Thinking about the nature of the ‘tools and techniques’ that people ‘apply’ in the serious game of organizational life

I was prompted by the comments on my last blog on management tools and techniques to write this blog as a reply. I am struck by how strong the belief in tools and techniques is so that even though agreeing with what I said, there is an immediate move to talking about dynamic tools instead of static ones and claiming that there is scientific evidence for certain propositions about the development of the human mind allowing standard patterns to be mapped and measured. Of course what I wrote is contesting all of this and is certainly denying the assertion of a scientific base allowing us to know as a fact. Another comment asserted everything we do could be described as using a tool or technique. In this blog I will try to explain why I profoundly disagree with that statement. Then there is a comment by Chris Rodgers, most of which I agree with. What I am trying to talk about, however, is not about different prescriptions or ‘shoulds’ but rather with a way of thinking about what people are already doing in organisations.

Since they do talk about using tools and techniques and since they do believe that certain prescriptions lead to success I am interested in trying to understand the nature of this talk. After all, we know that in organisational life we strike a strategic pose and talk publicly in particular ways while actually accomplishing what we accomplish in ways different to our public transcripts. So the interesting question becomes one of understanding what people are doing when they apply or use a management tool and what the organisational consequences of doing so are. I am also arguing that it is a false dichotomy to split thinking and doing since thinking is action and doing reflects past patterns of thought modified by a little or a lot of current thinking. What I am trying to do is hold the paradox of thought and action, theory and practice. I am exploring how it is to avoid dualities in thought and hold the paradox. However, I do agree there is an implicit prescription in advocating reflection instead of application. So what I want to do in this blog is explore a more complex understanding of organisational life and then look at what tools and techniques actually are and what part they play in organisational life.
The French sociologist, Bourdieu, makes a distinction between two modes of experience and thought. In the first mode, human agents are thought of as acting on the basis of reasons so that once the reason is found, the coherent set of principles governing a series of actions becomes apparent and it is possible to see pattern in what might have looked like random actions. Bourdieu contrasts this notion of the reasonable agent with one in which agents act on the basis of interests. He relates this to the notion that in their ordinary activities, agents are engaged in a game which they take seriously and regard as worth the effort because they have an interest in it; they are invested in it and they participate in the game, recognizing the game and the stakes. In this mode, they are pre-occupied by the game rather than acting rationally to achieve goals. We acquire our interest in particular social games through our living in the society we are born into. Our minds are structured by this social experience which is imprinted in our bodies as a feel for the game and to talk about mapping and measuring of our minds is to immediately obscure our understanding of the thoroughly social nature of mind and self. Agents are caught up in various social games and have the dispositions to recognize the stakes at play. They are invested in the stakes and play the game with each other through enacting the habitual social customs and ways of thinking into which they are born which some call habitus. People acquire their interest in particular social games through living in the society they are born into. Their minds are structured by this social experience which is imprinted in their bodies as a feel for the game.
Of course, much of this is unconscious as agents embody schemes of perception on the basis of which they act rather than setting objectives for what they do. Agents are absorbed in their affairs and act in ways which are inscribed in the game itself. A feel for the game develops in a history of developing the skill of anticipating the moves of others, so achieving some mastery over the unfolding game. Social agents have “strategies” which only rarely have a true strategic intention.
This is a very different way of thinking about what we are doing in organisations where we usually think it is all about projects and the pursuit of aims and objectives. What is actually going on is far more complex than simple notions of using tools and techniques or naïve notions of following simple rules. It makes no sense to talk about applying anything to the action of participating with others in the game. The dominant discourse on change in organizations focuses attention almost entirely on the design and the plan, the tools and the techniques, so encouraging us to ignore how we are actually pre-occupied by the organizational game. We are absorbed in the affairs of the organization in our local interactions, conducting skilful performances which give us some mastery of organizational continuity and change. However, we could be covering over the limitations to such mastery by focusing attention only on the design, the aims, the tools and the techniques. While the individual with the capacity for powerful individual agency exercised in a rational, detached way is what is publicly presented, the reality of ordinary interaction is that of participating, largely unconsciously, in games, in the habitus in which we live. So what is the nature of this participation in the game?
We can only interact with each other locally and that local interaction always reflects population-wide generalizations and idealizations most of which we are not conscious of. I use the term immersing to describe what we are doing as we interact locally, pre-occupied in the game, in ways which unconsciously reflect the generalizations and idealizations, the habitus, of our society. The word immerse means to be absorbed in some interest or situation where one devotes oneself fully to some interest or situation, throwing oneself into that situation and to engaging others to be so immersed. Immersing is an activity of bringing together, filling in, expanding, elaborating, complexifying and taking into account greater detail and diversity. It is our pre-occupation with the game, our experience of the habitus in which we live, our direct involvement in our ordinary, everyday local interactions. Such activity, essentially ideology-based acts of choice, inevitably generates conflict.
Immersing, therefore, refers to activities taking the form of:
• the ordinary, everyday politics of life. This is our ongoing negotiation with others, including our attempts to persuade and manipulate those others using ‘techniques’ ranging from the use of rhetorical ploys to the use of emotional blackmail and the ‘techniques’ of domination.
• the patterning of the power relations between people. Patterns of power relations between people reflect the dynamics of ideologically-based group inclusion and exclusion which establishes individual and collective identities.

