Reflectively, I jump with you around the puddles of life and business, looking in nature’s mirror to interpret the stories she tells.

Gerard Davies, System Engineer

Facilitating Low-Octane Journeys

EMCC global coaching accreditation

Click to view EMCC’s profile of Gerard.

This is a personal blog of Gerard Davies, a consultant, systems coach and digital storyteller, specialising in helping people develop teams and knowledge networks, embedding and disseminating thought-leadership. While the primary audience of this page are learning auditors and me, it will be of value to clients interested in the thinking that underpins the quality of my work.  This forms part of my Continuing Professional Development as an executive leadership and organisational development facilitator, coach and manager of Contented’s ILM-recognised programme Creative Leadership for Innovation. That course certifies clients whom we are helping to generate, promote and act upon insights in order to address complex challenges that matter to them, notably climate change. My preferred learning processes are based on action enquiry — a science of holding questions and observing how the world around us reflects back clues to the answers. The blog’s title echoes my passion for helping people and organisations transition to a more sustainable and calmer world, and the participation of many of my clients in the transport and renewable energy value chain.

April, 2021: Steady, now, I don’t want to raise too many expectations!  I haven’t heard yet about the research grant but I hope that, by making a start anyway, I might somehow influence the wider system.  If not, I’ll just have to find a way forward but it will be great to know that you’ve got my back in some way.

I don’t know whether you’re familiar with MIT’s Presencing Institute and the work of innovator Otto Scharmer, who’s engaged tens of thousands around the world through his GAIA programme based on Theory U:

“What we are trying to do here really is to bring a state of listening together more deeply and more intentionally into this moment,” he says. “To pay attention to what is emerging to our own experience, both at the individual level, but also at the collective level.”   Otto Scharmer, MIT Presencing Institute.

Since March 2020, I’ve been participating in the Spanish strand, while one of my supervisees has been engaging in the English strand.  Last night, I connected with some of the indigenous projects across Latin America (last week she met the Aborigines in Australia) who are talking about regenerating through a deep practical and spiritual connection with the land. [I’ve been keeping a journal and have just set an intention to write up and copy some of these across – until then, there may be a few things unexplained.]

I’ve recruited a team of engineering graduates to test out some of the ideas and am starting conversations with a (very short) list of enlightened engineers and influencers. It feels quite scary; somehow I have to pay the bills too.

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The Seventh Eye of the Storm

In these stormy seas where we are fishing for paid work, I feel a need to position our business — myself, and the crew I captain.  We need to ensure that the other vessels are clear on how we can help them, and how to locate us.  One approach I’m working on is to mark us out as somewhere they can seek sanctuary and guidance to navigate a new course.  For example, we have joined the Chamber of Commerce, Sustainability WM and the Rail Alliance, to light a beacon for transport engineers; we are accrediting Contented for quality support of business leaders to signal how we can help address their complex challenges.  

For a week, I swapped my boat shoes for running spikes to engage in a five-day sprint organised by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, the professional body favoured by many of our clients.  This process leads to recognition as a quality provider of coaching supervision — ‘super-vision’, if you like, that helps clients see the wider territory.

During the week, I learned from some remarkable people around the world who are performing similar roles in a wide range of organisational settings across education, health and business.  We shared some of the models we use and I learned for the first time of Robin Shohet and his theory of the Seven Eyes, developed with Peter Hawkins.  Each eye can shine a light, from a different perspective, on a personal or business challenge, helping explore the complexity of the multiple relationships involved.  Drawing on another of the great thinkers, David Bohm, we might consider these relationships the riverbanks, mudflats, rocks and islands that direct the flow of the water.  

Thinking for a moment about our business challenges, we can begin to map these ‘eyes’ … to relationships with the customer (who pays), the manager (who coaches) and the supervisor (who supports).  The seventh eye can be said to represent the external stakeholders (the context).  We talk about ‘inviting the system in’ to join the discussion: how  might political, ecological or social currents impact the course we need to set?

I joined an insightful workshop with Robin, and his colleague Jean Wilmot, where they demonstrated how they try to learn from the ‘here and now’.  We explored the concept of projection, where we confuse messages from the different constituents. This reminds us of the importance of checking our assumptions — let’s remember to talk directly to the stakeholders, rather than depending on what someone has told us.

Robin tells a story about a village, a long time ago, where the people lived on regret.  It was their currency.  ‘If only we had built a road, we would have all the trade and be wealthy’. ‘If only we had planted a different crop this year…”  The homes and streets became so full of regret that one day the elders decided to bury the word ‘If’. They dug deep and buried it well under the earth.  Huge celebrations followed.  Then someone said: “If only we had buried it deeper.”

The moral is that if you do not feel good enough no amount of external validation will help.  The problem is in our mindset, our thinking.

I feel there’s an important lesson for me somewhere here.  How should I share my time between collecting flares to fire from the deck of my boat, and scouting the waves for signs of other vessels in distress?

Profound Creativity

I’ve been reading about the creative force that was Liesl Silverstone, who caught the last kindertrain to Britain out of occupied Czechoslovakia and became a leading health innovator.  “What a shame”, I thought, “that I lived in Prague and Brixton, yet never even heard about her”. I must have walked in her footsteps many times.

Learning about her life brought back wonderful creative memories of a colleague who also died a few years ago and whom I would like to call a friend.  Together, we practised drawing, social theatre, dancing and clowning at the University of Bath’s Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice: Chris Seeley went on to co-direct the MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility at Ashridge College, described as a “talented, brilliant and thoughtful force of nature”.  Even at the end, she used poetry so powerfully to share her experiences of, and insights from, life and encroaching death.

As we talk about the sacred power of creativity, these people are surely at our shoulders.

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References

Campbell, J..The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Princeton University Press, 1968)

Bateson, G.. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (Aronson, 1972)

Glasl, F., de la Houssaye, L.. Organisatie-ontwikkeling in de praktijk (Agon Elsevier, 1975)

Heron, J.. The Complete Facilitator’s Handbook. (Kogan Page, 1999)

Senge, P., Scharmer, O., et al. Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society. (Brealey, 2005)

Cooperrider, D.. What is Appreciative Inquiry? (David Cooperrider & Associates, 2012) [https://www.davidcooperrider.com/ai-process/ accessed April 2020]

Coleman, G.. Core Issues in Modern Epistemology for Action Researchers: Dancing between Knower and Known. (Sage, 2015)

How can I evaluate critically the models that I’m using?

Innovation Adventures is a leadership and coaching programme that I prototyped with a creative community of facilitators, coaches, mentors and digital producers between 2010 and 2016.  It helps people address complex challenges that matter to them, providing them with a structure and prompts to generate, disseminate and apply their insights.  The following summer, I was invited to present this at the Action Research Group Ireland (ARGI) colloquium in Dublin.

The programme synthesizes an ancient common template of story, known as the monomyth (Campbell, 1968), and a change management method known as U-Process (Senge, Scharmer, et al, 2005; based on Glasl and de la Houssaye, 1975).  My colleagues and I use this framework with clients to help them gain insights from the world around them (especially events they attend) into complex challenges that matter to them.  They can use these along with outputs from leadership and character assessments to communicate these in highly personal and therefore engaging narratives.  These insights can be developed into thought-leadership content to position themselves and their companies among their target audiences.

It’s only relatively recently that I came to frame my work in my own mind as coaching. I’ve been facilitating online groups for a few years now. I called them Mindset group, based in part on Mastermind groups (Napoleon Hill, 1925). As a short-hand, I often called these peer-coaching sessions.  Leading a process with my very active MSc alumni to explore forms of external validation of action research, took me to framing the work — via ‘management’ and ‘CPD’ — as leadership and change.  I created a course for endorsement by the ILM called Creative Leadership for Innovation, which I packed with modules on skills for change — adding one on coaching, in order to include a colleague of appreciative enquiry, who saw himself very much as a coach.

So what is coaching, and where is the coaching practice in our work? Yossi Ives (2008) conducted an ‘exploration’ of research on coaching and appears to have something to offer on this. He notes a broad consensus that distinguishes ‘instructional’ mentoring and ‘non-directive’ coaching, while noting that the boundaries are not firmly set.  I’ve tended to use the word ‘facilitation’, perhaps reflecting that much of my work is delivered with groups.  In 2019, I attended a webinar by David Clutterbuck introducing the idea of team coaching, an idea it turns out he had written about in a coaching handbook a decade earlier (Clutterbuck, 2009). This handbook covers broad areas of practice that appear to draw on similar academic theory.

