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14 November 2001

Enabling Creative Response to Extraordinary Crises

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The challenges to strategic thinking of the 'first 21st century war' have come to a stage at which further developments are frustrated by an 'intelligence vacuum' and there are new calls for 'creativity'. At the same time criticism of bombing, such as in Afghanistan, is met with arguments of the type: 'what would you do instead'? This kind of pattern is evident in other situations, whether the Middle East, global warming, overfishing, etc. Metaphorically such challenges are the unclimbed mountains of contemporary western civilization -- perhaps to be understood otherwise in cultures with a different respect for mountains.

The purpose of this note is to reflect on how a more creative response might be enabled in such situations -- and to what matters attention can usefully be given in ensuring its emergence.


In scoping out a creative response, it is useful to identify various traps which are liable to ensure that the response is neither creative nor effective. These need to be factored into the design. They might include taking care to avoid:


The new 'out-of-the-box' thinking so frequently called for may well be primarily characterized by reframing the thinking process itself -- especially as it functions collectively. As such great care needs to be taken not to use styles of thinking which ensure that the reframing is itself compromised.

The lighter self-reflexive touch might well have such qualities as a:

Part of the challenge is to fomulate new metaphors to describe the process of discovering a more appropriate response -- and to channel the energies in a manner appropriate to it. In this sense it is liable to be significantly denatured by efforts to package it in the 'in-the-box' 'project logic' favoured by foundations, aid programs, think tanks and research institutes. Edward de Bono's contrast between Rock Logic and Water Logic (1990) can be usefully borne in mind.

The purpose is not necessarily to respond to the crisis directly -- although this may be a byproduct. In the case of 'terrorism' for example, the purpose is not necessarily to seek to eliminate it, but may have much more to do with creating a more powerful alternative attractor. This might be understood as reframing the game between radically different competing perspectives as a more powerful attractor for the imagination. It may be less about 'win-win' and more about the dynamics of 'win-lose' over time -- as is well-known in nursery games where each has turns at 'winning' or 'losing' in a pattern of games.

The purpose is not to develop a new theory -- although this might also be a byproduct. Fundamentally the reframing should in some way be designed to discover and enable 'new moves' in response to new kinds of crises. As always some of the characteristics of such new moves need to be learnt from that which they are designed to encounter and counteract. Essentially it is expected that these new moves would emerge from thinking of higher dimensionality than is conventionally applied to such a crisis. Indeed a crisis becomes evident because the dimensionality of the crisis is higher than that of the inadequate strategic or other thinking used to respond to it.

The reframing may well seek to include, or position, more conventional approaches to the crisis -- whilst recognizing that the secret of future responses may lie more in how they are patterned or configured together than in their intrinisic advantages or disadvantages individually. This might be understood as an ecology of strategic responses.

Designing a catalyst

In the light of the above, the focus is therefore on the design of a group process from which a creative response is most likely to emerge. The focus is not on what should 'happen' in this process, or what the group should 'do' or 'produce' -- but rather on what kinds of thinking are to be empowered to engage in that process and ensure its coherence. The emphasis is therefore very much on the diversity of qualities and perspectives that need to be designed into a self-organizing process -- acknowledging the paradoxes that this implies. It is assumed that the qualities assembled will ensure that the process responds to the challenge in a fruitful manner.

Each of the distinct qualities should necessarily be characterized by rich challenges of dimensionality, paradox and styles of creativity. The tentative set of such qualities below should each be understood at their most mature rather than in terms of inadequacies associated with their less mature manifestations. In this sense the labels are indicative rather than definitive.

Much of the emphasis of what is proposed is on how such quite distinct qualities can be employed in a self-organizing process -- how they play off against each other, provoking and constraining each other. In this sense the 'crisis' is a seed or catalyst for the self-organization of those qualities -- but that self-organization will in all probability engender a pattern that is an appropriate catalytical response to the crisis.

