‘Don’t shoot the messenger’.  Can we face reality?

As the Covid-19 crisis has deepened relations between politicians and their scientific advisers have become increasingly frayed. Politicians want to hear we are making progress and that the actions they are taking are being effective. They may want to highlight statistics that point in this direction. The scientists however must stay true to their data and if that says the infection rate is still too high to support some lockdown measures that is what they must advise.

Anyone who has practiced action research will recognise this dilemma. The people responsible for action want to hear that it is working and they may find it uncomfortable to hear from those responsible for the research what is actually happening on the ground. And if they don’t like the message the next step may be to ‘shoot the messenger’; perhaps to ignore what they are told, to question the competence of their researchers or even get rid of them. It is a very human characteristic. As Paul Simon wrote, ‘Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’ (The Boxer). And it may not just be a question of information about an action that is not working: it is even more difficult if the information challenges fundamental beliefs and ideologies. 

But if we are to deal effectively with a very dangerous and unfamiliar opponent like the virus we have to deal with reality not with our own favoured construction of it. If we don’t, we run the risk of having to deal with a much worse situation later.

So how can we help people take on-board information that may be difficult for them? What we don’t want is pressure on the advisers to hold back from presenting evidence for fear of their own future. They need to be given a kind of immunity, a license declared at the beginning of the process to report things as they find them. Another necessary requirement is that the people responsible for the action plans do not receive research information in any kind of public forum in which they may feel they have to defend their actions. They need a private space in which they can consider and reflect on the new information, question it as appropriate and explore its implications. The process also needs trust between colleagues and confidence in their judgement.   

Professor Ken Eason

"MiSt" book cover

Just published: A New Approach to Mindfulness: Mindful Stories – MiSt

Professor Simon Bell with his new publication. Mindful Stories: A Parable

This book provides a new and innovative approach to mindfulness using short stories. Written for individuals and for groups, the book encourages readers to examine their lives, past, present and future. The 100 stories, written in 25 quartets, ascend from the ‘Base Camp’ of self-awareness, through the various levels of the ‘Slope’, and the ‘Crest’, to the ‘Summit’ of a new personal and collective understandings.

Simon Bell. A New Approach to Mindfulness: Mindful Stories – MiSt. Cambridge Scholars, 2020. 

Mindfulness Through Fiction: A Parable is something of an introduction to MiSt. It is available to download as an e-book on Amazon. It contains 20 of the 100 stories in one single story. If you want to explore Mindful Stories, it might be a good idea to take a look at Parable first. 

We need to separate the research from the policy making

The Government process for dealing with the Covid-19 crisis has revealed many of the issues at the heart of creating an effective action research strategy. The Government is responsible for policy making and they have SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) to provide scientific and technical advice.  SAGE assesses the data on the progress of the virus, models the impact of possible actions and collates all the relevant information. The Government says it ‘follows the science’ but that is not the same as ‘we do what the scientists say’. Scientists advise but ministers decide: weighing up the trade-offs between the health risks and the economic consequences of different ways of coming out of lockdown is a burden politicians must bear.

The structure we have at Government level mirrors the separation between the research phase and the action phase in action research. This is a necessary separation so we get evidence that is as objective as possible.

Any organisation seeking to use an action research strategy to find their way out of lockdown will need to separate the responsibilities for planning and action (the policy making) from the responsibilities for research (the gathering and processing of the evidence). In a large organisation this separation of function may be relatively straightforward: the senior management may determine the action steps and staff from functions such as information analysis, business analysis, Human Resources and Health and Safety may undertake the research. It is also possible that a separate organisation, such as ourselves, takes responsibility for the research and evaluation functions in the action research cycle.

But in a small organisation there may be no pre-existing separations of role to make use of. If this is the case it can be useful to give somebody a specific responsibility for gathering the evidence to underpin the debate about the next action steps.

How well this separation will work in practice will depend upon the level of trust between members of the organisation and the degree of openness that people display to the evidence that is gathered. This is a topic we will attend to in the next post.

Professor Ken Eason

Covid-19: How will we know how well we are doing?

