Defusing creativity

By David Parkinson

Apricot blossoms on an unseasonally warm winter's day

Apricot blossoms against the blue sky of an unseasonably warm winter's day

At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second.
(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book X, Chapter XVII, emphasis mine)

In the last month or so I’ve attended two events whose purpose was to get a group of people to think creatively and do some collective problem-solving, and I want to write about a sense of frustration that I felt at both of these meetings. I hope I end up with something to say about how we ought to approach community conversations about big changes and challenges.

The first of these events was a meeting organized by the City of Powell River and facilitated by Emma Levez and CaroleAnn Leishman of GreenStep Solutions. The second was last week’s roundtable titled “Rebuilding Regional Resilience”, which was hosted by Transition Town Powell River. At both meetings we were given the opportunity of brainstorming to come up with possible next steps, and at both meetings I ended up feeling that something had gone wrong. I’m sure that brainstorming has its place in group work, but it’s a tool with a specific use and I think it’s being misapplied.

It’s clear to many people that we’re up against some very serious challenges: social, economic, and environmental ones, to name three dimensions along which we can can expect disruption as a result of  short-sightedness, cussed human nature, or because we have a long history of letting the wrong people make the big decisions. Many talented people of good faith are working hard to deal with the challenges we face; many of those people are the ones who showed up at either or both of the two meetings in question. They are all working on various aspects of the predicaments that we find ourselves in. I keep seeing the same faces at all these events, so it’s not a huge subculture in the regional community. (Admittedly it’s hard to know how much serious work goes on out there without being represented at meetings like these.)

But many of us are working in isolation from one another and have little shared culture or experience. I see the recent Chamber of Commoners evening as a way to start developing a common culture among the many disparate pieces of the counterculture in the region. It was a great start, but we need many more such events, formal and informal, in order to nourish a clearer set of shared missions and visions, not to mention a sense that we can trust one another. For now, we are to a great extent brought together by a very broad vision of a different world and a future radically unlike the one that most people take for granted — a future of declining resources, endangered ecosystems, and economic degrowth. But that is more of a worldview than a movement; and we have many overlapping worldviews, and a larger number of less overlapping movements.

Most of us are probably baffled by how best to proceed in face of these enormous challenges. I know I am. We’re all casting about for ideas and possible solutions, not to mention trying to stay sane and cheerful. Our time is limited, so we want to be as effective as we can; but where to focus our energies: buy a farm? develop micro-hydro? run workshops? go off-grid? build bike trails? It’s overwhelming. There are no obvious right answers.

Another source of cognitive dissonance comes from the apathy of the general population: in both of these meetings the question came up of how we can communicate more effectively with the people who don’t show up and don’t seem to have any consciousness of the tremendous changes ahead. And at both meetings, that questioned hung in the air — unanswered — unanswerable.

And so we brainstorm. And, for me, here’s where things go off the rails. Now, I’m no trained facilitator, but I think of brainstorming as a technique for coming up with a broad range of possible solutions to a pretty well-defined problem. The essence of the technique is that everyone in the room should feel free to throw out any idea or half-baked thought, no matter how impractical or bizarre — the aim, as the name suggests, is to create a wild storm of lateral thinking, to crack apart the well-worn tracks of linear thought, to build a safe space for the unpredictable and the weird. In order for this to happen, the problem to be solved or the question to be answered ought to be something narrower than, “Given that the future is wide-open and waiting to be created, what might we do?” And the people in the room, I believe, need to be united by a pretty clear shared vision and sense of purpose.

I don’t believe that you can bring a group of people into a room, throw around some fairly vague and broad possibilities, and then expect them to converge quickly enough to produce anything other than a gigantic and disconnected shopping list of possible actions. And that’s more or less what happened in both meetings. I can’t deny that it’s a pleasant activity, but it starts to feel a little desperate after a few minutes, especially when the ideas being shot out are all over the map and don’t easily fit together.

Faced with a dizzying range of possible actions — to be done when? by whom? how? with what money? — some participants, not surprisingly, felt obliged to retreat from the freedom of the brainstorm to the safety of the known and the tested. And the failed. In both meetings, this took the form of offering reasons why such-and-such an idea would not work (this happened during the brainstorming session in the City’s meeting, and in the discussion after the session in the Transition meeting). In both cases I found this to be utterly dispiriting.

At the Transition meeting, we broke out to talk about some of the ideas raised during the brainstorming session.

We talked about the idea of creating neighbourhood-based workshops of shared tools and equipment and got to hear all about how impractical that idea was, how the tools would be lost and broken, how it would hurt existing businesses, and so on.

We talked about shared or free bicycles and got to hear how City staff would be forever pulling abandoned bikes out of ditches.

We talked about the waste of plastic in school lunches and got to hear why health concerns mean that we can’t do much about that problem.

In other words, the group’s reaction to a brainstorming session was to put the genii back in the bottle, to clamp down on the possibilities opened up, to return all tray tables and seat backs to their upright position, and to prepare for re-entry to Planet Normal.

I want to be very clear that this reaction of paralysis is not (wholly) the fault of the organizers of these events. Nor is it (wholly) the fault of the attendees. Where does it come from? I’ll take that question as a jumping-off point for next week’s post.


9 Responses to “Defusing creativity”

  1. 1 Maureen March 2, 2010 at 11:17

    You have really hit the nail on the head, David. I have been hit by a serious case of inertia brought on because I, and apparently others who care, have no idea what to do next. So I stay home, read books and play with the cat all the time feeling guilty because I know that finding solutions begins with me. But it is all so overwhelming!

  2. 2 David Parkinson March 2, 2010 at 15:31

    Thanks, Maureen. It’s not easy to write about these things without sounding like a complainer. But I think that we spend too little time thinking about how to redesign our social systems and patterns — as though creating a different future were simply a matter of doing different things in stead of doing things differently. I worry that the people we aren’t reaching yet might be unreachable with the techniques we favour: meetings, talking, evaluating, measuring, planning, etc. We need to reach out to more people through actions that they simply can’t resist becoming part of. There is a place for meetings and talking and planning, but there is also a giant (neglected) place for public involvement, and I think that the strategies and tactics in that space are very different ones. I don’t think that the technocratic approach is going to work there, and unless we start finding a way to talk about what we’re doing in that regard we’re always going to find ourselves wondering why the same 10/20/50 people end up in the room.

    A lot of this is uncharted territory or (I suspect) territory whose outer limits began to be mapped out during the post-war period as part of the ‘human potential’ movement. Much of that work fell into disrepute, and now we need to reinvent a lot of wheels and quickly.

  3. 3 Kevin Wilson March 2, 2010 at 20:02

    Hiya David,

    As you know, I was at both the meetings you’re talking about in this post, and to me there was a very real difference in the feel of the two “brainstorming” sessions. At the RRR:R meeting, the brainstorming session was supposed to specifically address “where are the gaps, the things we are not yet covering” – rather than a general “what can we do”. Admittedly, it did tend to spread a bit after a while from that focus, and the breakout groups afterward were larger than I wanted them to be, and not as focused. But we were learning as we went along, and will do better next time.

    There are a lot of people saying “we want to DO something, not just have meetings”. I do get the feeling though, that some of those people want to be *told what to do* – and that’s a problem. Is no use running about “doing things” at random, either – preceding the “doing things” there is always a period of meetings deciding what to do and how to do it, as you know better than most.

    At the moment, when people ask me about “doing things”, I’m saying “Transition Working Groups are coming!”. Which they are, but it takes a certain critical mass of people to get something moving. I am hoping that both the upcoming Training for Transition session, and the presentation event for the Sustainability Charter, will act as catalysts to help get them going.

    Getting people involved who don’t already “get it” is a real issue. We (TTPR) do feel as though we’re making progress though. Having spent time building bridges with existing “green” (for want of a better word) groups in the community, more recently with larger institutions, and now seeing participation from Texada residents and youth… all those are steps on the path. Getting out into churches, business groups, seniors groups, service clubs and all those other traditional organisations is upcoming. Not all of our attempts will work. Some will stick. I have been plugging away at Toastmasters and I have actually seen changes in people’s views.

    The main idea of RRR:R though, was not the brainstorming, but to address the very point you mention in your post, of not knowing what else is going on: hoping that if we got attendance from people over a wider range of sources (which we did) and asked them to tell us what else was going on that wasn’t represented (which they did), we would end up knowing more. Collation and publishing of the data we gathered is happening – it’s not going to get lost and disappear into a dusty pile of paper 🙂

    All the best


  4. 4 David Parkinson March 2, 2010 at 20:33

    Thanks, Kevin. I want to be clear that my observation/complaint was not about the event itself, nor about the goals of the Transition movement. I’m vexed about some aspects of the way we, as a society, go about the business of organizing ourselves and making decisions. This is an overarching concern for me, and one that keeps me awake at nights. It’s way way bigger than one meeting, bigger than the Transition movement. I’m just not certain that we’re asking all the right questions or using all the right methods for getting people on board — and I’m trying to talk it through to see what comes out of it. If you interpret that as a complaint directed against last week’s meeting, then I’m not making myself clear (quite possible).

  5. 5 Emma March 3, 2010 at 09:08

    The point made in this blog piece is well taken. It is a large, unknown, and rather scary territory we are venturing into, and it often feels like we are spinning our wheels. Those of us who have accepted the fact that our future will necessarily be very different from the world we know today seek to deal with that reality in a variety of ways.

    While we understand, and in some ways share the frustration expressed here, we also think that discussions and brainstorming are important ways to draw more people into the conversation. Should we do it differently? Perhaps. Can we do it better? Probably. It’s true that we, as a community, need to start thinking outside the box, and looking at why new ideas will work, instead of why they won’t. As with anything new (and despite the fact that it seems like we’ve been working on and worrying about these issues forever, they are still relatively “new”), there will be time spent figuring out what needs to be done. There will be much time that is spent seemingly banging our heads against the wall. But the important thing is that we stay engaged.

    All of these comments and observations are valuable. The conversation had to start somewhere…and now we are at the point of asking, what is the next step – how do we do it better? I think one of the dangers of the frustration that we all surely experience is the risk of alienating one another by criticizing what others are contributing, especially when that time is given freely. As mentioned, one of our greatest challenges, as a “movement,” to start with is getting people to show up and take an interest.

    The Transition Town meeting offered several positive steps forward, not the least of which is the development of a comprehensive community list of groups working on sustainability issues and their activities. The idea of the meeting was to get people networking and connecting, and I think some of that was accomplished.

    Work resulting from ideas presented at the City Meeting is being carried on, and though GreenStep is not involved in this process, we watch the proceedings with anticipation since the City is obviously an important part of this conversation. Information about what is happening with the City’s sustainability initiatives can be found here:

    Organizing ourselves to tackle this massive set of challenges is no easy feat. We must have patience and appreciation for each other – and be able to provide and accept constructive criticism on how we can move forward productively and effectively. Thanks for opening this discussion; we look forward to your further thoughts on this.

    Emma & CaroleAnn

  6. 6 Maureen March 3, 2010 at 17:54

    I think the next positive step could be a Chamber of Commoners organized by Transition Town, Green Step, PIP, Sierra Club, limited to this topic only, to get some concrete action going. One of the drawbacks is that we have too many groups doing their own thing. Because our numbers are few, let’s unify this diffuse energy into bigger group action rather than just keeping on talking about what we can or cannot do.

    I know that government has a role to play in all of this, but I am doubtful about any show of leadership coming from our civic or any other elected leaders. As David pointed out we don’t have a very good record for electing people capable of making wise decisions. The Sustainability Charter may well just gather dust (sorry to be cynical).

    I am disappointed that they seem to be pulling this off in Britain and Europe and even some parts of the US, but in Powell River it’s uphill all the way. Perhaps life is too good for most of us…some hardship might do the trick.

  1. 1 Finding our way to the centre and back out again « Slow Coast Trackback on March 8, 2010 at 22:52
  2. 2 Making it up as we go along « Slow Coast Trackback on March 22, 2010 at 20:12
  3. 3 Rattled by the rush « Slow Coast Trackback on April 19, 2010 at 18:47
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