In principle, for this process to have the best chances of engendering creative responses, the distinct variety represented should be as high as possible -- ensuring an adequate meme pool from which creative patterns can be drawn. In a real sense the qualities should be as maximally alien to each other as can be contained by the process -- recognizing that some will always be more in sympathy with each other than with others -- having their own pattern of affinities.

Requisite variety of qualities

The following is a tentative preliminary set of clusters of archetypal qualities that might usefully be brought together into a self-organizing process. They are in no particular order. Each cluster may be considered as a 'basket' of qualities whose contents might be changed and relabelled. The contents of each 'basket' have been selected to reflect a degree of containment of an inherent polarity or opposition -- namely an ability to respond in a non binary mode to the unresolved dynamics 'within' the basket. How the contents get changed, and whether baskets get added or merged, is part of the self-organizing process.

'Warrior / Vigilance / Aikido': As exemplified by a master of Eastern martial arts, the focus here is on vigiliance and attention to the energies of the moment. The skills emphasize immediate use of the energies of any opponent to neutralize their effects. The philosophy stresses acquisition of a mindset that obviates use of those skills.

These qualities need to be constrained when they overbalance into any 'gung ho' tendency

'Wisdom / Women-Men / Gender challenge': Engendering a fruitful response necessarily requires complementary energies and their transcendence. In many societies, this calls for balancing the tendency to male over-representation, and use of male mindsets, in developing any response to a crisis. Especially important is the manner in which conventional male responses are challenged by what are stereotyped as 'illogical' female responses -- a theme well-articulated by feminist scholars. The perspective of trans-sexuals also raises important conceptual challenges readily embedded in gender streotyping. Potentially it is through working with, and transcending the associated dynamics, that insights of wider relevance emerge -- deriving new meaning from whatever is understood by their 'union'.

Part of the inherent challenge to any creative response is fine tuning the dynamics of mutual constraint between overblown masculine thinking and overblown feminine thinking

'Conceptual synthesis / Transdisciplinarity / Integrative thinking': This distinctive concern has as its objective the conceptual interrelationship between different, if not incommensurable, systems of thought or preoccupation. It seeks to build conceptual bridges and meta-frameworks.

This approach tends to get trapped into the modality of particular integrative models with limited capacity to respond to alternative or competing models -- or integrate them.

'Spirituality / Interfaith': Belief in transcendental or non-mundane reality provides a framework designed to encounter crises more fruitfully. It focuses on essential and existential meaning in a world of material and social constraints. Through spiritual practice and prayer it offers a process that is valued by many. Interfaith dialogue seeks to reconcile the dramatically opposed perspectives to which beliefs give rise, notably through global ethical frameworks.

This approach, as it manifests in practice through religion, is of course the prime generator of many territorial conflicts and needs to be compensated by other qualities. It may be perceived as trapped in tendencies to escapism and superficial forms of harmonious encounter.

'Cultural diversity / Indigenous': This reflects sensitivity to the wide variety of cultures with their unique worldviews and sense of identity. Conceptually it is especially important with respect to identifying and ordering categories and their boundaries. For some this extends to a fundamentally different relationship between knower and known, especially in the case of indigenous peoples whose identities are carried or embedded in the environment that they inhabit. It may also extend to a quite different relationship to time that is exemplified in hunting and the relationship to any prey -- perhaps understood best by westerners through the attitudes appropriate to trout tickling and the definition of its success.

This approach may be perceived as providing a questionable cover, through mystification, for inability to respond creatively to new situations other than through traditional mindsets.

'Dialogue / Process / Encounter': This reflects the primacy given to dialogue and encounter processes, as exemplified by the many varieties of group and community building processes. The focus is on articulation of differences and their fruiful reconciliation -- perhaps in the form of structured outcomes (vision statements, etc).

This approach tends to get trapped into the modality of particular dialogue or process models with limited capacity to respond to alternative or competing models -- or integrate them. It may well have only limited capacity to deal with radically different perspectives or to avoid non-convergent interactions. It may be excessively focused on reconciliation at all costs -- when holding differences is vital to the identity and functionality of the different qualities.

'Electronically enhanced communication': This reflects high-tech possibilities of providing enhanced possibilities for communication, access to content, involvement of many, and representation of insights at varying degrees of complexity.

This approach tends to be insensitive to insights that cannot be successfully articulated programmatically or carried by these means. It readily confuses the medium with the message.

'Mathematics / Relationships / Perspectives': This reflects insights into richer and more complex patterns of relationship -- especially those associated with higher dimensionality. It offers means of handling such complexity, notably in its dynamic forms, in the light of different positions and boundary conditions.

This approach tends to be totally indifferent to the mundane relevance of such insights in enabling new patterns of relationship between normally incommensurable perspectives -- especially in relationship to conflicts over bounded territorial spaces (unfortunately made more violent by development of new weapons with the vital assistance of maths).

'Aesthetics / Design / Elegance / Representation / Music': This reflects the preoccupation with representing meaning in other modes to facilitate understanding of complex relationships that have some resonance with self-identity and harmonious relationship to the mundane world -- and within it. In many respects, unless insight can be reframed with a degree of elegance, however defined, it is essentially unmemorable and irrelevant in practice.

This approach is readily entrapped in forms of self-absorption in which representation becomes the only relevant response to the crisis (classifically exemplified by 'Nero fiddling while Rome burns').

'Metaphor / Pattern': This reflects the preoccupation with the implications of a pattern in one domain as a source of insight into potentially useful patterns of knowledge in other domains. It notably draws on features of the natural or built environment with which many are familiar -- strangely echoing an insight common to indigenous peoples.

This approach may engender sterile analogies or those which cannot effectively provide a framework for new patterns of insight. It may also degrade into displacement activity.

'Symbolism / Psychodrama / Psychotherapy': This reflects the preoccupation with the deep-felt significance of crisis events to those involved. Features of the crisis acquire symbolic significance, possibly active in powerful and disturbing dreams or in (in)auspicious signs. The dynamics of the crisis are then both a reflection of collective and of individual psychic challenges. Resolution of the crisis is framed as healing, for which conventional therapies may be discovered to be totally inadequate.

This approach is vulnerable to a vast range of recommended therapeutic practices and cures -- whether including use of symbolic fetishes, potions, processes, or quests.

'Humour / Playfulness / Youth': This reflects the leavening quality of humour and unformed proto-perspectives that challenge conventional patterns of thinking, establishing unexpected relationships and questioning those that are accepted uncritically. This process is often intimately associated with creativity.

This approach may easily inhibit the emergence of new insights at sensitive moments when other qualities are essential.

'Justice / Honour / Respect': This reflects the fundamental sense of balance, fairness and appropriateness which when infringed arouses deep emotions associated with a personal sense of honour, respect or identity. At best it acknowledges the merits of others whatever their weaknesses may be.

This approach may easily get locked into injustices of decades or centuries past, leaving it unable to move forward unless these are honourably addressed

'Ecology / Biosystemics / Gardening': This reflects concern with the dynamic pattern of linkages between mutually intedependent entities that call for insights into their cultivation. Aspects of these conerns are also to be found in the integrative perspectives of homeopathic approaches to sustaining well-being -- including those associated with non-western styles of medicine.

This approach is susceptible to fascination with the tangible manifestations of systems -- thus inhibiting focus on the systemic insights that they exemplify for other domains.

'Game players': This reflects the strategic sense of more complex kinds of games, perhaps exemplified by 'go' more than by 'chess' -- especially in the call upon more intuitive, contextual ways of thinking. Games which involve ordinary people across a country in thinking out new approaches reinforce patterns of thinking which are highly desirable in any dialogue process.

This approach easily gets locked into gamesmanship totally irrelevant to the areans in which the thinking used may be valuable.

Self-organizing process

In anticipating and envisaging the self-organizing dynamics, various metaphors can be considered:

Clearly each basket of qualities might be represented in various ways by:

As noted above, the qualities associated with a given basket might be refined by the self-organizing process:

Special attention will no doubt be given to the range of qualities represented by the set of baskets, leading to questions such as:

These processes might usefully be understood and contrasted with:

The mode of the group process might also be contrasted with:

The core group might be associated with external groups in a variety of ways:

Vital to the success of the self-organizing process, and an immediate acid test, would be development of the ability to handle posturing, obfuscation, loss of focus, status seeking, and other common ills of the dialogue process.

Entraining wider participation

One readily understood outcome, that could result in entraining wider participation in richer patterns of thinking, would be through video reporting of the self-organizing process -- for which the various 'survivor' game-show formats provide obviously questionable models. Interestingly in terms of restrictive binary strategic thinking, some of these are already exploring other answer formats than 'right' or 'wrong'. Other questionable models are televised parliaments, courts (eg O J Simpson trial), and commission hearings (eg Belgian pedophile inquiry).

The challenge would be whether the content and dynamics were sufficiently interesting for others to observe -- even in an edited version. Any failure to hold an audience could well signal fundamental weaknesses -- for if the process is not engaging why should others subscribe to what it engenders.

Ideally the game patterns would be as attention-absorbing as those of some sports -- and the heros they engender as role models. Their ability to function like some collective, partly-ritualized games would merit reflection -- especially those allusively described in fiction (cf Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game, or M A Foster's Gameplayers of Zan) and explored on the web. Jeremy Rifkin in Dialogue as a Necessity (2001) makes the point that 'Politicians, military commanders and journalists talk about the "Great Game", a reference to the geopolitical intrigues being played out between Islam and the west in the Afghan war. What we need is "The Great Conversation" between Islam and the west so we can figure out how to accommodate each other. Until we do, our world will continue to be a dangerous and precarious place.'

Another approach might be to seek ways of encoding a new level of insight into familiar games such as football, so that they lent themselves to an alternative commentary at another level of significance. This would notably be an interesting project for those -- such as Greenpeace -- with an environmental focus. It would serve to reframe the use of metaphors from such sports to underpin unproductive strategic mindsets. More subversively might be to reframe the current monetary system as a game -- a form of Monopoly -- which everyone is obliged to play for lack of a meaningful alternative.

As illustrated by web interest in an unusual range of constructed or artificial languages (even including that of the Klingons from Star Trek), there is the possibility of supporting the group process into the development and use of a new language that would be designed to bypass the difficulties of interaction between consistuencies with radically different value systems. Just as there has been a strong impulse to develop dying natural languages to safeguard the identities associated with them, there is a case for developing one (or more) languages to hold the paradoxes across incommensurable frameworks. There are even language construction kits. However the fate of some artificial languages raises useful questions about the limitations of this approach as undertaken to date -- in contrast to the widespread success of some jargons, such as those originated by black Americans.

Strategic implications

The strategic point to be made is that common sports are well-recognized as providing a rich source of metaphors for strategic decision-making, whether in political, corporate or military environments. The acid test is whether this new process can provide even more powerful metaphors about appropriate moves in response to extraordinary crises.

One or more such groups might provide strategic insights in a manner analogous to consumer focus groups for corporations evaluating consumer products.


Paradoxically, the above suggestion necessarily calls for criticism in the spirit in which it has been made. This might take the form of questions such as:


Ron Atkin. Multidimensional Man; can man live in 3-dimensional space? London, Penguin, 1981. [review].

Stafford Beer. Beyond Dispute: the invention of team syntegrity. Wiely, 1994

Edward de Bono:

Anthony Judge:

Richard Kennaway. Some internet resources relating to constructed languages. [text]

Jeremy Rifkin. Dialogue is a Necessity. Guardian, 13 November 2001 [text]

See related web resources on: dialogue; governance through metaphor; global strategy in an 'answer economy' [more]

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