From “either/or” to “both/and” – evolving from black and white thinking to innovation

Posted on: May 1, 2013

What really struck me about the responses to the death of Margaret Thatcher was how polarised people are in their view of her. On the one hand David Cameron was saying she “saved the nation”, and on the other hand people were dancing in the streets to celebrate her death and sending “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” to number two in the charts.  We live in an era of sound bites and certainty is rewarded far more than ambiguity, even if that certainty turns out later to be wrong.   Neuroscience tells us that when we are under stress, the instinctual reptilian brain takes over and trumps the thinking Neocortex.  The reptilian brain wants to be able to categorise things very quickly and simplistically so that it can respond to danger.  The trouble is that this does not serve us very well as a way of navigating the complexity and ambiguity of modern life and the information overload we are all grappling with.

As a mediator I notice that when people are in conflict – an acute form of stress –  their thinking becomes highly polarised.  The person or organisation they are in conflict with is completely bad and they are utterly good, which contributes to the further escalation of the conflict.

Last week an article in Guardian Sustainable Business caught my eye called Gaming for Good: teaching sustainability through video games.  It described initiatives to harness children’s love of computer games in the service of teaching them useful messages about the need to live more sustainably.  For a moment my brain could not compute this combination as it was coupling together two phenomena which I had automatically assumed were incompatible.  Computer games are exciting and stimulating to those who play them, but arguably addictive and bad for children (exciting but frivolous), whereas sustainable living is important and worthwhile, but often seen as a bit worthy and dull (important but boring).

I then got excited by the innovation of taking two apparently contradictory phenomena and combining them in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  I was able to break out of my either/or thinking that saw computer games and sustainable living as two completely incompatible concepts, and embrace the both/and thinking that could combine what was valuable in each of these phenomena, in order to create something of significant value.

We live in volatile times, when we are being required to do more with less and to innovate in order to thrive. Mediators and facilitators are often hired to help bring business relationships to an end, and to do so in a way that is more healing and less traumatising than the legal process. What is their role in creating new beginnings?  By helping potential collaborators to step out of stress patterns and  polarised thinking, they have an important role to play in supporting innovation and helping people come up with exciting new ways to address the wider challenges of our time – including getting kids to play computer games about sustainability.

As far as Maggie is concerned, being a student Lefty from the 80s, I’m now reluctantly conceding that she did do some useful things while she was in power!