Thursday, April 11, 2013

Rational Unpredictability

Rational unpredictability. This odd phrase occurred to me while I was reading Bruce Nussbaum's Creative Intelligence, an exploration of why productive creativity seems to elude so many people who pursue it.

In the book, Nussbaum lambasts supposed creativity techniques such as free-for-all brainstorming for generating new ideas. The kind where everyone's invited, any idea goes, and nothing gets judged. I agree that there's a lot of crap generated in sessions like that. The book offers up some interesting recommended alternatives, among them incorporating play within more tightly constrained and bound groups. This is not a new idea, of course, though it's not commonly followed. However, though it probably deserves more attention, the thought of "rational unpredictability" came from wondering why play works, not why people do or don't use it.

Possible answers are that it loosens our brains up and gets us thinking in ways and about things we don't very often, allowing new connections to form paths for new ideas. But the "why" might be even deeper than that. One of the primary components of play, oddly enough, is rules, which seems counter-intuitive. Interestingly, whether a group of kids or two sports teams are playing, rules make it possible. They create an agreed-on space in which one or more people can engage, explore, compete, and accomplish. But thinking about it from the perspective of rules is opposite the way most of us think about play. So another question might be, 'why is rule-based play fun?'

I'm getting way out of my depth here, but I think it's because the rules give us a way to enter a context that is different than the norm without us seeming abnormal. We get to be or act other than how we usually do or are allowed to. And yet the rules satisfy our minds' desire for things to make sense, for patterns to extend, and for the edges to match. However, back toward my point, this allows us to also weave in-between the rules. A little outside and a little in. Never violating the rules but seeing where we can go. What non-rules can be busted? What can we get away with without breaking the game?

Doing things differently means breaking the false-rule patterns around the pattern of the real rules, and behaving that way can appear unpredictable. The non-rule patterns are emergent and almost always assumed, yet we treat them as if they were real rules and most of us follow them accordingly. But they aren't real rules, so they are breakable, but only in ways that don't violate the actual rule patterns. So we have to stay rational. Stay within the sense and context we have agreed to. Be rational and be unpredictable.

Back to creativity, and even innovation. What we can learn is to pick the places to go outside the rule patterns and off the track. Look for the non-rule patterns being followed and take a sharp left when everyone expects a veer right. Be rationally unpredictable. Find the direction that doesn't make sense on the surface, without sacrificing the things that create the surface, and go that way.

This could be a great way to frame conversations about making big changes in products and businesses. So often new ideas are resisted with phrases such as "no one does it this way / we don't do things that way / that seems too out of character." Almost always, those reactions are based not in the rules of the space, but in the non-rule patterns that get treated like rules. These patterns can be a goldmine, though, especially if competitors are behaving the same way. Finding those patterns, those non-rules could be your next success, so go be rationally unpredictable.