Radical route to creative thinking

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'WHEN word got round that I was starting a business course with a lecture on quantum physics, a few people thought I'd finally gone up the wall,' David Fulton confides.

But Mr Fulton, programme director for advanced management training at Shell, has no regrets about picking Danah Zohar, author of The Quantum Self and The Quantum Society, to start the course. He is to repeat the format next month, when another group of senior managers from Shell and IBM turn up for the 'Challenges for Change' programme.

'The idea is to get people thinking radically and innovatively, rethinking basic assumptions about competition and the way the world works. The lecture was an ideal entree,' said Mr Fulton, explaining his enthusiasm.

Ms Zohar takes managers on a speedy trek through how the new science - quantum physics, chaos and complexity theory - has replaced the old Newtonian view of the world. The new physics, she argues, provides a potent model for how organisations can thrive on paradox and uncertainty but bring bottom-line returns.

''For decades, management theory was totally gripped by scientific management theory,' says Ms Zohar. 'It was all about predicting with certainty and laying out five-year plans. Now, the five-year plan can be out of date before you've even got it off the photocopier.'

In November she founded Oxford Quantica with Ian Marshall, a psychiatrist, psychotherapist and co-author of the two books, to whom she is married. It offers a range of lectures, seminars and workshops to help companies apply such thinking to business. Marks & Spencer has booked, among others.

One of the company's first assignments was to help senior managers at the Swedish Forestry Commission take a fresh look at problems. Ms Zohar's sessions included ways of avoiding what management students know as dilemma paralysis. 'In the old management paradigm, there is a straight choice between A and B. But the dialogue approach to that is maybe there are elements of both that have some value that can lead to C. The idea is to get people together so that they can arrive at C through their collective intelligence, rather than arguing for either A or B'

She is also keen for managers to consider the 'what might be' of an organisation rather than the 'what is'. In management-speak it's called scenario planning, something for which Shell is renowned.

But Ms Zohar gives it a new twist. 'The new physics is all about multiple possibilities. Exploring different scenarios is a very quantum way of proceeding.'

So why should companies seek help from Oxford Quantica? 'Science takes big cultural currents and turns them into well-honed language and precise images and metaphors. If you see what's going on in science, you see, writ large, what's going on in the culture. It's about new realities coming into being all the time. It's about emergence not reduction.' Scepticism may abound, but repeat bookings from Shell and other companies should boost the number of managers ready to shake off old shackles.