Why organisations need creative intelligence to survive and thrive

Interview with Annedien Hoen, co-founder of Veld organisational development: laboratory for creative intelligence.

Can you give us a short introduction of yourself?

My name is Annedien Hoen and I was born in 1974. I live and work in Leiden, the Netherlands, and Erwin Elling and myself are founders of Veld organisational development. We founded this company because we are both fascinated by the fact that so many people spend such a substantial amount of their lives in organisations, there are so many resources in all kinds of shapes and forms and still people create something that contains a lot less innovation and relevance than would be possible, given those ingredients.

I have always had an interest in management philosophy, futurology, what’s the next big thing and what that means for society and organisations. I’ve worked as a creative strategist, created concepts and business models, developed corporate identities and strategy for organisations and brands, designed interventions and I’ve done a lot of business coaching. I’m interested in things like Theory U, systemic constellations, serious games — in short, all these elements have shaped my view regarding organisational development.

I’m a real interpreter. I want to know the way things work and what this means. And I want to come up with more and better ways to catalyze certain processes in people.

Your website says you’re a “laboratory for creative intelligence”. What exactly is creative intelligence?

Creative intelligence is that which emerges when you combine intellect (mind, ratio, reasoning) with imagination (the ability to conceive something new, see in a different way and make connections) and you start using this for progress and improvement. The combination of these two enables you to come up with relevant new ideas. Because of this you can respond to constant change but also be a proactive force in that change process.

Can you give an example?

I’ll use a metaphor. Imagine a scientist sitting in a library, producing notebooks filled with thoughts, theories and hypotheses. Then, imagine an artist who creates works of art in her studio, art for the sake of art, fully autonomous and following her own process. Now try to imagine that those two take a run, collide and form a new person — an amalgamy of those two people — and this person works as a head of innovation for an organisation.

This is someone who is good at analyzing, researching and critical thinking, separating nonsense from truth — but also someone who is open to associations and influences, can observe reality as it unfolds itself and perceives more than others, dares to take deep dives, make no sense, endure the temporary discomfort of uncertainty, trusts the flow of ideas and is very skilled at shaping those processes and results.

What is remarkable about that combination is the transformative force that arises and how useful this is for society. In my example these qualities are attributed to a person, but we’re also talking about organisations with those qualities, that can embody creative intelligence.

Is it really that black and white?

The stereotyping I do in the metaphor is purposely done to make a point, but often it’s represented like that in the minds of people. The world, human beings, their talents and skills are all divided into professions, sections, talents, qualities and professions. We are filled to the brim with prejudices and preconceptions. Either you’re an alpha or a beta. You are creative or you are not. Despite the fact that it was practical in the old economy to educate people for a certain profession unfortunately this has lead people to believe that we should stick to our topic, that we have to choose.

We are capable of a lot more than we think as soon as we see through those artificial boundaries, start rediscovering our abilities and let them be of value for the world. We are quick to divide children into such categories, causing their self-image to be based on cliches which they then take into adulthood. A lot of research has been done on the influence of self-image on your behaviour and performance — and thus, eventually, on your course of life.

I find it rather shocking to see to which extent people allow themselves to be lead and limited by this. There are many creative people who experience no room for their intellect and analytical skills to unfold and many scientists who feel inhibited in their creative expression because it’s ‘unscientific’. That’s a shame, it’s something that can be enjoyed and has relevance.

Apart from their self-image, the structure in which they function is also a factor which inhibits them. I don’t think it’s a good idea to want to turn everyone into a Leonardo da Vinci but I know for a fact that there is more creative intelligence present in people than they realize. If we enable people in becoming more fluid in who they are and the abilities and talents they can use at any given moment something important and valuable will happen.

What kind of effect will this have on organisations?

Within organisations people are also stuck in such beliefs, which hinders them in giving the best they have to give. This goes for the highest echelons of management as well as operational functions. It creates restrictive or skewed systems which causes the entire organisation to have a lot less innovative power than it needs in order to survive and thrive.

However, we don’t focus particularly on the individual and their inner bottlenecks but rather on the entire system. We facilitate a process that evokes more creative intelligence across the organisation as a whole. These kinds of processes are an effective bridge between the individual and the collective, between the individual, the organisation and society.

A substantial amount of responsibility rests with the organisation, making sure people can afford to discover new things, have ideas, grow, to arrange processes in such a way that it contains and evokes creative intelligence. Kindling something that can’t evolve is useless. Leaders will have to let go of a certain amount of control and that can be complicated. It has been shown for instance that teams that are managed less function better and yet there is still a lot of managing going on. More often than not functions, job descriptions, salaries and power structures trump better judgement.

Why do you call your company a laboratory?

We call what we do a laboratory because we see ourselves as curious researchers and creative inventors. We have our knowledge, experience and vision on organisational development but we also believe that we have to continue our experimentations, see what works, produce innovative output that is useful for our clients. We love designing our own methodologies and interventions.

