Tag Archives: planning

Visioning backwards

On Wednesday 16th October Mary Ward and Jo Collins, the founders of the Chickenshed Theatre, were interviewed by BBC Radio 4 presenter Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour. They were invited onto the programme to celebrate the forthcoming 40th anniversary of a theatre which was set up to involve young people in theatre, irrespective of their abilities. Both founders had a shared belief that they could produce excellent theatre with young people if they could encourage everyone to accept what young people bring, rather than what they don’t bring. They argued, for example, that young people are often much less judgemental about other young people with disabilities than adults are: they simply accept the disability as a given and proceed from there, without fuss. They argued that discrimination is a learned, social behaviour. That commitment, and the continuous improvisational ability to involve other people in the undertaking, has created an institution which has lasted 40 years although it has never received Arts Council funding.

‘What was your vision for Chickenshed?’ Jenni Murray asked. ‘We didn’t have a vision as such, we didn’t sit down and say “this is our vision”’, Mary Ward answered arguing that they had both felt impelled to include as many young people as possible, ‘but we just did it, and as we did it we became more and more committed to this idea that everyone can contribute to the production, the final end.’ 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

Narrative, creativity and emergence

In a lecture given to students on Columbia University’s creative writing programme the novelist Zadie Smith responded to an invitation to speak about her craft. In doing so she gives a very good description of the ways in which one might pay attention to micro-interactions from which the global pattern emerges. She describes a complex, adaptive relationship with the act of writing.

She draws a distinction between macro planners and micro managers,  counting herself amongst the latter (and it is interesting to note how the language of managerialism has permeated even novelists’ language). Macro planners organise everything in advance: the material, the plot, the structure, and may even write their novel from the middle. It is this tight structure that they use as their enabling constraint, which gives them freedom on the one hand, but hems them in on the other. As one choice forces another, sometimes they are impelled to change the choices they have made, moving a locale from London to Berlin, for example. Continue reading

How our theories of time affect how we meet together

Whenever people agree to meet together to discuss work it seems to provoke deep anxiety about how to do it. To a certain extent this is well motivated: as a matter of mutual respect, it is worthwhile reflecting on what there might be to talk about and to come prepared. Participants in the meeting, particularly those with greater responsibility for organising it, want to be able to ‘use the time well.’  There is often a fear that not planning things in detail will look ‘unprofessional’, or that not mapping out all of the time will ‘open a can of worms’.

‘Making good use of the time’, then,  sometimes leads to over-planning, trying to map out how the meeting should go in highly detailed ways, sometimes by setting objectives for each session of the meeting and trying to tie things down to the minute. This arises from a linear, instrumentalised understanding of time and the presumption that thought  precedes action. There is a assumption that we can anticipate, as we plan the meeting together here and now, how things will unfold at some point in the future and that our thinking today is adequate for the situation we will encounter when we meet together. Sometimes so much effort is put into ‘structuring’ the meeting, with games, presentations, ‘feedback sessions’ and the other appurtenances of workshops and extended meetings that we have all become accustomed to using, that most metings will have very little opportunity for evolving in unexpected ways. The ‘structure’ prevents it happening, and the meetings do indeed unfold according to the plan with spontaneous and important discussions breaking out in the coffee and lunch breaks instead. This is particularly ironic when people are coming together to discuss how they might work differently, or how they might adapt to new and emerging circumstances. They try and contemplate the new in very habituated ways.

I was recently in a meeting where we sat around a table and were subjected to Powerpoint presentation after presentation as a way of ‘discussing the work’. Of course, that’s the last thing we did, because there was very little time to discuss the work with the presentations taking up most of the time. One might say that what was needed was greater variety in the presentations, a different sort of organisation: more games, more ‘break-out sessions’. We could say, still, that we need to ‘use the time better’.

Suppose we think of time differently, though, not as a linear phenomenon, but as a cyclical process. Supposing, as St Augustine suggested, we are only ever in the present: the present of the past, the present of the future and the present of the present, the last of these the living present where we wrestle with all three. If we consider , if we could allow ourselves, that we are constantly reinterpreting the past in the expectation of the future, cyclically, then allowing time for this exploration in the living present, where spontaneous irruptions of the planned might allow for a different future to emerge from the one that we have been anticipating. If we could pay better attention to how we are thinking about how we think, rather than paying attention to our timetable and our objectives, maybe we could come to understand what we are doing differently.

This might suggest further instrumentalism, however, if we convince ourselves that we can plan into the programme refelection sessions where the radical insights will necessarily occur, a bit like thinking we can plan to spend ‘quality time’ with our partners or children. We still delude ourselves into thinking that we can  manage time perfectly. Unfortunately, none of knows when this quality time will arise. Good quality discussion is a skilful practice that develops episodically between people in an environment where they can sustain both knowing and not knowing where the discussion might be heading.  It is a risk – it may turn out that we have not  ‘used the time well’. Tolerant of ambiguity, of undertaking planned activities with an expectation that important and unplanned things may arise as a consequence, skilful discussants are able to negotiate continuously how to go on together. They are aware that when we plan things together we are hit and miss.

Allowing for episodes of reflection, being alert to suggestions, irruptions, conflict and constantly interpeting  important themes of conversation that are not necessarily present in our meeting plan could open the way up to all kinds of exploration of the new and the unexpected. Our meetings never unfold in a linear fashion, but emerge as we struggle with each other over what we think we are doing and who we are. In this struggle we come to understand ourselves, and what we are doing, differently, and unpredictably.

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Excitement, planning and the paradox of leadership

I was working with a group on strategy planning, and we had spent the morning talking about some of the assumptions and methods that staff bring to the exercise in many organisations. So, in this case senior managers had described their last strategy as ‘ambitious’ and ‘exciting’: it was a ‘step change’ in the way they were doing things. It had developed a ‘change agenda’ which would need to be ‘driven through’. We spent sometime in the morning talking about why it was that strategies need to be ‘ambitious’ and ‘exciting’. Clearly being excited about what you are doing is an important component of having job satisfaction and feeling that you are making a contribution. But what does it occlude? What kind of leadership does it suggest?

In the afternoon we got an opportunity to revisit this question of excitement and how we mediate this in groups, and the very process of making plans together. It was a sunny day and we had been working inside all morning. A group member suggested that we work outside in the garden for the next session. Two or three people in the group of 14 decided that this was a good idea and turned to me, presumably considering me to be the temporary leader since I was facilitating, and asked if I minded. My only response was to say that I was up for it if people felt they could work outside. On the way from the meeting room to the garden we met a small group of senior managers and the CEO who were straggling in to the meeting slightly late, who were then swept up with the group heading for the garden. We sat round on cast iron chairs in the bright sunlight and began talking. Planes roared overhead and people had to lean in to the centre of the circle better to hear each other. The sun burned down, and people began to shift places according to how comfortable they were with this. Eventually someone broke into the discussion by saying they were finding it hard to hear. Others then spoke up about how uncomfortable they were in the hot sun. As the revolt grew it became clear that there was a movement to go back into the meeting room as a couple of people stood up saying we should go inside.

Back in the meeting room we reflected on what had happened. A number of people said that they had been swept up with the excitement of the invitation to go outside. Others had simply followed along. No one challenged the movement to the garden. Once outside, we were all sitting with various degrees of discomfort until someone articulated them – because there was a resonance with what others were feeling it was possible for a new decision to be made. We began to see parallels with the way we strategise and make plans together, how something can seem like a great idea and how others can get swept up unthinkingly in the moment. We also began to question how often we are prepared to speak up, to look out for each other when we see each other in an uncomfortable position, and who exercises leadership in such situations. How often do we catch ourselves in the middle of what we are doing, and ask ourselves: ‘is this such a great idea?’ When we get carried along by excitement it clearly motivates us to do new things, but at the same time, what does it prevent us from doing?

And what does it mean for strategy processes which set out to be ‘ambitious’ and ‘exciting’? How easy is it then to resist plunging headlong into all kinds of commitments which are then not easy to back out of? When we retired from the garden there was no harm done, and it only took a few moments to get back to where we were. But if we commit the resources, and the time and efforts of colleagues of an organisation to something we are excited about, it is harder to untangle. There are clear implications for leadership and mutual accountability, of understanding leadership as a group responsbilitiy as well as an individual one, and of the need to give an account to each other of what it is we think we are doing and why.

