Theory into practice or hand in hand with practice?

21 May 2012

Holly Crane

I have had a month or two to recover from the final frantic deadline months, and to reflect on what I have learnt over the two years of the degree.

To my surprise, I have found that the biggest change is the way I view theory in relation to my work. When I started out, I was drawn to a masters degree because I thought it would help me find out the 'right' way of doing things. I have certainly learnt - and applied - a wide range of theories. For example, I notice now in my coaching that my approaches are informed by behavioural economics, research philosophy, systems theory, positive psychology and client-centred and humanist coaching theory.

However, alongside all of this I have learnt to really value my own experience as a practitioner, because I realised there was no one 'right' answer that all of this theoretical knowledge was going to provide me with The more I immersed myself in the theory the more I found a range of opinions and approaches. Nowhere in all of my reading or in any of the residential workshops did I find an area where there was an approach that was universally agreed to be the 'right' one. This helped me shrug of the nagging feeling that there might be something critical I didn't yet know about best practice, and to trust my own experience and gut feel in the moment when working, alongside my expanding theoretical toolkit.

It isn't that I don't value the more theoretical knowledge that I have been immersed in over the past two years - I very much do. I now feel that I know where to go in the academic and grey literature to find theories and ideas to support pretty much any kind of people or organisational development work I might come across. It is more that I have learnt to value the learning that comes through practice and experience more, and to see how they work together.


How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions?

09 Feb 2012

Holly Crane

This might sound a bit off the professional track, but think of the impact on organisational productivity if everyone was better at keeping their professional resolutions. You know, the type of thing that you know you want to do, know how to do it - but somehow get stuck on translating that from knowledge to action?

Some theorists have used the metaphor of two different people to explain why we struggle experts even explain this as we are all two different people. One person, the 'should' self wants to keep the resolution (say to eat fewer pies), while the other, the 'want' self desperately wants to give in (and eat all the pies). Looking at the challenge in this way offers different strategies: using one self to set plans to control the other (e.g. not buying the bumper pack of pies in the first place); discussing and agreeing between selves who is right (e.g. working out whether not eating pies is really the most important thing for you and reminding yourself of your decision when faced with temptation; or rationally negotiating with the 'want' self (e.g. agreeing with yourself that you will eat all the pies you like on Saturdays but be good for the rest of the week). This is all very well, but research suggests that we are rather deluded as to the likelihood of our 'should' self winning the battle for self-control in the heat of the moment (i.e. how likely we are to eat the pie when we are really hungry). For example, the overwhelming majority of women due to give birth say they will choose not to have pain relief, yet the overwhelming majority do end up choosing it at the time. This doesn't appear to be a lesson that it is easy to learn from experience, as the same applies to children subsequent to the first born.

It seems that one of the keys to self-control, or keeping our resolutions, may be to admit the extent to which we are likely to give in to temptation, so we can put into place some of the strategies we might use to mitigate this. For more on this and some other intriguing research into managing our own behaviour, I recommend Bazerman and Moore's Judgement in Managerial Decision Making.

In the meantime, I have some study-related resolutions to keep and my husband's current suggestion is that I try a new strategy for self-control by chaining myself to my laptop. Let's see how that one works. I will report back again once I've handed in the final portfolio and had a chance to reflect on what I've learnt from the MSc, overall.


The end is nigh?

02 Nov 2011

Holly Crane

And the final residential certainly sent that part of things off with a bang. Our speakers and facilitators spanned the breadth of science and art this time, with a neuroscientist coming to give his profession's perspective on human nature on the one hand, and a theatre expert from Olivier Mythodrama running a half day workshop on leadership lessons from Shakespeare.

Both were great, and left plenty of food for thought for the group - but touched on almost polar approaches.

The caused quite a stir by arguing that if you couldn't see your soul on the MRI scan then he wasn't convinced it existed. I wasn't entirely sure how seriously he was proposing this as he seemed to have rather a dry sense of humour, but it certainly caused some lively debate amongst our group.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the Shakespeare leadership workshop our facilitator (who hadn't, incidentally, been at the earlier neuroscience talk) referred to a quote attributed to Einstein to illustrate one of her points: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."

We were lucky enough to have Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge as a guest speaker, who pulled the two sides together nicely with a pragmatic but heartfelt and inspiring view of the field, and a look at the importance of continuing to work on your own self-awareness in order to be the best practitioner you can be.

There was also an optional evening event for those in our cohort who have worked for themselves to pass on tips and advice to those interested in setting up their own businesses or working as self-employed for the first time. A few of the cohort have recently left - or are about to leave - their current roles, mostly to move on to something a bit more 'OD'

It felt kind of sad to end this time, but we'll still have the final meet up in February though, so it's not as though it's the last time we'll spend time together as a larger group, outside our sets. And it's certainly not the last we'll see of the written work anyway.


Preparing to learn leadership lessons from Shakespeare

05 Oct 2011

Holly Crane

However, we've just had our new programme outline through for the final, three day residential, which provides a nice and much needed boost of inspiration, and I'm really looking forward to it. We have the arts and the sciences this time round, with a morning on inspirational leadership lessons from Shakespeare, and an afternoon on neuroscience research and the implications for people and organisational development.

We are also lucky enough to have Mee Yan Cheung-Judge come in and talk on the future of organisational development, and some input from our group's set advisor on making the most of and capturing our learning journey on the MSc.

In the meantime, it's our busiest time of year at work, and as seems to happen every year it seems to be even busier than the last. While the focus of the last set was of necessity on the work most connected to our academic projects, it was also great to be able to use some of the wisdom in the room for the more immediate priority of brainstorming some last minute facilitation ideas for the seemingly endless workshops we are running over the next few weeks.

In my spare time - which is worryingly little at this time of year - I am plodding on with working on my various remaining projects. This includes the seemingly endless reiterations of questions for my research project into career and professional development needs and the ongoing research into behavioural economics and how insights from this area might be able to be used to support individual behaviour change.

I have also been making sure I regularly taking some brief but much needed time out to put into practice my newly learned meditation skills, which I have taken up as part of my skills development piece. I am finding it much easier than I thought I would so far, and it's reasonably possible to fit in around lunch hours and travel (although more than one member of my team so far has opened a coaching room to find to their surprise that I am sitting in it, eyes closed, looking for all the world as though I am asleep).

I'm keeping a diary of my experience and of any impact on my practice and will report back any interesting findings.


Impacting productivity

22 Jul 2011

Holly Crane

This is proving a bit difficult in the UK at the moment as the sun appears to have gone on holiday, but I am due for a two week break myself and will soon be heading off to sunny Spain. For health reasons, obviously.

Meanwhile, this has all made me reconsider my skills piece, which I had originally wanted to do on using dramatic or acting techniques in facilitation. I had already done quite a lot of research on the original topic, but had not managed to find anyone who taught this particular skill. There seem to be lots of very interesting ex-actors and actresses using their experience in their own facilitation, but I just couldn't seem to find anyone who taught it and was available. While it wouldn't be impossible to somehow cobble a skillset together myself, having felt rather under the weather until the Vitamin D supplements started to kick in, this felt like a bit too much of a mountain to climb.

I also reflected on the fact that the impact of topping up on a critical vitamin that I hadn't realised I was low on had at least as dramatic an effect on improving my performance as any course I'd been on. This linked into and brought more to life for me some of the Organisation Development theory we'd been studying about the idea of 'self as instrument'.

Like most theory this means various different things to different people, but for me it seems to be about the fact that who you are and how you are affects the quality and impact of the work you do. This made me think about the possibility of learning to meditate. I had noticed a few articles here and there about the positive benefits of learning this skill, including improved health, productivity and general wellbeing. I wondered how this would work and what impact it might have on my practice.

I have to admit, I did hesitate quite a bit at first. I'm not quite sure why, perhaps it was a bit of British reserve or something, but meditation seemed a bit of an 'out there' choice to me. I didn't feel it was something I could fully understand... it wasn't quite... logical. But in the end I decided that if I wasn't going to stretch my horizons on an MSc in People and Organisational Development, then when was I? This seemed like a skill you could only really learn about by experiencing it, and I was really curious about it. So I have decided to shift my skills piece, and my set seem happy to support this. I will let you know how it goes.

Sunshine, Study and Behaviour Change

03 Jun 2011

I am thinking back to the impromptu desk I set up in the garden during A Level revision all those many years ago, and wondering if I can set something similar up. The extra bank holiday for the Royal Wedding was certainly appreciated and meant I could have a relatively guilt-free morning off followed by a bit of further work in the afternoon and an early finish - can't remember the last time I managed that with work and study demands combined.

I have stalled a bit on my skills piece, which is on using dramatic and acting techniques in facilitation. I have managed to find quite a lot of different, interesting and talented people who are doing this kind of work, usually building on skills from an acting or other performance background. What I haven't managed to find is any kind of course designed to teach people who don't have an acting background, but who want to use these types of skills in the business world. So for the moment, I'm a bit stuck on how to learn this type of skill and still researching hopefully. Any suggestions or referrals gratefully received; if I can't find a course I guess I will need to look into creative ways of learning.

My research piece is also stalling a bit as I'm at the 'researching research' stage, which basically means trying to understand which approach and methodology is going to be most appropriate for my organisation and particular research question. As with many things in an MSc, this appears to be far more complicated than I first thought.

So in the meantime I have been cracking on as much as I can with my research piece, on behaviour change. There is lots of interesting debate about the current thinking in this area, a lot of it in the political and policymaking arena. A key buzzword is 'Nudge', popularised in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's book of the same name. This is about trying to influence behaviour by making subtle changes in the environment - for example by setting the default option as an automatic opt in to contributing to a pension rather than a choice to opt in, many more people end up with a pension.

I find this intriguing, and very relevant to People and Organisational Development - but there is something limiting for me in this, in that it is all about getting others to do things you want them to do. That's fine, but as a coach a lot of my work is with individuals, helping them to do more of what they want to do. This is often about changing behaviour in some form of another, whether that is develop new leadership behaviours, say no more, take more calculated risks, or even build exercise into their busy work schedule so they can be more productive. So what I want to know is what can an individual pull from this modern debate on behaviour change that they can use to more successfully make the changes that they want to make, for themselves. I haven't found too much out there that focuses on this yet, except for some really interesting work from the RSA on the concept of 'Steer', which seems to be the idea of an individual using knowledge about how they behave to enable them to move in the direction they want to, rather than being nudged by someone else.

I will keep reading and hopefully I will be able to use some of the tips to change my own behaviour too, and balance the study, work and sunshine.


Is it OK to be a treacle pudding?

07 Apr 2011

Although we've got a bit under a year to go until the final handing in date in February 2012, there's just one more three-dayer coming up in October this year. In one way it feels like it has all gone so quickly, but in another way it seems like there's so much still to do…

We packed a lot into the four days we had this time, including facilitation skills, group dynamics, storytelling, NLP, and some relaxation to help us ease into the week with focus, and some group drumming to help us exit with some energy. The content was based on the group vote on topics of interest and there wasn't really an overarching 'theme' that leapt out this time. In fact we labelled this residential a 'jamboree' bag due to the mixture of topics, which gave us the excuse to include a real life version in the form of a mixture of classic sweeties in a party bag, kindly provided by one of the design team.

Nevertheless for me, the thing that stood out was learning about different ways of working in groups. There was some great - if a bit scary - facilitation practice and role playing run by various members of the Roffey team where we got to name and experience our worst facilitation scenarios, and learn from others' suggestions and demonstrations. We also covered some theories of group dynamics as well as discussing some of our own experiences during the residential. One of the facilitators said that the group currently felt a bit like a 'treacle pudding' in that it was a bit slow and sticky in its responses which was a great starting point for some interesting discussions on the topic. Did everyone agree? For those that didn't, what was their experience of the group? Was it OK to be a treacle pudding? Did some people like treacle pudding more than others? And so on.

While with this kind of conversation there is always the danger of it getting a bit silly, I think it can also lead to useful learning and it seemed to have a positive impact on the way the group worked together. Two of the external facilitators observed they thought the group was working well together - the group drummer that we were quick to work in sync with each other and the NLP'er that we were the first group she'd seen pick themselves up on moving away from our contracted aims for the day.

We also did an interactive exercise which uncovered the real mix and range and mix of different needs and preferences in the group. And even in the parts that weren't so focused on groupwork, I found myself noticing the different facilitation styles and noting different techniques that might work well with different audiences.

I left at the end of the four days pondering some of the things that I always seem to end up pondering when I have spent any significant time at Roffey: that while it's good to know the theories, there isn't one 'right answer'; that a bit of a break from the day to day work helps me reconnect to what is really important; and that developing people and organisations always seems to coming back to starting with developing yourself.


Freedom vs Structure

28 Feb 2011

The vast relief of receiving a pass for my seminar paper means that I’ve now successfully finished the first year of the MSc. And that means – to my amazement – that we’re now pretty much exactly half-way through the two year course. That milestone, and my relief in getting my essay passed, has made me reflect on the importance of balancing freedom and structure when you are learning.

On the one hand, having the structure of the MSc deadlines, standards, and feedback requirements is crucial. Without these, I certainly wouldn’t have got round to reading, critically questioning, applying and really reflecting on the different organisational and people development theory I have encountered so far on the course. On the other hand, having to complete the fiddly bits of a written piece, and really pin down your learning on paper can feel a bit like a distraction from the (often more fun) process of actually learning.

This balance of freedom with structure is of course not a new dilemma for those of us involved in designing and delivering adult learning and training. So as with many things about the MSc, I feel it does me, and hopefully my practice, a lot of good to be on the side of being the learner again!

Some of the structure on the MSc comes from the shape and requirements of the pieces we need to complete, and as such the second year feels as though it is shifting a bit more towards application. All pieces have to demonstrate some degree of application, but there is a difference in the degree you are able to do this in say a review of the field of O&PD (fairly limited) versus an applied action research project (pretty much essential).

Our set took the opportunity of the halfway mark to the course to give each other ‘feedback on our feedback’, at our last set meeting. This was really useful, as while being able to give feedback well is an important part of most development work, perhaps paradoxically it’s not something that often tends to get fed back on. Overall, I am really looking forward to the next year, albeit with a certain amount of trepidation as to how I am going to manage to fit everything in.

In this issue: August 2015
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Stand and deliver: Fresh austerity measures are on the way – but can public sector HR seize the strategic opportunity?

Eureka moment: HR at engineering firm AMFW

Going for gold: Maintaining the Olympic legacy

On the money: Providing innovative rewards

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