So what? My practice of making recommendations…

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There is a ‘problematic situation’ running around in my head.  It’s been there for a few weeks eating away at me – and getting me in a muddle.  It is only in the last few days, that I realised that I have a ‘tool’ for that – systemic inquiry – a structured exploration of a situation considered problematical.

So what’s the issue?

When I received my mark for my TU812 project, I noticed that in the profile of marks my ‘weakest area’ – or the area that was less strong than everything else – was the marks allocated to ‘making recommendations’.  It got me thinking and I realised that this is feedback that I have had throughout my OU studies – MBA, development management, and in systems.  Not just in projects but also in tutor marked assignments.  All of them end with some sort of ‘so what?’ or ‘what next?’ or ‘what are you going to do?’ or ‘what do you want the reader(s) to do?’ and mark profiles or tutor comments have invariably reflected this as an area of weakness.  I think in the early days I put it down to running out of steam by the end of the assignment – and just shrugged it off.  But the TU812 project mark has made me think differently – made me realise a pattern over time.  I’d started to mull this over and think of it as an area for personal development.  I even emailed my ‘CoP’ group of systemsy students and sought their comments.  And then the other day, my manager was reviewing a briefing paper I had written and in his comments he said ‘the description and analysis is fine but then I am not sure what you think should happen next.  It all gets a bit damp at the end’.  I don’t think he really expected my reaction to be so emphatic – ‘oh no’ I exclaimed and dropped my head on the table.  I came up giggling and explained my recent insight.  We’ve agreed to focus on this personal development area together.

Of course, the first question we had was “why?”.  We had a short brainstorm together of issues we think may be part of it – my cognitive style; an academic focus (not sure what that means though); if people agree the recommendations then I have yet more work on top of my overstretched work load(!); the fact that to me it seems so obvious what needs to be done, I don’t spell it out in detail; and…. and…..But it was only a short conversation, I am sure we will come back to it.

Yesterday, I had the flipchart out on our lounge floor.  I decided to use a mind-map format to start bringing forth all of the factors I think play a part.  As usual with mind-maps, I got half-way through and started to see so many inter-connections between the different areas that I wish I had chosen a different exploration tool.  But there were a few things in there worthy of further exploration…. here they are in no particular order….

Cognitive style

Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is one of the most ‘researched’ ways of looking at cognitive style.  I have had the opportunity to learn about it in B822 Creativity, Innovation and Change and then I touched on it again in TU811 Strategic approaches People Stream.  In January 2009, I completed an MBTI Step II evaluation.  Step II is more in depth than the regular version, in that each of the four main dimensions are broken down into a further five facets.

I’ve always felt that the INTJ MBTI type aptly fits with how I see myself – key words associated with an INTJ include: analytical; systems-minded; theoretical – which might be what others are touching on when the refer to me as ‘academic’.

When talking about dominant ways of working the report I have on INTJ states:

Overall, when faced with an issue, you will probably want to use your internal visions for strategies, systems and structures (no 1 Intuition) – visions that you have objectively determined (no 2 Thinking). For optimal results, however, you may need to include the input of others (no 3 Feeling) and the details needed to make your visions a reality (no 4 Sensing).

And the bit that made me smile was in the description of an Introvert (I): “likes to think before they act, sometimes to the point of not acting”! 🙂

However, the Step II analysis of my ‘Judging’ dimension, gives a slightly different story.  It has me down as ‘Planful’ – “enjoy looking ahead and planning for the future” and “may enjoy the planning more than the doing”.  And also ‘methodical’ – “developed detailed plans for the task in hand”; “define the subtasks of your work, including the order in which they should happen”; and, “thoroughly prepare in precise ways, specifying all the steps needed to accomplish the goal”.  The work I have done to plan and deliver on large scale events and even workshops are examples of these preferences in practice.  However, I also get a warning here in relation to managing change – “allow for the unexpected in your long-range plan – it will happen” and also “know that circumstances may require that carefully developed steps be changed in the moment”.  I think in most of the work I do – with the uncertainty around me – any form of long-range plan is impossible – I have ‘given up’ trying to develop plans because I have put so much time and energy into them and then they can never be realised.  I guess there has to be an in-between mode though, I need to be able to recommend a next step even if I cannot rely on a long range plan.

