Knowledge Solutions

fullsizeoutput_312fAlmost a decade ago I had the pleasure of meeting and first working with Olivier Serrat from the Asian Development Bank. We worked together on a range of initiatives for ADB including developing a series of courses on learning in organisations. During that time Olivier wrote nearly 100 short and readable papers on issues related to organisational learning, knowledge management and leadership. In 2010 he brought these together in a single volume and it has been a constant and valued companion to me in my work. More recently, Olivier has added to the already comprehensive list of topics he had covered in his original publication and has now published a new collection of 126 of his articles in e-book formKnowledge Solutions comprises an encyclopaedic resource on learning in organisations and is a significant contribution to the field. In an extremely welcome gesture of generosity his publisher – Springer – has made all of this content available Open Access which means we can download all the chapters free. You can browse through this cornucopia of materials here.


Consultant’s Journey

Consultant's Journey: A Dance of Work and SpiritConsultant’s Journey: A Dance of Work and Spirit by Roger Harrison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been intending to read this book for about fifteen years following a friend’s recommendation. I got hold of a second hand copy recently and it was well worth the belated purchase. In fact, I wish I had read it much earlier in my consulting career. Roger Harrison’s odyssey – as has been mentioned in many other reviews – parallels the development of OD up to the time of writing in 1995. Whilst many books on OD and management quickly go out of date, it is incredible how relevant and indeed prescient much of this book is. It is also striking how much of his personal life Harrison is willing to share as he describes his journey as a consultant and as a husband, father, colleague, lover, disciple and human being. Whilst this level of disclosure may be common now (even in some ‘professional’ books), I imagine when ‘Consultant’s Journey’ was published in 1995 it was pretty unusual – but entirely consistent with the integrated and self-reflective approach to work and life that is Harrison’s practice hallmark. Harrison’s often forensic analysis of his motives, ambitions, flaws, fluctuations in self-confidence and achievements is stimulating, and reassuringly honest. For me, reading the book was an emotional rollercoaster as Harrison’s disclosures and insights prompted me to recall some of my own consultancy successes, failures and occasional disasters and to view them in a new light. There is simply so much to stimulate and challenge OD practitioners in this book that it is difficult to know where to start. For me the most revelatory aspect of the Consultant’s Journey is how many conceptual models in OD and training practice have their roots in Harrison’s work. He is quick to admit that many of ‘his’ ideas were not completely original (but how many ideas really are original?) – but in my view Harrison’s significant contribution to the OD field has been in bringing together thinking from diverse disciplines, adding his own insights and then developing practical and useful models and frameworks for others to use.

In an accompanying book of papers (The Collected Papers of Roger Harrison) the author quotes Paramhansa Yogananda who is reputed to have said “Read for one hour; write for two; meditate for three”. Harrison goes on to say “I believe that all, or almost all learning is remembering in the sense of bringing forth what is already latent in us and giving it new forms appropriate in the moment. If that is true, then a major purpose of reading is to stimulate one’s own mental, emotional, or creative processes. One reads to catalyse remembering, and a little of the catalyst goes a long way.” Harrison may not have published much but I will be benefitting from his two book legacy for a long time. I only wish I had listened to my friend Liz Goold fifteen years ago!

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Rich Pictures


Last week I spent a very enjoyable five days in Oxford facilitating a short course on Organisational Development for INTRAC. This is an annual event for me and one that involves participants from across the globe. This year there were ten. One of the methodologies I introduce during the course is drawing ‘rich pictures’ and every year I can guarantee that asking the participants to draw a picture elicits groans from at least half of them. For most people, drawing is something they leave behind them as children. This is a great pity and I am pleased that almost everyone – even those who insist they “can’t draw” – reassess the value of using pictures as well as words to help them explain the complex organisational challenges they bring to the course. Drawing rich pictures is part of ‘soft systems methodology’ (see Checkland, Peter and Jim Scholes (1999) Soft Systems Methodology in Action, Chichester, UK: Wiley) but it has now evolved into a recognised ‘standalone’ method that can be used in many different ways. A Rich Picture uses drawing to visualise the complex systems nature of a situation, open up discussion, generate creativity and insight, and facilitate shared understanding.

