Chapter 14. How Do We Engage Disruptions Creatively?

Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.

—Warren Spahn, Major League Baseball pitcher

Now that we have disrupted compassionately, it is time to engage—to fully participate with head, heart, body, and spirit. Creative interaction is at the heart of engaging emergence: connecting with ideas, each other, the system as a whole, the context in which it lives, the natural world, even ourselves. The conditions are ripe for creativity—the open-ended flow that brings novelty into being—enticing us to explore both the familiar and the unfamiliar with new eyes, or a beginner’s mind, as Buddhists might say.

This chapter explores what can make disruptions creative. It points the way to the exhilarating work we encounter once we’ve leaped into the unknown. It offers a story of diverse people creatively engaging a disruptive challenge. It speaks to the value of embracing chaos. And it ends with tips for engaging disruptions creatively.

What Enables Disruptions to Be Creative?

When disturbed, most of us would rather hunker down someplace safe, bringing what we wish to protect with us. This attitude kills creativity. A group of us were exploring an idea for a radio show that would bring together people with different points of view in civil conversation. One person was instantly resistant. Her image was the on-air style of most talk radio: shouting matches among people with conflicting perspectives. Not exactly creative conversation. And she was not alone.

We have all experienced people interrupting each other, no one listening, everyone striving to top the other with their point of view. Nothing creative happens in that setting. If we experience only conflict when interacting with people we view as different from us, of course we’d rather find a place to hang out with our own kind. Yet we do so at the peril of our future. We need creative solutions to intractable challenges. And difference is a key ingredient.

Rather than creating a space to keep us safe and keep the other out, creative dissonance calls for just the opposite. Deep and essential truths often hide in dissonant behaviors like shouting or silence, bullying or invisibility. Creating conditions welcoming enough to surface these gifts enables us to use our differences creatively. As the following story about the U.S. Forest Service shows, good hosting—clear intentions, welcoming what arises, and inviting people to show up with what matters to them—fosters creative engagement.

In 2003, a coalition led by the U.S. Forest Service convened 175 diverse participants from a cross-section of communities in the San Bernardino Mountains. Trees were dying, and the Forest Service knew that fires were coming. They had prepared for the fires. While they had the public’s attention, they invited residents, community associations, environmentalists, off-road-vehicle association members, business owners, ranchers, and representatives from federal, state, and local governments. They gathered to envision the future, asking, “What do we want the forests to look like in 50 years?”

It was no easy task to bring together such a diverse mix. We—the Forest Service sponsors and the consulting team—formed an organizing group that included someone from each community we hoped to reach. As the members of the organizing group interacted, they discovered the creativity and value of working together. They became our voices in their communities. I suspect that none anticipated the time they would spend enticing their friends and colleagues to participate.

After months of planning, day one of the event dawned. One hundred seventy-five people from different walks of life sat at round tables of 10. All of them cared about the future of the forest. Did they trust each other? Not likely. Did they hope to have their agenda win the day? It wouldn’t have surprised me.

Within the first hour, the consulting team invited people to pair up with someone different from themselves to interview each other. They were given a set of appreciative questions designed to elicit stories of what they loved about the forests and what they hoped would be there for their children. They spent the entire morning with their partners. Most came back inspired. As one man said, “I am the president of an off-road-vehicle association. I just spent the last two hours with an environmentalist. We discovered that we come to the forest for the same reason.” Before we consultants could revel in our accomplishment, an older man in a cowboy hat—a rancher—stood up and essentially said that the answer to the forest’s future was obvious: clear the land, sell the lumber, and let cattle graze. Even as we caught our breath from this callous declaration, no doubt intended to disrupt, we knew he was speaking for an important subset in the room that had little patience with our possibility-oriented approach.

We did a lot of soul-searching that evening, given our plans for day two. We redesigned using an analytic, left-brained activity and called it a night. At breakfast, I spoke my lingering doubts: that to back away from our original right-brained, creative activity was a mistake. We needed to trust that imaginative energies would be stirred by getting everyone out of their heads. A rich mixture of people and modalities, such as art or poetry, would lead to the best possible outcomes. My consulting partners agreed.

With trepidation, we asked participants to form groups with a mix of people from different backgrounds to create models of the forests of their desired future. We gave them crayons; small plastic toys, such as trees and people; and assorted other items. We encouraged them to play, using whatever creative forms of expression they wished to tell their story. To our surprise and relief, the “men with hats” jumped in with both feet, joining with others to envision multiuse forests that had something for everyone.

In the end, we stayed true to our intentions and didn’t abandon our commitment to creativity. We welcomed the flow of life energy, even when it surfaced as derision. The artful, playful activity brought together these diverse, usually conflicted parties. The toys helped the participants to explore what mattered most. Their differences surfaced creatively. In the process, a cohesive community formed that made room for competing interests. The three-day summit resulted in a vision and principles to guide long-term decision making, a preliminary set of projects, and an ongoing committee cochaired by a government official and a community member.

