrubber from a pile of junk.” Wagner Dodge was expected put out fires, not start them.

The Course

What else is important in preparing us to respond creatively in high pressure situations? It’s a question that’s dogged me for years. The “Creativity, Innovation, and Change” (CIC) course offered by Pennsylvania State University and taught by Professors Jack Matson, Kathryn Jablokow, and Darrell Velegol offered an opportunity to explore this question.

The first insight from the course was the importance of the “adjacent possible” to creative and innovative problem solving, even in crisis situations. The phrase was originally suggested by the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman to describe evolutionary complexity. The idea is that innovative or creative ideas occur incrementally. While they may appear as substantial leaps forward, they are in fact derived from a collection of adjacent ideas that coalesced to make a single idea possible. As an individual explores deeper and farther into an idea space, they extend the boundaries around which adjacent ideas collect, increasing the potential for new idea combinations. In other words, increasing the likelihood of creative or innovative ideas.

In the case of Apollo 13, the deep experience and knowledge of the engineers allowed them to consider a wide spectrum of possibilities for combining an extremely limited number of objects in a way that could remove CO2 from a spacecraft. In the case of Wagner Dodge, his extensive experience with fighting forest fires allowed him to spontaneously combine a variety of “adjacent possibilities” in a way that lead to the idea of lighting an escape fire.

That’s the theory, anyway. There’s a difference, though, between theory and practice. Albert Einstein explains, “In theory they are the same. In practice, they are not.” The CIC course offered an abundance of techniques and methods that facilitated the transfer of learning and strengthened the connection between theory and practice. In particular, there were two important reframes that opened the door to deliberately improving how I approach creativity and innovation in stressful situations:
“Successful” failures are those that are strategic. That is, not random guesses about what will work, but deliberate experiments designed to succeed. Yet if they fail, the design of the experiments also reveal weaknesses that are preventing the eventual success. Unconsciously, I had already become reasonably good a doing this. But there was significant room for improvement. Using many of the methods and techniques offered during the CIC course, I deliberately unpacked my unconscious competence in this area, consciously explored how I could practice becoming even more competent with this skill, and am now exploring ways to integrate the new capabilities back into unconscious competence.

“Failure” is a necessary, even desired process for finding success. This ran counter to my get-it-right perfectionist approach to success. Likely the result of having to work in too many crisis situations where failure was not an option, it was nonetheless a poor strategy for finding success in day-to-day business. In concert with point number one, these failures should be strategic.
Each of these insights are encapsulated in the “Intelligent Fast Failure” (IFF) principle presented in the CIC course and further described in Prof. Matson’s book, “Innovate or Die!”:

The “Intelligent” part refers to gaining as much knowledge as possible from each failure. The “Fast” part means speeding up the trials to quickly map the unknown thereby minimizing frustration and resources spent.

The “fast” part also increases the pool of “adjacent possibilities” and raises the potential for successful innovations to emerge from the process.

The Test

Has all this experimentation and thought practice made a difference in my ability to respond more creatively in stressful situations? A full-on test in crisis mode hasn’t happened as yet. And frankly, I’d count my self fortunate if I never had to face such a test again. But there are indications the changes are having a positive effect.

These days, work typically offers the most abundant opportunities for stressful situations. Most recently, I was tasked with coordinating a significant change in how an organization went about the process of completing projects. The prevailing process had deep roots in the company’s culture and was incapable of scaling to meet growth goals for the organization. With so much personal investment into the old way of doing things, implementing a more agile and scalable process was going to require as much mediation and negotiation as it was process definition and skill development.

Using the techniques and methods that support the IFF principle, I have been successfully implementing a wide range of new ideas and process improvements into the organization in a way that makes them appear less as a threat and more as a value to each of the stakeholders.


Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Fall Reflections – 2021

Over four years ago, I was in a position to retire early. After some thought, the idea didn’t suit me. I was, in the arc of my life, in an entirely novel position. I could be much more selective about where I chose to exchange my time for money. With nothing to lose and a lot to gain, I sought work with a company that would put Agile principles and my coaching skills to a rigorous test. Did I have what it takes to guide a global legacy corporation into an Agile learning organization? I ran this experiment within the software divisions of two different medical device manufacturers. The first was a 6 month engagement that ended when a better option opened up at a much larger manufacturer with more pay and less commute. I was there for three years until a layoff in the spring.

So it is I’ve come to wrapping up an extremely active spring and summer after having tripped a wire that launched me into a career shift about six months earlier than planned – a span of time I’m affectionately calling an unplanned sabbatical. I’m still not ready to retire, but I’m in an even stronger position then I was four years ago – the silent advantage of a Stoic minimalist lifestyle. Shedding the corporate baggage has opened up a universe of space and time for unfettered thought and exploration. Sabbaticals should be integrated into the work lives of every employee who demonstrates integrity and a strong work ethic.

In the coming months, I’ll be writing more about what this new direction involves. A change in direction doesn’t begin to capture the shift. There’s a multi-leveling up in play, too. This fall and winter – seasons ideally suited for deep reflection and planning – will see a continued pace of activity and preparation. Belying the quite stillness of winter, I will be extremely busy moving fieldstones into position and crafting a renewed foundation for success.

