This post builds on the earlier discussion entitled The negative spaces of organizational dynamics #1 – A metaphor. It similarly draws on the notion of the negative space within drawings, as introduced by Betty Edwards in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. In particular, it challenges the limits of rational, ‘left-brained’ thinking in organizational leadership and consultancy.
The limits of rationality
I have long held the view that the single-minded pursuit of so-called “rational” approaches to management is seriously flawed – even though traditional management practices and education seem to take rational, goal-directed behaviour for granted. My discovery of Gerard Egan’s work on the shadow side of organizations in the mid-1990’s (see Adding Value, for instance), coupled with my attraction to Stacey’s iconoclastic views on organizational dynamics (such as those set out in Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics 4Ed.), has continued to fuel my interest in this as a rich seam of leadership insights for managers to mine.
It is these shadow-side themes, reflected in everyday, informal conversations and interactions, that fill (or, perhaps more correctly, define) the negative spaces of the organization. ‘Seeing’ and making sense of the themes that are organizing these conversations and related power relations is, using the drawing metaphor, the key to effective composition of the organizational ‘picture’ and an accurate representation of its emerging meaning and dynamics. Conversations and power relations are in constant flux, of course. We therefore need to use a little poetic licence here and think of this as a ‘moving picture’.
As with the negative spaces within drawings, these shadow-side themes are shape-less in conventional terms. They are difficult or impossible to name and are avoided – that is, not seen, ignored or considered “undiscussable” - by (‘left-brained’), linear-thinking, rationality-seeking conventional wisdom. In other words, they are “messy.” This ‘mess’ which fills the negative spaces of the organization is the very stuff of organizational performance and creativity – you can’t have the form-al organization without its form-less negative spaces. And the better that leaders (and consultants) perceive, ‘draw (out)’ and contextualize these negative space shapes, the better will be their command of the medium within which they are working. I realize that referring to this thinking as ‘left-brained’ is an over-simplification of left-right duality of the brain, but it is sufficient for our current purposes.
The limits of either-or thinking and action
Managers need to recognize the inseparability of the ‘positive shape-negative space’ relationship which results from any choice they make between two contrasting views, ideas, values and so on. Whichever they choose to major on, the other will ‘fill in’ the negative spaces of the whole picture. In the terminology of drawing, the two share the same edges; and managers can’t alter one without affecting the other. Furthermore, in terms of organizational dynamics it is usually the passions and feelings generated by the rejection of a particular option that are most relevant to managing change. Despite this, the emphasis is usually placed exclusively on the ‘positive shape’ of the chosen option, which the formal change is attempting to bring about. If the passions ‘locked-up’ in the negative spaces can be released and their energies harnessed, by drawing out and embracing the themes that they represent, a more inspiring - and successful - outcome might be achieved.
Tolerating the uncomfortable sensation of not knowing – feeling it, understanding it and moving through it – is the essence of paradoxical thinking. This requires the either-or, judgmental, linear ‘left-brained’ approach to ‘switch off’ temporarily - suspending the need for structure, control and certainty. Instead, the more ambiguity-tolerant, integrative and pattern-sensing characteristics of the ‘right brain’ are required, as in negative-space drawing, to draw out, interpret and re-present the unnameable, messy and informal dynamics of organization.
A number of interesting implications for leadership practice flow from the use of negative space as a metaphor for the underlying dynamics of organization. These echo a number of those embodied in Informal Coalitions. I shall draw out what I see as the most important of these in a future post. In the meantime, any other thoughts on this would be welcome.
Other posts in the series: