Multidisciplinary Research Teams and Transdisciplinary Impacts

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In September Peter Case, Professor of Organization Studies at UWE Bristol delivered a webinar for staff and doctoral students at the College of Business, Law & Governance – James Cook University in Australia. Here is a summary of his presentation, talking about multidisciplinary research teams and transdisciplinary impacts.

Researchers increasingly find themselves inhabiting a world in which sponsors demand that their work generate outcomes and impacts beyond the walls of academia. There is an expectation that applied research will yield beneficial changes to one or more of the following areas of life: economy, society, culture, public policy, the environment, health and wellbeing. Moreover, many of the problems that researchers face are extremely complex, if not ‘wicked’ (Rittel & Webber, 1973) in nature.

The challenges of tackling problems caused by climate change or trying to achieve sustainable development, for example, typically involve multiple stakeholder interests and are mediated by an array of interrelated socio-material factors.  Accommodating such high levels of complexity is an endeavour that, arguably, falls beyond the scope and capacity of any single disciplinary frame.

One response to challenges posed by complexity is to employ multidsiciplinary research teams. These teams typically comprise a diverse set of experts who bring particular specialist perspectives, theories and methodologies to bear on a given problem. Multidisciplinary teams thus afford a more holistic approach to the issue at hand and, moreover, hold the prospect of producing ‘joined up’ solutions to any given problem.

Peter Case recently gave a talk on this, sharing some of his experiences of working with mutlidisciplinary research teams in the context of complex problems and large scale projects. He spoke about drawing on his work in international development and global healthcare spaces to explore what is involved in forming teams, managing group dynamics and harnessing collective efforts to meet overall project aims and objectives.

Peter concluded by arguing that enhancing research impact entails moving beyong a strictly multidisciplinary approach to a transdisciplinary mode of stakeholder engagement; one in which academic researchers facilitate and contribute to wider dialogue with partner institutions and intended beneficiaries.

The Rhetoric and Reality of Systems Leadership

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A talk by Professor Richard Bolden at The Future of Leadership conference hosted by Kings College, London.

Professor Richard Bolden was invited by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (an executive agency of the Ministry of Defence) to speak at a video conference on ‘The Future of Leadership’, hosted by Kings College London on 22nd May. His presentation, titled ‘The Rhetoric and Reality of Systems Leadership’ summarised insights from his recent research in the NHS and public health to highlight key insights for public service leadership over the coming decades.

What is Systems Leadership?

“Systems Leadership is about how you lead across boundaries departmental, organisational or sector. It’s how you lead when you’re not in charge, and you need to influence others rather than pull a management lever. It describes the way you need to work when you face large, complex, difficult and seemingly intractable problems; where you need to juggle multiple uncertainties; where no one person or organisation can find or organise the solution on their own…”
Sorkin, 2016

Watch the recorded conference HERE including Richard’s talk.

The Fall of Edward Colston and the Rise of Inclusive Place-Based Leadership

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by Professor Richard Bolden

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, USA on 25th May 2020 triggered a wave of protests about racial inequality that have spread around the world. In my home city of Bristol, UK the Black Lives Matter march on 7th June led to the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader whose sculpture had stood in pride of place in the city centre for 125 years.  The ironic fact that the bronze cast was then dragged to the quayside and unceremoniously dumped into the water at almost precisely the same place as his ships had docked over three hundred years ago did not go unnoticed[1].

Colston, who was born in Bristol in 1636 and lived there for much of his life, made his fortune as a merchant – initially trading wine, fruits and cloth before becoming involved in the slave trade. From 1680-1692 he worked for the Royal Africa Company, which held a monopoly for trading along Africa’s west coast, serving as deputy governor from 1689 to 1690. During his time at the company around 84,000 Africans were transported into slavery, with an estimated 19,000 perishing in the process[2]. Despite his involvement in this abhorrent trade, Colston was widely celebrated for endowing significant sums of money to local schools, hospitals, alms-houses and churches. His statue was erected by the Victorians in 1895 to commemorate his philanthropy and his name still features on many city landmarks.

The actions of the protesters that day drew a range of reactions. Whilst the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, described it as ‘utterly disgraceful’ and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, called it a ‘criminal act’ others took a more nuanced approach.  Marvin Rees, the elected Mayor of Bristol, whilst not condoning the wilful damage of public property said the statue had been a ‘personal affront’ to him and many other people for years and that he ‘did not feel any sense of loss’[3].  As televised interviews for Channel 4 and BBC later that day pushed Rees to give a binary response to questions about the repercussions of the incident, he took the opportunity to lay-out the complexities of the context in which it had occurred. Rees outlined the sensitivities and challenges and the need for an open and honest debate about the history of race and inequality in the city. As the first elected Mayor of Afro-Caribbean descent in Europe, who took up his post in 2016 amidst the effects of the Brexit vote and sustained cuts to local government funding, he needed to mobilise the support of a diverse (and divided) population and a wide range of stakeholders. Whilst he actively supported campaigns to review Colston’s legacy, including a decision to rename the city’s Colston Hall music venue, attempts to remove Colston’s statue (or, at the very least, install a new plaque describing the atrocities that he had committed) had thus far been undermined[4]. With a finite amount of time, resource and political capital, Rees had many other priorities to attend to in order to address the challenges and divisions within the city[5].

Whilst some expressed outrage that the statue was pulled down David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at University of Manchester and a resident of Bristol, pointed out that the real question was why “21st-century Bristol still had a statue of a slave trader on public display” in the first place[6]. To those who suggested that removing Colston’s statue was an attempt to erase the city’s past, he responded “the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue is not an attack on history – it is history”. The legacy of Colston is writ large across the city and will not be forgotten simply because his image no longer gazes down upon those who walk the city’s streets. In an interview for the BBC on the day of the protests Olusoga argued “statues aren’t about history they are about adoration. This man was not great, he was a slave trader and a murderer”[7].

The speed with which other cities across the country have responded by reviewing and removing statues that fail to reflect the multi-cultural nature of contemporary Britain shows that these thoughts are finally being heard[8]. The history of colonisation and slavery that fuelled Britain’s economic, cultural and political influence for many centuries has become woven into the fabric of our institutions and society leaving many of us blind to the day-to-day racism and inequality it perpetuates.

Speaking at the funeral of George Floyd on 9th June Rev. Bill Lawson, who had campaigned alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr in the 1960’s, said “back in the days when I used to be part of marches, all the marchers were black, but now there are white people who know the story and there are Hispanics who know the story and there are Asians who know the story”[9].  He went on to say “Out of his [George Floyd’s] death has come a movement, a worldwide movement. But that movement is not going to stop after two weeks, three weeks, a month. That movement is going to change the world.”

The events of the past few weeks have a great deal to tell us about the nature and purpose of good leadership in contemporary society. Firstly, they demonstrate that in the second decade of the 21st Century we are still far from the ‘post-racial’ society that some may claim. The roots of racism go back many years and will no doubt take many more to rectify. The diversity of our workforce and communities is widely acknowledged as a significant source of creativity, innovation and competitive advantage yet the relatively superficial attempts to tackle unconscious bias within organisations barely scratches the surface of the discrimination experienced by black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals on a daily basis. The role of leaders in a progressive, multi-cultural society is to actively foster and promote diversity in all its forms and to dismantle systems, structures and processes that “inhibit the full and equal engagement of all individuals”[10]. This is difficult and demanding work that requires significant time and emotional investment. It requires listening to and learning from the lived experience of others, and to actively champion and support marginalised individuals and groups. To quote Ruth Hunt, former CEO of the LGBT rights organisation Stonewall, “if you have any power whatsoever, think about how you can share it”[11].

Secondly it shows the need for a deep appreciation of context, informed by genuine respect for the plurality of perspectives on any particular issue. The Police Superintendent for Bristol, Andy Bennett, noted that whilst his officers were present when the statue of Colston was removed and pushed into the harbour, a decision was taken not to intervene as doing so was likely to lead to further disorder. In explaining this decision, he said “whilst I’m disappointed people would damage one of our statues, I do understand why it has happened, it is very symbolic” [12].  Bennett, like Rees, demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the issues and the potential for unintended consequences from his actions. Whilst, of course, attention would have been given to the immediate context of the situation it is highly likely that he also considered the wider context of policing and criminal justice within the city.  Bennett and his colleagues had invested considerable time and effort over many years building and strengthening relationships, trust and collaboration between diverse groups and communities and would, no doubt, be well aware of the long-term knock-on effect of heavy-handed policing in a situation such as this. For those protesting that day the statue of Colston was a vivid symbol of oppression and a reminder of the lack of progress that had been made in tackling systemic inequality[13].

And thirdly it demonstrates the importance of genuine, open discussion in mobilising and sustaining social change. Both Rees and Bennett’s response to the incidents in Bristol on 7th June show a real awareness of the importance of shifting the narrative from blame to reconciliation. The day after the protest Bristol City Council announced its intent to create a new exhibition at the city’s MShed Museum featuring placards and banners from the march, most likely alongside the despoiled statue of Edward Colston once retrieved from the harbour. A day later, Rees announced the launch of a new commission to document and share the ‘true history’ of Bristol[14].

Recognition of the disproportionate impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on BAME communities – both in health and economic terms – alongside a growing sense that not enough is being done at national level to address this is, of course, another key part of the backdrop to recent events[15]. At the time of the Black Lives Matter protests, the UK was still experiencing high numbers of infections and deaths from Covid-19 and laws were in place to enforce social distancing and prohibit gatherings of more than six people. The fact that so many people still took to the streets demonstrated the strength of emotion and level of concern about racial inequality.

Following the suffering and disruption caused by Covid-19 and the trauma of George Floyd’s death there is perhaps a glimmer of hope. Back in April Rees argued that the post-Covid recovery in Bristol should focus on building a “more sustainable, more inclusive, more fair and more just” economy and had begun rallying support for this across the city[16]. Indeed, the groundwork for such an approach had already been laid over the past few years through the development of the One City Approach[17] and the launch of the One City Plan in January 2019. This bold vision and action plan was inspired by a similar initiative in New York that set out a long-term strategy, co-produced with diverse communities and stakeholders, to build a thriving and inclusive city aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals[18]. The three aspects of inclusive place-based leadership outlined above – allyship, understanding and dialogue – will undoubtedly form the bedrock of Bristol’s recovery plan as it emerges from lockdown into a post-Covid world, hopefully building a stronger sense of shared purpose and commitment to learning from our past and moving forward in a caring and considered way.

