Once upon a time...

elements of systemic change

…and actually not so long ago (17.-18.4.2018), I participated the Art of Management Symposium at the Cass Business School in London. I  presented a paper, and this particular piece of work was titled “Making Sense of Conflicts through Music Metaphor”. Before the Symposium, us, the participants, were advised to design our presentations “that are as much as possible inspirational, imaginative, provocative and reflective.”

At the Art of Management Symposium, in between the inspiring and interesting presentations, we also briefly discussed about how to communicate about academic research. The traditional way – with the slides, and 10-15 minutes time to run them through – can indeed sometimes be… well, not as effective and interesting as it could be. However, a story about a research topic offers the possibility to be much more thought-provoking and engaging.

So, what I did was that I did not make use of PowerPoint slides, and instead of a traditional presentation, I told the other participants that I am going to tell them a story that is not completed yet. I also wanted them to help me with the storytelling, and handed out a paper to everyone, asking them to write down any comments, questions or thoughts they might have during my presentation. These papers were then their reflections to the story, and also starting points for conversations to emerge later on.


I thought that I could share at least some parts of the story told with you. You, as a reader, can then decide whether you think it is an interesting way to present a research, or would you still prefer the traditional style. I also hope that you leave a comment to this post or to my Twitter account – about the format and idea of the presentation, or about the content of the story. It’s your call!


So, here we go. May I introduce you to a story about music and conflicts? 

I am here to tell a story about a research paper titled “Making sense of organizational conflicts through music metaphor.” And since we discussed briefly yesterday about whether one can use music in research without actually being a musician, I have to confess that I am not an artist, nor a musician. So being, there is a fair change that I will make a total mess out of this combination, but we’ll see. And if that happens, we could just make use of the mess.

I then told that I have been writing an article about the topic, and that I will be following the structure of that paper. Following that structure, I told that I will briefly discuss about topics and concepts of conflicts, knowledge creation, metaphors and music, music and conflicts, and I hope to end up with restructured concept of organizational conflict, and discuss its implications to management and leadership. But, as said before, the story was not (and is not yet) completed, and therefore the restructuring of the concept, and discussion about implications is very much a work in progress.

Conflicts in organizations are often treated as destructive, deviant activity. However, already one hundred years ago scholars such as Mary Parker Follett (1918/1998, 1924) and Charles Horton Cooley (1918) discussed about conflicts as embedded in everyday interaction in organizations, as well as necessities of organizational development. So, conflicts seem to be, as Kolb and Putnam (1992, 311) stated “a stubborn fact of organizational life”. And it sure is one – despite of its potentiality in developing organizations we still struggle coping with conflicts. 

Next I discussed my understanding about conflicts:

Conflicts are tensions in thinking, and differences in understanding. And as people come together in order to get things done in organizations, conflicts cannot be avoided – different people hold different perspectives, values, beliefs, attitudes, and practices, and we bring these to the interaction and collaboration with others. Often conflicts are not publicly confronted events, but what a conflict always is, is a subjective experience. It is also worth mentioning that organizations drive from the differences of its members: organizations drive, develop and exist because conflicts emerge. 

My aim with this article was (and still is) to understand and shape one’s imagination about the concept of conflicts by using music as a metaphor. This process can also be described as knowledge creation through arts. Whilst knowledge creation is often linked with dialogue (see for example Tsoukas, 2009), I am concentrating on subjective thought-processes. These thought-processes are not necessarily linked with interpersonal communication, but are always happening in relation to something in the life-context of the one experiencing.

In the forthcoming article, I am using metaphor as a tool for re-conceptualization, in a process which knowledge creation is triggered by articulation (Håkanson, 2007), and metaphor is a tool of language (Lumby & English, 2010). Therefore, music as a metaphor can offer a way of seeing conflicts as they were something different (see for example Ehrich & English, 2012).

I hope that the metaphor of music can reveal some features about organizational conflicts that are there, but not yet articulated. I am concentrating on five dimensions structuring the music experience, namely form, volume, harmony, rhythm and texture. And, here is the part where things might get a little messy.

In the presentation I went briefly through the dimensions, first describing what for example rhythm meant in music, and then trying to find ways to enrich and make sense of what these might mean for the concept of conflict. An example:

rhythm (in music) is the habitual patterning and tempo of the music piece, and tensions emerge in breaking of these patterns. In organizational life rhythm can be related to for example managerial practices and individuals dealing with these practices. How about work tasks that break the rhythm of the work flow? Rhythm can also be understood as individual “quality”, and in organizations one needs to collaborate with people playing punk rock in their head even if your own theme genre is jazz.

After going through the dimensions (I am not going to do that just now, you can read all about it in more detail from the forthcoming article), I was at a point in my story where I tried to conclude what the music metaphor has to offer to our understanding about organizational conflicts. For me…

…conflicts seem to be a process, transforming and moving in time and place. Therefore, conflicts cannot be studied as a particular event, nor can they be labelled as good or bad, destructive or generative, unaddressed or understood. It depends on the one listening the music or the one experiencing the conflict, how it is interpreted. Music metaphor highlights the need to foreground the experience, identity and emotions also when addressing organizational conflicts. What then becomes important, is the need to stop and become reflexive towards what is happening and why in organizational life, and storytelling is a way to make the subjective experiences visible and available for the reflexivity to take place. To conclude, the art of music can offer a knowledge domain for making the conflicts and organizations more human. 

In the end, or at least in the discussion section of the article, I hope to have some tools to offer for new managerial thinking.

We’ll see how the story continues from here.



Cooley, C. H. (1918). Social process. New York, NY: Scribner & Sons.

Ehrich, L. C., & English, F. W. (2013). Leadership as dance: A consideration of the applicability of the ‘mother’ of all arts as the basis for establishing connoisseurship. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 16(4), 454-481.

Follett, M. P. (1918/1998). The New State. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press.

Follett, M. P. (1924). Creative Experience. New York: Longmans Green.

Håkanson, L. (2007). Creating knowledge: The power and logic of articulation. Industrial and Corporate Change, 16(1), 51-88.

Lumby, J. & English, F. W. (2010). Leadership as Lunacy: And Other Metaphors for Educational Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Tsoukas, H. (2009). A dialogical approach to the creation of new knowledge in organizations. Organization Science, 20(6), 941-957.


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