Leading with our actions: A practical approach to affecting change in complex environments

To find Orbit around a corporation Hairball is to find a place of balance where you benefit from the physical, intellectual and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed in the bureaucracy of the institution.

If you are interested (and it is not for everyone), you can achieve Orbit by finding the personal courage to be genuine and to take the best course of action to get the job done rather than following the pallid path of corporate appropriateness.

~ MacKenzie, 1998, p.32

In the quote above, MacKenzie (1996) explains his approach to survival while working at Hallmark Cards. He argues that culture is supported by complex, interconnected policies and procedures and that you can affect the most change where you are able to stay connected to, but not entangled by, it. A year into a doctoral program, I have come to believe that research methodology represents a similarly complex, interwoven mess. As students, we encouraged to enter it, explore it, and admire the complexities of its structure from the inside; then to choose a safe corner and then apply the appropriate process and methods. I believe (hope) however that we have another often unspoken choice, the choice to Orbit, to explore the fringes, to dip in and out of the various corners in order to focus on taking “the best course of action to get the job done.”

What follows is an exploration of my Orbits around a series of hairballs in the context of participatory action currently underway within the public transportation company for which I work.  It is a personal exploration that does not follow the conventions of academic writing. There is no systemic literature nor does is cleanly frame research questions. Instead, I have let go of those conventions in order to seek out other possibilities.

The Company Hairball

The company I work for operates a public transportation system. It is currently facing a series of common challenges: aging infrastructure, a retiring workforce and increasing demand to grow.

The training department

Training has recently been identified as critically important in helping this organization address its main challenges, but it needs to be rebuilt. About five years ago, it was reduced to a single instructor. Although he did his best, departmental processes were eroded, the training taking place was significantly reduced, and the training that did happen within the departments was poorly structured and even more poorly documented. Since that time, the training team has grown to seven people, including me, and additional hiring is underway. Despite the growth of the training team, there has been little coordination or role definition. For the most part, each person on the team has identified their own priorities and implemented the processes they believe to be most effective. The lack of clear goals and standard processes is compounded by a lack of communication both within the department and with other departments within the organization.

The opportunity statement

 I once had a boss who said, “Tanya, no one wants to be told they have a challenge or problem so we call them opportunities instead.” As a result, I usually cringe when I hear the word “opportunity,” but here it seems appropriate. In the simplest of terms, our current opportunity is to develop a competent workforce.

From there, things get a little more complicated: Which employees are currently competent? How might we know? Whose job is it to decide who is competent and who isn’t? What do not competent employees need to become competent? Who might teach them to be competent? How do we know that the ones teaching are competent in both the things to be taught and in how to teach? How will we know when those not currently competent become competent? What does competent even mean?

Maybe then our opportunity it is to develop a learning culture within the organization; ultimately that is what is needed. We need people to think, feel and act differently when it comes to learning and training. Gill (2012) explains, “Nonprofits must take the time to step back, take a look at themselves, make sure that what they are doing is aligned with what they want to achieve, and then have the courage to change if needed.” Similarly, Stinson, Pearson and Lucas (2006) identify 12 tips for developing a learning culture that included: value and recognize the need for lifelong learning, energize active learning amongst students, develop self-awareness, be open to new ideas, make time for learning, provide protected time for learning, develop a shared vison, develop leadership skills, learn from mistakes, think about the wider environment and take time to smell the roses. Kapp (1999) offers the following advice to organizations, “Appoint a chief training officer (CTO)… The CTO needs to establish a corporatewide training curriculum tied directly to corporate goals and objectives. The learning infrastructure developed by the CTO should consist of several interrelated systems encouraging learning and providing information on an as-needed basis.” (p. 49).

All three of these examples emphasize a planned, deliberate approach that takes time to develop and in many ways aligns with the work from the earlier consultant now sitting on my shelf, officially “on hold” for the time being. Meanwhile, people will go to work and continue to do the tasks that they may (or may not) be ill-equipped to do and we all fear what might happen next. And as the fear grows, the hairball grows…

The Methodological Hairball

… find a place of balance where you benefit from the physical, intellectual and philosophical resources…without becoming entombed.

When a complex situation exists and immediate action is required but it is unclear where or how to start, the answer must not be to ask for more time or to simply do nothing. Instead, it requires that we move forward: acting, information gathering and planning simultaneously; look for opportunities to use existing organizational resources while continuing to think differently. Actions are constrained by existing resources but expanded by new ideas, creativity and experimentation. In order to achieve these objectives, ideas related to methodology and methods must also remain flexible. Poorly defined problems require poorly defined solutions. Participatory Action Orbits must not be completely random, but neither are they planned. By definition they are iterative, but based on information gathered along the way, their speed and trajectory must be continually adjusted.

Orbits maximize the use of all existing resources which means that they must be participatory; alone, I would miss many of the best ideas and be less able to affect change. Jackson and Mazzei (2017) explained, “If there is no sole purveyor of agency, then there is no separate, individual person, no participant in an interview study to which a single voice can be linked—all are entangled” (p. 725). In a previous project, one of the participants proposed the idea of ‘we-search.’ (Dorey-Elias, 2017). He started by explaining, “I have used Ken Macrorie’s glorious ‘contextbook’ for years in my composition classroom. I love how he re-dubs the research paper into the ‘I-search paper.’” (tellio, 2017). He then took the idea further suggesting that we modify the approach to become the collaborative ‘we-search’ demonstrating with ease the ‘shift from what we can know about an object (method and epistemology) to what a particular object does when we enact inquiry—thus, objects of knowledge become doings with ontological force, not inert things waiting to be interpreted.” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2017, p. 726). My current work is also an undertaking of ‘we-search’. We are working collectively and collaboratively as the members of the training team, as well as employees from across the company to open up new ways of thinking and doing. Moving forward, our goal needs to be one of empowerment and shared responsibility. Involving and engaging in all steps and all parts of the work ahead is critical to our success.

Leading with our actions

We, then, are faced with the reality that we know neither what needs to be done nor how exactly to proceed, so what do we do? Perhaps part of the answer is to look at what we know (or think we know).

When thinking about the current situation and how to improve the competency of our employees in their roles:

What we know (or think we know)
Why? We need a skilled workforce
Who? All of us together, because none of us alone know how or what
Where and when? Here and now

The information in the above table does not seem like a lot, but perhaps it is enough if we are willing to “lead with our actions” rather than “leading with our literature” or “leading with our methodologies.” Is it possible that if we act now, a plan (the how or the methodology) and solution (the what or the research questions) might emerge over time?

In a meeting a couple of weeks ago, for example, one of the maintenance directors expressed his frustration that every meeting seemed to report progress that was waiting for the next resource, or the next tool, or the next report. His words stuck with me. I endeavoured to *do something*: I identified the ‘we’ needed to tackle one small part, sent a meeting invite defining the ‘when and where.’ Four weeks later, a first course to meet the need is complete. Leading with our actions, we now all have a little better understanding of both the opportunity and possible ways to move forward.

Participatory Action – Yes…

Participatory action is not new to me. I have led participatory action work that has led to significant change in different environments: a university, a call centre, small social networks (Dorey-Elias, 2017a, Dorey-Elias, 2017b). In each case, we lead with our actions. The ‘we’ involved a loosely defined and flexible group of people who shared a vague understanding of why the work was important. As we identified missing skills, points of view or ideas, new people were invited to join. In cases where people asked to join, they were welcomed. These projects also all started with no money or additional resources and were therefore focused on simple, small-scale changes in our own actions. As we focused on simple small actions, however, it began to have (hopefully positive) impacts on our thoughts and feelings, opening up new ways of thinking, fresh ideas, and possibilities, despite the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ remaining ill-defined. In relation to our work within several small social networks I explained and wondered, “developing our proposal involved a process that has been reflective, collaborative, and iterative, but was it ‘research’? We did not start with research questions. We still do not have clearly defined research questions. Our work is not neatly situated within an epistemological or ontological framework.” (Dorey-Elias, 2017).

But is it Action Research?

McNiff (2013) explains, “Action research, if it is anything, is about finding ways to encourage change, but the word ‘change’ must be said from the premise that ‘I change me’ not ‘I change you’: sustainable change happens from within.” The work we are undertaking appears to align nicely with this part of the definition. Later however McNiff (2013) identifies the steps to achieving this change:

Research does not just happen. It has an overall design, which enables the researcher to plan in a systematic way to:

  • identify a research issue
  • formulate a research question
  • explain why the issue is important
  • monitor practice and gather data to show what the situation is like
  • take action
  • continue to gather data and generate evidence
  • state the findings so far and make a provisional claim
  • test the validity of the claim; explain the significance of the research
  • decide on potential future action … which may provide the basis for a new investigation … and so on. (p. 38)

It appears if we choose to believe that the ontology of ‘action research’ is driven by axiology then the work being seems aligned with McNiff’s definition, but not if driven by methodological considerations.

