The Creative Spark — Recommended Reading

Fuentes, Agustin. The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional2017, New York: Dutton.

We human beings prefer experiences where our unique creative expression is invited into a group’s work, and where it is actively engaged, according to our survey research in 98 countries and our field research in 39 countries.  In The Creative Spark, Professor Agustin Fuentes provides an anthropologist’s view on the impact of human imagination.

He starts with the observation that, “the initial condition of any creative act is collaboration…This cocktail of creativity and collaboration distinguishes our species–no other species has ever been able to do it so well–and has propelled the development of our bodies, minds, and cultures, both for good and for bad” (p 2).  His research suggests that there are “four big misconceptions of human evolution:…we are the species that is supremely good at being bad; we are a species of supercooperators, supremely good at being good; [we are] a species still better adapted to traditional lives as hunter-gatherers than to modern, mechanized, urbanized, and tech-connected life; [or that we are] the Promethean breed, who, having made all the world our dominion, are now running it, and ultimately ourselves, into ruin” (p 3). He suggests that vast amounts of research in “anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology, economics, and sociology over the past twenty years” (p. 4) have shown these predominant arguments are at best incomplete.  “Perhaps most important, these popular accounts have obscured the wonderful story at the heart of our evolution–the story of how, from the days of our earliest, protohuman ancestors, we have survived and increasingly thrived because of our exceptional capacity for creative collaboration” (p 4).  “A new synthesis demonstrates that humans acquired a distinctive set of neurological, physiological, and social skills that enabled us, starting from the earliest days, to work together and think together in order to purposefully cooperate.

Professor Fuentes takes us on the long journey over two million years of how we evolved, through our increasing ability for creative collaboration, to the beings we are today.  Along the way, he explores how we co-evolved with our environment through food, war, sex, religion, art, and science.  As the capacity for collaboration, and how collaboration differs from pure competition or coopetition lies at the core of our work in ecosynomics, this look across the data from hundreds of communities and hundreds of thousands of years, highlights our innate capacities as Homo lumens.  A very interesting, well written and documented read, which I highly recommend.

Deep Agreements We Hold and Can Choose — Recommended Reading

Bishop, Orland. The Seventh Shrine: Meditations on the African Spiritual Journey–From the Middle Passage to the Mountaintop2017, Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.

Orland Bishop‘s new book, The Seventh Shrine, brings to light the deeper agreements we humans hold and can choose.  Orland, who holds the Institute for Strategic Clarity 2016-2017 Homo lumens Fellowship, has explored agreements in many previous blogs here.

Our awareness of our agreements, of how we interact in community, invites our full engagement.  “Participating is essential to the forming and the sustaining of community.  If we take just the word “part,” it points only to the individual human being.  But we must create this other aspect of “participation,” which is reciprocity, the exchange of the common good.  This is the nature of the community, a process of exchanging with each other and cultivating something that I can’t create by myself.  I can’t create something that complex by myself.  It is a discovery that when we participate, the emergent quality is something that spontaneously reveals itself, that in the act of hosting and being hosted in this improvisation of devotion to some aspect of our human genius, we arrive at something that we couldn’t see beforehand.  You could say that we share this “communion,” this wonderful substance.  This is the “precipitation” of the spiritual substance of human life.  It condenses, it manifests, and it becomes now tangible in the world.  Participation is rain in the world (p. 208).”

I just finished reading this book, and I highly recommend it.

Our Experience of Light, as Seen 2,500 Years Ago — Recommended Reading

Lawlor, Robert. 1994. “Pythagorean Number as Form, Color, and Light,” in Homage to Pythagoras: Rediscovering Sacred Science, Christopher Bamford, ed., Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books.

In this chapter, Robert Lawlor explores the early observations on light of the great Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who lived 570 – c. 495 BC.  Pythagoras, famous today for the Pythagorean Theorem, was a very influential philosopher and mathematician.  This is a fascinating journey through thinking that influenced the last 2,500 years of western thought about what light is.

