Creativity Emergence: Interview with Michelle James


Michelle James has been pioneering Applied Creativity and Applied Improvisation in business in the Washington, DC area since 1994. She is CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence and founder of the Capitol Creativity Network – an Applied Creativity community hub since 2004 – and Quantum Leap Business Improv. Her mission is to integrate the worlds of creativity, service, meaning and commerce, and cultivate whole brain, whole-person engagement in the workplace. Recently, she was recognized for Visionary Leadership in Fast Company’s blog, Leading Change, for “her commitment to bring creative expression into the work environment in a very deep and meaningful way.”  Michelle is a business creativity consultant, facilitator and coach who has designed and delivered hundreds of programs for entrepreneurs, leaders, and organizations such as Microsoft, Deloitte, GEICO, NIH, World Bank, and Kaiser Permanente among others. Her original programs have been featured on TV, the radio and in print. She produces the DC-based Creativity in Business Conference – next one in Oct. 2011 . Michelle also performs full-length improvised plays with Precipice Improv, paints, and is a CoreSomatics Movement and Bodywork Master Practitioner.

In our Five Point Model, the Creative is one of the primary elements in facilitating thrivability.  At Thrivable, we are influenced by, and grateful for the work of Michelle James in the domain of the Creative.

Todd Hoskins:  Michelle, you have led conferences, workshops, and done coaching around facilitating creativity in business. How do those in business organizations, beyond the design team, work towards fostering creativity?

Michelle James:  The most effective and meaningful changes I’ve observed have come from both embracing creative practices and also establishing new foundations: generative principles of engagement, expanded mind sets, new frameworks, and entering into a “co-creative partnering” type of relationship with each other, and with the unknown. For example, weaving improv-based principles as the rules of engagement in meetings can transform both the energy and outcomes. One client transformed their meetings – which were either boring or contained continual battles for whose idea was best – into Discovery Sessions just by setting three of the improv principles as the foundational container for each meeting: yes-and, make everyone look good, and serve the good of the whole. Their once dreaded meetings, where little got done and all felt drained, became lively, co-creative sessions where new and different ideas and applications emerged in the meeting itself by just adhering to new principles of engagement. People began building on each other’s ideas instead of only defending their own.

Another example: an aspiring entrepreneur may have three different passions or business ideas and believes he or she has to choose one. By engaging emergence by conscious pattern breaking, whole-brain and somatic creative techniques, and deep immersion into the question, a new and completely unexpected pattern can emerge that reveals a coherent structure that could not have been predicted before that exploratory deep dive. A new coherent business structure can emerge that contains what is most alive and relevant of the three previous ideas, along with surprising new qualities. I have seen this so many times with entrepreneurs who are creating a business that doesn’t fit neatly into a current business model, my own business included. One level of thinking’s either/or question becomes the next level of thinking’s both/and solution. It often requires hanging out in “not knowing” for part of the process.

Todd:  How is emergence related to creativity?  What does it look like when it happens?

Michelle:  I’m not sure how to do that question justice in a few sentences without it either being vague or too reductive, and there can be many different answers. After years of working with it, It’s still hard for me to define because I see it as a universal process linked in to how life itself works – and myself as a life-long student of that process. Creativity, for me, is both means to cultivate the emergence – using creativity practices to engage emergence – and the outcome of an emergence. That’s why “creative emergence” resonates with me – the terms are so intimately linked. Creativity generates emergence, and emergence produces creativity – the whole process is an ongoing creative, emergent feedback loop.

A creative, emergent process requires navigating the dynamic balance of listening and choosing; knowledge and discovery; stepping up to create, and letting go to receive – in other words, doing what is yours to do, and letting the self-organization of emergent creativity do its part. Like midwifing any new birth, there is a natural trajectory already happening…and…there are things you can do to help facilitate a healthy birth, and then clean it up and make it accessible to the world.

In groups, you can see this emergence in action in highly functioning improv theater groups, jazz ensembles, sports teams, etc…and in co-creative work teams that have trust at their core.  Often the emergence happens after the “efforting” is released. Something takes over that is greater than any individual’s agenda that has an intelligence of its own. The group “field” produces something unexpected that emerges from the interaction of its members – whether it’s comedy line, a piece of music, a new strategy or business, a world changing idea or the next iteration of solution. In a group, emergence has the after-effect of “Look what WE did!” Something new was created that no one could expect, and each person sees how they needed the others in order to become something beyond any single person’s vision or agenda.

Facilitating emergence in an organization is partly about creating the conditions that allow people to contribute more of themselves than just their job description…to bring their unique creativity out in service of the vision, the team and the organization. People buy into what they help create. To bring out the creativity requires leaving the “control” mindset, and trusting in the natural self-organization of the creative process, while also creating boundaries for that creativity to emerge. One paradox of emergence is that flow needs boundaries.

For both individuals and groups, one activity to practice engaging the unknown is to ask the question, hold it without rushing to answer, then get the right brain involved and start drawing it – with NO recognizable pictures or symbols. Just draw the “energy” as you feel it moment by moment – colors, lines and shapes. This can be uncomfortable at first for some people because all the inner voices of judgment and the fear of the unknown can show up – and it is unfamiliar. Allow yourself to not know what it is. Get in the practice of not knowing…and just keep drawing. With practice, it actually becomes liberating. Research has shown the right brain processes more quickly than the left. And it expresses differently, so working this way can be like learning a new language at first. If you rely only on images you already know, you’re still letting the left-brain dictate the process. After allowing the right brain’s expression, THEN go back and bring in the left brain to try to find meaning through inquiry into the abstract drawing. It’s amazing what patterns and practical, concrete insights emerge just from diverging into the abstract unfamiliar first before converging back into the familiar.

