We are now approaching the ‘home straight’ on this ‘back to the future’ review of my 30-year-old paper on organizational planning (“At last,” I hear you say!). Here, we will consider the proposition that planners – and, for our present purposes, change facilitators - should adopt a realistic rather than rational perspective of the dynamics of organization (see footnote).
- Extract #37 – Doing what makes sense and what helps in the particular situation.
“Realism means doing what ‘works’ in the particular situation with due regard to both short- and long-range objectives (it is important to include long-term objectives because pragmatism which focuses only on short-term objectives degenerates into expediency).”
I’m glad to see that I placed the word “works” in single inverted commas. It is impossible to know definitively what will work or even what “works” means, in the socially complex reality of everyday organizational life.
I was particularly pleased to see that the original paper forcibly challenged the assumptions of “classical reality”. This sits four-square with the informal coalitions view of organizational dynamics.
- Extract #38 – Recognizing the socio-political reality (rather than rationality) of organizational decision making.
“A realistic view recognises the socio-political reality of decision making as against the simplistic assumptions of classical rationality and underlines the need for decision makers to extend their vision of the organizational world to deal with its inherent uncertainty and complexity.
Interestingly here the paper advocates a “systems-contingency” view of organizations, which I recall being particularly attracted to at the time.
“The approach then is, in essence, to adopt what has come to be known as the system-contingency theory of organisations:
‘The general flavour of the contingency view is somewhere between simplistic, universal principles and complex vague notions (“it all depends”).’ – (Kast, F.E. and Rosenzweig, J.E., 1973, Contingency Views of Organisation and Management).
As I’ve mentioned on many occasions in this blog, I no longer view organizations as systems. However, this particular description by Kast and Rosenzweig of the contingency perspective still retains some appeal.
The chapter goes on to consider the implications of all of this for the specialist planner’s task, from which we can distill the following:
- Extract #39 – Seeking to identify and raise managers’ awareness of those factors that appear relevant in the particular, emerging situation and of their dynamic interplay.
“The implications for the planner in establishing realism as a goal are significant. First of all he must seek to impart to management an understanding of those forces which are relevant in the resolution of complex decision problems and their dynamic interplay. Since all of the forces are in constant flux and often shrouded in uncertainty, the problem of maintaining a realistic frame of reference is a formidable one and it’s easy to understand why simplified models are often adopted for dealing with the complexity. Furthermore, education – and especially technical education – invariably deals with situations in which there is one right answer to a particular problem. In business decisions, however, we have seen that in allocating resources and mediating among conflicting sets of values and interests, judgments or theoretical constructs are formed specific to the situation, balancing each issue off against a wide range of other issues, including present ones and those that might arise in the future.”
This emphasizes, once again (see Extract #32, for example) the importance of focusing on the messy, ‘here and now’ specifics of what’s going on. In pursuing this general argument, the paper suggests that,
“The organizational structure provides the vehicle for managing choices among conflicting sets of values and is itself a significant force in the total situation. No amount of effort concentrated on the purely rational-cognitive aspects of the decision making/strategy formation process will lead to improvement if ‘structural defects’ are widespread.”
At first sight, this appears to suggest an emphasis on the formal and structured aspects of organization. But the paper goes on to state that “Values, power, roles and procedures are all aspects of the structure which deserve consideration.” And the ways in which these manifest themselves in everyday organizational practice is largely through the shadow-side dynamics that provide the focus of the informal coalitions perspective.
The next extract draws attention to the multitude of diverse and often competing pressures that people experience in the specific situations that actually define everyday reality for people. Interestingly, it talks about this in terms of “role”:
Extract #40 – Acknowledging the specific situational pressures that bear upon individuals’ interactions; and on the perceptions, interpretations, evaluations and actions that flow from these.
“One of the most significant unit’s of the organisation’s psycho-social structure … is a person’s role. Role can be defined as:
‘The collective expectations on an individual’s behaviour resulting from the situational pressures (formal, informal, technical and external) and personality at a moment in time.’ (Hunt, J.W., 1972,The Restless Organisation).
… an individual in an organisation ‘performs’ many roles, not all of which are complementary. The problems of role ambiguity (unclear role expectations); role conflict (conflicting or overlapping roles); role incompatibility (conflicting expectations); role overload (too many roles); and role underload (too few roles) all lead to role strain which typically manifests itself in individual tension, low morale and motivation, and poor communication, none of which is conducive to good organisational decision making.”
In Informal Coalitions I speak of this in terms of what I call “relationship dynamics”. In essence, I argue that we each seek to deal with these competing demands in ways that maintain our sense of identity, self-worth and competence – in all of our important relationships (or roles) at the same time. The ‘personal frame of reference’ through which we view the world shapes the ways in which we engage in these relationships and enact our various roles. And, at the same time, the roles we enact and the relationships in which we participate shape the ways in which we view the world. That is, our ‘personal frame of reference’ is both socially constructed through (i.e. shaped by) our ongoing interactions and, at the same time, shapes those interactions.
The final extract from this chapter’s advocacy of a realistic approach to planning and decision making highlights another of the paradoxes of everyday organizational life:
Extract #41 – Embracing the irresolvable tension between realism and reach.
“Finally, the search for a realistic perspective … gives rise to two fundamental but conflicting goals. On the one hand, management wants decisions, as influenced by planning, to reflect pragmatic judgements based on what is possible. On the other hand, it wants these decisions to reflect forward-looking, assertive and creative thinking.
Thus, the planner must consider a further trade-off in the area of strategic decisions, that between “realism” and “reach”. J.K. Shank et al (1973, Balance ‘Creativity’ and ‘Practicality’ in Formal Planning) conclude from their research that the ‘balance point’ can be adjusted by varying those aspects of the long-range planning system which relate to its interface with the short-range budgeting process.”
This is described here as requiring a “trade-off” between the competing dynamics of realism and reach. Drawing on Shank et al, the paper argues the need to differentiate between the planning and budgeting process in terms of such things as content, timing and organizational responsibilities. Today, I would view the in-built tensions between realism and reach more in paradoxical terms – as an irresolvable conflict between two simultaneously occurring aspects of everyday organizational dynamics.
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: