Some of the responses to previous postings on this blog reflect the widespread insistence on providing managers with a set of tools and techniques that will produce success. I think it is widely believed that there is a received body of knowledge on management concerned with the ‘big picture’ over the ‘long term’ for the ‘whole organisation’. What people usually mean when they talk about the long term, big picture for a whole organisation is a clear view of the purpose of that organisation and the direction in which ‘it’ is intended to ‘move’, ‘going forward into the future’, so that its ‘resources’, ‘capabilities’ and ‘competences’ are ‘optimally’ ‘aligned’ to the sources of competitive advantage in its environment as ‘the way’ to achieve ‘successful’ performance. It is also widely believed that there is a set of ‘tools and techniques’ which can be ‘applied’ to an organisation to yield ‘success’ and that there is ‘evidence’ that these tools and techniques actually do the job required of them. The tools and techniques are persuasive if ‘case studies’ can be presented of major organisations which have achieved success through applying them. When anyone critiques or dismisses accepted its tools and techniques then there is a powerful expectation that the critic will replace them with new ones in the belief that if managers do not have tools and techniques they will simply have to muddle through in ways that are completely unacceptable in a modern world. The expectation is that we need to focus on what decision makers ‘should’ be doing to make decisions in certain kinds of problem situations in order to ‘improve’ their organisation’s performance. This is taken for granted as obvious common sense and if a critic fails to comply then the critique is dismissed as impractical and so useless.
In the previous paragraph I have placed in inverted commas those notions that most people talking about management simply take for granted as if their meanings were all perfectly obvious. However, I find it difficult to see the use of trying to present new prescriptions without exploring just what we mean when we make such taken-for-granted assumptions. Furthermore, I find it difficult to match the continuing demand for tools with the major economic and political events of the past few years. It is hard to understand how anyone who has paid any attention to the events of global credit crunch and recession that we have all experienced since 2007 can continue to believe that there is a clear, reliable body of knowledge on management containing prescriptive tools and techniques for its successful application. Surely the great majority of major international banks and other commercial organisations have not been successfully applying tools and techniques over the past few years for if they were there would not have been such a mess. Furthermore, we must surely question why massive investments by governments in Western Europe and North America in public sector services, now governed on the basis of private sector management tools and techniques, have yielded such disappointing improvements, if indeed they have yielded any significant improvement at all. If a set of tools and techniques for successful management was actually available then governments must have been incredibly ignorant in not applying them so as to produce more acceptable levels of improvement.
It does not seem very rational to me to simply gloss over the major problematic events of the past few years and continue to take it for granted that there is a reputable body of knowledge on management which provides prescriptive tools and techniques that do lead to success. The disquiet with received management wisdom in the light of recent history is compounded when we realise that despite the claims that there is a science of organisation and management there is no body of scientifically respectable evidence that the prescribed tools and techniques do actually produce success. As soon as one accepts that the events of the last few years and the lack of scientific evidence cast doubt on the received wisdom on strategic management, the door opens to realising that ‘change’ and ‘innovation’ which most of us regard as positive, such as the development of the internet and the many uses to which is being put, also cannot be explained by the taken-for-granted view on management because most of these ‘creative’ ‘innovations’ seem to have emerged without any global strategic intention or any organisation-wide learning process or the application of tools and techniques. So instead of rushing off looking for new tools, those of us working from the complex responsive processes perspective are concerned with the ways of thinking that underlie the prescribed tools and techniques. Our concern is not with the supposed tools and techniques of management but with how we are thinking when we suggest such tools and techniques. Indeed, the concern is with what kinds of taken-for-granted assumptions we are making when we think that management is about tools and techniques at all.
For me, nothing could be more practical than a concern with how we are thinking and I can think of little more important for organisational improvement than having leaders and managers who can and do actually reflect upon what they are doing and why they are doing it. Surely if they adopt such a reflective, reflexive stance they will find themselves doing things differently in ways that neither they nor we can know in advance. If the complex responsive processes perspective leads to a ‘tool or technique’ it is to the most powerful ‘tool or technique’ available to managers, indeed to any human being, and that is the self-conscious capacity to take a reflective, reflexive attitude towards what they are doing. In other words, the most powerful ‘tool’ any of us has is our ability to think about how we are thinking – if only we would use it more and not obscure it with a ready reliance on fashionable tools and techniques which often claim to be scientific even though there is no supporting evidence. An inquiry into thinking about management needs to be placed in the context of what people in organisations actually do, rather than with the main pre-occupation of the management literature with what managers are supposed to do but mostly do not seem to be actually doing. In other words, we are concerned with ways of thinking about management located in the context of thinking more widely about what people actually think, feel and do in organisations. And what we think, feel and do is always reflective of the communities we live in and their historically evolved ways of doing and thinking.
I suggest that it is useful to contrast two different modes of thinking about human organisations. In mode one thinking, leaders, managers and powerful coalitions of them are supposed to objectively observe their organisations and use the tools of rational analysis to select appropriate objectives, targets and visions and then to formulate strategies of macro change, design organisational structures and procedures to implement them, as well as rational monitoring procedures to secure control over the movement into the future. Powerful coalitions of managers are supposed to know what is happening through environmental scanning and internal resource analyses, on the basis of which they are supposed to choose the outcomes for their organisation, design the systems, including learning systems, which will enable them to be in control of the strategic direction of their organisation ‘going forward’ so that improvement and success are secured.
