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Matt & Gail Taylor,
Bryan Coffman and Jay Smethurst
Posted: January 14, 1999

Creating the Problem
MG Taylor Corporation.

Editor's Note: Since first reading "Group Genius" in FastCompany's Oct/Nov 97 issue I knew I had to learn more about their thinking.... "The Taylor mantra on managing for creativity goes something like this: All employees are inherently creative. That creativity is typically blocked by structural elements within a company. Eliminate the blockages, and you enable 'group genius'. In other words, you don't manage people, you manage the world in which they work." The strong graphic images in this selection from their Journal of Transition Management hints at the broad learning-styles approach they employ. Visit their web site and you'll see and learn more.

How many times have you found yourself fully immersed in a project, only to discover that the real problem lies elsewhere and that you are treating only a symptom? Too often we attack what we perceive to be problems without considering the bigger picture. Too often we spend tremendous resources in energy and money to duplicate the work of others, simply because we did not take the time to discover if others could help us. Too often we go into a project assuming that the whole team shares a vision, only to realize later that we had very little common understanding to begin with. These kinds of situations underscore the need, before all else, to create the problem that you are trying to solve.

Creating the Problem

If your neighbor Jim were to tell you, "I can't read," he would be stating a condition, not a problem. The condition exists. There is nothing either good or bad about not being able to read. In fact questions of value are irrelevant, for the condition is neutral. Jim cannot read, and that statement holds no meaning other than the condition it states.

( Our immediate response to this idea is "No! Not being able to read is a problem!" Let us step back for a moment. We have no problem with the idea that "The wall is white," is simply a statement of a condition. "It is 10 o'clock," is also a condition. These conditions simply exist and they are completely neutral. It is only when we bring a vision to those conditions, a vision that is different from those conditions, that a problem is created. "The wall is white, but I want it to be green." Now there is a problem to solve. "It is 10 o'clock, but I was supposed to be at work at 9." Now you have a problem. Many times we encounter a condition and unconsciously apply a vision to it to create a problem. We therefore assume that the condition is the problem. "My shoe is untied." We assume that that is a problem. In fact it is just a condition. It only becomes a problem if we are walking around in that shoe and we don't want to trip over the shoelace. Now we have created a problem. (If the shoe is in the closet and is untied, then we expect it to be untied--the vision matches the conditions--and we have no problem.) "Jim cannot read," is only a condition. "Cats can't read," is also a condition. We don't expect cats to read so we do not create a problem there. It is only because we expect (have a vision) Jim to read, that we create a problem around it. "Jim should be able to read, but he can't." That is a problem. "Jim can't read," is a factual, neutral condition against which no vision has been juxtaposed. Jim's not reading, in and of itself, is therefore not a problem. )

Jim continues, "I want to be able to read street signs. I want to be able to read stories to my children at night. I want to read the newspaper. I want to write the great American novel." Each of these statements expresses a vision, and now that Jim has a vision that differs from his current conditions, he has created a problem. The problem is a recognition that your vision does not match the current conditions.

Simply because a problem exists, however, does not mean that Jim will do anything about it. When he decides to resolve the discrepancy, the distance between vision and conditions becomes a creative tension that will drive his creative process to resolution. That gap will work to close itself. In fact the distance between vision and conditions can be seen as potential energy that, as the creative process brings vision and conditions closer together, transforms into kinetic energy, driving the process with more and more momentum as it nears completion. With that analogy in mind, it becomes quite obvious that a limited vision, one that differs very little from the current conditions, will have very little potential energy to begin with and will therefore never get much creative kinetic energy. A more drastic vision, on the other hand, one that differs tremendously from current conditions, will have tremendous potential and kinetic energy.

If Jim limited his vision to wanting to read street signs, then he would have very little creative tension. He may have to work very hard to learn to read street signs, and once he could do that, then he might very well stop his learning process. If on the other hand, he decided that he wanted to write the great American novel, then he would have set up tremendous creative tension. He might very well start his learning slowly, on something like street signs. Then he would learn to read simple stories, like ones he might read to his children. He might then advance to reading newspapers as he began writing short stories and maybe even poetry to learn how words can interact in different ways. During this process, current conditions are changing. They are spiraling faster and faster towards Jim's vision, just as Jim's vision is coming closer to his conditions. Finally, once he had written the great American novel, Jim would have accomplished all sorts of other things that he had wanted to do. Since he had done them in the context of a larger vision, however, they had not taken nearly as much effort as if they had been singular, limited creative processes--each requiring his own energy to start them up and not capitalizing on the momentum created by the more visionary approach. Vision and conditions are now one, and there no longer exists a creative tension. Conditions have changed and now there can be a new vision created to differ from these new conditions. Jim might now want to win a Pulitzer Prize--a remotely viable goal, now that Jim can read and write whereas before, a Pulitzer would have been beyond comprehension.

