Category Archives: changing conversations

Changing conversations: changing hearts and souls

What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.

Margaret Thatcher Sunday Times, 3 May 1981

I worked with a group of senior managers in a higher education establishment to help them think about their ways of working while they discussed strategy. A pattern emerged in discussion about current difficulties and in anticipation of future changes that drew on ideas of an education marketplace, and which drew forth economic language. Managers were concerned about ‘buy in’ to plans and strategies, they worried about brand, they were anxious about their students’ customer experience, they wondered how they would act if their institution were a supermarket, a supermarket like John Lewis for example. They were anxious about competitive threats from the Chinese, they wanted to make business cases for change, they were concerned about their products. Education needed to be as flexible as possible so that students could consume whatever, whenever they wanted. They were worried about student satisfaction. These notes of market vocabulary were the clearest melody, although there were also contrapuntal themes opposing them – some argued that being business-like isn’t the same as being a business. Continue reading

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From quantity to quality

I had been invited to work with a group identified as ‘talented potential leaders’ in a large public sector organisation in a European country. Workers in the organisation were highly likely to be users of the organisation’s services, a bit like workers in the NHS in the UK because of the size and scope of the organisation. To an extent, then, there is no inside and no outside, no clear-cut distinction between the employees and the ‘customer experience’: employees had very direct access to what it meant to use the organisation’s services, which were widely available.

My role was to encourage the ‘talent’ group to think about how they are thinking, to identify some of the organisational patterns they found themselves caught up in, and to think about how the organisation did strategy. To what extent were accepted ways of undertaking strategy in the organisation helpful? How did they square with their own experience of making plans and trying to implement them?

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Organising as conversational activity

‘Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion has already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps which have gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument, then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or the gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late. You must depart. And you do depart with the discussion still vigorously in progress.’

Burke, K. (1941) The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, pp110-1.

The above quotation encapsulates for me what it’s like joining an organisation, as a consultant, or as a new employee, understood from a pragmatic perspective. On entering an organisation you pitch into an argument which is already going on and in which there are several threads of heated discussion. It’s a struggle to join in, to understand what is being said and what it might mean for what you do next because you don’t yet have enough history with this particular group. You take up a role and become part of the action, influencing and being influenced. Once in the organisation, not to participate is as significant as participating, because people have already noticed you. Do you have anything to say? There’s no ‘safe space’ that people sometimes crave in team away-days, and nor is there a view from outside what is going on where you can make sense independently, somehow uninfluenced. The moment you speak your ‘truth’ you have become part of the discussion; you have taken sides in organisational politics.

For the pragmatists groups of people talking together, arguing, making alliances, trying not to make alliances, clarifying what we mean by what we say, is how knowledge if produced. It is fallible knowledge, good enough for now until circumstances, and the turn the heated debate takes obliges us to think differently. In doing so, thinking differently, we understand ourselves and the argument we are part of, anew. We have to decide how to take the next step, but having taken the next step, everything looks slightly different from the new position.

There might be some advantage for those engaged in this situation of flux if they can use their reflective intelligence. Although there is no stepping out of the discussion it may be more or less possible to participate but at the same time to notice how your participation influences things, and how you are influenced. The ability to notice the repeated patterns of this particular episode of hurly burly may offer different options for you and the other discussants. But it may also not be an advantage for long. It is hard to maintain an understanding of plural points of view, particularly if they are changing as the discussion changes. Is it possible to maintain your own argument and be radically open to other arguments both at the same time?

These, then, are some key ideas from pragmatic philosophy which are helpful for thinking about organisational life. Organising is a conversational activity which has no beginning and no end and which takes place in a group of groups. It is often heated because our valuations matter to us: we cannot stand outside our commitments, although we only fully realise what they are through articulating them and encountering others’ difference. In struggling together as a conversational community we discover how to take the next step, which may then give us a new perspective to keep going with our inquiry. Practising intelligent reflection, noticing the patterns of our habitual engagement, may offer potential for thinking and behaving differently. But there is never just one thing going on and taking in plural points of view requires work.

Researching ‘transformational change’

Recently I have been involved with a team of researchers in researching so called ‘transformational change’ in a not-for-profit sector. I suspect the research has been commissioned on the understanding that transformational change is something which senior managers choose, and can, to a degree control. We are at the beginning of the research but the process itself has thrown up interesting insights into research methods , but also how the idea of transformation is framed and understood by our commissioners, and by the respondents. This helps us researchers understand the term anew too, but makes it no easier to think and write about. Continue reading

Thinking without end

After the interview with Dawkins on BBC Radio 4 covered in the last post, the argument about evidence and political decision-making took further bizarre turns. The next day John Humphreys interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was asked to comment on Dawkins’ views. Latterly, two researchers were asked to comment further on the discussion. One worked at a religious research institute and the other for an organisation promoting the dissemination of science. As listeners to the BBC we were  led inexorably to think that the only alternative to a scientific perspective on Brexit and evidence, and this a reductive view of science, was to take a faith position. We believe in God or we believe in science. Both are metaphysical positions in the sense that you have to declare your faith in one or the other before engaging with a way forward. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference June 2-4th 2017 – Agenda

What are the pressures in contemporary life which make it difficult to be in groups?

A couple of weeks ago I worked with a group of senior managers from a British university. They told me about the changes they had noticed in the undergraduate student population over the last decade or so, which point to greater alienation and distress amongst students. Undergraduates seem to have much more difficulty in getting to university on time, in organising themselves, in handing in their work complete and in order. The new student accommodation, which this particular university has recently built, has communal spaces which are largely unused. Mental distress seems much more prevalent, and a higher proportion of students seems to lack the ability to communicate with their peers or with teaching staff. And when students are asked to work in groups they struggle to do so; one lecturer had asked his students to work in teams on a task and found some students trying to evict weaker members of their group so that that they could get better marks. Students were rather nonplussed that they were required to co-operate together.

Is this just a tale of inter-generational misunderstanding, a middle-aged lament about the decline in standards? Or are we witnessing the effects of longer term individualising processes, amplified by technology, which leaves us less skilled in groups and less confident in the art of conversation?

The Complexity and Management Conference 2017 will explore some of these themes in relation to the everyday activity of organising together: we discuss in groups as a way of thinking about being in groups.

There are only ten days to go before the end of the early bird discount, which ceases at 5pm on Friday 28th April .  You can find the booking page clicking this link.

Conference Agenda

The conference begins at 7pm with a drinks reception and dinner on Friday 2nd June, following the one day workshop on complexity and management.

Our first keynote speaker, Dr Martin Weegmann, has written extensively about the potential of groups and group therapy in addressing what he terms ‘modern dilemmas…as new forms of anxiety replace older forms.’ (2014). He will be speaking at 9.00am on Saturday 3rd June. Thereafter we will divide into smaller discussion groups to think about what Martin has said.

After lunch on Saturday, Dr Karina Solsø Iversen will present some of the consultancy dilemmas she faces in her work in collaboration with Professor Nick Sarra. Again, in the later afternoon session we will divide into smaller groups to think and discuss.

The work of the Saturday conference will finish at 5pm and dinner will be at 8pm.

On Sunday morning at 9am Prof Chris Mowles will draw together some of the themes of the preceding day, and participants will once again divide into smaller groups.

The conference ends with a final plenary between 12pm and 1pm on Sunday followed by lunch.

All board and lodging is covered by the conference fee. Any conference delegate wishing to convene a sub-group to present a paper or talk about their work can do so by writing to me and putting forward a suggestion.

Look forward to meeting you there.

 

References

Weegmann, M. (2014) The World Within the Group, London: Karnac Books.

Complexity and Management Conference 2-4th June 2017

Working in groups: what practical difference does it make to take complexity seriously?

One day introductory workshop on complexity and management Friday 2nd June.

2017Complexity and Management Conference 2-4th June 2017.

The booking page is now live and can be found by clicking this link. There is a £50 discount for booking before April 30th 2017.

‘The present historical situation shows clearly that human problems cannot be solved in isolation but only through concerted effort of the whole of humanity. The future of the human species may well be made or marred according to whether or not it is able to grasp this fact and act upon it while there is still time. Anything we can learn as to the relationships of persons towards each other, and of groups towards each other, is therefore, or great therapeutic significance.’ (Foulkes, 1947/2002)

Foulkes encouraged us to think about the importance of groups and ways of relating 80 years ago in the wake of the WWII – I wonder what he would have thought of our current predicaments. With increased social division, the rise of the far Right and demagoguery, we would be naïve to think that recent political upheavals in Europe and America do not also show up in different forms in organisational life.

Foulkes invited us to be more scientific about groups, seeing them  as a resource, as a means to liberate ourselves from unhelpful, repetitive behaviour, which may be informed by our primitive responses to each other. He thought it possible that we could learn better to adjust to each other and gain insight into our often stuck and unhelpful behaviour.  But by ‘adjustment’ he did not mean that we simply conform mindlessly. Rather, adjustment is made possible from our insight that we are interdependent and through the development of more helpful, negotiated ways of going on together.

The 2017 Complexity and Management Conference takes inspiration from Foulkes, but broadens his thinking by drawing on perspectives from organizational theory, sociology and philosophy. Our intention is to explore the complex responsive processes of relating in groups and to think about their relevance for our everyday experience of organising.

This year we are also offering an additional one day introductory workshop on Friday 2nd June. This workshop is suitable to anyone who would like to attend the conference but has had little exposure to the ideas informing the perspective of complex responsive processes. It is an opportunity to learn some of the basic concepts and to think about them in relation to your experience at work. The workshop is freestanding, and there is no requirement to attend the conference afterwards.

The conference itself runs as usual from 7pm Friday 2nd June till after lunch on Sunday 4th June. The conference fee includes all board and lodging and will have its usual mix of key note speeches, break-out discussions and informal socialising.

Key note speakers this year are:

Dr Martin Weegmann, who is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Group Analyst, and has specialised in substance misuse and personality disorders and is a well-known trainer. His latest books are: The World within the Group: Developing Theory for Group Analysis (Karnac, 2014) and Permission to Narrate: Explorations in Group Analysis, Psychoanalysis & Culture (Karnac 2016).

Dr Karina Iversen is a graduate of the Doctor of Management programme and an experienced consultant working in Denmark. She has co-authored a Danish introductory book on complex responsive processes of relating, which has gained a lot of attention in Danish communities interested in complexity. Karina is also an external lecturer at the Copenhagen Business School.

Professor Nick Sarra is a Consultant Psychotherapist working in the NHS and a group analyst specialising in organisational consultancy, debriefing and mediation within the workforce. He works on three post graduate programmes at the School of Psychology, Exeter University and is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hertfordshire.

If there are any queries then please contact Prof Chris Mowles: c.mowles@herts.ac.uk