Facilitating innovation workshops in the Stone Age

Mads Jahren
Feb 26 · 9 min read
Understanding our stone age nature will help you improve your facilitation skills in creative workshops today.

When facilitating creative processes, it is important to be mindful of our nature. Resulting from millions of evolutionary steps over the past four-and-more billion years, life eventually produced the bipedal beings of which we identify. Along this way, the skills we picked up were all aimed at one thing; reproduction. Every gene pool that was — for whatever reason — unable to reproduce, obviously did not make it.

Thus, humans today are highly adapt at surviving the context in which we evolved. However, this context did not include roads, buildings, books or fertilizers. Neither did it include Facebook, email, Skype meetings or Fantasy Football. It didn’t even include the invention of peace, law and order, property rights or even farming. We evolved in the context of nature, at the mercy of Mother Earth. Only “lately” have we been able to manipulate the context to better suit ourselves. Farming for example was invented only 10 000–20 000 years ago.

We tend to forget that evolution need extreme lengths of time to change a species. Although mutations may occur between one generation and the next, gradual evolution require more than millennias for organisms with a human life span. From what we gather, we haven’t changed biologically in the last 50 000 years. As Harvard Professor Steven Jay Gould put it; “There have been no biological changes. Everything we’ve called culture and civilization we’ve built with the same body and brain.” The invention of the wheel for example, which we tend to attribute to somewhere in the distant Stone Age. However, it appeared for the first time merely 5 500 years ago.

Why — if we were as able 50 000 years ago as we are today — didn’t we invent things sooner? And why do we see an explosion of new inventions today? The answer to this lies within the context in which we are enveloped. A context you need to be able to manipulate and master, if you wish to unlock the creative potential that rests within the human mind.

Contextual component 1 — Trust and safety

During the Stone Age, as many as 10% of deaths are attributed to violence. Without the invention of police, government or legal system protecting every citizen equally, murdering a rival might have seemed like a fairly good idea. Furthermore, upon encountering other human tribes, the same logic would apply; “if they perceive us as a threat or rival, they might try to kill us. We’d better kill them first.”

Thus, individuals with instinctive distrust would survive and reproduce, as they literally killed off their competition. This instinct still resides within us, influencing our behavior. Thankfully, we have invented contextual properties that removes the incentive to go ahead and murder our rivals. However, if we look to situations where these properties are removed — e.g. war zones such as Syria today or Germany during the world wars — people instinctively murder each other still.

So, keeping in mind that people have this instinct, we need to ensure they get past it. Creativity works best when you feel safe, as your brain will use most of the energy on analyzing threats and potential defense strategies if you don’t. Naturally, dead creative people of the Stone Age didn’t reproduce well.

Getting past this step is all about removing any tendency of rivalry within the group. Everyone has to feel equal and appreciated, and experience that nobody is out to get them. The first step in achieving this is to make sure that everyone view YOU as the Alpha — otherwise you won’t own the context. Preferably you will learn to accomplish this without anyone in the group noticing it — a skill which separates the best facilitators from the many.

After you’ve put yourself on top, you have to show everyone that you accept every constructive input, but that any signs of rivalry is socially unacceptable. You will have to protect everyone who contributes with new thoughts, and correct anyone attacking other group members. You are judge and jury, police and government, making everyone feel safe and valuable.

Contextual component 2 — Unlocking rest mode

Secondly, we need to consider our brains innate gravitation towards energy conservation. In contrast to todays society — where you will be lucky to breathe city air devoid the smell of fast food — our behavior is shaped in the evolutional context of hunger. Through a lack of food and nutrients, evolution has demanded our human bodies to survive for weeks without food, less without water. Inconsistent access to food has not only given us the physical ability to store energy by putting on weight; it also influenced us to reduce energy consumption to a necessary minimum.

The human brain weighs around 2 percent of the total body weight. Even so, it consumes as much as 20–25 percent of the body’s energy budget. In short, thinking consumes energy. Therefore, our brains are presented with a dilemma; should I think a lot, possibly increasing the chance of surviving and mating — or should I conserve that energy, increasing the chance of avoiding starvation.

The solution is somewhat of a mix, where automatization of brain processes ensures energy conservation. By looking for patterns that repeat themselves, the brain is able to reduce the energy needed to consider input. When we are born, we look around unable to even focus on the simplest objects. After a few days our brain starts to recognize certain shadow patterns as repeating, and after yet more time the brain categorizes these patterns into objects. Thus, infants are suddenly able to see a face, and identify objects they can play with.

As we grow up, our brain continues to distill sensory input into patterns, objects and concepts. Primarily we try to organize input into already existing categories, saving us the trouble of generating new ones. As we reach adulthood and get older, we have so many categories available to us when encountering something, creating new categories becomes a rarity. This makes us less influencable, less curious and more certain in our own views; inhibiting creativity, and our overall ability to innovate. All in the name of conserving energy.

However, as we no longer live in a context of food shortage — not in business workshops anyways — this energy conservation is not needed. But breaking free from it is extremely tough. Anyone who’s been a part of creative workshops have felt how exhausting they can be. Motivating participants to expend the necessary amount of energy needed to unlock creativity, is a complex and intricate challenge— further separating the great facilitators from the rest.

