Reflexive OD

Previous blogs have outlined key features of the theory of complex responsive processes of relating between members of organisations as a way of making more sense of what we actually do in our everyday lives in those organisations. This theory makes a number of claims.

The first is that change across whole organisations is not caused by grand designs rolled down a hierarchy. Rather changes in the patterns of relationship between a whole population of people, which is what an organisation is, emerge across that population in the interplay of many, many local interactions.

A further claim is that all local interactions in all organisations and economies in all countries reflect the same fundamental processes. First, local interactions are always conversational in nature – societies and organizations are ongoing conversation which is always reflecting the generalized other, the habitus, the game, the social background, the culture. Organisational change then means change in the patterning of conversation arising in local interaction. Secondly this social activity of gesture and response always reflects power figuration which, together with ideologies, are the basis of the inevitable dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. In other words, organisational life is processes of ordinary everyday politics in which we are always making ideologically based choices and decisions. Taking all of these processes together we can see how organisational life is both competitive and cooperative, both conflictual and consensual. The inevitable conflict will always be a reflection of the fact that as agents in organisational life we are always different to each other and at the same time we are the same as each other.

No matter what our role in an organisations is, whether leader, manager or staff member, we are all participating in all the process described above.  This must also apply to the role of OD consultant. As OD consultants we enter into the conversational life of an organisation and we take up power positions which may well threaten the pattern of power relations for some, or we may find ourselves reinforcing current power relations, leading us to sustain stability while proclaiming that we are change agents. We inevitably find ourselves included in some groupings and excluded from others and our ways of participating are inevitably reflections of the particular ideologies we believe in. The invitation from the theory of complex responsive processes to OD practitioners is to refocus attention from an exclusive concern with tools and techniques to a focus which pays much more attention to the actual processes that people, including OD practitioners, are engaged in.

Since the theory of complex responsive processes is offering an explanation of what we are already doing it is not prescriptive and so does not yield much in the way of tools and techniques of OD practice. It does not deal with what we should be doing as OD practitioners but offers instead a refocusing of attention in reflecting upon and thinking about what we are actually doing together now rather than focusing attention on idealised futures and so called tools and techniques, the success of which is assumed rather than supported by evidence.  Instead, I am assuming, also without anything like scientific evidence, that this refocusing of attention will yield greater understanding of what is going on and that this greater understanding will be expressed in changes of practice. Such changes cannot be predicted in advance nor is there any guarantee that the changes will yield any improvement. I believe, however, that on the whole it must be better to approach organisational life in a more rather than a less thoughtful way. So the ‘prescription’ that emerges from the theory of complex responsive processes is the invitation to take a more reflexive position in thinking about what we are doing and the practical judgment we must rely on in conditions of uncertainty.

By reflexivity I mean processes that amount to more than reflection. We may think of this reflexivity-in-action as the principle ‘technique’ for developing practical judgement.

To reflect means to think deeply about a subject and some synonyms are to ponder, ruminate, contemplate, or speculate. Reflection is the intellectual and emotional exercise of the mind to reason, give careful consideration to something, make inferences, decisions, and find solutions. Reflection can be directed at one’s own experience, as in introspection, which is the activity of reflecting on one’s own thoughts and feelings and forming beliefs about one’s own mental states. What, then, does it mean to practice reflexivity? A reflexive pronoun is the object in a sentence indicating that the object is the same as the subject in that sentence. The subject and the object are then not separate but are simultaneously present. For example I might say that ‘I was washing myself’ so that the reflexive pronoun ‘myself’ bends back to the ‘I’. This reflexivity should not be understood as introspection since reflexivity involves much more than introspection and the form of reflexivity that I want to point to in this chapter needs to be distinguished from both reflection and from introspection. Reflexivity points to the impossibility of standing outside of our experience and observing it, simply because it is we who are participating in and creating the experience, always with others. Reflexivity is the activity of noticing and thinking about the nature of our involvement in our participation with each other as we do something together. So, I am using a notion of reflexivity which can only be social. Since we are interdependent individuals, reflexivity must involve thinking about how we and others involved with us are interacting and this will involve noticing and thinking about our history together and more widely about the history of the wider communities we are part of.

The ability to take a reflexive stance is the basis of practical judgment, which is an understanding of group interaction – the expert manager is one who has developed the ability to notice more aspects of group dynamics than others do and a greater ability to make sense of those aspects. What is called for, then, is the practice of narrative forms of inquiry because it is in the detail of the narrative that we find ourselves participating in that we can express the themes emerging in our experience, as well as the details of context, that enable us to form judgments on what is going on and what we might do as the next step. The ‘technique’ of narrative inquiry involves leaders, managers and members of an organization exploring together the history of the situation they find themselves in, trying to identify how they have together created this situation.  Here ‘technique’ requires self-discipline on the part of all in engaging in a mode of inquiry that cannot be ‘controlled’. The ‘technique’ involves scrapping the bullet points and turning instead to narratives that provoke further reflection. What I am proposing, therefore, is that the capacity for practical judgment in organisations can be sustained and developed by the ‘technique’ of reflexive inquiry into the narrative of what we are doing together in ambiguous and uncertain situations. For leaders and managers, in practical terms, this means consciously creating opportunities for groups of colleagues and others to engage in the kind of inquiry that I have been describing. I would call this reflexive OD practice.

An OD practitioner who is an expert at working in reflexive ways may assist clients to greater awareness of their roles in the organization. Consultants who work in a reflexive way with groups of leaders and managers may help to widen and deepen communication in a group and so produce greater meaning. This activity cannot be reduced to rules and procedures. The work in the development of more fluid and complex conversation involves curbing the widespread pattern in organizations where leaders and managers focus on the future and move immediately to planning and solving problems.  This can be done by exploring narratives of what those in the group have done in the past in order to develop some insight into what they have been doing and why they have been doing it in a particular way. Such conversation grounds group members in the present as they make sense of the past in the present and opens up more varied and grounded ways of taking account of the future in the present. A reflexive form focuses on narrative. It is very helpful for leaders and managers to write short narratives of troubling events they are currently experiencing and then inquire into these narratives in the group. Such activities develop thinking and lead to greater insight into what is going on.




7 thoughts on “Reflexive OD

  1. Glenda Eoyang

    Thanks for this lovely reflection on OD as a complex responsive process. I have a couple of questions.

    How does reflexivity, as you describe it here, compare with inquiry?
    Can you say more about how narrative can become a core practice of OD?

    Many thanks for this and all. Glenda

    1. ralphstacey Post author

      Glenda you asked two questions.
      Reflexivity is a form of enquiry in which we inquire into how and why we are thinking as we do. We are trying to question our assumptions. Non reflexive inquiry is an examination of some phenomenon without inquiring into the way of thinking underlying that examination.

      You aske for more about narrative. The best way I can do this is to give you some quotes from my 2010 book “Complexity and Organizational Reality: Uncertainty and the need to rethink management after the collapse of investment capitalism, London Routledge”. These are the quotes:

      … individual histories reproduced in the living present of communicative action are extending those histories into the future. This points to the narrative-like structuring of human experience. Is not simply that people are telling each other stories or that narrative is simply an alternative type of knowledge. The turn-taking, responsive relating of people may be thought of as forming narrative at the same time as that narrative patterns moral responsibility … the experience of the living present, like the past, is structured in narrative-like ways.

      I use the term narrative-like, rather than narrative, in order to make an important distinction. A narrative or story is normally thought of in its ‘told’ sense. A narrative is normally someone’s narrative, told from the perspective of a narrator. It normally has a beginning, an end and a plot that moves the listener / reader from the beginning to the end in a more or less linear sequence. This kind of ‘narrative told’ must be distinguished from the narrative-like process that is narrative in its making. Interaction in the manner described above evolves as narrative-like themes that normally have no single narrator’s perspective. Beginnings and endings are rather arbitrary and there are many plots emerging simultaneously. The narrative told is retrospective while narrative-in-its-making is currently emerging in the living present. The former is inevitably linear while the latter is intrinsically nonlinear. Despite these differences, there is a connection and it is, I think, useful to think of experience as being patterned in a narrative-like way.

      In communicative interaction, people actively respond to each other and in so doing their experiences are patterned in narrative-like forms. In their relational communication people are constructing intricate narratives and in reflecting on those narratives they are also constructing abstract-systematic frameworks of propositions to explain what is going on. When they reflect on what they have been doing, on what they are doing, and on what they hope to do, they select aspects of these dense narratives / abstract frameworks to tell stories or extend their abstract-systematic frameworks of propositions in order to account for what they are doing and make sense of their worlds. … Life, on this view is an ongoing, richly connected multiplicity of stories and propositional frameworks. In this sense the process is nonlinear, although stories told select a theme in all of this and give it a linear structure. … all human relationships … are story lines and propositions constructed by … relationships at the same time as those story lines and propositions construct the relationships. They are all complex responsive processes of relating that can be thought of as themes and variations that recursively form themselves in human interaction.

      … we might understand our ordinary everyday experience of life in organizations as the conversation of gestures in which our local communicative actions play into each other to produce emergent, inseparably merged narrative-like themes and abstract propositions in that experience. … Understood in this way, organizations are not systems outside our interaction that the powerful are designing but they are, rather, various games we are all preoccupied with. … we can understand organizations as particular narrative and propositional themes emerging across a population of organizational members, and even further across the populations of societies, in local complex responsive processes. To put it as simply as possible, by organization I mean the ongoing conversation in which people accomplish all their organizational tasks.

  2. Ari-Pekka Skarp

    I liked this post and the emphasis on reflexivity very much. I was also thinking that not only the narrative inquiry but also the ability to understand the very dialogue that is going on would be an asset for the OD practitioner. In this e.g. the work of Mihail Bakhtin can be very helpful as well as theories on the use of language (Wittgenstein, Sacks, …).

  3. stephen wagener (@i2s2c)

    Ralph – I cheered all the way through your post and wish you well.
    I too dislike the Kingdom of Mismanagement and its linear, ‘Process Monkey’ approach.

    For me decisions have three steps (a simple rule of thumb if you like)

    The quest to INFORM
    The strategy of SELECT
    Pause and reflect to CONFIRM (this piece of the puzzle we share)

    I do not feel alone any more – great to have met you in the interweb of connection.

    I call my stuff “Adventures in the Sea of Complexity”
    Enjoy the Journey. Let me know which characters you like the most.

    Kind regards
    Stephen Wagener

  4. Pingback: Complex responsive processes | Pearltrees

  5. billpks


    Your reflection resonates very strongly with my experience. The one moment of discord might have been here:

    “Instead, I am assuming, also without anything like scientific evidence, that this refocusing of attention will yield greater understanding of what is going on and that this greater understanding will be expressed in changes of practice. Such changes cannot be predicted in advance nor is there any guarantee that the changes will yield any improvement.”

    I’ve been reading Sun Tzu of late and reflecting upon my early experience in Nuclear Submarines. The latter I consider to have been an example of High Reliability Organization in both the Propulsion Reliability domain an in the Mission Resilience one. In the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program I learned, on a quite large scale, much of what I know about the mindful instantiation of narrative shaped inevitably by ideology, and at the interplay of competition and collaboration.

    Admiral Rickover’s rows with his prime contractors are legendary, but he acquired remarkably high quality ships and he encultured remarkably discipline operations, maintenance, and all the other aspects of his “product” life cycle.

    Thus I believe there is ample evidence for the benefit of attention refocused as you suggest; and it has been studied systematically and carefully reported. While I agree with your last quoted sentence, I’m content that there is considerable confidence to be had that beneficial or welcome change is possible even if we can’t predict its details in advance of their emergence from our craft at Sustainment.

    Sustainment is a state of dynamic balance between an institution and its circumstance; it is that which I take to be the Subject of which Reflexivity is the Transitive (i.e. verb form) and Welcome Change is the Object. Sustainment is in the Moment, but leaning forward as only humans appear capable of doing.

    Coming from a Systems Engineering perspective I take the analog to Reflexivity to be Systemizing – it is very much a matter of Mindfulness but with a look toward the present narrative’s direction and in anticipation of what reflection suggests could be beyond this moment’s horizon. I trust we are SEEing the same Subject – Agency domain.

    Systemizing is biological or neurological in character and in that sense fits more with the System of Systems development challenge than with the System Engineering of specific artifacts. Most of my friends in the INCOSE are still attached to the ideology that every challenge is a “problem” awaiting a clever “forward engineered solution.” We’ll keep working on that, I appreciate having your thoughtful insights as an aid in that regard.

  6. Pingback: Reflexive OD | Corporate Culture and OD | Scoo...

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