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Archive for the ‘My PhD and related things’ Category

With so much written about systems thinking in management and leadership over the last twenty years or so, people may feel that this principle is bordering on the cliché. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is now almost a truism, and certainly the language of systemic thinking has been increasingly and uncontroversially used in discussions of Organisational Development, in certain views on Leadership, and in one guise or another in operations and production management for at least two decades, if not more.

I would argue, though, that this apparent application has been more one of vocabulary than of fundamental principles. What’s more, the appetite for the topic of complexity has frequently been faddish, second-hand and poorly thought-through; a handy bandwagon for those with a book to sell, a seminar to fill or a paper to publish. This is not a rant; it has always been so and probably (sadly) always will be. So let me explain how I think that a systemic view is essential to the nature of Reflection, Personal Development and for management practice, and in doing so argue that this is still a fairly radical, exciting idea.  

Thus, the fourth PD principle, and one which (I trust) follows logically from the first three, is “Practice Awareness of the whole, not the parts.”

Since the 1980s, the predominant interpretation of reflective learning in management has been via an analytic approach, of what many would call ‘the scientific method’ of measuring cause and effect, just redressed in the clothes of humanism. This is not new, nor is it always the useless thing to do. It is, in fact, the defining pattern of thought from Renaissance times to the present day, a process characterised by Russell Ackoff as a three step process of analysis;

1) take it apart,

2) try to understand what the parts do, and

3) assemble understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole.

In modern business education it is the same – management is broken down into its parts because the assumption is that knowledge of the parts taken separately allows integration into an understanding of the whole.  Analysis permeates corporations, which are divided into parts, which are then aggregated into the running of the whole – an analytical process.  Business Schools also have curricula separated into parts, which vie with one another in silos of analysis, which occasionally leads to academics vigorously defending the grounds for their view, their models and their theories entirely in relation to the views, models and theories of other competing domains. People, too, are units for and of analysis. Their personalities, traits and characteristics can be measured, their roles assessed and their actions studied in isolation to see how they work.

By contrast, in systems thinking every system is contained in and defined by its function in a larger system. Explanations always lie outside the system, never inside it.  Where analysis takes you inside the system, synthetic thinking contrasts the three analytical steps by:

1) asking “what is this a part of?”,

2) then explaining  the behaviour of the containing whole, and finally

3) disaggregating understanding of the containing whole by explaining the role or function of what I’m trying to explain.

We tend to think of ourselves as individuals, more or less free agents operating more or less effectively, making conscious choices alongside others who are (more or less) in a similar situation of individual free-will and choice. In Personal Development, a systemic approach means setting aside, at least temporarily, certain parts of our training, thinking, or education. Where problems just seem to be repeating themselves, or a more piecemeal approach to change doesn’t resolve things, or the issue just isn’t clear, seeing PD from a systemic point of view can very liberating, with surprisingly rapid insights and results.

Elsewhere in this blog I have posted about systemic coaching, and I have come to the conclusion the basic principles underlying this approach work equally well when applied to Personal and Professional systems. This is easy to say and difficult to talk about since the dynamics that work within a system are best understood when experienced (phenomenologically) yourself.  The invisible ordering forces of a system or whole which are listed below (and the descriptors) are taken from John Whittington’s excellent new book on Systemic Coaching & Constellations:

Acknowledgement (this is the first principle of PD in my list, and here refers to “standing in the truth of the current situation”)

Time (“what comes first has a natural precedence over what follows”)

Place (“everyone, and everything, has a right to a different but unique ad respected place in the system”)

Exchange (“a dynamic balance of giving and receiving is required in systems”)

Seeing the order from the outside…?

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A couple in dialogue with nature in a rainforest pool in northern Queensland.

I’m fond of telling anyone who’ll listen not only that reflection is at the heart of Personal Development,  but also that “introspection is necessary but not sufficient” for reflection. This second assertion is prompted by observation and supported by deduction.

The observation is of the shyness exhibited by most MBAs when it comes to sharing thoughts and feelings with others in a learning context. Hardened managers who would not hesitate to chip (or butt) in with their views when it comes to business decisions turn deafeningly silent when it comes to surfacing assumptions about themselves in a collective setting. This silent tendency is even more pronounced, if that’s the right word, when the sharing requires those thoughts to be expressed in writing. This is despite an intellectual acceptance of three ideas; that telling others helps reveal our thinking to ourselves, that listening to others somehow provides a boundary and shape for our own thoughts, and that the process of writing (especially for publication to an audience) is a distillation and perhaps a transformation of our thoughts (when we speak we do not use exactly the same language structure as when we write). Anecdotally, when you have a situation where trust has been established between managers who are all committed to learning, the efficacy of dialogue for PD is very often apparent, with rapid results.

