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Deb Booth

This issue is not only important for individual consultant, but for all consultants, whose reputation is tarnished by poor ethical practice (which cannot lead to improved organisational effectiveness). One solution i like (used by anthropologists employed by US military in Afghanistan etc and by some UK OD consultants) is to include an industry-standard and robust code of ethics in the Contract

Tom Gibbons

Great question Chris! One that does not have a ‘right’ answer I think, which is as it should be. A couple of weeks ago myself and my colleague presented at the OD Network conference in Seattle on complex responsive processes (a blog entry on this to come) and it was interesting. I would say CRP is an ideology that views the work world in ways that challenges current dominant thinking and since I consult through this lens I can very much identify with your post.

A couple of things. First, I have found that directly challenging mainstream thinking with managers or others is not very helpful or productive. I try and talk about what is really happening for them in their organizations through the lens of CRP and it seems to resonate with their real experience. From there we can talk about different ways of approaching things that seems more real to them. We may still need to do some of the things driven by mainstream thinking but we talk about that as necessary but not necessarily part of the value we are trying to add together.

Second, I have found that there are many, many people in the consulting world that simply do not see or think about different ways of doing things. Rowing with the stream, only better, is their ideology. There is no ethical dilemma or collusion whatsoever. I think it is important that we keep in mind that what and how we might do our work, in mine through the lens of CRP, is an ideology, not a right way, and as you have mentioned before, any ideology is sooner or later proven inaccurate. A moral stance that ours is the ‘right’ way I don’t think is helpful either and I do think good, and different work can be done within the frameworks of very traditional initiatives.

Of course if there was a right answer to this situation I suppose we would be falling into a one size fits all solution and we wouldn’t want that would we… : ) For me it is context based, sometimes I row upstream, sometimes I collude, sometimes I collude while rowing upstream and sometimes I just walk away. And most times I struggle with each of the bullet points in you post…. as it should be I think.

Chris Rodgers

Thanks, Deb and Tom.

As regards your comment about ethics, Deb, there are, no doubt, some consultants and/or their clients who behave unethically in their practice - either by habit or according to circumstance. From the consulting perspective, deliberately providing advice or services which are known to be detrimental to the organization but which provide private gain would certainly fit into that category.

My specific concern here, though, is with the (ethical) dilemma of whether a consultant should collude with or confront a client whose 'worldview' - or ideology as Tom says - is at odds with their own. This is particularly important where they feel that the client's maintenance of that perspective and approach is detrimental to the organization ‘as a whole'. This, of course, raises the ancillary question as to who exactly is "the client" that the consultant is seeking to serve.

As you point out, Tom, the collude-confront issue is rarely clear cut. At the same time, my informal coalitions philosophy is close to Ralph Stacey's Complex Responsive Process view of organizations, to which you subscribe. And both of these point to the socially complex nature of organizational dynamics, with its attendant features of self-organization, emergence, paradox, power relations, political tensions, the capacity of people to act with intention but with no certainty of outcome, and so on. These characteristics are far removed from those that are taken for granted in mainstream management thinking. As such, the complex social (or responsive) process view sits uneasily with the 'how to change the world in ten easy steps'-type prescriptions that dominate much of the conventional approach to management.

As you rightly say, doing some of the conventional stuff better can often bring benefit; particularly, I would add, where this facilitates greater self-sufficiency, self-direction, self-control and collaboration. But it's also important, in my view, for a consultant to expose what they see as the limitations in the assumptions on which current sensemaking and action taking is based. This is even the case when adopting what appears to be a more enlightened approach to people management, say, but one which still adheres to a linear, ordered, predictable and ultimately controllable view of organizational dynamics. When things go wrong or performance is less than desired, the guiding philosophy then becomes one of "doing it better and getting it right".

As an example, John Seddon describes this nicely in his critique of target-based management. Targets have consistently been found to misdirect effort and be counter-productive. This has been highlighted by their widespread adoption in the public sector. Although the fallacy of target setting has been exposed, the 'do it better' response has not been to get rid of them altogether but rather to set fewer, so-called "better" targets. Seddon calls this "doing the wrong things 'righter'".

So I do think that certain ways of framing things and acting in relation to organizational dynamics are inherently more useful than others, in that they more accurately reflect people's lived experience and point to more useful ways forward. These beliefs (ideologies) might not have the status of absolute truth; not least because that concept in relation to organizational dynamics is itself at odds with our complex, paradoxical, socially constructed view of the world! But I have no difficulty in seeing these as providing better explanations and ‘guides for action’ than many of the alternatives that are on offer.

In this respect, Edward de Bono talks about the notion of a "proto-truth" - which he describes as a temporary or contingent truth. This has all the attributes of a truth - except one: it is always open to change and is never treated as absolute. As de Bono says, a proto-truth is only changed for a better proto-truth (which I take to be one that makes more sense and appears to be more useful than the alternatives). That is, there is a constant readiness for change but at the same time a willingness to use the proto-truth as if it were absolute. I see my view of organizational dynamics in these terms. So it's not a moralistic stance I'm taking. It’s just that I see my complex social process view (as reflected in Informal Coalitions) and also Stacey's CRP perspective as being 'better' than most of the others that are on offer. Clearly many people (currently the majority) would disagree!

When I speak with managers about these dynamics in terms of their everyday conversational interactions, they always 'get it' - whether they sit in the boardroom or work on the front line. The challenge is often one of confidence. How can they have confidence that focusing on something as seemingly incidental and inconsequential as people's day-to-day interactions can have greater impact than that offered by sophisticated programmes, processes and procedures?

Having said that, I, like you, decide from time to time that the greater organizational good is best served by 'going with the flow'. In such cases, I then help my clients to 'chip away at the edges' of their current practices, as opportunities present themselves. I would only see this as "colluding", if I hadn't made my 'stance' clear at the outset and, instead, taken the easy, compliant route forward. Or if I failed to challenge what I saw as flaws in the client's thinking and taken-for-granted assumptions as our work together progressed.

Thanks, again, for your comments, Chris

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