Category Archives: perception

The Circumlocution Office

Circumlocution, is appropriately enough, a detour from what I set out to look for in Little Dorrit.

A small little gang of us (let’s call ourselves the Moral Compass in Finance Massive for now) has been mulling over the future of banking while we’ve been mulling our Christmas wine. What happens, let’s say, when an American investment banker is also a Dutch civil servant? Even the Evening Standard on 21st November was asking itself about the City in a new age of moral capitalism:

Frippery has been abandoned. Companies are asking serious questions about their purpose and how they relate to others. Nobody believes capitalism is dead but it has changed.

The article cites the publication that week by the John Templeton Foundation of a Templeton conversation ‘Does the free market corrode moral character?’

It seems a strange and delightful coincidence that the crashing around our ears of material and capital assumptions should have happened on the very day that the Sparknow report on the relationship between museums, libraries, archives and business in London was launched. Smashing. I was already on the lookout for what I’m broadly calling ‘resilience’ or ‘cultural substance’ strategies – not CSR to spice up brand values, which I often find to have misplaced the cultural relationships into a place in the business where they can’t do much real day to day good. The mess of human and cultural encounter which triggers some raw and uncontainable emotion is surely essential to the formation of judgement, empathy and moral compass. Of course the measurable, sharply defined, tidied up targets for mobile phone component recycling or whatever are worthwhile, but how are the people whose conversations with each other and with suppliers and clients make up the swell, the meaning, the substance of to and fro, to act from a place of soul and substance if they don’t get their hands dirty and if their hearts don’t ache from time to time? To swell the coffers, surely you need to well up from time to time? So I’d offer that cultural strategy, or resilience, should place the archive, the history, the collections and traditions which are the heritage of the place into play as provocation, a key to employee engagement, a way to create interior monologue in the people, the place and ultimately the purpose.

The banking crisis has lured me back into the dark heart of the beast I left a long time ago. I suspect, with a pretty long background in derivatives, leverage and operational risk, I might understand a bit more than most about what’s gone on. I was playing with ideas of reinsurance futures before the crash of Lloyds. I was lobbying the authorities to make a case for portfolio insurance not causing the market crashes of the late 1980’s. We most certainly had it coming. And we had it coming because of all sorts of things I might write about another time. But the point is it has come. And it’s not all a story of Greedy Bankers. It’s a story of what’s gone awry at a much more fundamental level than that.

In any case, I find myself in the situation, for the first time in 13 or 14 years, of caring that banks care for themselves and their staff and those they serve in such a way that the insert themselves back into the role in society that my uncle, who was my bank manager, had in Hove, or Windsor.

So, very strangely indeed, I find myself willing to go back into the belly of the beast I came to detest, and see whether there are places there that I can put to work some of what I’ve learned about how organisations line up their internal and external conversations so that both come from a coherent, authentic and embodied place.

To that end, I’ve also started reading around debt, capitalism, moral capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, organisations as orchestrations of networks – to try and find the size and shape of the black hole, find it’s edges and then look at what’s needed to fill it. And in those wanderings, am reading Little Dorrit, following on from an article in the Guardian Review by Colin Burrows about what literature owes to debt. It traces the shift in the literary coverage of debt from being a lens through which to examine society to being a metaphor, in part because the nature of debt has become so complex that it’s difficult to put it at the heart of the writing.

The separation of the financial sense of credit from its various moral and social senses is the reason debt doesn’t figure centrally in fiction today. We have fictions about financial meltdowns and sudden losses of money. There is a vast number of films and thrillers about people who owe money to their drug-dealer or to the mafia. But debt no longer functions in literature as a subject through which to explore how people and societies connect together. The climax of Martin Amis’s Money is not a debt, but a loss of credit: John Self’s Vantage card is returned to him cut up into four pieces. Money treats money as the stuff that enables Self to be selfish, but it’s about how money comes from and returns to nothing, rather than about the ways in which debts link people together.

All of which leads me to the delights of the Circumlocution Office, which has little direct bearing on this blog, but which is the best description I’ve ever come across of beaurocracy sprawling, corrosively, out of control.

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Please note, Gordon Brown. To tackle the moral compass, the resilience, of the finance sector (and of London where the sector matters so much) is to tackle only part of the problem of the abdication of personal responsibility at every level in citizenship, government and business.

It’s a ramble, not very penetrable to the passing reader, but at least it upholds my commitment to myself to go exploring and parks what I’ve been thinking about somewhere I can find it again.

