Artful ways – practice-based learning.


There has to be another way for us to talk about organisational change and development.

Tight knit arguments and focused data sit under the influent of the scientific method. This has led to all manor of good things (and a few problems), but it is not the whole story. In fact it suppresses other ways of knowing, particularly when it comes to being creative and artful.

In our latest project James Traeger and I have returned to the traditions of smudgy ink and thin paper of the pamphlet. At its heart is a reminder that we are people and change happens through relationships, in all their forms. Here we make the case that development comes from getting close the grain. By this we mean that we can find rich learning in the fine detail of our day to day work and the relationships that sustain or diminish our efforts.

To read our smudgy pamphlet here it is: Artful Ways Pamphlet

Academic publishing – peer review and rejection

To my friends in the business and management academic community, a few of us have become fascinated by the peer review process and rejection in publishing and research, particularly when it comes to motivation. In many conversations it quickly becomes clear that this is a taboo subject and one that people feel very strongly about. Like all taboos, we feel that this is a stone that needs to be turned over. We would be very much like to hear your experience. Here is a link to our questionnaire. Please feel free to pass this onto others who might be interested. We will post our research finding later.


Obvious, it’s obvious really


A few ago Douglas Board, a friend and writing partner or mine, and I ran a Zoom workshop for organisation development professionals. The topic being:

Working with changes in the obvious: why do meritocracies produce glass ceilings

The aim of our session was to ask the question, why is the obvious not obvious to us and what might the consequences be – in this case unintentional effects of creating better and fairer places that sadly can result in the opposite. At least they can do without careful attention to the unintended, and how difficult this can be. For an exploration of some of the ideas we explored at the workshop click here.

However, in this blog posting I want to make some broader observations notably that the obvious is anything but! In a reflective conversation with Douglas after the session we focus on this and the experience of running a workshop for thirty people on Zoom, click here.

At the University of Chichester, I run an MBA for experienced managers as well as an MA in Leadership and Management. I know lots of things about the subject. There was a striking moment in my early thirties when I was presenting a strategy to a group of directors.  In an hour my paradigm that management was all about rational clear-headed argument and evidence was turned on its head. I had realised the importance of power, anxiety, conflict, influence and politics during the course of a very mundane side conversation about catering arrangements for the meeting – what were they doing and why? I can look back to see that this helped spark my long-held interest in management and leadership.

When I work with participants on our programmes a part of my work is knowledge sharing, but this is second order, it is not where I believe that I add the most amount of value. After all, when it comes to knowledge in management there are no ‘proofs’ like you will find in mathematics but ideas, fads and rules of thumbs that tend to work backed up with empirical studies, philosophy, sociology or psychology.

Instead I shake people up so they perceive their ‘obvious’ in new ways: they see it, feel it, hear it etc in a way that they can make sense of and act. And from that action further noticing of the obvious occurs and the ripples continue. I could be running a workshop on decision making and strategy, facilitating an action learning set or having a one-to one coaching conversation – they all shake up the obvious, albeit in different ways.

Perhaps those conversations with Douglas, writing this blog, reflecting on my own work has made obvious to me that little bit more is obvious. And so our work goes on.

Picture credit: Multi Color Abstract 2, 2018 (photo) / © Susan Vizvary / Bridgeman Images

Purpose and ethics of organisation development: moral practice of the moment


James Traeger and I have been working with ODN Europe to ask some fundamental questions about the future of organisational development. Here is our letter on where we see the future and ethics brought into sharp relief by the ongoing pandemic. 

It is April 2020 and Covid-19 is ripping its way through the populations of the world. Both of us work in organisation and people development and are struck by the moral gravity of recent conversations. We have listened to people talking of their role in making mass redundancies of garment machinists in developing countries; laying off highly skilled people in the European pharmaceutical industry according to the rules dictated by American owners and the dilemmas of senior leaders weighing up the optics of releasing prisoners early into society. These are conversations unthinkable only weeks ago. Yet this is not the whole story. In nine days London has a new 4,000 bed hospital – one of the largest in the world.  People have organised with their neighbours to support the old and vulnerable and there are companies that have turned their operations around to make ventilators, masks, sanitizers in just days. There have been extraordinary acts of kindness, flexibility and solidarity and yet there are we see examples that make the heart sink.

For those of us in the field of people and organisation development we are reminded of the impetus of a founding father, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947). Lewin was driven to make the world a better place having been horrified by the inhumanity witnessed in the Second World War. But we should not wait for hindsight to prompt us to consider how to make sure people act ethically.  Petruska Clarkson (1947-2006), another luminary of humanistic psychology suggested we might use ‘midsight’ as reflexive awareness of our actions and mindset in the here and now is a better place to start. The world will be changed by this and we can help be better, by what we and the leaders we work with are doing right now. In all of this there is a question: what are the values of social justice that guide what we do? At some point history will judge us; each person, organisation, government and community. With the immediate transparency that is piped into our mobile devices, we will judge and be judged. Judgement starts right here, right now: the world is looking.

Over the past twelve months we have been working with ODN Europe, a professional body aimed at developing the theory and practice of organisation development (OD), to rethink OD. James has been working with others to ask the question: what is the future of OD? Rob and colleagues have focussed on the question: what are the ethics of OD? This pandemic brings the two together. At times of upheaval our true values come to the fore for both good and ill. It is now that those carefully crafted words in the corporate social responsibility policy are put to the test.

Even before the pandemic, organisations were changing unrecognisably. They have become loser, less connected and less bounded. This is characterised by long supply chains, networks of people coming together to work on projects and then moving on, casual employment and zero hours contracts and automation. But people have the same hopes, anxieties, worries, dreams and instincts that they always have. So, what is the role of organisation development? We believe that there are two important themes if we are to create better organisations and a wider society that Lewin might recognise. Firstly, the development of profound relational skills between people. In short, how people influence and how they are influenced in creating a better world. Secondly, to enable people to made sense of their experience, to challenge assumptions that would otherwise wash over them. All of this is serves the need for better decision making as well as social justice. We do not come to this from a privileged position of knowing the answers, instead we are part of a process of living inquiry of discovery and improvement.

The question is: how will we hold each other to account and bring about positive change? At its most radical, it is about everyday normal interactions that we all have as we understand the world, involve others and make decisions. It is not about abstract theory, policy or ‘key performance indicators’.

We propose three question areas that nest together, sitting at the heart of ethical practice. These are as follows:

Firstly, how we are planning for the future? Here the focus is on how our actions might impact people in the longer term. Questions include:

  • How do I ensure that I ask the right questions before I decide on a course of action?
  • How do I know when I have involved the right people and information in planning a course of action?
  • How do I know if I have hurt or harmed?
  • How will I know if I have done any good?
  • How will I account for myself to others – what will I say in planning my course of action?

Secondly, how do we make the next step as we interact with others? Here are focus is in the here and now. Questions include:

  • How will I develop awareness of the wider influences and contexts of what I am experiencing?
  • How will I act in the network relationships in which some people are more powerful and others less powerful?
  • How can I ask questions that will enable me to get more insightful views of conversation?
  • How will I know that I have been ‘conditioned’ to act or think in a certain way?

Finally, In working with others how are we influence and how are we being influenced? Here we consider our impact on others. Questions include:

  • How can we stop ourselves sleepwalking into poor and unethical decision making?
  • How do we keep alive enough difference so that we can see our world with ‘new eyes’?
  • How do we keep aware of the changing contexts and how this affects our stakeholders?
  • How can we keep asking difficult questions of ourselves?

These are questions written in the first person; they are about ‘you’ and ‘me’, not the distant ‘them’. At this current time people are having to make extraordinary decisions where the normal structures and reassurance of knowledge and hierarchies are under enormous pressure as they change. This is becoming the new normal. If this is the case these questions of ourselves and those around us become ever more important. Today it might be about the pandemic but tomorrow we still face climate change, the impact of digital technology and the changing expectations and hopes of the world’s populations.

