"Where all of the edges meet, you get this astonishing conversation."
Organization design expert, Naomi Stanford, has drawn my attention to a great talk by poet and philosopher, David Whyte. In Life at the frontier: The conversational nature of reality (see below), Whyte eloquently sets out his thoughts on what he describes as the "incredible conversation of life."
There is much in what he says that resonates with my notion of organizations as dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations – not least when he refers briefly to the conversational nature of organizational reality. At the same time, Whyte applies the term "conversation" to a wide variety of settings in the world at large, in which there is a coming together of disparate entities – both living and man-made, known and unknown. As such, he uses the term metaphorically, whereas I use it literally. That is to say, I see an organization literally as the ongoing act of communication between human beings in the currency of their everyday interactions.
So to what extent does Whyte’s idea of the conversational nature of reality mesh with this?
Whyte suggests that we should each ask ourselves the following question:
"How many edges of conversation are meeting inside me? Or am I a mono-cultural idea which I attempt to project upon reality?"He is firmly of the view that our identity is forged in the process of our interactions with other people and with everything else that we encounter in the world:
"In order for an independent human being to live out its life, it has to find that edge between its own particular signature and genius, and what it’s being called into by the surrounding world."
Later he adds,
"There is no self that will survive a real conversation."
This reflects the relational view of identity that I have discussed in earlier posts (such as here). And his notion of many edges of conversation meeting inside each one of us has echoes of what I referred to in Informal Coalitions as our "personal frame of reference", through which we seek to maintain all of our important relationships in an acceptable state at the same time.
I'm less comfortable, though, with the idea that we interact with inanimate objects in the literal sense. Instead, I see these as ‘imprints of past conversations’. That is to say, these objects are the products of conversations that have taken place earlier. And what is significant about them today is not the objects themselves but the meanings - if any - that we take from them (the 'imprints' of those conversations). And it’s these ‘imprints’, rather than the objects themselves, which we take up (or not) in our ongoing conversations. Importantly, too, we recreate these afresh each time, in the course of our current interactions and according to the specific conditions that we find ourselves in at that particular moment.
On the gap between intention and outcome
In Informal Coalitions I argue that outcomes emerge from the widespread interplay of the myriad conversations and interactions through which people make sense of the world and decide how they will act. This means that, while a particular individual or group can act with intention, what happens in practice is co-created by all of those who are participating in this 'boundaryless' process. Everyone who participates does so in accordance with their own intentions and taken-for-granted ways of responding, as enabled and constrained by those with whom they are interacting at that time and in those specific circumstances. As a consequence of this, and as Whyte maintains,
"One of the essential dynamics of the conversational nature of reality is that whatever you as an individual would like to happen in this world will not happen exactly as you would like it to happen."He reassuringly couples this with the recognition that, in terms of an ‘organization’s demands’ on you,
"... you will not comply exactly as they would like you to comply."
I would make the point here that, from an informal coalitions view of organizational dynamics, ‘organizations’ can’t place any demands on you, only other people can.
On paradox, reflexivity and participation
In speaking about what he refers to as "the iterative nature of reality", Whyte makes the important observation that,
"You actually change the world by meeting it... Simply by being present. Simply by starting a conversation. That conversation can be verbal but the world can also be changed by your attentive presence."
And later, from his poem: Working Together,
"We shape ourselves to fit this world and by the world are shaped again."
These two statements, amongst others, recognize the paradoxical, reflexive and participative nature of organizational (human) dynamics that I have discussed extensively in earlier posts. To take one example, the tendency is for people's ongoing interactions to be shaped by the patterning of past sense-making-cum-action-taking. At the same time, today's conversations further shape - and potentially change - the patterns that emerge. As I suggested earlier, this is a process in which everyone participates. There are no mere observers - people can't not communicate with those who are aware of their presence (whether actual or imaginary).
This conversational process, as Whyte also says, takes place
"... between people who are on an edge... people who are in conversation not only with what they know they want but also with the astonishing unknown - which is about to come into incarnation simply through the ways in which they are paying attention to the future."
Whyte was describing here the events that were taking place in Cairo at the time of his talk, as part of the so-called "Arab Spring". But this dynamic is at play in all conversations, however mundane. These take place at the edge between what is currently known - at that time, in that situation, and within that relationship - and the emerging unknown that people co-create in the moment of their interaction.
As I mentioned in introducing this piece, my description of organization as a dynamic network of self-organizing conversations is intended to be taken literally. That is to say, organizations comprise people interacting together and conversation is the primary means through which this ongoing process of human interaction is enacted. This process is self-organizing and its outcomes emergent.
In contrast, although Whyte includes human interactions as part of his argument, he extends the notion of conversation to describe the coming together of elements of the natural world and man-made designs. As an example of the former, he suggests,
"Even the smallest creature ... is in conversation with a thousand other elements."
And, as regards the latter, he uses the example of the shape of an aeroplane wing meeting the flow of air which, together, provide the conditions necessary to achieve the required lift, He describes this as,
"The conversation between the velocity of the plane and the shape of the wing ...".
Whilst appreciating Whyte's use of imagery and language, and acknowledging the poetic licence that comes with his profession, it's here, in the context of organizational dynamics, that I would add some cautionary comments.
What we think of as organizations are being perpetually constructed in the currency of people's present, conversational interactions. And conversations always reflect differing interpretations, interests, identities and ideologies. That is to say, these are power-laden and political. Whilst the tendency is for established patterns of interaction to be reiterated and further embedded in the present, the potential always exists for new patterns to emerge spontaneously through these same interactions. These uniquely conversational dynamics do not apply in the natural world. And, the behaviour of the plane wing is wholly determined by the aerodynamic design parameters. As such, the phenomenon of "lift" is not an emergent property of the wing and air flow in the spontaneous, conversational sense. It occurs in an entirely predictable manner, based upon the as-designed contour of the wing and the known fluid dynamics of air flow.
My concern is that Whyte's figurative use of the term "conversation" in these other contexts might obscure the literal conversational reality of organizational dynamics and leave the dominant management discourse intact. In particular, it seems to me that his suggestion that organizations have conversations makes this latter interpretation more likely still. It tends to reinforce the fiction that what we think of as an organization is a living entity, which exists and can act in some way separate from the ongoing interactions of ordinary people. This, it seems to me, is the antithesis of what is implied by the phrase "the conversational nature of reality".
With that caveat, Whyte's perspective helpfully and engagingly reinforces the insight that organization is a conversational phenomenon and it forcefully challenges those who view organizational dynamics in mechanistic terms.