Lessons from the Battlefield

Making a Difference that Makes a Difference

Organisations have struggled to survive

Seeing the current parlous condition of private and public sector organisations through the eyes of our Spring e-O&P authors brings to mind the image of a bloody battlefield. As the national and global economies have ricocheted between boom and bust some of our organisations, and their leaders, have struggled to survive and prosper. It looks to me as though the protective charms of systems thinking, appreciative learning, complexity theory, executive coaching, etc., have failed to save organisations from harm.

Might our clients lose their faith in developers’ magical powers? Did we make rash assertions that the adoption of this model, or implementation of that process would not only ensure success, but ensure it would be ‘sustainable’? In the recent past such promises have been good for our own business and for those of our clients – but they may soon be exposed as a fallacy. No single ‘recipe’ for organisational effectiveness can survive the exigencies of changing economic and social pressures (Booth 2010). In their description of the pressure on developers to deliver development interventions that “deliver changed rather than change ready organisations” this is implicitly recognised by Valerie Garrow, Sharon Varney and Christine Lloyd in their overview of the development industry, ‘Fish or Bird?’ (Garrow et al 2009, p 63).

For the last decade US consumer spending has not been statistically correlated with household income, but with economic growth, i.e. with increases in total wealth . Americans got used to spending the increases in the market value of their homes (40% of US wealth) on consumer goods and services during the first half of this decade. House prices across the pond have fallen heavily and remain low, so consumer spending may recover only slowly. Nevertheless we ‘knew’, in 2009, that any global recovery would depend ultimately on US consumer spending, However 2010 saw stock markets boom and Western capitalism facing up to the ascendance of the Asian market. As I write this, in early 2011, an unexpected oil price hike threatens growth in the East, as well as in the West, following fears of an ‘Arab Spring’ in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Comfortable assumptions which have guided our behaviour for many years no longer enable us to foresee even short term economic and political changes.

This edition is all about ‘Making a Difference’

Does this feel scary? Perhaps. But previous generations have faced greater crises – especially the wars which changed the face of Europe not once, but twice, in the last hundred years. In researching the intellectual ancestry of the development ‘industry’, I’ve repeatedly come across thinkers in different fields whose work has been profoundly influenced by personal turmoil caused by the great events of the last century. Each was forced by unwelcome events to question the cultural assumptions on which accepted knowledge was based. This process created new knowledge, which in time has become a valued part of our cultural tradition.

In conceiving this edition of e-O&P, I have drawn on the ideas of a group of very early twentieth century philosopher-scientists known as the Vienna Circle. Neurath and Schlick were some of the first people to say that whether the findings of science were metaphysically true or not, was less important than whether they ‘made a difference’ to the world in which we live. This edition of e-O&P is all about making a difference: topics and authors have been selected on the basis of whether they can make a difference for developers and development in 2011.

Some articles are by thoughtful practitioners who describe new development tools and techniques. Others are by scholarly and learned academics. All too often developers prefer to act rather than to reflect on their practice, so academics have a unique value for practitioners: they are skilled in distilling and reflecting on what we know (or think we know) and in identifying our unseen prejudices so as to create the new practical knowledge (thinking) which helps practitioners stay ahead of their market. Their hard- won discoveries are as invaluable for busy development practitioners as those of the Vienna Circle turned out to be for the development of scientific technology in the twentieth century.

New approaches to learning, leadership and employee engagement

A year ago, Chris Rodgers predicted in e-O&P that the economic uncertainty would lead us to re-think our ideas about management and leadership (Rodgers 2010). This year, we have seen this played out in failing private sector work organisations, forced to embrace radical change, and in public sector ones, forced to acknowledge their failure to change. Developers appear to be increasingly asked for help in enabling the inhabitants of such organisations adapt to a radically changed environment. Most of Spring e-O&P’s authors use a systematic exploration of failure to create new knowledge about how we might do development differently in the future. Like all learning, this involves emotional labour, a letting go of favoured and comfortable assumptions. Our authors have created new conceptual frameworks and practical tools we can use with their clients, but they have done so at the cost of challenging some of our most cherished beliefs about development. In this edition of e-O&P we are challenging developers to let go some of their own cognitive baggage.

