A critical glossary of contemporary management terms – XVIII challenge

Challenge, to invite someone into a competition to establish who is superior, a call to prove or justify something, or to dispute the validity of something is now used universally in organisational life as a substitute for problem or difficulty. Originating as one of the key concepts of positive psychology, that crises reveal character, the trope works something like this: there are no problems in life, only challenges, and every challenge can be turned into an opportunity if only we try hard enough. It’s just a question of how we frame things.

In a way there is nothing unusual about the sentiment: in everyday speech we might encourage each other that every cloud has a silver lining (or more mischievously, Monty Python fans might invite us to ‘always look on the bright side of life’). Perhaps what is disturbing is its ubiquity, and the implication that we can never say that something is unachievable, unrealistic, or too damned hard. There is nothing wrong in the invitation to stiffen our resolve as long as it isn’t at the expense of fantasy thinking. When does the injunction to enter into positive engagement turn into a denial of legitimate resistance and contestation, the triumph of the maniacally upbeat over the ‘doomsters and gloomsters’?

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A critical glossary of contemporary management terms – XVII roadmap

Recently the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, set out a ‘first sketch of a road map for reopening society’. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister of Scotland set out a route map and the Northern Ireland Executive announced a ‘pathway to recovery’. These spatial metaphors of maps, routes and pathways are common currency in organisational life, and sit comfortably within the ‘life as a journey’ cliché. They make intuitive and bodily sense because they are metaphors we live by, language which helps us make sense of the world and helps structure our actions. Map and journey metaphors can be so taken for granted and seem such common sense that the conceptual assumptions they cover over become hard to identify and articulate. After all, it’s obvious you can’t make a strategy unless you set a destination, and once people know the direction of travel then they’ll get on board the train/bus. Often it requires a visionary leader to see where we need to get to in so many months/years’ time.

Implicit in the metaphor are foresight and control, and the ability to recognise in advance what the destination is. Thinking/planning comes before action. It is a claim on both knowledge and authority, and conveys a degree of certainty that we can trust to the driver to take sequential action and be in charge of our journey. In the context of national politics in the time of crisis, then conveying some degree of certainty may be helpful: if we are going to get aboard Boris Johnson’s bus, then we need to have some confidence in his driving skills and ability to know the route. To a degree the job of all people in positions of authority is political and demands good judgement about when to be more certain and when to disclose not knowing. There are few occasions in an organisation where the authority figure can state candidly that they have little idea about what to do next.

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A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XVI – Leadership Part I

In many ways leadership has emerged in all kinds of encouraging and unexpected ways in this current crisis to break our sense of dependency on idealized individuals. Young medics have gone to work in hospitals just as they are graduating, supermarket workers have continued to turn up to help feed us every day, underpaid carers have continued to care for the vulnerable despite lacking the support and PPE they need; com

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munity groups have rallied in their communities to support and aid their neighbours. Leadership doesn’t always emerge from leaders.

Rather than obsessing about leaders and leadership, the pandemic and resulting crisis has given us ample opportunity to notice how leadership is a co-created

pattern of relationships which arises in a group. It tells us as much about our own expectations of and projections onto authority figures, as it does about the authority figures themselves. We all play into some dominating emotional patterns which catch us up again and again.

It’s important to pay attention to this social and emotional perspective on leadership because it is underrepresented. The mine of leadership scholarship which has focused on individuals and how they behave, what they should be doing, has been dug very deep and every time one anticipates that there is no more digging to do, along comes another variation on a theme: transformational leadership, servant leadership, relational leadership, leadership and followership, clear leadership, dialogic leadership, leadership, leadership, leadership. It becomes hard to think about power and authority without having the word leadership somewhere in the sentence as though every societal problem can be reduced to one thing.

