Tag Archives: groups

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.


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.



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

Details of the Complexity and Management workshop, Friday 2nd June 2017

The participants who attend the annual Complexity and Management conference experience the same dynamics as members of any other group, even if it’s a temporary group. For example, one repeating theme at the conference is the established/outsider dynamic of those who have been through the Doctor of Management programme, or are currently on it, and those who haven’t. Participants who have been exposed to the programme because they are graduates, or because they are regular conference attenders are likely to talk in a way which may feel exclusionary to those who are new. Almost every year, new attendees at the conference raise the question as to whether we could have done more to make them feel welcome. There is always the ghost of the DMan-demon at the conference.

For this reason we are holding a one day introductory workshop on Friday 2nd June, to present some of the key ideas which inform the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. It is a public workshop open to all, not just those who will go on to attend the conference For those who do, it may, or may not, make a difference to the quality of their participation. The conference begins the same evening with supper at 7pm.

You can book for the one day workshop, for the workshop and conference, or just for the conference here. There is a discount for early-bird booking before April 30th. For more details on the workshop, continue reading below: Continue reading

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

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

Complexity and Management Conference 2017 –

2nd– 4th June: Roffey Park Management Centre

Human beings are born into groups and spend most of their working lives participating in them. Groups can be creative and improvisational, transforming who we think we are, and they may also be destructive and undermining. They hold the potential for both tendencies.

Many employers emphasise the importance of teamwork, yet employees in organizations are often managed, developed and assessed as though they were autonomous individuals.  And although many organisational mission statements include aspirations to be creative and innovative, it is a rare to attend a  meeting without a particular end in view, where participants feel able to explore the differences and difficulties that arise when they work together.

Meanwhile organizational development (OD) literature tends to idealize, and assumes that the best kind of organizations are those where staff ‘align’ with each other and learn to communicate in ways which bypass power and politics. They are offered step-wise tools and techniques to help them communicate with ‘openness and transparency’, so they can speak the truth and understand each other harmoniously. Conflict and power struggles are then topics that are avoided or ignored. The danger of the individualizing and idealizing tendencies in organisations is that they may leave employees feeling deskilled and unconfident about how to work creatively in groups.

At the 2017 Complexity and Management Conference we will discuss practical ways of working in groups, which assume that human interaction is necessarily imperfect, ambiguous and conflictual, and this contributes to the complex evolution of organizational life.

Keynote speakers this year: Dr Martin Weegmann, Dr Karina Solsø Iversen and Professor Nick Sarra

Martin Weegmann is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Group Analyst, who 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). He is currently working on a new edited book, Psychodynamics of Writing.

Karina Solsø Iversen is graduate of the Doctor of Management programme and an experienced consultant working in Denmark. Karina’s consultancy work is based on the practice of taking experience seriously as a way of working with leadership and organizational development. She has co-authored a Danish introductory book to the theory of 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 Copenhagen Business School.

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.

Further details from c.mowles@herts.ac.uk. Booking begins early 2017.

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

Caught up in anxiety IV

I have been worrying away, caught up in my own anxiety if you like, about the spatial metaphors that seem so common sense when we start to talk about strategy in groups. So how can we possibly move forward unless we work out where it is that we want to be? Unless we have a map with an intended destination how do we know what to do when different options present? When I go out of the door in the morning do I turn left or right, a decision which is only possible if I know where I am going?

These ways of conceptualising what we need to be doing when we contemplate strategy  are very powerful, and to be appearing to take a position that seems to want to destabilise imagining a new future together can be experienced by participants in a group as a complete violation of the obvious. I think participants can sometimes experience a strong bodily reaction of frustration and suppression. I witness this as people visibly shift in their seats, mutter semi-audibly and clearly struggle with what they consider is the prevention of the blindingly obvious. I experience their discomfort with what it is I am saying when I am suggesting an alternative to spatial and directional metaphors. This makes me, in my turn, uncomfortable because I realise we are starting to struggle with what we mean by what we say.

Why are the reactions so strong? (And as I write this I am finding it almost impossible not to use spatial metaphors myself).

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics from the University of Berkeley and has written extensively about how it is only possible for us to conceptualise  and rationalise, even in mathematics and physics, because we have developed metaphor. Moreover, the metaphors we use arise out of our bodily experience. As human bodies which have fronts and  backs we have a corporeal understanding of movement towards things and away from things. Quoting other research, Lakoff states that in most sign languages from around the world reference to the past  consistists  of a motion with the hands behind the signer. In addition, the metaphor of the journey is widely used to understand our lived experience – some of us conceive of our lives as a journey (and how many of us have done exercises in workshops where we are asked to describe our development in just such terms?), where we might lose our way or find ourselves at a crossroads, or not be sure which direction to take. We put the past behind us, we look forward to events. (An interesting exception to this is Aymara, a Chilean language of the Andes where it is the past which is ‘in front’ because you can immediately see the results of what you have done).

Because the metaphors we use to think about the future are embodied, rooted in our lived experience of the world, we may experience a bodily reaction to someone who appears to be cutting across our way of understanding the world and what it is we are engaged in. If I am encouraging a group to notice what is happening now, in the living present it may feel very counter-intuitive to what we ‘should be doing’. So an invitation to consider who we are, and what we are becoming can be experienced as a disruption of the more important question of ‘what we want to be’, which needs to be indentified in the future. As Hannah Arendt has pointed out, when the dominant mode is based in will, intentionality, then the dominant tense tends to be the future tense.

So an invitation to consider who we are, and what we are becoming can be experienced as a disruption of the more important question of ‘what we want to be’, which needs to be indentified as a point in the future towards which we are travelling. Along the line of time between where we are now and where we want to be be there will be landmarks, milestones, which we can use to orient ourselves as to whether we are travelling in the right direction.

In arguing that metaphors are useful because they help us rationalise and conceptualise arising out of our bodily experience of the world, Lackoff also warns against taking metaphorical language literally. Rather than being a best guess, an imaginative exercise in the face of an unknowable future, where what is most important is the way we negotiate, agree and disagree, pay attention to the relationships which are forming, strategy can become a fixed plan with milestones and targets for which employees will be ‘held accountable’. By ignoring, or perhaps failing to appreciate  the symbolic and metaphorical dimension of what we are doing we fall into the trap of believing that can predict the future.  We pay more attention to what we are willing, rather than what we encounter when we proceed with intention.