Note

Whilst the opinions expressed in this article are my own, they are informed by my work with number of colleagues, including Anita Gulati, Dr. Addy Adelaine, Professor Carol Jarvis and Stella Warren, whose own ideas have greatly influenced my awareness and understanding of leadership and inclusion. My reflections on the leadership of Marvin Rees and Andy Bennett are informed not only by media reports but also through engaging directly with each of them on citywide initiatives, including the Bristol One City Approach, Bristol Leadership Challenge and Bristol Golden Key.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Colston

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/bristol-mayor-edward-colston-statue-black-lives-matter-protest-marvin-rees-a9554646.html

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-47670756

[5] https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/news/bristol-tale-two-cities/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/08/edward-colston-statue-history-slave-trader-bristol-protest

[7] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/edward-colston-bristol-controversial-statues-uk-cecil-rhodes-a9554421.html

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2020/jun/09/uk-protests-black-lives-matter-colston-statue-rhodes-live

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpOO7OzntN8

[10] https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/852067

[11] https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/5999310  

[12] https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/right-wing-people-came-down-4205570

[13] https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/news/bristol-news/how-city-failed-remove-edward-4211771

[14] https://news.bristol.gov.uk/news/bristols-real-story-must-be-told

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/06/labour-accuses-government-of-cover-up-over-bame-covid-19-report

[16] https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/news/rees-lets-rebuild-a-fairer-inclusive-and-more-sustainable-economy/

[17] https://www.bristolonecity.com

[18] http://onenyc.cityofnewyork.us

Home-working during Coronavirus – using the corners of our home for work, rest and play

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Back in 2017 Dr Harriet Shortt, Associate Professor of Organisation Studies at UWE Bristol Business School, wrote a piece for Work Wise UK about how the commute – be it on a train, a bus or in a car – offers an important space for reflection and escape. She talked about how the commute can be a space ‘in-between’ in which we can momentarily break away from the multitude of identities we seek to maintain in contemporary society, and temporarily find a sense of sanctuary in a working world characterized by change and fluidity. The commute, therefore, offers a ‘liminal space’ in which to momentarily dwell – a liminal space being one that is on the ‘border’, a transitory space somewhere ‘in-between’ where we can suspend social expectations – and just press pause. She also reflected on the liminal spaces of the workplace – like corridors, stairwells, corridors and toilets. Places in which, as her research shows, are usually used to escape the visibility of the office or shared workspace and become important territories for private conversations, quiet reflection, and inspiration and creativity (Shortt, 2015).

In her guest blog post with Work Wise UK last week, she talks about the loss of these spaces and how we can find them again in our current conditions working from home, which for many of us also includes juggling home-schooling with work.

Since the Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown, for many workers these spaces have vanished. We aren’t commuting, which is great for the environment and for a whole host of other reasons, but I wonder if there are some of you who are missing the space the commute created between work and home – that liminal space for reflection, decompression or planning. And, of course, many of us are not in the office, so those corridor conversations, those watercooler moments, those snatched minutes in a toilet catching up with a colleague are gone. All these informal micro-interactions at work that are so vital in the everyday life of workers have, for the time being, disappeared.

Instead, many of us are working from home. We have set up workspaces almost overnight and our homes have become workplaces and meeting rooms, classrooms and gyms, places of worship and places to rest. These changes in our domestic environment have taken some adjusting. We have had to negotiate with partners and children about how our home spaces are used, for what purpose and when, we’ve had to compromise our sense of privacy and open up our homes as personal backdrops on Zoom calls, and as the earlier blog from Stefanie Reissner and Michal Izak shows, we have had to think carefully about how we establish, manage, and re-adjust our work/ home boundaries.

All this transposing of work life into the home and sudden, rather dramatic mass shift to working from home has made me think more about the organisation of space at home, and in particular, the liminal spaces of the home. In all my research projects in both public and private sector organisations over the past 15 years, the significance of liminal space has always emerged – whether it be the cupboards in which hairdressers find respite from the visible work they do, the toilets where open-plan office workers go to have private conversations or the stairwells that nurses use to catch up with each other away from the wards. But what are the liminal spaces in our homes, how are they being used in the current crisis, and do they have any value? As a researcher of organisational life, I’ve seen and heard various stories over the past 8 weeks from UK workers adjusting to working at home, and I’ve had my own experiences as a mother and knowledge worker juggling full time work and home schooling a 5-year-old, and the corners of our homes do seem to be significant in a number of ways…

Firstly – liminal spaces for new working practices. I have spent a number of years researching the work of hairdressers working in hair salons and over the past 8 weeks or so I have been struck by how innovative some in this industry have been at adapting to working life at home, using social media (mainly Instagram) to do so. What has been notable are the uses of liminal spaces in their homes, that are now appropriated as new workspaces. For example, one celebrity hair stylist in London is seen in a walk-in wardrobe demonstrating an easy up-do (wife as model). Another hair stylist in Wales is pictured in a hallway by the mirror demonstrating how to cut a little boy’s hair (son as model). And another stylist in London is filmed in a toilet demonstrating a guide to toning your hair at home (self as model). These new workspaces are allowing them to still work, still connect with clients, but perhaps help them avoid exposing parts of their homes to others and somehow this protects their privacy. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the new Twitter account ‘Room Rater @ratemyskyperoom’ has been set up to comment on and rate the backdrops and private homes of the rich and famous as they Skype and Zoom in the media. As such, the privacy of our homes has been comprised by new working from home practices and so we might reflect on how the liminal spaces in our homes might offer an alternative to putting our more dominant spaces – kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms – on display for all to see.

Secondly – liminal spaces for privacy and rest. The privacy issue is one that we have not really talked about during this crisis. The big focus, naturally, during isolation has been countering the feelings of being alone or separated, and as Reissner and Izak advised in their blog earlier this week, we need to stay connected. But just as I would argue that overly open, collaborative workspaces sometimes forget the need for private, quiet space in their designs, for those of us as home in lockdown with partners or families, we might think about how important it is to find just a few moments alone for rest, reflection and respite. One Bristol-based entrepreneur I am working with on research project text me a photograph of her on the roof of her house and said:

This is the only place I can get some rest…some peace and quiet. This is where I can just breath for a minute. It’s a beautiful view and a lovely skyline, all the trees and rooftops. I love being up here, I might do this more often’

Another young mother in Bath, who works in the public sector and is working from home with 2 small children said:

‘I find myself just sitting on the stairs to get five minutes peace. If I’m in the kitchen, the kids want snacks. If I’m in the living room I’m working. I just sit on the steps for a few minutes and get a bit of down time’

So, it could be suggested that liminal spaces are helping us, just as they do in the office, to find private quiet moments of respite from family, technology and being on show. The corners of our homes, or, as above, the rooftops and stairs, are being used in the practice of self-care and wellbeing during Covid-19.

And finally – liminal spaces for play. I have seen how liminal spaces are being appropriated for play during our home-based lockdown. My 5-year-old daughter has been at home with my husband and I, like many other children, for the past 8 weeks, and the den-making has been rife! My daughter has made a den on the stairs, under the stairs, under the table in the dining room, in the hallway, on the landing, on the kitchen step. Dens have been built in every nook of our house over the past few weeks and having spoken to a few ‘working-from-home-mum-friends’, it seems I’m not alone in noticing this. One working mother in Oxford told me:

‘Yes, I’ve noticed my kids have been making dens all the time during lockdown! Behind the sofa, under a tree in the garden, all over the place – but never in the actual playroom that’s specifically designed for them and all their stuff!’

This has made me reflect on children’s needs for privacy and ownership over space. They compromise all the time in relation to space, with their bedrooms perhaps being the only haven they might have in a home, and even then for the most part parents place restrictions on these places – no food, no drink, tidy up, make your bed. It is no wonder that children, whilst in lockdown with their parents who are desperately seeking their own spaces and managing boundaries for work/home-life, are claiming snippets of space. This is perhaps a child’s response to seeking solace, rest and privacy, much like the entrepreneur on the roof or the working mother on the stairs discussed above. And of course, this only serves to highlight how liminal spaces, used for privacy and individual territory, are important to everyone, not just grown-ups in the workplace.  

So, working at home during Covid-19 has shed some light on the liminal spaces of our homes and how they are emerging as unexpectedly useful. As a response to the lockdown, we have seen how the territories on the margins of the dominant spaces in our homes (those we have defined uses for, like living rooms or kitchens), are now in regular use in new ways. Spaces like cupboards, hallways and stairways have always been there, in our peripheral vison, used mainly for transitioning through the home, but they now come into full view and full use – for work, for rest and for play. In our post Covid-19 world we might reflect on the potential for these spaces; how might they be used differently? What value do they have and for whom? And how might they feature when we’re working at home?

These are all reflections and food for thought on home-working during the Coronavirus crisis. I invite you to reflect on how you are using the corners of your home; what have you noticed about where you are working? Have the stairs and landings featured in your working day and if so, how? And what value do they have? As Bachelard (1958/1994, p.136) reflected, corners are symbols ‘of solitude for the imagination’ – what spaces in your home offer moments for imagination when you are home-working?

Dr Jenna Pandeli shortlisted for SAGE Prize for Innovation & Excellence 2020

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We are delighted to announce that Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies, Dr Jenna Pandeli, along with co-authors Michael Marinetto and Jean Jenkins, has been nominated for the SAGE Prize for Innovation and Excellence 2020 for their paper ‘Captives in Cycles of Invisibility? Prisoners’ Work for the Private Sector’.

The SAGE Prize for Innovation and Excellence is awarded annually to one paper in each of the BSA’s prestigious journals: Cultural Sociology, Sociological Research Online, Sociology and Work, Employment and Society. The prize will be awarded to the paper published in the previous year’s volume judged to represent innovation or excellence in the field.

Dr Pandeli’s article critiques a case of modern prison-labour by exploring prisoners’ attitudes towards the prison-work they undertake while incarcerated. The study is based at a privatised male prison in the UK, assigned the pseudonym ‘Bridgeville’. Bridgeville contracts with private-sector firms in providing market-focused prison-work – so-called real work – for inmates in some of its workshops. In exploring prisoners’ perceptions of this privatised prison-work, it is found that it mainly comprises mundane, low-skilled activities typical of informalised, poor-quality jobs that are socially, legally and economically devalued and categorised as forms of ‘invisible work’. At Bridgeville, such privatised prison-work largely fails in engaging or upskilling inmates, leaving them pessimistic about its value as preparation for employment post-release. Its rehabilitative credentials are therefore questioned. The article contributes to the debate around invisible work more generally by problematising this example of excluded work and the cycle of disadvantage that underpins it.

Read the full paper here

The completion of ‘Captives in Cycles of Invisibility? Prisoners’ Work for the Private Sector’ followed a recent blog post for the American Sociological Association. The blog piece is a condensed article of Dr Pandeli’s paper published in Work Employment and Society. The research discussed in this blog post is based on a study conducted in the UK and is particularly pertinent in helping to understand the reasoning behind one of the largest prison strikes in US history last summer, where prisoners undertook nineteen days of peaceful protest. At the heart of this protest was a demonstration against imposed prison labour and the disturbingly low wages that accompany such work.

This approach to prison work, an approach where profit is becoming more prevalent and private organisations are becoming more and more involved in the prison system, is not isolated to the US. It is no surprise then, that as part of the UK Government’s ‘rehabilitative revolution’, a focus on work inside prison has been embraced. However, the rehabilitative potential of prison labour is dependent on its design. Given that it is situated within an institution that is in a constant state of conflict between punishment, rehabilitation and increasingly profit, its status is contested. The research explores how prisoners experience their prison labour, specifically, that done for private firms inside the prison system.

Read full blog post here

Continuing on this topic, you can also listen to Dr Pandeli in part of a panel discussion on the BBC World Service podcast ‘In The Balance’.

Alongside Nila Bala and Chandra Bozelko, both prison reform advocates from the US, they discuss global prison labour and its exploitative potential as well as offering potential solutions to develop prison labour into something that is rehabilitative and better for society. 

You can listen again to the podcast here

Distinguished Professorial Address – Jackie Ford

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Date: Tuesday 24th March 2020

Time: 17:30 – 19:30

Location: Bristol Business School

Bristol Business School will be hosting Jackie Ford from Durham University Business School on 24th March for a Distinguished Professorial Address.  This will be proceeded by a symposium on Collective Leadership.

Many accounts of leadership studies appear to take too lightly, if they treat of it at all, the insecurity, anxiety and ambiguity in the lives of leaders and led (Ford and Harding, 2004; Ford, 2006). Through ignoring these feelings, they actively create such feelings. Leaders are told they should be confident, secure and very clear about what they are doing, and why they are doing it, in all circumstances. This is an impossible feat in practice – who could live up to such a paragon? By failing to achieve an over-ambitious norm, leaders can feel themselves to be failures. But in equal measure, there is a risk that control of work processes and conversations may still be regulated by power elites qua leaders who manipulate organisational discourses through structural and cultural norms that remain embedded in historical traditions. This can in turn have disastrous consequences on followers in organisations – as Jackie will illuminate during her presentation.

Jackie Ford is Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies at Durham University Business School. She has long-standing frustrations with much research on leadership, especially the absent recognition of power and identities, and through her research she seeks to unsettle dominant understandings. Current interests include critical feminist, psychosocial and interdisciplinary approaches that recognise specific gender, wider diversity and ethical dimensions, and ways in which leadership research and practice impact on working lives.

You can register for the address here.

This Address will be proceeded by and afternoon Symposium:

Searching for the Abominable Snowman: Exploring the Elusive Nature of Collective Leadership

Date: Tuesday 24th March 2020
Time: 14:00 – 16:30
Location:  Frenchay Campus

UWE Bristol: Events Diary – BBS Seminar: Searching for the Abominable Snowman: Exploring the Elusive Nature of Collective Leadership

“Leadership is like the Abominable Snowman, whose footprints are everywhere but who is nowhere to be seen.” (Bennis and Nanus, 1985)

It is 35 years since and Meindl et al. (1985) coined the notion of the “Romance of Leadership” to explain the tendency to over-emphasise the importance of ‘leaders’ in shaping organisational life and accomplishing ‘leadership’ outcomes. Despite a huge expansion of leadership theory, research, practice and development in the intervening years, leadership remains “elusive and enigmatic” – heralded as both the cause of and solution to almost all challenges facing groups, organisations and society.

Since the turn of the millennium, despite growing interest in ‘collective’ forms of leadership, which have helped shift the focus from the traits, characteristics and behaviours of ‘leaders’ to the social processes of ‘leadership’ “we have been unable to generate an understanding of leadership that is both intellectually compelling and emotionally satisfying” (Meindl et al., 1985, p. 78) and the myth of the ‘heroic leader’ continues to dominate mainstream perspectives on leadership.

This symposium includes contributions from a number of scholars who have been actively engaged in scholarship on collective leadership over many years, who will reflect on their insights and experiences to speculate on the potential causes of and responses to the “slippery, shape-shifting” (Ospina et al., 2017: 1) nature of collective leadership.

Following the two presentations participants will be invited to share and reflect on their own experiences of researching, teaching and practicing collective leadership and the implications for future scholarship in this field.
There is no fee for attending this event and participants are warmly invited to stay on for the Distinguished Professorial Address by Professor Jackie Ford later in the day.

Social Constructions of Collective Leadership: The performative nature of empty signifiers

Gareth Edwards – Associate Professor in Leadership Development, UWE, Bristol
Richard Bolden – Professor of Leadership and Management, UWE, Bristo
l

This paper uses reflexive conversations to explore how concepts of ‘collective leadership’ have been socially constructed in leadership research and practice over the past twenty years. Particular attention is given to the processes of social constructive-ness through which ‘collective leadership’ is framed and reframed, and the role of both researchers and practitioners in this process.