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A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XV – metrics

The UK government has tied itself up in knots over metrics. The Health Secretary Matt Hancock originally promised 10,000 Covid-19 tests a day by the end of March, a target not reached, and then replaced this with a more ambitious target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. Under pressure, perhaps embarrassed by the low rate of testing in comparison with many of our European neighbours, particularly Germany, the government had to be seen to be acting, and to be doing so seriously. Every subsequent press conference has seen government spokespeople claiming that they are straining every sinew, working night and day to make sure that staff in the NHS have everything they need. We are offered quality, “we’re working very hard”, and quantity, “we’ll deliver you 100k tests”.targets

At no point do we enter a discussion about why we might not have met the first target before reaching for another abstract ideal, a new target, or whether the new target has any relation to what we actually need.

When questioned about the complaint that there is not enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontline health staff, government spokespeople come up with more numbers. There are X million pieces of equipment in the system; they have spent Y million pounds procuring it. We’ve spent money on the health service like we have never done before. Continue reading

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XIV – VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).

If management is understood as a discipline which tries to control things, to place things under one’s hand (manus), then the concept of complexity poses something of a dilemma. The phenomenon one is trying to control is, by very definition, uncontrollable. This doesn’t prevent thinking about it, describing it, noticing its effects, positing what might or might not be helpful in dealing with it. But the question is when these attempts to identify, clarify and name tip over into hubris and begin to suggest that a complex world isn’t really so complex, or can be managed, or with particular tips and tricks, subdued to the will of the rational manager. Complexity is assimilated as another novel and/or fashionable real world phenomenon which will succumb to management science and clear thinking. Complexity is something a manager acts on rather than acts in. grid

The idea of acting on is the other route to taming complexity, to suggest that sometimes the world is complex and sometimes it isn’t, and it is up to the manager to decide. I will come back to this way if thinking later when I discuss some of the intellectual assumptions which are revealed in VUCA discussions about complexity.

The coining of the concept of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) as a way of introducing complexity helps us investigate how radically the idea of a complex world challenges that notion that we can predict and control. And noticing how the concept is mobilised and described by particular traditions of thought gives us insight into how management discourses sustain and renew themselves, sometimes consuming everything in their wake. Continue reading

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XIII – unleashing potential

In the current Brexit debate in the UK politicians from the Conservative Party repeat certain words and phrases ad nauseam until the message is drummed home to an exasperated electorate on the expectation that they have a limited attention span: the Conservatives are the party to ‘get Brexit done’  because they want to ‘unleash Britain’s potential’. unleash potentialThe latter phrase is often also used in schools and universities about young people to describe the institutions’ plans for them, and is widely deployed in organisations undergoing some kind of transformational project. The idea of potential, a latent ability which has yet to be realised, together with the word ‘unleash’, or to release from constraint, implies enormous energy, like water behind a dam, which is somehow prevented from reaching its full expression. When the UK exits from the EU the whole of the UK’s creativity and energy will suddenly burst free of the constraints currently hemming it in and will flood the world with Britain’s greatness.

The phrase is common to the humanistic and positive psychology movements as well as neoliberal groups suspicious of government regulation or any impediment to what they see as the free functioning of the market. Shared amongst all adherents of unleashing potential is the link with confidence and optimism. And as such the phrase has all the characteristics which should pique the curiosity of critical inquirers into contemporary organisational discourse. It is future-oriented, it is positive and it is simplistic. Continue reading

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XII – leverage

Give me a still point,  and I will move the world, Archimedes is reputed to have said by Plutarch. The idea is that finding a fixed place and using mathematical reasoning enables a relatively small amount of force to move a very large object.

