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.

Through difference comes a deeper confidence

cropped-picture-of-dunes-2.pngThis week I was at conference in Bristol, UK on the ‘contemporary relevance of the work of Pierre Bourdieu’ where I presented my paper on the connections and opportunities between Bourdieu’s thinking and action learning. It was one of the best conferences I had been to drawing people from all over the world and importantly working with Bourdieu’s ideas in very different ways.

I have been deeply affected by his work which has influenced a number of my books, papers and thinking in general. But I have lacked confidence on two counts. Firstly, his life’s work was enormous, there are few who have a deep understanding of his work and the context from which it emerged. Secondly, appreciating the contemporary ways in which those ideas were being taken up by people at the conference. In other words, I was very aware that my interest was focused on a small area of a far wider moving project.

Over the three days it was great to see the myriad of ways that people were working with his ideas. Some I was deeply drawn to, attracted by the interaction between excellent empirical work and theory. Others like Lisa Mckenzie’s work on the working class in London made me wonder what sort of world we had created. But others took Bourdieu’s work and applied multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) and other quantitative techniques that left me cold wondering what Bourdieu would have thought. Similarly, words and phrases such as ‘technique’, ‘tool’, ‘using’, ‘framework’ were applied to some of Bourdieu’s concepts in a way that just seemed to miss the shifting, relational, emergent qualities of his ideas reminding me of his comment: ‘Everything conspires to encourage the reification of concepts, beginning with the logic of ordinary language, …’ (Bourdieu, 1973, p62). Despite these differences and affinities my thinking was being challenged.

Through these differences and talking with those people who saw his work from other angles I became more confident about my areas of interest, that of reflexivity and the ‘friction’ between his concepts of habitus and field. This was not an arrogant confidence; I knew that I had something that was worth saying but with a humility to explore other ideas and how these were being taken up.

What implications does this have more generally? It is by being with other people of differing views and exploring their ideas that we become more confident and curious about our own position and how that position might develop. But that is not what I see around me. Politicians talk of building walls (metaphorically, literally and implied in their ‘dog whistle’ speeches), or they just talk and don’t listen. Perhaps we do the same; we surround ourselves with likeness amplified by our interaction with Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Here I am suggesting a different type of deeper confidence. I am not talking about an arrogant confidence that is defensive, inward looking and is brittle to challenge. I am talking about confidence that is open to the development of thought and keen to engage others with differing and challenging views. I think Bourdieu himself would have had views on this …

Bourdieu, P. (1973). The three forms of theoretical knowledge. Social science information, 12(1), 53-80.


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.

Putting the student at the centre of their learning (what a novel idea)

A few days ago I had an email from a friend of mine, Laura, asking me to do a video describing my ‘learning curve’ on a self-managed learning (SML) MBA programme I completed some 10 years ago. My video along with a few others was to be used to introduce the concept of SML to a client she was working with as part of a leadership development programme.

By way of explanation SML is an approach to personal development where the individual decides: what their learning needs are in light of what you want to achieve; how you might go about finding this out; the study that will be needed; and, the evidence required. In qualification programmes this is written down and formally assessed that it is of the right level for the award, for example Masters level. All of this is carried out as part of a learning set supported by an experienced facilitator. This approach was pioneered by Ian Cunningham and others in the 1990s.

In filming the video, which I have attached, it occurred to me how increasingly important it is to put the individual central to their learning, particularly in an ever uncertain and complex world where learning to learn becomes vital. That sounds obvious, but look at most universities or colleges. Courses are laid out with their learning outcomes, methods of assessment, duration, curriculum content, the amount of time with the tutor, reading lists and so on; all arranged into a number of modules, which are mostly compulsory. Does this sound like the learner is at the centre of their learning? Or is it a product of an education production line? And then there are more subtle aspects. In the production model the lecturer is seen as delivering their knowledge whilst the learner is there receiving and absorbing the insights only to digest and repackage them as part of an assignment. However if the learner was at the centre of their education they would be creating that knowledge with that lecturer and others in a way that was meaningful and challenging to them.

What I have described may not suit everyone and there is an important role for education as we currently know it. But it seems increasingly important to look for additional approaches to education particularly where those individuals are having to learn flexibility and take personal responsibility for their learning in a changing and complex world.

Cunningham, I., Bennett, B., & Dawes, G. (Eds.). (2000). Self managed learning in action: putting SML into practice. Gower.

Let’s be enthusiastic in our writing (and someone might read it)

HanifanDuring the course of my research on trust I came to read an academic paper on social capital that was nearing a hundred years old (Hanifan, 1916).  It was by the educationalist Lyra Hanifan who became interested in how people learn for the benefit of themselves and others.  It struck me how well written it was, albeit with a few terms we would now seem dated.  The quality of the paper was markedly different from many of today’s papers I have to trawl through.  What was different, here are a few thoughts:

  • It was written by someone who was interested in the subject and was eager to communicate his enthusiasm. I could imagine Hanifan thinking to himself that what he had to say would be of interest to many people and he wrote with those people in mind.
  • He probably did not feel as constrained as we are today to make a tightly formed argument that would address a focused academic point that had been rumbling on for years.
  • The life had not been mangled out by one re-work after another following reviewers’ comments.

