Creating the future: going beyond cowdung

July 2, 2007


Foresight is commonly assumed to be a matter of intuition or coincidence. An understanding of creative problem-solving can help forecasters go beyond the conventional wisdom of the dominant group (COWDUNG)

An earlier post examined the links between leadership and creative problem-solving. Here we import the essential elements of that post and relate them to the challenges of creative forecasting.

Creative Leadership and The Manchester Method

Manchester Business School has developed an approach to management education which involves its students in ‘living cases’ through working on projects with organizational sponsors. The design helps integrate direct business experiences with more traditional classroom lectures. See The Manchester Method for more details.

The approach has yielded many interesting research insights that find application outside student projects.

For example, the approach can offer questions of interest to forecasters such as the following:

The research questions

How might forecasting be enhanced through the application of structured approaches to creativity (such as brainstorming and lateral thinking)?

How might creativity in forecasting teams be assessed?

Understanding creativity through experiences of team projects

Experience from several hundred team projects projects over three decades suggest that a structured creativity approach helps if the team has a process leader, who is primarily concerned with setting a creative climate for the team, and who helps the team members collaborate and achieve ‘yes and’ rather than ‘either-or’ results from working together.

Assessment of team creativity and creative leadership is carried out through a team factors inventory which has helped identify factors associated with effective team leadership and team performance.

Creative leadership and intrinsic motivation

This approach indicates that effective creative leadership provides space within which intrinsic motivation and creativity of team members flourish. The leadership style is characterized as invitational, and trust-based. An important point is that the creative leader takes responsibility of developing the creativity of the team. It is tempting for a nominated team-leader to dominate the idea generation process. This approach can work under special circumstances – for example, when the team leader is an exceptionally creative individual. Sadly, the creativity of such a leader often diminishes the creative contributions of team members.

A presentation originally prepared for an audience of designers makes a convenient introduction to creativity in forecasting. You can access the presentation here.

Creativity and Cowdung

When thinking about the special needs of forecasters for creativity, I was reminded of a concept which carries the attractive acronym COWDUNG, standing for the conventional wisdom of the dominant group. Ifryn Price at Sheffield Hallam is introducing his students to Waddington’s concept.

Forecasting techniques are good at arriving at consensus. The uncreative applications of the techniques may only take us as far as the conventional wisdom of the dominant group. Our work on creative leadership suggested that creativity techniques such as Lateral Thinking help a team go ‘beyond the obvious’, by challenging conventional wisdom.

We have proposed the terminology of a platform of understanding. A team that goes beyong its platform of understanding escapes the conventional wisdom of the group. This leads to an extension to the well-known Tuckman model of team development.


A presentation originally prepared for an audience of Business Students [April 2008] makes a convenient introduction to creativity in forecasting. You can access the presentation here.

Another presentation from May 2008


On becoming a leader

February 11, 2007

This post takes the humanistic legacy of Carl Rogers to explore: Leadership as map making; Leadership as block busting; and Leadership as bridge building. It offers a framework for use in leadership development progammes at undergraduate, graduate, professional and executive levels.

Old Bridge

The title of this post acknowledges the work of Carl Rogers, a pioneer (with Abe Maslow) of humanistic psychology. His ideas on personal development have since come into common currency. In particular the post connects leadership to the title of his most influential book, On becoming a person.

The legacy of Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers (1902-1987) conceived of human development as the process of becoming (self-actualizing). Although his major professional world was that of clinical therapy, his ideas have become influential beyond that domain. His dominant idea is that the process of self-actualization is natural, albeit hindered by various life experiences. We each have an instinctive desire (an aspiration) to develop our potential.

Furthermore, we feel good about ourselves when we are engaged in the processes of developing our potential. This is at the heart of another key concept, that of positive self-regard. (terms such as self-image and identity can be traced back to his work). At a personal level, positive self-regard is unconditional in nature.

However, social groups have developed in ways in which self-regard receives only conditional respect. That is to say, we become restricted by the conditions and rewards of the social group. Such reinforcement distorts the natural processes of development. The individual may have trouble dealing with the gap between the expectations of the group, and his or her perceptions of ‘the real me’.

Over time the individual deals with the problem through psychological defences (Rogers notes two major defence systems, distortion and denial).

Developing yourself, developing others

The core of Rogerian theory is the capacity of the human to self-development. You are your most important teacher and moral leader. However, he also was concerned with the process of developing others (particularly those with seriously damaged processes of self-actualisation). The Rogerian therapist strives to develop openness (‘congruence’), empathy, and respect (unconditional positive regard). If we are to borrow from Rogerian theory for leadership development we must examine whether these principles can translate.

As a first step, we can see how Rogers had worked out a model for encouraging individuals to achieve their potential. This is what the therapist does. I believe we can indeed borrow many of his ideas (changing what needs to be changed) to arrive at a more general model for leadership and for leadership development.

We will be connecting the ideas of Carl Rogers with the leadership text, Dilemmas of Leadership, to explore the importance of map making, block busting and bridge building in leadership development.

Leadership as Map-making

Dilemmas of Leadership suggests that leaders develop themselves through processes of map reading, map testing and map making.

The mapping processes are metaphors of journeys of self discovery. During the journeys, maps of received knowledge, and examined in the context of direct experience leading to revision of personal beliefs.

Dilemmas of Leadership suggests that a text can be read as a Platform of Understanding or summary of a belief system. The POU is a kind of map, ready for use. It covers the historical maps of leadership from trait theory maps, through situational maps, to those maps dealing with new leadership concepts (transformational leadership).

To take a simple example, a student may read a book about leadership and extract from it a map of what leadership is all about. She then has a personal assignment – let’s say it is in a volunteering project. During the project she experiences various events which can be connected to the things she has read in the textbook. The process of testing enables her to make sense of the text-book connected through her own experience. This, in turn, strengthens her skills in future leadership roles. When she acts, she draws on the (always developing) personal map she has been making.

Map-making from the daily news

This blog can be seen as a series of maps about leadership drawn from the news stories appearing every day of the year. Out of personal choice I select a story that seems to have some leadership interest and summarise it for myself. Towards the end of that stage of map-making I find myself doing some map testing. Does the story fit with what I already believe I know? Even more rarely I might make a new connection and discover a new (to me) leadership concept.

For example, I came across several stories about threats, either by a leader or to a leader. A recent rather complicated one involves the chairman of The Royal Mail, Allan Leighton. You can follow the story in an earlier blog. The point here, is that the story reminded me of the way in which a threat takes on a dominating role. I could have been reminded of global warming, but I happened to think of an old chess story attributed to a chess player by the name of Nimsowitsch. This is now leading me to look more actively for examples of threats to a leader, and for convenience I label the process the Nimsowitsch principle. Maybe the concept will help me act differently in the future, not just in a chess game, but faced with real-life crises.

A second example is the map of management and organisational structures often known as Fordism (after Henry Ford’s production line innovation). A colleague suggested that Toyota’s lead production methods were moving manufacturing away from Fordism, and associated with a new leadership approach. I found refrences to Toyotism. What if, I wondered, we were seeing a shift in leadership approaches to include Eastern philosophic values. Perhaps inspired by a well-known book on the Tao of leadership, I added another concept to the map, and coined the term Toyotaoism.

An invitation to make some leadership maps

I believe in the processes of map reading, making and testing, and invite you to try them out for yourselves. You could keep a diary or learning log. Which, come to think of it, is not that far away from the process of writing a weblog or blog …

It’s a process of triangulation through which you combine your connect your received knowledge maps, with your personal experiences, and with the stories available every day of other leaders and their actions.

Leadership as block busting

Leadership as block busting was dealt with in an earlier blog. One new twist is worth mentioning, namely to link block busting to the leadership development ideas of Carl Rogers.

In his writings, Rogers explained creativity as the output or manifestation of self-actualisation. Why is creativity so rare and prized? Because of those distortions of the (Rogerian) ‘true’ self through socially imposed bias, which produces denial or distortion of the creative journey of discovery.

There is an enormous body of literature, theory and practice dealing with ways of breaking out of the assumptions imposed in an individual. We have been applying Lateral Thinking methods with cohorts of MBA students for several decades and summarised it:

Lateral Thinking for Project Work

For a recent introduction to creativity in business see the (admittedly lengthy) monograph from The Innovation Research group at Brighton University Business School. The report goes far more deeply into the brief summary offered here.

We have identified several Lateral Thinking techniques which help in the production of new ideas. The techniques (Reversals, Wouldn’t it be Wonderful If, and Jolts) are summarized in a power point presentation on using Lateral Thinking in project teams.

Bridge building

The leader as bridge builder is implied in the leadership literature. The textbook Dilemmas of Leadership explores the concept as trust-building. Leaders who believe in a trust-based style accept that they have to grant followers permission to act without direct leadership control. This leads to a dilemma of granting power to others if the leader wishes to exercise more direct control over them. Trust-based leadership facilitates and invites change rather than directing it.

