On Friday 6 February 2015 I gave a presentation at Parallel Fascinations on how I have been using a classic spy novel as a filter or tool to examine issues to do with workplace culture and organisational dysfunction.
Parallel Fascinations… … is a new event series that I am co-organising and co-hosting with digital sociologist Alexia Maddox and artist and event curator Romaine Logere. To quote from our promotional text: “Parallel Fascinations draws upon ideas of private obsessions and the space where seemingly disparate ideas collide. Reminiscent of the Salon, we are seeding an interdisciplinary group that crosses academic and industry sectors to engage with topics raised through this theme.”
“You know the place went bad.” My presentation was about the classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre, a beautifully written and engrossing page turner, peopled by fascinating characters. Set against a background of an organization beset with problems of scandal, poor governance and toxic culture, its plot revolves around the hunt for a double agent who is wreaking havoc within this same organization.
Can a literary work be a filter through which we contemplate the health and functionality of organisational culture? The way Le Carre has designed his narrative makes these issues intrinsic in the telling of his story and the deep engagement of his readers. A skim reading of any newspaper will provide instances of real life organisations, across all sectors, dealing with these same aforementioned issues. Many of us have war stories to tell of our own experiences with bullying bosses, ineffective managers, stifled innovation, poor communication and perhaps even sub-legal or illegal behaviour. A discussion of a literary work such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its narrative techniques can give us the space and perspective from which to examine our own experiences of poor workplace culture, while the primal mythological pull of responding to storytelling allows us to connect with this discussion on an emotional, instinctual and imaginative level.
“… question reality… destabilize uncertainty…”
As author Matt Haig says in his tweet quoted above, fiction can allow us to delve into the uncertainties in life. A great novel will engage the intellect, the emotions and the imagination. Using a novel as a tool or filter the reader can consider themes or issues in a way that bypasses black and white thinking, allowing us to consider alternative viewpoints or different realities. The group who attended Parallel Fascinations last Friday shared very thoughtful and rich perspectives in response to the themes upon which I was focusing and the conversation veered in some surprising directions. As a presenter I am enormously grateful for their input, and very pleased that my presentation was able to tap into themes that were of interest to them.
What next? Inspired by the response to my presentation I will keep on working with this novel and the themes I have identified.
A friend I was speaking to this morning, who attended last Friday, said she thought the format was unique; it offered participants an experience that allowed for and elicited reflection, speculation, and intellectual curiosity. Our event had apparently avoided the formal qualities of a lecture, the (sometimes) combative tone of an academic panel review, and the wishy-washiness of an unstructured informal conversation. She felt that participants felt equally relaxed about either joining in the discussion or just nursing a glass of wine and listening.
I am wondering if I can adapt my presentation into some kind of workshop – some sort of facilitated discussion – that I can take into organisations to help them reflect on their own workplace culture and identify areas they wish to work on. The final format of this has still not ‘found’ me, but I am drooling in anticipation of the actions I can take to go and find it.
Romaine, Alexia and I are, thus far, very happy with the way Parallel Fascinations is shaping up. It is a young thing still, mine was just the second presentation (Alexia gave the first presentation on the theme of Serendipity – it was fascinating). We have been incredibly fortunate to be supported by the Digital Learning Hub in their new venue – The Channel at Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre – and Parallel Fascinations will have a home in the future. We look forward to offering more presentations during the coming year. For more information please check out our blog at parallelfascinations.wordpress.com