The paper contributes to theory, research and practice in three inter-connected ways – firstly by highlighting the performative nature of ‘collective leadership’ through a social constructivist lens; secondly by developing the notion of negative ontology by applying it to empirical evidence in order to uncover and problematize theories of collective leadership; and thirdly, by making the link between negative ontology and critical performativity in order to demonstrate how researchers and theorists can disclose stages of performativity in the development of new theories.

The Transformational Object of Leadership: A critique in two agonies and eight fits

Jackie Ford, Professor of Leadership and Organisation Studies, Durham University Business School
Nancy Harding, Professor of HRM, University of Bath School of Management
Sarah Gilmore, Reader in Organization Studies, Cardiff University Business School

A special journal issue that explored the tricky question of how to research collective leadership was recently announced which described the very term of collective leadership as ‘a slippery, shape-shifting phenomenon’ (Ospina, et al., 2017: 1) that has generated much theory, but is difficult to research empirically.

The same could also be said about much of the work on researching, conceptualising and practising leadership. This paper questions the rationale for searching for appropriate research methods. We argue the necessity for a more sophisticated account of the human subject of leadership approaches before researching leadership in practice. Without such careful preparation there is a risk, firstly, that researchers see what they expect to see. Secondly, we warn that without better understanding of the human subject, leadership could be for ill rather than good, and could contribute to the contemporary forces undermining democracy, liberalism, tolerance and individual freedoms.

These arguments are inspired by Lewis Carroll’s epic nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark: an Agony in Eight Fits, and the insights of psychoanalytical object relations theory. Turning our arguments back on ourselves, we conclude that the times dictate that we, the collective of leadership theorists, turn our efforts to understanding and intervening in trends that threaten to undermine justice, democracy, citizenship, equity, and equality. In Carroll’s terms, we are caught in the fruminous jaws of the Bandersnatch, may be summoning up the dangerous Boojum, and have lost sight of the Snark.

References
Bennis, W. and Nanus, B. (1985) Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. New York: Harper and Row.
Meindl, J.R., Ehrlich, S.B., & Dukerich, J.M. (1985). The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30, 78-102.
Ospina SM, Foldy EG, Fairhurst GT and Jackson B (2017) Collective dimensions of leadership: The challenges of connecting theory and method. Human Relations, http://www.tavinstitute.org/humanrelations/special_issues/LeadershipCollectiveDimensions.html

You can register for this here.

Paradox of success and failure

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Moon Executive Search recently spoke to the Director of Doctoral Research in Business and Law at UWE Bristol, Svetlana Cicmil, about the paradox of success and failure in the context of modern businesses. Read the original post here.

Most [IT] projects fail; it is just a question of how much failure can still be deemed a success’”[Cadle and Yeates (2001)]

The binary notions of success and failure govern much of the way that both individuals and organisations approach, experience and evaluate work. But how adequate is the traditional narrative of success and failure? Does it enable or hinder the pursuit of constructive, fulfilling work?

The consequences of constantly evaluating our actions and achievements as binary outcomes can not only be long-lasting, and include anxiety and insecurity, professional penalties, and loss of direction; they can also make us lose our ability to sensitively, holistically and constructively reflect on our activities and organisational purpose in a wider social context.

Take the IT industry, for example, it is famous for its failures at the project level and for its success at the industry level:

“Massive failure rates have never threatened the advance of IT; quite the contrary, high-risk and prone-to-fail projects nearly always characterize leading-edge industries. Failure in this sense is the price of success.” (Sauer, 1999, quoted in Fincham, 2002, p.2)

This not only demonstrates how ‘failure’ is required for innovation, but also that the attributions of failure and success are dependent on who judges them, at which point in time, and at which level of activity.

Therefore, it is fair to say that failure and success are interrelated in an elusive way. Drawing on insights from studies of project-based work we can examine the elusive nature of the fixed categories of success and failure, illuminate the multiple judgments of success and failure that are simultaneously at play, and encourage a more critical and complex approach to coping with this dilemma in everyday working life.

Increasingly employees are finding that their roles have become project-intensive and that as a result they are working and making decisions within the organising principles of matrix structures. In theory, matrix structures support effective and efficient utilisation of an organisations’ resources, creating the capacity to simultaneously run multiple projects.

However, a well-researched syndrome of project overload includes the pressures and anxieties caused by the simultaneous existence of multiple, mutually-exclusive, but complexly interrelated criteria for evaluating the performance of each of the projects that an employee may be simultaneously involved in.

Where multiple parties participate in project initiation and delivery, they will make sense of, and engage with, the project in different ways and with different ambitions and expectations, this can create irreconcilable criteria. 

The challenge is to find a way for the project’s participants to negotiate and agree on the key criteria against which inevitable changes to the project plan, resulting trade-offs, and any redefinitions of the original goal and specification will be tested and evaluated.

In order to do this, we need to consider how the notions of success and failure are framed. Instead of working with belief that success and failure are polarised, discrete, fixed states, organisations should be asking how they can provide their employees with a fulfilling and meaningful working life which is not impacted by the requirement to undertake multiple projects. But how can this be achieved?

Firstly, review the ambitions driving each project in a more reflexive, caring and satisfying manner. This requires awareness of the need to navigate the unknown in a responsible way which will avoid the negligence and reckless risk-taking that may detrimentally impact those involved in the project.