In a radical departure from recent tradition, many of our authors invite developers to re-make the connection between personal, group and organisational ‘learning’ and personal, group and organisational ‘failure’. Until recently, we’ve downplayed both ‘failure’ and ‘learning’ as we focused on appreciative approaches and executive coaching. Now, we may be about to discover we need approaches which will generate new learning to solve some of the problems which are causing organisations to fail. Not since organisations last encountered such severe turbulence in their business and public sector environments have developers been so interested in technologies associated with group and organisational learning, teamwork and leadership, employee engagement and innovation.

Overview of this edition

Four of our authors provide developers with practical solutions to the failure of organisations to attain their strategic objectives, by offering new perspectives on leadership (Jonathan Cormack), super-ordinate goals (David MacKinnon’s article and David McAra’s review of John Kay’s book, Obliquity), the dynamics of organisational stability (Geoffrey Hodgson). The next tells us how to avoid some of the problems inherent in one of our most popular development tools, Coaching (Michael Walton). Two more articles focus on approaches to development which deserve to be more popular: Joanna Kozubska & Bob MacKenzie’s piece highlights the potential richness and diversity of Action Learning, and Liz Finney’s shows developers why they shouldn’t be afraid to use Evaluation to prove their worth. Two ‘how to’ articles focus on less familiar territory – the search for new meaning and identity at work through ritual (Tony Page and Chiara Vascotto) and working with myth (Jon Chapman and Jacquie Drake). A search for meaning and identity is also central to Ana Karakusevic’s moving account of her career as a developer. Not so for Rabbi Alexandra Wright, whose inspiring leadership is described in my own review article. Finally, we’ve included Bob MacKenzie’s review of some of Russ Ackoff’s funniest and most challenging business aphorisms.

To help you decide which articles are of most immediate interest to you, each is described, in more detail below. I hope these synopses will enable you to ‘browse’ before downloading and printing your reading of choice. Each article can be downloaded separately from live links in the relevant paragraph.

Can developers learn from warriors?  Leadership in turbulent times

Jonathan Cormack Introduces an innovative leadership framework which delivers when conditions are uncertain

Most people believe you have to plan short-term in an uncertain, turbulent economy. However, leaders who look further ahead and focus on strategic priorities, tend to be more successful. Our instinctive, human responses to an increase in uncertainty may the stifle the flexibility, enthusiasm and creativity needed to respond effectively to sudden change.

We tend to stereotype our military leaders as being locked into inflexible ‘command and control’ thinking. So it comes as a surprise to discover that they have evolved a highly effective way to achieve strategic goals in the most uncertain and turbulent environment of all, a battle. Jonathan tells us how their approach to leadership has been developed by Nelson, von Moltke and von Clausewitz and explains why it works. He describes what developers can learn from today’s military leaders and how this is supported by recent research. The best elements of military leadership models are brought together in Jonathan’s Goal Orientated Leadership. This emphasises setting clear outcomes and resource constraints and then standing well back, trusting those on the ground to make the key tactical decisions in the light of their own local knowledge.

The fine art of balance: how we can help failing organisations regain their balance

David MacKinnon shows how a simple model can transform leaders’ understanding of their own organization

Faced with a crisis, most leaders re-double their efforts to succeed, usually resulting in failure. David’s article explains this paradox, showing why top teams tend to do more of what got them into difficulty in the first place (it was what made them successful) and how developers can help them avoid their fate. He has found a way that the most common reasons organisations fail can be easily apprehended by busy (scared?) senior executives and this is described in his article. By paying attention to just two critical dimensions, a senior team can quickly plot their organisation on a very simple 4 box model developed over several years of practice (the MacKinnon Model). They will discover for themselves, whether their organisation ‘has a great image’ or is ‘safe’, or is possibly neither, and then learn how and why their particular organisation will be ‘doomed’ unless their leaders pay more attention to creating a balance between strategic vision and process effectiveness. David shares his experience working with three contrasting top teams to show us how his model helped each re-think their priorities and their need for genuine teamwork.

Would it be better if managers stopped managing? The concept of Obliquity

David McAra reviews John Kay’s new book Obliquity – Why our goals are best achieved indirectly

“The greatest accumulations of profit and wealth are not in the hands of the people and organisations that began with accumulation in mind” (John Kay)

John Kay’s book sets out to explain his paradoxical research findings. According to David’s interesting review, Kay suggests organisation leaders should not seek to influence their organisations at all (abandon attempts at grand design) and abandon the profit-motive, in favour of, well, anything else. Donald Trump chose ‘making deals’, early industrialists chose technological domination and a prisoner chose survival.

Developers may also discover, in Kay’s book that our reflex response to an unexpected outcome is to explain it away, an inability to learn from our experience which inhibits us from changing course when we should. (This idea is similar to Hodgson’s description of role of ‘habit’.) Why we do so is painfully evident in the texture of David’s moving account of a piece of profoundly unwelcome learning, which forms a Postscript to his Review.

Organisational evolution requires cautious change

Professor Geoffrey M. Hodgson, with an Introduction by Sharon Varney

Why we should pay more attention to organisational habits and routines

Evan Davis on BBC Radio 4’s The Bottom Line recently asked “Do we exaggerate the need to change?” The answer he received was a resounding “No!” from Norbert Teufelberger, the Chief Executive of online gaming firm BWIN: “…product life cycles and technology are changing very fast. If you are not changing you are dead on arrival”. Our business leaders are routinely paid huge amounts because we believe their personal drive and energy are essential to change. But have we, unthinkingly, generalised the change imperative of entrepreneurs, marketeers and technologists? “Change has become a fundamental and often over-riding organisational value, in and of itself……. The cult of change has been enhanced in an increasingly unequal society”, says Geoffrey Hodgson.

Geoffrey Hodgson is an eminent institutional economist, currently Research Professor in Business Studies at the University of Hertfordshire. I first came across his work a couple of years ago and was intrigued by the importance he attributed to ‘habits’ in the evolution of business organisations. Last Autumn his book, “Darwin’s Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Scientific Evolution” received warm reviews for the way he and his co-author have re-visited Darwin’s theory of evolution and shown how it can enable us to re-frame our thinking in a wide range of fields.

We are lucky to be able to publish this important article (adapted from one in Corporate Finance Review), which questions widely held assumptions about the dynamics of organisational change. His article explores why lasting change has been hard to achieve and contrasts the chronic failure of our public sector behemoths with successful retail and hotel chains and manufacturing organisations, explaining why an obsessive and relentless focus on managing continuity has been a more successful ‘evolutionary strategy’ for organisations. He shows us why we must approach change more cautiously and recognise the importance of difficult-to-change habits and organisational routines.

In her very helpful introduction, Sharon Varney summarises Professor Hodgson’s argument and explains why developers need to read his article.

The Self-Awareness Myth: How self-awareness doesn’t always lead to change

Michael Walton discusses how to help senior executives adjust to a new organisational climate

Organisations are making radical change and their leaders are being asked to change, too. How can we help them to adjust?

For executive coaches the answer is obvious – once we increase people’s knowledge of their own behaviour and its effect on others, constructive change (learning) happens. Michael Walton’s article challenges this ‘self-awareness myth’ by looking at why two of his clients have not changed, despite a process of increasing self-knowledge. He reminds us that self-awareness is not the only necessary pre-condition to behavioural change and explores a range of influential factors with a fresh eye. He even shows why increased self-awareness might make constructive behavioural change even less likely. His is a cautionary tale for executive coaches and other developers. His article is an invaluable practical guide to assessing a wide range of potential obstacles to constructive personal change and concludes that we would do well to examine each of these before designing any intervention aimed at creating personal behavioural change.

Getting a purchase on Action Learning

Joanna Kozubska & Bob MacKenzie ask what we really need to know before we design or buy Action Learning

“Action Learning is a healthy antidote to … chronic helplessness”

Bob and Joanna’s article explains how Action Learning can help organisations achieve a balance between their need for tangible organisational outputs and the less tangible but equally essential, individual and group learning. They develop a taxonomy of six Action Learning approaches, each one defined by their unique emphases, and analyse the potential problems to which each is potentially at risk. For example, the business-driven ROI approach requires senior level support and emphasises measurable business results. However its focus on achieving rapid action may mean there is no time to consider a range of options first, and learning may be neglected. Bob and Joanna challenge established thinking about Action Learning, showing that AL is potentially more rich, varied and problematical than previously thought. Both authors have many years experience of running action learning programmes, so any developer or academic who is thinking of embarking on a programme of Action Learning will find their scholarly article an invaluable guide to action.