This way of thinking is highly abstract in that it takes us away from our direct experience of the micro details of interaction between actual human beings and this abstraction is not in any way sensed as a problem; indeed, this approach is judged to be highly practical. From this scientific perspective, organisations change when powerful coalitions of leaders and managers change the strategic macro designs, rules, procedures, structures and visions and then persuade others to rationally implement the changes. When thinking in this way, it makes unquestionable sense to ask what particular tools, techniques, competences, organisational structures, cultures, social networks, and so on, lead to success. It seems to be pure common sense to look for the best practices conducted in successful organisations as a guide to what we should be doing in our own organisation, establish benchmarks to judge our organisation’s performance and ask for the evidence and the case studies which chow that any proposed approach to leadership and management actually works in practice.
However, if we turn to mode two thinking, the perspective of complex responsive processes, then the focus of attention shifts from the long term, big picture, and strategic macro level to the details of the micro interactions taking place in the present between living human beings. Instead of abstracting from and covering over the micro processes of organisational dynamics, such organisational dynamics become the route to understanding how organisations are being both sustained and changed at the same time and what part the activities of leading, managing and strategising play in this paradox of stability (continuity) and instability (change). Drawing on the modern natural sciences of complexity as source domains for analogies with organisations, mode two thinking places the choices, designs and learning activities of people, including leaders, managers and powerful coalitions, in one organisation in the context of similar activities by people in other organisations. It becomes understood that both continuity and change in all organisations are emerging in the many, many local communicative, political and ideologically-based choices of all members of all the interdependent organisations including the disproportionately influential choices of leaders and powerful coalitions of managers. What happens to an organisation is not simply the consequence of choices made by powerful people in that organisation. Instead, what happens to any one organisation is the consequence of the interplay between the many choices and actions of all involved across many connected, interdependent organisations. Instead of thinking of organisations as the realisation of a macro design chosen by the most powerful members of that organisation, we come to understand organisations as perpetually constructed macro or global patterns emerging in many, many local interactions. Continuity and change arise in local interactions, not simply in macro plans. Strategies are thus no longer understood simply as the choices of the most powerful but as emergent patterns of action arising in the interplay of choices made by many different groups of people.
It is important to emphasise that this second mode of thinking turns the first mode of thinking on its head. According to the first mode of thinking, strategies are chosen by powerful managers and then implemented while in the second strategies emerge in a way not simply determined by central choices but arising in the ongoing local interaction of many, many people where that interaction can be understood as the interplay of many different intentions and choices and strategies. The two modes of thinking contradict each other and this means that we cannot say that mode one works in some situations while mode two is more appropriate in other situations – this attempt to have your cake and eat it simply blocks the radically different nature of mode two thinking. If one mode of thinking resonates with, and makes sense of, our experience then the other will not.
Taking the second, emergent view, therefore, obviously calls for a complete reconsideration of what we understand leadership, management and strategic management to be. It means asking what effect, if any, centrally-made plans might be having on organisations and how that effect comes about only through local interaction. If this way of thinking resonates more fully with our actual experience of organisational life then it will not make much sense to talk about the application of a theory to practice in an organisation, or to ask for the general tools and techniques that this way of thinking produces for achieving success. Notions such as best practice, benchmarking and an evidence base for prescriptions for success all become highly problematic, indeed, often quite meaningless. Thinking in the second way calls for more reflective, reflexive modes of acting creatively in unique contingent situations for which there are no generally applicable prescriptions. The consequence of making the shift from the first to the second modes of thinking is a move from asking what organisations should be like and how they should be managed to asking what they are actually like and how they are actually being managed. It is only on the basis of fresh insight into what we are actually doing, rather than some rational fantasy of what we should be doing, that we might find ourselves acting more appropriately in specific contingent situations.
Perhaps this conclusion leads you to ask why we need an alternative to the first, traditionally scientific way of thinking about organisations, especially if that alternative leads to what look like impractical conclusions and removes the ground from underneath the whole idea of applications and decision-making tools and techniques. In my view, the pressing reason for why we do need an alternative way of thinking, no matter what the discomfort it produces, lies in some pretty fundamental problems created by mainstream thinking. We are still dealing with the consequences of the 2007 to 2009 credit crunch and global recession. These events have made it clear that despite all the rational, analytical techniques, environmental scanning and internal resource analyses; despite the visions, inspirations and charisms; despite the development of learning organisations and knowledge management systems; despite that fact that most top executives have been educated in business schools; despite all of this, managers, consultants, politicians and policy makers simply do not know what is currently going on, let alone what might happen as the consequence of their action and inaction. The fact is that organisation and management sciences are not sciences at all but scientific emperors with no clothing. If we look at the history of the alliance of management and science we find that its raison d’être had little to do with the actual application of the scientific method to organisations and much more to do with the attempts of the new managerial class emerging in the 19th century to legitimise itself as a profession in the same way as scientists had done – to claim the legitimacy of science was to secure a powerful voice in human affairs and this is still the case today. But in a fact it is a fiction that is not serving us well.