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Stephen Billing

Hi Chris, I am interested that you are posting about de Bono and Stacey.

You are arguing that de Bono was talking about the mind in complexity ways before complexity theory had developed its own language to explain these phenomena. I think this is an insightful line of thinking.

As I read post 2 I am wondering whether de Bono was thinking of the brain or of the mind. And I'm wondering to what degree de Bono's concept of mind differs or is similar to Stacey's.

I am thinking of Stacey's assertion (based on GH Mead) that mind is a social construction, and is the singular of society. According to Mead, mind consists of a silent conversation with oneself and it is the singular of the conversations with many others that make up society.

So in this way I think the concept of mind is very different in Stacey's thinking from that of de Bono's. De Bono does not have such a social explanation of mind as Stacey and Mead. So importing de Bono's thinking into Stacey's would require in addition to de Bono's notions about the mind as self-organising, an explanation of human consciousness and social interaction, such as Stacey provides.

I am looking forward to seeing how your line of thinking evolves in this series.

Chris Rodgers

Many thanks for your comments, Stephen. I’m glad that you like the provocation of bracketing Stacey with de Bono in this way. At the same time, you make some important challenges from the standpoint of Stacey’s work, which I’d like to explore further.

First, in forming his view of organizations as complex responsive processes, Stacey uses the natural complexity sciences as sources of analogy for human action and interaction. Also, as you point out, he adopts a social constructionist stance, and combines this with insights from the works of Mead, Elias and others. In the context of organizations, I view de Bono’s work in a similar vein. That is, besides offering direct insights into the mechanism of the internal, “silent conversation of mind”, I see de Bono’s writing as also providing an analogue for the ‘external’, social dynamics of organisations. So I’m not trying to suggest that de Bono and Stacey are at one in their thinking. I do, though, believe that there are useful parallels between their perspectives which, for me, provide a sort of ‘triangulation’ around the phenomena I see taking place in organizations every day.

Secondly, as regards your brain v mind query, de Bono often tends to use the words interchangeably. I don’t think that (apart from his professional interest in psychology and physiology) he is too concerned about the actual mechanics. His focus is on the general nature of the patterning process that flows from this, and on the implications that this has for his concern with the skills of thinking. At the start of The Mechanism of Mind, he differentiates between the two as follows, “In this book the brain is described as the mechanical behaviour of mechanical units. It is the organisation of these units that provides the mechanism of mind.” Also, as he puts it elsewhere, such as in The Happiness Purpose, “… the brain simply provides a structure within which the incoming sensory signals can organize themselves into a pattern”.

Thirdly, Stacey goes to great lengths to explain what the mind ‘is’. His main point in doing this is to argue that the mind and the social are indivisible – each expressions of the same fundamental (essentially conversational) process. De Bono, on the other hand, is less concerned about what the mind ‘is’. He is more interested in how it does what it does. I see these two perspectives as complementary rather than in conflict. In other words, the silent conversation, which Stacey sees as mind, progresses according to the self-organizing, patterning process that de Bono describes as the mechanism of mind. Stacey would maintain that these internal conversations exhibit just the same characteristics as those that are being carried out with others – often at the same time. That is, they can become stuck in habitual ‘tracks’, be spontaneous and free-flowing, of appear random and disconnected. De Bono would point to this as a natural consequence of the brain being a self-organizing patterning ‘system’.

Fourthly, for mind to function, it requires a stimulus. This might arise ‘externally’ – through the senses – or internally through the body’s physiology (i.e. feelings). In most cases, it will embody both of these; with these stimuli arising during the give and take of everyday conversational interactions. The patterning of mind that results from people’s feelings, biases the way in which the patterning triggered by other ‘inputs’ takes place (what is paid attention to, which patterns are ‘triggered’ by the inputs, etc). At the same time, inputs through the senses will affect an individual’s physiology. I think Mead and Stacey would talk of this in terms of a body gesturing and responding to itself. I’m equally sure that de Bono would agree that power relations have a similar impact on the processing of the silent conversation of mind. The same words said and gestures made within the context of different power relations will trigger different patterning and channel the gesture-response process in different directions.

Fifthly, the content and ‘quality’ of each person’s contribution to a conversation – and the way that the conversation develops - will be affected by the ‘internal’ patterns that are triggered during an exchange and by the responses that these evoke. This patterning is happening in the moment of interaction and simultaneously in the minds (internal conversations) of those participating. It doesn’t happen in a linear, sender-receiver way. The internal patterning processes will therefore be affected by – and simultaneously affect - the emerging pattern of external interaction. As a conversation progresses, existing patterns of perception might be further reinforced. Alternatively, as a result of such things as misunderstanding, humour or deliberate reframing, new patterns might be triggered within the minds of participants and in the ways in which they interact.

So it is in this way that I see de Bono’s views on the “mechanism of mind” as providing a source of analogy for the dynamics of social interaction in organizations – even though his writing is preoccupied with the ‘internal workings’ of the mind and individuals’ thinking skills.

Thanks again for your comments. I look forward to your further reflections on this and future posts in the series.

Stephen Billing

Hi Chris,
Your response is thought provoking. I think that one way that Stacey differs from De Bono is that for Stacey it would not make sense to talk about the mechanism of the mind in an internal way - this seems to be saying that mind has an internal part. Stacey I think is saying that mind is inherently social and there is no part of mind that is not socially formed. That is what I think is so radical about Stacey's thinking, and it validates the social construction of our reality.

Does De Bono see mind as a silent conversation? I wonder. From your argument above it seems that De Bono is not so worried about that, but sees it as an internal processing function.

And in your comment about De Bono providing an external analogue for the social dynamics of organisations, do you think this is his own thinking, or is this your own take on it? The latter I suspect, informed by the wide reading you have obviously undertaken of a tradition quite different from De Bono's.

With regard to the skills of thinking, they will be seen as quite different if you think that mind and thinking are social processes from if you think of the brain as undertaking some form of processing that results in thinking.

While you comment that Stacey explains what the mind 'is,' i.e. silent conversation with oneself, in order to show the indivisibility of mind and the social, I think he is also showing how it does what it does, i.e. through a silent conversation between subject / object, informed by the expectations of the groups that one belongs to. I agree that De Bono is pointing to the phenomena of the mind getting stuck in ruts and so on, but Stacey gives a social explanation for this.

I have found myself exercised by your comment that the mind needs a stimulus. I am trying to think of what that might be. In Stacey's terms the stimulus would be the gesture from the other to which a response is called for.

I would be interested to know your view on how De Bono accounts for power relations. Power is not a subject he has written about as far as I know, although I am the first to admit I am no expert on De Bono.

It is with interest that I note your proffering of misunderstanding, humour or deliberate reframing as ways of generating new patterns of thinking, as I have written about these myself.

All in all, I suspect that De Bono himself has not drawn these analogies, however you have seen patterns of similarity between the self organising nature of the mind referred to by both De Bono and Stacey.

Chris Rodgers

Hi Stephen, many thanks, again, for your thoughtful response. I’m afraid my reply has turned out to be a bit longer than intended. Hopefully you’ll stick with it to the end!

There appear to be two main strands to your comment. First, you ask whether the aspects of de Bono’s thinking that I see as relevant to organizational dynamics are embodied within his work, or if they reflect instead my own extension of his thinking. Secondly, you question the validity of the parallels that I have drawn between the two perspectives.

On the first point, as I intended to indicate, de Bono talks almost exclusively about his conception of the mechanism of mind in terms of the internal functioning of the embodied (i.e feeling-affected) brain. Implicit in his work though is the recognition that this process operates in response to stimuli, both external (e.g through everyday interaction) and internal (in terms of the body’s physiology and feelings). Although I recall that de Bono does say at some point that organizations are self-organizing, his interest and emphasis is elsewhere. So it is my view, rather than de Bono’s, that the characteristics of his mechanism of mind can provide insights into the dynamics of organizations. (By the way, you will see below that Stacey also talks about the need for such a stimulus to thinking. I have always seen this as the essence of the gesture-response process, in that each gesture stimulates a response, which stimulates a further response, and so on).