A laboratory is not just a place, it’s also a mindset, part method and part madness, part predictability and part serendipity. We like to share what we discover and add value doing this. Even if something explodes every now and then. This approach is sustainable for us and much more interesting than committing ourselves to one consultancy product that we try to sell. Not in the least because this goes against what we believe creative intelligence to be.

Personally, we think that organisations should become more like laboratories, places where you’re allowed to explore and experiment, probing all layers of an organisation in a scientific way, from tangible ingredients to things that particularly live within the human psyche, such as ideas and paradigms. Where you can reflect with each other on what is going on and what you could add to the system regarding imagination and idea power to improve it and make it more future proof.

You say that creative intelligence gives organisations more innovative power. How does this work?

Let me draw you the opposite picture; an organisation with little creative intelligence. Here, people plow on in the status quo, there is no thorough thinking about what really goes on and at which level and if there happen to be good ideas in teams or people they rarely find their way to realisation and implementation. Because of this organisations are simply overtaken by reality. It no longer works to develop and execute your strategy in an isolated reality, or try to push your products on a market that no longer needs you.

This is an old problem of course but the urgency is growing increasingly bigger because there is a tidal wave of technological developments coming our way that will relentlessly tear current business models to shreds. We’re not waiting for the next app that will disrupt a market in a couple of years. We’re waiting for a tsunami of increasingly radical technology that will cloudify our lives even more, becomes more interconnected, tracks us even more, makes more jobs redundant and creates others, artificial intelligence that will operate more independently and starts taking care of our business proactively. This process just keeps speeding up. It’s not happening steadily. Like a snowball rolling down a hill it keeps gaining momentum and mass.

That sounds impressive. How should organisations deal with this?

If you want to have an answer to all this you’ll have to innovate faster. Not with a couple of products or by going through the motions, not by putting up a performance, doing some sessions with a lot of colourful sticky notes and flip over sheets, but innovate structurally. Creative intelligence in an organisation is the opposite of what I mentioned before. People are seriously looking into what is really going on. Idea power plays an important part and is considered mission critical.

On a systemic level a different mindset, a different type of activities and another approach to managing an organisation is causing the entire organisation to have more creative intelligence. It’s not just about ideas; it’s about the entire field of the organisation resonating, transforming where needed and holding on to universal principles that form the basis of an organisation’s right to exist.

It’s about continually doing things that instigate and cultivate creative intelligence. About contemplation and experimentation not being stopgaps but a recurring part of the activities. It’s about having processes in place that make this collective transformational power applicable.

It’s imperative that we, in order to be able to deal with this tidal wave, are going to address more resources within ourselves, each other and the structures that are already in place. We should calm down, not get bogged down in today’s thinking and actively deal with future proofing our organisation.

I also think that we shouldn’t just think as an organisation but have to reach deeper within ourselves as human beings. As a western culture we are preoccupied very one-sidedly with reason, have a rather rigid idea of what science is and many elements of our being human have been sidetracked. We’ve become detached of the rhythms of nature, of the fact that we have a very deep connection to that heartbeat.

It’s very clear that we pay a price for our disconnect from our heritage, of who we truly are at our deepest level. We are originally magical. Warriors. Nomads. We were part of a tribe, performed rituals, communicated with the world around us in a way that honoured the connection and interdependence. We often don’t reach our inner source of wisdom anymore. We try to sustain, with all our might, that somewhat strange construct we have collectively created.

You never hear any stories about people whose idea of a holiday is to sit in a building, working on a piece of text or spreadsheet under artificial light. They’d rather go into nature, cook and eat in the open air, sit on the beach looking at the waves and the sun. People are craving that way of being. I’m exaggerating of course, I know it’s not all roses to have to survive without a hot shower, doctors or central heating.

I think we’ve lost too much and that we have to reconnect to those resources and employ them to have a stronger basis as human beings, in order to be able to deal with the future. We can also see how swarms connect, for instance, to reach a certain goal, using technology in a smart way to cause change. This is a totally different dynamic than we’re used to historically. The bastion is breaking down. People are wisening up and see through the old routines that were used to turn them into consumers.

So what it comes down to is that we, apart from the transformation in our physical world, also have to apply a transformation in our psyche and develop different mental technology.

What do organisations have to prepare for if they want to stay in the game the coming years?

There are quite a few factors that play a part, some more obviously than others. I already mentioned the whole of increasingly faster and more impactful technological developments. Kevin Kelly calls this the technium.

What can also be observed is polarisation; an increasingly large group of people are living consciously, they don’t want to join in consuming more, creating more debt, draining Earth’s resources, making the small but very powerful group of rich people in the top of the food chain even richer. “The powers that be” feel this shift and won’t allow an easy displacement so they try everything they can to hold on to their influence. Nonetheless, new initiatives will keep appearing that undermine that influence and this will only increase.

People start looking more systemically at organisations, markets, teams, networks. This is the case because scientific knowledge about these topics is growing and people are getting familiar with these concepts, also realizing that this is a way to understand what is going on and to conduct your development more deliberately. We can see how some pioneers see systemic innovation as the evolution of “regular” innovation. Or that systemic design is the successor of Design Thinking, a well known methodology to develop new products and services.

The ideas of Otto Scharmer — Theory U — is gaining momentum as well. It confronts us with the phenomenon that we collectively create totally different results than we want to cause as an individual. We don’t want plastic islands in the oceans but still we keep using plastics every day. What is going on here? How can we reflect, turn our gaze inward and be receptive for a different kind of future? How do we stop rationalizing so much and start being lead by our empathy?

Because of all these sped up developments there is also a much larger potential for innovation. Very beautiful and fantastic things can be developed with what is already available and is going to be created. We’re really at the beginning stages of a new era. If you keep up with scientific news feeds you can track how revolutionary inventions are created one after another, the first 3D printed vertebra is in someone’s back and human DNA is being used for data storage. There are many seeds for a plethora of exciting, lucrative and innovative business opportunities. It does, however, require being open for these opportunities and being able to actually use these and that won’t be able from a clenched status quo.

I could keep going but my point is that there is a lot more change coming our way and that we shouldn’t ruminate on the happenings so far. We should focus on the here and now, aware of the fact that we can’t afford to use a lot of time to recover from everything that has happened so far.

Then why are there so many organisations that don’t make it? Isn’t it obvious that something has to change?

It’s part of the game that a number of existing organisations go bankrupt or are closed because of a lack of relevance — that’s the market, the system in which we function. You could almost say: that’s nature. It could be denial, awkwardness, ignorance, stubbornness or simply an inability to change. I really think that some organisations have too many structural impossibilities to be able to move forward. There’s no other choice than to take the Lego bricks apart and use them to build something new.

A number of causes can be identified when looking at organisations that in theory would be able to transform in order to become future proof again –and should make an effort to do so — but don’t. People at the top who refuse to let go of power. Managers who would rather let things stay on a collision course, from some sort of denial mechanism, than face the urgency. People who are overwhelmed and freeze. Not having any idea what needs to be done if this no longer works. Not knowing where to start the change process. Having an intuitive notion that old models and strategies for innovation no longer work but hesitating to try new things because we are held accountable for the results. We are all human and the mechanism that is responsible for the fact that in our lives we are often only persuaded to change if there is a crisis is the same as the one that makes organisations hesitant.

In retrospect it’s fairly easy to see at which point we could have done intervention X or Y and could have prevented a lot of problems. But the issues of the day, the groove, the status quo — it’s ironclad.

Can you give some examples of things that enhance the presence of creative intelligence in an organisation?

First, it’s an interplay of various factors. You can not simply organize one intervention or determine some policy guidelines and expect an organisation to become richer in creative intelligence.

Our approach knows to components: Mindset and Method. How can you learn to think differently, expand your mental technology? How can you start considering creative intelligence as something which is already present, how to access it, how to amplify it in yourself and each other? What kind of activities and interventions apply to this?

For example, we use activities and interventions such as contemplation, dialogue, ritual, ‘thinking with your hands’, systemic constellations, quests, pattern recognition, serious games, war rooms, experiments, formulating guiding principles and applying these, designing a Hortus Generabilis (a creative garden) in which you collect and take care of a growing number of tools. We have looked for as much underpinning structure as possible for a process that knows a lot of unpredictable factors, taking people and organisations out of their comfort zones.

Is there something people can start doing to enhance creative intelligence in their organization?

Of course! Organisations can take a lot of action if they want to put this into effect. They can start creating a Creative Garden and assign a ‘gardener’ for this. Or start using the heuristic for their process, as a guideline — provided you do this with people who are experienced in living through creative processes. It’s possible to get lost, I hasten to add. They can explore which Mindset they will adopt and which Method they will use to start working with this.

What’s especially important is that leaders give their people a mandate to activate and cultivate more creative intelligence. To think differently, to discover and boost their own idea power, to make this an integral part of their business methods instead of an incidental intervention or a ‘nice to have. A lot depends on an organisation’s attitude. Is there serious dedication to mobilize more innovative power? Are people allowed to experiment, spend time building a Creative Garden, plan interventions and do they receive a budget to do so? Are the leaders committed to implement a different attitude and behavior? If this is lacking you might as well not start this process at all.

So … a clear intention, commitment, budget, mandate — it all starts with this. You shouldn’t have to try to get this in a later stage because then it will fail. You can divide the boys from the men in this stage, because trying to do this yourself often gets derailed because of a lack of commitment and accountability. That’s why people often hire external consultants and facilitators to do this for them. In this case it’s also a journey that will know quite a few “rough patches” that can be navigated with the help of an experienced process strategist but can lead to nothing if you try to do this yourself and don’t have a lot of experience.

What if people want to learn more about creative intelligence and your approach?

They can have a look on our website, www.veldorganisatieontwikkeling.nl or get in touch with Erwin Elling through erwinelling@veldorganisatieontwikkeling.n or call him on +31–6–38537325. We give lectures, workshops, host sessions and guide transitions that lead to an increase of creative intelligence within organisations.

We work from Utrecht and Leiden, the Netherlands, but we’re happy to travel to meet with people and their challenges.


Icons used with quotes made by Becris from www.flaticon.com