Archive for the ‘My PhD and related things’ Category

This post details the first of my Six Principles of Personal Development that every manager should know, which is:

1. Acknowledge things, without judgement, as they are

You are exactly where you have chosen to be.

Through many years of working with (pretty experienced) managers, mostly on MBA programmes, I am convinced that this is the most fundamental PD principle of them all. My conviction stems from the observation of  both how (for all sorts of good reasons) un-self-aware many mid-career managers are, and of how radical the “ah-ha” can be when they wake up.

This principle asks just that you acknowledge the truth of your own present, of where you are, of who you are and how you are. That’s all, no opinions on whether or how you construe the past and the future. And what’s more to do all of this with a challenging and genuinely curious frame of mind, without prejudice or censorship.

Some people are driven to Management Education and development by their sense of being “trapped” in their past. Others are obsessed by something in the future that, necessarily, must always appear just beyond their reach. They seem always to be in pursuit of something they don’t have. The symptons of this malaise are beautifully and poetically illustrated in the following Tom Waits lyrics, from his song ‘Foreign Affair’ :

‘most vagabonds I knowed don’t ever want to find the culprit
that remains the object of their long relentless quest
the obsession’s in the chasing and not the apprehending
the pursuit you see and never the arrest’

Where are our heads? At first glance, a lot of us appear to prefer to occupy a prison of the past or an artist’s impression of the future. Closer inspection (or introspection, in fact) should reveal that both of  these concepts are existent only and entirely in the present. The past is no more a cause of the present than the ship’s wake (to borrow an analogy used by Alan Watts) is the cause of the present position of the ship. That’s not to say that the idea of the past does not have use. Without it, “here” would have no meaning’, we would not know that there is such as thing as the present. Nor would we be able to construct the idea of a future. Our sense of agency, of acting in the world, is reliant on the coming together of these three ideas?

Acknowledging ‘what is’ is a principle that runs through all other, or further, aspects of PD, and represents a fundamental commitment to mindfulness of practice. Notice, suspend judgement and… let go.

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I have been turning my mind lately to what could, or should, be central and unifying concepts that represent what we mean by Personal Development here at Henley.

Earlier posts on this blog have rehearsed some antecedents, but inspired by a seemingly inexhaustable parade of “lists” that form a daily digest of reading in popular management magazines and blogs, I really wanted to have a go at a compilation of my own. People do seem to feel at home with lists, and who can blame them? (it’s probably just a matter of time before there’s an an article published with the title “the five benefits for leaders of making lists”…)

So over the coming weeks, dear reader, look out for six intermittently posted attempts to give food for thought for your own management development and management practice.

First, this post names all six principles. I take these to be pre-requisites for Personal Development, though all of them are also activities for practice. There will be other activities, particularly related to career development, work-life balance and academic achievement, that complement these six things, but philosophically they are my starting points.

1. Acknowledge things, without judgement, as they are

2. Seek out, and pay attention to ‘difference’

3. Engage in dialogue

4. Practice awareness of the whole, not the parts

5. Align personal purpose and the purpose of business

6.  Use the logic of metaphor

The first on this list will form the topic in the next posting.

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I’m preparing to head south on my annual migration to the southern hemisphere for the March MBA starter workshop in Johannesburg.

As usual, I’m reflecting (pre-flecting?) on what’s to come, on how I’ll work with colleagues and new members of the MBA, what state of mind I want them to be in at various points, and so on…

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that reflection is not possible except when we are able to distinguish it as such, which means differentiating it from that which is not reflection. The two are interdependent and inextricably linked. This is how we find the outline of one, against the other. Hardly earth shattering? Maybe. Yet a crucial point precisely because we take it for granted.

So how do we know the difference, in general? This is occupying me, so I may return to this over the coming days as I blog the workshop.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of pathologies in management. It’s an interesting thought, but not one often dwelt on in the context of an MBA. I think this is a mistake because it’s always the pathologies that throw light on the day-to-day normal functioning that would otherwise be camouflaged from us by the fact that, frankly, there is just nothing noticeable going on.

The term ‘pathology’ conjures images of morgues and psychiatrist’s couches, but the definition also has other meanings and applications (see below). The one under discussion here is as “a departure or deviation from a normal condition”. This  seemingly spare definition is linked, of course, to the others and it should be of interest to managers and leaders for the following reasons:

1.  Although it is suggested that there is nothing to be learnt from “a normal condition”, actually it would be better to say that there is nothing that’s easily learnt. In fact, the normal is where most of us operate, most of the time. We just do it without thinking about it. We are somewhat hard-wired to seek equilibrium and place into our sub-conscious minds as many routine aspects of behaviour as we can.

Now, ‘normality’ is, of course, a loaded term; what, exactly, is “normal”?  It is anything we don’t pay attention to, either because we don’t have to to get by, or because it has become so routine, so habitual as to be impossible differentiate.  This routine world is not open to examination because what we wish to examine and the means we have to examine it are one and the same. Only when we have at our disposal a new lens, a means of differentiating the normal, only then can we draw its outline.

2. So the study of a pathology is important as it shows us what we cannot see in the “normal”, and therefore shows us the nature of what we take for granted. To understand what we do as managers, we have to find or provoke situations which are deviant, or perhaps just a departure from the everyday. The psychiatrist Oliver Sacks has illustrated this phenomenon very well in his numerous books on deviant psychological conditions. The whole medical profession, in fact, has relied on pathology as a source of information about what must, necessarily, be the case in the world of the non-deviant.

The question of what are the pathologies of management is important not in order to validate the deviation but to show us how we work when we don’t have any problem at all. In Personal Developmnet on the MBA, I think this could be a valuable, if theoretical, starting point for all incoming managers. The challenge in education, aside from documenting cases of managerial pathology, is safely to provoke enough deviation in the course of the degree to let leaders and managers see for themselves how this works.

n. pl. pa·thol·o·gies

1. The scientific study of the nature of disease and its causes, processes, development, and consequences. Also called pathobiology.
2. The anatomic or functional manifestations of a disease: the pathology of cancer.
3. A departure or deviation from a normal condition: “Neighborhoods plagued by a self-perpetuating pathology of joblessness, welfare dependency, crime” (Time).

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One of the nice things about having your own blog is that you can choose to do anything you want to — within reason. Whether or not the thing you then choose to do has any merit is, of course, another matter. Today I choose to be an amateur film reviewer (it’s the reviewer that is amateur, not the film, I hasten to add)

Yesterday I attended a special screening in London of the film “an Ecology of Mind“, a documentary about the ideas and philosophy of Gregory Bateson. The filmmaker behind the project is his youngest daughter, Nora, who has been on a tour of various serendipitous locations in various countries, tirelessly presenting and discussing the film, her father, and the legacy of his ideas.

The relative obscurity of Gregory Bateson’s work means that many people will ask “so, what’s this film all about?” Appropriately to its thesis, this question can be answered on more than one level. Compiled by Nora from archive materials and interviews with disciples, friends, fans and family members, the film presents an overview the most important aspects of what must initially strike those who limit their reading of Bateson’s work as a very confusing career. The joy of his ideas, set down with precision and care, emerges only with repeated reading, plus (and this is crucial) an accumulation of the breadth of his output spanning decades and disciplines. You’ve got to follow him the whole way in order to “get it”, but once you do it’s really all very simple: our task is to understand the elegance and beauty of the underlying pattern that connects. There is a corollary to this which is also quite important – and that is that our various means of slicing up, analysing and explaining the wholes that make up our world are 1) completely arbitrary (though often helpful) and 2) never the thing that they are trying to explain.

The venue was an old cinema in the University of Westminster building in Regent Street in London, which, stripped of permanent seating and laid out with standard-issue university seating,  had the feel of a school assembly. Nora spoke to introduce the film and spoke of her reasons for making it. This is a film about unending processes of learning and enquiry, and about the patterns of relationship that link all living systems. As a documentary it has many themes. On one level, it’s about the connection between father and daughter, about memory and the passing on from one generation to another of a curiosity about and love for learning, the natural world and the ways we have for making sense (and nonsense) of it. Equally, it’s about the development of a way of seeing the world around us and about equipping oneself to think rigorously about all of this stuff.

