Archive for May, 2015|Monthly archive page

But I digress: change management lessons from Tristram Shandy

In Uncategorized on May 30, 2015 at 9:25 pm

It’s 11p.m. After a long-shift at the office a woman presses the up-button to summon the multi-storey car park elevator. Her car is on Floor 12. The lift-doors crank open. Four males, beer cans in hand refuse to move. Does she step in? Now, students of organisational behaviour are meant to know this stuff. Folks in Management Faculties spend a fair chunk of their scholarly lives concerned with ‘next moves’. One might be ticked as ‘incompetent’ for not offering a plausible, reasoned case-study answer. But, what if Rev. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and his opinionated self studied business management? Clearly his answer would be: ‘A man’s body and his mind, with the utmost reverence to both I speak it, are exactly like a jerkin, and a jerkin’s lining; -rumple the one, -you rumple the other”. Quite. This is Shandean at its meta, disruptive, discordant, but not mystical finest.

The Shandean mind and its fans would fly to the outer reaches of digression and swim there for as long as sanity can bear it. To allude and collude with digression is evil for some and life for others. (Why is there little in between friends?) Tristram ‘thanks’ his father for his Exocet spirit: “Mr. Shandy, my father, Sir, would see nothing in the light in which others placed it; -he placed things in his own light; -he would weigh nothing in common scales; -no, he was too refined a researcher to lie open to so gross an imposition. –To come at the exact weight of things in the scientific steel-yard, the fulcrum, he would say, should be almost invisible, to avoid all friction from popular tenets.” There’s a siren appeal in the West for plain-speaking. You don’t get on without the ability to label reality. But a social fabric shot-through with plain-speakers has lost its way, for Tristram at least. The challenge for business is that plain-speaking is lethal for long-change-cycles, whose reality is teased from the upper-reaches through meta-discourses.

Businesses may have life-cycles, or certainly we like to think so. They may not at all, but it’s a nice notion. History is told as cycles. The 1929 Wall Street Crash laid the seeds of 1939, Richard Hoggart says. The 2008 crash is laying seeds of prolonged austerity but the current social frenzy and its direction of travel doesn’t offer a hard empirical object for the organisational behaviourists to capture. The patterns of social history then maybe of interest to leadership scholars. W H Auden moved to the USA in 1938 noting: “More even then in Europe, here, The choice of patterns is made clear”. The channels of change which funnel movement are invisible to hard empiricists.

Hoggart notes Auden’s “England to me is my own tongue”. To speak about the shifting patterns of immediate experience is seemingly difficult for all but the poet, who is capable of searing accuracy. Meta-discourses aren’t inaccurate, and are often more truthful. The more religiously laced our speech, says Matthew’s gospel, the further we are from truth. Religious-speak is pointed, and doesn’t resist the ‘friction of popular tenets’.  Numerous early 20th century modernist poets escaped the language-set of England to be free from a ‘cultural life’ that is “demandingly homely”. The quilted patchwork blanket of the BBC, NATO, UN, EU, and the scale of institutional life makes 21st century life more corseted and cossetted than Auden’s day. Speaking today involves obeying strong currents, whose movement is more inexorable than Auden’s Englandness. The threat to the soul maybe less louche continentals and cosmopolitans than the unseen suffocation of narrowing channels.

Exit the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, in London, and on the wall opposite it says ‘Theatre Land’, above the words ‘Shaftesbury Avenue’. The experience of discovering lost tribes in the urban jungle is denied to visitors now. London’s appeal was its shambolic nature. Of course London is Disneyfied for gauche tourists who prefer simulation above that grubby slick of grease that a day ‘in town’ provided. Neo-liberalism shakes and vacs and puts the freshness back. But of course it doesn’t. It is a pastiche of experience.

But labelling doesn’t work for life and long-patterns of change I argue. This is the centripetal monological violence of Bakhtin’s concern. London is Steven Flusty’s “prickly space” that can’t be occupied, Bauman says. You’re there to go from Theatre Land to Restaurant Land to Home Land. The spaces between are “inderdictory spaces” which guide you at the elbow off the train into the channels. In the mass of signage which greets each step the gaze is pulled inwards. Change then is concerned with the centrifugal. The “elite” who designed these gulleys have pulled our gaze down to the ground. We’re pulled down to the fractions of its existence, but this doesn’t mean ready-intimacy and the ability to talk of the experience.