Secondly, failure is often tied up with a feeling of having let down and disappointed the project team and wider company. But does this stem from original unrealistic expectations? When undertaking a new project ask for an objective opinion on the ambition, expectations, and goals, do not discard previous experiences as irrelevant with the conviction that things will go better this time, and make sure that there is time to consult and check.

Deviation from a plan should not be considered a failure if everyone involved has been open-minded, critically reflexive, and collaborative about what new opportunities this might bring.

Finally, the leadership team should introduce systemic changes that acknowledge the complexity of project-based work. These could include incorporating regular reviews of established processes and approaches to collaboration, agreeing and renegotiating project performance indicators, and introducing a high level of accountability, responsibility, and transparency in decision-making to reduce vulnerability from project overload.

By considering the experience of success and failure in the context of project-based work, we find that the success-failure binary is not only too simplistic but is actively harmful to the pursuit of what matters. Rather than considering success as something desirable and failure as a pathology to be eradicated, should they not be considered in a complex relational way? If so, the key questions, therefore, move from ‘Why did this fail?’ to ‘What was achieved?’ and ‘What can be learned from this?’

Fighting Malaria in Namibia: A New Cohort of Students Enroll in FBL’s Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership

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Professor Peter Case’s research on malaria healthcare service provision expanded to Namibia this year. Peter’s research teams – including three recent Zimbabwean graduates from the FBL Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership – are currently working with Namibia’s Vector-borne Diseases Control Programme to combat malaria by improving frontline prevention and treatment of the disease in Kavango Province.

In order to help make the overall Organization Development for Malaria Elimination work sustainable in the region, FBL is supporting a fresh cohort of twelve students (pictured) to complete a postgraduate certificate in Professional Practice in Change Leadership. The module was launched this week with a two-day course delivered in Rundu by Dr Greyling Viljoen. By all accounts, the taught programme was very well received and students gave extremely positive feedback on their experience. The efforts of FBL’s Professor Carol Jarvis and Felicity Cargill should also be acknowledged as they have assisted greatly with setting up the course and enrolling the new cohort.

Most of the students enrolled on the module are also members of project task force which is developing and implementing detailed action plans for malaria healthcare improvements in Kavango. Following the PPCL course, they will be working with Dr Viljoen and one of the Zimbabwean graduates from last year, Munashe Madinga of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, to review and further refine service improvement plans.

The overall project in Namibia is a collaboration between UWE and the Malaria Elimination Initiative, University of California San Francisco. The work is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

[Image: Back row: 1. Ms A Augustu, 2. Ms Loise Ambata, 3. Dr K Mapanga, 4. Ms A Ashivudhi, 5. Ms Julie Neidel, 6. Dr H David 7. Mr M Madinga

Front row: 1. Mr S Shashipapa, 2. Ms I Mendai,  3. Dr G Viljoen, 4. Ms E Eises 5. Ms S Haingura,  6. Mr S Nairenge ]

A practice perspective: Facilitating a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshop

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Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Enterprise, Pam Seanor recently hosted a workshop for NMI, a payment solution company, in Lego ® Serious Play®. Read her account below:

Written by Pam Seanor

Between practice and theorising

Serious-playing with Jayne Purcell, Service designer, we facilitated a day workshop with NMI – “You’ve probably used NMI’s software when booking a train ticket, paying for parking, ordering a burger or most recently making a contactless charity donation, without realising it! NMI develops the most trusted payment software for mobile, online, and in-store payments that is relied on and used by millions of people worldwide, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year” ( https://bristolcalling.com/company/nmi/ ).

As such, the organisation has explicit creative processes and outputs that come together worked on by differing teams. Further, NMI have recently been engaged in a merger and are now part of global organisation with offices in Chicago, IL, New York, NY and Salt Lake City, UT. The Bristol office wanted to try out LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® with the intention to come together over their working within a changing work culture, how they work and how they are going forward as the organisation grows.

We created a space to exchange ideas and develop awareness of differing perspectives and complex themes that encompass social aspects of group practices and activities aiming to reach out to the members of the organisation (Nicolini & Monteiro 2017). Based this encounter, we address the following applying a practice-based approach to entrepreneurship (Nicolini 2012) in part using Lego bricks to play seriously and in part to reveal collective critical reflection.

LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® (LSP) is a process underpinned by theorizing and there is increased interest of how academics are using it and more widely serious play with a purpose (Statler et al. 2011). For instance, Gauntlett (2015) stated “it is a playful method of differing applications to help gain insights in to personal and collective understanding of a problem as well as imagine possible futures”. The process has common ground rules/ etiquette: posing the question – the purpose of the workshop; constructing models; sharing and listening to others; reflecting (White paper on LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® 2013). Both Jayne and I are trained LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® facilitators. Where Jayne has been a Certified facilitator for a decade, I became an LSP facilitator in January. We have been collaborating to devise skills workshops and structured tasks and prompts for learning ePortfolios in my enterprise & entrepreneurship modules with undergraduates – so I had been practicing playing with Lego with large numbers of students. Even so, it was a little daunting taking a low-tech tool like Lego to a creative/high tech organization, including members of the Chicago office who travelled over.

