constructivist ideas in practice

john fisher MF: Hi John! You are the only person I have come across who has worked consistently with PCP approaches to learning and development in technical and manufacturing environments such as aerospace and construction. You’re busier than ever, so it’s definitely going down well - but these kind of industries are not obvious takers for a philosophically-based psychological approach.

JF: You’re right, but I think I’ve made really good links with what’s needed and respected by managers and team leaders. Many of the senior guys have been in these industries all their lives, for example starting driving trucks and ending up as Operations Director. We’ve got a lot of mutual respect for very different sets of experience and ways of working. They will sometimes say that they value and respect my work but that we are definitely on a different page, probably of a different book!

One of the biggest things is that these are task-focused technical environments, and my contribution is to get people back into the equation, not just as a means to an end, but in their own right. People respond because they really want to make sense of what goes on in their teams and with colleagues, and to understand themselves better. The groups are generally full of comments like ‘now I see what he’s been talking about’ and ‘right, that’s why he’s thinking like that!’ There’s a lot of curiosity and interest in the people side that isn’t explored anywhere else, and they’re seeing results so it’s well supported.

MF: Do you tell people about the theory explicitly or is it more of a background to the work?

JF: A bit of both. I describe the experience cycle and the idea of anticipations as central to our actions. This makes really good sense to people, so the ideas are quickly taken up.

I also introduce quite a lot of the tools - Finn Tschudi’s ABC model is one of the most popular as a very simple approach to problem-solving that really moves things forward so it always goes down well. I use grids, self-characterisations, Harry Procter’s Bow-tie etc. And of course the transition curve.

MF: You’re famous for your version of that - I keep seeing it everywhere!

JF: My small claim to fame! But I do keep trying to get people to see where it came from - it’s appearing on lots of websites as by John Fisher and no reference to Kelly or PCP. Often happens with PCP materials.

Of course the theory is also behind how I work with the groups. I don’t see myself as a trainer, but as a facilitator. I’m helping people find their own understanding and make their own sense. I will give them tools, techniques and methods but I get them working together on real situations that they’re experiencing. So if we are looking at decision-making or problem-solving I’ll get them to try the ideas and techniques out in the group on an example from their own experiences and see how the tools can work for them.

MF: Sounds good, but also not perhaps what they were anticipating from a ‘training’ programme in these kinds of environments?

JF: No, they are usually expecting the usual ‘death by powerpoint’ and being told what to do. So their expectations are pretty much blown out of the water from the start!

At the beginning of a course for example I might ask them what leadership is about for them, and you’ll see people looking it up on google to get the ‘right’ answer in their group. When they give that kind of formal answer I can congratulate them including their “bullshit bingo” factor, so we get a bit of humour going and people begin to realise I’m not looking for that kind of answer - I really want to know what they think and I want to share ideas and debate and get everyone learning from each other. We might look at good and bad managers we’ve known and characteristics of each, which things make the most difference for them, where we stand on those things, and what we could try.

MF: So very much a process of exploration and active experimenting?

JF: Absolutely. We’re working on real things. I’ll ask who’s got a situation something like this back at work and there’s always someone so that becomes our case study. The guy with the issue gets some real help, and the others are trying out techniques, getting ideas, getting involved, and sharing their experience. In many ways I’m encouraging them to loosen and tighten their construct maps by exposing them to alternative constructs.

MF: It sounds like this kind of interaction will have some spin-off value in developing teams and building stronger relationships?

JF: Very much so. I get people mixing in groups all the time and working with people from other settings and locations. We’re always changing, never working in the same group twice, mixing across sites. You get guys who’ve been there 20 years but never had the chance to talk or work together.

I also stop regularly for reviews of where people are at and what’s being learned, and we always start and end the days with a review. Different people present back each time, so everyone is getting more confidence presenting in the group, and then at the end of the programme each person makes a short presentation to their senior managers so they become comfortable at that level too. The real value is in their confidence and self-development and their ability to work constructively with others.

MF: It sounds like that’s where your investment is, and it perhaps makes your courses different from the industry norm which still tends to emphasise the prepared content.

JF: Yes, I want people to come their own understandings and recognition - they can work with some offered material and ideas and choose what they use and what to take away.

Having said that, there was a group recently where I was talking and suddenly realised that look of really intense rapt attention! It’s really a bit scary, people hanging on every word like you’re the expert. So I try to use a bit of humour to keep it at the right level and remind them what I don’t know.

MF: Facilitators of these kind of groups tend to acquire a lot of organisational intelligence from the patterns of shared experience in the groups. Do you get to go anywhere with that?

JF: Not often, and that’s OK. My focus is the guys I’m working with, not the whole organisation. They’re big outfits and the guys at the top are not waiting around for any feedback or involvement. Sometimes I’ll be able to have a word in the ear of an HR partner but no one’s that interested.

Actually industrial relations isn’t usually too much problem in these outfits - there’s a kind of loyalty when people have worked their whole lives in a company. These are skilled jobs or quite industry-specific jobs so people often feel in the right niche.Partly there’s nowhere much to move onto anyway, but also these companies are part of communities and have been for years, and there’s a kind of institutionalisation sometimes.

But if they’re not interested, then I’m comfortable with that, same as with people on the courses. I’m not ‘making’ anything happen - they will find things if they want to and then do something of their own with it - I’m happy with that.

MF: Yes I think that is something of the real difference we’re looking at here. I can imagine many trainers looking at what you say and thinking ‘well I do that’ , meaning participative groups, experiential methods, action learning etc. But you are describing a completely different approach enabling people to find out for themselves and develop in whatever way, so your investment is quite particular in terms of content v process. Why do you think there aren’t more constructivists out there in business?

JF: Lots of reasons, but a key one is staying in academia. It’s more like a club or family, people publishing between themselves in specialist journals rather than out in the mainstream. And then practitioners don’t publish much, they’re out doing the work, so visibility is low.

And then the concentration on grids as research tools, that’s where a trick was missed. They are such a good tool but are always presented as cold statistical bits of research and we’ve lost the person.

MF: Yes, I get quite upset about it when we go to conferences and rather than a grid offering a propositional picture for exploration and experimentation, the ‘results’ are presented as ‘findings’. Data rules - it’s very sad.

JF: Absolutely. Most people only come across Kelly and PCP when they learn about grids, so the way grids are used determines how they see the theory. It needs to be brought into the real world and with the person centre-stage.

MF: When we first met, you were involved in counselling for an alcohol charity and you’d done other charity helplines and so on. I’m curious about the way people are currently trying to define counselling, coaching etc. Do you see any difference PCP-wise?

JF: Not really, no, you are doing all the same things because it’s based on the same theory of how people operate and how change works. So it’s: Tell me about..., Where are the similarities and differences..., What alternatives could be imagined..., What are the costs involved... etc. We’re eliciting stories, mapping constructs, considering possible moves.

I’ve used something very like Fixed Role Therapy for example, with a young woman working in an all-male environment and from a different european background. She was finding it hard to be the person she wanted to be at work, so we thought through some of her experiences, and people she could use as models, including fictional characters, and she wrote herself a role sketch that we could experiment in and work with. It’s just typical PCP work in any setting.

I’ve also used a variant of Eric Button’s compare two element technique to help people see the similarities and differences between situations and hence plan their response more effectively and realise how they can transfer skills from one situation to another.

I still go with the title of Peggy Dalton and Gavin Dunnett’s book - ‘A Psychology for Living’. That’s what it’s about for me.

February 2012

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