Origami: working in three dimensions

My girlfriend’s a viticulturist. Her work product is grapes and wine. I’m a knowledge worker – what I produce is less tangible: content and process (messages, documents and conversations). So when I have a hankering to make something ‘real’, I turn to origami (Japanese craft; literally, ‘to fold paper’). It’s a pastime I picked up while living in Japan.

You might be tempted to think of paper-folding as simply a hobby (to do while drinking my girlfriend’s great wine), but working with coloured squares of paper can have quite an impact on how you think and behave. To my surprise, I’ve found a place for it in my work practice.

Unfold your potential

Origami is not just for children or playing. Scientists and researchers are taking it seriously.

‘Diversifying experiences enhances cognitive flexibility’ argue researchers in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. So why not fold paper in strange and beautiful ways, to expand your usual thought patterns?

A recent article in Business Week explains: ‘Flowers, leaves, wings, proteins, mountain ranges, eyelids, ears, DNA—all are created by folding. Today researchers in robotics, biology, math, and computer science are immersing themselves in [folding] methods. Scientists are looking at how materials and molecules wrinkle, drape, flex, and crease. They’re using folding to design everything from robots to cancer drugs, from airbags to mirrors for satellite telescopes.’
This is a great example of using an art form in a surprising way. Like Jeff Jarvis’s definition of serendipity: it’s unexpected relevance!

Origami and my work

So how does paper-folding bring a new dimension to life at the office? My job is facilitating change and learning, particularly in knowledge and other organisational initiatives. I’ve discovered that origami has a place beyond my leisure time, and that there are workplace benefits from this offbeat form of paper trail:

  • Play – you have fun, experiment, create at your desk. It takes only a short time to produce a new piece. You use your hands in a tactile way and develop your hand–eye co-ordination, which is a welcome break from tapping the keyboard and digital work. Play is big as a workplace activity, as is gamification.
  • Relationships – you can make friends, build rapport and trust. It’s non-threatening. You can try it one-to-one or in a group. Anyone can do it – it cuts through boundaries. (Side thought: Origami as offline social medium?)
  • Object lesson – you learn something new, and collaborate. It’s also about creativity, about choices and detail.

Here’s an example. Before a workshop with dense technical content, we used origami as a fun starter. The aim was to make a set of building blocks, each one folded by an individual and then assembled into a single object. All the pieces had to be right, for the assembly to work. Some people saw the paper and instructions on the table and started without waiting for the demonstration. Others ignored the verbal instructions and raced ahead, failing to fully comprehend what was required. Both approaches hindered successful collaboration, as they resulted in pieces that wouldn’t fit in.

During a business coaching session with an entrepreneur who was overwhelmed by work and needed to step back for a short break, we did origami together. He felt as if he was being productive and learning something new, all the while having guilt-free time playing.

A useful model

I taught a colleague how to do origami during lunchbreaks. She enjoyed it, and she can see links between the creative process and her work. In her own words:

‘I was asked to talk about how I build an academic timetable. I quickly found a connection to origami. Just like the timetable, origami starts with something small that one can’t immediately see as part of a larger entity. I was able to relate different elements of origami (e.g. coloured paper, pattern to follow, building blocks, etc) to timetable concepts. It was the right approach – not everybody knew timetable terminology but they were successful in understanding the process.’

Ending on a happy note

At the end of a consulting session, I’ve produced a folded creation to show my gratitude or simply lighten the mood. I invite the client to choose a piece of paper, and I make a paper swan, a butterfly or a flower as they watch. The unexpected fun and the gesture of a handmade gift enhances our rapport and generates goodwill.

Ready to fold?

For origami paper and instructions in English, I recommend the online store:  www.origami.com.au
For inspiration, see some of the creations in my Facebook photo album.

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning, so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

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