Ground Rules Deep Dive #12: Explore Unconventional Approaches; New Conditions Require New Solutions
By Milenko Matanovic
Together we are capable of extraordinary achievements. Over the years, Pomegranate Center has proven this by encouraging people to uphold a code of conduct that leads to creativity and collaboration. This code of conduct, what we call “ground rules,” is essential to creating a positive atmosphere that focuses on how things can be improved, free from complaints. In this series of short essays, I will look at different ground rules, evaluate why they are important, and share stories from the field.
Our society is continually evolving. What we call reality was, at some point, just a collection of possibilities, ideas, and new insights in the minds of philosophers, artists, and innovators. They would send their seed intuitions on a journey, sketching, testing, prototyping, designing, and building. Others, building on their work, would evolve and fabricate the most promising ideas and distribute them throughout society. Think of cell phones or solar panels. We accept them as normal, rarely contemplating what a long journey they traveled.
Artistic journeys are shorter, illustrating the different qualities needed along the way: listening to a gift of a new idea, designing it so it can exist within the limits of time, space, and resources, crafting a fully expressed work worthy of the initial impulse, and then sharing it so others can enjoy it.
Societal changes are much slower than artistic ones. It is harder to discern the different stages in the process. Every phase has specialists who emphasize the importance of their step and forget that they are part of a long relay run. Often the artists and thinkers that begin the journey are seen as irrelevant by those in the later phases of work.
I started Pomegranate Center with the idea that I would use my artistic creativity to help solve societal problems (rather than my artistic career). I would read the news and work on solutions to the issues to come up with ideas that would solve a problem. For example, after reading about people falling asleep at the wheel on certain highways, I sent letters to the US Highways with a proposal to cut a series of lines that would make controlled notes, the pitch determined by how far apart the lines art: the closer together, the higher the note. This strategically placed “music” would offer a mild surprise and wake up drivers in the hope of decreasing accidents.
I tried to get a grant to kick start a community taxi service where people would turn their vehicles into taxis while maintaining safety. This idea was to help with traffic congestion and pollution. It was a pre-high-tech version of Uber or Lyft. When I read about the high cost for a new road, I proposed a smaller path assisted by a gondola lift connecting a transit facility with new development on the adjacent hillside. I also proposed small windmills adjacent to roads using the vehicles’ generated wind to produce electricity.
In my early naivete, I assumed that someone in the official system might appreciate my freely offered ideas. Not so. All of these ideas have since been realized in different parts of the world. I, however, at the time, had no authority or status to have someone pay attention to what I had to offer.
I learned two things: people do not listen to uninvited ideas, especially coming from someone outside their network; and, people can’t hear answers to the questions not asked.
After a few years, I stopped offering unsolicited ideas. However, I became keenly attuned to the dynamics of how a new idea is communicated or received at community meetings. I noticed that those in the position of authority and leadership were the most confident participants, offering their views with firmness and without hesitation. They projected certainty based on their specific expertise.
Then I would notice the quieter, more hesitant voices. People would offer “what if” statements. They explored new approaches, and, compared to their confident neighbors, came across as indecisive. Because they were not specialists, they thought about a problem with directness and innocence. I would often find their insights to be the most promising and exciting. I also noticed that they were routinely ignored. People would gravitate to the sound of authority, even though ideas presented in that mode were often outdated and inappropriate to the current situation.
Once I became aware of this state of affairs, I urged all to agree that it is OK to explore unconventional approaches because new conditions require new solutions. Now, when I hear people siding with an old idea presented with authority rather than an exciting new idea presented with hesitation, I can ask people to add more weight to the quieter voices of people who have the beginner’s mind, who offer small aha moments, and who are able to connect different ideas that people propose. Creativity flourishes in those moments.
The shape of our future society announces itself hesitantly at first. It is a good thing to take those insights seriously for they may be the seeds of the future reality.
Read the eleventh installment in the series, “Commit to Finding Common Solutions,” here.