Archive | October 2012

Back To Basics, of Art And Creativity

When I wrote a series on art and management, or bringing creativity into organizations, I did mention a few exercises managers, or anyone else, can do.  But I never really delineated my ideas on artistic activities clearly.  Part of the reason is that art isn’t limited to conventional formats, such as painting or poetry, so the possibilities are limitless.  Isn’t that the nature of creativity?  However, I have been thinking about how some traditional art exercises can help.  Since I live in a very active art community and happen to know a few artists, I thought I should tap into their knowledge.

So here are some ideas for tickling that creative inner child in you:

  • Bring a painting or a picture, or any frame-able presentation, to a place where you can try on different frames.  Framing is half of the creative outcome; different frames offer different effects.
  • Similarly, cut into half an old mat board, straight cuts at the diagonal corners.  Use these two ½ mats to resize your painting or photo.  I had one painting that bothered me for years till my watercolor teacher helped me figure out the “right” sizing for my painting.  All of a sudden, a so-so painting came alive.  Before I completed the framing job, I used the painting and different sizes of mat to demonstrate to my students the different impacts from different sizes of framing.  This was a course that touched on “the art of framing,” as in framing a question or a statement.  When I contrasted the original whole landscape painting by the resized — reduced in height by ¼ – look that, paradoxically, hinted at a panoramic view, the students actually gasped.

The above exercises help us think about how we want to frame a situation, a challenge, or a question at work.


Creativity (Photo credit: Mediocre2010)

  • Splash some bold colors on a board, and the same colors on different sizes of boards. You will see the various impacts different combinations of colors and different sizes can produce.

This may seem like manipulation of facts in real life.  However, we do tend to look at certain facts at a time, and one combination of some facts can point in a different direction than other combinations of different facts.   Perhaps the moral of the exercise is that not only we need to be aware of how we present data but also the need to incorporate many alternative perspectives when making a decision.

  • Drawing on the right side of your brain,” by Betty Edwards is a valuable book for many.  I learned so much from it; it was like finding a treasure trove.  The book helped me break away from the “straight-jacket” thinking and habit.  For instance, pick any simple object and draw, without looking at your drawing, but just focus on the contours of the object.  Or, draw a chair (or whatever that grabs your attention), but don’t think it’s a chair, just draw the outline and the shapes.  Focusing on the shape of the object, without the influence of the name, is very powerful.  Another revealing exercise for me is copying some drawing/painting upside down.  It is immensely awkward, but oh so liberating after a while.

Drawing upside down…a liberating exercise!

These particular exercises help me understand how perceived and preconceived notions, such as chairs, tables, vases, can become limiting.

  • Thumb through some magazines and cut out words and pictures that “speak” to you.  Once you gather all the cut-outs, assemble a story or a poem or whatever form you desire.  What does the process of doing this inform you?  Does your story surprise you?


But the unanimous chorus among my artist friends is:  Set aside your recent creation; walk away.  Don’t think about it for a while and then come back to it.

I wonder though, how many in today’s organizations can afford to take time to think and reflect?

The discussion I got from these artists, including a few who have never worked in big organizations, all emphasized:  There are plenty of creative people in all organizations; they don’t need outside consultants to tell them how to create.  Or, put it in another way, there is plenty of creativity in people all over the place.  The ultimate issue is:  How do we allow people’s creativity to shine?  Do most organizations allow people to be creative?  Remember, there are always risks involved in the creative process; it’s about exploring the unknown.  If you can anticipate everything and every outcome, where is the creativity?  If you want to be perfectly safe and secure, there won’t be any excitement and you won’t find or create anything new.

One of Moody Blues’ song has a line, “If I gave you every dream would they grow?”

Does your organizational structure allow people some freedom to be creative?  What would you do differently to grow some creativity for you and your people?

Happy Halloween!  Till November,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Life, Organization, System…They Don’t Follow Linear Trajectory

Energy Scale Paradox

This visual representation powerfully illustrates the interaction between “economy of scale” and “acceptability of impact,” courtesy of one of my scientist friends. The former term rolls off our tongues so easily these days that we treat it as a golden rule.  Indeed, the concept of economy of scale is to maximize return on resources and operations within the “entity” of a supposedly small, discrete system, such as Ford Motor Co.  However, when we examine the much larger system, such as our society or earth, in which the entity resides, we see unintended impact.  What may be beneficial for one sector could be devastating for all.  We are all interconnected; globalization is making this crystal clear.

It is burdensome to always keep the larger system on the horizon – besides, can any one person master the macroeconomics? – and we cannot anticipate every element that could trigger a slew of unintended consequences.  However, once we are aware of the spilled-over impact from our “discrete” entity/system (Ford isn’t small in one aspect, yet it is in others), should we not reconsider adopting such a conventional strategy as “economy of scale?”

There is evidence all around reminding us of the “acceptability of impact” concern pursuing the “economy of scale” strategy.  We are still painfully adjusting to one such impact, the 2008 financial meltdown.  The banks and other financial institutions for decades have been aggressively pursuing the conventional economies of scale, and eventually became too big for us to accommodate the impact of their failure.  And so, when they failed, they dragged everyone down…well, almost everyone.

I contend that all the big-box stores are pursuing this old strategy.  And yes, we all like our bargains; we all favor the lower prices resulting from the scale strategy, and  yet we are very much part of the bigger system.  Ellen Rupple Shell’s “Cheap” presents cogent analysis on how our penchant for bargains has helped create those monstrosities.  In turn, the big box stores have been instrumental in keeping wages and benefits down.  This is but one factor contributing to the suppression of the middle class.  At least, the first Mr. Ford of Ford Motor Company wanted his employees to be able to afford a vehicle, thereby giving them better than average hourly wages.  The same cannot be said of Mr. Walton of Wal-Mart.  See also “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, for cases of “acceptability of impact.”

My comments may have a whiff of the recent 99% vs. 1% quarrel, but there is a profound case to be made about the shortsightedness of paying attention to only one aspect of doing business, or focusing on only one sector of the society to pull the economy.  “The self-destruction of the 1 percent” is an excellent article to push us to think more and deeper about these issues.

“Self-interest” as an economic driver can carry us only so far.  It’s really all about the system, the much bigger system.

Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Reclaiming The Small Things

A dear friend recently wrote, titled “The Snake and the Packrat,” suggesting that we take a few moments to note down small things around us, things to which we wouldn’t normally pay attention, a leaf on a tree, or a verse with words that can roll in your mouth.  As you contemplate these small things, what images pop into your head?  What’s your emotional reaction?

I love this notion.  As I read it, I recall a moment in one late afternoon, seeing a particularly brilliant red Virginia creeper leaf, shimmering in the wind and under the sunset light.  I love autumn, and this leaf announced the true arrival of the season.  A small leaf offered me such sweet comfort; it simultaneously energized me (skiing is around the corner!) and calmed me.

How often do you take the time to notice the small things at work?  The building, the office walls, and more importantly, the people’s mood, the looks in their eyes, their gait…  Why not take a moment, embracing slowness as you walk around and note something that usually escapes you.  See what the newfound knowledge informs you about your work, colleagues, or the environment.

A small image on a vast cliff.

Recently, while biking in our neighborhood, I noticed a new sign on someone’s property.  This property abuts a trail whose entrance is rather obscure, and people often do trip onto the private land.  This new sign says, “Private Property,” positioned about 5 yards from the trail entrance.  I thought to myself, “the owner is likely to be the ‘J’ type,” as in “judging” per the Meyers-Brigg personality inventory.  “J” indicates those whose view of the world is, “it ought to behave this way; that should be organized according to…”  In contrast, a “P” for “perceiving” personality type, would think about why people keep stumbling onto the private land, and perhaps place a sign right at the trail entrance that says, “Trail Entrance.”

What small things have you noticed lately?  What have you learned from them?

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The End Of…

Another reader submission!  I love it…especially when it’s written by a “real” scientist.  I acknowledge my social “scientist” background, but social research by nature isn’t good at prediction, is rarely controllable, and often hardly replicable.  But setting aside my pet peeve, how is today’s topic relevant to organizational issues?  It may not be immediately relevant to all organizations, but it certainly has a large bearing on those emphasizing sciences and technology.

To claim that there is an “end of” some vast domain, the claimer(s) has to know it all; he alone defines the boundary of this domain.  Just chew on that for a while.  If one can draw a boundary, what’s outside that boundary?  Furthermore, if we are running out of places for adventures or areas of knowledge to be explored, then, what’s the point of living? Not to mention, what can we offer to future generations? And make them excited to “explore” more?

Indeed, my guest post poses more philosophical contemplation than help to navigate organizational terrains.  But what’s the downside?

Please let me know what you think.


Cover of "The End Of Science: Facing The ...

Cover via Amazon

Musings on The End Of

In a recent article What adventures are actually left?” by de Castella, T.; Heyden, T., the authors make the disquieting assertion: “Exploration today is a dying art” and follow with the observation that “The new feats are often about endurance as much as discovery. Firsts are ever more specialist and technically defined – first successful dive at the north pole (Joseph MacInnis), first person to jetpack across the English Channel (Yves Rossy), oldest woman to climb Everest (Tamae Watanabe).”

This begs us to reflect upon the difference between exploration and adventure, and the authors launch such reflection later in the article:  “Adventurers are there to find out about themselves. Exploration entails the discovery of novel or remote aspects of the natural world and communicating scientific learning.”  I could rephrase this to say that adventuring is about us and our place in the world whereas exploring is about the world as it was, and frighteningly easily could be again, without us.  Under this definition T. S. Eliot got it backwards albeit elegantly in his poem Little Gidding (“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”)

What happens to the vitality of our civilization, and of ourselves and our children, when we have truly run out of things to explore?  What is there then, apart from ever greater challenges to our endurance?  And since we know that our endurance will eventually succumb to challenge, i.e. every one of us will die, what is left to energize us? Shall we resign ourselves to eat, drink and be merry, and experience whatever adventure we can endure (and afford)?  Or is there another path to personal and societal fulfillment?

Being myself a scientist, I take refuge in the immensity of scientific and technological unknowns and tell myself that I am fortunate that my mind can go where exploration and adventure coexist and often coincide.  But even this refuge is threatened with an End that has been articulated by several writers perhaps most notably John Horgan in “The End of Science,” Addison-Wesley 1996.  A few years ago I wrote several paragraphs musing on Horgan’s theme, which I copy below (otherwise unpublished).  The conclusion I drew then is much the same as I draw now:  While there is distinction that can be drawn between exploration and adventure and between scientific discovery and technological advance, and depending on how one draws the distinctions there is bound to be at least one End Of, in our beings there is still a place where there is amazement and fulfillment.  The time may come when we know the place.

One can discover new things from different visits.

Musings on The End of Science

In his book “The End of Science” John Horgan openly wrote to the effect that the fundamental scientific fabric of the universe is now established, indeed it has been for at least a generation, and all future “scientific discovery” will fill its gaps or perhaps disturb a few of its strands but not challenge nor extend its overall structure.   Despite (or if you prefer, because of) many privately-held suspicions that Mr. Horgan might be right, the publicly-voiced responses to his thesis tended toward the critical, even condemnatory, and fell into at least one of two broad categories:

  • (a)  The End of Science has been claimed before, self-evidently wrongly, thus this present claim must be wrong too;
  • (b)  Astronomy, biology, medicine, computation – the most popularly attended technical fields – are daily reporting fantastic advances, thus fantastic advances will continue as long as funding continues and the End of Science is nowhere in sight.

There is legitimate basis for criticizing Horgan.  The End of Science (or, at least, the End of Physics) has indeed been claimed before, most notoriously in the late 19th century when Max Planck was advised that physics was a closed subject in which no new discovery of any importance was possible.  Choosing to ignore this advice, Planck studied the energy distribution of light and announced in 1900 that the distribution could be described mathematically only by introducing a constant “h” that had no place, and no explanation, in the physical understanding of the day.  From this discovery emerged quantum mechanics and atomic physics, a new physical understanding which itself has solidified into dogma.  Technologically fruitful dogma to be sure, which has enabled the discovery of the transistor, the laser, and the atomic bomb, but dogma nevertheless, doomed in its turn to be displaced by some new paradigm built around physics soon to be discovered.  To proponents of response (a), Horgan’s prediction of the End of Science belongs with previous predictions as humorous footnotes in future textbooks.

