Simplicity on the other side of complexity

Whilst working on the Praxis symposium this year I found myself thinking about what is it that I am really doing when when I am designing a workshop or learning experience.

I have written about this before (see How to cultivate conversation, The Craft of Improv) but I still keep learning. Which in itself is fabulous – one of life’s great joys is to find you can keep on learning about something you already know well.

Back in June, as I was thinking about the Praxis event, it came to me that in effect, there are only three things you have to think about – how you organise people in time, how you organise them in space and what you give them to do. That’s it. There are an infinite number of possibilities under each heading and they obviously interconnect, but in essence that is all you have to think about.

I love this. It was a really helpful insight. It gives me clarity and simplicity but also acts as a creative stimulant. It gives me confidence, but inspires me to invent. It seems to be a great example of how simple patterns can underlie complexity.

It reminds me of Heisenberg (the quantum physicist not the character in Breaking Bad) who said:

“I would give nothing for the simplicity on this side of complexity; and everything for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Perhaps (at last?) I am approaching the simplicity on the other side of complexity…?


Patient learning and the futility of ‘happy sheets’

Freddie Mercury was wrong. If you want it now you can’t have it all. At least not in the realm of learning.

Part way through an experimental, two-day, Praxis workshop, one of the participants told me that she couldn’t work out what she was getting from it. She was by her own admission having a wonderful time and she was well aware that the workshop was experimental (there was a clue in the title – it was called ‘The Awareness Experiment).

She herself, a scientist by training was well aware that in a good experiment, you don’t know the outcome in advance, indeed, she had pointed out to me the absurdity of the fact that to get funding her lab had to stipulate in advance, what it was going to discover!

So what was going on here?

Learning doesn’t necessarily take place in the same period as the experience that generates it. It may require (unconscious) processing reflection, experience, the relevant context (which may be completely unpredictable) and a trigger or need, to name but a few possibilities.

To put the same thing the other way round, if, at the end of a learning experience (programme, workshop etc.) you ask participants what they have learned, you are only allowing them to give a trivial answer. On these feedback forms, or ‘happy sheets’ as my friend and colleague Marshall Young refers to them, all they can report is what is immediately available to them with the conscious mind that they can verbally report. And by definition, any significant or deep learning is unlikely to be of that kind.

We should be more patient. We should slow down, let go of our anxiety and accept that proper learning is slow, painstaking work.

If we did, we might find that we actually learn more.


Good beats right

In the past few months I have been making an effort to substitute the word ‘right’ with the word ‘good’.


‘Right’ imples something definitive, certain, finished, complete, correct and singular.

More often than not, in everyday life, it is inaccurate and misleading to talk about ‘right’. Outside of maths (or other purely symbolic realms) how often can we really talk of the right answer? Is the campaign, idea, text, process, product or design we have come up with really the one and only ‘right’ one? Or are we just trying to sound important?

Talk of one right answer limits, curtails and closes down possibility. ‘Right’ kills improvement. If you have the ‘right’ answer you stop. If you have a ‘good’ one, you might yet make it better.

Right also suggests ‘wrong’. It polarises. The two are closely related, so as soon as something is ‘right’ then everything else (or more often, everyone else is wrong). Thinking in terms of ‘good and better’ (rather than ‘right and wrong’) leaves room for difference, variety, complement, nuance, growth and development. It allows and encourages more than one way of doing things.

My friend and colleague at On Your Feet, Gary Hirsch, took up improv theatre because of this. He loved acting but found it hard to remember the lines. Gary found that a script, by defining what was right, made everything else ‘wrong’, which paralysed him. When he discovered improv he found a world that was more forgiving, flexible, free, creative and satisfying.

So, whether I am right or not, I find this is a good habit to practise…..





The old ones are the best

In an interview last year, I was asked why we use the arts and humanities so much on the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme.

To me, the question revealed a couple of assumptions. First, that the most important knowledge is proto-scientific, technical and in the main, rational. And, as a natural consequence, that it is the most recent theories, the ‘latest research’ we should pay most attention to. These assumptions are, I think, very widespread, which is what made it a natural question to ask. I also think they are mistaken. So I answered with another question.

‘Why would you ignore the collected wisdom of thousands of years of human inquiry?’ I replied.

We are easily seduced by novelty and recency and can quickly become ‘fashionistas’ of thought. This is upside down. My feeling is that there is a kind of inverse law in play, along the lines of ‘the more recent it is, the more likely it is to be trivial or inconsequential’.

If you are grappling with anything that involves a consideration of human nature (and frankly, who isn’t?), if you are looking for deep understanding, for an explanation of why we act as we do, then you are going to need, at the very least, to include the long view of human thought.

It is a bit like biomimicry. Yes, it is a nascent field, but biomimicry bases itself on three billion years of research in the massive R&D lab that is ‘life on planet earth’. Surely the collective wisdom of thinkers and doers throughout the ages is more likely to hold solutions to important human issues than an up to the minute MBA?

So, if you want to learn proper grown up stuff then the old ideas are the best. Or to put the same thing the other way around, that if you only concern yourself only with new learning, you are unlikely to come across anything that is great.