2009 is going to be very very interesting indeed.

Knowledge transfer of unlikely kinds

I think I must be tuned in to the unlikely meeting of worlds otherwise alien to each other. In any case, here are two offers of ‘knowledge transfer events’ which I think should get the juices flowing.

First, from Saturday’s Guardian: Freerunning goes to war as marines take tips from EZ, Livewire and Sticky

“We found some of the moves were relevant for battle,” .. “For them it is about artistic expression. For example, they will run along a wall keeping a low profile because it looks good, but we need to do the same thing in urban combat to stay safe.”

The other example that struck me over the weekend has an altogether darker underbelly. I was watching a programme about wreckers presented by Bella Bathurst who has also written a book on it. The original wreckers, who stripped wrecked ships for a living in dangerous circumstances, often leaving survivors to drown, are in fact the same families in many cases as those who are committed to the life boat cause. Same skills, different motives.

I write this, in fact, as I’m listening, in the background, to a virtual lecture by Clive Holtham about the role of artists sketch books in reflective management practice, which is another crossover moment. And then there are the blurring of boundaries between high and low culture with the popular classical raves going on for a few years now in Berlin clubs.

So all kind of knowledge is crossing all kinds of gaps, and in it’s transfer is generating new energy, commitment and ideas. This is, to me, true knowledge transfer of an unpedestrian kind. Hard to see, but inspirational when one gets a glimpse of it.

Brothels in Bangladesh – a direct consequence of climate change

As I come to the shift of gear, the dreamy limbo of writing up the museums work we’ve been doing for the past few months and starting to clear a space to think about the work on horizon scanning and futures which hoves into few and will take up most of my thinking and unthinking space from February to July, I’m quite alert to tiny fragments which pack a punch. I’m finding a surprising amount in our mla database which seems to connect directly to the hsf thinking in ways that are almost frightening. For example I wrote recently about poetry as a kind of horizon scanner – the poetry library gets a surprising frontline view of what matters to people.Then in the Guardian this week I was startled by an article on the rise in prostitution in Bangladesh:

“The brothel opened 20 years ago, making it the newest and largest of the 14 recognised brothels in the country. It is set on the meeting point of two vast rivers, the Jamuna and the Ganges (known locally as the Padma), which makes this a very busy place to catch a ferry. Trucks carrying rice, jute, sugar cane and fish from the west and south-west of the country queue here for two or three days at a time to cross the river for the drive to the capital, Dhaka. In Bangladesh on a BBC World Service boat to look at the impact of climate change, I was surprised to find that an unexpected consequence of rising water levels is the growth in demand for prostitution. River erosion has meant the closure of some ferry berths, so men wait even longer to cross the river. And, while they wait, many of them pass the time in the company of Daulatdia’s women.”

We spent some time this week at a workshop imagining scenarios for mla relationship with business (banish mla as concept, replace it with a sense of extended learning places and resources essential to the rounded worker, then ‘backcast’ from that to the present day to see how one would achieve that symbiosis over, say, 20 years).

Anyway, my question for a couple of days has been, take a scenario (not good or bad, hopeful or unhopeful, just a confluence of circumstance) and imagine backwards from that circumstance how would would have forseen it in some way.So I’m interested in the idea of taking brothels (one can deconstruct brothel of course in quite a feminist way – poor endentured women with no prospects, men with too much time on their hands and not much inclination to do cultured things) in Bangladesh (low-lying land, under-resourced in flood management, having to react rather than act, most likely to be one of the frontiers where we witness the consequences of climate change, etc).But working back from brothels, Bangladesh, flooding, too few ferries, downtime. How might one, 10 years ago have forseen this thing? What kinds of horizon scanning might one have done in, say 1997? What kinds of different policies for prostitution and flood transportation might a reasonably accurate prognosis have led to?I think it might be interesting for our hsf governance work to come at it sideways, and find some unlikely events, from history and the present, and consider what a well-scanned intelligence process might have thrown up by way of a different policy path.What’s so interesting here is how little we prize the insights that people can bring from their daily witnessing. I’m witnessing a great deal of unlikely stuff because of where I sit. But I’m not a scanner or a futurist, and there’s no-one whose sleeve I can tug about most of it. I do it because it interests me and puts a bit of pep into my daily work. Think of all those scanners out there. If, instead of simply using people’s excess computing power to calculate space things,we used their witnessing power to help us see further, think of the changes that could bring about.