“The Pythagorean symbolists assumed what may seem an obvious cosmological ground for their numerical procedures: that God has manifested himself in this universe as light…Certainly spiritual texts from many cultures abound with the association between light and the universal creator.  But Pythagoreanism, like its Egyptian sources, is an instance in which this association may be taken not only as an inspired metaphor, but also as a protocol-scientific analogy.  Leibnitz beautifully restated this Pythagorean time, saying, ‘The exquisitely orderly behavior of light indicates the underlying radical patterned order of reality'” (p187).

Light and other forms of radiation can only be absorbed if they carry precisely the right amount of energy to promote an atom from one rung to a higher rung.  As the atom falls back to its fundamental state the absorbed radiation must be removed, carrying away the difference between the two levels.  This released energy appears as a photon or a quantum of light having a particular wave-length determined by the energy difference in the rise and fall within the structure of the atom…[This] occurs according to a very precise rhythmic scale.  Every atom possesses a preset harmonic energy scale, ‘a musical organization’: an in-formed vibratory gradation” (p201).

Substance and light are of the same electromagnetic energy; they are fields of force whose movement/form is detectable as wave phenomenon.  Substance varies from radiated light in that it has been organized into relatively stable geometric vortices by the three primary principles of organization, the protonic, the neutronic and the electronic: the movement towards centrality, centrality and the movement away from centrality.  The varying proportions of these three powers determine the geometry of the substance” (p203).

All light is invisible until it has encountered a substance.  All substances to some varying degree absorb and re-emit light.  This interaction is color, and it is the signature of the inner form of the substance” (p203).

“The logic of Pythagoras is the logic of light and vibration.  It is inclusive of the concept of an octave contained within an octave; but it also understands that the essential form-nature of an octave (the consonance of its proportions) is connected to all other octaves through resonance” (p204).  “For the Pythagorean, this universe is a universe of perception.  Perception is the transformation of light into forms of itself.  And light is consciousness imaging itself” (p 205).

The development of a perspective that still penetrates much of our current understanding of the experience of light.

Network Power — Recommended Reading

Ramo, Joshua Cooper. The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks2016, New York: Little, Brown and Company.  Click here to see Chapter 1.

Most of the power gained and used in the past has been through accumulation of resources (nouns), using a dominance in the amount of resources to conquer peoples and usurp their resources.  Whether this was soldiers, weapons, food, or money, having more than the others gave you power to go and get more from other peoples.  This is a world of dominance mapped in the geography of territories.  Who had what controlled access to and accumulation of what resources.

In The Seventh SenseRamo, a seasoned traveler and senior executive of Kissinger Associates, suggests that the landscape of power is experiencing a shift in kind, more so than a shift in degree.  It is not just more power, rather a completely different kind of power, and this new power is mopping up the brokers of the old power.  This new power is network power.  The seventh sense is the ability to see the lines of network power, of the ebb and flow of connections, where the focus shifts from mapping the geography of territories to mapping the topography of gated spaces.  The power now comes not from who controls the territory but rather from who controls the gated spaces.  Think Uber, AirBnB, Amazon, Skype, Google.  Where maybe in the past you were what you had, now you are what you are connected to (p 35).

Ramo shows how this seventh sense has enabled groups with relatively small amounts of resources to completely overrun groups with vast resources.  They did this through a massive scaling up of connections to an ever-expanding core, to a protocol for connection.  Control of the core, of the protocol, is control of the connections.  The power comes from simultaneously strengthening the core along with the periphery, through all of the connections in the network.  “In connected systems, power is defined by both profound concentration and by massive distribution” (p. 116).  Concentration at the core and distribution to the periphery of connections.  Those working with “resource power” have to focus on either the core or the periphery, concentrating resources at the center or the top or at the periphery or the bottom.  Centralized or decentralized.  This ability of network power to work at both the core and the periphery, at the same time, causes those working with “resource power” to be pulled apart as they try to move towards centralization or decentralization and back (p 118).  They do not know where to put the resource power, and this movement back and forth is much slower than the ability of networks to respond.  This same movement, simultaneously towards the core and the periphery, strengthens network power and tears apart resource power.

In ecosynomic terms, network power is the power of agreements at the verb-noun levels.  Resource power is the power of agreements at the noun-only level.  Working at the verb-noun level of development of capacities and relationships, which manifest in outcomes, one is surfing in the constant ebb and flow of the concentration-distribution push and pull.  Working at the noun-only level of just outcomes, success comes from having more nouns, with no conscious connection to the dynamics over time and space of the verb level of agreements.  Tangibilization power is then the ability to work at the light, verb, and noun levels, infusing the infinite power of possibility serving a deeper shared purpose into the ossifying purpose driving the core and periphery of the network.

The Seventh Sense brings together, in a very readable form, lessons from history, a wide variety of ancient philosophies, and tons of recent anecdotes to highlight the specifics of this emerging, vastly more powerful way of engaging the world.  I highly recommend it.

Why We Care About the Resilience of Our Agreements — What We Lose When Our Agreements Collapse

Everyone lives in complex, turbulent times.  Will our agreements survive the changes we face?  How resilient are these agreements?  We can look to ecologists for how to think about the resilience of systems and to anthropologists for what has actually happened in human systems.

From earlier work by the ecologist C.S. Holling and colleagues, as described by the Resilience Alliance, “When resilience is enhanced, a system is more likely to tolerate disturbance events without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes.”  From an ecosynomic perspective, this means that resilience is the ability to keep a similar level of agreements, meaning the levels of perceived reality they consciously include.  A collapse is then a qualitative shift in the level of agreements.

Anthropologists, like Joseph Tainter, have looked at societal collapse, finding, “The process of a matter of rapid, substantial decline in an established level of complexity. A society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterized by fewer specialized parts; it displays less social differentiation; and it is able to exercise less control over the behavior of its members . It is able at the same time to command smaller surpluses, to offer fewer benefits and inducements to membership; and it is less capable of providing subsistence and defensive security for a regional population” (Tainter, 1988 pp. 38).  An example of a loss of a level of complexity might be the loss of consciously accepted agreements at the level of the development of capacities and relationships–the verb level–to focus solely on the level of outcomes–the noun level.

Thus, ecologists and anthropologists observe that a more resilient set of agreements is more capable of dealing with changing environments without losing whole levels of complexity in the agreements.  You can find more on the ecosynomics of impact resilience here.


Resilience through Social Capital and Nudges — Recommended Readings

Halpern, David. The Hidden Wealth of Nations2005, Cambridge: Polity.

Halpern, David. Social Capital2010, Cambridge: Polity.  Click here to see Chapter 1.

Halpern, David. Inside the Nudge Unit2015, London: WH Allen.  Click here to see Chapter 1.

In a career of academics at Cambridge and politics in the primer minister’s office, David Halpern has interwoven the relevance of practice with the rigor of research to develop his framework for highlighting and enabling the ability of a community or nation to be more resilient, leveraging the hidden wealth of its social capital.  Halpern shares the evolution of his framing over three books, coming out one every five years.  For Halpern, social capital “refers to the social networks, norms and sanctions that facilitate co-operative action among individuals and communities” (SC pp 38-39).  Halpern’s frame “incorporates three different dimensions of social capital: its main components (networks, norms and sanctions); the level of analysis employed (individual-, meso- and macro-levels); and its character of function (bonding, bridging, linking)” (SC p 39).

I highly recommend reading this series.  For me, reading them in order of publication helped set the frame, embracing its simultaneous rigor and relevance, with deep dives into the underlying philosophical fields of inquiry underlying human prosperity and resilience, social capital, and behavioral economics, the evolution of these philosophies, and the vast amount of data gathered and experiments engaged to test and evolve the frame.  In the end, Halpern convincingly frames an evidence-based story of how the social capital needed for human resilience resides within us and can be accessed through awareness and intelligent experimentation.