Rich Pictures are well-suited to examining organisational development and organisational learning issues because even apparently simple organisational issues always involve complex multiple inter-acting relationships. Pictures are often a better medium than words for expressing complexity because they encourage a more dynamic and holistic representation of a situation – in short they can provide a rich amount of information in an easily understandable form. I have used Rich Picture methodology with groups in Denmark, Myanmar, Sweden, the UK, The Netherlands and Armenia. The methodology seems to cross cultural borders easily.

I try to reassure my course participants that they don’t have to be an artist to produce a Rich Picture! All you need is a very large piece of paper (flipchart-sized or bigger), lots of coloured pens and some time to think.

Here are some guidelines for drawing rich pictures:

  1. The focus of the picture should be the situation you are interested to explore – it could be in your organisation or in another organisation.
  2. Use all the space available – spread out the parts of your picture but leave some space for developing the picture (a Rich Picture is a dynamic tool and can be revised to incorporate new insights).
  3. Include a representation of yourself in the picture – you don’t have to be at the centre but you should be in there somewhere!
  4. Include key people, teams and structures within the organisation.
  5. Include other important stakeholders outside the organisation.
  6. Represent the issues, achievements, problems, feelings and concerns of the people in the diagram using speech bubbles and thought bubbles (just like comic books).
  7. Use metaphors – for example, if you think someone is forcing their views on others, draw them as an elephant!
  8. Represent types of relationships using arrows, lines or any other way you like.
  9. Represent the climate or quality of the relationships using symbols such as dark clouds, sunshine, lightning flashes or any other way you like.
  10. Include influencing factors in the wider environment.

There are a number of books around for people who are interested to dive deeper into the use of Rich Pictures. One of my favourites is Growing Wings on the Way – Systems Thinking for Messy Situations by Rosalind Armson, 2011, Triarchy Press.

Think Like an Engineer?

Think Like an EngineerThink Like an Engineer by Guru Madhavan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had great expectations of this book, some of which were met and many of which were not. On reflection, I think Madhavan’s book could have been more accurately titled ‘How Engineers Think’. On this it delivered. The book is full of entertaining and enlightening stories that get into the minds of engineers across historical, geographical and specialist boundaries. However, it disappointed me because it didn’t help me as a reader to see how I could apply the models and perspectives in my own work. I was prepared to meet the author half way on the book jacket claim that ‘Think Like an Engineer … can help you solve problems, make better decisions and innovate in a complex world”. Having an index helps, and there is a good section on ‘Sources and Resources’ for follow up but a few ‘boxes’ summarising the models and thinking tools and maybe providing some hints on how others outside the field of engineering have used them would have been very helpful. Modular systems thinking (p21); Heilmeier’s checklist for innovation (p24); Ohno’s ‘5-Whys’ technique (p72); and, particularly, the ‘structure, constraints, trade-offs’ model that runs through the book would all have been candidates for ‘boxed summaries’ focusing on practical applications outside the realm of engineering.

Having read Madhavan’s book I have a better understanding of the nature of engineering and a new-found respect for engineers. I just wish I felt better equipped to think like one!

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We can learn a lot about learning from jazz musicians

Metheny_Pat_131aJimmyKatzMetaphors are powerful ways of exploring ideas from interesting and apparently unconnected directions. During the course on organisational development that I teach each year, I introduce the idea that organisations can learn from how jazz musicians work together to perform their art. If we think about organisations as if they were jazz groups, all sorts of fascinating learning possibilities open up. Here are some of the things jazz musicians do that we in our organisations can learn from:

  • Develop individual competence | To be a valued member of the group, each member must be an accomplished musician with musicianship skills, a deep understanding of music theory (scales, chords, progressions), and a comprehensive knowledge of compositions that have become jazz standards. All jazz musicians must have not only the skills and knowledge needed to perform, but also the attitudes that make them a valued group member – a tricky balance between ego (think Miles Davis) and humility (think Pat Metheny)
  • Apply reflective practice | Improvisation (which is the essence of jazz as an art form) requires the ability to listen and think simultaneously whilst playing. It comes as a surprise to most people that for long periods in a performance the jazz musicians literally do not know what they will play until the notes come out of their instruments!
  • Challenge habits and conventional practices | Some jazz musicians repeat familiar routines rather than risk failure. They can be technically brilliant but lacking in imagination. The truly great jazz musicians continually push their own boundaries, move out of their “comfort zones”, and question their previous ideas about even the most familiar tunes they play. As the great pianist Keith Jarrett once said, “The music is a struggle. You have to want to struggle.”
  • Everyone solos | In a balanced jazz group everyone solos. This is seen as both a right and a responsibility –  musicians are expected to solo and they also want to take the opportunity to show what they can play.
  • Good accompaniment is necessary for good solos | In a jazz group, everyone is expected to accompany the soloist in a way that creates space for the soloist’s ideas to emerge and encourages their creativity.
  • Dialogue and exchange | Jazz musicians continuously “play off” one another, exchanging phrases and chords, interpreting, and building on each others’ ideas, and exploring new musical patterns and sometimes deliberately trying to defy each others’ expectations!
  • Embrace errors as sources of creativity and learning | Jazz groups thrive on improvisation and that means musicians must take risks with their playing – going outside of their comfort zone. Sometimes the risks don’t immediately pay off but everyone learns from that because of the continual musical dialogue between the musicians as they play together.
  • Balance structure with improvisation | Jazz music is created by improvising around songs. The songs provide the guiding structure for the music but do not constrain the musicians. In fact, the songs provide a sense of order – a continuous sense of cohesion and coordination (but not the individual notes and rhythm) from which the improvised music flows.
  • Meet and practice with others regularly | Musicians often take part in ‘jam’ sessions – informal opportunities to “hang out” together, share ideas, ask questions of experienced players, learn new techniques, and hear stories.

And if you want to hear how all this comes together, in my view you can do no better than watch Pat Metheny’s group here.


Back in June I had the privilege of being a resource person at a four day workshop on Organisation Development hosted by WWF UK at their Living Planet Centre in Woking. The participants were WWF colleagues involved in OD work from Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Kenya and the UK. It has been an exhilirating experience very ably facilitated by Richard Harris from 3KQ. My inputs – based on research that Brenda, Órla and I carried out for WWF – focused on developing a Theory of Change for OD and monitoring and evaluating OD.

During the workshop I conducted video interviews with all of the participants asking them to share their reflections on their country’s OD programme. The video has recently been produced and you can watch it here:

Think Like An Artist

Think Like an Artist: How to Live a Happier, Smarter, More Creative LifeThink Like an Artist: How to Live a Happier, Smarter, More Creative Life by Will Gompertz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a little beacon in a sea of mediocre books about creativity. The lessons Gompertz has distilled from discussions with artists may not be earth-shattering but I found them enlightening and refreshingly authentic. Gompertz avoids slipping into platitudes, for example about learning from failure, and shares some genuinely insightful lessons about coping when things don’t go according to plan. Where he becomes a bit anodyne is in the final chapter when he tries to apply some of these lessons to organisations. It’s difficult to argue with him about the stultifying effects of hierarchy and the limitations that current approaches to remuneration have on workers’ motivation (indeed – who would wish to argue?) but these issues are hardly revelatory – in fact they have been discussed for decades. Given that Gompertz works for the BBC I’m sure he has countless examples of how organisations can both enable creativity to flourish and crush it through organisational bureaucracy. It would have been interesting to have some first hand accounts of this but I guess he – like all of us – needs to be careful about what he says about his employer! The wonderfully chosen quotes and examples together with his playful sense of humour make this book a real gem.

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