Innovation Journeys: A Gazeteer

Creative Leadership for Innovation

When it comes to thinking outside the box, there’s an awful lot of wrapping paper to cut through.

How many of these business buzz phrases have you come across?  Agile, Action Research, Action Learning, Appreciative Enquiry; Creative, Design or Systems Thinking? Lean, Personal Mastery, Team Learning, U-Process… we could go on.  If you’re planning a learning journey, you might need to pack a Gazeteer!

All these phrases are essentially creative techniques, or processes.  Many of them are cyclical, so they support an iterative ‘trial & error’ approach particularly suitable for continual improvement and prototyping ideas.  A Minimum Viable Product generates customer feedback in the shortest time, on the most essential features, so that a product or service can be rapidly improved.  A similar cyclical process is used in Continuing Professional Development (eg Plan – Do – Reflect – Record), and in statutory education, where the emphasis is on repeatedly applying new concepts in a variety of contexts (eg the classroom, a project, the workplace). Think spiral, rather than circular.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Creative thinking shifts individuals from analysis to a higher order skill of synthesis.

Creative thinking shifts the individual from a mode of “analysis”, to “synthesis”, the next higher form of learning according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.  I like to think of it as the skill of piecing together jigsaw puzzles — without the picture.  Artists develop the skill of silencing the voice of the Evaluator to allow them try things that are ‘obviously wrong’, to allow for serendipity, to follow a natural curiosity and ‘see what happens’.  A key business challenge creating a space where people can ‘let go’.  Yes, maybe even play!

The role of facilitators

Creating a space isn’t just about booking the board room.  Many practitioners of change and organisational development talk about Process Management.  Certainly, these processes usually do require managing, or driving, and that is usually the job of an external facilitator.

Emeritus Professor Judi Marshall, who led the ground-breaking Masters programme with Peter Reason  [insert (book) reference], stresses the importance of working with an external person to create an open, non-judgmental space where participants can share and challenge each other honestly.  “The skill is to hold the space and not damage people — that’s quite something and requires personal and team development as you go ,” she says.

Action Learning, Research & Enquiry

At Contented, we train all our staff and run all our meetings through a cyclical, self-directed process of ‘action learning’.  It’s central to our quality management systems — and we event audit it each year to ISO9001:2015.  It supports collaboration and generates content for internal and external communication.

In doing this, we try to adopt an attitude known as ‘appreciative enquiry’.  Here, one asks questions taking a positive attitude to a challenge rather than a critical one.  This helps ensure that people don’t shut down and switch off the metaphorical light that we are trying to shine.  Action Research is research ‘with’ people, rather than ‘on people’.  Academics often argue about the differences between the two schools, both of which emerged around the 1950s.  I first encountered Action Research through the world-renowned Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice (CARPP) at Bath University’s School of Management.  Professor Peter Reason emphasised a participatory approach that includes the ecology as a critical stakeholder.  Processes of enquiry are observed at an internal personal level, intra-personal (in pairs and groups) and ‘third person’, engaging wider audiences such as communities, multinational companies and policymakers.

Finding the right questions is very important — I imagine them as probes that one inserts into a problem.  Listen to one of our facilitators, John Dooner, explaining the GROW coaching model.  The questions at the end of the presentation come from an appreciative mindset.  While you might not necessarily get an immediate answer back, you’re trying to ensure that you’re intervening in the most effective place to change the system.  This is where Systems Thinking comes in, understanding how issues are interconnected.  Of course, before we take any action, we need to be clear how we will measure success.  So that’s all about identifying the data we need to be monitoring.

Systems & Design Thinking, Theory-U

[Systems Thinking  –  emphasise complex systems, vs complicated.  Planetary.]

Design Thinking is a methodology used by designers to solve complex problems, and find desirable solutions for clients.  A design mindset focuses on the solution, not the problem, and is oriented towards creating a better future.   An important stage is empathising with the audience — usually the customer, but there are usually other stakeholders whose positions need to be understood.  That doesn’t just mean measuring their bank balance; we need to understand their values and purpose.  So it’s human-centred creativity with purpose.  [Add references.]  The steps are Empathise – Define – Conceive – Prototype – Test.

Theory U belongs to the family of systems thinking and systems change, but extends it by paying attention to shifts in consciousness, synthesising systems and design thinking, with phenomenology and mindfulness practice.  Phenomenological practice is about refining our tools in accessing experiential data — deep data.  Mindfulness is about paying attention to your attention.  Theory author’s Otto Scharmer says: “Real innovators in business, technology, science or society work differently than most of us.  They first feel or sense the future, and then they try to follow that thread and make it happen.”

Whereas design thinking emphasises “empathic listening”, seeing the situation through others’ eyes, Scharmer advocates we dive deeper to a state he calls “generative listening”, where you can consider the highest future potential in a specific context or situation. “That’s what great leaders, coaches, and innovators do.”

Storytelling & Storyboarding

While Action Research and Action Learning both developed independently around the 1950s, Design Thinking and Otto Scharmer’s Theory-U were published decades later.  Both embrace ‘flavours’ of practice which emphasise empathy with the customer or other subject, as well as ‘deep listening’, a phrase that often refers to seeking information through non-verbal forms of communication.  Action Researchers often talk about multiple ways of knowing – the posh word is ‘epistemologies’: these are usually listed as propositional (for example verbal or numerical), practical (‘know how’, or ‘knack’), presentational (think body-language) and

Schools teach a theory of knowledge to include: Language, Sense perception, Emotion, Reason, Imagination, Faith, Intuition, Memory.

So what does that look like?  (see photos from workshop). Sculpting materials (eg clay, play bricks), drawing or painting, or mindfulness are some ways of accessing those modes.  I like to think that we’re trying to short-circuit the conscious brain and allow the subconscious to speak without being gagged by self-censorship.  Let’s face it, the very fact that we’re here, suggests that the conscious mind has been brainwashed by some long-held mistaken perceptions about how the world actually works.  A good example of this is complex systems… but we get ahead of ourselves.

Storytelling as an organisational development programme, is an innovation on which Contented has been focusing since 2010. (Although, doubtless others have come up with similar ideas independently) through a five-year prototyping programme by a European consortium.

On one hand, we teach a methodology that can be applied to generate stories that engage audiences because they follow the formulas used by humans since Babylonian times, through ancient China and Greece, Shakespeare and through to Hollywood.  Of course, we can teach the traditional ‘news’ approach of journalists – the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How; the pyramid approach to writing; ‘safe’ content – that manages the chance of getting you into trouble.  Indeed, we have world class writers and technical authors among our team, publishing from The Times (London) to Forbes magazine and international trade press.

However, storytelling means much more to us.  They engage people because they work on a human level.  (Briefly mention the work of social scientist Joseph Campbell).  Most of the characters that pop up in most of the stories we have come to know and love, are ancient archetypes – such as the heroes, villains and  wizards.  Psychologist Gustav Jung observed that these archetypes are actually aspects of our own personalities.  So, by analysing stories, we can start to unmask the internal characters who are creating our own narratives. This helps us understand ourselves (and hence our biases and the way we see the world), as well as arming us with tools to communicate the way humans have been doing for millennia.

Thresholds & Archetypes

For decades, script editor Jaemes Gregory has been working with filmmakers and the myths.  For nearly eight years, he’s been helping clients derive insights from characters from Perseus, to Hamlet and Harry Potter.  Stories hold a mirror up to aspects of ourselves that we might draw upon.  Tales of temptation prompt us to check how our viewpoint might be skewed, such as towards money, power or some other investment in the status quo; they invite us to explore what we mean by ‘enemies’ and ‘friends’; and how we come to choose the paths that we take. The archetype of the Jester sees  the world in different and enlightened ways and inspires us to change our perspective as we sense the values in its wisdom; the Oracle invites us to balance the masculine and feminine and look for the flaw in our thinking; the Mentor reminds us of lessons we’ve learned from the past.

Psychologist Carl Jung points out that all these archetypes occur in our own psyche and we usually start our programme by helping participants carry out a self-assessment of their own character, who will become the Hero in their own story as they seek to address the complex challenges they face.

Our Development Programme

The Innovator’s Way: Creative Leadership for Innovation”.

This includes four modules:

  • leadership for action-learning
  • digital storytelling
  • smart videomaking (optional)
  • facilitation (optional)

We  could call this Creative Leadership: Prototyping & Promoting Innovation; Facilitating Innovation”.

[Concern of some is that all these words are quite vague.  On the other hand, we will publish alongside them, a list of learning objectives. (See below).

Some like the word prototyping;  one client would like to see the process of design-thinking included, which arguably is another creative tool. These are all slightly different but complementary versions of “process management”.


Nine ways to kill action learning
Action learning is a powerful approach and discipline for personal and business
development, however, success is not guaranteed. Here are some ways in
which you can stop action learning working.  It it were a cat, this would stop it in its tracks:

• Come along when you don’t really want to
• Come without a real issue to work on
• Bring something along that you already know how to do
• Keep quiet about your real issues – don’t give anything away
• Turn up infrequently to meetings
• Don’t take any action between set meetings
• Talk about other members’ and their issues outside the set
• Give everyone the benefit of your advice at every opportunity
• Use the set meetings to score points and show how clever you are

If you do any or all of these and you are sure to have a negative impact.  Or, you could do the opposite, and gain an amazing return!


Sample Resources

Evidence for the effectiveness of Action Learning