Local Peaks of Wisdom Everywhere

We tend to look to the “great ones” for wisdom about how to face particularly challenging situations.  From changing diapers to favorite recipes to schooling systems to health care.  We usually don’t know what to do when the world requires us to think afresh about what we want.  The world shifts, the old system doesn’t work as well, and we go to the “great ones,” who we usually look for in the “great places,” large mountain peaks in a very small group of places.  Global destinations.

What if the wisdom you needed was already in your own back yard?  What if you didn’t need to travel great distances to get advice that you then would have to customize to your own context?  For example, what worked for an educational system in Europe 100 years ago, or in a political system in Greece 2,400 years ago, or in an agricultural system in Egypt 5,100 years ago, or in an existing banking system in Bangladesh, or in a family down the street, will not work in the exact same way for you, here, with me.

My colleagues and I are finding that people everywhere are figuring out new ways to do things, within a very similar context to our own, every day.  They have figured it out.  They are local “great ones.”  They are everywhere.

UCLA professor Jared Diamond has observed a similar phenomenon across the globe, which he describes in his 2012 book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?  “Traditional societies are far more diverse in many of their cultural practices than are modern industrial societies…Yet psychologists base most of their generalizations about human nature on studies of our own narrow and atypical slice of human diversity…Traditional societies in effect represent thousands of natural experiments in how to construct a human society.  They have come up with thousands of solutions to human problems, solutions different from those adopted by our own..socities…Perhaps we could benefit by selectively adopting some of those traditional practices…[While] we should also not go to the opposite extreme of romaniticizing..traditional practices..we can consider ourselves blessed to have discarded…[they] may not only suggest to use some better living practices, but may also help us appreciate some advantages of our own society that we take for granted” (8-9).

There is much to learn from the wisdom all around us, if only we could find it, understand it, and integrate it.  That is what the Global Initiative to map the social topography of human agreements is attempting to do: to help you see where the wisdom is in your own community, the local peaks.

Seeing What I Actually Know

I know what I know.  Right?  Two authors I have been reading summarize research showing that we typically are not very good at knowing what we know now or recalling what we think we knew before.

In his 1976 classic Perception and Misperception in International Politics, Columbia University professor Robert Jervis summarizes research that shows, “People often not only have a limited understanding of the workings of others’ arguments, they also do not know the structure of their own belief systems—what values are most important, how some beliefs are derived from others, and what evidence would contradict their views.  Particularly dangerous is the tendency to take the most important questions for granted…This often involves..failing to scrutinize basic assumptions” (410-411).

Highlighting a vast amount of recent research into the neuroscience of memory in his 2015 book The Brain, Stanford University professor David Eagleman writes, “Although we don’t always realize it, the memory is not as rich as you might have expected…The enemy..isn’t time; it’s other memories.  Each new event needs to establish new relationships among a finite number of neurons.  The surprise is that a faded memory doesn’s seem faded to you…Our past is not a faithful record.  Instead it’s a reconstruction” (23-26).  “Our picture of the external world isn’t necessarily an accurate representation.  Our perception of reality has less to do with what’s happening out there, and more to do with what’s happening inside our brain” (38).

If we are not good at knowing what we know or remembering accurately, then what can we do?  These same lines of research highlight two human strengths: (1) our partial perspectives and (2) our error-correcting ability to calibrate.

Our partial perspectives.  We each perceive a rich world of sensations, inputs that we each are uniquely able to perceive and process.  Combining a set of rich perspectives different individuals have about an experience can lead to a more nuanced, multi-dimensional understanding of a given phenomenon.  This integrated set can then be tested against evidence: how the system actually behaves.  Systemic, multi-stakeholder processes, like the ones we have tested and developed, at the Institute for Strategic Clarity, are one method for capturing, integrating, and validating this kind of richness.

