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Tom Gibbons

Hello Chris,

Thanks for the last couple of posts… good reading and I look forward to the next one. I am very much aligned with your position that organizations are not systems and the term you use; 'dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations' to describe organizations fits well for me.

Inherent in this position, and mentioned on a few occasions in your posts, is the concept of ‘construction’. My understanding is that construction basically means that what ever you have (let’s call it X) has been constructed by whatever historical dynamics were in place and that X need not be what it is had different dynamics been in place. In other words X is not inevitable.

A systems view of organizations tends to have the unconscious or conscious assumption that X IS inevitable, as long as you design the right system.

I have a question however. The concept of construction has attached to it a high degree of uncertainty. Not in the concept itself but in the uncertainty of what might actually be constructed depending on the 'dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations'. This uncertainty I find is resisted quite strongly, often to the point that people will challenge me with statements like, ‘So if the future is uncertain and based on unpredictable local dynamics it really doesn’t matter what I do.’ While this may be an illustration of what you describe as an effort ‘to maintain the overall integrity of their personal frame of reference’ it can be show stopper for people to consider their organization as highly uncertain and what that might mean to their actual behaviour.

I am wondering if you (or perhaps your readers as well) have experienced this response and if so how you might respond back?

Chris Rodgers

Many thanks, Tom.

I agree wholeheartedly that ‘X’, as the socially constructed outcome of the “dynamic network of self-organization conversations”, is not inevitable. Outputs and outcomes emerge, as you imply, from the in-the-moment dynamics of these everyday interactions, in the context of what’s gone on before. People can therefore act with intention here but with no certainty as to the outcomes that might emerge. In other words, in complex social processes, outcomes are always uncertain and unpredictable.

Like you, I find that some managers are very uncomfortable with the idea that they are not in control of these dynamics – and, hence, of the outcomes that emerge. After all, many have been schooled (and are still being schooled!) in the view that if they are not in control, they are not leading. Indeed, many consultancies are engaged precisely because they collude with this view.

So, to my mind at least, the revelation that managers are not in control of what’s going on locally - or of the overall outcomes that emerge - has to be matched by the recognition that their words and actions nevertheless have a powerful influence on what actually emerges.

If we unpick this a bit further, what can we say?

First, as we both agree, these everyday interactions are pivotal to what actually happens in practice. And so, if people want to influence outcomes, it’s here – in the messy, give-and-take of day-to-day organizational life - that they need to focus their attention. The default response, which is to do more of the formal, structured stuff in an attempt to gain control, simply increases the scope for further ‘mis’-interpretation, contrary action and unforeseen outcomes to emerge locally.

Secondly, in socially complex situations, people are both enabled and constrained by their relationships with other people. So they can’t just ‘do what they like’ – at least not if they hope to influence what happens in those relationships on a continuing basis. This is part of the dynamic that I am attempting to describe when I refer to an individual’s “personal frame of reference”, and the felt need to preserve this intact. As I said in the post, this ‘frame’ is a relational concept. Preserving it ‘intact’ means, amongst other things, being seen to behave competently by significant others in their personal networks. Similarly, the personal identity(ies) that they construct for themselves, through this same interactional process, must ‘fit’ with other people’s views of them – and with those people’s own personal narratives. So, whilst everyone has choice, people’s ability to contribute to, and benefit from, their social relationships, depends on their being willing, able and allowed to ‘fit in’ with what’s ‘expected’.

Thirdly, besides the relational nature of organizational dynamics, you also point to what you have called the “historical dynamics” that have a significant impact on the outcomes that emerge. You have used this to illustrate that a different interactional history would have led to a different outcome. That is, from a constructionist position, there is not the inevitability of outcome that is implied by those who see organizations as boundaried systems. The latter viewpoint, as you say, mistakenly assumes that the outcome is already “enfolded” in the design (to use Stacey’s term); and that this will unfold over time as predicted, provided only that it is implemented as planned. There is, though, a further way in which this ‘historical dynamic’ affects what emerges. As I’ve said elsewhere (and as I’m likely to say again in Post #3 in this series!), the more that people make sense of things in particular ways, the more likely they are to continue to make sense in similar ways going forward. That is, coherent patterns of response arise, which manifest themselves as taken-for-granted tendencies to think and act in some ways and not in others. These widespread patterns enable people to continue to function together, by tending to channel their ongoing sensemaking and action taking, imperceptibly, down mental, emotional and behavioural ‘pathways’ that are ‘culturally acceptable’. Although the potential always exists for novel outcomes to emerge from this interactional process, and for patterns to shift spontaneously, the likelihood is that existing patterns will be repeated and further reinforced. So, the ‘anything goes’ response to the uncertainty that is inherent in organizational dynamics is a misplaced one. As a corollary to this, trying to surface some of the underlying themes and assumptions that are tending to channel thinking in these ways is an important leadership task from this perspective. And so is the need for leaders to understand the impact that their own words and actions – including their silence and inaction – have on the emergence of these patterns.

And finally, I agree that an individual’s response of “it really doesn’t matter what I do” is also likely to be an attempt to maintain the overall integrity of their personal frame of reference. This is a natural defensive reaction; probably prompted, as Stacey suggests in his latest book, by the perceived threat to the manager's professional identity that this uncertainty and lack of control seems to imply. Paradoxically, though, it is these very conditions that make the leadership role of managers even more important – provided that they are willing to take these dynamics seriously and to engage with them in an active and informed way.

Thanks, again, for your helpful observations and questions. I look forward to your and others' further thoughts.

Cheers, Chris

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