On Creative Environments for Searchers


A reprint of the 1969 article “Building a Creative Environment” in Innovation.

A few years ago, when I was at M.I.T. being interviewed as a consultant of sorts to Project MAC, its director, Bob Fano, asked me a question which while perfectly reasonable in an interview of that kind— seemed unanswerable in terms of my personal history.

“Well, Dr. Brodey,” he said, “where have you worked before?”

I looked at him in surprise and said, “I’ve never worked! I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do.”

He started to laugh, and so I added, “You know, it’s true—my whole life, I’ve managed to negotiate my way into doing precisely what I wanted at that particular time.”

He suspected me of putting him on; and to a degree, of course, he was quite correct. But it was a useful put-on, and therefore was partly serious as well. Certainly I’ve occupied situations which could be described as jobs, and have done things which could be described as work.

I’ve been an M.D., a psychoanalyst of individuals, a psychiatrist of families; I’ve worked with Warren McCulloch at M.I.T.’s Research Lab of Electronics. I’ve also, and this should be mentioned, been a child, a father, a television watcher, and an avid reader. But what I was trying to emphasize in my conversation with Fano was that the importance of my life was not in the particular things I had done, but in the pattern and continual change which connected them. That in my experience I had not been so much a “job doer” as an explorer, a searcher.

My search had consisted of moving through a variety of disciplines in an attempt to form new syntheses and break new ground. At present my work—or play one could say (for it can be described with varying degrees of accuracy by all those words)—is centered in a curious laboratory of sorts on a broken-down wharf in Boston Harbor. In it, my colleagues (and friends) and I try to design new environments which will encourage people to make imaginative leaps—environments which will help searchers like myself to rethink old premises and boldly explore new worlds of the mind and spirit.

Few people react neutrally to our lab. Some are immediately and tremendously threatened by it because it lacks those ritualized straight lines and gray walls which people have come to associate with a place of “serious work.” Other people—equally immediately—are liberated by it and sense the possibility there of searching out the genuinely new.

This laboratory of ours is filled with artifacts and tools for search which include several computers, a Bolex 16mm movie camera, a stereo record player, a singularly comfortable walled-in bed which we call the conversation pit, and many oddly grouped books of walls and drapes which are useful in making us think in different ways about space, time, and our contacts with other workers. But it is not my purpose in this article to talk about our laboratory per se. Rather, it is to explore the questions involved in managing those quirky, imaginative people I call searchers—people who are capable of coming up with the really new ideas, ideas which could transform your business or the world.

You see, an essential idea behind the development of our laboratory was that totally new ideas do not happen by accident. Contrary to what many people think, they do not happen by sitting, for example, under apple trees waiting for apples to fall on your head.

We felt that the destruction of obsolescent ideas and the creation of new ones, the exploration of new mental worlds, came through highly disciplined activity; and that it would be possible to build environments which aided instead of hindered that process.

Think about the pressure which a piece of blank paper in a typewriter puts on you. The pressure can become almost intolerable until you actually begin to compose, because the blank paper both imposes and requires a discipline. We are interested in creating environments in which the searcher’s entire world becomes to him like a blank sheet, and Everything he encounters in that world stretches, challenges, and tempts him into the unknown.

But are these environments where work on the wharf useful, or are they simply pleasant frills on the more conventional processes of search and manufacture? I say that they're essential, because search is quickly becoming the central fact of our times.

As the kids are telling us, they're in the Age of Aquarius, the age of continual flux. We act in a world of incredible high information traffic from the electronic media, and this accelerates change. Contexts of science, religion, sex are being questioned in ways that institutions in politics often become obsolete before the people studying them get out of school.

In this atmosphere, search has become a fact. Many people who in more leisurely times would have accepted the old contexts now find themselves explorers. Millions of our own children are using their bodies and their societies as a laboratory.

It is essential to find the tools and settings in which this search can be constructive rather than destructive.

