Sunday, April 20, 2008

Creativity and design rationale

This (threadkilling) post came out of a discussion we were having on the compendiuminstitute yahoogroup prompted by a query from Simon about a workshop on creativity and software design rationale.

Whenever I think of surfacing design rationale as an intentional activity -- something that people engaged in some effort decide to do, or have to do -- I think of Mondrian's approach to painting in his later years, the time where he departed from the naturalistic and impressionist (and more derivative, less original) work (such as this) he did when he was younger and produced the highly abstract geometric paintings most of us would associate with his name (e.g. this one).

One might think (as many in his day did) that he was betraying beauty, nature, and emotion by going in such an abstract direction. But for Mondrian it was the opposite. Each of his paintings in this vein were fresh attempts to go as far and deep as he could in the depiction of cosmic tensions and balances. Each mattered to him in a deeply personal way. Each was a unique foray into a depth of expression where nothing was given and everything had to be struggled for to bring into being without collapsing into imbalance and irrelevance. The depictions and the act of depicting were inseparable. We get to look at the seemingly effortless result, but there are storms behind the polished surfaces. Bringing about these perfected abstractions required emotion, expression, struggle, inspiration, failure and recovery -- in short, creativity.

Similarly what drew me to IBIS and QuestMap in the early days, and has been a central thread in Compendium's evolution, was the paradox that trying to depict and express complex business issues within a simple, restricted representational palette -- a few node and link types tied to a simple rhetorical model -- could actually give rise to a deeply engaged, provocative and generative discussion between the people involved, as well as a representation that was laden with nuance and expressiveness, if you knew how to look at it and understand something of how it had been created.

Just the act of using Compendium to surface DR, or using a design rationale approach of any kind, does not guarantee any degree of creativity. No tool or approach on its own will. In Art as Experience, Dewey writes about the depth of engagement with the chosen medium as a central generator of artistry. When one cares about the nuances and subtleties, struggles to bring something coherent into being within the strictures of that medium, creativity is both emergent and a by-product, unless lack of time, energy, or other constraints get in the way. People are naturally creative and will act creatively unless impeded (though unfortunately too many situations, processes, attitudes, etc. do indeed restrict or suppress our natural creativity).

In this light I think of the work that Chuck Palus, David Horth and others at the Center for Creative Leadership have done with designing workshops that help business people unleash their creativity in the encounter with complex problems (written about here and elsewhere). Many of the activities in the workshop are counter-intuitive when one thinks about creativity. One that always sticks with me is an exercise taken from Edwards' Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. In this, one has to to reproduce a Picasso line drawing by turning it upside down, covering all but a couple of millimeters with a sheet of paper, and drawing the few uncovered lines that one sees, trying as hard as one can to get their spatial relationships to each other just right, then uncovering another couple of millimeters and doing the same. When I did this, it was one of the most difficult struggles I can remember. I "can't draw" and took much longer to finish this than the other people in the workshop. I had to look extremely hard and labor, sweat, and despair (literally) over getting those damned lines to behave and put down what I really saw, not what my more rational brain was telling me to do. It was almost agonizing. But yet at the end I looked at what I had done and it was (if not exactly Picasso-quality) so far superior to anything I had drawn as long as I can remember that I was amazed.

Palus and Horth write about what they call "aesthetic competencies" not just in these kind of exercises, but in what can be brought to bear in such seemingly "rational" and so often abstracted settings as leadership in the business world. These include "slowing down the looking" and "paying attention" (which they call the "master competency"), taking the time to see what is really in front of you, which might require you to take a slower, more arduous, seemingly counter-intuitive approach to understanding your problem situation than the normal, expedient methods most of us employ.

It is in this light that I think of creativity and design rationale. It is not that "doing design rationale" in and of itself will either generate or impede creativity. Rather, if a group does enter into the process of having to carefully think about the pros and cons of different alternatives, capture them coherently, craft their representation into something that they or others will be able to make sense of later, and does this with mindfulness and engagement, it can indeed generate and shake loose creativity. If it is done in such a way as to over-rationalize the process or impede creativity on other levels, it will be resented and probably collapse (as much of the DR research has said, in effect: it was too hard, took too long, and got in our way, so we dropped it). But doing DR *can* be a way to slow down the looking and pay attention to what is really being said and done. In our work with QuestMap and then Compendium over the years, we have experienced, many times, that slow and careful engagement with working a problem through the limited representational palette can yield creativity, emotional engagement, and communication, even in an ostensibly hyper-rational environment such as a telephone company business process analysis session or software design meeting.

It all depends on how the people involve engage with the tools and practices and each other, and why and how the activity of DR is performed. What are the conditions that will allow collaborative creativity to emerge, without bogging the group process down or (for that matter) burying individual voices and creative expression in a morass of "social" sameness? To my mind using tools and methods with groups is a matter of how effective, artistic, creative, etc. whoever is applying and organizing the approach can be with the situation, constraints, and people. Done effectively, even the force-fitting of rationale surfacing into a 'free-flowing' design discussion can unleash creativity and imagination in the people engaged in the effort, getting people to "think different" and look at their situation through a different set of lenses. Done ineffectively, it can impede or smother creativity as so many normal methods, interventions, and attitudes do.

It was asked what purposes did creativity and design rationale play in human evolution. I have found Ellen Dissanayake's evolutionary biobehavioral approach to human art-making to be exceptionally helpful here. She writes about not only what humans have done with art in the last 10,000 years, but what they have done in the last 10 million. She asks why art-making has been a central feature of every human society since deep pre-history, and what that means for an understanding of art and creativity as an essential human trait. This gives a perspective on where art and creativity could lie in an activity like surfacing design rationale that is lacking from many other viewpoints. Schön is extremely helpful here as well.

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