Category Archives: meetings

Sack your coach

Here are three I ideas I take from reading Byung-chul Han’s The Burnout Society in relation to what interests me in complex social processes of identity formation.

The first is his idea that we live in an achievement society rather than a disciplinary society. Byung-chul Han may be taking Foucault to his logical conclusion when he argues that rather than being exploited we have now come to exploit ourselves voluntarily. In contemporary society there is no limit to the extent to which we are encouraged to be flexible accommodating and self-improving. We commit to stretch targets and KPI’s, more for less, smart working, efficiency savings and we make ourselves life-long learners. We focus on our own health and the habitual improvement of the body. Byung-chul Han argues that freedom and constraint now combine in the same individual so we are both the exploiter and the exploited as we endeavor to achieve more and more. As a result, he argues, we risk depression and burn-out. We are encouraged to commit to the dictum that ‘nothing is impossible’, but as a consequence the opposite is also true, that nothing is possible. We can go on improving ourselves, fitting in, meeting new and more exacting targets, getting more for less without end, until we hollow ourselves out. There is no-one else to look to for help or guidance if we are all to be self-starting entrepreneurs. We are entirely responsible for our own futures, we must depend on ourselves rather than others. Continue reading

The experience of strategy

I found myself sitting among a large group of experienced managers who were being updated on the strategy process by the deputy CEO of their particular organisation. He proceeded to explain how he had gone about developing the next corporate strategy in terms which I have critiqued extensively on this site. In critiquing systemic managerialism previously I have always been anxious not to caricature, not to set up an easy straw man opponent in order to knock it down. I have been concerned that if no-one these days really proceeds to explain strategy as vision-mission-values, sets up working groups to develop organisational values to underpin the vision, and then suggests that members of staff who don’t follow the values may have to go and work elsewhere, then there is nothing really to critique.

But what I found on this occasion was a text book example, perhaps a text book still in its first edition, of what I engage with elsewhere as idealised design. Originating in cybernetic systems theory and developed in the thinking of Russell Ackoff, idealised design assumes that fomenting excitement in staff who work in an organisation towards an idealised end point, increases motivation, commitment and performance. There is very little evidence for this claim, and given how long these methods have been used in organisations with change-weary staff, it would be just as easy to make the opposite claim that such abstract idealisations are just as likely to call out cynicism, negativity and disbelief particularly in the UK. Judging from the conversation which took place later at coffee, I think the group in which I was sitting may have been strung out along the spectrum from enthusiasm at one end, to bafflement and frustration at the other. Continue reading

Meeting to achieve measurable outcomes

In the last post I discussed the ways in which people regulate themselves and each other in everyday life. I made the argument that without this self- and group discipline there would be no order in social life. As we have pointed out many times on this blog, après Bourdieu, Elias and Foucault,  and by drawing on analogies from the complexity sciences, power relations both enable and constrain what it is possible to do. There is, however, a general tendency in more popular management literature to suggest that somehow we can do away with or ‘transform’ power relations by being nice to each other, or by being appreciative, or by being open and transparent, or authentic. These perspectives convey the implicit idea that power is somehow unpleasant or illicit. But this is to cover over or even to miss the productive nature of power. Power produces a regimen of resistance and compliance, the exact patterning of which will always be unpredictable, but is likely to give rise to both routine as well as a degree of novelty. But to ask the question about how disciplinary power operates in social life is not simply to enquire into how ‘they’ are doing something to ‘us’ but also to probe into how we are doing things to ourselves. How we try to influence each other to organise our joint undertakings can say a lot about the kinds of pressures we are under and how we aspire to being professional. Continue reading

Complexity and participative facilitation

Facilitated workshops are a very common feature of organisational life and are sometimes very good examples of the kind of thinking that assumes we need to design a process to have a process. This layering of process on process arises from the idea that groups of people called managers or facilitators can design interactions for other people which will encourage them to act in particular and more predictable ways, and will optimise people’s time together. Additionally, these designed processes of engaging are often informed by cult values, such as inclusiveness, openness and honesty. The point of designing workshops according to these values is to make them highly participative, democratic and ‘transparent’. By applying processes to the process of interaction, managers and facilitators believe they can achieve particular outcomes which tend towards the good. They are designing a culture for the workshop where people can express themselves freely, and have a safe and perhaps fun experience with others and ‘share learning’.

My own recent experience of a number of facilitated workshops has made me question whether they really are such positive and productive events, and whether they tend rather to suppress opportunities for learning rather than encourage them, the very opposite of what they intend. I am also sceptical about the degree to which one can agree and plan to have fun. I am concerned about how the focus on ‘fun’ can tend towards collusiveness and an avoidance of the exploration of difference and power relationships, and in particular the power of the facilitators and the guiding principles of the workshops themselves. To call the design of the workshop into question can appear as though one is against participation and transparency. Continue reading

Perpetual penality – thinking about targets with Mead and Foucault

I found myself among a group of school governors talking about targets. Every year in the UK school governors have a statutory obligation to set targets for levels of examination passes for pupils taking GCSE examinations at 16. The governors cannot set a target below last year’s – it must be the same or higher, even if the cohort on the point of taking their examinations is deemed to be weaker.

So should we set the target in line with what the statistical predictor (a figure derived from past performance) indicates is realistic, or should we set something more ambitious than that? Additionally, there might be other areas of teaching where we might set targets for ourselves even though we are not obliged to do so. This would look good during the next inspection, that we as a group of governors are prepared invent more ways of holding ourselves to account and scrutiny.

Just as annual setting of targets is something of a ritual, so too is the debate that follows. Continue reading

Good conversation, bad conversation

I have worked as a consultant to many  organisations, and on starting a consultancy one of the things that I play close attention to is the way that people are talking about what they are doing. I ask myself what sort of conversation I am I being invited to participate in. I do this because I believe that what people say gives me a good indication about how they might be thinking about what they are doing. For me talking thinking and doing are three aspects of the same activity – thought shapes language and action, which in turn affects further talking and thinking. This doesn’t mean to say that the way people are talking and thinking about what they are doing is necessarily explicit to them. In fact, people are often completely and unreflectively absorbed in their conversations. Continue reading

Leading groups: participation and improvising into the unknown

I have been invited to talk to a disparate group of managers about leadership. I have no idea what people’s experience of leadership is, what they think they are coming to, or how they will react to what I have to say. I tell them that one of the themes of my talk is that leadership is a social experience. Given the ungrounded nature of most of the literature on leadership, as I have discussed in previous posts, the best definition of what it is that we are talking about might be that leadership is a social phenomenon that we all recognise when we experience it. A leader is someone whom we recognise  leading.

If this is the starting point, one of the principles of running the session, where I will be temporarily leading them in a discussion of leadership, is that we all actively participate together, so that we can reflect upon what it is we are engaged in. This will involve me restraining myself from telling them what leadership is for hours on end, but engaging them in a way that recognises their experience so that we might explore together what we mean by what we say. I talk and pause, talk and pause, and in the pauses participants begin to react to what I’ve been saying, sometimes to challenge it, sometimes to agree and develop the argument, sometimes to say something which is completely tangential to what I have been talking about. These varying responses present me with dilemmas about how to go on, what to respond to in the sometimes quite lengthy questions/statements that people offer. Given that this event is about trying to engage whomsoever chooses to come, I try to respond in some way, to recognise, whatever people have to offer. Continue reading