• acts of politeness and face-saving. Politeness is essential to maintaining good social relations and takes the form of political acts required to gain the cooperation of others, especially powerful others. Civility requires us to smile and exchange routine pleasantries, especially when the other has the power to harm or reward us, even if we privately despise that other. In local interaction people are testing, challenging, supporting and undermining so as to shift or sustain patterns of power relations. Mostly we do this by avoiding direct confrontational challenges but use instead socially acceptable, polite ways involving humour, irony, sarcasm and social banter. How to do this will depend upon the evolved habitus, the generalizations and abstractions across a population.
• practicing the arts of resistance . Subordinate groups of people in organizations often have to adopt a strategic pose when dealing with the more powerful in which they express compliance in the ‘public transcripts’ (legitimate themes in the dominant discourse) couched in terms of abstractions. But they also find other ways of expressing what they think and feel amongst themselves in ‘hidden transcripts’ (shadow themes) in which they block, subvert and countermand the abstract categories imposed upon them. The contradictions and tensions expressed in the hidden transcripts, and between them and the strategic pose, have a major impact on what happens.
• denial, scapegoating and blaming as defensive ways of living with the anxieties of ordinary, everyday life. Talking in terms of second order abstractions may serve the purpose of providing social defences against anxiety in organizations;
• the spontaneity and improvisation required of us if we are to respond appropriately in the unique contingent situations we so often face.
• the attachment to others, as well as the empathy with, and trust in, those others, which enables us to find fulfilment in what we do and also aggression, competition, rivalry, mistrust and hatred.
• the creative imagination of alternative ways of living and doing and the inevitable destruction of others’ ways of living.
• altruism and generosity as well as selfishness and meanness.

So in the local interaction of making the general specific and the ideal functional in conversation with each other, in their pre-occupation with the game, people are negotiating their next actions in ways that have emerged and continue to emerge and evolve as narrative and propositional themes of power, identity and ideology.

However, we also have the capacity to become aware of our preoccupation with the game, to reflect upon our practical action, which expresses the habitus in which we live, in an effort to make conscious sense of what we are doing. To live simply immersed in the above ways would be to live a life devoid of all thought, reflection or meaning making. Thought, reflection and meaning-making are all activities of abstracting, the opposite of the activities of immersing. The most common understanding of abstract is that it denotes theory as the opposite of something practical but in its original sense, it means ‘to draw away from, to separate from’. All forms of thinking about and reflecting upon experience necessarily involve abstracting or drawing away from that experience which becomes an object of perception, not simply the subject of experience. Abstractions are articulations of both local and global patterns of interaction. They are attempts to describe habitus and the game rather than just participate in them. However, such activities of articulation always occur in local interaction and it is in such local interaction that the meaning of these abstractions emerges. Experience is thus an inseparable interplay between the activities of immersing and abstracting, of participating and reflecting, in which each is simultaneously forming and being formed by the other.

Since humans have always sought to make meaning they must also always have been paradoxically immersing and abstracting from experience in explorative forms of reflecting on the generalization and idealization of experience and articulating them in narrative and philosophy. People made, and continue to make sense of the population-wide patterns of interaction they lived in through the stories they told and the myths they recited from generation to generation. We still articulate the general / ideal in stories, rumours, and fantasies about distant powerful figures despite the social and individual evolution of the past centuries. The point about the narrative forms of our articulations is that they stay close to our experience of local interaction in that they provide descriptions and accounts of that local interaction itself, even in mythical form. Articulations of these generalization and idealizations in narrative form involves selecting and simplifying and in that sense, abstracting from experience. However, the selection is not only simplification but also elaboration. Narrative articulations of experience require interpretation in particular contingent situations. Their aim is not simplicity, standardization and uniformity, as we shall see below it is in later forms of abstracting, but rather their aim is the opening up of accounts of experience for greater exploration in order to develop deeper understanding.

However, the conscious simplifying generalization of narrative does amount to abstracting from, that is, simplifying and generalizing, the detail of each uniquely experienced situation. Insofar as the characters and situations in stories are stereotypes’, narratives abstract from and categorise the detail of experience. Furthermore, thought is essentially an act of categorizing and generalizing. So people do not think entirely in terms specific objects such as this table or that table but instead they think in terms of a general and so abstract category of tables. There were always philosophers and theologians who articulated formal simplifications, generalizations and categories of experience concerned with perceiving, knowing and acting ethically. Metaphysics involved abstracting from unique experience to signify hidden causes. Philosophy sought to explain the experience of perception, of knowing and relating in abstract modes that opened up exploration and interpretation so elaborating further reflection on experience.
Human thought, therefore, has always been paradoxical acts of immersing and abstracting at the same time and for most of human history it is the narrative form of abstraction that has been most prominent. It is only over the last few centuries, however, that social evolution has produced modern agents who engage in a kind of generalizing about their experience, articulated primarily in propositional forms, which was not available to pre-modern individuals. What emerged we could say was a particularly rigorous form of simplification, a stronger form of abstracting from the experience of local interaction than before. In addition to generalizing through the identification of categories of experience, articulated in narratives and philosophical arguments, which we might call first order abstracting from the experience of local interaction, there was an added generalization expressed in the mapping and modelling of relationships between the categories, which we might call second order abstracting. This is a form of simplification by abstraction which manipulates the categories of first order abstractions and therefore operates at yet another remove from direct experience. This abstraction from the abstraction of categories of experience makes it easier to split the second order abstraction off from the experience through reification and so lose the sense of the paradox of immersing and abstracting at the same time. Second order abstracting activity seeks to simplify, standardize and measure so reducing elaboration, multiple interpretations and mystery. The consequent clarity and uniformity makes it much easier to exert some control on the activities of others from a distance.

