Reflexivity – some useful prompts in fiction

tamara

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.

Action Learning: creating organisational impact

chichester-1Over the last few years I have become intrigued by what action learning can offer. It is a process where a facilitated group of people, curious in each other’s practice and problems at work, enables each other to move forward. Whilst it supports people to find practical solutions to knotty problems that don’t seem to go away there has been a larger question on its wider organisational impact. In other words, how does the impact of those private conversations in the learning set comes to ripple out to change and improve the wider organisation. Over the last couple of years this debate has been enlivened by those interested in ‘critical action learning’ and has become the focus of my research too.

In December 2016 I am holding a seminar here at the University of Chichester’s Business School (pictured) where similarly curious people are welcome to attend, details can be found here.

If you want to read more about action learning here are some useful places to start:

  • Pedler, M. (1997), What do we mean by action learning? A story and three interpretations. Action Learning in Practice, Gower Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, 3rded.
  • Pedler, M. (2011), Action learning in practice, Gower Publishing Ltd, Farnham.
  • Revans, R. (1980), Action Learning: new techniques for management, Blond and Briggs, London.

Organisation Development (OD): tales of craft, style and making do

20160711_160754A few days ago James Traeger and I were sitting in a rather lovely room overlooking the lawns at Ashridge management college. Here we signed a contract to write a book together; a moment that focuses the mind!

We are writing a book on organisation development but one that pays attention to the ‘craft’ in different ways. Having worked in and with many organisations I am intrigued as to how things actually happen. I am less interested by the grand proclamations and planned activities that may appear in newsletters, company reports and ‘town hall meetings’; but instead I am drawn to the actual conversations that happen everywhere from boardrooms, corridors, phone calls, e-mails in what is a confusing world where we can only make the next sensible step with the information we have at hand. And with the constraints and enablers that we are aware of – those that we are not aware of soon become apparent! So how does the OD practitioner move into these spaces and conversations and to act ethically in ways that are in the best interests of the people that we call the ‘the organisation’ and those affected by it? This is the substance of the book, told with tales of the craft of how people make do with what they have to create interactions and understandings that are helpful. We are interested in the full gamut ranging from set piece events with flip charts and marker pens to chance (or carefully arranged semi-chance) conversations in car park or corridor.

We are aiming this book at the curious, the practitioner (and the occasional academic) perhaps frustrated with ‘how to’ explanations. Instead we are looking to share, show and build bridges of understanding that might be useful in:

  • Making enough sense of complex situations we find ourselves in.
  • Enabling wise choices to be made.

And in doing so how move forward with those around us.

Trust in Organisational Life – Call for papers

Capture1Trust is an essential lubricant of working relationships.  Over the last year I have become increasingly interested in this, which led me to carry out a research project with Alison Donaldson, funded by Roffey Park.

I have now been invited to act as guest editor of the Winter 2016 edition of e-Organisations and People (e-O&P), the journal of AMED, on trust.

Here are some examples of the kind of articles that I am interested in:

  • Accounts of how trust can be affected (for good or/and ill) by either planned or accidental actions. By planned, I mean, for example, an organisational development initiative that has been deliberately designed and implemented to improve how a group is working together. By accidental, I mean the unintended consequences of a misjudgement, an external shock and/or some cunning or political action.
  • You might have developed a way of conceptualising trust, or perhaps a framework for generating trust. If so, how has this has been taken up and used in the workplace? What has this enabled?  And what other important issues might it be distracting us from?
  • Something from left field that takes a refreshing and insightful view of trust that might challenge some of our basic assumptions about the nature and manifestations of trust.

These are just a few suggestions. You may well have others.  If this strikes a chord with you, please send me a brief initial proposal of 200-300 words by 15 July. If you’d like to discuss your ideas beforehand, please get in touch too.

My e-mail address: r.warwick@chi.ac.uk.

Our publication timetable is:

  • 15th July 2016: Expressions of interest to guest editor.
  • 15th September: First drafts to guest editor (earlier if possible).
  • 30 November: Winter 2016 e-O&P is published online.

About e-Organisations & People

e-O&P is AMED’s quarterly online journal, published in pdf format. For 25 years, e-O&P has been connecting the worlds of work, theory, ideas, innovation and practice by making new knowledge and original thinking available to developers, facilitators and their clients through persuasive writing.

Our readers and authors are both practitioners and academics who are curious about life in organisations and about how we might affect that life and each other for the better.

Articles are normally between 1,500 – 3,000 words, written in an engaging and lively style that will be of interest to academics and alike.  We encourage the use of headings, images, diagrams and live hyperlinks.  Following receipt of your expression of interest, we will send you a copy of e-O&P’s Guide to Contributors.

Editions of e-O&P are often associated with a lively pre- or post-publication gatherings. As far as it can, e-O&P aims to support its authors according to principles of critical friendship.

I look forward to receiving your initial expression of interest (a simple paragraph or set of notes outlining your provisional ideas) by 15 July.

Decembers’ Postscript:

We had a great response to our call from all over the world. Over the last few months we have been working closely with several authors who had similarly pondered the nature of trust. The journal editorial can be found by clicking on the following link.

Using complexity analogies as a way of exploring knowledge and practice

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngI have been asked to give a presentation to a group of doctoral students in the Netherlands on how we might use complexity as a way of understanding what we are doing in organisations. I was asked to prepare an abstract which I will share:

Traditional management theories have a tendency to focus on general terms that might include ‘culture’, ‘leadership’, and ‘strategy’ etc and use these to create models and frameworks to explain the present and predict the future. In doing so there is a reification, namely the way of relating to these terms as if they were fixed entities. We can trace this back in Western thought to the work of Kant.  Here the emphasis of understanding includes a dualism between people and organisations, the collapse of contradictory but ever present tensions that people deal with and a formative process of causality that implies an understanding of the future based upon the unfolding of pre-set factors.

Considering the work of Stacey and others (Stacey et al., 2000) we can challenge this approach and their assumptions. Stacey is a management theorist who uses the sciences of complexity as an analogy to explore everyday interactions between people and how these come to develop into organising themes (for which the US pragmatist philosopher GH Mead (Mead, 1934) developed the theory of ‘the generalised other’). Here we can pay attention to the dynamics between: the interaction of people as they interpret the themes they notice and experience; and, how these themes themselves come to be developed from everyday interactions of people. From the interweaving of novel and established patterns transformation is possible in a process that is emergent. Empirically the approach draws on people’s routine work collected in a series of narratives often spanning several years and critically engaged within a learning set alongside organisational literature (Warwick and Board, 2013).  This has been the approach of the Complexity Management Centre based at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, in their long running doctoral programme.  This way of studying organisations and our presence as part of them enables a richer understanding of the dynamics of reified terms, for example what we might call ‘culture’.

They have termed this approach complex responsive processes of relating (Stacey et al., 2000) as a way to draw attention to the temporal nature of the processes of which we are all participant and from which no one is separate. Rather than Kant, it is influenced by Hegel’s (and those who draw on his work) notion of process and how, in our ‘rubbing along’ with each other, novelty emerges. Issues of power and paradox are explored. Power in the sense of an interconnected mesh or figurations (Elias, 1978) of which we are all part of in known and unknown ways. And paradox to give voice to ever present contradictions faced in organisations for which reconciliation is not possible. These are factors that people face daily as they go about making decisions, trying to sense plausible next steps in conditions of increased uncertainty.

For the doctoral student or academic this forms a contribution to knowledge and practice. With respect to knowledge first-hand accounts that address issues of power and how people reflexively respond are rare particularly amongst senior groups  (Warwick and Board, 2012). When it comes to practice, the individual becomes more reflexive (Cunliffe, 2009) understanding their own place in the mêlée in which they are a part. Of particular note are the power relations within ones habitus (Bourdieu, 1990) that become available for noticing thus enabling more thoughtful choices to be made as part of the paradoxes that are present in everyday decision making.

The literature I have drawn on:

Bourdieu P (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Cunliffe AL (2009) The Philosopher Leader: On Relationalism, Ethics and Reflexivity–A Critical Perspective to Teaching Leadership. Management Learning, 40(1), 87–101,

Elias N (1978) What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.

Mead GH (1934) Mind, Self, & Society. Chicago: Chicago University University.

Stacey R, Griffin D and Shaw P (2000) Complexity and Management – Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking? Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Warwick R and Board D (2012) Reflexivity as methodology : an approach to the necessarily political work of senior groups. Educational Action Research, 20(1), 37–41.

Warwick R and Board D (2013) The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge: A Reflexive Inquiry Into Research and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

Lessons from literature: opportunities for leadership development

I have just finished the first draft of an article for a conference in the summer.  And I’m rather pleased.   That said it will need a lot of polishing before it is ready to see the light of day.  I have become fascinated in how literature can be used in leadership development.  The literature I have drawn on is an eclectic mix from Greek mythology, Victorian melodrama to Shakespeare. All too often case studies in management literature seem dull and flat. We do not share in the characters’ success or plight. Instead we are presented with facts and asked to make judgements without appreciating the connected themes of relationships, power and history behind the participants. It draws us to ask the question ‘why on earth would they do …?’

In literature we travel with the participants and share their risks, doubts and ambiguity as they take their next steps. We are therefore not prompted towards ‘clever’ solutions but instead we share a sense of their dilemmas. The point I’m illustrating is that instead of focusing on the separation between the subject (the reader) and the object (the participants in the case study) there is a temporal process of becoming engaged with the character’s story.   Literature can therefore be used as a catalyst to develop our own narratives of connected events over a period of time.  It provides insights into our own development in the context of our wider social story that we are part of. This is a useful addition to action learning and leadership development. I also argue that this way of engaging with our own stories can make a contribution to management knowledge, providing more realistic accounts that we can emotionally and logically relate to.