There is one other quote that I think has relevance to my exploration – “under stress….. you may become overwhelmed with possibilities, each equally enticing”.  I do feel that sometimes.  Now that I have lots and lots of conceptual models and frameworks to draw on and I have developed an understanding of the importance of methodological pluralism – I see that each offers a different way of exploring the complexity and each set of insights brings a slightly different set of suggestions for action in the future.

Briefing papers as a social technology

Okay, enough of the me, me, me angle and a little time to focus on what it is we are doing when we are writing a briefing paper.  It seems to me that this social technology stems from a positivist perspective… it essentially says…”here I am an expert on this subject, telling you about the one reality there is, my objective analysis and my ‘scientific’ approach will lead to a set of recommended actions that I can accurately predict will improve the situation I am describing.  All you have to do is say ‘yes’ and then get on and ‘do’ those actions”.  It assumes the intended recipients have no perspectives of their own to enrich the analysis and it assumes linear cause and effect.

As I discussed in my last post, the worldview underpinning systems practice is more akin to post-modernism.  On most occasions, when I am writing a Briefing Paper in a work context, I am thinking….”there is a particular lens that I would like to present to explore this situation.. I think it is a useful lens as I can demonstrate through this initial exploration. I’m offering this up to you because I’d really like us to discuss and explore this together some more and I’d like us to learn together about the insights it can bring.  Once we have done so we will have a collective sense of the actions we can take.”  All I think I am presenting is a partial, personal perspective… and I want people to use it as a springboard for social learning.

It is interesting is that this is all about inviting the input of others and actually trying to keep options open – which are not my dominant modes of cognitive style.

I’ll say more about some of the ideas underpinning this approach below but suffice it to say…it worries me that my intent is different to the way that the intended recipients receive it.

But, there is a need to commit to action

Back to that ‘overwhelmed with possibilities’… as both TU811 and TU812 taught me there are traps associated with systems thinking.  The trap of holism (seeing so many connections and interdependencies) and the trap of pluralism (needing so many perspectives) – that you are unable to draw a boundary and take action.. what I do under stress!   Whilst this issue is important, I don’t think that this is what affects the quality of recommendations I include in Briefing papers.  I do commit to action – I do things – I’m just reluctant to express intended actions – for myself or others – explicitly in a briefing paper.  Here’s a few reasons why…

Planning versus purposeful action

Ray Ison (2010) draws on the work of Ralph Stacey (1993) to discuss the differences between:

– Purposeful behaviour – i.e. willed behaviour, something we have chosen to do.

– Blueprint planning/Rational planning – which assumes we can predict, determine and control.

Stacey observed that managers do not adhere to long-term plans, instead they “make a succession of unrelated, adaptive responses to changing situations as the need arises” (Ison, 2010, 196).  Most changes happened through managers learning together as a result of the ambiguity and conflict they were dealing with.  Ison raises a key point from Stacey’s research – that self-organisation gets stunted if there is too much control or attempts to intervene from a single, partial perspective.  This does not mean that people should not avoid planning – it means we should see it as a space for creative conflict, negotiation and learning.

It seems that the ‘technology’ of the Briefing Paper contributes to circumstances that constrain the opportunity for negotiation and learning.

Imposing actions on others

I have noticed that I am more comfortable with developing ‘recommendations’ when actually I want people to agree with what I need to do myself.  This is more like making a case for what I am going to spend my own time doing -“here is the background to why I am going to do what I do, I assume you are happy with that.”  If I take action as a result of an exploration I have been part of, it is purposeful behaviour.

However, I am less comfortable with recommendations that impose actions on others – whilst these are intended as an ‘invitation’ they are more often read as an instruction.  If someone has an action imposed on them because of someone else’s analysis of an issue then they are not fully engaging in the situation and it is not willed, purposeful behaviour.  Again, telling others what to do constrains their opportunity to engage and learn and open up their own possibilities.

