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.

Reflexivity – some useful prompts in fiction


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.