The idea of purposive transformation – instrumentalising paradox

In previous posts I have been exploring the ways in which conventional management theory tries to overcome organisational paradoxes by introducing logic models, idealisations, producing double-binds or separating the paradox out into temporal or spatial phases. In this post I will treat those scholars who recognise paradox, but nonetheless suggest that somehow it can be mastered for organisational improvement and ‘excellence’. In doing so their writing can tend towards the esoteric , sometimes suggesting that leaders and managers can develop a special skill or insight that allows them to ‘master ‘ paradox and ‘unleash’ its creativity in the organisation. Sensitive to the complexifying potential of the coincidence of one thing and its opposite, they are tempted nonetheless to suggest that it is possible to instrumentalise contradictions for the good of the company.  This is a familiar trope with many people writing about the complexity sciences, who on the one hand express an interest in uncertainty and unpredictability and on the other hand suggest that they can both be harnessed for the good.

A good example of what I am pointing to is Robert Quinn’s book Beyond Rational Management which is an exploration of paradox and its importance in organisational life. Quinn is intrigued by the skill of the expert and argues that the harnessing of paradox involves a journey from being a novice to a master manager. Most management prescriptions are statically conceived and are pitched in logical and rational terms, he maintains. He rightly concludes that if managers simply follow these prescriptions which do not do justice to the ebb, flow and dynamism, then all they will ever achieve is competence, rather than excellence. Expertise, an absorbed, creative state, according to Quinn, allows for a greater tolerance and exploration of contradictions and competing points of view and is inherently more creative.

A number of other scholars have been interested in the idea of expertise, particularly as it melds the practical and the theoretical in some kind of practice. For example the Dreyfus brothers make a strong argument against the idea that artificial intelligence (AI) will ever be able to replicate human expertise in their book Mind Over Machine. Their case turns on a similar idea to Quinn’s that experts are performing beyond the rules and cannot articulate what they know and why they make the choices they do. Since human expertise can never be reduced to algorithms, they say, so computers can never mimic practical expert judgement. Equally, Bent Flyvbjerg claims that the purpose of social science is to contribute to phronetic understanding, drawing on the Aristotelian idea of phronesis as practical judgement. He highlights the need for case-specific research, case studies which use narrative as a means of evoking the complexity of the situations being described. Social research should contribute in terms of its richness and complexity, not because of its ability to predict and generalise, he states.

For Bourdieu, expertise, or excellence in his terms, is not rule-following but an embodied  ‘feel for the game’. We recognise expertise when we encounter brilliant improvisation and where we feel that no other action would have been possible in the circumstances. For Bourdieu, social interaction is neither about rules, nor without rules, but a sophisticated articulation and rearticulation of the habitus by human beings absorbed in the game of life. In comparison with the Dreyfus brothers and Flyvbjerg, Bourdieu’s conception of expertise is highly social and historically formed. Bourdieu’s expert is anticipating and responding to the anticipations and responses of others.

In each of these instances scholars are reaching for something which is often inexpressible in language, which we only recognise when we see it, and often only in retrospect. Expert improvisation cannot be reduced to grids and frameworks, or organisational ‘best practice’ prescriptions and cannot be predicted or planned in advance. It is a creative conjuring with general knowledge in specific situation with particular others; experience entangled with practical judgement about theory. It is a response to experience from within the experience itself, rather than a deliberation about experience from an imagined position outside of it.

Although he argues that few managers make the transition from novice to expert manager, Quinn nonetheless contends that there are logical steps to take in order to master paradox. This involves seeking ‘feedack’ from one’s peers and working out a systematic three step programme of change. One stage leads inexorably to the next. Quinn also aspires to harmony and balance: an expert manager is able to explore the two poles of a paradox and identify their strengths and weaknesses. In so doing he is then able to take a meta-position and transcend the paradox that is ensnaring him; he is able to be holistic. Ultimately Quinn’s expert manager is systems designer, like Senge’s Fifth Discipline manager, unencumbered by the paradox that he is unifying and so sidestepping the problem of infinite regress. Where would one stand which is outside the paradox that one is transcending?

The esoteric themes that pervade this kind of writing, and that of Senge and his collaborators in the book Presence, lies in the suggestion of the wise and expert manager’s ability to transcend the paradox, thus unleashing only creativity and productivity. It is highly individualised, and is a skill that the manager develops on his own with the right set of attitudes. However, where Senge and his colleagues suggest mystical training and meditation, Quinn sets out his grids, frameworks and multi-question questionnaires to work systematically through the contradictions. The promise of both is very similar though, that of being able to pass beyond the constraints of contradiction and for the rational manager to chose when to be purposive and when to be ‘holistic’. The way of out every day, ordinary paradox is by way of taking the road less travelled, and preferably on your own.


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