In our ordinary, everyday local interaction with each other, in which we accomplish all our joint activities, we always have been and still are immersing ourselves in the experience of such interaction and at the same time we are abstracting from that experience by simplifying, generalizing and categorizing in the forms of narrative and philosophy as first order abstracting, and also in the modern world we are frequently articulating generalizations / idealizations of the categories of experience as maps and models which can be described as second order abstracting. Local interaction in the modern world, therefore, necessarily includes the formulation and interpretation of second order abstractions as one aspect of what we are doing together in organizations. Certainly, to be included in groups of managers one must be a skilled participant in the dominant discourse conducted in terms of second order abstractions. In our immersion, our pre-occupation in the game of ordinary, everyday organizational life, we are together meaningfully patterning our interactions by drawing upon both the first (narrative) and second order (models and maps, tools and techniques) abstractions which have evolved in our community and in so doing we are together changing the abstractions in our local interaction. We are largely unconscious of how we are relying upon abstractions and find it difficult to notice just how readily we reify them and so cover over our pre-occupation in the game.

This activity of second order abstracting involves:
• Objectifying and categorizing. Here phenomena from celestial bodies down to social patterns, modes of thinking and individual human feelings are placed in well-defined bounded ‘spaces’ where differences within categories are obliterated and all difference is located at the boundary.
• Measuring the quantitative aspects of these categories (and nowadays the qualitative too by means of quantitative proxies) using standardized measures.
• Averaging out differences within categories and interactions between categories.
• Analysing the data so produced using mathematical, statistical and other analytical techniques.
• Selecting regularities and stabilities and forming hypotheses about relationships between entities, particularly causal connections often involving, by deduction, some hidden mechanism or whole.
• Modelling, forecasting, specifying probabilities with given distributions of variances, mapping, articulating rules and schemas.
• Prescribing rules, laws and moral norms.
• Setting targets, planning, monitoring and envisioning.

The scientific method is the paradigmatic example of the activity of second order abstracting. It is also an essential activity for governing the modern state and modern organizations because its aim to standardise and so remove diversity to make activities legible to people at some central point, so enabling some degree of central control.

However, standardising, mapping and modelling inevitably leaves behind real people, replacing them with simplified averages. So the activity of second order abstracting produces articulations of generalizations and idealizations in relation to hypothetical wholes which have the effect of focusing on what is believed to be important across a whole population and this could and often does render invisible the experience of local interaction. This is by no means a criticism because without the activity of second order abstracting there could be no modern state or policies of improvement, nor would it be possible to govern large organisations. In reflecting an ideology of order, rationality, harmony, design, control and improvement, the activity of second abstracting does change the world and is essential for the kind of lives we live in modernity. However, second order abstracting does render rationally invisible the disorder, diversity, deviance, conflict, compromise, manipulation, cheating, trickery, power plays, concealing and revealing of ordinary everyday experience which also changes the world and so also needs to be understood.

The activity of second order abstracting necessarily involves the postulating of an entity outside of our local experience and we easily come to believe that it actually exists, that we can be outside of it, observe it and then ‘move’ it around using various ‘tools and techniques’. This kind of belief in second order abstractions is the foundation of today’s dominant discourse about organizations and management. What is striking about such formulations is just how thoroughly people disappear from view. For example, I recently made a contribution to a program aimed at developing the strategy competence of senior managers at a major international corporation. I listened to the session just before I was due to talk. The session took the form of a report back by small groups on their discussion of a number of case studies of strategic success and failure in other large companies. The conversation ran entirely in terms of abstract entities. Toyota was said to have decided to enter the Chinese market and an intense discussion followed on why Toyota had done this, what China expected in return and whether it had been the ‘right’ strategy or not. The whole discussion was purely speculative since none of the discussants, including the presenter, had any involvement with Toyota and few if any had actually been to China. When a particular decision looked puzzling, discussants looked for rational reasons for Toyota having made it and if they could find none they concluded that it had been a mistake. No one ever suggested that we might need to understand the figuration of power relations amongst senior groups of managers at Toyota or that the special interests and private agendas of senior managers and their Chinese counterparts might have had something to do with the decisions.

Second order abstracting is a major activity in organizations today. It is also a major aspect of organizational research and management education. Economic, industrial, and organizational trends are abstractions. Strategy discussions are abstraction. Vision and mission statements are not only abstract generalizations but also idealizations of those abstractions. Targets set for public sector organizations, or any other organization for that matter, are abstractions. The tools and techniques of management are abstraction. However, to label as second order abstractions so many of the activities that take up peoples’ time in any organization is not to denigrate or dismiss such activities. Large scale change and improvement does require second order abstraction but taken on its own, it cannot accomplish change or improvement. The second order abstraction must be interpreted in terms of local contingent situations in the everyday practical activities of people in local situations if they are to have the potential for beneficial effect. Many organizations create climates of fear which suppress local interaction. We have a tendency to become so immersed in the abstractions of models and plans that we collapse the practical art of local interaction into a stereotypical activity called ‘application’ and ‘implementation’ and as a result, we lose sight of what is happening until it is too late. It is not difficult to see the strength of this point in modern corporations. For example, major banks do have systems of regulation and control which should prevent rogue traders taking financial positions which jeopardize the whole organization. However, these regulations can easily be re-interpreted, ignored or circumvented as we repeatedly see. To think that it is enough to set up an abstract system is to be in constant danger of unpleasant surprises. What is called for then is a renewed attention to everyday forms of experience and how particular first and second order abstractions are being taken up in ways which might be helpful but also in ways which might be harmful. Shifting the focus to local interaction will open up the possibility of reflecting on the usefulness or otherwise of the abstracting activity we now so blindly undertake in completely taken-for-granted ways.

