January 31, 2023

Stephanie Barnes on radical knowledge management, the power of art, tapping intuition, and building curiosity (Ep49)

“I think a lot of times we want to shortcut and jump to the middle or jump to the end. But there’s so much to be learned by taking a breath and stepping back and going: What am I really trying to do here? Whether it’s going for a walk, or painting or cooking or gardening, give yourself the space.”

– Stephanie Barnes

Tim O'Reilly

About Stephanie Barnes

Stephanie is founder and chief chaos organiser of Entelechy, a global network that works with organisations to solve problems in creative and innovative ways. She has a background in knowledge management IT and accounting, and is also a successful artist.  She now uses art as a catalyst for helping people do things differently, and empowering individuals, teams and organisations to resolve complex business challenges.

Website: Entelechy

Portfolio: Stephanie Barnes Art

LinkedIn: Stephanie Barnes

Twitter: Stephanie Barnes

What you will learn

  • How is art and knowledge management connected? (02:16)
  • How can we bring art into our organisation’s learning practices? (07:18)
  • How do scribble drawings open your mind to form new connections? (10:37)
  • Will these creative practices work even for those in non-artistic professions? (13:04) 
  • How can we improve our ability to pick what is worth casting our attention to? (15:59)
  • What are individual knowledge management practices to enhance our knowledge creation? (20:02)
  • How are mind maps superior for organising information (22:39)
  • What are radical practices that you can start or experiment on? (28:32)



Ross Dawson: Stephanie it’s wonderful to be talking to you today.

Stephanie Barnes: Thank you, Ross, I’m so looking forward to catching up with you.

Ross: So, we encountered each other a very long time ago and what I think were called knowledge management circles at the time, though, I always thought of you as a learning person more than knowledge management, but now you have turned your attention to art. And so I’d love to hear about that journey.

Stephanie: Oh, yeah, arts is a long way from my undergrad in accounting and my MBA in IT that’s for sure. Painting or art came I’m gonna say relatively late in life because it came out of a workshop I was in in 2011, a leadership workshop. But we painted as one of the leadership activities to develop our leadership and I like: Oh, this is fun. How do I do more of this? And I was already self-employed by that point, and had been for, I don’t know, eight years or so. It’s hard to shift your focus when everybody knows you for one thing.

And so it became, how do I bring this into the knowledge management consulting that I was doing? I started just doing little playful, creative interventions, 5 to 10 minutes scribble drawings, and this kind of thing in my workshops. I notice right away, the shift in the energy and the engagement of people from these say stupid little scribble drawings that people throw in the garbage on the way out. But they were so much more excited and engaged in the material. And I got much better responses and more thoughtful responses. And I just kind of went, there’s something here.

And so I just kept pulling that thread and doing the research when I had time and talking to other people that are in that intersection. And that’s one of the great things about moving to Berlin in 2015 was I got connected to a whole bunch more people here in Europe that are in that space. And I painted. I went out the next day after this workshop and bought paint and have painted ever since. So it informs everything: it informs my life, my knowledge management consulting, yeah, it’s part of who I am.

Ross: So this is still part of knowledge management for you. So describe how that is part of knowledge management, or how that evokes the frame of mind for people. How is that connected?

Stephanie: Sure, I call it Radical Knowledge Management. First off, because it’s about going back to the roots of how we learn. In as much as I didn’t think of myself as a learning person when we originally met, I have definitely become a learning person through this process. And so Radical KM and bringing creativity and arts into knowledge management is about learning and reinvigorating how we learn, and going back to those roots.

As children we were playful and creative, and we do all these crazy things, because we don’t know we’re not supposed to. All of that curiosity and iteration in that fearlessness around failure gets educated out of us, and we become very fearful and now it’s got to be the right answer. We got to have the right answer. I’ve worked with so many clients that they’re like, just tell us what the right answer is and we’ll do that. But you have to discover what the right answer is because the right answer just depends on the organisation and the situation and so many factors.

So bringing art and painting, and I love to when I have longer workshops, we can do painting and it really brings that curiosity back and and enlivens people in and helps them engage with things in a different way and in a more meaningful way, and helps them ask different questions about their work about their life sometimes. The painting and the creativity comes in on the knowledge creation side and that learning side of things. It’s good fun and has really opened people’s eyes up to the things that we’ve lost.

Ross: Yes, indeed. So I love the quote from Keith Johnstone, commonly described as the godfather of improvisational theatre saying that children are not undeveloped adults, but adults are atrophied children. And I’ve experienced and seen educational institutions beat out lots of things out of us, including our creativity. But now, of course, we live in a world where we require lifelong learning, we all need to learn for all of our lives.

As John Hagel puts it, the successful organisations are the ones that have not have scalable efficiency, but the ones that have scalable learning. So given the context of the of given around art being an enabler of learning, how do we bring that into our own learning and that of organisations?

Stephanie: Well, for me, it’s about helping get focus on what’s important, and giving some clarity around what I should be learning, what I need to learn, where are the blocks, what are the mindset blocks about? Oh, I can’t do this, so why can’t you do this?

This is what I talked about with my Radical KM stuff: People are like “oh but what if you do this?” Or “what if the organisation is a bunch of lawyers or scientists, and they’re never gonna let me do scribble drawings with them?” I’m like, they’re human beings, give them some credit here. We all need this space, we all need to re energise and help looking at things differently.

I mean, Einstein played the violin, right to give himself space and help reflect on things and look at things differently. So if Einstein was doing it, surely the rest of us could give it a try. It really helps give that focus. Tapping into the intuition, the things that they’re maybe afraid to say, and it gives them some confidence to say, well, this came up, or I thought of this, while I was doing the scribble drawing.

I’ve talked about scribble drawings all the time because I’ve had people have real breakthroughs on problems that they were struggling with. And yet to look at them, the scribble drawing takes five minutes, and you literally scribble on a piece of paper, and you can throw it out at the end. They’re nothing, they’re not going to hang in the Louvre, this is not the point of, of any of this work. But people have these insights and go: “Oh, I’ve been struggling with this problem for four months and couldn’t figure it out. After five minutes of doing a scribble drawing, I’ve got a solution.” This is the power of this stuff.

Ross: So one of the I suppose central powers of capabilities I see in both thriving and overload creating value in this world is synthesis, how it is we pulled together the many disparate strands, the ideas into something which is coherent, and part of the thing is, how do we get into that state of mind? Well, how is it that we create the conditions, whereby those, you know, we have the aha moments, where we connect the dots and so, so it sounds like what you’re describing here is you’re creating the conditions for, you know, the unprepared mind to become a prepared mind, or to crystallise some of these connections.

Stephanie: Absolutely. It’s a process that I’ve used myself, and use myself.

The, one of the best examples and longest examples was, was something that happened in the early stages of the pandemic a couple of years ago. There’s so much going on, and there’s so much, I don’t know, for lack of a better word, chaos, and uncertainty, and, and I have been self employed for just 19 years now, so 17 years then. How do I deal with this, you know, how do I adopt my consulting practice for this?

I ended up painting my consulting practice. And when I started it I’ll paint you know, it’ll take me two or three weeks, I’ll create a painting, I’ll get some insights, you know, I’ll be done. And I’ll be off to the races again, with what I should do with my consulting practice. The reality was, I ended up painting five paintings and it took me till Christmas. So it took me from September 1, like first to September till Christmas, so three and a half months.

But I got all these insights. That’s where the name “Radical Knowledge Management” came out of how I talked about it, how I put the pieces together. All of that came out of painting the process. And I journaled the whole time because I journal and I support people or advocate for people to journal as they paint and keep track of all the things that they’re thinking about, because the mind doesn’t like to rest. So pay attention to it and write it down. And there’s all these insights.

When I started calling it Radical KM, people really engaged with that differently. And yet, I was aware of other people and other Radical things out there and like, how are people going to just think I’m copying? Then I started to get this reaction from people in this engagement from people I’m like, okay, doesn’t matter if they’re speaking to them. It makes sense, because it’s about going back to our roots and listening to our intuition and relearning that creativity.

That three and a half months of painting my consulting practice was really transformative and helped me get focused on how to talk about things.

Ross: I absolutely agree creativity is essential to all of us, and something which we can nurture which brings massive benefits.

But there are quite a few people whose roles means that they are deeply immersed in information, lawyers, or macro investors, or researchers or so on. So you know, there is an irreducible amount of research and reading and finding the right sources. So how can this state of mind or these practices help us to be able to find what’s relevant to be able to incorporate that into our thinking as, as easily or readily as possible?

Stephanie: I think it helps us tap into our intuition, and helps us to ask the question. So having those kinds of roles, those research data intensive roles, they’re important. But what’s more important is knowing the right questions to ask, and being curious. Not just dismissing things when you see an anomaly in that data just going “oh well it’s an anomaly. I’m just going to keep going”, “It’s a one off, it’s not worth looking at” and having the curiosity go, “oh wait, that’s different than I expected?” Why? Is this just a mistake in the data, maybe it is some kind of fluke in the testing or the data collection? but maybe there’s something here that’s different than I thought and it’s worth investigating and pulling that thread and seeing where it goes. So the creativity work comes in to help us be curious and help us not just dismiss things because they don’t match what we were expecting. And so we kind of force fit them to match or ignore them. Because…

Ross: Building openness?

Stephanie: …building openness, building curiosity, connecting to our intuition.

Ross: I certainly believe that openness is a trait that is very much favoured in the current environment. If we’re closed to new ideas and information that’s not going to serve us very well when the world is changing fast. If it’s changing fast, and it’s actually probably useful to be open. So whether it’s our practice or anything else to enable us to do that, that’s incredibly useful,

In terms of intuition being able to guide us, of course, we have a limited amount of information where one of the fundamental choices we have almost at every moment is “is this useful?” Do I put my attention to this or do I not put my attention to this? And I suppose this has to be informed by understanding what it is you want, what your purpose or direction is. So how can we nurture or improve our ability to discern to make, I suppose, pick between what is worth casting our attention to?

Stephanie: This is the thing that I like to work with people on when we do the painting in the workshops. I say hold the tubes of paint in your hand. Pay attention to how that tube of red paint feels versus the tube of black paint. Stand there, don’t rush, just breathe into it, it’s okay. It becomes meditative in a way. And so it’s about paying attention to how things feel in our bodies, not in our heads. There’s so much noise of people and ourselves saying: “this is stupid to stand here with a tube of paint to my hand, this is ridiculous, I’m gonna go make a cup of coffee.”

When you quiet your mind and start to listen, it’s like: Wait, I want to use the red one and not the black or I want to use a blue one or the purple one and not the, whatever the other colours. And so tapping into that and listening to that and learning how that feels with paint, and then transferring that over to when we’re doing the research and going: Hope there’s something about the citation, this author, the title of the article, or the author’s names, there’s something there,

I mean, ultimately, we’re all connected, right? So pay attention to those little serendipitous happenings and go: Look, that words come up again, I feel like I should pay attention to this. This is the fifth time I’ve seen this word in the last few days, the universe is trying to tell me something.

Ross: It sounds in a way like being in tune with yourself.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Ross: One of the great faculties we need to nurture is saying do I know myself as in saying, well, it is the red that I feel like, or it is this idea, or it is this information or whatever, as opposed to being too routine which is just all happening at a conscious or habitual level.

Stephanie: Or because somebody else told us, because our parents told us, or our partner told us, or one of our colleagues told us, so we just do it because that’s what they said to do. It takes the decision making out of our hands.

Yet it’s really important to know ourselves and to know what’s important. Our parents certainly when we were children have our best interests at heart. But we only know what’s inside of us and as a starting point with our parents and their guidance. But this is part of becoming an adult and listening to what’s important to ourselves, to myself, and going from there, and that’s useful. From all these other people and things and articles, all these things outside of me are important data points, but they’re just data points, and I need to be in touch with myself, and what’s important to me and execute on that, move forward on that way.

Ross: So knowledge management, you know, has always implicitly organisational knowledge management, and, and then the term personal knowledge meant, as we came up with say, as an individual, how do you manage knowledge and I know manage is not a great word to stick in there. But let’s say knowledge and individuals, and you’re working with knowledge management, and you’ve taken this Radical, new approach.

So, let’s say somebody says, “All right, I want to enhance my ability to create knowledge.” What are some of the recommendations you would give? What are the things that you would suggest to them? What are the pathways that they can take?

Stephanie: I always say, get in touch with what’s important to you, what’s your purpose. You’re allowed to talk about purpose and I never really thought about purpose when I started on this journey.

I go back to when I finished my MBA in the late 90s. That was something that I did because everybody said I should do it but it wasn’t something that I really wanted to do. It seemed to be a means to an end certainly but it was because I had all these voices.

So I started to think after that about: “Hold on here, what do I really want for myself in my life” and I just got curious. This is when I started really playing with creativity and different things. If I want to create knowledge for me, it’s about getting in touch with what I want, and then that helps me focus on what kind of knowledge do I want to do, what topic, what areas, what things interest me. The creativity really helps me refine what’s important to me, what I find interesting and has other benefits, certainly too. I would start with that, like getting in touch with me, myself.

My experience has been the more clarity you get around, well the more clarity I’ve gotten around what it is that I want, then the opportunities come up. I meet the people, I make the connections, I get invited to write a journal article, I get invited to do a project, whatever it is, these opportunities come up. So there’s a synchronicity about it, the more in touch and focus that I get the, the more things just kind of fall into place.

Ross: So let’s say you are innovation intensive, you have a clarity around your purpose, you’re scanning lots of information. Is there any particular way that helps in terms of being able to capture that? To be able to draw connections? To be able to make lots of information into, you know, dive in really developing your knowledge? And what are some of the, I suppose, techniques or practices, I suppose to, to really develop knowledge from the information you have, and from the purpose, which, as you say, must be the starting point.

