This is a thing. It is a happy thing, but a thing nonetheless. Because it is a thing, you can pick it up, move it about, transport it from A to B, squeeze it, change its shape and even tear it apart to make two or more little things. The great thing about things is that because they have a boundary, a density and a structure you can manipulate and control them. An organisation, however, is not a thing. You can’t pick it up, move it from A to B, change its shape or its structure. Fair enough you can control and manipulate some things within an organisation (buildings, org charts, desks, documents etc.) but not the organisation itself because, essentially, it does not exist! An organisation, as far as I can tell, isn’t a thing but an ongoing, complex process in which a bunch of human beings interact with each other in a way that is as predictable as it is unpredictable – an improvised social process that cannot be changed through control and manipulation but only altered, influenced and disturbed through participation.
The reason I like to talk about things in my work (and get my daughter to draw them) is that they are a great way of exploring a rather worrying pattern I notice in organisational life – an addiction to reification: turning abstract processes or concepts into something that we then believe and act as if are more concrete than they actually are. The majority of business education seems to make this problem worse through teaching leaders and managers that their organisations are things that they can control and manipulate as if they were machines (pulling levers of change, shifting the needle on problem x, moving the culture from X to Y via Z). The jazz musician/Professor of Organisational Behaviour Frank Barrett describes this reification habit as “turning metaphor into geometry!” I like to refer to this process as “thingifying.” Thingification is all around us in the corporate world and is likely as a result of what Professor Ralph Stacey calls “an institutionalised defence against anxiety” – a way of talking and interacting that makes us feel that the world around us is more stable and concrete than it actually is. I’ve come to believe that thingification is the biggest challenge facing leaders and organisations who are trying to change, become more responsive, agile, creative and innovative.
One particular type of thingification that crops up regularly in my work is the thingifying of personal development. It seems that the value placed on any particular development intervention is based almost entirely on the “tangible take aways” rather than the clarity, challenge, intensity and ‘developmental heat’ the experience creates in the moment. To me this is like judging the value of a holiday based on the quantity of the photos and souvenirs that you gather, rather than the moment by moment enjoyment of the experience of holidaying. (Sure, photos and souvenirs are great anchors of the memory of a holiday but they are only so because the holiday experience itself was great. Either way, such photos can never convey the entirety of the experience to those who weren’t there, the only way to do this is to invite people to experience the holiday for themselves!)
It seems to me that this focus on tangible take aways distracts people from truly dwelling in the moment and noticing how they are changed, challenged, inspired, fearful or enlivened by their lived experience of any particular development intervention. It is as if the anxiety of not having enough “holiday snaps” to show anyone after a day or a week out of the office distracts people from noticing the holiday.
As part of the research for Can Scorpions Smoke? I interviewed Dom Fitch, Creative Director for the charity Shakespeare Schools Festival. SSF works with school children, often in deprived areas or with particular learning difficulties to help them put on their own, abridged versions of Shakespeare plays in well known theatres. The wonderful thing about their approach is that the children are encouraged to interpret the plays in their own way and retell the stories in their own words. One of the most memorable things that Dom told me was about the absolute focus that SSF places on process and not performance. Below is an extract of the interview:
“In my first year with SSF I was at a big theatre in the north of England and a number of schools had just performed. We asked the Head of Education of the theatre to give an appraisal of the performances. An appraisal comes with a very specific caveat – it is not about judging, it is about giving all of the students that have performed some praise, so that every school has had something positive said about them. At the end of the night she was effusive in talking about the perfect performance of one particular school, which, if you were to judge it as a moment of traditional theatre, was good. She then turned to a company of much younger pupils whose performance of Romeo and Juliet wasn’t as theatrically ‘good’ and simply said to them “I think you can really learn from the other pupils that have been on here tonight – they really showed you how it can be done properly!” It was at that moment I realised why I wanted to do this work – because it’s in absolute opposition to people like her, who believe performance, assessment and achieving excellence are the only things that are important. She was totally unappreciative of the process those students had been through: the endless rehearsals they’d been in, those moments at home learning their lines with their parents, the relationship they have had with their teacher – she crushed all of that with that one awful statement.
We recently worked with a pupil referral unit and, because of the complex personal circumstances of many of the pupils, we knew some of them wouldn’t turn up for the performance. We therefore decided to film the entire process that they went through and showed it on the night. It didn’t really matter that only two or three pupils turned up because, through showing the video, we made the process the performance. The audience could actually see students wrangling with language and getting annoyed with each other. One student in particular got cross and exclaimed, “I don’t understand this language” and walked out of the classroom. However, on the night, he came on stage and performed his own rap inspired by Romeo and Juliet. By making the process the performance, the audience were able to witness that student’s creative light bulb moment where he realised how he could make the play his own. Had we just had him on stage performing a rap it would have been nowhere near as inspiring and impactful.”
I find myself quoting these stories regularly when trying to de-thingify personal development work and explain the importance of placing more value and attention on the developmental process versus the final ‘performance’ and end product. If I think about my own recent developmental experiences, such as conducting a choir or going busking, the performance wasn’t brilliant (i.e. I didn’t learnt to conduct a choir or become a successful musician) but I was truly altered by the intense process of doing it. If I were to evaluate those experiences based on the performance element alone and ‘tangible take-aways’ I would have been a bit disappointed. I believe we can challenge the thingification of personal development by beginning to place more value in the process of learning, discovery and play and gradually weaning ourselves from developmental souvenir hunting.
Remember….a thing is for Christmas, not for life!