Mediation can be boring. In the last couple of years, I have talked with several experienced conflict professionals who have echoed my feeling of boredom. The boredom does not so much flow from being with parties in conflict but from the discussions among practitioners. I sense that too frequently we are playing small, our thinking and acting constrained, and governed excessively by the past.
And for those us of who have been involved in the field for decades, the feeling of deja vu descends upon us as we hear the same old discussions arising anew, from questions about process accreditation to prickly analyses of party autonomy and caucusing to debates about mediator self-awareness and mindfulness. We've been there and done that and know deep in our hearts that those may not be the right questions for the 21st century.
Always on the lookout for ways to ascertain the best questions to ask myself, parties, and the field, I was delighted to learn that Dr. Roberta Ness has a new book. I savored her first book. She teaches a class on innovation and is dean of University of Texas School of Public Health. (Click to watch her TEDxHouston talk on increasing innovation.) Today I listened to an interview of Dr. Ness (WGBH News) in which she talks about all of her books and how to become more creative.
In the interview she looks at this question: What if you could define—and distill—innovation and creativity? She says that innovation is teachable (although it takes practice like playing a musical instrument) and geniuses work from a toolbox. Her first book Innovation Generation describes those tools. She talks about her concern that the US is facing a lack of imagination and that schools are not teaching students to be creative. Even though kids' IQs are going up, their creativity is going down.
Ness says when a 3-year-old colors in a coloring book or draws a picture, he may decide to use the green crayon for hair; the typical school soon teaches him that is not an acceptable option. On the other hand, a philosophy and practice of education that does raise students' ability to innovate is Montessori, and Ness includes Maria Montessori as one of the people she profiles in her new book Genius Unmasked.A threshold skill of innovation is frame-shifting. Ness explains that frames are expectations we have through which we filter new information. What's a frame-shift? From the WGBH site:
Picture yourself in a restaurant, ordering a plate of linguine. The waiter delivers your food piping hot and asks if you need anything else. You politely ask for a little Parmesan cheese to go with your pasta — and in response the waiter says, “go to the kitchen and get it yourself.”
Ness calls this sort of puzzling interaction a “frame-shift.” When you go to a restaurant, you have a set of assumptions and expectations that Ness calls a “frame” — that you’ll order food, that your waiter will serve you, and that you’ll leave a tip, for example. The concept applies to professional fields as well. Just imagine the reaction to the first man who suggested the Earth was round.
She says that a frame-shift is often shocking and we therefore may reject it. Innovators must sometimes endure rejection. They also must use a tool of expansion: asking big, gigantic questions—and the right questions.
In her first book, Ness provides some tips for asking the right questions (perhaps in the new book, too, but I have not yet read it). She gives an acronym for remembering the tips: PIG In MuD. They are described here in this book review from Pacific Standard. From the book, they are:
- Phrase a question based on interest, observation, and knowledge
- Identify the frames and find alternatives
- Generate all possible solutions
- Meld your single best idea back into the process ... (validate that your innovation works or is true)
- Disseminate your innovative finding
Now let's use mediation as an example. First, would innovation in the field be helpful? If so, what questions can we ask that would improve the process, practice, or profession of conflict resolution? Although considering innovation in conflict resolution does not require green hair, a couple of trips to the kitchen to get your own Parmesan might be helpful. Let me know your thoughts.