constructivist practice in organisations and groups – a changing selection of ideas, articles and links
Two stories from the Strategy Bites Back collection raise the intriguing possibility that when we are lost, any old map will do…
These powerful little tales leave a provocative trace over the landscape of planning and strategy
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The first story, drawn from Karl Weick’s ‘Sensemaking in Organisations’, tells of a group of soldiers on reconnaissance deep in the Alps who become lost, and are feared dead by their lieutenant. They eventually arrive back safely some days later, after one of the soldiers discovers an old map which helps them gain their bearings and find a route. Later, when the lieutenant studies this life-saving map, he discovers to his astonishment that it is not a map of the Alps, but of the Pyrenees.
As Weick comments : This incident raises the intriguing possibility that when you are lost any old map will do…once people begin to act, they discover what is occurring, what needs to be explained and what should be done next.
A constructivist approach to change would understand movement as the core principle, with plans developing and emerging through ongoing experimental activity. From this starting point, the surprising proposition that any old map might do is perhaps not as unlikely as it sounds.
The second story comes from O.K.Moore who describes a tribe who determine a route for hunting by holding he shoulder blade of a caribou over hot coals. The cracks formed by the heat are interpreted as a map. Moore claims that this method, while essentially random, is surprisingly successful. It usefully prevents over-hunting of familiar areas and encourages exploration and new discoveries. Its very randomness heightens the chances of success.
Powerful little tales that leave a provocative trace over the landscape of planning and strategy, encouraging us to reflect honestly on just how much (or perhaps, how little) of our best progress and development was specifically mapped in advance…
(Ref: Mintzberg, Afslstrand, Lampel – Strategy Bites Back 2005)
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“Here was a theory about the struggles of change, expressed not as rules or answers, but as questions, provocations, things to be curious about and to work on together, located within the clients’ world of meanings”
– a ‘translation’ of George Kelly’s work on the role of the PCP professional – from the clinical setting to organisational life
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You can read the full paper here:
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“It’s OK to be inconsistent from one day to the next. That’s not being a fake; it’s how we experiment to figure out what’s right for the new challenges and circumstances we face.” – Herminia Ibarra
– viewing ourselves as works-in-progress might help us to continually evolve and reconstrue our professional identity through trying on possible selves…
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Herminia Ibarra has recently published some interesting pieces on professional identity in the Harvard Business Review. Citing authenticity as the the prevailing ‘gold standard for leadership’ she takes a more constructivist approach, pointing to ways in which an adherence to ‘true’ or ‘real’ self can hinder growth and development: “Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable.”
Viewing ourselves as ‘works-in-progress’ by contrast enables us to continually evolve and reconstrue our professional identity through trying on possible selves. “That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous.”
She reminds us that “it’s OK to be inconsistent from one day to the next. That’s not being a fake; it’s how we experiment to figure out what’s right for the new challenges and circumstances we face.” She suggests that we borrow selectively from people we admire and try their behaviours on for size, developing our professional selves through a courageous process of trial and error. She maintains that active experimentation rather than introspection is the key to development, and quotes playwright Wilson Mizner: “copying one author is plagiarism, but copying many is research”. In provocative contrast to prevailing leadership advice she advises: “Don’t stick to your story“.
In a similar vein, another of her articles critiques leadership presentations, suggesting that they increasingly demonstrate a curious mix of the deeply personal and the carefully staged: “Typically the speaker starts with an anecdote, preferably about a difficult experience that tested the executive and forged his or her leadership values. That’s followed up with “what I have learned” and, often, a comment on the importance of being authentic. The executive usually tries to be humorous and self-deprecating. The whole presentation has a casual, spontaneous tone — but it’s orchestrated down to the last detail.”
Her critique ranges from questioning the validity of ‘personal talk’ across cultures – “the template is deeply American” – to wondering why intimate evidence of triumph over adversity is now expected as a professional credential, while noting the irony that this particular construction of ‘authenticity’ has become just one more requirement to which a leader must now conform.
Links to the HBR: article: the authenticity paradox
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“The embodied brain is intrinsically, not just extrinsically, enmeshed in its social and cultural and experiential world”
‘Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind’ by Nikolas Rose and J.M. Abi-Rached, Princeton University Press (2013)
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Neuroscience has quickly gained traction in the organisational world, perhaps not surprisingly as so many neuro-studies appear to offer clear and incontrovertible findings and such things are prized in the field.
The house magazine of the Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development is regularly padded with features such as a recent proposal that we “ditch the clean desk policy”. Why? “It’s science that says so”. Many items now contain neuro-references – for example we are advised that we are most creative when we are idly reading or daydreaming, and how do we know this? “Brain imaging shows us”. Another headline promises the “neuroscience findings that are crucial to being an effective leader”. One of the ‘secrets’ revealed is neuroscientific evidence that cheerfulness “inspires employees and leads them to work harder”. Conferences similarly feature presentations on many behavioural topics telling us that ‘science proves it’ accompanied by brightly-patterned brain scans on a powerpoint slide.
I am finding it hard to distinguish these items from the features we see every day in the free papers handed out at the station. I can be as seduced as anyone by neuro-images – they’re beautiful and full of wonder – but I have been equally impressed by the stories of grad students producing significant multi-coloured activity in the brains of dead fish.
So it’s good to find a serious and thoughtful exploration of the significant potential of neuro-research in social sciences which avoids conflating brain, mind and self, and which prioritises context and meaning. ‘Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind’ by Nikolas Rose and J.M. Abi-Rached.
“we must recognise that the brain is embodied…[and] the embodied brain is intrinsically, not just extrinsically, enmeshed in its social and cultural and experiential world……unless you understand the social embeddedness of neurobiological processes, and of biological processes more generally, you simply won’t understand the phenomena that you’re trying to explain.”
You can read the introduction here: the social mind – introduction
and there is a short interview with Rose about the Human Mind project on the LSE website here: five minutes with nikolas rose
Like all Rose’s work the book is interesting, challenging, with much food for thought. If you read it I’d love to hear your views.
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