Making the invisible visible

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Alison Donaldson

Given the theme of this issue, I felt it would make sense to tell the story of how the 9 contributions that follow came together, as a way of bringing out into the open the normally rather secret process of commissioning and editing a journal. Human beings notice selectively, and each article here explores a different aspect of the invisibility theme.

What I find myself advocating is that people become more aware of the often mechanistic, pseudo-scientific language that we take for granted in organisational life today with invisible but profound consequences.

“To look is an act of choice.”

(Berger 1972)

When Bob MacKenzie (one of the moving forces behind e-Organisations & People) suggested I might like to guest edit this issue, two things prompted me to propose the theme of “making the invisible visible”. One was that it was the title of a chapter in a book I had just co-published (Donaldson et al 2011); the other was that it was also a topic close to my heart. For about 12 years, with my colleagues, I have been using “narrative writing” in an attempt to shine a light on otherwise relatively obscure conversations of groups of health professionals brought together by UK charity Macmillan Cancer Support. The writer’s task in this case was multi-faceted: historian (revealing the evolution of these groups), organisational learning specialist (encouraging reflection) and evaluator (showing how the groups had influenced cancer care over time). But compared with traditional forms of academic evaluation, which tend to cost a lot and only appear long after the activities described, our “narrative tracking” allowed us to tell the stories of the groups as they happened. (As I write this, I notice that it all feels rather serious and worthy – and I want to make this thought visible. The experience of doing the work has not always been serious, and I certainly do not want to make it sound “perfect” or without difficulties.)

I wanted contributors to interpret the theme of making the invisible visible in their own way and, as you will see shortly, they did! Below I tell the story about how I commissioned the articles – I have deliberately chosen the narrative form as it enables me to make something of what is normally invisible visible.

A story of surprises

While I was going through the agony and ecstasy of selecting contributions, I noticed a particular layer of invisibility that I hadn’t previously thought of. This took the form of a surprise.

In some cases, the commissioning process unfolded as I had imagined: the author sent me a short proposal, I read it and made sometimes difficult choices, and finally I wrote back offering my thoughts and either inviting them to start writing, or politely (I hope) declining their proposal. But some people did something unexpected. One (Robin Shohet) just sent me a first draft, which I read and realised was just as good as (if not better than) a proposal. Another (Christina Breene) told me later that when she saw Robin’s draft, she assumed that “proposal” must mean a draft. In conversation, she and I acknowledged all the invisible assumptions at work here: as commissioning editors, we ask for a “proposal”, perhaps assuming that people know what that means. Meanwhile, authors may look at one example and assume “that must be the way to do it”.

One of the next “proposals” I received provoked a strong response in me and helped to clarify what aspects of invisibility I personally hoped to reveal through this issue. In Seeing patterns in high-performing teams, Jonathan Wilson wanted to draw on some research suggesting that good team working was associated with three particular ratios: number of positive versus negative comments made by team members; number of questions asked compared with number of opinions expressed; and how much interest they showed in others versus in themselves. I emailed Jonathan to express my interest in his proposal but also to register a worry:

“I am interested to learn about the three ratios though I have some concerns that it could become just the next framework, followed without much reflection. ‘Thou shalt show an interest, ask lots of questions and make positive comments’!”

(extract of email from Alison Donaldson to Jonathan Wilson, 26-8-2011)

I was expecting this might start a conversation, and it did. Jonathan’s response surprised and delighted me. Not only did he acknowledge the risk of formulae but he also convinced me that numbers might be one useful way of showing people that their communication has become one-sided or opinionated and that this can stifle collaboration. In his own words:

“I read your comments with great interest – and perhaps minor defensiveness at first! (…) You talk of moving away from formulae and I appreciate that. (…) At the same time, I am most interested in relationships and I believe that numbers tell their own stories very clearly to those who learn the language (I do not claim mathematical fluency). I think observation and mathematics can help to make the apparently invisible very visible. I don’t see any major difference between narrative and number. Each convey stories about relations and map the consequences of events…”

(extracts of email from Jonathan Wilson to Alison Donaldson, 18-9-2011)

Spotting taken-for-granted thinking

This exchange – and some reading I was doing over the summer (McGilchrist, 2010) – left me with an appetite to take up a particular aspect of “invisibility” in organisational life, namely the taken-for-granted (and therefore largely invisible) character of modernist, positivist, rationalist and managerialist thinking. I bring in all these –isms here deliberately. This is the ideological sea we swim in, whether we realise it or not.