Ives presents a classification of diverse ideas that have infused coaching, many of which he acknowledges were brought together by Stober and Grant (2006).  I decided to review his list to explore where my own experience resonates, with a view to considering how I might a) further my company’s purpose of ‘story for a better world’ to support sustainable development; and b) support efforts to make more professional (and thereby more sell-able) my commercial service to develop business and organisations.  There are a number from Ives’ list:

  1. Adult-learning “that seeks to stimulate deep learning”. Reflective practice (Boud et al, 1994) and experiential learning (Kolb, 1984), along with androgogy (Knowles, 1980) “collectively argue that adults learn by reflecting on experiences.”  In future, it should be valuable to explore which other practices can support my objectives and purpose, of “story for a better world” (Davies, 2016). Within this adult learning approach, Ives notes that Gray (2005) advocates a model that seeks to raise critical reflection to question assumptions., while Cox (2006) sees the nurturing of goal-focused, self-directed leranres drawing on expeirencde to solve real-life dilemmas.
  2. Through a common practice of appreciative enquiry, a colleague introduced us to the world of positive psychology and the work of Peterson and Seligman (2003). We used character strengths to help clients develop the archetypes that come together in Campbell’s monomyth an the Hero’s Journey. Ives guides us to the argument of Kauffman (2006) that this should seek to engender hope and happiness. It is argued that positive emotions widen a person’s focus and broaden access to intellectual and psychological resources, resulting in improved performance, Ives notes.
  3. Adventure education seeks to press boundaries and explore new frontiers and horizons (Kemp, 2006). As with Campbell’s model, it beings with an analysis of the status quo, a challenge (desired destination; call to adventure) and meeting a mentor for preparation (practising reflection). As with coaching, our Innovation Adventures invite ‘brave businesses’ to step into an ‘unknown world’ (a state of risk and uncertainty, outside their comfort zone) where insights can be gained and growth occurs.  Ives notes that learning attained is captured and lessons applied in real-life settings. Our observation is that this is often not the case and that this is where external services can add value, such as supporting content production and dissemination, and particularly with follow-up activities, such as action-planning or even project management.
  4. Systemic approach. This encourages a holistic view of complex adaptive systems, exploring how various parts of it may offer insights into the challenge. Optimal for performance is a balance between stability and instability. (Cavanagh, 2006).
  5. Goal-oriented approach. This solution-driven model is highlighted here because it’s so frequently critical for engaging paying clients.  It’s also a model that Ives “fears has become obscured”.   I recall that my own initial experience of, and attempts at, reflective practice were entirely framed by an overriding need to achieve certain goals (eg paid work, relationship.)  The last Act of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey includes the stage of integration and my brief exploration of adventure education, above, suggests that action planning may be a useful step, perhaps forming well-crafted (eg SMART) goals consistent with a client’s values and interests. Ives indicates Grant (2003) and Berg & Szabo (2005) for further reading and enquiry on this.

Intuitively, our work will be enhanced when facilitators and coaches are able to draw on all these approaches as appropriate for a given client.

Research or Learning?

At the doctoral workshop, David Coughlan, emeritus professor of Trinity College’s business school, was exploring with us the difference between action research and action learning.  Oddly, it seems in retrospect, I don’t think it was something that I had particularly wrestled with before — isn’t learning just the desired output of research?  The group of a dozen or so PhD students seemed quite engaged in the question of whether you could realistically create a learning community of action researchers, or whether these should be called action learners.  Is there a suggestion that action research brings more rigour? Could this simply be a question of local jargon? For a moment, I wondered whether action learning referred to a practice in the workplace — akin  to the vocational-academic snobbery we see in school and colleges.  However, the whole rationale of action research is that learning is applied, research with people, not on them. It felt like one of those times in school when I began to think that maybe I hadn’t understood the question.

In fact, reflecting later, I couldn’t even remember tutors having mentioned action learning during my action research-based masters programme some 12 years previously.   Of course I knew what it was: I had worked with a business growth adviser to develop my own action learning programme to specifications of the Institute of Leadership and Management. I’d also worked with a couple of academics at the University of Derby who had been using it to develop collaboration between education institutes and businesses in the UK and overseas.

The following year, a business client from the transport sector asked whether participants could earn a certificate so I contacted ILM, as well as the various chartered institutions.  I contacted the Institutes of Highway Engineers, Civil Engineers, Logistics and Transport, and Highways & Transportation. Some felt it was not technical enough, one said it competed with their own offering, and was willing to certify.  Action Learning course units already existed in both ILM and Chartered Institute of Management — and I felt that a generic leadership and management offering would be acceptable by managers across a number of sectors.

