Over 30 years ago, in The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, philosopher Alan Watts illustrated the world as a “wiggly” line. On top of this he drew a net, which “… ‘cut’ the big wiggle into little wiggles.” In this way, he argued, man has sought to impose order on chaos. But the net, he cautions, is only an image and
“… the real world slips like water through our imaginary nets. However much we divide, count, sort, or classify this wiggling into particular things and events, this is no more than a way of thinking about the world: it is never actually divided.”
And so it is with the dynamics of organizations.
As suggested in the adjacent figure, the organizational world is also ‘wiggly’ (diagram #1). That is, it is messy and complex (or “messy and chaotic” as Jack Welch once said). For example:
- organizations are unavoidably more loosely connected than formal structures, processes and systems suggest;
- small changes can have big, unpredictable effects, with linear cause and effect only meaningful in limited, closed situations;
- people both impact upon, and are impacted upon by, the web of relationships within which they co-exist – nobody exists independently of the relationships that they are in; and
- outcomes emerge from the interplay of the diverse decisions and actions that are taken in the myriad of local interactions
Conventional management wisdom, though, embodies different assumptions about how organizations work and about the control that managers can command over organizational processes and outcomes. From this viewpoint, a manager's task is to ‘catch’ the organization in a metaphorical ‘net’ (diagram #2), so that they can take charge of events and gain control of the ‘mess’. This has resulted in all manner of ways to impose ‘order on chaos’; superimposing structures, systems and processes on the natural dynamics of everyday organizational life (diagram #3).
This approach has brought many benefits in its wake. Doing these formal, orderly things well can help organizations to function more effectively and make progress in many aspects of its business. At the same time, the hidden, messy and informal dynamics of human interaction will continue to exert a considerable influence on organizational processes and overall outcomes – whatever happens in the formal arenas. Doing the formal things better and getting them ‘right’ will not address what’s going on with the ‘wiggly stuff’. What’s more, responding to unforeseen outcomes by imposing yet more formal, structured processes and procedures is only likely to make matters worse.
Effective leadership requires managers to remember that, underneath the neatly packaged processes, systems and procedures, the organizational world is still messy and, in large part, uncontrollable (diagram #4): “Slipping like water through the imaginary nets”, as Watts put it, above.
From this informal coalitions perspective, the leadership challenge then becomes one of blending the sensible use of formal, structured approaches with active and purposeful engagement in the hidden, messy and informal dynamics of everyday conversations and interactions.