Few managers and consultants appear willing to contemplate the thought that they might not be able to predict and control outcomes in their organizations. Or to pinpoint the causes of particular events. But the inability to do so is an unavoidable dynamic of people in interaction. It is not something that only happens now and again. Or only in some (assumed to be poorly managed) organizations and not in others. It happens all of the time and in all organizations. Despite this, conventional management ‘wisdom’ continues to embrace and promote principles and practices that assume the opposite.
As an example, I recently took part in an on-line discussion about how best to measure the return on investment (ROI) of development interventions. I found it fascinating – and at the same time somewhat depressing - how deeply embedded and taken for granted is the belief that doing this is unproblematic. It is - or so it would seem from the various contributions - an essential and readily achievable aspect of good management and consulting practice.
For most, it would appear simply to be a matter of the client's choice, coupled with a suitable methodology and the consultant’s (or coach’s/trainer’s) will to achieve it:
- One commentator declared confidently that he can "measure anything".
- Another sang the praises of a particular ‘tool’ that she had used to assess the value of coaching. Interestingly, whilst claiming that this could also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the coach, she commented that "this is a subjective and personal relationship” which is “full of grey areas”. Presumably such relationships differ, in some yet-to-be-explained way, from the other relationships and interactions that comprise everyday organizational life.
- A third respondent offered striking examples of 'returns' that had been claimed (and presumably accepted) for particular coaching assignments. As she conceded though - almost as an afterthought -these 'returns' assume that "nothing else is happening to that individual at the same time as the coaching programme, which might account for the improvement in performance." Quite. It also assumes that the rest of the world stood still while the client managers delivered the aforesaid benefits, which arose as a sole result of their "improved performance".
I – not unusually – was a lone voice in suggesting that it might not be quite as simple as others were suggesting. Or, to be more precise, that it wasn’t doable at all!
Organizational outcomes arise from people interacting continuously with each other across – and ‘beyond’ – what we think of as separate organizations. Through formal and informal conversations and interactions, they make sense of what’s going on and decide how they’re going to act. And it’s through the widespread interplay of all of these actions that outcomes emerge. From this perspective, it’s impossible to say if and how a particular intervention created a particular outcome, which is the essence of evaluation. You simply can’t make that link.
Recognizing this disconnection between mainstream thinking and the messy, complex social dynamics of organizations is not a counsel of despair or a call for inaction. On the contrary, it releases managers and consultants to focus on the everyday reality of organizational life, rather than requiring them to collude with the view that it’s all measurable ... and it’s all controllable ... and it’s all predictable.
From 'set-piece' evaluation to active participation in 'open play'
The above dynamics mean that the ability of people to stand aside from the action and comment upon it from a detached viewpoint - as implied by formal, ‘set-piece’ evaluation - makes no sense at all. Managers and consultants – like everyone else - are ‘on the pitch, playing’ not ‘sitting in the stands’, observing and controlling other people’s actions.
From this perspective, evaluation is not something separate. It is a normal part of the ongoing sense making and action taking process from which outcomes emerge. It’s here, in the 'open play' of day-to-day interaction, that the perceived value of formal investments and informal propositions is continuously assayed, lessons learned, and their intended benefits realized – or not.
The real value of managers and consultants?
In a world in which organizational practitioners have been led to expect certainty, predictability and control, it might be uncomfortable for them to accept the challenges that the complex social dynamics of organization bring. But believing that things are otherwise won’t make these dynamics go away!
And it is this, surely, which makes managers’ and consultants’ roles potentially so valuable: Helping people, individually and collectively, to navigate their way through the messy (i.e. complex, uncertain, unpredictable and contentious) waters of everyday organizational reality – not pretending that it can all be dealt with in some neatly packaged, ‘paint-by-numbers’ sort of way. Or that clarity of intent, together with the use of ever more 'sophisticated' tools and techniques, will provide certainty of outcome.