There are a few ways in which you can counter this behavior. First, ensuring that no one is hungry or tired is important. Nuts and fruits are preferable, as high-sugar foods like chocolate and candy will create udesirable flactuations in blood sugar; the sugar high will be quickly followed by a plummit in blood sugar levels, increasing the participants feeling of hunger.

Secondly, it sometimes helps to describe this mechanism to your participants. Instilling a feeling that we are “trapped” by our stone age software, may provoke them sufficiently to decide against it — “I’ve certaintly come longer than we were 50 000 years ago, I’ll show you!”.

Third, and perhaps most important, never exceed participants’ expectations regarding the next brake or meal. Try to keep presentations no longer than 20 minutes, never go more than 45 minutes without a short brake and never more than 90 minutes without a long brake. Ensure that everyone knows when the next brake will be, and when they will have the next opportunity for a meal. Generally I never keep people in a workshop for more than 3 hours, and preferably we start first thing in the morning; people often expend a lot of energy prior to lunch, leaving them too exhausted for a demanding workshop.

Contextual component 3 — Unity and diversity

Ok, so now you’ve countered some of the biggest biological inhibitors to creativity. The next step is to ensure that you achieve what you’ve set out to do; cultivate creativity.

I am fond of the saying “Innovation isn’t something that happens within people, it happens between people”. I don’t mean to say that you cannot be creative on your own, rather that in order to escape your own limits of mind you are better off exposed to outside impulses. People with different perspectives are among the most potent source of influence when it comes to expanding your thoughts. Not only will they inform you of their views, they will actively try to convince you about them.

This is the core of what you want to harness. Conflicting perspectives offer unique opportunities for new ideas, but only through active collaboration across the void; if two friends differ in their views, they can discuss and reach a compromise. This compromise may be an idea never thought of before, thus they might have crafted a new perspective — together. This mechanism is what you want to tap into during creative innovation workshops.

Although we may be certain in our own perspective, things may look differently from another point of view. Together we might uncover previously unknown insights. (Source: Malcom Evans Cartoons)

To achieve this you need a breadth of various perspectives within the group. Selecting the right perspective representatives is at the core of any successful workshop. When you have assembled such a group, you need to be aware of two instinctive behaviors: consolidation and polarization. Whenever people are engaging in conflict, their end goal is to achieve one of these two. As a facilitator you want to avoid polarization.

In groups of humans, cooperation is key to survival. This includes intellectual collaboration, where ideas and strategies can be discussed and assessed. In IQ tests it is shown that groups of people achieve higher scores than what the group member with the highest IQ would achieve alone. Thus, working together increased the chance of survival. In achieving teamwork, aligning your goals and ambitions with other individuals is integral. It is important to be aware that upon working towards consolidation, people will instinctively begin to comprimize.

Dominant individuals can overshadow submissive participants arguments — if allowed.

It is crucial that you pay attention to this. Some of these comprimizes may be entirely new perspectives worth capturing, whereupon you will be wise to emphasize the groups ability to generate new knowledge. However, what happens more often is that dominant participants argue their static perspectives with full force, while submissive people carry the whole burden of comprimizing on their end. This is very counter productive, as no new ideas will emerge in this dynamic. Acknowledging this as a likely scenario, it is important that you stay vigilant and help destabilize the dominant static perspectives. Help the group challenge these perspectives in a constructive way, without making the dominant participants feel attacked or unfavored. Again we find a skill which separates excellent facilitators from less productive ones, as this is a very challenging social dynamic to control.

I would like to emphasize here that everyone instinctively crave to be part of a group. In the stone age, one of the worst fates an individual could face was being expelled from your tribe. Compared to predators our size, the human body is weak and fragile. Facing wolves, bears, pumas and lions alone would basically guarantee a fatal outcome — if not instantly, then by wounds and infections. This is why people react so strongly to being frozen out of social cliques, and also explains in part why we are so afraid to address large audiences; the stone age (wo)man within you is terrified you might say something wrong that results in your immediate expulsion from the group.

Whenever any participant misbehaves in your workshop, it is helpful to keep this mechanism in mind. By seeking agreement from the more agreeable participants within the group, you may be able to generate an illusion of group accord to specific social rules that prohibit these particular behaviors. Never underestimate group pressure as a tool when it is necessary to correct unwanted behavior.

Understanding the deficiencies we have inherited from our evolutionary journey will help you better unlock the creative potential afforded by modern homo sapiens. By assuming control over the social context in the three ways described in this article, you will be on your way to facilitate more productive and fun workshops. However, it is important to remember that workshop facilitation is a craft that will blossom only through experience. Merely reading about human behavior will not make you an expert facilitator. You have to learn by doing, experience the complexity yourself, and build your own style of facilitation. And trust me, everyone gets a bit anxious in the beginning when leading a group of partly unfamiliar people — the trick is to try, succeed and fail, adapt, and try again. The best facilitators are the ones that keeps exploring, dares to try something new even though it might fail, and that never allows themselves to fall into rest mode.

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