Later however McNiff (2013) continues:

We know that research processes may be analysed in terms of a researcher’s ontological, epistemological, methodological, socio-political and environmental commitments, and how these may come together to inform how they theorise their work. We also know how to rationalise decisions about which kinds of theory are most appropriate for doing so. (p. 36)

This statement is for me problematic for two reasons. First, the only thing I can say with certainty about my own ontological, epistemological, methodological, socio-political and environmental commitments is that they continue to change and evolve; these projects acknowledge that “trouble is inevitable and the task, how best to make it, what best way to be in it.”  (Butler, 1999, p. xxvii); this can cause epistemological trouble when one system of ideas comes into conflict with another – essential, however, for seeing things in new ways.” Second, I question how central my commitments ought to be to work focused on the developing collective sustainable change. Ball (1990) says that it is not only about “what can be said and thought but also about who can speak, when, where and with what authority. Discourses embody meaning and social relationship, they constitute both subjectivity and power relations.” (p. 2). I own but one set of commitments and one voice in the ‘we.’ Why should those views and voice be privileged above the rest of the team?

Thinking with Theory

I think that we may detect that some sort of preparation and faint expectation preceded every discovery we have made. We blunder into no discovery but it will appear that we have prayed and disciplined ourselves for it.

~ Henry Thoreau, as cited in Stapleton, 2013, p.143

Questions about the structure, content and process seem to resurface again and again. On a practical level, I increasingly do not care whether what we do is accepted as ‘academic research,’ I am also aware that I am floating down the river of a doctoral program in which this question is a boulder disrupting the flow. I will return to the idea of flow shortly, but first I would like to explore another methodology that resonates with where I am positioned with respect to me thoughts, feeling and beliefs about my current project: Thinking with Theory.

Starting from the middle of things

When I told the story about initiating new course development earlier, I told it as if it were a discrete, small project. It was, in fact, an accidental tangent that arose in the middle of something else. That director’s frustration was simply the single strand in which I gained awareness of his frustration with our current entanglement in existing processes. It was where I identified one small, actionable opportunity while sitting in a meeting waiting to present other work, half-completed and interconnected. That work in turn, emerged from an imperative delivered by a department to fix the basic reporting and delivery issues before seeking to move forward with grand ideas related to competencies or e-learning.

Re-reading my description of methods from a project earlier this year, a pattern emerges. “My current description of our work starts at the ‘middle of things’ and as I considered where to start this story, I realized that no matter how far I went back, I was starting in the middle of something with strands of connection reaching backward, forward and in all directions. For example, rather than completing an initial systematic literature review, I instead find myself turning to the literature as it is referenced by others involved in the project, as I stumble across it, or to help define a path forward when I get stuck.” (Dorey-Elias, 2017b).

Similarly, my current work is clearly underway with actions being taken and information being gathered. What is not clear is when it started and what exactly “it” is. Even the word “project” makes me uncomfortable because it implies something that has a beginning and an end. There are no clearly defined research questions as of yet. Without those clearly defined questions in place, I find it quite difficult to even determine how I might undertake a systematic literature review. What in fact is my topic? Is it developing new models for training and learning, training within the rail industry, developing a learning culture, how change happens, the power of small steps, or about gaining a deeper understanding of the process of change itself? One might also ask the reasonable question how any of this relates back to my field of study, curriculum. (If they were to ask, I might have an answer: learning is change, pedagogies are methodologies, and curriculum are methods – I’m parking this question for now, with a plan to pick it up in my summer courses).

In searching through the existing methodological literature, I happened upon what Janet and Mazzei (2017) described as the need for a process methodology that sits:

with-in postfoundational frameworks to give us concepts, languages, and practices that enable a knotting of texts together, a doing that proceeds from the middle of things—a new analytics practice that enters and exists sideways in an immanent (un)folding where distinctions fall apart.” (p. 726).

We can do that?

