Policy for introverts

Fairly or unfairly, a certain type of personality comes to mind when you think about think tanks. But what about the people who aren’t always the first to hold up their hands – shouldn’t they also have a voice in policy?

Susan Cain’s recent TED speech in praise of introverts reminded me that we need to create a different type of dialogue around policy and social issues generally. Susan warns against the ‘new group think’ – the assumption that creativity and innovation is necessarily dependent on (or needs to be designed around) gregariousness, which in practical terms means those with the loudest voices. She criticises what she calls “the madness for constant group work” that’s now emphasised in many sectors, from education to business. As Susan suggests: “There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

Susan’s argument is that we need to give introverts the freedom to be themselves, so that they can come up with unique solutions – and that more of us should have the “courage to speak softly.” Indeed, she notes, some of the most inspiring and transformative leaders in history have been introverts by nature.

Essentially I think of myself as an introvert (though like many people I don ‘t think the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ can really capture who we are), so I’m rather bound to agree with Susan. However, I also think there’s a danger of not trying to develop new forms of collaboration because we’re concerned (or assume) that some people don’t like to collaborate or aren’t at their best in collaborations. Introversion isn’t the same thing as a desire for isolation. Rather it’s the forms of collaboration we offer – whether they are open, accessible and equitable, and how they are paced – that matters more.

As Susan notes, we face social problems that because of their scale and complexity are likely to require lots of collaboration to develop solutions and to implement these solutions. So we need introverts on the inside. And in any case, the problem with think tanks and policy discussions generally isn’t that they are too ‘collaborative’ – quite the opposite. The problem is that they’re too shouty, too ‘here’s the answer’ and ‘I win the prize’ – hence the reason that policy suffers (in my humble opinion at least) from trendism.

We want the work of think tanks to be more participatory because this could make policy and research work more practical (i.e. informed by practice), more grounded, more credible – in short, more intelligent – and we’ll only achieve this if we find ways to include the introverts. Our new think tank project is for those who aren’t the first to put their hand up – and for those who don’t assume only they have ‘the answer’ but do have lots to contribute.

From this perspective, what’s really interesting about online and social media isn’t how they can enable much lower-cost, much more immediate interactions, it’s that structured in the right way they can allow other voices to come to the fore. Here I am, publishing to the world, and I’m not asking anyone’s permission to do it. So can you. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any barriers, but it does mean that the introverts are able to find more of their own ways of entering into the world. It’s what policy needs more of, and think tanks in particular need to find ways to embrace. Only then will we begin to harness the power of introverts.

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