Maze

“Trying to get anything done here – it’s like a maze”. It’s a comment I have heard regularly over many years working in organisations. I suspect you have heard similar.  We experience tangled networks of procedures, structures and processes that belie the clear circuitry of organisational charts and hierarchies. The Circumlocution Office of  FullSizeRender 3Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend or Kafka’s The Castle offer distorted premonitions of the modern labyrinthine organisation. Both Arthur Clennam and K become enmeshed in unknowable bureaucracies where clarity is vigorously suppressed. As the shocked Junior Barnacle – interrupted in his eating of mashed potatoes and gravy – remonstrates: ‘…you mustn’t come into the place saying you want to know, you know’.  Knowledge is the ultimate taboo.

The maze is a reviled place. A quick search through the Business books section on Amazon shows the metaphor deployed in not wholly positive ways: Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, The Maze of Banking: History, Theory, Crisis; Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. They suggest difficulty, challenge, prohibition.  As Kociatkiewicz and Kostera observe ‘the labyrinth stands for all that is absurd, unnecessary, undesired in contemporary organizations’ (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.66).

But the maze is more subtle, more liminal than that.  At heart, it represents a paradox.  Think a moment of the maze designer.  With pen poised over parchment, his world is that of symmetry, elegance, order, aesthetics, cohesion and logic.  For the protagonist or navigator however, these experiences are alchemised into confusion, uncertainty and despair.  The calculating draughtsman shapeshifts into a trembling Theseus, Harry Potter or a pursued Danny Torrance in The Shining.

But the maze is liminal in other ways. In their excellent The Neo-Generalist, Mikkelsen and Martin suggest the ‘individual at labyrinth’s centre is emblematic of personal journeys, personal narratives’ (Mikkelsen and Martin p.61).  The maze is a site of transformation.  Attali describes how, for pilgrims breaking their journey to Compostela at Chartres cathedral, the circular stonework labyrinth on the floor of the nave represented the winding, arduous journey from sin to salvation: ‘the perilous path of the mortal on the way to Paradise’ (p. xiv). In contrast to K’s Castle or the Circumlocution office where knowledge is either censored or feared, here the prize is self-awareness and understanding.

And for Attali, such successful navigation relies on the skills of the ancient maze explorers: ‘perseverance, unhurriedness, curiosity, playfulness, trickery, flexibility, improvisation and self-mastery’ (Attali, p.75).  Mazes slow us down (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.67), they enable us to wander, to get lost, to become a nomad (Attali, p. 76). And as nomads or pilgrims, we create the time and opportunity to make sense of what is around us; to play with alternative possibilities; to resist the lure of premature solutions or the easy to find exit.

So maybe this is the narrative we should propagate in our organisations.  The maze as a metaphor of hope and celebration.  And, if we redeem its story, then perhaps redemption may be our own well-deserved reward.

Attali, J. (1999). The Labyrinth in Culture and Society. North Atlantic Books.

Kociatkiewicz, J. and Kostera, M. (2015) ‘Into the Labyrinth: Tales of Organisational Nomadism’, Organization Studies. 36(1), pp. 55-71

Mikkelsen, K. and Martin, R. (2016). The Neo-Generalist. LID Publishing Ltd.

Window

Window

In her introduction to the excellent anthology of essays – Thinking on thresholds: the poetics of transitive spaces – Subha Mukerji refers to the ‘mesmeric quality of the threshold’ (Mukerji, p. xxi) and the ‘elusive but crucial experiences at a variety of boundaries’ (p. xix).  Later in the book  the theme is developed by Gillian Beer in her thoughtful analysis of windows and their uses and meanings in literature.  They are a ‘liminal connection between inner and outer’ (Beer, p.3). Windows link and separate; provide access yet exclude; are both medium and barrier.  Incidentally, they are also places of concealment and Beer evokes the image of a spy mounting surveillance on the world beyond.  Or a voyeur perhaps – which suggests our flaneur, peering through the shop windows in a Parisian arcade: detached and distant, the spy without.

It made me think how office buildings often reflect rather than reveal.  They are more looking glass than window.  What you see is where you are rather than where you want to be. The organisation within is secluded and the story it might tell literally a closed book.