Rather than focusing on solving problems, Jackson and Mazzei’s (2017) thinking with theory seeks to pose problems, open up thoughts, and to seek newness. Similarly, Somerville (2007) described a ‘methodology of postmodern emergence’ that, with strong influences from indigenous epistemologies, is centred around ideas of wondering, becoming and generating. The advantage of the thinking with theory methodology is the ability to focus on a process of opening up ideas rather than seeking solutions. Through the process of creating our training described above, we also identified the existence of a series of conflicting procedural documents, a known issue but one for which no progress was being made. When I brought it to the attention of the several directors, they suggested that we hire someone to rewrite the procedures documents and ignore they old ones in the interim. We can do that? I wondered.

Through participatory, action-based work new possibilities were opened up that none of us would have considered independently. These new possibilities have created for me more work, but if (I mean when) I do it we might have resolved a longstanding issue: inaccurate and conflicting procedural documents, even though that was not the problem I set out to solve and I’d been told by a series of people that it was both unresolvable and outside the scope of the training department. “Thinking with theory highlights the networked functioning of thought and thus opens up the possibility of previously unthought approaches: not about what things mean but about how things work” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2017, p.727). In my current work, there is need to affect change across all business units in a way that is flexible but sustainable. In order to be successful, we will need both previously unthought ideas a deep focus on underlying processes and what *needs* to happen rather than the definitions and meanings; the former are what we are likely to find commonality and agreement around, while the former serve primarily to reinforce the differences and individuality of each business unit.

Thinking with theory (Jackson & Mazzei, 2017) is not a methods-based; “there is no formula to thinking with theory: It is something that is to come; something that happens… something emergent, unpredictable, and always rethinkable and redoable” (p. 717).  The methodology therefore remains appropriately silent on issues of the rigour of specific research methods. Instead, it seeks to enact “a different practice – no more coding, sorting, sifting, collapsing, reducing, merging, or patterning,” (p. 723) and in so doing opens the door to using a creative and flexible mix of methods aligned to the specific needs of the team. In the case of our social network project, those methods included semi-structured interviews and open dialogue. In my current work, those methods will be quite different and include use of Lean Six Sigma tools and methods.

The Lean Methodology

One way past this dysfunction was to give the meeting attenders permission to escape from the Hairball of their history and move into a nebulous alternate reality…

                                                                                                          ~ MacKenzie, 1996, p.206

Lean is an approach to process improvement within organizations. Often traced back to its roots manufacturing, it is “the lean thinking prescription for the elimination of waste… is a five stage process” (Rand, 1997) that includes specifying value, identifying the value stream, creating flow, customer pull and perfection. The Lean literature is deep and wide and in many cases , “in experimenting with CEOs to create lean cultures and in adopting lean within our own companies, feel there is little lean about what many people now call ‘lean’” (Ballé, Chaize, & Jones, 2015).

Focus on flow

I have doubts about lean as a methodology, particularly the focus on the elimination of waste. I have some sense that my misgivings might be at least partially rooted in different connotations of ‘waste’ in Japanese and English. Regardless of my own misgivings, Lean is helpful in my current work for two reasons related to flow. First, the Lean focus on process and flow is aligned with the process-related focus of Jackson & Mazzei’s thinking with theory and encourages the use of methods and tools that encourage the generation of new ideas. Second, my company has adopted Lean as its approach to process improvement and several key stakeholders in my current work are deeply invested. They like it and recognize its tools: brown paper and sticky notes. Using Lean methods and tools is, therefore, a way to gain support from key stakeholders and thereby improving the flow of our work.

One strand, many people, many iterations

Another potential benefit of using Lean methods in conjunction with a methodology based on Thinking with Theory is its focus on the identification and mapping of specific value streams across departments. Lean is participatory and acknowledges the value of each person connected to a process, both the work they perform and their input in opening up new possibilities and improvements. Earlier, I described our opportunity statement as the chance to “develop a competent workforce to support a critical public infrastructure.” Seeking to identify the value streams within that opportunity offered a way of breaking that down without even trying to define the term ‘competency.’ I have tentatively developed four value streams: Training data, content development, training delivery and process/policy development (see Table 2) and to prioritize the importance of improving each area based on its complexity and criticality. Process / policy development was added when it was identified as a critical and distinct but interrelated process during the curriculum development process.




Further breaking down Training data then, I could quickly map several key processes (see Figure 1).

