If you were asked to help soldiers detect roadside bombs, where would you start?
I’m guessing it wouldn’t be Hollywood.
This was my exact dilemma in the mid-2000s, when the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) asked me to do just that. At the time, roadside bombs were a prime cause of casualties for US Army soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Something had to be done. So, I used an approach I’d learned from my former boss, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin: I organized a series of “mixed tables.”
Complex Challenges Demand Holistic Thinking
Whether our challenges are as enormous as saving lives or as small as figuring out how to squeeze in grocery shopping for the week, we can’t find solutions without tools and a process in place. My process is a mixed table.
We live in a hyper-specialized society, where we’re encouraged to have a laser focus in our individual area of expertise rather than study broadly. In many ways, that’s fantastic. Think of medicine. Never before have we had such advanced healthcare, in part because we’re able to focus so much time, effort, and money in each specific field.
However, such specialization distorts perception. When someone specializes in a field, their perspective narrows. It’s like how sociologists are more likely to use environment and culture to explain people’s behaviors, whereas psychologists are more likely to say people are born with certain traits. Neither approach is entirely correct, and each could benefit from an insurgence of the kind of holistic thinking our education system doesn’t encourage.
As I explain in my new book, The Renaissance Campaign, for centuries, scholars studied broadly, often acting as beacons of knowledge for their communities. We’ve advanced our education system, but have we updated our problem-solving methods? People who now possess great expertise in specific areas but a limited breadth of experience frequently grapple with complex challenges they are only partially suited to tackle. To compensate for our lack of breadth of knowledge, we need holistic thinking. That’s where mixed tables come in.
Mixed tables are a collaboration between people who wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity to convene in a meaningful way. These include subject matter experts in different fields, creatives, and thought leaders. Mixed tables embrace a diversity of thought so participants can navigate challenging waters in a different and more effective way.
While the term and specific methodology is new, the concept has built our history’s cities. In 15th-century Italy, the famed Medici family consulted painters, architects, stonemasons, financial experts, poets, and playwrights to create a new and compelling vision for the city of Florence that many historians credit for ushering in the Renaissance. Mixed tables are a tool for simulating this kind of diversity of thought and can lead to mini-Renaissance moments within our own lives today.
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While working at the Department of Defense, I traveled across the country, organizing mixed-table dinners to generate solutions to a number of policy issues. The diversity of these meetings was fascinating: a local pollster sitting next to a retired army general; a college professor beside the CEO of a defense company. Among the broad-reaching solutions generated was a shift that led to veterans being treated with respect across the political spectrum.
How to Create a Mixed Table
The first step is to identify your specific question. What are you trying to figure out? What is your ideal outcome? What is your challenge? What are all of the questions surrounding that challenge? This is a vital step because you will use these questions to determine the people you should invite to the mixed table.
The second step is to bring together those smart, insightful people. A mixed table might combine individuals from academia, industry, engineering, and the creative and performing arts. Many of the mixed tables I’ve been involved with have included Hollywood filmmakers and scriptwriters, though they don’t have to. Professional creatives, accustomed to breaking through parameters we don’t even realize we’ve placed on our imaginations, can be incredibly resourceful and quick-thinking.
Consider the process a bit like a series of dinner meetings for three consecutive evenings. After a meal and conversation, have a key participant present a mini TED Talk to introduce the evening’s problem. Split attendees into three smaller groups of approximately eight people and have each group deal with a different aspect of the overall problem. Assign individual group leaders to guide the discussion and ensure everyone participates.
What happens in the room stays in the room. This creates trust. Beyond obvious confidentiality, people might consider their thoughts too outlandish to voice if they fear judgment.
The first night, present and discuss the problem. The second night, consider discussing a parallel problem. The third night, after ideas and thoughts have taken shape and solutions are in sight, adjust your questions accordingly. If your groups create an actionable goal, develop milestones to achieve it.
By tapping into disparate pockets of information and bringing them together, we can find connections that lead to breakthrough solutions we might never have otherwise considered. It wasn’t an army general who figured out how best to protect our soldiers from roadside bombs, though they were invaluable in the overall process and discussion. It was a filmmaker. Accustomed to looking for the best shot and camera angles, he was able to pinpoint how foreign enemies were placing roadside bombs in locations ideal for great camera angles so they could capture the footage and use it for propaganda. It was a brilliant stroke of insight we might not have had without the filmmaker’s unique perspective.
The answer isn’t to forgo specialization. It’s to recognize you’re a prisoner of your own perspective. Embrace your expertise as you listen to others.
When executed well, mixed tables have the power to shape society, bring about massive shifts in human history, and determine the fates of peoples and nations. They have the power to create a Renaissance.
John Rogers is an entrepreneur and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. He currently serves as the chair of the National Brain Aneurysm Foundation and is a board member and former interim CEO of MV Transportation. He is also the founder of several successful businesses, including RL Leaders, which tackles vexing challenges facing organizations, and Capstone National Partners, a bipartisan lobbying team.