Author Archives: Chris Mowles

A glossary of contemporary management terms V – going forwards.

Going forwards, either used to mean ‘what we’ll do next’, ‘in the future’, or sometimes just as a hollow place holder meaning absolutely nothing at all, is another orientational metaphor which makes embodied sense. It belongs to the family of journey metaphors which we referred to in previous posts: we choose our ‘direction of travel’, we know where we’re going, we are determined. Moving-Forward-1We’re on our way to a better future, an onwards and upwards ‘trajectory’. Nearly 15 years ago Tony Blair’s election campaign chose the tautologous slogan ‘forward, not back’ just to reinforce the point that to vote for Labour meant being in a car with no reverse gear. There is only the future: there are no regrets.

There is a particular cognitive approach to executive coaching, still in use in many organisations, which exemplifies this kind of singular future-oriented thinking. For example the GROW model is explained as follows:

  • Goal.
  • Current Reality.
  • Options (or Obstacles).
  • Will (or Way Forward).

Organisational problems are understood as the individual’s struggle to overcome particular difficulties with determination and rational analysis. And perhaps if you intend undertaking some difficult change process it is good to imply that you will push on and not falter at the first sign of mutiny, and that you know what you’re doing.

However, maybe there is more to uncover about complex experience than talking as if there is only one tense which is important, the future, and only the individual’s rationality and will to map it out. Continue reading

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A glossary of contemporary management terms IV – performance

Performance, the act of performing a dramatic role, or piece of music, a display of over-exaggerated behaviour (‘you’ve made a bit of a performance of that’), or simply the act or process of accomplishing a task or function, is a preoccupation of contemporary management. These days we are all concerned to improve performance. But how would we know if we had so improved? The first recourse for many contemporary managers is to reach for performance indicators, sometimes known as Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs. These are quantitative indicators, things we can count and match against prereflected targets for improvement or aspirations for the good. performance graphIn a school these might be exam results, in a university journal articles written, and in a company selling products, sales figures. Sometimes there is an expectation that these figures can only increase: being static or decreasing might be seen as a failure, as we ‘improve our performance’ endlessly into an idealised future. As one UK government minister is reported to have said without any sense of irony: we want to increase performance until all schools in the UK are above average. Although of course, every school aspires to being outstanding. Continue reading

A glossary of contemporary management terms III – deliver

Deliver, meaning to liberate (deliver us from evil), to give birth or to take something somewhere, has become ubiquitous in contemporary management speak. This is particularly the case in the UK after the Labour government set up what they termed the PMDU (Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit) in the 00s under the aegis of the now knighted Michael Barber. Barber’s book Deliverology – a Field Guide for Education Leaders is used in the public sector and civil services throughout the world. The idea behind deliverology is to set up a small department, reporting directly to the accountable leader, which turns broad social aims, improving the level of literacy in schools, for example,download into measurable performance indicators. Systematic programmes are then developed with aim of advancing current performance amongst practitioners, who might then need to report on a regular basis on what they are doing with more or less elaborate monitoring forms . Although such programmes are likely to be ‘evidence-based’, i.e. they will have engaged with practice in a particular field and will be informed by research, they are nonetheless more often than not top-down, technocratic and target-driven. No area of the British public sector is left untouched by this technocratic, target-driven approach to ‘reform’. Continue reading

A glossary of contemporary management terms II – transformation(al)

Transformation, a marked change in form or appearance, is one of the most widely used words in contemporary management vocabulary after leadership and delivery (future posts). Quite often it is used in conjunction with leadership: everybody knows since Burns and Bass that leaders are transformational and managers are transactional. It goes without saying. Linking transformation to leadership is another blast of air into the already over-inflated concept of leadership given that most leadership activity involves humdrum, every day tasks and conversations. It creates anxiety for leaders and unrealistic expectations from those they lead.butterfly

The idea of transformation is part of the charismatic tendency in management thinking and talking and fits well with other alluring, quasi-religious ideas such as vision and passion. It is no longer enough just to change something, or even to try and keep things the same, forgetting that there are many social traditions and practices which persist because they serve us well, there must be a commitment to transform them. The promise of transformation feeds into what one might think of as the anxiety narrative about change, which we can’t achieve completely enough or quickly enough, as other competitors catch us up and pass us by, particularly the Indians and the Chinese.

Implied in the rush to transform things are a number of assumptions about the role and capabilities of leaders and managers, time, and valuations of the good. Continue reading

A glossary of contemporary management terms – trajectory

Trajectory (trans meaning across, jecto meaning to throw), the curve that a body such as a planet describes in space, a path or line of development similar to the same, is a word which is frequently used in management speak. It is what Lackoff and Johnson (1980) refer to as a ‘metaphor we live by’ in the sense that it makes intuitive, cognitive and bodily sense. It’s a spatial metaphor

trajectory

with an implicit understanding that we launch our project or plan, and it rises in a gentle curve of our plotting towards an end point we have preplanned. Like physicists or rocket scientists, we can steer the vessel, the organisation or the department, in a calculated way. The appeal is also to engineering science and cybernetic systems thinking.

A document I read recently outlining a strategy had the word ‘trajectory’ peppered through it a number of times and it made me wonder about what else was being communicated. The course of the trajectory was unsurprisingly ‘upwards’, towards a better, improved position for the organisation. The metaphor implies calculation and control, as well as an ability to predict in advance what ‘better’ and ‘improved’ is going to mean. It fits broadly within the ‘life as a journey’ metaphor, where we have a destination and/or a ‘direction of travel’. It also carries with it implicit inclusion/exclusion criteria. If we want to reach the same destination, the improved position, then of course we need to travel together on this trajectory and get on the same bus/train/rocket. Otherwise we might get left behind, or we might reveal ourselves to be the kind of staff members who don’t want to travel in the first place, in which case we might not belong on the team. Anyway, who would set themselves against improvement, refusing to travel to a better destination? It’s rare to find people who want to be left behind.

So the word trajectory does a lot of work. It conveys simply the idea that managers promoting the strategy are in control and can make predictions about how things will turn out: if the calculations have been done correctly, then we will definitely arrive on the moon. It is deterministic, plotting one course. The metaphor makes instinctive sense that we can’t make any changes unless ‘we know where we’re going’ and have a ‘destination’ in mind. And at the same time it arouses a degree of anxiety about being included or excluded, along with the everyday anxiety of all travellers about showing up on time, so we don’t miss the train/opportunity.

Complexity and Management Conference 17th-19th May 2019 – booking now

This year’s Complexity and Management Conference, on 17th-19th May:  What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life offers the opportunity for delegates to reflect on what it means to be critical and why it is important to be so in today’s organisations. On the first morning of the conference we have invited Professor Andre Spicer to help us get the discussion going. If you want to sign up for the conference and save yourself some money before the early bird deadline expires, then click here.

Here are a few ideas on the traditions of thought to which we will be contributing.

We have a strong critical tradition in western thought, starting with the ancient Greeks. However, the contemporary philosopher Julian Baggini has shown us how a variety of cultures have their own traditions of systematically thinking about the human condition, on the basis that, as Socrates put it, the life unexamined is not worth living. How might we lead a good life, what do we mean by truth, how might we guard against the fragility of goodness, as Martha Nussbaum expressed it?[1] Examining our lives in the back and forth dialectic of discussion is necessary if we are to make meaning and become fully human, but it can have its negative consequences, as it did for Socrates. Problematising, probing, judging comes with its own risks: we are unlikely to be condemned to death for corrupting Athenian youth, as he was, but simply asking questions can call out a strong reaction. Why might that be?

As Kant identified, to critique (originating in judgement, from the Greek krisis) involves imagination and daring:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment.[2]

Kant thought that ‘daring to know’ may require courage to take on sources of authority, so that even religion, perhaps the biggest locus of authority in his day, would need ‘to sustain the test of its free and public examination.’[3] He suggested that subjecting sources of legitimacy and authority to critical inquiry is not something to be undertaken lightly, although it is necessary if we are to liberate ourselves from ignorance. Both implicitly and explicitly, becoming critical means engaging with questions of legitimacy and power and calling into question the status quo.

But is it enough just to doubt and reason on our own and by ourselves? From a Hegelian perspective the answer is no, since Hegelians would claim that we are not just autonomous, rational individuals cognizing in the abstract, but we are socially and historically formed. More, and from a pragmatic perspective, it is not helpful to doubt everything all of the time, but we should engage first with those problems which preoccupy us.[4] To pursue inquiry from a Hegelian and pragmatic perspective means taking an interest in history. How has the phenomenon, the particular predicament we are interested in evolved over time, and what has led to what? We then try to place our  difficulties, within the larger history of social relations and their structural contradictions. This may mean drawing attention to power relationships and calling into question the legitimacy of certain ways of knowing and speaking, perhaps asking the question cui bono, who benefits? It certainly means pursuing these questions through dialectical inquiry, where an abstract notion of truth is replaced by the idea that insight arises in the back and forth or argument in a community of engaged inquirers.

And by taking part in discussion and argumentation we then find ourselves discovering that moral and political judgements in particular are plural. We might enhance our ability to see the world from perspectives other than our own. So in addition to Kant’s injunction to dare to know, we might find ourselves developing greater empathy, imagination and solidarity.

If this kind of inquiry interests you, where you engage with a committed group of peers to discuss current organisational difficulties and discover plural and complex points of view, then this year’s Complexity and Management conference 17th-19th May is the place to be. There may be no resolution to your predicaments but perhaps you will find some degree of solidarity with and from others in the complex responsive processes of relating. Dare to come!

Early bird concessions end 1st April. On Friday 17th May there is a one day introductory workshop to the ideas underpinning complex responsive processes of relating.

[1] Nussbaum, M (1986) The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] An answer to the question what is Enlightenment? 1784

[3] Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, 1781.

[4] “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy…Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” CS Peirce (1992), The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings Vol 1, Bloomington: Indiana University Press: pp28-29.

2019 Complexity and Management Conference 17-19th May

stamp_hannah_arendt-2The 2019 Complexity and Management Conference booking page is now open and can be accessed here.

The title of this year’s conference is: What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life.

On Saturday morning we are delighted to have Professor André Spicer from the Cass Business School, City, University of London to give the keynote on Saturday morning. André holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He has held visiting appointments at universities around the world. André is the author of many academic articles and nine books. The most recent are ‘Business Bullshit’, ’The Stupidity Paradox’ and ‘Desperately Seeking Self Improvement’.

On Saturday afternoon we ask conference delegates to suggest workshops that they themselves would like to run consonant with the theme of the conference, so if you would like to suggest something, then do let me know.

As usual, the event will be highly participative and will offer lots of opportunities for discussion and exploration of the key themes with other delegates. The conference begins with an inaugural dinner on Friday evening 17th May, and ends after lunch on 19th May. The conference fee includes onsite board and lodging for the duration of the conference. Early bird rates apply before 1st April 2019.

As with previous years we are also offering a one day introductory workshop on some of the key ideas informing the perspective of complex responsive processes on Friday 17th May.

Hope to see you there.