But Nora’s film definitely begins and ends in the very personal world of the relationship between father and daughter. Theirs is the dialogue that we open and close with snippets of. In particular, the closing exchange feels very poignant, and anyone who has read much of Bateson’s work will find echoes of his metalogues. Bateson was an explorer of ideas and also, it turns out, a very warm and loving teacher. But as befits its subject matter, there are things going on in this narrative on at several levels. The family portrait (and likeness) is also a device chosen to present a series of chapters in the film. One by one, each theme is signalled by an animation of Gregory and Nora walking hand in hand. These are expanded on and supported by interviews with others who have learnt from his ideas or who have been influential in their development. But the best moments are the archive sections which show Gregory at work, at play and at ease.  I especially enjoyed these clips of Bateson speaking, mostly in later life, sometimes in informal home movies, sometimes in hardly less informal lectures or classrooms. One of the best is a quote, where Bateson, evidently giving his interlocutor a summary of his career, recounts this list  “biology, into anthropology, into systems of ideas, into pathologies of systems of ideas, into ideas of how we all live together, and ‘we all’ means the plants and animals as well as you and me.”

I often feel that there is a ladder of understanding that you have to work up to “get” Bateson, and you can’t just skip to the top – not if you really want to escape the error of applying a theory of ideas and relationships to a world of concrete ‘things’. 

In fact, throughout the film there are reminders that very frequently we are asking the wrong question, that our whole outlook is based on error, and such types of error that we display in our thinking can have catastrophic consequences. This may the unifying reason why so many have welcomed the film and the chance to discuss Bateson’s work and its meaning for them.

Read at the level of biography, ‘An Ecology of Mind’ works well enough. Reading between the lines, though, is what will lead the viewer to begin to ask themselves the same questions that puzzled Bateson himself, and from that you then have to start reading some serious works. Don’t be deterred either by what others think or by your initial confusion – the effort really is worth it. You will not only learn something, you will learn something about what it means to learn something.

An Ecology of Mind is not yet available to buy on DVD in the United Kingdom, but can be purchased on the German Amazon web site.

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Just over a year ago I undertook another month-long challenge on this blog. Rather than a different photo each day I undertook to follow a fairly long interview protocol designed to explore and reflect on my own personal narrative.

The second post of that sequence was a pre-amble, a word or two about definitions and various models of reflection, by way of setting the scene for what was to come next. The model I mentioned in that post, that of Atkins and Murphy developed in nursing training, and I have noticed that even after 12 months it still receives a steady stream of hits.Atkins and Murphy, it seems, is fairly often searched for on Google.

This prompted me to revisit that blog entry and see what I had said, and whether my thinking has changed since. As to what I wrote, I’m actually quite pleased with it – I think what I said makes some sense and holds together. At the same time, my feeling about models has changed. I’m no longer so sure that they are the be-all and end-all for understanding reflection. Do people really follow the phases, and if they don’t, well does that mean they’re not reflecting? Do we shoe-horn what is actually happening into these labels and categorisations?

I’m sure that a model can be helpful up to a point, but is also an invitation to miss both the subtlety of the learning process and the myriad elements which just don’t fit on the page or the in the paradigm of the researchers who came up with it. In the Atkins and Murphy case, ultimately it boils down to a mix of good ol’ North American pragmatism/behaviourism/scientific method (echoes of Kolb) mixed with a dash of mild critical reflection that can incorporate a questioning of underlying assumptions and inclusion of room for emotion and feeling.

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My office (one part of it, anyway) seems to have turned into the Bat Cave, full of gadgets and screens, most of which seem oriented toward one of two themes:

1. creating, fiddling with and tedious stitching together of the PhD (the bookshelves not in view here play their own, groaning, part in this as they bear both witness to and the weight of my Magpie-like joy in collecting old books on my subject)

2. a whole set of electronic activities designed to keep me in touch with colleagues, students, family, friends and acquaintances. And, of course, provide distraction from getting on with point 1 above.


