Sandpit Psychology - page 3 of 3

Third page of an article on "sandpits" (residential interactive workshops), written by organisational psychologist Bharat Maldé.

There are important side-players crucial to the success of the Sandpit. These are Mentors (intellectual specialists in an important aspect of the topic who are also there to foster a discussion and debate), the Director (who has an over-arching role to oversee the process along with EPSRC, safeguard the guiding principles and arrive at the target outcomes) and the Stakeholders (individuals who operate at the practical end of the Sandpit topic, there to provide a reality check; eg, someone from the Meteorological Office on a Weather-related Sandpit topic). These individuals are primarily picked for their specialism but it has also become important to ensure that they are able to tune into the spirit of the Sandpit and to appreciate and remain within their roles. As an example of a detractor, if a Stakeholder came with an 'it will never work' mantra then this would suppress the rich generation of ideas and cast a damper on the proceedings.

Every effort is also made to ensure the widest possible diversity across gender, culture, life and professional experience. This is not just because the IDEAS Factory Sandpit fosters egalitarian principles but because a diverse participation boosts the richness of thinking around a topic. Sandpits inadvertently can suffer from a low female participation. I try and encourage each selection panel to achieve a maximum possible male-female balance based on the applications in front of them: women add a rich dimension to the creative range sought, which gets stifled in a male-dominated setting. Cultural diversity is likewise essential. Even when there is the odd anomaly of certain cultures prone to huddle or 'lie low' when the Sandpit activity demands a more up-front and active participation. We do our best to overlook any application weaknesses that might stem from cultural or language difficulties but to try and manage any cultural differences that might arise through the route of facilitation. Early career participants tend to do well at Sandpits: they bring a freshness all of their own and are free from any burden to have to uphold image or name.

After the initial important scene-set at the Sandpit of 'why are we here and who are we', a buzz soon sets in and even an infectious feel-good may build up, as if out of nowhere! No wonder there is now a growing army of serial Sandpitters as more and more participants, even those who appear to struggle at first, develop the Sandpit bug and start applying for every Sandpit on offer! In keeping with any success story, this one has its detractors too and this may be something to do with anything that might rock the old order of science-funding and the type of science that should be supported and rewarded and how. The success story, however, shouts far more loudly. The IDEAS Factory Sandpit has emerged as a shining EPSRC innovation invention, copied far and wide across continents, funding agencies and multinational corporations. Some imitators have come up with sensible adaptations while others use the label Sandpit or IDEAS Factory as a mere marketing ploy. Its success has even been acknowledged by policy-makers at the highest level. As I was gently falling asleep listening to the live proceedings of the Tory Party Conference early on in October 2010, what would wake me up with a jolt? Hearing no less than the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer say: 'Let us make Britain the IDEAS Factory of the World!'. I would like to think this was not mere party speak but a proper recognition of the IDEAS Factory's powerful potential for innovation and enterprise.

I recommend the Sandpit experience - but only to the blessed - as a must-do for those wishing to pursue excellence and serious intellectual quest in a spirit of fun and bonhomie. At the very least, it should beat a pub quiz, train-spotting or trivial pursuits.