Management as ideology

I recently served on an interview panel for a senior management post for a small not for profit. It was an interesting experience for encountering in condensed form how a sample of candidates, all with pretty good experience and qualifications for the job, understand the practice of management.

The first thing three of the five candidates picked up on is the fact that the organisation’s strategy document is not written conventionally. It does not have a vision, mission and values statement from which all work is understood to flow. Instead it sets out an overview of the work currently undertaken, has an assessment of some of the difficulties the staff have encountered in carrying out the work and goes on to set out some areas of future work, grouped under themes, which staff would like to find out more about over the next year. There are areas for concern, exploration and research, but no targets, no KPIs, and no performance indicators. The candidates were asked to review the strategy critically, and for three of them the strategy was inadequate if there was no vision, mission and values. How could you know where you were going if you didn’t set a direction? What was interesting about this for me was not so much their orthodox understanding of what a strategy should be, but their lack of curiosity. So one of the things they might be telling the interview panel is that if the organisation wants to be recognised in the community of other organisations also producing strategies, then it would need to produce a  document that looked similar to everyone else’s.  And it might be good advice.

However, what was more disturbing was the implication that somehow staff in the organisation had not thought of this and had not set out deliberately to write something different for well grounded reasons. Candidates  may have thought they were being helpful: they were showing us best practice. One of the things that they were also demonstrating is just how the dominant discourse becomes dominant. It is ideological in the sense that some managers think it is just the way things are, or should be.

Another candidate brought the anxiety of change with him like a chill wind. Those organisations which don’t grow and expand will wither away. So it is necessary to be ambitious, to set stretch targets for growth, to dream big dreams and to set performance indicators to measure whether we are achieving our dreams.

Other candidates were searching for grounds, which we have explored in previous posts, that is some secure and rational basis from which to proceed. So, in answer to the question about how the organisation should go about looking for partners to help them implement work in the developing world three of the candidates wanted systematically to identify principles for doing so first. The staff team would need to sit down and brainstorm principles and criteria, would then search for partner organisations which fulfilled these criteria, and would then draw up a contract document to agree a shared vision and common principles. In these examples thought always precedes action in an attempt to plan things out for the good using rational criteria.

In fact, the organisation’s current partners have become so for a variety of different reasons: through serendipity, because they got in contact, because people met at conferences, through a mutual friend, because they were recommended, which is pretty much the story of how we form relationships in the rest of our lives. Of course, funding relationships are  more problematic, but they remain relationships.

All the candidates were thoughtful people who cared about what they were doing and were earning considerably less in the organisations they currently worked in than they might earn elsewhere if they took their qualifications and experience to a private sector organisation. And yet they took up their theories of management relatively unproblematically from a particular dominant discourse which now seems to prevail in the all sectors as though managing were everywhere the same. So in a domain where one might have expected a discussion about justice, politics, negotiation and power, instead we found ourselves talking about contracts, criteria, targets, added value, efficency, effectiveness and non-negotiables. Social development has turned into something which is ‘delivered’ and is rendered in the vocabulary of economics.

One of the candidates said that all strategy processes were addressing similar questions: it was about deciding where we are, where we want to get to, and how we get there. This prompted me to think about what my three basic questions would be for the process of strategizing from a complexity perspective, and I decided that my questions would probably be quite different: who are we, what’s going on here, and what are we becoming?

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8 thoughts on “Management as ideology

  1. martinhowitt

    “deciding where we are, where we want to get to, and how we get there?”
    versus
    “who are we, what’s going on here, and what are we becoming?”

    I think you are articulating an emergent style of strategy versus a planned one? In which case it might be more about organisational learning, political relationships or environmental factors than a formal mission/values/objectives/swot/decision/plan type of process.

    I find it quite interesting that (from recently studying management) the emergent approach is actually considered best practice in academia (I always seemed to get points for quoting Mintzberg) but I’ve never seen any recognition of that in the wider world: it seems quite hard for organisations to get their heads round it on a corporate level.

    Reply
    1. Tom

      I would agree that an emergent approach to strategy is not common at a corporate level…. however, our small and international corporation has been at it for a while now – http://bit.ly/7V1MHG – you might be interestd in our practical approach.

      Reply
      1. Chris Mowles Post author

        Looks like an interesting attempt to do things differently, Tom, although I’m not sure what it means to have one’s itentions as ‘filters’ nor what it means to ‘align’. How much stick do you get for not having vision, mission, values and targets?
        Chris

      2. Tom

        Thanks for the reply Chris. I would not call what we are doing with strategy an ‘attempt to do things differently’, however. It is simply what we do and it works for us. As you say later; ‘a constant reflection on what we think we are doing and what that might imply for the next steps we take together’. For us that is one definition of strategy.

        What we mean by ‘filter’ is that our 3 core intentions significantly inform how we think about and engage in each interaction we have. We use the term filter since the interactions we have are filtered through these intentions and affect our gestures and responses. They of course are not the only things that would affect our gestures and responses but from our business perspective they are important. Since these interactive intentions can be considered in almost any interaction we have, we would say we have a degree of alignment in their use. This does not mean we would all use them the same way or expect identical or even similar outcomes from our interactions but we are aligned in using these intentions in creating meaning as it emerges in our organization.

        In terms of ‘stick’, that is not really something we concern ourselves with since our conversations about what is happening in our organization are constantly informed by those 3 intentions. They are part of our ongoing language. The problem with things like vision, mission and values is that they do not typically inform everyday language since they are not interactive terms and often are separate from the behaviour of most people in the organization.

        We think if we continue to filter our interactions through these intentions we will be successful and as we say in the post, we find we are defining success in many different ways. As for targets, we set context based targets so each interaction or opportunity may have a different goal or target. We operate from the basis of context based decision making which means we might make different decisions in similar objective situations if the subjective context is different. It requires continual conversation but what else really is an organization?

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Martin,
    I’m not sure that I am advocating any school of strategy as such, just a constant reflection on what we think we are doing and what that might imply for the next steps we take together.
    Is that strategic?
    Chris

    Reply
    1. martinhowitt

      Hi Chris

      of course it can be. There’s probably too much discussion about what is or isn’t strategic, with preconceptions ruling over just doing whatever is best for all!

      In my studies I came to realise I was trying to observing what organisations really did, rather than advocating one approach over another. I work in a large public sector body and Politics (capital P!) rules: that is not going to change and so business strategies have to align themselves with it. In the armed forces, SME, social enterprise, internation charity, or massive multinational, however, you have a different dynamic, and different strategy models.

      Your quote: “yet they took up their theories of management relatively unproblematically from a particular dominant discourse which now seems to prevail in the sectors as though managing were everywhere the same.”

      I just wanted to emphasise that this is not what I got out of going to business school. Maybe my experience was different to others though!

      Reply
      1. Chris Mowles Post author

        Well I’m glad your experience was different. In my expereince of teaching at business schools I find many people using exactly the same authors that they were years ago. It feels as though there is a need to play it safe. I’m usre this is not the case in all examples.
        Chris

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