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.

The purpose of purpose

Capture blogLately I have been turning my attention to the subject of ‘purpose’.  My friend Pete Burden and I are busy drafting a paper for a conference dedicated to ‘Organisations with Purpose’; in short what might our response be to corporate scandals and a lack of ethics in business.

It seems that people are all too happy to craft a few crisp words about what they want an organisation to be and to label this as a ‘purpose’, into the mix you could add ‘vision’, ‘mission’ and the like. Now I know that people hold strong views on this, carefully drawing distinctions between them. All well and good but that does not interest me right now. Instead I want to focus on how we might pay attention to these words in the face of conflicting and confusing situations we find ourselves in, often with little information. In other words the entanglement between pre-thought gestures of ‘purpose’ and the messiness of life.

It was Michel DeCerteau, the French Jesuit monk, social scientist and philosopher as well as meticulous commentator on the mundane of routine life who pointed out:

The characteristically subtle logic of … ‘ordinary’ activities comes to light only in details. And hence it seems to me that …, as its bond to another culture is rendered more explicit, will only be assisted in leading readers to uncover for themselves, in their own situation, their own tactics, their own creations, and their own initiatives (DeCerteau, 1984, pix).

What I think he is getting at, in the introduction to his book The Practice of Everyday Life, is how relevant and the interesting people’s accounts are as they try to navigate their way around day to day challenges and opportunities they face. A short account, well written or told, captures attention and puts us in the melee, allowing us to run through the dilemmas faced. In other words, although each of our stories is dripping with context and is unique, we can imagine ourselves there, facing those issues. And it is this that has worth in terms of developing our practice.

Like the Roman god, Janus, who looks both ways into the future and the past, it seems that we need a similar knack when it comes to purpose.  In short, to develop the ability to both communicate in snappy soundbites and to talk richly of how we bring those to life in our daily work. A friend reminded me of Wittgenstein’s (1969) later thoughts when he noted:

Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself (para 139).

We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgements by learning rules: we are taught judgements and their connexion with other judgements. A totality of judgements is made plausible to us (para 140).

The question is: for those of us that have been involved in crafting an organisation’s purpose, how much time have we given to enabling those richer conversations to occur to make connections between hoped for ‘purpose’ with the routines of everyday life. And then how those routines of conversation might be sustained to nurture any growing sense of purpose.


DeCerteau M (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shotter J (2005) Understanding Process From Within: An Argument for ‘Withness’-Thinking. Organization Studies, 27(4), 585–604.

Wittgenstein L (1969) On Certainty. Anscombe G and von Wright G (eds), New York: Harper Torchbooks.

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!