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?’ Continue reading

Learning to talk to one another – politics and practical judgement

I went to hear Prof Colin Crouch promote his new book The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life at the Institute for Government.

Crouch’s thesis is that the financialisation of public institutions reduces the meaning of what they do to a limited number of numerical targets and performance indicators often of a financial kind. This has the effect of also reducing the spectrum of knowledge we need fully to be employees, citizens and customers and constrains expert judgement. It has the effect of trumping all other valuations of particular organizational or social problems with one supposed truth, that of the bottom line or a financial target.

One example he gives of the consequences of financialization from the UK is the monetary incentive offered to GPs to refer more patients with suspected Alzheimer’s disease for further medical tests. The incentive is problematic on a number of fronts: although it is offered on the basis of encouraging behaviour which politicians deem to beneficial to the public as a whole, it nonetheless implies that GPs would not refer patients without such a financial reward. It enacts a theory of motivation at odds with the medical profession’s own values: the overwhelming majority of doctors would not consider it either necessary or desirable to be offered money to refer someone for tests who needs them. Additionally, in Crouch’s terms it has the potential for corrupting expert knowledge as well as creating perverse incentives. Crouch is not implying that professionals need no scrutiny or don’t need managing, but he does argue that financial targets, and numerical targets more generally, are a crude measure of what is really important in specific situations when the work is complex. It is a very crude, mistrustful intervention to bring about a greater focus on potential Alzheimer’s sufferers. Continue reading

Working with the paradox of theory and practice

In this post I will discuss some of the similarities and differences between scientific method in the natural and social sciences and question what it might mean to be scientific about the social. I will focus particularly on the nexus of theory and practice. This is important in the field of management where theories proliferate but where much less work is done to understand how these theories play out and evolve in organisational life, no matter what the strength of the prior claim that they have been empirically tested.

I doubt that anyone would want to make the case that what we are lacking in management is enough theories. Just to take the domain of leadership as an example, we are assailed with contradictory and competing theories, such as trait theories, behavioural theories, theories of transformational leadership, servant leadership, distributed leadership, and more latterly agile and sustainable leadership. An enormous amount of work goes into elaborating theories which are supposed to be ‘applied’ to organisations, accepting implicitly the dualism between theory, assumed to be the most important work, and practice, a lesser activity which has to be brought into line with theory. This distinction reaches back to the dispute between Plato and Aristotle, who disagreed as to the relative importance of each, with Aristotle arguing that in the field of human action, theories are necessary but insufficient:

[phronesis]is not concerned with universals only; it must also take cognizance of particulars, because it is concerned with conduct, and conduct has its sphere in particular circumstances. That is why some people who do not possess theoretical knowledge are more effective in action (especially if they are experienced) than others who do possess it.[1]

For Aristotle phronesis, or practical judgement, will always involve the interplay of the particular and the general, a broad idea about what one is engaged in tempered by the particular circumstances of the forum in which one is acting.

In the Academy, however, the majority side with Plato about the importance of universals, and much greater esteem is accorded to theorising about management. Doctoral researchers in organisational studies who embark on traditional PhDs are expected to make a contribution to knowledge, which can be narrowly understood as the development and testing of a new theory. This is considered to be a close parallel to the methods used in the natural sciences – anything else would be ‘unscientific’. However, scientific method and insights are not monolithic and there are specific differences between the natural and social worlds. In the next section I will rehearse how the analogies from the complexity sciences, which have informed the perspective of complex responsive processes, come to problematize the idea of theory-generation about the social. Continue reading

On feeling safe – paradoxes of group life

A frequent complaint to be heard in many group situations is the remark ‘it doesn’t feel safe here’.

So common is this utterance that I wanted to give some time to exploring its implications for the dilemmas we face in working with groups of all types.

The remark is most likely to be heard openly voiced in the experiential setting of training and psychotherapy groups . However I suggest that it is a common phenomenon in the politics of all groups, often expressed more covertly as an internal dialogue or within a subgroup, which configures before and after meetings.

The questions raised through this complaint are therefore also relevant to the politics of the workplace as well as to the challenges of experiential group work. The remark concerning safety in the group setting is often spoken with a tone of admonition as if responsibility for feelings of safety lay elsewhere and outside of the participation of the speaker and often, although not exclusively, with some figure of authority such as a course leader, therapist, chairperson or parental imago.

The implication is that if only the ‘feeling of safety’ prevailed that full and uninhibited participation in the group’s activities would ensue. Continue reading

On Being Managed. Ethics as conflictual process.

In going about my work doing organisational consultancy for the healthcare community,I have recently been struck by increasing references to managing as some kind of self evident right as if the term itself was incontestable and represented a quasi divine ordering of things reminiscent of the feudal .

Last week I was asked by managers to engage with three separate 
situations in which this right was apparent at the outset of the conversation.

In the first I was told,

‘nobody in this day and age can say that they don’t need to be managed’.

In the second and third situations I was offered the explanation that team difficulties were caused by,

‘not being used to being managed’

and that

‘they have got away with doing their own thing for far too long’.

Continue reading

Prophets for profits

In previous posts Ralph has been talking about the way that contemporary theories of management take for granted the idea that a manager needs tools and techniques in order to achieve organisational ‘success’. In this post I want to begin describing what I see as the appeal to the religious imagination that leaders and managers are also required to make, and which usually accompanies the more instrumental focus on grids and frameworks in many management books. At the same time as using the right managerial tools managers and leaders in today’s organisations are required to be ‘passionate’, ‘positive’, ‘inspirational’ and ‘visionary’. Managers and leaders are expected to be prophets as well as experts, preachers as well as technicians.

On the one hand there is something very important about the appeal to affect and ideals. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, collective promise-making is a very powerful way of disposing of the future as though it were the present, of beginning things anew and imagining a better world. Unfortunately very often the appeal to the religious imagination in turn becomes schematised and reduced and is understood in a highly individualised way as a ‘tool’ of management. There is a great potential for manipulation. For example, there are training courses on visionary and inspirational leadership and endless management books offering advice on the same. Currently it would be impossible to apply for a job in many fields without claiming to be ‘passionate’ about whatever the job on offer is. Although being passionate and visionary are regarded on the one hand as exceptional requirements, they are demanded routinely in everyday situations. Noble sentiments have become banal, another tool in the toolkit of aspiring managers and leaders. The proliferation of advice on how to be authentically passionate and succeed in management testifies to the fact that authenticity is difficult to fabricate – you have to practice quite hard at it. Continue reading

Workshop on leadership and improvisation – Gibraltar Oct 6th-8th 2010

How do power and politics constrain and enable us at work? How might we think differently about our practice as leaders and managers?

The Complexity & Management Centre has organised an innovative workshop from 6th -8th October in Gibraltar together with the Gibraltar Health Authority and the Da Capo Theatre Company from Denmark to explore these issues in a highly practical way. The purpose of the workshop is to create  opportunities to understand what is becoming recognised as an increasingly important element of leadership: how we improvise in our everyday management practice, and the impact of local organisational politics and power in our work.

In collaboration with participants in the conference, professional actors from Da Capo will create scenes familiar to us from our everyday working life. Participants will then be invited both to take part in the scenarios as well as to reflect upon them drawing on a range of theoretical approaches, in particular using analogies from the complexity sciences, to help us find new ways of understanding how change occurs, (or may not occur), in organisations.

If you are interested in attending, you can download the conference booking form here: Leadership and improvisation conference.