🦊🧙🏻♂️ // The time and place for curiosity
All the time, everywhere. Otherwise: oscillate.
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Ahoy friends. After the epic saga that was The Labyrinths of Reason last week, I have decided to once again make an attempt at “brevity”. It’s not my strong suit, but I shall try! 😅 This particular musing pertains to the beloved concept of ‘curiosity’—one of those words you’ll hear bandied about in a benign way. But little do most know (or perhaps they do?)—curiosity heralds a dire threat.
To what? Read on...
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🧙🏻♂️ Video podcast. Since I went and screwed up my discoverability by moving my site to foxwizard.com it is now even harder for folks to find me. Search for me and one of the top hits you’ll get is this delightful video podcast wherein I was a guest on The Innovation Show with Aidan McCullen. I really enjoyed our chat—but I was also in desperate need of a haircut. I seek to remedy this. So; if you seek a guest for your show—assuming your show is not salesy or lame—‘hmu’.
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So, Kevin Kelly’s new book Excellent Advice for Living: Wisdom I Wish I’d Known Earlier is out now. Us philosophers tend to view any claims to ‘wisdom’ as suspect—but I am quite sure this book may actually contain an apt glimmer or two. Certainly, there have been some aphorism-quips that have stood out for me in this comprehensive cheat sheet.*
* I hesitate to share such summaries; one cannot ‘hack’ their way to wisdom. And yet, here we are.
One such is this:
“Curiosity is fatal to certainty. The more curious you are the less certain you’ll be.”
Is this a bad thing? Certainty is a nice feeling, right? We want more of it. And, certainly, we have more motivation in domains wherein the goals, rules and feedback loops (aka: the ‘game’) is clear, stable and unchanging. If the goalposts keep changing arbitrarily, we are likely going to be more conservative with our efforts. But if a game is reliably ‘fixed’, we can optimise for performance.
Thus the default approach many leaders take is to increase the sense of certainty, stability, simplicity and clarity folks have in their work. And this makes sense—for formulaic work with predictable outcomes. If you are doing something that will reliably be ‘unchanging’, then: huzzah! You are operating within a closed system, and—just like an Olympian—you can train, perform, learn, and do better and better.*
* In the modern world of work, your efficiency will likely be rewarded with more work.
But if you suspect that the world is changing, that it is perhaps a bit more complex than the pundits make out, and that the future is less-than-certain and anything-but-clear then perhaps... perhaps you ought see that the seemingly closed system of your organisation and work is nested within a larger and more complex (open) system.
Yet curiosity is fatal to certainty, and the illusion of certainty is oh so useful if we are to ‘get shit done’.* What to do?
* Certainty, in this sense, is a construct. Ergo, mission-oriented leaders need to weild narrative and numbers to assist in helping people ‘make believe’ in the illusion of certainty. It’s an admirable magic.
I’m not sure that most organisations can reliably do curiosity and certainty both at the same time. Few have the negative capability.
But we can oscillate betwixt missions and quests.*
* In a yin-yang kinda way—missions ought be 80–98% certain, with 2–20% curiosity. Quests: 80–98% curiosity, with 2–20% certainty. Of course, curiosity cannot be reliably ‘measured’—and I would laugh at any attempts to do so—but from a vague, handwaving ‘vibe’ sense, you get what I mean here.
Most of the world of work is mission oriented. With a mission: the goals are clear, progress is quantifiable, and success: binary. There’s a narrowing of focus to a predetermined objective. And this is brilliant for short sprints, as objectives are likely to remain stable and relevant over a day, a week, a month or even a quarter. Get the game design just-so for the work (as I discuss in The Game Changer) and you can see teams rise above and beyond in order to see the mission through. Epic productivity and creative flow unlocked.
But—what happens when folks begin to question the mission? What happens if they begin to wonder aloud, or to openly indulge in the heresy of curiosity?
Ha! That’s where the questing occurs—betwixt the missions.
For it can’t all be productive sprinting, all the time. We need to occasionally take pause, catch our breath, widen our focus and sense into what’s happening around us. And so, after the sprint there ought be recovery, reflection, and the integration of any lessons learned. But also, in amidst this, I would suggest there ought be a tending to ‘the everquest’. That is: tapping back into the bigger questions like—where are we going? What is on the horizon? Is this meaningful progress? Is our directionality—our guiding thesis—still relevant?
Whereas a mission works towards the attainment of a predetermined goal (the answer to a question), quests are the pursuit of better questions. Quests are ultimately concerned with ‘relevance realisation’. We quest so that whatever it is we do continues to make sense in the emerging contexts we find ourselves.
Thus questing individuals and teams maintain an active ‘quiver of options’—strategic initiatives that might be enacted, should the right conditions manifest.* If your organisation is large enough, it may be that you have a core questing team (aka “strategic innovation”, if you must)—ideally bolstered via rotating secondments. If your organisation is smaller, it may be that questing is something that has less formality—yet remains vitally important.
