Brainstorming, thought leadership and political correctness.

August 5, 2007


The management technique brainstorming is under attack for politically incorrect terminology. Is this any more than a storm in a political teacup?

I found the news item tucked away in a gossip column in The Independent newspaper [Saturday 4th August, 2007]. Yes, even that very serious and campaigning journal has room for a gossip column.

The piece was written a jokey way. It seems that the term brainstorming in the context of a management technique is the hot topic of debate in university common rooms. This seems extremely unlikely but I am open to correction from anyone with first-hand experience.

There may, however, be some slight significance in the assertion that the term brainstorming has been challenged for having politically incorrect connotations.

I learned of a case in point recently, A colleague with considerable experience as a consultant has been requested to desist from using the term in work for a professional audience. He had been encouraging the use of unstructured and freewheeling discussions for some years as a way of encouraging groups to loosen-up their thinking. There is another discussion about whether this is much use, which I’ll come to shortly.

Being a sensitive sort of chap, my colleague took the line that he had transgressed a localized taboo, and that if he had caused offernce then he was sorry and would learn from his mistake.

He had taken the view that the particular audience was particularly sensitive to the term. He had been working with health care professionals, and they (or some of them) had felt the term to be unacceptable to people who had direct daily contact with the clinical consequences of brain trauma.

Political correctness running wild etc?

The gossip piece reminded me of that anecdote. Its tone had hinted at the comical way in which academics get into a tizzy over trivial things. This is a rather ironic way of approaching the implications of political correctness. But its message echoes a more popularist refrain. Political correctness gone mad … another example of the Nanny-State telling us what we have to say and do … it’s the thought police again … pathetic … .

Come to think of it, the last time this sort of thing hit the news was when McDonalds launched its not inconsiderate resources behind a campaign to police the use of the term McJob

But getting back to brainstorming … the sub-groups directly involved include those change agents such as my colleague who have been describing part of their professional repertoire as brainstorming. It’s a relatively miniscule community, compared with, say financial accountants, or estate agents or even McDonald team leaders. It’s also a community already distancing itself from being practitioners of brainstorming. Some are seeking refuge in the term Parnes-Osborn Creative Problem Solving. Others have their own customized ways of encouraging creativity.

The other problem with brainstorming

That’s partly because professionals like to make claims for their own particular way of doing things. Brainstorming is a bit too general. It may just be that the objections to the term are rippling out beyond the confines of Health Management.

My own take is that practitioners have been claiming too much for the technique. According to the Encyclopedia of Creativity there is very little evidence that the operational processes of brainstorming lead directly to more creative ideas. There is actually a lot more evidence that brainstorming leads indirectly to creative ideas, as well as being a rather efficient way of ‘searching widely’ prior to making an important decision. It is also the case that groups playing around with such approaches are open to other ideas, and likely to be creative in other ways. This is one conclusion that is being drawn from a celebrated management example of the Ideo company, which claims brainstorming as a way of corporate life.


Skunk control and the Clinton puff

July 27, 2007


Governments want to solve the problems of drug abuse. But programs of drug education are sadly ineffective. This suggests that politicians need to change if they are to escape the suspicion that they are untrustworthy spinners of tales in the interests of personal agendas

The overall thrust of this post is how the public is influenced by thought leaders, particularly in the context of issues of public health such as the dangers of vaccination and of drug-taking. The post opens up several issues which will have to be developed in subsequent posts.

A specific incident triggered this note.

My story begins with an exchange of views between a BBC broadcaster and someone calling in to a morning chat show. The phone-in was on BBC Radio Five live. The format is very much customized by long-established practice, and tends to invite text, emails or calls from listeners. Issues are picked up mostly from the popular issues of the day, with a steer from the early morning news media. The approach has never been accused as a dodgy means of cash from callers. The interviewer generally plies his trade in a bright and intelligent fashion.

The selected issue on the morning of Wednesday 25th July 2007 was that of drugs, drug dependency, and the impact of government initiatives. The interviewer permitted himself to be hooked into a pub-level exchange of views about the validity of the scientific evidence over the dangers of cannabis.

‘There’s no evidence’ asserted the caller.
‘There’s lots of scientific studies’, replied the BBC moderator.
‘Not proper, thorough ones’.
‘Yes, I’ve got the information front of me … [reads from his video feed]. …The evidence is endorsed by the British Medical Association…’.
‘That’s not proof, that’s propaganda’.

Interviewer now intent on winning this one, calls up yet more evidence on to his screen.

‘Alright. There’s another example from New Zealand. A longitudinal study with a thousand subjects shows that cannabis use led to more mental illnesses and hospitalization’.
‘A thousand people! That’s nothing. What sort of sample is that? I’d be laughed down by those medical experts if I said Cannabis was safe on evidence from just a thousand people’.

At which point, the interviewer ended the discussion, politely thanking the caller for sharing this point of view.

Monty Python and what the Romans ever did for us

The debate reminded me of a famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, about what the Romans had ever done for the ancient Britains. In the film, each counter-example of what the Romans did (aqueducts, roads, central heating, and so on) was grudgingly granted as one little example insufficient to win the argument.

Today, the claims of the New Zealand study were similarly brushed aside.

Does this matter a Clinton’s non-inhaled puff?

I rather think it does. There is a need to improve public awareness of medical findings. A current debate is emerging around the dangers of cannabis use. A recent example with adverse consequences to public health was tragically demonstrated during the MMR vaccine case, where public opinion was violently polarized. For a while, there were two views, each supported by influence figures or thought leaders. Eventually, the evidence overwhelmingly lined up behind the view endorsed by the British Medical Council. The vaccine was safe. Its use did not have the side effects that were concerning parents, and leading them to hold back on vaccinating their children.

But a proportion of parents remained in denial about the trustworthiness of the conclusions reached by the medical authorities. The popular view had been shaped by thought leaders who had aired plausible arguments which fed through into public assertions on web sites and in workplaces. When the topic was aired on chat shows, politicians seemed unable to counter views rejecting the credibility of the authority of the conclusions of the British Medical Council.

My depressing conclusion is that the political figures had an inadequate grasp of how medical research works. Also, I’m not sure the BBC mediators could elevate the level of discussion, even if they abandon their commitment to promoting ‘unbiased’ debate.

In other words, a few thought leaders with dubious arguments retain credibility, because of a lack of general education of others who might have been figures of influence.

Ttis may be a bit much to ask of primarily commercial broadcasters. But the BBC holds to its mission to entertain, but also to educate and inform.

What might help in such discussions?

A greater awareness of medical methodology is needed among politicians. Researchers worry a great deal about the appropriate design of an investigation. They know otherwise they will not be able to draw conclusions with any confidence. They also know that every research proposal will be scrutinized carefully. If the work goes ahead, the results will be even more carefully examined by other researchers (peer-review).

Sample size does matter. But the general public could be quickly introduced to a few principles or guidelines. How studies often only show association of a few factors, not causal links. Why some kinds of study require a few hundred individuals while others need far fewer.

A thousand people included in the New Zealand trial makes it quite a major one. Its longitudinal nature made it possible to consider causation, not just connection or association.

My point is that these ideas are not difficult to introduce into more widespread currency. That we all become less vulnerable to uninformed opinions taking hold. We accept the thought leaders after a more informed reflection of their arguments.

What’s this got to do with the Clinton line on drugs?

Bill Clinton serves as an excellent example of how some thought leaders operate. Audiences believed him, and went on believing him, even as evidence began to pile up to the contrary. In England, Tony Blair was having pretty much the same effect on his audiences. Their charisma worked its influence through a rare combination of charm and eloquence. Their most powerful weapons for attaining political leadership were their thoughts, their speech acts.

Clinton could find ways of explaining how he didn’t really smoke cannabis or how he didn’t have really have sex with that woman. And so on. Tony Blair convinced voters that old labour had been replaced by new labour which could be trusted by all sectors of the community. David Cameron is engaged in a similar exercise in thought leadership at present as h struggles to change the conservative party.

There is still much work to be done on the fascinating topic of thought leadership. I suppose I’m arguing for the benefits of efforts that educate people to become more are capable of assessing ideas on grounds that go beyond the skills of gurus, and charismatic thought leaders.

A note on thought leaders

I have indicated some doubts about the current state of knowledge of thought leadership. This has not prevented the enthusiastic espousal of the term by various management consulting organizations. But even Wikipedia is a bit sniffy, describing thought leadership as:

a buzzword or article of jargon used to describe a futurist or person who is recognized among peer mentors for innovative ideas and who demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights

The authors of Dilemmas of Leadership are also suspicious, although they suggest that the term may be theorized by connecting it to social identity theory, which would help understand the features attributed to thought leaders.

