Recently the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, set out a ‘first sketch of a road map for reopening society’. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister of Scotland set out a route map and the Northern Ireland Executive announced a ‘pathway to recovery’. These spatial metaphors of maps, routes and pathways are common currency in organisational life, and sit comfortably within the ‘life as a journey’ cliché. They make intuitive and bodily sense because they are metaphors we live by, language which helps us make sense of the world and helps structure our actions. Map and journey metaphors can be so taken for granted and seem such common sense that the conceptual assumptions they cover over become hard to identify and articulate. After all, it’s obvious you can’t make a strategy unless you set a destination, and once people know the direction of travel then they’ll get on board the train/bus. Often it requires a visionary leader to see where we need to get to in so many months/years’ time.
Implicit in the metaphor are foresight and control, and the ability to recognise in advance what the destination is. Thinking/planning comes before action. It is a claim on both knowledge and authority, and conveys a degree of certainty that we can trust to the driver to take sequential action and be in charge of our journey. In the context of national politics in the time of crisis, then conveying some degree of certainty may be helpful: if we are going to get aboard Boris Johnson’s bus, then we need to have some confidence in his driving skills and ability to know the route. To a degree the job of all people in positions of authority is political and demands good judgement about when to be more certain and when to disclose not knowing. There are few occasions in an organisation where the authority figure can state candidly that they have little idea about what to do next.
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. In 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 →
Lots of people are currently thinking about how we might talk to each other differently, particularly when politics seems to have become so polarised, and what it is that gets in the way of our fully recognising each other. In an interesting article on what he terms ‘denialism’ in TheGuardian the other week, Keith Kahn-Harris treats sociologically contestation over what we think to be true. Denialism goes beyond every day denial, of which we are all guilty, but is both ‘combative and extraordinary’, he says. In some ways, Kahn-Harris argues, denialists are like the rest of us: they just want the world to be the way they would like it to be, and to make actual sometimes unspeakable desires. However, where formally denialists tried to emulate the careful work that goes into making an argument that climate change is happening, in other words they spent time and energy building a careful argument, now we encounter post-denialists who might say one thing one day, and another the next. If you like, they feel no need to entertain science-envy by mimicking scientists’ methods, and can speak, like President Trump, off the top of their heads. This has an insidious effect of contributing to an environment where everything is contestable and no-one believable.
One of the interesting things Kahn-Harris does is to kick away the liberal myth that if denialists would stop denying we would necessarily share a common moral view:
‘Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly.’ Continue reading →
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 →
Browsing the bookshop at Schiphol airport I picked up the Harvard Business School handbook on leadership which is supposed to contain the ten must-read articles of the last couple of decades. In the book you can find the usual taken for granted tropes and separations: that there is a difference between leadership and management, that managers are of course needed as well, it’s just that they don’t have what George Bush senior referred to as the ‘the vision thang’, that today’s speeded up world demands more leadership not less, and that if not all leaders need to be or can be transformational, they do at least need to be authentic.
One explanation for the move to authenticity is, as the particular chapter revealed, that there have been thousands of scholarly studies produced about leadership without our being any the wiser about how we might become good leaders ourselves. There is no recipe: ‘what a relief!’ (states the chapter). The answer, then, is to be our authentic leaderly selves. This involves being self aware and conscious of our story, being clear about our passions, responding constructively to feedback and learning how to empower others. All of this is brought about by the power of self-scrutiny. We pull ourselves up by our boot straps by scrutinising ourselves intensively and realising our own shortcomings. Continue reading →
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s chief scientist Jayne Lawrence gave an interview on the BBC on Wednesday 5th November arguing that doctors needed ‘binding targets’ to reduce the over-prescription of antibiotics. Despite the fact that everyone knows we are becoming resistant to antibiotics, including and especially doctors, still the amount of antibiotics prescribed has risen rather than fallen both in the UK and across the world. It was unclear from the interview with the BBC journalist exactly how these binding targets would work – and Dr Lawrence was taxed on this very point by the interviewer. What happens when the annual target for prescribing antibiotics has been reached and yet there are more patients who need them? However, one of key her arguments was that targets help GPs keep the issue ‘in mind’.
This is a good example of what has become an accepted response to a general, population-wide problems. It has become taken for granted that the first recourse must be to set a target and preferably to make it binding. So we have the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for social development in developing countries, global emissions targets which are binding depending on whether a particular country has signed up to the Kyoto protocols or not, and a variety of targets for the NHS, Education and schools in the UK with more on the way (the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has just announced forthcoming waiting time targets for mental health patients). These are then backed up by apparatuses for scrutiny and control so that the targets can be enforced and made ‘binding’.
On this blog I have posted a variety of articles here, here and here where I have suggested that setting targets has become axiomatic in organizational contexts as a way of declaring seriousness of intent and sometimes moral purpose; as a way of exercising disciplinary control by ‘naming and shaming’, including and excluding when targets are taken up as cult values; and as an authoritarian theory of motivation (that staff in organizations will not do things unless they are forced to do them and then inspected to make sure that they really have). Continue reading →
Having written about the experience of attending a hollow strategy event in the last post, I was interested hear criticism levelled at Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella for the address on strategy he gave staff recently. It is entitled ‘Bold ambition and our core’ and seems to be a terrific example of managerialist thinking (or perhaps lack of thinking).
After setting out an understanding of what the core of the company is, which seems to revolve around technology and the ‘customer experience’ Nadella then continues in the following way about the company culture:
Our ambitions are bold and so must be our desire to change and evolve our culture.
I truly believe that we spend far too much time at work for it not to drive personal meaning and satisfaction. Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.
Nothing is off the table in how we think about shifting our culture to deliver on this core strategy. Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving.Continue reading →