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.

HR in 2037: Organisation Development for Robots


Over few months James Traeger and I have been busy, we have been writing a book on organisation development and we are nearing the completion of our first draft. Here is what James has to say about our project:

My colleague Rob Warwick and I have been commissioned to write a book about Organisation Development. We are delighted and daunted by the prospect. We want to write a kind of ‘truth about OD’ handbook: it’s all very well what it says in a text book but, what’s it like for real, when we get our hands dirty? And what might become of the world in general, and the world of work in particular, that might shake up our settled (and possibly self-satisfied) view of what we do?

This made us think quite broadly about not just the past, our stories of practice as they have been, but what might become of us. It invited us to imagine not just the last couple of decades of practice, but the next couple as well. What would the world of organisations be like in, say 2037?

To help us with this, we invited some fictional characters into the story. The first to arrive was Jas. He is in his seventies by then, and has had a long and more or less successful career in this world. Jas was followed by Winona, a younger woman, very much at the outset of her working life, who actually is, as it turned out, what they call an ‘MG’ – a mixed genotype. This means that Winona is part human and part android. One of the most striking things we discovered about Jas and Winona’s world is that androids and humans co-inhabit the workplace.

There is no ‘I’ in Robot

This may sound like a strange idea. It does shake up our view of people, work and organisations. That is the point. What does it do for our understanding of the future of OD, for example, when Jas finds himself confronted by a client, a global shipping organisation, that has finally decided to outsource all of its manual work to androids? Imagine hundreds of enormous merchant vessels sailing all over the world, with no people on them. It sounds like a dystopia, but one that may well be a reality quite soon. Indeed, the technology for this is available now.

This is an age-old challenge facing humanity, in fact, it’s one we had to grapple with ever since we started to make and use tools. In the words of phenomenologist Maurice Meleau Pointy, who investigates the nature of the self explained:

“When a blind person holds a white stick, where do they in fact exists, in relation to this object? How far does their ‘self’ extend into the world? Where does their familiar stick become part of them? Is it at the end of the stick, where it hits the pavement, or at the junction between their stick and their hand? Or halfway down?”

Spot the difference: Drones and video conferencing

Thinking of robots, androids and non-humans in the workplace is asking us to confront confused and confusing notions of what constitutes ‘us’, our ‘selves’. These notions are likely to become even more confusing as our interrelationship with technology shifts. This will no doubt affect our notions of self, work and organisations in profound ways. To illustrate further, here are a few thought experiments to consider.


When a drone pilot controls a drone that is flying thousands of miles away, where in fact are they? Do they exists, both in the windowless room in the middle of the desert in the United States, as well as somewhere in the sky over Afghanistan, connected as it were, by a thin filament of self that stretches between?

Video conferencing

When our colleague joins us in a business meeting, whilst she is in Rome, and we are in a room together in London, where in fact is she? With us in the room, at her kitchen table, or is she in fact constructed somewhere on a server in Ireland or California?

One hundred years ago, when automobiles were in their earliest stages of development, there wasn’t yet an agreed convention for the interface between the human and the vehicle. The Model T Ford had the three pedals we might recognise, but instead of an accelerator, brake and clutch, two of the pedals actually operated the gears. By the 1920s manufactures had more or less settled together on the interface that we know now to be familiar. Perhaps this is indicative of the likely evolution of virtual interfaces that we use, like Skype, Zoom, Webex etc? Perhaps the convention for interconnectivity is yet to be developed, and will one day be as familiar to us as the controls of a car.

Adapting is not a technicality

These thought experiments point out that the human/technological interface is an ever-evolving phenomenon, one that we have been adapting to for centuries, millennia even. As far back as the mythical time when Oedipus was invited to solve the riddle of the sphinx, which asked ‘what walks on four legs, then two legs then three?’ (You can try and solve it yourself, or of course you can google it).

Donna Harraway wrote the Cyborg Manifesto in the 1980s. In it she suggested that people– and women in particular– have been in fact liberated by this technological interface, but not always in altogether positive or predictable ways. An example is Rosie the Riveter, the cartoon poster of the 1940s which was created to encourage American women to join the war effort. In the picture, Rosie is depicted as a strong young woman, flexing her biceps, under the slogan ‘We can do it!’ We presume by her epithet that she is technologically enhanced by the rivet gun she wields to assemble vast bombers for the air force. Ironically, these bombers are then deployed against the cities full of women and children just like her. It is an unsettling image of the complex relationship that humans have, and will continue to develop with technology. The next turn of this relationship will no doubt be equally liberating and troubling.

Upset your thinking for greater perspective

What happens when we are surrounded by artificial intelligences, androids with whom we can converse, collaborate and even cohabit? What happens when bio-medical advances finally sever the inevitable distinction in procreation between women and men? These are other less imaginable challenges will be vested upon us, our communities and indeed our workplaces over the next quarter century, and will no doubt make the revolution we have just witnessed over the invention and development of the internet look like a mere bump in the road.

So the purpose of bringing Jas and Winona into our story of Organisation Development has liberated our thinking, hopefully in the same way that Rosie symbolised the unpredictable, unsettling liberation of American women. We wanted our thinking around the past, present and future of OD to be upset, in order that a greater perspective could be engendered.

The educational tour and gift shop – No thank you!


