welcome to constructivist consulting

your  comments, ideas and elaborations will be warmly welcomed. You can join the mailing list to keep in touch with new posts, or drop me an email mary.frances@virgin.net


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unexpected destinations

image courtesy of andrew ormston

image courtesy of andrew ormston

While I tend to experience autumn as the start of a new year, the season often includes a number of project endings and evaluations as the calendar-year closes. Revisiting George Kelly’s writing recently, my attention was caught by his exploration of how we judge the success of our own work – ideas which might have relevance for anyone consulting with individuals, groups or systems.

Kelly suggests that our direct reward lies in the continuing development of our skills, and it is possibly this process of ongoing learning that attracts and holds many of us in the field. He proposes that we might also achieve success vicariously through the accomplishments of our clients as we see them exercise ‘initiative, originality and independence’, an outcome derived from having located ourselves in the service of their potential without imposing our preferred direction.

But he also usefully highlights the frustration we may feel when our clients opt for solutions which we would not have chosen for them. When we work with larger systems these choices are performed on huge scale and we may feel uncomfortably implicated. He describes that feeling provocatively as having ‘staked our personal system against our client’s, and lost’ – a departure from our theoretical stance of working within the client’s world as opposed to exhorting them to join ours.

Our consulting philosophy, theory and practice need enough elasticity to embrace a wide variety of client outcomes, allowing their various achievements to be construed as validations of our role in their service rather than validations of our own preferred construing. Kelly describes this approach as not just ‘tolerance’ of the varying points of view represented in client outcomes, but a willingness ‘to be devoted to the defence and facilitation’ of widely differing preferences, outcomes and consequences.

The ongoing attempt to work with and defend our clients’ choices does not imply that we adopt their ways of seeing for ourselves, or that we necessarily approve of or agree with the direction they take. It is simply that we understand their constructions as the raw material we have been working with, and we respect them as the leaders of their own lives. Our assumption would be that all our clients’ choices make coherent sense – including their more surprising or uncomfortable choices – and our task continues to be that of understanding more fully what kind of sense they are making: that’s my reminder-to-self this autumn new year.

15 October 2015



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the performance of our lives

Always interested in how we construct and perform a ‘professional self’, this advertisement for staff in a soon-to open burger restaurant in town caught my eye:

Its X-factor style pitch implies a requirement to act, dress, and indeed rock, as if every day is the best of our life. As a quiet introvert, at least part of my response to the advert is one of exhaustion, but it prompts interesting questions about the new implicit social and psychological contracts of the lower-paid workplace.

Earlier this year, Paul Jaskunas wrote in the NYT about “the tyranny of the forced smile”
At his recruitment training session, one of three core requirements prescribed was “does the applicant love the job?”. He shares his surprise that love is now considered essential to the employment relationship, pointing out that it seems an extreme standard to apply with respect to most positions.

He critiques the new requirement for us to “refuse to accept that a job is merely a job. It must be something more — a vocation, an adventure, a journey to higher heights. I often do feel this way about my work, but I’d rather not feel obliged to profess my enthusiasm. I’ll keep my chin up; on a good day I might even whistle. But please don’t ask me to smile if I’m not in the mood.”

He also shares his own tongue-tied experience of being asked in an interview whether he was “a passionate teacher”.

A silence fell over the room; it lasted much too long. I’d surely lost the job by the time I cleared my throat and began to qualify an answer…I stumbled my way through a circuitous reply and concluded by saying that, yes, actually, I suppose I could describe myself as passionate, in a sense. In a sense. I couldn’t resist the qualification….As I shut the door behind me, the committee erupted into laughter.”

Thinking about all this led me back to Rob Horner’s article in an early issue of The New Inquiry with the theme of Precarity”

In his analysis, titled ‘Inhuman Resources’, he suggests that “anxiety is used to rationalise precarity as opportunity: The new world of work lets us be more proactive and “creative” in ways that showcase our “individuality” rather than just our ability to perform a job. But…this ceaseless self-presentation takes a psychological toll. Having to enact a false self that placidly absorbs indignities means we live out the system’s contradictions and transmute them internally, taking on all the stress and cognitive dissonance this entails”.

In a similar vein, Joe Keohane wrote a New Statesman piece In Praise of Meaningless Work in which he sums up the essence of my response to this ‘epic’ job advertisement:

With unemployment falling to pre-recession levels…the prayer is that the line will be drawn, and managers will see that the way forward is actually very simple: Hire good people. Treat them well. Help them succeed. Compensate them fairly. Let them go home.”

9 August 2015



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metaphor and surprise

IMG_5514 - Version 2

Just as I was finishing my prep for a session on images and metaphor this week, a whole new profession swam into view: Michael Erard works full-time as a metaphor designer in a think tank, generating metaphors to help people understand unfamiliar plans and ideas. “They aren’t supposed to make someone remark: ‘That’s beautiful.’ They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing.” 

He describes the challenge for the metaphor designer as generating lots of ‘pseudo-mistakes’ “some of which will be useful and have sticking power … at the end, the floor will be covered with the blood of failed comparisons.

Tucked into his article are a variety of interesting definitions, such as considering metaphors as ‘categorisation proposals’, as provocations, as a ‘mapping’ between two different things, or simply as “something unusual, a pleasant surprise – but it cannot be too much of a surprise”, this latter sounding very much like George Kellys’ suggestion that we appreciate things which are interestingly new, but not so unfamiliar as to be confusing.

Erard’s metaphors are generally designed for social organisations with aim of ‘trying to communicate the expert view of an issue’. He sees himself as helping understanding by giving us new ways of looking at things, rather than inventing fantasies or distracting us. “But the metaphor also has to be able to survive, avoiding traps in the culture that can disable it. Once we loose a metaphor into the world, it will be blocked by other ways of thinking that change its meaning or disrupt its interpretation.

His pertinent example of a metaphor that deliberately obscures reality is that of national finances being described as household budgets. “People believe that the family is the most salient social unit which makes the metaphor exceedingly sticky and powerful”, and hence its usefulness to “politicians of a reactionary stripe”.

I enjoyed his piece, and it reminded me of another recent column by Oliver Sacks about the ‘mishearings’ he experiences with increasing deafness. Sacks describes speech as “open, inventive, improvised; it is rich in ambiguity and meaning. There is a huge freedom in this, making spoken language almost infinitely flexible and adaptable — but also vulnerable to mishearing.”

Written with his usual warmth and good humour he describes each mishearing as a novel concoction, both fresh and surprising. “I am often strangely slow to realize that I have misheard, and I may entertain the most far-fetched ideas to explain my mishearings, when it would seem that I should spot them straight away. If a mishearing seems plausible, one may not think that one has misheard; it is only if the mishearing is sufficiently implausible, or entirely out of context, that one thinks, “This can’t be right”.

He ends with a few wondrous examples, recognising the wit and ‘dash’ of the hearer’s instantaneous inventions. Mishearings “reflect, to some extent, one’s own interests and experiences, and I rather enjoy them: a grocery bag turns into a poetry bag … all-or-noneness into oral numbness … and a mere mention of Christmas Eve a command to ‘kiss my feet!’ ”

erard: how to design a metaphor – aeon magazine

sacks: mishearings – ny times

10 July 2015


alex swarbrick: Thoroughly enjoyed this; both as someone who seems to think a lot in metaphors, but also as someone alternately amused, exasperated and delighted by my own mis-hearings. Combining the mis-hearings and metaphor, as a hearing aid user my favourite delight is taking them out at the end of the day and entering what I describe as ‘duvet world’. Without my hearing aids the world sounds like I’m under a duvet, or have suddenly stepped into the hush of a carpeted library. It can be bliss!!   July 13

fiona duggan: I find metaphor to be a very useful approach for empowering people who feel they don’t know a lot about space. I’ve experienced chiropractors do a wonderful review of a campus masterplan by applying diagnostic techniques from within their own discipline, and economists come up with a novel way of allocating and sharing space by applying economic principles, and geographers talk about the characteristics required for democratic spaces to support learning …  July 14

armando magnino: Fundamentally, I have a problem with the definition of metaphor that is used in the article. The examples quoted in my opinion are similes not metaphors (the brain is like a machine, the child is like a flower, the paintbrush is like a pump) – they rely on the cognitive, denotative aspects of the comparison whereas in my (perhaps idiosyncratic) definition the metaphor relies on the emotional, connotative aspect of the comparison. Just because there’s an elision of the comparative (we omit the “like”) it doesn’t turn it into a metaphor. There is however a permeable membrane between simile and metaphor and that’s where the meaning gets “sticky” or perverted. I remember when I first started working with young people in the States, often from tough backgrounds, one of the pieces of advice I was given was to be wary of using metaphors of “family” to describe the group, the camp and the experience because for many of those kids on an emotional/connotative level, “family” did not have the implications of safety, security, love, acceptance, stability that culturally we tend to associate with it. I have a strong attachment to defending metaphor as a linguistic tool not for “explaining” (similes can do that) but for connecting emotionally… and deconstructing what that attachment is all about is a job for some other time … 22 July




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adventures in massive learning

P1020887_JPGSeveral recent projects have involved developing learning materials, including online resources, and the resulting discussions and experiments have offered me many new and useful questions.  So I was interested in a new column from Jesse Stommel on the Hybrid Pedagogy website, describing his experience of designing MOOCs (Massive Open Online courses). He presents a variety of learning points and provocations from his most recent project – a Shakespeare course that currently has over 18,500 students enrolled from 157 countries.

