The Practice & Art of Thinking

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Japan’s Educational Reforms – Paving the Way for Better Problem Solvers

In 2007, Japan’s Prime Minister made education his nation’s top agenda.


Innovation – is the transformation of knowledge and ideas into commercially successful products. Innovation has been the key factor behind the rise in living standards since the Industrial Revolution. We talk of the knowledge society and knowledge worker as a result.

The problem is solved only temporarily - the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The problem is solved only temporarily – the umbrella will soon fill up with water! Image source unknown

The driver behind transforming ideas into products is creativity and the process is one of solving a problem – in this case it is one of innovation.

Getting back to Japan. The country has a long history of importing ideas from the rest of the world. It has been good at adapting and transforming ideas – it was essentially an incremental innovator.

Japan improved and tweaked products and processes that had been developed by other countries. This took place in closed networks of organisations, where promotion was seniority-based. There was lifetime employment, internal research and the norm was to have in-house training. The system worked for awhile, however, like any relatively closed system, it cannot adapt to change. The destiny, as Prigogine would say, is for the organization to fail.

After the 90s, Japan started to invest seriously in research and innovation. It spent 3.2% of GDP on R&D. Japan knew that it needed to shift from catching up with the rest of the world towards developing its own fundamental product innovation through creativity. Despite this goal, its leading organisations like Sharp, Sony and Panasonic are struggling.

There are some fundamentals at play here. Japanese culture is conservative. Its educational system has been one of rote learning; its researchers are not the best in the world. The companies remain bureaucratic and hierarchical and lack the dynamism and agility that is required for innovation to flourish.

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

Image source unknown. A little old fashioned I would say!

The Japanese Prime Minister identified that the schooling system had to shift from rote learning (maintenance of the status quo) to one where the emphasis was on learning to solve problems. This is a very important and fundamental shift. It recognizes that a healthy reality is an open, dynamic and complex system. The map to guide any enterprise into the future is not cast in stone. It emerges and gets addressed constantly where the attitude is one of solving problems creatively. Knowledge is temporary – projects are the new organizational structure – they are temporary knowledge organisations. This term was coined by me (Rui Martins) and Kim Sbarcea in 2003.

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A Retrospective of Visual Thinking

I thought I would do a retrospective of some ideas on visualization that I have explored during 2013.

Because I thought that people will be more interested in having a good time and catching up with family and friends over the Christmas holiday period, I am posting this in January. I am still in Bhutan by the time this post appears and, when I get back to New Zealand, I am looking forward to sharing some of the different insights gained during my trip.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Vision is one of those things that humans do very well and naturally.
  • The human brain has a very large portion dedicated to vision and visualization – this must say something!
  • We are awake more than asleep. This means that we are ‘doing ‘vision’ the majority of the time in our lives.
  • Through evolution, we are designed to ‘do vision’.  Again, this must say something very obvious about the importance of visualization.
  • Visualization is more than passive seeing.

My question is: does this mean that visualization is a massively important component in the way we make decisions and make sense of the world? Yet, we have not really defined this capacity and fully understood it. Is it too difficult or have we considered it to be one of those nice but not serious topics? I think this is about to change, especially as we are making a social shift towards recognizing the importance of design, innovation and creativity as a powerful component to the future survival of our civilization. The dominant ‘left brain’ (I have used this mostly as a metaphor) is not able to suppress and dominate the centre stage of our thinking anymore. Balanced critical thinking includes creativity.

Creativity is not about rearranging the furniture or choosing the wall colour to match the curtains. It is hard, yet everyone has this capacity in varying degrees and it must be cultivated seriously.

We live in a visual jungle. How do we articulate this skill so that we can use it mindfully rather than simply doing it? A sprinter runs, so do the majority of humans, but not all humans run like a trained athlete – can we, in a similar way, harness and understand our visual skills so that we become fantastic at thinking and, as a consequence, leap into another realm of awareness and understanding?

Visualization is a new language of cognition. With this skill we are able to zero in on the emergent factors, variables and otherwise hidden patterns in front of us and, in so doing, unlock new knowledge.

