Reflexivity and experience

In previous posts discussing tools and techniques, Ralph has been drawing attention to the way in which the practice of management becomes reduced to instrumental rationality. One way of taking up insights from the complexity sciences in organisational terms is, similarly, also by using a two by two grid to decide if what you are dealing with is simple, complicated, complex or chaotic. So, simple means the domain of the known where cause and effect are well understood; complicated is the domain of the knowable, but with multiple sometimes competing components and where expert knowledge is required; complex is the domain of the unknowable where patterns are only discernible in retrospect, and chaotic is where there are no discernible patterns or order. The manager or leader should then decide which of these four quadrants they find themselves in and behave accordingly.

Aside from the difficulties arising from this loose interpretation of the complexity sciences, as usual with these matrices and frameworks it is assumed that it is the rational, autonomous, choosing manager standing outside the situation they are evaluating, who determines which quadrant s/he is in and takes the appropriate action. Under the guise of being rationally purposeful, this way of thinking appears to me to be radically subjective and splits thinking off from action, and the manager/leader off from those they manage. We have not moved very far from assumptions of predictability and control which are present in much contemporary management literature.

From the perspective of complex responsive processes I am assuming instead that the relationships between engaged, feeling human bodies are always complex and have the potential for both stability and change at the same time. I am also assuming that there is nowhere to stand outside the activities under consideration. Rather than choosing how to behave in a particular context, managers and leaders are instead caught up in a game with others, and may come realise how much they have become invested in it, and so will find themselves highly constrained in their choices. They are very unlikely to be able to choose a ‘leadership style’, or to decide which quadrant of a particular framework they are in and act accordingly, but will be obliged to respond to others with a similar investment in the game. They are played by the game as much as they play the game.

In taking this point of view, rather than contributing to the proliferating literature on tools and techniques, or systematising complexity, our attention is directed instead to the importance of the cultivation of reflexive judgement in leaders and managers. This is not a form of choosing, or presuming a god’s eye view of what is happening, but is a way of paying attention to how we are already immersed in the game and how we are responding to others in the living present. It is an attempt to become more detached about our involvement. So we are not assuming that we think and then act, but are assuming instead that we are helplessly social, and that our taken for granted sociability precedes our ability consciously to notice what we are doing. The kind of noticing I am pointing to in the discussion of reflexivity, is an increased ability to draw attention to the patterning of how we are involved together with others, learning better to think about how we are thinking and acting, which may create greater possibilities for behaving differently. It also brings with it its own risks.

How might grids and frameworks, tools and techniques get in the way of the kind of reflexive attention that we are pointing to in these posts?

Firstly, I am assuming that there are regularities in social life, but that these are irregularly regular. The situations we encounter with others are likely to be both similar to and different from previous experience; they will be unique. Developing phronetic judgement over time is precisely aimed at enhancing the ability to notice the similarities and differences, and to decide together whether and how the latter may be important. Rather than bludgeoning experience into categories that we already bring to it, an invitation to reflexivity is concerned with questioning to what degree our categories, and even our previous experience, prepares us for current experience. This is what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to as ‘thinking without a bannister’, being prepared to kick away the intellectual supports that we might want to take into a situation so that it conforms to what is familiar to us. There is no necessary guarantee that previous ways of thinking and behaving will continue to serve us well as encounter the new, and the potentially radically different. Leaders and managers can be more radically open to experience and to bring their intelligence to bear on what they are experiencing.

Secondly, I am assuming that leadership and management are social undertakings, and that the social act is a complex group activity. So even if we were to assume that the leader/manager does decide on their own in private, closed off from everybody else, the way their ‘decision’ will be taken up by others is beyond their control. Of course, I am not suggesting that the manager/leader is not capable of having their own private dialogue about what is happening or of forming their own point of view. But one of the capacities that marks out a credible leader/manager is the ability not just to take up the point of view of the generalised other to themselves, but also the views and actions of the particular others with whom they are engaged. This will mean involving oneself with differing, usually conflicting interpretations and valuations. There is no recipe for doing this, and it can be very anxiety-provoking as one tries with others to widen one’s circle of concern. In many ways it is easier to follow the prescriptions in a framework, than it is to struggle over the ‘life process of the group’. As a consultant involved in organisations I have encountered people so committed to the scheme of work that they have planned, or the tool they are adopting that they begin to blind themselves to the reactions of others. Following the rules becomes more important than exploration and potentially closes off options and possibilities that were not previsioned by the grid or framework.

