After a long but unavoidable gap, this post returns to the review of my 1980 paper on the planning task in organizations. The aim of the series is to establish to what extent – if at all – the view of organizational dynamics embodied in the paper reflects that contained in Informal Coalitions. And, if so, what inferences might be drawn from it in relation to the facilitation of organizational change (see Footnote).
Here the focus moves to the nature of decision making and action taking in organizations.
- Extract #31 – Stimulating shifts in the pattern and content of managers’ everyday decision-making-cum-action-taking.
"The planner’s task, in broad terms, is to come up with something of practical value to decision makers caught up in various degrees of uncertainty and complexity."
- Extract #32 - Focusing on the specific content and dynamics of in-the-moment exchanges, rather than deferring to generalized tools and techniques.
Whilst recognizing the existence of “numerous prescriptive frameworks or models outlining the decision process” the chapter goes on to say “the approach to planning advocated here emphasises the primacy of the manager’s attitudes, motivations and general orientation to the process over the indiscriminate use of specific decision making techniques”.
This general 'mindset' is consistent with the view that change happens through the complex of conversations and interactions that define everyday organizational life. As such, planners and change specialists (not to mention everyone else) would be better placed in focusing on the specific content and dynamics of these in-the-moment exchanges, rather than relying on generalized tools and techniques to point the way ahead.
The paper refers to four decision-making trade-offs identified by Hickling (Managing Decisions: The Strategic Choice Approach, 1974) “… relating to the way in which ‘technical’ factors and ‘political’ considerations are inextricably brought to bear in the process. In all but the most simple of decisions, a balance has to be struck between political expediency on the one hand and technical soundness on the other.”
Hicklin argues that trade-offs need to be made between:
- The desire for simplification and the recognition of complexity
- Urgency to decide/act and the lack of information to do so ‘scientifically’
- The need for commitment to action and flexibility to keep one’s options open
- Incrementality of decision-making and the felt need for comprehensiveness.
This reiteration of the political dimension of all decisions (as previously identified in Extract #10) poses an important challenge to the rational view of organizational decision-making. This is an important feature of the informal coalitions view of organizational leadership, which calls on leaders to "act politically".
The paper also includes a framework by Ullrich (in Ansoff et al, From Strategic Planning to Strategic Management, 1976) which identifies a range of solution processes based on the characteristics of the problems faced. In many ways this mirrors the attempts that have been made to classify the ‘degrees’ of complexity that exist in different situations, such as Ralph Stacey’s (now abandoned) “certainty-agreement matrix” and Dave Snowden’s “Cynefin framework”. Ullrich’s 2x2 matrix classifies problem situations according to the type of search process (analysable v unanalysable) and the degree of variation in the problems encountered (low v high).
I feel that this categorisation has some instrumental value and face validity but suffers from a similar problem to that which led Stacey to abandon his certainty-agreement matrix. That is, it obscures the complexity that is inherent in all human interaction, even that which appears to be repetitive and analysable.
The recognition of the idea of a “construct” (as the unspoken product of personal and social construction) also carries with it the notion of action and ‘feedback’, leading to further action and feedback and so on: '... the problem solver co-ordinates his activities (action-taking and construct-formulating) using the feedback that these activities produce’ (Ullrich, 1976). This process is undoubtedly being viewed at the macro level; that is, abstracted from the detailed interactions of everyday organizational life. And the feedback is also displaced in time from the initiating action, rather than these being intimately intertwined in the moment of interaction. Nevertheless, the dynamic pattern of action-feedback carries with it an echo of the gesture-response process that is at the heart of Stacey’s current view of organizations as complex responsive processes of human interaction.
The 1980 paper implied that this four-category typology of problem situations was readily identifiable, enabling the planner to intervene as appropriate to “help managers make straightforward decisions quickly, ‘on the spot’ and on their own authority; and help them to deal with unusual problems more quickly and intelligently ...”. I think that the reality is likely to be a little less “straightforward” than this suggests!
The paper spends much less time talking about action taking as such, although it begins well:
“The end result of a particular phase of the planning process is not the plan but an actual change in reality.”
Perhaps the paper should have said something like "a change in the way that reality is constructed and enacted", to reflect the ongoing social construction of 'reality'. But that is perhaps asking a little too much. The main point here is that whether planned changes are realized or not depends on the ways in which these are perceived, interpreted, evaluated and enacted by people, through their ongoing interactions - and on the way that the 'outcomes' of such interactions come to be framed.
From this point on, the chapter adopts a conventional view of action taking and implementation; seeing it as the natural outcome of the informed decision-making that is presumed to have gone before. This is inconsistent with the complex social process perspective of organizational dynamics, which rejects the linearity of think-plan-decide-act. In Informal Coalitions, these are seen as the intimately intertwined and reflexive processes of sense making and use making.
So, in terms of links with my current thinking on organizational dynamics, this chapter is less rich than earlier ones. Hopefully, the next post will offer a little more - although, as with previous topics in the series, I haven't re-read the relevant chapter yet! The post will reflect on the planner's intention for managers' decisions and actions to "affect the future" in some desired way.
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: