Papal visit outrage – it ain’t what you do, it’s the way people react to it

With apologies to Sy Oliver, Fun Boy Three and Bananarama, this morning’s shock news is that Foreign Office staff, keen to make the Pope’s visit to the UK a success brainstormed such ideas as…

  • Launch a “Benedict” brand of condoms
  • Perform a duet with the Queen [ie the Head of the Anglican Communion]
  • Apologise for the Spanish Armada
  • Open an abortion clinic, and
  • Bless a gay marriage.
  • The context was clear, the staff had been called together for some ‘blue sky’ thinking about how to turn, what could become a stale, politically-laden, event into something positive, vibrant, and more in tune with the 21st Century.

    Brainstorming is a group creativity technique designed to generate a large number of ideas in the expansive phase of problem solving. No-one can realistically lay claim to having ‘invented’ it, but it was popularised in 1953 by Alex Faickney Osborn in a book called Applied Imagination.

    Although psychologists have now demonstrated that it doesn’t actually serve it’s explicit purpose of increasing the quantity or quality of solutions generated it can be shown to improve morale, boost work enjoyment and improve team-work. The rules of brainstorming are simple – essentially, to focus on volume, to withold discussion and criticism of others’ ideas, to verbalise even outrageous ideas, and to build on ideas already shared.

    It has certainly been employed for over half-a-century, and it is hard to believe that anyone in ‘management’ of any kind hasn’t been asked to participate in a brainstorming session at some stage in their career. This makes it hard to treat seriously the reactions expressed, by those in positions of considerable power, when the output from this particular session was leaked.

    The documents clearly indicated that those involved realised that the ideas were extreme, explicitly set the context, and showed that people were genuine in their desire for a positive end-result (a popular and successful Papal visit). These are precisely the right ways of going about a brainstorming session and documenting it.

    Yet, we have a media furour, Government ministers expressing ‘deep regret’, a civil servant castigated, an ambassador sent to apologise to the Pope, Roman Catholic Bishops describing it as “appalling manners”, one suggesting that it is the latest element of a much larger anti-Catholic smear-campaign and a Catholic spin-doctor who wonderfully turned it into a call for Catholics around the world to demonstrate their capacity for forgiveness.

    I must admit I find that last one the most outrageous given that we are witnessing the incredibly slow unfolding of a systemic process of sexual abuse by Catholic priests of young children in their care for which they have yet to accept any collective responsibility. That however is beside the point.

    These people are perfectly well aware of the technique that led to this document. They have almost certainly used it themselves in the course of their work. They are also well aware that junior staff often feel less constraint than more senior ones and that positive outcomes almost always arise from giving them scope to be creative from time-to-time. They also know that the media are pathetically hungry for stories and will inflate even the most trivial bit of news to get a response.

    So, I am far less horrified by the memo than I am by their reactions. These people are the ones who are trying to shape our moral compass, they are the ones in whom we invest the power to make significant global decisions and to address major political and environmental crises. In my opinion, it isn’t the junior civil servants who deserve castigation, it is their seniors who appear to have lost themselves in the cloud of their own super-egotistical importance.

    I am happy to comment, or deliver keynote sessions, on any of the topics that I post about.
    For media and speaking enquiries, please call me, Graham Wilson, on 07785 222380.

    Best wishes

    Behind the scenes, helping those of power see themselves, other people and situations differently

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