First, describe the situation

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After I finished my PhD, I was invited to a series of workshops for early career researchers, organised by Ray Ison of Monash and the Open Universities. These were wonderful events, that propelled me and others into what we were hoping for in becoming a researcher.

Amongst many other matters, Ray invited us to consider the difference between experiencing things as problems and as situations.

When you see things as problems, you’re already on the search for solutions, and headed toward implementation in programs of activity. That’s of course what most of us get paid for, and good solutions are indeed needed. But my ‘good’ may well not be yours, nor the good of those with quite a bit of say in what gets legitimated and funded. Political necessities pull policy solutions, as Kingdon observed.

The drive to solutions thrusts an instrumental logic through our governing, from policy to service delivery. We’re all working somewhere on the solution-finding/implementing spectrum, but we all provide a wider scope to our choices when we approach the way things are without a problem yet in sight, as situations.

Seeing things as situations brings an inquiring attitude to our understandings of what is happening, and why it’s happening, and a heightened sensitivity to what is being agreed is a problem (and what is being left out of the picture all together). It opens the frame.

Once the window is opened a little, it often becomes apparent that there are many invitations on offer: where you choose to pay attention shapes your trajectory and eventual end point. The forces with which you align yourself becomes the world you inhabit.

A focus on situations brings inquiry to the foreground and moves problem solving to the background. The latter will reassert itself soon enough; why not make the most of any chance to sit in the situation without a commitment to any particular problem, taking in the differing and distinctive views of those in the situation? I try for three different views, at least. Yours, mine, and someone with whom neither of us are familiar.

Producing our stories, with full voice, and listening to others’ stories, is one way to enter situations. Listening is an opportunity to perturb familiar framings. Attention to what surprises and disturbs is the start of rigour in inquiry. Openness to offers and invitations is the start of improvising solutions.

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