I am not calling for a ‘return’ to a non-existent golden age, but we can be more thoughtful of the habits we have all fallen into.  By habits I do not just mean us authors, but the conventions we have all adopted in deciding what ‘good’ is and its usefulness.  Perhaps if we did we might become a little more relevant.  In other words to address some of the concerns that Michael Billig pointed to in his book How to Write Badly and Succeed in Social Sciences (Billig, 2013).

Billig M (2013) How to write badly: How to succeed in social sciences. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hanifan L (1916) The Rural School Community Centre. American Academy of Political and Social Science, 67(May), 130–138.

Themes that bind knowledge and leadership

Confluence of river Rhone and Arve in Geneva

I have mentioned before that I am writing a book with Douglas Board called the Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge.  This will be published next year by Palgrave Macmillan.  Four key interconnected and practical themes have emerged that bind knowledge and leadership together.  In summary these themes are:

  • Emphasis on the temporal.  Many methods of researching organisations or talking about leadership privilege an approach that takes data (figures, questionnaires, and interview accounts) and stresses a separation of the subject and object. It downplays the temporal in favour of the spatial; at least in the way that it is often described.  Phrases such as ‘stepping back from the data’ and ‘let’s be objective’ and ‘let’s see this through another lens’ are not uncommon.   This spatial way of thinking plays down the emergent feeling of ambiguity, sensemaking and conflict as individuals in a group inch forward into an uncertain future in favour of an un-reflexive post hoc rationalisation. We suggest there is merit in drawing attention to the temporal. In other words paying close attention to one’s own practice and its development. This is not to say that one can be entirely ‘temporal’ or ‘spatial’. Instead, there is an important need for reflexive awareness of the limitations of each. 
  • Immersed reflexivity.  With our emphasis on the temporal, immersed reflexivity calls attention to reflexive acts as social processes of action in themselves, not processes with privileged position or separation from  action.  Here the role of narrative is important.  A person writes accounts of important occurrences close to the time of happening when post hoc rationalisation has not dimmed the ambiguity, fear, power relations between people, hope and those multiple decisions that could have been taken.  In other words, paying attention to the concrete working out in action of paradoxical processes including those of logic and emotion, rather than splitting these.  Ideally working in small diverse sets, individuals are encouraged to engage with each other’s narratives and experience to enable noticing of what has not been noticed.  With these insights the individual engages in the risk of unsettling patterns of relations, of doing new and different things and of encouraging others to notice and discuss them.  And in doing so, knowledge develops that can be used to engage those unsaid and unrecognised ways of working.   
  • Epistemic wake.  Immersed reflexivity draws attention to the game(s) that we are all participants in, games that we have a stake in – with something to gain and lose.  These are games that change and develop over time.  Looked at from a distance (or from long term memory) there is clarity and linearity, and stories become reified.  At the time of happening things are confused, the rules of the game can make little or no sense, other than to those involved who have a stake in the process.  Reflexivity can open up new, previously unsuspected interpretations, patterns or perspectives, some of which, in the social process of the game, extend the game’s meaning.  Standing on the stern of a ship looking towards the horizon, one sees the wake as a clear stable white line that separates the sea.  Looking downwards to the propellers the full churn and mix of the water and air becomes apparent. The straight line wake is not a thing but a transient pattern of flux.  It is this metaphor that we use to engage with the contextual nature of knowledge as events occur, before they become fixed and distant. We believe that this is a more realistic way to describe organisational life. For example, it means that in inviting attention to leadership processes understood in terms of vision, courage and conflict, we are not offering yet another leadership recipe with supposed fixed ingredients. Instead we offer them as fruitful themes for observation and exploration, each one a turbulent wake of co-created meaning whose content is unpredictable and unboundable yet retaining coherence.
  • Anchoring leadership discourse.  The epistemic wake also extends to how we discuss leadership.  Tales of leadership and characteristics of leaders are often spoken about in terms of the distant wake of linearity and certainty.  What we are drawing attention to are the dilemmas, the risk, and the confusion of a leadership in terms of future direction that is seen, sensed and unknown.  With knowledge there are accepted tests, at least in academia; these are: generalisability, validity and reproducibility.  These tests are applied in various ways and in different fields of knowledge: each is a contested game, an epistemic wake.  Despite the enormous field of leadership literature, no such consensus on critical themes exists.   We offer vision, courage and conflict not as the right, or best, anchors – in the sense described in the preceding paragraph – for leadership discourse, but as an example of what an anchoring with prima facie relevance to practitioners might look like.

The Social Development of Knowledge and Leadership

Luc Viatour /

As I have mentioned in my blog and website I am writing a book with a friend ofmine, Douglas Board, called The Social Development of Knowledge and Leadership.  Next month we will be arranging workshops and discussion to test the ideas and get feedback before we submit the final manuscript to the publisher towards the end of the year.Here is a taster of our book, if you have any comments or thoughts it would be great to hear from you.

Who the book is aimed at

The book is for people who, at a certain point in their career, are asking some fundamental questions about their leadership within the social melee in which they have found themselves. They have questions left unanswered by the formulaic advice and prescriptions offered by the many books on leadership.  It is aimed at people who want to work seriously with their own experience, not the abstract experience of others, so as to improve their own practice.  For some this may lead to a further programme of study, such as a doctorate or master’s degree, in which personal experience is going to be an important theme.  And by addressing the experience of their own leadership they will have something new to say to the community that they are a part of; in other words they will be creating practical knowledge.

Structure and inspiration for the book

The book has a varied ‘texture’ and pace ranging from narratives of our experiences to detailed argument.  This is intentional; the aim is to reflect the experience of everyday life.   In other words, life is not a clear linear passage of events presented with clarity and offering rational choice, a presentation that can often be seen in many books on leadership.  It is in the context of everyday life that leadership has to have meaning.  We therefore argue that attention should focus on the practical day to day realities that people face as they interact with others– emotionally, viscerally, and intellectually and so on.

We draw inspiration from the complexity sciences.  Drawing on the recent work of weather scientists and the natural sciences generally complexity provides an opportunity to consider organisational life as being non-deterministic and non-linear.  It allows us to raise our heads from the post Enlightenment ‘comfort’ of cause and effect, linearity and certainty.  Here we explore complexity though the power, or anticipated power, between people as they work together; not within discreet organisations but across the web of connections that they are part of, both knowingly and unknowingly.


There are many theories on leadership and in the book we give a brief overview of some.  It can be tempting to be weary of the variety and the ease by which people offer a view into this crowded space without criteria to judge one idea from another (criteria that exists with knowledge).  However, for us, leadership is both important and meaningful, whatever the complex and ambiguous edges.  Between those moments of ‘significance’ (such as a presentation to the board) and the ‘routine’ (such as 1:1 with a member of staff) there are differences that can matter, differences that can be recognised as leadership.

Instead of offering models or frameworks we emphasise the importance of the essentially contested nature by which we all have to get along with each other.  It is here that acts of leadership are made in the context of unique situations that people find themselves in.  The leader, in paying attention to their own practice with others, becomes more aware of the connections, interconnections, the impact they have on others and the practical effects they have.  It is here that the complexity sciences form a useful analogy.


For knowledge to count as such there is a tendency to privilege the abstract, detached and universal.  This can be at the expense the continually contested nature of ongoing human interaction in which logic, ‘common sense’, anxiety, fear and hope all play out as people face those multiple and ambiguous choices in everyday life.  To us, all of this is important, not just the logical, post-hoc interpretation of the detached observer.  And it is in the rigorous process of working with one’s experience, as expressed in narrative, as part of a group process that valuable insights and knowledge can be gained.

The interaction of leadership and knowledge

As a leader engages in a process whereby they consider carefully their own experience new insights become apparent to them.  Once apparent they have a choice to act differently and in doing so new patterns of interaction occur.  At a practical level this might include meeting with different groups of people, engaging in different types on conversation or challenging the ‘way things are done’.  From this both the leader and those they interact with start to notice what has been hidden by a veil of familiarity that is shared amongst the group.  A familiarity often termed as ‘culture’.  It is in this process that both the leader can change and develop, but also create knowledge for the group.  And it is also our argument that these insights will be of value to organisations and to academics.

In practice

The importance of narrative has already been mentioned.  This is in the context of what we have termed immersed reflexivity.  A group of people, or learning set, is formed and with the support of a facilitator they draft narratives of important events.  These are written close to the time of the event so as not to lose the ambiguous choices and the emotion that can quickly dissipate when a person looks back in hindsight.  These narratives are shared with the set and discussed.  Areas that seem obvious, ‘clear cut’, or not worth a mention are noticed by set members and form a focus for conversation.  In noticing these and acting differently (which can in itself be a risk that needs to be carefully managed) at work relations change as do the interactions and power dynamics.  This becomes available for further discussion.  It is here that the opportunity arises to compare experience with accepted knowledge.  This might include those unsaid customs within an organisation’s culture and the accepted wisdom reflected within the professional press or in academia.

It is here that both the development of leadership and the creation of knowledge coincide.

Where we draw our inspiration from

These include: the complexity writer Ralph Stacey; the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, Norbert Elias and Sudhir Venkatesh; the philosophers George Herbert Mead and Gilbert Ryle.