The Pope and the Brainstorming Blunder

April 26, 2010

The Pope’s visit to the UK is planned for September, but a controversy has already broken out leading to an apology from the Foreign Office for a set of insulting and derogatory ideas leaked to press. To understand what happened, knowledge of brainstorming is useful

Turns out that the bright young things at the Foreign Office have been getting ideas. Worse, as Sir Humphrey used to say, they have been getting new ideas, which is a particularly dangerous thing for civil servants to do.

Someone had requested a few ideas around the Pope’s visit. Maybe it was part of a wider security exercise. Anyway, a group of people were bought together, and we learn that a brainstorming took place.

Regressiveness in inexperienced groups

It seems unlikely that the group could be considered as skilled at brainstorming. This is important, because a trained group with an experienced moderator behaves rather differently to a less experienced one. Inexperienced groups tend to regress to a more infantile state in which repressed thoughts are released. And in keeping with one brainstorming principle, anything suggested gets recorded. That is actually justifiable on the grounds that more outrageous ideas can be ‘tamed’ to include novelty and potential relevance and feasibility.

My guess is, that under conditions in which free thinking had been encouraged, free association of ideas took place. More accurately, many utterances will be not so much free of constraints, but conditioned reactions to suppressed thoughts. Mention the Pope to such a group and it will induce close associations including religion, faith, The Vatican, and also associations with recent news stories dealing with abortion, birth control, and child abuse.

In the spirit of brainstorming, these words will then trigger even more outlandish and outrageous ideas. Suggestions such as a Pope’s condom, and a visit to an abortion clinic would be quite likely.

The confidentiality of brainstormed ideas

Creative? Creativity researchers would say probably not. Creative ideas have to meet criteria of novelty, relevance, and actionability. Brainstorming is a venerable but rather weak approach to overcoming team-level blocks to creativity. Such techniques have been the subject of some debate for decades regarding if and how they work to promote creativity.

In any event, it is easy to understand how the FO team would have arrived at a set of ideas which included a lot of fantasy remarks of the kind which were leaked to the media. I always advise brainstorming teams to treat the raw output as highly dangerous. (Yes, I’m with Sir Humphrey on this) Even when accompanied by an explanation, outsiders who get the full unedited set of ideas will question the competence or even the temporary sanity of the group. Far better, I suggest, is to treat the full set of ideas as highly confidential, and present to the senior management sponsors only the most promising few ideas which can be acted on. In this case, the confidentiality could be and should have been treated as a matter of some security.

An anti-catholic culture at the FO?

Perhaps it was treated confidentially. There is a possibility that a disaffected member of the brainstorming group may have wanted to blow a whistle about what had been experienced. That doesn’t affect my main points, but would be consistent with a team that had not sorted out the psychological contract at the start, that there may well be some bizarre suggestions made which will not become public.

So there we have it. An anti-catholic plot by members of the FO? There are more convincing possibilities. I would not discount the possibility that some of the ideas came from people who were educated at one or two of our best Catholic Schools. It’s my Jewish friends who tell the best Jewish Jokes… and I don’t think it makes then anti-Semitic.


The controversy seems to have cooled down:

The Pope’s visit to Britain will not be affected by a leaked memo which appeared to mock the Catholic Church, the Vatican has said …The junior civil servant responsible for setting up the brainstorming and circulating its results said in a cover note: “Please protect; these should not be shared externally. The ‘ideal visit’ paper in particular was the product of a brainstorm which took into account even the most far-fetched of ideas.”