Artfulness in the organisational playground


Artfulness and the playground, two words you do not normally associate with the serious world of organisational life. I am going to offer two invitations, but before I do let me explain.

Firstly, artfulness. Here art is both an artefact, for example the painting, piece of music or even the benefits of a well-managed project, and the processes we use, for example how we paint a picture, run a challenging workshop or even show up at a meeting. ‘Being artful’ congers thoughts of skill, craft and even cunning, just think of the Artful Dodger in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. And then there is the social dimension: for art to have value, that value has to be recognised by others and conditions need to be in place to nurture and support artful practice. So art has a number of fascinating qualities to it.

Secondly, playground. The playground is the place of creativity, games and laughter. It is where we can make our own worlds with actors, plots and stories. It is the opposite of sitting in rows with forced concentration listening to the teacher. But then there is the shadow side, the place of bullies, power and coercion. The playground is not a neutral place, there are hierarchies and places where the ‘cool’ people are, but others are excluded. And none of this is written down, it needs to be learnt by sensing what is around us, making mistakes and involving others.

If we dwell on these two words we have the opportunity to imagine organisational life differently. We can come up with different answers to questions such as:

  • How do we support others to grow and develop?
  • What is of value and why?
  • Why do people act like they do?
  • What would happen if we did something different?

Now for the invitations. James Traeger and I are associate editors of the Action Research journal and we are editing a special edition on artfulness in the organisational playground, here is the call for papers that gives all the details of what we are looking for and why. If you are tempted to write an article it would be great to hear from you. You can also find details here about submitting your paper to the journal.  We have another invitation as well. Every month for an hour we hold an online gathering to explore our artful practice in organisational life, if you would like to be part of this #ArtfulKnowing group please write an e-mail to Pip Rowson at

Picture Credit: On and On, 1951 (serigraph), Gershgoren, Milton (1909-89) / Dallas Museum of Art, Texas, USA / Tom Gooch Memorial Prize (Dallas Print Society, Dallas Art Association and Leon A. Harris, Jr.), 1st Annual Dallas National Print Exhibition, 1953 / Bridgeman Images.

Displacing the arrogant with thoughtful and curious people


We are soon to get a new Prime Minister and the chances are that it will be Boris Johnson. His greatest gift is his confidence, a blade with two sharp edges. One being the courage to do what few will dare, the other foolhardiness for which we will all might pay. Years ago my son used to play chess. He went to an ordinary state school where Garry would come in every Wednesday to run a chess club. As his ability grew so did his confidence. Soon I was organising lifts to take part in inter-school competitions. Then I was driving further afield when he became a player for our county. Many of the competitions were in fee paying schools more like Hogwarts rather than the drab utility buildings we were used to. The children had much the same ability but most of them oozed a confidence evident in how they interacted with adults and children, an ability that was evident in how they spoke and acted.

As a university lecturer, what is my role? To impart knowledge or to build that confidence? OK, it is not a binary choice and they are connected: it is an issue of emphasis and it is a question that needs to be asked when it comes to widening access of opportunity. This is particularly the case for students that that I work with who do not tend to come from privileged backgrounds. It is not just about coming out of university with a first of 2:1. From my experience we do not build that confidence by standing in front talking at them, but we can achieve something by being with them and having conversations and encouraging their voice and spirit of inquiry. In doing so we can develop a virtuous cycle where knowledge, inquiry and confidence build upon each other.

We do not need anymore arrogant people with an overripe sense of their own ability. Instead we need to nurture and support thoughtful intelligent people from all backgrounds to develop their own curiosity in the world, to find their voice and ability to listen to others. If I can achieve this, in whatever small way, I will have achieved something.

Six books (that have helped me) to understand people and organisations


I have done a quick scan of my bookshelves to find six books that have helped me understand organisational life and to give reassurance that it is not just me. This is particularly true when I find it hard to fathom what is going on.  Here goes:

The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin Classics. Evil people are rarely born evil. They are nurtured and created by a lack of reflection and thought. We need to save others and ourselves from that fate by asking those searching questions that unsettle, even if it hurts.

