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the wrong kind of narrative

Image courtesy of Andrew Ormston

Image courtesy of Andrew Ormston

The Ecologist recently featured an interesting piece by Vanessa Spedding. It was inspired by dismal BBC coverage of climate change issues which habitually reverts to questions of whether it is ‘true’ or ‘real’ and uses opinionated non-experts as default commentators. Spedding explores media coverage and our responses to climate change through a narrative lens, and her piece raises interesting questions about organisational narratives at times of serious threat.

She recognises that we look to stories to make sense of our world and to find direction and meaning. ‘The media craft stories that are appealing in part because they give us contexts and comparisons for our lives. We may know, if only instinctively, that we are taking part in a bigger story – the story of our community, our culture, humanity, the planet. And if we can write our life story so that it contributes in some small way to that larger story, we can achieve a sense of being on a hero’s journey of our own.’

Spedding describes the dislodgement which happens when major threat undermines our current story-making by confronting us with evidence that our well-intentioned behaviours are contributing to a catastrophe. ‘We can no longer be heroes’ she tells us, and ‘we can suffer such a profound loss of meaning and purpose that we prefer to shut out the knowledge of the new story direction’.

She explores the ways in which communities, organisations and institutions will tend to foreground validating stories of growth, progress and winning, and will resist changing narrative trajectory to avoid a crisis of validity and identity, not least in their own working cultures and organisational myths. Climate catastrophe, she tells us, is the ‘wrong sort of narrative’.

She acknowledges the difficult prospect of announcing ‘Now today’s top story, the end of civilisation …’  and suggests that the BBC’s emphasis on uncertainty in their coverage, which it defends, unconvincingly, as impartiality, represents this fundamental disconnect. She argues eloquently for the urgent need to shift the frame of reference for our stories, and for the courage to end this ‘intellectual paralysis’, proposing alternative stories we could be hearing, such as potential policy responses and examples of inspirational grassroots activity.

Her conclusion is itself inspirational: ‘The media has the power to facilitate a transformation of our society. Climate change and ecosystem decline could provide a unique opportunity to focus on exciting, inspiring, uplifting news … what they need is an invitation, from us their customers: to weave us all into new stories and to reset the compass for our lives.

You can read her piece (and sign her petition) here:

24 March 2014




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science says so

Images courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Images courtesy of the Wellcome Collection

Neuroscience has quickly gained traction in the organisational world, perhaps not surprisingly as so many neuro-studies appear to offer clear and incontrovertible findings – such things are prized in the field.

The house magazine of the Chartered Institute for Personnel & Development is regularly padded with features such as this week’s proposal that we “ditch the clean desk policy” Why? “It’s science that says so”. These items now commonly 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”.

Their latest e-update promises the “recent 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 are similarly featuring 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. I am enjoying working my way through Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind by Nikolas Rose and J.M. Abi-Rached, Princeton University Press (2013).

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:

and there is an excellent interview with Rose about the Human Mind project on the LSE website here:


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.

12 February 2014


dina pekkala: You are right, there is something so seductive about neuro-imaging…it appears to give us a definitive truth, which although on many levels, many of us recognise the illusion of this concept, there are occasions when it would be oh so nice ‘to be sure’…we don’t need to think about it…we don’t need to evaluate it…it is a given from up on high so it has to be right. Which I guess takes us onto your beautiful quote from Rose: ‘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.’
My doctoral dissertation was a qualitative exploration with teenagers with ADHD of their understanding and meaning making of their diagnosis. From my observations and their accounts it was evident that the ‘social embeddedness’ of their ‘disorder’ was so often overlooked; ADHD was (and still is to a greater or lesser degree) construed as a biopsychosocial problem…with a heavy emphasis on the BIO…hence, treat with Ritalin and never mind the context of the ‘disorder’. Interestingly, I’ve often seen a parallel between the symptomatology of ADHD and PTSD. If we explored ADHD with that in mind…I wonder what it may tell us about the ‘social embeddedness’ of the ‘disorder’? 14 february

richard casebow: The social rhetoric of neuroscience is an interesting topic. There was a great book by Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricoeur in a dialogue about the merits of neuroscience models. As a constructivist, I am with Ricoeur in that ultimately words slip around at different levels in the models, so that there are glaring gaps and inconsistencies. Changeux gives a great elaboration as to why this might not be and demonstrates a wonderful weaving of scientific thought and philosophy that is characteristic of French education and often lacking in the Anglo-American world.   14 february



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jargon and meaning

A recent interview with ex-army MP Rory Stewart included a sharp critique of strategic jargon. Looking back 10 years, his priorities for state-building in Afghanistan included things like rule of law, and financial and civil administration.

