Is Dissonance An Enemy or Driver of Creative Problem Solving?

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Is Dissonance An Enemy or Driver of Creative Problem Solving?

At the very core of learning, I believe, is the recognition that “I” have a problem I want to solve. Lacking that, we are engaging in exercises placed upon us by some external force, exercises in which we either have no stake or do not understand the stakes. For decades I have believed that at the root of every problem or obstacle we encounter, be it academic, personal, social, political, economic, or other, lies a key driver: cognitive dissonance. Simply, we recognize that the world is different than we want it to be.

David Culberhouse sent me a link to one of his blogs that speaks to the role of dissonance in the process of creativity. I follow David closely and believe he is an important thought leader in education, constantly pushing us to think in important directions, particularly in the areas of organizational evolution and leadership. This post is longer than usual, quoting extensively from David’s blog, and I hope it will be the start of a discussion on the nature and role of dissonance. For those of you who really want to dig into the nature of learning and how we ALL are motivated to learn, I encourage you to read on!

Here is the question: is dissonance a major impediment to, or the largest positive driver of, the creative process? David thoughtfully cites and sides with the work of Todd Henry in “The Accidental Creative that dissonance is a negative force. I argue, as I did in The Falconer, that dissonance lies at the very heart of problem finding, and therefore is essential to the creative process.

First, David’s definition of dissonance, from Google: “A tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious or unsuitable elements.”

 And David’s articulation of the Henry argument:

 …he (Henry) focuses on what he calls the “three assassins of the creative process”…which he names as “dissonance, fear, and expectation escalation…dissonance as a “creative assassin” is a concern that is often left unattended and off the table, especially for leading creativity and innovation in today’s organizations.

Henry continues towards why dissonance can and will eventually be devastating to creativity and innovation…”When this happens our minds go to work to try to resolve these misalignments and much of our creative problem-solving bandwidth is hijacked by our mind’s need to resolve these environmental incongruities.”  He pushes further, saying that…”These points of dissonance cause us to feel perpetually uneasy and make it difficult for us to know how to engage in our work.”

When we feel anxious, when we focus our thinking on the wrong things, our mental capacity is soaked up on that which has nothing to do with creativity and innovation.  We spend our limited mental energy and focus on things that are not worthwhile, leaving little or no capacity for the real, necessary, and meaningful work that truly drives our organizations forward.

Henry: One of the most important responsibilities of a creative leader is to eliminate these little areas of dissonance as often as possible.”   According to Henry, there are three types of dissonance that serve to dilute the creative energy of an organization…”unnecessary complexity”“unclear objectives” and “opacity”.

And now my understanding of dissonance, pulled largely intact from Step 4 of The Falconer: Finding Problems:

Problems are caused by dissonance. Dissonance can be defined as a lack of harmony or agreement. A musical chord is dissonant if one of the notes is not in harmony with the others. It sounds wrong to our ears. We want or expect to hear something sweet and harmonious; if we hear a note out of harmony, we hear dissonance. We have a problem with the way the chord sounds, not because the sound is inherently bad or wrong, but because it does not sound the way we wanted or expected it to sound.

This then is the root of problems: the difference between the way something is and the way we want or expect it to be.

Real learning, whether in the classroom or the real world, occurs when an individual takes a personal stake in solving a problem that is meaningful to him or her. The person finds a visceral, tangible difference between the world as they expect or want it to be and the world as it is. They will wrestle and prod and provoke the problem, using all of their tools and resources, until they either resolve the conflict to a point of satisfaction or just give up. Dissonance immediately leads to questioning: we ask “why,” “why not,” and “what if” until answers of satisfactory magnitude are found that either eliminate the dissonance or decrease it to a level of acceptability.

Dissonance leads to evolution and to revolution. It can be benign or destructive. Scientists build questions on top of preceding results because the result does not fully eradicate the dissonance: something still does not fit. Our understanding of the world evolves through this process.

Great teachers all do one thing well: they create dissonance in the minds of their students and guide them in the resolution of that dissonance. This is not always an easy path, particularly for young people. There may be anxiety, timidity, or tears when the student finds out that the world is not as simple or sugarcoated as Mommy and Daddy, Grandma and the babysitter, big sister and the storyteller had led him to believe. But the process results in real learning, a growing ability to face and overcome complex obstacles for which there may be no canned answer or pretty roadmap.

In all cases dissonance, the recognition that “I” have a problem, leads first to questioning and then to growth of knowledge or experience. The individual is directly, in some cases, passionately involved, self-interested in the outcome, in finding answers and more questions and more answers until the dissonance is reduced to an acceptable level. This is the true process of learning. It can be tumultuous, exciting, uplifting, rocky, enlightening, or all of them at once.

Where do I think Culberhouse, Hardy, and I agree? Dissonance causes friction, and if that friction is greater than the traction to overcome it, change stalls. There should be no question that Hardy correctly identifies some key elements of that friction with respect to organizational change: …”unnecessary complexity”“unclear objectives” and “opacity”. The solution, however, is not to avoid dissonance. The solution, in my opinion, is to address those elements of complexity, clarity, and opacity; creatively solve those problems in ways that build the creative DNA of the organization. Teach people to be straightforward, clear, and transparent, and the organization will gain creative capacity; they will know how and why they are better problem solvers, and thus will become better and more creative problem solvers in the future.

Here is the difference, I think: dissonance is not the enemy of creative problem solving. The enemy is our inability to leverage the power and understanding of dissonance to find and solve problems in truly creational ways. That inability is caused by growing up and within a system that does not allow, challenge, and prepare us to face our own dissonance. In schools, this is manifested in assembly line learning where the goal is acquisition of content knowledge, not understanding, application, and wisdom.

I imagine David will agree with much of my argument; I imagine to some I am splitting hairs. But I don’t think so. Teachers who reduce dissonance because of the friction it causes do their students a disservice: they rob the student of the chance to find problems rooted in personal passion, which we all know is the key to deep learning. School leaders who reduce dissonance or see it as the enemy of change do their schools a disservice by failing to build a key capacity of organization. This hair is really worth splitting. It is the difference between sort-of learning and great learning.

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  1. Cal October 6, 2014 at 3:25 pm - Reply

    I’m not familiar with the work of either Culberhouse or Henry . Do either of them offer specific, clear, unambiguous direction to overcome dissonance or do they only offer generalities?

    • Grant October 6, 2014 at 11:41 pm - Reply

      Culberhouse cites Henry as follows in his blog:

      According to Henry, there are three types of dissonance that serve to dilute the creative energy of an organization…”unnecessary complexity”, “unclear objectives” and “opacity”.

      Let’s take a quick look at these three creativity killers:

      “Unnecessary Complexity” – which at some time or another, we’ve all experienced or dealt with in both our personal and professional lives. Whether that be with a change initiative or even a new idea. We’ve long had the tendency to take a simple solution or idea and add layer after layer until what was once simple has become difficult and unwieldy. Henry shares, which is vital for all creative leaders to remember…”You need to be diligent about asking yourself, “Can I make this process more simple?” Otherwise, “unnecessary complexity” will eventually cause dissonance.

      “Unclear Objectives” – even though we may work with a problem or “project extensively”, Henry concludes that, “the objectives are still unclear, and we’re uncertain about what we’re really trying to do.” As a creative leader, it is vital to provide clarity and deep understanding around the end goal…of what we are trying to accomplish and to clearly state and know what is needed to hit the target. As Henry shares in ‘The Accidental Creative’…”It’s astounding to me how often I encounter people who are stuck on a creative problem and can’t articulate what they’re trying to accomplish.” It is difficult for people to unleash their thinking in creative and innovative ways when they are focused on trying to determine what the objective or goal truly is…and what it is they are trying to accomplish. Otherwise, “unclear objectives” will eventually cause dissonance.

      “Opacity” – brings us back to the issue of “why”. Which adds to the importance of openness and clarity in our organizations. When decisions are made in secret and transparency is lacking or non-evident, it causes confusion and frustration. When the “why” is not explained, or is not clear, people will then choose to make their up their own conclusions as to the “why”. Be that right or wrong. Or as Henry provides, “The more opaque the decision-making process, the more likely that misinterpretation and misalignment will follow.” For which he adds, “The clearer the organization can be about why decisions are made, the better.” Otherwise, “opacity” will eventually lead to dissonance.

  2. Cal October 7, 2014 at 2:35 am - Reply

    It seems that you and Culberhouse/Henry are talking about two different things. For you, dissonance is as a contradiction between two requirements that must be overcome. Writ simple you must find a way for something to fit the requirement of being big and also being small or being warm and being cold, direct physical contradictions. Or trade-offs that must be resolved like being strong and light weight or being bright and hidden. In your case the dissonance or contradiction poses a problem ripe for invention or creative solution. It seems that Culberhouse/Henry are looking for a way to overcome resistance (dissent/dissonance) within the organization and are offering generalizations for advice that you will find an any number of management books and essays.

  3. Thomas Steele-Maley October 7, 2014 at 3:00 am - Reply

    This is an excellent post Grant.

    Fundamentally, dissonance is a state of learning that allows for the most productive episodes of growth in our lives. An age old family saying here is “if it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing”. Your points on dissonance and business as related by Cluberhouse and Henry deal not with mutation which is wrought with dissonance but rather institutional change that is following a pattern of scripted results. What happens when that pattern is obscured is telling– in schools the time dealing with wicked problems is subsumed all to often in schedule obedient forays into “change” which bow first to the institutions tradition, construct and safety second to the painful (at times) work of delibratation and decision making.

    Our reaction to hearing “I’m so confused!” by teacher and/or student is paramount to embracing the current that dissonance represents. If your reaction is “ah, thank goodness, it’s about time you discharged about that–now you can take control of your learning” –excellent. If not, you may be missing the single largest driver of authentic human learning.

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