Complexity and Management Conference June 2015 – themes and agenda

At the Complexity and Management Conference this weekend (5th-7th June at Roffey Park) we will be discussing a variety of themes concerning power and politics in organisations. As a small contribution to the discussion I offer the following:

There are two managerial tendencies in contemporary organisations which in my view work against the exploration of difference, and cover over the opportunity for collective reflection.

The first is the increasing prevalence of instrumental reason in the shape of rhetorical appeals to ‘what works’, or what ‘adds value’ or is best for effectiveness and efficiency.  This is not to argue in favour of inefficiency or ineffectiveness, or allowing employees to do whatever they want, but if we start from the premiss that there is no one best strategy, then all options about what employees might do together to improve organisational outcomes will bring with them advantages and disadvantages. It depends when the evaluation is made, and who is judging.

If the future is uncertain then we can never be sure what will work and what will not until we try something together, and even then we may disagree about what we find. So it may be worth exploring the merits of different courses of action and tolerating dissent, disagreement and contestation before we embark upon something.

The second tendency can arise as a direct result of the first, that there is a lack of shared experience of deliberating together, and therefore a greater reluctance to consider it. All kinds of reasons are given for not thinking together: because there isn’t time, because it will open a can of worms, because it will be just a talking shop, because it’s a luxury we can’t afford, because we’re an action-oriented organisation. In effect what then happens is a closing down of opportunity to seek different perspectives which prevents bringing about what Hannah Arendt referred to as ‘enlarged mentality’, the possibility of experiencing human plurality. The ability to consider the perspective of others was of prime importance to Arendt, since it enables us to decentre ourselves and avoid narcissism, as well as preventing tyranny where there is only a hearing for one point of view.

Another aspect of deliberating together in public, particularly when we are face to face, is that the intimacy of being together obliges us more actively to find ways forward. But confronting each other with our differences can be painful, and it isn’t always easy to do.

These are some of the themes we will be struggling with, more or less painfully,  on the weekend, and here is the rough agenda for the discussions.

Look forward to seeing you there if you have registered, and if not we will try and post some reflections on what happened afterwards.

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One thought on “Complexity and Management Conference June 2015 – themes and agenda

  1. Right on! At the roots of these issues is what Hugo Mercier has described as the classical or Cartesian understanding of reason that is prevalent in mainstream management. “it’s the idea that the role of reasoning is to critically examine our beliefs so as to discard wrong-headed ones and thus create more reliable beliefs—knowledge. This knowledge is in turn supposed to help us make better decisions.”

    This view does not tally with results coming from the cognitive sciences. Mercier and Sperber make a powerful case that reason evolved to serve a social, argumentative function – to justify, defend and rationalize decisions already reached, not to reach them in prospect. This accounts for the so-called “confirmation bias” which is dysfunctional in an individual context and the Cartesian view but works in a social context, where different views attract the very best evidence to support them. Cartesians want to “correct for biases” but this is proving difficult if not impossible. The remedy is to change the context to a social, argumentative one where different options are recommended by different parties in open dialogue. If such a process is to be effective the power dynamics in such a context are critical (see Sandy Pentland’s work at MIT).

    This would of course entail the radical modification of the Cartesian view of reason.

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