The physical act of walking with another person around the galleries at the V&A is not an “either/or” activity.


Reading Dialogue Magazine’s Risk issue (September 2014), I was struck by how easily business leaders can become polarized. In terms of risk, we talk of hard risk and soft risk. And we cast our perspective as either mitigation or as appetite. The binary nature of organizational life is writ large – “you’re either with us or against us”, “on the bus or left behind”, “us and them”, “profit or loss”, “success or failure”. In the creative and cultural sector there is a demarcation between creative and non-creative.

The usual way in which we conduct our communication does nothing to help. Meetings are often face-to-face, across a table, emails fly back and forth, decisions are yes/ no, do we/don’t we. We have to “draw the line somewhere”.

I would argue that since the adoption of personal computing in the ‘80s, binary is now as ingrained in the way we live as in the way we work. Computers work by deciding “yes or no?” millions, if not billions, of times every moment. There is no middle ground, no “maybe”, just a finer and finer degree of “yes … or no?” One or the other, not both.

In traditional change theory, Kurt Lewin’s force field analysis sets up negotiation as a battle to change another person’s intention or view to your own and so align the energies. How does one break this pattern?

The physical act of walking with another person around the galleries at the V&A is not an “either/or” activity. The museum has more than seven miles of galleries and there are endless numbers of routes you can take. Most importantly, it is almost impossible to do this face-to-face. One of you wouldn’t be able to see where you were going, raising the risk of bumping into an object or a display case.

This active form of engaging is about being alongside. You walk alongside one another, and this means you are looking in the same direction, and you are moving in the same direction.This is a change in the normal working perspective. You are both coming from the same place, you are standing on the same ground. When either of you notices an object, you are regarding it from the same physical perspective. Of course, you will see different things in the object in front of you but you are starting from the same place, and in the act of exploring these differences, you are making meaning together.

An object that demonstrates this concept physically is Ane Christensen’s bowl (pictured above). This bowl is the first of Ane Christensen’s Negative series. Simply by cutting away the metal with a piercing saw she has created a three- dimensional optical illusion on an otherwise plain, functional bowl. The piece is made from a single sheet of copper.

Negative Bowl, Ane Christensen (2006). Photograph © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

You may not see it in the photograph, but standing in front of the bowl in its case at the V&A, you notice how the box appears and disappears as you move around it. I took Steve Chapman, chief adventurer at Can Scorpions Smoke, to see it and we spent a few moments finding just the right spot to stand and look. The box suddenly, yet gently, appeared. It was a quiet, shared moment of joint observation, seeing the same thing. And then it changed as we started to find new views, sharing our discoveries, creating new meaning together.

Playing with perspective helped Steve and me to reflect on the usual way meetings are constructed. We noticed that most of the meeting spaces we encounter in offices are “stuck”. The tables are fixed and can’t be moved or removed. The chairs in meeting rooms don’t tend to have wheels on them, so once you’ve sat down it’s very difficult to change position. Why do we have wheelie chairs to work on our own at our desks, but not in our “meeting” rooms?

In physical terms, if we were to put the bowl on the table during a meeting, only a few people would “see” it. The meeting would have “failed” most of the participants. In psychological terms, the usual way we meet and work is designed against movement, collaboration and agreement. And I would suggest it fails us.

Lewin’s force field supports the zero sum nature of much of our business lives. The Negative Bowl offers common ground on which to build, and the possibility of a third perspective, or a fourth or fifth; in fact, as many perspectives as we are prepared to discover.

This piece was originally published in Dialogue magazine, March 2015