One of the things that I think the appeal to ‘excitement’ and ‘ambition’ potentially inhibits is this ability to account to each other for what we are committing to: who would want to be publically against putting forward ambitious plans for radical change? If we work in ways that constrain the possibility of exposing our ideas to being tested by others, which I am arguing is a kind of disciplining of these ideas, then we risk exposing ourselves and others to big commitments which are still raw and unformed. There is no way we can think through the consequences of all of our intentions, but the paradox of leadership involves being able to suggest patterns and possibilities in the circumstances that we encounter, at the same time as being open to understanding them differently through the insights of others.

The problems of planning for the good

The struggle over how we, as frail and vulnerable human beings, can use reason to make our way in the world, and work towards and preserve the good for us and for others, is explored by Martha Nussbaum in her book entitled The Fragility of Goodness (2001). By setting out the arguments of the Greek philosophers as they wrestle with the question of how human beings can make a more certain world and inure themselves against the vagaries of chance, Nussbaum navigates the paradox of the knowable and the unknowable, the precise and universal versus the particular and messy:


We have reason. We are able to deliberate and choose, to make a plan in which ends are ranked, to decide actively what is to have value and how much. All this must count for something. If it is true that a lot about us is messy, needy, uncontrollable, rooted in the dirt and standing helplessly in the rain, it is also true that there is something about us that is pure and purely active, something that we could think of as “divine, immortal, intelligible, unitary, indissoluble, ever self-consistent and invariable”[1]. It seems possible that this rational element in us can rule and guide the rest, thereby saving the whole person from living at the mercy of luck.


In the book Nussbaum contrasts the philosophy of Plato, who struggles to gain an unconditional vantage point of the good beyond the cave of appearances, with that of Aristotle who urges a return to these appearances as a way of rediscovering our humanity. For the former, science, or techné, holds out the prospect of allowing us to weigh, count and measure as a means of achieving endless progress and refinement towards the ideal. If we could reduce things which are different in kind to being commensurable, and thus capable of being quantitatively evaluated, then it would reduce uncertainty about what is to count as a good activity, since we can produce universally applicable measures where we can judge one quantity of a thing against another. We are merely presented with the choice of more or less of the same thing. Techné holds out the prospect of liberating us from our ordinary intuitions and attachments, which are unreliable and hold us hostage to our fallible humanity and to fate.


For Aristotle, according to Nussbaum, the striving towards a universal vantage point seems to deny the very conditions that make us human, since they try to pass over and deny the importance of the day to day complex phenomena in which our lives consist. If for Plato the only thing that makes life worthwhile are activities which take us away from the cave and up into the sunlight, for Aristotle it is the here and now, the diurnal messiness, towards which we should turn our attention:


But if it is a universal human desire to grasp the world and make it comprehensible to reason, then it seems clear that oversimplification and reduction will be deep and ever present dangers. In seeking to be at home, we may easily become strangers to our own home as we experience it. In our anxiety to control and grasp the uncontrolled through techné, we may all too easily become distant from the lives we originally wished to control…We need philosophy to show us a way back to the ordinary and to make it an object if interest and pleasure, rather than contempt and evasion. (2001: 260)


Aristotle criticises Plato for adopting a ‘god’s eye’ view of ethical action, forming universal judgements about the good outside of any particular human frame of reference. He himself is more interested in the plurality of the good, which can only be assessed, he would argue on the basis of judgement derived from experience. The difficulty of deriving universal rules and trying to apply them in advance of the experience itself is that it closes off the possibility of surprise. For Aristotle, in cases of judging the good, rules are just rules of thumb, with each particular circumstance that we encounter capable of providing substance for the revising of these rules. By focusing on the practical, Aristotle notices that everyday experience is by its very nature changeable and complex, thus much less amenable to precision and universality.


Plato aspires to an ideal world of abstract universals, where detached rationality acts as a hedge against the fragility of human goodness. Aristotle advises us that giving priority to the general over the particular loses us the ethical value of surprise, contextuality and particularity, which makes us more vulnerable, but is at the same time an acknowledgement of our humanity.

[1] Euripides – Trojan Women.