And who can argue with the proponents of response (b)?  Living creatures are cloned, computers become more powerful, new pharmaceuticals are more specific and effective, and everywhere we look we are overwhelmed by the vitality of our scientific and technological enterprise.  This must be the beginning of Science, not its End!

Who knows? Someday we may fly without harness or airplane?

But can Horgan be dismissed so easily?  If we look more deeply at the flurry of fantastic advances, what do we see?  A new planet is discovered from analysis of the subtle motions of a distant star.  Science, yes, and beautiful science, but is this new science or yet another manifestation of Newtonian dynamics?  A sheep is cloned.  Is this new science or the inevitable consequence of the discovery of DNA?  A new drug is announced that promises cure for an incurable disease.  Is this new science, or yet another confirmation that every disease has some tangible cause that is vulnerable to the right chemistry?

If Horgan had titled his book “The End of New Science” or “Every Scientist is Now Into Technology” it would probably have enjoyed a few days of polite discussion before plummeting into oblivion.  But he chose his title and it falls on us to ponder if we do indeed face “The End of Science” or if we are “running out of ‘new science’,” and whether these are fundamentally the same.  And perhaps this is a useful transmutation of the questions central to Mr. Horgan’s book.  Is there any “new science”?  Newton’s laws, Planck’s constant, helical DNA –  Someone’s been there and done them.  What’s left?  Have we run out of “new science”?  And if we haven’t run out yet, is it nevertheless inevitable that we will some day?  All the fantastic advances of the late 20th century – Are any of them “new science,” are they all better described as “new technologies”?


These questions matter to the extent that our technological future will be shaped by the answers.  Suppose it be true that we have “run out of ‘new science’.”  We then confidently expect that, for example, the chemistry and materials science of the new century will consist of, and only of, ever more cunning ways to combine known elements.   There will be new materials and new reactions but they will have recognizable relationships to those already known.  Conversely, suppose it be true that we have not “run out of ‘new science’.”  We can still expect ever more cunning combinations of known elements but we should watch as well for more startling discoveries, discoveries which will not have recognizable roots in today’s understanding.  Just as Planck’s constant had no place in the physics of 1900.

At this point the writer relaxes, mentally reviews again the wonderful interviews recorded in Horgan’s book, the barrage of information in the technical journals, and places a few bets of his own.

The writer bets that yes, indeed, the chemistry and materials science of the new century will consist of, and only of, ever more cunning ways to combine known elements.  New materials and new reactions will be abundant but all will have recognizable relationships to those already known.

The bet on physics is that there is still “new science” awaiting us.  There is an eerie similarity between the situation in 1900, when physics seemed complete except for an inexplicable quantum constant “h”, and the situation in 2000, where physics seems complete except for some spooky aspects of quantum correlations.  For the moment these are collected under headings like “Bose condensate,” “quantum teleportation,” “quantum entanglement,”  “quantum encryptation.”  Watch them.

And then, there are those vast and deep oceans for all kinds of explorations, yes?

Not all observers would associate biology and computation, but the writer notes that both are intimately involved with information: Biology uses information to control its chemistry and, conversely, chemistry to manipulate its information; computation uses electricity to manipulate information and information to control electricity.  The writer bets there will be developments interconnecting biology and computation in ways that will be unrecognizable owing to their complexity, thus appearing as “new science.”  Societal and economic forces will continue to drive molecular biology, genetic manipulation, drug discovery, and cloning (of cells, tissue, organs, and organisms), but new developments here will be recognizably related to the familiar.

And the least risky bet of all:  Response (b) is accurate and the flood of new technology will continue, unchecked, until some ecological or socio-political disaster, which our scientists will abate but not prevent, befalls our civilization.  Whether or not we accept Horgan’s thesis that Science has Ended, it isn’t over until it’s over.

Till next week,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent