In two earlier posts (#1- A metaphor and #2 - The limits of rationality and either-or thinking), I speculated on the insights that negative-space drawing (as described in Betty Edwards's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) might offer in relation to organizational change and development. This third and final post draws out some of the implications for leading organizations and makes some links to the informal coalitions view of organizational dynamics.
In her second book, Drawing on the Artist Within, Edwards comments on an article by Richard Pascale. In it he describes how Japanese managers operate within the “empty” spaces of business problems, whereas we in the West tend to focus on the objects (or objectives). Pascale also notes that, in the West, we select leaders who are “outstanding,” while Eastern cultures value leaders who "stand in" rather than "stand out."
This resonates with the informal coalitions view of leadership and the emphasis it places on everyday engagement through conversation and interaction. The negative space analogy also provides a useful way of thinking about the specific dynamics of organizational change and performance.
How change happens
The rational, objective-based approach is the realm of the ‘top-down’ management edict and education and training approaches to change – decide something, announce it (“objectify and name the new situation”), deal ‘objectively’ with the consequences, anxieties and difficulties and measure the outcomes. In contrast, the informal coalitions mode looks to work with - and within - the 'negative spaces', which exist between the formally recognized aspects of a situation and its contextual boundaries. Using this approach, the ambiguities are retained until the change has largely occurred before it is formally recognized and ‘named’. The joint problem solving mode is often used as a top-down concession to staff involvement; but, properly framed, it can also serve as a tool to explore the negative spaces and to draw out the insights that this perspective brings (such as through structured dialogue sessions, open space technology, and so on). I believe that all change originates through informal coalitional activity (everyday conversations and interactions), although this is not recognized and acknowledged by conventional management. Established approaches tend to value only the rational aspects of organization, which can be formally managed and dealt with 'objectively'.
Negative-space drawing and organizational dynamics
The idea of negative space in drawings provides a useful analogy for the dynamics of organizational change and performance as expressed in Informal Coalitions. We can think of the basic composition of all drawings as comprising three elements: positive shapes, negative spaces and the format. These are summarised below, along with the corresponding aspects of organizational dynamics.
- The Positive Shapes within drawings include people, objects and other solid forms within the composition. These are analogous to the formal organization policies and processes, as recognized and discussed in the ‘legitimate’ forums of the organization.
- In drawings, the Negative Spaces, comprise the empty, formless, ‘un-nameable’ areas between the positive shapes and the format. These are analogous to the hidden, messy and informal dynamics of the organization, which comprise those ‘illegitimate’ conversations that reflect its underlying political dynamics, social processes, informal interactions, taken-for-granted cultural assumptions, paradoxical tensions and so on. Although undiscussable within the formal arenas of the organization these dynamics have a powerful impact on the outcomes that emerge.
- The Format of a drawing relates to relative length and width of the bounding edge of a surface, within which a drawing is composed. This is analogous to the specific organizational context within which change is occurring.
Drawing out the patterns
Because the negative space shapes are formless or ‘messy’, they cannot be ‘named’; that is, they are not amenable to treatment by the conventional tools of rational management.
Leaders need to look for and ‘see’ the patterns that these represent - the patterns that are present (here and now) within the negative spaces of their organizations. And they need to draw these out, rather than resorting to their store of abstract symbols (assumptions) of what they “know” to be right. These ‘negative shapes’ provide a metaphor for the underlying dynamics of organizations, which the established theory and practice of conventional management largely ignores.
Whereas artists use lines to draw out the negative spaces of their drawings, leaders need to use language effectively, to draw out the underlying themes which shape the performance and development of their organizations. This requires a combination of ‘seeing’ (perceiving, interpreting and ‘weighing up’) the underlying ‘shapes’ (organizational and psychosocial dynamics), and ‘drawing’ these out (re-presenting them in a ‘meaningful way’) through active engagement in the ongoing, self-organizing network of everyday sensemaking and use-making conversations through which outcomes emerge.
Other posts in the series: