Thursday, November 19, 2015

Turning Anxiety into Magic

Are we feeling anxious yet?

The Walt Disney Corporation website has this to say about Imagineering's role in the company;

From castles, mountains and mansions to fireworks spectaculars, Imagineers are the creative force behind the iconic Disney attractions and experiences that our guests have come to know and love.

We combine our rich storytelling legacy with the latest technology to breathe life into beloved Disney stories and characters in our theme parks, resorts, cruise ships and other Walt Disney Parks and Resorts experiences around the world.

With one foot in the present and another in the future, Imagineers continue to push the boundaries of creativity, innovation and possibility as we create new experiences and new forms of entertainment for our guests of today, tomorrow and beyond.

That is a really compelling vision statement. Let's consider its implications;

Imagineers use the latest technology on theme parks, resorts, cruise ships. In order to do that they need to be architects and engineers who know how to work well with artists. Better yet, they should be artistic engineers themselves. That means they can use both the rational and emotional parts of their brains.

The other thing to remember is that there are (at least) two types of innovation; one is incremental the other is visionary. Over the years Disney has done both. The muti-plane camera, xerography and synchronized and multi channel sound were breakthru (aka "visionary" ) technologies. Disney hits it out of the park when they are visionary and it takes a certain type of personality to do that. Here's one example;

The WRAP's Gina Hall recently interviewed Andy Hendrickson and Hank Driskill on using the Hyperion rendering technology on Big Hero 6;

Hank Driskill: Some people were really excited by the promise. Some people were really anxious about something new and different because it was going to be painful.  (Notice the fear and pain. -df)

That anxiety was all the way up and down from the artists on the floor all the way up to the executives. There was anxiety about what this was going to be capable of, whether it would deliver on time, were we making a horrible choice that was going to impact the ability to deliver the movie. There was a big leap of faith on a whole lot of people’s parts to be okay with us trying to pull this off. It was a little bit crazy.

Andy Hendrickson: There was a lot of adrenaline associated with that. Basically we got to the point and some of the test images that we had created, we just looked at them. We were so enamored with what we saw in the visuals that we were creating, we said “OMG - we have to do this."

Consider the adjectives Andy and Hank use; adrenaline, anxiety, crazy, fear, horrible, pain. Then they use two very interesting phrases; "big leap of faith" and “OMG - we have to do this."

How does this happen?  How do you get from "horrible... crazy... painful... fear" to; 

"OMG we have to do this!"

Monday, November 16, 2015

Design Thinking as... CRM

On page 185 of Amy Fraher's book "Thinking Through Crisis" is an illustration of what she calls the Sense Making Cycle.

Fraher's Sense Making Cycle

Again, there are some striking similarities between this and the activities of Design Thinking;

The Five Phases (Design Gym)

There is a lot of digital ink being spilled around the question of what Design Thinking is, but at some point it's probably time to admit that "a rose by any other name smells as sweet."

What everyone who is seriously interested in the subject seems to be realizing is that Creative Problem Solving (CPS?) is a repeatable process with interchangeable parts and there are plenty of examples of how it works, across a wide range of situations, from in-flight emergencies to neonatal care to personal finance.

Problem Solving; I love it.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

More Dancing with Ambiguity

Ten years ago, Colin Camerer, an economist at the California Institute of Technology said;

"...ambiguity is the feeling of discomfort you get from knowing there is something you don't know and wish you did."

In one study, subjects were given the choice between betting money on the chances of drawing a red card from a "risky" deck which had 20 red and 20 black cards, (an even chance of winning) and making the same bet with an "ambiguous" deck where the color composition of the cards was unknown. In most cases, the subjects chose to make the risky bet. Logically, both bets would have been equally good because in both cases, the chance of pulling a red card on the first draw was the same as drawing a black card.

Brain scans revealed that ambiguous wagers were often accompanied by activation of the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, two areas of the brain which are involved in the processing of emotion. In particular, activity in the amygdala has been found to be closely associated with fear.

