So what shall we do?

After a series of workshops in Australia a colleague observed to me that the perspective of complex responsive processes is very good at taking apart the dominant discourse on management. It does so systematically and methodically, and although making no claims to be the only school of thought which takes a critical stance towards instrumental management theory, it appears to offer nothing in its place. As my Australian colleague observed, ‘so what do you leave people with. What should they do?’

On the plane on the way back I was reading Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity[1], because the term ‘authenticity’ comes up such a lot particularly in relation to leadership, and had done so again in Australia. In the book I came across this quotation which Adorno uses from an existentialist novel by Gottfried Keller called Der Grüne Heinrich, which I don’t think Adorno draws on in any exemplary way because he finds it too dismissive, but it did have some resonance for me, at least the second half of it:

‘There is an old saying that one should not only tear down, but must also know how to build up; a commonplace constantly employed by cheery and superficial people who are uncomfortably confronted with an activity which demands a decision from them. This way of thinking is in place where something is superficially settled or is denied out of stupid inclination; otherwise, though, it is unintelligible. For one is not always tearing down to build again; on the contrary, one tears things down eagerly in order to gain free space for light and air, which appear as it were, as though by themselves, wherever some obstructive object is removed. When one looks matters right in the face and treats them in an upright manner, then nothing is negative, but all is positive, to use the old saw.’ (quoted in Adorno, 2003: 31-32)

What Keller is pointing to, although in a very pejorative way, is the discomfort we feel, I have felt, when the scaffolding of my thinking is taken away. And I consider myself neither cheery nor superficial. But the point of doing so, of being critical, is to free up thinking, not to paralyse it, although this is precisely what happens because of the way we have been schooled. And of course the tools and techniques we have learnt may well be partially useful to us in alleviating anxiety, even if for nothing else. The point of critique, though, is to create the ‘light and air’ that Keller evokes, to create an opportunity to do something different which is not fully dictated to by previous ways of thinking, which are sedimented in management tools. But this demands much more of us. What does this situation require from me, and from us?

I think John Dewey was referring to something similar in Art as Experience where he talks about the way we rush into action without reflection. Dewey’s intellectual project was to constantly encourage us to inquire into the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, and not to assume automatically that the way we have solved previous problems will help us in our current predicaments. He bemoans the drive towards battering down a problem with an existing solution:

‘Zeal for doing, lust for action, leaves many a person, especially in this hurried and impatient environment in which we live, with experience of an incredible paucity, all on the surface. No one experience has a chance to complete itself because something else is entered into speedily. What is called experience becomes so dispersed and miscellaneous as hardly to deserve the name. Resistance is treated as an obstruction to be beaten down, not as an invitation to reflection. An individual comes to seek, unconsciously even more than by deliberate choice, situations in which he can do the most things in the shortest time.’ (1934: 46)[2]

Dewey is pointing to the importance of not rushing into another form of action out of impatience, nor to cast around simply for similar ways of doing what we have already failed at. In organisations where there is such an emphasis on ‘delivering’ things, there is often no time to dwell in the necessary experience to work out with others what to do, to reflect upon doing things differently in ways which we co-construct.

It’s worth noticing that Dewey also goes on to say that the opposite problem is being passive and just receiving experience without acting.

‘Some decisive action is needed to establish contact with the realities of the world and in order that impressions may be so related to the facts that their value is tested and organised.’ (1934: 47)

So it would be a mistake to understand Dewey as encouraging us to reflect simply for the sake of reflecting; it is not an end in itself. For him the ideal is to act, but to reflect on the action in relation to the context of experience, to reflect while we are acting.

To stop and ask: ‘what does this new situation require of us’ is a way of acting, of trying to find ways forward. It is not merely a negative approach which tears down and puts nothing in its place. It does demand a lot of us, though.


[1] Adorno, T. (2003) The Jargon of Authenticity, London: Routledge Classics.

[2] Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

7 thoughts on “So what shall we do?

  1. Karen Norman

    Thanks for the thought provoking post Chris. Reminds me of the point made by Leonard Cohen in his lyrics: ‘There Is a Crack in Everything, That’s How the Light Gets In.’

