“How can I learn to do what you do?” This question usually emerges at the end of one of our workshops, the moment when participants are thinking about returning to their organisations. Often, the interlocutor is a PI who wants to bring some part of the creative process into his or her lab. We get the same question from mentors, research managers, and even some of the funders.
Whether as the mentor or the person being mentored, we’ve all experienced occasions when for whatever reason – timing, chemistry, opportunity – good counsel made a big difference. We also remember the not-so-good mentoring, when we were disappointed by an advisor or by the inability of someone to accept our help, no matter how hard we tried. We’ve known good and bad mentors and because of those experiences we begin to understand what does and doesn’t work.
What if you used an object to do something other than what it was made to do and ended up redesigning the object? That doesn’t seem so far fetched, unless, as a result of your misuse, the object redesigned itself. This is the idea behind ThingTank, a project that came together during an Ideas Lab facilitated by KI in 2013. The project, funded by Skoltech, starts with the fundamental questions: Can things design things?
Walking, it seems, is now a tested method for coming up with creative ideas. It probably doesn’t surprise you that standing up and stretching your legs and getting some aerobic activity to move your blood around might help your brain to conjure up more options. But now there’s research from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education to back up what was up until now intuitive or anecdotal: Taking a walk can yield more ideas than sitting in your chair thinking.
It’s not that we don’t have a design for the workshop. Nor is it that we’re keen to keep our participants in the dark. Our experience is that no published agenda survives human contact. So as soon as there are people introduced to the process, things change, slow down, speed up, go a different direction. Our workshops need to be flexible so that we can react to the decisions participants make along the way. Our job is to facilitate what is happening, not necessarily to facilitate what will happen.
The team of mentors – there can between three to five at an Ideas Lab – usually represents a range of different academic perspectives that have some bearing on the question that’s central to the event. Their expertise is essential, but an equally important attribute for a mentor is to be ambitious about the science, intensely curious about the topic of the workshop, and adept at giving feedback, without being directive. This is the critical bit: they have to stay neutral and avoid getting tangled up in the ideas or too engaged in the participant groups.