Risk Taking, Creativity, and a Sense of Promisingness
One of the most remarkable books I have read in the last 12 months is call Surpassing Ourselves: an inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia. As the title states this is an exploration of what contributes to us becoming outstanding. And in the book the authors do not favour one field of study over another when looking at the ways we become outstanding; whether it is auto mechanics or physics, the pursuit of mastery applies. Since for them they are interested in exploring “the growing edge to everyone’s knowledge”.
Just a note on language: they make a clear distinction that an expert is something very different from a specialist or what they call an “experienced nonexpert”. Here is there definition:
“The difference between experts and nonexperts is not that one does things well and the other does things badly. Rather, the expert addresses problems whereas the experienced nonexpert carries out practiced routines.
The career of the expert is one of progressively advancing on the problems constituting a field of work, whereas the career of the nonexpert is one of gradually constricting the field of work so that it more closely conforms to the routines the nonexpert is prepared to execute. [italics theirs]”
The book is full of these rich insights and distinctions. It is wonderful resource for thinking about what it means to help people develop their particular expertise and continually grow the edge of their knowledge in relation to their field of work.
One part of the book that has been of particular influence is their ideas around creativity, the sense of promisingness and risk taking.
Instead of trying to say what creativity is, they focus on what it does. Bereiter and Scardamalia identify that some problems are of such a level of difficulty that any successful answer would be creative. In trying to answer heavier than air flight, the Wright brothers naturally developed a creative answer. In this way creativity begins where conventional answers to challenges end. When we must step beyond known approaches to successfully meet a challenge, we have begun creating. This means that creativity is directly linked to the level of challenge we undertake.
So does this mean we should all go out and simply start trying to solve world hunger? No. Unless your growing knowledge is concerned with world hunger, since we need to have a keen sense of promisingness in meeting these sorts of challenge.
What is a sense of promisingness? Another insight from Bereiter and Scardamalia. When we are proceeding toward a goal that is vague or without precedent, we must make decisions about the path we will take. Each decision is made with insufficient knowledge (since we cannot know exactly what to do since no one has done it before). As well each decision constrains the next decision. When we write the first sentence on a page, that decision constrains what could be the next possible sentence could be. So as we build our way forward to answer an unprecedented challenge we are taking risks with each step. When seeking to understand what informs this risk taking - other than luck - Bereiter and Scardamalia propose the idea that creative experts use a sense of promisingness. This sense arises out of the deep understanding and craft they have built by continually advancing the edge of their knowledge. The authors believe the sense of promisingness used by creative experts evaluates three key areas about the choice to be made:
1. Does it fits to the overall goal they are pursuing?
2. Is it something that they have capacity to undertake?
3. Will it open up new areas of possibility to investigate?
Each decision is still a risk, since a sense of promisingness is not a guarantee of success. But the authors point to the fact that some creative experts are able to continually take risks that are fruitful. And they point to a developed sense of promisingness in risk taking as a key capacity in being successful.
The implication is that if a sense of promisingness is essential to the risk taking that must be a part of creative endeavors, what are the practices that will help people develop this ability? From my own work with organizations I have observed that letting people take small risks early in the project is the best way. They identify small but difficult challenges that relate to the overall goal, create responses and follow through with implementation (making note of what happens as a result). Of particular importance is that they must be able to fail with this task; for it to be a true risk that possibility must exist and be embraced. People find it a counter intuitive first step to do something that has every chance of not working but it is fundamental to start a new pattern. Once they have completed the first small risk, the concept of promisingness and the three questions that guide the evaluation of promisingness are introduced. Why introduce this afterwards rather than before they take a risk? A central tenet of experiential learning is to never name what is going to be learned but let it emerge. If they got the model first they would simply be trying to learn that instead of seeing what emerged from taking the risk. Introducing it afterwards gives a frame 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.
From this point forward all decisions taken are based on a sense of promisingness of either the individual or the group. Also there is ongoing reflection on their development of a sense of promisingness as a part of the project. In this way the group becomes increasingly comfortable with taking risk since they are developing personal ability and a overall sense of what is most promising about the situation in which they are working.
I welcome anyone’s own stories of meeting risk 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. It is always wonderful to hear what others have discovered.