The purpose and mission I declared at the very beginning of 2020 is still in place. When I crafted that mission I was at the very beginning of a grand experiment, full of optimism and yet fully aware of the daunting task ahead. The company I was working for presented me with choice: I could accept a new management role or pursue a stated goal of mine to create an official Agile Coach position within the software group. The organization had just created an official scrum master role in the org chart, but the PMO was strongly resisting the idea of an official product owner role. I was an epic turf battle.

The management path offered greater security but had significant downsides. Not only would I have the decidedly unpleasant task of managing people in a highly regulated and bureaucratic organization, I would also be expected to fill in the scrum master gaps on various teams. This sounded like a good way to end my career as an Agile Coach.

The coach path offered the highly appealing challenge of implementing Agile and SAFe in a 60 year old medical device manufacturer. The known risks included a certain tsunami of resistance. I’d be out on a limb, working to navigate in uncharted and dangerous waters. But I had excellent support. The arrival of a new CEO broke up many of the old ways of organizing software development and opened a window of opportunity. After a rigorous decision process, I chose the Agile Coach path. My 2020 mission reflects the enthusiasm I had for having made this choice.

Then things went sideways. The new CEO brought a much bigger broom than anyone imagined and my key executive support left the organization. Two new senior execs were hired that had a rather stunted understanding of Agile, SAFe, and working with software professionals. Progress stalled as head nods and “Yeah, we’ll get to that.” can-kicking substituted for action. A lot of really good people started to leave the organization, including what was left of my support and allies. A deeply disturbing experience while serving as the Unofficial Official Agile Coach and the effects of the pandemic lock-down sunk the Agile Coach boat. The bubble I placed myself on became more so. I’m surprised I wasn’t laid-off sooner.

The period since separating from my previous employer in early 2021 has been a period of immensely positive growth. The gain in perspective on the prior three years has enlightened me to just how toxic the work environment was. Taking that job was an experiment and in the end the primary failure was not discovering sooner that the experiment was destine to fail. My optimism was misplaced. I trusted untrustworthy people. The greater sadness is that the organization has a wonderful mission and excellent products, each held back from what they could be by a select few and their caustic alliances within the organization. My health and well-being are much the better for having left on their dime.

 I finished my 2020 declaration with “Here’s to moving into 2020 with mind and eyes wide open.” And so I did. Where to next will be on my terms. Free from people who talk inclusion but practice exclusion, talk diversity but practice conformity, talk about change but fight for stagnation, and talk about collaboration while protecting their tiny fiefdoms with vindictive ruthlessness. My tuned purpose and mission for 2022 will reflect this. And a good start will be to conduct business operations in ways that are aligned with the Mission Protocol.


Photo Credit: Original, Copyright © 2021, Gregory Paul Engel

Deliberate Practice and Coding

Deliberate practice applied to coding offers some unique opportunities. Unlike other skills, like learning to play the cello (to pick one that I have some experience with), you can go very far without a personal mentor. The feedback from the computer is about as objective as it gets. It will let you know exactly how good your code is.

This also helps remove the emotional component – positive and negative – that can sometimes impede progress with an in-person mentor. This doesn’t remove all emotion, however. Just about everyone who’s worked in a professional coding shop has witnessed the rare occurrence of a coder cursing at or even physically attacking their computer because their code isn’t working as expected. Those are surreal moments when an avalanche of cognitive biases and unconscious behavior become visible to all but the coder. That’s a topic for for a different post. Suffice it to say, learning how to control your emotions, channel frustration, and ignite curiosity is part of what distinguishes good coders from great coders.

Which gets met to finding quality feedback. While I’ve made a good living writing mountains of proprietary code for various business and corporations, I earned my coding chops by working on or authoring open source projects. This was the best source I found for getting feedback on my code. It also taught me another important lesson: Do not attach your identity to the code you write. Like any noob, I had a lot of pride in my early code that was pretty much untested outside my little work environment. In the open source world, the feedback was often swift and harsh. Or, at least is was when my identity was attached to it. Learning to separate work product from identity revealed just how much emotional spin I was putting on what was in hindsight reasonable feedback. I have concerns that the current climate in the coding world is opting for soft feedback and good feelings over legitimate and reasonable feedback. This, too, is for another post.

It’s worth giving some thought about the the pros and cons of working with an actual person for mentorship. Along with good instruction, a single mentor will pass along their own limitations and biases. Not necessarily a bad thing, just something to be aware of. So multiple mentors are better than just one, which starts to move down the path of actively participating in open source projects. By “actively” I mean not just contributing code, but studying the code (and it’s history) of existing successful projects. There are usually many ways to solve a problem with software. Work to understand why one approach is better than another. Insights like this are best gained, in my experience, by studying good code.

Somewhat related, if you are working from a book or a training program, actually type in the examples – character by character. Don’t cheat yourself by copy-pasting code examples. This is the muscle memory component to coding that you will find when learning other more physical skills (like playing the cello.) If you really want to experience the gnarly edge, ditch the IDE and code with at text editor. I still do all my coding in vim and this keyboard.

