Free thinking – ruminations on the future of Beyond the Edge


September 22nd, 2009

52632960_7eb83adaaf_oI’ve been reading two books that are influencing my current thinking. The first is In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May and Free: The Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson.

In the Pursuit of Elegance, Matthew May argues that doing and adding may often be of disservice and we might just be better to stop, observe and think. So instead of leaping to solutions, often top-of-head ones, we give ourselves space to discover more elegant, sustainable solutions. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyday decisions we make like what to have for breakfast or where to park the car, but might well be applied to those dilemmas that keep demanding a more thoughtful approach.

The book is scattered with useful bits of wisdom like: “In the rush to create order and organisation, we often get the exact opposite of the intended, desired effect.”

And: “The counterintuitive dynamic at work is this: the more we try to control and regulate our risk, the more exposed and at risk we are, because the more protected from hazards we think we are, the less conscious of potential dangers we become.”

This has many application to facilitating. I see facilitators implement their plan without much regard to what’s happening right in front of them. This dynamic is also at work in the strategic planning business.

So: “When you remove certainty and predictability, engagement and awareness rises. Uncertainty and ambiguity can create intrigue, which makes us slow down and think.”

We humans seem to be hard-wired to believe that more must be better. Adding. Vitamin C is good for us so lots of Vitamin C must be better. Nope. Some food is good, so lots is better. True, when we were hunter-gatherers, not so much today. Some information is good, so more must be better.  Just ask anyone who has tried to implement a change by providing more information,or even a compelling case. This is my favourite, because it also taps into the ‘Curse of Knowledge’. More on that later.

We’re also hard-wired to do something. Acting. Just look at how much emphasise we place on busy-ness, and on multi-tasking.

Therefore: “We mistakenly pose the question ‘What should we do?’ before asking ‘What is possible?’ We want a solution but we don’t want the patience to wait for the optimal one, favouring implementation over incubation.”

Oh, wow. I can just imagine many people being horrified. Those same people who crave control. And certainty.

Back to the Curse of Knowledge: “More and more people working in jobs today rely on a deep level of knowledge in a special area – what we call subject matter expertise – for their livlihoods. But that kind of special knowledge can actually get in the way when it comes to crafting elegant solutions. Special subject matter expertise is the mother of all mind-sets, the enemy of objectivity.” This may lead to “ideas that are nothing more than updated versions of old thinking.”

We invest so much time and effort in gaining knowledge in our areas of expertise, it’s hard to grasp that that very same knowledge may be a curse. I see this when ‘experts’ prepare a slideshow for a talk. One of the keys to a great slideshow (even an Insanely Great Slideshow Presentation, sorry, blatent plug!) is to take away. To say less. To convince with elegant arguments rather than yet more data.

Matthew May argues that in pursuit of elegance, we need to stop doing, and adding, and engage in activities unrelated to the issue at hand. “Most artists, musicians, writers, and other creatives instinctively know that the incubation of great ideas involves seemingly unproductive times…[and] hinges on the ability to synthesize connections between seemingly disparate things. And a key factor is achieving that is physical or mental time away from the problem.”

Why then, do we have such an issue with taking time out, slowing down, removing ourselves from a problem to let it incubate? “Perhaps it’s the fear of failure or simply of inaction. Backing off from tackling a complex problem is counterintuitive and goes against our bias for action. It’s scary to ease up, because we think we may lose our momentum or abandon hope. We get anxious when ideas aren’t forthcoming, so we begin to doubt our creativity, abilities, and intelligence.”

Guilty, your honour! I can so relate to this – especially working in my own micro-business. And I also see this with facilitation too – the need to be seen to be doing something, to be active, to be earning your fee compared with stepping back and allowing the group to do the work they need to do without your interference.

Which provides a nice segue to Free: The Future of a Radical Price. The premise of this book is that in the 20th Century we made money from atoms – things that we could see and hold. In the 21st century the new economy is around bits – things we can’t see and hold. I’m doing it now. Writing a blog where the cost to me is in my time and when it’s published the market will determine if it’s read.

Okay, I’m on shaky ground here. True to say this is probably the first book about economics I’ve ever read. Come to think of it, I did study economics at high school, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read anything at all memorable. Or that I’d want to blog about. Not that blogs existed then. Which is part of my problem. I grew up in a time when stuff cost money to produce and money to sell or buy. That creates an economy. Now, some stuff costs so little to produce, or can’t be measured, that it’s free. And there’s lots of different types of free. I’m caught between my own history and living in the present. This creates a disjunct between what I know (about how the world should be) and what I’m actually experiencing (how the world is). Yikes!

Chris Anderson explains: “In [my] world where food, shelter, and the rest of Maslow’s subsistence needs are met without having to labour in the fields from dawn to dusk, we find ourselves with what sociologists call ‘cognitive surplus’ – energy and knowledge not fully tapped by our jobs. At the same time we have emotional and intellectual needs that aren’t fully satisfied at work, either. What our ‘free labour’ in an area that we value grants us is respect, attention, expression, and an audience.”

He also explores this strange hybrid world that many of us exist in – and maybe, like me, are trying to make sense of. He talks about the scarcity market – for example, advertising space in a magazine; indeed, editorial space in a magazine – compared with abundant markets – on-line publishing, for example. “Because we compete in both scarce and abundant markets, one-size management structure doesn’t fit all – we need to simultaneously pursue both control and chaos.” Ah-ha! This is probably the single most important insight I’ve had about running my micro-business. Embracing control for those things I offer that are scarce – my time to come and facilitate your workshop or training; and letting go of what I offer that’s part of the abundant economy.

This is the question that I’ll be trying to apply the principles of elegance to: how do I do more of what I love, for free, and still make a living?

Photo credit: Sunset Pose, Niamey, Niger by morealtitude

Post Script: I think photography is one of those things that can embrace elegance – and where it’s so easy not to. The great photos are great because of what’s left out. And flickr is an example of the Free Economy.

1 Comment so far

  1. Facilitation - Evaluation - Beyond the Edge - Viv McWaters on September 23, 2009 6:45 pm

    […] Fast forward to 2009 and the book In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew May that I wrote about here. […]

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