Thinking the unthinkable

I have worked with two different groups of managers over the last couple of weeks to introduce, or reintroduce them to the ideas which inform a complex responsive process perspective on organisations. This perspective, for those unfamiliar with this blog, draws by analogy on the sciences of complexity, and on social science resources to think about social complexity. The intention is to struggle with what it means to consider social order, human action, and social change as complex and non-linear.

The main conceptual pillars contributing to this perspective are insights from complex adaptive systems theory, the pragmatists, political theory and psychoanalytic traditions. It takes an interest in everyday conversation, gossip, politics and power, values and ideology, and the strong feelings provoked by processes of inclusion and exclusion in social life. But in the end the perspective is a theory of theories. It’s possible to read the same scholars and draw different conclusions, or one could stitch them together differently. But as a constantly evolving constellation of ideas it is an attempt to understand social complexity and offers an alternative to thinking that organisations are things to be manipulated by managers based on ideas of predictability and control. In the context of organisational theory there are a substantial minority of scholars who write into similar traditions noticing the complex and processual nature of human organising, although they may not draw on the complexity sciences in the same way or reach the same conclusions. The perspective of complex responsive processes is coherent and radical, but speaking generally is certainly not the only game in town.

If I had to sum up the most important aspects of the perspective for me, it is as an encouragement to think that things could be other than they are and so to pay attention differently.

I am still interested, though, by the strong reactions of groups of managers who listen to the ideas, even if they have come across them before. These reactions arise predictably and unpredictably as a pattern: it is very rare not to encounter them, but the precise way they manifest themselves are slightly different each time.

One response is for managers to claim that they will resist ‘believing in’ what I am saying until I can produce evidence of organisations who have ‘applied’ this way of thinking and have been successful, or I myself can demonstrate how they can ‘apply’ the ideas. Of course it doesn’t always help to argue that there is nothing to believe in and nothing to apply. It is simply (and of course I know it isn’t simple) a way of understanding how we are already participating in the social world drawing on a number of thinkers who have thought systematically about stability, change and human action. Understanding our own participation differently, drawing on other people’s insights may lead to noticing different things and participating in different ways, which in turn is another thing to notice. It may set off a different chain of events simply through the sequence of noticing, acting, making sense differently. This is consistent with the perspective that big changes can arise from the amplification of small differences. This formulation may be a partial response to a second objection, that somehow the perspective is not ‘practical’, in the sense that managers are used to being given grids and frameworks to understand their tasks. It is practical in the sense that it is likely to make a difference to practice, what you find yourself doing at work.

I am also encouraged by people’s resistance. Management is predisposed to faddism, and why should people accept the next set of ideas uncritically? For the shadow side of stubborn rejection is blind conversion, when there is a tendency to seize upon a complex responsive processes perspective as ‘the truth’. It is important for people to recognise themselves in relation to the ideas rather than being swallowed up by them, although I suspect that that the resistance is also a form of identity-preservation. In order to learn something new one’s understanding of oneself in relation to others is highly likely to change. But to a degree, resistance also closes down the possibility of being someone who thinks differently about what they may have taken for granted, if thinking is understood as a sustained activity.

A third response from some managers is to claim that complex responsive processes is a perspective which is quite helpful in some circumstances, but they intend to pick and mix from their existing ways of thinking when they consider it appropriate. This response may be based on a misunderstanding that somehow the perspective of complex responsive processes is ‘against planning’, or even against managing, rather than encouraging us all to think about the limits to planning and what may be emerging as we are managing. It may be a response similar to the above, a way of preserving identity, and it may also recognise the reality of contemporary organisations and the power relationships therein, where managerialism is pervasive and reflection and critical engagement may be seen as a distraction from ‘delivery’. But I can’t help also feeling that it maintains the idea of the rational, choosing manager, a consumer, picking and mixing amongst the different methods to ‘apply’ as they find appropriate. This is consistent with the times we live in where there is a prevailing idea of individual choice and the autonomy of the chooser. In this latter understanding, for me complex responsive processes and rational management techniques are incommensurable. In my view it is impossible to think that an organisation is at the same time patterns of interaction and a thing which can be manipulated as a whole and ‘moved in a certain direction’ if you pursue the ideas consistently.

So alongside the provoking of questions of identity and the anxiety that this may produce, resistance to the new and possibly faddish, the tendency to construe new perspectives in terms of dominant forms of thinking, there is also a question of the degree to which managers in the groups to whom I am presenting are thinking systematically about the ideas. To what extent can they maintain the contradiction of believing what they currently believe, and entertain the possibility of an alternative?

Perhaps this is what John Dewey is pointing to when he offers this definition of reflective thinking: ‘(the) active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends’. The most radical part of this definition for me is the implication of further conclusions to which a particular way of understanding tends. For the radical potential of any different and critical perspective on management and organisational life is the impossibility of unthinking a way of understanding once you have thought it seriously, and once the ground has begun to open up underneath your feet.

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