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.

Transformative Conversations

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:

https://metalogue.co.uk/Metalogue-Report-on-Transformation-Dec-2018.pdf

 

Key References:

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.

 

 

We have been working in and around organisations long enough to have noticed a cyclical obsession with changing culture as a panacea for transformation and renewal. But is it helpful to describe this kind of change as if it is something we can master by applying some kind of cause and effect approach?

Mastering what is elusive

It is often the context for what I do in my work and yet I still hesitate to call myself an expert in something that is so elusive and therefore unmanageable. The subject demands humility yet it doesn’t stop us from thinking that we can somehow shape and control it.

Amongst the myriad of definitions you can find about organisational culture you will often discover terms that refer to patterns of human interaction such as behavioural norms, narratives, rituals and the significance of relationships. Then there are contextual factors such as symbols, artefacts and the aesthetics of the working environment Whatever aspects we have in mind it has consequences for how we think about cultural change as well as the actions that stem from these assumptions.

What is also interesting is that the etymology of the word has Latin and French origins and has evolved from an agricultural metaphor – the cultivation of land and crops from the early Middle Ages. So it does imply the notion of ‘controlled change’ as a base metaphor especially when you examine how it came to be used in philosophical thought through the ages:

“All the ways in which human beings overcome their original barbarism and, through artifice, become fully human” (Samuel von Pufendorf, 1632-94).

This way of thinking continued to evolve through to the last century, especially with the emergence of the social sciences, where the gaze turned to communities and tribes in different geographical contexts. As anthropologists in particular became more aware of their ethical responsibilities, they became less interested in any notions of cultivation and more on learning from their observations and insights about social systems of people. Hence the less goal-orientated idea of a noun called ‘culture’ where we were becoming more interested in what is rather than what should be.

The Petri Dish of Life

In a recent conversation with a client – who had a background in biochemistry and now works in social policy – she made an intriguing statement: “ I prefer researching and thinking about what people are doing in their lives rather than staring into a petri dish”. It reminded me that the ‘cultivation’ metaphor is alive and well in the world of microbes: the ‘cultures’ that are created and observed under the lens of a microscope.

Our conversation turned to whether we as leaders or change agents see ourselves as standing outside of culture looking in or whether we are actually swimming in the petri dish whilst imagining that we have access to the eye piece of the microscope.  And so we came to the fundamental difficulty of definition and our ability to influence something that is not within our grasp. We cannot ‘see’ something with neutral, objective clarity when our own lenses are distorted by our hypotheses and by our need to control and categorise. For example, how can you analyse and explain something when you are part of the very same phenomenon you are trying to pin down.

Or put another way, there is an old saying which we think comes from an old Chinese proverb and goes something like this: “if you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish.”

And to bend the fish metaphor in another direction, culture is therefore a very slippery eel indeed!

So where does this leave us in our roles as change agents and leaders?

Hopefully not in a helpless place if we can hold our pragmatist and idealistic urges in check. As long as we have the capacity and the willingness to pay attention to our assumptions and are clear which lens we are seeing the world of culture through then we do think you can have some influence. What if we were to start with the following principles:

1. Organisational cultures are always in flux. They are constantly in a state of co-creation – a bit like very complex, self-modulating systems.

2. We participate (swim?) in these modulation processes and this contributes to what we experience as cultural patterns such as norms of behaviour.

3. These patterns are only one manifestation of a cultural eco-system. Indeed you could argue that all organisational activity and symbols are expressions of culture in one form or another.

4. Neither system nor pattern has boundaries. They are non-linear by nature.

5. Culture has no fixed configuration just changing contexts. It might even be better to talk of culture as a verb rather than a noun.

In a nutshell it means we are dealing here with something that is always emergent and somewhat paradoxical. So if you think of a typical cultural issue in organisational life – where it gets expressed as “we need to be more (or less) of something”- our instinct usually is to find a change solution that involves some form of control thinking. This is not a surprise because this in itself is a typical cultural pattern in many organisations and in life generally. It’s a bit like the challenge of overcoming an addictive pattern of behaviour. Our experience suggests that the first step to ‘recovery’ is accepting first that we are not in control of something that is a pattern of contexts and relationships.

Rich Descriptions

It follows then, if we feel some responsibility for creating change, we might have to let go of our conventional thinking in this area. We would suggest then that there are more congruent approaches that can create a gentler but more impactful ‘disturbance’ than any grand design or intervention.

There is no one truth that can encapsulate or describe all contexts. So in our client work we apply a liberal dose of science and an equal measure of art. It means that we have to be rigorous in our methods as we help our clients to pay serious attention to what they each experience in their organisational lives. We act like anthropologists in that we help them to build a rich description of these cultural experiences through a discovery and immersion process. This then enables them to reveal and express those patterns that they wish to amplify and those that they wish to dampen. How and when they do this becomes the basis for a next phase of support. We will come back to how that works in reality later but for our next blog we will talk more about some of the methods we use during the initial discovery phase.

For those who wish a deeper dive into some of the ideas expressed above we would strongly recommend the work of Gregory Bateson, Adrian McLean, Clifford Geertz and John Berger.

 

Consulting beyond the Froth:

A welcome return to ‘home cooking’ … or the scarily ordinary done exceptionally well

During a recent meeting with a prospective client (let’s call him Paul), I was struck by how much he didn’t want us to sell what we did. He seemed to be much more fascinated in how we felt able to “just be ourselves”(his words). At one stage his challenge was “yeah, yeah I know when you are consulting you can do all that. I’m sure you will be good at partnering with us or anyone. What I really want to know is how comfortable you are with each other and then with someone like me and the people I have in mind. So tell me: what does a group of people like you do for a Christmas party?”

Home Cooking

Now some readers at this point might be more interested in how we answered such an unexpected question. But what struck me was that Paul had sought us out purely from his intrigue at how we showed up on our website and then how that matched with how we related to each other. Of even more interest was the fact that he hadn’t quite worked out precisely what he was looking for.

He just wanted something different. Something a little less elaborate than the leadership development that his colleagues had been served up in recent years. “It’s as if we have got far too used to dining out in Michelin-starred restaurants with all their frothed up garnishes. Yet sometimes you just want to eat something straightforward and be back with the people who really know and care about you. Where you are delighted just to eat something basic and wallow in the ordinariness of a typical day at home”.

It reminded me of those moments when I am more than happy to heat up some beans on toast and grate some cheese (if I’m feeling indulgent). As I sit down to eat with my sons, I amuse myself when I proclaim: “cheesy beans: the food of kings and queens!” And I actually mean it too.

Scarily Ordinary

The best articulation that Paul could find was they needed now to focus on what it takes to bring some ordinary management practice back into what they were referring to as leadership. “Part of the problem”, he went on, “is we have got so used to lurching from one drama to the next that we have started to lose sight of what we value closer to home. In other words: the stuff that happens in the everyday. And it is only becoming apparent because it seems we are running out of dramas and the expectation that there is always something lying around the next bend. Indeed we can see much further up the road and, whilst the business is in good shape, it all seems scarily ordinary. For now at least.”

It brought to mind another client conversation (let’s call her Dawn) where we were discussing the challenge of sustaining cultural norms over time. The business in question was well known for its innovative and unique approach to its brand identity. To both consumers and employees the brand has always stood for innovation and quirkiness even 20 years after its well known products were first conceptualised.

I asked Dawn how they had managed to keep their values so fresh and vibrant for such a long time. Her response was illuminating: “well people often assume that we have a unique approach to the way we engage people and how we go about HR stuff. Yet you will find that we have pretty similar policies and processes to most progressive businesses – it’s just that we try to apply them in a super authentic way”.

Looking beyond the Froth

So I wonder, should we be paying more attention to the craft of leading and organising that is exceptional and super authentic in its ordinariness?

If I think of the consulting world or more specifically the world of OD and Change, it reminded me that we are so often seduced into believing that we always need to offer something new. This is why we are never short of fancy language and fancy packaging that disguises something that has usually been borrowed and might even be a little old. Nothing wrong in that if it keeps us away from a cookie cutter approach to our consulting proposals. But are we trying a little too hard to dress up that which often just needs something basic…but served up with exquisite care and attention?

Being Extraordinarily Present

My experience is that what often gets most valued is our ability to hold safe spaces for people to talk to one another and perhaps get heard in a way that they rarely experience. To do this ordinary consulting work well, we have to be extraordinarily present. We see our job as creating the conditions for people and their colleagues to witness what each other has to say about how they feel in their work, how they feel in their relationships to each other and most importantly what they are hoping to get better at. And then of course feeling able to do something about it.

