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23/08/2014

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Open Space: Making the right mistakes

Mark Stevenson extols creativity

Recently I was asked to engage with something called The Dream Factory - a collection of ‘cultural engineers’ from a breadth of professions (scientists, artists, musicians, sustainability gurus) brought together by a car manufacturer to help them think more creatively (and, let’s hope, sustainably).

Mark Stevenson extols creativity

Recently I was asked to engage with something called The Dream Factory - a collection of ‘cultural engineers’ from a breadth of professions (scientists, artists, musicians, sustainability gurus) brought together by a car manufacturer to help them think more creatively (and, let’s hope, sustainably).

Increasing numbers of corporates are doing this kind of thing - trying, often in vain, to collaborate with those traditionally outside their walls (and ways of thinking). This is because they’re beginning to realise that they have built up ways of working that deliberately crush the very qualities they’ll now need if they have any chance of surviving in the coming age: creativity, agility, systems-thinking, a questing disposition.

As one of my great inspirations, John Seely Brown, says: ‘The old-age companies don’t know why they have to run faster in order to lose more slowly. All the practices of those companies are exactly the practices that keep you from being able to engage in the world of fast-paced innovation. They have routines and beliefs built on the assumptions of stability. Almost any company that’s more than twenty years old isn’t built right for this. In fact I would argue that companies that are five years old aren’t ready either.’

Innovators mistrusted
For instance, we have education systems and business structures that stigmatise mistakes. I work with companies where I see natural innovators called ‘losers’ because they’ve been brave enough to get things wrong a few times. But as Edison pointed out, he didn’t come up with the right way to make a light-bulb without coming up with 3,000 wrong ways to do it. Even Keith Richards understands this. When asked how he came up with all those amazing riffs for the Rolling Stones he replied, ‘I just start playing until I come up with the right mistake.’

Numerous studies consistently show that educators looking for obedient classrooms regard creative students as, well, obnoxious. Most organisations treat creative employees with the same level of mistrust, which is how I explain away the fact I’ve been fired a couple of times, although my girlfriend quickly reminds me that this may be a strategy for avoiding the idea that I might actually be just obnoxious.

Multiple mindsets
And so organisations, fearful for their lives, are looking for more creative, innovative, big-picture, multi-disciplined types to help them. Suddenly having multiple mindsets to call on doesn’t mark you out as a feckless dilettante who can’t concentrate on mastering your niche. It’s a virtue, because you have multiple ways of thinking toolkits you can call on. I’ve found my work as a playwright deeply useful in wrangling boardrooms, for instance.

An Industrial Revolution-type approach, where you specialise, specialise, specialise is a recipe for an early death in an increasingly interconnected world. Darwin’s oft-summarised ‘survival of the fittest’ is more accurately stated as ‘survival of the most adaptable’. There is therefore a certain irony in calling a creativity hub a Dream factory.

We are in a full-on battle with the machine paradigm of the industrial age and we have to win. Because, quite frankly, we will not engage productively with our grand challenges from climate change,
to fixing our politics using the industrial revolution mind-set that created them.

‘The future is here and all around us,’ said sci-fi icon William Gibson. ‘It’s just not widely distributed yet.’ That’s because we’re still holding on to ideas of schools, work and retirement that haven’t changed for over a hundred years. If we want to engage with the future, we’ll have to change our minds to meet it.

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Mark Stevenson
Mark Stevenson is a writer, businessman, comedian and founder of the League of Pragmatic Optimists www.anoptimiststourofthefuture.com www.leagueofpragmaticoptimists.com
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