Tuesday 25 October 2016

Redesign in progress

I'm having a redesign of my blog, to match the redesign of my webpages which will soon be launched.

Apologies if anything  looks a bit odd (or perhaps a bit more odd than usual) over the next couple of weeks. Hopefully the new site should be up-and-running by early November.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Book review - Shifting Stories, by Andrew Scott

[This is a review which I've posted to Amazon]

Andrew Scott is a skilled coach and facilitator (I have worked at an organisation which engaged him to facilitate strategic change) and in Shifting Stories he sets out a powerful approach – the ManyStory approach – which he has developed from his rich experience.

The heart of Shifting Stories is the recognition that we all tell ourselves stories about the world, and our position in it, to help us understand and deal with challenges and situations. (Sometimes these are tacit, unconscious stories, sometimes quite the opposite.) Andrew Scott helps the reader to understand how we can surface and articulate those stories, and by doing so, put ourselves in a position to create new stories and transform situations. This is not a pious and preachy book; it is well-structured and clear, with examples of how the approach can change individuals and groups as they resolve conflict and adapt to changed circumstances.

I would place Shifting Stories alongside other works which I have found to be insightful and helpful. Its identification of the importance of scripting reminded me of some elements of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people. The recognition of the importance of people’s emotional response to change and to conflict, and of addressing this as a means to dealing with the substantive issues, has parallels in Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: how to change when change is hard. I am not saying that “Shifting Stories” is a retelling of these ideas, or is in any way derivative. Far from it! Instead, it complements them, and its grounding in a British organisational context strengthens the message, for me at least.

I work as a management consultant supporting a specific sector – higher education – and can immediately see lessons from Shifting Stories which will enable me to be a more effective practitioner. It is definitely a book which I will come back to: the clear and specific guidance about implementing the ManyStory approach, and the examples of when it works (and, very commendably, when it did not work) makes it an important part of a consultant’s toolkit. I can imagine the same for those whose practice involves coaching.

And it should have a far wider audience. Any manager keen to develop their skillset and approach to management would do well to read this; any person with aspirations to organisational leadership will benefit from Andrew Scott’s understanding about narratives and their power to shape organisational behaviour and performance. And any person (that means all of us, I think) will benefit from the insights in the book about how to make sense of the stories we all use in our personal and professional lives, and how to create a better story.

Andrew Scott writes with a light touch and an easy style. The book is engaging and lifts the spirit with hope and possibility. The interesting discussion towards the end about what makes a good story is a fascinating point for the next step in the development of the ideas in the book. I’d be interested to explore how the notion of the hero (see Joseph Campbell, The hero with a thousand faces; and Christopher Vogler, The writer’s journey) might influence the development of storytelling as a tool for organisational development. But that is another book, not yet written. I’d commend the current book – Shifting Stories – as a good read, with a clear message about a powerful tool for individuals and managers.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

On jargon

Away from the brouhaha of current HE policy developments (TEF, Brexit, Diamond Review, HE and Research Bill …) and back to an initial purpose of this blog – the art and science of management. I caught myself the other day speaking jargon without knowing it. Perhaps a word or two on jargon might be a good idea.

What is jargon anyway? I think there are two distinct uses, one acceptable (and for which we have a different name) and one bad.

The acceptable is when it is genuine technical language, used to denote a concept which is clearly defined and understandable, but which cannot be expressed more simply by other words. So, subject benchmarking is a jargon term within the world of higher education quality assurance: it refers to the use of agreed statements in different disciplines which set out shared expectations about capabilities of graduates in a discipline, expressed in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes. It’s a lot easier to say subject benchmarking than it is to repeat all of that last clause. So as long as those involved in the conversation understand that this is what subject benchmarking refers to, then all is well. It is helpful jargon, as it enables communication to be shorter and more focused, and therefore potentially, more complex ideas to be expressed and developed. Humanity 1, World 0: well played, everybody.

There also unacceptable jargon, which I think comes in two flavours. The first is where jargon conceals disagreement. Think about hard Brexit and soft Brexit. At the moment these terms have great currency in political and news discourse. But do they have a clear meaning? I’m not sure – it seems more that they are used as continuation of the remain-leave debate, without much reference to the legal, financial or political realities of the UK’s leaving the European Union. Please note that I’m not trying to make a point here about how or whether Brexit should happen, simply that the terminology used in the debate isn’t helping us. (I blame Mrs May for this – if she’d managed a less tautological line than Brexit means Brexit we might be able to engage more seriously with a serious issue).

The other flavour is where the jargon passes the test of meaningfulness, but fails on significance. Either because the material isn’t important (says who!) or because it isn’t about something that you’re personally interested in. Here’s a wonderful example. Jargon here is an interesting expression in the English language – I use technical language, you use jargon, they are unutterably trivial.

Is the use of jargon ok? Well, I think it is, as long as all of those involved in the discussion know what it means. And if it’s useful language to them, then they’re being smart. But often communication goes beyond the immediate audience, and if this might be so, perhaps better to cut down on jargon, or at least define your terms up front.

And what of business speak? On the radio a couple of weeks ago I heard a big data expert talk about drilling down into users of social media. That’s not a good image, and immediately tells you why jargon isn’t always appropriate. And don’t get me started on filler jargon such as ‘on a going forwards basis’ …