A reflective OU MBA study and action journal on management-related topics.

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A post I wrote on innovation for the OU’s Business Perspectives portal.

Business Perspectives

Guest blogger:

Fiona Beukes Fiona Beukes, The Open University MBA, UK Marketing specialist, BNY Mellon

Innovation in some respects is like the Holy Grail of business – How do you do it: disruptive or continuous? How do you foster it in your organisation: Incentives? Creative downtime? Hire the right talent? Although these are obviously worthy avenues to explore, they do take time to implement.

I think many organisations are hampered by their internal environment which prevents a dynamic, agile response to market change. There is definitely a tension, in my view, between Grant’s internal resource perspective and Porter’s economic view of the workings of the external business environment.

From a practical perspective, I also think many companies find it hard to innovate through disruptive change. In my view, the larger and larger an organisation becomes the more bounded I feel it is to its BAU (Business as Usual)…

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Written by ona76

31/10/2012 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Theory-In-Action

New world order

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Well despite my best intentions I haven’t managed to update my blog for more than a month! But I have a good excuse seeing as I started a new job a few weeks ago. I also found out my OU MBA result. I was awarded a Merit so I am “well-chuffed” as they say! I am now busy working out the details of my graduation ceremony. I am hoping for Paris and the Palais de Congress Versailles. It’s not everyday you can graduate from the grounds of a palace…shame it isn’t the Chateau itself, but I think my husband believes my ego is inflated enough already!

In many ways it seems that my MBA journey is over. No more assignments to write-oh the horror-or projects to research. But in other ways a new world order has been created and I see the world differently. I have already been researching the value of process mapping the customer’s sales and marketing journey and thinking in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. What can I say, I am a changed woman.

I’m still interested in further study and I hear that the OU are thinking of launching a Distance learning DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) so my plan is to keep blogging and researching whilst I dream up a practical business project as my next study goal. For now, however, I will enjoy my time off and new job.

Taking ownership of your personal development

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One of the main mantras that prevail in the personal improvement/effectiveness movement is this idea of personal responsibility and ownership. The discourse tends to argue that you can improve yourself by “owning” your own destiny. Take on a new project, develop a “can-do” attitude or change how you see problems. The theory seems to state that we are all happier and more committed when we have a sense of meaning and a level of autonomy in our lives. Apparently, we are less stressed as a result.

Tips three and five in the Harvard Management Tips book builds on this idea by advising you to open your mind to new things and increase your desire to learn. Ask questions and find ways to apply your expertise to different situations. Adopt a learner’s approach. Tip eight advises you to stop making excuses for your bad behaviours and change! Think of the impact your character flaws have on others around you.

How to change your behaviour is outlined in Tip 33. Firstly, you should take ownership and believe you can change. Secondly, be patient and persist with your personal changes. Thirdly, accept any difficulties you encounter on the way. Fourthly, refuse to be distracted. Fifthly maintain your changes constantly. If you can persist with your changes you will find that you are a better leader, apparently!

I guess a good way to start improving yourself is to audit your behaviour and ask others for feedback. Feedback seems to be a key requirement in the self-improvement process. I would accept that it serves as a useful reality check, but only if someone is willing to accept other people’s criticisms of their conduct.

Although I do wonder sometimes, whether our character flaws are what make us human. If we change too many things about ourselves, do we deny the past experiences that brought us there in the first place? Who has the authority to change you? Why should you change if you get things done well? And when do we stop improving? How long does this process continue for? The phrase life-long learning is very popular, but can you really teach an old dog, new tricks? So many questions – I guess I must be opening up my mind!

Harvard Business School, (2011) “Management Tips from Harvard Business Review”, Boston, Massachusetts, Harvard Business Review Press, p5, p7, p10, p43.

Finding Feedback to Improve your Performance

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Feedback Flower

Feedback Flower (Photo credit: jonathanpberger)

One of the main ways to improve your “self” is to ask for feedback from friends, family and work colleagues. In theory, inviting feedback on your performance should help you understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. It’s also a way of clarifying your perceptions and ideas about your own performance. The Harvard Business Review Management Tips 4, 7 and 8 expand on this ideology.

