The sting in the Rose Garden
How Dominic Cummings changed the rules of debate while his oblivious audience nodded along
In all the analysis and discussion of Dominic Cummings’ Rose Garden statement, one curious sentence has so far gone unremarked, even in the filleting of the wordsmithing by legal commentator David Allen Green. Towards the end, Cummings says this: “I accept, of course, that there is room for reasonable disagreement about this.”
This looks like a generous admission of uncertainty, an acknowledgement of conflicting demands, and an olive branch towards critics. He adds “of course” to make it sound even more like an innocent and everyday acceptance of the difficulties of his position.
It is nothing of the kind. Cummings has pulled what therapists call a ‘double bind’ on us all. Once we accept this statement, as has everyone did on the day and in subsequent debate (including Nick Robinson interviewing Health Sectretary Matt Hancock on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (2:18:31), there is no way out. Cummings’ position is unchallengeable.
It works like this. We have agreed that there is room for reasonable disagreement. Therefore any ‘reasonable’ disagreement cannot be decisive, as there is room for it without changing position. Any ‘unreasonable’ disagreement, however, is as unimpressive as it always was. The only other options are to agree or to say nothing – both of which accept Cummings’ position.
So no amount of disagreement, reasonable or not, can change the situation as offered by Cummings. What he has achieved, in relation to his own position, is to dismiss reason (and presumably its trusty sidekick logic) from the field of play.
The double-bind communication paradox was first noticed by anthropologist and systems thinking pioneer Gregory Bateson and his colleagues at the Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto California in the 1950s. It has been employed for decades in strategic and systemic therapies as a way of looking at stuck situations and a means of producing new responses in those suffering mental ill-health.
I had no idea on Sunday afternoon that Dominic Cummings was about to employ it to hoodwink us all into suspending logic and reason from interfering with his family adventures. I hope that by shining a light onto his sleight of hand I can make journalists, interviewers, commentators and citizens more aware of what is being done, and how, in our name.
Mark McKergow is an author, speaker and consultant. He is currently working on a book about the development of Gregory Bateson’s ideas in the therapy world for Routledge.
Thursday 28 May 2020
I have been asked to collect up all the various models and frameworks I’ve developed over the years, alone and with others, for quick and easy reference. Here they are! Enjoy browsing this little slice of history.
Users Guide To The Future (with Helen Bailey and also Peter Roehrig)
Nine Keys to Accelerated Learning (with Paul Z Jackson)
Stretching The World: a friendly explanation of Solution Focused practice
I am aware there are other things I’ve developed but that aren’t (yet) written up properly – what else would you like to know about?
Here is one small idea which might be very relevant in the coming weeks – Luc Isebaert’s ‘Three Questions’. Luc was a pioneer of using Solution Focused ideas with people who could only think short-term (alcohol abusers initially) and came up with these three questions to help them value and recognise what was useful to them in their immediate environments. As we enter a time of great uncertainty, I suggest these questions might be useful as a way to focus daily on our immediate surroundings and what we value and want to keep hold of.
1. What have I done today that I am happy with?
2. What has someone else done that I am happy with (or grateful for)? And how did I react? (So that the person might be encouraged to do it again?)
3. What do I see around me – hear, feel, smell, taste – that I am happy with or grateful for?
Please feel free to share and use. Luc was a great man, a friend and colleague, and he would wish us to use his work in whatever way helps us tackle the situation today.
Peter Roehrig and Mark McKergow led an online webinar for SFiO about applying the ‘User’s Guide to the Future’ (from Mark’s book Host) as a coaching tool. The webinar is now available online, and is packed with useful ideas. Mark explains the concept and framework of the Users’ Guide, which helps people to take huge ideas and quickly bring them into focus as coherent small actions. Peter has added a couple of very useful elements to the framework to make it even more useful as a coaching too. Peter demonstrates this by coaching one of the webinar participants. We then hear feedback from the coachee, and there is a discussion. This is a valuable resource for any coach working with people who want to translate ideas into focused action. https://youtu.be/TDIp8s0E2to
Adam Meggido – Improv Beyond Rules: A Practical Guide to Narrative Improvisation
Nick Hern Books 2019, £14.99pb, ISBN 978-1-84842-731-0
Book review by Mark McKergow
With this experienced-packed and well-written book, Adam Meggido instantly raises the bar for everyone involved in long-form and narrative theatre improvisation. Every page has a multitude of ideas to explore, and with 284 pages that’s the basis for a lot of exciting, fun, daring work in the rehearsal room and on stage.
London-based Adam Meggido is probably best known as the co-creator and director of the Olivier Award-winning Showstopper! The Improvised Musical. He has also worked with improvisers all over the world, teaches at LAMDA in London and also in scripted drama (directing the West End hit Peter Pan Goes Wrong amongst others). Here he sets out to explore how to create great improvised drama (reminding us of his mentor Ken Campbell’s exhortation that improv must aspire to be better than scripted shows), with a strong focus away from the quickfire Whose Line Is It Anyway type of format and onto longer, more sustained and ambitious work.
Meggido has performed in over 1000 Showstopper! performances, along with years spent in practice sessions (yes, you DO have to practice to be spontaneous), and this wealth of experience shines through in every paragraph. The main part of the book splits into three sections: the Moment, the Scene and the Story. The secret of narrative improvisation (and its cousin long form, which has a pre-determined structure) is to be able to work on these three levels simultaneously. Taking each element in turn, the author explores the practice and dynamics involved and presents a multitude of exercises, games and ideas to build more compelling and vital threads on stage.
The title of the book – Improv Beyond Rules – is revealing. Fromm the outset Meggido rails against the simplistic rules which are routinely offered as the basis for improvising. This of course makes for a spicy read from the off. The author implores us to take these rules not as rule per se to be kept at all costs, but as guidelines which can be varied in service to the unfolding story. For example, the well-known rule of ‘Don’t Say No’ is morphed into a more subtle context-dependent idea where there are many levels of saying ‘No’ which may come into play as the character, relationships and emerging storyline develops. Everything is context-dependent, and it is this realisation which makes this book such a valuable source of potential in the world of narrative emergence where nothing is (totally) fixed, things change and appear all the time, decisions are made, relationships forged, broken and retrieved, and nothing is ever the same twice. (Meggido is quite explicit about this, talking about the time he started with the ‘same’ performers, characters, location etc and ended up with three different stories.)
The book really flourishes in the sections about the Scene and the Story. The sections about Status, Rank and different ways to combines these endowments open up vast possibilities. Likewise the description of Ken Campbell’s ‘Numbers Grid’ opens up another set of new angles on using space, as well as personality, to create relationships and direct audience attention; this section is worth the price of admission on its own. Meggido is full of ideas for practicing narrative improvisation out-of-sequence, with (for example) the ending done first, before the beginning and middle are added. Every new idea is explained concisely, illustrated with a couple of relatable examples (Macbeth, Legally Blonde and Star Wars are all used on multiple occasions), and then the reader is encouraged to try things out for themselves.
So why am I, a leadership consultant, coach and jazz musician, writing about this book? To start with, I’ve been interested in improv since watching, videoing and then wearing out the tapes of Whose Line some thirty years ago. The energy and thrill of great improv, even in short form, is addictive, and I get it in the jazz club as much as the Comedy Store. I think improv is a great coaching skill ((and life skill too, come to that). But seeing Showstopper! took my awareness of this skill onto a whole new level. I’ve seen it more that a dozen times over the past six years, and it’s always amazing, in a way which is very hard to pin down.
Adam Meggido is addressing some of the fundamental questions about how we live (and can live) our language-saturated lives. Science writers Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart posited some years ago that our species, rather than being called homo sapiens, would be better named pan narrans – the story-telling ape. The story we tell, live and make constitute our lives in ways which overarch and embrace mere physical, genetic and physiological qualities. I’d like to pull out three points from this book which are worthy of wider consideration.
Firstly, Meggido shines a light on the minutiae of how we enter and participate in relationships. This is not the kind of light you read about in psychology texts and problem pages, it is (to me anyway) a much more fundamental and practical look at how we present ourselves, how we react to others and how that can change and turn as time goes along. Want to know about how to _do_ (as opposed to ‘be’) high status and yet engaged with people. There are clues in here. Want to know about (and therefore be able to recognise) the difference between someone who’s a trickster, a helper, a guardian and a nemesis? That’s in here too (again with helpful examples).
