The common idiom ‘on a tangent’ can be defined as the following: a sudden digression or change of course (dictionary.com). At The SIDELab, tangents are a must. In fact, Jeremy once defined ‘SIDELab-ing’ as the act of going on tangents. We laughed but we knew it was true.
As I was packing up my laptop after the last SIDELab, I joked with the others that this session would be difficult to write about. My notes scattered all over the place in reflection of our fast-paced conversation. It was a game of Ping-Pong with many players and the ball zoomed around the room – from idea to idea, experience to experience. There were so many tangents that there were actually none at all.
It turned out to be a coherent dialogue on the impact of perceived ambiguity on different stakeholders, and it went a little something like this.
We began by discussing the Viable Systems Model: is this model sensitive to cultural and relational factors? We discussed our personal connection with the problem at hand – do we choose problems or do problems choose us? In the same way that there is a selection bias when we ask for advice, there may also be a selection bias in identifying problems. What story do we tell ourselves about the problems we face?
Returning to the outputs of our last session on personal models, we spent time dialoging about the explicit role for intuition in problem solving. We lamented that as a society we tend to discount the amount of ‘knowing’ that takes place in the body. In response to this, Eric shared his own model for addressing problems:
When faced with a problem, you are not always ready and equipped to respond in that moment. Eric spoke about ’sonar’, something that bounces back information, provides context, and signals urgency. According to this personal model, perceived space is fundamental to the activation of the sonar.
Once a problem is identified, we turn to innovation. Power-holders can feel threatened by changes to a system, regardless of the possibilities that emerge. Discomfort persists when there are no measurables for impact, no anticipated outcomes. As a result, a project remains unpopular and unsupported. The status quo becomes the preferred – and the rewarded – path forward.
In these cases, power-holders support value creation over value innovation, even though the latter can lead the system into uncontested market-space (see the Blue Ocean Strategy for more). It seems that in order to create change, we may need to drive two processes in tandem – we can look for success stories outside of the system, and at the same time, try to cultivate the change from within the system’s constraints.
Paradigm shifts take time, and often, these shifts are born from a realization of impending despair (see work by Jamshid Gharagedaghi, 2005).
With this summary, I make a feeble attempt to synthesize the richness that filled the room. Now, I reflect on the value of tangents in the creative process and on the personal and communal processes of meaning making. What are tangents? How do we perceive tangential ideas? Returning to the dictionary definition from above, are tangents really a digression? How and when do tangents result in progress?
When we change course, do we lose course? Based on the insights gained from the last SIDELab, I think not.
Written by Noorin Fazal.