Zero-Gravity Thinking

Innovation. It is the subject of IBM ads that air during football games as well as a constant issue for anyone who is a maker of poems, paintings, music, theatre.

A recent article in the New York Times captured some of the occupational hazards encountered by those who have to deal daily with what does not yet exist. Although the article is primarily geared for innovation issues within a corporate setting, it raises relevant concerns for the soloist as well.

Here’s an excerpt:

It’s a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.

Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.

This so-called curse of knowledge…means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path…

In her 2006 book, “Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,” Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.

When experts have to slow down and go back to basics to bring an outsider up to speed, she says, “it forces them to look at their world differently and, as a result, they come up with new solutions to old problems…”

Here is Rabe’s advice for how to find zero-gravity thinkers:

“Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,” she says. “Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.”

That’s what the poets in my life are–my very own zero-gravity thinkers. They work in a related area but not in my specific field. They force me to look at the world differently.

Now the question I have is this: Can a visual artist do the same for them?

8 Replies to “Zero-Gravity Thinking”

  1. Enlightening. :] I never knew about this thing…

  2. Why not, Deborah? I think it entirely possible to have cross-fertilizing in that direction as well, even though vis artists “think” in terms of images colours, forms, visual structures and poets use words as their colours forms and structures. Poets make some of the best companions with whom to look at and discuss art, at least, so I have found. G

  3. Why not try psychologists?

  4. hello happy new year 2008

  5. Odile, some psychologists would be excellent as zero-gravity thinkers for artists. I’ve had relationships with a few that fall into that category.

    G, as a visual and a language artist you know that membrane well. I am looking for examples of the influences running both ways since I really don’t have any evidence of my own.

  6. Makes sense to me, too. I happen to work in high-tech and am an artist, and I actually think that my art and writing fertilize my on-the-job thinking. I see people in my company resist change like you wouldn’t believe, which blows me away given what we do. I’ve often said to colleagues that innovation shouldn’t be this hard. And I think my own openness to new ways and change come largely from my painting/drawing/writing brain. Unfortunately, the engineers and scientists who make up the majority of the employee base don’t operate (or it appears they don’t) with that side of their brains.

  7. When I was stuck with nothing to initiate my daily writing practice, I used to turn to other poets, hoping some cluster of words might, like germs in a petry dish, start a cluster of my own to organize into a poem. Increasingly though, I look at my art history books or imagery online to spur me. William Carlos Williams might say words that function as words are too practical for poetry—we ought to be looking for pigment.

  8. D, Love that line–“words that function as words are too practical for poetry–we ought to be looking for pigment.” Thank you for that real life example.

    And Ybonesy, I can relate. I too have worked in high tech, and I too have been amazed at how change is avoided over and over again. Uncertainty is a way of life for artists. It makes a lot of other types of people extremely anxious.

    Thanks, both of you.

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