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Confusion and creativity

The art of creative confusion: how to challenge your thinking.

“Your mind is like a parachute. It only works if it is open.” – Frank Zappa.

Do you like being confused? Probably not: because many people see it as a negative. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, confused means unable to think clearly or bewildered and even “not in possession of all one’s mental faculties.”

As such, confusion is probably not something you’d want to highlight in your professional profile or corporate narrative. But is our dislike of confusion a mistake? Are we missing a creative trick?

If you look at the origin of the word, you’ll see confusion comes from the Latin Cōnfundō. Now this might sound like a Harry Potter spell but it translates as “to pour or mingle together.”

In other words, we could think of confusion in terms of the flow of conversations, the mixing of people, ideas and projects. Now, instead of sounding negative, confusion sounds creative – even magical. Might it also help businesses engage, collaborate and co-create with others?

Can confusion in education nurture creativity?

For those of us raised in the structured and linear English education system, confusion can be uncomfortable. Yet, bizarre as it may seem, it is an important aspect of the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy of a “self guided curriculum.” However, just to be clear, confusion does not mean this style of education is chaotic, far from it.

“Projects do not follow rigid timetables but rather meander slowly at the pace of the children.” Carlina Rinaldi, educationalist.

This educational approach has its origins in the Northern Italian town of Reggio Emilia, in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the Second World War. Since then it has inspired many pre- and primary schools in Italy and across Europe and North America. It challenges some of our preconceptions of how we learn, both in school and later in our professional life.

“Teachers in Reggio Emilia assert the importance of being confused as a contributor to learning. A major teaching strategy is purposely to allow mistakes to happen, or to begin a project with no clear sense of where it might end.”Wikipedia.

With the Reggio approach, there is no place for pre-determined outcomes or linear processes. Instead, it sees learning as a spiralling progression that is always open to the unexpected. Some of the best science and business success stories also derive from this approach.

The power of creative confusion in science and business

It was not a scientist who made the shocking discovery that all life is cellular but a Dutch linen merchant, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Yet his motivation for developing the lenses that led to this revelation was simply to understand the quality of the fabric he was buying. Scientists now know him as ‘The father of microbiology’: not bad for a shopkeeper, surveyor and son of a basket maker.

The founder of L’Occitane en Provence, Olivier Baussan, was apparently inspired to launch his perfume business when he found an abandoned still on the side of the road. Using natural ingredients from the surrounding countryside, he started producing a range of fragrances and soaps. Since then, his simple idea has grown into one of the world’s most successful retailers, with hundreds of stores and thousands of employees.

As Louis Pasteur, who discovered the power of vaccination, said: “Chance favours the prepared mind”: part of that preparation comes from allowing yourself to be open to new ideas. Sir Alexander Fleming famously discovered penicillin by accident when he was studying the flu virus. While Albert Einstein enjoyed seven years working in the Swiss patents office, because this “worldly cloister” gave him time to think, struggle with and develop his amazing ideas.

That creative process seems to be personified in Einstein’s notoriously messy desk – a jumble of notes, a confusion of jottings, a cacophony of thoughts. When challenged about it he had a simple reply: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” Perhaps there is method in such chaos, as psychology researchers at the Carlson School of Management concluded: “Order produces conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity.”

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill.

Confusion, uncertainty, and a willingness to embrace change are often the source of business innovation too. We see this in the image of Steve Jobs’ desk – and in tales from the agile and lean start-up culture. Often the big breakthrough comes not with the original idea but at the pivot, when a team takes what it has learnt from early failure and applies it to a new direction.

A good example of the pivot in action comes from The Point, which launched as a platform for community activists but struggled to find followers. In a quiet moment, the founders wrote a blog that included a coupon for a local pizzeria. The response they got prompted them to pivot and now Groupon is a multi-billion dollar company.

However, admitting you may be wrong or there may be a better way is not easy (as any driver will tell you). In a psychological study of how science students deal with anomalous data, the authors (Chinn and Brewer) identified seven basic responses to conflicting evidence. These ranged from simply ignoring the data; through finding ways of either rejecting it or reinterpreting it to fit an existing theory; to (finally) accepting the data and changing the theory.

Getting to step seven (acceptance) tends to take longer and require more data because most theories don’t simply depend on logic but also involve some underlying beliefs. Such beliefs are why many company founders feel protective about their idea: no one likes to hear their baby described as ugly or stupid. Like parents, founders tend to invest a lot emotionally (as well as financially) in their idea – so admitting your idea might be flawed can feel like admitting your own weaknesses.

“Every child is an artist; the problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso.

Many adults suffer from rigid thinking: for them a dining table is just a table – but for a child – Cōnfundō! it transforms into a fort, a ship, a cave or a workbench. That childlike love of play, imagination and seeing beyond the obvious is vital to the creative process. It can also help us out of a mental rut – which is why games and puzzles that encourage lateral thinking are so good for us.

How can confusion help business unleash creativity?


The rapid automation of many routine jobs is changing the world of work. One of the vital challenges now facing society is how to unleash human creativity and boost productivity. The World Economic Forum recently published a report on The Future of Jobs, which lists the core skills businesses will be looking for in the next 20 years.

The top three skills that employees of the future will need are:

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity.

These three – creativity, critical thinking and problem solving – are difficult at the best of times but virtually impossible when everyone on the team thinks the same. Such groupthink is the collective consciousness that stifles contradictions and keeps us trapped in unproductive patterns. It leads to confirmation bias, which often prevents people even realising they have a problem.

One type of behaviour that fuels groupthink is the pernicious use of group-speak. This is the vacuous jargon of the clique or inner circle, which says nothing but influences everything. Perhaps confusion could be our antidote to group-speak and groupthink by disrupting entrenched behaviour patterns.

However, urging people to think outside the box, push the envelope or take a helicopter ride for some blue-sky thinking won’t help fight this herd mentality. These bland clichés are precisely the jargon that hampers productivity and that too many people use as a cover for shallow thinking and inaction. Instead, we must find ways to challenge the assumptions on which we base our decisions – which is harder than it sounds.

“You have to systematically create confusion, it sets creativity free. Everything that is contradictory creates life.” – Salvador Dalí.

Many of us probably think large corporates are too conservative and cumbersome for creative thinking – and their leaders might well agree. However, some appear determined to use agile and lean methods to challenge assumptions and actively seek contrary customer signals. Rather than waiting for the market to disrupt them, they are creating internal teams or supporting start-ups that will disrupt their own business model for them.

Cindy Alvarez is the author of Lean Customer Development and Director of user experience at Yammer (a Microsoft company). In a particularly interesting interview on First Round, she talks about behavioural economics and explains why customers are unpredictable (apparently, our assumptions on why they buy things are often wrong). The secret to success, she argues, is to nurture an insightful company culture.

“Companies with insightful cultures are capable of true surprise and delight, because they build things people love but didn’t expect.” – Cindy Alvarez.

When researching ideas, successful business people tend to ask, “How would you improve this?” – instead of “What is right with this?” Instead of “Is this better than the competition?” – they tend to ask, “How would you compete with this?” There is a particularly useful post about this on the Customer Developer Labs blog, which includes the advice: do not ask about your idea or the future.

In 2009, Alberto Savoia launched The ‘Pretotyping’ Manifesto: “developed at Google, perfected at Stamford and now taught and practised worldwide.” Pretotyping comes before prototyping and mentors at hackathons frequently advocate its methods (including simple paper mock-ups) to test initial assumptions quickly. Savoia’s manifesto includes the advice: play with fire, failure is an option, and (our favourite) the more the messier.

You can also embrace confusion and messiness in your business by playing games that free people to be creative. These are not just fun but also mentally stimulating. One of the simplest is to ask people (colleagues or customers) to complete the following three statements about your products or services: I like…, I want…, I dislike….

Get them to write their responses on coloured sticky-notes (use three colours, one for each statement type) and use a fresh note for each like, want or dislike, then put them on a wall. You should encourage participants to complete each statement as many times as they want. You might end up with 10 likes, 30 wants and 50 dislikes.

At first, the blizzard of coloured notes might seem confusing. But as you add more notes, they will start to form simple patterns. These will help you see quickly if your idea has issues or is inspiring.

“Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.” – Henry Miller.

Here are 10 more games to help you boost creativity and innovation in your company. Have you used any of these games and did they work? What methods do you use in your company to avoid groupthink, confirmation bias and rigid conformity? Please post your thoughts below – thank you.

Meanwhile, enjoy the following 99U video of a talk by Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. It’s about the six characteristics of truly creative people, including re-framing questions, challenging assumptions and combining different ideas. In other words, to be creative we should all use the magic of Cōnfundō.

“Truly creative people are quilt makers, they can fit anything together.” – Tina Seelig.


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Thank you for reading

This post is part of an occasional series on business, social media and communications. If you found it interesting or useful, please share it with others. 

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Kind regards

Huw and Wendy Sayer

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

3 Responses

  1. Angela Lambert

    Huw, this is a superb post, Thankyou. I have just started my own business and will remember this whenever I’m making plans with my clients. Especially the “how would I compete with this?” question. You’re an inspiration. Thankyou for sharing. Angela

  2. Pingback : Business Writers Limited » What does your Personal Learning Network look like?

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