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Finding wisdom in negative space

I come from an artistic family. My mother completed an Art degree aged 60. My late father was a prolific experimenter, trying everything from 3D Film making to garden design.

And yet I didn’t catch the art bug until my mid-twenties when I started to paint watercolours, totally absorbed for hours.

We can't see what's in front of our eyes

One of the first things I learned in art is this: we go through life not truly seeing what’s in front of our eyes. It takes real effort to see what’s really there.

A memorable art lesson was discovering the concept of negative space. In the image, we initially see back end of a dog. And then if we concentrate on the negative space, the green colour, we see a dog.

And it turns out negative space is everywhere, but we rarely notice it.

The positives of negative space

Negative space is the gaps between things. The unknown unknowns. The unspoken wisdom in a meeting. The periphery of our view.

There is increasing evidence that paying attention to the edges, the opposites, the negative space, is good for business.

In their classic paper on organizational decision-making, McKinsey showed that when teams explicitly name the key unknowns, they make decisions with better long-term returns.

And in Cass Sunstein’s excellent book on team intelligence, Wiser, he shows that teams tend to give too much weight to what is common knowledge, and not enough weight to the ‘uncommon knowledge’ – the things that only one person in the room knows.

Three ways to see inside the negative space

Here are three ways that have helped me when I try to see in the gaps and between the cracks.

First, ‘be open to being wrong’. I wrote about this recently, and I love the idea of intellectual humility.

Second, ‘leaders speak last’. Leaders need to encourage people to share their uncommon knowledge. They can do this by mining for constructive conflict - looking for who disagrees, or who has a new insight.

Third, have a framework to search a problem space. I investigate a problem using what I coined the “Joystick approach”. Go up to the big picture. Go down to the detail. Go left (back) to the past. And go right (forward) to the future. That’s represented by the orange arrows in the Problem Space diagram. Good questioning is the ability to organize our thinking around what we don’t know. And that means seeing the negative spaces.

If you pay attention to the negative spaces, you’ll find the things that most other people don’t see. You'll make better decisions. And you'll create exciting new ideas, just like an artist.

Written by Rob Pyne


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