The flip side of provocation (of bridges and walls)

ScanccyyySometimes a word catches me and unravels. And that is what happened with ‘provocation’. A little of the detail. I met with Julian Stodd and colleagues from Sea Salt Learning the other day. Julian handed me a copy of =Q@L[equal], a magazine with the tagline ‘provocative writing for a more equal world’ – see picture. Julian writes:

=Q@L[eqaul] is a collection of ideas: a provocation and call to arms. It’ a space to reflect, to challenge.

To me there are two sides of the coin, one good the other bad:

  1. The bridge: We say or write something that jars, perhaps it is at the edge or beyond accepted wisdom. This leads to a shift in thought, there might be a striking moment as the person reconciles an experience they have had with that new perspective. Even the provocateur can be moved as they see their idea taken up in new ways; together both parties see the world differently, even slightly. And from this transformation and novelty emerges.
  2. The wall: The other side is problematic. Here we provoke others and in doing so we build walls (quite literally if we are to believe what we hear from the US Presidential Elections). Words of provocation are said and opinions become entrenched, it prevents ideas developing, it fails to build bridges of understanding. We cannot see or imagine the world differently beyond our own self interest.

The wall creates ‘otherness’, a separation between people from which identity grows often at the expense the marginalised that have little power or voice. This is a powerful dynamic that once started can be hard to stop.

The bridge on the other hand is fragile. It requires nurturing and an attention to the dynamics between people. We need to test and understand our own movement of thought and those around us as our ideas emerge. We need to accept that there will be misunderstanding and friction, but this is an opportunity for further conversation and deeper understanding. In other words, to strengthen the bridge.

It seems to me that people are becoming all too keen on building walls without looking to history to see the consequences. By the time we realise it might be too late to stop. Building bridges is hard, we need to be challenging of ourselves and other around us.

Details of =Q@L[equal] can he found 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.

Book Review: Why Reforming the NHS Doesn’t Work – The importance of understanding how good people offer bad care

A few weeks ago I was asked to write a brief book review. The book was by Valerie Isles and takes an intelligent and nuanced view of changVI Scane management in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Many books forget how change management affects the patient, this book doesn’t. With this in mind I thought it might be useful to share my review here on my blog.
The author, Valerie Iles, identifies a vicious circle of factors that affect both frontline practitioners and policymakers alike; these include the power of the information age, audit and inspection, the volatility of politics, ‘reason’ and managerialism and the impact of anxiety. So pervasive are these that they are rarely noticed or discussed. In this context it is hard to imagine how anything happens at all – but of course it does, but not in the cause and effect way that many policymakers might expect.
So what do we do that makes a difference to those that we care for? Moving beyond the ‘check list’ paradigm the book offers powerful ideas that will affect practice and thought in how we as a community of caring activists make sense and improve what we do. The author provides an additional perspective to the trends towards the randomised control trial where variables are known and manipulated, the expert consensus, evidence based medicine etc where knowledge appears clear cut and unproblematic. This knowledge is important, but it is not the whole story. This use of this scientific knowledge sits within a complex mesh of the unique person, of history, practice, families and society requiring the application of practical wisdom.
The book concludes with two insightful scenarios that reach beyond the push/pull assumptions of linearity that lies beneath much of public policy. The first, running with the tide is pessimistic. The second, fighting against the prevailing forces offers a more positive outcome. This is not a book without hope, far from it, it should be seen as liberating to those who want to make a positive difference but recognise that this requires collaboration and meaningful attention to what we do on a daily basis at and between all levels.
In short this is a tonic to those tired of the broken promises of mainstream healthcare policy and change. The language is not passive – it is clearly written by someone who cares; perhaps that is the overriding message – we should all care and show that we care.

Coping with the end of reductionalist leadership in a complex world – insights from complexity and social movement

The King’s fund in the UK is an important think tank commenting on UK health policy.  Last week it published its thoughts on leadership and engagement.  As part of this the King’s Fund commissioned a report from the Centre for Health Enterprise at Cass Business School in London of which I am part.

Following a comprehensive literature review, heavily influenced by complexity sciences, we came up with seven essential criteria that are important to consider in an increasingly complex world, these were:

  • Go out of your way to make new connections.
  • Adopt an open, enquiring mind-set, refusing to be constrained by current horizons.
  • Embrace uncertainty and be positive about change – adopt an entrepreneurial attitude.
  • Draw on as many different perspectives as possible; diversity is non-optional.
  • Ensure leadership and decision-making are distributed throughout all levels and functions.
  • Establish a compelling vision which is shared by all partners in the whole system.
  • Promote the importance of values – invest as much energy into relationships and behaviours as into delivering tasks.

So what has changed over the last few years to make this more important?  There are a number of reasons, but here I would like to look at one – social movements, which has been the subject of a previous post.  Here we stated:

The past five years has redefined the place of social movements, earning them a new place in papers like this, simply because the world of social media technologies has emerged so rapidly and with such powerful effect that social movements have almost unfettered and certainly uncontrollable power. The timeline for social movements has been rewritten. Mobilisation is now achieved in a shorter time than that required for differences and conflicts to emerge. The social movement exceeds critical mass long before fragmentation begins. In a world of instant, viral communication to a staggering proportion of the target population, the spontaneity of action and the lack of structures have reversed the power balance, so that social movements can form, mobilise, gain headlines and have powerful impact before organised systems are even aware of any opportunities or threat. (p14).

Not only have the rules of the game have changed, the boundaries of the ‘pitch’ have gone.  Whereas leaders used to think about a defined remit of their activity (for example boundaries of a single department or organisation) they now need to be far more aware of the entire ‘ecosystem(s)’ of which they are part.  In this case I’m thinking of the general public, patients, staff, the other organisations that come to affect the ecosystem, education, social care and many more.  In other words, there is the end to the illusion of certainly.  However, this is not to say that randomness takes its place.  There is a form of order, but not in the sense of comforting reductionalist predictability.  By reductionalist I mean that a problem can be separated and understood from its component parts allowing wider conclusions to be drawn on the whole.   However, useful insights can be made in considering the entire dynamic entity as it continually emerges and develops.  And it is here that the above bullet points are important.  This is why I have used a photograph of eroding sandstone as a metaphor for this post.  Although it is random in the sense of each grain of sand and the exact formation of the pattern there are predictable themes that do emerge, from which further thought (and in our actual case) action can be taken.

This brings me onto my final point –how should these seven bullets points be used?  Firstly, not as a point by point list, or like some instruction manual akin to assembling a piece of flat pack furniture.  That reductionalist approach would run counter to my argument.  Instead, I would suggest that they prompt conversation between people as to how they are jointly making sense of the developing and emerging world that they are a part of.   To have these conversations regularly and to share stories and experiences that makes sense to them and those that don’t.  Also, it enables people to explore their ability to become more intuitive of the emerging dynamic.  In this way the above bullet points become a prompt to conversation and joint understadning and not a constraint.

Reference: Welbourn, D, Warwick, R, Carnell, C and Fathers, D (2012) Leadership of Whole Systems, King’s Fund: (Accessed: 29.05.2012)

How should we mark the 50th anniversary of Shareholder Value?

I’m finally moved to write this blog following some great conversations last night at Conscious-Business (see my Blogroll) in Brighton.

2012 sees the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom.  The book covers a number of topics from floating exchange rates, social welfare to the deregulation of the medical profession.   Amongst the subjects covered is Stockholder Theory (or Shareholder Value to many).  In the following quote Friedman makes the point that a CEO has only one social responsibility and that is to maximise returns for the company’s owners:

The view has been gaining widespread acceptance that corporate officials and labour leaders have a ‘social responsibility’ that goes beyond servicing the interest of stockholders or members.  This view shows a fundamental misconception of the character and nature of free economy.  In such an economy, there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say engages in open and free competition, without deception and fraud (p133).

In the early 1980s Jack Welch of GE made shareholder value his number one priority.  Within the wider economic context of free markets Welch’s statements and actions were the catalyst that brought about a radical change in corporate culture that we still see today.

Critics of shareholder value make the point that it is silent to the accountabilities we owe to future generations and the planet (in the use of resources, environmental damage and climate change) and our current responsibilities (our neighbourhoods, child labour, employment and so on).  However, in looking at that above quote Friedman makes an important condition that is often not spoken of.  In order for shareholder value to ‘work’ organisations must:  1) comply with the laws of the land; and 2) there must be free and fair competition, in other words a level playing field.  Over the years we have seen the rules of the game broken; most spectacularly and visibly by Enron and WorldCom.  It also assumes that large organisations won’t assertively lobby governments to skew policy and legal frameworks to the detriment of open and free competition.

Perhaps from one individual organisation to another a focus on shareholder value might not matter in the great scheme of things.  However, there are accumulative effects from one sector to another, one country or region to another and the wider global economy.   These effects are felt in wider corporate culture, government policy and thereby the wider connection of how individuals and organisations are socially accountable to each other.

I’m not offering any solutions but I think the 50th anniversary of Friedman’s contribution to shareholder value offers an important opportunity to rethink what really matters.

Putting the ‘feeling’ back into organisations

Last week I was in church to celebrate a friend’s 25th wedding anniversary.  I have not been quite so moved for a long time, which got me asking myself why?  Several reasons struck me; firstly there was the public declaration of love.  But there was far more to it than that.  The couple were regular worshippers at the church before their marriage and continue to attend to this day. They had also had central roles in the church’s charitable work with the homeless in London as well as keenly working on the restoration of this important church, so it can continue its important work.

All of this was evident in the service where there was a beautiful sense of community and purpose (ie that everyone was engaged in something important whatever their position was in that community).  One particualy touching moment was a performance by StreetWise Opera (  & @StreetwiseOpera), a charity that uses music to help homeless people tackle some of the problems in their lives.  This was not just a celebration of my friend’s wedding; it had become far more than that – a connection with a wider community and how that community helps itself and where it draws its energy from – both in terms of its past and the interconnected network of the present.

A simple act of celebration can enable a joint noticing of what is important in our lives and how we are connected with each other.   There are always dangers in making direct comparisons; say between people gathering for a church service and working in an organisation, but I think for those of us who work in organisations we have something to learn!

Maximum productivity from minimum diversity?

Wikimedia: Hammu

The nineteenth century saw a revolution in German forestry. Up until that point the local government was content to levy taxes on the landowners allowing them to manage as they pleased. The forests had remained largely the same year on year coping with natural disasters, fire, drought, flood, pests and everything else that nature and man had in mind. For the people the forest wasn’t just a source of timber, but was a mainstay of the economy. Foliage was used as fodder, thatch and fruits were a source of food for animals and humans, twigs and branches were used as bedding and fencing, bark and roots was used for tanning and the list goes on. Then the state took a more active interest in how forests were to be managed. Understandably for people remote from the culture and the goings-on of the forest they were only interested in lumber and this became the measure of success. Very quickly impressive strides were made in identifying the ‘right crop’ (in this case Norwegian Spruce) and how this should be planted. The forests were cleared of undergrowth and line upon line of trees were planted. This became the visible sign of a well-managed forest that had important symbolic meaning that struck a chord with industrialisation of the time. Yields of lumber increased dramatically and the method took off across the world.

Yields of timber in second and third generation forests dwindled. Second generation production was 20-30% less than the first and a new word entered the vocabulary Waldsterben (forest death). The soil became barren, without vital micro-nutrients and wildlife. The local economy suffered from the loss of sundry materials for livestock and inhabitants. The monoculture (both species and of trees the same age) made them vulnerable to disease, storm and fire. It became a disaster, but one driven by ‘sensible intent’.

The reduction of diversity and drive towards a unified form of action is not new; from German forests to the scientific methods of manufacture inspired FW Taylor to business process re-engineering to ‘lean’ the story continues. The question that I am interested in is this: how do we ensure that there is enough diversity of thought, skills, dreams and resource to allow them to ‘speak’ alongside an understandable focus on productivity and cost. To my mind we need to move beyond the  ‘Google allows their staff a day a week to dream …’ mantra and towards asking more searching questions such as:

• What would a new recruit to our organisation say about the way we do things here?
• How would we encourage a person to have a good idea?
• If someone had a good idea how would they make it happen?

These are not ‘big’ questions to be asked by the board of directors (although that will help). To my mind each team, department, function, unit should be asking these questions of themselves.  Productivity and diversity should not be seen as two poles but as the essential grist to each other’s oyster.

Reference: Scott, J (1998) Seeing Like a Stake – How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, New Haven and London, Yale University Press