Thinking, not tanking

Heads up…

You may not know it, but you have your very own think tank. It’s that bowl on top of your neck, otherwise known as your head, which houses your thinking organ. That’s according to the origin of the term ‘think tank’ in 19th-century American slang. In the early 1930s Franklin Roosevelt set up a ‘Brain Trust’ to help with policy decisions, but ‘think tank’ took on its current meaning in the late 1940s, when US government and military planners conceded that they might need civilian expertise to assist with a range of advanced projects associated with the new threat of intercontinental warfare.

A special group was set up by the US Air Force for this purpose, and given a name based on the phrase ‘research and development’. The Rand Corporation, as it was called, went on to become the model for many contemporary think tanks – a not-for-profit, quasi-independent collection of experts and analysts, established to carry out research, develop new ideas, and promote policy solutions.

Think tanks soon proliferated, and started to gain wider awareness from the mid-1960s when the term began to appear in mainstream publications. They also began to diversify, in their activities and in their business models. Some became profit-making, often adopting the title ‘think tank laboratory’ or just ‘lab’ to characterise their value proposition. Others moved away from the supposed impartiality of the early model to campaign for social causes, or deliver front-end services, in addition to making policy recommendations.

Saved by the tank

By the early 1970s, when Paul Slee Smith published his study Think Tanks and Problem Solving, the various manifestations were seen as a vital corrective to the apparent inability of government, management, and organised labour to grapple with complex social and economic problems. From their “intellectual watch towers”, to use Slee Smith’s memorable phrase, think tanks sent out armies of “scholars, scientists, engineers and other experts” to rescue crisis-ridden societies which lacked the cognitive bandwidth to deal with the challenges they faced.

Yet think tanks have struggled to gain much traction with the general public. When I was head of communication at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) – a kind of precursor to modern think tanks, founded in 1754 – we were sometimes called a ‘think and do tank’, and on the occasions when we made it into the national media, we were just as likely to be called ‘boffins’. In fairness, it was quite difficult for tabloid journalists to articulate the history, purpose, and achievements of a 250-year-old multi-disciplinary organisation with a broad intellectual remit in a single sexy soundbite.

That’s hardly a deal breaker, though. As Martin Groenleer points out in his study of autonomy in European Union agencies, “few public organisations make the front pages of the newspapers”. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not delivering value or meeting their objectives, and their legitimacy is maintained by “the support [they] receive from the clientele that they are supposed to serve”.

Today, despite the much-reported opprobrium of a certain former education minister towards ‘experts’, a huge range of think tanks continues to flourish. They ply their trade globally, and show that they too can master the modern trivium of fundraising, audience engagement, and impact measurement. Close cooperation with universities and other centres of research is a common feature, and, perhaps inevitably, think tanks themselves have become the subject of study for… well, who else?… think tanks.

We’re on it

On Think Tanks is a think tank that studies think tanks. Try saying that after a few sloe gins. Founded by independent researcher Enrique Mendizabal, On Think Tanks’ international network of scholars and experts produces research, publications, and conferences. It recently put together a very useful series of articles on strengthening existing ties between think tanks and universities, with a particular focus on the role of such links in supporting locally-based research in developing countries.

In addition to working with education institutions, think tanks have also waded into the debates about education policy, from basic and pre-school through to further and higher. Examples such as the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute, or Hepi, or the Swiss-based Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training (NORRAG to the rest of us) abound. There are scores of centres of expertise worldwide focusing on education policy by connecting researchers, practitioners, and policy makers, and devising new approaches to the ongoing challenges of access, quality, assessment, funding, internationalisation, and so on.

Yet the debates remain debates. No consensus emerges on many of the central issues, no ‘silver bullet’ solutions have been found, and politics continues to trump policy (no pun intended). So the question is not only why do think tanks keep going, but why are new ones constantly springing up?

“The think tank is dead,” declared Michael Tanji in a 2015 polemic, “long live the think tank”. Proposing a Think Tank 2.0 model which prioritises virtual structures over bricks-and-mortar centres – despite the admitted advantages of a physical location close to the heart of government – Tanji claims that the more inclusive, more international possibilities of virtual collaboration could give the think tank proposition a new lease of life. Apart from anything else, he argues, “a virtual think tank can be at least an order of magnitude larger than any current think tank” – although, of course, size isn’t everything.

Put on your thinking cap

I recently participated in what can best be described as a ‘pop-up’ think tank; a group of people with diverse backgrounds, expertise, and professional networks, who came together to help an international children’s charity deal with the complexities of access to basic education in deprived locations. It was a ‘blended’ physical-virtual model too, with about twenty of us in a room in London joined by half as many again in remote locations. Expertly chaired, such a group can quickly contribute ideas, contacts, and other collateral to support the stated objective, before dissolving again into their respective backgrounds.

My friends at the RSA have come up with another approach. Concerned that the lack of citizen engagement with economic policy-making is a major problem, given the importance of economic policy in electoral decision making, the RSA set up a Citizens’ Economic Council. Billed as “a programme giving citizens a say on national economic policy”, the thought is that economics can be for the many, not just the few. That is, if the concepts are creatively explained, and democratic principles guide the process.

For think tanks, the future looks bright. New structures, locations, personnel, methodologies… there are endless possibilities that can be combined in different ways to further the aim of inventing new ideas for the future. And there is no shortage of problems for think tanks to deal with. As Paul Slee Smith said back in 1971, “Some present day problems are so complex, so difficult to define, so inextricably mixed up with other problems and involving such obscure interrelationships that clear cut solutions become impossible…” Plus ça change, eh?

By the way, folk singer and social activist Malvina Reynolds sings a marvellous ditty about the Rand Corporation. Who’s going to save us from Rand, she asks – not to mention all the other think tanks. Who, indeed?

The anthropologists are coming!

The following is a slightly amended version of the speech I gave to the Institute of Internal Communication summer event in London, 10 July 2017.

I may be giving away too much information about my age here, but when punk first appeared in the long hot summer of 1976 I was an impressionable teenager and I’d never seen or heard anything so exciting.

One of my first memories of punk is a heated discussion with my mates at school about exactly what punks looked like. Yet within a few short months I had joined a band and we knew all about the markers of punk identity – safety pins, ripped shirts, pink hair, bondage trousers – I could go on, but you get the idea.

In other words, we’d assimilated the markers of punk culture, through a combination of first-hand experience, TV and newspapers, gossip, and a dollop of our own imaginations.

We don’t have time here for the curious story of the influences that shaped punk, or to consider its wider impact. Instead, I want to highlight a single connection. The Sex Pistols, the band that most perfectly encapsulated the punk ethos, performed in public for the first time at Central Saint Martins school of art on the Charing Cross Road.

This was at a time when art schools were all about rebellion and social critique. Today, Central Saint Martins is part of University of the Arts London, and a couple of weeks ago I attended the launch of their first-ever MBA course, in partnership with the business school at Birkbeck College. It’s a design thinking MBA, drawing on creative approaches and social engagement, and the tag line for the course is “what happens when you mix an arts school with a business school?”

Ezri speaking at IoIC summer event

Image via @amyhegs 

I’ve been developing an interest in design thinking for a while now. I did a session on design thinking at IoIC Live in Brighton a couple of years ago. And a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the incredible week-long design thinking bootcamp run by the Design Thinkers Academy (disclosure: I’m an Associate of the Academy now). What’s interesting about all of this is that it is evidence of a rapid and ongoing breaking down of old certainties, of the barriers between ‘arts’ and ‘business’, ‘commerce’ and ‘creativity’, ‘work’ and ‘play’.

And it’s also part of an invasion of ideas into the business world, ideas that come from very different places, and from some very smart people. And some of them are going to eat our lunch as communicators unless we wise up. Yes, folks, the anthropologists are coming!

Let me explain.

Just over ten years ago I was hired by Barclays as head of internal and change comms in the UK Retail division. In one of my first meetings with the then CEO Deanna Oppenheimer, she asked me to describe my ideal internal comms team. Without hesitating I said, “two journalists, a designer, a poet, and an anthropologist”.

Deanna looked at me and said, “no, really, what’s your ideal internal comms team?”

I wish I’d stuck to my guns and trusted my instincts – instead of mumbling something about an intranet manager and a couple of business partners – because even then I could see that internal comms is all about understanding the tribes and cultures (note the plural) in an organisation, and I knew that anthropologists’ work involved making scientific studies of human cultures.

Perhaps I could have tried harder to bring that perspective to my spell in the financial services sector. It’s certainly interesting to see the way that design thinking is shaking up the banking industry now. I guess I was just ahead of the times…

You may be thinking that anthropologists have studied businesses and organisations for many years, it’s nothing new – and that’s very true. But what is new is an explicit move by some very smart anthropologists into the area of organisational communication.

There are two aspects in particular of anthropology that I want to mention in this context – ethnography, which is about understanding; and framing, which is about influencing.