It happens a bit of course. Say the RSPB and birdwatching. There’s a model of participatory scanning that it’s worth looking more closely at, and I know Natural England so some interesting scanning using Cognitive Edge techniques. And it’s all trendy to talk about the wisdom of crowds. But I’m not talking about exactly any of that here. I think I’m talking about something a bit different that I’m trying to find and describe better.I’m off to read the Guardian and let it settle for a bit while I think about what it is I want to say next.

But before I do, a tiny, gorgeous little thing from my second visit to Louise Bougeois, accompanied by sketches of skyscapers as people – perhaps three of them standing together:

“One man was telling a story, it was a very good story, and it made him happy, but he told it so fast that nobody understood it.

Yup, that happens a lot.

Drumming to the rhythm of James Joyce

I’ve a friend, Mark, who once coined the term ‘synthalpy’ for the next big movement which would wash knowledge management away into the past of tired, failed, organisational managements of once kind or another.  Synthalpy is the positive energy which flows when two worlds, hitherto unknown to each other, collide.    

When I look around, he gets righter and righter.  Except it’s not just two worlds I don’t think.  In Saturday’s Guardian was an article about the artist Anri Sala, whose take a drumless recording of a new Franz Ferdinand song, a gallery in London, and fragments from the text of Ulysses by James Joyce.  Visitors are asked to record the drum beat.  Their instructions  are extracts from Ulysses – ‘ bootless’ ‘lickitup’ ‘window-sash’ ‘boo-entity’ with some placing in context of the music.  The instruction, in essence, is that the rhythm of the word is the drum beat rhythm which is sought. The artist, Sala, ends the instructions with Joyce ‘With care repeated, with greater difficulty remembered, forgot with ease, with misgiving remembered, repeated with error.’ J

ohn Cage would be proud.I wonder too, what happens in the brain where the rhythm of a word is the instruction to produce a series of beats in a sequence.  

I’ve been reading, too, a marvellous book called ‘The Actor and the Target’ by Declan Donnellan, who founded Cheek by Jowl, the theatre company in 1981.  Essential reading for anyone interested in work and performance in any settings.I need to read it again, but have been most struck, in my vague meanderings through time and its meaning in organisational settings by his characterisation of Fear (capitalised) in particular. Fear, he says,  splits real time into two fake times to avoid you being present.  He splits time into the past, riddled with Guilt and the future, infused with Anxiety.  The guilty past and the anxious future do not exist, only the present exists.

I notice some move in me, with this and with the time in two modes (mackerel, memory) a lurching away from interest in the future and to being present, ever present.Donnellan also says that acting  (but life I think) is about the pursuit of seeing rather than of being seen.  Seeing, in the sense of using the faculties to be present and to see fully what is happening.I’ve an embryonic thesis that we mistake, hugely the value of planning and the value of reordering the past with offical, and officious, programmes of evaluation, lessons learnt, business planning, visioning, mission statements – the dross of illusory structure which deludes we are, somehow, captains of the organisational ship and have a choice where we can see it.  I’m thinking now that the richness of organisational life unfolds in an acute awareness of the present, an ability to look around and see what is, and, by seeing and describing it well, to open it up lines of sight which are otherwise blocked.  I think metaphor is permissable too, with all its dangers, to allow the heightened language to describe complex depths and darknesses which are not otherwise safely explored, or even explored at all. For some things, only the language of metaphor allows access.

This is social constructionism gone mad of course, but not gone bad I don’t think.  It does call into question the happier clappier parts of appreciative enquiry, the dreamy bits, imagining Chicago, imagining this, imagining that. But I think that might be necessary.  Untrammelled imaginings are whimsical in some way.  And I don’t think that’s where the valuable moments happen in the expression of dreams. I could be terribly wrong to do that.  But it does not diminish the value of the act of enquiry itself, which appreciative enquiry values so much, and rightly too. I think dreaming belongs in bed at night, and in taut forms, vehicles of expression like theatre, poetry, where the dangerousness or newness or impossibility of the imagining is contained, bounded and made safe for exploration by the traditional forms in which these things are contained.  

I think the double unboundedness of sprawling imagining, has less power to make change that either the imaginings bounded in literary or musical forms and compositions which give them density and punch, or by the permission to describe things and be listened to. The presentation of the unthinkable and unsayable in forms which have familiarity and create a certain sense of safety in the listener or viewer to engage seems important.