The word leverage (sometimes known as gearing), is originally a financial term meaning to borrow money in order to finance the purchase of an asset. Borrowing to buy allows for a return to investors bigger than the sums involved in financing the debt: it also allows for counting the purchased asset to be used as collateral ileveragen other financial transactions. Anyone who supports Manchester United football team will be aware that this is the financial model that the Glazer family have used to buy the club and pay themselves and their investors large sums of money on an annual basis. But, as an example of the ways in which organisations have become permeated by financial language, it has come to be applied to all manner of management practices. As instances, managers might claim to be able to leverage talent or creativity in their organisations, or perhaps they might intend to leverage knowledge. Recently I heard a colleague say that they were leveraging their relationships with others. Continue reading

Complexity and Collaboration – implications for leadership and practice

Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2020

If collaboration was that straightforward, wouldn’t we all already be doing it? Collaboration is another one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie words which are hard to argue against – is there anyone not in favour of collaboration? At its most simplistic, the invitation to collaborate can be an idealisation which encourages the belief that if we only put aside our differences and work constructively and positively, then everything will turn to the good – as if that were an easy thing to do. But to what extent does the taken-for-granted idea of collaboration encourage setting aside the very differences and conflicts which promote movement and novelty?skydiving Is the naïve discourse on collaboration really rather unhelpful? 

The Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2020 will explore in greater depth what it means to collaborate together, with the intention of developing a more complex understanding. For example, from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating, we do not start out by assuming that collaboration can just be based on harmony and achieving greater ‘alignment’. Rather it is likely to involve the interplay of identity and group membership which may complicate the process of staying in relation with each other, no matter how much we yearn to collaborate.

To help us reflect further we are delighted to have Barbara Simpson, Professor of Leadership and Organisational Dynamics at Strathclyde University, to be our keynote speaker. Barbara started out studying physics and working in geothermal energy, and then proceeded through international consultancy before embarking on an academic career. She specialises in studying processes of creativity, innovation and change in organisations and in particular in pragmatist philosophies in process research.

Before the formal start of the conference in the evening, this year we are offering two, one day workshops on the Friday 5th June. The first is an introduction to the key tenets of complex responsive processes, which is suited to participants newly or not yet exposed to the ideas taken up on the Doctor of Management programme. The workshop is offered by Prof Chris Mowles. The second workshop will be on the use of improvisation and theatre techniques in organisations, and is run by Prof Henry Larsen and Prof Karen Norman. This second workshop is more suitable for participants who already have some grounding in complexity and management.

The conference itself comprises a keynote by Prof Simpson on Saturday morning, then workshops in the afternoon offered by conference delegates on aspects of organisational life related to the theme of the conference. On Sunday will we sum up key themes from the weekend and offer opportunities for further reflection.

The conference lasts from 7pm Friday through to lunchtime Sunday, and the price of the conference includes all board and lodging. The booking site will go live in early January 2020. Prices will be maintained at this year’s rates.

 

 

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XI – organisational politics

Move fast and break things – this is the poster that one of the Tech Giant CEOs is supposed to have in his office. The invitation to ignore social conventions, perhaps even to avoid consulting people and talking things through, is a signature of managers in a hurry. Thinking, talking can disrupt progress and slow everything down. In UK politics we have some very vivid examples of Arendtthis attitude, when the current government prorogued parliament to prevent any more deliberation, or when they use procedures intended to facilitate anti-terror legislation to rush through changes to Education policy. Enough talk getting in the way, we need to deliver things.

So politics, the way that people living in groups make decisions, is under particular strain at the moment, and so too in organisations.

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A critical glossary or contemporary management terms X – embrace

Embrace, to hold someone closely in one’s arms, especially as a sign of affection, to accept a belief, theory or change enthusiastically and willingly. This word has become very widely used in organisational life, particularly when applied to hardest of all concepts. So, for example, we are invited to ‘embrace complexity’, to ‘embrace change’ or to ‘embrace diversity’. It sounds cuddly and nice: problem-free. There is an implication in this invitation, then, that we might be a bit reluctant toembrace accept that organisational life is complex, or that having more diversity is beneficial, but if we do so then it will be good for us in an unalloyed way. Change is always good for us, particularly if it is transformational change. If we eat less, drink less alcohol, and exercise more as we promised ourselves in our New Year’s resolutions, then we’ll start to feel the benefits by March. There are no downsides and we’ll feel warm and good about ourselves; fitter, happier, and hopefully more productive at work. There, now that you have embraced complexity you’re beginning to feel better about your job already, aren’t you? Continue reading