This first part of the example has demonstrated the importance of setting a proper vision, but what about sharing the vision? Jim has told you that he can't read. Now let's assume that he tells you that he wants to read the instruction manual for his new TV. What he does not tell you, because he's a little embarrassed, is that he really wants to learn to write love poetry for his wife. When you agree to teach him to read, you expect everything to go well, but Jim becomes distracted, frustrated and disengaged. He is not learning what he wants to learn, but you cannot know that because he hasn't shared his vision with you. This disjoints the entire creative process because the two people involved have created two different problems.

This problem compounds itself if you find a whole group of people whose vision is to read. What do they want to read? Why do they want to read? Some will want to read street signs. Others will want to write poetry. Still others will want to write letters. Others may want to write novels. Everyone's vision will be different, and if you attempt to teach at this point, you and they will all become frustrated. You will be disjointed and distracted since you are trying to teach each person what she wants to know. The learners will become frustrated because they are not being taught what they want to know. What the group needs to do is to create a common vision. Each person must figure out what elements of their personal vision are important and which elements are flexible. Would the street sign people be willing to learn how to write poetry? Would the novelists be willing to start with poetry? By creating a vision that includes and adds to the essential elements of each individual's vision, the group can create a collective problem that it can be united in solving.

And lastly, what are the current conditions? Jim asks you to teach him and you agree. Little does Jim know, however, that you cannot read either! So here the two of you are, fumbling around with books and letters and words, spending a great deal of energy but getting nowhere. Only after this fumbling around will Jim discover that you don't read either, and after much time and energy is spent, you finally get down to creating the right problem using the proper set of conditions: neither one of you reads and you both want to write the great American novel.

This model highlights a number of factors that are important to consider when you go about creating problems for yourself. First, current conditions are not problems. Second, the difference between your vision and current conditions (not the opposite--the "practicality" of your vision) drives the creative process. So do not temper your vision with reason--create what you really want to create. Third, share your vision, choose the important elements, and work to create a common vision that incorporates and adds to the personal visions of the entire group. And lastly, be very clear about what the current conditions are. There is no reason to deceive yourself here. Current conditions are what they are, not what you or others would like them to be. By rigorously creating the problem before you begin a creative process, you will clearly define the parameters of your work and will drastically increase your chances of success.

Glyph Element Description
Condition These are the existing conditions before you begin the creative process. Notice that these conditions, in and of themselves, are merely conditions. They are not the problem. These conditions are in constant flux and will change as the creative process advances.
Vision This is your vision for an ideal future state. In creating this vision, take into account your personal experiences, insights and views of reality.
Problem The problem is created when you discover a gap between reality and your vision for a new reality. The problem is neither current conditions nor the vision. Rather, it is the discrepancy between them.
The creative tension that comes into being when you decide to resolve the problem is the interplay between vision and reality. As the two tug and pull at each other, they will each change and modify in an effort to reach a synthesis.
Think back to projects that you have been involved with, whether individual or group projects, that have failed or have taken much more time and effort than they should have. How many of the difficulties you encountered involved an unclear vision or misunderstood conditions? How many projects had a vision that was actually very similar to the conditions that already existed? This model attempts to avert these kinds of difficulties by clarifying the parts of the creative process that are often left unspoken.

Matt and Gail Taylor,
MG Taylor Corporation
Gail Taylor: "I have been exploring the elements of group genius since teaching my first class of second graders in 1963. This was a peak experience in creative genius for me, watching them bring ideas to reality in the most remarkable and unencumbered ways. Since then, my work has focused on discovering the how's of removing blocks to adult creativity --- not teaching creativity; releasing it. Matt and I met in 1976 and married in 1977. Together, we created MG Taylor corporation to develop processes, tools, and environments that support and facilitate the release of group genius to solve 'systemic' problems -- problems that a group cannot solve without engaging a larger system, of which they represent only one part."

Bryan Coffman and Jay Smethurst, Principals, Sente Corporation and
Bryan Coffman: "The 'Creating the Problem' article was written by Jay Smethurst, my partner in Sente Corporation, and I did the illustration. [It is]...based on models created by Matt and Gail Taylor. We wrote new text and reconceived the illustrations. At the time, Jay and I were employed by MG Taylor. I was the editor of the Journal of Transition Management and Jay was the associate editor."

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