Brains and Soul, in Equal Measure

So much depends on getting the right people in the room. A workshop designed to produce innovative outcome can fail – even with the perfect agenda design and the most astute facilitators – if the people who’ve been assembled don’t have the right spirit and motivation to help it succeed.  But how do you get the right minds in the right place?

Bharat Maldé is an organisational psychologist who works closely with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the first proponent of the Sandpit process.  We believe his guidance is critical to the success of these workshops, which is why we asked him to talk about his experience working with the EPSRC and other scientific research organizations, screening applicants for the intense Sandpit event.

How did you get involved in with the Sandpit selection process?

Bharat Maldé: A dozen years ago, colleagues at the UK Research Council EPSRC were beginning to conceive the IDEAS Factory process – now known as a Sandpit – as a platform to get scientists to innovate. I’d been working with the EPSRC assessment centre in my capacity as an independent organisational psychologist and they turned to me when a dry run of a prototype Sandpit had yielded mixed results.

It was clear that the sandpit – an intensive residential activity with a collection of individuals engaging with strangers for 3 to 5 days to generate exciting and ground-breaking ideas on a set theme – was a very different concept from whatever had preceded it.  There would not be much time for bonding and developing; we had to collect participants who could hit the ground running and gel quickly.

How would you describe the participants who can “hit the ground running?”

Individuals who delight in creative problem solving as a teamwork rather than a solitary activity, and who are not precious about their own expertise, ideas and – most importantly – themselves.  They would be up for an intense intellectual engagement with a problem pulled this way and that, turned on its head, and then re-assembled for the most exciting offshoots for solution or further exploration.  Self-confident without being arrogant or dominating, keen and curious without being manic, and free of an overload of ego or anxiety or any other baggage that would stand in the way of intellectual free play. They would be willing – even delight – to be pulled away from time to time from their preferred ways of exercising their talent and expertise to engage in fun side-activity to kindle or re-kindle their creative juices that may have laid dormant or dried up.

What’s your role in selecting a participant group for a Sandpit?

I normally work with the selection panel, a group of scientists, each with an important role at the Sandpit.  The EPSRC overseers and I tend to be on the same page for Sandpit suitability, but this is not always easy for scientists who are new to the Sandpit process and used to scientific merit being judged via a brains-only lens. They tend to give undue importance to the applicant’s publication record when the Sandpit is designed to break new ground and work with fresh blood and fresh minds, not to perpetuate established practice.  We’re looking for brains and soul in equal measure.  I guess my role is to try to point out who will help us achieve that balance.

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How do you find the right people?

We use the simple selection device of a 2-page application form comprising half a dozen honest, open-ended questions, without any trip-wires, which we expect the applicants to respond to honestly. The majority do. Others do not. When the odd punter dupes us they soon get found out as the pressured setting of a Sandpit has a way of flushing out the dark side of human nature. Of course, most applicants do not set out to dupe but in echoing the positively worded questions with like-spirited responses, they are often lulled into saying yes to everything only to find, once at the Sandpit, that perhaps they’d overlooked their own frailties or not fully appreciated what they were letting themselves in for.

What are the consequences of not having the right people in the room?

Overlook or underplay an important selection signal and you can risk having the sandpit bedeviled with the distraction of having to manage – even worse, failing to manage – the particular idiosyncrasies of an individual and the negative dynamic they invariably inject into the proceedings. We are wary of individuals who are likely to showcase, strut, trumpet or pontificate.

I can think of a Sandpit where some of the final proposals were agreed upon by what I call ‘muscle and manipulation’ rather than intellectual merit.  The Sandpit mission underlines the pursuit of intellectual quest in a spirit of bonhomie and fair play. Those who want to play differently become an anomaly – one that the selection device of a simple 2-page application form does not always pick out easily – especially now that it is common for each event to attract more than a hundred applications.

As long as we’ve succeed in getting the core company of individuals right, then the minority of outliers add to fuel the ‘creative tension.’  But interesting surprises unfold: once we managed to do so well at picking positive-outlook individuals that everyone got along too swimmingly and not enough sparks flew!  Now we try to experiment at the edge of the core body by picking at least one or two ‘wild cards’ who are very different from the rest, and who often raise the quality of the sandpit.

Are there any things you notice that are related to gender or culture?

Gender and cultural diversity are essential to creative problem solving and the widest possible life experience across the body of participation is an invaluable adjunct to the Sandpit. Female representation suffers from demographic trends – women continue to be under-represented in top posts and the hard sciences. As best I can, I encourage each selection panel to go beyond any demographic pro rata formula as I believe a gender-balanced sandpit brings an importantly different dynamic which is denied when the female contingent is a mere handful.

Cultural diversity is also essential and here the problem lies in the possible handicap with the application born of language or style difficulty for those of a non-English origin. There is also the notable tendency for some cultures, far eastern as an example, to shy away against the engaging and active demands of a sandpit.  It’s important that the facilitation team is sensitive to this.

Early career participants bring an important freshness – that they tend to do well at a sandpit is unsurprising as they are least likely to come with an overload of ‘baggage’ that more senior academicians tend to suffer from.

How can you tell if someone is going to add to the group experience or detract from it?

You have to get the sense, from their application, about the twinkle in their eye. A twinkle in their eye that reflects “Hmm, I wonder what ideas are going to emerge – I can’t wait.” falls on the right side of the suitability divide. The same twinkle that reflects “Hmm, I know exactly how to get what I want out of this lot…” falls on the wrong side.

You’re obviously a believer in the Sandpit process.  How would you like to see it grow and develop?

There is so much to be fascinated about. That against the stereotype of the solitary scientist, who shrivels up in human company, we’re cultivating a new generation of scientists who actually enjoy breaking new ground in the company of others!  On a different tack, how about an early career only or an all female sandpit, to see how the mood, the dynamics and outputs unfold differently from the ‘mainstream’ model? How about having a resident Sandpit neurologist to wire up the participants at key stages to see what parts of their brains light up and to what pattern if any?  What if we could determine, at the time of a sandpit eureka moment, which hormones are leading the charge – the cortisols or the endorphins?

The EPSRC’s vision for the IDEAS Factory, all those years ago, has now turned into an exciting reality. It is now copied across continents, establishments and settings for which the EPSRC deserves every credit as the original inventors of the concept. I leave the last word to the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer who said at the Conservative Party Conference 2010 (4 October): “Let us make Britain the IDEAS Factory of the World!” So, as you can see, I am not the only fan!

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Know Further: Read what Bharat has written about the participant selection process. Read more and more about the Sandpit methodology. Or read about KAI and Foursight, some other tools we use to help understand who’s in the room and how to help them better work together.