As I read it, my highlighting pen was working overtime so I thought I’d signpost it to colleagues involved in constructivist learning. I was inspired, and some of you might be similarly inclined print it out and pin it on the wall, while others may find themselves shouting arguments at the computer screen – either way it should be thought-provoking.

On the heavily structured nature of most online programmes he writes:

“I remain certain that learning is not something that ought to be managed. The better we become at managing learning, the more damage we do to learning. This is the cruel irony of the learning management system. The better designed it is for doing its core function, the worse off the learning that happens inside of it”

“Learning is an encounter, not a spreadsheet …. We either critically interrogate our tools or are subject to them. There is no middle ground between these two.”

Colleagues from Personal Construct Psychology might catch a flavour of George Kelly’s writing in Stommel’s discomfort with doing the same thing twice. He sees repetitive practice as working against our own learning, while making it difficult for us to ‘encounter each learner and learning environment anew’, concluding with the bold and rather magnificent proposal that ‘the best best practice is to imperil best practices”.

At the point that our content feels stroked and adored, we know that actual learning has stopped. Learning is at direct odds with content. In fact, learning does battle with content. If content wins, learning loses. We do, instead, in the best learning environments, grapple with content — we kill it on the road when we meet it there.

Referring to developing content for his Shakespeare programme, he describes his goal of “creating content that was, at every turn, self-undermining”

Ultimately, every video champions discovery more than knowing or certainty … Facts are shared, details are offered, and content is delivered. But never at the expense of questions or openings to discussion.”

Collaborating with many colleagues and describing himself as a conductor, he also references Howard Rheingold who describes the course leader  as “chief learner”. He ends with a brilliant example of how expertly course content and constructivist pedagogy are woven through his work:

‘In the introduction to the course, I write,

“Shakespeare begins Hamlet with the words, ‘Who’s there?’ The question is deceptively simple, but it is one that opens a whole host of potential rabbit holes for us to tumble down. What I know is that how we begin something new is important. The first thing we say. The first question we ask. The first part of ourselves we show.”

I am, from these first words in the MOOC, showing my pedagogical hand, talking about Shakespeare and also about the nature of the course itself’

Having become discouraged by much of the content-heavy, highly-structured and over-controlled online learning I have encountered recently, I was refreshed, motivated and challenged by this short piece. I might even want to make a poster of his encouragement to ‘be always so light on our feet as to remain unentrenched’.

Click here for the full article plus a short video

20 May 2015


john j: a good challenging piece. I enjoyed his comment “Most cMOOCs are disasters of learning design. Beautiful disasters. Joyous disasters. Productive disasters. But disasters nonetheless. As if a course literally exploded onto the internet, leaving a smear of barely intelligible bits across the web.” My experience precisely!! I am convinced that the less like a replicated classroom we make them, the more useful they become.  21 June

synnarji: my perception is the article seems a contradictory marketing ploy. I believe that the stories by Shakespeare use simple prose because the plays were acted out for a population that was largely uneducated. Perhaps when we become obsessed with teaching a deeper understanding about his plays a complexity is introduced that Shakespeare was careful to avoid?   21 May

ash: hey i’m borrowing his “who’s there?” as my starting point from this day on…thank you.  2 July



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argumentation from nowhere

The long and fractious election campaign currently coming to a close in the UK seems to have been characterised by an exceptionally poor quality of discussion and debate. Leading politicians, press and broadcast media have all indulged in the usual aggressive trashing of opponents’ personalities combined with extreme defensiveness about past records, generating a lot of heat but very little light and leaving nearly 40% of the electorate ‘undecided’ with just a few days to go.

So it may be a good time to promote my continuing enthusiasm for variations on Kenneth Gergen’s ‘argumentation from nowhere’. Gergen’s experiment, which I first discovered in ‘Social Construction in Context’ (2001), was derived as “an attempt to remove the grounds for either claiming assertions to be ‘one’s own’, or for viewing counter-assertions as challenges to one’s integrity”.

Gergen and his team invited a wide variety of people to contribute entries to a discussion while setting aside their personal position. The were asked to generate as many arguments as possible for either side of a polarised debate, and then to develop possible criticisms of those views. After contributing their thoughts they were able to read all the other entries, and were subsequently invited to comment again with any new alternatives, or with possible rejoinders to the views already included.

