Rethinking management from within the practice of management

This post will try to engage with some of the ideas that Ralph has set out as a way of keeping the discussion going and as a further invitation to anyone else to join in. Of course, the thoughts below are only what struck me from his post.

Without actually using the word in this piece, I think Ralph is pointing to the ideological nature of the dominant discourse. By claiming that a lot of management is practised according to taken-for-granted assumptions which are unreflectively taken up there is an implied ideological hold. The dominant managerial discourse becomes pervasive by being taught in a variety of different edcational contexts and is replicated every day  by managers who are graduates of business schools as well as by consultants who have been similarly educated.  It permeates daily practice.

In trying to understand how the dominant discourse comes to dominate, how it becomes ideological, I have found the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s definition of ideology helpful when he says that ‘ideology is the mask worn both by the dominant orders and by order itself.’ So this helps explain something about the taken-for-grantedness of many of the management concepts which are so pervasive. In order to join the management club, to play the game, it is a requirement to demonstrate a fluency with the concepts and language of the contemporary management discourse. More and more management graduates make the game more widespread and pervasive. This leads to a kind of isomorphism: organisations which carry out very different types of work, be it public, private or voluntary sectors, begin to look and sound alike. A facility with the concepts allows for the kind of mutual recognition which enables more and more people playing the game to locate themselves in it, to find a way of participating with each other and to be successful in the game. If one begins to talk about management differently it can appear as though one is not taking the game seriously, or even that one is calling the game into question. There follows the charge of somehow being  ‘anti-management’, an accusation that I have heard on more than one occasion levelled at the body of ideas we are calling complex responsive processes of relating. The moment one has a stake in the game it becomes much harder to call the game into question, as participants on the DMan course discover.

One theme of discussion that I begin here, then, which will no doubt play out over subsequent posts, is how to maintain a stake in the game and call the game into question at the same time. How might we rethink management from within the practice of management itself? In this post I will continue exploring the ideological nature of the current management discourse as a way into this question.

Another characteristic of ideology according to MacIntyre is the attempt to cover over contestability and conflict and present things simply as ‘facts’:  the way things are is the way they need to be. So the ideological claims of the contemporary management discourse would be that the concepts are undoubtedly flawed and imperfect, but they are the best we have for now. So what is the basis for this polemic against current management concepts and systems theory, and why the obsession with Mead and Elias?

I want to keep going with MacIntyre for a bit longer because I think he is helpful in clarifying my own thinking on these matters. So in order to function as an ideology, he argues, a theory must express a partial truth. If a set of ideas was absurd it would not stand up as ideology because it would not achieve resonance with a broad enough group of people. The partial truth is being taken up ideologically in order to achieve domination and cover over contestation. In addition,  it is not only the dominant social interpeation that has the monopoly on ideology: oppositional bodies of ideas can also be staking ideological ground. This leads me on to reflect upon what the ‘partial truth’ might be that managerialism is laying claim to, as well as enquiring into what the ideological claims are of my own oppositional position.

In calling the dominant body of ideas ‘magic0-mythical thinking’, evoking Norbert Elias, Ralph is claiming that they are, in Elias’ terms, insufficiently reality-congruent. But at the same time something very important may be happening in human terms when people make plans together, dream of a better future, or idealize leaders and their capacity for predicting and/or controlling the future. Is it here that we might find MacIntyre’s ‘partial truth’? There is a profound expression of human freedom in being able to start something anew with others and to act with intention: not simply to be at the mercy of what Martha Nussbaum calls ‘the fragility of luck’. This, I think, partly explains the stong reactions that the ideas of uncertainty and unpredictability evoke in groups of managers who have have an understanding of professionalism as being about knowing, rather than the paradox of both knowing and not knowing, about being in control, which is one of the claims of managerialism. The accusation that current management practice amounts to ‘magico-mythical thinking’ can sound as though it is a critique of making plans or making any attempt to act in concert to achieve things together.  Another characteristic of how bodies of ideas come to dominate, then, is the strong emotional investment we begin to have in them, whether we are supportive or oppositional, because it is through engagement with the concepts that our identities arise. In calling for a rethink of the dominant discourse, it seems to me that Ralph is also asking them to think of themselves differently, to question their identities as managers: to rethink management from within the practice of management.

So what are the ideological claims of a body of ideas which we are terming complex responsive processes? I would propose that what is ‘truth’ and what is ideology as far social interpretations are concerned  can only be worked out between a group of engaged discussants, and that is also something which can only be explored in practice. But what I take from what Ralph has written implies that there is nowhere to stand outside of what it is we find ourselves doing with others in organisations, no matter how much this interdependence obliges us to engage with terms which might  make us feel uncomfortable. Ralph’s invitation to take our daily experience with others seriously will mean that we are, in contemporary organisational life, obliged to engage with concepts such as visions and missions, and with ideas which are dominant in the discourse. To mount a critique of managerialism does not amount to replacing it entirely with something else, which I think can also be frustrating for managers who are provoked by an alternative view, but are looking for an alternative set of certainties. One of the ideological claims of Ralph’s position, or is it a partial truth, is that it is only in the engagement with and acknowledgement of difference that management practice will move from within the practice of management itself.

Rather than covering over contestability, this particular body of ideas sets a premium on it. One characteristic that is shared with scientific method, then, is to invite contestation of what it is we think we are doing as a way of moving on thinking. By enquiring into what we think we are doing together we are rethinking management from within the practice of management.

5 thoughts on “Rethinking management from within the practice of management

  1. Hank Sohota

    … “If one begins to talk about management differently it can appear as though one is not taking the game seriously, or even that one is calling the game into question. There follows the charge of somehow being  ‘anti-management’, … ”

    In my experience, one is not necessarily charged with being ‘anti-management’, one can simply be treated as someone who, ironically (if we take CRP to be a more accurate reality approximation), doesn’t understand reality or as someone who is getting lost in theoretical irrelevances which, apparently, don’t have actionable consequences. From the perspective of conventionally thinking managers, as I will elaborate, this makes perfect sense.

    In contrast, I think it is very interesting to look at the relationship between the best of the SMEs and the principles of ‘High Performance Work Systems’. The latter lends itself to a move toward the thinking of CRP because it is based on a much more democratic perspective (i.e. one much more reliant on conversational interaction and not the unquestioned exercising of authority). And one which, through necessity, begins with the needs of the community it seeks to serve (usually customers) as imperative, instead of the optimisation of return on investment capital.

    … “If a set of ideas was absurd they would not stand up as ideology because it would not achieve resonance with a broad enough group of people.”

    In addition, I would argue that partial truths work because we are ‘satisficers’ in our decision-making and because going against the dominant view requires people to have the courage of their convictions but of course you also have to have convictions in the first place.

    … “There is a profound expression of human freedom in being able to start something anew with others and to act with intention: … ”

    I am not so sure about this. Perhaps it’s not necessarily a matter of starting something anew although of course there is a particular population that is always on the look-out for something new. No, I believe that a potentially more powerful motive might be an intellectual analysis or an intuitive insight (or even the two as a dialectic), leading to the conclusion that the current perspective or position is inadequate in some significant or meaningful way. Alternatively, the same modes of thinking or mental processing may lead to the conclusion that an opposing or competing perspective or position is a more accurate reality approximation.

    Naturally, in order to accept such thinking one also has to accept that the norms and values underpinning the existing perspective or position are flawed. This, in essence, brings into question its legitimacy and therefore evokes, what we might refer to as an embodied identity crisis which engenders an unconscious emotional response of preservation. And all this long before any conscious consideration takes place, never mind reflexive thinking. I would suggest that such a flight/fight/freeze response leads to an emotional scramble for a point of reference which is satisfied by the feeling of safety in numbers (i.e. norms).

    … “an understanding of professionalism as being about knowing, rather than the paradox of both knowing and not knowing, about being in control, which is one of the claims of managerialism. ”

    I don’t think that the ‘managerial professionalism’ issue is about knowing. Rather, I believe it to be about the need for apparent credibility in order to be able to exercise authority in the pursuit of accountability. A manager is ultimately accountable for delivering a predetermined outcome or for envisioning one and getting subordinate managers to deliver it. In order to be credible, a manager usually has to know the intended outcome and to have a clear (as well as a psychologically and emotionally, ‘neat and tidy’) plan to achieve it which includes adequate identification and management of risk. Without this a manager undermines their own raison d’etre both in the eyes of those to whom they are accountable, and their own subordinates.

    This, for me at least, highlights what I consider to be the strongest reactionary resistance to the ideas that make up the CRP framework. The raison d’etre of, at least for commercial organisations, is to deliver an relatively acceptable return on investment capital usually through the identification and management of risk. Hence, this cannot be done by an approach which fundamentally has uncertainty (even as a positive) at its centre. I would also argue that the same is becoming the case for non-commercial organisations as they increasingly import commercial thinking.

    I would therefore argue that it is only in domains where accountability for optimising return on investment is not the primary tenet that we have fertile ground for the adoption or at least the serious consideration of the CRP approach. For example, the domains of the commons, the best SMEs or perhaps some social enterprises.

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      In talking about the human freedom experienced by starting something new I was drawing on Hannah Arendt who argued that the civilising process, to use a term from Elias, arises from our being able to make fesh beginnings together. She called this ‘natality’.

      I’m not sure we disagree about the knowing/credibility argument. To extend the analogy of the game, in order to have credibility in the managerial game, it is necessary to appear as though one knows what one is doing as a manager, that one has managerial ‘expertise’.

      I am not sure that I agree on the commons, SMEs as being the best fertile ground for thinking about what is going on as complex responsive processes. To do so implies that it is an understanding somehow to be ‘applied’ so that it will ‘work’.

      Thanks for your long and detailed comments.

  2. Tom

    Hello Chris,

    I would like to offer a few thoughts from within the experience of talking about and working with the ideology of Complex Responsive Processes.

    Last October my colleague, Bonnie Cooper and I had the chance to attend and present at the OD Network conference in Seattle. Our presentation topic was Complex Responsive Processes – Challenging Systems Thinking. We have subsequently been involved in some similar interactions in Houston and San Diego as interest was expressed by local groups and we happened to be in those areas. We work with the ideology of Complex Responsive Processes to operate our own business and with our clients and we have found it is very different working the way we do versus talking about working the way we do.

    We tend to encounter far more resistance in talking about Complex Responsive Processes than working with people through this ideology. I think this is congruent with rethinking management from within its practice since talking about something (at least in the format we describe above) typically takes you out of the actual practice of management. Simply doing things through this ideology we find tends to resonate more closely with people’s actual experience of being in an organization.

    As an example of this, I will be working with a client soon who wants to revisit their organization’s vision. We do not use the concept of vision in our own organization and I think the concept has significant problems but it is of little value to talk about this since talking about it is such an abstraction. We simply talked about revisiting the vision with his senior management group and changing it if necessary, but what would be really important in this work would be to focus on the process of the group’s interaction as they revisited the vision. We talked about the actual vision as being secondary to the interaction since it was the type of interaction they had that would be played out time and again as they talked about the vision locally throughout their organization. He was fine with this since his experience resonated with the need to interact with people about the vision rather than just put it out there assuming everyone would understand it the same way.

    When we have presented on this topic people tend to resist almost at a visceral level and then try to bring that to a logical perspective and we have found it best to talk about our own experiences rather than try and question others’ experiences. Below is a link to the pages we post around the room when we speak on the topic and we have found the page dealing with ‘Some responses when working with Complex Responsive Processes that we have found prematurely close down the opportunity to really investigate and ‘play’ with its value’ helpful since people will recognize their own responses in these areas and can look at them somewhat differently.

    I am looking forward to further posts on this blog and participating when it makes sense as there are many stories and experiences to share I would think and I imagine that through this sharing we can bring a very practical perspective to the ideology of Complex Responsive Processes.

    One last point about our session in Seattle. We were nervous as might be expected and the first person who came into the room was Louise van Rhyn. She asked when I had done the DMan, which I have not and after discovering she had completed it Bonnie and I took a rather big swallow and got a little more nervous. Louise was wonderful in the session, and had her own great stories that helped in the challenging conversations that emerged. We have since stayed in touch with her and value that connection.

  3. Chris Mowles Post author

    Good to hear about your experiences of work struggling with complex responsive processes, Tom.

  4. Chris Rodgers

    Hi Chris,

    I think that the notion of “reality congruence” is itself problematic here. What managers take to be “real” in relation to organizational dynamics is itself a social construction; and, as you say, the dominant managerial discourse has a long (and seemingly distinguished) pedigree. So, when outcomes fail to live up to expectations, it is not ‘Management’ that is called into question – or the assumptions on which managers’ decisions and actions have been based – but rather the ways in which those decisions have been implemented by others ‘on the ground’.

    The managerialist construction of reality contains within it the expectation that shortfalls will occur during implementation. Instead of seeing a lack of congruence between established management theory and practice, therefore, the opposite is likely to be the case. That is, a more likely response is for there to be a call for better implementation – to “do it better and get it right”.

    Perversely, then, failure confirms the validity of the dominant management discourse! It is part of what managers take for granted and ‘know’ to be true. And from that (flawed!) perspective, as Hank suggests, it makes sense to see those of us who adopt a different view as the ones who need to ‘get real’!

    Cheers, Chris


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