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Difference, a clay based story – missing the brief

I did a bit of telly catch up last night. It was an episode of The Great Pottery Throwdown, the quarter finals in fact. The show has been called ‘one of the most wholesome on TV’. It’s not a bad description. It’s creative; a study in human behaviour and, in general, produces things of beauty from something as elemental as clay.


The lachrymose Keith is always worth a watch, particularly when his tears flow when judging a well-crafted piece of pottery. Sometimes, it’s the story behind the creativity that is enough to get him going. I have huge respect for him. The ease with which he wears his heart on his sleeve and how creativity and beauty genuinely move him is lovely to see. However, in this episode there was something that interested me more. It related to difference, and how it plays out in various situations.

The context here is that the challenge was to make some pottery celebrating the style, form, and heritage of the Acoma people of New Mexico. The competition brief was laid out clearly to the six potters at the outset. They were to make a water carrier and a seed carrier in the Acoma style, using the coiling method that has been used down the centuries. They were also to replicate the form and function of the pottery, with the opportunity to be creative in the artwork they used on the pots.


The brief was clear and yet two fine potters chose to ignore its central principle. Alon decided to create his own design and Sal added a flourish that was distinctly non-Acoma in form or function. For whatever reason they both decided to be different, and the consequence was that they left the competition.

It got me to thinking about things like ‘sticking to the brief’ and ‘difference’ and how they play out in creativity and innovation, and also how they play out in relation to personal, group and societal behaviours. It comes up a lot in coaching conversations, with coachees at all levels of experience. For example, there are conversations that revolve around coachees being stuck because they carry on the way they do ‘because it is always been done this way’. They stick to someone else’s brief, often doing a good, but not progressive job.


There are those who are challenged because they are seen as different by the society they live in, very often as a minority group. No matter what they do they are judged by appearance, like being Alon’s folded shape rather than the Acoma pot’s smooth curves, or having a feature that is not commonplace in others, like the collar on Sal’s water carrier. They have to deal with being somehow labelled as different, without identifying themselves as being different in any way.


Then there are those situations where, in a group, there is one person with a folded design perspective in amongst a majority of people with a rounded form perspective. How does one unique voice speak out against the clamour of dozens that are ranged against them? How does that one person develop the resilience that will allow them to stand firm for long enough to influence change? How can those with the majority perspective be encouraged to entertain the possibilities of a new idea, not rejecting it out of hand because it does not ‘fit the brief’.


Thinking of this pottery challenge as a metaphor for a collaborative innovation. How is the current thinking on water carriers, the belief that they should have a rounded form and be without a collar, challenged? How can those who by nature ‘stick to the brief’ open their ears and minds to an alternative, maybe radical perspective. How can those with the radical perspective learn how to influence those who are drawn to ‘sticking to the brief?’ In the early days of Acoma pottery was there a maverick like Alon who said ‘what about a folded top?’ Was there a Sal who made a water carrier with a collar, but whose idea was not taken up because the collar kept getting broken in the transportation of the water? Perhaps there was?!


I applaud both Alon and Sal’s courage in being different. Him for his creativity and for his unique story telling through his pottery, the latter strangely lacking in this instance. Her for the determination to celebrate her individuality and heritage. However, they did make an error of judgement in this instance, and the red lines within which difference could manifest were made clear. I guess that illustrates two further aspects of difference. Sometimes we need to express our difference within boundaries set by a group, organisation, or society, or make a conscious choice to operate as a maverick outside those boundaries. Sometimes timing matters too. When you share your difference may have an influence on your capacity to…………..influence.


In this instance, Alon and Sal’s creative courage and their commitment to individuality established them as mavericks operating outside the fair and clear boundaries established by the rules of the competition. The other four potters did ‘stick to the brief’ and yet produced finished articles that were each different, and telling something of their unique stories too.


That’s quite a lot of ‘stuff’ coming from watching a pottery programme! Maybe that’s why I like it as while vicariously throwing, or in this case coiling a pot, the mind can wander onto different things. I think that’s all part of it being a wholesome show! Oh, and congratulations to Peter, potter of the week. I shed a tear with you, following the lead of the wonderfully lachrymose Keith!