The challenge of writing mindfully

coverRecently Pete Burden and I wrote a book – Leading Mindfully.  Our aim was to point to the importance of actively noticing what we do in organisations; not just as individuals, but together.  And in doing so to improve how we all make decisions.  It is a book about conversation, of being reflexive and taking action – not as a solitary endeavor, but as a social process we are all engaged in.

So there was a dilemma – how should we write it?  Tradition would say that it should be written in prose; blocks of text whereby we laid out our argument as a bricklayer might build a wall.  However, this has a number of implications that we felt uncomfortable with.  Building such a structure implies that we are experts, and therefore, you are to be ‘taught’.  However, both positions are false – you have your own experience and understanding of the subject and our views are still emerging.

It is for this reason we wrote the book as a dialogue, trying to be as true to life as the conversations we had.  There are of course benefits and drawbacks in taking a different approach.

In the conversation there are now three of us – you as the reader, Pete and me.  You will notice areas that you both agree and disagree with.  And you will notice something similar in the conversations I have with Pete.  All three of us come from different backgrounds and experiences.  In this process we make sense of new ideas and our experiences in relation to what we might imagine doing in the future.  In fact, this is an argument we make in the book – as we lead mindfully with others.

But this has some drawbacks.  From your perspective laying out a clear argument can be easier to engage with, it takes less work to agree or disagree with a point made.  Instead, we are interested in questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’, questions that cannot easily be resolved in a binary way.  All of this said, presenting our ideas as a dialogue has a truth about it that we are looking to pay attention to in organisational life.  And in this sense our way of writing was as important as the ideas themselves.

If you are interested in the book you can find it here.

Ethnography is great (and why it won’t catch on)

Eth blogTime is short in research and business.  Important questions still get asked, but we seek snapshot answers – questionnaire surveys, focus groups, polls which have little to do with the texture or complexity of everyday life.  I’m not going to define ethnography other than to briefly say that it is the study of a group or culture by spending time with them, being part of the social melee, facing their dilemmas; an endeavour taking months or years.  For something a little more considered have a look at Bryman and Bell (2003).

I’m going to discuss three examples focusing on black working class culture in the US.  On the one hand this is a world away from my personal experience, but on the other speaks to my interest in social justice.  And it is ethnography that gives me a real sense of the problems and opportunities rather than the simplistic accounts I’ve been used to.

The example are:

  • Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leaders for a Day – a rogue socialist crosses the line (Venkatesh, 2008)
  • Loic Wacquant’s Body and Soul – notebooks of an apprentice boxer (Wacquant, 2004)
  • Alice Goffman’s On the Run – fugitive life in an American city (Goffman, 2014)

In all three cases the researcher spends years in the communities.  They get to know people well, they are friends with some, cautious of others, they have misunderstandings and periods of connection.  In other words the whole spectrum of being a person in a community with others, drawing attention to how events unfold over time, their consequences and further consequences.

What is noticed?  Take Sudhir Venkatesh.  Here we get to develop an understanding of how drug gangs work.  But not in a polarized sense that encourages us to stand back and say ‘these people are evil, how could they ..’.  Instead we understand how people fall into that life, how gang members become gang members, how they interact with the community of which they are part, the subtle nature by which they both support and punish.  And so on.  With Alice Goffman we understand how people become enmeshed in the criminal system from which they hardly ever escape.  In both cases we develop a nuanced appreciation of context, predicament and fate, whilst appreciating people still have choice and responsibility.  In many respects we can understand people as victims of circumstance.  And in doing so we can be more challenging of those circumstances.  With Loic Wacquant it is different.  Here he is becoming a boxer and in doing so develops an understanding of the constraining and enabling factors that keep boxers and others on the right side of the law.  But as with Venkatesh and Goffman, these are subtle and easy to disturb, the loss of a key member of a community can have far reaching consequences.  In all three cases we hear of people making reasonable choices in the context of which they find themselves.  Well, reasonable choices mainly, but in contexts that are hard to image without that being explained in graphic, dramatic and often visceral ways. It demonstrates the deeply interconnected worlds that we are part of, how our pasts are connected to our futures in ways that are hard to imagine.

And what of the researchers? They all have one thing in common.  They are all undergoing a process of creative unsettlement.  Loic is becoming a boxer, Venkatesh a gang member and Alice similarly a part of a new community.  But all three are both developing as researchers too.  The creative unsettlement is a highly reflexive process.  The foundations for identity, the assumptions and the un-noticed routines of everyday life, are there to notice and we sense how risky this is.

But what of this rich knowledge?  Just as the policymaker, politician or strategist has little time for asking questions, they similarly have no time for rich, challenging and difficult answers.  Ethnography means one has to shed the hope for neat answers to neat questions.  It requires an assertive humility to feel comfortable that answers are only partial at best and not universal; the assertiveness in both being okay with this and for standing up to those who offer promises of certainty.

Bryman, B., & Bell, E. (2003). Business Reearch Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goffman, A. (2014). On the Run – Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago: Chicago University University.

Venkatesh, S. (2008). Gang Leaders for a Day: A Rouge Sociologist Crosses the Line. London: Allen Lane.

Wacquant, L. (2004). Body and Soul – notebooks of an apprentice boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Let’s be enthusiastic in our writing (and someone might read it)

HanifanDuring the course of my research on trust I came to read an academic paper on social capital that was nearing a hundred years old (Hanifan, 1916).  It was by the educationalist Lyra Hanifan who became interested in how people learn for the benefit of themselves and others.  It struck me how well written it was, albeit with a few terms we would now seem dated.  The quality of the paper was markedly different from many of today’s papers I have to trawl through.  What was different, here are a few thoughts:

  • It was written by someone who was interested in the subject and was eager to communicate his enthusiasm. I could imagine Hanifan thinking to himself that what he had to say would be of interest to many people and he wrote with those people in mind.
  • He probably did not feel as constrained as we are today to make a tightly formed argument that would address a focused academic point that had been rumbling on for years.
  • The life had not been mangled out by one re-work after another following reviewers’ comments.

I am not calling for a ‘return’ to a non-existent golden age, but we can be more thoughtful of the habits we have all fallen into.  By habits I do not just mean us authors, but the conventions we have all adopted in deciding what ‘good’ is and its usefulness.  Perhaps if we did we might become a little more relevant.  In other words to address some of the concerns that Michael Billig pointed to in his book How to Write Badly and Succeed in Social Sciences (Billig, 2013).

Billig M (2013) How to write badly: How to succeed in social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hanifan L (1916) The Rural School Community Centre. American Academy of Political and Social Science, 67(May), 130–138.

Leadership and conversation – being assertively humble

Leadership isn’t a science.  There is little by way of hard fact and formulae.  It seems odd then that the tone of much of the leadership literature is deterministic, implying that this or that is the right way forward.

Experience has taught me that it is messy; success, failure, puzzlement are all ingredients in the leadership soup.  So why doesn’t the way we talk about leadership reflect this?  Perhaps it just won’t sell.  Perhaps people who buy such books are looking for reassurance when faced dilemmas that are scary for them and those around them.  This may be partially true, but it is not the whole storey.  For me there is something about being assertively humble in facing the future.  This means paying close attention to the interplay between a person and those around them, of being reflective and thougthful as we all inch forward into the future.  And not pretending to have the answers.

It also raises the question of how we should write and talk about leadership.  In our book, Leading Mindfully, Pete Burden and I engage in a conversation; one that took place over several months.   We don’t offer solutions but we try to make sense of leadership dilemmas that we see around us and have experienced as well as how others have thought about such issues too.  Conversation seems a more authentic way to talk about the success, failure, puzzlement of leadership.  In doing so we hope to make connections that the reader can identify with that might be useful to their practice, not as a promise, but as a humble offering to make sense of the challenges ahead.

Problems and opportunities of researching trust

big-bang-07It is odd how things develop, they sit in the back of the mind and niggle away. A few months ago, I went to a leadership conference.  There was a presentation by someone researching trust in organisations.  It left me feeling disappointed and saddened that we remove so much of the humanity in the way that we research such an important human relationship.  

I wrote a posting for another blog likening the antics of Big Bang Theory’s rather awkward Sheldon Cooper with that of how we research trust, click here.  Since then I have obtained research funding from the Roffey Park Institute to look into the subject.  I am carrying out the research with a friend of mine Alison Donaldson. We are now a few months in and well under way interviewing people, reviewing the literature and shaping some ideas that we will be road testing with with organisational development experts after summer .  As part of our approach we have set up a blog to share emerging thoughts and ideas.  You might like to have a look, if so, click here. If you want to get involved, get in touch

Personal perspectives on developing management and leadership

I run the MA in Management and Leadership at the University of Chichester in the UK.  Here is a personal perspective as to why I believe that working whilst studying is a good idea, particularly when it comes to management and leadership.  It was in 2003 I started my masters, I had a senior role in a large organisation and was intrigued (and still am) as to how decisions are made in organisations and why so many of them seem irrational.  During my masters I developed an understanding for all those things I had found mysterious, or at least shrouded in mystery by the ‘experts’.  Soon I was able to talk confidently on their level.  This included subjects such as finance, HR, governance, strategy, innovation.  There were some subjects totally new to me such as complexity that changed the way I saw the world and how organisations worked.  With more understanding and confidence I was starting to have a greater impact.  Soon after I started I became part of the corporate planning team representing my directorate and people started to see me in a different light.  From this I led a number of strategic projects and later went on to work with a Government department on the formation and implementation of a national healthcare initiative.  All of this would not have happened if I had not taken those first steps and enrolled on my master’s course.  At the time my family was young, the demands of the job were high and fitting it all in was a challenge, but it was a hugely enjoyable challenge.  I prioritized what mattered and was more efficient at what I did. It seems odd to me not to study whilst you work, after all how else do you become experienced in the ideas you are learning about without putting them into practice; seeing what works and why.

After my masters I went on to do my doctorate, again whilst working.   And now my career has moved on to being an academic.  But an academic with a difference, one that strongly feels that management and leadership can only progress if it has a foot in both camps – that of practice and study.

MOOCs and their role in developing practical wisdom at work

I’m a senior lecturer at a small university on the south coast of the UK. Like many people I’ve been thinking about the future of higher education and the impact of technology, particularly MOOCs and other online learning approaches. I should add that I teach in a business school and am interested in strategy, organisational behaviour and management learning. And this frames my thoughts. I can see the point in MOOCs and their potential in spreading knowledge (both academic and technical), particularly to those groups that have been excluded in the past. But I’m wondering how it will help with the problems that I see. These include:

  • At the interpersonal level how people learn the practical skills and wisdom of working in organisations such as: influencing, negotiating, seeing things from the perspective of others, being challenging and supportive of colleagues (and accepting likewise in return), being thoughtful and reflexive of experience, or just how to get things done.
  • At the organisational level how decisions are made and how we can make better ones; how ethical practice is developed and sustained; and how organisations can be a force for good in society, rather than division.

These were some of the topics of a recent seminar I went to funded by the ESRC. What kind of knowledge are we talking about? To my mind it is the emotional labour of organisational life: empathy, emotional awareness, trust, sensitivity, political astuteness, knack or savviness. In other words the kind of abilities that Aristotle put under the heading of Phronesis. When I meet managers, at whatever stage of their career, these are the issues that are troubling them. I have just finished running an action learning based post-graduate leadership programme. All of the delegates were highly accomplished in their technical areas but most felt the need to develop their leadership and ability to get things done. Reflections on the programme included: ‘I’ve developed a different type of confidence’; ‘it has been the conversations that have made the difference for me’; ‘it has really empowered me’, ‘I’ve learnt how to go about things’. Returning to my question above, I’m intrigued as to how MOOCs and other online approaches to personal development and knowledge can tackle issues that people face in their organisational lives. I’m sure there is an important role – I just want to understand their potential.