TEDx Livermore: Uncorking Creativity with Group Genius

Screenshot from Todd's TEDx Livermore Talk via LivestreamNote: The following is the written version of my talk at TEDxLivermore: Uncorking Creativity on September 20, 2014. When the talk is available online, a link will be posted here.


Good morning.

I want to begin with a simple assertion:

To be human is to be creative..

It is in our nature. Unlike batteries, creativity is included in the package.

Now, we may each have our own means of expressing this creativity, and our own perception of our creativity relative to other people may vary.

And, certainly, good arguments have been made that as we grow up and are socialized into the world, our abilities to tap into and express our creativity may diminish if they are not developed and practiced.

But at a fundamental level, whether it is expressed by baking cakes or writing code, painting portraits or snapping selfies, architecting buildings or building businesses, we are all innately and unavoidably creative.

And it is this creativity which lies within each of us that has largely brought about and enabled the world we live in, with all of it’s incredible in its beauty, sophistication and capability.

And, we have no reason not to think that immeasurable good things will continue to be brought into the world with this creative force.

And yet...

The sum of our creativity is not enough.

It is not enough to solve for the kind of complex problems that we, as a species have and will continue to create as a natural course of our lives.

It is not going to be enough to solve the challenges that matter most in our organizations, institutions, communities, ecosystems and so forth..

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A World Without Answers

"The Swarm master coaches, 'Loosen all attachments to the sure and certain.'"
Kevin Kelly, Out of Control, Hive Mind, page 25

It used to be we could rely on answers. If we did not know the answer, we could ask our parents, or a teacher, consultant, expert, the government, etc. All of our lives we have passed or failed tests because we knew or didn't know the right answer. We competed, climbed to the top of our class or corporate ladder and got tenure because we published answers that gave instruction to others.

The deeper I get into complexity science the more I come to know that looking for answers is often a hinderence to my learning. Complexity is about processes and patterns and these are recursive, iterative and adaptive! I do feel like Alice must have felt at times. How do I know what I know? Where am I on the certainty level?

"'It was much pleasanter at Home,' thought poor Alice. 'when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn't gone down that rabbit hole..."
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

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Escaping to a Higher Order

In assembling complexity the bounty of increasing returns is won by multiple tries over time.
As various parts reorganize to a new whole, the system escapes into a higher order.
Ilya Prigogine

Anyone who knows me well has heard me utter this quote. It is one of my favorites ... maybe because it has so much hope in it. I will say however, that I was beginning to tire of the number of 'trys' it was taking. Then suddenly, we the American people voted Barak Obama in as our new president and I have come to understand the word "escapes" in a totally different light!

The first MG Taylor axioms is "The future is rational only in hindsight." Over the years as I thought about the axiom I now realize that I was thinking too rationally. This is true within a given paradigm, but not so when a paradigm shifts to a higher order.

Clearly, President-Elect Obama's win was not rational. It really was an escape!!! So beautiful! Think about it. In 2004, a little known person gave a speech ... not just any speech but one that called out to each of us. Mr. Obama made us us realize how starved we were for wholesome, nourished, natural born hope. He unburied our hope. His speech brought to the forefront of our minds how hungry we were to create a new world, to begin again, to find joy in each other again. Obama's speech was a tremendous attraction to our better selves ... regardless of party affiliation.

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Facilitate: to Make Easy

To facilitate means "to make easy"” The art of facilitation is the art of bringing clarity and effectiveness to the work process of individuals and groups. The facilitator's mandate is to ensure that the process is designed and implemented in a way that brings out the best thinking of each participant and the best resolution of issues from each group.

This morning I was thinking about my experience with cancer and the coming to knowing of my situation. I have had a slew of physicians and alternative health practitioners trying to facilitate my way to health. A few are quite good and others quite lacking with their facilitative skills. Cancer is a very individual experience. While there are many common elements and shared experiences can bring forth much useful knowledge, in the end it is my work to do. Work that is physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally taxing.

It seems relevant that I consider my own journey into a very foreign landscape and territory from the perspective of the MG Taylor system and method. Facilitation is such an important concept in our process and it has always been inclusive of several levels of recursion. There is no single facilitator or controller of the system. Instead, we consider three levels: Front of the room facilitator, middle of the room facilitators, and back of the room facilitators.

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Lilly-Pad Economics

We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.
R. D. Laing

I remember years ago (1962-65) when I was teaching second graders by showing pictures of a pond with one lilly pad on day 1; two on day two; four on day three, etc.  Young eyes drew large when the metaphor revealed that one day after the pond was half full, ti was full! "No way" they exclaimed.  That's when we began our own experiment accumulating rice at an exponential rate. Each day one of the students would double the grains of rice. One corner of the room got quite full and each day it took the student longer to count out the grains.  I also challenged the class to estimate how far an adding machine roll of tape would go. Such a small roll. Students estimated that one role would cross the classroom, about 35 feet.  WOW ... all the way to the principal's office! How could that be as they unrolled and unrolled. We talked about compounding interest and other such things ... project learning for 7 year olds.  We all learned a lot that year. Young minds learned to think about patterns and I think they came to know that being surprised about their assumptions was a very good thing. 

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A Year of the Blahs

Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans.
John Lennon, Beautiful Boy
Last November I returned home from working in Europe to discover I had pneumonia. No problem I thought. A few days of feeling bad and getting some needed rest. But when the same thing happened two months later, I was discouraged to say nothing about how I felt. An x-ray followed by a cat scan indicated I had something strange in my upper right lung. More antibiotics, more feeling lousy, more waiting to feel better. Another x-ray in April revealed the same story ... something strange in /on your lungs. "It does not look malignant but it does have a strange shape. We do not know what it is, probably just lingering stuff from pneumonia." This was the comment by the doctor, the x-ray technician, the cat scan team, the Pulmonologist, etc. Finally in June, the Pulmonologist declared he should do a bronchoscopy and see if he could not "sweep away" the debree still in my lungs. This was scheduled for July 8th and was a relatively easy outpatient procedure. Except the doctor found a tumor growing next to and over one of my bronchial tubes. Time for some major surgery!
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Spark Card: Finding New Search Images

We are prepared to see, and we see easily, things for which our language and culture hand us ready-made labels. When those labels are lacking, even though the phenomena may be all around us, we may quite easily fail to see them at all. The perceptual attractors that we each possess are the filters through which we scan and sort reality, and thereby they determine what we perceive on high and low levels. - Douglas Hofstadter
todd_0755.jpgHofstadter's 'perceptual attractors' are what we call search images. These images are the perceptual cues we look for to identify and assess the systems that make up our world. Kevin Kelly's Out of Control, Chapter 4: Assembling Complexity, provides a great example by telling the story of what ecologist Steve Packard learned over numerous attempts to grow a prairie from scratch. He has some of the necessary search images going into his exploration, but they proved insufficient:

... He felt yet another ingredient must be missing which prevented a living system from snapping together. He started reading the botanical history of the area and studying the oddball species...

"What the heck is this?" he'd asked the botanist. "It's not in the books, it's not listed in the state catalogue of species. What is it?" The botanist had said, "I don't know. It could be a savanna blazing star, but there aren't any savannas here, so it couldn't be that. Don't know what is." What one is not looking for, one does not see.

... An epiphany of sorts overtook Packard when he watched the piles of his seed accumulate in his garage. The prairie seed mix was dry and fluffy-like grass seed. The emerging savanna seed collection, on the other hand, was "multicolored handfuls of lumpy, oozy, glop," ripe with pulpy seeds and dried fruits. Not by wind, but by animals and birds did these seeds disperse. The thing -- the system of coevolved, interlocking organisms -- he was seeking to restore was not a mere prairie, but a prairie with trees: a savanna... once Packard got a "search image" of the savanna in his mind, he began to see evidence of it everywhere.

What search images are you using to identify the key ingredients and instructions for assembling the project or venture you're working on?

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Designing Design: Take 3 SiPs

Russian.dolls.hugeset.arp.jpgMaintain at least 3 Systems-In-Play throughout the process you are designing. Generally speaking, I'll call these "metasystem," "system-in-focus," and "nested system."

The system in focus is the system we intend to most directly engage and influence. It is through this system that we expect to form the basis for the decisions and actions that the design process evokes in the participants.

A metasystem is one that contains the system in focus as well as others in an integrated fashion. Wikipedia offers a useful description:

"A metasystem is formed by the integration of a number of initially independent components, such as molecules, cells or individiduals, and the emergence of a system steering or controlling their interactions. As such, the collective of components becomes a new, goal-directed individual, capable of acting in a coordinated way. This metasystem is more complex, more intelligent, and more flexible in its actions than the initial component systems."

A nested system is, of course, a system that is one of many component systems that are all integrated into the system in focus. 

In essence, what I'm saying here is engage with your design as if it were a matryoshka, albeit probably not quite at the depth of pictured above.

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Finding Unseen Messages

Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not as in fiction, to imagine things that are not really there, but just to comprehend those things that are there. Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law

I get a kick out of my MacMail message as it searches for new emails. "Finding unseen messages" seems so easy for it to do. Within seconds it either reports that there are no new messages or that I have something in my "in box." How I wish my mind could work like this! Einstein's comment: "The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education" certainly holds true with me. How is it that we become so trapped by our assumptions and what we have been told as truth that we often fail to see what is right in front of our face? I wish I had a reset button that would take help me see what's in my inbox ... differently!

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Multiple Trys Over Time

In assembling complexity, the bounty of increasing returns is won by multiple tries over time. As various parts reorganize to a new whole, the system escapes into a higher order.

— Ilya Prigogine

Remember those times where you share your excitement about a 'new' idea with your colleagues or clients and they look you in the eye and say, "We tried that once and it didn't work."  All the enthusiasm drains out of your body as you see the door closing to the unfolding of a new possibility.  Sometimes people just can't stop talking about why it won't work as they base everything on a single try. 

Structure wins.  Paradigms are strong. They are created to maintain a structure, to create boundaries, to provide certainty to reality.  Imagine if every idea was accepted and given form and authenticity! Perhaps we would all be living in Alice's wonderland! ... a good story, but maybe not an everyday, everywhere way of living that any of us could sustain. 

Every solution, no matter how good or reasonable, fails overtime. It gives way to a higher order, a new solution more fit for the times and learnings of the past. 

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Emerging Attractors for Escaping Communities

Structural coupling, then, is the process through which structurally-determined transformations in each of two or more systemic unities induces (for each) a trajectory of reciprocally-triggered change. This makes structural coupling one of the most critical constructs in autopoietic theory. -Encyclopedia Autopoietica

I have been thinking about the structural coupling processes that help create and define a community.

Of all the elements and relationships of elements that make up a community at any given time, those with the greatest attraction tend to produce the strongest coupling behavior. Which elements are the strongest at any given time is dynamic. Some elements and relationships of elements have appeared as strong coupling agents for hundreds or thousands of years. Others grow strong and dissipate with more fluidity.

At times, a new coupling agent or a new relationship among agents emerges and the social structure of the community undergoes a phase change -- a perturbation in which a new (relatively) stable-state is achieved.

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Sapiential Leadership

"The task decides, not the name, the age, or the budget of the discipline, or the rank of the individual applying for it. Knowledge, therefore, has to be organized as a team in which the task decides who is in charge, for what, and for how long."  ~ Peter Drucker

I have written and spoken much about group genius over the past 40 years. I have told stories about how "my" second  graders taught me a lot about what I came to call group genius. Almost by accident—certainly, not by anything I learned in the school of education—I learned how much more effective teaching and learning flows "from the ground up". I had been teaching about six months when one of my students, Seth, asked a question about why soap bubbles had colors. (This was long before the Internet). My first thought was to remind him that his question had nothing to do with what I was teaching. I was getting frustrated with teaching; it seemed so many of the young minds were closed, dormant, not interested in learning. But, instead of reprimanding Seth, I said, "I don't know". And I turned to the other students and said, "Do any of you have questions you wonder about?" Eyes turned away from the windows toward me, hands shot up in the air. I don't remember it being gradual or hesitant. I remember that moment being full of life and energy.

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"The impossible has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks."
Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Last week I wrote about creating a "See What Happens Day". This idea emerged out of a group conversation where members were exploring tipping point events and other happenings that occurred between 2056 and 2006. 150 people in teams of six were remembering those events that solidified a new paradigm -- one based on living systems, design science, complex, adaptive systems ... the elements of complex systems. This new paradigm enabled a healthier, more democratic and sustainable world to form.

Nora Bateson, an ISSS participant, gave the report for her team and spoke of the See What Happens Day. When I asked her to recount where the idea came from, this was her response: "You created the birthing structure through your challenge of backcasting. This created the challenge giving our group permission to generate and play within a larger context. It was me that suggested "see what happens day" to the group, but clearly it came forth from our conversation like "the house that jack built"...

Nora's idea got lots of applause and for me, a clear sense of "Yes!" This is a viable, valuable idea. Of course it would be a challenge and one that might take a few years to form and unfold... but it seems so logical. My mind raced back through time to the New York black out when strangers became community. It reminded me of Katrina and despite the warnings and simulations that gave clear instructions for how to evacuate and what to watch out for, most of all the reports and warnings went unheeded. And after 911 a model has been established to create simulations for protecting cities and regions. See What Happens Days can bring home the reality of our global environmental crisis.


The future is rational only in hindsight. –MG Taylor axiom, 1983

To me, emergence is one of the most wonderful happenings in the Universe. One of the dictionary definitions...

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Highlights of the 50th Annual Meeting of the ISSS

July 9 - 14, 2006 | Sonoma State University | Rohnert Park, CA

2006_sonoma_banner.pngThis was my first ISSS conference. For Gail and me, it was the culmination of more than a year of periodic co-design, dialogue, planning and coordination with a host of other individuals and organizations. Over the course of the conference, I was fortunate to be able to play multiple roles: participant, designer, facilitator, performer. And there was so much I missed, or simply couldn't take part in absent of being in more than one place at a time. All in all, I'm left looking forward to the next opportunity to play with this remarkable community. Here are my highlights:

Nora Bateson reading her father Gregory's Allegory - "a flirtation between different ways of knowing"...

Pille Bunnell's elegant and provocative presentation drawing, in part, on Humberto Maturana's concepts of autopoiesis, structural coupling and cognition...

Alexander & Kathia Laszlo's "Transiting To Sustainability: Nine criteria for walking the talk and dancing the path"...

The DreamScape art installation and ongoing performances of the Autopoetics...

The level of engagement and depth of stories created during the Thursday morning backcasting session...

Joanna Macy's inspired presentation on Friday morning...

Spending an hour and a half with Peter Bishop, chairman of Studies of the Future graduate program at the University of Houston...

And last but by no means least, that I was...

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The art of scaffolding

"Planning is the ordering of resources over time. Success is getting things to follow in the right order." Paul Case

For many years I thought of planning as a linear process. It could be collaborative or not, but generally it was a typical project management process. Then when I read Kevin Kelly's book, Out of Control, in 1993 and read chapter four: Assembling Complexity, I learned to think about planning differently. It is the story of restoring a prairie. Nature has a lot to share! Nature does not work in a linear fashion, achieving one goal at a time. Rather, it cycles through plateaus each one attracting a new higher order plateau. Actually, to me, nature seems to have a more fun creating than most project teams have.

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"Anthropologists have found 'galumphing' to be one of the prime talents that characterize higher life forms. Galumphing is the immaculately rambunctious and seemingly inexhaustible play-energy apparent in puppies, kittens, children, baby baboons - and also in young communities and civilizations. Galumphing is the seemingly useless elaboration and ornamentation of activity. It is profligate, excessive, exaggerated, uneconomical... In the higher animals and in people, it is of supreme evolutionary value."
Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovitch

Matt and I have long used the word 'galumph' to describe our cats racing through the house with a certain gait, or when they chase grasshoppers or snowflakes with a wild spirited abandon. However, this is the first time I have come across the meaning and context of the word. I think back to the organizations and communities that began with a galumphing. The Well, Wired Magazine, GBN, The Calvert Fund, The Whole Earth Catalog, the Open Source phenomenon, The Learning Exchange, MG Taylor Corporation, Architectz of Group Genius are a few that come to mind. Years after their origin - even though some are now deceased - the memory of them brings them back to life. They all galumphed themselves into being. Each brought delight to both the production and user communities. There was an eagerness to engage, to play, to build on the ideas.

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Expanding Time to Compress Time

My recent run-ins with all things Slow began shortly after returning from the World Economic Forum on Africa. A colleague I'd met there sent me an essay on "The Importance of a Certain Slowness" by Paul Cilliers, which touches on the Slow Movement and then presents, from a systems perspective, an argument that "the cult of speed, and especially the understanding that speed is related to efficiency, is a destructive one." Furthermore, "a slower approach is necessary, not only for survival, but also because it allows us to cope with a complex world better."

How and where does the quality of slowness fit into events and experiences typically constrained in time and beholden to enormous expectations of outcome? In other words, what is the role of slow in an event designed specifically to compress weeks, months or even years worth of design and decision making into a few days?

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The Next One

During a Sponsor Session for a recent event, a Sponsor challenged us to make ‘this one’—the one for his organization—'the best.'

The comment provoked Matt to recall something Frank Lloyd Wright said a half-century ago. Matt shared the memory this way:

“It was in an interview in the mid 50s with Hugh Downs, I believe. Asked which was his best building, Wright said, ‘my dear boy (anyone under 60 was a boy to FLW), the NEXT one.’"

Wright’s comment captures the essence of why both collecting and using feedback is of such importance. From a design sense, feedback is what links the past to the future in a meaningful way. Yet, it seems all too rare that we treat the collection and offering of feedback seriously, let alone systemically.

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