Sandpit Psychology - page 1 of 3

An article on "sandpits" (residential interactive workshops), written by organisational psychologist Bharat Maldé.

My own association began some six years or so ago when EPSRC were looking for novel ways to get UK scientists to innovate and came up with the concept of the IDEAS Factory Sandpit (PDF 3MB). I had been working a good many years then with the EPSRC Assessment Centre as an independent Organisational Psychologist and when EPSRC had turned to me when a test-drive of their prototype Sandpit had yielded very mixed results.

I took a broad sweep across such things as the Apollo Team, tribal behaviour, creative teams and the history of scientific genius. I then reflected on my own work at the interface of humans with humans, and that of humans with their work and living environment. As I reported back, it was clear that the Sandpit was a very different concept from whatever had preceded it.

The purpose of the IDEAS Factory Sandpit was to inject innovation into contemporary science via a new platform to enable participants to transcend single disciplines, mindsets and institutions in order to produce ground-breaking proposals with the help of blue sky thinking. The time-limited residential setting away from home and work would require individuals to be thrown in at the deep end, to thrive in a company of strangers and start to fire from the word go without much chance of a warm-up or close hand-holding.

We arrived at a blueprint. The ideal would be a small collective of twenty or so individuals who enjoyed creative problem-solving in the company of others rather than on their own and who would devote themselves to the Sandpit activity without being precious about their own ideas, expertise or themselves.

Cerebrally, they would be tuned into the dynamics of breaking down a problem and subjecting it to any number of pulls and pushes to see what emerged and then to re-assemble the resulting ideas into the most exciting, ground-breaking avenues.

Here was a wonderful opportunity - but only for those who were up for it - to engage in creative, intellectual play with 'Socratic dialogue' taken to new heights, with the critical supplanted with the creative and the independent with the collective. They would be bright individuals, fluid in their thinking, able to switch gears from the free wheeling in the early stages of problem exploration to the shaping and closing of the end-game, or to go inside-out or outside-in as the different stages of their intellectual quest unfolded.

Personally and inter-personally, they would be inspirational, unselfish individuals with the facility to enthuse others as well as be enthused themselves, to hold their own without being 'loud' or pushy, keen and curious but in control of their senses or their 'worst urges' (!) and blessed with the freedom to engage with intellectual play without fear of failure or embarrassment.

They would also be willing to participate in - even to enjoy - the constructive distraction of 'fun' side-activity carefully selected to stimulate the creative side to their being. A bit like Wise Owl being pulled away to play Tigger from time to time! Whether senior or junior, they would have the facility to operate as equals in a necessarily egalitarian arena. They would be self-managing and blessed with a positive outlook.

The Sandpit is now a living reality and several conditions now govern the success of the model. 'Sandpit Psychology' is an evolving wisdom that we keep under constant refinement with each Sandpit followed up with a feedback session with the lead EPSRC Portfolio Manager for the sandpit, as well as regular email and telephone exchanges with Paula Bailey currently leading on EPSRC's Transformative Research Strategy that includes the Sandpit concept.

It is fascinating how much of the pen-picture sketched out all those many years ago continues still to stand up as a robust blueprint and we keep being surprised and punished whenever we deviate from it.