* I talk of this in How to Lead a Quest and in the recent-ish post:Where Does Strategy Come From?
So: how do teams maintain this balance between productive missions and progressive quests?
A ritual is a sacred routine wherein we deliberately carve out time against the default grain of busyness so as to progress the things that matter. There’s never really a good time for curiosity—it’s distracting, wondrously vexing, and fatal to the illusion of certainty we need for focused performance.
But in-between sprints? Oh yeah, there’s time for that. And it’s all the more easier if we ritualise it. I’ve worked with teams that do ‘a long lunch’ each month, a dedicated ‘on-site’ each quarter (for masterclasses and immersions), and an off-site once or twice a year. It’s a good default rhythm.
The key is that, for these events, it’s curiosity that we optimise for. Not certainty.
But when folks are so use to closed systems, it can be hard for them to feel ‘at ease’ in contexts optimised for curiosity. They want to know the agenda, the timings, the content, the questions that will be asked, the answers that will be arrived at—which defeats the very point of the thing in the first place.
I am currently in conversation with a few different leadership teams who are wanting to run an offsite. A thing they all have in common is: they have not done this for a while (and so all of the complex and relatively intangible issues are beginning to pile and ache) + they are attempting to ‘optimise’ the experience with a detailed agenda.
And so—without the intervention of “Dr Fox, Archwizard of Ambiguity (most fantastic)”™️—their offsite will look like any onsite meeting, replete with too many powerpoint slides, bad coffee, unnecessarily corporate venues with bad downlighting and crappy whiteboards, and ultimately: no time to think.
Just as Parkinson’s Law dictates that work expands to fill the time allocated,* so too we might think that ‘content’ expands to fill any slot allocated in an agenda. Thus we end up with scenarios where there’s only ever at most five minutes for Q&A—which means we never get to the deep stuff, and we never venture beyond the default.
* And Parkinson’s Law of Triviality dictates that we will likely use this time to talk of trivial matters.
Unless!... we optimise for curiosity.
Optimise for curiosity
Most of my work with clients seeking a wondrous quest-oriented offsite is in helping to ensure that the event is not corrupted by too much certainty.
What does this look like? Well, in the work I do—in the co-creation and facilitation of wondrous leadership and ‘strategic’ team offsites—it looks very much like the following:
- Priming participants with questions to contemplate. Questions which are intentionally provocative, to which there may be no easy answers. Questions like: what are we pretending to not know? Or even subtler ones, like: what are you noticing that we ought be paying attention to? The offsite begins before we arrive.
- Creating an energetic and contextual flow that allows everyone to feel seen, heard and held—as a precursor to the generative ambiguity that allows real space and time to unearth the deeper questions. What emerges from this varies from client to client—but there’s always something there. Some sort of discontent we can constructively unpack and explore. Some business model or operating system incoherence we can address. Some subtle tension that goes by unremarked in the busyness of the day-to-day; yet festers nonetheless. My role is to hold such contexts so that we don’t prematurely collapse the possibility space too early—nor brush it off in the attempt to ‘get back to the agenda’. This is the agenda.
- Cultivating the conditions for ‘mythic moments’, like: long walks, long dinners, late night whiskies—all of the things that may be the pattern-disrupts that disarm and open teams up to greater insight. In essence; to create relaxed-yet-attuned ‘unguarded’ moments where frank, honest and imaginative conversation prevails. (Very much akin to the qualities of a thinking environment, with a bias towards the emergent).
- Gently collapsing the possibility space into artful coherence without reduction—so that we all have a shared sense of what meaningful progress ‘means’ for the next chapter/epoch.
This needn’t be a lavish or expensive affair. My clients and I have done wonders locally (in Melbourne) with a combination of cafes, long walks, picnics, co-working spaces, restaurants, speakeasies and more.* There’s an intentionality to the contexts. It’s not simply curiosity for the sake of. And it certainly isn’t brainstorming with post-it notes or infantile team building games just because. Rather, it’s curiosity applied to ongoing relevance realisation. With teams of warmly intelligent adults.
The result of a good offsite ought not be ‘more things to do’ (as is often the case). Instead, by staying in the tension of generative ambiguity with an emergent agenda optimised for curiosity, we leave with renewed clarity and confidence. Ha!
Offsites and similar are a way to cultivate scenius—collective genius. Rather than outsource your intelligence; cultivate it.
- News Minimalist – here chatgpt-4 reads the top 1,000 news stories every day and ranks them by significance on a scale from 0 to 10 based on event magnitude, scale, potential, and source credibility.
- The Infinite Conversation – an AI generated, never-ending discussion between Werner Herzog and Slavoj Žižek. “Everything you hear is fully generated by a machine. The opinions and beliefs expressed do not represent anyone. They are the hallucinations of a slab of silicon.”
