Tuesday, May 13, 2014

reflections on the poetics of unsolvable problems

i went to a most interesting salon evening tonight. i drank too much coffee and had my head filled with so many new and exciting ways of thinking about things that i can't sleep. i went because the title of the talk was the poetics of the unsolvable and i loved both the notion that there was a poetics, but also that something could unsolvable in these times when we think there is a quick fix for everything. what it turned out to be was a researcher who had looked at the ways that creative interventions in management training could change things for managers and how they think and learn presented his research. best of all, he asked us to try out some of his experiments. i don't yet have it all straight in my head, but already i feel that it awakened in me new ways of thinking about things that will be very valuable to me.

in his study, he asked his subjects to come up with a problem that seemed unsolvable. then he asked them to take three approaches to it. in the first, he wanted them to do a systematic, rational analysis of the problem, which would eventually result in a map of their assumptions - a problem statement, who the actors were in the problem, what their interests are, then the distinctions and eventually a set of dimensions the problem (i understand these dimensions as a kind of list of binaries and quite black and white). it was these dimensions that could eventually be mapped in some way. we had only a short amount of time, so all we did was write a problem statement and begin looking at who was involved and what were their interests. i didn't get as far as distinctions (partially because time was short and partially because i didn't entirely understand what he meant by that). i would actually say that this resembles my usual approach to solving problems in quite a rational, systematic, analytical way. it undoubtedly lends to overthinking and confirming yourself in your opinion that the problem really is unsolvable. ironically, it also makes you think you see the problem more clearly and in some sense, maybe you even do.

the second approach was to apply metaphors to the problem. he asked us to think of the problem as a plant and quickly sketch or describe it. then he asked us to think of the problem as a movie or novel and note the work that first came to mind. we didn't delve a whole lot deeper than this and alas, fargo was the movie that sprang to mind when i thought of my problem. i'll need to ponder the meaning of that a bit more. actually, i had two problems noted down (that's how i roll) and the film that sprang to mind for the second problem was the matrix. that's also something that bears more thought. i tried to make books spring to mind for my problems, but oddly, none did. in his experiment, he sent the subjects out with cameras to take a photo that would stand as a metaphor of the problem. i would love to have done that (and let's face it, i do it most days here on mpc - after all, blogging is cheaper than therapy).

the third and perhaps most interesting approach was to describe the problem as a sensory experience; to give it physical sensation. this was difficult (especially in a short time) and my list included broad emotions - stressful, negative, tense. i had to keep reminding myself to stick to physical sensations - loud, grating, jarring. but it wasn't easy and the exercise gave me a tightness in my chest and i felt a little bit that i couldn't breathe. so trying to describe it as a physical sensation actually caused a physical sensation in my body. this made me realize that mind and body are so much more connected that i generally think they are. and this made me think i need to take better care of my body and use it more wisely. i'd like to think i take better care of my mind, feeding it with nourishing books and images and thoughts. my body probably needs less caffeine, alcohol and unhealthy foods. i must remember that (she says as she takes a sip of wine).

and although listing my problem as a sensory experience caused a physical reaction in my body, it also had a distancing effect, making me more able to look upon my problem from a new angle, with less emotion and less judgement. which is quite new and i think it's quite difficult for us to be judgement-free, as we come loaded with expectations and judgements from all of our previous learnings and experiences. it was quite freeing to somehow let go of that. i'd like to do that more.

if we'd had more time, he would have asked us to write a poem based on the list of sensory experiences. he would have given us only 20 minutes, so that the poem would be more automatic and we wouldn't have time to sensor or polish it. he showed us some of the results from his subjects and they were powerful. i feel i missed the window on the poem for this experience, but i'm going to go through the exercise again.

and do you want to know what the problem i thought about was? (at least the main one?) it was the problem of being productive in an open office environment. because i think that's pretty much impossible. i won't say that i solved it, not even remotely, but i got closer to seeing a clearer picture of why i don't like such spaces. and that may be a step towards an eventual solution. and that feels pretty powerful. i'd like to think of myself as more reflected than most and i do (as you know, if you are a regular reader), tend to over-analyze things, so having new tools which will help me think about things in new ways is awesome.


Veronica Roth said...

This sounds like it was a wonderful evening workshop Julie. I though my SIL Catherine might like to read about it so I sent her your link. :)

Unknown said...

From experience, I'd say, management training generally reflects several non-metaphoric factors: The law, HR practices, the marketplace and most importantly - what upper management wants - and directs.

Today's office, workplace or manufacturing plant, at least in the US, is overly stressed and about as non-contemplative as it gets.

In terms of work - 12 hours is the new 8 hours - and even when home, there's email, messaging and cellphone calls.

... I can't imagine employees* taking seriously a request to describe their sensory experiences or writing poems.

* the exceptions - recent hires, fresh with new MBA degrees ... and wannabes fast tracking to upper management positions.