“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
Yogi Berra

As Yogi makes (un)clear—as only Yogi could—the relationship between theory and practice is anything but straightforward. Does theory arise from practice or practice from theory? What does it mean to marry theory and practice? How can we use theory to conceive and reconceive of the work we do? Does a new theoretical vocabulary give birth to different and deeper conceptions of our daily endeavors?

These are just a few of the questions underlying our current series on The Aesthetics of Change. In this post—our Read, Dialogue, and Apply segment—we invite you to listen in as Collective Nexters think out loud on these questions while engaging the work of Harvard Professor, Doris Sommer. (You can read our recent interview with Sommer here).

Matt Saiia and John Colaruotolo read Sommer’s new book The Work of Art in the World and joined me to explore ideas around the role of play, pleasure, and “cultural acupuncture” as they relate to our work as facilitators of organizational transformation.

Marsha Dunn: Albert Einstein said that play is both “the highest form of research” and “the essential feature in productive thought.” Similarly, Sommer points to the critical role of “Spieltrieb,” the play drive, in generating innovative ideas. Citing philosopher Friedrich Schiller, Sommer holds that play is the means through which intellect and passion interact in productive ways. How do you see the concept of play relative to our work at Collective Next?

Matt Saiia: Currently, there is intense interest in bringing the experimental culture of start-up companies into more mature corporate settings. The goal of this cultural shift is to promote experimentation, risk-taking, and learning-through-iteration. And in my mind, that is exactly what play is about.

Organizations need to think about replacing the language of embracing failure with the language of embracing play

Organizations need to think about replacing the language of embracing failure with the language of embracing play. Play doesn’t convey judgment in the way that failure does. At play you are actively learning in a judgment-free state of mind.

Marsha Dunn: In our colleague Hamilton Ray’s recent piece on SuperScribing at Sibos, he notes that our use of visual capture encourages a sense of playfulness in the audience. In what other ways do we harness the power of play?

John Colaruotolo: In Design Sessions, we commonly use metaphors to facilitate thinking. Groups learn about things like beehives, NASCAR pit crews, architectural modifications, space missions and more. Metaphors give people a safe way to explore ideas, apart from the reality of their work. They have license to have fun, permission to play. As they play, they stumble upon new solutions and ideas that can be connected back to their work.

MD: Sommer’s book considers how visual and performance artists catalyze change in communities. We at CN work outside of traditional fine arts, yet we are engaged in creative interventions. For example, we create visual tools that promote transformation within organizations. How do you see our work as related to that of artists? Do you have your own working definition of “artist”?

MS: I am more apt to re-own the artist identity after reading this book. I am actively engaged in a creative endeavor, in both building Collective Next and catalyzing organizational change for clients. If we limit ourselves to believing that the visual side of our work is the more important manifestation of our creative interventions we are missing something.

MD: We engage the arts in a broader sense…

MS: For me, being an artist is not about the medium you work in, but about whether or not you engage the creative process and assume a posture of curiosity to do your work. As facilitators we are always leveraging the creative process.

The skills of interpretation, investigation, and critical thinking that are essential to the artist’s approach... are also what make us successful in our work.

JC: I agree. The skills of interpretation, investigation, and critical thinking that are essential to the artist’s approach also translate into non-“art” vocations. We are fortunate to have found a vocation that allows us to use that part of our brain. And I think these skills are also what make us successful in our work.

MD: Sommer’s concept of “cultural acupuncture” entails the strategic insertion of creative interventions to press “on a collective nerve to illuminate a whole body politic.” As facilitators, are we acting as cultural or perhaps organizational acupuncturists?

MS: We are more “cultural acupuncturists” than we are pure artists. We are not just interpreting the world, we are trying to facilitate other people’s interpretations. In our sessions, the goal is to facilitate group creativity not peddle answers.

JC: Any facilitated session is an acupunctural event. The initial planning meeting with sponsors is the first “poke.” Throughout the process of designing, delivering, and communicating the outcome of the session to the larger organization, the reach of the intervention and energy spreads.

MS: And we have different techniques or interventions we employ, from design sessions and high impact presentations to learning maps and podcasts. Our work tends to happen in the corporate world. That is our domain of practice, but the context doesn’t matter so much as the idea of hitting that collective nerve that will inspire change.

JC: Switching gears… I was struck by the circumstances that led Antanes Mockus, the former mayor of Bogotá, to use traffic mimes. It was a crazy and creative idea born out of the fact that he had nothing to lose; traditional interventions were failing to make the city safer.

MS: We emulate such circumstances with design challenges in our sessions. We present our participants with scenarios that exclude all of the logical solutions. We put stress upon the system so that the only thing that can materialize is a little bit crazy, or taboo… We require creativity.

MD: Sommer says “Without pleasure there is no lasting cultural change.” And yet the idea of pleasure as an essential ingredient in efficacy runs counter to our Western notions of “getting work done.”

There is a common assumption is that if we create a burning platform we can motivate organizations to change. Something Collective Next does differently is to focus on platforms of shared desire.

MS: I see pleasure and desire as interconnected drivers of change. In change management discussions, a common assumption is that if we create a “burning platform” we can motivate organizations to change. Something Collective Next does differently is to focus on platforms of shared desire. We help our clients define the future state, the “desired state,” which they want to reach. The desired state then becomes the impetus to lean-in, to go forward.

There is a thrill that comes from stepping into the unknown. And once we overcome challenges and create something new the feeling is euphoric. If you can get a group of people to understand that they face the opportunity to have this type of pleasurable experience—and to have it as a collective—you can bring about change.

MD: Sommer also underscores the connection between pleasure and collective experience. In her Harvard Thinks Big talk she explains that we derive pleasure from “recognizing our own participation in a collective…”

JC: The social aspect of working as a group to tackle a challenge is a key part of what makes our session experience pleasurable. We focus on heightening engagement throughout. Even if you are not invested initially, we help you see how you connect to the whole picture. Then inevitably you begin to learn and change.

MD: Sommer stresses the importance of context-specific solutions. Traffic mimes helped reduce traffic deaths in Bogotá, but you can’t just graft this solution onto another city.

JC: I appreciated that she stresses the need to fully understand the “competing norms of moral, legal, and cultural practices” in a given community.

MD: Does that apply to us as facilitators? Do we have to be embedded in the same context as our participants?

MS: One of the reasons we practice collaboration and facilitation is precisely because the best people to design solutions are those most familiar with the context in which they will apply. Organizations, like individuals, don’t change because an external voice demands it. You have to go deep inside for fundamental change. You can’t take a solution from one company and meld it onto another, a mistake often made in traditional consulting. Context is key to doing really good design work.

JC: Sommer’s case study on the theater director Augustus Boal perfectly illustrates the importance of designing solutions from within. Boal wanted to use theater to help communities play out potential solutions to the challenges they faced. However, he learned that to be successful the public rather than outside actors had to take the stage and he had to act as facilitator rather than director.

MS: Exactly. As facilitators, we invite our clients to take the stage.


Matt Saiia is the CEO of Collective Next. He and his partner in all things, Sarah Shrimplin, founded the company in 2003. Solution Designer John Colarutolo, our collaborative learning and visual thinking guru, joined in 2006. Consult our Team page for our entire cast of creative collaborators.