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.