The Government mantra is ‘our actions follow the science’. The scientists collect evidence of how the virus is spreading in order to give the politicians the advice they seek. But what evidence to collect?  And how long is the lag before you know whether actions taken are being effective? 

Problems about gathering the evidence have bedeviled our national response to Covid-19, so much so that our strategy has been likened to ‘driving blind’. These same issues will confront every organisation that is trying to find its way out of lockdown, albeit on a more local scale. If careful steps are being taken to get going again, how can we avoid ‘ driving blind’? If the aim is to scale up business activity without endangering staff and customers, what evidence can be collected to show the plans are working?  The obvious hard data includes the number of staff, customers etc who test positive and the number of customers prepared to come through the doors. The Government test and trace system is gradually providing more local data but there have been lags in getting information that is sufficiently detailed to be useful.  

There are, however, lots of other indicators that may provide more immediate and useful feedback. In action research every new action phase has specific aims and we need ways of measuring whether these aims are being achieved. If the aim is to create safe workplaces for staff, regular surveys are needed to assess how staff are feeling. Ideally there should also be opportunities to discuss specific problems and these can be addressed in the next action phase. Similarly, as shops, pubs and restaurants re-open there will be a crude measure of how many customers arrive but, if the response in slow, more effort needs to be put into discovering why and what can be done to give people more confidence that they will be safe. As schools re-open ways are needed to assess whether children and their parents feel confident about the measures taken and opportunities need to be created to discuss any concerns they may have.  

The basic message is that if you are going to take ‘baby steps’ into the unknown you have to have measures in place to warn you if you are about to fall down the stairs.

Professor Ken Eason

Top-down or bottom-up: who makes the decisions in a pandemic?

We live in a blizzard of regulations, requirements, guidance and advice that changes regularly as the Government tries to find ways of guiding us out of lockdown. People crave clarity so they know exactly what to do but in reality there are so many different circumstances that we must all to some extent find our own way forward. For companies, how we solve the riddle of getting back to viable business activity whilst at the same time protecting staff, customers and everybody else, is going to be largely a matter of making local decisions.  We will all have to take our own ‘baby steps’, review the implications and gradually in an iterative way find our own ‘new normal’. Government may be treating getting us out of lockdown as a top-down decision making process but there will be a lot of bottom-up decisions to be taken as well.

So how can we prepare for the bottom-up process?  Here are four action research suggestions:

Set up a task force to ‘design’ the new way of working and monitor how well it is achieving its purpose

Work out what is a regulation that is enforceable by law and what is advice or guidance. This will define the discretion the task force has to create ways of working that meet local needs. Schools may have to abide by the social distancing regulations, for example, but they may be able to decide for themselves whether children come back full time or part-time, what spaces they can press into service for teaching, how to manage lunchtimes and playtimes and so on.

Be clear what the new system is expected to achieve and measure whether it is being achieved. Are people able to work following the social-distancing rules and face-mask wearing or do further adjustments need to be made? Above all are customers confident they are safe and are they willing to follow the procedures that have been set up?

Make regular reviews and be ready to change. The results of internal ‘research’ may suggest changes but there may also be outside changes. Government may change the regulations and create new restrictions or opportunities. Mandatory face-masks today: who knows what tomorrow.

Agility and invention will be needed.  There are plenty of examples of how organisations are adapting that can be our inspiration.

Professor Ken Eason

Coming out of lockdown we are all action researchers now

Across the world nations are struggling to find their way back to some kind of ‘new normal’. But they cannot do it by announcing a grand plan and then implementing it. They are dealing with an unpredictable opponent: they don’t know how we the public or the virus will respond as they lift restrictions. So from the UK Government we hear that the ‘road map’ is to take ‘baby steps’, review what happens and move forward when we can without causing a new ‘spike’. 

We are told we are in uncharted territory and we are not used to planning this way. And yet we have had a well-developed methodology for managing change in this way for nearly 100 years. Action Research was developed by Kurt Lewin in the 1920s as a way of dealing with change in circumstances where the complex system being changed is unpredictable. Over the past century many forms of action research have been developed but at their heart is a four-stage action research cycle: plan, act, research (observe, study the results) and reflect. 