In summary, even before the pandemic organisations were changing rapidly responding to the realities of climate change, digital transformation and greater expectations from people and this will continue. Yet people have the same hopes, desires, anxieties that they always have. Through this we have choices to make and accountabilities to face. If OD is to remain relevant, to enable people to understand and navigate these challenges, we too have to change and to adapt in a similar manner.

This will bring into sharper focus the core of OD namely social justice and moral practice. This is achieved through developing profound relational skills and our ability to make sense and respond to what is happening.  This long tradition of OD practice is as relevant, if not more relevant, than it has ever been to make a positive change in the world.



Having Kittens: rethinking research ethics – a provocation

Die Berliner Mauer mit Graffiti bemalt am Potsdamer Platz in Berlin (photo) / © SZ Photo / RalphH / Bridgeman Images

The aim of this provocation is to invite discussion on how we might improve research practice by shifting attention and conversation about ethics. Currently it is overly frontloaded at the beginning of our projects.  Instead it would benefit from being a continual thread of thought and conversation, in short an ever present form of social sensemaking.

In his book, Gang Leader for a Day Sudhir Venkatesh writes:

 ‘Grab his other leg!’ Charlie yelled in our direction. … I can see that Blue was struggling to breathe; he looked like he might pass out, or worse. I felt as if I had to do something. Running over to him, I kicked Bee-Bee in the stomach, which made him relax his grip on Blue. The other men smothered him, and I could hear his muffled words ’okay okay. All right, enough’ (p170).

Bee-Bee and Blue: Chicago gang members.

Narrator: Sudhir Venkatesh, a PhD student and author.

PhD supervisor: having kittens (if he had been there).

What conversations would have prepared Venkatesh, our PhD student, for what happened in that stairwell. What choices beforehand and in the moment did our student colleague have? The supervisor could just have said – no! But that would have denied us valuable and rich insight into gangland culture (and as it turned out money, financial control and how the gang was woven into the fabric of society). This might be an extreme case but micro-ethical dilemmas are common in the course of day to day practice, so much so they often go unnoticed; and we suggest this applies to research too.

To the qualitative interpretivist university researcher the common approach to ethics is a problem. The problem stems from the need to have all risks and harms laid out at beginning; no action to be taken until nearly all eventualities and harms have been spotted and dealt with. In my own institution the blank canvas for this analysis is an eighteen-page form. And then there are associated information sheets and consent procedures. Imagine if your research involves, say, sitting in a waiting room watching the comings and goings of everyday people and their routine interactions with each other. Perhaps the venue is a hospital. Or, you are an auto-ethnographer exploring your own practice as a policy maker in government. How best can this approach serve everyone, including the beneficiary of your research, the researcher and those that you are interacting with?

The question is: how well does the form, associated paperwork, e-mails and meetings enable good and safe research? The question lying in the shadow is: what are we not paying attention to? In framing it like this we are not advocating the abandonment of one approach in favour of another, but rather how we pay attention to the changing obligations to ethics during the process of our work. How about a more reflexive approach that can shift the nature of these conversations?

To begin the debate on this question here are three areas that nestle together that are worth paying greater attention to in our research and everyday practice:

  • Ethics in planning – ‘thought before action’ (the traditional focus), what decisions are we making now (plans, policies, forms etc) that bind our actions in the future?
  • Ethics in action – ‘thought in action’ (ethics as we go along), what decisions are we make in the here and now as we try to make the next sensible step?
  • Enabling other ethical practice – ‘thought with others’ (awareness of and engagement with others), how are we being influenced an dhow are we influence others around us in the decisions that we take?

More thoughts on ethics to come.

Venkatesh, S. A. (2008). Gang leader for a day: A rogue sociologist takes to the streets. Penguin.


The changing world – conversations with MBA students

Publishers of Truth, 1988 (acrylic on board), Waddams, Ron (1920-2010) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

Over the last week or so I’ve been working with MBA groups – online of course.  In the midst of Covod-19 I posed the question ‘how our the world different now?’ And to explore the question I posed the following lines of inquiry:

  • How does your world look right now?
  • What sense of making of the future?
  • What are you leaving behind?
  • How do we capture the very raw (and fleeting) experience we are going through right now?
  • How is our decision-making changing?