For instance, there is a suggestion about meeting with former co-workers each month to keep in touch and well-informed about industry changes. And that you could use this session to invite feedback on your contributions to your industry’s space. Another tip suggests that you reflect on your annual work performance review to find ways of turning any highlighted weaknesses into strengths. Furthermore, you are encouraged to ask people who you are in continual contact with (such as direct reports, peers and customers) to critique your ideas and approaches.

But can we deal with this level of constant feedback? How much can one’s ego take? Is it possible that we could just develop a hard exterior shell to deflect so-called constructive criticism? Will our defensive mechanisms deep within our sub-conscious rise up to protect us? No doubt asking for feedback on our performance is a necessary activity from time-to-time, but could it end up being an exhaustive pursuit distracting us from actually getting things done?

The personal improvement industry is a very Americanised one. I sometimes wonder how well ideas developed by North American gurus translate in Europe or even the UK. Our cultural worldviews have been honed by differing socio-economic paradigms, language, and historical contexts. For example, Europe, including the UK, too a large extent has socialistic, liberal and secular leanings. The US in comparison seems to have a more individualistic culture emphasising personal autonomy and responsibility.

McCabe (2011) in his article Opening Pandora’s Box touches on these considerations in his analysis of the effectiveness of Stephen Covey’s ideas in a UK context.  He believes Covey’s ideas are entrenched in the American dream of freedom and self-determination (p186) and are therefore context-specific. McCabe’s main argument is that ideas are hard to implement as intended because interpretation, context and organisational make-up can markedly influence the end result.

I remember a time early in my career when 360-feedback was introduced as part of the annual performance review. It was a disaster. Senior members of staff, whom you would have liked feedback from, did not have time to respond to your requests, and personal agendas from colleagues surfaced in the feedback/criticism.

Maybe this situation occurred because it was an HR/senior staff implementation failure or because new American owners wanted to take charge. But I don’t think it was much of a coincidence that a quarter of the department left by the end of the year. I suspect that many people were not keen on the new working environment! Extensive organisational change I think can trigger unanticipated behaviour. After all, people make up organisations!

I am more of a fan of feedback with specific evidence. For example, “that was good/bad because of doing X and Y”.  It anchors people to unambiguous action. Daniel Pink’s book discusses how children respond to direct feedback and not generalities. Pink suggests praising effort and strategy as children are more likely to take on more difficult tasks that stretch and develop them.

Pink also implies that adults need meaningful achievement too. He believes that Type 1 behaviour (intrinsic satisfaction derived from a task) such as displayed by Warren Buffet or Mozart is made from circumstance, experience and context.  It stems from a human desire to improve and master something that matters to others. So maybe we can all become more effective as long as we are willing.


Pink, D. H. (2009), “Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates us”, Cannogate Press, Edinburgh, pp178-79.

McCabe, D. (2011). Opening Pandora’s Box: The Unintended Consequences of Stephen Covey’s Effectiveness Movement Management Learning, 42 (2), 183-197

Written by ona76

25/04/2012 at 8:15 pm

My leadership vision

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Using the handy Harvard Management Tips booklet for guidance, I have decided to work through its advice to see whether I can improve my management perspective and self. Tip one advises you to clarify and refine your leadership vision by articulating your values and re-examining your goals for the future.  It says to find a few important episodes in your life that you think defines your values/you.

I guess one important value for me will be the achievement of my MBA in June 2012. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I have enjoyed the course materials and the re-development of my analytical thought processes. It has left me wanting more, particularly now that I feel that I have mastered the art of writing merit-graded assignments! Maybe that’s a little self-absorbed, but it feels nice to gain academic validity from something that I have put a lot of effort into. I’m a better student, more careful and mature, than I was when I completed a BA in English in my early twenties.

Another rather important value for me is nurturing my family. It has taught me to be a little less self-absorbed and more considerate of others. I think I’m more ethical and interested in longer-term, more sustainable things because of it. Before marriage and children I was more hyper and impatience. I’ve learnt to temper some of that by listening more and trying harder to see beyond the right-now. Mind you, it’s not always easy!

After thinking of what these episodes mean, you then need to write a personal leadership statement explaining the type of leader you want to become and the contributions you want to make by 2025. I assume this means how you want to lead yourself and not others. In that context, I hope that I’ll be using my talents and expertise to keep myself busy! If I’m a little more specific I hope that I have a Ph.D. and a sustainable writing career. I hope I can keep myself motivated and open to new perspectives and ideas. If I manage to influence others and gain some sort of recognition for it in years to come then that would obviously be a bonus.

Tip 46 builds on this leadership vision by suggesting that you develop a leadership brand and articulate it in a statement. Mine is “I want to be known for good research skills so that I can deliver useful ideas and perspectives to others”. Once you have your leadership brand you should ask others for feedback on whether or not you are living up to your brand. Let’s see how the next few months pan out for me!


Harvard Business School, (2011) “Management Tips from Harvard Business Review”, Boston, Massachusetts, Harvard Business Review Press, pp: 3, & 60.

Continuous Self-Development

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Although I’m working on my last OUBS assignment “What makes a Good Manager?”, I have been distracted by a handy little Harvard Management Tips book I picked up in WH Smith recently. The book is a compilation of the Harvard Business Review‘s Management Tip of the Day and suggests “useful”personal development, team and business advice. It has given me an idea. I fancy blogging my way through the advice and sharing my experience of it here. A sort of Julie and Julia approach (the American girl who blogged her way through a 1950s cookbook but I’d be doing it on management.).

The first tip is to Create a New Leadership Vision. I need to articulate my values and re-examine my goals for the future. I will then need to draft a statement illustrating what I hope to have achieved by 2025! I’m not sure I can even think that far ahead. It is already making me feel older than I am already. And what does it mean by leadership and major contributions? I assume it is about how I plan on leading myself to something big. But will I drink (you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink!) by the time I get there?  What if I change my mind? And what if my goals are not to win a Nobel Prize but rather more mundane?

Well, I suppose some of the things that might make my personal development list this week are: potential Ph.D study and my imput as a Professional Advisor to the OUBS’ Alumni Advisory Board. Although I didn’t make it to a seat on the board, I have been offered an expertise role, which is very exciting. I will hopefully find out more in the coming weeks.  My research into Ph.D. programmes continues too. At the moment, my research ideas are about blogging and reflection, the limitations of reflection, and entrepreneurship. All the research ideas are works-in-progress. Hopefully, I’ll have some further inspiration once I press “submit” on my last MBA assignment.

Last MBA essay in sight

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Phew! I managed to hand in my last tutor marked assignment (TMA 03) two weeks ago. I was more than happy to press send on that 7,500 monster, packed with evidence and, hopefully, insightful commentary. It consumed so much of my time in January and early February that I didn’t have a spare thought to blog. It also had the added pressure of being worth 50% of the overall assignment marks. Writing for fun is so much easier. When you have to submit content for marking it is really stressful. Well for me, anyway.

The assignment situation reminded me of Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” and his chapters on intrinsic motivation. Here he discusses research undertaken by Amabile on commissioned and non-commissioned art work and the role creativity plays in it. He states that a panel of experts, not privy to the design of Amabile’s experiment, constantly rated the non-commissioned art work as more “creative”. The artists even stated that they felt constrained by commissioned pieces. Sometimes it seems the boundaries of the task or the context itself really “fences you in” to paraphrase Cole Porter.

Although the end of my OU MBA journey is in sight, I still have one last exam to complete. This time I have to submit a 2,000 word essay on the role of management theory and whether a perfect manager can ever exist. I can certainly think of examples of what makes a bad manager! I have started with my refreshed mind-mapping skills and had fun reversing the open exam question. It’s funny how looking at the question in a different light can give you a new perspective. I hope to complete this essay by the end of March – then I can enjoy a stress-free Easter break.

But the more pressing question for me is what happens next? Once my B830 module is completed in April I will just be awaiting my final MBA result. So far I’m focussed on two potential areas continuing on with academia and embarking on a Ph.D. or just writing more. In order to take more action on the former, I’m attending the Post-Graduate Ph.D. Fair in Victoria this weekend. I’m hoping to meet some university representatives and discuss their different management programmes. I quite like the idea of going to CASS or Birkbeck because I could self-fund my studies. On the latter, I’m going to blog more regularly and launch my online management magazine. My husband even bought me the Genius Guide to WordPress – I think he’s worried that I’ll have too much time on my hands soon!