In the work we’re doing for museums at present, there’s a drumbeat recurring theme about the loss of touch, feeling and rawness in today’s worklife. Museums and archives are used, but in a tidied up, refined way, by interpreters of, say, brand, to package them for accessibility and purvey them to organisations who want things tidy. That’s one trend. Against mess, against the rolling up of sleeves and plunging yourself into the unknown (which is certainly where Fear splits time into two, with great glee). But there’s another trend too, towards treasuring the archive. And for more than just presentation purposes I think. In this world of ephemera and transience where people float in and out of work and work relationships and commitments, some lineage seems more then ever essential. Levi, John Lewis, organisations which are brand-smart, but also thoughtful, are finding that the archives must be made visible and feelable. Not just to plunder them for clever ideas and a kind of pseudo-heritage which might make things feel more solid and permanent. But in a genuine move to treasure and share the inspirational moments from the past so that they come forward and provide inspiration, context and meaning for those who relate to them in the present, which will, in some way change their future.

One person we interviewed said that all work is changing, becoming less linear, more reliant on simultaneity, in the present of a rich resource, in a place of character. These insights prompt me more than ever to the conviction that knowledge is not to be buttoned down, but only exists in the presence of others and in the presence of rich resources. It can only flow and cross gaps. In turn this leads me ever more to the conviction that knowledge is about not-knowledge. I’m taking a look at the negatives of things, the other sides, the shadows, the dark, the blocks, the gaps, the un-things, the not-knowing to see where this leads me.

This goes right back to Declan Donnellan. Acting, he says, is not about the actor, its about the target. The target is not a goal, or objective, or intention, or mission of any kind. Its something that exists outside the actor which fuels the actor. Like dancing with a bamboo stick. You’ll find, if you dance with a stick, that the more you allow the stick to lead, the more graceful, ambitious and dynamic the dance is. Surrender to the stick.

Matisse, and I’ve shared this before, had no idea what he was doing or why when he spent four years carving backs. He did it because it needed to be done. I’m not Matisse, I’m not Declan Donnellan, I’m not an artist of any kind. I’m unlikely to be a writer. I’m most likely to provide some kind of invisible mending and some spaces of invitation and conversation in different settings. But I do recognise the growing need to do something because it somehow needs to be done, rather than need to know why. And what needs to be done by me now is to understand the importance of absenting the future from organisational planning, reconnecting with rawness, and shining a light on the negative, hidden and lurking places which are where knowledge really lies.

I’m not quite sure where this rambling gets me but it feels like something important is flickering at the edges of my vision. I hope David Cooperrider writes in to tell me how wrong I am and persuade me otherwise.  Or anyone else for that matter.     

‘Culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at’

I see I’ve fallen silent for rather a long time. Holidays, laziness, avoidance. But most of all I’ve had in mind a blog on culture cooking and I’ve been looking for my copy of TS Eliot’s ‘Notes towards a definition of culture’ which he wrote in about 1940. I can’t find it, but googling gives me a bit of what I’m trying to look up as a starting point at least:

“For if any definite conclusions emerge from this study, one of them is surely this, that culture is the one thing we cannot deliberately aim at.”

This was brought to mind by a glorious description in Hari Kunzru’s book ‘The Impressionist’ (which starts very well and then gets a bit artsy and clever, but I’ll read his others) of a railway station in India earlyish last century:

‘The crowd on the platform at Fort Station throbs like a single body. Dirty-collared clerks, hawkers of tea and sweets, beggars, newspaper-sellers, pickpockets, raucous British Tommies all prickly heat and dirty songs, neatly dressed babus, clipped subalterns soon to be kicking the babus out of their reserved seats, displeased memsahibs leading lines of porters with trunks balanced on tehir rag-padded heads, peasant families sleeping three generations in a row using baggage for pillows,….and dining rooms – first second third and purdah, veg. and non-veg., Hindu Muslim and English all spin together….’

The scene this evokes conveys more surely than any abstract noun a kind of jostling vibrant culture. And reading it reminded me of the bit in ‘Notes towards a definition of culture’ where T S Eliot describes Englishness as cricket and strawberries, beetroot for tea and other things which now escape me.

I want to find a piece of work where the grandiose amibition of mission statement and value falls away and we work with the organisation through object, and observation and descriptions of how it is to make visible the raw fabric of the cultures (never just one) and weave together, through small stories and images, and properly condensed pithy and living description of how people want to live breathe play and work in that organisation.

People do it unofficially: they can describe with sharp and pointed insight the day to day reality of how the organisation gets work done (and often avoids getting work done), and the normally severe reality gap between those values the organisation purports to espouse and how it acts in practice. But that’s a kind of negative culture statement. The same acute witnessing could perfectly well be put to an appreciative exploration of what the organisation stands for and the cultural self-descriptions evolved from here collectively rather than imposed by the communications committee sub-committee on values.

We must stand up and fight for real words, stories and actions, imbued with the deep meaning of shared experience not the distressingly shrivelled, trivialising meaningless summary of the organisational mission statement, normally accompanied by the excruciatingly patronising values scrapbooks, tied to the threatening control of the appraisal system and to workshops through which the culture programme is ‘rolled out’ (and over people) which are either second rate and derivative or candyfloss entertainment whose impact lasts, in the coinage of Ratner, about as long as the shelf-life of a Marks and Spencer prawn sandwich. (Here surely is the pithiest and most honest culture statement ever to have changed the fortunes of a man and a company.)

We must make descriptions of what organisations are and aspire which vault over the prosaic thudding half-baked controlling ambitions of mission and mission control.

We must use poetry to engage the heart, not thump on about ‘heart values’.

It’s very important to be constantly restless in wriggling free of the strait-jacket assumptions that the designers and deliverers of culture and change programmes shove us into (and that includes me as a purveyor of such so-called products and experiences).

There must be a ceaseless toiling towards the vibrance of a lived reality.

This is not going to be easy.

I said in Sparknow’s founding essay (or at least I say about it) that we want to change the fabric of society.

I still mean it.

I must go away and gird my loins for the next battle.

Taking stories to the other side

In one of the episodes of the final series of the West Wing, CJ Cragg is more and more frustrated by her inability to make a dent, leave something behind. So when someone from an NGO tries to make an appointment with her, she breaks with habit and gives him a slot in her diary.

He overwhelms her with statistics about the atrocities in Sudan. Thousands, millions, terrible things, rape, amputation, devastation. It’s all beyond her grasp, there is nothing she can imagining doing in this vastness of human failure, and he can see from her face that he is losing her attention, so he says, suddenly

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

20 words (I approximate, from memory.)

‘When the babies die, the mothers carry them round in their arms because there is nowhere to put them down.’

You can see the image of this slice through her helplessness and frustration and spring her to action, unorthorised by the President. When, at the end of the episode, he calls her to task for not having cleared things with me, it is this that she says to him. All the same, neither would have acted on those 20 words alone, although it took the 20 words to push CJ to action. The big numbers, the huge evidence of human tragedy filtered through the tiny glow of unbearable imagery.

This embrace between narrative and analysis was brought to mind for me yesterday by an article in the Guardian called ‘When the lights go out, students take off to the airport’

It tells the story, spliced with statistics, of the children in Guinea who go to study by the floodlgihts at Bgessia International Airport because they have no electricity at home. I doubt I would have read it if it had said ‘The lack of eletrictricity in Guinea is a ‘geological scandal”, although that quote comes further down in the article, when I’m ready to read it.

Some big challenges here, which must always be held close to the heart in marrying narrative and analysis in a thoughtful and authentic way, not just to pull.

The first is, how to make sure the illumination is not dramatising, but genuinely representative and informative, a way through image or metaphor, to help people find their way into a subject. In this article I really could hold the picture of the children and their education in mind and fill myself up with statistics on a subject which I had only thought about a little before.

An old article from March 2006, in something called OW weekly (whatever that is), lies filed in my ‘Small Stories’ category in my slowly emerging filing system. It is a profile, by Carole Cadwalladr of Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. Mary has been transforming the language of aid. She says

‘If we keep this conversation in trade langauge, then it keeps it as trade. But if we can show the human-rights consequences then i’ts more powerful. It makes people very uncomfortable.’

Cadwalladr goes on to say

‘Everywhere we go, Mary has a story to tell. At the coffee farm, she tells her audeince how she grew up surrounded by farmers in ‘the poorest part of Ireland’. At the Amana hospital she points out that Ireland’s history was not so very different from that of Tanzania, a poor ex-colonial land with a tortured history. There’s a story for everyone. And this, I realise, is what Mary does…you’ve got to be able to tell people things in language they understand. And what Mary’s doing is taking stories to the other side. To US member of Congress, she too takes from the cotton fields of Mali, of babies lying in ditches, because of the US governemtns’ $4 billion of aid to US cotton farmers. To the Tanzanians she tells stories of Ireland’s rise out of pverty adn to the country’s president Kikwete, she presses home how small changes in the health-care system that we saw in action at Amana hospital can signficiantly reduce the nubmer of women who die in childbirth.’

