The wonderful wisdom of the table tennis ball

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m drinking tea with cultural theorist Michael Thompson in the RSA’s crowded coffee shop.

In between chats with Andrew Summers, RSA trustee (whose friend, it turns out, is also publishing a book on leadership) and Alison from Triarchy Press (who’s treating us to carrot cake), Mike and I discuss how the internet helps with problem-solving.

“The internet is clumsy by design!” says Mike, enthusiastically.

In Mike Thompson’s world, “clumsy” means “good”, even “best”. He is keen for us to find broad, all-embracing, “clumsy solutions” to problems. These are win-win resolutions where each party gets “more of what it wants (and less of which it does not want)” (“Organising & Disorganising“, p4) – in essence, all voices are heard, and responded to.

Cultural Theory argues that there are four ways of organising – and all too often we focus on just two: individualistic (eg:a free market economy) and hierarchical (eg: a heavily-regulated market). The other voices (fatalistic and egalitarian) are frequently neglected.

Our love of the “pendulum” model (arguing between one of two extremes) and desire for an “elegant solution” (using single definitions) leads us to favour a simplistic decision-making process where alternative voices are excluded; additional viewpoints become “uncomfortable knowledge” and are inevitably dismissed without serious consideration.

Mike has just finished giving a lunchtime lecture at the RSA, a lecture in which he proposed we start solving the current economic downturn by incorporating egalitarianism (equality with fettered competition) and fatalism (inequality with unfettered competition) more rigorously into future decision-making models.

Mike’s model is a holistic, 360° one, so maybe it’s not surprising he has drawn it on a table tennis ball which is passed around the room.

The world is now “effectively one colour” says Mike – individualistic, market-orientated: representing a “self interest ideology”. This world has been hit by what Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, calls “a once in a century credit tsunami” and it’s inevitable that something “hierarchical” is going to happen: this is what we are seeing now in the effective nationalisation of major banks.

According to Mike, we need to consider egalitarian and fatalistic approaches in order to encompass all viewpoints, move forward, and stop ourselves from simply swinging the pendulum back.

Financial institutions are just one example. Mike opens his lecture with the story of Arsenal Football Club [an individualistic player], who approached Islington [hierarchical] to build its £60,000 seat Emirates Stadium. Within days, a third actor appeared – The Highbury Community Association – and “all hell broke out”. But all three voices were heard, some under-used land was found, and a “clumsy’” solution emerged. The new stadium was built on time and on budget; all parties were happy.

Mike also cites Coca-cola in India: the soft drinks giant recently ran into trouble over its use of local water in soft drinks production – the company was accused of making a private good of something which was, essentially, a public good. If the egalitarian view (as expressed by the local villagers) had been accommodated into the planning process, such negative publicity may never have surfaced.

Another example given by Mike is that of the Brent Spa storage and tanker loading buoy which Shell wished to dispose of by sinking in the Atlantic Ocean in 1995. Shell [the individualistic player] obtained consent from the UK Government [hierarchical]. But Greenpeace heard of the plan and launched a world-wide campaign against this type of disposal. A heated debate ensued and “new paths were exposed that had been hitherto hidden”, according to Mike. Eventually, Shell agreed to to re-purpose much of the original structure.

Mike’s argument is that if we stick with the pendulum model, we’re going to be confined to just four of nine provinces in a three dimensional grid – and those four provinces are “most impoverished in terms of deliverable quality”.

I’m not saying this approach is always going to be workable – clearly it takes time for a business leader to seek out and listen to opinions, especially those that disagree with him/her, but I do like Mike’s metaphor of “clumsiness”. It ties in with the web’s propensity for democracy and its ability to throw up the “long tail” of human opinion.

You can listen to Michael Thompson’s lecture again via the RSA events page.

If you’d like to read more about Cultural Theory, RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor gives a nice every day example on his blog.

4 replies on “The wonderful wisdom of the table tennis ball”

Thanks for the link. Liked the post too. We will be doing more thinking about cultural theory in the new year. One fascinating avenue to explore is the neurological basis for cultural theory’s core categories

Talking about the approach that a business leader might take raises further questions. The leader many would tend to picture immediately (Alexander, Bonaparte, Churchill??) is presumably in the hierarchical mould. A more collegiate leader (Greg Dyke, Nick Clegg??) is presumably in the egalitarian mould. We could speculate about leaders from the individualist and fatalist solidarities. Is there a leader who can represent all four constituencies? Or do all good leaders in fact represent them all?

Andrew, I see the four solidarities of cultural theory as rather like four tools in a tool box. A good worker will be able to pull out the right tool at the right time. A less good one will struggle along with the tool that happens to be in their hands already. Unfortunately, some of us insist on using a flat head screwdriver to turn a philips head screw. The value of knowing about Cultural Theory is that it alerts us to the idea there may even be such a thing as a philips head screwdriver.
As for good leaders, I don’t think it’s a matter of representing all four solidarities (at least not simultaneously). It’s more about facilitating the ongoing argument, rather than quashing it in the name of one-solidarity-over-all.

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