It’s not about the system

There is a temptation when encountering something new to look for a tool or a framework to work from, to make sense of the patterning of experience. Perhaps it is a defence against anxiety, putting oneself in the position of knowing something rather than risking being overwhelmed by the new. However, the difficulty of using a framework is that it then begins to shape the experience. We accommodate this phenomenon or that occurence as fitting under this or that heading. Systemic thinking is neat and reassuring. It is also reductive.

The Practce of Geometry

The challenge of working responsively is precisely and paradoxically to be aware of all that one knows, at the same time as being prepared to abandon it to adapt to what one experiences in the moment. Being open to experience leaves the door open to accepting that there may not be somewhere stable to stand, that the situation we are in may look like what we have encountered before but may be radically different. The danger of constantly relying on tools and frameworks is that we are perpetually rearranging experience to a neat and pre-conceived logic: more ‘how can I adapt what I am experiencing to what I already know?’, rather than ‘how can I adapt what I know to what I am experiencing?’

As an example,  Michel Foucault put it like this in describing the process of writing,:

‘What I think is never quite the same, because for me my books are experiences in a sense, that I would like to be as full as possible. If I had to write a book to communicate what I was already thinking before I begin to write, I would never have the courage to begin. I write a book only because I still don’t exactly know what to think about this thing I want so much to think about, so that the book transforms me and transforms what I think. Each book transforms what I was thinking when I was finishing the previous book. I am an experimenter and not a theorist. I call a theorist someone who constructs a general system, either deductive or analytical, and applies it to different fields in a uniform way. This isn’t my case. I’m an experimenter in the sense that I write in order to change myself and in order not to think the same thing as before.’ Essential Works of Foucault: Vol 3, Power, Faubion (ed), 239-240

The challenge for managers is to become, in Foucault’s terms, experimenters rather than theorists, to keep a beginner’s mind in encountering the constant flux of social phenomena.

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2 thoughts on “It’s not about the system

  1. sbilling

    I remember Doug Griffin’s comment that he was left wondering whether there was anything left in Foucault worth taking away. Your quote here is something that has certainly resonated with me. In the process of writing the thesis for my doctorate, each section / project was an attempt to experiment with my thinking and I always ended up thinking differently at the end.

    That is why I’ve continued blogging about organisational life – to experiment with thinking and to change myself – to think differently from how I was thinking before.

    Thanks Chris for the provocation.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Language, power and belonging « Reflexivepractice

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