But more disturbing than the window as looking glass is the room deprived of windows.  In reference to new office buildings, Beer notes how windows are often ‘done away with’ and how ‘rooms entirely without windows have been traditionally understood as sinister or subjected…the presence of windows brings the light of the outside world to bear on what is happening in the room’ (p.6).  How many meetings have you sat through and how many training sessions endured in cell like chambers?  How can ideas, imagination, creativity flourish if the light of the outside world (or rather, enlightenment) is denied.  If we see the threshold as ‘mesmeric’, a place of liminal connection and transformation, then it is surely perverse to plasterboard it over.  How ironic that in exhorting our colleagues to – and it’s a ghastly phrase I know – ‘think outside the box’, we encourage this by placing them in the very box their imaginations are required to escape from.

But office windows can be creative in other ways too.  As you wander the corridors – an organisational flaneur perhaps? – you may peek through the windows of the offices you pass.  The door is closed; figures gather around a table and a phone; their looks may tell of frustration, excitement, anxiety.  What’s going on?  If the combination of figures is puzzling – so why are x and y meeting up? – then our irresistible urge to spin a narrative takes hold once more.  We formulate a plot, a causal and temporal chain of connection that explains these vexing stimuli.  We are excluded yet involved and perhaps it is this ambiguous, liminal state that stimulates our imaginations.

In her analysis of Yeats’s poem ‘Ego Domimus Tuus’, Beer deconstructs the image of the poet Keats ‘with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window’.  But it is this ‘gap between nose and the sweets, the cold glass between’ that stimulates ‘Luxuriant song’ (p. 8).  It is the threshold that excites poetry.

And so too in our offices.  We may view our windows as organisational prose – boring, formulaic, transparent (in more ways than one) – but are they also not coated with a thin film of poetry? Not just windows but Keats’s very own ‘Charm’d magic casements’ that open on our ‘faery lands forlorn’ (Gittings, p.126)?

Beer, G. (2011) ‘Windows: Looking In, Looking Out, Breaking Through’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.)  Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces.  Anthem Press.

Gittings, R. (ed.) (1966) Selected Poems and Letters of John Keats. Heinemann.

Mukerji, S. (2011) ‘Introduction: Thinking on Thresholds’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.)  Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces.  Anthem Press.

Airport

Airport2

In an endlessly fascinating essay – Non-places: an introduction to super modernity –  Marc Augé contrasts anthropological place (any space bearing the inscriptions of the social bond or collective history, such as churches, market places and town halls) with non-places.  Described as spaces of circulation, consumption and communication, they are the places we inhabit when we “are driving down the motorway, wandering through the supermarket or siting in an airport waiting for the next flight to London or Marseille” (Augé, p.77).

As a reasonably regular traveller, the airport as non-place strikes a distinct and suitably muzak tinged chord.  For Augé, one of the characteristic features of non-places is their ability to dislocate identity.   So let’s consider our arrival at Heathrow departures.  It is not our intelligence, our wit, our skill to strip a motor engine, paint a watercolour or craft a 50 metre cross-field pass that ensures our safe transit via the various contractual crossing points that confront us: check-in desk, security, passport control, final airline  check before boarding the plane.

Such negotiation is only ensured by reducing our identity to its essence.  A passport (bearing a photo, a number, a code) that then secures us a secondary identity: the boarding pass.  Picking up Augé’s argument, the traveller is “relieved of his usual determinants” (Augé, p.83).  He assumes a temporary identity yet one that echoes those of other travellers.  We respond to the “same code as others…the same messages…the same entreaties” –  proceed to gate 4, rows 5-8 boarding now.  It is a state of both “solitude and similitude”.

This reduction in identity relates to Victor Turner’s analysis of the liminal stage in rites of passage.  The neophytes undergoing this transition are reduced to nothing – they are stripped of their property, insignia, rank and kinship position.  There is “nothing to demarcate them structurally from their fellows” (Turner, pp. 98-99).  So, maybe a non-place is also a liminal place.  Or, as Kociatkiewicz and Kostera note, a “transitional space” –  the space “waiting for liminality to happen” (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.7).