First you create a plan to achieve a goal and then you take the first actions to implement the plan. Then, before taking the next step, you undertake research to see what the results of your actions have been. You then reflect on what has been achieved and plan the next actions accordingly. This becomes an iterative process, moving through a series of action research cycles so that over time a flexible plan is implemented that deals with the complexities of the real world as they become apparent. 

For the past 30 years the Bayswater Institute has been helping clients of all kinds manage change processes by using action research. This is particularly pertinent now because as the UK government adopts its own version of action research, knowingly or not, so organisations of all kinds are going to have to adopt some form of action research as they try to come out of lockdown and resume a form of normal activity. 

Our aim it to use our experience of action research to help organisations adopt this approach to planning. The next posts will be on different aspects of following an action research approach. If you want help with any aspect of the approach please let us know and we will build it into future posts.

Professor Ken Eason

MasterClass in SocioTechnical Systems & the Imagine Method

Congratulations to these Delegates who attended the Bayswater Institute MasterClass in SocioTechnical Systems and the Imagine Method.

New – The Mindful Stories Workshop

In solitude or with others, some things are too difficult to be dealt with directly. Sometimes we need to find a way to address underlying issues by circuitous means. My starting point is two-fold. It can be summed up by the two following sentences:
We are needful of harmony with each other.
We are needful of peace with ourselves.

    • By ‘needful of harmony with each other’ I refer to the quality of the relationship we have with the others who come into and move out of our lives.
    • By “needful of peace with ourselves” I refer to the quality of our self-knowing.
    • By use of the Mindful Stories you and your team can address issues which are often beyond easy solution.

Mindful Stories: working with the subliminal – a BI method developed by Simon Bell

Post By Professor Simon Bell

In solitude or with others, some things are too difficult to be dealt with directly. Sometimes we need to find a way to address underlying issues by roundabout means.

My starting point is two-fold. It can be summed up by the two following sentences:

We are needful of harmony with each other.

We are needful of peace with ourselves.

By: “needful of harmony with each other” I refer to the quality of the relationship we have with the others who come into and move out of our lives.

By: “needful of peace with ourselves” I refer to the quality of our self-knowing.

These two precepts underlie the intention and content of the Mindful Stories method.

The intention of Mindful Stories is to provide prompts or ‘calls’ to mindful consideration of the various elements of our inner relations. In reflecting on the stories used by this method, you are encouraged to reflect upon your Self and your Self with others and with things. Others like your family, work groups and friends. Things like nature, technologies and events in your life for example, interviews and holidays.

Reflections prompted by the stories may include questioning your motivations and motives, assessing your strengths and your weaknesses, considering your impact on others and their effects upon you. You may find the stories mirror some obvious and explicit event in your life; you may find that the stories address implicit and subliminal sources of concern and anxiety.

The prompts or ‘calls’ contained in the stories are invitations to sublimate, to look below the surface of your accustomed responses to yourself, your social context and your relations with the things that surround you and to allow new ideas and responses to emerge. Looking below the task in hand to the task below can free us from restrictions, allowing us to move ‘through the walls’ of the presenting problem. This in turn can lead to responses which you might not have considered before.

In this process I make use of fictions, stories which are objects which can provide means to address subjective problems, but problems which are too sensitive to be openly addressed more directly at this time.

There are no intended outcomes other than success in your exploring.

Wisdom in Groups – WiG 2019 & WiG Intensive – NOW BOOKING!

WiG 2019: 5 days: 8th–12th July 2019
Royal Cambridge Hotel, Cambridge.
£2,500 per delegate (£1,200 non-residential).
Please book early.

WiG Intensive: 3 days: 1st–3rd July 2019
Royal Cambridge Hotel, Cambridge.
£1,500 per delegate.
Presented for the first time, WiG Intensive is intended as an advanced immersive event for the alumni of earlier WiG or the Bayswater ‘Midhurst’ Conference. Again, please book early.
The WiG Intensive three days builds upon your experiences of WiG and advances into areas such as: reading the group, understanding the unconscious in group work and refining your skills as a Double Task, GroupAware practitioner.