— Cultural Sources of Newness

Taking an upside-down route to the new

Possibly one of the most frequently used tools in management is the SWOT exercise, to identify the strengths and weaknesses of an organization in the context of the opportunities and threats in its environment. Last week I experienced what happens when a facilitator takes a group through an upsidedown SWOT process: it generates the unexpected and the new. Maybe especially if the exercise is conducted in an ideal location that offered wide-open views and fresh perspectives, like an old villa called Blumenfisch, directly on a Berlin lake in the sunshine of a very early Spring.

View of Wannsee from Blumenfisch terrace

View of Wannsee from Blumenfisch terrace

Fourteen members of the WZB Science Policy Studies research group gathered last Thursday and Friday to share and develop ideas. A diverse group with many quite new members: in preparation we had read two papers, the unit’s research program document and a draft chapter from a book that some of the members of the group  decided to write after an off-site meeting they had held a couple of years ago. The skilled facilitator, Birgit Böhm,  introduced the program and startled us with the idea of taking a “Kopfstand” (handstand/upside down) as a point of departure for our analysis.

Instead of looking at strengths and weaknesses of the unit, she instructed us to work in small groups to identify the factors that would lead our research group to fail, then to write down the factors needed for success. Towards the end of the exercise, we were to circle the elements in both columns that we believed were already present in the research group. How motivating is it to start two days off-site by talking about factors for failure? Fortunately, we trusted the facilitator and accepted the rules of the upside-down method. There was energy in the room as each group was curious to learn what the others came up with.

factors for failure (and success!)

Considering factors for failure (and success!)

The afternoon started with a discussion of the concept of responsiveness/Responsivität that was at the core of the chapter by colleague Marc Torka that we had read before coming. Questions and concerns about, suggestions for, and examples of the fruitfulness of the concept flowed productively in the fishbowl-like format the facilitator had chosen and adapted for this phase of the process.

The next assignment was to generate ideas for joint projects to work on in the coming years. As if we did not already have enough work on our desks with existing projects! We wanted to learn what others in the team were working on, but she wanted us to talk about what else we could imagine doing together! Fortunately for us all, quite a few members of the group had intriguing project ideas for us to consider. So there was a competition for which project ideas we would attend to. The facilitator gave everyone three stickers to put on the themes that interested us most and later asked us to form working groups to focus on one theme each. Amusingly, the distribution of stickers did not end up corresponding to the distribution of people in the groups.

By dinner time, the walls were full of posters documenting all the work we had done. It was impressive and the process had been fun, but I wondered: how would all these ideas fit together and how could we fit time for them into our already heavy workloads? And when would I, as one of the newest members of the group, really start to understand the projects my colleagues are currently conducting? No answers yet, because we played charades and other word games after dinner. The art in the dining room was suggestive of the multiple views and directions we had been exploring.

Photograph at Blumenfisch (unfortunately, I do not know the name of the artist yet)

Photograph at Blumenfisch (unfortunately, I do not know the name of the artist yet)

The next morning the facilitator presented us with a new structure to work with to develop our ideas in the theme-focused groups. She had prepared large Metaplan panels with dimensions of project planning that we needed to address. A very well-structured approach. In the course of the discussion, we also identified our past or current projects that could be resources for the prospective collaborative project. While we developed our project plan, key messages from the first “upside-down” exercise returned as reminders of strengths to build on or weaknesses to avoid. I realized that the group I had joined for the discussion was devising a plan that I really could participate in as a complementary project to the one I intend to conduct on “paths into and out of academia”.

In the ensuing plenary discussion, we discovered close links between two of the project themes and interesting connections to the other two as well. Suddenly the concern about expanding heterogeneity I had experienced the evening before dissipated, giving way to a refreshing sense of coherence. And the relevance of the new ideas for our existing projects (and vice versa) became evident as well.

Had we started with the normal SWOT technique and with presentations of our current projects as a point of departure for future projects, I very much doubt we would have developed the exciting new collective agenda that emerged from the upside-down approach the facilitator took us through. Without the Kopfstandmethode we would probably have developed each of our current interests just a little bit further, and thereby unintentionally increased the gaps between our lines of work, and thereby lost the opportunity to join intellectual forces despite a common roof. Our planning session at the end of the day ensured that we decided on a variety of steps to keep the conversations going and develop the ideas more concretely. Tomorrow we will have our first brownbag lunch session to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about each other’s current research projects, and we look forward to the next off-site session in a year’s time.

Thanks to Birgit Böhm

Thanks to Birgit Böhm

This is not the place for me to disclose the new project plans, just the process we went through. You will have to wait, dear reader, for the content to be divulged. In the meantime, try the Kopfstandmethode, consider the concept of Responsivität and go out to look for a Blumenfisch on the Wannsee.

Sunset over the Wannsee after work

Sunset over the Wannsee after work

 

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