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.