From Fear to Creativity in an Organization Or System

Last month an electrical failure took out a portion of one of California’s main public transportation rail systems.  In response, the agency issued a remarkably honest and telling tweet: “BART was built to transport far fewer people, and much of our system has reached the end of its useful life. This is our reality.” 

We’ve inherited and must continue to use so many outdated systems — transportation, government, financial, food, energy, housing — even as we continue to evolve them.  If you’re working to change those systems, you know it can be a crushing task. 

In the hearts of those systems the demand to deliver battles the demand to innovate; conformity and division battle individuation and integration.  Some say these are “horns of a dilemma” never to be reconciled.  But I don’t see it that way: you can have creativity and community together — if you know how.

A few years ago I was part of an effort to innovate in the child protection system of Victoria, Australia.  We ran a series of highly successful, unprecedented workshops that brought together leaders from various government branches and NGOs and initiated some promising innovations.  But when a single child died from abuse somewhere in the state, a minister promised millions in funding “for the children.”  The money came with a triple helping of business as usual, shut down everything “risky” — including our innovations — and in the end, reinforced the problems we were trying to address.  Systems. Level. Snapback. 

So what can be done?

Anyone trying to wrestle one of these dinosaurs (systems) is really facing three challenges all wrapped into one:

  1. Operating within the current system so it continues to function.
  2. Evolve the systems so that they meet the needs of today.
  3. Forge your understanding and capabilities to do the work on the fly.

Or: the daily grind, innovation, and the work on the self.  Most of the time the third one drops by the wayside, and the second one spins its wheels in the sand, while the first one eats up all the time and energy.  Amirite?

From time to time we’re asked to help various service organizations who support intellectually disabled people and their families in the greater Vancouver region.  Their organizations and systems are plagued with the same tensions that every system faces — but we found a novel approach that is currently paying off.  We took on all three of the above challenges together.

The first step was to Name the Fear.  We worked to create a shared understanding amongst all the stakeholders about the root causes of the massive problem they had gathered together to solve. A collective “inner” diagnostic. I don’t mean here that it’s something to be measured and analyzed with spreadsheets and such.  The diagnosis of an inner reality is its precise NAME (remember the tale of Rumplestiltskin?  The princess names the goblin in order to take back her creative power). In this case, we acknowledged that much of the creative energy in the organization and system was held up because people were afraid of failing.

You must first name the mental models — and the fears — that drive the default reactions (positive feedback loops) inherent in the system.

The second step was to Build a Capability Path: a path the organization could take to build its employees’ and leaders’ personal and team capabilities for creativity and risk.  In this case, we formulated and instituted a rhythmic practice that teams at all levels took up.  The practice was based on an archetypal creative process: try something, reflect, learn, try something else.  By making it clear, transparent, regular, and safe — and by beginning with hands on workshops for folks to practice the tools and disciplines — we gradually gave birth to the path needed to transform fear into creativity across the organization.

I have recently been in touch with one of the Executive Directors in the organization we focused on, and she was ecstatic.  The “learning loop” we created is in full force at all levels of the organization and has become part and parcel of how they run. 

There are at least two keys to building this kind of transformation in a fearful system.  One is to remember that culture change happens at the individual level — in the hearts of minds of those involved.  It might look like a larger phenomenon — rather like how a large body of water breaks into drops.  The individual experience is usually forgotten or ignored — so it snaps back to what it knows and defaults to habit.  Then you get the massive expression of habit, not massive creativity.

The other key is a clear path that has clear disciplines, regularly practiced.  Without clarity, disciplines, and rhythm, there’s no progress. 

I’m making it sound simple — because after all this is just a blog post, and not the space for a detailed account or description.  But I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What have you done and experienced when transforming fear into creativity at a systems or organizational level?  Tell us about it in the comments!

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