constructivist ideas in practice
barbara simpson shuttle launch experienceBarbara ready for action at the start of a new academic year, preparing to boldly go where others fear to tread...

Barbara is Professor of Leadership and Organisational Dynamics at Strathclyde Business School. We met up recently in Edinburgh where we were both visiting the festival, and took time out from the cultural whirlwind for coffee and conversation:  


MF: I’d like to know a bit more about your experience of PCP in the setting of business education. My fairly limited experience of business schools to date has left me with the impression that their emphasis on speedy solutions can make PCP problematic.

BS: Yes, that’s my observation as well. Business Schools are committed to doing research that has practical relevance in what is often (rather misleadingly) referred to as the ‘real world’, as if Business Schools and their people come from another planet. However, we will fail the business community if we just churn out standardised recipes for practice and don’t help people to customise these practices for their own unique contexts. If we want to challenge the recipes we have to dig deep into theory and philosophy. In my view, that is where Business Schools can really add value, and that’s precisely where PCP is important. Kelly is one of several philosophical thinkers who give us a comprehensive view of what it is that people actually do in their day-to-day lives. The challenge then, is to form this into viable practice advice.

MF: Its heavily philosophical theory base doesn’t necessarily sit well does it? I have sometimes found business education to be anti-theory. Why is that do you think?

BS: I think it’s connected with Business Schools’ commitment to being of service, being of immediate use - that tempts us towards quick fixes. I find myself increasingly puzzling about organisational life and I believe business leaders are puzzling too. I work best where we can puzzle together - hoping for insight rather than quick answers. When I go in to organisations I am usually impressed by how well they are doing their thing, so my approach is different from that of many others. I think that I can add value through my theoretical depth and philosophical training, but to be effective in this, I need to build a trust relationship with the right people, a relationship that recognises what I bring is different but equally useful as what they bring. It is this mixing of different perspectives that adds richness to our collective puzzling.

MF: What kinds of things are you paying attention to when you go in?

BS: Conversations. Executive meetings often take the form of serial monologues, they are not conversations, there is little exchange or real debate. Reports are presented, one at a time. It’s a ritual performance and outcomes are minimal for the time invested. When leadership is monological, people stop thinking for themselves. I pay attention to that and to what alternatives there might be. I am most interested in finding the contexts where real generative conversations are happening, as this is where the origins of changing attitudes and practices can be located.

MF: So we become curious to understand how they move, how they do their work....

BS: Because that is what human life is about. It’s movement. We will get things wrong, there are dilemmas, but not everything needs to be ‘resolved’. There is a zone of movement in every dilemma and that is what l am looking for. I don’t go in and interview, l go in and observe. In interviews people will tell you what they think you want to hear. Interviews are performances, not experiences. So I sit and observe in meetings, or l will follow people around as they go about their daily activities. You can actually see the flow and the movement that way.

MF: It is very subtle work.

BS: It is. And it takes time. It helps when the MD is interested in exploring the culture. Or when the managers are genuinely curious about what is going on in their world. I had an invitation recently to ‘come and explore with us’ in an organisation that works with change and innovation. They are very good at it, but also curious - how does change really work? lt’s a mystery, it’s something worth puzzling over together.

MF: So you are going in with your self, observing, rather than with materials to offer? In business that’s still unusual I think - to work with process rather than content.

BS: That’s right, although funnily enough, a process approach does seem to resonate well with the actual experiences that managers have. There is a risk of promising too much as a way of ‘getting in’, offering workshops, events, information, and so on. But my approach is much more exploratory. I can’t promise specific outcomes, but I do trust that something useful will emerge. We need to be more confident in our practice of working with process rather than going in as experts with pre-packaged answers. I believe our biggest challenge is to help businesses to manage uncertainty, not to give them certainties. We don’t want them to rest, it’s not helpful. There is too much emphasis on packaging products (which don’t quite work) to attract customers.

MF: Well that is the prevailing corporate model so I guess it’s hard for the academy to run against the grain. MBA’s seem to be a particularly packaged product. Is all teaching moving that way?

BS: No, undergraduate teaching has more freedom. You can be provocative, disrupt expectations, unsettle. I teach a 12 week term and for 11 weeks the students hate me! Then the light comes on. Management undergraduates are very prone to asking instrumental questions such as ‘how will this help my career?’. They have been encouraged to see their course as a product purchase and they are self-defining as consumers. Over the weeks I try to change the questions they are asking and to move the purpose of their education away from mere instrumentality towards the development of genuinely advanced thinking skills.

I also teach research philosophy to PhD and MRes students and that is great. Philosophy as a discipline is a place to provoke and critique. We move together through the course in ways that are not always predictable. Students will struggle against a learning process that makes them uncomfortable, but as a teacher I have to trust the process. Some less experienced teachers feel they are getting it wrong and so they deliver more product. My encouragement to them is always to stay focussed on the learning process; then the outcomes will take care of themselves, and will often be delightfully surprising.

MF: So you're helping them not just 'teach harder'?

BS: You have to hold your nerve, not lose your belief in process. Being philosophically trained makes a difference. When I discovered George Kelly’s work it unsettled me - it was a whole new world view, but l fell in love with it, and that was the beginning. It led me to the American Pragmatists, especially George Herbert Mead, and then to process theorists more generally. This is a truly different and provocative way of viewing the world.

MF: I’m thinking as we speak that philosophers talk in a very different language from business...

BS: Yes, I’m fascinated by language. Other languages are less noun-based than English - they ‘move’ more. We English-speakers have a huge problem because our language obliges us to focus on ‘what is’ rather than ‘how’ or ‘why’ we act as we do. I am constantly experimenting with language to find better ways of accessing this sense of movement.

MF: Yes, I recognise that difference in your writing about the ‘choreography’ of conversation. I love that sense of movement.

BS: Well, as a Kellyan ‘woman-as-scientist’ I have had difficulty getting work published, so that just pushes me further to find new ways to express and reveal. Academic papers tend towards the normative but in my work I am not pointing to stasis or stability, but rather to patterning and movement. That’s why teaching philosophy is so important to me. Philosophy pushes against the flow of our habitual language and thinking. Of course our predisposed biases, let’s call them habits, have a purpose; they guide us in getting on with our lives, but that’s not enough to help us with the creative dimensions of life and work.

MF: I’m very interested in this. I know that we have shared tastes in music and that’s not irrelevant here. And I have a very deep love of poetry - because of its scope to ‘express and reveal’ as you put it - and to do so with such precision, such craft and polish. These alternative languages are very important to us it seems, in settings where they don’t usually sit.

BS: Yes, poetry accepts and works with ambiguity, and music shows us things words can’t reach. We can do more than just ‘enjoy’ these experiences. They are communicative at deep levels that cannot normally be accessed by conversational talk, and yet they add greatly to the meaning and richness of our lives. I like to use both poetry and music in my teaching as they offer different ways of knowing and being. And it goes without saying, I believe these ‘different ways’ enhance the learning process.

August 2013  

barbara simpson

and a bonus video:

the creative researcher

An exploration of creativity from Barbara Simpson at Strathclyde University:

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