For the industrial manager, the process of search is equally vital. Science-based industry has become dependent on totally new ideas about how the world is put together. It is not so much the manager’s job to create these ideas as it is to create the environment in which these ideas can create themselves. At this point, I am certain there are very few managers who know how to set up an environment which will really help this process of exploration—help the searcher aim with his search get on with his search quickly and with greatest benefit to himself and the company.

I am certainly not addressing all managers, however, for a manger must be very careful to determine whether or not he really wants search to go on in his company. If the purpose of his company is simply to mass produce reasonably standardized goods, then his task is to make his workers an extension of his machines. An atmosphere designed for search might well destroy his operation. But if he is interested in breaking through to new conceptions, then I have things to tell him about our work.

Before describing the search environment, however, I must describe the searcher. The most familiar searchers, of course, are children, which means that at one time we were all searchers. Look at a child’s curiosity— the way he examines things, the way he experiments. A child completely restructures his context and his sense of the world every month.

Some people remain searchers, always probing and exploring, learning and unlearning their contexts. But most get programmed by the environment into other stances toward the world than perpetual exploration.

As a result, there are really three spiritual and psychological divisions of labor: the searchers, the researchers, and the skilled workers. The skilled workers are the children of the Industrial Revolution. The manager is forced to use them as extensions of machines, in the way that Chaplin parodied in “Modern Times.” They do the things which the machines can’t—so far—and do it well and are very necessary. To use them efficiently, the manager simply keeps the lighting the same, lines his workers up in a row, and times them to be sure they are keeping up.

And some people love it, having been, essentially, programmed to love it from childhood. They're elegant machine-like people.

Researchers, on the other hand, are creative people, capable of proving something right or wrong. They make beautiful experiments and find simple ways of formulating ideas so they can be tested and checked; and they extend knowledge which has already been pretty well organized.

They’re the neateners and straighteners of our world. They're immensely valubale but not hard to come by, because the universities are very good at training researchers as finders of truth and extenders of the old knowledge.—but not quite as good at producing people who can break completely from the old framework.

Governments and industries need the researcher to improve products and to find new applications for old products.

The searchers, however, are quite different. It should be quite clear now that I’m not talking about mavericks—the perpetual rebels, the people who make trouble just to make trouble. There are searchers among the mavericks, true, but there are also searchers among scientists and forest rangers and office workers—though these are often secret very secret searchers.

The searcher may not have the neatness of mind to check his findings, but he has a discipline and dignity that will show itself to the astute manager. Most important, he can make the breakthroughs into totally undiscovered territory. He can see old things in a completely new way. The searcher is a kind Columbus. He's perfectly happy to find America, even though he thought he was going to be India when he started out. The research type; on the other hand, would have gone back to Spain in complete discouragement because the place he'd found wasn't India at all!

Mind you, the researcher has great creative value. He was able to run the experiment by sailing across the Atlantic; and he proved it wasn’t India after all; that’s very important information. But he isn't an explorer. He doesn't know what to do when he gets into previously undiscovered territory.

The searcher discovers the new territory which is right in front of your nose . . . but which nobody has ever quite seen before He is the one, for instance, who discovers that energy and mass are related.

There is a very important sentence in McLuhan’s War and Peace in the Global Village. It goes: “One thing about which fish know e nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would able them to perceive the element they live in.”

The searcher’s profession is to teach fish about water. He does this by putting old ideas in new contexts, so that things which have always been taken for granted seem first incongruous and then fair game for analysis.

The researcher follows up on what the searcher has done to prove that he is right or wrong: but it is the searcher who finds that there is something there to research: and that's a very different kettle of fish.

The searcher does this, in part, by groping. Researchers are generally embarrassed by groping: and when they have found the right experiment they’ll go back and try to cover up whatever groping they did along the way.

The searcher, on the other hand, respects groping. He respects a continual march into the unknown, in which he’s never completely sure what’s happening next. He's not really interested in truth. His great delight is in showing that what everyone thought obvious is really ridiculous. His second greatest delight is in showing that what everyone thought was silly is really worth a second look. Truth isn’t really in his vocabulary–he wants to probe.

