I took a personality test recently. This particular test was co-created by a thought leader I hold in high regard, American organisational psychologist, Adam Grant. While the test didn’t necessarily tell me anything new, it did get me thinking about how we classify and constrain individuals based on our interpretation of their traits and capabilities.
Late in 2020, I dove deep into a course of self-analysis with Dr. Marlene van Lier, a local practitioner of a holistic psychology method known as the ZKM method. During this intensive 15 week program, we not only removed the blinders I have towards myself, we explored the impact my previously unacknowledged low self-esteem has had on my life. From romantic and platonic relationships to career planning, I was shook to my core by the idea that maybe, I didn’t actually know myself at all.
During this time with Dr. van Lier, she had me read “Addicted to Love” by Jan Guertz (translated from Dutch), a book that would continue to challenge my thinking. Though there are many, many powerful insights in the book, one that stuck with me was this:
“The mother of all misunderstandings is that we think our nature is imperfect, worthless, or not good enough. This is self-rejection.”
Self rejection? Ouch. Yet, also true.
You see, my results from the test indicated I was most like the archetype “The Inventor” which is described as “Inventors are driven by coming up with new and innovative ideas, products and solutions. They tend to be creative, open-minded, conceptual, spontaneous and at times disorganized and unstructured.” The inventor archetype resides on the island “Creators” alongside archetype Adventurer and Artisan.
Rather than focus on the opening statements, I had what felt like laser focus on the last two statements. That inventors can be disorganised and unstructured. Yes, statements like this may come from a place of observation that I am sure is much broader than my own experiences; yet the ripple effect of such sweeping generalisations is vast. Statements like this are implicitly implying that the creatives are imperfect and not good enough because we do not subscribe to the same routines. By painting creative types with such statements, it throws open the door for criticism on our processes and ultimately, ourselves.
Think about a creative person on your team and then reflect if you’ve ever thought, uttered or muttered a phrase like these:
- “I don’t know how you get anything done, this space is way too cluttered for me.”
- “Wow, I thought for sure he’d have a better idea than that. He’s usually so innovative!”
- “Hmmm, seems like she’s having an off day today. I’m sure she’ll bounce back tomorrow.”
- “Is that the best you can do? It doesn’t really reflect what I was thinking…”
- “I really need something fresh and invigorating for this project. Can’t you just whip something up?”
Human nature is such that we often hold both admiration and envy hand in hand when observing a skill we do not (yet) possess ourselves. If I was to turn and look outwards, yes, I might be in awe of the systems other archetypes have created to ensure they thrive.
However, I know intrinsically that their system is not my system and no matter how much I might try to force myself into that box, I will never thrive. So why then is it acceptable for non-creatives to define what organised and structured looks like and force that model on the rest of us?
Nature AND Nurture
Over the course of history, rather than nurture the creative process and develop partnerships of contrasting skillsets, non-creatives have chosen to define what they cannot understand as chaos and uncontrollable and therefore, it must be shaped in a way they can understand.
In her book “Braiding Sweetgrass” Indigenous author Robin Wall Kimmerer shares a story about an Indigenous planting method known as the Three Sisters. To the Europeans who came to colonise North America, this planting method seemed uninformed and incorrect. How could a garden grow if it was not planted in straight rows, one type of species in each row? However, the locals had centuries of knowledge and experiences and understood that together, these individuals were stronger than apart. In just one square foot of soil, three unique, yet complimentary individuals, can share knowledge, resources and a common experience while still being an individual. Corn, beans and pumpkin.
Across the globe, we see other efforts to bring diversity back to the land. To encourage chaos and break free from the rigidity created by both colonisation and capitalism. To enjoy nature as she is rather than as sculpted or monoculture gardens. Unfortunately, it is not always as simple as “do nothing and the land will restore itself.” Just as we cannot expect a singular creative in a sea of analytical colleagues to blossom without some kind of support structure, we cannot expect the world to heal itself without a bit of assistance.
In a Miyawaki forest, diverse native species are planted in compact areas in highly concentrated numbers, creating micro-forests. A main goal of the forests is to repair and restore the land. The forests are nurtured for the first few years to ensure success and then human intervention is minimal. In both environments, nature thrives when it is paired with like-minded individuals, be it plant or human.
The Risks of Monoculture
How many times do we hire for “innovative thinking” or push our teams to “think outside the box” yet fail to provide them with the resources needed to thrive? We want the glamour and prestige of having a team of innovators that we can parade in front of investors, the Board of Directors or online to recruit additional talent. We present them with alluring problems to solve and then handcuff them to the radiator.
Worse than the crime of limiting their talents, is our inability to see the crime we are committing. In his book Elastic, American physicist Leonard Mlodinow discusses the rigidity of human thinking and challenges us to be, well, more flexible. At one point, he offers readers a chance to challenge their thinking with the “nine dot problem” first published in Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of Puzzles in 1914 and recreated below for you here.
To solve this riddle, you must connect the dots with four continuous lines without lifting your pencil or crossing over (retracing) any existing line.
I couldn’t solve this puzzle, despite having seen it many times throughout my academic career. And because I couldn’t solve this, I felt like a failure. Me, a creative, out of the box thinker, couldn’t see beyond the edges of the box I found myself in. I was frustrated with myself and overwhelmed with negative self-talk.
And that moment right there, was yet another accidental persecution of the innovator I consider myself to be. I allowed the restrictions placed on my thinking by society, by almost 20 years of education, by family, friends and colleagues, by current pandemic restrictions and so much more to weigh me down and tell me I wasn’t good enough when I couldn’t solve the problem.
When we rely so heavily on the creatives to solve problems, often not of their own making, we place an unwieldy burden upon their shoulders. Think back to the last time you asked someone to come up with an idea and then gave them a framework so that it was structured how you wanted. By putting up definitive boundaries, you are essentially saying “you can solve the problem, but only if it falls within this scope.” While there are instances that such boundaries are critical, such as budget or time, often the reality is you have placed a barrier to innovation and when challenged, you cannot see the problem with your actions.
So, how to un-cuff our teams and ourselves?
In today’s society, we often seek the “right way” rather than “a way” to solve problems. We allow ourselves to become crippled with fear that if we make the wrong choice, the consequences will be insurmountable. So rather than take the risks, push the boundaries and broaden the horizons, we stick to what we know, what is comfortable. We no longer encourage individualism and instead seek cohesive, collaborative decision making. We have become a vat of homogenous thinkers.
We need to break out of our fear that we will be wrong. Both creatives and non-creatives are needed to move forward. We need the chaos and the order, however we choose to define that.
Each organisation walks a different path and not all approaches will work the same; however, below are two simple ideas to start opening lines of communication and further developing nature and nurture behaviours in your organisation.
- Create a knowledge sharing environment – If you have innovators on your teams, invite them to share something from a book, article, podcast or video they have recently interacted with. Try to start or end each team/company meeting with this moment. Not only will you hopefully learn something new, you open the opportunity to deepen relationships and understanding across teams.
- Carve out time once a month for a foresighting day – Gather in a virtual (or physical if possible) space and start with a question like “what if we didn’t do XYZ anymore? What could we do instead?” Provide various ways to capture ideas such as pens, whiteboards, notebooks, laptops and audio/video. If you can, rotate the group of contributors regularly to ensure conversation flows both inside the meeting and across the organisation in the weeks leading up to and after each session.
If neither suggestion feels right, go one level deeper and simply ask your people what they need. Give them the platform to communicate in a way that fits them and like using the Three Sisters method or a planting a Miyawaki forest, the whole community will benefit.