Another approach to deliberate practice is the idea of coding “katas.” This never clicked with me. I attribute this to having studied martial arts for 25 years, most of that time at the black belt level. Mapping the human psycho/physical world and the purpose of katas in the dojo to the machine world is too much of a mis-match. Much is lost in the translation, in my experience. The katas in the dojo, regardless the art form, translated easily to other styles and practices. The coding “katas” are more tightly coupled to the coding language in which they are written. In my view, it’s yet another example of swiping a cool sounding word and concept and force-fitting it to another domain. A software version of cargo cults – expecting form to create function. “Black belt” or “Ninja” coder are other force-fits. Yet again, something for another post.

But those are my limitations. Your experience will no doubt be different. As learning exercises and proficiency tracks, many of the coding “katas” look to be very good.

(For related thoughts on how building your own tools can deepen your understanding of a skill, see “Tools for Practice.” The examples in the article combine software development and cello practice.)

 

Image by Robert Pastryk from Pixabay

The Sword of Peritus

[This story was inspired by the expression “double edged sword” and the “Sword of Damocles,” an ancient parable popularized by the Roman philosopher Cicero in his 45 B.C. book “Tusculan Disputations.”]

A brash young man named Tenaci strode into the courtyard of a famous swordsman named Peritus and proclaimed, “You are old and have not yet designated an heir to your school! You will teach me how to wield a sword and become a powerful warrior. It will not take long as I am already an expert swordsman. I will be the heir to your school!”

Peritus looked long and hard at Tenaci, sizing him up, but the expression on his face revealed he was not impressed by what he saw in the noisy youth before him.

“Expert, are you?” queried Peritus. “Very well, let’s see your metal.” Gesturing across the courtyard to a table that displayed an impressive array of many types of swords, Peritus instructed Tenaci, “Chose one to your liking and teach me a lesson.”

Tenaci strode confidently to the table and scanned the choices like a hungry gladiator at an Emperor’s feast. In short order, he selected a hefty broadsword. Examining it closely, he marveled at the craftsmanship that must have gone into it’s creation. Holding the sword in the ready position, Tenaci approach Peritus.

“Ah, you have chosen a powerful sword, indeed. That is ‘Vindicta,’ the sword of revenge!'”

The two faced each other for a tense moment, Tenaci in full battle posture and Peritus standing as if he were waiting for foot traffic to pass before crossing a road. Like a bolt of lightning, Tenaci made his move. As he lifted Vindicta above his head and prepared for a mighty blow, Tenaci cried out in surprise and pain and let the sword drop from his grasp. What strange magic had switched the sword end-for-end in his hands? No longer was he tightly griping the hilt, but the blade!

“Perhaps not the blade for you. Please, chose another,” offered Peritus.

Tenaci walked over the the table and examined his choices more closely. Peering back at Peritus with a suspicious eye, Tenaci chose a much lighter sword. The hilt looked the same as his previous choice, but the blade was thinner and flexible. Again, he marveled at the craftsmanship. The balance in this blade was remarkable.

“Interesting choice,” said Peritus. “That is ‘Invidia,’ the sword of envy.'”

Again, the two faced each other as before, Tenaci in full battle posture and Peritus casually waiting. Maneuvering into position, Tenaci prepared for a whip strike across Peritus’ face. Faster than an eye can blink, he made his move. But again, before he scarcely began to swing Invidia, Tenaci cried out in pain and released his grip on the sword which sailed harmlessly across the courtyard, clattering to rest at the main gate. As with Vindicta, Invidia had switched end-for-end while in his grasp.

“Chose another?”, suggested Peritus.

Looking down at his bleeding hands, “I think not,” replied Tenaci. “Your table full of tricky swords.”

“Here, then, is your first lesson. You know much less than you think you do,” stated Peritus. “And for your second, look at the table once again and tell me what you see in this collection of swords that is common to all of them.”

Tenaci stood before the table for many hours. Scrutinizing every detail, but the blades were all different – length, thickness, weight, edge, shape. He could discern no common element. As the sun set, the waning rays of light struck the table in a way that illuminated a simple inlay of gold and silver on the hilt of each sword. Only then did Tenaci see that every hilt was identical.

“I see the common element!”, exclaimed Tenaci.

“That handle goes by many names,” explained Peritus. “‘Misericordia’, ‘Gratia’, ‘Remissio’, to name a few. Compassion, gratitude, and forgiveness. It isn’t the blade you hold. You hold the handle and the handle holds the blade. Unlike all the other swords in the world, these are honest and virtuous. If your heart if filled with revenge or anger or hate, then the weapon transforms so that you are holding the end that matches your wishes.”

“I don’t see the sense in that,” snorted Tenaci. “What good is such a weapon? If I am angry or vengeful or afraid or feel the need to deliver justice, then those blades should serve me! If the blade turns on me than I’m the only one hurt! If I can only use a sword with forgiveness or compassion in my heart, why would I ever draw such a sword?”

As he turned to leave, Peritus nodded to Tenaci and said, “Lesson three.”


Image credit: Richard Westall – own photograph of painting, Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States of America, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3437614