Second order abstractions, especially those claiming to accord with science, are very powerful rhetorical ploys in the modern world and can certainly be used as techniques of domination but they do also create greater ‘visibility’ from a distance and so make some forms of improvement possible. The ability to express and utilize second order abstractions, which reflect powerful modern ideologies of control and improvement, is of major importance in the inclusion-exclusion dynamics of modern organizations.

13 thoughts on “Thinking about the nature of the ‘tools and techniques’ that people ‘apply’ in the serious game of organizational life

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  2. Ian McDonald

    Thank you for a thought provoking post. I believe that we are coming to the same field by different routes. I fully agree that it is the nature of how we interact whilst playing out our individuals games, immersed within an organisation that dictates the ebb and flow of that organisation. I accept that as agents we come into play with differing views, beliefs and values which have been formed subconsciously during our earlier lives and life conditions. We interact locally or quasi-locally through communications with others who have embraced their own journeys and developed their own schemas of behaviour. If we are mindful we can keep aspects of our own behaviour in the conscious realm and if we are empathic and mindful we can see with some clarity the surface indicators of the journey taken by others.

    In my view it would be foolhardy to believe that within any organisations the interaction of all the participating agents come together without generating patterns of behaviour as in any complex system.

    If the organisation itself is trying to not only survive but thrive within an increasingly complex world and we have a population of agents covering a widening bandwidth of behaviours and possible interactions then prescriptive tools are unlikely to help or provide any useful direction other than to look on helplessly and record outcomes. Tools such as scenario planning where problems are part digested by others, in different life conditions, are at best irrelevant and more often a hindrance. Prescriptive tools are redundant and it is the nature of the thinking and the levels of complexity that individuals can hold which become important. It is the very way that the agents play out live events in response to what needs to be done now with the resources which are available now that becomes paramount.

    If we look at the way individuals are able to deal with complexity as demonstrated by the number of perspectives that they are able to hold simultaneously; this ability changes within a persons own lifetime driven by, amongst other things, the life conditions they have been exposed to.
    When a group of individuals comes together and they all have the ability to hold more than one or two perspectives, then new ideas will emerge and solutions become emergent.

    If we can recognise individuals who are more able to hold multiple perspectives and we choose to put them together in teams; is this using a tool? I believe the” tools” for organisational design are more about aligning the nature of individuals thinking as defined by their values, beliefs and ability to hold multiple perspective with tasks which require appropriate levels of “thinking”. We can support them with others who are able to provide them with the resources they need to perform.

    In one sense we are using insights as “tools” to position individuals in relation to each other and to the tasks needed to be done so that they can not only thrive by “being” who they are but tasks can be performed in a dynamic and reactive way with new solution emerging in response to changing life conditions. If we construct organisations which encourage people to be the person they are and we align them to tasks which match both their values and abilities so they are able to “walk their talk” within the organisational setting and feel aligned with the culture and ethos of that organisation it has more chance of not only surviving but thriving in a complex world.

    Are the insights which allow us to create such organisations and to change the cultures within existing organisations “tools”? They are very different from the prescriptive management techniques often used but I believe they are the management tools of the here and now.

  3. Jon Freeman

    Is a surfboard a “tool”? If we are to address today’s conditions in relation to complexity and management we are obliged in my view to engage with increasing non-linearity.
    I support Ian MacDonald’s approach. Traditionally, the word “Tool” has a mechanical image and implies the old measurement and control orientations. Many of the tools that we have been using focus our attention on process and measurement. While not saying that we don’t need those things, they are not ALL that we need. When we become excessively focussed on how we do things it is easy to lose sight of the outcomes, of why we are doing them.
    I am reminded of Jack Welch’s experience in General Electric, that setting the target for each unit to be number one in its marketplace caused continuous redefinition of the markets – like painting rings around the arrow after it was stuck in the tree.
    Complexity is just one dimension of the challenge; it is compounded by speed of change and urgency of response. The surfboard image was deliberate. You cannot control the wave, so you are required to build dynamic responsiveness into the rider. The intelligence that does this is embedded in every muscle.
    We are redefining what “management” means. The very word is geared to command and control. The multiple mindsets and cultures within the organisation are essential. You want different Values in your marketing team from those who manufacture the product. They have different jobs to do. You also want each of them to be responsive, to use their expertise to adjust as conditions change. This means fitting people and their Values to the functions they perform. It also means allowing them to own parts of the responsiveness so that the organisation has dynamic intelligence.
    The wave is non-linear and requires us to develop a non-linear form of management. We have to design that into the organisation, align its being to the desired outcomes rather than prescribing every step. The mechanistic tools of the past still have their place, but have to serve the more organic functional maps of behaviour. Only through this will we be sufficiently flexible to maintain dynamic balance in an inherently unpredictable world.

  4. Ralph Stacey

    Ralph Stacey

    Thank you, Ian and Jon, for your comments; they help me to clarify to myself how I am thinking. While I agree that we are travelling along different routes, I think that these routes lead us to very different fields and I would like to explore what the difference is. Ian you refer repeatedly to “we” and Jon you use the term “you”. This immediately places a difference between us because positing a “we” or a “you” in this way implies an ability to take a viewpoint outside the interactions of others, observe matters such as their thinking and their values, as well as the tasks they are to perform and the functions they are to take up. The way of thinking my colleagues and I are trying to develop denies the possibility of the external observer, arguing that no one can get outside their experience of interacting with others. There is no external, presumably powerful and intelligent “we” or “you”, only us who are trying to accomplish something together. In other words, we take a view in which interdependent people are interacting with each locally and the interplay of their plans and intentions gives rise to emergent patterns across an organisation. How these ordinary individuals come to think emerges in ongoing social process as do the tasks they develop and perform. We, here meaning all of us encompassing the more powerful and the less powerful, are forming and being formed at the same time by our interactions with each other. We are discovering together, in conflict and difference, what to do. When you, Ian and Jon, take the external observer position, you have no problem in then moving on to claim the “we” / “you” can align the thinking / values of others with their tasks; fit them and their values to functions; support them with resources; position them in relation to each other; allow them to own parts of the responsiveness. You claim that “we” / “you” can construct organisations that encourage the person to be who they are. These should be managed in nonlinear ways to produce organisations with dynamic intelligence. Although your argument dismisses mechanistic tools, command and control and setting out too much detail you still set out what has been attempted by managers for decades – for a long time managers have been talking about “aligning” or “fitting” people and tasks, values and functions. For decades managers have been talking about designing and constructing learning, dynamic, intelligent organisations which allow people to actualise themselves. But there is no evidence that we actually know how to do any of this. The route my colleagues and I are taking argues that it is impossible for anyone to do any of this aligning and fitting, designing and constructing whole organisations. We argue against reify and anthropomorphising an organisation – organisations are not things or persons so they cannot learn, be intelligent or anything else. We argue against the notion of a true self that needs to be actualised. Organisations are simply imaginative constructs around the patterns in interaction between human person who can learn and be intelligent, or not, as social selves emerging in social interaction. What we are drawing attention to then is the inevitably immersing and at the same time abstracting activities we hat we have no choice but to engage in together. We are drawing attention to the conversational nature of organisation in which patterns of power relations emerge. We are drawing attention to how ideology sustains power positions and is reflected in the choices we make. We are drawing attention to how what happens to us emerges in the interplay of all our choices and how no one can control this interplay, nor can they align it or fit it to anything. I think that what is important in our exchange here is that it enables us to clarify how we are thinking about what we are doing in organisations.

  5. Jon Freeman

    My point of view, being that of someone who writes and consults, is inevitably external to the organisation. And it is based on the belief that those of us who bring external expertise have something to offer that is not already present in the organisation. If they could have done it already, they would have.
    Does this deny that there is intelligence present in the organisation, that they have unreleased knowledge and ability waiting to emerge? Not at all? But if I was a cricket coach teaching you to bat better, I would be carefully observing your stance, head position and stillness, unconscious tendency to move forward or back. I would give guidance on technical adjustment.
    In making such an analogy I do not believe I am anthropomorphising the organisation. It is also a system, with components. In the days before electronic ignitions, I used to adjust the ignition timing on my car, based on knowledge about the correct time for a spark to happen in relation to the position of pistons. Which is not to say that I see the organisation as mechanical either. But it is a system, with a variety of relationships, some of which are functional and some which are related to people, capacities and their fit to function. It can be a Mercedes or a Trabant, and if it is the latter, there is a lower limit to what it will do or how long it will go before breaking down, no matter how well driven.
    My perspective (and I suspect Ian’s too) is that you may well be right that people have tried before to create the kinds of alignments we are describing. The problem is, that they haven’t had the necessary levels of systemic understanding about what makes that possible. The approaches have been based on personalities or on aptitudes. Ours is neither of these. It is based on the way that people view the world, and the level of adaptability that they will show in relation to different “life conditions”, which in the organizational context equates to the nature of the function that they are working in. And while we cannot produce systematic evidence, we do know that this has been done in practice and that it has worked.
    I would not quarrel with the idea that “organisations are imaginative constructs around the patterns in interaction between human persons who can learn and be intelligent etc.” But you say that they are “simply” that, and I don’t believe that is the whole story. Nor would I argue with your other assertions about conversations or power relations. I wouldn’t even suggest that anyone can get outside the conversations themselves. There are intersubjective phenomena taking place, and I am inclined towards the Maturana and Varela view that meaning is created and exists in the space between those involved. I would even be willing to accept that the whole world consists of “imaginative constructs”. There is a living process which is not the place for an objective observer. There is even a parallel to quantum reality – the observer collapsing and altering the wave function of the interaction.
    There’s some very big “Buts” coming. Firstly that my view of the “ideology” and how it sustains power positions is based on the Values systems that people are operating from. There is a more predictable and systematic relationship – one that is less dependent on personality and is not purely hierarchical. Indeed, the challenge is in part to make these relationships collaborative. That predictability is the strength of the Graves theory and the methodologies that derive from it. So while I accept that what we are describing has appeared so far to be impossible, I regard this as being an effect of the inadequate conceptual and analytical toolkits employed.
    Secondly, it is possible to work with individuals around their views of the conversations and to bring about changes in their view, shifts in the meanings and Values that they are applying, new constructs for what hierarchy and leadership involve, new strategies for how to interact with their fellows. That surely is the nature of a coaching process, and the foundation for many forms of training.
    Most of all I would beg for multi-dimensional views of the task we are engaged in. While I love the respectful stance that you are taking, and applaud the idea that you cannot control the interplay, I do rather feel that to back off as far as you are attempting to do, is to abandon the core task. I would encourage that we don’t get into an either-or mentality around this.
    Perhaps a soccer metaphor is appropriate. Teams need managers who are skilled at picking the players who have the right skills for their positions, who have good fit to one another, and whose natural approach is well aligned to the managerial strategy and style of football that is being played. There is art, science, observation and instinct applied to this. It is backed up by focused training and a lot of practice. All of those things take place before the game. When the game is on, the manager is reliant on the individuals to deliver the best that they can. There are times when a team comes together, and the synergy is palpable, when they “groove” like a top-class jazz band. There are examples of team sportsmen describing the peak experiences of being in this zone – of being so attuned to each other and the flow that they know where the ball will be and what others will do before it happens.
    I believe that organisations are capable of similar high performance and that this requires a similar blend. The right people in the positions that suit them and that maximize organizational flow. Leadership approaches which give them space to express their talents to the full and to find something new and exceptional in the moment. Strategic direction so that they are all working with shared understanding both of what the goal is and of how the collective will work towards it. Training that ensures they have the best skills and conditions for all of that to happen.
    So ultimately, I would argue that the organisation does develop its own “beingness” and that this contains a collective understanding of itself, of its internal dynamics and its external world, with the ability to respond flexibly to events, to pass information appropriately, to have decisions made where they need to be made. My brain does not have to “tell” my grazed knee to engage in blood-clotting or skin repair. That to me is a form of intelligence that is so built-in to a living organism that we overlook it. And that is the model of intelligence that I see for organisations.
    In pulling away from the command and control model, there is danger that we might think that the entire system becomes self-organising and fluid – that it requires no managerial intervention at all. I fear this is the risk that your approach runs. You are describing an element that has often been missing from the approaches of the past, and that is needed in the blend. But I am reminded of the statement by Rudolf Steiner that “spirit without form accomplishes no deeds”. A multifaceted approach is required to support the kind of organization that will respond with adaptive flexibility to rapidly changing operating conditions.
    The human form is as it is because millennia of evolution brought the adaptations of forward-looking binocular vision, upright posture, opposable thumbs and language. How does an organisation evolve a form that is equally well-adapted, behaviourally flexible and multiply skilled? When you consider that many of these organisations are running the country, or even the planet, we don’t have time for internal evolution alone. Some improvements will happen without intervention. It is already the case that self-organising and socially networked systems are being developed that support quasi-organic responses to life’s challenges. (See Tapscott and Williams, “Macrowikinomics” for examples of this). But there are many areas where our corporations and public sector organisations are not as functional as we need them to be if we are to solve the problems that face us. We don’t have time for evolution. We need some intelligent design.

  6. Ian McDonald

    Thank you Ralph for your thoughtful comments; it has helped me better understand your position. I would like to explore where Jon and I are coming from using your suggested perspective, as a single being.
    I, as an individual have feelings and thoughts which lead to actions. The actions that come from those feelings and thoughts are determined by my own lenses which have formed as a result of the life conditions that have existed around me. Initially if I exist in isolation then those thoughts will be preoccupied around issues of safety and survival. My sphere of mental occupation is limited to having food, being safe and keeping warm.
    If another individual interacts with me, both are immersed in an interaction. The other person becomes part of my life conditions and I become part of their life conditions. The way in which both interact is likely to be different due to different histories of experience.
    If a number of individuals come together in a common space all will initially have concerns of survival. I will interact with others and either see them as an additional threat or as something helpful in a way determined by my personal history. The members of the group will continue to interact and history tells us that in that situation a logical development is the discovery that it is more effective for the majority of the group to hunt and share resources whilst one or two within the group will take responsibility for security. In this way I as an individual are more likely to have my needs met on more days than by hunting alone.
    What Jon and I are asking is if you regard the knowledge that the group will answer the needs more effectively than the individuals as a tool? I am not anthropomorphising the group or ascribing group intelligence. I am saying that history and research can demonstrate that the discovery by an individual that they are safer and more effective within a group or tribe is part of a natural and known development pathway. It is a frequently occurring schema or a predictable outcome of the dynamics. Is using that knowledge a management tool? I fully understand that in one sense there is no group just a plurality of interacting individuals.
    I hold the belief that the thoughts of an individual are continually interacting with the physicality of “being”, the environment within which I live and the culture and ethos of any group I am part of. Those interactions happen simultaneously and continuously. This is often referred to as holding an Integral perspective. The very process of interacting with you, as a separate individual, through the hospitality of your Blog will fractionally change the way I think in some subtle way which may in turn alter something I do at some point in the future. That is simply how it is.
    With my example above of the individual entering a group to provide food and shelter I am illustrating just one of a number of known and demonstrable steps in thinking which enables me, as an individual, to better adapt to an increasingly complex world full of both pressures and delights which go beyond simple acts of survival. I now, through reading, experience and research better understand those steps, what triggers them and the order in which they unfold. Jon and I are separately and jointly exploring ways in which this information can change the way we view organisation. The question I was asking is if you and your colleagues regard either the holding of this knowledge or its application as a management tool?

  7. Ralph Stacey

    Ian, thanks for your clarification. Before answering your question I want to point to how differently we are thinking. In thinking, I try not to split ‘feelings and thoughts’ from ‘actions’ because feelings and thoughts are the actions of a body just like any other ‘actions’ the body takes. I don’t believe that thoughts lead to actions because at the same time thoughts as actions provoke and evoke other actions and these other actions provoke the actions of further thought as actions in a never ending process with no beginning and no end. I also do not find it helpful to think in terms of individual minds having lenses which determine ‘thoughts and feelings’ which then determine ‘actions’. You then go on to provide an example of the individual entering a group to provide food and shelter, which you claim illustrates a number of known and demonstrable steps in thinking which enables an individual to adapt to an increasingly complex world in ways which go beyond simple survival. You then say that we can understand the steps of individuals entering groups and discovering that they are efficient and that we can understand what triggers the steps and the order in which they unfold. You say that this information can change the way we view organisations.

    My argument is very different. For me individuals do not enter groups seeking survival. I think we are all born into groups, families, which are part of larger groups called communities, organisations, societies. All of these groupings have long histories in which ways of acting-thinking-acting have evolved. All of us is born into such groupings and acquire our patterns of action-thought in our ongoing interactions with those around us. I as an individual do not have a mind, my mind as the action of my body directed to itself is thoroughly social. There is no mind without the group and no group without human minds – individuals and groups are inseparable, being simply aspects of the same phenomenon of fundamental interdependence. With this view I could not sensibly talk about my mind in terms of lenses – I can only talk about my mind as historical and ongoing narrative. I do not think history unfolds as a logical development in which people ‘discover’ that they need each other. Each of us is who we are not because we made a discovery that groups make it more likely that we will survive – we are born into groups with their histories and we don’t enter groups or discover about them – it is far more than that because we are formed by groups just as, at the same time, we participate with others in forming them. When you talk about known and demonstrable steps, I find myself disagreeing because I do not think the argument you put forward is nearly as known and demonstrable as you say. I think instead your argument reflects an ideology and makes the assumptions of humanistic psychology. My argument too reflects ideology, of course, and is based on assumptions about individual and groups to be found in group analysis, the writings of Elias and of Mead.

    To conclude, you say that history and research can demonstrate that the discovery by an individual that they are safer and more effective within a group or tribe is part of a natural and known development pathway. The question your argument leads you to ask is whether either the holding of this knowledge or its application can be regarded as a management tool. In providing a very different argument to yours, I think I am demonstrating that you cannot demonstrate the discovery you talk about in any unequivocal way just as I cannot do with my argument. I do not regard human interaction or the knowledge emerging from it as a tool in any sense because these are the processes of social and individual life itself – our very identities are arising in such processes so it would be meaningless and demeaning to call them tools or instruments of any kind. We are talking about ourselves not some instrument we use, at least according to the way I think. However, I understand that you are wanting to point to knowledge as a tool you can use. In a sense you are then talking in terms of propositions you claim to be true and since these are the abstractions I talked about in my blog you could claim that your abstractions are tools. In the way you seem to be thinking it would be natural to regard knowledge as a tool. My argument then is that any meaning these tools have cannot be yours alone but will arise in any local interactions in which others taken them up in some way.

  8. Jon Freeman

    Thank you Ralph for your response, which I think addresses Ian’s and my points of view together, so I will respond to it as best I can.
    One thing that Ian and I share is a perspective based on Graves’ theory (also known under the label of Spiral Dynamics and SDi). There’s plenty of introductory material and I won’t try to rewrite that here. Ian’s booklet, available from the human emergence UK website is an excellent starting point. So let me just abbreviate a few crucial elements that apply here.
    Firstly that the theory is based on a decade of research on the views people hold about their world, so it is not just an assumption that we make nor an a prori assertion by Graves. So you are right that there is a fundamental difference between us here. While the Graves theory has some kinship with that of Maslow, it is a much more intellectually powerful and rigorous system which goes well beyond the normal boundaries of humanistic psychology. It does this because it provides a road-map of how and why individuals and groups shift their way of thinking and as a result, shift their behaviour. It even enabled Graves to predict 35 years ago many of the conditions that society and organisations find themselves in. It is that explanatory power which enables us systematically to support organisational change.
    You prefer to see thoughts and feelings as actions. I won’t talk about feelings. But if Graves’ research is correct then thoughts drive actions and choices. The theory describes how those Value “memes” are adaptive systems which support a person’s survival under varying life conditions. I feel that you may misunderstand Ian’s illustration about survival in a group, which is just one example of a shift in Values under one particular set of changes in life conditions. It is not a generic statement about human motivation as a whole. In this context a thought is distinct from an action since it drives the choices of what actions a person will take.
    Thirdly, the research did not look for “lenses”. But it did find them, and the categories of Value sets which describe broad groupings of how people think, do function as lenses, or as filters on the perceptions people have of what they meet in the world. This is demonstrable.
    We may not be able to go much further in this conversation, because your choice to exclude knowledge as a management tool seems to me to defeat not just the idea of systems or alignments, but also the idea that people can be trained into managerial skillsets, or coached into improvements in their leadership capability. Indeed, I would find it profoundly depressing, because it suggests to me that the huge complexity and speed of change that faces our society and our organisations will be beyond us all. We are deprived of any means to increase our capacity to respond, either individually or collectively. In my new book, “Future Money” for instance (available soon), I apply this thinking to the reasons for current failings and to the changes we will have to make both as individuals and in the systems we use, if we are to cope with global instability. If you are right, then such an exercise is impossible and we will continue to flounder.
    So I have to ask you, do you think differently than a member of a tribe living hunter-gather style in the Borneo forest? Do you think differently than Genghis Khan, and do those two think differently from one another? Extend that sequence to include the knowledge applied by a fundamentalist Christian, or the bankers who invented CDO’s? It is not just technical differences, not merely knowing more, but approaches to life which are different; those viewpoints drive significantly different approaches to decision-making, to leadership, to the expectations that they place on others and to the responses others will have to them. If such thinking systems are abstractions, then they are powerful and influential ones which determine a lot of actions. We exclude a whole realm of potential investigation, understanding and application if we do not treat them as powerful and meaningful. And yes, I think that Graves did demonstrate this discovery in a meaningful way. I am unhappy with such an absolute term as unequivocal, but would have to say my perception is that it’s pretty close. And that without such a response we leave ourselves with only the soft methodologies, which is not to decry their value, but to ask why we would want to offer our football team motivational coaching when they could have tactics, skills training and fitness regimes as well.

  9. Pingback: Three Types of Models: Simplistic, Complex and Simple « Innovation Leadership Network

  10. Caroline Vrauwdeunt

    Only just entering (or immersing into) the theoretical field of the complexity studies as a last part of getting my master in business administration after quite a few years of practical experience I read these comments on Ralph Stacey’s view on tools and techniques. I felt compelled to give a reaction.

    As a project manager within a governmental organisaion in the Netherlands, I have battled many years (and still continue to stride) for the acknowledgement of management other than or besides the use of tools and techniques in projects that need to be delivered in a complex environment.

    The previous comments by Ian and Jon I find falling short on the notion what a complex environment entails.
    The example of a soccergame is by far not comparable to working in a complex environment, where not only the rules of engagement change continually but also the playing field and everything in en outside it.

    Both take a stand from outside which of course is in their rol as advisor understandable. But from my 10 year experience acting within an organisation delivering result in a project is: getting there with your team and bringing in the results together and forming each other in the process. And in that process it is (unfortunately) continually necessary as a project delivery organisation to fight/ clash with the mother organisation on simple notions of control and use of the regular management toolbox. Instead of management interacting locally with the project delivery organisation and herewith forming their view on control based on knowlegde of content and knowledge of dillemma’s the project organisation is facing.

    In my thesis I would like to address these isues deeper and hoping to broaden the view of management that it takes more than tools and a from these tools apparent safe outside view to get innovative results in a complex world.

    An interesting publication on this I found is also:
    – Partington, Pellegrini, Young in: Attributes and levels of programma management competence: an interpretive study: , International Journal of Project Management, June 2004
    – Pellegrini, Partington, Hemingway, Mohdzain, Shah in: The importance of context in programma management: An empirical review of programma practices: International Journal of Project Management, June 2006

    And with enthousiasm I also read:
    – Nol Groot: Senior Executives and the emergence of local responsibilities: a complexity approach to identity development and performance improvement: , International Journal Learning and Change, Vol 3, No 3, 209

    And just because I am really proud of what we as a team have accomplished in a link to our project (sorry it is in Dutch, but you know google translates!):

  11. Jon Freeman

    I am grateful to Caroline for an opportunity to clarify what I mean by tools and techniques. Certainly I am not talking about project management tools. I should also state for the record that while I operate now as an “outsider” I have also lived inside organisations and have been a Director in a multinational.

    I rather think that Ian and I see things more as you do Caroline, and that what you are saying is, like our viewpoint, not aligned with Ralph’s. The need to distunguish between thoughts and actions is paramount. Would Othello have killed Desdemona if his thoughts had not been swayed by the manipulations of Iago? No. Actions stem from thoughts.

    Thus as a Programme Manager in the past, I fully believe that the project team requires to develop its own internal intelligence. It needs its own sensing mechanisms to deal with the forces that affect it and to be responsive to the changes both within the project and among those who are its stakeholders. At the same time it needs to satisfy external parts of the wider organisation that the project will remain on track. This is not an either-or, but a both-and. Projects without knowlegdeable and engaged governance are inclined to lose sponsorship and get canned. And this for me is the nub of complexity – that we are required to hold a number of truths simultaneously and not to be caught in the polarities.

    Our thinking systems, or our Values systems (in Graves terms) have great influence on where we place our priotities, and how we make choices. If we are to manage complexity, we will need to illuminate those choices. Thus the tools and techniquest that I am referring to are the ones which will increase the organisation’s capability to see the whole picture with sufficient sensitivity to the complex dynamics that it has the possibility of surfing the wave. It sure as hell will not be able to control it.


  12. Toby Lindsay

    Gosh, interesting stuff, what is a thought if it is not an action? It occurs in time, it involves neural activity, surely thinking is an activity and is action?

    My feeling is that we are complexity, or certainly a part of, or contribution to, and that complexity is not a thing to be managed by us, first thinking about what to do and then doing.

    And I really would like to develop my experience of this!

  13. Pingback: e pluribus habitus | One Stop Thought Shop

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