According to Cramer, a correlation between aversion to ambiguous decisions and activation of emotional parts of the brain makes sense from an evolutionary point of view;  "Freezing in the face of danger is an old, emotional response which probably was evolutionarily adaptive in our ancestral past."

In the modern human brain, this translates into a reluctance to bet for or against an event if information is lacking.  This is easily seen in the way scientists and engineers initially approach problems; research. In Design Thinking this is called the Deep Dive.

Another  key concept of Design Thinking is tolerance of ambiguity, overcoming fear and approaching problems like a curious novice. Acceptance and mastery of this idea can be a challenge for some people.

Ambiguity tolerance–intolerance is a psychological construct which describes the relationship that individuals have with ambiguous stimuli or events. People may view these stimuli as positive, neutral or threating.  Ambiguity Intolerance manifests itself in different aspects personality as well as developmental and social psychology.

In 1965, Bochner categorized some primary and secondary attributes of individuals who are intolerant to ambiguity;

  1. Need for categorization
  2. Need for certainty
  3. Inability to allow good and bad traits to exist in the same person
  4. Acceptance of attitude statements representing a white-black view of life
  5. A preference for familiar over unfamiliar
  6. Rejection of the unusual or different
  7. Resistance to reversal of fluctuating stimuli
  8. Early selection and maintenance of one solution in an ambiguous situation
  9. Premature closure
  1. Authoritarian
  2. Dogmatic
  3. Rigid
  4. Closed minded
  5. Ethnically prejudiced
  6. Uncreative
  7. Anxious
  8. Extra-punitive
  9. Aggressive
Comparing these with the traits associated with creativity; fluid, flexible thinking, comfort with ambiguity, patience, willingness to invert ideas and concepts and challenging the status quo, its easy to see why being Un-creative is on the list.

If there was a way to measure someone's aversion to ambiguity, how might that improve problem solving skills in yourself or your team?

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Integration of Facts and Feelings

Hostages of Amydala?

For hundreds of years the argument has raged; Facts vs. Feelings.  One path is described as the way of faith, the other reason. Advocates and opponents point out perceived and actual differences between the two. What if it's all just a war of words that grows out of the subtle differences in the way that all of us perceive and process information? Are we all hostages to our amygdalas?

Whether your philosophical preferences are towards facts or faith, the fundamental truth is that your brain has two parts, one associated with thoughts and the other feelings.  In your daily experience you have to deal with both. The path of faith passes thru the parts of our brain that feel. The path of reason runs thru the parts of our brains that think. Our best and most creative choices are made when there is no conflict between the two.

In order to come up with solutions based on both feelings and ideas we have walk both paths. This is the true power of "Design Thinking." It's cyclical process applies both theory and practice, thought and action, emotions and facts. Beginning with questions (Empathic Inquiry) proceeding thru thinking and experimentation, (rapid prototyping building, testing), reflection and analyzing, we pass back and forth between our internal and external worlds, the past, present and future, going thru every aspect of a problem, using both "mind" and "heart" to address the technical, emotional and fiscal aspects of the situation until we arrive at solutions which are achievable, humane and sustainable.

The path of faith calls for prayer and reflection, the path of reason calls for thinking and reason. Both are trying to relieve the stress associated with not really being able to know everything about anything.

Standing as we do in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and in the midst of the Information Revolution, it might be well to consider the observation of Carl Jung that the rapid growth in our technical progress has far outstripped our growth in social progress.

Which brings us back to the question; How can we be at our individual and collective creative best in the midst of the "fog of war"?

Ed Catmull is a really remarkable guy with a lot to say. Pixar is still on top of their game and Ed has given a lot of thought to how they stay there. It boils down to three things; Safety (Feeling), Openness (Thinking and Communicating) and Curiosity (Learning);
  • Creativity is the blending of art (feelings) and technology (stuff).
  • It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas. (feelings)
  • Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone. (thinking)
  • We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community. (learning)
You can read the rest of what Ed had to say in 2008 here;  How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity

We've all seen the tragic consequences of ignoring either the thinking or the feeling parts of being human. Perhaps there is not only room, but a requirement, for using both faith and reason. 

