Thinking of Things as if They Could be Otherwise
When my colleagues and I work with university faculty, business leaders, and other professionals, our goal is to help people think in new ways. Typically, they have a problem to solve or some big new idea to wrap their minds around, or maybe they’re confronting change at the system level that will force changes in their thinking and ways of doing things. None of this is easy and almost no one thinks of it as fun. But this is exactly where our team from Creative Leaps International comes in: to set the stage for something new to emerge and prepare the belief that something more is possible.
Let’s begin with a story…
Maxine Greene: Meeting the Legend
When I first met Maxine Greene (1917–2014), it was blustery cold, an unforgiving night in the middle of January. She was speaking to a crowd of 500 packed into an auditorium at Columbia University. Maxine was legendary, without question one of the nation’s great lights, perhaps our greatest philosopher of aesthetics and education. This is how she began:
John Dewey said imagination is thinking of things as if they could be otherwise. It’s a defiance of the taken-for-granted, of the fixed. A kind of deliberate effort to break through what you assume to be true. To think of alternative possibilities. And to believe that something more is possible. In other words, you value what is “not yet” and work to bring it into being.
At the conclusion of her talk, I managed to garner an invitation to speak with her the following week. “I make a mean baloney sandwich,” she said, as if I needed further persuasion. We met at her apartment on 5th Avenue a few blocks from the Guggenheim and shared our stories, hers much more interesting than mine, and then we dug into what she meant by “releasing the imagination” because exactly that was the goal of everything I was trying to do with my work — that is, with our “Concerts of Ideas.” She probed with laser intensity into every aspect of our methodology and how we had come to do this work. Here’s the gist of what I said:
The Anatomy of a Concept
A Concert of Ideas is our signature version of a keynote event in the form of a concert. It’s designed to capture your attention, awaken your imagination and help you to think. How does it work? Each Concert of Ideas embodies a set of artful triggers specially selected to set minds and hearts in curious exploratory motion — that’s a very important notion to us. Participants are royally entertained. Simultaneously, they are invited to think deeply, to entertain new perspectives, and, ultimately, to enter into thoughtful dialogue with one another.
What about the actual ingredients, the ‘artful triggers’ in your Concert of Ideas? First of all, the Concert of Ideas IS an actual concert performance. Music by composers such as Copland, Bernstein, Gershwin, and Rachmaninoff, and Broadway showstoppers galore are essential ingredients of every Concert of Ideas. But there’s more. Woven through the music and creatively juxtaposed to leverage imagination, audiences discover equally brilliant contributions from the likes of Einstein, Picasso, Shakespeare and Cervantes, Margaret Mead, James Baldwin, Richard Feynman, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and more. The resultant interplay of connective possibilities just keeps multiplying.
Concert of Ideas: Designing for Connectivity and Surprise
But how is all this sensory stimulation curated and organized? We endeavor to optimize for two things: novelty and connectivity. On one level, it’s about interdisciplinarity or “thinking across boundaries,” for example, interweaving notions from the arts and the sciences, or the arts, sciences, and business, or performance and pedagogy, and bringing these connections to life through our music. There’s also the fine structure of the Concert of Ideas or how we sequence the performance elements comprising the Concert of Ideas. We refer to this as “creative juxtaposition.” As each performance piece tells its story, launching its particular narrative thread, that same performance piece, by virtue of its placement in the Concert of Ideas, will serve as a lens through which we see, anticipate, and make sense of whatever is coming next. That interplay of one story with another cues up an idea space where the two stories play off one another, layering their meanings and mingling their narrative threads.
Over time, the connective possibilities expand exponentially creating a rich, alluring ecosystem for imaginative exploration. We’ve learned to play with this sequencing (or creative juxtaposition) to create just the right mix of logic, invention, satisfaction, and surprise. The element of surprise or what we’ve come to call “learning by surprise” is especially important. It boosts the energy and creativity of the moment, locks that moment into memory, and advances the trajectory of the Concert of Ideas with emotional zest.
It’s important to emphasize that our Concerts of Ideas deliver no hard and fast answers. Instead, they point metaphorically in many curious and compelling directions. Our goal is to make thinking irresistible and make certain that all the best thinking is left to our participants. Crucially, our Concerts of Ideas flow directly into small group discussion circles where participants, who by this point are bursting with a desire to talk with one another, have the opportunity to do exactly that as they process their impressions, insights, thoughts, feelings, discoveries. And then, after their conversation circles, each group reports back to plenary and the room comes to life with their collective joy and new thinking.
Case Study: University at Albany
Here’s a quick overview of an actual case.
Our Creative Leaps team was brought in to assist with a strategic planning initiative at the University at Albany. It happened to be a rough time for the university. The governor had slashed the budget, cuts to programs and departments were ongoing, and otherwise, immensely good and dedicated people were at odds with one another. Our job was to persuade 350 of these unhappy campers to participate in an idea generation process. The account below was published shortly after the event.
On the way into the auditorium, Jim Stellar (the provost who had hired us) was greeted by deans and faculty alike with assorted grumbles and comments suggesting he was taking a big risk doing something like this. But he kept his cool and remained calm, positive, and inviting. One would almost think he knew something no one else did. Pascal said it best: “The heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.” As a neuroscientist, Provost Stellar knew that if we could somehow touch the hearts and humanity of his faculty, the skies would clear and people would come together. Happily, he was right. True to form, the Concert of Ideas worked its magic, and people were soon electrified and smiling ear to ear, and suddenly Jim Stellar was a genius again! Everyone moved off to the discussion circles to jump-start their idea generation. There was a buzz in every room and people talked into the night. The next morning, when they gathered again in the big room to report on their ideas, a number of other faculty who had not been at the Concert of Ideas the night before, joined the meeting but could not understand why everyone was so jazzed about what they were doing. What had happened to everyone? In the course of that second day, more than 300 exciting ideas were mapped out for the strategic plan.
In the words of Maxine, “Imagination is thinking of things as if they could be otherwise…you value what is ‘not yet’ and work to bring it into being.”