White space for your brain: About a book: The Chaos Imperative by Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack

When Ori Brafman was asked to help the army figure out how to invite some innovation into its thinking, he thought about the plague. Bubonic plague. Black Death. That period in European history when lots of people died.

imagesWhy? Because lots of priests administered lots of last rites and caught the plague and subsequently died. A new group of people took over the Church — a group of people who unlocked the vaults and allowed people to read books on science and history and other subjects that the previous regime had banned.

With that, the Enlightenment came about, giving us art, science, math — Michelangelo and da Vinci and the printing press and all that came after it.

All because a single flea-bitten rat got onto a ship and then got off of it, spreading disease and wiping out a large population.

How random.

It's not entirely random, though. Rats sneak onto boats all the time. They sneak off boats all the time, too. Boats carry food that rats eat and rats carry fleas that sometimes bite people and some of those fleas carried plague. The ship allowed for serendipitous chaos — not always a good thing, but, especially for organizations stuck in their ways, certainly not always a bad thing.

Brafman and his co-author Judah Pollack write in The Chaos Imperative: How chance and disruption increase innovation, effectiveness and success about ways to bring serendipitous chaos into organizations. They also write about allowing opportunities for "white space" in our lives.

Most organizations have a structure and/or hierarchy that won't allow for departmental intermingling or for people of vastly different ranks to share input. So, the authors write, smart leaders will set up places for "controlled chaos" to happen.

They make note of a hospital where all the nurses were complaining about there being no hot water on one of the floors — something that was news to the higher-ups when the organization implemented meetings of people of various departments and ranks regularly. The hospital was undergoing some repair work, but rescheduling everything to address that problem first would have cost lots of money. Fortunately, a janitor was in on one of the meetings, and he asked if the valve was open. Everyone just assumed it was and wouldn't have known where to look anyway. It turns out it wasn't, and through an organizational structure that allowed for some serendipitous chaos to occur, the problem was solved quickly and cheaply.

The other concept Brafman and Pollack discuss at length is "white space": making room in your brain to innovate. They hold up as an example Albert Einstein, who was the only member of his graduating class not to get a job in physics after college. Instead, he would have long discussions with friends of various backgrounds about art, music, government and whatever else came to mind. He worked at a patent office. Without having to concentrate on physics all day, he was able to develop his theory of relativity.

It turns out that downtime — the time for "white space" — has some basis in science. MRIs show that when someone is focused on a task, one part of their brain is active. When the person moves off that task, however, the "focused" part of the brain goes inactive, but the rest of the brain goes active, processing and synthesizing the information from the task.

If you're stuck creatively or on a project, or if you run an organization that seems to be stuck in its ways and not moving forward, this book is for you. It might not give you the breakthrough you need, but it'll tell you how to get to that breakthrough.