And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them.”

He goes on to describe the language of strategic plans as “complete abstract madness”. (The full interview is at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jan/03/rory-stewart-interview )

This collided in my inbox with a post on the Culture Professionals Network which suggested that “buzzwords get used across the arts world, often without much depth of thought about what they actually mean. Perhaps 2014 can be the year to reclaim them, to return them to their real meaning…”  (http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2014/jan/02/2014-arts-culture-new-year )

The idea of reclaiming the real meaning of a word is an intriguing one for a constructivist reader. The blogger goes on to define ‘transparency’ as largely a question of openness about budgets and rates of pay, and ‘collaboration’ as primarily about pooling resources in tough economic times – interesting definitions, but ‘real meanings’?

I am currently doing some informal research inquiring into the diverse and competing meanings of some commonly used buzzwords and ‘transparency’ is one I’ve been exploring. I have observed meetings where the proposal that “we must have a transparent process” has been instantly and unanimously agreed and a note duly made, leaving me, and maybe others, wondering what exactly has been decided and what expectations follow.

So far, respondents’ understandings of transparency have included openness and accessibility of information; involving people in decision-making; consistency; strengthening audit and accountability; being open to challenge and debate; putting everything online; honesty and straight-talking; countering corruption and fraud; being clear and staying focused; and, interestingly, avoiding jargon.

The personal value and importance of transparency (that is, laddered constructs for PCP folk) have been discussed in terms of justice, freedom, truth, integrity, having a moral compass, collective strength and never having to feel ashamed. So much agreement about its importance, so much variation of meaning.

I agree with Stewart that strategic jargon is regularly used in ways that render it utterly nonsensical, but I am curious about the ways in which some words capture our imagination. The alternative to either claiming ‘real’ definitions or floating in ‘abstract madness’ might be a stance of curiosity and exploration based on two key questions: what specifically does this mean to you? and why is it important for you? The buzzwords may seem empty, but the responses to a curious inquirer can be fascinatingly rich with meaning.

20 January 2014


richard casebow: I have just started Hew Strachan’s latest book ‘The Direction of War – Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective’ which opens with a discussion and history of how strategy as a term has evolved and become conflated with policy, from which it is distinct, leading to the failures of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Policy traditionally set the aim of war, while strategy marshalled the means and organised the battlefield, with tactics aiming to determine what happens there. One of things that struck me is how strategy has moved from its original context of war and therefore the use of ‘unfettered violence’ into all other contexts. One is curious, as to what implications, in this leap of contexts, jumps to and now structures, the constructions of almost every area of  public policy, where strategy is equated with policy. I have a suspicion that in this, social policy research is tending to elevate tactics into strategy, leading to a right old mess, in terms of policy, strategy and tactics, with constructive alternativism constricted in the process of looking for a single approach. This is very much a thought in progress but chimes with this week’s blog and with your news story debunking the maths of positive psychology, which I had missed and which was good to see.   21 January

mary:   many thanks to the people who re-tweeted me this gem:








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I have been theoretically curious about the growth of ‘behavioural economics’ – the science of how desired behaviours can be encouraged and rewarded in large populations – and I can sympathise with some of the more public-spirited aims of its generators who started out wondering how people might be encouraged to support charities for example, or donate their organs after death. But in terms of its practice, I get the same chill factor as with any kind of behavioural engineering, especially when it becomes embedded in state policy-making as with the UK government’s ‘Behavioural Insights Team’ more commonly known as the ‘Nudge Unit’.

One of the fiercest critics has been Frank Furedi who argues that when we are positioned to make ‘right’ choices rather than engage in open debate, we are in effect ceasing to be choice-makers at all and the important political challenge of influencing us through ideas and argument is eroded.  This leads in his view to the denigration of moral independence, ignoring our right to dissent and reject options, and limiting our capacity to judge value for ourselves.

All this came to mind as I’ve been re-reading George Kelly’s original writing about the role of the PCP professional and noticing the careful attention he pays to our response when clients choose solutions which we would not have advised for them. He poses the usefully provocative question of whether we are left with a feeling of failure, of having pitched our constructs against the clients’ constructs, and lost. He suggests that at such times we have lost sight of our role in the service of others, since surely our aim is enabling people to exercise their “initiative, originality and independence”.

This perspective prompts useful questions for leaders in organisations as well as leaders of states. Do we want to become ‘choice architects’ nudging people to comply without thinking much about it thus avoiding troublesome ‘resistance’, or do we want to relate to others as engaged and active colleagues, encouraging people to exercise their critical thinking, moral judgment and creativity? Of course we will need to construct a framework of shared purpose, but can it be elastic enough to embrace a variety of positions? And of course we will want to propose best options, but are they complete plans or are they malleable enough to be shaped through discussion and argument?  Do we employ nudge methods to get people where we want them with few questions asked, or do we work harder to engage everyone in debate, allowing ourselves to be sometimes disappointed, sometimes surprised, sometimes thwarted, sometimes amazed?