And, as a critical researcher I want to speak to how challenge is a central part an LSP workshop. Statler et al. (2011) noted the paradox of serious play as a process of working through paradoxes rather than removing all tensions and contradictions that arise in everyday work practices. On the one hand, I am really interested in working with organization to create “other” spaces for play (Hjorth 2004), on the other hand I am hesitant to promote play as an outcome similar to how organizations like Google seem to be using it managerially to keep people at work to be more productive (Ashton & Giddings 2018). However, as a facilitator, my role is not to intervene, nor to promise participants specific organizational outcomes from the workshop.

It was not possible for all members of NMI to take part; the workshop was 5 groups of 10 participants at each table. These groups were arranged by a member of the NMI team as they often work together on projects in the organisation.

The workshop offered an opportunity to engage in play activities that they would not normally do in work and differing types of social encounters (e.g. to the worst holiday model build we had one participant share a poem of this family holiday – An ode to a dead cat).

We had initially intended to move members of teams around during the day; however, we felt some flexibility was needed and discussed this with the organiser and chose to keep within teams to better draw people out. After the morning practising how to play the LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® way, the afternoon was focused on play and “the spirit in which we do what we do, the feel of the team”.

Taking care not to include any people in these images, photographs were taken of models metaphorically representing some of the real-world concerns about working at NMI. The focus is the model. Each post-it note is a few words to describe the key point of their model. Prior to the photos being taken by one of the members of the NMI team, permission was asked to use them in this blog.

Anyone not wishing to be included was asked to speak with one of us as facilitators. And, the draft of this blog was sent for approval prior to circulating. In the spirit of participants telling their own stories, rather than me as a researcher crafting the narrative, the following are examples of differing metaphors to represent their ideas.

Before, I want to highlight that we offered a day for the workshop 9.30AM – 4PM to give participants the opportunity to get used to playing and to play. Even with this time, we could not cover all that we hoped, and we agreed with the organiser that this was a useful starting point from which he could take forward ideas emerging.

WELCOME – A model of feeling welcomed – a few participants newly joined the team – of the team engaged in their open plan office and sitting with their computer screens in front of them and of taking the time to be welcoming.

BRISTOL FOOD & DRINK – This model depicts the area near the office. The location is in the harbourside reflected with the bridge and one of the harbourside cranes created to show the value of being able to go out for coffee/lunch in these areas and of the value of regularly seeing sea birds (and of socialising after work).

COMPASSION – this model holds 2 key metaphors, the rainbow towers and the ladder above as bridging together the organisation. This also reflected other models that were of diversity and balance and valuing members of the team – here represented by many mini figures.

KNOWLEDGE & WISDOM – A concern of change for one was nurturing and maintaining the knowledge and wisdom shared by people who have long worked in the organisation represented by this tower/library build.

At the end of the afternoon, every shared model was placed and presented first one, then the next, and then next, on an empty table and briefly explained by a member of the team creating it. All participants were asked to gather round the table, to listen and once every model had been presented to have a look round. This process was to allow space for all ideas to be heard. These models can be seen in the link, motion image of the shared models created by all of the teams.

Learning -awareness- collective reflecting

Gutzan and Tuckermann (2019) noted “Although scholars have begun theorising the social notion of collective reflection in organisations, empirical studies illustrating these often-neat theoretical conceptualisations are still rare”. Through the use of Lego, as above, a few common themes were raised and heard – one of the members of the Chicago office commented that she had no idea people felt these ways. Feedback after the workshop was generally positive (NMI created a quick and dirty survey to capture participant views).

We did not assume that collective reflecting would only occur on the day. Instead, that it would be ongoing to improve organizing at NMI. Rather than my words, I offer an email from one of the management team who organized the day of listening to the messages from the day and reflecting afterwards –

In short; the event was a great success.  We were really encouraged by the feedback and the response.  Both during the day and afterwards.  Personally, I think it was a 10 out of 10.  I don’t think I could have hoped for much more.

Having discussed it with a few people, they did find it difficult to transition from literal to symbolic.  Maybe it’s related to the type of people that computer science and maths attracts – I’m not sure.  Irrespective, many broke through and it was clear that as the day progressed people were increasingly engaged (…) By the time that we reached the final model everyone has loosened up and were contributing something.  The final model “build” where everyone put something on the table and spoke was really interesting.  There was a great feeling of culture, purpose and it highlighted to myself and Matt what was important to the staff at this time.  Clearly culture and location!  Our office move was always going to be about maintaining our identity and culture, and it was clear that location would be very important, however during that particular session the real importance came to the surface.

We may well buy some Lego for the office.  It’s on the list of things to discuss …

As such, NMI are not only seeking new location and also creating “other spaces” for play. Too, we are discussing the possibility of further serious play sessions for other members of the organisation. One aspect that somehow escaped mention in planning conversations and a meeting before the workshop was of the intended move of the office location. In hindsight we might have built more in to the intention of the day in this seemingly contradictory objective of a move and of the challenge of creating an “other” space.

This blog has been written to grapple with the paradox that Matt Statler and his colleagues speak of in serious play that might bridge between theory and practice and to provide a point of contact for future research of how we might make the challenges in theorising of serious play and collective reflection more useful for practitioners, and what we as academics might learn from practitioners. If you are interested in discussing these ideas of how serious play might contribute to critical approaches to organisation studies and/or creativity throughout the organisation to address challenges as part of the stream of entrepreneurship as practice, please contact Pam Seanor – pam.seanor@uwe.ac.uk

Thanks to Nigel and Emily for the use of his photographs and for inviting us to work with you and members of the team at NMI Bristol.