Welcome to Emerging Futures — Vol 26: Innovation Practices - Problems Without Methods...
A happy Friday everyone!
This week we’ve been far from home traveling in southern Austria facilitating the second leg of a green innovation bootcamp. It’s been a beautiful and intense week in the lively city of Graz.
We celebrated the end of each day with some good biodynamic orange wine in hand which inspired a couple of lengthy discussions on how one prepares for engaging with creative processes. The conversation got most interesting this week around two questions:
Is there such a thing as an innovation method?
How is innovation about problem solving?
As you might expect, we had a pretty unique take on these questions.
In parallel to the newsletter we post an article each week on an important aspect of innovation/creativity. The result is a rich resource we encourage you to explore — they are a treasure trove of insight, exercises, useful links, diagrams and some fun drawings.
“Some of the major disasters of mankind have been produced by the narrowness of men with a good methodology.” A. N. Whitehead
It would be very easy to mistake this approach for a capital M “Method.” But approaching innovation via these four tasks is not about developing a new Method, rather our focus is on producing a set of pragmatic tools and procedures that come out of a general approach that is informed by enactive cognition, complexity science, evolutionary theory and process philosophy. (The diagram below is worth a closer study for a sense of an alternative set of creativity resources:)
Why bring this up?
There is an easy dogmatism and false sense of security in Methods, which in their one-size-fits-all exuberance can all-too-readily squash curiosity, difference, possibilities and ultimately innovation.
Today, clear-cut Methods of innovation abound. Design Thinking and the Lean Canvas are just two of the most popular Methods being taught on a global scale such that their limits and problems as Methods have become obvious. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, they remain an entrenched dogmatic force in the world of innovation.
Our approach, as a philosophical outlook and set of skills, should not be mistaken for a one-size-fits-all Method. We are trying the best we can to avoid the limits and blind spots of Methods -- whether historical models or more recent user-centered models such as Design Thinking, by offering an open and flexible set of practices combined with a philosophical outlook.
Our aversion to Methods should not be mistaken for a willingness to offer a laissez-faire approach. Our approach puts enactive thinking and experimental worldmaking at the core of an innovation process in contrast to most western models of innovation and design that have focused on individuals, generating ideas, and solutions.
We believe that innovation, at its most creative, is a form of “worldmaking” and not an idea or product making practice. Innovations emerge from assemblages of novel deeply embodied practices, tools, implicit mentalities, concepts, environments and goals. It is this assemblage that we are calling a “world.” Experimental worldmaking is a fundamentally engaged, responsive and emergent practice that re-orients creativity towards an embedded, co-evolving, problem producing, ontological and systems based practice. In short, it’s a hands-on worldly and experimental action-oriented collaborative approach.
So the approach is a new orientation and set of interconnected practices. But what does this approach to innovation achieve in concrete terms?
For some of those who joined our orange wine accompanied evening discussions this week — this distinction between methods and approaches was not that important — what was important was the question:
What does innovation do?
The most common answer we heard from colleagues and participants was that it “solves problems”.
We strongly believe in this answer. Creativity and innovation are problem focused practices. But, what does it mean to say it is “problem solving”? What we mean is not exactly what others might assume by this statement.
In a very simple sense, we could say that it “is the stating of a question that addresses an issue”.
But if this was all — there would be little to say.
A problem such as, “how do we do X under these circumstances?” contains far more than what is explititly stated. The explicit components rest upon a vast sea of highly diverse implicit factors. This unstated side of things is not exclusively or even mainly conceptual. What is implicit in a question cannot be put into words because it is about things, environments, habits and practices — all things that exceed in action anything we might conceptualize about them.
Thus questions/problems come to us embedded in a network of unspoken assumptions, equipment, approaches and practices that frame and support the way the question/problem is posed. A problem is a statement embedded in an assemblage of physical things, environments, concepts, habits and practices that give rise to an emergent field of possibility. As we bring into the light both the assemblage and the emergent field — we see the actual contours of the problem:
Problems are not immaterial abstractions but an assemblage of agents that give rise to a stable patterned field of potential outcomes.
All questions/problems have two “sides”:
By it’s actions an assemblage poses a question: Given these circumstances what is possible? And the emergent field directly offers the potential answers.
The more we dig into the implicit space of problem (the assemblage/“world”), the more we can see how critical it is to both concretely uncover our concrete implicit assumptions and frame the problem/question in the best manner possible (with the most qualitative degrees of freedom). Thus a properly stated question would articulate what is hidden (the pattern of the emergent field) — and experimentally block the assumptions that limit the new from emerging.
What is critical in developing a problem is that it is not an abstract or intellectual exercise — it cannot be reduced to language, concepts or ideas. Problem production always involves the production of an assemblage and the experimentation with it’s emergent field.
This might sound absurd, but once understood in this manner all problems already contain all their answers.
The spontaneously forming emergent field that arises out of an assemblage (the problem) is a topology of potential answers. You might not know all these answers, and in some cases no one ultimately knows most of the potential answers — but they exist as a as yet-undiscovered field of organized virtual potentials.
The question/assemblage necessarily precedes the answer — if you cannot articulate the question (develop an assemblage) then no answer can be generated. Solutions are always connected to the question that generated them. Thus being able to create a problem is a generative act, and one that already encompasses the possibility of the answers that might eventually emerge.