- I am a big fan of plotter twitter.
- It’s now mainstream funny to tease carbon offsets. (Like, actually funny). But whilst I agree—corporations oughtn’t have an easy way to simply buy their way out of unavoidable emissions, I do worry that this collective sniggering is shortsighted. Decarbonisation remains the first priority—but alongside this we need to move to a world in which nature-based land regeneration and conservation (along with support for biodiversity, clean water and soil health) ought be more economically viable than the extractive/degrading alternatives. A forest ought be worth more as a living system than the toilet paper it produces. Thus: let’s not throw the proverbial out with the bathwater when we decry that “carbon offsets are a scam”—let’s see this as a starting point to a much more constructive, complex and vital conversation. That is: how do we transition to a post-growth world where externalities are factored in, and nature is properly valued because it is the sacred substrate that supports all life. (!) If this conversation appeals—you may enjoy this very pragmatic Planetary Regeneration podcast episode with Gregory Landua, Daniel Schmachtenberger and Jason Snyder.
- I also enjoyed this episode with Dave Snowden on The Jim Rutt Show – Managing Complexity in Times of Crisis. There is a warm sensibility to the way Dave approaches things, and I love the graciousness in which Jim hosts. In the open web Dave sometimes adopts the ‘cantankerous academic’ archetype—but his furore is mostly directed to those who epitomise the patriarchy; I’m grateful for this.
Dave recently reminded me of the TS Eliot quote: “Nothing pleases people more than to go on thinking what they have always thought, and at the same time imagine that they are thinking something new and daring: it combines the advantage of security and the delight of adventure.” This pretty much encapsulates most ‘leadership’ events these days (as I allude to in ‘subversive [something]’).
I find myself torn. As a twitter refugee searching for a viable town square I have found myself back on linkedin. Recently a friend of mine asked:
“A question for my LinkedIn connections. I notice some consultants post every single gig they do - photos of the client, then speaking with the client etc. a kind of relentless show and tell. [...] Should I be posting show and tells all the time? Does this lend to my credibility and how in demand we are? Therefore lead to more demand? Am I missing something?”
I found myself responding:
“I find the whole affair rather garish, but the exposure effect means that those who post more of themselves will end up being more ‘top of mind’ and thus will attract more work which will give them more to post about, and so on.
Personally when I see it, it evokes mixed emotions for me. Mostly cringe, sometimes resignation (that this is the grift), sometimes respect and admiration. I don’t like it when a speaker’s clients seem to be but props for their own promotion. I think it rather tasteless and egocentric when speakers take selfies of themselves on stage with the audience in the background. I’d like to think that the quiet folk who do brilliant work will have the work speak for itself—but this is not quite how the game theory works in the attention economy now.
When I first started in this space I was told that thing Winston Marsh said: ‘Be a better marketer of what you do than a doer of what you do.’ To this day I still find this abhorrent, even if it may well be good advice.”
One of the things that complexity practitioners become attuned to how incentives, power laws and network effects lead to skewed distributions (like how wealth tends to centralise and accumulate in but a few, so too does influence—hence why many web3 purists care about decentralisation).
Anyhoo: I can ‘sense’ the dark patterns and compulsion magics compelling me to regularly post ‘agreeable aphorisms’ that could otherwise be conjured by a robot (on linkedin), or to engage in memetic tribalism (on twitter). Luckily, I have an extreme allergy to such, so: jokes on you, platforms!
As for generative art, today I would like to share one of my most favourite collections from Emily Xie—Memories of Qilin.
“Memories of Qilin is a code-based generative art project inspired by traditional East Asian art. It channels the sense of movement and fluidity found in the region's classical paintings, while drawing from the colors, patterns, and forms of woodblock.
Specifically, the project explores the concept of folklore, evoking the mythological imagery of dragons, phoenixes, flowers, and mountains. The title references a fabled chimerical beast within East Asian mythology (while the qilin is its Chinese name, it is also known in Korea as the girin and Japan as the kirin) that represents prosperity and luck.
Viewers are invited to interpret elusive forms that verge on representation. As with the stories passed on through generations, each piece is imagined, organic, and ever-in-flux.
The project employs a wide variety of techniques including masking, geometric design, a simple physics engine, noise fields, and image processing, among other methods. It is programmed in p5.js.”
Like discerning shapes within clouds, you can scroll through the outputs generated via the artful code crafted by Emily and ‘see’ all sorts of wonders.
“Sansa” is one of my favourite places to explore longform generative art collections. You can view the rest of Memories of Qilin here.
And that’s all from me once again. Thank you for reading. Reply or leave a comment if you like; it is always lovely to hear from you. Or see you at The Rekindling. Oh and if a friend forwarded this to you, you can join the many thousands who subscribe to The Museletter.
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