Ralph Stacey has argued that a fundamental factor in the global financial crisis has been widespread adherence to a management discourse that bears little relationship to people's everyday experience of organizational life (see here). Despite a continuing gap between theory and practice, the view persists that a generalized set of rational, scientific principles can be identified and applied to organizations. As a result, the expectation that organizational outcomes can be predicted and controlled, based on rational analysis and formal processes, continues to dominate managers’ practice, consultants’ offerings and mainstream management publications.
So why does this unhelpful pattern persist?
As I’ve suggested elsewhere, when the sought-after benefits fail to materialize this is most often blamed on poor implementation rather than unsound thinking. That is, the above discourse contains within it the expectation that shortfalls will occur during implementation. Perversely, then, failure confirms its validity. It is part of what managers take for granted and ‘know’ to be true. By adopting a “do it better and get it right” stance to implementation, failure is rationalized as a problem with execution and the flawed assumptions remain to fight another day.
But there is also a further characteristic of the complex dynamics of social interaction that, paradoxically, tends to reinforce the dominant management discourse. This is the ability – and often the motivation - that exists post-event to explain outcomes in ways that imply the existence of rationality, predictability and control. Below, I’ve set out three contrasting examples of organizational dynamics, all of which fall foul of this tendency.
Example 1: Lateral thinking
I’ve mentioned Edward de Bono several times in this blog. In particular, I've drawn analogies between his comments on "the mechanism of mind" and some of the underlying dynamics of organizations (see "Series", at the foot of this post). De Bono is the inventor of lateral thinking. And he often makes the point that solutions arrived at using his techniques always appear to be logical and rational after the event - they would be of little practical value, he argues, if they didn’t make logical sense to people.
However, it’s crucial to recognize that this does not mean that those solutions could have been arrived at by logical thinking. The self-organizing, patterning process, through which information is processed and ideas generated, tends to follow established patterns of thought and action. This makes pattern-switching possible but unlikely, as alternative ‘pathways’ tend to be ignored or remain out of awareness altogether.
The asymmetrical nature of this patterning process means that the solution is logical in hindsight but not accessible using logic beforehand. And this provides the rationale for lateral thinking, which deliberately sets out to provoke a switch to a previously unseen or novel pattern that otherwise might only have occurred by chance or mistake.
The core dynamic: Solutions that have been developed through lateral thinking appear logical and rational in retrospect.
The false conclusion: The solutions could have been arrived at using rational analysis and logic from the outset.
Example 2: Commonsense reasoning
I’m part-way through reading a refreshing book by Duncan Watts entitled, Everything’s Obvious – when you know the answer. In it, Watts draws attention to a similar flaw in the commonly held view that we can predict and control outcomes, provided that we seek out and analyze, in a rational way, all relevant information.
He notes that, paradoxically, this view is reinforced when outcomes fail to match the prediction or plan. This is because, once the result is known, it is always possible to work backwards and create a narrative that links this outcome to the starting condition. And it then becomes ‘obvious’ – or apparently so – that such-and-such a factor caused the observed outcome. This is the same pattern of thinking to which de Bono draws attention above. That is, since we can link cause and effect (at least seemingly so) post event, it must be possible to do so in advance. All that we need to do is to include in our initial analysis the missing factor that (in retrospect) was so obviously crucial to the outcome.
The problem is that, as Watts eloquently argues, the inherent complexity of organizations means that it is impossible to know in advance which of the unlimited number of factors at play in any situation might prove to be critical.
The core dynamic: It is always possible, after the event, to construct a rational, cause-and-effect narrative, which links particular issues to observed outcomes.
The false conclusion: Outcomes can be predicted in advance and/or the desired result achieved with certainty, provided that the right factors are included in the initial analysis.
Example 3: Informal coalitions
As I pointed out in Informal Coalitions, a similar dynamic applies to organizational changes that have been brought about by the skilful use of socio-political action (i.e. normal organizational behaviour). If outcomes are to be considered valid and praiseworthy within the established management discourse, then these (and the way that they have been achieved) need to be made sense of in rational terms. As a result, the stories that are told about them are retrospectively constructed to appear rationally coherent, goal oriented and authoritative. This is especially so when accounting for performance to those whose judgements are critical to the way in which the individual or group’s reputation is constructed within the organization and, perhaps, beyond.
However, by ignoring or denying the unavoidably socio-political nature of organizational change, the illusion is maintained that this is ...
a rational, scientific endeavour (i.e. formal, intellectual, logical, matter-of-fact, designed, and so on) ...
which is practised by a few designated individuals ...
rather than a complex social process (i.e. informal, psycho-social, political, emotional, coalitional, interpretive, and emergent etc.) ...
that is enacted by everyone in the normal course of their day-to-day interactions.
The core dynamic: It is always possible, after the event, to create a rational, scientific explanation for the nature and process of organizational change.
The false conclusion: Change can be successfully brought about by the expert application of rational, scientific methodologies (such as ‘n-step’ change processes, strategic choice, Design Thinking, and the like) – provided that these are carried out precisely as intended.
And in the end
The dominant management discourse has itself been constructed through the complex social process of everyday interaction. And it is sustained through that same dynamic.
Amongst other things, this means that the more that people make sense of things in a particular way, the more likely it is that they will continue to make similar sense going forward. Also, open acknowledgement of the complex social dynamics of organizations would call into question the roles and standing (that is to say, the identities) of those in the occupations, industries and institutions that have grown up around a view of organizations based on the currently dominant management discourse.
So, given the daily reinforcement of the assumptions of rationality, predictability and control, coupled with the self-interests that are served by their preservation, we shouldn’t be surprised that ‘shifting this particular pattern’ is proving less than straightforward.
Series - A lateral view of organizational complexity (speculative links between the work of Ralph Stacey and Edward de Bono):