Thursday, April 19, 2012

In Search of the Bricoleur

Key Points

1. Another personality difference that creates conflict.
2. Bricoleurs see the word differently to non-bricoleurs
3. Bricoleurs are often side-lined.
4. Bricoleurs need to be invited into decision making situations not excluded.

I recently discovered that I am a bricoleur and it is a blessed relief to have outed at last. What this insight has done has explained how it is that I have managed to upset so many people in organisations, and perhaps other situations, over the years. It is a personality thing and, as I’ve mentioned before, it is personality differences where most conflicts begin, if not end.

Bricolage is a French word, as you’d probably guess, and originally referred to a worker who would make the best with what they had to complete a task. Thus they were people who tinkered with things, even playfully in an effort to solve a problem and used whatever resources they might have at hand. The term then became associated with art and craft. Later the usage has been broadened to include people who use their experience, their instinct, trial and error, and again, tinkering, to solve any sort of problem.

Thus, a manager or a researcher, for example, would bring whatever models are appropriate to a problem and would not be tied to a particular way of doing or thinking. They’d try something, perhaps even an amalgam of competing techniques or ideas, and see what worked rather than using a recipe driven approach. For the bricoleur, dogma and gurus who think they know the best way to approach a problem or issue are viewed with suspicion.

It is easy to see that to some people the bricoleur is nothing but a terrorist. They don’t work by the book, fiddle with process, flaunt policies and procedures, play with ideas, tinker and dislike high levels of control. This is the stuff of a nervous breakdown for the manager who is high on order, with crockery ducks flying along the wall in precise formation. The ISTJ will probably end up on high levels of psychotropic medication if a bricoleur is a member of their team. The archetypal Humphrey Applebee would be looking at Guantanamo Bay as a solution to the situation.

The truth is, of course, that we need both types in any organisation but it is easy to see where the conflict occurs. The bricoleur and the non-bricoleur are seeing the world through quite different lenses and will find it hard to understand each other’s language. Bricoleurs, in the original definition, were seen as being well-meaning amateurs by more traditional craft-persons or tradespersons who did things the ‘correct’ way. A bricoleur would see herself or himself as bringing expertise from many disciplines and experiences that enable them to see a task or problem in a different light. They’d see the other as narrow minded, limited in imagination and simply in the way.

My guess, and I don’t have any hard data to support this, is that bricoleurs would tend not to rise to the top of the corporate tree and f they did it would be an accident of sorts. Whether or not that is a good thing is open to debate and it may not matter because nature has probably spoken on the topic by making them unacceptable as leaders/managers and excluding them already.

I think organisations need bricoleurs, particularly in their decision-making and strategic processes. And it may be the case that they tend to be side-lined and ignored, infrequently being asked into the board room or places where the important decisions are made. We need people who are prepared to see things differently, ask difficult questions, be a bit different and tinker with ideas. They need to be heard and not just seen. My experience is that they tend to be seen as a bit too different, not a team player and just a bit too out there-a well meaning amateur perhaps.

Some years ago I was doing a consulting job with a great friend, Alan Davies. We were arranging a search conference to undertake a strategic planning exercise. The CEO was objecting to Alan wanting to invite union leaders and some other rebels who did not tend to toe the organisational party line. This list included customers who had not had a good experience with the organisation. Alan insisted they attend because you need to have your ‘enemies’ (not that they were really enemies but were perceived as such) in the room and not banging on the portcullis creating a stir. Best piece of management learning I every received and so too for the many CEOs who did eventually engage with the ‘enemy’, who is anyone unlike themselves.