10 November 2013


will o’brien: I have been disposed to see ‘nudge’ as a relatively benign programme with helpful intent, I admit to not having though through the implications to this degree. Would you point me in the direction of Furedi’s comments?  19 November 2013

mary: Hi, it’s at:   http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/10102#.UouZwo3t7Jw



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an architecture of serendipity

From time to time I am invited to join presentations on the topic of ‘diversity’ in organisations.  There will usually be people making economic and business arguments about diversity as competitive advantage and they generally get a positive response to their convincing stats charts. And there will be others who argue from a moral standpoint that embracing diversity is simply the right thing to do, which generally leads to a lot of nodding and/or a certain amount of shuffling, depending on the industries involved.

My contribution from a constructivist perspective is rooted in George Kelly’s theory of loosening: that the introduction of new elements provokes movement in our construct systems, opening up the possibility of developmental experimentation for individuals and the collective, and kickstarting the creativity cycle.

Preparing some material last week, I came across a refreshingly different angle in a column from by Cass Sunstein which celebrates serendipity rather than controlled elaboration but reaches similar conclusions.

Critiquing the personalisation of news, Sunstein writes in praise of ‘old-fashioned newspapers’ which offer us vast amounts of content we wouldn’t have chosen in advance, describing this as “an architecture of serendipity in which readers encounter all sorts of stories, facts, ideas and opinions that they didn’t select. Much…seems boring, irritating, wrong or offensive, but on occasion it turns out to be surprising, delightful, alarming, important and even life-changing”. He contrasts this with the ‘architecture of control’ offered by personally-selected and individually-targeted news which enables us to see exactly what we want and avoid the rest, according to our existing tastes.

Sunstein argues for serendipity as highly desirable, an important feature of freedom and self-government rather than an an obstacle. “Those who read only what they identify in advance end up narrowing their horizons; they may create echo chambers of their own design”. He believes that this closed circuit of experience aggravates political polarization, whereas “an architecture of serendipity can reduce that effect [and] create a kind of social glue by creating common understandings and experiences for members of a highly diverse nation.

The language of building ‘an architecture of serendipity’ as opposed to disappearing into ‘echo chambers of our own design’ struck me as both powerful and useful. George Kelly’s work on loosening also includes a celebration of the random, including experiments with association and juxtaposition, allowing us to realign constructs in a makeshift way without concern for inconsistencies. “Loosening releases facts, long taken as self-evident, from their rigid conceptual moorings [and] once so freed, they may be seen in new aspects hitherto unsuspected, and the creative cycle may get underway”.

Cass’s article in on the Bloomberg website:

18 October 2013


fiona duggan: This reminds me of a conversation some years ago about the display of knowledge in a national museum. The trend was towards reorganising collections to tell a particular story, usually in a linear way with clear entry and exit points. The observation was that this approach focused on one way of looking at a particular collection and the concern was around how well one particular telling of a story might work for a wide range of interests. The original layout according to Victorian classification systems allowed viewers to enter the collection at any point and in their own way – as somebody with a general interest in the subject content, as a specialist, as an artist interested in shape and form, as a child, as a student, and so on. Move forward 20 years, and it seems to me that the British Museum hit a very nice balance in its ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’, curated by Grayson Perry – bringing together artefacts from across the collections for a temporary period of time, juxtaposing them in thought-provoking ways that, for me, certainly opened up new ways of looking and thinking.     19 October

francziska magdalena: Just to draw your attention to the links between George Kelly’s perspective on Constructivist Psychology and William Stephenson’s (Q Methodology/ Scientific Structure of Subjectivity) parallel perspective. Stephenson applied Q Methodology to highlight difference in the quality of subjective experience and how it relates to a person’s self-reference.  He considered the difference between, say, reading a favourite newspaper on a Sunday at home, in front of a log fire, after breakfast – compared to say, reading a newspaper with the objective of discovering instrumental utility. The former has a quality of ‘warmth’ and it evokes warm feelings in the reader – this, Stephenson called, ‘Hot Communications’.  In contrast, the latter evokes ‘cooler’ feelings. ‘Cool Communications’ are instrumental – their evaluation is ‘measurable’ in terms of the object-relations involved; ’Hot Communications are transformational  - their evaluation is ‘measurable’ in terms of the subject-relations involved.  However, as in quantum physics there always exists a relationship between them.   20 October



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