Resistance often show up in the creative process, and it’s temping to turn back to what’s familiar. The act of moving through the discomfort of the contraction of resistance gives more power to the expansion of the new emergence – like the chick’s beak, which gains its strength by having to peck through the resistance of the shell as part of its hatching. The status quo wants to maintain itself; the new birth wants to come forth…and both are essential parts of the dynamic tension within the creative impulse.

Todd:  What other tensions and paradoxes are in the process of emergence? How can an organization move from either/or to yes/and, allowing for these tensions?

Michelle:  Included would be the dynamic tensions/interaction between divergence and convergence, the yin and yang archetypes, planning and improvising, stillness and activity, reflection and action, logic and intuition, using both what is seen and unseen, directing and unfolding, incubating and birthing. There are many more. The creative emergence process itself is paradoxical – what seems opposed or disconnected at one level emerges into something new at another level.  It is learning how to not see these aspects in conflict and to welcome the dynamic tension as a gift of creative process. And, of course, it can still be challenging – and messy – like any new birth while it’s happening. It can feel exciting and energizing at times, and painful and doubt-ridden at others.

Creativity contains both “yes-and,” which is expansion and divergence, as well as “either/or,” which is contraction and convergence. The key is to expand the playing field by diverging (yes-anding) first, before starting to organize and focus on convergence (discerning). I believe organizations need to create space, time, a value system, and set of practices that more explicitly embrace divergence. We need to infuse that into the company culture at every level. The need for exploration without judgment is significant before going into strategizing – it informs new structures. Discernment is necessary in the creative process – we just need to give more time to divergent practices to generate more novelty first before going there.

Todd:   With the yin and yang, what have we been missing within culture and organizations?

Michelle:  Culturally, we have been out of balance. We have focused mainly on the creative yang archetype: outward-focused, production, efficiency, results; forging ahead, focused, driven, goal oriented. When in balance with the creative yin archetype these can be healthy parts of a larger co-creative whole. But we have left out the yin as “too soft” or even “woo woo” so we have experienced a predominant work culture of the yang out of balance. Without the yin for balance, we experience the shadow side of an out-of-balance work culture: cut throat, uncaring, stressful, back stabbing, lack of work/life balance, fear-based, driven to excess or striving to keep up, trying to impress, lack of feeling safe to explore or take creative risks, binary thinking (success/fail, right/wrong), disconnected, etc. I believe many of our challenges in the workplace stem from our over-emphasis on the creative yang and our de-emphasis, or sometimes complete rejection, of the creative yin instead of integrating them.

Creative organizations need both. The yin is relational and includes incubating, being with, integrating, supporting, and yes-anding. More than just left-brain linear thinking, the yin is about engaging embodiment and somatic wisdom, intuition, right brain, non-linear practices. It is experiential and whole-person. It more than just talk, and more than just action – it is a connection to what is most alive in ourselves; a connection to our stories, our inner voice, our senses, our bodies and our hearts. Actions and interactions that emerge from an integrated connection to the yin archetype look different than the actions we’ve seen come form its absence. The yin and yang archetypal energies need each other for generative, whole-systems, meaning-filled creativity.

This integration is something I have been deeply committed to in my work for a long time. Some years ago I created a program on “Creativity and the Yin/Yang Archetypes” about the integration of both for a more engaged, alive, creative workplace. I found – and still do – it’s easier to facilitate and apply it than to talk about it because it needs our whole brain, not just left brain, to engage it. We’re in a time where more whole-brain practices (improvisation, visual communication and thinking, ritual, storytelling, embodiment, movement, etc.) are being brought into the business world all the time. We are also seeing more focus on meaning, calling, passion, aliveness, empathy, finding your voice, deep listening and internal motivation. Our metaphorical landscape is expanding to include more yin-centered metaphors. By infusing more yin practices, language and foundational ways of interacting into the yang workplace, it becomes holistically generative. The creative yin and creative yang are deep, archetypal patterns which, working together, allow exponential levels of creativity to emerge.

Todd:  You’re producing a Creativity in Business Conference in October.  How does the mode of your conferences, retreats, and workshops reflect the purpose?  How does the form follow function?

Michelle:  I believe the most dynamic, alive, creative organizations and individuals are those most in dynamic balance with yin and yang creativity. The intention of my work is to have my all my workshops, events, and coaching session reflect that balance of rich content and whole-brain/whole-being experience; mind and heart integration. They all use multiple dimensions of creative process and they are based in life-giving principles of engagement. At our conference, we used improv principles as our basis of interaction for the day. At our creativity network, presenters commit to doing something new to be on their creative edges. I also constantly create new activities, offerings or programs to keep and me on my own creative and evolving edges. My passion, among other things, is to create structures and conditions to support the balance of learning, wisdom, real-time creativity and emergence that supports aliveness, generative connections and serving the greater good. Part of living that mission is to imagine it, try it, get feedback, and modify. They do not all play out as hoped – some better, some worse – but they all contain seeds of learning and growth.