Category Archives: science

3 Critiques of Leadership: preparing for the CMC conference

At the Complexity and Management Conference in June this year we will be hosting discussions about leaders and leadership from a critical perspective. As a way of warming up for the event it might be interesting to rehearse three recent and different critical perspectives on the ineluctable rise of ‘leaderism’ in contemporary society. The first, by Rakesh Khurana[1] (2007), charts the development of the discourse of leadership and the way it has colonised and captured American business schools coterminous with the ascendancy of neo-liberal economics. The second, by Martin and Learmonth (2012)[2], looks at the way that the discourse on leadership is used to co-opt a broad range of actors into particular projects to ‘reform’ the public sector, and the third, by Alvesson and Spicer [3](2011), explores the way that a more nuanced critique of leadership might be developed to help employees struggle with the exercise of authority in organisations. Mats Alvesson is a previous guest at the CMC conference. 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

Thought collectives and the role of critique

As a way of adding to the discussion started by Ralph in the last post I want to offer some observations, additions, and questions to the idea of the thought collective and thought styles. I would like to reflect more on the stable instability of thought collectives and the way that they are at risk from transformation from within and from without. I want to suggest that they may be powerful and enduring, but they are never rigid being subject to their own ruptures. Although thought collectives undoubtedly try to exclude patterns of thinking which do not conform to a particular orthodoxy, and can sometimes do so with some violence as we will explore below, this orthodoxy often has its own indeterminacies and internal contradictions, and challenges to it are likely to occur regularly and in every day ways both from ‘within’ and from ‘without’. Together the gesture of critique and orthodox response incorporate each other and produce a movement through which other ways of theorising are made possible.

I want to expand further on how the processes of domination and resistance are mediated by power relations and will draw on some of Foucault’s thinking to inquire into the social relations of ‘truth telling’. That is to say, as well as considering the way that orthodoxies dynamically maintain themselves by excluding and denying, it is also important to think about how resistance is mounted, and by whom. Having done this I will question whether the discussion pattern that Ralph points to between systems theorists and their critics could ever thought to be ‘stuck’, although it may feel that way from a synchronic perspective, what I referred to in a previous post as the perspective of the swimmer. Continue reading

Repetitive Patterns of Communication: Thought Collectives and Thought Styles

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]

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Further thoughts on the similarities and differences between CMS and complex responsive processes

At this year’s conference Hugh Willmott, Research Professor of Organization Studies at Cardiff University, gave a key note on the financialized organisation during which he made a strong argument for the rehabilitation of political economy as a focus of research in organization studies. Additionally, he began engaging with complex responsive processes noting similarities and differences with critical management studies (CMS).

In this post and the next I will try to continue this discussion, noting points of overlap and contrast as a way of exploring the difference that makes a difference. One of the difficulties of doing this is that CMS is a broad and diverse church which contains a spectrum of opionion. So the basis of the exploration will be the latest edition of Hugh’s book co-written with Mats Alvesson, Making Sense of Management: a Critical Introduction. This post develops the input I gave at the June conference. 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

Thinking about the nature of the ‘tools and techniques’ that people ‘apply’ in the serious game of organizational life

I was prompted by the comments on my last blog on management tools and techniques to write this blog as a reply. I am struck by how strong the belief in tools and techniques is so that even though agreeing with what I said, there is an immediate move to talking about dynamic tools instead of static ones and claiming that there is scientific evidence for certain propositions about the development of the human mind allowing standard patterns to be mapped and measured. Of course what I wrote is contesting all of this and is certainly denying the assertion of a scientific base allowing us to know as a fact. Another comment asserted everything we do could be described as using a tool or technique. In this blog I will try to explain why I profoundly disagree with that statement. Then there is a comment by Chris Rodgers, most of which I agree with. What I am trying to talk about, however, is not about different prescriptions or ‘shoulds’ but rather with a way of thinking about what people are already doing in organisations.

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