Compliance and creativity

| March 18, 2021

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will.” – George Bernard Shaw

Traditional ‘first track’ processes in government and public administration encourage compliance with existing norms. By defending, rather than challenging, the status quo, they tend to perpetuate existing policies and procedures regardless of their real-world outcomes.

Effective policy formation demands a more agile response to long-standing ‘wicked’ problems and fast-emerging challenges, and complementary approaches, such as the Second Track, offer a safe space for talented, experienced and diverse experts to explore fresh solutions in a timely and cost-efficient way.


The traditional model of public administration developed in Britain and Germany relies on political and administrative segregation, stable hierarchies and top-down control.

As articulated by Max Weber, these principles allowed government to become a driving force of economic and social progress for much of the 20th century. However, a sense of stagnation in the late 1970s provoked a wave of privatisation and acceptance of new forms of public management, which again need refreshing.

Just as large firms and whole industries have been swept away by technology-focused start-ups or foreign competition in the last 20 years, so public departments risk becoming irrelevant if they continue to apply old methods to solve new or intractable problems.

Merely privatising or decentralising these problems will not dispel them, but the large size and rigid structures of traditional public departments remain too cumbersome in today’s era of instant communication and our knowledge, rather than production, based economy.

Better ways of optimising human resources must be found, and the Second Track builds on findings from social science and neurobiology to improve the way individuals interact in groups to generate and implement imaginative and effective solutions.

Government and politicians routinely call on individuals, organisations, and society to reform in the face of change without examining or reforming their own practices, and a collective, if unspoken, fear of personal failure underlies the reluctance of people in large organisations to think differently and move quickly.

Organisations exist to do what they have always done, the status quo is easier to defend than reform, and nobody is fired for agreeing with their superiors or following long-established practice, however ineffective it may be.

Several famous studies have explored a range of issues related to compliance, conformity and obedience. The Asch Conformity Experiments showed that most individuals will bow to group pressure and accept a clearly wrong answer to a problem rather than dissent, while the Milgram Obedience Experiment revealed the willingness of individuals to set aside morality to obey authority. The Stanford Prison Experiment showed how quickly and completely individuals will conform to expected group roles.

Imaging of brain functions suggests that behavioural change in such situations results from unconscious modifications of low-level perceptual processes, rather than an ‘executive’ decision to conform. However, even if people consciously align their actions to prioritise group membership over ethics, reason or reality, the phenomena of human groupthink may be so ingrained that it should be leveraged, rather than ignored.

Broadening the ‘in-group’ and adopting the simple principles of the Second Track in a meeting can make creativity and cooperation, rather than compliance, the group norm to aspire to instead.


Behavioural studies which invite subjects to suggest alternative uses for everyday objects tend to highlight our lack of creativity in our everyday lives. We are creatures of habit, minimising risk and effort by mimicking others or repeating experience rather than thinking for ourselves when faced with new situations.

Observations of human psychology and experiments in neuroscience demonstrate the considerable cognitive effort required to overcome prior knowledge and current distractions to generate fresh and effective solutions.

Creativity requires both imagination and practicality, and is therefore the product of previous memories, original thought and mental control. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows the same region of the brain – the seahorse shaped hippocampus – allows us to both reconstruct the past and imagine the future, and therefore generate creative solutions.

However, new ideas must be effective as well as original to be of value, and while relaxing our conscious filters allows our hippocampus and the brain’s ‘default network’ of medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex and angular gyrus to daydream and generate new thoughts, we must also use our brains to evaluate their real-world utility before embarking on a course of action.

Results from cognitive neuroscience reveals this is undertaken by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and other regions of conscious cognitive control. Further studies suggest that truly creative people in all walks of life can combine these two key elements of the creative thought process – idea generation and idea evaluation – at the same time like a great jazz musician improvising a fresh but coherent tune.

Second Track groups may therefore prove more effective than traditional meetings because they encourage both the creation and evaluation of a series of ideas in the ‘group brain’ at the same time, rather than emphasising orthodoxy and unquestioning acceptance.

Not every expert in their field is able to simultaneously combine the required elements of creativity and control in their own brains, but the ‘gestalt’ can undertake these functions, with individuals accorded equal status in the meeting free to express ideas and opinions at will.

Creating, exploring and evaluating a series of ideas in a free-flowing discussion allows a consensus to emerge around the most promising avenues based on its intrinsic value rather than historic precedent or organisational origin.

Diverse individuals in second track groups can produce fresh but practical ideas on given issues based on evidence and experience, rather than faith, tradition or vested interest. These ideas would not have been produced by the individuals alone, or through first track approaches, and can prove immensely valuable to participants, interested organisations and society.

Encouraging a creative, rather than compliant mindset, requires more than mere exhortation. Global Access Partners’ Second Track process offers a tried and tested method to generate and test new ideas, improving understanding across diverse participants and securing lasting change.

This article was co-written by Olga Bodrova, the Director of Research at Global Access Partners.