Hedge

The hedge is threshold, boundary land. It delineates, marks and divides. Poised between field and field or meadow and lane, it signifies the boundary it simultaneous enacts.

These are ‘landscapes of semiotic uncertainty’ (Kaczmarczyk, p.53). Look carefully at the tangle of bramble and leaf. For the hedgerow is a topological trickster. At times, fecund, green, abundant. At others, bare, barren, denuded. Caught in the twist of seasons, the hedge is home to both green man and ghost. It shifts shape at will.

IMG_1013And ambiguities multiply and enfold. For some, the hedge is a space of nest and burrow. A refuge from predator and storm where it is safe to roost and sleep. Yet this is also a place of danger – for concealment carries both blessing and curse. The eyes that spark in the undergrowth; the rank tang of fox or weasel. In the slanting dusk, the silhouettes of blackthorn and dog-rose invite the unknown. They are ‘uncanny artefacts’ that trouble and disturb (Kaczmarczyk, p.55). Perhaps all hedgerows intimate the zone rouge: this now fertile no-man’s land which bears its stain – and its dark bounty of bone and bullet – through the decades. For every Prince that finds his Sleeping Beauty, lie many others pierced and bleeding on the thorns.

Remember too that for the small and wily, the hedge is porous; a permeable barrier though which ancestral paths, the well-marked smeuses, form the old ways through bramble, branch and thistle. Yet, to the large and unseeing, the thorn and briar are as unpassable as the castle wall. But here, as Kaczmarczyk suggests is another ambiguity. For this is not a barrier of stone and mortar but one of fragile stalk and leaf. And there is tension in this contrast (Kaczmarczyk, p.57).

One final duality. By the spinney and at the end of the loke, I find hedges that proclaim their vegetal exuberance. But others, those that border my local lanes, are bushwhacked to a bristly conformity. Yet this will not last. For this is a liminal phase between growth and regrowth. And, in the land of the liminal, the blade only secures temporary control.

Yet there was a time when the blade and digger carried out more potent work. Since 1950 more than half our hedgerows have vanished, condemned ‘as old-fashioned relics that shaded crops, sheltered vermin, wasted space’ (Clifford and King, p.223). And life was lost: the birds flew, the animals retreated. This is, perhaps, a lesson our organisations have failed to learn. Hurdley talks of the ‘increasingly vulnerable position’ of corridors in traditional buildings (Hurdley, p.46). These ‘hedges’ in the office landscape  are under threat.

IMG_1015Elsewhere, the devastation has been unleashed. According to Dale and Burrell, seven miles of internal walls in the UK Treasury were removed, ‘literally dismantling the ‘corridors of power’’ (Dale and Burrell, 2010). To justify this destruction, those arguments of productivity and enhanced yield emerge from their 1950’s winding sheet. But here the grain and seed so eagerly sought are those of ‘interactive, complex, open-ended teamwork’ and the diminution of ‘hierarchies or status’ (Hirst and Humphreys, p.1506).

In Hirst and Humphrey’s study of ‘dehedging’ at a UK local authority’s new HQ, there are plaintive echoes of more literal counterparts. As part of the move, ‘de-cluttering’ was encouraged, with sanctions for those ‘who failed to leave their workspace entirely clear of all paperwork and personal items’ (Hirst and Humphreys, p.1516). You can almost hear the bushwhacker’s whine and roar. Yet, three years after this pruning and scraping, ‘many staff had ‘nested’’, their belongings defiantly on display. It is a suggestive metaphor – the domesticity of home and security once more restored to the open, wind-blasted ‘field’.

Elsewhere, the benefits of the prairie office plain are equally elusive. In a new study of food and eating in the workplace, Harriet Shortt observes how, in an open plan office ‘designed with collaboration, togetherness and teamwork in mind’ (Shortt, p.11), one interviewee talked of the loneliness and sense of exclusion such an environment engenders. It is the cake and pastries brought from home and shared ‘on desks and on locker tops’, that bring people back together and reconnect conversations – like birds noisily congregating around the hedgerow’s larder of haws, hips and sloes.

As we have seen, the hedgeless field offers exposure and threat: all who cross or linger are open to the gaze of others. In a recent paper, Hirst and Schwabenland reveal that in a newly configured office, visibility meant that ‘being observed was a constant possibility’ (Hirst and Schwabenland, p.170). For some women this visibility was ‘perceived as uncomfortable or oppressive’ with attendees for job interviews being ‘marked’ for their attractiveness by men in the team (Hirst and Schwabenland, p.170). Similarly, Kingma, in a study of the effects of ‘new ways of working’ in a Dutch insurance company, quoted employees who felt they were ‘constantly being watched’ (Kingma, p.16).

In an echo of this, Shortt notes how several women working flexible arrangements found the hot-desking arrangements exclusionary. They described themselves as ‘nomads’, ‘wandering around the office to find a desk’ – rootless travellers deprived of a home base or shelter from the workplace storm.

IMG_1011 2So maybe we should campaign for the return of our metaphoric organisational hedges. Allen identified ‘washrooms, copying machines, coffeepots, cafeterias’ as ‘interaction-promoting facilities’ that draw people to them increasing the occurrence of chance encounters and unintended communication (Allen, p.248). And these ‘hedgerow rendezvous’ have value: they are the ‘prime vehicle for transmitting ideas, concepts, and other information necessary for ensuring effective work performance’ (Allen, p.269).

Hillier stresses the importance of the ‘weak ties’ generated by buildings. These connections to ‘people that one does not know one needs to talk to’ are more likely to break the boundaries of knowledge that solidify when projects, functions and departments are localised (Quoted in Kornberger and Clegg, p.1105). The ‘generative buildings’ that result evoke ‘chaotic, ambiguous, and incomplete space’.  It is in these margins – where people who are ‘normally separated exchange ideas and concepts’ – that ‘creative organising and positive power happens’ (Kornberger and Clegg, p.1106). This is fluid, liquid, organic space or, if you prefer, the organisational hedgerows which shelter chance, promise and threat.

For, in these peculiarly liquid times of flux and change, it is important ‘to move quickly and easily across the team boundary’ (Dibble and Gibson, p.926). Contract workers, consultants, fledgling, entrepreneurial ventures all require borders that are permeable and porous. And, like the variety of flora and fauna engendered by the hedgerow, these organisational boundaries can be similarly diverse. Their form may be social, cultural, physical while the flow can involve people, information, resources and status (Dibble and Gibson, p.929).

So, if you hear the bushwhacker’s roar, remember the power of elder, dogwood, hazel and sweet briar. For it in these interlacing boundaries, fertile, pliable and everlastingly liminal, that the inventive and cunning will find the shaded gaps that lead to invention and, maybe, salvation.

Now the hedgerow is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom/Of Snow, a bloom more sudden/Than that of summer

Allen, Thomas J. (1977), Managing the flow of information. MIT Press.

Clifford, S. and King, A. (2006), England in particular: a celebration of the commonplace, the local, the vernacular and the distinctive. Hodder & Stoughton.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2010) ‘All together, altogether better’: the ideal of ‘community’ in the spatial reorganization of the workplace’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organizational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Dibble, R. and Gibson, C. B. (2018) ‘Crossing team boundaries: a theoretical model of team boundary permeability and a discussion of why it matters’, Human Relations, 71(7), pp. 925–950.

Eliot, T.S. (1944) ‘Little Gidding’, in Four Quartets. Faber.

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting power in its place: the centrality of edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Hirst, A. and Schwabenland, C. (2018) ‘Doing gender in the “new office”’, Gender, Work and Organization, 25(2), pp. 159–176.

Hurdley, R. (2010) ‘The power of corridors: connecting doors, mobilising materials, plotting openness’, The Sociological Review, 58(1), pp. 45–64.

Kaczmarczyk, K. and Salvoni, M. (2016) ‘Hedge mazes and landscape gardens as cultural boundary objects’, Sign Systems Studies, 44(12), pp. 53–68.

Kingma, S. (2018) ‘New ways of working (NWW): work space and cultural change in virtualizing organizations’, Culture and Organization, (Online), pp. 1-24.

Kornberger, M. and Clegg, S. R. (2004) ‘Bringing space back in: organizing the generative building’, Organization Studies, 25(7), pp. 1095–1114.

Macfarlane, R. (2015), Landmarks. Hamish Hamilton

Shortt, H. (2018) ‘Cake and the open plan office: a foodscape of work through a Lefebvrian lens’, in: Kingma, S., Dale, K. and Wasserman, V., eds. (2018) Organizational space and beyond: The significance of Henri Lefebvre for organizational studies. Routledge [In Press].

 

 

 

Crossroads

Imagine a country crossroads. It is dusk on a late Autumn afternoon. You are alone – or so you think. There is a grassy triangle where the road divides. A leaning sign – not unlike, in this fading light, a gallows – offers direction. Maybe you are lost and the sense of adventure you earlier felt is now compromised by creeping concern. There is relief that these ways are trodden; but confusion as to which path to take.

IMG_0805 2But then, this should not surprise us. For the crossroads is a place of contradictions. A liminal space caught between borders and possibilities. It is a ‘real place between imaginary places – points of departure and arrival’ (Komunyakaa, p.5). We stand poised between where we have been and where we might, in the future, find ourselves. This is the ‘intersection of the timeless moment’ (Eliot, p.42). Opportunity, danger, enchantment, despair, salvation and damnation insinuate themselves, like a twilight mist, around our lonely fingerpost.

Some folklorists claim the crossroads is ‘the most magical spot in popular tradition’ (Davidson, p.9). In Suffolk, a cure for ague relied on the sufferer going at midnight to a crossroads, turning around three times and then driving a tenpenny nail up to its head in the ground (Ewart Evan, p.86). The potency of iron entwined with the potency of place. Such enchantment may also blur temporal boundaries. Puhvel describes the custom of scattering hemp-seeds at a cross-roads then whispering an incantation. The prize? A glimpse of your future lover (Puhvel, p.170).

Urban settings are not immune from this magic. Ghassem-Fachandi explores how, in the Indian city of Ahmedabad, the magical remains from exorcisms are placed at busy crossroads. Such ‘interstitial spaces, city fords and thresholds, it is said, confuse the evil spirits and ghosts, and they cannot find their way back to their bearer’ (Ghassem-Fachandi, p.24).

Other traditions reinforce such crossings between the living and the dead. In Richardson’s study of thresholds and boundaries in British funeral customs, she notes how, in Wales, the burial procession paused at each crossroads for prayers to be offered (Richardson, p.97). Was this because the cruciform shape suggested a safe and hallowed place; or to confuse the restless spirit and deter it from returning home?  Or, maybe, the crossroads acted as stepping stones for the spirit – a physical enactment of the perilous post-mortem journey described in the ancient Lyke Wake Dirge.

From Brig o’ Dread when thou may’st pass,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last;
And Christe receive thy saule.

IMG_0878The ambiguity of the crossroads is also seen in the tradition of burying of suicides. Halliday notes that although the law in England stipulated that a suicide should be buried in the King’s highway, the chosen site was often a crossroad by a parish boundary (Halliday, p.82).  I frequently pass one such site. In 1785, Richard Knobbs, a brickmaker in the Norfolk village of Hempnall, was suspected of murdering his son and hanged himself from a tree.  The junction where he is buried is still known as Nobb’s Corner. Halliday argues that such interment acted as a deterrent. Excluded from the community of a churchyard, burial in a ‘remote, anonymous grave without a funeral was a casting-out; the person no longer belonged to society’ (Halliday p.82). Yet, maybe, such a place provided comfort too: the topographical cross bestowing some remnant of sanctity on the lost and, in every way, marginalised.

So here, at the crossroads, the borders are not just physical but metaphysical. This is where we transgress boundaries to contract with higher powers. Think of a young bluesman meeting the devil at a Mississippi crossroads to seal his own Faustian pact. Yet listen carefully to Robert Johnson’s Cross Roads Blues and there are intimations of more tangible threats. Here, at the rural intersection, cars slow down offering the hitchhiker the promise of a welcome lift – ‘standing at the crossroads, tried to flag a ride’. This is a place of opportunity bearing the gift of progress or return.  But with the sun going down, the singer’s plea for salvation – ‘Asked the Lord above “have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please”‘ – suggests this is also a place of danger. The fear is not, necessarily, that of eternal damnation but one that faced any young black man of that time, alone and far from home: vagrancy charges or, even, lynching (‘Cross Road Blues’, 2018). The crossroads is not a safe place to linger.

So what, you may think, has the liminality of crossroads to do with the organisations in which we work. For surely these are places devoid of such magic, enchantment and old traditions? Yet, look carefully enough, and you will find ghosts, tricksters and graveyards. And, of course, our buildings have physical crossroads (of sorts). Let me describe one to you.

On the fourth floor of a corporate HQ, there is a long, open corridor that leads past a café and then forms a ‘crossroads’ with passages that continue to the restaurant and meeting spaces. At the junction, there is a widening of the corridor – often used for displays – but, always occupied by small groups, talking, chatting, laughing. These constellations – formed by serendipitous encounters – reshape and reform with random regularity. So, where we expect transit, we counter-intuitivly encounter stasis. In Dale and Burrell’s study of space and community, they distinguish two types of spatial formation. Socio-petal arrangements ‘produce spaces where people are encouraged to gather together’ (Dale and Burrell, p.26). In contrast, socio-fugal spaces encourage people to move on and through. But our crossroads here is betwixt and between both socio-petal and socio-fungal. It brings people into constant contact yet then provokes them to linger and commune.

Like the Mississippi cross-roads, this may invoke threat and anxiety.  Just who might you bump into? (For the devil can be found anywhere!). Yet there is also the promise of opportunity and fulfilment. Allen notes how organisational traffic patterns directly influence communication by promoting chance encounters and aiding ‘the accomplishment of intended contacts’ (Allen, p.248).  This underpins the flow of information and the exchange of problems and experiences. Similarly, Iedema explores how a spatial bulge in a hospital corridor ‘drew people into it’ (Iedema et al, p.43) and, by providing a space where professional boundaries and organisational rules could be suspended, enabled clinical staff to ‘connect formal knowledge to the complexity of in situ work’ (p.52).

So perhaps there is little to distinguish our smart, open plan office intersection from our rural grassy triangle. Just as the latter are ecologically acclaimed as places where ‘a small nature reserve flourishes’ (Clifford and King, p.205), so the former are equally fertile: seeding communication and harvesting knowledge, insight and experience. And like any fragile and threatened ecology, these are valuable spaces we need to recognise and protect.

Allen, Thomas J. (1977), Managing the flow of information. MIT Press.

Clifford, S. and King, A. (2006), England in particular: a celebration of the commonplace, the local, the vernacular and the distinctive. Hodder & Stoughton.

‘Cross Road Blues’ (2018) Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross_Road_Blues (Accessed: 30 March, 2018).

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2010) ‘All together, altogether better’: the ideal of ‘community’ in the spatial reorganization of the workplace’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organizational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Davidson, H.E. (1993) ‘Introduction’, in Davidson, H.E. (ed.) Boundaries & thresholds. The Thimble Press.

Eliot, T.S. (1944) ‘Little Gidding’, in Four Quartets. Faber.

Evans, G.E. (1966), The pattern under the plough: aspects of the folk-lore of East Anglia. Faber.

Ghassem-Fachandi, P. (2012) ‘The city threshold: mushroom temples and magic remains in Ahmedabad’, Ethnography, 13(1), pp. 12–27.

Halliday, R. (2010) ‘The roadside burial of suicides: an East Anglian study’, Folklore, 121  (April), pp. 81–93.

Iedema, R, Long, D. and Carroll, K. (2010) ‘Corridor communication, spatial design and patient safety: enacting and managing complexities’, in van Marrewijk, A. and Yanow, D. (eds.) Organizational spaces: dematerialising the workaday world. Edward Elgar.

Komunyakaa, Y. (1997) ‘Crossroads’, Ploughshares, 23(1), pp. 5-6.

Puhvel, M. (1976) ‘The mystery of the cross-roads’, Folklore, 87(2), pp. 167–177.

Richardson, R. (1993) ‘Death’s door: thresholds and boundaries in British funeral customs’, in Davidson, H.E. (ed.) Boundaries & thresholds. The Thimble Press.

Illustrations

Rodwell, I. (2018) Nobb’s Corner, Hempnall, Norfolk

Rodwell, I. (2018) Fingerpost, Norfolk

 

Ghost

Our organisations are haunted places. They swarm with ghosts. Maybe not ghosts in a conventional sense; but ghosts nevertheless. If you wait long enough, you may discern the ‘sense of a presence of those who are not physically there’. In offices, factories, call-centres, shops and salons,  we ‘constitute a place in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit and possess it’ (Bell, p.813).

GhostAnd, as we have intimated before, these ghosts are creatures of the liminal. For Derrida, they are this ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Orr, p.1055). Immaterial themselves, their power is to make the space around them immaterial too; their liminality infects.  They can ‘elide the distance between the actual and the imagined’ so that ‘frail and cherished distinctions collapse’ (Beer, quoted by Jackson, p.69).

Think of an upmarket City meeting room. Let’s call it room 148. For your guest, experiencing this space for the first time, it is like any other meeting room: neutral in its ubiquity.  Subdued colours, art work on the wall, maybe coffee and pastries arranged on the table. For you, however, the experience is different. It is enhanced, tinted (or maybe tainted?) by all the other meetings you have attended there. The spectral voices and faces of those you previously met haunt the room. These presences are many. The room is a palimpsest of recalled conversations, arguments, emotions and the tone of those meetings (productive, boring, confrontational) now begins to affect your mood.  You too are haunted.  The room, familiar, comfortable, known, is infiltrated by the uncanny – das Unheimlich – infusing it, albeit momentarily, with the unfamiliar, the strange, the alien.  You sense a ‘feeling of estrangement, of being not ‘at home’ in the world’ (Jackson, p.65).

Ghosts appear in other guises. At a business school I know, the portraits of past deans frequent a corridor. They are sombre, besuited, the ties and haircuts indicative of past decades.  I wonder to what extent this ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) troubles the current dean. Do these ghosts – for that is what they are – act as vengeful revenants forever comparing the shortcomings of the present to the glories of the past; or are they more comforting spirits offering inspiration, wisdom and succour.

TivetshallSuch ghosts possess other objects too. A long time ago, I asked a colleague to identify an artefact that encapsulated our then organisation. After a pause, he spoke fondly of the chair that his former boss had left behind on retirement. Each time he saw it, he took strength from the memory of his mentor, guide and protector.  It had what Weber called the ‘charisma’ of the object’ and Walter Benjamin, ‘the aura of the original’ (Bell, p.817).  That chair was not just any chair; it contained a ‘kind of life’.

We also talk to our organisational dead. Think of the role models, those presences from the past that you turn to in times of uncertainty.  You ask what they would have done; how they would have reacted; what guidance from beyond can they proffer? In short, we are accustomed to communing with our role model spirits.

And where there are ghosts, there are ghost stories. I have heard many such narratives in every organisation I have known. Tales of role models, heroic (and tragic) leaders, tricksters and fools. This cast of ghosts is conjured again each time the story is told. They are never exorcised. And with each raising of the dead, we re-assess our current actions. We think and sense anew.  These ‘inheritances of the past haunt the relations and struggles of the present’ (Orr, p.1041).

In one of the most famous ghost stories, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the ‘ghosts’ are only perceived within the liminal – the ‘tops of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools’ (Klapcsik, p.5). So look again at your organisation. Those corridors, meeting rooms, staircases and lifts – are they really what they seem? For if you look carefully enough, you might – beyond the posters, filing cabinets and workstations –  glimpse the symbolic equivalent of shorelines, the gibbet on the cross-roads, and the decaying mansion on the hill.

Bell, M. M. (1997) ‘The Ghosts of Place’, Theory and Society, 26, pp. 813–836.

Jackson, J. (1981). Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. Methuen.

Klapcsik, S. (2012). Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach. McFarland & Company.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local Government Chief Executives ’ Everyday Hauntings : Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Illustrations

Cruikshank, G. (1842) ‘The Dead Drummer’.  Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/dead-drummer/

Rodwell, I. (2016) St Mary’s Church, Tivetshall St Mary, Norfolk

Railway

The railway carriage is a liminal place. It represents both spatial and temporal transition. Within its utilitarian or luxurious confines (for it is a place that also likes to classify us), we are moved from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging space.  This in itself is problematic – as De Certeau observes there is both immobility inside and outside of the carriage. The fields, villages and towns have only ‘trompe-l’oeil movements…vision alone continually undoes and remakes the relationships between these fixed points.’ (De Certeau, p.112).

CarriageWe also progress in time, a movement governed by – or more accurately suggested by – timetables and schedules. Before 1840, such definitions of time were also inherently fluid. A journey was not just through time but between time with different towns deploying local systems of time. For the Victorians however, the modern railway carriage was, as John Bailey intriguingly explores, liminal in many other ways. If we peek through the smoke-smudged windows, we might discern a place of adventure, blurred identities, erotic escapade and transgression.

From one perspective, the carriage was a place of anxiety, discomfort and potential danger. There were no toilets, washrooms nor, in early carriages lacking corridors, an easy means of escape. Cardsharps, confidence men and tricksters (for where else does the phrase ‘taken for a ride come’?) were a recognised hazard. As Bailey observes, there was also a ‘persistent unease at confinement in the close presence of unknown others’ (p.6).  However, this close proximity might also dissolve reserve while mutual anonymity encouraged confidential disclosure and the relaxation of normal protocols.  The roles, identities and behaviours of everyday life could, for the duration of the journey, be altered or even abandoned.  This ambiguity is characterised by De Certeau as a ‘incarceration-vacation’ (De Certeau, p.114).

For Georges Simmel, modernity created the opportunity for ‘adventure’, an episode of heightened experience, informed by both risk and excitement and ‘torn-off’ from everyday life. But the railway carriage was not just a place of adventure, but also, as Bailey suggests, misadventure: in a society where gender relaxations were strictly governed, such an ‘enclosed space carried its own built-in erotic charge’ (Bailey, p.7).

Contemporary press reports revealed how first class carriages were much in demand by courting couples; popular song told of ‘tunnels so dusky’ where you can ‘kiss fondle and kiss with a double encore’; while musical halls echoed to Marie Lloyd’s rather less than innocent ‘She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’ (Bailey, p.9). Elsewhere, Ian Carter observes that ‘some ladies of the street had found that the seven-minute run [between Cannon Street and Charing Cross], provided ideal conditions for their activities at a rental that represented only a minute proportion of their income.’ (Carter, p.52).

Such transgression – albeit temporary – of the accepted social order is recognised by Turner who sees the liminal phase in tribal society as one where members of the community can ‘for a brief while have a whale of a good time being chaotic, in some saturnalian or lupercalian revelry…or institutionalised orgy’ (Turner, p.41).

And railway carriages generate other narratives of transgression. Narratives where morality and rationality are subverted. Carter identifies ‘the many hundred British crime novels and short stories’ with railway settings (Carter, p.46).  They also invite in that ultimate liminal character: the ghost.  A.M. Barrage’s The Green Bungalow, Steve Duffy’s Running Dogs and M.R. James’ A Warning to the Curious are just a few of the narratives that see the railway carriage as a haunted space – home to the dead but not dead; the there but not there.

And organisations too generate their own narratives of transgression. They rarely feature railway carriages but rather other liminal spaces: the Christmas party, the awayday or offsite, the business trip.  Here the physical space might be the office, a pub or hotel (identified by Pritchard and Morgan as a ‘place for transgressive behaviours’). We all, I suspect, have such stories.  In some, the mode is comic. Many years ago at the organisation I then worked for, the turgid annual address by the CEO at the Christmas Party was repeatedly and wittily heckled sotto voce by the office electrician  – in the character of trickster. In others, the mode is tragic.  I overheard such a story two days ago, ironically when returning from a conference on organisational storytelling.  The story was co-constructed by two, unseen travellers in the seats behind me and the plot a depressingly familiar one.  An office party, too much drink, unwanted sexual advances and a dismissal the following day. The characters too were familiar – the non-deserving victim, the villain, the supporter (the HR director perhaps?) (Gabriel, pp. 84-85).  Such stories suggest that while transgression brings creativity, release and the frisson of Simmel’s ‘adventure’, it also carries a darkling side of danger, anxiety and humiliation.

