3i Power: imagination, identity and interaction

Abstract Composition with Head and Sailing, 1950 (oil on hardboard)

Abstract Composition with Head and Sailing, 1950, Morris, Elizabeth / UCL Art Museum, UK / Bridgeman Images

What is the role of imagination in power? For example, how might the workings of my imagination affect the way that I will behave at a difficult meeting next week in what I say and do?

In addition, if we are talking about imagination what of our identity that fashions our imagination. Take this one-step further, if our imagination affects how we act with other people how will they react with their actions, and the pattern of interactions thereafter.

These were the ideas that I became intrigued with at a workshop I went to last week hosted by Alison Donaldson and John Higgins called ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ (or as I would prefer to call it Speaking one’s truth within power relations). I am not going to discuss the detail of our conversations but I will outline how it made me reflect on my experiences and encouraged me to think how I would react in the future.

Eleven of us met in Brighton, all occupying different aspects of life in university, heads of department, lecturers, professors, some at the fringe. Given our topic it was interesting that we felt that we could not meet at a university, that seemed a step to far (possibly the subject for another blog – the role of location in trust and power).

I became intrigued when one participant explained how they envisaged a meeting that was going to be difficult might turn out. I related to this in a visceral way with a very real situation that I am dealing with now. I spoke of how I was imagining in what way a new working relationship might develop over the next few months. For example, where we might meet, what we might agree to do, how the previous history of what I knew of individual might affect how we might get on.

Conversations like these can only occur in relation to who we are; in other words our identity.  But our identity can be deeply hidden, particularly to ourselves, becoming more noticeable and formative when we come into contact with others and of difference, in this sense the self is social.

The vivid story of another participant made me think of what we reveal to others particularly if we have met them for the first time and they are different from us in some significant way. What we reveal provides an insight as to who we are and what we are not. For example, I have been an academic for about five years now. How I introduce myself to people depends on who they are and how I think they might react to me. I remember the shock some years ago when a former senior director I worked with described me as having ‘become an academic’, this was not a compliment.   The issue of identity is important when it comes to how our internal imagined conversations are mediated. Sometimes this only becomes clear to us though others. The imagination and identity are bound.

This brings me to interaction. These imagined conversations have impact. As we start our conversation, our imagination finds its voice and our words create a reaction. This can for example affirm our thoughts, or we can be discombobulated by a mismatch of expectation and experience. But of course the people we are speaking with have also had thoughts and imagined conversations and will similarly have surprising or affirming reactions.  Our interactions have the potential to create something surprising and novel, developing into new patterns of relationships.

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Practice Based Learning in a Digital (or Dental?) Age

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngA few days ago I wrote a blog of some ideas of a new project I was beginning with James Traeger. Here are some initial thoughts from James in response. 

The day after Rob Warwick and I went to Pagham Harbour, where we stood on the spit of pebbles that felt like it was miles out to sea, and commissioned our new project around Practice Based Learning, I went to see my dental hygienist for my regular six monthly check up. Or at least I thought it was my hygienist, but it turned out that my usual one was ill, and a stand-in had been found who could see me at the last minute.

Now, I don’t know anything about how to be a dental hygienist, except of course from the point of view that I have been on the receiving end of a fair few of them over the years (which may of course be germane here, as you will see). I duly submitted myself to having someone I’d never met before, whose face was obscured by a mask, dig around in my mouth for half an hour or so. I have had the same hygienist for a few years now and I suppose I had grown used to her touch. I hadn’t in fact realised this until the new person started to do her work. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say she was faster and rougher. As I lay there, staring at the ceiling, I wondered whether it was my place at all to say anything. (Not that this would be easy). It occurred to me that it might be useful to her if I gave her some of my advice. But who am I to do so? The job was done efficiently enough. She didn’t do any lasting harm and my teeth feel as cleaned as ever. But it got me thinking again about practice, learning and the readiness we have to accept the craft of the expert. As someone on the receiving end, literally, of their craft, what right did I have to give feedback?

Brining this back to my own practice, it suggests to me that essentially I could learn from at least three constituencies:

  • People who have deep experience of my practice world (i.e.the ‘experts’)
  • People who are on the receiving end of my craft (the ‘clients’)
  • People who take an interest from a relatively dispassionate position (peers, for example, but also anyone who may be interested enough to be looking or sharing an interest in my world of practice)

I am not someone who advocates the post-Trumpian end of expertise. There will always be technical knowledge that is best taught (or at least caught) by pupils, from adepts. But when it comes to refining one’s craft, how far does the inexpert have a useful view? This and other related questions bubbled around me as I considered our conversation about practice based learning.

It also struck me that, in the digital age, the proliferation of data and web-based knowledge means it becomes much easier to access stuff that could be useful to enhance learning about our ‘craft’, whatever that might be. The latter group of the three I mention above is particularly enabled by a digital capacity. I can now both passively (through my own surfing) or actively (through networking and connecting) access the views of an extraordinary community of practice, beyond anything that could have be dreamt of at a time when the pioneers of action learning or self-managed learning, such as Reg Revans or Ian Cunningham, were developing their thinking.

A quick google proves my point:

https://microcopydental.com/blog/entry/10-great-blogs-and-bloggers-for-dental-hygienists

So as we embark upon this new inquiry into the future of practice based learning, I am inspired by my slightly heavy-handed, be-masked friend standing over me as I lay back in the chair, saying ‘agh!’

SML v2.0 – practice based learning

20180605_133520Ideas are bubbling up for a new research project. And one keeps coming back to me and it is this: what might Self-Managed Learning (SML) look like in the 21st Century? This begs two initial questions: 1) what is self-managed learning (SML); 2) what is so special about the 21st century. In summary SML was developed by Ian Cunningham (Cunningham, 1999) whereby participants had greater control over defining what their learning goals were to be and how they would go about demonstrating their learning.  This was in contrast with most programmes with fixed learning outcomes, exams and other ways to demonstrate knowledge.  Here SML challenges participants to think carefully as to what they want to achieve and why. As for the 21st century, we are clearly living in a faster paced world that is less stable with daunting existential threats such as climate change.

In bringing these two together questions and ideas swirl in my mind, some of which will survive time and scrutiny, others will not. To give myself a chance I am looking at postgraduate study in the fields of leadership and the development of organisations. To emphasise, I am making a clear link between the individual and their social working melee, both are a part of each other.

The first question I come to is: what counts for knowledge for learning and organisations now? This question is too big; perhaps better described by what it is not, or rather how things are shifting. In organisations there was the ‘go to’ expert, often senior with longstanding. Similarly in academia there is the peer reviewed journal for example, expert authors with expert reviewers behind the scenes. But how are we to make sense of fast moving fleeting knowledge that relates to one context but less so of another, yet avoiding the trap of ‘fake’ in its often contested nature. And having understood what is around us how do we build on this with others and communicate something useful. Similarly how we understand and contribute to other’s knowledge work. In this sense critical thinking becomes less of the individual and more social.

In this situation what might be the role of developers and universities be? This particularly important if we are seen less for our expertise? In addition, how might this be recognised in a qualification programme such as a Post Graduate Certificate? How do we explicably recognise the three-way role of the participant, the organisation and university or developer more explicitly given the slipperiness of understanding and knowledge? Perhaps what I am really interested in is Socially Mediated Learning?

Hot from the publication of our book, Organisation Development: A Bold Explorer’s Guide, this is a project that I’ll be working on with James Traeger. This week we met to make a start with a walk on the deserted winding beach at Pagham, a small harbour village on the south coast of the UK. Here we began the process of shaping what defines and interests us about the topic. I have laid out my initial thoughts and these will change and grow in the conversations we will have, as James’s views will do likewise. In fact, to catch the shift in thinking we are starting to talk about this as practice based learning. And very soon we will be having conversations with others. In short, to start the process of socially mediated learning.