Nevertheless, these observations cannot easily explain why dialogue is a principle of PD. That explanation comes from a deduction, itself following on from the second principle (which spoke of the concept of difference), of what must necessarily be going on in dialogue, intrinsic to reflection and therefore part of the Personal Development process.

Whenever a second view or reference point is made available, and difference created, a new level is not just a possiblity but a logical necessity. Gregory Bateson used the example of binocular vision to illustrate this. On its own, each of our eyes is sensitive to information or sense data. But a single eye cannot see distance; this facility is a property of the information processed from both eyes. However, the fact that we can perceive depth in three dimensions is not simply a matter of addition. Binocular vision is at a logical level hierarchically above the levels represented by what each eye “sees” on its own. As Bateson pointed out, this is a sort of multiplication, “[in] principle, extra “depth” in some metaphoric sense is to be expected whenever the information for the two descriptions is differently collected or differently coded.” (Bateson, 1979: 70).

So it may be said that dialogue in reflection results in a depth not present in either person’s thoughts on their own. A ‘conversation’ is an idea one level removed from the individual sets of utterances that make it up. A dialogue is, then, a double description which is the relationship between components (remember that a relationship or difference between things is not a property of those things and has zero dimensions) and when we engage in a dialogue what results is a viewpoint that we could not have seen only from our introspection. At least, deductively, this is what out to be so and what we may then investigate.

The 1st principle

The 2nd principle

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The first principle of Personal Development that was outlined in an earlier post was “acknowledge, without judgement, things as they are.”

Although not in itself sufficient for PD, this is certainly a necessary pre-requisite mental attitude; a stance of genuine curiosity about (and a conceptual uncoupling from) things. It turns out that we are already in trouble when we assert that there such things as “things”, but until now we have had little choice because the English language tends to be steadfastly material in its assumptions of the world. The world of difference, however, is notable for being immaterial.

So the second principle of Personal Development is an invitation to understand and then actively look for ‘difference’. This idea is perhaps the most elemental in Gregory Bateson’s relational view of the world and one that I have blogged about several times over the years. However, as a very brief resume, in a world of almost limitless potential bits of information which our senses detect, a difference is that bit of information that makes a difference. In other words it is an “elemental idea” whereby we become aware of the boundaries between one thing and another thing. In noting difference we must make some of sort comparison, but our comparison literally carries no weight, occupies no space, and is non-dimensional. A difference, in short, is a no-thing. Crucially, it is also not a property of any of the things we are comparing. Bateson went on to note that differences travel in recursive circuits of cause and effect in systems, and that they are transformed successively over time and are at the heart of what make living systems different, so to speak, from non-living ones.

But what does this have to do with PD and what does it mean in practice?

1. Without the relationship between ‘that which is’ and ‘that which is not’ it would be impossible to have any notion of “things as they are”, the first PD principle. 

2. Meaning is achieved by the ever-present question “compared to what?” (a question that is almost always an implicit or unconscious one).

3. Every notion implies its opposite, its negation.

4. Development implies learning, learning implies change of one sort or another, and change implies some sort of novelty which would be impossible if the world were a closed system.

An example, perhaps. I recently found out that I have had a development paper accepted to a management conference in September. The paper’s purpose is just to stimulate discussion, in  contribution to a given subject area (in this case ‘knowledge and learning’) and partly in order to give me some developmental feedback in peer review. The acceptance process involved some blind peer reviews, which I got to see. Two of the reviews were largely positive and quite supportive, but the third was a lot more critical. My first reaction was to accept the compliments and look for comforting support from their gentle suggestions for improvement. I dismissed the less complimentary review as being irrelevant, its author too far from my position to be of any use to me. On reflection it may be that the reviewer I didn’t  agree with that will help me understand my own thinking for what it is as it exposes it to its antithesis.  My job is first to note that this is the situation (acknowledge it) and note too how I feel about it, and then get curious about how such a different view clarifies my thinking. To to that, I’d need to understand that alternative argument.

In summary, in their daily working lives managers constantly (if unknowingly) make sense of what’s going on by embracing or ignoring the concept of difference and the world is an open system which operates according to an underlying pattern (or law?), regardless of our awareness of this being the case. Incidentally, because it is a property of the relationship between things and not of things themselves, the nature of “difference” is a very curious one to explore. In short, the difference between one thing and another is at a higher logical level than either of the things themselves. Bateson spent much of his life playing with the consequence of this, i.e. that ideas operate in a pattern, a hierarchy of  logical levels which are immanent in social structures and systems.

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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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