drifting, angst and pan-ic

[In case you’re wondering what you’ve stumbled into, this is one chapter from the
book and blog about The Economist's 'Project Red Stripe' innovation programme.]
Joanna: 'I feel a little bit paralysed at the moment.'

One of the many tensions (and I mean tension in a Newton's 3rd Law kind of way)
apparent in Project Red Stripe related to direction-finding, goals, intentions and
wandering around.
With its very broad remit, Project Red Stripe gave its
members enormous scope for 'wandering about' and
looking for, or waiting for, inspiration. Now, of course,
this is in the very nature of an innovation team and
one of the primary characteristics that distinguishes
it from a more goal-oriented project team. Yet, this
innovation team had a very clear sense of having a
goal: 'creating an innovative and web-based product,

service or business model'. It just didn't yet know what the goal looked like. Its
task was to locate the goal and then get there.
This set up tensions from the outset. There was a feeling amongst the team at
different times that they were wasting time. Against this was the clear sense that
the team ought to take its time in identifying the right idea - because there was
surely no point in spending six months writing business and marketing plans,
developing websites and other infrastructure, working with partners and
commercialising the idea, if they hadn't chosen the right one in the first place.
Drifting
This often reminded me of 'drifting'. Drifting
has been developed as a performance art, as
autobiogeography, as a philosophical study and
as a literary style (as well as a way of exploring
the urban landscape). Its masters and
mistresses (if you can master and mistress
something as elusive as drifting) are the
Wrights and Sites team.
It seems to me that drifting has particular relevance to the innovation
project team where it pays attention to the idea of determination. Baz
Kershaw, formerly Professor of Drama at Bristol University, although he's
not a drifter as far as I know, has talked about the way in which our
experience at a zoo is 'over-determined': signs, paths, maps and guides
structure the route we walk; information notices structure the way we look
at and experience the creatures; cages, enclosures and
access points structure the way we observe and what we
observe - and all this in addition to the particular
memories and experiences we may bring, the cultural
associations and responses that we may carry with us,
and so on. Cities have a similar effect: there are explicit

and implicit rules about where we can go and where we can't; where we can
stop, stand and sit and where we must walk; what we can look at and what
we can't; even how fast we should walk or on what side of the pavement.
All of this 'over-determination' in the city or in the zoo makes it hard to 'just
drift'.
Some of these same rules come into play in an innovation project. The team
members have their own expectations and associations, have their own
experience of groups, reactions to rules and authority, working preferences and
so on. They will also tend, such being our habit in this country and at this time,
to look for some rules and guidelines, to establish where the power and the
authority lies, to set down - if there aren't any already in place - codes of conduct,
attendance times and working policies.
Inevitably, this sought-after regimentation can be at odds with the 'right to roam',
which is the passport of the innovative and inventive mind. Just as drifting
largely dispenses with maps and destinations and attempts to journey without
intention (what Walter Benjamin - quoted here - has called 'the rhythmics of...
slumber'), so we can suppose that innovation might attempt to dispense with as
many limiting conventions as possible, in order to facilitate the emergence of
ideas. Though creating a regime within which regimentation is discouraged is
itself paradoxical.
Panic
One of the by-products of drifting or, more specifically, of the absence of
rules, form and shape that accompany it, is a sense of panic. There is a
hegemony of rules and shapes and laws precisely because we feel chillingly
uncomfortable without them. Phil Smith has described this kind of panic
as an 'encounter with everything (else), an intense, but relatively common
initiatory Pan-ic - an experience of causeless, but sited dread' - the