Cunningham, I. (1999). The wisdom of strategic learning: The self managed learning solution. Oxford: Gower Publishing Ltd.

Organisation development: a bold explorer’s guide

Capture ddThis month sees the publication of the book that James Traeger and I have been working on over the last year or so. It has been a project where we have been keen to put the art of everyday interaction at the centre of organisation development (OD). We wanted to write a book that gave confidence to people who might ask themselves the question: ‘is it just me, but …’; particularly for those puzzled by the messiness, politics and sheer difficulty in getting anything done when set against the simplicity and step-by-step instructions implied in many other OD books and articles.

Think for a moment when we meet a senior director informally, moments later an idea can take shape with new avenues to be explored. On the other hand, another idea is quashed. What are our responsibilities to the organisation and its people in these moment-by-moment interactions? And how do we know? In this way OD is not a series of set piece of events, it is a continual process of everyday interaction. Some of these are high profile and carefully planned, others not. So, how do we pay attention and talk about OD in a different way? We have chosen to put the curious OD practitioner at the heart of their own development. We use narratives and fiction a reflexive prompts between our worlds and yours. Finally, we draw on some theory of process and interaction to draw some wider themes together.

If you are interested in buying a copy, use the Discount Code JW18 to obtain a 20% discount when bought online from our publishers – here is the link.

Everyday ethics of relationships

The Constructors, 1950

Picture: BAL21431: The Constructors, 1950, Leger, Fernand (1881-1955) / Musee Leger, Biot, France / Bridgeman Images

Here is a different way of thinking about business ethics, one that focuses on relationships and how these change. In other words, those small decisions and actions that we take daily that over the course of time come to affect us and those that we work with. Sometimes the results have positive ethical effects, but sometimes not. Let us take two quite different examples, one a growing loss of voice, the other being caught by surprise by an important person.

You start working with an established team and it is clear to you that something is not right.  Members of the team sees the world in very similar ways. And when faced with bad news they back each other up to establish a more comforting view of reality. They disregard your views that there is a problem and back each other up with greater energy. Later you try to take a halfway position on another issue using language which they relate to and toning down the message. This gets a better reaction but is still rejected. You accommodate further and in doing so you find acceptance. You feel you’re having an impact with nods around the table but limited future commitment. Months later you reflect: what has changed? In fact, nothing has, apart from you.

You are supporting a senior director on a major change programme and over a short period of time you have built a relationship. She tells you her current thoughts over a quick coffee. She sketches out some ideas on a paper napkin, including a hastily drawn organisational structure. The implications of this short conversation may come to affect hundreds of people for years to come, the majority of which you will never know. Caught by surprise what do you say? How hard do you push, particularly if you believe the wrong course has been chosen? Sometimes these interactions can be rapid and decisions taken in the space of a couple of minutes – both by what is said, and not said. What time do we have to reflect and consider the implications?

What links both examples is the way that we can be drawn in and become changed. Here we see the effect of power relations of a group and flattery of an important person, but there are many others. We think it is helpful to draw attention to those small ethical dilemmas of relationships that often develop. To us this is just as important as those ‘big’ ethical and corporate responsibility questions that people in organisations face. They are important because they are so ordinary and yet often unnoticed.

April will see the publication of the book I have been writing with James Traeger called Organisation Development: A Bold Explorer’s Guide (published by Libri books) in which these and other ideas are explored.

Two takes on Organisation Development

Ray Guns, 2007 (oil on linen)

Jabob,D (2007) Ray Guns. Available at www.bridgemaneducation.com

James Traeger and I have been writing a book called Organisation Development: a Bold Explorer’s Guide and in a few months it will be published. We play with the idea of science fiction and how this might help us to understand organisations. Here are a couple of takes.