Being really heard can feel quite profound for some people. Yet holding onto our curiosity and with a little less judgement is not something that can be easily bought or sold. So whether you are a leader or change agent, if you look beyond the ‘froth’ you might find the essence of what you really need is something quite straightforward.

You might even want to try some of our Metalogue-starred ‘home cooking’ from time to time.

 

As January comes to a close, I was reflecting that I quite like this time of the year though that’s not a sentiment I hear very often. It’s not that I don’t carry my own guilt about over consumption or a vague existential angst about what I am doing with my one precious life. Indeed this month was named after a very particular Roman God for a reason. Janus signified beginnings and endings and was perhaps most familiar from old Roman coins that had a caricature of a head facing backwards and forwards. In other words, Janus was the god of transitions who represented the need to pause and reflect as we pass through the thresholds that represent the cycles of life.

It seems appropriate therefore that during January, the film industry, on our side of the Atlantic at least, chooses to release some of its more profound offerings. It’s not that there is any lack of quality getting released in other parts of the year but it does seem like we become a bit more spoilt for choice than usual in our local ‘art-house’ cinemas. I’m talking about the movies that have a bit of theatre and meaning about them – the ones that seem to avoid the usual clichés of sentimentality, linearity and tidy endings. The ones that get to the heart of the matter. The ones attempting to make some sense of the world we live in.

One such film is: ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’. The film deals with the consequences of guilt and unfettered rage for a grieving mother, who is seeking a police response that is commensurate with the nature of her daughter’s murder. I experienced it as a twisted morality tale, where notions of good and bad are not so clear-cut. Here we have a woman who has had enough of judicial procedure. She has had enough of half-heartedness and apathy. She is confronted with plenty of reasons to back off and tone down her behaviour but she is relentless and uncompromising. Direct action is all that she can offer.

Given the subject matter, it is deadly funny at the most unexpected moments and by the end there are no comforting conclusions and an awful lot of carnage along the way. Three Billboards does have a message though and a beautifully crafted one at that. Even amongst the ugliness and brutality of human nature there are occasional glimpses of compassion. Yet, what struck me most was that this was a film that seemed to confront the cosiness of our ideals and certainties about how we wish the world to be and, how we expect people to behave. It deals with gender norms, race relations, family dynamics and our attitudes to death in such a robust fashion that I would imagine many of us would be a lot more reflective about our liberal and humanistic values after seeing this.

So what has all this got to do with our practice as change consultants?

This is the kind of art that demands that we look inwards and outwards at a deeper (higher?) level. It reminded me of the moral certainties and assumptions that we carry, particularly in our professional lives. It reminded me that, now more than ever, we need to pay heed to the ethical foundations that provide the bedrock to the field of practice that we still choose to call ‘OD’.

I have been working in the field of organisational change for a long time and it made me wonder about how much I am prepared to be changed when I think about my own moral compass – how I deal with shades of black, white and grey.  I wondered about what would be our equivalent to the Hippocratic oath that is held so dear by those in medicine – the notion of “doing no harm”. I would like to think that I am part of a profession that holds humanistic values and ethics at its core. Perhaps our advocacy would take in the principles of dialogue and equal voice as well as the foundational importance of relationship and behaviour, in context. But could we be more explicit about our ecological stance and might that influence our choices about the work we are prepared to do? Would we be prepared to challenge the primary metaphors or lenses through which we choose to see organisational life? How in reality do we uphold our stance of ‘doing no harm’ to people or planet?

In a recent interview with the writer/director of Three Billboards, Martin McDonagh, he suggested that his script was a story of hope, though he accepted it was hard to find. I found this simple message immensely helpful. The sense I am making is that this was not a film about redemption. It was about the glimpses of an alternative possibility that subverts the caricatures, and ingrained assumptions, that we often carry about people and situations.

It is a reminder that sometimes we can discover surprising contradictions when we stay around and look closer for long enough. This demands we take a more phenomenological perspective. Translate that into consulting speak, and it demands we value immersion and dwelling over our natural tendency to advocate premeditated solutions for what has already been categorised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Perhaps our purpose too is to help each other to find hope and to perhaps linger for a while longer.

We might even get to notice that January is not the only threshold when we could be taking the time out to reflect on what we are really trying to uphold in our professional and personal endeavours.

 

 

What can we learn about transformation and change from a simple act of mutuality?

It’s early May and I’m just back from working in Devon. For each of the last 7 years I’ve been running an annual workshop on ecological thinking and organisational change at Schumacher College, a few miles outside the town of Totnes.

I usually find myself there in early December which always brings its own seasonal aesthetic alongside the pressures and ‘culminations’ many of us feel in the lead up the winter break. People bring all that stuff with them and the world always seems a darker place – literally and metaphorically.

This time around we are approaching the Summer solstice and conversations have a lighter feel. Longer days bring more imagined possibilities. Or so it seems.

Participation

You don’t just stay at the College – you become part of the community for the best part of a week. The College is actually a grade II listed building on the Dartington Estate – the Old Postern.  Apart from a handful of staff who run the learning curriculum and oversee the infrastructure of the ‘house’ and the grounds , the College is run by volunteers and the learning community – a mixture of MSc students studying holistic science, alternative economics and horticultural practices plus those on short courses (i.e. people like us). In other words it’s a transient community and it is your home for the week. Days start and end with cooking, cleaning, clearing and setting up, and gardening alongside the volunteers… because there is no one else to do it. Of course you can choose not to participate but then you are making a conscious choice of putting yourself in a position where you are expecting to be served by others.

To some it might stay at the level of novelty and perhaps easily forgotten after a while. But the penny finally drops when on your last morning at the College, you find yourself refreshing the bed-sheets and tidying your bedroom for the next occupant. Then you realise that is exactly what the previous occupant did for you. People say to me … “it’s as if I make an extra effort to clean, tidy and prepare the room because I am aware that a stranger did the same for me”.

It’s a small act with a deep meaning. An act of mutuality with an invisible other that could be seen a primary ecological gesture’ – caring about yourself and caring for others. It’s about relationship and it’s an act of leadership if you think about it. It’s also a beautiful way of bringing the point home…gently.

I recall one conversation last week where we talked about how people turn away when presented with a narrative of organic ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ and threats of the apocalyptic consequences of mindless consumption. Yet I know from my own experience that often we are drawn towards a change in behaviour through a simple re-frame of expectation or language. When you act into a new way of being and experience the consequences it is even more profound. It is no longer theoretical or aspirational.

As a practitioner during my time in Devon I notice myself slowing down, saying less, letting events unfold at a different pace. There are long silences and any intervention I make has to be weighed because somehow any gesture or commentary feels heavier than normal. In those moments I am learning about what it means to be less purposeful and what it means to do less.

So whenever I leave Schumacher and return to the ‘smoke’ I feel emboldened. I feel changed somehow.

Mutuality

We at Metalogue are sceptical of grandiose plans for transformation even though it is often the context for our work. We have been around long enough to have participated in all sorts of elaborate designs and strategies for bringing about change. Almost in spite of these purpose full plans, we have seen remarkable shifts in behaviour from a subtle turn of phrase, a simple gesture or a conversation – rarely from an exhortation by a leader or a project plan.

It reminds me of a recent client workshop where a programme director finally plucked up the courage to share some of his frustration with his line colleagues. Up to this point, the agenda had been dominated by presentations and project updates. It seemed to me like an elaborate charade or a verbal form of tai chi.

His words seemed to carry a directness that was difficult to parry.

“Whenever I email you all for information or to complete a report I often get no response. I know we are all busy but these actions are now time critical”. To which one business head replied “I am not sure why I am feeling that we have let you down. I really do want to help you but I often don’t know how to respond without a proper conversation”. It was followed by a long silence. My intuition here was to hold rather than release the tension. So I let the silence stretch for longer. But not forever.

My next question was simple: “what do each of you need from each other?”

Silence.

Then finally somebody said:

“I think we need to have more of these conversations and less templates to complete. We have had 6 months of inertia because none of us have thought to find out what would be most helpful for each other”.

It was a simple ask and of course the programme director could hardly refuse. This was a complete inversion of his assumption that people wouldn’t have the time or inclination to get in a room together to work out what was needed.

Needless to say progress is now being made. They do meet more often though people can still be difficult to pin down. But at least now they are much more careful not to neglect each other’s needs. And more importantly the dreaded templates are in remission.

To use a little poetic licence with what the renowned economist E F Schumacher once said: small gestures (of mutuality) really can be beautiful.

http://metalogue.co.uk/

https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/