Finding your creative place with Clean Space

This article was first published in Rapport Magazine, Issue 61, pages 44-45.

Creativity is a natural process; you only have to think about evolution, the achievements of human beings or the internet, to know it is happening all around us - in abundance. Yet many problems go unsolved, many companies lack innovation and many people undervalue their own creativity. We want more creativity – in our boardrooms, in our classrooms, in our lives.

What makes creativity more likely to occur? While writing Insights in Space James Lawley and I identified a number of conditions that can promote creative thinking:

  1. Context.Where we are, who we’re with, what we’re thinking about - even a serendipitous moment - can all give rise to new ideas.
  2. Physical space. The height of a ceiling, the way seats are arranged in a room or small changes in the distance from which information is viewed can all influence our thinking. (The Big Small, by Steve Martin, Noah Goldstein and Robert Cialdini)
  3. Individuating. By separating things out, differentiating them one from another and naming them, we can make new distinctions.
  4. Making connections. Whether we think in words, pictures, sounds or feelings, our brains are associative organs. One thing reminds us of something else, and before you know it a new idea is born.
  5. Moving. Walking boosts creativity, travel broadens the mind. So can moving from one side of the room to another or even moving around in our own minds, e.g. to ‘take a bird’s eye view’ or ‘go beyond the obvious’.
  6. Iterating. When we take the result of one process and use it as the starting point for the nextwe are iterating and “willingness to iterate is what makes the world’s most creative people so creative.” (Brendon Buchard)
  7. Integrating. Bringing things together to see the bigger picture is fundamental to the creative process and generates knowledge that’s not available from any individual part.
  8. Metaphor. Using something tangible as a way to understand, describe and experience something complex or abstract, metaphor can be both a source for and the result of creativity.

Clean Space, created by clinical psychologist David Grove, makes use of all these conditions to facilitate creativity. By establishing a network of spaces and by continually responding, consciously or unconsciously, to what is happening in that network, new insights and ideas (‘network effects’) can emerge spontaneously.

Give it a go!

Grab a piece of paper, some pens and a few Post-it Notes and follow these instructions:

1. Context: 

  • Write or draw your desired outcome or topic of interest.

2. Use physical space:

  • Where does the topic need to be?

Place it on the floor, a table or other surface. Or stick it on the wall or the ceiling. Take it outside or fold it up and put it in a cupboard. Put it wherever you like.

  • And where are you in relation to the topic?

Are you in front of it or behind? To the side? At an angle? Is it higher or lower than you? What direction is it in? What’s the distance between you and it? Place yourself where you are in relation to your topic.

3. Individuate:

  • And what do you know here?
  • And is there anything else you know here about that? (Where ‘that’ is your topic.)
  • And what could this space be called?
  • Write this name on a Post-It and use it to mark the space. (This is ‘Space 1’.)

4. Iterate: Continue to establish and individuate new spaces:

  • And find another space.
  • And what do you know here?
  • And is there anything else you know here about that (i.e. topic)?
  • And what could this space be called?
  • Mark the space.

When you’ve established six spaces, including the first…

5. Relate:

  • And return to one of the other spaces.
  • And now what do you know here?
  • And what do you know here about (name of one of the other spaces)?
  • Continue to ask And what do you know here about (...)? for each of the other spaces in any order.

Repeat until you’ve revisited each space or run out of time. You’ll know the process is working when you notice network effects, e.g. if you:

  • Use spatial metaphors to describe the whole or part of your network.
  • Reference groups of spaces.
  • Make symbolic inferences about the relationship between the network, the surroundings and yourself.
  • Spontaneously move around your network and/or reorganise it.

You can encourage these network effects by paying more attention to them. Integration happens when patterns become clear and you experience the network as a whole.

6. Finish. When you’ve extracted enough from the process:

  • Return to Space 1.
  • And knowing all that (say this as you look around the whole network), what do you know here now?
  • And what difference does knowing that make?
  • When you’re ready, collect up your paper and Post-It Notes.

Facilitating Someone Else

If you try your hand at facilitating someone else using Clean Space, you’ll need to consider the ‘clean’ part of ‘Clean Space’…  

Clean Space evolved from an intersection of two ideas:

  • The less a facilitator contributes, the more a person will access their own creativity. David Grove wanted his questions to be minimal and as neutral as they could be, for the “I-ness of the therapist to appear to cease to exist.”
  • A space can hold information. While on a long sea-voyage, David wondered whether spaces could hold different kinds of information and what would happen if clients physically moved around those spaces.

While it’s a relatively simple process, there are a number of things you can do to make Clean Space more effective for the explorer:

  • Keep it Clean. Use the questions and directions (in bold, above) exactly as printed. Don’t add in any extra words. Go at the explorer’s pace; wait for them to finish thinking / talking before continuing.
  • Keep it Spatial. Respect their space by staying out of their way, e.g. by keeping to the edge of their network and only moving if you have to. Commit to their spaces, metaphors and the network as though they really exist, e.g. by turning towards a space as you mention it. Reduce eye contact and aim your questions at the spaces, not the explorer.
  • Keep the Process Going. If the explorer is unable to get to / find a space they want to go to, the network-building process risks being interrupted. For example, if the explorer says, “I want to be up there on the ceiling,” you can keep the process going by saying, “And find a space that represents up there on the ceiling.”
  • Let Go. Let go of any desire you may have to solve their problem or make something happen. Don’t even comment on what’s happening. Only intervene on safety grounds or if the explorer asks you a direct question.

By staying clean and sticking to the instructions as printed, you’ll be adding to the likelihood that network effects will occur and that the explorer’s creativity will emerge. You will also be demonstrating that you trust their inherent capacity for self-organisation and self-development.

You can read more about Clean Space, including how to get creative with the process itself and how to adapt it for groups in: Insights in Space: How to use Clean Space to solve problems, generate ideas and spark creativity by James Lawley and Marian Way (Clean Publishing, 2017).  

NB. Although David Grove originated the process, this is Marian and James’s version. In writing the book they stripped the process down to the absolute essentials and rebuilt it from the bottom up.

Tags: marian way, james lawley, metaphor, clean space, insights in space, rapport magazine, creativity

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About the author

Marian Way

Company Director & Trainer, Portchester, Fareham
A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be... #DramaFree. Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She's trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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