Shadows of organisational life

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I enjoyed reading Matt Moore’s post about his participation in a Knowledge Management Conference.

Like Matt I don’t much want to do presentations these days preferring sessions that are genuinely interactive and conversational. So I was glad he wanted to try something different at this gig. He got a sense that there lots of issues around boundaries in the KM business. So after some initial suggestions didn’t work out Matt came up with a simple session idea:

Then the thought struck me. Get the participants to draw maps. So that’s what I did. Six tables, six maps. In each case I asked them to map out knowledge management as an imaginary nation and then identify who else this nation might interact with (through trade, war or something else).

You can see the results on Matt’s blog. I think what emerged was really interesting – a graphic demonstration of the complex and often conflicted nature of the business these folks are in. For me, it’s as if folks were quite able to draw the elephant under the table – even though there had been a lot of resistance to naming it in the run up to the conference.

I have sometimes found getting people to express their ideas through a medium or metaphor seems to unleash more refreshing, often less refined/polite ideas and observations. It’s as if it bypasses some of our defences against stepping into riskier territory.

Many years ago, I had an interesting demonstration of the range of material it can uncover, for good or ill. I was hosting an awayday for a client – it was one of those team-building/strategy gigs. I asked everyone to grab a marker pen and flip chart and produce a picture of their personal future if the business was really working for them. (I’m not a massive fan of “idealised visions” but they can often give us information about what’s happening right now).

Two images from that process still stand out in my memory. One participant drew herself at a desk with colleagues saying simple greetings and thanks to her. When she spoke about her image, she revealed how important it was for her to be acknowledged. She hated arriving at the office in the morning if everyone was head down at work and didn’t say hi. It’s easy for these very simple needs to go unspoken in a corporate environment – but it was brilliant that she brought this up. I suspect for her, a lot of grand talk about strategy would not have been that useful. What mattered was something very simple, close to home… and (I say laughing) very easily deliverable.

In sharp contrast, another particpant drew a picture of two tall buildings. One represented the company itself. Next to it was a much taller building with his name on it. In his ideal future, he would establish his own more succesful business and his current employer could be a valued (smaller) client. As he explained this, you could have heard a pin drop. I can imagine many different ways to interpret this image, and it does seem at a far extreme, status-wise, from the first. I’ll just say that again, this is not something you’d normally expect to hear in a conventional business discussion.

Things like this, and Matt’s experiment, suggest there’s a heck of a lot that easily goes unspoken and unprocessed in organisations. And an awful lot of energy is tied up when it says that way.

For clarity, I’m not crudely advocating that people have to let it all hang out. But I do get excited at the possibilities when more of the organisational shadow comes into the light.

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