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.


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.

New Landscape for Health: New Landscape for Leadership?

Last year I was asked to be the Guest Editor for the journal Perspectives in Public Health.  I choose the topic of innovation; but not in the sense of new technology, but instead how people work together in innovative ways; focusing on behaviours and attitudes in a culture of increased complexity and ambiguity.

I asked a friend of mine, Linda Holbeche, if she might like to contribute a paper on the subject of leadership.  Linda is an expert on the subject and I felt that she would have something valuable to say.  Linda indeed submitted a paper; it worked its way through the peer review process and finally appeared in the special edition in May 2011.

The paper focused on how GPs (ie family doctors) were to work together in consortia in light of the emerging ideas around the Health and Social Care Bill, particularly in commissioning services.  A year later with the imminent accent of the Bill into law I went back to Linda’s paper to see how things had changed.

Linda identified that in an environment which is more ambiguous and fast changing the focus should be less on establishing rigid formal structures and more on building lasting relationships between people, ensuring that governance structures were an enabler to this as opposed to a constraint to action.  Leadership will need to focus on how people make sense of the emerging reality as opposed to forming “grand plans” of the future which will never materialise; here Linda states:

The process of sense making is becoming a core competence [of leadership] since it provides an approach to dealing with unpredictability and the impetus to respond effectively to the environment.  For … sense making is the ability to decide what information to heed, what to ignore, and how to organize and communicate that which we judge to be important. Therefore the skill of synthesis is particularly crucial for leaders and reflexivity is key to strategic action. (p135).

So how have things changed?  The one thing that I am hearing from many people in health is this: people are now talking to each other; GPs are talking with hospital doctors and managers with doctors.   Not only has the intensity of those conversations increased so have the networks.   That can only be a good thing as long as those conversations are focused on delivering better health and social care.

In a recent talk by Mike Farrar, the CEO of the NHS Confederation; he stated that there needed to be a greater focus on:

  • How people manage the wider context (or ecology of the health system) and not just what happens in their own organisations.
  • Becoming emotionally understanding of what happens, and not just fighting battles with logic.
  • Actually thinking things through, particularly with the demise of Strategic Health Authorities to tell them what to do.
  • Recognise that many of the improvements are to be found at the ‘boundaries’ between and within organisations; requiring dialogue and joint working to realise those benefits.
  • Boldness, and ‘speaking truth to power’.

If the benefits of the new Bill are to be realised, then the increasing intensity of conversations need to be shaped around a different idea of leadership.  It is here that Linda’s article has something valuable to say in order to build on some encouraging first steps.

Ref: Holbeche, L (2011) , GP consortia: navigating ambiguity to produce greater public value?, Perspectives in Public Health, Vol 13, No 3, p131-136

Public Rhetoric, Private Sensemaking

Last week there were a couple of events that reminded me of a previous posting of mine on the National Health Service (NHS) in England, but also more broadly of organisational life.  As I have mentioned before, in England the Health and Social Care Bill is working its way through Parliament.  If successful it will bring about substantial change to health and social care.

Firstly there was the Nuffield Trust Conference where the Health Secretary and others gave polished performances of future problems if nothing was done and how the future would be better if the changes are introduced.  And that going back was not a viable option.  The language on the podium was confident with graphs, metrics along with a few narratives the audience could relate to.

The second event was a small far less formal gathering of MPs, peers and those with an expert contribution on health and/or leadership that I was invited to.    The short presentations, the questions and answer sessions and the conversations on the fringes took an understandably different tone.  Instead of future focused rhetoric of the benefits of the new world here the practicalities of today were explored.  In talking with the attendees at this session it is clear that the reforms are generating an enormous number of quality conversations.  GPs are now talking with hospital doctors, doctors are now talking with managers, and there are serious conversations as to how people will work together as they go forward.  In other words, there is a process of joint sense making as people come to think and understand what the future will bring and how they will respond.

These events reminded me of Gilbert Ryle’s observation on how we use language.  Ryle was an English philosopher of the mid twentieth century who was influenced by Wittgenstein, particularly with respect to language.  Ryle (1949) discussed the problem between what he refers to as “task verbs” and “achievement verbs” and how these often go unnoticed.  The former refers to activities, processes and actual experience and the latter only to the outcomes that the activity will have:

Many of the performance verbs with which we describe people …signify the occurrence not just of actions but of suitable or correct actions.  They signify achievements.  Verbs like … “catch”, “solve”, “find”, “win” …and countless others, signify not merely that some performance has been gone through, but also that something has been brought off by the agent of going through it.  They are verbs of success (p125).

Turning back to the above events, very few of the public discussions centred upon the unfolding activity and sense making people were making together as we inched forward with the reforms, or ‘task verbs’ as Ryle put it.  Those conversations legitimately occur behind the scenes.  However, to me these conversations form the energy and local direction to make change happen.  I am not saying those private conversations are more or less important than the public rhetoric.  What I am drawing attention to is the importance they both have together.   Descriptions of future success, or ‘achievement verbs’ in Ryle’s words, are vital; but in themselves they are insufficient to bring about change.  In other words the ‘gesture’ of the politicians and legislation, will have to be responded to by the myriad of local interactions and conversations – change can be encouraged, but ultimately it is complex and self-organising.

Reference:  Ryle, G (1949) The Concept of Mind, London: Penguin