This points to another important difference between the notion of the adoption of tools and techniques and intelligent, reflexive action. Where the former is an attempt to impose coherence and order from outside experience with a certain rigidity, with the latter what I am privileging is the attempt to regulate experience from within experience itself. Experience and reflection on experience become objects for further reflection and reflexivity: patterning simply leads to further patterning, and activity becomes regulated by paying attention to the activity itself. I think this is what is meant in the body of thought called complex responsive processes by ‘transformative causality’. Rather than assuming that we need to ‘apply a tool’ to the experience of organising together, our joint struggle over the difficulties we are encountering and the means at our disposal to take a step forward together, and the way we can notice, take this seriously and find ways to talk about it, is the way that experience evolves. Rather than assuming that we can engineer experience with a ‘tool’ possibly based on other people’s experience, we may attempt instead to generalise from our particular experience taking seriously the potential for radical creativity in what we are doing. Sometimes our intentions only become clearer to us once we have acted, and this may throw up further alternatives, which we had never imagined.

Reflexive management, then, does not depend upon designing instruments which promise to get us from here to there. It is instead a social activity involving struggle and the exploration of difference, and the patient attention to the creative possibilities of everyday interaction with others.

5 thoughts on “Reflexivity and experience

  1. ben

    so are you ok with the deployment of tools and techniques then Chris? Are they vectors for this experience – for conflict, error and misguided efforts to control uncontrollable futures… in fact the very catalysts needed for creativity? I’m not clear on the relationship between the reflexive management (i.e. paying attention to what is going on socially) and the abstractions that in fact are driving that reality day to day, like 2by2’s and quality control approaches to problem solving etc? perhaps you can explore this – what is going on and reflexive management. prescriptive. no. and what are the ‘complimentary’ analytical insights that complexity science can provide to managers about coherence and pattern forming in social interaction – are there any, and if you think not, why not? Ben

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Sorry for not replying yet to your question, Ben, but I was not quite clear about what you are asking. Perhaps I could turn the question around and ask you something. I notice from your website that you offer your clients a Theory of Change (ToC) method as part of the work that you carry out with them. I have never used a ToC but as I understand it, it is not so very different from the ubiquitous Logical Framework Analysis (LFA) which is very common in international development and other public sector projects. In other words, it offers a logic model (the clue’s in the name!) as a representation of how change happens: if we do X then we will get y. Additionally in many ToCs there seems to be an element of what is known as idealised design thinking, which is an appeal to people’s imagination. So the way that I have seen this work in many strategy processes in organisations is that people are asked to imagine an idealised end state, the ‘vision’ of what they would like to achieve, and then to work back in logical steps from there to produce ‘milestones’ or logical and incremental steps towards achieving the vision. What interests me about this kind of thinking is that is a fascinating combination of the supposedly rational, if we do this, then that will happen, with an appeal to the utopian, perhaps religious, imagination. You might think of this as the combination of church and laboratory rolled into one. People who work in the not-for-profit sector, as I used to myself, find this a very powerful combination. On your web site you present this as a way of setting out a ‘testable hypothesis’ which can then bring about measurable results. The idea of proving or disproving a hypothesis is what informs natural science thinking and implies that social activity is governed by laws.

      I do not disparage this kind of thinking in any way, i.e. particularly the idea of imagining a better future, and agree with the Hannah Arendt’s idea that human beings’ ability to start something new, to envision a better world, which she termed ‘natality’, is an important part of what makes us human, as is the making and keeping of promises. However, she also warned against our thinking that the utopian promises we make together can ever be realised just as we imagine them if we also accept that the social world is inherently plural. That way, she warned, lies totalitarianism. Of course the appeal to being scientific is also very powerful in our society. How much work would you get if you said you were choosing to work unscientifically?

      In my post I am trying to draw attention to the way in which some people take up insights from the complexity sciences, but try and tame them at the same time. They do this by creating another logic model so that they can stand detached from the complexity sciences and then rationally ‘choose’ which of the states they think their project/organisation is in, and they can then ‘apply’ the right kind of thinking depending on their analysis of what the situation demands. Again we have returned to if-then thinking and the rational, choosing manager. Instead I am trying to persist with what we in the complexity research group consider to be the more radical insights from the complexity sciences, and that means assuming that human interaction might be governed by laws, but that they are laws of non-linearity. Additionally, we can never stand outside of our interactions with others, these ‘non-linear laws’ affect us too, not just everyone else. If you like, our own ‘theory of change’ is that human life NEVER proceeds logically, and natural science hypotheses of an if-then kind can only ever partially account for what happens in the social world. I think in that Stuart Kauffmann video clip that you sent to Ralph, he was also arguing that efficient causality only partly explains evolution in the natural world too. One of the central arguments form the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating is that social life is regularly irregular and has the potential for stability and change both at the same time. Change will always come about in ways that we can never fully predict, and will arise as a result of what everyone is doing together in their local interactions.

