A few years ago I attended an event designed by the artist Peter Reder and hosted by LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre). The event was intended to bring together managers from various businesses and an equal number of young people just out of drama college to help us all get a different perspective on our respective worlds.
We were each asked to bring to the event 5 things which we felt had meaning for us or said something about us. After an initial welcome presentation we were asked to sit in groups of around six people, to tell the story of the things that we had brought, and say why we had brought them. As a result we found out about each other through stories and metaphors rather than through our job titles or names. We also shared a vulnerability as the things that we had brought had deep personal meaning for us. We were each worried that the other people in the group would laugh at us or not like the things we had brought - they might even drop them. This was a very levelling activity which brought the groups very quickly to a high degree of understanding and trust.
Next the combined group (about 30 of us) were asked to lay all of our things out on the floor at one end of the hall, then step back and stand at the other end. The image of all of those people's personal things laid out on that church hall floor in north London has stayed with me ever since - it so reminded me of photographs of the personal belongings left behind by people killed in the holocaust - poignantly tatty looking but full of meaning.
We were then instructed to step forward one by one and move an artefact next to something else we felt it was associated with.
One by one, almost reverentially given the fact that we were touching and moving other people's very personal belongings, we began to move things next to things we felt they were associated with. Patterns began to form and reform (we were allowed to move things more than once) as we silently stepped forward one after the other. Around 20 minutes passed until it became clear that we were telling four predominant stories with our patterns, one around familes, one around work, one around entertainment and the last around nature.
What was fascinating was that although we didn't articulate why we were moving things at any time, nor were we instructed in any way other than our original simple instructions, yet we were able to carry out a complex process in a very short space of time with no fuss at all.
Our desire to see patterns in our actions, to make sense and in effect to tell a group story, was almost overwhelming.This event had a profound effect on me and the lessons from it informed a lot of what we did at the BBC and my views about the web more generally - namely:
We can tolerate a lot of apparent messiness and our ability and desire to make patterns allows us to get real value from it.
Dave Snowden was right when he said if you have a complex environment you need to have simple rules. Complex rules just result in a mess.
One mans rubbish is another man's gold dust.
We can work together on complex activities with minimal directions.