Yesterday I announced our upcoming series exploring ‘Diversity & Divergency’ throughout March and April. You’ll be familiar with ‘diversity’ but ‘divergency’ is something that you may not have heard before (mainly because we only recently coined the term!) So in this article, Aran Rees, the brains behind this activity, explains a bit more about divergency and why you need it if you want to benefit from true diversity – Dave

Brian: Please, please, please listen! I’ve got one or two things to say.

The Crowd: Tell us! Tell us both of them!

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re ALL individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!

Man in crowd: I’m not…

– Life of Brian (1979)

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.

Dory: Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.

Marlin: What?

Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.

– Finding Nemo (2003)

One is a satirical look at the formation of cults while the other is an odd couple road trip movie set beneath the waves, yet both The Life of Brian and Finding Nemo end up saying something very important about humans and our commonly held fear of difference.

Homeostasis: the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.

We might, from this, construe that change and individuality are things that we have feared since birth, that we are naturally sheep prone to following the herd. But while a pro-social tendency is certainly something for which we are generally hard wired it is not the case that this must come at the expense of being authentically true to ourselves. You can see this for yourself simply through the power of observation.

“You can observe a lot by just watching”

– Yogi Berra 

Most adults have learned to hide who they really are

If you’re fortunate enough to have access to small children in your life then you can begin here. Observing small children playing (everything small children do is play) is the easiest way to see how strange humans really are. Look closely and you can see how they move from one point of focus to another without apparent meaning or pattern. That is to say, the meaning and pattern is not apparent to you. To the child it is utterly obvious. In children we find this charming. But in adults we might see it as strange, eccentric, perhaps even a sign of mental instability. Which explains why most adults have learned to hide who they really are. That is to say, they have learned to hide their genius.

“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”

– Oscar Levant

Genius is a word that we use now in a worryingly narrow way. To most people a genius is someone who is better at something than everyone else. You might say that someone is a genius at maths because he or she is better at maths than anyone around them. You might say that someone is a genius cook because they can cook better than anyone else you know. But the true meaning of genius is far less parochial.

Notice how the word genius looks a lot like genus and gene? Does it make you think of words like generate and genuine? That’s because it comes from the same root in Latin. Genius isn’t a comparative term noting one person’s superiority over another but in fact literally denotes a person who is authentically who they are – true to their essence.

I will avoid getting deep into Essentialism vs Existentialism here but it is enough to note that there is no inherent contradiction between being true to your initial state, working to follow your own inclinations, and choosing your own path. The truth is that we must do both – know ourselves and define ourselves.

Sadly few of us do either; preferring to see ourselves as a reflection of others and allow those same others to tell us who we are and what we should be doing. And is that really so strange when someone who displays his or her true genius is likely to be considered at best odd and at worst a complete nut job?

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”

– Alfred Adler

Now observe yourself. This is a great deal harder than observing others but it is an important part of the process. Consider how strange you really are. You are very strange. I can be confident in saying this because, when observed closely, there’s nobody who isn’t.

Consider how strange you really are

You are a functioning member of society and so you have probably learned many ways to hide your oddness because you believe that if anyone really knew the real you that they would flee in terror or turn away in disgust. This is a fear we all have inside us in one away or another. That we are dark, broken creatures. Fortunately we are very good at creating systems to ensure that nobody ever finds out. We call these systems “norms” and we are aggressive in preserving them.

Rook di goo, rook di goo!

There’s blood in the shoe.

The shoe is too tight,

This bride is not right!

– Two unusually observant and chatty pigeons in Cinderella by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

It seems we used to be a lot more up front about how painfully we desire to fit in, as the above quote suggests. In the Grimm’s version of Cinderella both Ugly Stepsisters attempt to fool the prince by squeezing their oversized feet into the tiny slipper left behind by our heroine as she fled the royal ball. So far, so familiar. But did you know that they went so far as to take a knife and mutilate their own feet, cutting off toes and slicing away at the heel?

Insanity, right? To cause yourself pain and hobble your future just to be accepted as someone you are not. No reasonable person would do such a thing to themselves, would they?

Sadly, they would.

Beginning at an early age we put ourselves and our children through a gruelling process of mutilation no less painful for being of the mind and spirit instead of the body. We call this “socialisation” and it includes but is not limited to schooling, peer pressure, and social taboos as communicated through what we do and don’t allow to be discussed in “polite society”.

By the time we reach our teens this process has become self regulating. That is to say that we do not need parents and teachers to enforce social norms. Teens do that to themselves.

I’m reminded here of an apocryphal story about a social experiment supposedly carried out on chimpanzees. While the exact details of the Five Monkeys and a Ladder story are not absolutely true this is only of small comfort since they are based on various and similarly nasty real life experiments in the 1920s by the likes of Wolfgang Kholer.

In this story we are told that five chimpanzees were put in a cage with a ladder. Suspended above the ladder was food. If one chimpanzee climbed the ladder to get to the food the experimenter would douse the rest of the chimps with cold water. The next time one of them was tempted to climb and get the food the rest would immediately beat him up to avoid another punishment. Soon new chimps were added to the group, chimps who had no experience of what the ladder and the food had previously lead too. But they too would be beaten if they attempted to climb up. Soon enough, even though these new chimps had no idea why, they would join in with the beatings when any further additions attempted to climb.

Teens are like those chimps. They have learned to oppress one another so that adults don’t have to do it anymore and even those who didn’t get the original punishment have been punished by proxy. This remains true for most of us for the rest of our lives – we become both prisoner and jailer, implicit in our own confinement.

Is this all getting a bit depressing? Well, it is a bit depressing. But here’s the pin-prick of light at the end of the tunnel: you’re part of the problem.

Here’s the pin-prick of light at the end of the tunnel: you’re part of the problem

I immediately see how being told that you are part of the problem might be seen as something other than uplifting but this is an important learning. You are part of the problem which means you can choose to be part of the solution. You are personally responsible for the way things are. Not entirely responsible. And, in fact, not even at fault. But you are a human with a mind and the capacity to face courageously your overwhelming freedom. In other words; it’s up to you to change things and all you really have a choice about is if you intend to do so or not.

Which, at long last, brings us to the point of this column: Diversity and Divergency.

Diversity is a word that we see and hear constantly. We talk about the need to have a better gender balance, embrace people of different socio-economic backgrounds, ensure our workplaces are accessible to those who are differently abled or who are members of the LGBTQ community. This, of course, is all very good. There are many reasons why we should do this ranging from moral to purely practical.

Diversity is necessary but not sufficient for creativity to flourishClick To Tweet

Our business here at Open for Ideas is creativity so it behooves us to note that one of the most oft cited practical reasons for having a more diverse workplace is that a diverse team is better for creative problem solving and, indeed, this is true. That being said, the fact is that diversity is necessary but not sufficient for creativity to flourish. In other words, if you happen to be surrounded by a veritable United Colours of Benetton poster campaign you shouldn’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back.

Diversity means that, in your essential makeup, you are different. It is a state of being. But as discussed at length above we are, as a species, very good at conforming and pressuring others to conform. As we have seen, children are a wonderfully strange group, deeply diverse, yet by the time we reach maturity (a term which I fear has come to mean the state of being utterly boring) we have largely managed to bury our differences under many layers of sameness.

We might still look different. We may still vary in gender, ethnicity, sexuality and so on. But when you scratch that rainbow coloured surface often we find that all the jelly beans taste of vanilla.

That is why you need divergency.

You can think of diversity as being a way to increase your options, widen your potential paths to include things that were previously impossible. Diversity is necessary as it provides a wide range of materials from which to build your solutions. But without Divergency these materials, for all their potential, will tend to be used for the same thing. This is a fact neatly demonstrated by the story of glass.

Homer: I don’t know, Flanders, having two wives could have its advantages.

*We enter a day-dream sequence in which Homer reclines on a hammock while his two wives carry out yard work*

Homer: Chop, chop. Dig, dig. Chop, chop. Dig, dig. Chop, chop. Dig, dig.

Marge: You know Homie, there’s so much more two wives could do for you.

Homer: I hear digging but I don’t hear chopping.

– Homer, from the Simpsons, failing to heed the advice of this column

Glass is an extraordinary substance. It is arguable that if not for glass the modern world would be impossible. Through glass, literally and figuratively, we are able to see the universe both large and small, and gaze back at ourselves. Glass changed how we saw the world; this new material seemingly sparking a revolution. But that was only possible once we had combined this new material with new thinking. You see, to begin with, we just used glass to make prettier versions of the things we used to make from metal; drinking vessels, jewellery and ornaments.

It took divergency to make the diversity of glass something other than a surface level curiosity. Divergency, in this case, was when we realised that the unique qualities of glass could be used to design entirely new classes of objects from telescopes to microscopes, all the way to fibre optic cables.

Now do you see why diversity is not enough? Just as in the hands of someone lacking imagination a new material simply replaces or updates an old process, in a culture that is bound by conformity and sameness new types of people will simply become slightly ill fitting pieces within a system designed only to accept the inputs it is expecting to receive.

So how does this relate to you, team dynamics, and creativity in your work? If a team is a group of people with a shared goal then we can begin with the assumption that there is already something powerful drawing this group of people together. The question then is how do you maintain difference?

Homogeneity wins by default

Remember that both conflict and conflict avoidance strategies, self and social censorship, the desire to fit in and the overwhelming influence of authority to bring about conformity are all powerful pressures that will drain any team of its individual spark. Furthermore, the constraints designed into the business; job descriptions, role profiles, metrics and standardised objectives all have an homogenising impact. If you’re not doing anything proactively to maintain difference, in other words, purposeful divergency, then homogeneity wins by default. 

During March and April Open for Ideas, in partnership with Sabre Tooth Panda, will be exploring this challenge in greater depth in the first of a series of modules designed to help the true practitioners of the art of creative problem solving make real progress.

We will discuss:

  • What makes conflict creative
  • How to bring your whole self to work without making the work about you
  • How to tell if you’re stopping your team from expressing themselves
  • What to do about a creativity destroying team member
  • How the very bricks of your office might prevent individuality
  • The tricks and tips of creative feedback
  • Facilitation 101: how to lead without leading in a group
  • Coaching 101: how to lead without leading one-on-one
  • The Stupidity of Crowds: the limitations of crowdsourcing
  • Fluency vs Originality: why more isn’t always more
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Yesterday I announced our upcoming series exploring 'Diversity & Divergency' throughout March and April. You'll be familiar with 'diversity' but 'divergency' is something that you may not have heard before (mainly because we only recently coined the term!) So in this article, Aran Rees, the brains behind this activity, explains...
Aran Rees
Founder and Coach at Sabre Tooth Panda
Aran is a creativity coach, facilitator and communicator, founder of Sabre Tooth Panda and creator of No Wrong Answers: the hypothetical quiz. He believes that expressing creativity is all about how you and those around you relate to creativity both at an emotional and intellectual level. He helps his clients to get cosy with creativity to solve big problems and have more fun.