Steve Denning, formerly of the World Bank, coined the term springboard stories a while back for these small, condensed evocations, which he sees as an essential part of the armoury of the leader, tiny sparkplugs which spring people to imagination and action. (It’s by far his best book in my view, although I find that it limits the concept of storytelling in organisations to one to do with higher order communication and leadership skills and that’s not where I’m inclined to spend my time. But his categorisations and especially the appendices are rich food for thought on structuring and placing a springboard story and should not be bypassed by anyone with an interest in the subject. I’d also like to make clear that, whatever my critique, I have the utmost respect for Steve in what he has done to transform the credibility and acceptance of narrative and story in an organisational context, not least in co-founding the Golden Fleece with Madelyn Blair and others.)

What I’ve spoken of so far is a mix, about which I’m truthfully a bit uneasy of factual journalism spiced up with strong images which will draw the reader in, and the stories that inspiring leaders select for themselves from their own autobiography, and what they witness and carry with them as travellers who cross the divide between worlds.

How are we all to make sure connection between the big context, the facts, and the small stories which bring them to life are kept honest? How are we to keep the difference between analytical reporting and storytelling positive and make sure holds its integrity. In a 5 year project working with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation we worked towards, and ended up with a guide to using story as an instrument of knowledge management in an aid setting: ‘Story Guide: building bridges using narrative techniques’ At the beginning, we showed two ways of telling of the same thing. The first had been collected through a technique for sharing personal experiences collectively that allows, through emergent self-selection, the stories resonant for the community be identified by them.


The Inspiring Pot
“Bangladesh is a really impressive place… in a positive sense. I was in a village last year working in water and sanitation. We were trying to promote the use of improved latrines, but could not produce concrete slabs and rings locally for a low cost. Somebody told me to visit the latrines of a lady in the village, so I went along and said, “Can I see your latrines?” She had made a latrine out of a clay pot with the bottom cut off. Then with a potter from the area she developed a small local production of bottomless pots, and they became the latrines. Ingenious.

A few weeks later I was in another village and saw a hand pump; it was broken, just a small piece missing. So I said to the villagers, “Why don’t you repair your pump?” And they said, “Oh, we just wait for another donor to bring a new pump.” So I said, “Why don’t you visit the lady in the village over there? She finds ways of getting things done for herself.”

Perhaps 30 personal stories of experiences in the field had been shared (in repeated rounds in smaller groups) and then people had selected the most resonant for them, bringing it down to 3 stories which held collective meaning. These were retold to the whole room, and recorded word for word (in this case, frantic typing, normally with a small Olympus or mini disc)

A while later, when we were trying to convey what the written conventions of organisational reporting do to shrivel and spoil raw materials, I rewrote this as


Lessons learned from fieldwork in Bangladesh

“In our evaluation of a project in Bangladesh we noted a wide variance in the competence of individual villages to develop sustainable and effective solutions to problems encountered, for example in replacing broken parts or developing low cost products for example new latrines. The lessons to be learned from this evaluation are that we should:

* work against over-dependence on donors;
* note and encourage entrepreneurial approaches to problems;
* identify existing and repeatable good practices;
* build and strengthen communication between villages to assist cross-fertilization of ideas at the grassroots level.”

I always meant this to be tongue in cheek: an ironic way to make an important point. And we’ve used the comparison a lot to engage people with the subject. It always works. But I’ve come to see that both ways of conveying the material work well. Jacques actual story, recorded by us, is a terrific illustration of the dependence that can develop on aid workers and the helplessness of those provided for. But the duller, less illuminating translation into report-speak also acts as a bridge, a way to summarise and abstract and create a way to compare this with other illuminations to find common patterns. It’s both/and not either/or.

Coming back to electricity and it’s lack. This has come up for me in respect of another challenge, which we noticed acutely for the first time when running a story competition for the Islamic Development Bank. The competition, ‘Voices from the Field’ invited IDBers (‘IDaBers’, those who work for this impressive development bank) to submit true stories of the impact of the Bank on its beneficiaries. How to set the judging criteria for such a competition is a long blog for a different time, and much more besides on the process of handling such a competition. We did it pretty well, building on two previous competitions. But we still noticed a new challenge in the selection of longlisted and shortlisted winning stories. It was so much easier to respond to stories of personal journeys than those of big projects. The young girl in Bangladesh, given a grant to do vocational training who ends up running her own sewing business; the young man, given a grant, who becomes a doctor and goes home to set up a health centre. These were so much easier to tell and respond to than the big electricity and road projects which have more systemic substance.

And we found ourselves giving particular credit to those who could, somehow, convey the big projects but bring them down to the personal. One winning story, as I recall, was about an electricity project, perhaps in Sudan. The teller began with a powerful evocation of the consequences of the lack of electricity – the sweat, the dark, people dying on operating tables. And then the presence of IDB as a contributor to an infrastructure project which brings electricity is conveyed via watching a news report on television. And we move back to a personal view of what it feels like afterwards.

I raise this to bring me back round to the beginning – the marriage of narrative and analysis, huge systemic systems and their human impact in a truly representative and not a dramatising way, but one which will change the perspectives and actions of the listener or reader.

But I’d like to end in a slightly different place, which is surprise. The IDB judges surprised themselves in their judging in several ways. In judging this story, one of them said that he hadn’t expected to be moved by such a story in some ways. After all, they are common experiences for most in member countries, not much out of the norm. But in fact when he was reading the stories for the first time, there was a power cut in Jeddah, and as he lay awake slick with sweat it suddenly flashed into his mind that he had forgotten what it was like always to be in the heat and the dark. So the story re-evoked for him personally, in a powerful way, the point of why he went to work. To stop such things happening.

Two dimensions is not enough.

“At 400ft they see a big black man and they cross the road to avoid me,” he explains. “At 200ft they cross back because they realise that I’m a professional basketball player and they want a closer look.” But recently, he says, they have come a bit closer and then crossed again. “At 50ft they recognise me as the gay bloke who just came out and then they cross back across the road again.”

This from an article in the Guardian about John Amaechi, a British Sportsman who became a big star in American basketball. The article is called ‘I’m not just that big gay bloke’

The power of this tiny extract in putting you into his experience and being able to witness (lets be truthful) yourself from the outside, is quite shocking.

I was reminded of the article posted recently on opendemocracy called ‘Mulitiplicity not long division’. I’m going to quote from the beginning and then make a couple of observations.

‘I heard a hilarious story from a big burly London taxi-driver. To please his younger daughter, he had got up very early one morning and drove all the way to Cardiff to buy her an expensive rare-breed dog. “It cost me an arm and a leg and it looks like a toy sheep. Now, of course, at the end of my shift, my wife is at work and the girls are at dancing class, I have to walk the dog. I don’t know why, the missus bought this pale pink lead with gold studs. So I’m walking along when I spot a mate driving his cab and I try and stuff the dog in my pocket because I don’t want him thinking I’m gay.”

Here I bridled a little. But this was a nice guy. Although he was one of the lads, he adored his family and clearly would do anything for them, he was able to laugh at himself and he entertained me. None of my gay friends would be seen dead walking that dog either. The wider point is that the cabbie defined himself too narrowly, drawing on the stereotypical view that you can’t share characteristics with a group you don’t belong to.

The world seems to be ruled by this kind of binary thinking. From the technology we use to terrorism, it’s the one / nought principle, the on / off switch, the yes / no question, the in / out classification or for / against challenge – which, by limiting individual identity, imagination and allegiance, creates and exacerbates social division. Those in power use it deliberately for their own advantage. The binary logic of politicised group identity means that belonging to one group equals conflict with another. As Diane Enns puts it in a new paper from the Berghof Peace Centre, we inhabit “a world in which identities are endlessly generated in binary pairs, pitted against each other.”

Now I find two things interesting here. The first is that she used a personal anecdote to punch her way into a complex subject. The anecdote (Geertzwise) is a window into a big pattern. And I’ll come back to that. But you could imagine both this and the short extract about John Amaechi being pretty good conversation starters, things which slow you down a bit, interrupt your thinking, make you see a subject in 3d, not 2d.

(A detour here. I recently went on a sculpture course, having hardly done anything with my hands in my life except type and cook. Our teacher pointed out that sculpture differs from painting in that it exists in time. Or to be successful it exists in time. You can’t just see it from one vantage point. You, the viewer, need to travel through space and time to appreciate and question it. If you can, you should touch it too. Taste the knowledge. Although that’s not where I got the name of the blog from. Another time.)

I’ll come back to the 2d 3d part. But I’d like to travel via Jim Lord’s book ‘What kind of world do you want, which I referenced once before.’ I find it a puzzling and slightly flimsy book, so I’m intrigued that I’ve referenced it twice now and thought about it quite a bit. Informed by Appreciative Inquiry, it makes well the point that complex thinking arises more readily from concrete example. p. 129

‘Here’s a simple example from the way staff at the University of Michigan prepared for a $3billion campaign. In the middle of a flip chart, we wrote the name of a gentleman who had made one of the largest commitments to the university. Then the small group offered factors and conditions that they believed had influenced that person’s decision to invest. They included even something as seemingly small as a casual comment made by the receptionist.