      If one persists with the idea that getting things done in organisations emerges in ways which are paradoxical and unpredictable, that our activities are potentially stable and unstable at the same time, and that all kinds of opportunities while arise that we cannot prevision because the future is not just a logical unfolding of the present, then what value do logic models have, particularly in the domain of social or environmental development? Well, one function that they have is to make that development legible at a distance, perhaps to a funding body, which obliges the fund holder to ‘be accountable’ to the funding body, which is normally understood as showing how you have done exactly what you said you would do. These accounts often cover over what has actually happened, and are usually highly selective as well, leaving out what funding bodies ‘don’t need to know’. In my experience, fund holders have to participate in a kind of gaming activity in order to make the right kind of representations about what they have been doing with money they have received. This gaming is more or less openly connived at by the funding body, depending upon the quality of the relationship between them.

      One way that we might come to understand the taken-for-granted ubiquity of logic models, like the ToC and the LFA, is that they are a reflection of the current figuration of power relationships, and the dominance of a particular form of instrumental and bureaucratic rationality. These power relationships both produce and constrain what we take to be admissible knowledge, or perhaps project ‘success’ in the field in which you operate. In my view they are also highly reductive and create a series of unhelpful dualisms: projects, interventions are either ‘successful’ or ‘not successful’, targets are either met or not met, and place much more value on what was predicted rather than what actually happened, which, in hindsight, might be more valuable that what we thought we might achieve. Instead, any social intervention is likely to be both successful and unsuccessful at the same time, depending on whose opinion we ask.

      Apologies for the long introduction, but my question to you, then, is what actually happens between you and your clients when you work with your ToC. Does it bring about the testable, measurable results you promise? How hard do you have to work to make your logic model work logically?

  2. ben


    I am as non-plussed with TOC as you sound, mainly because I have been fortunate enough to meet you and your cohorts within the business school, have interaction and do some reading that has made me think differently, challenged very deeply my understanding of what is happening, how it is happening and why. I feel that this would not have happened for me, ironically, unless I had had a lot of TIME to synthesise, be uncertain, confused and generally not sure about what I was reading and trying to understand. In fact, I managed to write a 25 page commentary on complexity science ‘applications’ (I called them ‘enabling conditions’ to be exact) including CRP, which utterly failed to recognise the paradoxical nature of trying to create linear cause and effect using principles from the complexity sciences! Little alone the radical nature of using it (CS) as a source domain analogy to, effectively, provide new insights/explanations into some of the most profound philosophical insights from the Western thinking, not least because this runs counter to the idea that ‘science’ is the route to all knowledge. I don’t think my limitations in this regard would put me in a minority, hence my email to you and those questions you have not answered.

    For the record, TOC does seem like a tool that helps people perpetuate the kind of empirical, rationalist, cause and effect thinking that you and others are trying to help people think about and perceive differently – and you are right to suggest that this is an important part of the game in which many people (particularly in NGO’s with funders) find themselves… it is, and often for the reasons you have described above. Does this make TOC helpful, or a hindrance – well, as I asked you, it does make it and applications like it, part of the game, rightly or wrongly? I have certainly found TOC useful for helping people (myself included) to get a better insight into what they think they are trying to achieve – but soon realised that to do it in a way that makes it meaningful, you find yourself in an endless regression, for the very reasons you suggest – where is the boundary and what if the outcomes are different – so when do I stop doing it?? Like hierarchies, perhaps TOC is best thought of as a simple way of helping people to manage perceived ‘complexity’ by neatly putting something into a box, so they at least can think clearly in the here and now, but have a UofH CRP trained manager to help them reflect on then what actually happens, or is happening! But, for the record, I will not be someone who will attempt to set them down this road even, as I am not going to offer TOC to anyone again.

    Which gets me back to my question Chris – your original post is a good one and made me think… it made me think about that time I had had to digest, be still, uncertain etc etc, in order to get with what you are talking about… and that made me think about the contrast with what is going on out there in the ‘pretend’, or ‘real’ world of business and how it appears to be a very different game that is being played (certainly in the way many of those playing it, like I did, think it is being played). Where time is money and reflection is for, well… you understand. I think you get this and what I am asking you is – how does this make us reflect on the idea of reflective thinking as managing? You may say this is a non-sensical question, you either reflect, or you do not – but I am thinking about how the prescriptions in management theory get taken up/applied, and what they are leading, or could lead to – because they are also conduits for some sort of creativity, not least because they do produce that essential ingredient Ralph talks about: ‘conflict’, and failure and all sorts of pathalogical, not hoped for outcomes, if we agree about CRP? If people do not have time to reflect (or even reason to get it), so will not understand the insights coming out of Hertfordshire (as many will not), then what might it be useful for us that do, to do, or not do, particularly in relation to the taking up and applying of those very prescriptions that are covering this over?

    What can you say about this – because it is what is happening? Can you only critique this, or can you reflect on how best to get managers so engrossed in the game, to stop and think?

    And I also asked you for any insights that you can offer about the relationship between ‘scientific’ approaches to understanding people, or social environments… which you tell us you do not ‘disparage’, but seem very reluctant to discuss. i.e. what value do they offer, for example the complexity scientists at the Santa Fe institute who model and average phenomena in social domains, or try to find mathematical explanations for those very patterns that Ralph finds resonance in philosophical thought? Or is it just a case of reflecting on the possibility that what they find, may in fact be wrong (only this would not feel like a very insightful, or helpful conclusion to reach)? Averages and models can and do help us to think differently about stuff, which can be useful and is certainly helpful in a complex world… which is not the same as trying to prescribe this – I am asking about ‘complimentary’?

    To answer my own question – I feel that there is something very interesting, exciting even about the idea of embracing uncertainty, so we try and stop creating blueprints, and instead think about open source code… because where we all do agree, is that us lot, humans, are going to go on trying to do stuff come what may. I do see a world of prescriptions, messing it up, covering it over, so I want to know is how to work with this, thinking about what non-linearity can mean in relation to it and how best to hold that tension when trying to offer insights to people, or (heaven forbid) prescribing a course of action? And I ask, because as a sustainability ideologue, I now that if we are going to stand any chance of being ‘successful’ then we best start with what we have and with what we are actually doing… or we might as well just blog our way to no where!

  3. Chris Mowles Post author

    Ben,I think people are always reflecting otherwise they would not be human.One of our unique abilities is our capacity to take ourselves as an object to ourselves. We can anticipate and respond to what others might say and do because we can call out in ourselves the reactions we anticipate from others, although we are often surprised, both by our own spontaneous responses to their responses and by others’ responses to us. We can anticipate, but we can’t predict. So we are always thinking about what we are doing, but we are not always thinking about how we are thinking about what we are doing. Ralph calls this second order relection, or reflexivity. These days I seem to get into discussions quite a lot where people say that reflexivity is old hat and that it is a debate long accepted in business schools and management theory.

    I would have to say that I disagree. A lot of what we might call orthodox management theory repeats the same unflective understandings over and over again, and critique and reflexivity is a minority preoccupation. Equally in organisations, critically engaging in what people are doing is often considered to be a ‘luxury’ and there is often much anxiety about not ‘just’ having a ‘talking shop’ but prodcing ‘concrete outcomes’, whatever those might be! People are too caught up in playing the game.of organisational life to want to call it into quesiton Of course, to do so can be a dangerous activity which risks exclusion from the game.

    As to the fact that people do use tools and techniques to do what they are doing, to quote my colleague Prof Doug Griffin, it is what it is. To a large extent we are constrained by the power relationships we find ourselves caught up in. The ToC is what Mead would call a social object: so it calls out expectations in those you find yourself working with and alongside. It may be that to abandon ToC methods is to risk being thought ‘unprofessional’ if you want to continue to make your way as a consultant.The extent to which I engage with tools and frameworks reflects my power position vis a vis the people who invite me to work with them. My poer chances are neither absolute, nor zero.

    One of the things we are doing at UH is trying to broaden the definition of what it might mean to be scientific in a social context. For some people being scientific can only mean decontextualised, ahistorical laws which are universally true, and independent of the people carrying out the research. By drawing on the sciences of uncertainty we are trying to argue that context, history and the actions of human beings are all relelvant to understanding what is going on. While natural science tries to make evidence as independent of human judgement as possible, ‘objective’, we are trying to say that the systematic study of human activity must try and unite subject and object, context and judgement.

    The Santa Fe institute and other institutions have played a critical role in helping us better understand the sciences of uncertainty. But we still have to discuss and decide their relevance to human activity. So, to what extent are agent-based models, analogies with slime mould, ant colonies, maps of the development of cities helpful for understanding what it is we are doing as conscious and self-conscious human beings. Agent based models, complex adaptive systems models, seem to have the most relevance to what we are talking about, but in the end, all they are, are bit-strings programmed by a computer scientist following rule-based prescriptions. They are still models of reality and still operate according to a large number of assumptions. It is a big leap to make to say that organisations ARE complex adaptive systems, or that managers can programme the rules for others to follow, which is sometimes the way these models are taken up.

    Hope this answers you questions,

  4. ben

    no answers required chris, but am interested in your insights. i am trying to capture the relationship between how science thinks and operates – as a rational, observable, empirically tested, quest to find universal laws of everything (think cern!) – in order to try and show better what is interesting in thinking about human interaction using ideas and theories developed in the social sciences. I think there is an interface though and a way to compliment and I’m pretty certain this is not just the liberal in me that thinks this (although I might be wrong on that?). Anyway, I guess my concern was also how you get this way of thinking taken up in businesses, hence the interest in ‘complimentary approaches’ – but, it is, what it is and maybe that is enough to take from this and reflect on what this means… thanks Chris. Ben


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