Ethnography, says Wikipedia, is “the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore cultural phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study”.

In a nutshell it’s a research method that focuses on getting a deep understanding of a particular group of people by immersing the researcher in their customs, habits, and worldview. In short, their culture.

It’s a big part of the design thinking process, because designers have long understood the importance of understanding the end users of the products or services they are designing. And note, it’s not just by asking end users their opinions. It’s a much deeper process of observing, analysing, and understanding.

So applying ethnographic methods to communications in general, and internal comms in particular, reveals just how much culture mediates, or gets in they way, of communications. For example when we talk about ‘hard to reach’ employees we mostly – not exclusively, but mostly – focus on channels. We need to change that thinking and focus on cultures.

Nat Kendall-Taylor is one of the smart anthropologists coming after the comms lunch, and he says, “we have to understand that culture always complicates our job as communicators” – our job, please note. “If we can go a step further and understand how people use culture to think about our issues, we can be dramatically more effective in our roles.”

It doesn’t matter if those issues are fundraising for a non-profit, health and safety in a mining company, or the perfect customer journey in a hospitality setting.  Culture influences how people process information, how they make meaning from messages, and how they take decisions and actions.

The next step is to establish how we can effectively – and ethically, of course – influence those actions. All of us in comms have had the experience of spending ages developing a great campaign for the business, but when it gets out into the real world it fails to ‘land’ with the intended audience (a very passive term for groups of employees, but that’s another story). A lot depends on how the messages have been framed.

Nat Kendall-Taylor runs an organisation called the Frameworks Institute, and their job is to frame issues in a way that makes the associated messages meaningful and actionable.

He points out that “understanding is frame-dependent. The choices that you make as communicators matter. Sometimes the little things, like the choice of pronoun, or the verbs that you use, and sometimes the big things, like the values you use to explain why your issue matters. Those things frequently have dramatic impact on what your people are willing to do, and how people are willing to act and engage with your issue.”

The clincher, of course, is that as a social scientist he has evidence to back up his claims about framing, just as ethnographers have evidence about what they do. It’s a mix of quantitative and qualitative evidence, and it’s very powerful.

So just at the point when we thought we’d nailed the need – and the methods – for quantitative measurement in comms, along come the anthropologists with more convincing arguments. The challenge for comms folks now, whether they’re in internal comms, PR, corporate comms or any other flavour, is to get to grips with tools from social sciences like ethnography and framing.

We must understand and act on this emerging shift, from measuring to mapping, from counting to analysing, and from planning to testing and validating with end users.

Otherwise, the anthropologists are going to eat our lunch.


Two men, possibly anthropologists, having lunch.


Design thinking in DC

In a few weeks I will be heading to Washington DC for the IABC World Conference, and along with my friend and colleague Martha Muzychka, ABC MC I’ll be hosting a special pre-conference workshop on design thinking in business communications.

The session will be a non-stop, hands-on exercise in the practical use of design thinking, so there won’t be time for (much) philosophizing. Nor will there be any of the dreaded conference PowerPoint (you may find it helpful to compare design thinking and PowerPoint thinking…).

But we will make a few simple points about design thinking, primarily to separate design thinking as an aspect of the totality of design culture, in which design practice takes place, from design thinking as a toolkit derived from that totality and which can be applied in non-design settings to great effect.

In the session, we will attempt to demonstrate the importance of embodied design thinking, taking a cue from Lucy Kimbell‘s insistence that it is better to consider “situated, embodied design practices, rather than a generalized ‘design thinking’.”

In other words, it’s about thinking in a certain mode, but it’s also about acting in the world in a particular way, and for particular reasons. That involves a whole person, not just the mind, or whatever the thinking part of a person actually is. Perhaps it can be compared to octopus thinking – most of an octopus’s surprisingly numerous neurons are to be found in its tentacles – but without the suckers.

See you there!


A pondering ‘pus. Image From Wikimedia.

Bass: The final frontier

OK, apart from the pun (which was worth it, no?) the sole purpose of this post is to share the scene of bass mayhem in my office created by the arrival of a Lake Placid blue P bass for one of my boys, and a Boho Oil Can bass for me.
All that remains to do is sign off like Adam Neely.

L to R: Fender P, Godin A5, Boho Oil Can, Spike (36-year-old Romanian flat-back upright)

The Great Wall of Mexico

The Great Wall of Mexico: 1. Unreality

In 1988 the philosopher Jean Baudrillard declared that it was “no longer necessary to write science-fiction” because society had entered a “hyperreal” condition in which human experiences exist in juxtaposition with their own absence:

At the heart of hi-fi is music, haunted by its disappearance. At the heart of the most sophisticated experimentation is science haunted by the disappearance of its object. At the heart of porn is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance. Everywhere the same effect of “rendering” of the absolute proximity of the real: the same effect of simulation.

(Quoted in The SF 0f Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway 

There is a hint that society (and we’re talking advanced industrial western here, folks) had ‘written itself’ into this condition of hyperreality. All that McLuhan must have gone to our heads, taken over our minds, suffusing our media, fragmenting our messages.

But long before then, H. G. Wells prepared us for a Martian invasion (near-ubiquitous in our psyche thanks to the Cold War, and rendered here with bunnies), Karel Čapek’s robots stripped work of its dignity, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis sealed our urban fate in its chiaroscuro condition.

We knew what was coming.

We knew.

Didn’t we?

The Great Wall of Mexico: 2. Non-reality

“At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theater in which there are no spectators but only actors.”

Marshall McLuhan.

The Great Wall of Mexico: 3. Hyperreality

The Great Wall of Mexico is a short story by John Sladek. It appeared in a collection entitled Bad Moon Rising in 1974, and then in Sladek’s own volume Keep the Giraffe Burning.

Bad Moon Rising was a deliberate attempt to harness the apparent ability of science fiction (loosely defined) to hold a mirror to human endeavour that somehow catches a glimpse of what is coming. In the introduction, the book’s editor, Thomas M. Disch, writes, “The single theme unifying these stories (and poems) is a concern for the present political scene and the dismal, or dismaying, or downright terrifying direction in which it’s been drifting and/or hurtling…” Plus ça change…

Sladek’s story, set at an unspecified point in 1974’s near future, revolves around the President of the United States of America ordering the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. The FBI, which has hired large numbers of retirees – they have little to do, are mostly patriotic, and tend to be of a conservative inclination – to listen in on other people’s phone conversations, sends an agent to visit the many retirement homes in the vicinity of the planned wall:

“He explained that the Wall was a population barrier. While our own population was increasing at a reasonable rate, that of Mexico was completely out of control. ‘For years the slow poisons have been seeping across the border: marijuana, pornography, VD and cheap labour. They have seeped into America’s nervous system, turning our kids into drug addicts, infecting their minds and bodies with filth and stealing away American jobs.'”

So far, so familiar. But the true genius of the Administration in Sladek’s story is the Presidential team’s commercial bent. His advisers meet to discuss the Wall:

“‘A wall to write on!’ Karl said. ‘A challenge for our painters.’ ‘Sell off advertising space.’ Dan cracked his knuckles with unrestrained excitement. ‘This could be great for the old folks. Give them something to look at, a new interest in life. You realise that there are over a hundred retirement ranches in the area, and that more than half our retired folks live within a hundred miles of Mexico.’

Filcup seemed convulsed by a private joke. ‘Wait till I tell you the rest, Dan. There’s something in this for the old folks, all right, in phase two. But for now, we’ll not only sell space to advertisers, we’ll build gas stations, highways, concessions. A view of the wall. A view over the wall. Visit the gun emplacements. Amazing plastic replicas of the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China, the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem!’

Sladek’s insights into the psychotic State are hilarious and hideous at the same time. He may have thought no such manifestation could ever actually occur. After all, as the jacket blurb of Bad Moon Rising says of its various contributions, “Though the theme is serious, some of the stories are funny. Collectively they at least hold out the hope that, having been warned, we may avoid in fact what they present as fiction.”

I leave the last word to the President of The Great Wall of Mexico, beyond which no satire is necessary, or even possible, in 2017:

A Special Message from the President

The President’s black-and-white image appeared on the television screen surrounded by a black condolence border. He seemed almost too humble to have a clear image. Instead the fuzzy, bleached patches of his face, oddly patterned by liver spots and furrows, gave him the look of a soiled etching. ‘My countrymen, it is a grave announcement that I must make to you this evening. What I am about to say is a block of sadness and grief in the neighbourhood of my heart, as I am sure it will be in yours.

‘Tonight several nuclear explosions occurred at different places along the population barrier between the United States and Mexico. These explosions, let me make this perfectly clear, were accidental… Still, there’s no denying that many thousands, millions, rather, of people have been killed… It is also regrettable that a lethal zone has been created along our border.’

The black border vanished. Jubilant music swelled behind his voice as our leader intoned: ‘On the positive side, very few of our troops in the area were injured… As for the Wall itself, it has been badly burned and cratered in spots. Luckily it protects our border yet with a barrier of radiation. For the present, we are vigilant, but safe. And for the future?’

Suddenly the air about the grey President was filled with tiny, bright-coloured figures; animated elves, fairies, butterflies and bluebirds, tiny pink bats in spangled hose, flying chipmunks and dancing dragonflies. Smiling, he too burst into colour. ‘The future is ours, my countrymen! We will rebuild our Wall taller and stronger and safer than ever, so secure that it will last a thousand years! Come! Help me make this country strong!’


Cover image. For the Creedence Clearwater Revival song of the same name, see below.

Loving uncertainty

Uncertainty is definitely in. It’s the new normal, the new rock’n’roll, the new whatever.

It’s the one thing we can be certain about.

Echoing FDR’s iconic phrase “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”, the President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Pat Harker, recently said, “My only concern is concern.”

Appearing on a Wharton Business School podcast, Harker went on to say “The biggest risk we face is uncertainty. If you ask every business leader, their biggest concern is: ‘Whatever changes occur, just do them gradually. Let us adapt.’ They have been in a world of change for a long time.”

Wait. Business leaders pleading for gradual change so they can adapt? I thought the mantra was ‘change or be changed’? In the new-new economy (how long can it keep being new, I wonder?) all we talk about is the speed of change. But now “every business leader” is saying “Let us adapt.”

Well, that’s good. We all need to adapt.

Here’s the thing, though; what we need to adapt to is… uncertainty. And how do you adapt to that?

Plan A. Make uncertainty your friend.

Lawyer, entrepreneur and author Jonathan Fields has a book out (published in 2011) to help you do just that. Uncertainty is about difficult things like judgment, risk, danger and fear. Check out the Ellsberg Paradox, for instance. “The Ellsberg paradox is a paradox in decision theory in which people’s choices violate the postulates of subjective expected utility.” (Uh, OK. Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Fields suggests finding ‘anchors’ of certainty to pivot around in coping with the inherent uncertainty of life. Religion, for instance. Despite the bad rap it gets sometimes (and, frankly, deservedly so), and even without the ‘spiritual’ or supernatural element, religious rituals, says Fields, “have immense power to counter the anxieties of an uncertain life”. Other kinds of habits and routines can work the same magic too.

Once you have ‘anchors’, surround yourself with people you trust and who won’t judge you (too much) for your decision making, or the choices you make in challenging situations. Then work on your neuro-biological functioning so that pre-rational, instinctive urges are better filtered by your ability to reason. And seek a broad perspective.

That way,  you can learn how to “lean into uncertainty”, tapping its creative potential, and harnessing it to fuel your projects, your passions, your life.

In fact, uncertainty can be more than your best friend, it can be “your secret weapon.” If you approach life like a designer. Patrick van der Pijl, Justin Lokitz and Lisa Kay Solomon write in Design a Better Business about how “[t]he world around you – and your business – is filled with uncertainty. But within that uncertainty exist innumerable opportunities to design (or redesign) game-changing businesses.”

For these authors, design is about “enhancing the way you look at the world” – in other words, it’s about perception. And, indeed, uncertainty itself is about perception. If we dig into the brain and its supporting structures a bit more ‘scientifically’, uncertainty becomes part of the prediction/action model in which our ‘wetware’ (to use the old cyberpunk term for human processing capability) processes the “sensory barrage” it receives and tries to “guess what is out there”.

Ergo, as philosopher Andy Clark, author of Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind, might say, “perception is controlled hallucination” (italics in the original). What we all do, all the time, is predict, adjust, and react as the “sensory barrage” changes, seeking to “minimize surprise” so that we can maximize survival. Sounds like a plan to me!

And what of Plan B, I hear you ask? Plan B goes something like this: get scared, freak out, blame somebody, try to harm them, try to harm yourself (drink, drugs, etc), join an ethno-nationalist movement and yearn for a non-existent golden age when everything was certain and good. Or, as Froese and Ikegami put it (as quoted by Andy Clark), you can opt for “catatonic withdrawal from the world, and autistic withdrawal from others.”

So we can either see uncertainty as the natural state of things, neither inherently good nor bad, part of the perceptual framework to which we have evolved to respond. Or we can give in to the fear of fear, as FDR so eloquently put it in his first inauguration speech back in 1933, and yield to “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”. History shows us where that leads.