This highlights a further feature of non-places.  Augé observes that the relative anonymity afforded by the temporary identity assumed in non-places can be felt as a liberation.  For Augé, this is a negative liberation consisting merely of the power to refrain from making decisions, to submit to order and control.  Yet maybe there is genuine liberation here.  The liminality described by Turner is not only a condition of ambiguity and paradox; but also one of growth and transformation.  For there are some – myself included – who experience the anonymity of the airport as conducive to thought, reflection, insight.  I find them stimulating places to work – freed from the the everyday, the burden of multiple identities and responsibility.  The mind relaxes and opens itself to possibilities. So, perhaps heretically, non-places are not merely spaces of circulation, communication and consumption but refuge also to another ‘C’; that of creativity.

Augé, M. (2008), Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Verso.

Kociatkiewicz, J., Kostera, K, (2011) ‘Transitional Space’, Tamara Journal for Critical Organisation Inquiry, 9(3-4), pp. 7-9.

Turner, V. (1967), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.

Corridor

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The meeting ends.  Papers are collected, laptops closed, pens gathered and briefcases refilled.  You push back the chairs, retrieve coats and scarves and, trading true english courtesy, invite each to go through the door first.

Then something happens.

More often than not, the conversation – previously focussed on objectives, next steps and deadlines – then abruptly shifts gear.  You and your fellow conferees begin to talk about the journey home (“and where do you come in from?”), plans for the weekend or coming holidays.  It’s also the place where the stories emerge.  Such is the transformational magic of the corridor.

I remember once where, having immersed ourselves in serious topics for an hour, the three of us stepped out of our meeting room and the client immediately began a story about…and conscious about betraying confidences…a somewhat explosive end to a corporate dress-down day shortly before Christmas.  In that short story, I learnt more about the organisation – its culture, values, political niceties – than I could from any press search or annual report.

So why the corridor?  Maybe it’s the sudden opening of the physical environment after the confines of an enclosed room.  Such subconscious and metaphoric liberation might similarly loosen the chains on what we feel we can and should talk about.  Maybe, it’s the long vista that stretches into the distance and invites us out of our current state to somewhere else.

In this sense, the corridor is a liminal space.  A locale for transit, for movement and progression.  It leads from one place to another and not just in a physical sense but in a symbolic way too.  From the formal, serious room of discussion and commercial imperatives to the exit and a world of the normal, the day to day, the social.  And maybe, it’s this shapeshifting quality – still part of the business environment but one whose clarity is slightly blurred and out of focus –  that encourages different conversations and elicits our stories and tempts them out into the open.

shoreline

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Story master Shawn Callahan was kind enough to comment on my first post and suggest an additional metaphor for receptions.  Whereas I had riffed on the concept of a border crossing, Shawn wisely emphasised the idea of a shoreline.  And it’s a metaphor I like.  For receptions are places of ebb and flow, subject to a diurnal low and high tide as employees and visitors arrive and depart.   And just as the tides leave a detritus of seaweed, driftwood and, in my native Norfolk, rucksacks of carefully wrapped  cocaine, so the human flow leaves its own traces: a temporary imprint on a leather seat; a corporate magazine left open at a nonchalantly scanned page; a half drunk cup of earl grey.

Similarly, as deserted shorelines exude a certain melancholy, so receptions, in those late evenings or weekends, possess a lonely, even uncanny, mood.  The lighting subdued, the aggregate floors and walls prone to echoes, the security guard, a lonely sentinel peering through the plate glass windows to the wild seas beyond.

These shorelines – liminal, deserted – are places for story.  Each attracts the other.  M.R James, probably our greater writer of the uncanny, knew it well.  In Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to You, My Lad, the antiquarian Professor Parker dreams of a terrified, exhausted man pursued by a ‘figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined’ along a ‘stretch of shore – shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water’.   As a result of his horrifying experience at the climax of the story, Parker is arguably a changed man – his ‘views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be’.  Although, such enlightenment comes at a price: ‘the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night’.

As the story shows, the liminal can be a place of discomfort, of knowledge gained and innocence lost: a place of ambiguous transformation.  So, next time you find yourself in a deserted reception, not only may the artefacts around you carry a greater potency (as there is less to distract you from the stories they carry), but you may find it prudent not to look behind you. Those footsteps you hear are getting closer, and closer still…