But let me give a flavour of what I mean. When people talk, for instance, about “levers of change” or “communication mechanisms”, nowadays I invariably wince. For many years now, as I have been studying organisations, I have become increasingly sensitive to language and metaphor. We all speak, write and think in metaphor, albeit unconsciously (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). So when we talk of “communication mechanisms”, we may be subtly perpetuating a sense of communication as a mechanical, inhuman process, rather than the intricate and complex experience it is, often saturated with ambiguity and feeling. This interest in metaphor and language is not “just” a literary or academic one (though it is both of those as well). In my view, it has real and serious consequences for our society. The taken-for-granted, mechanistic and pseudo-scientific ways of talking and writing all around us make it too easy, for example, for people in organisations to overlook the importance of people, relationships and emergence, and think and speak of organisational change as a thing that they can plan and control.

Not long ago, I was talking to a chief executive who said that the new structure his organisation had recently established would ensure that people worked together. I noticed my reaction to his words immediately and challenged him by saying “we both know that relationships are crucial in getting things done in organisations, so can we really say that ’structure’ will ensure better collaboration?” He then quickly qualified what he had said, by elaborating that of course it was the people in the leading positions in the new structure who would ensure better collaboration, not the structure itself. This may seem a harmless example to some, but I think it does bring out how short-hand words like “structure” can obscure certain aspects of organisational life – in this case the people (and perhaps the fact that one of the things that most chief executives do is to get “their” people into senior positions).

Visibility through authorship

Back to the commissioning process: by now something else was starting to come into my view. I was sure that certain of my own colleagues could write an extremely interesting and thoughtful article, so I personally invited them to contribute. However, the deadline for first drafts came and went and nothing appeared from them. Over a period of some four months, I continued to nudge them, and finally one (Theodore Taptiklis) produced a draft that I would have been extremely sorry to have missed.

So was I, in a sense, trying to bring out into the light certain individuals personally known to me, and whom I was certain would have something valuable to say in writing? Was I breaking or “working round” taken-for-granted rules about deadlines and fair commissioning? Probably, yes. (I leave it up to the reader to judge the result.) In my experience, there are some people with considerable wisdom that never finds its way onto the page. Their natural realm is the spoken word, yet I keep hoping they can be coaxed out into the territory (minefield?) of writing so we can all benefit. And sometimes they themselves know (as every academic does) that the “fixity” or permanence of writing enables us to share our thinking, stimulate others and become more visible in the world.

In the end, I commissioned 11 articles, providing a wide and fascinating range of experience and thinking around the invisible-visible theme.

There’s no such thing as invisible when you know where to look

Robin Shohet’s draft (the first to arrive) on There’s no such thing as invisible if you know where to look described how he sees many consultants allowing their clients to “mess them around” – e.g. by cancelling meetings. This was terribly familiar to me from my own experience. What Robin made even more visible to me was the way in which this common behaviour towards consultants can be a mirror of the kind of behaviour going on in the client’s own organisation.

Robin’s draft stimulated another author, Christina Breene, to write a piece (Revealing practices) that perfectly complements Robin’s because she offers some very practical methods that we can all use to uncover what is hidden between us and which might be getting in the way of working well together. Her article explores similar territory to Wilson’s Patterns in high-performing teams, but in a very different way.

Robin’s and Christina’s contributions are largely about face-to-face communication and relationships. It is no accident that the rest of the articles also bring in the subject of the part played by writing in organisational life, given that my invitation to contribute to this issue had encouraged people to “explore the interplay between conversation and writing”, and I suspect that all the authors knew about my interests in narrative and reflective writing.

The invisible dance between conversation and writing

As I see it, the interplay between talk and writing is central to the strategic journey described by Rob Warwick in Private conversations and public presentations. He shows in detail how a particular group within a government department made use of both informal (largely invisible to those not in the room) conversations, and formal presentations and reports. Crucially, he points out, not only are both these different kinds of communication necessary (at one point he considered writing about the importance of “making the visible invisible”), but also they are intimately interwoven. So, rather than describing what happened as a simple alternation between informal and formal, he shows that, even in the formal, deliberately “theatrical” occasions, there was some informality and “mess”. Similarly, in informal conversations there were formal reports or presentations. Having read Rob’s living stories about some of these human encounters, we can see why he uses the word “paradoxical” in referring to these contrasting forms of human encounter. Paradox, he writes, is when two apparently opposing phenomena happen or are present at the same time. This tends to go against our taken-for-granted (invisible) ways of talking in “either-or” terms.

The notion of writing as a transitory step in ongoing processes of communication and collaboration is also taken up by Louise Cornelis and Mike Huiskes in Take your turn in writing (as in “conversational turn”). A more interactional view of writing, they argue, has several advantages. It enables people to: engage with their readers; find their own “voice”; be less burdened by “writing for perfection”; and produce texts that are more suited to the situation.

Revealing experience

Another thing that writing can do is to “capture” stories and thus make the otherwise ephemeral activities of people and organisations more visible. In Tales that tell: evaluation that delivers for families, Julie Allan shows how she helped a Children’s Centre in London record people’s stories in writing. (She uses the word “capture” herself, and also “storycatching”, though I imagine we both recognise that these terms, while useful short-hand, are not entirely satisfactory metaphors, suggesting perhaps that stories can be tamed. But would, say, “freezing” or “preserving” be any better?)

Julie’s draft particularly prompted me to wonder about the role of the author in this kind of work: for example, is there a place for an experienced writer who can convey the complex and “organic” nature of real life? Or is it better to identify people within the relevant organisation who can develop their writing and story-catching skills? Again, the answer may not be either-or. Julie clarified in a separate email to me that her work was a mixture of creating the story and “helping others do the same”, since the habit of writing about experience “comes more easily to some than to others”.

Another method that aims to make the invisible, if not visible, then at least available, is oral history. In Nurses’ Voices, Kathy Jones, Carol McCubbin and Kath Start show us how this method enabled nurses to tell their stories from decades of working in the NHS. This revealed important historical themes that may be worth reflecting on in today’s very different, more “efficient” world – for example, what have we done to lose the sense of camaraderie that prevailed among nurses in the 1960s? Could it be regained? And again, the question of authorship raises itself: in this case, the nurses interviewed each other in pairs, the conversations were recorded and participants were encouraged to listen to the unedited material. This was because the uncut video recording was seen as richer than text. Interestingly, when journalists were engaged to create précis from the recordings, the result was unsatisfactory because instead of “getting at the ordinary” they tended to “emphasise the extraordinary”.

Revelation through reflective and reflexive writing

Yet another use of writing is as a means of reflecting on our experience. Two of the articles show what a valuable method reflective writing can be for professional development. In Invisible selves, Gillian Gustar tells the story of a writing group she took part in and how it revealed aspects of self and emotions that might otherwise have remained hidden or unconscious. This method can, she suggests, also be adapted for use in management development.

Finally, we see a different kind of reflective writing in Connecting humans by Theodore Taptiklis. He relates in intriguing detail how, following a rich and energising meeting, he sat down to articulate his own sense of what had come out of the conversations and what directions the people involved might take next. When he sent his lengthy, no doubt well-crafted, email to a handful of close colleagues, their response was more “muted” than he had expected. While they saw he had a Big Idea, “clearly it wasn’t yet entirely theirs”. His first thought, quite understandably, was that maybe he “hadn’t been clear enough”. But then it dawned on him that there was a much deeper insight lurking in this experience. On reflection, the email he sent to his colleagues had been full of opinion and lacking in lived experience. Perhaps it was too complete and left insufficient space for the reader’s own reflections.

As so often, there are layers of visibility and invisibility evident here. We see how reflective writing can be used reflexively (i.e. to help us notice our own experience, feelings, thoughts or assumptions) and thus reveal something profound about our own practice and the responses of others. But also, echoing Jonathan Wilson’s observations about the prevalence of opinions in team meetings, Taptiklis gives us a glimpse of how “aboutness talk” (Shotter 2011) has so many consequences for organisational life.