Our error-correcting ability to calibrate.  Our brains seem to focus on correcting errors in the mental representation it already has of the world.  The brain is calibrating.  “Instead of using your senses to constantly rebuild your reality from scratch every moment, you’re compaing sensory information with a model the brain has already constructed: updating it, refining it, correcting it” (53 The Brain).  ”The brain generates its own reality, even before it receives information coming in from the eyes and the other senses…(For example, the) thalamus simply reports on differences between what the eyes are reporting, and what the brain’s internal model has predicted…what gets sent back to the visual cortex is what fell short in the expectation” (51-52 The Brain).  This act of calibration is a strength.  Using evidence-based mapping, we can see what actually exists more rigorously and use that mapping to calibrate our individual mental representations, the mental models we use all day long to make decisions.

To apply these concepts of partial perspectives, weak memory accuracy, and calibration to complex social issues like human agreements, we need rigorous frameworks for integrating and validating what we know.  Especially since we also know that human agreements can be very hard to see, tools like Agreements Evidence Mapping are ever more critical for (1) capturing and validating partial perspectives, (2) integrating them into one whole, strategic representation that can be validated, around (3) often hidden agreements we have unconsciously accepted, that (4) we agree to shift.  Maybe I do not know what I know, most of the time, but I can.

Vibrancy Is A Choice Checklists — Re-membering Abundance-based Agreements

You invite some colleagues to work together with you on something you feel is really important. Knowing you, your passion, and what they can contribute, they enthusiastically say yes. You come together for the first time.  For the first 2 hours, the vibe is electric and the pulse is quickening. Then something shifts, and some people seem unclear about the process, they quickly start to disengage. Trying to re-engage the group, someone has an idea and proposes a different, “more engaging” process. A couple of the others agree, and feeling a little lost you agree. After all, you trust everyone in the room. A few minutes later, you notice a few others starting to check out. One of them calls for a brief point of clarification. The enthusiasm starts to breakdown quickly, accelerating into a collapse. You decide to stop the freefall, and call for a break. What happened? Great intentions, trusted colleagues, a great start, then rapid collapse. Have you ever experienced something like this? I have, frequently.

While some people I know are extraordinarily gifted at seeing what to do in these breakdowns, converting them into breakthroughs, I wonder if many times it is possible to not collapse in the first place. A book I just finished reading by a well-known surgeon who studied surgery units, airline pilots, and large-scale construction projects, proposes a simple, elegant solution–the checklist.

To align what we perceive in the world with what our best mental models suggest, I have long been a proponent of CRISP frameworks and processes. CRISP means that the frameworks and processes are designed to be obvious and how they are comprehensive, rigorous, integrative, simple, and purposeful. From this thinking emerged the GRASP, 5 primary relationships, 3 levels of perceived reality, 4 lenses, the O Process, and the Harmonic Vibrancy Move 4-step process. And yet, I continue to experience the kind of collapse I described at the beginning of this post. Enter the Vibrancy is a choice checklist.

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande shows how the checklist helps highly trained experts in complex situations prevent the avoidable failures that still haunt the activities we humans organize. What would this look like for abundance-based agreements, where we still experience frequent collapse?

Gawande finds that people who have successfully used checklists with experts in complex situations often have checklists for process and for communication–what to do in what order, and who needs to talk about what and when. The point is to remember to do all of the critical steps, some of which are often forgotten in the heat of the moment. According to what Gawande found, the checklist should be designed for a specific situation. It should be short, with 5 to 9 items. The language should be simple, precise, and familiar to the professionals. And then, most importantly, it needs to be tested in a real situation. All checklists always need to be refined.

Returning to the initial situation, before we start the meeting, we can create two checklists: one for the proposed process; and one for how we want to communicate when something else emerges. While the first might initially look like an agenda for the conversation, thinking of it as a checklist gets us thinking about the most critical elements to be addressed, some of which are often forgotten, and the different perspectives on what needs to come together.  In addition to the basic process, what other assumptions do we need to be sure are clear to all and not missed, especially the ones we have experienced as being missed in the past? What roles need to be taken up, and who will take them? What are the most frequent avoidable failures that we experience? We want to make sure we address them consistently.

In processes where we are working out of abundance-based agreements, we are engaging with high complexity–high vibrancy in self, other, group, nature, and spirit, with clarity about how much we see, who decides and enforces, with what values, and how we interact, in a highly engaged, interactive group. Lots of potential, with lots of emergence, ripe for checklists.

In the next weeks, I will be sharing high-vibrancy checklists we are finding. If you have checklists for these situations, please share them with me. Vibrancy is a choice, and a checklist can help us remember how to invite, see, and honor that choice, especially when we forget.

3D Tangibilization of Impact Resilience — Recommended Reading

Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance2016, New York: Scribner.  Click here for an excerpt.

Duhigg, Charles.  Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.  2016, New York: Random House.  Click here for an excerpt.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. 2006, New York: Ballantine Books.  Click here for an excerpt.

To make something real, to make it tangible–to tangibilize–takes a potential, an idea that was seen, and a pathway for developing the potential, the possibility, into an outcome.  To tangibilize is the pathway of seeing the possibility, developing it, and completing it.  This is the creative process.  And while this seems obvious, because we all live this process all day long every day, most of the agreements underlying how we interact within and amongst organizations focus predominantly on the outcome, and very little on the potential and the developmental pathway.

And, there are positive ecosynomic deviants who are very focused on this process and its subtleties.  We know about these positive ecosynomic deviants mostly because of the results they achieve–results that shock us, leading us to assume that these outliers are superhuman, achieving extraordinary results unavailable to the rest of us.  They are able to achieve these results, over and over again, resilient to difficulties on their path, over sustained stretches of time.  I recommend three books I have read recently that uncover different dimensions of these positive deviants: their growth mindset; their ability to persevere; and their ability to be much more productive.  Written by three easy-to-read writers, who bring together great stories with lots of rigorous research–all Ds–Duckworth, Duhigg, and Dweck–they dig into what makes ordinary people capable of achieving high levels of impact and resilience.

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck shares her vast research on mindsets, showing how having a growth versus a fixed mindset enables people to learn, to grow.  Her work shows that the fixed mindset–“believing that your qualities are carved in stone” (Dweck 6)–is predominant, socially embedded in many of our unconsciously accepted agreements.   People with the growth mindset–“the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts…believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training” (Dweck 7).  With many examples, Dweck shows how “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” (Dweck 6); full of possibility and growth or not.

University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth focuses on what drives people to find their passion and stick with it to find extraordinary levels of expression of that passion.  Duckworth sets the tone of what is possible, quoting William James, a founding father of modern psychology, “‘Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake.  Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked.  We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.’  There is a gap, James declared, between potential and its actualization…James asserted that ‘the human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use.  He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum‘” (Duckworth 22-23).  Bringing together years of her own experimental research and field experience with that of many of her colleagues, Duckworth has nuanced what grit is–“perseverance and passion for long-term goals“–what it takes to achieve it, and what it does.  Summarizing all of this research, she finds that grit requires a passionate interest, connection to a higher purpose, lots and lots of practice, and an optimistic perspective that deliberate practice will lead to something.

New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg delves into the contextual factors that lead to some people being able to be much more productive than others. He finds that productivity paragons are much more motivated, focused, and tend to work in groups of psychological safety.  “To teach ourselves to self-motivate more easily, we need to learn to see our choices not just as expressions of control but also as affirmations of our values and goals” (Duhigg 31).  “To become genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention; we must build mental models that put us firmly in charge” (Duhigg, 102).  When people are in groups that “feel a sense of psychological safety…[they] succeed because teammates feel they can trust each other, and that honest discussion can occur without fear of retribution” (Duhigg 69).

The 3 Ds highlight decades of rigorous research and experience that show that the people we most see as exemplars of extraordinary outcomes often are actually ordinary people who have found their passion, spend lots of time applying it, growing in their craft over time, in a very focused, hopeful way, with lots of support from their community.  This might mean that what is out of the ordinary, as the William James quote above suggests, is not that people live into their potential, rather that more people don’t.  What is it that we as humans do in our agreements that shuts down the process of tangibilizing our own unique impact resilience, every day?  I call this negative ecosynomic deviance, and explore what it takes to stop doing it.