This is the fourth and final post in a mini-series that seeks to draw parallels between Edward de Bono’s work on the mechanism of mind and Ralph Stacey’s complex responsive process view of organizational dynamics.
Both of these strands of thinking are reflected in the informal coalitions view of organizations as dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations.
This final post looks at the implications for leadership of these two perspectives. In particular, it focuses on two fundamental challenges to conventional ways of thinking about organizational leadership, namely that:
- leaders are not objective observers and controllers of other people’s actions
- the complexity perspective does not represent an optional way of managing organizations.
No objective observer
One of the major challenges to established management thinking that is posed by Stacey’s radical perspective on complexity, is the recognition that there is no outside agent (the manager) objectively observing what is going on and controlling the activities of others from an external vantage point.
Some advocates of a complexity approach see it as providing a new set of prescriptions for managers to use to control their organizations. Principal amongst these are those who see organizations as "living systems" and adopt a Complex Adaptive System view of organizational dynamics (calling on managers, say, to apply a set of simple rules to facilitate self-management). Others draw lessons directly from Chaos Theory; advocating that managers should work to keep their organizations "close to the edge of chaos".
Stacey’s complex responsive process view argues that these prescriptive approaches perpetuate the myth that managers can somehow stand outside the action and control it from a detached viewpoint. In human organizations, there is nobody outside the process of interaction. Managers are unavoidably involved in the give-and-take of local conversational exchanges through which outcomes emerge – even in their absence! At the same time, they cannot control these outcomes. Although managers can act with intent in terms of their own contribution to the dynamic network of interactions, they cannot be certain what outcomes will actually emerge.
Here again, de Bono’s early writings on the brain provide some ‘lateral reinforcement’ for Stacey's position. In describing "the mechanism of mind", he argues that there is not a separate agent at work, picking ‘information’ out of the environment, storing it on the brain’s ‘memory-surface’ and then picking it off the surface to manipulate it. Instead, stimuli (such as those arising in conversation with others) organise themselves into patterns without the involvement of any other agency. What emerges from this process depends on the ‘in-the-moment’ coming together of these particular stimuli and the patterning that has gone before. The latter will tend to channel perceptions and interpretations down well-trodden ‘pathways of the mind’ whilst retaining the capacity for novelty to emerge.
Not an optional way of managing
Not an optional way of managing
Finally, in speaking of organizations as complex responsive (or social) processes, Stacey does not offer an optional way of managing them. Too often we hear management writers and commentators advocating the principles of complexity as an alternative way of managing organizations. Typically, they position it as a more enlightened view of leadership - in contrast, say, to command and control. What they overlook is that the unalloyed ‘commanders and controllers’ are themselves active participants in the self-organizing processes of interaction within their organizations and beyond. Their inputs to these interactions may well be conditioned by their command-and-control mindset and behaviours, but the outcomes will be no less subject to the principles and processes of emergence, self-organization and co-creation than if they were unconditional disciples of complexity thinking.
Similarly, de Bono’s view of the mechanism of mind does not offer an optional way of ‘managing’ the thinking process. It happens without any deliberate intervention. The self-organizing behaviour of the brain shows how stimuli organize themselves into patterns of thinking and acting, which enable us to navigate our way through life. And this also explains why pattern shifting is ordinarily (and necessarily) difficult to achieve.
It’s important to recognize here that de Bono is not using the word "pattern" to suggest that fixed, repeatable images are created and somehow stored in the brain for later ‘downloading’. Instead, the patterning process creates an expectancy that particular stimuli will tend to channel thinking down certain routes rather than others. As a consequence of these natural dynamics:
- memories are (re)-created (put together afresh or re-membered each time, as Stacey would say);
- sense making is facilitated; and
- familiar responses are triggered.
At the same time, the asymmetrical nature of the emergent patterns means that the potential always exists for radical, spontaneous change to arise (even if not with a high probability).
This simultaneous potential for continuity and change to emerge from the everyday process of conversational interaction is a central pillar of Stacey’s complex responsive process view of organizational dynamics.
Today, Stacey is recognized as a leading and radical thinker on the application of complexity principles to organizational change and performance. De Bono, on the other hand, is thought of primarily as a teacher of lateral thinking techniques and an author of populist books on the subject.
However, in the same way that Stacey uses complexity science as a source of analogy for human interaction in organizations, I believe that de Bono’s early writing provides a similarly rich seam of analogies. For me, the principles of ‘brain dynamics’ that underpin his writing and teaching offer some important insights into the dynamics of organizations, if managers and organizational specialists are prepared to look for them.
As I replied in response to a comment on an earlier post in the series, I am 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.