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