Take 1 ‘science’ and ‘fiction’ – science envy

Increasingly we have fallen under the spell of ‘science’; a hypothesis sits tightly wrapped in a specification or ‘Invitation to tender’ only to unfold months later to judge the success or failure of the learning.  In such a world there is little room for lucky learning and chance encounters that lead to sparkling conversations and new possibilities. Thanks to the likes of Burke Litwin and their models, PowerPoint slides now confidently show the causal links between ‘leadership’ and ‘Individual needs and values’, stopping briefly at ‘systems and values’. Here theory provides confidence that there is little to worry about, all we need is the application of scientific methods. This is a fiction; we know this to be untrue. However, we rarely speak of flair, art or knack of the experienced practitioner or others learning their craft. Working with people is anything but scientific. So why do we hold onto these ideas? The experienced practitioner uses them with a light touch, for example to communicate subtle issues to an anxious client. The practitioner new to OD clings onto these ideas like a child to a comfort blanket.

Take 2 ‘science fiction’ – enabling imagination

Suppose now we take ideas of OD as an art seriously. Here we can address full on different ways of knowing that pays attention to our experience of working in the moment, of making the best choices as confusing events unfold. This might include different ways of thinking about ethics, what does ‘right’ look like given the many people who might be affected by what we do. We might also need to think about who holds power and what our responsibilities are to those with a marginal voice. Also, we can think differently about how we describe progress, both planned and what has emerged through chance connections. How might we talk about OD in this way? One way is to talk about everyday experiences and examples. But what if we wanted to free ourselves of the context and limitations of the present? This is where science fiction comes in again. What if we were to use the future as a way to explore the now? How might this free up our imagination to make connections between people and ideas that we had not thought of before? Here science fiction enables of our social imagination as we share ideas and possibilities.

These different worlds are fascinating, not as discreet islands, but as they mingle together to shape the reflexive practitioner.

 

Through the eyes of Imogen and Jas: what the future says about today

DL9LaBcWsAEjD-MTo be frank it was a mix of intrigue and scepticism that struck me when James first suggested science fiction. James Traeger and I have just finished the first cut of our book on organisation development.  It is aimed at the curious organisation development (OD) practitioner who asks themselves ‘is it me, or has the world gone insane’, particularly in their everyday work with people and organisations. It is a hopeful book, but not one with false promises. We give voice to the skillful muddling through that is much of our work, and in doing so we mostly achieve some positive effect but perhaps not exactly the one that we had envisaged. It is a response to a rhetoric of ‘we can get there only if we had the right model’ driven by what I see as OD’s science envy.

Back to science fiction. Last week we held the first event to talk about the book with fifty of us gathered in a large room overlooking London’s Hatton Garden. We set the scene in 2048 introducing two characters, Jas Porter, an aged OD practitioner who could remember the turn of the millennium, and a younger Imogen Sharp a person who was ‘more than human’. Despite widely recognised success both of them were curious and unsettled about their place in society, in organisations and indeed who they had become. And how these questions affected their practice and ideas of OD.

With flip charts dotted around the room displaying chapter headings of the book such as ‘how change happens’, ‘ethics and politics’, ‘the craft of OD’ conversations began. From quiet huddles to lively hubbubs discussions quickly gathered pace. Free from explaining the ‘realities’ of the here and now the future enabled our imagination to roam. And then having ventured far and wide to ask those questions: what will our world of work be like; how will be go about organising; what will it be like for us as individuals? A colleague of mine reminded me of Fredric Jameson’s (Jameson, 2005) observation that science fiction is always about the present, pointing out that: ‘… even our wildest imaginings are the collages of experience, constructs made up of bits and pieces of the here and now’ (pxiii). Having worked on the book with James and experienced the energy in the room I’m now convinced, science fiction is a great enabler of imagination both in our own minds whilst quietly reading a book but also in working with groups to get a collective sense of new possibilities.

Jameson, F. (2005). Archaeologies of the future : the desire called utopia and other science fictions. London and New York: Verso.