Each one of these questions is fascinating, but here I am going to focus on the last one – how is our decision-making changing?

Key themes that came up in one conversation included:

  • Dispersal of decision making, particularly to the frontline.
  • How rapid decisions are having to be made.
  • How many of the assumptions that are there to help decision making are having to be redrawn.
  • Through all of this navigation is possible and is taking place.

However, there were two overarching themes that emerged which are important to draw attention to, these are trust and the changing role of senior leadership.

When it comes to trust we can spit this into two. Firstly, on an optimistic note, the here and now, our ability to decide in a rapidly changing context. Secondly, being pessimistic, the implications for the longer term, what problems are we storing up.

In this rapidly changing world it seems that we are more trusting in each other. Perhaps we have no choice. To trust someone is also to take a risk and to be vulnerable. But in trusting people, being prepared to take a risk and for this to work out well adds to a reinforcing cycle that enhances working relationships and enables us to see the potential in others.  Setting up hospitals from scratch that can treat thousands, how we are supporting hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people, local authorities turning upside down how they provide services are all evidence of what can be achieved. I suspect all of this is dwarfed when we add up the small everyday efforts that millions of us are making.

But are we storing up problems for later, what might be the shadow that we might miss? In being adaptable and fast moving what are the rules and governance arrangements that we are leaving behind? Where does this leave democracy and the ability for citizens and elected representatives to shape decisions and to hold the powerful to account. These are questions that are not only important on the national political stage but are very real in all avenues of life: healthcare, police, where and how we work, who we mix with etc. Being generous, it will take time for the pulleys and levers of scrutiny to catch up, but it is a question that we need to keep on top of.

In all of this where does this leave the role of the Chief Executive and the top team? Leading from the front, or supporting and enabling the front line? Local knowledge, context and expertise are key. More than in any other time senior leadership is about enabling others to make good decisions, to make sure people communicate with each other and to provide the resources they need. In short, this is a form of more humble leadership that shapes, reassures and enables.

Click here for a video on how our world is changing and implications for MBA students.


13 films that say something about people and organisations

CoverIn the following blog posts there are thirteen films that say something about people and organisations. Here are some questions you might like to ask yourself:

  • What films are you drawn to and what does this say about you?
  • What book, poem, film, play etc has influenced you and why?
  • What do films etc communicate about organisational life that academic books and papers cannot?
  • If you are studying management, organisations and leadership how would you bring films etc into your work?
  • What script would you write?

To find out more about the project we have been working on click here. Any thoughts about our project it would be great to hear from you.

Rob Warwick and David Goodman.


Film Club – Ex Machina

ExmachinaThis is a film about artificial intelligence (AI) and the ‘Turning Test 2.0’. In the 1950s the British codebreaker, mathematician and computer scientist came up with the Turing Test. In summary, the test is passed if you cannot tell whether you are engaging with a person or a computer.

There is a full explanation here: But in this film the question is: what if a person could fall in love with a machine, knowing that it was a machine?

In the film we have Nathan, the CEO Tech billionaire inventor who lives in isolation. There is Caleb, an employee who wins a competition to meet and stay with him for a week. And then there is Ava, the humanoid AI robot. The film raises some fascinating questions in addition to morality and ethics. There is one question in particular that fascinates me: when do we lose control? And how do we know? I won’t say anymore for risk of spoiling the film. As we progress with AI, for example in cars, what we buy online, financial trading (just read Robert Harris’s book called The Fear Index), armaments and even the jobs we apply for, this topic becomes ever more pressing.

Rob Warwick

For more information about the film click here.

Film Club – The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

GBUglyFrom David Goodman.

Having spent an afternoon last week in assessment discussions for our 3rd year Ethics module it somehow seemed appropriate to release The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Nothing to do with the level of the discussions but because of the issue of ethics and questions that are raised.

