Reflexivity – some useful prompts in fiction


The cover of Tamara: Journal of Critical Organization Inquiry

For a number of years I have been intrigued with reflexivity, that form of deep personal reflection that entwines ongoing thought of one’s practice with the practice of thought.  And it is really difficult, particularly when we are part of a group at work that sees the world in a similar way and have been working together for many years. There can be very little to challenge us to see the world differently and our thought and practice as part of it. This is important, as the world shifts we need to be attuned to this and react, but we have seen with the likes of Kodak and Blockbuster that despite advantages in their sectors they were left behind and are no more.

So, what can we do that might enable us to be more reflexive? Or, what prompts might be useful? At a group level one can mix people up and encourage new and different people to join. Or, to make connections with other people, groups or sectors. Recently I have been interested in what an individual might do and what they might draw on. Yes, they can visit other organisations and meet new people, but I was intrigued in something deeper and more accessible. Many of us read novels and books and I was interested in how fiction might act as a ‘reflexive prompt’ to enable us to see the world differently and thus shine a light on our thought and practice.

Several years ago I had a particularly fraught meeting with some surprising twists and turns. Not that unusual, far from it. After writing a narrative of the events at the time I explored what had happened with three small excerpts from fiction – very different forms of fiction. What occurred surprised me. On the one hand I could easily have closed down that experience and ‘moved on’. But doing this enabled me to notice what I had not explored in any depth before: issues of doubt, uncertainty and contradictions that I was experiencing before and during the meeting. We don’t often talk about these things in organisational life. I found a way of exploring this in a contextual way that helped my practice and thinking further develop. It also enabled me to discuss the events to a few trusted friends and colleagues and as such offered the potential to expand the potential for noticing.

If you are interested in these ideas in more depth I have written a paper for the Journal Tamara: Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry and it is available here.

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.

The ‘bus test’ for our academic work


Source: Wikimedia – Arriva436

Several weeks ago I was asked to review an academic paper that was to be presented at a leading management conference. I read the title and it made no sense to me whatsoever. It was only half way through the abstract that I got an inkling. Towards the end of the introduction I had got it, just. And once I had waded through the paper and read it again it said something that was interesting and relevant. The authors were playing a tightly woven game with a small group of fellow researchers interested in a focused area of organisational life using a particular methodology.  Now I appreciate we all have our shorthand, jargon and people we want to impress. That said we must be mindful of the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts –people who are struggling to make sense of their organisational lives.

In my review I made the following comment: ‘If your paper was left on a bus and picked up by a busy manager what would they make of it?’ In other words, how might it shine a light on their practice, which may at times may seem unfathomable to them.

So I propose a test, which I will call ‘the bus test’. Before we send of our papers and books off for review we should hand our efforts to someone facing the areas of research we are interested in. They should at least be able to understand the title and abstract. Better still that they can relate to what has been said. That is not to say that they should agree, but at least they should be able to form an opinion from which a conversation could occur. Only then can the authors dive into their focused arguments, literature and methods.

As an aside, much has been has been said about Open Access in academia where citizens have the right to have access to research material. To my mind this is a part of a similar debate particularly in the field of leadership and management.

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.

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.

The Social Development of Writing – the Unexpected Impact of Rosa Parks

A good friend of mine, Douglas, and I are writing a book called The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge. In essence we are writing about the importance of reflexivity in developing one’s own leadership practice and in doing so how this has something to say in the field of knowledge.

We are deeply in the process at the moment. For me thinking never stops. I am seeing connections between the different sections and chapters that I had not envisaged. As these new connections emerge I am aware that they are both forming and are being formed by our original ideas in quite a transformative ways.

I am also making connections with other aspects of my working life. For example, I have been asked to give a brief talk on complexity and social movements (eg the Black Power movement in 1960s America). Without this loose connection the life of Rosa Park, the individual who refused to give up her seat for a white person on a bus in Alabama which resulted in enormous social change and challenge to traditional power relations, would not have featured.

Yet I suspect this will be a key strand to our book. A strand that illustrates the venting of pent up tension that had built up over the decades and generations in a predictable (ie the events were likely to happen at some point) and yet unpredictable ways. And, is still playing out today in many different avenues of people’s lives. Was my interest in Rosa Parks in relation to our book coincidental or an act of ‘un-thought’ planning?

As I reflect on this now it seems to me to be an example of the social process of writing and how it ‘never leaves’ when in that deep and active phase. And this is a point that we are making in the book, leadership and knowledge are all activities that we are all engaged in as we ‘rub along’ together in organisational life; these are not subjects to be explored from a distance; but instead as part of an active process that we need to notice. Connections that instantly seem important to us need attention and are worth the effort to be explored. Sometimes their importance to us may dim, or they may come to shine; this is the subject of further work. In that light they might come to be of great importance to us as individuals, within the stories of an organisation say, or, in the case of Rosa Parks, to a generation and beyond.

Whether the brave acts of Rosa Parks will feature in our book when we send it to the publisher I don’t know; but at the moment my instinct is – yes; an instinct that I will continue to pay attention to and notice.