Category Archives: reflective practice

Appreciative Inquiry II – AI and the positive psychology movement

In an article called ‘The Happy Warrior’, which draws on a poem by Wordsworth of the same name, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum takes aim at the positive psychology movement, which is one of the contributing influences on Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Nussbaum is drawn to Aristotle, Wordsworth and Mill because they develop a highly nuanced and subtle understanding of what is broadly termed happiness, or positive states of mind, in the positive psychology literature.  She is offended by what she terms the ‘conceptual breeziness’ of the positive psychology movement and argues that it is often highly reductive of what is a nuanced and subtle area of human concern. For Nussbaum, it is impossible to reduce the idea of happiness to a single, one-dimensional metric so that it suits the quantitative calculations of cognitive empirical research into subjective states, which is the bread and butter of positive psychology.

It is worth rehearsing some of her arguments here, since a lot of what she says also applies to AI, which focuses relentlessly on the positive to the exclusion of the more problematic aspects of organisational life.

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Doubt as a form of enquiry

In the last post I discussed what the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey referred to as the quest for certainty. I have been arguing that the discomfort that people feel if something isn’t completely nailed down in advance often prevents them from dwelling long enough with experience to work experimentally. There is rush to define, to plan out in advance, to idealise and to make certain and this is likely to prevent innovative ways of working to which organisations aspire. I have been making an alternative argument that without improvisation, spontaneity and risk there can be no innovation.

Dewey was interested in experimentation and argued that traditions of thought, such as mainstream philosophy, have conventionally been suspicious of the bodily, the temporal and the experiential, instead preferring Plato’s fixed and pure forms. We are generally encouraged to discover pre-existing ‘truth’, rather than dwell in the messy reality of experience. However, he himself was much less interested in knowledge as a pure and static expression of truth, and more committed to knowing as a form of active enquiry, the idea of constantly opening up experience to further experience. I think this idea of constant doubt and enquiry is especially relevant to managers who are thinking about how to deal with the ever changing patterning of experience in organisations that they have to deal with on a daily basis. Continue reading

Attempts to make the uncertain certain

I was rung up the other week by someone who worked in a management team in a development organisation, which wanted to try some new initiatives in three ‘fragile states’. It had become clear to them that traditional ways of working, adopting and following logical planning instruments, were inadequate in these particular dynamic and fast-moving contexts, and they were keen to try a different approach. I began to discuss the possibility of working experimentally: with the teams already working in-country, why not start with what they would like to do. Take the first steps, reflect on it, see how it had gone, and then take the next steps. Repeat the process over again. The programme would evolve as new possibilities emerged, although it would take a good deal of discussion and judgement. Programme coherence would build up with retrospective sense-making over time. ‘Yes, but can you prove that this way of working is effective?’, my co-respondent asked.

In a recent journal article I described the way in which staff in an organisation I had a great deal of experience with had tried over time to reflect systematically on the way they were working. This involved acting with intention, but regularly being open to puncturing and questioning these intentions through discussion, reflection and involving the subjects of their intentions by asking them what they thought of the work. It often involved taking two steps forward and one step back, and seeing the process of reflection and discussion not as an adjunct to the work, but as the work itself. The staff often had to work to tight deadlines, to cut short their deliberations to meet them, so were not in any way paralysed by talking rather than doing. Talking was a form of doing. One of the reviewers of the article commented that this was all very well, but what had I actually said about working differently? What would an ideal model of working actually look like?

I was supporting an organisation think about how they might assess work they were doing in East and West Africa where they had made an explicit commitment to their donor that they would focus on what they thought would be sustainable ways of working. That is to say, instead of providing services or materials as such, they would support local stakeholders, central and local government officers, local organisations, politicians and local councillors to work out what their problems were and what they wanted to do about them. The staff in the organisation I was supporting were clear that they had expertise to offer, but the problems were not theirs to ‘solve’. They would support, cajole, facilitate, discuss, offer training if necessary or seed initiatives. But since the inception of the programme the relations with the donor had changed, partly owing to a change in personnel in the donor. Now the donor required ‘objective evidence’ that this way of working produced results, and that these results would be transferable elsewhere. Exactly which kinds of ‘instruments’ were they using to encourage local discussion, and how could they be validated?

In each of these three examples I would argue that there is an illusory quest for certainty. Continue reading

Complexity and project management – exercising practical judgement in conditions of uncertainty

In an INGO where I was working recently one of the newer members of staff proudly told me that he was Prince2 trained. This was mentioned in relation to the conversation we were having about what he considered to be the ‘lack of systems’, I think implying a lack of rigour, that he perceived in the organisation he had just joined. As someone who once worked as a systems analyst, operating at the interface between software developers and end users, I was prompted into thinking about why my colleague might believe that a project management method originating from software development, and contested even there as to its usefulness, might also be suitable for managing social development projects. One would hardly look to the domain of IT for examples of projects which have been delivered on time and to budget, without even considering the other, obvious differences between the two fields of activity. Nevertheless, Prince2 is a good example of the kinds of tools, frameworks and methods which increasingly pervade the management of social development, and are taken to be signs of professionalization in the sector. 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

Surviving in times of cuts

Increased competition, endless tendering for contracts, cuts to service, downsizing, paying people less: these are the things that a group of directors from a not-for-profit organisation supporting vulnerable people in the community  tell me they have endured during the last three or four years. Although contractors, usually local authorities or public health bodies, want greater and greater quality, they pay less and less money for it. This is what ‘efficiency’ in the provision of community-based services has come to mean. An experienced worker supporting many vulnerable people in the community with complex needs might take home £17k a year, and then might need a second job in order to earn enough money to support themselves.

So how had the directors of this particular organisation kept themselves going during the period? What did they think about the way they had been working? Continue reading

What is practical and useful? II

In the last post I was writing about the way in which theory and practice are intertwined in a paradoxical relationship. There is no separating them out. We are socialized into a world of practices, but without an ability to abstract from them we would be unable to locate ourselves with others. We would not be able to communicate and make sense of what we were doing.

However, although I am claiming that practice and theory are inextricably linked, I would nonetheless claim that practice is prior. Here I agree with the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce when he says that: ‘We must not begin by talking of pure ideas – vagabond ideas that tramp the public roads without any human habitation, – but must begin with men and their conversation.’ Peirce is asking the question ‘theory on the basis of what?’ In other words he is pointing to our preoccupation, particularly in the West, with dealing in abstract ideas which have become uprooted from what human beings are doing in everyday life. We can produce categorisations, tools, frameworks and abstract ideas which have lost their connection with lived experience, particularly if they are considered to be universally applicable, irrespective of context. We intellectualise and believe in our capacity to think our way through to the end. Continue reading