So what about the validity or otherwise of the parallels that I have drawn? In the excellent “Complexity and Group Processes”, Stacey describes what he sees as emerging knowledge about the functioning of brains as “dynamical processes”. He quotes Kelso as saying that the brain is fundamentally a pattern-forming, self-organized, dynamical system poised on the brink of instability.”

Continuing, he refers to Damasio’s work on the relationship of feelings to the brain: “At each moment, the brain is registering the internal state of the body and Damasio argues that these body states constitute background feeling states. This continuous monitoring activity … is taking place as a person selectively perceives external objects, such as a face or an aroma, and experience then forms an association between the two. Every perception of an object outside the body is associated, through acting into the world, that is, through learning, with particular body states or background patterns of feeling. When a person encounters similar situations to previous ones, he or she experiences similar feeling states, or body rhythms, which orient that person to act into the situation.”

He goes on to list what he sees as the necessary characteristics of “a theory of mind that is consistent with the dynamical process perspective on brain functioning”. And he then argues that all of these are features of the complex responsive processes way of understanding human action and interaction. The four characteristics that he lists are:

• Processes that are selectively enacting, and so creating, the world into which people act. These are self-organizing, internally spontaneous processes of emergent reproduction and transformation rather than information processing.
• The importance of instabilities and the high degree of sensitivity to small changes in the contexts of stimuli rather than the production of stable patterns.
• Memory as an associative process of reproduction and potential transformation rather than simply representing and storing.
• Meaning and sense-making as dynamical processes arising in behaviour rather than computation and later attachment of meaning.

Of this list, De Bono – and I – would only take issue with the second bullet point (although de Bono does use the phrase “information processing” in a different sense to the mechanistic way that Stacey is talking about it).

Whilst agreeing about “the importance of instabilities and the high degree of sensitivity to small changes in the contexts of stimuli”, it is, at the same time, essential that the brain functions in a way that tends to create ‘stable patterns’. Although the “instabilities” provide the capacity for pattern shifting and novelty to emerge, ‘stable patterns’ (or, more accurately, a tendency for patterns to be self-reinforcing and self-replicating) are essential if we are to function in our day-to-day lives.

For example, we can only readily use a cup to drink because of the patterning process that relates cup-like objects to drinking. Otherwise we’d need to learn this afresh each time. The “sensitivity to small changes” would come into play if, say, what we had perceived to be a cup turned out to be something different altogether. Our surprise (an emergent response) would then trigger a different pattern of thought and emergent sense making of a different kind. De Bono makes the crucial point that if the mind did not use patterns we would be unable to use language, since words indicate whole patterns of meaning.

You suggest that Stacey explains how the mind does what it does by “describing it as a silent conversation between subject/object, informed by the expectations of the groups that one belongs to.” I agree fully with the idea of speaking about the mind in terms of an internal conversation. Of itself, though, this says nothing about how that silent conversation actually happens in the brain.

De Bono’s answer to this would read much the same as the first bullet point in Stacey’s list, above. The pivotal part of the process from de Bono’s perspective is perception. It is people’s perceptions that tend to ‘select’ the focus of their attention, to ‘channel’ their thinking in particular directions and to set off the dynamic patterning process which de Bono refers to as the mechanism of mind and which Stacey calls an internal, silent conversation.

Most importantly, de Bono makes the point that it is not the brain that ‘controls’ this process in a mechanical way. Rather, the brain provides an environment for incoming sensory signals to organize themselves into patterns and to trigger responses, based on what has gone before. I see this as being another way of talking about the orientation process that Stacey relates to in Damasio’s writing (above).

Overall, my judgement is that there is much more in common between de Bono’s and Stacey’s perspectives than there are differences. As both of them would predict, though, the natural tendency is for the focus to fall on the apparent anomalies and for these to be magnified.

I would go so far as to say that the dynamics implicit in Stacey’s thinking are closer to those expressed by de Bono than they are to many of the more mainstream views of complexity. In any event, I see both perspectives as adding value to my informal coalitions view of organizations.

I look forward to reading any further thoughts that you and others might have.

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