Week 4 Laddership: Of Constraints And Creativity

Posted by Audrey Lin on Mar 24, 2016
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Week 4 of our Laddership Circle curriculum begins:

“An organization can harness massive amounts of work hours, be a vessel for innovation, and unleash an array of services to society. Yet, at the end of the day, it is made up of people just like ourselves.”

How can we initiate projects through a lens of transformation? Can we embody our values through institutions? How does that influence the nature of elements like marketing or operations? What is the balance between theory and practice-- between sticking to ideals and adjusting to specific circumstances?

Such are the kinds of questions we held last week, as our Friday crew dived into Week 4's virtual circle. In the first half of the call, we went around the circle, offering up insights from organization-based practices and actions that we’d engaged throughout the week. A few topics that emerged:

Powerful ripples unfold when the spirit of goodwill gets ignited. What conditions tip a generous intention into action?

In experimenting for generosity, Shamash was inspired by a pay-it-forward experience he completed that very morning. And he noted that he was pumped up by a video about an “ATM: Automated Thanking Machine”. Harpal shared visions of a “Traveling Kindness Café” where the appetizer could be a smile, and dessert a hug. :) After a workshop, Ming noted with fresh amazement how all the participants volunteered in the spirit of gratitude to put chairs away and clean everything up—and how in 20 minutes, the venue looked as good as new! Later on, surprising us in real-time, Alfred and Natasha dialed in live from Karma Kitchen Dubai! With glowing smiles, their jubilant presence beamed infectious “growing-in-generosity” ripples as they chronicled some highlights from the day.

As we transform, how do we bring our organizations along for the ride?

Noticing a tendency to get caught up in “putting out fires” at work, Wendy wondered what structures and practices she could put into place to shift away from this tendency all together, and to allow room for innovating around values in the workplace. Parag noted a shift from leading to “laddering” in his management style: “I just have to serve. That is it. How things will change, I don’t know. I just have to ‘be the change’… and when the time ripens for change to come in the current organization it will come. But what do I have in this moment? How can I be aligned with whatever’s happening in the moment? And just to serve? If it doesn’t work, I’ve got to step up and serve more. That’s it.”

What do small shifts look like in our family ‘organizations’?

Liam wondered about family pressures with the example of his how to reconcile different religious beliefs and practices in his family. Specifically, he recalled his grandfather’s funeral, and how there were difficult conversations and conflicts around which rituals to engage amongst family members who valued different religious traditions. Lynn echoed similar sentiments, noting how family culture can be the most difficult to influence change, yet how like bees in a hive, when individuals come together in a community, a larger organism that gets created. While walking with a longtime friend’s 85-year-old mother (who lives alone and currently struggles with various health issues), they “collided” with a couple of the mother’s acquaintances and Lynn observed how it boosted her frail health in ways more powerful than doctor’s visits or transactional services.

Just 40 minutes into our call, so many thoughtful insights were already swimming to the surface! As we transitioned into our open mic dialogue on this week’s “organizations” theme, the conversation thoughtfully navigated across various topics. Three of them include:

What organizing principles allow us to spark intrinsic motivation?

When systems thinker Margaret Wheatley researched disaster relief productivity, she noticed that ad-hoc support from well-intentioned individuals ended up being more effective than formal organizational efforts. What enables groups to cooperate in an effortless way? Is it possible to replicate natural organizing principles within established organizations?



In addition, Lynn noted that in the science of change behavior, a sense of urgency can be effective. Liam wondered how to create a sense of urgency without rushing. He recalled a Zen quote, “Death is coming. Relax,” upon which Nipun was reminded of a greeting card he once read, along the lines of, “Nature doesn’t rush, yet everything grows.” Wendy followed-up with a memory of a time when she was working in a fast-paced environment and received feedback a former boss: “You’re losing your sense of urgency.” At that point, she wasn’t sure if she was the best fit for that environment, and had been consciously trying to practice a sense of unhurriedness— so she took it as a compliment. :) But for her, it sparked the question, “How can we manage people in a way that they’d best respond and stay connected to their purpose? Rather than with an expectation of how we want them to act?”

To what extent is organizing violent or nonviolent? What are the trade-offs?

Gandhian perspectives on organizing were also brought to light. Nipun noted how Vinoba Bhave (who many consider to be Gandhi’s spiritual successor) viewed organizations as fundamentally violent. Interestingly, on the other hand, Gandhi was involved in so many organizations and was immersed in organizing throughout his life. Those close to him would tell you that, for Gandhi, organizing was a test of his nonviolence.

Prasad also pointed out that being nonviolent on an individual level sometimes indirectly leads to unintended violence on a structural level. In the example of Zappos, when CEO Tony Hsieh decided to remove managers (with the view that managing is violent) and shift to a self-organizing model, it ultimately imposed various challenges as the new system redirected various layers of staff. In addition, Prasad added that a lot of preparation needs to happen in order for us to ‘flow’. So organizing can be a tool for emergence, depending on how we act on our values, and if we have a clear sense of purpose.

What purpose do creative constraints serve?

While organizing a gift flash mob, Shamash began collaborating with various organizations that resonated with the idea and wanted to get involved. One particular group wanted to advertise by displaying its name on t-shirts and banners. Shamash’s original idea was to keep the event anonymous, so the inconsistency prompted him to reflect on his values. He was then reminded of creative constraints, and decided to articulate his organizational values online, to help clarify where to draw the line with this organization. Ultimately, he decided there’s no reason to “fight with other happiness organizations”. :) Since it is a public event, he noted that he doesn’t necessarily have control over what others choose to do, but the reflection of having creative constraints to stay grounded in core values helped navigate that decision with clearer intentions. He reflected, “The concept of creative constraints is really interesting. You think they’re constraining you, but actually, they make decisions much easier.”

This prompted questions from Harpal and Liam, which then made us all reflect on what creative constraints really are.



As we read in Week 3, Aravind Eye Hospital constrained itself to turn no one away, while also being self-reliant. From a conventional view, being a self-reliant organization while seeing every patient that walks in the door—whether or not they’re able to pay for their eye care services—is an oxymoron. Yet it created an equation for creativity, and a guideline for staying grounded in its values, which ultimately enabled it to accomplish feats of infinite vision, like doing 2,000 surgeries a year (other hospitals in India average ~300) with half the relative amount of surgical complications as eye hospitals in Britain.

In another example, back at Zappos, Tony Hsieh created an “intentionally inconvenient” office in downtown Las Vegas, where he closed off a skybridge shortcut from parking lot to office and invested in a design that inconveniently in both construction costs as well as the added travel time for employees to take the longer route to their desk. But, it was a constraint that enabled colleagues could to run into each other and connect, and from there, all sorts of possibilities could emerge.

Prasad offered the ‘disruptive innovation’ examples of Adobe’s PostScript typeset and then Aldus’ PageMaker, both of which were created on humble startup equipment, and went on to revolutionize the face of a desktop publishing. “Within limited resources, if they have to create something, that’s where the magic comes to light. For any transformation to take place, creative constraints are essential,” he remarked. Parag added, “Any constraint, when you accept that constraint, you are on the ground where you don’t have the answer—on the ground of not knowing. And this is the ground of creativity.”

On the flip side, Ming wondered, “Do all constraints lead to creativity?” Some constraints do actually create barriers that would be better to overcome. On a related note, Natasha highlighted how, in her experience, it always comes back to the living practice of individuals within the organizations. No matter how many design principles there are, those principles just become another rule or limitation (rather than something that inspires creativity or emergence), unless there are living examples of people who embody and put them into practice.

Shamash remembered reading somewhere about how, several years ago, DailyGood reached a tipping point of needing a high-end computer server to manage its increasing email traffic. With no budget for such equipment, someone suggested sending an email to inform everyone about the need. But it didn’t feel right. And that feeling was also backed by one of its founding creative constraints: serve with whatever we have. So the team waited. Couple weeks later, someone emailed asking for a mailing address to make a small donation. The following week, a check came in for $10,000, and that person had neither donated previously nor had any idea about the financial situation.

While this story underscores a faith in serendipity, the conditions behind these organizing principles also run layers deep. There’s faith in our capacity to endure, no matter what it brings, but also faith in our capacity to be creative— that when life offers lemons, we’re confident we’ll figure out a way to make lemonade. These thoughts prompted Nipun to share about unexpected ripples along the KindSpring journey, and we witnessed how sometimes capacities only unleash themselves later down the line; and even when they ripen, they may be disguised in other forms of capital.

With so many insights in just 90 minutes, many of us shared similar sentiments to Harpal’s remark, “I’m going to try to think of organizing in a different way.” :) As we closed the call with more questions than answers—and with backdrops of Karma Kitchen Dubai and upcoming sights of Museum of Happiness flash mobs in London—we couldn’t help but feel the blessing of such spaces that prompt us to collectively re-imagine daily possibilities, and to sow seeds for who-knows-what-to-ripen-when. :)                

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