John isn’t really a consultant now, though he has a background in big strategy firms. These days he is known for his research and writing, and his willingness to take a critical look at what has become unquestioningly approved thinking and practice in organisational life.
“What I probably am these days is a bloody good qualitative researcher”. This involves set-piece interviews and snatched conversations as people go to work on the bus, cooperative inquiries and accidental meetings with people willing to give him the time of day. These get turned into research reports, books and articles which underpin the talks he gives and workshops he joins. Often stimulating, sometimes provocative, never the same twice.
GameShift often invites John into executive team meetings and boardroom facilitations, or as an expert provocateur in a development process. A hour or two with John shifts the way people see things, and leads to a whole new stream of conversations and action.
It’s always about connection. John says: “I love working with one or two others. For me research is only as good as the relationship I’m in”. That’s why his writings are mostly co-authored, currently with Professor Megan Reitz and Dr Mark Cole. He’s been involved in what he sees as important publications around speaking truth to power and the habits of mind that stick organizations in some bad patterns. We’ve included links to a selection of John’s work here.
There’s a personal drive behind his work. “A desire”, he says, “to examine how the voiceless find their voice, the powerless get heard. For me, to strip someone of their voice is to deny their identity”. John tells the story of a conversation he had recently with a Trade Union leader, who described society as facing a “crisis of civilisation” – with the “aggressive nature of public discourse and its trashing of basic decency and fairness, leading us in a toxic direction”. John notices how “the noisy and certain drowns out the quiet and doubtful”. His work concerns a persistent question: “How do you invite people to talk about the world differently?” Which often starts by paying attention to how we talk about the world now and what that allows us to avoid.
One of the things John has become very clear on are the limitations of taken-for-granted thinking in business and in management education. “It has become obvious to me”, John says, “that business school theory and management practice is built on sand. It denies and hides the self-serving nature of its perspective and its lack of any meaningful intellectual rigour”.
Since 2004, when he re-engaged with a world he’d given up on, he’s been beavering away trying to address the failings of business school research and writing. John suspects that much of his work might not be “welcome or popular” in organisations because it doesn’t fit easily with a culture of bite-sized, easily digested truth that, as he puts it, “has been designed to look good in a slide-deck”. In fact we find that John brings a perspective that is very necessary, and is embraced by genuinely curious leadership teams. Once people get serious about addressing inequality, purpose or global issues, once they go beyond glossy trite statements, then John’s thinking becomes a valuable focus for their inquiry.
“There are two disciplines I try to live by,” he says as a concluding punctuation point. “Firstly, to be willing to interrogate the obvious and the ordinary, and secondly to see myself as enmeshed in the world I’m seeking to know”. And to invite people to do the same in the company of others.
Artwork by Simon Heath