Where is this taking us?

Arguably there are several stories jostling to emerge here. One suggestion is how public education into issues such as medication and drug abuse will require a different kind of thought leadership. Another is the dependency which is associated with exposure to that other kind of dangerous drug, the words peddled to us by charismatic thought leaders.

Fat and the Nanny State

March 12, 2007

_42331321_sirdigbyjones.jpgA report finds that job interviewers in the UK discriminate against fat applicants. Sir Digby Jones, former chief of the CBI, dismisses the issue as a product of political correctness, and further evidence of the excessive influence of the Nanny State.

First let me confess a liking to Sir Digby Jones, who until recently brought a lot of fun and energy to his high profile role as Director General of the Confederation of British Industry. He was then, and still remains, a person of influence, a thought leader and headline catcher. Much the same can be said about Boris Johnson.

You might anticiapte a ‘but’ on its way. Here it is: But are they ‘prats or prophets’? The phrase originated in an article about Digby Jones as far back as September 2002. It appeared in a piece by George Kerevan in the Scotsman.

The context was a controversial speech made to a Scottish business audience, in which Jones warmed to the themes of the shortcomings of the Scottish Assembly, the anti-Englishness and lack of entrepreneurialism of Scottish culture.

The speech prompted the Scottish agriculture minister, Ross Finnie, to refer to Jones as an English prat. There followed reprimands that threatened Finnie’s political career. Kerevan had no such concerns in retaining the term in the title of his article, and the debate was joined by other journalists.

Sir Digby’s no-nonsense public style does remind me of that of Boris Johnson. As it happens, I learned this week-end that Boris had won one of a series of political awards on a BBC programme, voted for by listeners. The award was for the most gaff-prone politician. Within hours, I was listening to Sir Digby who had been invited by the same channel (BBC five live) to comment on a report suggesting that fat people are discriminated against at job interview. He seemed to be operating in the robust vein favoured by Boris. The themes of political correctness, Nanny State, and the prattishness of political commentators rattled around my head, as I tried to work out whether there were any insights to be gained here on thought leadership.

Thought leadership

The notion of a thought leader is entering the vocabulary of business, via its enthusiastic promotion by management consultants, and educators. Textbooks have identified the concept as a promising one for further study. Even Wikipedia (as of midday today) remains uncomfortable that its entry has adequate substance, so there’s scope to offer a perspective for testing and blogging (which has also begun).

One perspective is that a thought leader is someone whose ideas influence and initiate action in others. It has been particularly but not exclusively applied to the creators of substantial and transformational ideas. The more traditional leader also influences and initiates action in others. The distinction is a fuzzy one, to say the least.

Sir Digby’s analysis: why fat people lose out

Sir Digby argued that job interviews reflect human nature. If fat people lose out, it is because they have presented themselves in an unfavourable light at interview. Those fatties who worked at revealing their positive side at interview would win out. Just like he had done.

And why the report should be rubbished

He went on to say that the report was in his view rubbish. In particular, if efforts were now made to legislate to protect fat people at interview, the process would illustrate the excessive concern for political correctness brought about by The Nanny State.

The thought leaders we deserve?

After the interview I felt ambivalent about the argument which had been delivered with not a little panache. Digby, and for me the retained image of Boris, are thought leaders. But what was bothering me? It was later that day that I realized what it was.

A disgruntled listener was phoning in about the recent dismissal of Tory politician Patrick Mercer (for his black bastard remarks explored elsewhere). I heard a generalised outpouring of disgust about political correctness, all too familiar to listeners of phone-in (and readers of blogs). It seemed a diatribe, serving as a substitute for critique, or for what some people refer to as discourse. Those voices and emails come from the powerless and the dispossessed. They are not the voices of thought leaders, although they could be echoing the words they find emotionally satisfying. These come from a certain kind of thought leader. Digby Jones is one. Boris Johnson is another. In accepting their views, we contribute the sustaining the thought leaders we deserve.

They remain so, for as long as we do not challenge them to provide a deeper examination of how the symbolic notions of political correctness and The Nanny State have become such an automatic common enemy for many within our culture.