There seems to me to be an interesting pattern in the comments on many of the blogs on this site, a pattern that I frequently encounter in many other discussions in organizations too. The pattern takes the following form.
On this site, and in most of our work encounters, colleagues and I are seeking to present a way of thinking about organizational life which departs radically from the mainstream or dominant discourse. We want to do this because we take the view that dominant ways of understanding organizations have failed to account for the glaringly obvious inability of leaders and managers to determine their futures, which the dominant discourse argues is what they are there for. The alternative way of thinking we are trying to articulate involves moving completely away from thinking of human interaction as constituting, or as if constituting, a system of any kind which it is then the role of leaders and managers to control. Any/every form of systems thinking is conducted in terms of spatial metaphors with parts forming wholes within boundaries. We argue against this way of thinking about human interaction / organizations because the spatial metaphor of systems abstracts from direct experience by positing an entity outside our relationships with each which is then easily reified and anthropomorphised. Systemic ways of thinking lead to separation in thought of individual and group and locates them at different levels, another spatial metaphor. We are articulating an alternative way of thinking which avoids abstracting completely from our experience and focuses our attention on the temporal responsive processes of our in interacting with each other as we deal with uncertainty and our inability to control. We argue that this complex responsive processes way of thinking is incompatible with systems thinking because in the former we are seeking to understand our experience from within our participation in that experience and in the latter people are seeking to observe and manipulate something outside of themselves. Moving from one of these ways of thinking to the other has important implications for what we do and how we think about what we do to deal with not knowing and it is this that we are seeking to inquire into.
One common response to the position we take is for a commenter to welcome what we are saying but then they go on to agree that some forms of systems thinking exhibit the drawbacks we identify (for example, first order systems) but that there are other forms (for example, second order systems) that do not display these drawbacks. While agreeing then, the commenters present their own brand of system thinking as an exception, usually without explaining why it is an exception. The commenter may then proceed to talk about people drawing boundaries around their experience. In other words the commenter simply proceeds to rearticulate the dominant discourse without acknowledging any of our arguments against it.
Another commenter may then return to the message of the blog and point out that defining the boundaries of an organization involves us thinking of an organization as some kind of system that exists outside of us and that when we do this we are moving more and from our own actual experience of what is happening around us in the conversations we are engaged in. In other words the second commenter repeats the argument being presented in the blog.
The first commenter may then reply that the ability to see multiple, non-contradictory boundaries, or containers, is essential to making meaning and taking action; useful boundaries can be created and transcended at will. Here then, we are into the second repetition of a reply which simply repeats once again the basic tenets of the dominant discourse without engaging the argument.
And so the ‘ping pong’ goes on. The pattern is one of a commenter presenting the argument of the responsive processes view which elicits a rearticulating of the dominant discourse of systems thinking which calls forth another comment now simply repeating the responsive processes position which evokes a comment simply repeating the systems position. We are together co-creating repetitive patterns which are rather stuck and which block inquiring into the argument. This is a pattern which I frequently encounter in other forums too and I notice that leaders and managers in organizations also often get stuck in repetitive patterns of this kind. So how are we to make sense of this kind of pattern that we so often co-create in which we each make claims about reality and the facts but do not really argue them through? I think a very useful way of understanding what we are getting into together is provided by an important book called Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact by Ludwik Fleck which was published in 1935.
In the years leading up to the publication of his book, Fleck, a bacteriologist approaching the age of 40, had acquired a considerable reputation as a scientist for his research in the areas of the serology of typhus, syphilis and a variety of pathogenic microorganisms. Fleck starts his book with a question: What is a fact? In answering this question, he goes on to say:
A fact is supposed to be distinguished from transient theories as something definite, permanent, and independent of any subjective interpretation by the scientist. … Epistemology often commits a fundamental error: almost exclusively it regards well-established facts of everyday life, or those of classical physics, as the only ones that are reliable … [this] is inherently naïve … [as a consequence] we feel a complete passivity in the face of a power that is independent of us; a power we call “existence” or “reality”.[i]
He is arguing that in taking the common sense view of what a fact is we lose sight of our own role, collectively and historically, in constructing a fact and developing a fact and this leads us to regarding a fact as simply something we have no alternative but to accept: it cannot be questioned. The purpose of Fleck’s book is to take a particular medical fact, namely syphilis, and explore how such an empirical fact originated, how it has evolved and what it consists of. He shows how before the end of the 15th century syphilis was not differentiated from other skin diseases such as scabies. It was not an independent fact. Around the end of the 15th century syphilis was identified as a new disease, labelled ‘carnal scourge’, which had arisen because of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter under the sign of Scorpio which rules the genitals. Added to the astrological explanation was the religious one that the disease was god’s punishment of sinful lust. Syphilis was now the fact of carnal scourge. Fleck argues that any explanation of a phenomenon, including this one, can only survive and develop if it is ‘stylized in conformity with the prevailing thought style’[ii] and that it took centuries before developments in other sciences led to different ways of thinking about the disease. He concludes that:
Such entrenchment of thought proves that it was not the so-called empirical observations that led to the construction and fixation of the idea. Instead, special factors of deep psychological and traditional significance greatly contributed to it.[iii]