A baptism of fire. I had just moved to the city. It was a new community development project. On a local housing estate, a gang of youths was harassing residents at night. This mostly involved stopping people at knife-point or setting fire to litter stacked against people’s house doors. Here was my mission…if I chose to accept it: to work at night, infiltrate the gang, stop what they were doing and convince them to do something more constructive with their lives. I was 21 years old, wore an earring, combat trousers, white trainers and black leather jacket. They thought I should fit in.
I worked alongside Dan, an experienced detached youth worker. We set out at 10pm each evening, wandered the streets and hoped to find the gang. I wondered what would happen when we did. The youth worker gave me two practical words of advice: ‘1. Always carry money and, 2. Always ensure we are outnumbered.’ I felt puzzled, laughed nervously and replied, ‘Surely you mean 1. Never carry money and, 2. Always ensure we outnumber them? Isn’t that a better way to stay safe?’ This was my first encounter with counterintuitive thinking in youth and community development work.
Dan elaborated: ‘If a gang tells you to hand over your money and you do, they are likely to leave you alone. If you say you have no money, they probably won’t believe you and may well attack you to rob you.’ I responded, ‘Oh – and outnumbered..?’ He replied, ‘If we outnumber them as we approach them, they may feel threatened and attack us. If they outnumber us, they are less likely to feel threatened and more likely to be curious.’ Later that night, we did find the gang huddled under a dim street light. Dan walked casually into their midst, lit a cigarette, smiled…and said, ‘Hi.’
DeBono calls this lateral thinking. It’s a way of approaching a person or situation that involves challenging default perceptions, instincts, logic, decisions and actions and trying out radical alternatives instead. It’s like the judo teacher who instructs, ‘If an aggressive person grabs you by the lapels and pulls you forward, walk towards them rather than instinctively pull back.’ Jesus modelled it to dramatic effect. It can feel mind-bending, universe-warping, paradigm-shifting. It can be hard to do. Yet it can also yield creative and innovative results.
What have been your best counterintuitive moments, insights and ideas?
I felt stimulated reading a note from Babelfish today, ‘The Value of Vulnerability’.
In the 1930s, the Nobel prize winner Lord Rutherford introduced a rule in his team that when they met, they could only ever share about what they were ignorant or confused about. They could only share how their projects weren’t going to plan. This prevented them focusing only on positives or feeling pressure to display and prove their knowledge and expertise to one-another.
One of the Rutherford’s team members, Reg Revans, later became the founder of ‘action learning’ – the art of posing and receiving questions that resonates with Socrates: ‘wisdom begins in wonder’, ‘I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance’. In Revan’s view, knowledge and expert skills provide cleverness but it is only through questions and reflection that wisdom emerges.
The thing that appeals to me is the humility and openness it implies. It’s a trait in some leaders to aspire to the hero, the know-all, the better-than-the-other, the expert who needs no help or advice. It leads to blinkered perspectives, defensive posturing, relational isolation, devaluing of others. Against that backdrop, choosing vulnerability feels deeply counterintuitive.
I read another stimulating idea, this time on MindTools, called, ‘Reverse Brainstorming’. It has a similar counterintuitive feel to it. It’s a fun approach that enables movement in thinking and practice using a creative lateral thinking technique. So, for example, instead of asking ‘how do I solve or prevent this problem?’, it proposes asking ‘what could I do to cause the problem?’
Instead of asking, ‘how could I achieve the desired results’, ‘what could I do practically to undermine the results?’ It reminds me of ‘Negative Brainstorming’, an approach to surfacing problems with an idea or proposal (and thereby provide opportunity to address them) by proactively encouraging participants to think of and articulate every reason they can why it won’t work.
The theme is a willingness to share openly and actively encourage questions and critique as a way of being, of leading, of learning, of moving forward. It demands courage to make oneself vulnerable and draws out the best in others by welcoming and valuing even the most critical voices. It requires a deep sense of inner security - and rests more on belief than competence.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.