The ‘Spaghetti Western’ was an interesting diversion away from an often glamourized and somewhat romantic picture of the wild west portrayed in American films. Westerns were produced around the world in the 1950’s and 60’s and at one time was strongest in Germany but Italian producers seemed to find the ‘right’ formula.

These films were typically dark and violent, often presenting the west in a very surrealistic frame (see For a Few Dollars More) but an overarching theme throughout is amoral behaviour.

In this film, we have three clearly defined stances, good, bad and ugly, which the film links to one character very quickly (within 30mins). This extended introduction illustrates some boundaries but also highlights where there are none and reminds us of the dark violence throughout this genre of film.

The simplicity of the film title does not reflect the complexity of behaviour throughout the story. Good is engaged in illegal activity and does kill, although not without provocation. Bad is much clearer in terms of position, he seems to do anything that is in his self-interest. However, the complexity in Ugly throws the challenge of analysing actions at an individual level into sharp relief. His actions are not ‘good’ but they do not reflect the behaviour of Bad, for example having just walked out of the desert he encounters a shop keeper. Stealing from him is not ‘good’ but we might reflect this encounter would have ended very differently if it had been with Bad.

The actions of these individuals provide many opportunities to think about behaviour at an individual and group level. For example, Good and Ugly stumble into a Civil War battle. The irreverence the genre shows towards the Hollywood Western is clear, there is little romance in the scenes as hundreds of men run towards their death on a bridge. The Yankee Captain does not “…have the guts…” to undertake the action of blowing up the bridge and yet will lead his men on the bridge ultimately resulting in his death. Good and Ugly take a different position, Good tells the Captain to “…take a sling of this and keep your ears open…” as he lays on the surgeon’s table in his last moments. In the following moments, they take what might be called a position of utilitarianism although they are working in their self-interest.

As you watch the film consider the dilemmas and paradoxes from a position of personal values and ethics.

David Goodman

For more information about the film click here.

Film Club – Pulp Fiction

PulpPulp Fiction (Tarantino 1994) starts where it ends, in a plan US diner during a robbery. The film soon cuts to a pair of black suited hitmen reflecting on their time in Europe – ‘same shit but different’ in working out what a Quarter Pounder is called in a country that has the metric system. We have the gangster with a BandAid on the back of his neck with a briefcase that radiates when opened. And the boxer who refuses to throw a fight. We see several stories that develop and loop back on themselves occasionally coming together as in the S&M dungeon. Each person is in their own world trying to work out what is going on and what next step to make, unaware that their fate lies in both their hands and the hands of others. They have some agency over events, but not all. Although they are dressed identically our two hitmen are different. There is Vincent (played by John Travolta) who observes but does not think or reflect about his life. And then there is Jules (played by Samuel L Jackson) who becomes increasingly thoughtful and concerned. By the end Vincent is dead, killed by the boxer Butch (played by Bruce Willis) in another loop of the story, and Jules is alive. The final scene Jules is advising our two robbers in the diner to stop.

In organisational life we often overplay our hand when it comes to plans and strategies. We think we have more control than we have. We focus on our agency but down play agency of others as well as what counts as being important in their worlds. The film is a counter point to clear and certain narrative, we are all bound together in our own and each other’s desires, abilites and shortcomings.

If we were to look to a theory we might point to Lyotards’ Postmodern Condition (Lyotard 1984). Here he is dismissive that there are overarching meta-narratives of the powerful, instead we are all wrapped up in our own world and unfolding narrative. But that’s is not to say that anything goes, our narratives connect with each other’s to greater or lesser extents and in doing so our worlds both shape and are shaped. Looking closer to home in business studies we have Weick (Weick 1995) who points out the processes by which we understand and make sense of our world and others do likewise.

Rob Warwick

Lyotard, J., 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Tarantino, Q., 1994. Pulp Fiction, Miramax Films.

Weick, K.E., 1995. Sensemaking in Organizations, London: Sage.

For more information on the film click here.