Isn't it time to up our collective game and use all the tools in the toolbox?

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." - Galileo Galilei

Two Ways - One Goal

Over the past several months I've been digging deeply into the roots of Design Thinking in an effort to not only understand what it is, but how and why it works as well as it does. Along the way, I've explored many facets of its methods and tools, theories of thinking and learning, neuroscience and biology.

Both individuals pictured above are seeking knowledge. Both have a philosophy of their internal and external worlds. I have come to believe that the fundamental differences in their approaches lays along at least two axes; one related to time and the other distance, which are the natural result of the way our brains work when we experience the stress associated with ambiguity and risk.

Fight - Flight

Human response to stress is typically considered in the context of both emotional and cognitive elements, each of which lead to a fight or flight response, which starts in the primitive brain at the beginning of the signal path to the cerebral cortex. The primitive brain is also the area associated with feelings. The intensity of the emotional response influences the nature and intensity of the resulting behavioral response. For example; individuals with higher levels of emotional reactivity may be prone to anxiety and aggression. Cognitive elements of the response include content specificity, perception of control, and social information processing.
Perception of control relates to an individual's thoughts and feelings about their ability to influence situations and events. Perceived control is different from actual control because an individual's beliefs about their abilities may not reflect their actual abilities. Over or underestimation of perceived control can lead to anxiety and aggression.

The social information processing model proposes a variety of factors which determine behavior in the context of social situations and pre-existing thoughts. The attribution of hostility, especially in ambiguous situations, seems to be one of the most important cognitive factors associated with the fight or flight response because of its implications regarding the perception of the presence of aggression.

The components of thinking in the fight or flight response seem to be largely negative in the context of creativity. Over weighting the importance of negative stimuli, the perception of ambiguous situations as threatening, recalling previous failures and past emotions may all result in a pessimistic bias.

Freeze - Fawn

There are two other possible responses to ambiguity which aren't discussed much; Freezing and Fawning. In the context of creativity and problem solving both are very useful, once it has been determined the there is no immediate risk of actual harm.

The freeze response can be useful because it creates the opportunity to observe at a distance. This makes the time for the cognitive parts of the brain to catch up with the primitive brain, move out of the present far enough to consider future possibilities.

Fawning is when we begin to explore the possibilities. This is where the real creative work can begin. Questions are asked, experiments are conducted, alternatives are explored, results are evaluated and weighed and informed decision making can occur.

Where someone naturally falls on this continuum of Fight to Fawn has a huge impact on which problem solving processes and tools they are comfortable with.

What is particularly interesting about this is that both the Scientific/Rational and Religious/Faith paths have limitations which can both bring the learning/creative process to a grinding and immediate halt; Both are subject to errors in accuracy and repeatability. If the goal is to reduce ambiguity, realizing that there are some things too small or quick or intangible to accurately measure does not help.
Consider the following process flow;
It's called the Scientific Method and represents the distillation of the best in "modern" problem solving. This is what most children are being taught in school today. It is rooted in the ideas of Newton and Descartes.

You can enter the cycle at any point. Design and Evaluate occur in the internal world of ideas and imagination. Create and Investigate occur in the external world of experience.

Going thru the full cycle, we move back and forth between ideas (theory) and experience (practice), learning and applying to refine the results. At least, that's the theory.

As a practical matter, what actually occurs is often somewhat different, due to the fact that other people - and the effects of their ideas and feelings - are involved in the process too. The neurological dance that goes on in our heads, and the effect which that has on our behavior, can lead to spectacular results, from the sublime to the disastrous.

