As we arrive at the latest stop on our ‘back to the future’ journey to the land of organizational planning, we come face-to-face with the issues of uncertainty and complexity (see Footnote).
These topics were dealt with in separate chapters in the 1980 paper. But the two are so intimately interwoven in my present-day understanding of organizational dynamics that I’ve chosen to wrap them together for the purposes of this post.
In his latest treatise on organizational dynamics, Complexity and Organizational Reality, Ralph Stacey discusses these concepts in some depth. There he argues that analogies drawn from the sciences of uncertainty and complexity offer a more resonant view of organisational reality than that offered by the science of certainty that underpins the dominant management discourse.
He later goes on to suggest that it’s perhaps best not to think of management and leadership as sciences at all but rather to recognize that these are social phenomena. Despite this, uncertainty and complexity feature heavily in his particular take on organizational dynamics and in the social complexity perspective embodied in informal coalitions.
The relatively short chapter on Uncertainty doesn’t offer a lot to draw on in relation to my current conception of organizational dynamics. That’s not to say that it is wholly incompatible with it; simply that it could equally well be used to support a mainstream view of organization.
Two main points are made with regard to uncertainty. First it is argued that it embraces a range of possibilities, from Certainty, through Risk and Uncertainty to Ignorance:
“The term ‘uncertainty’ in the definition is used to include the continuum of ignorance through uncertainty, risk and, finally, certainty. Where it is possible to assign probabilities to the occurrence of an event, risk is involved. Where it is not, there is uncertainty or subjective probability.”
Interestingly, this formulation would ‘fit’ with Stacey’s mid-90s Certainty-Agreement matrix – before he abandoned it as he developed his theory of organizations as complex responsive processes. And Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework adopts a parallel typology (Simple-Complicated-Complex-Chaotic). But a conventional view of organizational dynamics would similarly recognize these different conditions. The only difference then would be in the belief that ignorance and uncertainty could be eliminated by appropriate rational action.
Implicit in these (and similar) frameworks is the belief that the degree of uncertainty is a property of the context of a particular social interaction (e.g. decision-making). Today, I would see the full ‘spectrum’ – from ignorance through to certainty – as being present in all interactions, irrespective of context.
The second part of the chapter refers to a particular classification of uncertainty by Friend and Jessop in their book, Local Government and Strategic Choice (1969). There they identify three ‘types’ of uncertainty. These they describe as:
- uncertainty about the external environment;
- uncertainty about the appropriate values to be brought to bear on a particular problem; and
- uncertainty about the choices in related areas which impinge on the problem under consideration.
I recall finding this very helpful at the time, as a way of drawing people’s attention to the need to address uncertainty. But the reality is much more complex.Against this background, the following point on change facilitation can be inferred from a paragraph towards the end of the chapter:
- Extract #25 – Working with the uncertainty inherent in all situations, not seeking to deny or eliminate it.
“As Drucker (Technology, Management and Society, 1970) comments, attempting to avoid uncertainty is the last thing that a planning system should do. …The approach to planning described here sees uncertainty as something to be worked with, not against.”
And so it is with the facilitation (and, for that matter, the leadership) of organizational change.
Moving on to the companion chapter on Complexity, the first thing to say is that, in 1980, I had no knowledge at all of the science of complexity. So my observations at the time will have been based on a more common-or-garden view of complexity in organizations.
- Extract #26 – Embracing the variety and complexity of everyday organizational reality.
“A relevant approach to planning has to be able to handle the management of variety and complexity since we are dealing with reality and reality is very complex.”
I’m pleased with this bracketing together of complexity and organizational reality. But, reading on, I think that I was still seeing it in terms of complicatedness, rather than complexity as I might think of it today. I did, though, use a quote from George Steiner’s Top Management Planning, which catalogues some of the complex interrelationships that are characteristic of everyday decision-making:
“As decisions are made at higher levels in the organisation, the complications mount:
‘The decision-making process, at a minimum, consists of an intricate interrelationship among experts, job responsibility, group deliberation, communication and information systems, questions of administrative feasibility and codes of morals and ethics. The interrelationship of these elements changes as the process flows over time. And always, information is insufficient. Also, the manager who decides frequently finds that equally talented staff and line managers come to opposing points of view.’ (Steiner, G., 1969, Top Management Planning).”
- Extract #27 – Recognizing the interconnectedness of decisions and their implications.
“Apparently simple decisions may, on reflection, turn out to have wide implications. Decisions and problems seldom exist in isolation. They are usually surrounded by a group of interrelated and co-existing problems. In Drucker’s terms [again] (Technology, Management and Society, 1970):
‘There is no such thing as one isolated decision; every decision is, of necessity, part of a decision structure.’
... the planner’s task is to ensure that relevant levels of management understand where each decision fits into the continuous process of organisational decision making.”
- Extract #28 – Understanding that outcomes emerge from the decisions and actions of all those participating in a situation, whether or not they are involved in the formal decision-making processes.
“This interconnectedness of decisions means that many interests need to be represented in key decisions if the objectives are to be achieved successfully.”
Whilst actively involving people in the decision-making process has merit in its own right, as David Collins argues in relation to organizational change this more inclusive view can often result in a models of change that become over-socialised. That is, their proponents can become “… too confident in their ability to fashion organizations and to refashion the attitudes and beliefs of diverse groups” (Collins, D. Organizational Change: Sociological Perspectives).
There are many reasons why this is the case - not least the diversity and personal idiosyncrasies of those normal human beings who people every organization. This same dynamic is also reflected in the next extract.
- Extract #29 – Recognizing the impact of differing personal frames of reference.
“… each participant will bring to the problem various levels of experience and motivation as well as some opinions or ‘theories’. This ‘mental luggage’ gives him (sic) an initial mental set on the problem. His experience and theories accumulated over long periods of time, together with information gathered specific to the problem, will form the basis of his perceptions of the decision problem. The mental sets of two participants in the same problem may be completely different and they may have different resources at their disposal for the collection and assimilation of information. Additionally, participants have value systems that govern their preferences between courses of action; and their emotional involvement and degree of motivation may have a significant effect on the intensity and ‘rationality’ of their participation.
As a result of these considerations, participants’ perceptions of the problem may well be different. An added complication arises where participants have perceptions of other participants’ perceptions … and so on down an endless chain of images!”
Today, I would make this broad point in relation to all interactions, not simply those relating to designated “problems”. There is also an implication here that these differing mental sets are brought to bear on a pre-existing set of problems. But the latter are themselves products of these same dynamics – including their framing as problems in the first place.
- Extract #30 – Working to broaden managers’ perceptions of the context, interconnectedness and dynamics of organizational performance and change.
“The long-term developmental goal of the planner must be to help each manager to relate his own specialist area to the requirements of the organisation as a whole and to grow to view these requirements as a normal part of his job.”
Having looked at the complex and uncertain nature of ‘the territory’, the next post will reflect on the implications of this for decision making and action taking.
This is one of a series of posts that draws extracts from a 1980 paper on the nature of the specialist planning task in organizations. The challenge is to see if and how this might relate to the view of organizational dynamics that is embodied in informal coalitions. More of the background can be found in the initial, context-setting post: Re-membering the past – The seeds of informal coalitions? Extract numbers follow on from those in earlier posts in the series.
Earlier posts in the series include: