Bringing Ideas to Life: The role of mediating objects

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Written by Dr Arthur F Turner – Senior Lecturer in Organisational Studies, UWE, Bristol.

Since 2008 I have been looking into the growth of leadership in managers and, more broadly speaking, I have been journeying towards a degree of understanding of how these ‘magical’ transitions take place. I have more recently been tutoring and facilitating the learning of coaching and mentoring through the teaching of elements in the curriculum of ILM Level 7 and Level 5 vocational qualifications.

One part of this decade-long inquiry has been the surfacing of Vygotsky’s ‘mediating objects’ as a vital piece of theory that really seems to work. I had been describing these ideas to my colleagues, students and clients (I have been a qualified coach since 2008) in terms of philosophical ideas and theories (see, for example, Heidegger, Huizinga and Vygotsky – all male European philosophers of the early 19th century).

My own favourite mediating objects to use in leadership and management development are finger puppets of culturally-diverse characters (both real and fictional) which have a powerful way of stimulating ideas and re-enacting workplace dynamics. I have written about how and why these puppets work and, more often than not, I have found myself drawn towards the Déscartian view of minds and bodies having a distinct ontological basis. Whilst thoughts and ideas in your head are shapeless and have no form through the use of mediating objects (puppets or whatever) these ideas, challenges or issues can be expressed in a more solid way, through an object that gives it shape and structure.

A selection of finger puppets used in leadership development workshops

For several years I felt these ideas must have some more up-to-date, supporting philosophies. My searches often led along blind alleyways… until recently. A chance look at a collection of articles in the New Scientist in 2019 I came across Lambros Malafouris and his theory of Material Engagement. All of sudden a modern philosophical translation of the role of objects in our world came into view. Like London buses no sooner had one emerged than another turned the corner into view. From Emma Watton and Phillipa Chapman’s leadership and cognitive artefacts premise to Object Orientated Ontology (OOO) championed by Graham Harman via the hermeneutic spaces of Michel Foucault; mediating objects have been coming out of the shadows! This time of year, Autumn, also gives some spur to the acknowledgment of the ways in which ideas and learning can emerge from nowhere. Take for example the humble fungus:

I have been fascinated by fungi for a long time and testament to this are a small collection of porcelain fungi at my home, modelled to represent specific species. These models are a doorway into the weird world of fungi which now, in real life, often appear overnight, lawns, tree-trunks and fallen branches are festooned with a dazzling array of shapes and sizes, mostly based on a standard, young-child-seen, shape of stem and cap. A new book by Merlin Sheldrake now has retold the research that reveals a parent mycelium that weaves and interacts for miles amidst root, leaf-fall and wood. This mycelium is closely interwoven and often miles long. Far from a non-sentient being fungi and the mycelium that is the fungi can work together over miles, lasso nematodes, trap and enslave ants and break down rock, stone and concrete slabs… a concept now referred to as the Wood Wide Web.

Holding one porcelain fungal model in my hand can open opportunities to talk about living organisms, ecosystems and on to discussion about stakeholders, networks, knowledge, intelligence and complex chemicals. Objects mediate human understanding and ferment the production of knowledge and understanding.   

I’d be interested to hear about any mediating objects you use in your own leadership and/or organisation development practice, and your experiences of how these support and mobilise the shifts in awareness that characterise deep learning.

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