hyphenation of pan-ic reminds us of the word's Greek origins and
associations with the god Pan and the word pan meaning everything.
In this form, panic is closely related to
Kierkegaard's existential angst or dread. This
dread is explicitly connected with freedom and
choices, with the uncertainties and
unboundariedness that freedom entails: 'the
dread felt by innocence, which is the reflex of
freedom within itself at the thought of its
possibility.'
That may sound ridiculously grand. I'm sure none of the members of the team felt
they were experiencing existential angst. But there was a sense of panic at times,
when the team realised that they could do anything, but that they only had six
months to do it. And I also connect that panic with their need to find the 'big
idea', the becoming-whale-of-an-idea.
So, the Red Stripe team sometimes wandered around
without a clear sense of what was going to happen next
and without clear rules about how it might be going to
happen or what they should be doing about it. Jurgen
Habermas talks about something like this when he
discusses 'action oriented to success' and 'action oriented
to understanding' and the different modes of thinking and
communication that they require (logical and pragmatic
for the first; rhizomatic and affective for the second).
Movement artist Sandra Reeve says much the same when discussing action
preceding intention:
In Move into Life practice, I often start from movement tasks or moving with no
fixed intention in a natural environment and allow associations, feelings,

images and ultimately meaning to emerge from a constantly shifting context.
Sometimes I introduce a theme, in order to guide the direction of my creative
response... This corresponds with Gibson's theory of affordances: that is, how
we pick up information appropriate to our needs directly from the
environment.
In any case, the team was 'drifting'. Instinctively,
that seems like an appropriate thing for an
innovation team to do; but it's also an
uncomfortable thing to do at any time, and
especially in a business context.
For myself, I would choose this state of drifting as
the most profoundly productive one. Others
would say that safety is a prerequisite of
productive enquiry or creativity. Arie de Geus maintains that 'fear inhibits
learning'. Probably all these views are correct. Certainly there are many, including
some members of the Red Stripe team, who work hardest and fastest when they
know where they're going. Perhaps it depends on the make-up of your team, or
perhaps your team can be invited to approach panic and safety in a new light. In
any case, we could say that the issue of drifting and panic and over-determination
needs to be addressed explicitly, at least if safety is intended.
One possible approach would be to invite team members to compare their
situation to that of the participants in Erotourism where two lovers travel
independently to a chosen city without mobile phones or any pre-arrangements
and set about finding each other. There is a destination, but no map.
[Incidentally, I like these words of Borges: 'la inminencia de una revelación, que
no se produce' (the imminence of a revelation that does not take place). They
seem to me to characterise much of the early part of Project Red Stripe's existence
and, perhaps, that of many other such innovation projects].

Weaving
Just before we leave the question of
wandering around:
Tim Ingold, writing about String Bags and
Birds' Nests, suggests that we might look at
construction as a kind of weaving, rather
than as a kind of making:
Whereas making defines an activity in terms
of its capacity to yield a finished object, weaving focuses on the skilled
character of the process by which that object comes into existence. Three
important properties of technical skill are highlighted. First, skill is not a
property of the individual human body in isolation but of the whole system of
relations constituted by the presence of the artisan in a richly structured
environment. Secondly, rather than representing the mere mechanical
application of external force, skill involves qualities of care, judgement and
dexterity. Thirdly, skilled action has a narrative quality, in the sense that
every movement grows rhythmically out of the one before and lays the
groundwork for the next.
Perhaps innovation, as well as construction, can be looked at as a kind of
weaving.
Dilemmas:
Drifting 'aimlessly' can be a profoundly creative process, but it's also anxietyinducing. Participants (and Finance Directors) may want something more
regimented. Rules and guidelines can offer direction or serve as blinkers.

It's vitally important to ensure that you've picked the right idea before embarking
on commercialising it. But equally important to know when to stop looking for the
right idea and accept that the one you have is good enough.
As Oliver Burkeman says, ‘attempts to induce good feelings through top-down
effort are self-defeating - whether imposed on workers by management or imposed
on yourself by your rational brain... you (or those you manage) get caught in the
psychological trap known as the double bind - the unspoken demand whereby, in
the words of the philosopher Alan Watts, “you are required to do something that
will be acceptable only if you do it voluntarily”’. Just how do you direct people to
do the right thing?
----------------------------------------------------------------------------Credits:
Wordle: www.wordle.net
Zoo signs: Paul Downey, Bell and Jef, Edinburgh Blog, Tup Wanders, Paul
Downey, Kate Sheets, Tim Parkinson

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