Remember that in a factory situation, if the searcher ever gets control, he will make a mess of it. Anyone who works with a searcher must realize he is a destructor—not for destruction’s sake, but in order to see what reveals itself in the turmoil that results from it. His iconoclastic phy reveals elements of the situation that are taken for granted except during disequilibrium ... at which time they emerge and can be.

Searchers feed on variability, on inconsistency. They generally hate consistency because they don’t understand it. Many of these people are at their best when there’s complete chaos around them, when they’re at a party with everyone yelling, or when there’s a big upset in their personal lives.

Often the searcher’s own life is very turbulent, and he may go through a number of careers in a very short time. Suddenly, he’ll drop out even though he's doing fairly well, because he’s learned all he can from that particular vocation. Ultimately, he may use those various perspectives to develop a new synthesis.

How do you deal with a search person? He doesn't like to play the game. He only respects the rules when they work his way, and his relation to authority is very shaky. How do you create a situation in which he will create something you, the manager, are interested in, or could be interested in?

In the late 1940s, there was a great wave of enthusiasm in which lots of corporations were opening up special research laboratories. There was a lot of publicity about how they were going to take bright chemists and lots of pads and mathematicians and put them off in a lovely campus-style building and turn them loose. Let them do their own thing, and come up with something beautiful and totally new.

That was nonsense, and it didn’t work. A lot of the laboratories were quietly closed down, and very few made any money for the companies which set them up. Why did it happen? Because very few managers understood what was necessary to produce an environment where search was possible. By sticking the search people off in those campus-style buildings, the manager isolated them from just the sort of stimuli they needed.

So this is the first thing—the searcher cannot be isolated. He should be allowed to wander all over the factory. He should sit down and spend some time doing the skill jobs and some time on. He should get the feel of the operation, and even come and sleep at the plant at night, if that's what he fancies.

The reason for this is what the searcher must sense the entire context before he can locate the ways to break through it to something different and better. The tendency has often been to isolate the most creative people—but the factory is one place where they can get their ideas.

Of course, the manager has to remain aware of what the searcher is doing and control him. You don’t let him interfere with the shop in any major way, because he’ll probably wreck it. His probes upset the equilibrium needed for efficient manufacture and research; the manager has to deceit at what intervals such disruption is useful.

You have to remember, though, that while the searcher is wandering around the plant, he’ll seem aimless to anyone who doesn’t know what’s he’s doing.. Even the people who do know what he’s doing maky think he looks pretty aimless for a month or so. And, of course, you have to face it—he may be aimless. It may come to nothing.

There are people who don’t produce because they’re too isolated; but there are also guys who can’t produce because they’re too much in the spotlight. It’s like the little boy who wouldn’t play the piano when guests arrive. If there’s too much expectation that they produce, it paralyzes them

Perhaps the most important thing the manager can do, however, is provide his searchers with a good environment for play.

It sounds a bit odd put like that, and it can certainy look a bit odd to the other employees; but the manager must consider the search people as operating within a playpen—because playing is how a searcher is led to new ways of perceiving and, in turn, to new ideas. Not—I must emphasize—random, chaotic play. Rather, it is a kind of play that is carried on under the strict control of the searcher’s internal discipline

This kind of play can be very creative. A searcher might find that kitchen products can be used in ways that have nothing to do with nourishment. People now use plastic cornflakes for packaging. It’s amazing they weren’t used a long time ago—but someone had to decide to play around with cornflakes.

Which brings me. of course, to the question of toys. If you are going to play, you have to have toys; but the searcher needs a very special kind of toy to help him do his work. The toys have to be relevant to the areas you want to get into but also sufficiently unusual that they give the searcher a chance to escape from his accustomed way of thinking about those things. The toys provide a kind of anticontext which almost satirizes—or is very playful about—our ordinary environments.

For example, in our ecological laboratory on the wharf in Boston, we have the rear end of an old Ford sitting in the middle of a work area. This particular toy has all kinds of advantages. One, it’s a nice place to sit; two, it is a very unusual acoustical environment; three, it makes fun of the outside environment in a way that is kind of entrancing to anyone who happens to be a search kind of creature.

