Tag Archives: teams

Taking a detour via detachment in INGOs

I have been working with staff from an international development organisation to review a new service that they set up a year ago. For them this involved creating a new department, launching a new vision and strategy, and team building within the new entity. There were a number of away-days and launches. Inevitably there were glitches, miscommunications, lacunae. Additionally, the ambitious work plan of creating the new department, with new policies and procedures, has been run over by events. So staff were running around trying to set up something new at the same time as they were responding to business as usual. Everything has taken much longer than anticipated.

The new department comprises people who work in the UK and overseas. Some of these latter were doing a similar job to the one they were doing previously, but were now considered to be in a different department. Some of them are not clear that they have become part of a new department – their everyday reality is much as it was before, although they might be reporting to a different manager. For staff in the UK the changes have been more obvious and more talked about. They are engaged in struggles with the old department from which the new entity has been carved concerning who does what, who takes responsibility.

Members of the new group make observations which seem very familiar to me from previous similar situations. The first is to criticise the senior management team who set this process going in the first place. Why didn’t they plan this properly – why didn’t they foresee some of the difficulties which were going to arise and pre-empt them? The second is to bemoan the lack of clear communication. If only we could communicate clearly, or even design a better system of communication, then some of these problems would not have arisen. The third is to draw attention to the feelings of demoralisation that some people feel: they complain that they have not been sufficiently consulted, or they may have been made anxious by the turbulence of change, or they may have lost out in terms of power and autonomy in the new department. Some people present have been moved out of the new department, and are now only loosely connected to it, and are feeling excluded. Continue reading


Strategic Planning: it’s not about the document

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

Meetings: getting caught up in anxiety

I was struck recently by how much anxiety a meeting provokes and how this leads to counterintuitive behaviour, even by very intelligent people.

At a seminar, one which was convened to discuss power and politics, we were at various stages forced to play games, or to disrupt our conversations to take part in exercises which were supposed to  encourage alternative thinking. Instead of  being allowed to let our discussion follow its course, which might well have led to alternative thinking,  we were given instructions to stop what we were doing after half an hour and to send an emissary to another group, which would also send one to us. We were told in advance how we were supposed to respond to the emissary when they came, which was to listen to what they said and then to criticise them severely.

We might have questioned this task, the seminar was after all about power and politics, but some of our group became very anxious about fulfilling the requirements of what we had been asked to do. We spent some time, then, discussing how we would do what we had been asked, and after we had interacted with the other group, whether they had also played by the rules or not. The disruptive task and its fulfiment became more important to us than what we were talking about.

Of course it would have been an interesting topic to talk about in the seminar itself, particularly as we were discussing the way that dominant ways of working come to shape what it is and is not possible to do. We had in our own way given a very good demonstration of how we had internalised authority with our own anxiety, and more or less willingly become complicit in a way of working that was disrupting what we would have liked to have been doing. The way we had reacted was a very good example of how dominant ways of working become dominant – we ourselves were taken over by our own anxiety about not offending, about doing what we were told, about being obliging.

One aspect of human behaviour that most worried Hannah Arendt was our tendency to undertake tasks in an unthinking way. This,  she said, gave us the potential for evil, which was not necessarily  something grotesque or melodramatic for her, but could consist in the daily habit of oppressing or subjugating others in a routine and unthinking way, what she termed ‘the banality of evil’.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the exercise we were obliged to undertake was in any way evil: it was very well intentioned. However, our ability to jump straight into it without for a moment questioning what we were doing, particularly in an evironment where we had gathered to talk about hegemonic ways of working, was very instructive.

We never did find a way of talking about it in the seminar though.

The experience of leadership

I was invited to facilitate a  two day retreat for a senior management team by the team leader. One of the things that exercised him was the fact that individually his colleagues were very competent, but somehow they did not work well together with him as a team. The style of his predecessor had been very different from his, in that she had a much more authoritarian way of working. She was  more comfortable dealing with people bilaterally. When the team met together as a group they had learnt to wait for her to tell them what she had decided and had got out of the habit of talking things over together. When the new team leader came into post he would ask them what they thought about something, and they would reply by asking him what he thought. They were forever waiting for him to take the lead.

The team leader decided that the best thing to do was to start the retreat by talking about leadership, and the kind of leadership that the team should be exercising, together and with others. His suggestion was that we should spend the first session defining what we meant by leadership, agreeing it, then working out what that might mean for practice. We would go on to develop a plan for the kinds of leadership we might have in place by a certain point in the future.

A constraint for me in knowing how to work with this group was the fact that they had had a session the previous year, with their last team leader, where things had broken down in the group quite quickly and someone had stormed out of the meeting. I realised that there might be quite a lot of trepidation about this meeting and how it might be run.

One of the difficulties that I had with this way of working, of agreeing the meaning of an abstract idea, then proceeding from there, is the notion that a group of people would necessarily agree, or even that it is important to do so. Is it really possible to reach a sufficient degree of understanding for the next steps of working together to be obvious? Many of us would be able to articulate idealised understandings of leadership, but how far does this enable us to lead? There are of course lots of books in train stations or airports setting out simple rules, the six steps to this, or the three ways of being. Or, of course, we could buy the books by the great captains of industry who offer us access to the secrets of leading.

How should we lead together, however, in this time and place, in this context, with each other?

I suggested an alternative. Rather than spending so much time in idealising about abstract concepts, team members would give an account to each other of the kinds of things that they are managing at the moment as a way into exploring how they were working together, and how they might go on to support each other. We would deal with questions of real time practice. By taking turns, team members would practice recognising each other as managers and leaders, and would come to understand their role in the group in doing so. We would use this method as a way of experiencing, and reflecting on how the team was leading together, rather than how they ‘should’ be leading.

I suggested this as a way of working to undermine the way we predominantly understand practice in Western organisations as thought before action. It seems a common sense approach: first we establish what it is by what we mean in abstract terms, and then this shared understanding enables us to coordinate our actions. The alternative I was offering is to understand leadership as a shared experience: reflecting on our actions and giving an account to each other of how we are leading gives us a much better grounded opportunity to come to realise what we mean by leadership. We come to know it when we experience it together. Theory arises out of practice and informs it, which in turn drives theory.