Creative Engineers

How does one get a bunch of engineering students to trust a creative exploration when no sign of a definite solution or result is within sight?

I recently facilitated a three-day workshop for a group of cross faculty students  participating in a sustainability competition at VIA University College. My colleague and I were called in to teach the group creative processes and cross-disciplinary group-work and had designed a program around a design thinking-esque double diamond with a lot of attention to the power of divergent and convergent thinking. We wanted the group to learn through experience and thus acted as facilitators, taking time-outs for reflection and learning.

The task of the competition was very broad – it asked for creation within the field of sustainability and did not mention any specific problem to be addressed. While it left much room for creativity, it also demanded a lot from the group. Only a few hours into the process, two engineering students aired their concern with all the unknown. They felt frustrated, fumbling and incapable. How could they ever develop a solution to a problem they did not know?

The Cynefin Framework

In order to trust the process, lean in and participate actively, they needed to understand that the feeling of insecurity was natural and quite ok. But just telling them did just not cut it. Try and get an engineer to trust you on your word. No, they needed something to understand. If they understood they would trust.

I therefore introduced them to the Cynefin Framework, a framework that categorizes problems into five domains: Simple, Complicated, Complex and Chaotic. The fifth, Disorder, is the state of not knowing the domain at all.

The framework provides a typology of contexts that guides what sort of explanations or solutions might apply. It draws on research into complex adaptive systems theory, cognitive science, anthropology, and narrative patterns, as well as evolutionary psychology, to describe problems, situations, and systems.
– Wikipedia

Engineers, especially engineering students, work in the domain of complicated problems. And they are masters in dissecting complicated problems into a string of simple ones. They analyze, calculate, asses and conclude in a positivistic paradigm. Simple problems are problems where the relationship between cause and effect (the solution) is obvious to all. In complicated problems, the relationship does exist out there, but is harder to see, requiring analysis or investigation to be uncovered.

I then pointed out the difference between a complex and a complicated problem. Complex problems are complex. Cause and effect is not the question. They may have many solutions. They may have no solution. A solution may occur after searching blindly for several days. The group was facing a complex problem in the task given, and if the engineers did not manage let go of the mindset of a complicated one, they would at best under perform and under deliver – worst case, and much more likely, have three terrible days of group work with struggles and fights and no result at all.


To embody this learning, I took them through the Training Dolphins Exercise. I was taught this exercise by Ian Prinsloo from the Banff Centre and it goes something like this:

This homepage describes the training of dolphins: “Learning takes place in a series of steps. Learning by steps is called the “method of approximations”, or “incremental learning”, where the animal’s behavior is shaped when successive approximations of the desired behavior are appropriately reinforced.”

In other words: You cannot tell a dolphin what to do or not to do. You can only encourage the desired action and behavior through rewards. When the first action of a series has been connected with the reward, rewarding is stopped until the action is followed by the next desired action. And so on, until a whole series have been learned. Dolphins are smart animals.

The exercise:
1. Explain to the group the story of how dolphins are trained.
2. Have the group choose one person to be the dolphin (someone with the confidence to stand in front of the group). Send that person out.
3. Have the group decide on a series of simple actions they want the dolphin to do. E.g. jump on the spot, then spin around with arms out.
4. Reward is given by the group clapping and should be intensified when the dolphin gets closer to the desired action. Once the first action has been learned, the group should reward only when the first action is followed by the second. And so on. Other than clapping there can be no communication.
5. Call in the dolphin, place her/him in front of the group and explain that the group wants him to do something and that they will clap as the person gets closer to the desired action.
6. When done, make sure to acknowledge the dolphin for standing in front of the group.

The dolphin is facing a complex problem. No matter how much he or she think and contemplate, the desired action cannot be calculated or figured out. Action, movement, is required, yet the possibilities are endless. As the game starts, there is absolutely no indication of what is expected of the dolphin. Only empty space. It is a very confronting moment. To many people even frightening. There is no way of succeeding without failing first. And failing a lot. The fear of failing is obviously a human characteristic, not something I suspect real dolphins struggle with much.

When the human dolphin does get moving, the feedback is extremely ambiguous. In the beginning in the form of silence only and when the clapping starts it will be hard to interpret exactly what is being encouraged – “Was it that I walked or what I did with my hand?” The dolphin will get no answer, except by trying again. And again.

If the exercise is repeated, make sure the actions required the second time is of a different “paradigm” than the first (e.g. first time all actions took place standing on the spot, second time requires moving in space). Watch as the second dolphin automatically expects the actions to be in line with the first and freeze when all possible actions have been tried out (so they think). A new moment of empty space occurs.

This exercise is a great metaphor for many things (creativity, awareness, feedback etc.) and leads to rewarding group reflections. In this context it played well with the Cynefin Framework, exemplifying the challenges of complex problems and how frustration and fumbling are integrated parts of finding a solution. That it simply cannot be avoided.

Trusting the Process

The double diamond acted as the map for the three days and the Cynefin Framework helped the group trust in the map, even as it lead them through much struggle and hardship. Though the engineers continued to feel uncomfortable, we now shared a language. They leaned in and marched on. We had three great days filled with learning and a great product in the end.

The hardship of creative processes cannot be avoided, but our resilience towards it – towards standing in the void that cannot be avoided – can be developed. A healthy motivation, a strong vision and mission, goes a long way. And trust in the process. In this example, the Cynefin Framework created that trust.


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