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