“Words create worlds”
Generally speaking, I don’t think philosophy is considered to have much practical relevance to organisations. Certainly, when I look back on my early training as a psychologist little attention was paid to questions of philosophy. A few months ago, a daughter of a friend was telling me that she was thinking about studying philosophy at University. I found myself excited on her behalf and saying how I feel the subject is both important and useful. This got me thinking about how philosophical ideas helped me to be clearer about what I do, how I do it and why I do what I do in my OD practice.
My early training (close to 30 years ago now!) as a psychologist was deeply embedded in an unquestioned positivist paradigm. That is, reality (i.e. people and organisations) exist as independent entities that can be objectively studied and empirically measured. I learnt to assess people and organisations to diagnose problems. My professional assessment would then inform interventions to support or enable change. For most of the first decade of my practice, I never really questioned this paradigm. After a while, however, experience forced me to recognise it rarely helped to enable change. Too often, I felt my clients resisted the diagnosis (they didn’t own it!); or by the time I had a ‘valid’ diagnosis the situation had changed or having a diagnosis didn’t equate to knowing what to do or having a solution that would work.
Over time, I started to question my assumptions. I was not on my own. For the past 40-50 years social scientists and OD practitioners have increasingly challenged the dominant ontological and epistemological paradigms about organisations and how they change. In 1966, the Sociologists Berger and Luchmann wrote a pioneering book titled ‘The Social Construction of Reality’. This was the start of a wave of thinking in the social sciences that has, and is still, challenging assumptions around the nature of organisations and the practice of OD. Ideas such as: Kenneth Gergen’s ‘Invitation to Social Construction’; David Cooperrider and his colleagues work on Appreciative Inquiry; Patricia Shaw’s Changing Conversations in Organizations; and more recently Bob Marshak and Gervase Bushe publications on Dialogic OD. These are, but a few, of the writers that have applied postmodern philosophy and social constructivism to the field of OD.
Rather briefly, postmodern thinking is characterised by a general distrust of grand theory and ideologies. It challenges the belief in an objective reality that is independent of the observer. Rather reality is, and organisations are, socially constructed and inter-subjective in nature. Meaning, words and action, arises in social contexts and cannot be separated from it. Postmodern ideas draw attention to patterns of dominant discourse and how these discourses are reflective of power relations in society. A postmodern perspective seeks to explore alternative accounts, narratives and to be critical and questioning of implicit assumptions and dominant discourses.
These ideas have changed my practice.
– Rather than trying to diagnose problems, I help people to talk about how they are working together and how they are talking to each other. I draw attention to language, words and assumptions and how these are reflected in what they do. I might for instance help my client notice how they talk about ‘driving change’, ‘beating the competition’, ‘aligning the organisation’ or ‘bringing people into line’.
– I am less invested in normative models or ideological images of what organisations ‘should’ look like or how they ‘should’ function. Instead, I explore my clients’ experience of working together. I have come to distrust, or at least question, bold statements such as: “this is the problem”, or “this is how the organisation needs to change”. I see conversations that explore different multiple perspectives as generative and creative.
– I am less committed to finding agreement on the nature of the problem or what to do. I am attentive to how different individuals or communities are constructing their experiences. I pay attention to patterns of conversations: who speaks to whom, who talks about what topics and who does not talk to whom etc. I see my role as helping people to acknowledge, question and challenge dominant narratives. Not because they are wrong but because the process of questioning reveals assumptions and choices. Where possible, I want to help different accounts to be acknowledged, given voice and understood (not necessarily agreed with).
– I now believe that change happens when we change how we talk and relate with each other. My practice is increasingly about convening and hosting conversations that are different from those that habitually happen or that appear stuck and lacking the expression of difference, novelty and creativity.
– With the above in mind, if I am going to be of service to my clients then I need to notice and question my construction of what I am seeing, hearing and experiencing. I no longer assume that I am able to stand outside of my client’s experience and to offer objective judgements. I am a participant with them in a process of inquiry, exploration and possibly change.
Whilst writing this blog, I recalled a consulting project, that I worked on with my colleague Dev, that really helps me to grasp the value of helping people to notice how they were ‘framing’ their experience. The client had recently re-organised from a centralised structure with business units in countries around the World to a matrix which gave the countries greater responsibility and accountability. Dev and I started the work by talking with those involved. What became apparent was how the different groups constructed and acted into the situation. The executive team described the problem in one way, the central functional leads in another and the country managers in multiple ways (they after all had little opportunity to confer with each other). Dev and I brought most of the stakeholders together for several days to explore and talk about their experiences and to explore each other’s assumptions of ‘the problem’. Through a process of dialogue and conversation, individuals began to understand each other’s perspective and to shift their framing of the situation from who was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to a deeper appreciation of different experiences, needs and expectations. Out of these conversations, agreements were made about their respective roles and responsibilities.
Embracing this way of consulting is both unsettling and liberating. I no longer ‘have to get’ people to ‘somewhere’ or ‘to change’. I have also learnt that to question the ‘dominant discourse’ or people’s ‘reality’ is at times confronting for them and, not surpisingly, is not always welcomed.
At Metalogue we see our work is about helping our clients have a different conversation with themselves and about themselves. If you want us to join a conversation with you about your organisation please reach out to us.