The educational tour and gift shop – No thank you!

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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.

Reflexivity – some useful prompts in fiction

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The cover of Tamara: Journal of Critical Organization Inquiry

For a number of years I have been intrigued with reflexivity, that form of deep personal reflection that entwines ongoing thought of one’s practice with the practice of thought.  And it is really difficult, particularly when we are part of a group at work that sees the world in a similar way and have been working together for many years. There can be very little to challenge us to see the world differently and our thought and practice as part of it. This is important, as the world shifts we need to be attuned to this and react, but we have seen with the likes of Kodak and Blockbuster that despite advantages in their sectors they were left behind and are no more.

So, what can we do that might enable us to be more reflexive? Or, what prompts might be useful? At a group level one can mix people up and encourage new and different people to join. Or, to make connections with other people, groups or sectors. Recently I have been interested in what an individual might do and what they might draw on. Yes, they can visit other organisations and meet new people, but I was intrigued in something deeper and more accessible. Many of us read novels and books and I was interested in how fiction might act as a ‘reflexive prompt’ to enable us to see the world differently and thus shine a light on our thought and practice.

Several years ago I had a particularly fraught meeting with some surprising twists and turns. Not that unusual, far from it. After writing a narrative of the events at the time I explored what had happened with three small excerpts from fiction – very different forms of fiction. What occurred surprised me. On the one hand I could easily have closed down that experience and ‘moved on’. But doing this enabled me to notice what I had not explored in any depth before: issues of doubt, uncertainty and contradictions that I was experiencing before and during the meeting. We don’t often talk about these things in organisational life. I found a way of exploring this in a contextual way that helped my practice and thinking further develop. It also enabled me to discuss the events to a few trusted friends and colleagues and as such offered the potential to expand the potential for noticing.

If you are interested in these ideas in more depth I have written a paper for the Journal Tamara: Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry and it is available here.

An antidote to bullet points

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngRecently I was in the Netherlands visiting their Open University lecturing and talking with a group of PhD students.

In one conversation we discussed the question of ‘contribution’, or how could research make a difference. Suggestions were discussed that you could imagine would lead to a few bullet points. Quite understandable but not quite hitting the mark it seemed to me, particularly when we are researching day-to-day goings on in organisations. Such an approach plays into the hands of the person who sees knowledge as an abstract entity that can be applied from one context to another with assured results.

Here is a suggestion. Before we get to the bullet points the author explains their situation. This narrative contains enough of the gritty detail to enable the reader to ‘live that experience’, but not in a fictional sense, but in a way that enables them to build a ‘bridge’ between their experience and that of the writer. This does not mean that they have to agree or for that matter directly relate to the situation, but just to say ‘yes, I can see why they have done …’ This might include a few striking moments that challenged one’s thinking or assumptions or where events took a surprising turn. It might also include a few textured details of the people involved, the location or the sense of anticipation or apprehension.

By this stage we have now established a connection of common understanding. And with assertive humility we can offer some grounded suggestions. These are suggestions that the reader can now relate to and imagine how they might be useful for them, adapted to the situation that they are facing.

This way of thinking recognizes both the power of the writer/researcher and the reader, it is now more nuanced. We have moved away from knowledge as being absolute where the reader’s voice is absent. For this to work, by which I mean any test of validity (a key point in and PhD), we need to recognize the role of the reader in how this might be useful, both the story and any bullet points that might follow.