Creativity Amid Chaos

Which brings us back to the deeper, more fundamental question; Awash in a neuro-hormonal sea which influences our most fundamental thought processes and decisions and limited by the accuracy and precision of our measuring tools and perception; How can we keep ourselves, and those who put their trust in us as designers, on the path to creative problem solving?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Stress and Learning

Studies of electrical and metabolic activity in the brain have revealed an interesting cascade as signals pass from the brain’s tactile sensing areas to the areas that regulate wakefulness, emotional response and memory. Bursts of activity in the somatosensory cortex are followed milliseconds later by bursts of electrical activity in the hippocampus, amygdala, and then the other parts of the limbic system. These findings, from one of the most exciting areas of learning research, suggest communication between the parts of the brain when information is being processed and stored, can influence the learning process.

When you feel threatened, your amygdala becomes activated, with associated feelings of helplessness and anxiety. At the same time, new sensory information isn't being passed through to your memory. Stephen Krashen calls this your affective filter. It’s the emotional state when people aren't responsive to learning and storing new information.

When people feel alienated from their environment and anxious about their lack of understanding passage of information through the neural pathways from the amygdala to higher cognitive centers of the brain, is apparently reduced. The prefrontal cortex, where information is processed, associated, stored for later retrieval and executive functioning, is essentially off-line.

One implication of this is that your comfort level has a significant impact on information transmission and storage in your brain. The factors which affect your comfort level include your perceived self-confidence, sense of trust, and positive feelings for others. This is partly why being in a supportive work or school environment directly contributes to a state of mind which is conducive to successful learning, remembering, and higher-order thinking.

The highest-level executive thinking, making connections, those"aha" moments of insight and creative innovation are most likely to occur in an atmosphere of what Alfie Kohn calls exuberant discovery, where students of all ages embrace each day with curiosity and optimism.

In the context of Design Thinking the idea of approaching problems with the mind of a novice; open and curious, is the direct parallel. This is part of the reason DT has such a playful component to brainstorming and rapid prototyping. Reducing stress thru playfulness helps keep the pathway to the most creative part of your brain open.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Heart and Mind of the Matter

Let's Dance
A recent discussion on LinkedIn asking to define the meaning of Design Thinking in two words garnered over 500 replies which ranged from buzz word to near religion. The variety in both interpretation and passion prompted me to apply some Design Thinking to understanding what was behind it all and I've come to a startlingly simple conclusion; In two words, Design Thinking is Problem Solving. More specifically, Design Thinking is an extremely effective approach to solving almost any type of problem. Here's why;

Let's start with the Merriam Webster definition of Problem:

Full Definition of PROBLEM
     a : a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution
     b : a proposition in mathematics or physics stating something to be done

     a : an intricate unsettled question
     b : a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation
     c : difficulty in understanding or accepting <I have a problem with your saying that>

By definition, problems are associated with;
  • having questions
  • testing hypothesis
  • complexity
  • difficulty understanding
  • difficulty accepting someone else's position
  • emotional distress
If you accept Webster's definition of Problem, the next step is to ask; What might be done in response? Obtaining a solution to a problem could require dealing with any or all of the elements by;
  • finding answers (by asking more questions)
  • conducting experiments (rapid prototyping)
  • breaking the problem down to its essential parts
  • trying multiple ways of learning and expression (visual, verbal, quantitative...)
  • being empathic and understanding other's points of view
Interestingly, the phases and methods of Design Thinking are directed at exactly these elements;

There are a few things about DT which may not seem intuitive at first. For example; asking more questions in order to find answers may seem like a waste of time, or how accounting for the emotional aspects of a situation helps find a better "technical" solution,  but if we stick to the definition of problem a DT based approach fits the bill perfectly.

Which beings us to one of the deepest questions about Design Thinking; 

Why do so many people seem to have such a problem understanding it?

I suspect the answer to that lays in the fundamental nature of the way humans think.

In the next post, we'll explore the interplay between learning and emotion and how stress affects creativity.