Secondly, he is quite clear that as human (and in particular as pan narrans), we as the audience can follow the developing narrative as it emerges. We don’t need it explained. We don’t need a helpful psychiatrist to assist us in ‘joining the dots’ of the story, even if it comes out of sequence. It’s a great human quality to make sense from a series of scenes, and we routinely do it effectively. (Whether the sense is always the most useful sense is of course another story). This is a key aspect of my work in Solution Focused coaching – our coaches describe a series of scenes in their lives (from past, present and future), often in an ‘out-of-time-sequence’ way. That’s it. As coaches, we don’t need to explain the new narrative, join the dots for them, interpret their words in a clever way – as fellow members of pan narrans, that’s precisely what they CAN do for themselves. It takes patience and professionalism not to jump in – but that’s the art of our work.
Finally, Meggido touches on what is for me an even bigger question. Is the improvised story revealed, or is it created? Lots of people like to think that it’s revealed – it was always there and the performers have now made it clear. One might say the same about Michelangelo’s statue of David- it was always there in the marble, all that the sculptor had to do was remove all the extraneous bits and boosh! There it is. It’s a tempting thought – but wrong. Clearly (and it’s particularly and starkly clear in the case of narrative improv theatre) the story is created, a step at a time, by skilled performers paying close attention to one another and carefully using the possibilities that emerge on the night. It seems to me that a good and satisfying story has the appearance of being revealed – it all hangs together, it all makes sense, how could it possibly be any different? And many people seem to take comfort in the illusion that it was ‘ever thus’, that it was all predetermined, that the gods always had this in mind, that finally the truth will out. Except that it’s only the truth with this precise sequence of events, and other truths were (and are) available.
Does it let you do a Showstopper! show right off the bat? No, that will take a great deal of time, trust, calamities, rehearsal space, tea and biscuits. Also there’s nothing here about how to improvise songs, learn about different musical styles, organise a band to improvise an accompaniment and keep going for more than a decade. Whether you’re buying this book to explore the nature of life’s performance or, at least, to be a better narrative improviser, you will find it absolutely packed with stage-tested wisdom, activities and possibilities. Adam Meggido shines a light on narrative improv and a whole lot more. This book is surely worth a place alongside Keith Johnstone’s Impro and Viola Spolin’s Improvisation For The Theater on the improv bookshelves of tomorrow,
We are very excited to announce that the Host Leadership Field Book is published today and available world wide in paperback and Kindle formats. This collection of 30 chapters shows Host Leadership in action all over the world in many settings including business leadership, agile, education, social care, coaching, virtual teams, volunteer organisations, organisational change, conflict resolution, training, community building and leadership development.
The Host Leadership Field Book, edited by Mark McKergow and Pierluigi Pugliese, Foreword by Helen Bailey. Published by Solutions Books on 12 November 2019 in paperback and Kindle formats. ISBN 978-0-9933463-3-0. 276 pages. Paperback £12.99/US$17.
- Link to Amazon.co.uk: https://amzn.to/34rxugz
- Link to Kindle edition: https://amzn.to/32EIcP6
- Link to Amazon.com: https://amzn.to/2q94Wt0
- Link to the book webpage http://hostleadership.com/field-book (with full contents listing)
“Puts Host Leadership at the forefront of leadership development approaches, where it deservedly belongs” Paul R. Scheele, PhD. in Leadership & Change, CEO, Scheele Learning Systems, co-founder, Learning Strategies Corporation
“Crystal clear distillations of a key leadership practice suited for our times” Chris Corrigan, global steward, Art of Hosting community of practice
“The key principles of hosting that will help you effectively and quickly build cooperation, trust and results” Dr Ivan Misner, Founder of BNI and NY Times Bestselling Author
The United Nations Climate Change Summit is going on in New York as I write. World leaders, activists and experts are gathered to make another push towards tackling the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg has made an impassioned speech. Donald Trump decided to go to another event on religious freedom. The struggle goes on.
What are we to make of it, the vast majority of us not in New York but following the developments with more or less sense of frustration? Much of the discussion seems to focus on goals; when are we aiming for a carbon-neutral? The UK Government under Theresa May was shifting to a goal of carbon-neutral by 2050. The Scottish Government (where I live) is ahead of that – aiming for 2045. Others fret about the fact that China is still building coal-fired power stations (which will presumably operate for decades). Yes others point to the millions employed around the world in carbon extraction and refining, and wonder how they can be helped to transition into other fruitful work, in the energy sector and elsewhere.
