by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD
How do we engage, describe and work without boundaries? How do we move beyond the familiar BART (boundary, authority, role, task) view of systems? And what does it mean to take up a network approach to leadership? A recent Regional Meeting of ISPSO in London took up these questions in terms of the ‘network-coach’ discourse, based on Simon Western’s work on Coaching and Mentoring. This work very usefully distinguishes four kinds of discourse about the nature of coaching and mentoring, based on his research. This led Simon to ask me to clarify three ‘moments’ of time that, while potentially facing a person in any one of these discourses, become particularly critical in the network-coach discourse.
Three moments of time
I described my work with a CEO who started our work together by describing a particular challenge he faced: he could not fit what his not-for-profit did into the normal kinds of business planning framework – service products, markets, competitive strengths and weaknesses, 5-year cashflow prediction etc. The not-for-profit was providing intensive social care, operating in the gap between the social services provided by the UK Government and individuals’ and families’ needs.
- The challenge he faced was a crisis for him that had arisen because of the planning framework his Board had asked him to use, which had defined a first moment for him but which had brought about this first crisis – what the not-for-profit was actually doing did not fit the framework.
- The second moment involved us working together to understand what was different about the economics of his not-for-profit, about how it needed to be organised differently, and about the different kinds of relationship this demanded between its employees and those to whom it provided care. The result was a business plan that was accepted by the Board to form the basis of the next 5 years’ work by the not-for-profit, but also a second crisis – something else was needed if the not-for-profit was to develop different ways of actually behaving, a something else that was beyond any business plan. This second crisis was one in which the existing approach faces an impossibility.
- So with this second crisis came a crunch time. Something new was needed in the way the CEO engaged with the employees of the not-for-profit. As it turned out, this inaugurated a third moment in which a whole new challenge emerged initiating a new cycle of work aimed at addressing this challenge, but it took courage for him to accept this new challenge and ‘own’ the need to take it up.
These three moments of time and the two crises that separate them can be summarised as follows:
- 1st moment: Accepting the stated problem/challenge and hoping that the existing approach will work.
- 1st Crisis: Realising that the existing approach will not work on its own.
- 2nd moment: Getting to grips with the details of the particular situation and adapting the approach to try to make it work.
- 2nd Crisis: Realising that there is a fundamental limitation to the way the approach can be made to work.
- 3rd moment: The persons involved put themselves ‘on the line’ in some way in order to act from something new that has the possibility of addressing the gap that has emerged.
These moments of time form a cycle of learning that is only bearable if the gap can be acknowledged – not hidden behind ‘solutions’. So in this case, the CEO works with the knowledge that the gap will always be there however good the ‘solution’ appears to be, and that by remaining aware of this gap, he can work with it while looking for the next gap to appear, which in turn will need to be acknowledged and worked through.
Minding the gap
This relation to the gap is what underlies Simon’s network-coaching discourse – realising that we don’t have neat boundaries, authority, role and task, that there is always a gap, and that the network society we live and work in presents us with increasing connectivity that pushes not towards identifying authority vertically in roles, but towards addressing horizontal rhizome-like power, power that is everywhere and yet cannot be pinned down. Simon’s conclusion was that, at best, we can find quilting points that can anchor our relation to these networks for long enough to enable us to make good-enough sense and to act – until the next gap appears.
 Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text (2012) Sage.
 These three moments of time are based on the three moments in Lacan, J. (2006 ). Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty: A New Sophism. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York, W.W. Norton & Co.
 The instant of the glance, ibid. This is the idea that you should be able to understand just by looking.
 The time for understanding, ibid. This involves having to work things out by thinking things through. The reasoning depends on the framework within which it is done.
 The moment to conclude, ibid. The third moment is the moment in which the ‘challenge of the case’ is taken up, a new challenge that demands that the person puts themselves ‘on-the-line’ by going beyond what they know in choosing to take up the new challenge in their behaviour.
 These points of anchorage are ‘points de capitons‘ in Lacanese.