The result is a multiplex array of discourse surrounding the issue at stake, essentially a map of possible arguments, justifications, citations of evidence and the like, on both sides of the issue”. Participants reported considerable learning and felt that the experiment helped them see the issue in more complex terms. “Of special significance, they indicate that it would be difficult to resolve the issue by simply declaring one side the winner”.

iPhotoI have since worked with many discussions based on ‘argumentation from nowhere’ as an alternative to oppositional debates. Participants are asked to think of the widest possible range of stakeholders in the issue under discussion (and I think the best definition I ever heard of a stakeholder is ‘anyone who might give a damn’)  generating as many views as possible that might be held by each stakeholder group. They are encouraged to consider why those views might matter to people, and what kinds of belief systems they might logically derive from, guided by the question: in what way might each of those views make perfect sense?  I will usually add the aspiration that, at the end of the exercise, no-one at the table would be entirely certain of the current personal views of any of their fellow participants.

The outcome has usually been very productive as argument turns into exploration, and condemnation gives way to curiosity. People who were previously opponents can sometimes come up with ingenious supports and logics for arguments they earlier disagreed with, perhaps because the need to agree has been removed or possibly because the activity itself is an intriguing exercise in thinking. The result has generally been far more openness to alternatives, a much richer discourse to draw on, a greater acceptance of the complexity and ambiguity inherent in most debates, and an increase in sociality between both participating colleagues and and absent stakeholders.

As Gergen says of his experiment: “No, this did not mean a resolution of differences. However, it did allow for productive exploration to take place in a context in which victory and defeat were removed from view”.

A rich and constructive addition to the usual election presentations and debates.  In my  dreams …

4 May 2015

(photo: ECTN ‘Racconti Meditterannei’ summer school in Greece)



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mix or match?

P1020090Last week I was sent a link to a suggestion that seems so simple and obvious that I can’t quite imagine why I haven’t thought about it in this shape before. It comes from a short article in the Spectator by Rory Sutherland who highlights the perennial problem of organisations recruiting and promoting the same types of individual every time.

He points out that finding the ‘perfect’ thing – the perfect house for example – will often lead to a somewhat bland choice because it is meeting a wide variety of needs and so ‘cannot be too weak in any one dimension‘. Choosing two homes inevitably leads to diverse choices, often complete contrasts.

Intriguingly, in other realms of decision-making we seem not to understand this at all. For instance, in assessing job applicants or parliamentary candidates or university admissions…it is assumed that ten groups each choosing one candidate will make the same ‘optimal’ choice as one group choosing ten. They won’t.”

He highlights the default to the safe and familiar choice each time, and suggests that a commitment to tightly standardised processes which apply identical selection criteria to everyone, one person at a time, is likely to be part of the problem. His proposition is that if we chose people in batches we would make quite different choices and would ‘take a punt’ far more frequently.

It’s not such a stretch in large organisations to consider a shift towards recruiting and promoting in groups as the standard, especially in settings where commitment to diversity is high in principle but disappointingly poor in practice. Of course there would be practical difficulties – vacancies don’t arise in groups, job descriptions are highly individualised –  but do we really want change?

I think this is one of those trojan-horse ideas that contains many useful provocations: why continue to recruit so many people into specialist silos when we subsequently spend so much time and effort trying to break down the walls that creates? Why not build more pools of free-floating talented professionals with flexibility to work across roles and disciplines given that so much work is project-based? Why not think about fewer, larger ‘intakes’ rather than repeated one-off recruitment processes. A useful shift in practice may not need big groups either – the article suggests choosing ten at a time, but I’d guess that just three might be the magic number in terms of making a difference.

‘Mix’ is generally an important part of how we view fairness in groups, yet is not often a key criterion in selection because of the focus on recruiting one person at a time. Selecting in groups may be a key to the long overdue shift of perspective from how well a person ‘fits’ with the status quo to how much valuable difference they will add to the group. The group selection processes I have experienced do seem to generate a much sharper awareness of the mix being created in each cohort, and even the most homogenous organisations tend to develop a more critical eye when they see themselves reflected in a group.

Once you understand this, the potential exists to increase the level of (social, gender, ethnic, mental) diversity….without imposing any quotas: it arises naturally once you choose people in batches.”

Link:  Want more diversity? Rory Sutherland

1st March 2015



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authenticity revisited

Image courtesy of www.creativity103.com

Image courtesy of www.creativity103.com

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, her latest article critiques leadership presentations, suggesting that they increasingly demonstrate a curious mix of the deeply personal and 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

article: by being authentic you may just be conforming

1 February 2015



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