‘Constructive counterfactualisation’. What on earth?! I can almost hear the cogs whirring. This was the title of an intriguing seminar I attended yesterday led by Professor Chris Oswick. The main focus was on how to break out of proverbial boxes that trap our thinking and to find ways to challenge our taken-for-granted assumptions in order to broaden the range of options available to us. It reminded me a lot of DeBono’s lateral thinking – except with much more complicated-sounding language.
The main technique we tried was to create deliberate dissonance, e.g. by, ‘making the strange familiar or the familiar strange’ (Foucault). The idea here is to present the strange (e.g. an idea that contrasts starkly with that which we hold currently) as having some (surprisingly) similar qualities to that which seems more normal or self-evident to us, or to present something familiar and ordinarily unquestioned in such a weird or unusual light as to make it appear and feel strange to us after all.
Here’s an example. We often think of global poverty and related suffering as caused or exacerbated by military conflict, e.g. between two or more different ideologies, tribes or nations. We only need to look as far as Yemen in recent months to see this horrifying phenomenon played out in practice. This observation vis a vis ‘poverty vs conflict’ could be developed into a hypothesis that, say, military intervention is the antithesis to development. It has a face-value appearance of plausibility about it.
Yet now take, for instance, a scenario in which the military provides sufficient security (e.g. from an external aggressor) to allow sustainable development to take place. It flips the equation so that an alternative hypothesis could be juxtaposed that, in X context, military intervention is a necessary condition for development. This way of posing contrasting propositions to create dissonance and challenge accepted assumptions and norms can be powerful. How could you use it as leader, coach or OD?
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?
Conventional wisdom tells us this: if we acquire more resources, we can do more and achieve more. Correspondingly, if we have less, we can do less and achieve less. It’s as if there’s a direct 1-2-1 causal relationship between resource and ability. The language we use in organisations often reinforces this view. We grow and shrink our ‘human resources’ according to the number and size of jobs that need to be done, tasks that need to be performed. It’s a linear logic. And it’s wrong.
Let’s flip this around a bit. A charity plans to run a leadership development programme but loses the funding to do it. It lost the resource so lost the programme, right? No, it explored alternative ideas and found a commercial organisation that was willing to run a high quality programme for it pro bono. It satisfied the charity’s need for a programme and the commercial organisation’s desire to support ethical work in the community. A great outcome for both parties. A win-win solution.
So what made the difference? Was it a shift in resources - or a shift in thinking? Here’s the thing: ‘How else might we do this?’ invites lateral thinking, creative ideas and innovative approaches. It takes us away from acquiring more resources and towards becoming more resource-ful. It moved this charity away from, ‘How can we get more money to support our work?’ towards, ‘Who shares similar passions and interests?’ and, ‘What might be possible to achieve our mutual goals?’
This is, of course, the domain of agile thinking. As environments become increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), we need to think ever more creatively, adaptively and resourcefully. This implies a fundamental paradigm shift away from human resources and towards resource-ful humans. It means shifting our attention beyond solving the immediate issue to developing critical thinking, creative ideation and reflective practice. How do you do it?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.