By closing the windows of the car, the acoustics can be altered considerably, and with the windows open it is a completely different sound than with them closed. Anybody who drives a car is used to the fact that the car is different with the windows open and closed, so they don’t really think of the car as an acoustical environment. They think of opening windows exclusively as a way of letting in fresh air, and forget that it lets sound in also. They’re aware of it, but in the way a fish is aware of water. It’s an unexamined awareness.

Part of the whole search process is making technical and conscious what was informal and relatively unconscious—things which were simply taken for granted and everyone said, “Of course, that’s so.”

The car toy was right for us in the beginning, when we had absolutely nothing. It was one of the first things we moved into the laboratory, because our laboratory wasn’t going to be one of these preplanned, completely elegant ones. We wanted it to evolve.

For search people, it is essential that the laboratory be an evolutionary place with a capacity for continual change. The search person has to be able to change the laboratory in terms of the tools and toys he is looking for.

If he is working in an industrial setting, then his tools and toys may come out of his wandering through the factory. They might be pieces of industrial equipment, or parodies of the equipment; for in order to change the processes of a factory, the search person must be able to play with those processes in a way which won’t interfere with the factory's operation.

Now this will take a certain amount of courage on the part of management. To a degree, the whole plant must become the toy of the search person—and if the manager does not realize the importance of constraining that play as well, then he'd better not have any search people around.

The toys, I might add, needn’t be huge to be relevant to those industrial processes but they have to be metaphors in the searcher’s environment which catch the themes of his industry in a way that helps him think about new contexts for it.

That Ford was the metaphor for things we wanted to think about. It was a spur for years the imagination. We’d been thinking about the environment for many years and this car seemed to be the right kind of caricature because automobiles are clearly a major disorganizing factor in the environment at the present time. We went to the dump and found a car—we took an ordinary car which was already almost a caricature because it was such a common model and the essence of modernity in its time. We cut it in half, picked it up from the junkyard, and carried it here as a parlor sofa.

This sort of play often makes the searcher look foolish to those who don’t understand the way he works. Let me assure you—it is not foolish.

When you make that car into a sofa in a factory or a space of work, you’re making an enormously powerful statement. You are saying, in effect, that you're free to play with, to work, to conceptualize about things which everyone always took for granted as being a certain way. Now it’s out of context and you can think about it in new ways. By putting the ordinary out of context, you set up an anticontext—then when the fish start to become aware of the water all around them.

The manager must use tension skillfully in setting up an environment for search. At no time, when I’m talking about giving the searcher the kind of environment he wants and needs, am I talking about making the searcher happy, because, in many respects, he is most dissatisfied when he has the right kind of environment. It's then that he feels most completely the misery of wanting to create; and that's not a happy feeling until the creation takes place.

It's important, for example, to set time limits for the search people. They won't like having limits set—but if they don't do things within that limit, you will have to give them a good kick.

Now among research people, people who are finding truths, you don’t need time limits in the same way. When they’ve found the particular truth they’re after, that’s the end. But for your kind of exploration, it’s important to set the limits more artificially.

It isn’t that he is required to reach a certain goal, but rather that within a certain time, he discovers what goals he wants to reach. A searcher can get wound into the center of his problem—like an insect in the middle of a seashell—with no place left to go. But if he has a limit on his time, it’s possible for him to realize when he’s reached a dead center. Otherwise he may just become a rat in a maze, frustrated and wasting his time at some minuscule problem he doesn’t know how to solve or terminate.

The manager can introduce a creative tension simply by picking the right location for his searchers. The corporations which want to investigate pollution control, for instance, shouldn’t be surprised when they locate in the nice suburban countryside. The searchers will love being out there—but that isn’t the point of their search.

They should be set up in a really polluted area—but have an environment inside the building which is beautiful and clean. The employees would walk out of their nice work atmosphere into the stench, and almost instinctively begin working on the problem. They couldn’t help it!

