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If you’ve ever found yourself talking to a group of people and had the feeling that they’re nodding at you, yet not fully understanding or really agreeing with what you’re saying, you’re definitely not alone. It happens everywhere; from the kinds of genial conversations we have with our friends, to the more serious discussions we have with our colleagues. But it makes you wonder, how often does this kind of vacant nodding happen in the higher reaches of political and policymaking circles?

Headache by Helen Pynor

Headache by Helen Pynor

If you’ve ever found yourself talking to a group of people and had the feeling that they’re nodding at you, yet not fully understanding or really agreeing with what you’re saying, you’re definitely not alone. It happens everywhere; from the kinds of genial conversations we have with our friends, to the more serious discussions we have with our colleagues. But it makes you wonder, how often does this kind of vacant nodding happen in the higher reaches of political and policymaking circles?

The only reason this springs to mind is because of something mentioned by John Gray in his lecture last Friday at the RSA, in which he very briefly touched upon some of Tony Blair’s errors leading up to the Iraq War; errors in planning and strategy which nearly all of us can concede, whatever our viewpoints on the legitimacy of the war itself. The immediate thought that came to mind was that if only John Gray was there things could have turned out just a little bit differently. Obviously that’s quite a stretch, but there is a serious and seemingly obvious point that if politicians such as Blair and others like him in similar positions had drawn upon insights and opinions way beyond their own circles, they may have ended up making alternative – and hopefully far more informed, measured and thoughtful – decisions.

In this respect, perhaps there are parallels in the workplace environment which we can learn from. Vast swathes of the literature on organisational and management theory compel us, among other things, to try and get to grips with the problem of narrow mindedness at work by (i) being actively critical of one another’s performance, and (ii) forming teams that consist of professionals with a wide variety of different thinking styles.

On the first point, the proposition is that by encouraging people to become devil’s advocates, we diminish the chance of erroneous decisions being taken and bad ideas being pursued. One of the examples most often cited is that of President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco. As the argument goes, because he surrounded himself with yes men and subservient advisors, there was seldom any opportunity – or more to the point any willingness – for the military strategy to be put under the intense scrutiny that it warranted. As a result of the false consensus and, we can assume, occasional disingenuous nodding, a disaster that ended up costing the lives of 100 of the invading Cuban exiles was just around the corner. Things could have been different if Kennedy had singled out just one person to act as devil’s advocate (as he did with his brother, Robert, during the Cuban Missile Crisis). As famous research by Solomon Asch has shown, it only takes one person within a group of people to have the courage to raise an objection for most of the others with reservations to start speaking up as well.

On the second point, by creating teams that are not just diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender and age, but also diverse in terms of their thinking styles, members are opened up to new paradigms of thought and a whole spectrum of different viewpoints. This could mean, for example, building a working team made up of Carl Jung’s distinctive styles of sensing vs. intuition; thinking vs. feeling; and extroversion vs. introversion. In many cases, this can help germinate innovation through what Jerry Hirshberg has termed ‘creative abrasion’. When Hirshberg first became director of Nissan Design International, he was intent on setting in place the ideal conditions for these kinds of creative sparks to take place. In the end he decided to hire, in pairs, ‘left-brained’ individuals – those who are more detailed and analytical – alongside ‘right-brained’ individuals – those who use more emotive and values-based reasoning. The result was that the NDI became one the most highly successful studios of its kind, with a working culture that effectively married a variety of alternative thinking styles.

With all of this in mind, perhaps one of the best ways to tackle the blinkered vision that blights top-flight decisions is for senior policymakers to work with more people from the broad church of art, literature, history, anthropology and ethnography. Blair himself was often derided for not reading history, unlike leaders such as Truman who read extensively before taking the US into the Korean War. But to think that our leaders now have the time to do such things is somewhat optimistic. Rather, instead of attempting to read history, work with a discerning historian; instead of trying to get to grips with the psyche of the ‘common man’, work with a critical anthropologist.

Even if we accept that working with artists and those from more leftfield backgrounds can help decision makers get through a cognitive fog of war, are they necessarily more likely to be critical of their approaches than others would be? Maybe. In his new Manifesto for the 21st Century, That’s Offensive!, Stefan Collini, one of the chief arbiters of free expression, tells us that positive criticism is often best nurtured by discerning artists who reside in ‘playgrounds’ where little is off limits, but which maintain an element of playfulness:

One of the ways in which our experience of being human is both extended and defined is through those activities we may broadly classify as ‘play’. When we are playing, we suspend or bracket off certain pieces of reality: we pretend, we allow the imagined to stand in for the actual, including aspects of it which we are uneasy with or which we can’t quite address directly. ‘Art’ has some resemblance to ‘play’ in these respects: it’s a temporarily roped-off space in which some imagined alternatives to, or modifications of, reality can be explored – can be, as we say, played with.

Artists, literary folk, historians, anthropologists and ethnographers all seem to originate from a cultural milieu that has engendered within them a natural tendency to scrutinise and dissect other unfamiliar cultures and different ways of ‘doing things’. If this is truly the case then there is a strong argument for proactively seeking to bring more artists into the world of policy and politics; nothing short of a new wave of instrumentalism.

Naturally, however, the common problem of setting up artistic space is that all of us, most especially leaders who position themselves as experts, take huge umbrage with criticism. As Collini notes, ‘...not everyone likes having his or her life put into that space, however briefly and playfully... the more it seems to comment on our actual lives the less we are inclined to extend to it the equivalent of playground privileges’.

The latest case of the MP Sarah Wollaston being sidelined over her criticisms of NHS restructuring shows that decision makers still expend great effort in maintaining their original trajectory, whatever the background of the dissenter. But despite the minute likelihood of policymakers opening up their own cliques to unfamiliarity, there is no reason why the rest of us can’t at least try and ‘enter the playground’ and supplement our own practices with some external element of critical, but playful artistry.

RSA Projects are seeking to do just that. For any organisations seeking some inspiration, Dialogue in Action, one of the many programmes of work within the Citizen Power project, will be matching artists with public sector professionals in Peterborough in a bid to inject some fresh thinking into their work. We won’t know the results of the project until next year, but it could be the start of a new way of increasing innovation, productivity and wellbeing within organisations. Who knows, perhaps some day these partnerships may even end up being used to improve the performance of senior policymakers. As the old saying goes, "perspective is everything".

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