There are many misconceptions about systems and habits. Many believe that being systematic in one’s approach to a goal will negate the ability to pivot and be flexible. They tend to feel that there is a continuum with flexible and creative on one side and the opposite end systematic and habitual.
But this is not the case. The Tao Te Ching is an incredible book that dives into the paradoxical nature of things. It shows that opposites tend to exist together, rather than separately.
The notion that nothing good exists without having bad in it and nothing bad exists without having good in it seems contrary to our western ideals. We like to separate good and evil, right and wrong, easy and hard, small and large, start and finish. It makes the world seem much more black and white and helps us know which direction to go.
But the Tao wants us to pause and realize that all of these exist together and one cannot exist without the other. We can’t have beauty unless there is ugliness and we can have rich without having poor. By the very way we define these things means that there has to be an opposite.
The fact that opposite tends to be along with its counterpoint is a little more complicated. Seeing a country rally after a natural disaster seems more like cause and effect than having both within that specific event. But looking at a tropical storm and seeing the flexible palm trees withstand the winds and the rigid, hard, oak trees crack gives us a visual example of this paradox.
One example that people tend to give involves creativity. Creativity, it is argued, is outside the box thinking that runs counter to systematic thinking. It is easy to make this case but it overlooks something. By studying innovation over time patterns emerge. If this is truly outside the box thinking that is completely different and unique, why is there similar innovation in other industries? Why does innovation tend to follow patterns?
In a book by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg, titled “Inside the Box – A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results,” the authors debunk this myth. They explain the patterns around innovation and provide templates to help us see variations, which lead to innovation.
Early in the book they say, “The traditional view of creativity is that it is unstructured and doesn’t follow rules or patterns. That you need to think ‘outside the box’ to be truly original and innovative. That you should start with a problem and then ‘brainstom’ ideas without restraint until you find a solution. That you should ‘go wild’ making analogies to things that have nothing to do with your products, services, or processes. That straying far afield as possible will help you come up with a breakthrough idea.”
The author then states, “We believe just the opposite.” The reality is that innovative breakthrough tends to follow certain patterns, which can be evaluated and copied. By the very nature of being patterns, which can be evaluated and copied, they become systematic.
Years ago I taught an audio engineering course on MIDI Technology. The class looked at a technology that allowed music to be played and manipulated in various ways. But this technology also spilled over to other areas.
When I was teaching the class I had an exercise where I would ask the students to think of ways to utilize this technology, but they couldn’t have it relate to music or audio in any way. They all thought it was strange at first. But then they start to think of nontraditional ways of utilizing this technology. By giving them a framework for the problem they were able to come up with some interesting ideas.
I found the same thing when, years ago, I was working on product development. I would meet with the marketing team and go over my needs for copy on the website. I would give them free reign to come up with whatever they thought was best and I wanted them to use their expertise.
But over and over again they would have a difficult time. They would miss deadlines and produce copy that seemed like they threw it together 5 minutes before our meeting. I was baffled.
So I started to modify my approach. I would give them general requirements and go over what I thought could be on the page. Sometimes I would write up the full page and give it to them in the initial meeting. But the key was that I told them that they had free reign to do whatever they felt best. They could use some, all or none of my suggestions.
They started to produce great copy! Sometimes it reflected my notes and other times it was very different. But giving them a general framework allowed them to get past the initial writers block where we are overwhelmed with options. It took away paralysis by analysis and gave them a clear starting point.
There are key psychological reasons why we have this initial blocker. It has been well researched and there is a wealth of information at your local library as to why we tend to be more creative in certain environments. Because of the many complexities it usually isn't as simple as forcing ourselves to think “outside the box.”
But the important point to remember is that there are patterns and systems involved in creativity. Being able to understand the paradoxical nature of creativity will help you overcome some of the creative blockers that we all face from time to time. If we can better understand the role of systems in innovation and creativity we can unlock creative forces within us that will help us achieve our goals.