Stephanie: The practice, the other stuff aside, I like is mind maps honestly. I like to go through the bibliographies and references on papers that I have, or books that I’ve found interesting and useful and go: Well, this book that I found really useful, has some really good references. This is one of the things I pay a lot more attention now to than I did, even when I did my MBA. Who are these people referencing and what can I learn from them and go back to that source and create the mind maps.

I have so many mind maps. I like the mind maps, because I can just put things down and organise it all later. When I write lists of things, inevitably, I get stuff that I want to have in two places, or I want to show them the connection. So making some kind of point form list just doesn’t ever work. When I discovered mind maps, that was a big, big deal. I can colour code them and do all kinds of things with the technology that way, because I do use technology and don’t draw them by hand.

Ross: You do mind maps on screens?

Stephanie: Yeah on my laptop or my iPad.

Ross: How do you start? Do you have clarity on what is the central node in the mind map when you begin? Or does that evolve?

Stephanie: I definitely start with something, it does have a tendency to evolve. So I try to start with the question that I’m starting with or the topic. It does evolve, sometimes I go back and edit it, or I create a new one because it goes off in a completely unexpected direction. Or I just start a new mindmap because one of the branches just goes crazy. So just move it all onto another mind map and start over again, or start round two.

That helps, shifting things around and going: “Hang on this, this belongs over here.” Or I need to connect to that because they’re right in the right branches, but there’s a connection between the two. So I like to be able to do that. Some of my mind maps get a little hairy,

But then it’s so easy to go: okay, so now I’ve got this great mind map and all these things. And I’m going to write an article, I’m going to write a book, I’m going to create that knowledge, create a webinar or create a presentation, whatever it is, I’m going to do with it. I’ve got all the framework built out.

I wrote my third Radical KM article this way. I had started with a mind map. I was going to write something like a 500 word blog post. And I end up with this mind map and I thought, you know I’m just going to dictate this article because the voice, the translation, the AI translation tools have gotten way better than they were 10 years ago. I wrote my first book dictated into Dragon Naturally Speaking, and you had to train it and all that stuff. But now, you know, there’s a couple of different tools that I use the AI translation tool, there’s no training involved, they do a really good job.

So I started to start with his mind map, and just dictate this and I’ll have the 500 word article, and I’ll do the little bit of editing that I need to do. By the time I got done, I had I think it was 2500 words and I like: So much for my blog post, who might be interested in publishing this as an article? And I ended up getting it published, because the journal I contacted had an author cancel out, they weren’t gonna be able to publish. And so they were actually kind of glad that I had sort of spontaneously generated this article by accident. I say that it’s by accident, because it started out as it was supposed to be a blog post. So yeah, but so the AI and the mind map and yeah, it’s, it’s a dangerous thing.

Ross: That’s fantastic. I’m personally looking for those enablers of crystallising content. You have taken lots of ideas, have lots of ideas, but it’s getting those out. And I think that’s wonderful that it works for you. But I think that combination, be able to capture ideas in a mind map, and be able to talk and capture some of the ideas and pull those together. That sounds like a wonderful approach.

Stephanie: Yeah that’s gonna be my next book.

Ross: I look forward to that! So to round out from this frame of, you know, what’s your I suppose this Radical approach, which you’re bringing, what are any, I suppose, what are some of your own practices, or that you would suggest to people to potentially try out that they may find useful?

I think what you’ve just talked about, and using the mind map, and the transcription software is wonderful. So what are any other practices or even just ways of thinking that you think that people could sort of try that on to see whether it works for them?

Stephanie: I think a lot of times we want to shortcut and jump to the middle or jump to the end. But there’s so much to be learned by taking a breath and stepping back and going: What am I really trying to do here? And whether it’s going for a walk, or painting or cooking or gardening, give yourself the space.

We’re so engulfed in this I have to be busy and I have to look busy to everybody else, and I have to be doing something all the time. We’re human beings, we need a bit of space to breathe, to relax, to question, to really reflect. Reflection is so important. So don’t try and shortcut it. And don’t go: I’m just going to do this because this is the way I’ve always done it. No, take a step back. What makes sense? The world has changed, we have changed, maybe our decisions need to change too and do things differently. Give yourself permission to take that step back and ask what’s really important.

Ross: That’s fantastic. Advice. I think we all should do exactly what you said. So where can people find more about your work?

Stephanie: The easiest thing maybe is RadicalKM.com. short and easy. They can find me on LinkedIn for sure. My my LinkedIn the end of my LinkedIn profile is Stephanie A Barnes. So either places is good. And certainly you can find me from the web page on LinkedIn. I’m really active or fairly active on LinkedIn with posting and sharing and commenting and things. So that’s definitely a good place to connect to me.

Ross: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time and your insights Stephanie

Stephanie: Oh, you’re welcome. It was fun. Thanks, Ross.

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