Please note, that I have only incompletely mapped three processes related to training data for illustrative purposes. Our first official training department Lean project will involve mapping the course registration process, identifying both the issues and opportunities for improvement. Our goal will be to involve everyone within the training department as well as a cross-section of our customers in the review in an iterative cycle of Plan, Act, Check, Do. This event is tentatively scheduled to take place next week. Although Table 2 does not accurately reflect the complexity of what is happening, it does offer at a glance a snapshot of a possible path to affecting change in all training areas.

The scale of the change that we are seeking to implement is significant. Breaking our overall opportunity down into strands, allows our team to see their work in a way that they have not before seen it, and to involve them directly in the building of that picture and then in identifying the issues and opportunities we have to improve in small, incremental steps. If all goes according to plan, we hope that the desire for “transformation becomes at the same time very urgent, very difficult, and entirely possible” (Foucault, 2000). What is learned in this Lean project will be applied to future events tackling other processes. I do not pretend to know what the outcomes of this work will be. What I do know is that the change will begin when they cannot go back to seeing the world the way they once did.

Yet, I also know that setting out to change people does not usually end well. We change processes not people, is a mantra to organizational change that I do not intend to relinquish any time soon. We can change the structures within which people work and act with one another. We can listen to them and ask questions; we can offer new tools and possibilities but what they choose to do with all of that remains their choice. Always. To that end, another valuable element of Lean is the shift of ownership from facilitator to participants, who by the end will (hopefully) be ready to present their findings, their recommendations and their implementation plan. After that, it is “just” a matter of moving obstacles out of their way.

Methods to Ensure Accountability and Structure

The more fully we believe a model is reality, the more rigid the model becomes. And the more rigid it becomes, the more it confines us. There is a sense of security in this, the sense of security that comes from being contained by the “known”…

~MacKenzie, 1998, p.163

During the social network research completed earlier in the year, as authors we wrote the following, “The protocols of human research ethics approval, important to each of us, set up conditions of accountability around this relatively open-ended process. These protocols remind us to open conversations with a clear account of purpose and the likely destination of the words gifted to us.” (Dorey-Elias et al, 2017). In the case of my current work, the primary purpose must remain one of continuous and process improvement with the documentation of that information for my doctoral dissertation remaining its secondary process and not interfering with the primary purpose of the work being undertaken. If that becomes a risk, I will select a new topic for my dissertation.

Given this work is currently underway and I am as of now unable to attain ethics approval, the work will proceed. The structure of the University of Calgary’s ethics approval process will ultimately determine the structure of the part of this work that eventually becomes my doctoral dissertation. Ideally, I would like to gather information through interviews and historical data across three projects: an LMS migration at a university, the development of community within two small social network sites, and my current work for a public transportation company. If successful in my ethics application I will seek informed consent from participants to use both historical documentation and interviews combined with new semi-structured interviews to gather insight into the process of change and the perceived value of leading with our actions. Should I be unsuccessful in gaining ethics approval covering previous work, I will focus whichever iterative cycles are underway once the approval is received, hopefully we will be deeply involved in the curriculum development phase at that point.

Reflections and final thoughts

Now when I say let go, I do not mean reject. Because when you let go of something, it will still be there for you when you need it. But because you have stopped clinging, you will have freed yourself up to tap into other possibilities – possibilities that can help you with this world of accelerating change.

~ MacKenzie, 1998, p.216

As I review and reflect on this paper, I recognize that it is light, perhaps woefully light, on citations from peer reviewed literature, particularly those related to PAR. Part of me wants to back and fix that. It would indeed be an easy thing to fix; locate and insert a number of PAR quotes from the literature. I could perhaps in the process, frame an eloquent argument that my work should be considered as PAR or as “rigorous research.” But I am tired of those conversations, the ones that go in circles with big words and at some point become themselves the very thing that stops us from doing what we speak about with such passion. Instead, I am letting go.

Leaving my position at a university was the step in letting go of the rules and expectations associated with academic work; I no longer feel the pressure to play that game. I have used this paper as another opportunity to let go of the academic ways of seeing, doing, and being. In the time that I would have normally used to scan the journals for relevant citations and review the literature, I have made the space to critically reflect on my work and experience with respect to the nature and process of change.  I have explored what I know (or think I know) about what works in terms of initiating change and considered the ways this information can and should be used going forward.  I have let go of the word ‘research’ and that has enabled a valuable journey into the other possibilities.


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