‘All Progress Depends on the Unreasonable Man’: George Bernard Shaw’s Lessons on Change

George Bernard Shaw

Over the festive break I attended a very good production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (The Donmar Warehouse until 18 February). Shaw’s plays are rarely performed nowadays. They are considered rather wordy, worthy and long. And Shaw himself, with his extravagant beard, prolific pamphleteering and occasionally eccentric opinions, can come across to modern sensibilities as a curious figure.

However, this Donmar production gives us pause for thought. Shaw’s story of a fifteenth century French peasant woman who leads the fight to liberate her country, considers themes that chime with us today. With her wide-eyed patriotism and direct engagement with god, Joan rejects expertise and elites, authority and hierarchy. She’s a populist or demagogue, if you like. And, inevitably, her simple faith and unwavering self-belief present quite a threat to the established order. An English Nobleman sums up the problem thus:

’If this cant of serving their country once takes hold of them, goodbye to the authority of their feudal lords, and goodbye to the authority of the Church.’

This prompted me to wonder how we, in the commercial communications sector, should respond to the events that gripped the wider world in 2016. Should we, like Joan, commit to more direct embrace of the tasks in hand; to unmediated encounters with Clients and consumers; to bypassing the established methods and modes? Should we design our own positive take on populism?

Saint Joan’s vivid contemporary relevance derives from Shaw’s active engagement with the world around him. His was a ‘theatre of ideas’ that demanded audience attention. He had a restless mind, an opinion about everything and a commitment to political and social change.

‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

These words resonated with me because, I confess, I have always felt uncomfortable with conflict. I naturally tend towards compromise and consensus. So when ill feelings arise, I’m keen to build bridges, change the subject, leave the room. However, I have become increasingly aware that the moderate path bears modest fruit: change needs challenge; progress needs protest.

As we embark on a new year and consider our commercial resolutions, perhaps like Shaw we would do well to set aside our prudence. If we want to see transformational change in our business, we may need to stop making sense. We may need to be unreasonable.


‘Remould It Nearer To the Heart’s Desire’

In the Shaw Library at the London School of Economics you can see a stained glass window designed by George Bernard Shaw for the Fabian Society in 1910. Two men with hammers pound a globe that sits on an anvil.  At the top of the window are the words: ‘Remould it nearer to the heart’s desire.’

Over the years I interviewed a great many young Planners who were applying for positions in the Agency. As well as asking them about the advertising they worked on, the campaigns they admired, the brands that could do with some help, I would always invite them to consider the future of the industry: Where is the communications sector heading? How is Planning evolving? How can we remould our business ‘nearer to the heart’s desire’?

Some of the young candidates found discussion of such broad themes uncomfortable. They were daily employed in the execution of Agency and departmental strategies, not the setting of them. They didn’t have their hands on the corporate tiller, so how could they have an opinion on where the boat should sail?

I’m not sure I ever found this an acceptable excuse. We all find it easy to criticise and complain. But in the modern age we can only expect progress if we have a point of view on how to achieve it. With the new year upon us, whatever our place in the hierarchy, we should all ask ourselves: What would we do with a blank sheet of paper? How would we anticipate and enhance the evolving commercial landscape? How would we fashion the industry of the future?


‘What Do We Want? Gradual Change’

The Fabian Society, for whom Shaw designed his stained glass window, was a group of socialist intellectuals who believed in reform rather than revolution. Its commitment to gradualism and respect for the incumbent democratic processes may at first seem rather modest. It reminds me of the joke that circulated when I was at college about the Liberal Party on a protest march:

‘What do we want? Gradual change.
When do we want it? In due course.’

But delay can be decisive. The Fabian Society took its name from the Roman general Quintus Fabius who is often credited as the father of guerrilla warfare. His primary military tactic was the avoidance of direct confrontation with the enemy: he consistently delayed engaging Hannibal and his Carthaginian invasion force until the moment was right; and then he struck hard.

In the years since it was founded in 1884, the Fabian Society demonstrated that you can achieve a great deal through argument and influence; through patient pragmatism and change from within. The Fabians founded the London School of Economics in 1895 and they were a founding organisation of the Labour Party in 1900. Fabians were prominent in successive Labour Governments and Fabian thinking inspired much of the modern welfare state.

Perhaps the Fabian Society sets an example to the vast majority of people in the marketing and communications business that work within large, complex organisations. It often seems easier to imagine the industry of the future from scratch, rather than from existing structures. Being an enthusiast for change can be intimidating when you’re only a cog in the machine. 

The Fabians encouraged their members to ‘educate, agitate, organise.’ Everyone can contribute to change through debate and advocacy; through designing trials and tests; through setting an example. Transforming a large incumbent business takes time and patience, diplomacy and cunning. But the rewards for success can be thrilling.

Happy new year!

No. 112