04 June, 2019
Alternative Ways of Knowing:
Finding new possibilities for how to enable cultural change and transformation.
By Kevin Power & Simon Martin
In our last blog, we talked about applying “a liberal dose of science and an equal measure of art” when exploring organisational culture and change. As practitioners, one frame we find helpful comes from John Heron and Peter Reason (2008), who talk about there being 4 “ways of knowing”:
‘Propositional’ and ‘Practical’ ways of knowing are far more accepted in modern organisational life. These can be found, for example, in policy, process and best practice procedures. They are gleaned from the experience of what has happened in the past. They are what “normally works” and could be seen, too, in the competencies and routines developed through carrying out the daily acts of working life.
‘Experiential’ knowing is described as the embodied encounter with the experience of the moment; the second by second unfolding of everything that happens. ‘Presentational’ knowing is the processing of this experience into “artistic form”.
These last two focus on intuitive, rather than pre-conditioned, responses. By drawing on this kind of data it can help to “create” new perspectives and new possibilities.
Working from Intuition
When we are dealing with many familiar organisational situations, then Propositional and Practical knowing may serve us well. However, when dealing with complex, systemic questions such as culture change we do well to explore the other forms of knowing too.
To bring this to life, one way we help individuals and groups to access their experience in a presentational way is to use what we describe as ‘cultural artefacts’. We ask them to choose something that represents or resonates with what it means for them to be a participant in their organisational culture. The request is normally unusual enough that they have to work intuitively because the “right answer” is not available!
Sometimes people bring along an item that has been sitting at the bottom of a desk drawer or something that is stuck on an office wall. They might refer back to what they first noticed on joining the organisation or a source of frustration or pride. Other times they will choose an evocative image or an object from home to express something that is otherwise not easily spoken of.
Tsunamis and Crowns
For example, during a recent strategy & culture workshop, a senior leader in a manufacturing based company offered up an imagined tsunami image (see below). It was his way of describing the experience of working in the context of constant uncertainty that faced the business.
In their leadership roles were they supposed to exude calmness or agitation? Or were they being perceived as in denial? In an ensuing discussion between a cross section of colleagues about the impact of Brexit, they realised that this was just another context for a typical pattern in the business. In this case it had become the norm to carry on with resilience and belief that you can address whatever issues or challenges that come along through rational and calm endeavour. This was an engineering-led organisation after all. Yet this response was leading to other unintended consequences such as cycles of anxiety for some people and complacency or disempowerment for others.
With another client group, a pink crown was chosen to represent how people related to their senior colleagues. On the one hand there was respect and a sense of responsibility inherent in the symbol of monarchy. Yet at the same time the playful colour undercut this with something that was a serious concern. In a subsequent discussion that included the executive team, the group talked about a nagging feeling that their bosses were unlikely to stay around for very long. It was therefore not a surprise to learn that it sometimes led to ambivalence in how people responded to new strategic imperatives.
In both these examples, these patterns had grown to become cultural norms and had become resistant to previous leadership interventions and exhortations for change. Interventions that were based more on the propositional “rule book”, such as signing up to agreed “leadership behaviours” or team charters. By surfacing these cultural patterns through a more intuitive “artistic” form, people from different levels in the organisation found it easier to talk more openly with each other about their attitudes and responses. These perspectives were always there but had remained hidden and unspoken about. Now they could be given language and worked with in the spirit of changing their organisations for the better.
In our recent research into Organisation Transformation we refer to the importance of enabling transformative conversations, which can often more easily and gently be elicited through artefact work. We don’t profess to have an amazing one-size-fits-all model for how to make cultural change happen. But we do know how to build a process that helps clients to make sense of their own cultural patterns – with emphasis on the richness that different ways of knowing and multiple perspectives can bring. We also know what might engender different responses and what might disturb what has become fixed.
At the same time, we support the view that the role of leaders and change agents is to create the conditions for change to become possible. This is a reframe on the cult of leader as the heroic instrumentalist. It is a reminder, too, that non-rational approaches that have a more humble starting point can often bring about unexpected, and sometimes transformative, results.
You can download our latest research report here:
Heron, J., & Reason, P. (2008). The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (2nd ed., pp. 366-380). London: Sage.
McLean, A (2013). Leadership and Cultural Webs in Organisations: Weavers Tales. Emerald Group Publishing.
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