3i Power: imagination, identity and interaction

Abstract Composition with Head and Sailing, 1950 (oil on hardboard)

Abstract Composition with Head and Sailing, 1950, Morris, Elizabeth / UCL Art Museum, UK / Bridgeman Images

What is the role of imagination in power? For example, how might the workings of my imagination affect the way that I will behave at a difficult meeting next week in what I say and do?

In addition, if we are talking about imagination what of our identity that fashions our imagination. Take this one-step further, if our imagination affects how we act with other people how will they react with their actions, and the pattern of interactions thereafter.

These were the ideas that I became intrigued with at a workshop I went to last week hosted by Alison Donaldson and John Higgins called ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ (or as I would prefer to call it Speaking one’s truth within power relations). I am not going to discuss the detail of our conversations but I will outline how it made me reflect on my experiences and encouraged me to think how I would react in the future.

Eleven of us met in Brighton, all occupying different aspects of life in university, heads of department, lecturers, professors, some at the fringe. Given our topic it was interesting that we felt that we could not meet at a university, that seemed a step to far (possibly the subject for another blog – the role of location in trust and power).

I became intrigued when one participant explained how they envisaged a meeting that was going to be difficult might turn out. I related to this in a visceral way with a very real situation that I am dealing with now. I spoke of how I was imagining in what way a new working relationship might develop over the next few months. For example, where we might meet, what we might agree to do, how the previous history of what I knew of individual might affect how we might get on.

Conversations like these can only occur in relation to who we are; in other words our identity.  But our identity can be deeply hidden, particularly to ourselves, becoming more noticeable and formative when we come into contact with others and of difference, in this sense the self is social.

The vivid story of another participant made me think of what we reveal to others particularly if we have met them for the first time and they are different from us in some significant way. What we reveal provides an insight as to who we are and what we are not. For example, I have been an academic for about five years now. How I introduce myself to people depends on who they are and how I think they might react to me. I remember the shock some years ago when a former senior director I worked with described me as having ‘become an academic’, this was not a compliment.   The issue of identity is important when it comes to how our internal imagined conversations are mediated. Sometimes this only becomes clear to us though others. The imagination and identity are bound.

This brings me to interaction. These imagined conversations have impact. As we start our conversation, our imagination finds its voice and our words create a reaction. This can for example affirm our thoughts, or we can be discombobulated by a mismatch of expectation and experience. But of course the people we are speaking with have also had thoughts and imagined conversations and will similarly have surprising or affirming reactions.  Our interactions have the potential to create something surprising and novel, developing into new patterns of relationships.


Practice Based Learning in a Digital (or Dental?) Age

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngA few days ago I wrote a blog of some ideas of a new project I was beginning with James Traeger. Here are some initial thoughts from James in response. 

The day after Rob Warwick and I went to Pagham Harbour, where we stood on the spit of pebbles that felt like it was miles out to sea, and commissioned our new project around Practice Based Learning, I went to see my dental hygienist for my regular six monthly check up. Or at least I thought it was my hygienist, but it turned out that my usual one was ill, and a stand-in had been found who could see me at the last minute.

Now, I don’t know anything about how to be a dental hygienist, except of course from the point of view that I have been on the receiving end of a fair few of them over the years (which may of course be germane here, as you will see). I duly submitted myself to having someone I’d never met before, whose face was obscured by a mask, dig around in my mouth for half an hour or so. I have had the same hygienist for a few years now and I suppose I had grown used to her touch. I hadn’t in fact realised this until the new person started to do her work. I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say she was faster and rougher. As I lay there, staring at the ceiling, I wondered whether it was my place at all to say anything. (Not that this would be easy). It occurred to me that it might be useful to her if I gave her some of my advice. But who am I to do so? The job was done efficiently enough. She didn’t do any lasting harm and my teeth feel as cleaned as ever. But it got me thinking again about practice, learning and the readiness we have to accept the craft of the expert. As someone on the receiving end, literally, of their craft, what right did I have to give feedback?

Brining this back to my own practice, it suggests to me that essentially I could learn from at least three constituencies:

  • People who have deep experience of my practice world (i.e.the ‘experts’)
  • People who are on the receiving end of my craft (the ‘clients’)
  • People who take an interest from a relatively dispassionate position (peers, for example, but also anyone who may be interested enough to be looking or sharing an interest in my world of practice)

I am not someone who advocates the post-Trumpian end of expertise. There will always be technical knowledge that is best taught (or at least caught) by pupils, from adepts. But when it comes to refining one’s craft, how far does the inexpert have a useful view? This and other related questions bubbled around me as I considered our conversation about practice based learning.

It also struck me that, in the digital age, the proliferation of data and web-based knowledge means it becomes much easier to access stuff that could be useful to enhance learning about our ‘craft’, whatever that might be. The latter group of the three I mention above is particularly enabled by a digital capacity. I can now both passively (through my own surfing) or actively (through networking and connecting) access the views of an extraordinary community of practice, beyond anything that could have be dreamt of at a time when the pioneers of action learning or self-managed learning, such as Reg Revans or Ian Cunningham, were developing their thinking.

A quick google proves my point:


So as we embark upon this new inquiry into the future of practice based learning, I am inspired by my slightly heavy-handed, be-masked friend standing over me as I lay back in the chair, saying ‘agh!’

SML v2.0 – practice based learning

20180605_133520Ideas are bubbling up for a new research project. And one keeps coming back to me and it is this: what might Self-Managed Learning (SML) look like in the 21st Century? This begs two initial questions: 1) what is self-managed learning (SML); 2) what is so special about the 21st century. In summary SML was developed by Ian Cunningham (Cunningham, 1999) whereby participants had greater control over defining what their learning goals were to be and how they would go about demonstrating their learning.  This was in contrast with most programmes with fixed learning outcomes, exams and other ways to demonstrate knowledge.  Here SML challenges participants to think carefully as to what they want to achieve and why. As for the 21st century, we are clearly living in a faster paced world that is less stable with daunting existential threats such as climate change.

In bringing these two together questions and ideas swirl in my mind, some of which will survive time and scrutiny, others will not. To give myself a chance I am looking at postgraduate study in the fields of leadership and the development of organisations. To emphasise, I am making a clear link between the individual and their social working melee, both are a part of each other.

The first question I come to is: what counts for knowledge for learning and organisations now? This question is too big; perhaps better described by what it is not, or rather how things are shifting. In organisations there was the ‘go to’ expert, often senior with longstanding. Similarly in academia there is the peer reviewed journal for example, expert authors with expert reviewers behind the scenes. But how are we to make sense of fast moving fleeting knowledge that relates to one context but less so of another, yet avoiding the trap of ‘fake’ in its often contested nature. And having understood what is around us how do we build on this with others and communicate something useful. Similarly how we understand and contribute to other’s knowledge work. In this sense critical thinking becomes less of the individual and more social.

In this situation what might be the role of developers and universities be? This particularly important if we are seen less for our expertise? In addition, how might this be recognised in a qualification programme such as a Post Graduate Certificate? How do we explicably recognise the three-way role of the participant, the organisation and university or developer more explicitly given the slipperiness of understanding and knowledge? Perhaps what I am really interested in is Socially Mediated Learning?

Hot from the publication of our book, Organisation Development: A Bold Explorer’s Guide, this is a project that I’ll be working on with James Traeger. This week we met to make a start with a walk on the deserted winding beach at Pagham, a small harbour village on the south coast of the UK. Here we began the process of shaping what defines and interests us about the topic. I have laid out my initial thoughts and these will change and grow in the conversations we will have, as James’s views will do likewise. In fact, to catch the shift in thinking we are starting to talk about this as practice based learning. And very soon we will be having conversations with others. In short, to start the process of socially mediated learning.

Cunningham, I. (1999). The wisdom of strategic learning: The self managed learning solution. Oxford: Gower Publishing Ltd.

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.


The educational tour and gift shop – No thank you!


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.

Truth – the new reflexive duty that is all our responsibility

capture-final-picAs the year comes to an end I thought I would add a few lines on the one thing that has troubled me most – truth. By truth I mean dependable knowledge that enables people to form effective opinions and decisions. With the US Presidential Election and the vote of the UK to leave the EU it seems that the fragility of truth has become all too apparent to those of us who care. More worrying, those of us who care seem to be in short supply.

There is little I can do to affect global events, but at least I can look closer to home to make some sort of impact. I work with postgraduate and undergraduate students and delegates on professional development programmes. I have become intrigued as to what people count as dependable knowledge, more specifically how much critical thought is given to this.

We now have blogs (like this one), news aggregators, complexity delivered in 140 characters and so on. All of this amplified by virtual velcro, the means by which ‘news’ unknowingly sticks to people by what they ‘like’ and what ‘friends’ they have. In readymade communities anyone can say anything with the added double bonus of both instant credibility and a boost that brings forth further response; a rapid process that risks self-reinforcing groupthink.

What did we have before? Newspapers and books, both with some form of editorial process. Peer reviewed journals that sought to take a rigorous stance on what made it through. Professional and trade press again with editorial teams. None of these were perfect but all had editorial processes and people in place were invested in the long term. In other words, any claims on truth would be reconciled with the credibility they had developed and yet held hostage to future challenge. Of course we still have these sources, but like the patina of an antique they are outshone by the new.

I am not suggesting a rejection of these new sources. However, the new skill of the student, citizen, consultant, work colleague – all of us, is increasingly to establish the validity of those sources and to carefully explain them to those around us and to ourselves. In short to be a reflexive check to ensure we do not get sucked in. What questions might we ask? There are many, but I think the most important stem from: what is the network of relationships that this person is invested/nested in? People have a tendency to cite and draw comfort from like-minded individuals. What awareness do they have of this, and how overt is this? Do they make connections with people from other traditions and views? Can you draw a connection of thought back to ideas and areas that you relate with and you know to be valid?

This is not just a skill, but a set of skills. Firstly, there is the ability to work out these connections and to draw the messy map of relationships. Secondly, the knack of being able to critically connect any valid insights to one’s context and practice. And finally, and importantly, being able to stand up and to argue the case; this is important as in doing this we can shape the debate. By doing this we can be an informed consumer, contributor and curator of knowledge.

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.