Written by ona76

08/03/2012 at 1:27 pm

Different ways of knowing

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Following on from my post on the limitations of reflection, I have turned my attention to potential ways of knowing. Sparrow (2006) suggests that meaning is socially produced and situationally interpreted. He argues that there are many features of thinking that appear to be denied or glossed over such as meaning through collaboration, emotion, and visual thought as outlined in the list below:

Conscious thought:

Subconscious thought:

  • Skilled actions,
  • Tacit understanding,
  • Unconscious leanings

Types of thought:

  • Propositional language,
  • Image based,


  • Reasoned direction,
  • Fluid and tangential,
  • Circular and emotion-tagged.  Basic forms of thought Sparrow (2006)

Sparrow (2006) concludes that maybe if we can appreciate the interplay of emotion, imagery and cognition at work it may help us to harness tacit insights more readily. To an extent I agree with him. As I write-up my EBI project, I have been looking for ways of illustrating my insights and I realised that mind-mapping was going to be a very good way of demonstrating and evidencing my thinking and strains of thought.

I have always used mind maps on paper. I generally write things out in my messy notebook and on the backs of envelopes. I find it easy to add to things as I see the pros and cons of each thought in a visual way. I prefer doing my thinking that way first and then sharing it with others afterwards. I am not keen on group brainstorming sessions. I always find them too competitive and stressful. I can’t think straight. The nice thing about sharing a mind-map with someone afterwards is that you can add their perspective more easily without it colouring your initial thoughts. You can use different colours to illustrate someone else’s opinions, and your own different strains of thought.

It is getting easier to mind-map on the go too. After receiving some mind-mapping software recommendations from an Open University LinkedIn Group, I have bought iThoughts for the iPad and downloaded FreeMind for the PC. I find that I use the iPad a lot now for studying as it is so handy when you are on the go. And using a mind-mapping program means it is much easier to edit and rearrange your strains of thought than big pieces of A3 paper and on the back of text books!

Here is an example of my mind-mapping handiwork so far:


Sparrow, J (2006). Beyond Sense-making: Emotion, Imagery and Creativity. Creative Management and Development, 82-97


Written by ona76

18/01/2012 at 3:37 pm

Reflection and making sense of it

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There are a few things that have been bothering me with the idea of being a “Reflective Practitioner”. One is its reliance on self-analysis and the other is the assumption that one can adequately surface and articulate subconscious biases through language. Is what you think really relevant? Who are you informing? Do your own reflections really change anything if no one else knows about them? How do you communicate these personal mind-set changes to others?

Self-reflection is obviously an individualistic pursuit, and that means that we are limited by our own perceptions. How many of us are truly honest in our critiques of past events? Did something not turn out the right way because of the situation, or me? My seven-year-old son is adept at looking for reasons why he didn’t do anything wrong. There are always creative, situational reasons for why it wasn’t his fault. He is also quick to blame others such as me or his sibling for the issue(s). Of course he is young and immature, but I think there is a part of us that still feels this way as adults – we just internalise these thoughts. As a child, he is more willing to vocalise his worldview more fully. Does that make him more honest, or just untainted by societal views of personal responsibility?

Also, how can you measure the change in your thinking effectively from your own introspection? Yes, you can keep a diary, images, pictures and diagrams, and look back at these past entries and recordings, but isn’t there a strong chance of hindsight bias creeping in? Can we use language well enough to articulate what happened? The rose-tinted specs become ever rosier as we bury the emotional feelings and forget the details. I know I prefer to focus on the future.

One of the reasons why I decided to blog my academic reflective journal was because I could make my reasoning public. I hoped that it would expose me to other people’s views and that some people would comment and interact with my meanderings. To an extent that has happened. But have only like-minded people followed my blog? Could I be unintentionally reinforcing my worldview further? Vince and Reynolds (2008) in their paper presented at a Copenhagen conference suggest that it is a possibility.

But have I blogged enough of my thoughts properly? I know I have held back from writing some posts. I have censured my commentary from fear of looking overly radical, political, defamatory, rude, female, and emotional. This is because I am conscious I’m writing in a public space. I fear an unexpected backlash from what I write because I am new to this medium. I fear that I didn’t explain myself well enough. Was the post factually correct? If I had used a private, paper-based diary would I have been more honest and self-critical? I probably would have just barbecued the pages with the entries I didn’t like. A literal bonfire of the vanities would have occurred.

Even though group reflection complements introspection, I think there is an issue surrounding looking weak in front of others that can hold the learning process back. For example, there is a clip of Sir Fred Goodwin stating at a RBS shareholder meeting (in the BBC documentary “RBS – Inside the Bank that Ran out of Money”), that he was going to be “due diligence light” on the takeover of ABN AMRO because they (meaning him and the board really) had plenty of experience in big acquisitions. He used language in a very depreciating and aggressive manner to rebut the journalist’s questioning of RBS’ strategy. Language even when in an open, public forum can certainly be used as barrier to learning, particularly when it’s used as a sarcastic weapon against other people’s views.

Goodwin’s assumption was they had got it right plenty of times before so why waste money confirming what they tacitly knew already. As recent history shows us, that was a very costly mistake for the British taxpayer. If the scrutiny had occurred, RBS would have realised that ABN AMRO was exposed to plenty of US sub-prime toxic debt and would not have paid such a high price for the business. The due diligence process would have provided better information to the Board, lessening the asymmetry of the transaction, and offered a legitimate exit strategy out of the bid proceedings.

Vince and Reynolds (2008) answer to the weaknesses in the reflective process is to propose a multi-faceted approach to reflective practice. They argue that reflective practice needs to move away from the individual and encompass four types of reflection as illustrated in their matrix below:

An individual wishing to interrogate their perceptions could work through all the areas with others in order to think more openly about the issue and how it related to them and the organisation. On the surface this does seem like a practical approach, but I think it could still be open to group think, individual agendas, and bias if it is not facilitated well.

I imagine a lot of organisations would view it as resource intensive and expensive. In the sense that employees are away from the coal face reflecting on what went wrong instead of focusing on future wins. In my experience, team building days, personal development/training budgets, and meetings are viewed as unnecessary luxuries when budgets are being squeezed. Whether this is the right approach in the long run is irrelevant if organisations measure themselves and employees on quarterly success.


Vince, R., & Reynolds, M. (2008). Organizing Reflective Practice Organization Learning, Knowledge and Capabilities Conference (April 28 – 30 )

Written by ona76

06/01/2012 at 9:39 pm

Chaos theory and the Career-plateaued worker

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After David at C2 Careers kindly pointed me in the direction of the chaos theory of careers. I have been busy thinking (among other things!) of Duffy’s (2000) research and how it relates to my context. Duffy defines career-plateau as a time of change, transition, re-evaluation and reflection. I certainly can relate to that outline.

She cites Bardwick’s (1986) three types of career plateau workers in the article. Those being structural, content, and personal. Structural relates to limited opportunities for career development within an organisation. Content plateau is when an employee has mastered their job and needs further stimulation. Personal plateau, probably the most dangerous of all, is when both work and non-work activities are not stimulating for an individual at all.

Duffy (2000) suggests that chaos theory can help explain an individual’s career-plateau journey because there are usually trigger points (an urgent awareness that change must occur). During this time, the individual can experience much uncertainty, unpredictability, and ambiguity. Despite this chaos, order is found and arises out of it as the individual finds ways of creating change whilst a self-organising process usually takes hold through the transition. A new way of knowing emerges.

I can certainly empathise with this description. My MBA journey was triggered by a combination of factors. I had added to my family and could not envisage juggling both full-time work and family responsibilities in a fast-paced environment. My husband was, and still is, travelling abroad a lot which sometimes makes family-life unpredictable. I had also accumulated more than ten years of work experience so it felt like the time was right to explore more academic options. The MBA definitely fitted the bill as I felt it may also open the door to different work opportunities in the future. And so far, against all that chaos at the time, it seems like I made the right call by instigating change. So far, I think I have developed better analytical thinking skills in the last two years of study and a much broader management outlook.


Bardwick,J.M. (1986). The Plateauing Trap: How to avoid it in your career…and in your life American Management Association

Duffy, J. A. (2000). The Application of Chaos Theory to the Career-Plateaued Worker Employment Counseling, 37 (December), 229-236


Written by ona76

13/12/2011 at 11:50 am

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