Here are the principles they named:

  • Key factors in land management decisions for healthy mountain ecosystems are sustainability, biological diversity, productivity, indigenous species, resource conservation and restoration, and acknowledging fire as a natural component.
  • Responsible, efficient use of natural resources promotes improved air and water quality and water quantity for the communities and natural environment.
  • An open forest with healthy tree spacing supports wild lands and mountain communities that are ecologically resilient and at low risk of catastrophic wildfires.
  • Care and stewardship of our mountains and forests requires education, conservation, and community involvement.
  • Based on peer-reviewed science, environmental laws are streamlined, balanced, and designed to sustain a healthy forest.
  • Capacities of the mountains are recognized and understood, established and supported.
  • Funding and other resources integral to the implementation of our plans are identified and available.
  • Decision making is timely, inclusive, collaborative, informed, delivered, and implemented through coordinated governance.
  • Responsible behavior contributes to a multiuse forest in which all living systems experience an enhanced quality of life.

This diverse group of strangers, who came together because they cared about the future of the forests, found creative answers to meet their different needs. Personal agendas gave way to common dreams of mixed-use forests that could serve today’s needs and be there for great-great-grandchildren.

Benefits from Embracing Chaos

With practice, our capacity to embrace chaos expands. We learn to tolerate the absence of guiding principles that bring order to our situation. Think about driving in another country. The assumptions about how traffic works in India are unlike those in the United States. It takes 360-degree vision to navigate among the chaotic flow of cars, bicycles, mule-drawn carts, and other vehicles. Horn honks are friendly signals meaning someone is behind you, rather than the angry sound of “Get out of my way.” Driving in another culture requires letting go of familiar rules of traffic flow and opening to learning how to drive anew. I loved finding meaning in unfamiliar aspects, such as mule carts backing up on a main street, and discovering new meaning in old aspects, such as horns.

We learn to use our differences creatively. As our different perspectives rub against each other, a burnishing occurs. Together, we make meaning, uncovering patterns that draw from what each of us brings. Expressing our differences carries the seeds of what might be. When conditions enable us all to show up and engage fully, warts and all, what is most meaningful shines through, over and over. We become a “differentiated wholeness” in which our unique gifts weave together into a coherent tapestry. Think of a championship basketball team at the top of its game. Every player brings what she or he does best. Together, they create something of beauty, grace, and power. In that moment, there’s no room for egos. Yet each player is great, contributing to the larger good. No one is alone. They are part of a whole.

In the midst of creative disruption, hearts open and we discover that we are connected. In truth, even when we can’t feel it because our hearts are closed, we are still connected. Just as head, heart, hands, and other parts connect to form our body, our unique gifts connect us into a larger, creative social body.

Creative engagement isn’t without angst. During a 2009 Journalism That Matters gathering, I sat in on a deep conversation about what mainstream journalists cherished. I finally understood that some of the fear and grief many expressed was over the possibility that enduring values of journalism, such as accuracy and transparency, would be swept away. What, in fact, became clear during the session was that such values are to be conserved as so much else changes. Ironically, new technologies provide tools for even greater accuracy and transparency. What matters endures. New forms can amplify deeper intentions. As we discover our place in the mix, excitement builds, possibilities abound, and we creatively find answers together. As one journalist put it, when systems break down, you gather up the pieces and make something new. Simple, though not easy. The next question—how do we renew coherence wisely?—sheds light on how.

Tips for Engaging Disruptions Creatively

When feeling overwhelmed, breathe. Chaotic settings are stressful. Catching our breath helps us to reconnect with ourselves.

Pay attention. If you can’t see the guiding patterns, listen, observe, and be receptive to what surrounds you. Notice what is meaningful. Make an intuitive inventory of what is happening.

Bring a beginner’s mind. Look at the familiar with new eyes. Is it still meaningful? Is it something to conserve? What is new and unexpected? Look through the eyes of someone who finds excitement in it. Is it something to be embraced?

Key principles for engaging disruption creatively:

  • Pioneer!

How do we discover our way forward?

Seek new directions. Think different. Break a habit. Act courageously.

  • Encourage random encounters.

How do we create conditions in which chance interactions among diverse members of a system lead to breakthroughs?
Widen the circle of participation. Invite the diverse members of the system to take responsibility for what they love as an act of service.

A key practice for engaging disruption creatively:

Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service. This practice liberates our hearts, minds, and spirits, calling us to put our unique gifts to use. The more it becomes an operating norm, the more innovation, joy, solidarity, generosity, and other qualities of well-being appear. It is the essence of engaging disruptions creatively.

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On to Chapter 15. How Do We Renew Coherence Wisely?