Creativity Amid the Chaos
by Simon Caulkin

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What kinds of companies have bounced back better from the pandemic years? New evidence shows it’s the ones who had already invested time and energy in building their capacities for innovation.

Bill Fischer Senior Lecturer at the Sloan School of Management, at MIT, and Emeritus Professor of Innovation Management, IMD

John Hagel III Faculty member, Singularity University & Member Board of Trustees, Santa Fe Institute; Founder of Beyond On Edge, LLC 

Tim Brown Chair of IDEO, Vice Chair of the kyu Collective

Gilma Teodora Gylytė Architect; Co-founder, DO ARCHITECTS

Radoslaw Kedzia Senior Vice President of Huawei European Region

Attitudes to chaos are conflicted. It’s no secret that our world is dynamic and non-linear and only in equilibrium by (temporary) accident. As Huawei’s Rado Kedzia put it, entropy means that everything in the universe tends to chaos –  except organizations, which are our attempt to impose order on it, at least momentarily. So we ignore chaos as long as possible  –”we don’t teach it at business schools, and it’s so far from normalcy that we treat it as something to stay clear of,”  noted session moderator Bill Fischer of MIT. 

But that is no longer possible.Today’s chaos seems more immediate, more chaotic. Why – and how can organizations more constructively approach it?

From a compelling interactive session, a number of insights emerged. IDEO’s Tim Brown suggested that it was the pandemic – with its intimations of mortality and sudden upending of decades of work routine – that marked the turning point. The kneejerk response to “bounce back” clearly no longer cut it: it was only by “bouncing forward” (in the phrase of John Hagel of Singularity University) to find new ways to evolve that organizations could genuinely become fitter to face a more turbulent future.

Hagel strikingly argued that we live at a moment of “exponentially expanding opportunity” to create more value with less resource faster than ever before. But not if as all too often we’re driven by fear. So in times of chaos and change, the first imperative was to engage with emotions above all, cultivating those that motivate creativity and curiosity rather than withdrawal and fear. Then, the emphasis should be on developing the general capabilities of collaboration and reflection (as opposed to narrower skills) that facilitate learning based on creating new knowledge rather than transferring what we know already – “and that occurs not in a training room but by acting together with others in the workplace.” He pinpointed the need to go beyond engagement to unleash “the passion of the explorer” – the urge to actively actively seek out change that will lead to positive impact.

Brown took up the “bounce forward” theme by emphasizing the importance of a creative mindset– “An organizational creative mindset can only happen if you’ve got individual creative mindsets, and organizational resilience can only happen if you’ve got individual resilience. The two are not the same one builds from the other”. A creative mindset leads to more connections and collaboration, building open-mindedness and “creative confidence” – an idea that chimed with Hagel’s set of reflective capabilities. The organization can reciprocate through leadership “that asks bigger questions than have been asked before”, that fosters diversity and that creates the climate of psychological safety that featured prominently in other panels at the Forum.

Psychological safety also figured large in the exuberant presentation of Lithuanian architect Gilma Gylytė, who demonstrated the remarkable effects of apparently simple alterations to the built environment. She described what happened when architects opened up the kitchen and eating area in a Vilnius kindergarten. Previously (and systematically in schools all over what was Soviet dominated central and eastern Europe), cooks worked in windowless kitchens cut off from interaction with the kids who ate their invisibly produced food. As expected, the children loved the result – but the major effect was on the cooks who responded to the spotlight by becoming “cooking stars not only for the children and the teachers, but for the whole community” as they began catering for birthday parties and the like. Having taken 33 years after independence to fully grasp the effect of creating an environment reflecting democratic rather than Soviet values, architects are eagerly reproducing it elsewhere – transforming bleak boulevards by creating spaces for street markets and other human gatherings, and perhaps even more radically, experimenting with ideas to make corporate offices so attractive that employees prefer to work there than at home. Whatever next?

Reflecting on these ideas, Huawei’s Kedzia noted that his company had learned from experience of navigating external surprise the importance of reinforcing broad capabilities rather than having to reinvent the wheel with every change of circumstance, while deeply exploring new developments was more serious and challenging but also satisfying than waiting for serendipity or accidental discovery. “We focus on our core values, why we exist, what is our strong point”, he said. One core value is being customer centric; another is perseverance – ”’we don’t give up easily on a daily basis, but nor do we shy away from difficult situations. Anyone can do easy. I tell employees you have to feel a bit of challenge and pain to feel the satisfaction that you can overcome these things.’ Difficulties, he said, help you get clear about purpose, what matters and what doesn’t, leaving the organization fitter and more resilient than rivals who have had it easier, and determined to outlast both them and the typical 30-year corporate life cycle.

Chaos emerged from a rich discussion as something neither to be shunned nor feared. On the contrary, if treated with respect, like a judoka exploiting an opponent’s force, it can be a friend and an asset to creativity, Brown pointed out. As Kedzia identified, chaos is the acid test of a company’s purpose and values – “what’s left to hang on to when the lights go out”, as it was put elsewhere at the Forum. As with the pandemic, which “unfroze” work arrangements unquestioned for decades, chaos can crack open old certainties for creative thinkers to exploit. In a later panel, a participant described how he was appointed CEO of a company paralyzed by sudden surprise precisely because he knew nothing about the industry’s conventions, shareholders gambling, correctly, that someone untrammeled by preconceptions was more likely to come up with a fresh new approach. But you ignore it at your peril –  use chaos creatively to come out ahead, or risk finding the ship’s lights fading in the distance when the waves recede and you finally come up for air.

About the author:

Simon Caulkin is senior editor, Global Peter Drucker Forum

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