Creative Generalist: Experience & Empathize
We can tip-toe forward inch-by-inch with our head down in steadfast concentration and call it movement, but we cannot call it progress until we lift our head, run our eyes across the horizon and understand not only where we stand but also where we are going and why. To do this requires insight, which is often gained by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and looking at things from another vantage point.
Creative Generalist is a six-part series
Ideation feeds on lateral thinking and free association. And the farther one can look the more there is to learn and connect. In this sense, crossing cultural borders – replete with unique languages, customs, traditions, politics, religions, senses (sights, sounds, smells, tastes), technologies, and philosophies – is the most expansive lateral thinking that can be done. Developing a deeper understanding of how other cultures solve problems is a huge leadership asset – notice the trend in the hiring of foreign-born CEOs – and competitive advantage in business. (Not to mention it also happens to be personally enriching and is downright essential if we are to combat worldwide issues such as climate change, terrorism, and poverty.)
Travel is of course the best way to glean new ideas derived from other worldviews. And contrary to what you might think, a huge expedition is not necessary. Sometimes the most useful learnings come simply from getting out in your surroundings, engaging with people and, most importantly, listening and observing. Removing the impersonal level of abstraction that accounting spreadsheets, polling data, and one’s own pre-conceptions and expectations reveal insights valuable enough to solve problems, seed businesses, and spawn careers.
As far as mind-expanding pursuits go, travel is right up there with learning a new language. And while relaxing on the beach can make a pleasant vacation, the real fun is in exploring new worlds, discovering the real inner workings of different societies, and learning about foreign cultures. Says Canadian Dan Fraser, co-founder of a unique Bangkok-based cultural adventure company called Smiling Albino, “We want people to approach travel more the way they approach a scientific research project. We want people to think about travel the way they would about the Olympics, or playing in a film, or learning an instrument. It isn’t necessarily just the excursion – it’s the idea behind it.” Just like the fascinating juxtapositions of Thailand – majestic temples next to crazy nightclubs, urban chaos surrounded by peaceful countryside, traditional Eastern values mingling with modern Western commercialism. Fraser adds, “The pollination of different experiences from high adventure to an emotional giving of oneself creates a very stimulating and cerebral experience.” Experiential adventures foster empathy and facilitate discovery.
A company closer to home that’s built an impressive reputation leveraging observed insight into useful applications and solutions is IDEO, the Palo Alto based industrial design firm. Drawing on the “thoughtless acts” philosophy of its Chief Creative Officer Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO’s human factors team goes out of their way to observe, decipher, explain, and re-engineer various everyday human experiences – from navigating a new airline check-in system to conducting a medical procedure. Such a social and environmental undertaking involves a keen awareness of context, complex systems, and inter-relationships.
“All the elements that make up experiences are very complex when viewed objectively,” says Suri. “But since experience is subjective, it is wonderfully refreshing and most useful to look at that kind of complexity through a human subjective lens and ask simply “what does the experience feel like from this perspective?”. Literally seeking to understand the experience, the journey through time and space, for someone else. That perspective automatically integrates all the contributing elements into a whole and helps you appreciate the interdependencies in a way that doing only objective analysis wouldn’t.”
Embracing a human-centered observational and empathic approach tunes into multiple perspectives, various worldviews. And this is both inspiring and empowering, not simply because of the exposure and the reality check but because, again, it taps into the intersectional riches of diversity.
For the seasoned expert, overconfidence in proven techniques fosters a mindset averse to new ideas. “If managers ‘believe’ their worldviews are facts rather than sets of assumptions,” Senge once remarked, “they will not be open to challenging these worldviews. If they lack skills in inquiring into theirs and others’ ways of thinking, they will be limited in experimenting collaboratively with new ways of thinking.” An open mind is essential, of course, but so too is a dose of intelligent naïveté; something, among many valuable things, that Creative Generalists bring to the table.
This is the last of a six-part series on creative generalism. It is adapted from a February 2008 post by Steve Hardy on his blog, Creative Generalist, and reposted here, in its adapted form, with the author's permission.