The social life of this publication

This brings me nearly to the end of my story about this issue. The usual convention when putting together a collection of articles for a journal is to keep hidden all the conversations, emails, phone calls and comments that authors and editors exchange in the run-up to publication. What this editorial has tried to do is to make at least a fraction of this long and interesting process visible. In Theodore Taptiklis’ words, this was “a novel move away from the convention that has all this behind the screen”. Perhaps, he added, the role of the editor is one of “conversational partner” to the authors, which is a step towards giving the documents a “social life”, a phrase I often use myself (Donaldson 2011, pp.75-92). (Around the same time, during a gathering of three authors and “behind-the-scenes critical friend” Bob MacKenzie, a slip of the tongue by author Kathy Jones introduced a further expression: “the secret life of documents”. This made me smile, realising that it was quite a good way of describing what normally happens when editors work secretly behind the scenes, or when people fail to read and engage with some writing that a writer has put great effort into.

When it finally came to writing this editorial, I wanted to show the authors my spontaneous and personal responses to their draft articles, so I wrote a very preliminary version (which I called v0, short for “version 0”) pretty much in one go, without stopping too often to consult my bookcase or the authors’ exact words. A number of thoughtful emails found their way back to me, enabling me to expand and enrich this piece.

I have now run out of room to tell the other interesting story – that of how we all worked together on the drafts. We nearly lost two articles along the way for different reasons, but thankfully all 11 are now visible to readers of Organisations & People. One particular conversation sticks in my mind: I was doing what I often do by challenging someone (Jonathan Wilson in this case) on what I see as machine metaphors being applied to people. Jonathan asked me what I associated with the word “systems” and my first reply was “central heating systems”. He then revealed that, to him, the same word conjures up (i) the universe and (ii) the human being. I will leave readers to make up their mind what this tells us about visibility, invisibility and our modern world.

Connecting up the dots

The authors who have gained in visibility through this publication have pointed to a whole range of methods for bringing what is invisible out into the light, with the intention of stimulating learning, personal growth, mutual recognition, collaboration and even what some call “transformation”.

Perhaps the question to ask next is “What deeper insight, if any, do all these articles together make visible?” Personally, I am coming to recognise that the theme of visibility and invisibility, in Robin Shohet’s words, does indeed “go close to the core of the human condition”. Clearly, our perception, our “noticing”, is always selective, depending not only on our history, our feelings and what we are “drawn to”, but also on the society we live in, with all the collective blindness, assumptions and ideologies that that entails. Thus, the authors in this issue draw our attention to a whole range of different invisibles. Some seek to bring out the stories and life experiences so often eclipsed in our society – one that seems to privilege opinion over experience, prescription over dialogue, and measurement over relationship. Others want to reveal hidden assumptions or emotions, such as fear and shame, which can be so troublesome, destructive even, as long as we try to cover them up. A few chose to explore what can be made visible through writing and other narrative methods, while others focused on what can be surfaced in face-to-face situations.

What I am personally urging people to start seeing and challenging is the mechanistic, pseudo-scientific language and thinking that is all around us. I can’t help feeling that, the more we do so, the more likely it is that not just our use of language will change but, with it, our thinking and even some of our actions.


It has been a pleasure working closely with the authors, all of whom have shown themselves willing to engage with me and my dogged determination to avoid worn-out mechanistic language and simplistic causality.

Bob MacKenzie, instead of writing his own article for this collection (which he could so easily have done), has been a constant support to me and the contributors. Without him, e-Organisations & People and the AMED Writers’ Group (which most of the contributors have taken part in at one time or another) would not be as strong as they are.

Last not least, I would like to thank David McAra in Aberdeen, whose (invisible) formatting and technical efforts in the background enabled this collection to see the light of day.


Berger J (1972). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin.
Donaldson A (2005). Writing in organizational life. In Stacey R (2005). Experiencing emergence in organizations, London & New York: Routledge.
Donaldson A, Lank E, Maher J (2011). Communities of Influence: improving healthcare through conversations and connections, London: Radcliffe Publishing.
Lakoff G, Johnson M (1980). Metaphors we live by, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McGilchrist I (2010). The master and his emissary: the divided brain and the making of the western world, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Ong, W J (2002). Orality and literacy, London and New York: Routledge (first published 1982 by Methuen & Co).
Shotter, J (2011). Getting it: withness thinking and the dialogical – in practice, Hampton Press.

About the author

Alison Donaldson works as an independent consultant, using writing to stimulate reflection and organisational learning. In 2011, she and her colleagues published their first joint book, entitled Communities of Influence: improving healthcare through conversations and connections (Donaldson, Lank, Maher 2011). In 2003, Alison was awarded a Doctor of Management in Organisational Change by the Business School, University of Hertfordshire. Her website is: and she can be contacted at

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