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Photographing OD: the bold change intervention of offering witness

Dr Steve Marshall is the Academic Director of the Executive Doctorate in Organisational Change at Ashridge Executive Education. He is an action researcher and OD consultant using artful, creative methods to expand the ways we think about and relate to our organisations and workplaces. He is also a photographer and this is his story of the images in Organisation Development: A Bold Explorer’s Guide written by Dr Rob Warwick, of the University of Chichester, and Mayvin Director Dr James Traeger.

When I met with James and Rob in a London café to consider providing photographs for their book, I felt honoured but also rather bemused. I had heard that this was to be a science fiction book written to help readers understand organisations and how we could respond to the difficult challenges we will all face in the future. They gave me a draft chapter to read as I pondered the possibility of photographing things that hadn’t yet happened and people who didn’t exist.

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© Steve Marshall


So what (precisely) did they want? They didn’t really know. That was up to me, though a picture per chapter would be good. How many pictures? Nine. Maybe eleven. Could I read the other chapters? Hmm… actually not finished yet. In fact, one not started.

It wasn’t the kind of ‘shot brief’ that I normally encourage.

But Rob said he liked some of the images on my Instagram feed and, wisely, they also bought me a cup of tea…

‘Image’ has been a resilient component of many forms of organisational change and leadership. For instance: action research speaks to an ethical, participative, sustainable future of ‘human flourishing’; Appreciative Inquiry invokes a ‘dream phase’ where a shared image of a preferred future is developed by the inquirers and Dialogic Organisational Development speaks of the ‘generative image’ as an enabling source of change. Looking further afield, strategists, it seems, are always keen to sell us their version of the future and leadership is evidently all about the ‘Vision Thing.’

Which leaves me feeling skeptical.

I can’t help but notice the utopian, Salvationist references that are at the core of this kind of work. It has also become ubiquitous in the imagery peddled to us by our politicians; a better future is just a vote away. Likewise, our material, consumerist society offers us an attractive lifestyle if we will only switch our brand of shampoo or buy a different car. I’m also pretty sure that, in a world socially and economically structured to support privilege, profit and inequity, exhortations to simply imagine a better future (even if you shut your eyes really tightly and wish hard) won’t manifest it in the world. As an action researcher, I try to look seriously at these kinds of assumptions and dig into my embodied sense of what is going on. How is it that I feel this way? What is going on? What am I seeing and how do I check that these conclusions are in any way valid?

Over more years than I care to remember, photography has been my medium of choice as I’ve pursued this personal, ‘first person’ inquiry.

As I’ve traveled the world I’ve explored the people, places and things that have ‘spoken’ to me – in a way that gently holds focus on my feelings of dystopia and liminality.

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© Steve Marshall


During that time I’ve also come to know that the most powerful change intervention that I can make is to simply offer witness: to show that I ‘see’ people and their wider context. It’s the conversational equivalent of saying, “I hear you…. I get you…” And I’ve learned to resist the impetus to rescue, strategise, lead, coach, suggest, or persuade people to change. Which is not straight forward: as an academic and consultant, I’m frequently ‘paid to know stuff’ and this kind of artful, aesthetic inquiry means that I have to put aside any notion of ‘good’, ‘commercial’ or ‘change’ and have the courage to make images that ‘feel right’ and express my embodied response in the moment.

Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers said, “… I have almost invariably found that what is most personal and unique in each of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others.”

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© Steve Marshall

As I drank my tea, listening to James and Rob explain their hopes and wishes for the book, I found myself tuning into their shared sense of the world and their ideas of what might provide an innovative provocation for constructive change and helpful organisational development.

In the book you will find Rob and James have chosen images from locations as close to home as my garden and as far afield as London, New York, Iceland and Saudi Arabia. They each express a very personal ‘bold exploration’ and, we hope, will help all of us to more clearly share how we see and relate to our world.

Read more about Organisation Development: A Bold Explorer’s Guide and order your copy