Interestingly, there were no references to the extended epistemology — including the more creative ways of knowing that characterises so much reflective practice and could help differentiate a management offering in a very crowded market.  I contacted the senior course designers from my masters programme, Responsibility and Business Practice. Gill Coleman sent me an article she had written that explored the various models encountered.  She noted that many masters stuedents arrived with experience of Action Learning, although it didn’t get a mention in her article. This explained:

 

… in many ways epistemological questions, how we establish that something counts as ‘knowledge’, is at the heart of what is distinctive about action research. Action research has been described as ‘a form of science in the realm of practical knowing’ (Coghlan, 2011, p. 55 emphasis added): it is not just a way of carrying out collaborative or facilitated action, but a practice that makes claims about knowing, a form of research that seeks to make a contribution to the academy as well as the participants who are engaged with it.” (Coleman, 2015, p. 38)

 

I wonder whether I may have been wedded to the idea that Action Research was in some way superior to Action Learning. Perhaps I associate AR with a wonderful feeling of family that I experienced at the time, even though I was struggling with the frustration of urgently needing something that I could sell. I suppose there is always the danger that we trust what we are more familiar with. I now think that it’s my history as a creative practitioner, working with media, arts and story, the draws me to the idea of working with an extended epistemology that commonly features in action research and its various intersecting tribes of enquiry and interest; understanding and embracing the kind of wider forms of knowledge — as opposed to hunches or beliefs — that engage us at an emotional, sensory, human level.  As Coleman says, “the processes by which knowledge is established are themselves elements for inquiry, rather than givens.”

I can of course see that the ideas and rigour of an academic research process might seem a disruptive distraction to an executive trying to manage the risk of climate change, Brexit or pandemics.  The appeal to a business manager of action research (or learning) must surely be its process of trial and error, prototyping a way to address the complex challenges that matter to them at a particular time and place.

Reflecting now, back to the discussion in Dublin: a group of facilitators, coaches and mentors might form a peer-learning community of action researchers where they become much more academic in the science; my target market of engineers, focused on solving their problems quickly, would be more appropriate for a peer-community of action learners.  I should contact David Coughlan and check this.

How can we claim to know?

I spoke to my senior colleagues in the company and they were not particularly bothered.  The phrase ‘action learning’ wasn’t even a strong issue for some of my action research colleagues. One, for instance, was particularly passionate about first person enquiry, learning to listen to the internal dialogue both verbal and non-verbal.  Re-reading Gill’s article, free perhaps of that burden, I realised that I was most more interested in working with an extended epistemology, where creative arts were valid forms of knowledge.

To generate this knowledge, I am drawn to personal experience generated through mindfulness — explicit activities such as meditation that try to switch off the conscious thought-processes — and photography that allows me to frame and share images that ‘call my attention’.  The images can generate new conversations both internally (first person enquiry) and wiht others (second person enquiry).  Audio recordings allow me to capture these conversations.

Heron (1999) advocates a four-level epistemology that is hierarchical and this offers me a chance to reflect on how I might improve my ability to create change:

 

Experiential knowing – imagining and feeling some presence of some energy, entity, person place, process or thing – is the ground of presentational knowing. Presentational knowing – an intuitive grasp of the significance of patterns as expressed in graphic, plastic, moving, musical and verbal artforms – is the ground of propositional knowing. And propositional knowing – expressed in statements that something is the case – is the ground of practical knowing – knowing how to exercise a skill. (Heron, 1999, p. 122)

 

Unfolding, subjective experience is central to the first person action research and enquiry (eg Marshall, 2001).  Seeley suggests that the damage we are inflicting on our planet requires us to pay attention to this ‘artful knowing’ which we can express through imagination and metaphor, articulating what we know in our bodies that our conscious minds don’t recognize.  Applying Heron to my work, means that I need to find ways to verbalise this and turn it into practical skills. My own prototyping then uses the process of discussion (captured digitally) and experimentation (the action in action-learning). Critical then, must be the ability to develop my capacity to reflect and to run those thoughts into action.

Finding language to connect with businesses can often be a challenge. A common reason given is that they like explanations that are short and about ideas that are simple. According to Ives (2008), the term ‘coaching’ itself is problematic because it covers quite different approaches that are appropriate for particular contexts.  On the one hand, we have approaches that speak of goals and productivity, while on the other hand we have the perspectives of therapeutic or personal development approaches.

This appears to present a challenging dichotomy for a business using what appear to be essentially aesthetic processes, associated with mental health, to support organisational objectives, associated with hard data and key performance indicators. This feels itself like our own complex challenge and my response has been to adopt a process of experimentation.  The company – Content-ed – presents two sides: to risk managers and the marketers, who need to understand their position within a wider global narrative such as illustrated by the United Nations’ sustainable development goals; and the learning and development teams who are focused on engaging staff and other stakeholders by developing a meaningful sense of purpose.

When it comes to facilitating processes, my approach is to talk to them about non-verbal ways of knowing something, like body language and gut feelings. Like many complex concepts, the point is perhaps best made creatively.  Gregory Bateson recounts a story in order to argue the validity of arts in producing valuable knowledge that comes to us unconsciously.

At the turn of the 20th century, there lived a revolutionary artist Isadora Duncan who danced controversially. It was like nature. When asked to explain the meaning of her gyrations, she replied:  “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

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