Laurence Sterne’s Shandean exploits spotted life’s rationalisation into concrete encounters, which couldn’t then be expressed without gurning. This is the inversion that bright modernity creates. Experience that is bagged and labelled leaves the individual still knowing the label offered isn’t the experience. It is something else. That is, you’re not in Theatre Land, or Making Love, or Having a Great Time with the Kids. That was the intent, and self-delusion, but it is something else, and of course our education system in its wisdom has shut down the ability to digress in Shandean fashion towards revealing the absurd truths of experience. However, the experience that is not labeled is joyously human Shandy reveals. Work and life are reframed through a keen gap between the act and its representation.

“I’m in London having a great time”, says the text to friends, but our disquieted self would prefer to reveal “I should try to forgive my sister’s boyfriend” or other more pressing concerns that persist. Bauman would point out that the structuration of territory has become the structuration of life experience to the point of denying the language of intimacy which is where our consciousness sits. This is then the prickly space of consciousness which is denied to late-moderns who might want to point at change patterns: “consumers are migrating from Nokia boss”; “the housing bubble is going to burst”; “we’re massively over-geared”. To speak of the devil requires a digressive pathway from the outer reaches. The sensitive critic moderates better than Tristram though.

Language is in Shandy’s father’s steel-yard being hammered still. The climate of psychology has pervaded into the bedroom and boardroom eliminating little but plain-speaking, which is the fulcrum of speechness for moderns. Bakhtin’s 15th century Feast of Fools is where excrement and urine are thrown around gaily in the streets to shatter the cultural tightness of ordered existences, at least once a year. This though is about space at the top of the stiffening wine-skin, Bakhtin would say. Scaring away middle-class decorum and permitting the self to be offended maybe the most generous disposition. Management teams go stale, camped deep inside their own language-sets, and camped deep within old business models that are precious to self-fulfilment, but are also protective of vulnerable teams. You wouldn’t make Tristram a manager. The gap between ‘an act’ and ‘its labelling’ is now 0.001 seconds so Tristram wouldn’t survive. To lengthen that gap by digression is costly when under existential threat, but critical when in mid-cycle and the going is good to firm and the first signs of decay of the current business model are showing.

Tristram Shandy was published amidst many titles that offered carefully structured storylines, with conclusions. Into the predictable pathways came Sterne’s work. As did Rabelais’s wild language, and Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Eliot shifted the ground and Auden is making sense of the current milieu I’d argue: “Language of moderation cannot hide”, he says. Plain-speaking is a form of disguising ambiguity, which is the most concrete reality of all. It’s necessary when the enemy is “to your front!” But most of life isn’t lived at war. The alternative to plain-speaking isn’t obscurantism either. This is the inference of plain-speakers. I’m a plain-speaker so I’m trustworthy. What is really meant is I’m a plain-speaker because the pain of exploring the hard-yards of change-cycles, context and causal factors is too great.

Opening the space to facilitate this dialogue is dangerous but worth it. Having alongside business agendas a parallel space that is concerned for development is quite simple, as this is where other language-sets are given permission. A feast of fools is permitted, safely, and multiple philosophies are eased into the saddle. Monological workplaces satisfy alignment but in truth they are only looking at change through a dominant philosophy that will work for a season. The ontological leap of faith is creating processes that bridge the old and the new. This is a language game, of seeding new seasons with their changing language early. Sterne and Auden seeded the ground for the coming season, accelerating access to present realities. Even if this season has its greyness the language can have its colourful digressions. Your business is as likely saddled to the pattern of language as it is the change-cycle.

Sterne’s digressions become fabulous but terrifyingly revealing and near-to-the-bone. Like Don Quixote’s roaring off in every direction, the madman gives into his impulses without moderation, and becomes appealingly human. Indiscreetness indicates a soul, someone said. But such being isn’t behavioural science. The patterns are long and winding, centrifugal. The long dialogical outpourings of Crime and Punishment’s protagonists start to coalesce into various analogous images of human turmoil. You are glad to have stayed with Dostoyevsky. He wants you ‘to hurt’ with him. But those images are up for grabs. Auden makes this journey via Kierkegaard and Reinhold Niebuhr (Hoggart), from psychology to “creatureliness”, accommodating the images that emerge from ‘accepting the present in its fullness’. Digression in general achieves this acceptance of the human in flux with ruffled patterns, easing the space managers struggle in. Arresting the wildness is less important, but putting it in tension becomes the leaderful moment. The lift goes up and down anyway Tristram might say, but the lady executive’s midwife was an interesting woman, she had nine children herself…