Multiple shades of the Sussex countryside viewed from the Bothy at Standen House

I’ve got a confession to make. I don’t like reading management and leadership literature. Well, a lot of it. I should explain, my interest is in everyday experience and how we think, talk and write about it and how this might be of use to others. Sometimes this feels lonely, so it was wonderful to take part in ‘Voicing Experience: The 4th British Conference of Autoethnography’ conference at the University of Sussex this week. I know why kids complain when they are taken to stately homes and gardens, their hands tightly squeezed and marched along the most educationally economic route, to stand still in front of pictures and rooms belonging to long dead people. Look but don’t touch. And where lawns are not for running on. It seems to miss the point. I’m talking about my own experience here. And it is this that I react against in much management and leadership writing. As readers we get drawn predictably through introduction, methods, findings only to end up in the ‘gift shop’, that of the succinct conclusion. As writers (again I’m talking about myself) we are pushed to make our contribution clearer and clearer. In exploring experience, conclusions are often not clear, we have provisional ways forward that bring with them mixtures of hope and doubt. Sometimes we are just confused. Like a child I want to run about, play in the gardens, pick things up and bounce up and down on the sofas. I want to take fragments of insights gathered on my haphazard path and to relate these to my own interests and experience. This is perhaps why I am drawn to ethnography, a way of research that offers the textures and complexities of everyday life, from which we all might explore and rummage. The conclusions that we draw are tentative and created by ourselves with a gentle nudge and support from the narrator. I see this way of working most vividly in sociology and anthropology, but it has yet to fully catch on in leadership and management. A couple of things struck me at the conference: the variety of experiences we talked about; and, the variety of ways we talked about experience. What might management and leadership education be like if we adopted similar approaches? Perhaps being more tentative and less dogmatic might make management and leadership [development] less macho. It might also make us a little more reflexive of experience and keener to enquire of what we are doing and why. We might even be more cautious of articles in glossy journals that promise simple solutions to problems that we know are complex. We might even embrace poetry, filmmaking, storytelling and just experiment a little. And in doing so we might be more confident of finding our own leadership path.

John Shotter: a belated thank you

jsIt has been several months since the death of John Shotter and I thought I would reflect on his impact on me and implications for those of us in education. I’m not going to describe John’s achievements, I’ll leave that to his friend Michael Billig – click here. And I’m certainly not going to summarise his work and its impact on practice – that will have to speak for itself, at this point I can hear John reaching for Wittgenstein (probably On Certainty, p210, para 139-140).

I first met John in 2008 mid way through my doctorate. We met via a mutual friend, Patricia Shaw, in the Bunch of Grapes pub near London Bridge station. I remember being enthusiastic about my line of research on knowledge. John listened and seem to absorb and reflect my enthusiasm. Thereafter our paths crossed every few months. I last met John with his wife at his home in Cambridgeshire with some good friends sharing readings, writings and understandings of our various interests and projects.

But what was it about John that I came to value? Many people would point to his encyclopaedic knowledge of the likes of Wittgenstein and Bakhtin and his ability to pull a quote from thin air. In addition to his focused understanding on these writers and more it was also his knowledge of a wider terrain of culture and that seem to connect people together in a shared experience and understanding. And of course, there was his enthusiasm for learning and knowledge tinged with sadness of our entrenched views and the political games we play in academia.

For me there was something more important that I try to take forward in my own developing practice as an academic. He would get to a nub of something that I was struggling with, drawing a few threads together that I had not noticed. And from this (and with a pile of reading) the world become a little clearer, or usefully unclear, and a small step would have been made. His impact at the time was subtle but when I look back the effect was substantial and deep. In short, he had the knack of pointing me to new avenues at just the right time: Gilbert Ryle, Raymond Williams, Henri Bortoft to name a few.

I came to wish that I had recognised his contribution in the acknowledgements of my thesis and in some respects this posting makes up for my omission.

And here are the paragraphs I mentioned:

  1. Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself.
  2. We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgements by learning rules: we are taught judgements and their connexion with other judgements. The totality of judgements is made plausible to us.

Wittgenstein, L. (1969), On Certainty, (Anscombe, G. and von Wright, G.,Eds.), Harper Torchbooks, New York.

Shining a light on critical action learning with the work of Pierre Bourdieu

pbA couple of years ago I became intrigued by the interaction between the theory of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the practice of action learning, a process of facilitated group coaching. In other words, how the theory of one might shine a light on the practice of the other. The aspects of Bourdieu theory that I was intrigued about was habitus and field. Habitus being a generative process of habit and repetition, but not one that implies an automatic reflex; instead it is a condition of practice that short cuts the numerous options available to the novice to a narrower range of reasonable contextual possibilities. This being dependent on field, an array of externalities and relations in which one has to move. Each player whose relations constitute the field of a particular practice has their own internalised expression of habitus. This gives everyone in the field an individualised sense of their next step, sensible or not, that needs to be reacted to by others. The field is therefore a complex dynamic affected by power, reputation, tradition, gestures and so on. In short, the ordinary goings on of organisational life of what we might see as common sense hitting a brick wall of unfathomable objection that makes us ask the question: why? Or as we have called it ‘social friction’, a process of noticing between our taken for granted practice and how this is reacted to by others who have their own assumptions and practice too.

Over the past year it has been great to work with Janet McCray and Douglas Board to explore these ideas drawing on interviews with nine medical consultants having gone through and action learning based leadership programme. Following a number of conferences (a notable highlight being the British Sociological Association’s first conference on Bourdieu last year) and workshops our work has now been published in Action Learning: Research and Practice.

To read our paper click here.