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Moving beyond what is currently possible: creativity, risk taking, and a sense of “promisingness”

Reos Partners
June, 2017


Creativity begins where conventional answers to challenges end. The higher the challenge, the higher the level of creativity we are engaging.

I come to my work at Reos Partners after having spent more than 20 years as a theatre director. From that perspective, I am keenly interested in exploring the ways that the creative process and artistic practices can contribute to multi-sector system change work. Specifically, I am curious how practices from the performing arts – particularly from theatre, improv, and music – can provide examples for how to bring people together to creatively address challenges. It is not the product of those arts, but rather the processes and capacities they entail that I believe must find their way into change work. As enjoyable as it is to listen to a jazz trio play or see improv actors perform, I think of that as the consumption of art. Instead, it’s the engagement with artistic sensibilities that I believe could fuel the work of multi-sector system change.

In a series of blog posts over the coming months, I will reflect on what this approach requires from each of us to fully engage in it. I will also share this ongoing exploration as it plays out in different projects.

One of the most remarkable books I have read in the last couple of years is called Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia (Open Court Publishing Company, 1993). As the title says, this book is an exploration of the factors that contribute to a person becoming outstanding, particularly at meeting challenges within a field of work. The authors do not privilege one discipline over another; whether it is auto mechanics or physics, they are interested in looking at “the growing edge to everyone’s knowledge.” The book is full of rich insights. In particular, Bereiter and Scardamalia identify a key capacity in system change work: developing a sense of “promisingness” in the creative risks you take when addressing a challenge.

What Does Creativity Do?

To begin with, the authors reframe what it means for something to be a creative act. So instead of trying to say what creativity is, Bereiter and Scardamalia focus on what it does. They propose that some problems are so difficult that any successful response to them would have to be creative. For example, in trying to develop a machine that would fly, the Wright brothers naturally exercised creativity to come up with a novel invention. The reason theirs was a creative challenge was that it not only extended beyond their present ability, it also extended beyond what was currently possible.

From this perspective, creativity begins where conventional answers to challenges end. This means that it is directly linked to the level of challenge we undertake – the higher the challenge, the higher the level of creativity we are engaging.

A Sense of Promisingness

When addressing a challenge that is not only beyond our current ability but also beyond what is currently possible, we still must find a way to act. We cannot know exactly what to do because no one has done it before; therefore, we necessarily make decisions with insufficient knowledge. Likewise, each action we take constrains the next. For example, when we write the first sentence on a page, that constrains what the next possible sentence could be.

As we build our way forward in response to an unprecedented challenge, we take risks with each step. Bereiter and Scardamalia propose the idea that creative experts – people who have been continually growing the edge of their knowledge in a particular discipline – use a sense of “promisingness” to inform this risk taking. Promisingness arises out of the understanding and craft developed by exploring the edge of their field. The authors believe that, through this sense of promisingness, creative experts evaluate which action to take based on three criteria:

  1. Does it fit the overall goal they are pursuing?
  2. Is it something they have the capacity to undertake?
  3. Will it open up new areas of possibility to investigate?

Each action is still a risk, since a sense of promisingness is not a guarantee of success. But the authors show that some creative experts are able to continually take fruitful risks. They point to a developed sense of promisingness as a key capacity that those experts use in making successful choices about which risks to take.

Creative Risk Taking

What strikes me about this view of creative risk taking is how it reflects what the best actors I have worked with – both in theatre and in social innovation projects – do as they meet creative challenges. These individuals work from a deep sense of understanding of their field and continually try to grow the edge of their knowledge. In theatre, such actors are said to have great “instincts,” and in social innovation, they are known for their “intuition” about what can work. Yet I think the three questions given above are closer to the truth of what is running in the background as these actors meet new challenges.

If a sense of promisingness is essential to the risk taking that must be a part of creative endeavors, then what are the practices that will help people develop this ability? Here is a process I have used in various projects over the years:

  1. Start with Small Risks. From my own work in both theatre and social innovation, I have observed that encouraging people to take small risks early in the project is useful. Working from the growing edge of their knowledge about the situation, they identify targeted but difficult challenges that relate to the overall goal; they then create responses and follow through with implementation, making note of what happens as a result.
  2. Embrace Failure as Essential to the Process of Learning. For it to be a true risk, the possibility of failure must exist and be embraced. People find it counterintuitive to do something that has every chance of failing, but this action is a fundamental first step in developing a sense of promisingness.
  3. Introduce Promisingness. Once the actors have completed the first small risk, the concept of promisingness and the three questions that guide its evaluation can be shared. Why introduce this step after rather than before they take a first risk? A central tenet of experiential learning is to name what the learning is only after it has been experienced. If people got the model first, they would simply be trying to learn that instead of experiencing what it was like to take a risk. Introducing it later gives a framework to what they naturally did (since the three questions that Bereiter and Scardamalia name are observations of what people tend to do), and it affirms their inherent knowledge.
  4. Evaluate Promisingness. From this point forward, the individual or group can evaluate the risks taken based on a sense of promisingness. In this way, the group becomes increasingly comfortable with risk taking, since they are developing the ability to sense what is most promising about the situation they are working in.

When group members start working in this way, they move from taking risks to being daring. This means that rather than feeling as though they are risking failure at every step, they begin to sense that they are pushing the edge of their knowledge as they move forward in addressing the challenge. The group then feels empowered rather than reactive; they stop anticipating disaster and start taking ownership for the situation. And even when their actions do not turn out as they hoped, they learn and refine their sense of promisingness about the situation and challenge at hand.

I welcome other people’s stories of how they have taken risks by engaging in a sense of promisingness or the way they have developed their own ability to detect what is most promising in a situation.

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