Building a Culture of Evaluation in Organisational Development

Liz Finney discusses why we shouldn’t be afraid to use evaluation, and why we need it

In the 1990s, American OD practitioners pursued personal power and ‘the rewards of the consulting relationship’, despite professing to be motivated by helping people and social action (Burke 1994). Their clients wanted them to improve business effectiveness and productivity. By the early part of this decade they had been ‘marginalised’ (Garrow, Varney & Lloyd, 2009). Are we in the UK paying enough attention to constantly improving the match between what we are doing and what is adding value (making a difference) for our clients?

Many developers think ‘evaluation’ is ‘a waste of my client’s money’ or ‘how to find out what I’ve done wrong’. Following her workshop for the Organisational Development Innovation Network (ODiN) we have persuaded Liz, author of Roffey Park’s major review of evaluation practice in OD (Finney and Jefkins, 2009), to give developers a simple, easy to follow guide to this process. Although her article is addressed to ‘organisational developers’, what she says is just as valuable for other developers.

She shows us how evaluation will add value to our development interventions at every stage from clarifying goals to celebrating achievement. For those of us who are ‘developers’, not ‘researchers’, she gives a step-by-step guide to how to plan and use evaluation. She guides us in choosing methods which suit us, inviting us to find a ‘third way’ which acknowledges the interdependence of qualitative and quantitative ways to record outcomes. “The crucial thing” she says, though, “is to have the best conversation you can with the right people at the earliest possible stage to work out what it is you’re trying to measure”.

Adapting awayday rituals to deliver in difficult times

Tony Page & Chiara Vascotto write about adjusting to change through the collective re-discovery of meaning and identity

When a client asks you to run an Awayday to help their team ‘adapt to change’ and ‘regain energy’, does your heart sink? Are you un-enthused by the prospect of working with a collection of disempowered individuals condemned as lazy dinosaurs by their boss (rolling rocks uphill)?

Tony Page and Chiara Vascotto’s article is a godsend for anyone who recognises these feelings. It shows how we can design workshops where participants will want to let go of their emotional baggage and search for new meaning and identity at work by learning from anthropologists’ studies of ritual. A deeper understanding of anthropological phenomena such as ‘ritual’, ‘rite of passage’ and ‘communitas’ helps developers not only to facilitate the development of a new collective identity, but also to create a lasting emotional attachment to this identity, and to other members of the group who created it. This is powerful stuff, and Tony and Chiara’s article takes us through how they have been successfully putting it into practice with one of their clients, a struggling media company.

The quest for transformation: every organisation’s Holy Grail

Jon Chapman & Jacquie Drake describe powerful leadership development technology which harnesses the power of myth

‘Myths provide eternal truths about the human condition and human behaviour. They offer guiding principles and signpost “what to do” as well as “how to be”.’

When I put my hand into the maw of a monstrous papier-mâché mask, propped precariously on a conference room table in a darkened room, I felt afraid. As members of a high-tech, largely secular society, we’ve long forgotten the raw, visceral power of myth. After experiencing the power of their multi-coloured, multi-layered, texturally rich approach to leadership development for myself, I wanted Jacquie and Jon to write about it for our Spring edition. Their imaginative article gives a flavour of how they work to re-connect individuals and organisations with forgotten cultural values, such as courage, resilience and integrity, which are of especial significance for today’s leaders. If your client organisation seems a drab and grey colour as it emerges from the recession, it might well be time to switch on Jacquie and Jon’s ‘MythoSimulator’©.

From warrior to midwife: the journey of a learning facilitator

Ana Karakusevic asks, what does it really mean to become a developer?

Ana shares her story “What do we do when the knowledge we need is not yet out there? What is the role of learning designer when learning happens on the hoof, in snatched conversations, socially networked exchanges, when it is both ephemeral and scarily democratic?”

We are invited to find our answers to these questions by accompanying Ana on her own journey. Professional and academic success came easily to Ana, and she was soon hooked by a deep passion for learning that many of us will recognise. An MSc and a senior learning role in the BBC soon followed. Then nemesis, in the form of ‘restructuring’, failure, and an uncomfortable recognition that the very things which had made her a successful Director of Learning might be inimical to her success as a coach.

How does this story end? Ana offers us an intensely personal insight into her learning journey, together with her critique of what it means to be a developer. In recognising parts of my own journey in hers, it acquired new meaning for me, and perhaps, it might also for you.

How to be clear without underlining the voice: the search for an authentic and personal style of leadership

Review of talk by Rabbi Alex Wright by Deb Booth about how to be authentic, powerful – and a woman

Is it possible to become a powerful leader without surrendering your authenticity? If, like me, you consider this impossible, think again. My review of the December meeting of Harthill Consulting’s women leaders’ network describes the unique approach to leadership taken by one of our most influential religious leaders, Rabbi Alexandra Wright.

Systems Thinking for Curious Managers, with 40 new f-Laws by Russell Ackoff

Book Review & Extracts selected by Bob MacKenzie

Peels away the pretence about why organisations don’t work as effectively as they should

“F-laws are the uncomfortable truths about the (mistaken) way most organisations are run” (Peter Day, BBC In Business presenter).

They are also very funny. Bob’s erudite review of Triarchy Press’s new collection describes them as having much in common with “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Ackoff’s insight and honesty shows us how things in organisations really are, exposing our tacit assumptions to the light of day. They are also appealing aphorisms which will stay with us long after we’ve closed the covers. Bob shares seven of his favourite f-laws with us: I defy any reader not be to be enchanted by them.

Get involved!

If you enjoy this issue you might also be interested in exploring the ideas raised by our authors at the associated e-O&P workshop, ‘Lessons from the Battlefield’. You might also wish to consider writing, or editing for us, or even becoming an e-O&P Critical Friend or a Proof-reader. You will receive a warm welcome should you wish to join AMED Writers’ Group. The final pages of this edition give further details of all of these ways to get more closely involved with e-O&P.


This Spring edition is very much a team achievement. My e-O&P colleagues, Bob MacKenzie and David McAra, gave me the confidence to become Lead Editor, and to carry on when the going got tough. They have been generous with their wisdom and have both worked tirelessly and invisibly behind the scenes to transform our authors’ raw material into fully fledged articles. This e-O&P could not have been created without their invaluable support and advice. I’d also like to thank Sharon Varney for editing Geoffrey Hodgson’s article. Chris Grieve, Alison Donaldson and Michael Keane deserve our thanks for their help in proof-reading the finished articles. Thanks also to Ned Seabrook for creating the finished documents.


Booth, D. (2010) “A story for our times: a short history of The Learning Organisation” in e-Organisations & People, Vol. 17, No 1, May 2010.

Finney, L and Jefkins, C. (2009) Best Practice in OD Evaluation: understanding the impact of organisational development. Roffey Park Institute, July 2009.

Garrow V, Varney S, Lloyd C. (2009) Fish or Bird? Perspectives on Organisational Development (OD), Research Report 463, Institute for Employment Studies, June 2009.

Hodgson, G. M. (2010) ‘Choice, Habit and Evolution’, Journal of Evolutionary Economics, 20(1), January, pp. 1-18.

Hodgson, G. M. and Knudsen, T. (2010) Darwin’s Conjecture: The Search for General Principles of Social and Economic Evolution. University of Chicago Press.

Rodgers, Chris (2010) “Crisis? What Crisis? Perspectives on leadership, change and organisational dynamics in turbulent times” in e-Organisations & People, Volume 17 No 1. March 2010


Warner Burke, W., Church, A.H., Van Eynde, D.F. ‘Values, Motives, and Interventions of Organization Development Practitioners’, Group Organization Management Vol. 19 No. 1 5-50. March 1994

About the Author

Deb Booth

Deb Booth has been a member of the e-O&P team since 2009. She has experience in a wide variety of development roles, especially in the design of organisation-wide development interventions aimed at changing culture. Her uniquely critical approach arises from a deep commitment to organisational learning and studies in social anthropology, business strategy and psychotherapeutic counselling. Current interests include: the exploration of largely unacknowledged obstacles to learning at the level of both the organisation and the individual; historical analysis of the development industry; and the resolution of its epistemological difficulties.

She can be contacted via deborah.booth1@talktalk.net

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