As we began to discover the lively interplay between all parts of the system, we created our own theory of contribution, a theory distinctive to the university’s history, culture and community,a nd to the particular individual. Sucha specific, complex, nuanced understanding stands in sharp contrast to the more usual view that contributions result from simple, generic cause-and-effect mechanism….’

So viewing things from the specific is much more likely to yield a 3d picture. It’s a banal truth of course. But why are we, in an organisational context, largely to unable to take this truth on board and use it to do work for us? I’d suggest it’s because it suits us to hide behind the binary in may of our systems and organisations. It’s safer that way. You can stay disengaged, stay in your head, not engage your heart.

This takes me to Amarya Sen and his fairly recent book ‘Identity and Violence.’ In an essay derived from the book in Slate magazine, he says

‘A person belongs to many different groups, of which a religious affiliation is only one. To see, for example, a mathematician who happens to be a Muslim by religion mainly in terms of Islamic identity would be to hide more than it reveals. Even today, when a modern mathematician at, say, MIT or Princeton invokes an “algorithm” to solve a difficult computational problem, he or she helps to commemorate the contributions of the ninth-century Muslim mathematician Al-Khwarizmi, from whose name the term algorithm is derived (the term “algebra” comes from the title of his Arabic mathematical treatise “Al Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah”). To concentrate only on Al-Khwarizmi’s Islamic identity over his identity as a mathematician would be extremely misleading, and yet he clearly was also a Muslim. Similarly, to give an automatic priority to the Islamic identity of a Muslim person in order to understand his or her role in the civil society, or in the literary world, or in creative work in arts and science, can result in profound misunderstanding.’

This in turn leads me to Christoph Maier’s work on diversity, which I first came across at a knowledge management thing at the ILO a couple of years back. I’ve been prompted by this line of enquiry to get back in touch with Christoph, because I’ve a hunch there’s a great deal in this 3d thing which we need to push into organisational conversations of all kinds. I’ll write more on that when we’ve corresponded. Meanwhile, here’s an abstract I found online about his kaleidoscope approach:

‘The author proposes a fresh perspective on diversity. The individual ceases to be simply a member of a certain nation, ethnicity, race or gender group, and becomes a multi-faceted, unique kaleidoscope – a treasure for any workgroup. Setting out from this perspective, a conceptual framework for leading diversity – the ‘leading-diversity dice’ – is developed. This framework focuses on personal behaviour and the interactions of workgroup members. It defines leading diversity as a rational, emotional and spiritual process that centres on a shared humaneness and the African concept of ‘isithunzi’.

As I recall, any person at any moment can be driven by many facets of their present and historic situations and their future aspirations. This means that the kaleidoscope of which they are made up shakes and shifts all the time. To reduce any individual to black, white, Muslim, Christian, rich, poor dehumanises and corrodes the social fabric.

I can’t quite grasp at the reasons behind the segue to my final fragment, although they must be there somewhere. But this reminds me of what Anthony Gormley says in the introduction to the booklet accompanying his current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, ‘Blind Light’

‘You could say that there are two very discrete and almost oppositional places where a sculpture belongs. One is physical: in a landscape or a room, and the other is in the imagination of the viewer, in his/her experience and memory. They are equally important and in many sense the work is there waiting – almost like a trap – for the life of the viewer to come and fill it, or inhabit it. And then once ‘capture’ the art – or its arising – inhabits him or her.’

Why do I think this is connected? I’m really not sure. Perhaps it’s something about the role of the viewer, interviewer, reader, audience, and all the back history and kaleidoscope they bring with them into any situation which means each experience is unique in both it’s simplicity and its complexity. Probably too, it takes me back to the theme, the need for 3d thinking, but in fact not just thinking. 3d experiencing with all the senses if we are to make sense of ‘the systemic swirl of forces and conditions inside and around [a] person and those closest to him.’
(Jim Lord again)

In this case in fact, certainly with Allotment II which consists of reinforced concrete 300 life-size units dervied from the dimensions of local inhabitatns of Malmo aged 1.5 – 80 years, it really is a concrete experience, not a tired metaphor. For once.

Metaphors next, I’ve a feeling. Better gird my loins.