The ‘covert operations’ factor

Whether it is about introducing systems practice or trying to facilitate Newcastle’s ‘social action’ around health and wellbeing, I often explore issues in papers that end up with me thinking of actions that could not be written down in a paper that goes into the public domain!  Writing that now makes me feel sneaky, unethical and not very authentic but I can’t deny the element of maneuvering and convincing and negotiating that is part of creating social change.  This is not something that is formalised – it is the secret organisational life – and that plays a very real role in getting things done.  I think of this as the ‘covert ops’ or ‘guerrilla warfare’ – and have written about that sort of opportunistic action in blogs before.

It seems to me that sometimes an exploration should simply be enough – it helps you understand something more so that when the right opportunity arises – such as a moment in an informal conversation  – you can take action.  You cannot predict these actions and opportunities in advance.  It is a different type of ‘problem solving’ to the traditional mode – it is not seeking a solution or a fix, it is seeking understanding.  The right purposeful action at the right time is then the emergent property of participation in learning/developing understanding, rather than a planned, linear solution.  This type of exploration does not seem to be valued.

So, what should I do?….Recommendations…

I had to end up here didn’t I?  Mmm…. I’d love to just leave it blank, but no I am determined……..

I would like to to invite others to comment on and offer me additional insights into what I have outlined above…. “others” include you – the visitor to Just Practicing.  Do you share my reservations about briefing papers?  Are you an INTJ who has similiar ‘weaknesses’ – or do you know one?  Do these issues and insights resonate with you?  Are there any concepts or ideas you are aware of that can give me additional insights?  If you have experienced similiar issues how have you overcome them?

I’ll use these insights to inform my ongoing work with my line manager and also ask peers to help me focus on ‘recommendations’ when we are working together.

Given that I cannot refuse to write Briefing Papers, I’m going to be more explicit in stating the Purpose of a paper.  Perhaps I could pose questions to enable intended recipient(s) to engage and interact with the issues.  If possible I could structure agendas to accommodate different modes of working – “discovering and exploration” vs “planning together” vs “decision making – aka endorsement of others’ recommendations for action”.

And next time I study, I’ll be up front with my tutor that I need them to help me with this area of development.


The interpretive reports provided as a result of my MBTI evaluation in January 2009

Ison, R. (2010) Systems Practice: How to act in a climate-change world, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

Stacey, R (1993) Strategy as order arising from chaos, Long Range Planning 26, 10-17 [cited in Ison 2010, 196-199)

3 thoughts on “So what? My practice of making recommendations…

  1. You raise a set of interesting issues that are highly pertinent to developing one’s systems practice. The main idea your blog triggers is the ethical imperative of Heinz von Foerster – act so as to maximise choices. So in the contexts you describe what are choices and who might have them? One way to think about this is in terms of whose behavioural repertoires might be enhanced in the situation of concern by your action of ‘making recommendations’?

    Before answering lets take a step back – I realise for you – but for not everyone – recommendations are NOT* seen as the logical outcome of a linear process of reasoning. One should not deny the systematic elements of practice as well as the systemic, but the systemic for me comes in the realisation that what recommendations are about is opening up a space for further, systemic action, including one’s own actions. Thus who are current and possible future stakeholders whose actions might be enhanced by pursuit of recommendations?

    Put another way recommendations could be seen as the design considerations for the next cycle of operation of a learning system – such a conception would exemplify taking the ‘design turn’ referred to in TU812.

    *edit made in response to note below. HW

  2. Sorry

    missed a key word in the previous posting:

    Before answering lets take a step back – I realise for you – but for not everyone – recommendations are NOT seen as the logical outcome of a linear process of reasoning.

  3. Hi Ray

    Thank you for sharing your insights. They have given me more to ponder on…and I think it is time to re-visit the concept of the design turn! Out with your book again…(-:


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