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The Playmobil penguins again, this time pictured outside the management school at Lancaster, where I’ve been discussing my PhD progress, and attending a short session on the whys and woes of trying to get to the end. Right now, I feel more like going round the bend than seeing the end….

I think the doctoral process is a test of your ability not to give up when you head off down a blind alley.


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Another set of thoughts prompted by a chapter in “A Sacred Unity” by Bateson, this time it’s “Men Are Grass: Metaphor and the World of Mental Process”, which is the transcript of a talk he gave (or broadcast, since he was too frail to attend in person) at an event in 1980, the year of his death.

The talk revolved around two themes (one general, the other specific) that were occupying him at the time: the direction of his life and work, and the limits of mechanical and material forms of language in explaining biological process.


1. The language of description is a language of materialism. It is incredibly difficult to ditch this, though in order to understand the processes that explain Reflection, we may have to. Or try, at least, for inevitably we may fail.

2. Ideas are not “things”.  They have zero mass, zero energy, zero dimensions. There are no “things” inside ideas, only ideas of things. Bateson writes “This lands you in a world which is totally strange. I find myself running screaming from its contemplation, and essentially running back to a world of materialism, which seems to be what everyone else does, limited only by their amount of discipline.” (p. 237)

3. The retreat to the world of a language of “things” creates a division that is, in one sense, not a real one. The split between “mind” and “matter” is a good example. So when we describe Reflection as a mental process we have to careful because the langauge of science (even social science) will want us to draw explanations of cause and effect that assume linearity.

4.  The “Barbara” syllogism

Men Die / Socrates is a man. / Socrates will die.

requires that there be such a “thing” as the invention of the concept of a subject (e.g. Socrates) in order for the logic of the proposition to mean anything. These were not invented until about 100,00 years ago, says Bateson, and though it may look like the only way of making sense, this logic cannot be the logic of the vast period of natural history and biological process. In the Socrates syllogism,  it’s equality membership of a class or set that is crucial. To many, the alternative equality, that of predicates which the Grass syllogism (Grass Dies / Men die. / Men are grass. ) uses is simply wrong and very much to be avoided in explaining anything except, perhaps, poetry, art, humour, games, fantasy, dreams and (controversially) mental conditions such as schizophrenia. For Bateson, this was, partly, we all have such a problem, as it cuts us off from a greater understanding of the mystery of natural process in living things.

5. According to Bateson that process got along just fine, messages were understood, and our best shot at understanding this is by the metaphor summed up in the Grass syllogism. We are quite used to the “idea” of metaphor as expressed consciously and linguistically, but for humans the questions may be “can metaphor also be unconscious or subconscious?” In fact, is this how metaphor operates, and if it is then what is the consequence for us in practice (or in research)?

Metaphor becomes the “organizing glue of this world of mental process” (p 241).


Bateson, G. (1991) “Men are Grass: Metaphor and the World of Mental Process”, in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an ecology of mind.” A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, pp 235 -242

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I wanted use this blog posting to draw out some lessons from one of Gregory Bateson’s essays. This may not interest anyone reading this. On the other hand, if you’re curious why anyone would want to try to make sense of Bateson’s work  (I have my own PhD related reasons), you may find this helps foster your own thoughts.

The essay in question is in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an Ecology of Mind“, a second anthology of his various (and incredible) range of writing over many years, which was published in 1991. In the section of the book titled ‘Form and Pattern in Anthropology’ is the essay “Naven: Epilogue 1958”.

Naven was a book Bateson originally published, as a cultural anthropologist, in 1936 and which was based on his  earlier field work in New Guinea. On one level, Naven (the title names a complex ceremony of tribal bonding) constituted the results of an observational study of aspects of the kinship system of the Iatmul tribe, symmetrical and complementary schismogenesis of roles and behaviours among particular family roles. The 1936 publication included an Epilogue, a sort of reflection on his findings. The 1958 edition contained a further Epilogue which critiques and re-evaluates the earlier work and places the two kinds of schismogenesis in one balancing system (and this thought was undoubtedly influnced by the interest at that time in cybernetics and systems theory), but more importantly it is an essay into the limitations of methods of inquiry and of explanation.

These are the things I take from the 1958 Epilogue (bearing in mind that these ideas continued to be developed for a further thirty years or so):

1. “All science is an attempt to cover with explanatory devices”, a game to see how rigorously the scientist can stretch explanation to cover “the vast darkness” of the subject at hand.

2. Aside from the subject under scrutiny, science is also about learning about the process of knowing. In other words, it is about explaining epistemology, or how we know.

3. Explanation is about the fitting together of data.

4. In Bateson’s epistemology, the fitting together of data is subject to logical levels of abstraction. Raw data are always one level removed from the “world as it is”, and the re-arrangement by the researcher of that data in order to make sense of it is on a level of abstraction higher  than the data itself. If the data is the picture of the world, then research is rather like trying to put together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Further, the self-reflexive discussion of the procedures of knowing used by the researcher (that which justifies why the activity of putting together a jigsaw has any meaning at all) is itself on another level of abstraction again.

5. The labels that scientists give to explanations are just that, labels, and should not be confused with the things those labels describe. The terms used in the conclusions drawn by the researcher refer to the way that the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has been arranged, not to what’s in the picture. 

6. In social science, explanation (theory) is recursive. Failure to discriminate between these various levels is thus cause for confusion and error.

7. Ideas are not things and words such as “learning” and “teaching” are not in themselves explanations for anything. (This may be why so many companies find it impossible to measure the effectiveness of HR training?)

8.  If we do not resist the temptation to reify them, then a lot of the theories, models, frameworks, classifications and typologies that are used in learning are simply “heuristic fallacies” when it comes to explanation.  This is a valid criticism of, for example, anyone using the Myers-Briggs Type-Indicator as an explanatory principle for behaviour or personality. This would be to confuse the device for description with the thing it describes, though the tendency to do this is very strong.

9. The study of learning and of change is actually the study of explanation not of things but of relationship between things. If learning and change are formally analogous in more areas than just social science, the value of studying what “knowing” means becomes much important for managers, since we may end up being able to explain much more.

10. We tend to think of learning as having a purpose. The idea whether change is directional and that the end of a process is its purpose (and also an explanation of the process that preceded it) is one that has occupied philosophical thought for millennia. But the explanation of the process in a system always lies outside that system (to paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them). 

11. In social research the reason why this is hard to demonstrate is the capacity that human individuals have to conceptualise the system that they are an intrinsic part of. This conceptualisation (or double hermeneutic?), while also making humans prone to error in logical typing, means humans agents can consciously make changes in the variables within a system in order to retain permanence and stability. At a higher logical level, however, there is learning going on about the (observed) parameters which are the boundaries of that system.

12. A categorisation of that set of behaviours and utterances (communication) that we class as “Reflection” is not an explanation of what reflection is.  “Reflection” is of a higher logical type than, say, “experience”, “ambiguity” or “dialogue” (or any one of a myriad of behaviours and utterances). As long as we know this, we will not become confused (or, not so easily) and we will not fall into the trap of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in our mapping of data.

13. What you describe, what you see, as a researcher is defined by the choices you make, and by rigour in coding at higher levels as well as lower ones. Alternative descriptions are possible where they are of the same logical type. Human learning, in this sense, might be just as interchangeably, defensibly and unsatisfactorily described by Kolb’s learning cycle as by Jung’s archetypes. The fact of context in human learning, however, is necessarily more than the individual, and cannot be explained by individualistic and atomistic theories.

14. Research into human learning often focuses on examining storied selves. This is fine, and constitutes a description of the self. But care is needed to avoid assuming, first, that these stories ‘exist’ outside their telling and, second, that simply  in their telling there will be a change of the order which we may label “Reflection” (i.e. learning, of the sort which changes the parameters of the self).



Bateson, G. (1958) Naven, a Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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