Seeing Like a State, James C Scott, Yale University Press. Powerful people tend to be sensible folk. They make decisions based upon how they see their world and their own experience. The problem is that their experience is often not ours. The question is how do we keep sharing those experiences?

Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell, Penguin Books. Above all else, life is most vivid if we pay attention to the detail. It is there to see, smell, feel, taste and hear. It is fun, quirky, sad, confusing and simple all at the same time.

Victims of Groupthink, Irving Janis, Houghton Mifflin Co. Powerful delusional people surround themselves with powerful delusional people. Not only that but when things get worse, they only listen to each other. Note to self: stand by the lifeboat.

Rationality and Power, Bent Flyvbjerg, Chicago University Press. They may be wrong but powerful people get to write the truth. That said we do not have to believe it and we have a voice.

Grimms Fairy Tales, The Brothers Grimm, Routledge. At least I am not in a forest with a wolf.

Artful knowing in everyday life – developing insights from action research

If we are to find solutions to difficult problems we need to pay attention to different and artful ways of knowing. These are forms of knowledge that draw attention to the fact that we are all creative people able to see and live in the world in imaginative ways. This is despite what school and formal education might have done to us in forcing us to think in linear and scientific ways. However, it is more than this; it is social too. For example, what conversations can we have to enable others to see their world differently and how can they do likewise for us? Both of us became intrigued by the artistry of everyday life in our book, Organisation Development – A Bold Explorer’s Guide, in the chapter Artful Practice to Inspire Human Systems we said of art:

.. in this sense is not just the creation of beautiful objects by the talented few; it extends to the way do our daily work, at home and beyond, and what we see in others on the broadest canvases. To meet the challenges of the future new and imaginative ways of working will be essential (p77).

Recently we became Associate Editors of the Action Research journal, focusing on organisation development. In order to get to know the journal in a fresh way we set ourselves a challenge. In going back through the fifteen years of the journal, which six articles have the most relevance to artful knowing? This is not just about coming up with a list; it is more. What new insights can we generate from one article shining a light on another, perhaps years apart? Most intriguingly, how might different subject areas come together to say something new. A couple of questions one on what we should be looking for the second the questions we should be asking, so:

  • What sort of difference to people’s lives, communities, work and workplaces should we hope to find in this writing?
  • Taking artful knowing in organisation development as an example, what kind of questions should we be asking?

If you have any thoughts and ideas it would be great to hear from you.

Rob Warwick and James Traeger.

Ref: Traeger, J. & Warwick, R (2018) Organisation Development: A Bold Explorer’s Guide, Libri Books

Perspectives on being critical

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngA couple of weeks ago I met with a PhD student for a cup of tea before the summer break. We got onto the subject of ‘being critical’, it was a conversation that made me see the word quite differently. I often say to students ‘you need to be more critical’ the phrase just trips off my tongue. The student, who is Chinese, made the point that in her culture being critical implies disruption of harmony and consensus. It implies confrontation.

So what other ways of working might we use to describe those essential deeper qualities of analysis, but in ways that pay attention to harmony and relationships. We could stress the importance of exploration, engaging in conversation to look from different angles, perspectives and traditions; in short we are open minded and aware of our own stance and that of others. We could pay attention to how we might make improvement; that sounds so much better than weakness. And the areas that might benefit from further work and where we might go to for these new insights. In the spirit of where we have come from and what we hope to achieve, we might talk about how we make progress and the steps we need to take. Finally, there is something important about humility in stating our case with confidence, but not arrogance.

These qualities pay attention to a processes of social enquiry by which I mean paying attention to both the ‘I’ and the ‘we’. For example the conversations we have with others, seeing and exploring from their perspectives, as they do likewise. And to pay attention to how we are working together and how we are arriving at the views that we are forming. This form of reflexive process is rarely spoken about when we talk of being ‘critical’ but I think a move from the ‘I’ to the ‘we’ might occasionally be worth a try in our efforts to develop relationships.

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.

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:

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!’