The power of cogitation

In his final piece for MT, our columnist plants a challenging idea. Why should politics have all the think-tanks? Business needs one of its own.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Thinking has had a pretty good press over the past few centuries. Ever since Descartes declared 'Cogito ergo sum' (I think therefore I am), rubbing little grey cells together has met with almost universal approval. The Enlightenment itself, midwife of modernity, was founded on a profound faith in the power of human reason to drive human betterment.

Consultancies, business schools, books and magazines sell themselves as purveyors of 'the latest business thinking'. Breakthrough, out- of-the-box, fresh thinking; cutting-edge, leading-edge, bleeding-edge thinking; radical, provocative, revolutionary thinking: all so much more fun than boring old actual doing.

I'm not complaining, you understand. Thinking is what I do for a living. A column like this one - my last, as it happens - is a space in which to think out loud. And I have just taken up a new role as director of Demos, a political think-tank, which makes me a professional think-tanker. (Yes, it is a real noun. And yes, I know what it rhymes with.)

Very often, it is absence of thought that lands organisations in trouble. One of the main reasons executives hire external consultants is that they are too busy to think for themselves - which is simply a tragedy.

Thinking, then, has its place. But there are some important caveats. First, thinking should be a precursor to doing, rather than a substitute for it. Demosthenes, the great Greek orator, was asked what were the three most important ingredients of his trade and replied: 'Action, action, and action.'

Collective thinking, in particular, can feel time-consuming and inefficient - which is why benign dictatorship often looks better, on paper, than democracy. The greatest defence of thinking democracy came from Pericles in his famous Funeral Oration, when the infant Greek demos was threatened by Sparta. 'Words are no barrier to deeds,' he declared in 431BC. 'We are the most daring in what we undertake at the same time as we are the most thoughtful before going about it; while with others it is ignorance that makes them bold and thought that makes them hesitate.'

Second, thinking necessitates error. It is not possible to think or argue or opine authentically without sometimes getting it wrong. Indeed, the one thing we can be sure we are right about is that we are sometimes wrong - and don't always know when. In the course of the six years I have been writing on this page, I've made mistakes. Most embarrassing was my lament, in the course of a column on gender equality, for the absence of female chief constables. Apologies to Pauline Clare (Cheshire), Barbara Wilding (South Wales) and Julie Spence (Cambridgeshire) - and congratulations to Norma Graham, newly appointed chief constable of the Fife Constabulary.

I also shaded the wrong side of bonkers in calling for a 'national day to resign', was too hard on the CIPD, too soft on the CBI, and wrong to cast doubt on the value of Olympians as public speakers - after 2008, they're worth every penny.

In July 2004, I attacked Tesco's plan to withhold the first three days of sick pay to clamp down on employee absence. E-mails from Amanda Roberts, Michael Johnson and George Adams convinced me subsequently that I was wrong about this. Those workers who take their responsibilities to their company and colleagues seriously are rightly fed up with those who do not, and I now disagree with my original position.

A third precondition for valuable thinking is the provision of a safe space. Thinking out loud only works if there are no penalties for 'mad ideas'. Fear is the single biggest barrier to creative thought: fear of failure, fear of loss of face, fear of the boss.

Now that I am leaving, I can write that MT is such a safe place: a publication within which it is possible to provoke, think, argue, learn and grow. There are, I assure you, few such places.

Think-tanks, at their best, exist entirely to provide similar safe platforms to think carefully, radically and publicly. But it strikes me that although there are political think-tanks and specialist think-tanks focusing on educat- ion, economics, foreign policy, work, pensions and so on, there are no business think-tanks. There are the business schools, of course - but they're not usually applied enough. There are employer organisations, such as the CBI, IoD and British Chambers of Commerce, but they are necessarily constrained by the views of their members. Many firms, including McKinsey, IBM and BT, have their own internal think-tanks - in order to ensure that the intellectual capital is retained.

But it feels like there is space for an organisation that does public thinking about the big issues facing business today and tomorrow, funded by a range of far-sighted firms and staffed by people with real experience of commerce and a desire to improve business life. This new think-tank might be called Juno - since she was the Roman goddess of wealth. Why should politics get all the think-tanks?

For those of you who have read these columns, my thanks. For those who have taken the trouble to contact me, doubly so: I have enjoyed our arguments. It is only open-minded argument that gets us closer to the truth. After all, new ideas are necessarily odd. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote: 'As the births of living creatures at first are ill-shapen, so are all innovations, which are the births of time.'

Richard Reeves is the director of Demos - richard.reeves@demos.co.uk.

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