Similarly, a conference on black-white relations is not likely to be very successful if it’s held in some white suburb. If it’s held in a black suburb it isn’t likely to be very relevant to the ghetto. You have to hold it in a transition zone, where there’s tension.

In other words, you have to take the tension which exists in the problem you want to solve and build it into the creative process in such a way that it pushes the searcher toward a solution.

Although you want a break between the search environment and the world outside, it’s equally important to provide some kind of transition. The search environment is very intense, and searchers get so involved in it that you need a way in and a way out which lets them disentangle themselves emotionally as they move from one problem to the next. A good transition allows the contrast to be maintained without too much pain.

We like the fact that outside our search environment on the wharf, there’s an old, old warehouse and around that is garbage and the docks.

Our transition device is a pleasant maze of white silk curtains which you walk through, where you feel a kind of endless space that is dramatic and pleasant at the same time. It lets you know that you're coming to a different environment where new things are going to happen.

The manager must be very skillful in setting the carburetor. In that different environment he must establish the right mix of skilled workers, researchers, and searchers.

The searchers, for example, will need skilled workers to help them with their projects; but they shouldn’t be allowed too many. If there are too many skilled workers around, the search people will get embarrassed about the work they work. They will begin to pick up too many of the skilled workers’ ideas about what sort of process is efficient—and thry will avoid the kind of useful play which leads them to new breakthroughs.

Often the searcher feels threatened by nonsearchers. Over the years, he develops excellent means to defend himself; but when he has to concentrate on self-defense, he often loses sight of the project he’s really working on. His defenses aren’t punching somebody in the nose—instead he makes the other person feel out of place through irony and caricature.

Often, the searcher has been attacked so many times during his life that he almost instinctively wards off other people unless he's fairly sure they'll understand what he’s doing and not attack him for it. Because his work is very important to him—it’s never simply a job—he becomes very vulnerable and knows it.

Unless the manager structures the search environment carefully, his searchers will protect themselves by withdrawing behind a wall of perpetual irony.

In our lab, we have kept many of the objects and ieas deliberately rough, because our ideas of what helps or hinders a searcher are also rough; and, at this point, we don’t want to smooth them over and pretend we have a highly developed system.

That is a vital part of the search facet of his search process itself: A searcher doesn’t try to polish and refine one small facet of his search until he has a sense of the whole context he is working with and in. To do otherwise, can be misleading. The most important part of his work is the process and the perception—the refinment can come later.

Let me talk about the next generation of searchers in the corporation. However, using the present generation of searchers in the corporation. However, there is an equally urgent problem. Our world is changing so fast that every year provides a sort of anti-environment to the year before, reversing all its most cherished assumptions.

This flux has created searchers in great numbers who thrive on variation and the absurd. When a kid who doesn’t want to be drafted wears a weird parody of a uniform, he's setting up an anticontext. He’s teaching himself and the people around him new things about the old contexts of authority.

Are the young people growing up today, are these new hordes of searchers, willing to work in the industrial settings we have created up to now? Much of the evidence of these past few years suggests that they are not. Many have dropped out of corporate America completely. Many more flip from one job to the next, looking for conditions of work which they are unable to define, in large part because they do not yet exist.

If managers are interested in maintaining their factories so that young people want to work there, they almost have to attend to the problem of the searchers. Otherwise, the factories may simply come to a stop, because fewer and fewer kids will want to work in production or research, where they must compete with more compliant machines. They don't want to make something a little more elegant whose purpose has already been decided on by others.

The young people have come to resent the fragmented lives of an industrial society. Our machine culture, which is so eminently productive, has programmed us all into divided men, even as we have used it to increase our comfort.

People want to play with their contexts now—they want to assume various roles and try different explorations. Thus, among the young, the searcher is becoming as common as the researcher was before. Other types may develop later which combine the vital aspects of all three—skilled worker, researcher, and searcher. Perhaps, in the future, through our search, we will develop environments which are as efficient in allowing full human beings to evolve as they are in producing automobiles and electronic toasters.

But our own age has become a time of searchers. If the searchers can’t find a fitting environment for their search inside the factory, they will soon stop looking there.