There is a final irony. For, as you have no doubt guessed, the place where I overheard this story was a railway carriage: the liminal space that is simultaneously narrative source, scene and progenitor.

Bailey, P. (2004), ‘Adventures in Space: Victorian Railway Erotics, or Taking Alienation For a Ride’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1), pp. 1-21.

Carter, I. (2002), ‘The Lady in the Trunk’, The Journal of Transport History, 23(1), pp. 46–59.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Gabriel, G. (2000), Storytelling in Organisations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies: Oxford University Press.

Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2006), ‘Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression’, Tourism Management, 27(5), pp. 762–772.

Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play: PAJ Publications.

 

 

 

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.

Trickster

Tarot Card b:w

Once upon a time I heard a story.  It was a simple one told by a senior executive.  Speaking of his early days in the company, he recalled a managing director who was an anxious, nervous type.  Indeed, the restless and constant shuffling of his shoes against the carpet under his desk had “rubbed it through to the concrete beneath”. As a junior, our narrator told of his disquiet at having to deal with this important but challenging individual.  However, he spoke in admiration of the director’s secretary who faced with the injunction that every job was a crucial one requiring immediate attention would cheerfully file the offending paperwork at the bottom of a teetering pile.  It would then be dealt with at a time of her choosing – maybe weeks in the future.  Meanwhile, she would pacify the director with a soothing “of course, I’m doing it now” while sagely sequencing the outstanding tasks with a calm and unruffled efficiency.

I thought of this secretary when reading Gabriel’s account of the trickster (Gabriel, 2000: 77).  This archetype of mythology and folklore deals with challenges and problems with native cunning and wit.  From the tortoise outsmarting the hare to Jerry confounding a frustrated Tom to the black market wheeler dealer Private Walker in Dad’s Army.  All use their intelligence and native slyness to outfox the seemingly more talented, conventionally intelligent or more hierarchically important.  Here the secretary subtly subverts the power of the managing director – she is the one making the decisions as to what is important.  But she works, not through confrontation or rebellion, but through a sustained confidence trick: the director never knows he is being duped.

I’m sure we all know similar organisational tricksters who, as Kets de Vries observed (1990:758) can be seen as “both underdog and culture hero”.  They demonstrate that those in the margins or backwaters of organisational life can still thwart authority and assert their own independence and autonomy.  Through disobeying rules, ignoring what is expected and transgressing boundaries, they provide templates as to how we can similarly aspire to act.  They are, indeed, our heroes.

Elsewhere, Kets de Vries (2017) views the trickster as a “mythical embodiment of ambiguity, ambivalence, duplicity, contradiction and paradox.”  So is our trickster also a liminal character?  Both underdog yet hero; marginal yet central; administrative yet creative.  The trickster is literally a shapeshifter: both one and other.  And as Kets de Vries observes, as a figure of chaos, the trickster helps “promote new ideas, foster new experiences, new wisdoms and new insights.”  So maybe, in our VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, we should celebrate out organisational tricksters.  Their cunning, intuition, sense of survival and bravery are maybe exactly the qualities needed to spark innovative thinking, unleash unexpected stratagems and rejuvenate the atrophy of accepted wisdom.  So celebrate your trickster stories for they, perhaps, may ensure and safeguard our future.

Gabriel, G. (2000), Storytelling in Organisations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies: Oxford University Press.

Kets de Vries, M.F.R. (1999), ‘The Organizational Fool: Balancing a Leader’s Hubris’, Human Relations 43/8:751-70.

Kets de Vries, M. (2017) ‘Why every workplace needs a fool’, Insead blog, 3 February.  Available at http://knowledge.insead.edu/blog/insead-blog/why-every-workplace-needs-a-fool-5187 (Accessed: 8 April 2017).