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
In the previous post I wrote about how paradoxes and contradictions produce unresolvable tensions for people working in organisations and often provoke strong feelings. For example, it is impossible to have reorganisation without including some people in the changes and excluding others, without having winners and losers, those who are satisfied and those who are not. All reorganizations are disruptions to power relationships which can sometimes be experienced as threats to identity or lack of recognition.
Last time I rehearsed some of the ways in which orthodox theories of management reduce the paradoxes of organisational life by turning them into dualisms, double binds, or separating them into sequential phases between stable states. In this post I will consider two other ways of re-presenting paradoxes in the form of idealisations and logic models. Continue reading
The three-year Commission to Inquire into the Dublin Archdiocese investigated hundreds of incidents of abuse and showed the ways in which decades of exploitation of children had been covered over by the active participation of the legal authorities and four archbishops. Bishops, priests and religious orders in the diocese had clear knowledge of allegations and practice of abuse going back to the early 70s and there were complaints made against 28 priests, some of whom were known by the church authorities to be abusers even before they became priests. The report concludes that:
The Archdiocese was pre-occupied until the mid-1990s with maintaining secrecy, avoiding scandal, protecting the reputation of the Church and preservation of assets.
I listened in horror to radio reports by those who had been abused who either felt unable to raise their voices, or if they did raise them they were accused of trying to undermine the authority and dignity of the church and of spreading malicious rumours.People who raised their allegations were often publically vilified.
Such an enduring tale of abuse over such a long period of time can only be sustained by people in all positions actively or passively colluding in what is going on. Every day, in small ways and in large, the way these matters were discussed and acted upon undermined or amplified those processes of abuse which were being suffered by children. It may not always have been clear what was going on as the brilliant film Doubt starring Meryl Streep illustrates so well, but there are enough accounts in the report to make it clear that this exploitation was not only known about but that people actively covered it over ‘for the good of the church’.
In much more minor ways one can experience similar abusive processes taking place in organisations. Continue reading
I recently undertook some work with someone whose job it was to support her senior management team put together the organisation’s next ten year strategic plan. This had resulted from an 18 month planning process which I had joined at various points along the way, having been invited to attend some of the workshops and join in the conversation. I was quite surprised to have been invited because when this colleague had originally asked me for support I had argued that I probably was not the best person to do so since I had conceptual difficulties with strategic planning, particularly 10 year plans. Nonetheless, I had been invited along partly because of my critical attitude and the grist that I might provide for such an activity. I found this a very open minded approach and was encouraged to join in. Continue reading
An article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper by journalist Gary Younge considered president Obama’s leadership and discussed what he thinks it is and is not possible for him to achieve in his current circumstances. In doing so Younge demonstrates very similar ideas about leadership to the ones we have been developing on this blog.
Firstly he notices the tendency for people to idealize or, conversely to demonize Obama, and to attribute his success entirely to his individual capabilities. Saviour or devil, many of Younge’s interlocutors seem to think it is just down to Barack Obama, an essence which is intrinsic to him. Younge criticises the ‘great man’ theory of leadership with its obsession with the individual psychological habits of a particular person, rather than understanding them as being the product of their context, history and society, which have both potential and limits. Similarly, in previous posts we have noted the ways in which leaders become the repositories of people’s worst and best hopes and fears. this is partly due to the dominance of a particular theory of leadership which attributed extraordinarily visionary and motivational powers to leaders, who were thought to be distinct from ‘mere’ managers. Continue reading
I was working with a group the other day who had come together to discuss how important it was to undertake projects and research that were more open-ended. In other words, if one is being genuinely innovative or experimental it is not possible to specify in advance where a project might lead, or what research might discover. There was much amusement that many funding application processes oblige project proposers to specify in advance that they will be innovative and how they will be, which to many was a contradiction in terms. If you can specify the innovation in advance then maybe it’s not so innovative. The discussion turned on how we could persuade people who funded such work that the importance of experimentation was in not necessarily knowing what you would find – not all research is about testing a hypothesis. Sometimes it is necessary to undertake projects to work out what the hypothesis could be.
We decided that partly we were dealing with risk, and then on further reflection we decided that we were working with uncertainty. So risk is something that we already know might be a problem and we would take steps to mitigate it. This is what we have insurance policies for. Uncertainty takes us into Donald Rumsfeld’s fourth realm of ‘unknown unknowns’: we don’t know what our project or our research will lead us to discover since we don’t know what we don’t know (to put alongside the things that we do know we don’t know, which might comprise some of the reasons we want to undertake research in the first place). Continue reading
I’m in yet another conference where there is a lot of anxiety about how we spend the time together. One participant consistently challenges the facilitator about the way they are organising the discussion. He is concerned that if we don’t stay together as a big group then ‘things will get lost’. We have got to stay to gether to ‘capture’ what is going on. I wonder if one of the things that he means is that if we don’t sit still in one place then he will get lost. In one way he is right: it is discomfiting when things won’t stay still, they won’t stay captured.
Of course there are many things tied up in his challenge. Who has the right to decide what is important to discuss? How do I influence how things get done? Am I being listened to? Why do this rather than that? The challenge requires a response that recognises the challenger, whether or not we agree with the substance of the challenge.
Sometimes anxiety and idealisation arise together. So at the same time that people are expressing anxiety about things slipping away, being forgotten, not being pinned down, they may have an idea that there is a perfect way of doing things. If only we could run this workshop as it should be run, if only we could learn the lessons, if only we could communicate effectively, then none of these inconsistencies and disruptions would happen.
Strategy, which is partly why we have come together, is also something ideal, something big and important that is other than what we are doing together here and now, which is messy and imperfect. If we could only be clear then it would be obvious what to do. We would have a clear document, an outcome, which would inform us what we should be doing. When we are lost, uncertain, then the strategy document will give us guidance. If we go on like this will we get an outcome which will help us know what to do? Professional people are never confused, but are clear about what needs to be done next.
In this particular instance the facilitator, whilst acknowledging the substance of the challenge, asked his challenger to trust him, which I found an interesting appeal. So do we trust each other enough despite the uncertainties and complications of what we are dealing with, to take the next step together? And in taking that next step, would we then trust a bit more to take the next one? Does this then lead to new ways of working where we are more ready to accept ambiguity, and yet still try to act together in concert?
As Doug Griffin has argued in his book, leadership emerges in the interactions between engaged people. We experience the trust that the facilitator appealed to in situations where we begin to make sense together, despite the anxieties and uncertainties that we bring to the situation. In such situations the possibility of novelty also emerges.