Let’s look at this situation from a Solution Focused (SF) perspective. Agreement on the direction of travel – decarbonisation – seems to be becoming increasingly clear. That’s our platform, the general thing we’re hoping for. The precise goal – 2050, 2045, whatever – is much less important. Things will happen between now and then – events, developments, breakthroughs, crises – which will buffet things one way and another. In SF we don’t really work with goals – they may be there or not, but the key thing is useful change – movement in broadly the right direction today.
So the key success measure for the UN Climate Change Summit should not be the goals (welcome though movement in that direction might be), but the immediate next steps. What is happening by the end of the week that would not have happened otherwise? Who is doing what? Who is connecting with whom? What new impetus is there? The risk of agreeing goals is that politicians could mistake the agreement for the action. The current generation of world leaders will be long gone by 2050 – who will be taking accountability?
And it’s not just next steps that we must be looking for – it’s steps in a newly coherent direction. I wrote a while ago about the difference between SF and ‘Kaizen’, the ancient Japanese art of making gradual improvements. That’s a valuable thing to be doing – but simply taking small steps along a well-trodden path is not particularly brave or innovative. SF work promotes the crystallisation of small next steps in a new direction, with a new awareness, with new purpose.
So by all means let’s support the Climate Change Summit and those participating. And look for new awareness, new directions and small next steps. Here’s one area where the goal is not the point.
Dominik Godat and Elfie Czerny have been going around the world their minibus Hearty, interviewing all sorts of people about Solution Focused work. They have finally reached Scotland, and the latest podcast episode is a (very well edited and produced) conversation about Mark McKergow’s latest work on ‘what makes SF work beautiful’. In this 40 minute conversation Mark discusses SF work as an aesthetic – like a school of art – in that what we find beautiful is not the same as in other fields of practice. It’s a great conversation – check it out! http://www.sfontour.com/project/sfp-74-what-makes-solution-focus-beautiful-solution-focus-as-an-aesthetic-with-dr-mark-mckergow/
James Lovelock CH CBE FRS – author, scientist, environmentalist and futurist – celebrates his 100th birthday today. I first came across Lovelock’s work in the 1970s and was at first annoyed, then puzzled, then impressed, and finally inspired by his life and work. I am inspired not so much by the actual work for which he is best known (the ‘Gaia hypothesis’) but more by the way he has gone about his life and work and his own commitments to those around him and to keeping going. In this short article to celebrate Lovelock’s centenary, I’d like to try to shed a little light on his life and what I have taken from it.
James Lovelock was born on 26 July 1919 in Letchworth Garden City, north of London, in modest surroundings. His dislike of authority made him an unhappy school pupil and he could not afford to go to university – which he later said prevented him from over-specialising and therefore helped him in making cross-disciplinary breakthroughs like Gaia. During the second world war he ended up studying chemistry at the University of Manchester (initially as a conscientious objector, though he changed his stance followed news of Nazi atrocities) and followed this up with researching into the shielding of soldiers from burns. Lovelock refused to use the rabbits provided for this research, preferring to experiment on himself!
Following a post-war PhD in medicine, Lovelock worked for two decades at London’s National Institute for Medical Research. He carried out original work on cryogenics, and started to invent equipment to support his research, including the electron capture detector, a very sensitive way to look for the presence of gases. Engaged by NASA in the early 1960s to work on the Viking programme of Mars landers, Lovelock showed that life (on Mars) could be found not by looking for traces similar to life on Earth but by a much more general method of seeing whether the Martian atmosphere was in disequilibrium (being disturbed by life). In the end, the Martian atmosphere was found to be stable – so no life. However, use of the same thinking and detectors resulted in the discovery of the impact of CFCs on ozone depletion in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Gaia hypothesis emerged from this planetary thinking. Lovelock proposed that the Earth and all its living and non-living components formed a single interacting system which provided (at least thus far) a self-balancing environment, that can be thought of as a single organism. The name Gaia came from the Greek earth goddess via his neighbour and author William Golding, who pointed out that a good name would be important. Lovelock followed this up with his Daisyworld computer simulation, showing how fluctuations in white (reflecting) and black (non-reflecting) daisies could self-regulate temperature. While this hypothesis was accepted by environmentalists, it found less acceptance initially with scientists who didn’t like the concept of an ‘organism’ to be stretched in this way.
With his living expenses taken care of by royalties from the electron capture detectors and other inventions, Lovelock set up as an independent scientist in his barn/research station on the Devon/Cornwall border. He writes, pursues his own interests without interference from university funding proposals and continues to develop his ideas on the future of Earth. He is a strong proponent of nuclear energy as a low-carbon power sources, and is in favour of geo-engineering as a way to tackle the climate crisis. Both of these are (unfashionably) large-scale tech solutions which are out of favour with many environmentalists. His latest writings (Novacene, 2019) discuss how artificial intelligence will eventually combine with the planet’s natural mechanisms to provide a home for electronic, if not human, life.
I read Lovelock’s book Homage To Gaia: The Life of an Independent Scientist (Oxford University Press, 2000) when it first appeared. I love the idea of being an independent scientist. Lovelock described how his ‘pot-boilers’ (way of steadily making money) allowed him to develop new ideas, and I have striven to follow his example. In my case, my early career in management development and in particular teaching corporate trainers about ‘accelerated learning’ methods gave me a good income to support our efforts with Solutions Focus and later Host Leadership. It’s a great privilege to be able to follow my own interests without needing permission or funding from other people.
I also admire the way in which Lovelock takes somewhat contrary positions, backing his own reasoning. He is loved by many in the environmental community for proposing Gaia, and at the same time they dislike his principled stance on nuclear energy. The scientific community were wowed by his instrument inventions but appalled (to start with) at this hippyish proposal that the whole Earth is (or at least can be taken as) an organism. This latter position is now less controversial than it was, with earth systems science an important and growing field. I too have been a long-term supporter of nuclear energy (where I started my career in the 1980s) and have felt the disapproval of friends who (lazily in my view) take a whole group of different causes as one – CND, anti-apartheid, trades unionism, vegetarian, anti-business, anti-big tech (but pro small-tech like smart phones), anti-nuclear energy. I’ll make up my own mind, thank you.
James Lovelock and I are both scientists. I sometimes refer to myself as a ‘recovering physicist’. This always gets a laugh, with its sideways glance at the difficulties of alcohol addiction. It’s only partly a joke though; having had a strong science education to PhD level I have a low tolerance for those who poo-poo science, those who steal and twist its language in their own interests (‘energy facilitation’, anyone?) and those who don’t share my interest in using words as precisely as possible where science or logic are concerned. Only last week, I was asked whether in change management it was necessary to involve top management at the start. Yes, it’s a good idea. Yes, it can pay dividends. Yes, if you don’t do it you may run into difficulties later. But necessary? For something to be necessary it must be present in every single case. So no, it’s not necessary – there are examples of successful work without it. (I have learned since my PhD that not every question is about physics, and that there are many aspects of life to which science is not the answer.)
Lovelock keeps on going, developing his thinking, writing about it and making interesting interventions. I hope I can do the same. Happy birthday James and ‘lang may yer lum reek’ (as we say here in Scotland).
Mark McKergow is director of the Centre for Solutions Focus at Work based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He proudly continues the tradition of working as an independent scientist and seeks to show people how things they thought were very hard can in fact be tackled with a counterintuitively modest amount of awareness, skill and capability. http://sfwork.com
Top of the news today in the UK is the story of Isabelle Holdaway, the 17 year-old who has recovered from a serious infection untreatable with antibiotics using ‘phage therapy’. Phages are viruses that eat bacteria. They have been known for a century or more, but have not been seen as a potential mainstream treatment in most circles until now.
As you are probably aware, antibiotic-resistant bacteria or ‘superbugs’ are a growing problem. Bacteria evolve, just like all life forms – and so it’s only natural that as time goes on, then evolutionary processes will result in bacteria which are adapted to survive antibiotics (which don’t evolve). Phages, being viruses, also evolve, which is what makes them so interesting and useful; as superbugs evolve, then so do the phages which attack them. What makes the Isabelle Holdaway case so interesting is that this is the first time that phages have been genetically modified (deliberately) to make them even more effective in a particular case.
Way back in 2002, Paul Jackson and I featured phage treatment in our book The Solutions Focus. It was very little known at the time. I was pleased that we could both spread the word about this interesting and different form of treatment, and also show it as a great metaphor for Solution Focused (SF) work. Here is what we wrote back in 2002:
There is a close parallel between the antibiotic and phage approaches, and conventional and Solutions Focused methods in organizations. Just as the antibiotic attacks many strains of virus, the popular business and organizational theories work quite well in many cases. In both the phage and solutions approaches, the solution that fits the situation is uniquely and efficiently selected from the whole swirling complexity of the starting point – be it the organization wanting change, or the bucket of sewage.