Archive for April, 2011

The first post in this series (available here) gave a very quick, and probably superficial, introduction to what C-K Theory claims to be and to do.  Now, we need to look at some established problem-solving methods to see how C-K Theory stands up.

Creative Problem-Solving : 

CPS is well established.  The method suggests that people separate their thinking into stages such as “problem exploration”, “idea generation and selection”, “action planning”.  That sounds simple enough, until you try it with a group of colleagues.  Some people want to jump straight to finding the solution.  I call this the “Let’s get this problem out of here so we can let some more problems in” fallacy – that fastest is always best.  Others feel energised by thinking up ever more creative solutions but lose the will to live when asked to turn just one of them into an action plan.  The most difficult stage to “sell” is the idea of checking whether the problem as stated is really what the group should be tackling.  A common objection is “This is what our boss wants us to solve so it must be right”.

If exploring the question isn’t challenging enough, CPS introduces the idea that, in each problem-solving stage, people should use both divergent thinking and convergent thinking – and to make sure that they do not mix them together.

Here is one way to picture the CPS approach:

3 Diamonds modelIf you think about any meeting you have been in where the aim was to gather new ideas, you will probably recognise that a very common sequence is “someone proposes an idea; the others find all the bad points; so that won’t work;OK whos next?”.  We call this “editing ideas as you go”.  If this is your experience, you probably ended up with very few really novel ideas that withtood this kind of serial stress test.

Even more worryingly, CPS has a lot of techniques based on metaphor (e.g. cartooning, word associations), challenging mindsets (e.g. reverse brainstorming, force-fitting), and playfulness (improvisation, poetry) . . . Enough!  CPS sounds deeply uncomfortable.

But it works . . .  when you are dealing with an intractable problem or you are genuinely looking for some breakthrough ideas . . . and when, most importantly, you work with a skilled CPS facilitator who can guide a group through the different CPS stages and divergent and convergent thinking by choosing the most appropriate technique at the right moment without adding their own ideas into the pot.

Behind CPS is the idea of creating permission, time and space for people to discover unusual re-combinations of concepts, images and thoughts which then pop out from the unconscious mind.  Koestler called this process “bo-sociation”.  These so-called “ah hah!” moments, rather than being fully-fledged solutions, are possibilities which open the door into unexpected “solution spaces”.  Then the hard work of turning the idea into reality begins.

Coming soon –“C-K Theory, CPS and TRIZ #2 – What Are the Benchmarks? (part 2)


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Safety and innovation have more in common than appears at first sight. This post is about providing a safe workplace for creative knowledge work, triggered by a post by Donald E. Gray. I hope it is the first of a series on the points of similarity.
Donald E. Gray defined safety to mean “we can take risks and our coworkers/management will support us, especially if setbacks occur. We have the ability to speak our truth without fear of ridicule, rejection, or retribution“.  He devised a Safety Check

Hodu.com also has a safety check to see “How safe is it for you to fully share your ideas during this meeting?” on much the same lines. This is an important point, but only one of several aspects of safe knowledge work.
Compensation Cafe has some checks to stop curiosity getting killed, and concludes:
Once you have an environment where curiosity is valued and recognized, your staff will instantly seem much smarter and more engaged. You will find yourself working amongst solution creators and game changers and your own work will improve as well. Curiosity is the single catalyst that costs nothing and inspires anything. It may not be ideal for felines, but it does wonders for compensation professionals.”

When Esther Derby tweeted Donald E. Gray’s article, I remembered hearing Clint Eastwood talk about creating a safe environment for actors and found this article about him. Do read it, it is short and engaging.

Taking the article as accurate (and it reads that way), then Eastwood’s approach does not easily fit into frameworks for safety culture etc. What I have tried to do below is topic out the points from the article into a system design context to see how they fit.

  • Competent management with experience of the technical task.
  • Trust staff and encourage risk-taking.
  • Recruit on track record, and put staff on their honour to work well and hard (no Prima Donnas).
  • Deliver early, hold to deadlines.
  • Work in public, have clients etc. around all the time. Be presentation ready.
  • Management by walking around.
  • Keep ‘support’ staff in the loop so they work without disrupting delivery.
  • Keep minor roles aware of production drivers and expect them to deliver.

The list is surprising and anomalous. I haven’t got to the bottom of how or if this relates to more general thinking on building a ‘safe’ place for knowledge work.
Much the best tool to use (no disrespect to Donald E. Gray), with a profound understanding of how organizations work as systems, is Ron Westrum’s Safety Climate (I can’t find it on the web – will add a link if and when). Ron is giving a talk on ‘The Generative Organization’  at the 12th European Conference on Creativity and Innovation in Portugal this September. He is well worth hearing.

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Argenta works with a large, international engineering company to run an Innovation Programme based on developing the ability of their project teams to plan and facilitate problem-solving Boosters. The Booster approach is based on a customised version of CPS (creative problem-solving). Our client recently attended a seminar on C-K Theory – a new approach for “designing the unknown” and he asked our advice on whether it could complement what developers in our client’s labs already do. (He is always on the lookout for the next big thing!  He had done the same thing with TRIZ.) So we did a bit of research and wrote him a paper. It is good to be challenged like this from time to time. It helps put what you do into sharper focus, and you learn a lot about how others view their own methods.

So this series of posts is based on what we learned. In this first post we need to provide a “rough guide” to C-K Theory as the new kid on the block. The next post will look at what we might mean by a “problem-solving method” and will develop some benchmarks by considering two established alternatives – CPS and TRIZ. Post #3 will propose three important questions to ask of any problem-solving method and will include the answers we came up with for the three methods we looked at. In post #4 we will suggest a model for capturing the most significant differences between the methods and discuss how this helps decide which oneis right in which context. Probably some other thoughts will occur to us at this point and so lead to other interesting stuff – let’s see.

C-K Theory :
The authors of this method claim that it offers a new and distinctive perspective on the cognitive processes underlying inventiveness and design. We use inventiveness to describe the ability of the human brain to produce thoughts which cannot be logically derived from previous knowledge yet which subsequently lead to successful applications. In the context of design and engineering, inventiveness would translate into
applied creativity; that is, problem-solving insights which produce routes towards novel solutions
innovation; that is, collaborative efforts to move from an idea to a real object (or system or product) which matches a human need of some kind.
The C-K approach (see this diagram) is based on the idea that inventiveness takes place when you explore two different spaces – Concept Space (C) and Knowledge Space (K) – and involves swapping your thinking within and between these two spaces; for example, K to C, C to C’, C to K, K to K’.
Two important points are that
– K-space is the space of codified and logical past learning (stuff people already “know” or could look up) while C-space is the space of concepts (stuff which is neither fully definable nor understood in exactly the same way by everyone and which can be explored to uncover novel, surprising ideas)
– exploring a concept to uncover fresh insights occurs by expansive partitioning of that concept – adding, subtracting or substituting attributes from ideas within K-space.

This reminds us of Pasteur’s claim that “inspiration is the impact of a fact on a well prepared mind”.

C-K Theory derives from, and appears to be mainly driven by, the work of Armand Hatchuel – Professor of Management Sciences and Design Engineering, Ecole des Mines, Paris. He has a 13 minute video introducing the concepts of C-K Theory available here.

Coming soon :  “C-K Theory, CPS and TRIZ #2 – What Are the Benchmarks?

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