If we pose a problem, say “how can we support the human body in repose?” we will have generated an immanent space in which every mode of sitting, lying, leaning will eventually emerge and find a place. But this is far too vague to be of much use — we could be waiting a very long time for anything to come of such a general question. The early 20th century French philosopher of creativity, Henri Bergson, who developed this approach, offers us an important clue when he stated “a speculative problem is solved as soon as it is properly stated.” Let’s break this down:
In the sentence that precedes the one quoted above, Bergson frames creativity this way:
“For Creativity it is a question of finding the problem… even more than of solving it. For a speculative problem is solved as soon as it is properly stated”.
This is quite a radical statement — think of our K-12 education system with its focus on giving students questions to solve and solely focusing on the quality of their singular answers.
We don’t mark students for the quality of the problems they generate (the experimental assemblages they co-produce) —it’s almost exclusively just about how well they answer the pregiven highly abstractquestions. Bergson flips this model on its head: what matters is the generation of a well stated problem —for then a solution will already exists, although it may remain hidden and, so to speak, covered up: the only thing left to do is experimentally uncover it”.
We would argue that our education system needs to focus on the making of problems by making powerful speculative assemblages. This is what needs to be judged — Imagine an exam that focused on working with assemblages to develop problems worth having?
If the problem generates its answers or solutions — what does this mean concretely?
How do we uncover solutions? First, lets take a moment for this word. The term “solution” can be misleading:
Problems are never “solved” but “resolved” — solutions are never singular or fixed (“the solution”) but a field of emergent potential outcomes. Think of posing a question to an egg — “How can I cook you given this assemblage of frying pan + heat + oil/water, etc.?” There is no one perfect solitary answer — but a field of qualitatively distinct answers to explore and “resolve” into a singular dish. We could could get any number of qualitatively different ways to resolve the problem: boiled, poached, fried, scrambled, etc. Each of these would a distinct approach to resolving the problem without ever being “the solution”.
Innovation or creativity does not “solve” a problem but allows for a field of powerful novel resolutions to emerge as a space of potential.
This field of virtual potentials can be resolved —in our concrete actions into one outcome being actualized. (See above diagram). But this one outcome or resolution is simply one of many potential solutions that came into virtual existence the moment the problem(assemblage) invented and stabilized.
Resolutions we might not like are not mistakes but are equal potential resolutions of the problem.
What we would call an invention, is not a solution or even a resolution but the totality of the assemblage + potential field + actual resolution.
An example: a chair is one way of resolving the problem (question), “How can we support the human body in repose?” The chair is a (now) very standard solution to the question. A chair accepts a problem as it is currently framed by our conventions, habits, environments, materials and tools. This mode of taking a problem as given (with all of its hidden assumptions in place) leads to a “change-in-degree” solution (e.g. perhaps our chair is a “better” chair with some unique feature).
Problems can be resolved or they can go away. Change the assemblage and the fundamental problem no longer exists. This is what most often happens with a disruptive innovation. The approach is no longer to resolve a problem but to recompose the assemblage so that a qualitatively different world emerges in which the previous problem does not exist.
But, Bergson was not simply interested in elucidating the structure of existing problems — quite the opposite, for Bergson the most important aspect of problems is that they are not fixed. Problems must be made,— he was quite adamant about this: “stating the problem is not simply uncovering, it is inventing”.
Discovery, or uncovering has to do with what already exists (exploring the emergent field of a stable assemblage); any resolution/outcome was, therefore, something that was certain to happen sooner or later.
“Invention gives being to what did not exist; it might never have happened… The effort of invention consists most often by raising the problem — in creating the terms by which it is stated”.
In inventing and radically reframing a problem (so that it no longer emerges) we move from the world of “it will happen sooner or later” to one of true novelty (change-in-kind).
How do we invent a problem? By co-shaping an assemblage differently to allow a novel field to emerge…
Creativity involves the invention of “problems worth having, for worlds worth making.”
It is a radical mistake to believe that problems are fixed universal challenges that we must face. We talk about “the problem of hunger” for example — as if it were a fixed universal and a historical thing. This error is one of not understanding what it is to be-of-a-world.
We live in a world of situated stable problems (that only appear to be universal — Maslow’s hierarchy of Needs is another great example of a false universal). This lead us to misrecognize what problems are, how they operate, and how they relate to the conditions for the production of novelty.
The first thing to understand about problems is that they are not universal, ahistorical or non-contextual. Modes of being-of-a-world exist across an assemblage and give rise to fields of patterned probability. These patterns of probability are “problems” that are resolved by actions that make one potential outcome actual. Problems are immanent to an assemblage,
Rather than defining creativity as a “freedom from” (the freedom from all limits) or the outcome of a perfect idea (the liberty + brilliance model of creativity) we define creativity “problematically” —by focusing on the generative process of transformation, which is driven by constraints embedded in a concrete assemblage — and the emergent questions or “problems” (fields of potential resolutions) that these constraints generate.
So at the end of an interesting week in Austria working on inventing better novel problems, this is what we all understood:
And that brings us to boarding the plane, typing these last words over the Atlantic, look down on the Irish coast, and getting ready for a short nap. Have a beautiful and problematic weekend!
If you are struggling with classical models of creativity and need disruptive innovation design - we can help in one of three ways:
1. Buy our book
2. Book us for a one to one call. We have 2 slots remaining for March.
3. Hire us to consult on your next project. We help clients design innovation for impact across scales and industries focused on the good.
Till Volume 27,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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🏞 P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution