With the Pope’s visit to the UK I was wondering how many of the ideas that were generated during a civil servants’ brainstorm were used – given the embarrassment caused earlier this year by the UK Foreign Office document containing ideas for the Pope to launch a new ‘Benedict’ condom, visits to abortion clinic and blessing a gay marriage.
At the time of the story in April I had an initial laugh then I got annoyed, even angry, that the media – and the wider world – is promoting ignorance of the creative process.
As a creativity expert I constantly make the call that we desperately need a new generation of civil servants in an age of massive financial cutback to achieve more with less. They need to be innovative and creative and use flexible and creative thinking.
Negative stories like this one, – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8642404.stm – I worried could create a climate of fear and misunderstanding, hold back the cause of creative idea generation – to encourage a safety-first, no-risk culture among our civil servants.
How could the ideas for the Pope’s visit be seriously suggested?
Well, it turns out they weren’t. The ideas were part of what a squirming Foreign Office described as a ‘blue skies thinking exercise’ contained within an appendix to formal reports.
The paper was attached as one of three ‘background documents’ to a memo inviting officials in Whitehall and Downing Street to attend a meeting to discuss themes for the papal visit.
It suggested Benedict XVI could show his hard line on the sensitive issue of child abuse allegations against Roman Catholic priests by “sacking dodgy bishops” and launching a helpline for abused children.
The document went on to propose the Pope could apologise for the Spanish Armada or sing a song with the Queen for charity.
Now, no sensible person would formally suggest these ideas. And certainly the brainstorming appendix report should not have been widely circulated.
Yet, the crux of the matter was that these were ‘ideas’. An in an ideal idea creation session, you adopt the principle espoused by the father of brainstorming, Alex Osborn, that anything goes.
As I teach on my courses idea generation is an incremental dynamic, where each idea is a stepping stone, and you can work from small, insignificant ideas through to the outlandish, outrageous, outside the box.
Crucial to making this process work is tolerance of what I call ‘IdeaPoo’; rubbish ideas, which may be stupid on the outside. At the very beginning of the creative process, even an idea which may emerge as an absolute pearl, a phenomenal piece of creative insight could appear at the outsight ludicrous. For every 1 added value idea you often need to generate several hundred IdeaPoo ideas.
Of course on face value some of the ideas suggested in this report are nonsensical, even idiotic if they were to be seriously considered at a formal review.
But in creative idea generation terms, at what I call the Green Light Thinking stage, the ideas have a validity for being lobbed into the cooking pot of ideas; idea generation is essential to be open, free, free-wheeling and go wherever the flow takes you.
We do face a real problem here.
There is a real danger of a climate of fear, worry about being ridiculed. This story has the euphemism that ‘the person has been moved on’.
If we want our civil servants to be innovative, achieve more with less we need to give them freedom to explore, even the unthinkable – certainly the un-say-able outside this room ideas; you just never know how it could lead to some great ideas.
Even initial ideas like the condom, gay marriage, ‘dodgy bishop’ could lead you somewhere different.
Sure, the draft paper should never have wider circulation. And it does pose a challenge to brainstorm facilitators on how wide do you allow circulation of the raw material, the IdeaPoo.
The challenge is even more marked when you do virtual brainstorms – as you can often put out your embryonic ideas into an open space for others to pick up on, or where an unhelpful person may want to discredit the process by circulating beyond the original group.
I really dislike the term ‘half baked’. It is used as an insult, a put down. Yet ignores, the incremental dynamic of creating ideas, the baking of potential solutions insights, different ways of doing. I always retort: ‘Half baked is better than no baked!’
We need to stand up and make the point about the story of the Pope, the condoms, and the bun in the oven – in this case of a range of potential ideas – that these were just IdeaPoo and we need to get real, and tolerant of the baking process in idea creation.
If we don’t we just get the same, the orthodox, safe, same way it has always been done thinking and doing among our civil servants.
And in age where we need a new type of public servant, to achieve more with less, ‘moving people on’ because the wider world cannot recognise IdeaPoo is an unhelpful step.
Checking out some of the merchandise on sale for the Pope’s visit I do wonder if some people could have done a little better in their brainstorming!
Should we have a competition for the most tackiest souvenir of the Pope’s visit to the UK? My vote would go for the £3 electronic flashing candle with the message ‘Heart speaks unto heart’. What’s your favourite?