  2. Alexandra Gillies

    Thanks Chris – a succinct post highlighting a problem that is so prevalent in the workplace. Becoming more aware of this over the years has created (for me) the opportunity to try to address it in my own client engagements. Best wishes.

  3. David Hurst

    In my experience executives find complexity theory and its associated fields eye-glazingly abstract. I must confess that I do to and can digest the conceptual writings only in small doses. One needs a well-disciplined broker between the abstractions of theory and the action of practice in the form of generative analogies. Dewey’s urging of us to look at the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves points in the right direction. We need to look at the organizations-in-context. In short, we need an ecological perspective.

    Ecological systems are concrete example of complex living systems and their dynamics. For instance, the lodge-pole pine forests found in the mountains of western North America are fire-dependent for their sustainability. After 40-60 years in age they get eaten out by insects and reduced to standing firewood. The resulting fires recycle the dead hierarchies (trees) to create nutrients for the next generation. The forests then go through a regular succession of weeds, shrubs, and fast-growing trees like alders and aspens before the lodge-pole pine again reasserts itself as the climax species. Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling studied these and other complex natural systems and came up with his concept of panarchy, the adaptive cycle and the Mobius-shaped cycle that illustrates it ( This model, adjusted to handle humans with intention and memory, acts an excellent go-between the abstractions of complexity theory and the practical question: So what do I do?

    Except there is a catch: the bottom line is that nobody can tell you ‘what to do’. If context, history and narrative all matter, then no one has ever been in exactly the same situation in which you find yourself. But ecological analogies, disciplined by complexity theory, can help you sense your way, suggesting when to play the detached manager using the panoply of management tools in instrumental fashion and when to immerse yourself in the phenomena as a co-participant, feeling forward in collective fashion. One has to learn to dance between the two and much of the movement will be improvised.

    Needless to say, this ecological perspective is anathema to positivists everywhere. Most North-American management academics react to it like vampires to crosses, while muttering ‘Marxist’ under their breaths. We need a large supply of stakes!

  4. Eric

    This is a very thoughtful way of putting this matter, Chris. The metaphor of a crack that lets the light shine through is compelling.

    I’ve been pondering what it is that you’d do differently after you critiqued the dominant way of approaching change in organizations. My train of thought begins with the contention that once you start to think about organizations differently, you’ll inevitably begin to raise different questions; and consequently you may have potentially different conversations.

    So, for example, when you wouldn’t think of interventions that are geared towards changing the organization at large, you’d rather emphasize thinking about how you can engage with people in their local contexts. Not in order to spur, but to defy alignment. Posed like this, people usually feel somewhat irritated and may dare to explore further what might be meant by this.

    Then, when talking about the ubiquitous notion of ‘inclusion’ what does this actually mean for our daily practice when we only look at one side of the coin? After all the notion of inclusion only makes sense when you also talk about exclusion. It seems like we’re idealizing inclusion and avoiding to talk about exclusion. And why is that? That can raise an eyebrow here and there.

    Another question might have to do with the fact that we tend to think of organizations as bounded systems, or ‘wholes’. What does this way of understanding organizations accomplish; and what does it impossibilize? And if we negated this notion what would we gain? Whatever emerges from this and other questions it may help to contribute to conversations people normally wouldn’t have.

    Will this yield the huge change we as consultants and practitioners are often tasked with bringing about? Probably not. Can this make the ‘differance’ Derrida talked about? May be. What else can we hope for?

    Best, Eric

  5. Shahar Amikam, sigalit

    Very interesting.
    I think we automatically reflect on events and processes which we have relation to and accordingly behave. Since we are expected to respond quickly in organizations and there is no time for overt reflection than the reflection process mooves to the unconscious. But now we are less aware to our actions.We don’t know if the impact on behavior will be beneficial or unbeneficial to us and to the organization. Therefore, it is very important for taking organizational time for reflecting on ours and others intentions and experiences. It is important to the organizaion resilience and context relating and to our well being.


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