We need a high Visual IQ (V.I.Q) to deal with nuances and subtleties in the noise of life. As a society, we have progressively been increasing our I.Q in general – this means we are getting smarter as a species. But we need to define our Visual I.Q so that we can survive in the dense, visual jungle, make sense of it and not be afraid of it.

Visualization is a form of knowledge compression, as expressed by David McClandless. This allows us to identify not only the gestalt but make and design new knowledge. Knowledge has become a construct that gets reconstructed within new contexts by individual observers. Individuals are now the curators of knowledge and visualization has become the means to creatively explore and innovate our new futures.

I think we should celebrate this ability and use it to its full potential to enable us to unlock the creative spirit dormant in all humans. Everyone needs to be able to see that the emperor has no clothes. We need to change out thinking from a mindset that can only tolerate the logic of  2 + 2 = 4 to one where we can see the message captured in 2 + 2 = 5.

Tom Fletcher by mywonde - modified by Rui

Tom Fletcher by mywonde – modified by Rui

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Design is Good For Business – Part 2

Part 2 will look at design as applied to business and Part 3 will examine what the problems might be when attempting to implement design within business. Please note – design and design thinking are not one and the same but I will use the terms synonymously (I define Design Thinking in Part 1).

There has been a meteoric rise in interest in Design, especially when applied to business. Design Thinking (DT) has been on the scene since 1969 and the publication of Herbert Simon’s book ‘The Sciences of the Artificial’. The term became more popular after Peter Rowe’s 1987 book ‘Design Thinking’. However, it really took off with McKim’s work in the 90s and his teaching at Stamford University.

IDEO’s work has made DT very visible within business by applying it to business solutions. Other people like Nigel Cross, Norbert Roozenburg and Kees Dorst have also been influential in the spread of DT as a methodology to be applied to the resolution of problems or issues that look for an improved future result.

Today, we know that:

By Rui Martins

By Rui Martins

To put a figure on how design impacts profit margins, a key indicator of the value of design (from a business perspective) is whether a design-intensive company performs better than competitors. In 2005, the Design Council showed that an index of design-aware companies outperformed the FTSE All share by over 200%, in both bull and bear markets over a 10-year period. This is not to say that there are not other indicators of good management but the data strongly persuades us that ‘good design’ is smart business.

By Design Council  (2005)

By Design Council (2005)

The natural reaction from business leaders and managers is for them to say:

“Hey, I want some of that in my business, where can I get it?”

My reaction: no problem.

Business again:

“Which book should I read, or better even, is there a good workshop I can attend?”

My reaction: now, the problem is starting to surface.


“How about getting a consultant to come in and show us how to implement design thinking into our business. Can you recommend a good but not too expensive consultant?”

My reaction: the problem is definitely being confirmed and it has little to do with ‘cheap consultant’, although it might confirm the attitude and hence the problem.

Design is good and businesses now realizes it needs to implement it in order to remain viable. You might say – hey, what is your problem? Quite a few problems actually – let me explain in Part 3.

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Civilization – A Story of Aesthetics – Part 2

In Part 2, I propose that aesthetics is the highest form of civilized state that a society can achieve. I also suggest that it provides a mindset for society that enables it to become critical, agile, innovative and self-aware in relation to the gestalt. It needs to shift into the aesthetic ‘gear’.

By Rui Martins

By Rui Martins

I know it is a little out there as a statement but I will attempt to explain my thinking.

Our first reaction is that aesthetics is something about art. This view took hold during the 18th Century. That is partially correct, however, there is much more to the term. The broad, current understanding of aesthetics by scholars in the field define aesthetics as ‘critical reflection on art, culture and nature.’ I agree and I see it as a holistic trio not as individual, independent silos of awareness (as modernity would like us to perceive reality – the compartmentalization of knowledge).

Aesthetics as a holistic trio. By Rui Martins

Aesthetics as a holistic trio. By Rui Martins

My point of departure is Rancière’s thesis that aesthetics is not the theory of the beautiful or of art per se. Rather, aesthetics is a historically-determined concept of how we make sense of, and act, in our world and the concept is constantly evolving. One of its evolutionary trajectories of interest to me is the emerging notion of humanities’ self-awareness, in relation to a different granularity of scale, which has been made explicitly visible and intelligible by the environmental movement and post-structuralism (liberation of the dominance of the grand narrative).

This thread of the importance of aesthetics to my argument has to do with the reconfiguration of our metacognition; our ability to reflect on our cognitive experiences and self-regulate in relation to a gestalt that is not anthropocentric but biocentric. It is the new type of experience that Kant systematized in the ‘Critique of Judgment’ – the ability to appreciate and respond to complex, interconnected concepts and narratives of humans in relation to context and otherness (my interpretation).

I briefly trace below some of the evolutionary concepts of aesthetics in the literature:

  • Plato and Aristotle – aesthetics relating to ethics (the noble).
  • Hume – as an expression of morality, human thought and emotion.
  • Goodman – aesthetics is about knowledge, understanding and the creation of and emergent reality.
  • Environmental Aesthetics – emphasis on the inclusion of ecological integrity and stability; and the impact of humans on the environment.
  • Feminist Aesthetics – cultural influences that exert power over individuality; framed by factors such as race, national origin, social position and context.
  • Gadamer – as a transformation vehicle and enabler for exploration of the unknown.
  • Baumgarten – aesthetics as a science of sensible cognition.
  • Japanese Aesthetics – nothing is permanent; aesthetics as a way of living and connected with the intellect, life and the essence of existence.
  • Existentialist Aesthetics – a way to reveal the essence of the world, describing how humans perceive, know and act in the world.
  • Voltaire and Rousseau – aesthetics develops our potential for invention, increases our sensitivity, refinement of a culture, improves the human condition and mobilizes a whole range of our faculties and awareness of nature.
  • Schopenhauer – ethics (ways of being in the world – spirit of the earth), self-knowledge as a duty to improve the world.
  • Bosanquet – as revelatory of the ‘spiritual’ character of the world (consciousness).
  • Cohen – aesthetics as cultural consciousness, concept of humanity.
  • Shaftesbury – the order of the universe and the need for ‘high’ education to reach true moral aesthetic understanding.
  • Lock – aesthetic as cyclical process of rebirth.
  • Maritain – as intellectual character, involving cultivation and practice.
  • Lipps – as empathy of understanding humanity and underlying spiritual reality.
  • Nietzsche – as wisdom and acute sensitivity to nuances of human conditions.
  • Sartre – aesthetics as an invitation to freedom.

Rancière’s aesthetic regime or, more specifically, ‘the aesthetic revolution’ interests me. I believe that aesthetics as an expression of morality, ethics, critical thinking, and particularly as the reconciling force between economic materialism and nature, is necessary in order for humanity to survive and to move from being self-referential to the guardian of the planet.

Evolution of society into higher order of self-awareness. By Rui Martins.

Evolution of society into higher order of self-awareness. By Rui Martins.

I think this is necessary for civilization to consolidate, retain lessons learned from previous ages and prosper into the conceptual age, where creativity is the key driver. Aesthetics in this sense is societies’ capacity to do triple-loop learning and engage with a highly dynamic landscape, be self-aware and shift from a paradigm of dominance over nature to one of being in harmony with nature. Conceptually (as shown in the diagram above) humanity needs to be rescued and evolve from operating in a mindset of efficiency and effectiveness, beyond ethics to one where aesthetics is the prevailing modus operandi.

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Management as an enabler for Innovation and Creativity

This is Part 3 of the creativity/innovation series. As suggested in Part 2, Management needs to have the appropriate attitude to channel and enable creativity as an ingredient in organisations, where innovation is part of the strategy to remain viable in the market place.

If we consider the brief history of economic and social development, each age required a particular management approach. The skills and attitude to manage the agricultural age of the 18th century were very different to those of the industrial age, information age and certainly to those for the conceptual age of the future.

Brief history of economic and social development. By Rui Martins

Brief history of economic and social development. By Rui Martins

This post considers the characteristics of management as the blocking agent or the enabling agent for innovative change, particularly having the courage or even the ability to understand the power of creativity as that elusive ingredient within innovation.

I normally would be more careful and distinguish between leadership and management (not easy at the best of times, considering that there is an overlap in some respects). However, in this post, I am using the terms interchangeably and referring to the people who are the driving force behind change.

Leaders are a mixed bag. Over the years, I have met many business leaders; some are fascinating individuals and others are well… very ordinary. Unfortunately (and surprisingly), there appear to be many ordinary leaders around – I refer to these types as having a developmental approach. I am often left scratching my head, wondering how they manage to remain in their position. Once you get to know them – often, but not always – they seem to be extremely good at playing the ‘politics’. They can be bullies, control freaks and even domineering charismatics.

On the other hand, the rarer breed has amazing qualities. Listening is certainly one of these qualities. These people are open-minded, intelligent, self-aware, sensitive to subtleties, educated, well-read and, in my opinion, they are not necessarily extroverts. I would say some are ambiverts. I refer to these people as having an ‘evolutionary approach’.

Both types are extremely focused, with the difference being that the developmental types are dogmatic and not agile; whilst the evolutionary types are not only agile, they are adaptable and quick learners when confronted with a changing economic landscape.

The table below compares the two attitudes of management. The developmental types are good in stable, predictable environments and the evolutionary types are able to navigate within unstable environments, where coping with uncertainty and the ability to be unique are the main qualities. Creativity has no place in the first attitude but is essential in the second.

By Rui Martins

By Rui Martins

My objective is not to criticize but to have more leaders see the light and learn from those who are doing ‘it’. The point is that anyone can innovate if they follow the five skills of disruptive innovators.

‘The innovators DNA’ book – the result of many years of research – suggests that anyone can innovate if they follow the five skills of disruptive innovators and make a shift from being blockers to enablers. These five skills are:

  • Questioning – allows innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities – like Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Pradeep Sindhu of Juniper Networks.
  • Observing – helps innovators detect small behavioral details in the activities of customers, suppliers and other companies that suggest new ways of doing things. Examples: Rakesh Kapoor of Reckitt Benckiser and Jean-Paul Agon of L’Oreal.
  • Networking – permits innovators to gain radically different perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds. Example: Marc Benioff of Salesforce.
  • Experimenting – prompts innovators to relentlessly try out new experiences, take things apart and test new ideas. Example: Bobby Kotick from Activision Blizzard.
  • Associational Thinking – drawing connections between questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields—is triggered by questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting and is the catalyst for creativity. Example: Natura Cosmeticos.

The McKinsey Quarterly research into leaders and their innovation skills (January 2008) is of great interest. Firstly, it wipes out any niggling hesitation that one might have that it is the organization itself that might be preventing the organization to innovate rather than the leaders’ skills and attitude.

This research strongly confirms my argument – “… innovation has become a core driver of growth, performance, and valuation”. It is no longer a fad or something nice to do in good times only to set-aside in bad times. It is vital for all organisations to focus on!

Other observations of the research:

  • 70% of the senior executives say that innovation will be one of the top three drivers of growth for their companies in the next three to five years;
  • Other executives see innovation as the most important way for companies to accelerate the pace of change in today’s global business environment;
  • Leading strategic thinkers are moving beyond a focus on traditional product and service categories to pioneer innovations in business processes, distribution, value chains, business models and even the functions of management;
  • Most executives are disappointed in their ability to stimulate innovation: 65% were only “somewhat,” “a little,” or “not at all” confident about the decisions they make in this area;
  • Most leaders spend their time focusing solely on budgeting and forecasting, despite realizing that they need be innovative to remain in business;
  • Just 27% of executives said that innovation is fully integrated into the business and have implemented ways to protect it and to ensure that it attracts the right talent.

In a separate survey of 600 global executives by McKinsey, the majority (89%) admitted that leadership is the key factor that enables or blocks innovation and that top executives must spend their time actively managing and driving it. However, very few (12%) either know what to do or understand the role of creativity in innovation.

The main point for me is the fact that leaders are responsible for the organizational culture they create and it is precisely these cultures that block innovation – there was a resounding admittance that organizational culture can actually inhibit innovation and punish any divergence from the established norms.

I am not in the least surprised that the attitude to the bureaucratic organization, which as Weber said, is the “iron cage” of rule-based, rational control management of the industrial age is alive and kicking! This confirms my experience over many decades in and with organisations.

Why is this the case still today in 2013? Did I hear someone say the educational system has not changed and still thinks we are producing widgets for the masses?


A look at Creativity in Innovation

Change is a constant. To survive, individuals and organisations need to innovate. FastCompany has identified the top 50 most innovative companies for 2013. What do they all have in common? They are creative and focus on customer needs and product excellence, unlike Facebook who has focused on shareholders to obtain growth.

For me, the fundamental element for innovation is creativity. As explored in recent posts, a very powerful aspect of creativity (the focus of this blog) is visuality. Most of the top 50 companies have a strong visual component in their innovative journey.

My position on creativity is that we all have the ability to be creative. Some of us are more natural at being creative than others.

In recent posts (especially the ones on visual-spatiality), I indicate that successful individuals and businesses will be the ones that understand and ‘can do’ creativity.

I am not suggesting that the title ‘creative’ can only be granted to an individual who can draw like Michelangelo; write like J.K. Rowling; rap like Kendrick Lamar; or design like Tony Fadell etc. Creativity should become mainstream and we must ensure it becomes an important component in everything we do.

Creativity is a continuum – an attitude or disposition one decides to have and actively decides to engage with – it is as simple as that. If we look at traditional societies, they take great care and pride in their environment and artifacts. The artifacts have both a functional and mythical dimension in people’s lives (I will be exploring in a future post the loss of this in our contemporary society – particularly in Architecture).

Let me qualify. I say that creativity is a continuum. I say this purposely. I do think that there is a difference between being born creative and deciding to be creative. My next post explores this.

For the purposes of innovation, changing one’s attitude to being creative means having a disposition open to chaos, otherness and surprise. I have conducted many workshops where self-confessed, non-creative people turn out to be valuable contributors in the innovation process.

We need to understand creativity so that we can knowingly use it. A simple model is Hamaguchi’s left Brain / right Brain theory based on people’s thinking patterns.

The Feel of Creativity

The Feel of Creativity

If we were to ask people what creativity looks like, the general response tends to revolve around describing what chaos might feel like – low structure and high chaos. In reality, yes, there is a feeling of uncertainty, but actual productive creativity is more like a bell curve.

Model of Creativity adapted from Hamaguchi

Model of Creativity adapted from Hamaguchi

The sweet spot is where productive creativity exists. If you placed a ball on a mountain, the ball will have the natural tendency to roll one way or the other. This metaphor is a very good way to describe the creative process. At times one needs to be chaotic but then one needs to evaluate the ideas in a more structured process. The back and forth process is what some people find difficult to manage, especially the more logical and less naturally creative people. The way to control it is to allow it to roll one way or the other but never too far in either direction, to a point of no return. The operative phrase is to allow for a natural dynamic.

The diagram above explains the difference between naturally creative people and people who find the creative process difficult. Naturally creative people are driven and enjoy the ‘painful’ back and forth mental exhaustion of moving between a state of chaos, to a state of testing and back to a state of chaos etc. Most people would find one to two iterations sufficient and are happy with the results. Creative people are simply driven forward until they have entered a totally new dimension of knowledge and awareness. Others will not want to lose sight of some fragments of familiarity in their mental landscape.

We all have personal values, worldviews and biases. For innovation to take place, a shift in our biases must occur otherwise we will keep on doing what we have always been doing. Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. Innovation is the degree to which we individually are prepared to shift from our current position to a new position in the unknown.

Our assumptions must be challenged and to do this we need to be creative. The degree of inventiveness is the degree to which we are prepared to push the boundary.