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.


Building trusting relationships – our report

TrustOur report on trust has just been published (Donaldson and Warwick, 2016). It was a year ago when Alison Donaldson and I started our project, financed and supported by Roffey Park. Trust is an increasingly important subject in organisations, particularly as relationships are more fleeting as people go from one employer or project to another.  We were interested in taking a different tack from the routine academic examination of the subject that tends to be overly ‘thoughtful’ and analytic.  What if we were to gather a number of stories, conversations and insights from literature and use these as a way for people to connect with the whole gamut of feelings as they go about developing relationships? That is what we have done, paying attention to: vulnerability, hope, risk, disappointment, calculation, the unfathomable, the dynamic between individual and group, of power and so on. We have not come to any snappy conclusions. Instead we hope that we have come up with some useful insights and resources that people might read, discuss with their work colleagues and friends. And in doing so be jolted into noticing the development of trusting relationship in a slightly different way.

If you would like to read more about our approach and the Capturemethods we wrote a short paper titled Trust and the Emotional Bank Account for Croner-i  in their strategic HR series. Here we also outline the implications for organisational development and HR practitioners.

Over the next few months expect to hear more in terms of more workshops (for example click here) that we are running and further articles.

Donaldson A and Warwick R (2016) The Emergence of Trusting Relationships: Stories and Reflections. Horsham,  Available from:

Leadership – what an unhelpful idea (?)

Lhip MarI supervise a student who is researching leadership. At our recent meeting he presented his latest review of literature: theories, writers, frameworks, competencies, gurus and the like. The more articulate he was, both in what he had written and in conversation, the more impoverishing it seemed. I will explain: the work of this student was excellent, my criticism is aimed at how we (practitioners, scholars, anyone interested in the subject) talk about the subject. And by impoverishing, I mean how those frameworks, theories, inventories rarely pay attention to the rich, hard to fathom, conflicting and textured activities as we go about leading. So, here are some ideas.

What if we were not to talk about leadership? Instead we could pay attention to the network of relationships we are all part of. If I am in a leadership role and want to effect some sort of change what might I do? For those immediately around me it might help to get to know them, what makes them tick and what irritates them. For those in other departments or organisations the question might be the kind of gestures (policies, strategies, and speeches) might that be helpful to allow them to interpret what is on my mind. All quite traditional leadership fare and I could go on.

But each of us is being affected by those around us, none of us has a completely free hand (except those who live on an island whose population is one). We are being constrained and enabled by those explicit and, more often, implicit expectations of those around us. Sometimes it will be our boss and she will make her expectations very clear. Others are subtle, they may be political and deep seated cultural factors. Others, we may never fully know about.  By this I mean events that occurred years or decades ago that have affected the culture and whose myth is still taken up in local decision making. Also, of acquaintances of acquaintances that have influenced those around us. Very quickly our field of vision disappears. The task we are hoping to achieve might also be unclear and throw up new dilemmas and all within a shifting context.

For the newbie these might only be made obvious in making mistakes, of walking into glass walls before finding the handle to the door. These are all issues of power as we act in a network of relations.

The picture I am painting is of something that is not fully knowable, but at least we can come to understand it in some useful tentative way. We might enquire, be reflexive about our practice, talk with others, try to make sense of events, disrupt things and see what happens and so on. And from this our knowledge develops as does our practice and we become more expert. And this affects the knowledge and practice of those around us too.

To do this what might we have to attune ourselves to?  Well the following springs to mind: the emotions of ourselves and those around us; how people relate to each other; feelings of doubt and hope; imagination of what might be achieved or lost; how people relate to logic and so on. These are fuzzy, no discreet SMART objectives here. Some relate to the present, others to how people imagine the future and create these in the context of the past. They relate to individuals that can form patterns of behaviours in groups.

All of what I have described is uncertain, explorative, emergent, contextual and requires all of our senses and wit. So where does the bold overly assertive explanations of leadership come in? I think there is a problem, particularly those recipes that dull the senses with overly confident theories of success, or siren calls of certainty. There is better news for those that sparkle our interest to be enquiring and reflexive.

So here is an idea. Let us talk and write about those textured patterns of relations that we are part of, particularly as we are endeavouring to bring about some improvement. Let us do so with enough humility to enable the reader to imagine herself in that picture in a way that she can relate to the challenges that she faces on a day to day basis. In doing so we might pay attention to acts of following and leading; in other words the networks of being human.

The challenge of writing mindfully

coverRecently Pete Burden and I wrote a book – Leading Mindfully.  Our aim was to point to the importance of actively noticing what we do in organisations; not just as individuals, but together.  And in doing so to improve how we all make decisions.  It is a book about conversation, of being reflexive and taking action – not as a solitary endeavor, but as a social process we are all engaged in.

So there was a dilemma – how should we write it?  Tradition would say that it should be written in prose; blocks of text whereby we laid out our argument as a bricklayer might build a wall.  However, this has a number of implications that we felt uncomfortable with.  Building such a structure implies that we are experts, and therefore, you are to be ‘taught’.  However, both positions are false – you have your own experience and understanding of the subject and our views are still emerging.

It is for this reason we wrote the book as a dialogue, trying to be as true to life as the conversations we had.  There are of course benefits and drawbacks in taking a different approach.

In the conversation there are now three of us – you as the reader, Pete and me.  You will notice areas that you both agree and disagree with.  And you will notice something similar in the conversations I have with Pete.  All three of us come from different backgrounds and experiences.  In this process we make sense of new ideas and our experiences in relation to what we might imagine doing in the future.  In fact, this is an argument we make in the book – as we lead mindfully with others.

But this has some drawbacks.  From your perspective laying out a clear argument can be easier to engage with, it takes less work to agree or disagree with a point made.  Instead, we are interested in questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’, questions that cannot easily be resolved in a binary way.  All of this said, presenting our ideas as a dialogue has a truth about it that we are looking to pay attention to in organisational life.  And in this sense our way of writing was as important as the ideas themselves.

If you are interested in the book you can find it here.

Personal perspectives on developing management and leadership

I run the MA in Management and Leadership at the University of Chichester in the UK.  Here is a personal perspective as to why I believe that working whilst studying is a good idea, particularly when it comes to management and leadership.  It was in 2003 I started my masters, I had a senior role in a large organisation and was intrigued (and still am) as to how decisions are made in organisations and why so many of them seem irrational.  During my masters I developed an understanding for all those things I had found mysterious, or at least shrouded in mystery by the ‘experts’.  Soon I was able to talk confidently on their level.  This included subjects such as finance, HR, governance, strategy, innovation.  There were some subjects totally new to me such as complexity that changed the way I saw the world and how organisations worked.  With more understanding and confidence I was starting to have a greater impact.  Soon after I started I became part of the corporate planning team representing my directorate and people started to see me in a different light.  From this I led a number of strategic projects and later went on to work with a Government department on the formation and implementation of a national healthcare initiative.  All of this would not have happened if I had not taken those first steps and enrolled on my master’s course.  At the time my family was young, the demands of the job were high and fitting it all in was a challenge, but it was a hugely enjoyable challenge.  I prioritized what mattered and was more efficient at what I did. It seems odd to me not to study whilst you work, after all how else do you become experienced in the ideas you are learning about without putting them into practice; seeing what works and why.

After my masters I went on to do my doctorate, again whilst working.   And now my career has moved on to being an academic.  But an academic with a difference, one that strongly feels that management and leadership can only progress if it has a foot in both camps – that of practice and study.

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 value of ambiguity and experience

A few years ago the following quote really struck a chord with me.  It is from Donald Levine in a book that explores the loss of capacity in the modern world to deal constructively with ambiguity, he explains that:

  • In their quest for precision, social scientists have produced instruments that represent the facts of human life in one-dimensional terms.  They have defined concepts with rigour in order to represent dominant traits and tendencies univocally.  They have constructed scales in order to measure the strength of specified variables on one dimensional continua.  Investigations that rely on such instruments produce representations of attitudes and relations that strike us time and again as gratuitously unrealistic.  For the truth of the matter is that people have mixed feelings and confused opinions, and are subject to contradictory expectations and outcomes, in every sphere of experience (Levine, 1985, p8).

  • It must be of an event that happened very recently, preferably within the last few days.
  • It must be of something that matters; there is an important stake in the outcome, an outcome that has yet to be fully played out.
  • As for style or length, that matters little, other than the importance of congruence with the writer, the nature of events and those that will read it.

In working with their narratives, reading them aloud in small groups, re-writing them important details emerge.  Details that people can ‘do something with’ in terms of future actions.  The ambiguity is not lost; it becomes an important opportunity for reflection.  Here is some feedback:

  • ‘I found it completely fascinating … the relationship between thought, writing and the people here today’.
  • ‘I think the social process definitely helped because I got feedback that I probably wouldn’t have thought of on my own.  There is only so much you can work out by yourself however long you think about it’.
  • ‘I found the process of being met, my story being understood and response at an emotional and intellectual level was important for me.  … I understood the essence, a lot was washed away, and there was something really significant’.
  • ‘There was so much going on in the tiniest of interaction’.
  • ‘It feels that it has been quite special and surprising actually; more akin to a supervisor relationship … that they understood me and were interested in what I had to say … it seemed very important’.
  • ‘We all went about the task of re-writing narrative differently, one person edited and added something, another shortened the story and I came up with new questions’.
  • ‘This re-writing prompted a creative unsettlement’.

The point I am making is this: there are rich opportunities in dealing with the complexities of personal experience in order to make effective decisions.  Ambiguity should not be lost to the siren voices simplicity; experience if just too valuable.

Ref: Levine, D (1985) The Flight from Ambiguity – Essays in Social and Cultural Theory, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press

Ref (Picture): Jastrow, J (1899). The mind’s eye, Popular Science Monthly, 54, p299-312