Chessboard thinking? Web thinking? A ‘both/and’ question in navigating the world of relationships.

One of my interesting Christmas holiday reads this year was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ‘The Chessboard and the Web’; part thesis, part memoir (it is peppered with references to her academic career, and to her time as director of policy planning at the US State Department), it prompted me to think about how we can teach (or, rather, enable learning) about the ‘strategies of connection in a networked world’ on which she describes. Society, Slaughter writes, “can be mapped as an overlapping set of human networks, some of which are more densely connected than others” (p.43); talking about geopolitics (which is the main focus of her book), she talks about the benefit of learning about networks: “Students steeped in networks will see policy and politics differently. They will appreciate how objects and people are changed by connection… They will see resources where a chess player sees only weakness; they will understand leadership as empowerment, structures as information flows” (pp230-231).

This is the kind of learning from which we would all benefit, it strikes me, because it opens up a world of possibility in our relationships – from the personal to the professional – and in our understanding of how to navigate the world in which we all live. It challenges us to think with more sophistication and nuance about how we interact with others, and how others interact with yet more others. The author does not reject the more traditional approach to relationships that is more akin to the game of chess – ‘I move, then you move, then I move in response to your move’ – but she points out how the world is increasingly (and successfully) marked by the power of the network, from the distributed nodes of the internet to the many-headed, Hydra-like, cells of terrorist organisations. She takes this further, beyond observation and analysis, to a proactive approach to network leadership, looking in turn at the skills she can see are needed for more nuanced – and more effective – leadership in a world where the network is increasingly our modus operandi, and she describes these as her 5 C’s – “clarification, curation, connection, cultivation and catalysis” (pp185-186). All of these words resonate strongly with me and my lived understanding of the personal and professional world; for those of you who know me well, you will chuckle at the last word of the 5, because I am proud to describe myself as a catalyst.

Anyway, how to teach these 5 C’s effectively? Without wishing to sit and invent an entirely new curriculum for schools – which would in any case be an example of the very ‘chessboard-thinking’ which dominates our educational policy-making – I venture here to suggest a simple formula which might help not only those in schools and other educational institutions, but also everyone else … we are all, after all, lifelong learners, and much of our joy as human beings, I am convinced, can come from our unceasing learning. Here is my first stab at a formula:

Awareness of concepts and ideas sparks greater clarity of thinking; articulation of this thinking is important to be able to open up the concepts to others and to sharpen up our awareness. Greater awareness leads to greater boldness in experimentation, in trying out the 5 C’s and testing how they work, but without the challenge offered by others and our own critical thinking, we run the risk of fossilising our thinking and seeking to squeeze the web on to the chessboard. Constant challenge, constant experimentation, constant articulation and constant awareness … think what we might achieve if we generated this kind of energetic thought! I am certain that the formula does not have to be in the clockwise round, as is depicted here, but could be depicted rather as spokes of a moving and living wheel, where each part is connected to every other part in an organic fashion, shifting and changing as we grow and develop our thinking. The stronger the connection, the smoother the flow of understanding, after all.

So … some brief holiday musings, which merit much more unpicking and exploration. What I love about reading about the thoughts of others is that once read, they cannot be unread; once planted, they are sown. Now we just need to tend them and help them to grow.

Happy New Year!

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