By Meg Bower
Experience is a double-edged sword. Experience is good in an industry made up of repetition because it can help you do the same thing, in less time, with lower costs. As long as the products don’t have to vary, don’t require nuance or adaptation, the process can be easy. On the flip side, however, doing the same thing over and over makes it a “commodity,” the furthest thing from the creative process required to craft something new, customized and innovative. In this sense, experience can also equate to rigid ideology and a lot of assumptions about the unknowns in any given situation.
About 10 years ago a colleague and I shared a lunch and ended up, like we often did, discussing work. He used the word “commodity” to describe the planning industry. I struggled to understand why he felt our work was being converted into a generic product. Didn’t we approach each jurisdiction as unique? Didn’t we try to find new solutions? Didn’t we listen and adapt our solution to the individual context? How could anyone suggest that our services, so diligent and professional, were produced on an assembly line?
A decade later, I think I now understand what he was trying to say. Most planners were selling the “status quo” solution, and that was what most jurisdictions were buying. Times change. If there is one thing most of us in corrections agree on today, it is that the criminal justice system is changing before our eyes. New initiatives are being tried in almost every jurisdiction, from alternatives to incarceration to re-entry/anti-recidivism programs. Change renders this the “anti-commodity” context for planning.
For anyone who was comfortable with the “commodity” context a decade ago, this new era can be disconcerting. For those who relish change, new ideas are like fresh air. Either way, everyone is looking toward an uncertain future. Here are three things we can do to keep an open mind and not fall into the “experience trap.”
Step 1: Zoom Out, Zoom In
One of my favorite quotes is from Dalai Lama XIV: “When you talk, you are only repeating what you know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”
When any of us is in a conversation, it is easy to listen without really hearing. We all do this to some degree, but when problem-solving in corrections, we often follow an actual script or survey, always with the same questions. Asking the same questions and getting the same answers produces the same assumptions, the same analysis and the same time-worn conclusions.
One trick to help keep a fresh mind while listening is something I call “Zoom out, zoom in.” This technique can help frame what is being said in a way that gives a better understanding of the issues behind what may appear to be a simple problem.
“Zooming” is the term I use for changing my perspective. “Zooming out” means looking at a problem presented by one person from a broader viewpoint — from the perspective of other stakeholders, for example, or perhaps from the facility or jurisdictional leadership. How will they perceive this person’s concerns and goals? What will they think is worthwhile? What institutional challenges might this individual be facing to resolve this problem? “Zooming in,” on the other hand, means looking at the bigger picture from the perspective of this individual stakeholder. What does this individual know? Is there knowledge they lack?
“Zooming” allows me to frame what I hear in a meaningful way, scaffolding the knowledge onto other things I know so that listening leads to learning. When someone tells me about a problem, even if I think I know the answer, a quick “zoom out/zoom in” anchors that viewpoint in context. My follow-up questions become more meaningful and usually lead to a dialog that lends location-specific authenticity to our solutions. The result is a better, more thoughtful response.
Zooming can help in any situation where interaction is required. Listen from your perspective, but zoom to see things from other viewpoints. Try to understand. Then validate your assumptions. “Are you suggesting that…?” or “So, if I understand you, this is related to…” are ways to deepen the conversation and verify what you have learned.
Step 2: Embrace Creative Abrasion
Everybody loves TED Talks, and one of my favorites, titled “How to Manage for Collective Creativity,” was given by Linda Hill, a researcher studying anthropology. Her pet topic? Innovation.
Hill does a wonderful job, in just over 17 minutes, of explaining what common qualities exist in the most innovative organizations and projects she could find around the world. Her team found three capabilities that existed in all truly innovative communities: creative abrasion, creative agility and creative resolution.
Almost everyone is familiar with the concepts of creative agility and creative resolution — these are ideas most of us learn in business classes, management classes or training sessions. How to brainstorm, how to test ideas, how to decide what is worth pursuing and what is not. Fostering creative abrasion, though — this is not a skill most of us have. Hill cites examples from Google and Pixar to explain the concept. In the end, creative abrasion is something akin to the ability to allow people with ideas to disagree, and to encourage dissent and challenges to the status quo, without feeling threatened by disagreement or conflict. It is a term to describe the opposite process from which one rushes to a neat and tidy conclusion.
At Pixar, a firm renowned for its creativity, it became an overt goal to “make sure that all the disruptors, all the minority voices in this organization, speak up and are heard,” according to Hill. At a pharmaceutical company, a German automaker, a technology firm, the element of creative abrasion was the key to innovation. Applying this concept, any meeting to address a problem in which everyone feels comfortable the whole time probably lacks sufficient diversity to truly innovate. According to Hill’s research, it is the scratchy discourse surrounding differing ideas that is the key to creating something new. Creative groups need to seek out different voices and ideas, and embrace them.
How does this concept relate to the changing world of corrections? First, it requires accepting that the status quo is already our past. Second, it obligates us to let the process of decision-making be messy. Third, it pushes us to include a wider group of individuals in situations where new ideas are needed. Allowing dissenting approaches to live and breathe in our organizations opens the door for those ideas to be developed, and for concepts to be tested that might not have ever been tried before. Innovation breeds innovation, and allows for a future that is different form our past. Finally, this approach releases us from the stale script where new ideas are only born in the heads of managers and pushed (forcibly or not) to success by the staff.
Step 3: Time to Think
Most of us are busy people. It is commonly acknowledged that the traditional 40-hour work week is closer to 50 or 60. Commuters may spend one hour or more each way traveling to and from work. Our productive time is extended through the use of services that make our lives more convenient, from quick foods and services we receive at work to home delivery of anything we need and hiring out lawn and home care jobs. The joke of my generation is that we will do those other things “in our free time,” usually punctuated by “air quotes” and a regretful laugh.
The loss of free time has not only driven leisure from our lives, it has also cluttered up our former quiet times with demands for attention, with technological “noise,” and with desperate snatches of structured time with friends, when all the fun occurs. The rigid compartmentalization required for most of us to maintain our standard of living has drummed out all non-productive pursuits, solitary pleasures and quiet time alone.
One of the great losses is time to think. More specifically, when did you sit down to think about this system where you work? To wonder what the big picture shifts mean? What the changes will mean to people who are like you, and not like you?
Taking time to think is critical to generating new ideas. The concept is important enough that a British leadership development company took Time to Think as its name. Its website describes 10 components of the thinking environment. The list includes attention, equality, ease, appreciation, encouragement, feelings, information, diversity, incisive questioning and place. Some of these elements are challenged by our overly busy environments, where we are encouraged to rush through everything. The reality, however, is that “time to think” is efficient.
One case study cites these concepts as key to improving a group’s management meetings by 62 percent, rendering them less top-heavy, more creative and much more efficient at solving problems. Even better, they improved the working relationships of those engaged in the meetings.
The Time to Think website has an online assessment that will tell you where to start. There is no way to stop change, and it can be unsettling, but these three tools are a few suggestions to help anyone with an experience paradigm to maintain an agile mind and be open to innovation.
Meg Bower, MPA, AICP, LEED AP BD+C, is a senior associate at Fairfax, Va.-based Dewberry.