Part One: On Constraints and Taskscapes
To be alive, active and creative is to be an embodied being embedded and extended into an environment that we have shaped and is shaping us. This coupling of self and environment make a single dynamic unit from which action and thought arises. The dynamic unit is not a static thing but a system with a propensity to go more in one direction than another.
This propensity is the outcome of a set of nested constraints that act not like a set of fixed rules but statistically -- it is more likely that things will tend one way over another. These nested tendencies which begin at the level of self organizing matter are further constrained by practices and actions that solidify into stable environments, tools, habits, embodiments and concepts. As these ever larger patterns accumulate and feed back into the system and themselves stabilize as a more general tendency that give shape to a world.
Innovation and Creativity begin by understanding that it is this total system that must be engaged to achieve novelty. But how does one go about doing this? We know that logically ideation, because it relies on existing concepts will never give us radical novelty. The alternative is to engage directly with the logics of the holistic dynamic systems. This can become overwhelming -- where to start?
Let’s start with what is already in front of us and what we’re already directly part of -- our immediate environment.
The most immediate scale of our everyday activity happens in a “task-scape.” This is where a set of tools, in a specific environment, is intertwined with practices, habits, embodiments and concepts that constrain and affords certain outcomes. We are always deeply intra-twined with task-scapes: offices, bedrooms, cars, clothing, etc.
The kitchen is a wonderful place to begin to explore the question of taskscapes and creativity: Take boiling an egg - you need a number of things to make this possible - the egg of course, a pot, water, a working stove, a spoon, and somewhere to drain the water. You additionally need a body that can both use these tools and eats eggs. There needs to be skills, habits, and concepts as well. Once you have these in place you can set about boiling your egg with great ease. Most of the time we are so fluent in our use of task-scapes that they recede far into the background and we only notice what they afford us: egg making, writing, thinking, etc. But to understand creativity we need to keep them at the forefront of our awareness.
From Taskscapes to Emergent Fields
Our simplified egg boiling kitchen task-scape affords many possibilities beyond this single boiled egg. Even if this was the first time we cooked anything, and all we knew how to create was this solitary very over cooked boiled egg, “surrounding” this egg would be an nascent emergent field of possibilities. Adjacent to our overboiled egg is the potential for a less boiled egg. If we had just cooked it less other possibilities would be realized: soft boiled or medium boiled.
We could map this quickly in terms of the constraints of time and temperature and see where the dynamic system constrains and affords different forms of boiled eggness to coalesce.
Once a task-space has come into being, even before anything is done, a field of possibilities is emerging. This field is as real as the physical components of the task-space but it is not yet actualized: this is a type of virtual field of potential forms. Everything that exists is “haunted” by a virtual field of potentials that is far greater than what it is. The virtual field can be expanded via experiments that probe and stabilize its possibilities. We wander into the virtual field with the questions: What else can it do? And then what else can it do? What happens when we do more or less? What thresholds of difference emerge and can be stabilized?
Having created any one thing -- this boiled egg for example, is to do far more than make a solitary product. That one thing is only one point in a far larger virtual field of all the emergent possibilities.. Becoming aware of this act of potential worldmaking that haunts all things is the beginning of creativity. In making an over-cooked egg a portal to a world has been instantiated. A virtual world with its own logic, constraints, tendencies and affordances.
Creativity: Below Above and Beside
To properly understand what this task-space is doing (nesting constraints) it is important to go below the level of the equipment and sense the self organizing potentials that it is harnessing. Water has a series of states (frozen, liquid, gas, etc.) that can be accessed by constraining and stabilizing these via heat. The egg similarly has a set (of unintended) thresholds and states that come about via heat (liquid, gel, solid, etc.) transforming long protein strings to shrink and entangle in tight bundles.
The task of cooking is to work via a taskscape to stabilize self-organizing capacities into an actual outcome.
What makes a creative cook?
Perhaps, it is easier to say first what makes a non-creative cook: someone who understands cooking as recipe following. That all there is are fixed products, established processes and known outcomes and every known outcome is distinct and has a distinct recipe (set of rules). This is the space of ideation and identity: there are known outcomes and we are choosing one over another. This is the space that is accessible to us via brainstorming, ideation and problem posing.
What makes a creative cook?
It is someone who senses that there is a dynamic virtual field below and above the taskscape that precedes the outcome. One is stabilizing the affordances of self-organizing matters potential into a field of possibilities that can be explored.
What makes a really creative cook?
Sensing and experimenting with how changing the constraints of the task-space transforms the virtual fields below and above. What happens if we crack the egg? What happens if we substitute oil for water? With each of these actions, as the task-space changes so too do the virtual fields of potential. New worlds begin to emerge.
Creativity happens when we see that we are working on multiple registers to constrain, entrain, and stabilize fields and processes that give rise to emergent “products” -- and that this total system -- this emergent world is the locus of creativity.
In our prior articles on innovation we expanded our definition of creativity to: “Creativity is the development of new forms of constraining system dynamics... “
This week we expand this further: “... across multiple registrars to stabilize novel worlds”
We are always of an environment -- intimately connected to multiple taskscapes. Our agency arises from the middle -- thinking and acting arise from the middle.
This middle is not a place. It is not in between two things: our bodies and the world. This middle is an emergent dynamic multi-scalar field and process.
To be creative to live the field and process -- it is about attunement, sensing, probing, pushing, stabilizing, co-creating and co-emerging across forces and processes.
10 Ways to Impact Innovation, Creativity and Change
Ok, so this is a great model if you wish to explore cooking -- but how does it help with other forms of change, creativity and innovation?
Here are 10 takeaways:
- Focus less on ideas, ideation and other forms of “recipe choosing” (this is confusing one path with the system's total potentials).
- Read the recipe but don’t follow it (block/constrain it).
- Move beyond imagining that creativity is about ends: products -- and move from ends to making processes and fields.
- Experimentally block the knowns on differing registers to allow the unknown to emerge
- Explore the adjacencies in the fields beside the things we know and recognize -- what else can it do?
- Instead of dwelling on ideas and outcomes manipulate the system (the taskscape or assemblage) and then explore the fields that emerge
- Exchange solution thinking for problem invention, exploration and exploitation.
- Work at multiple registers of this process to make new worlds possible.
- Nothing can be genuinely known in advance about all that is possible prior to experimentation and probing.
- Define your virtual field. Go above, beside and below.
Ideation and brainstorming limit our ability to disrupt stakeholder behavior and develop genuinely creative changes. The outcomes are predictable.
Leveraging systems and virtual fields open doors to untapped novelty, differentiation, and genuine worldmaking possibilities..
We’d welcome your feedback: What are the virtual fields you are operating within? What approaches are you using to impact your organization's change, creativity and innovation? Send us a note and let us know what you are working on.