In Celtic legend the story of the giant Bran tells of the way a great chief has to be a bridge.

In the Romance of Branwen, there is a curious passage where Bran and his men come to an impassable river. Bran says, “he who will be a chief, let him be a bridge”, and lays himself down to form a bridge over a river, allowing his army to cross over. The narrator of the romance tells us that this was the first time the saying was uttered.

In negotiations, the bridge building style is essential where it is vital to avoid win-lose outcomes (that’s back to the Nimzowitsch principle, by the way). It is necessary as peace process negotiations develop. It is often needed to resolve honesty held differences, by making a creative leap.

The related concept of ‘join up’ was originally developed by Monty Roberts (The ‘so-called Horse Whisperer’ in the film starring Robert Redford). Join up involves collaborative working, even if one partner may have more power and responsibility that others. It has since been extended to provide insights for trust-based leadership methods applied in Primary and Secondary Schools, as well as in business and social care environments. (Note, these are unequal power partners, where there can still be respect, Rogerian unconditional positive regard of the other partner, be it a child, a horse, or a remedial prisoner).

A parallel has been proposed between creative leadership and trust-based leadership

A simple to use concept is to look for Yes And rather than Either Or in your leadership efforts. As a bridge building technique, Yes And has been documented as having been applied successfully in numerous trust-based projects to achieve better decisions, harmony, innovation, and other creative outcomes. It offers a way to work through the (Rogerian) blocks which would otherwise reduce individuals to feelings of powerlessness.

Discussion Points

Various approaches have been described to support the process of leadership development, that is to say the process of becoming the leader you are capable of becoming. Using a humanistic approach developed by Carl Rogers, three aspects of leadership development were studied: map making, block busting, and bridge building.

In what ways do the suggestions support (or challenge) your beliefs about leadership, and suggest learning for future actions?

Lateral thinking for project leaders; Ways of ‘searching widely’

January 23, 2007

Project leaders are well aware of the need for searching widely for new ideas. Lateral Thinking methods have been successfully applied in a range of business contexts. Two experienced business educators summarise their approach for working with MBA project teams.

We have been applying Lateral Thinking methods with cohorts of MBA students for several decades. Our work has drawn heavily on the original concepts of Edward de Bono who popularized the term Lateral Thinking.

Here is a powerpoint presentation about lateral thinking. We prepared it to help teams in ‘searching widely’ in projects.

Lateral Thinking for Project Work

We have been working for several years with Dr de Bono, and also with his colleagues at the institute for the development of thinking, at The University of Malta.

Our focus has been to adapt the ideas of our collaborators to meet the specific requirements of teams of graduate business students. These experiences confirm the benefits of the approach, and findings have been published in various papers and books on creativity for for business professionals.

For a recent introduction to creativity in business see the (admittedly lengthy) monograph from The Innovation Research group at Brighton University Business School. The report will go more deeply into the brief summary we offer here.

Mapping the Project

Before looking for new ideas we recommend a project team to carry out a Mapping in order to develop a shared understanding of key issues in any project activity. The Mind Map will be the starting point for discussing ‘what’s the best way to describe the brief as a challenge or problem’. Keep the mind map in your shared project space (real or electronic)

Lateral thinking for New Perspectives and Ideas.

We have identified three Lateral Thinking techniques which help in the production of new ideas. The three techniques (Reversals, Wouldn’t it be Wonderful If, and Jolts) are summarized in a powerpoint by ourselves on using Lateral Thinking in project work.

Once you understand how to apply the techniques you can take the map you made, and list perspectives or starting points for the project We recommend using the convention beginning ‘ How To …’. You may only need one or two breakthrough perspectives, but search widely in order to obtain those valuable How Tos. You will need many more How Tos before you can be sure that you have done a good job at this ‘search widely’ stage.

A breakthough perspective is a focus for more ‘wide searching’, and more lateral thining. Again, ‘Reversals’, ‘Wouldn’t it be Wonderful if’ and Jolts help in arriving at valuable and unexpected ideas.

Finally, in project work, the strongest ideas are coupled with actions. Can you work on the ideas so that the follow-up actions are visualised in your statement of each idea?


This is a brief introduction to the application of Lateral Thinking techniques within project work. Some people find it comes easily, others have to practice. Our experience is that anyone can become skilled at such thinking. Teams can help those members who are less comfortable with Lateral Thinking by providing a supportive and relaxed environment. Treat meetings as ways to progress the project, but also as ways to develop skills at generating valuable ideas within any project experience.