Category Archives: complexity

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

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms VIII – authentic

Being authentic, meaning conforming to the original features; not false or imitation; or being true to your personality or character, has been a preoccupation of philosophers for hundreds of years. For humans and their flourishing, the question of authenticity means to inquire into what it means for anyone to live their life fully as an individual. To a degree, the idea has to be relational, turning on the paradox of the individual and the group. How might we flourish as individuals, but acknowledge authenticityour obligations to others, or even, for Aristotle, how we become fully ourselves by taking our relationship with the community into account. In our increasingly individualised world, however, following a radically subjective movement in thinking the preoccupation has been mostly about one side of the relationship, the individual.  As with many big ideas like happiness, or even leadership, it has proved far easier to define what authenticity isn’t than what it is. So, for example, being authentic does not mean conforming unthinkingly with what everyone else is doing, or doing something because you think you will be liked as a consequence, or coasting along in your life to get by.

In general, when the idea of authenticity is mobilised in contemporary management discourse it is meant to indicate an ‘inner’ authentic and true self, which one can discover through introspection, intuition and listening to one’s ‘inner voice’. It is a self which is already there, which just needs to be found and made manifest. In modern conceptions of authenticity, there is no escape from the tyranny of the subject.

For example, we are invited to bring our authentic self to work, or leaders may be encouraged to lead authentically. The point of doing so is often performative: to instrumentalise knowledge for greater organisational productivity. When we are encouraged to bring our authentic self to work it is because if we don’t, we won’t be fully engaged, the organisation may fail to thrive then productivity will suffer. This invitation to bring our imperfect, vulnerable selves into the organisation is so we can recover our full humanity. You might find this reassuringly humanising, or alternatively you might consider it another attempt by managerial discourse to colonize you and what might once have passed for your private life, so that everything you do to realise yourself is work-related. This is what Habermas meant by the colonization of the life world.

The authentic leadership discourse is variously interpreted, but is broadly predicated on four individual qualities: awareness of self through self-scrutiny; relational transparency; balanced processing and an internalized moral perspective. Each of the qualities has something to recommend it in the abstract, although no more so than any other edifying injunction to live one’s life well. It is usually understood individualistically. For example, awareness of self is certainly an important quality. Socrates told us that a life unexamined is not worth living. However, whether one can usefully do this from self-scrutiny, or feedback questionnaires is another question. In a previous post I wrote about how moments of self-revelation often arise in a group, and can be both unexpected and provoke feelings of shame and vulnerability. It involves a radical encounter of the self with other selves, and is often an uncomfortable process which destabilises identity.

The second quality, relational transparency, i.e. the injunction openly to share one’s thoughts and beliefs, is both helpful and unhelpful. When might one do this, and to what degree? Whatever one thinks leadership is, it aims at the productive exercise of power, which is always relational. So when to disclose, how and how much to be transparent, is at the heart of the exercise of a leader’s practical judgement, which has both ethical and political implications.

Balanced processing, the idea that a leader should take many points of view into consideration and treat them all fairly is in theory a wonderful thing. It requires moral imagination and an ability to decentre the self, what has been described as the ability to widen our circle of concern. However, and in my experience, organisations are increasingly intolerant places of alternative points of view. To express difference too often brings with it political repercussions. As an example, here in Oxford it was decided that cancer screening services would be contracted out to a private company. When local NHS managers and staff protested they were threatened with legal action by NHS England for defamation. Challenging management in public increasingly comes freighted with risk.

And finally, there is an internalized moral perspective, which is predominantly positive, to encourage trust and openness in others. The idea is that being clear about one’s own moral position leaves one less open to being swayed by the herd. Perhaps this last injunction comes closest to the original understanding of authenticity, concerning the need not to be conform to unthinking opinion: to know your own mind. A perceptive reader might question whether this last recommendation works against the last one. What would be the point of taking many points of view into consideration and treating them fairly if you were unwilling to change your mind in the light of what you had heard?

The problem with the idea of authenticity in the conventional management discourse is that circles around in a solipsistic loop of the autonomous, self-cognising individual. It doesn’t define itself in relation to anything except a sense of self which already there.  In contrast, a relational alternative would be to consider the idea of an indeterminate self, emerging in attempts to co-ordinate action with other indeterminate but interdependent selves. Authenticity here becomes the paradoxical ability to find oneself with and through others, choosing between multiple sets of responsibilities while negotiating joint action. It is the activity of dynamically sustaining membership of multiple groups as we navigate how to go on together, to become the fullest expression of ourselves.

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms VII – sending out a clear message

When managers say that they need to ‘send out a clear message’, what exactly is being conveyed? That good management depends on good communication is something which every manager knows. But there are also moral undertones to the expression which imply taking a principled stand. So the phrase carries an aspiration for both clarity and moral purpose, perhaps communicating a message which might be difficult to hear.

There are any number of helpful training courses and web sites offering advice to support managers achieve clarity by decluttering their language, by avoiding jargon, by thinking about their audience, and by matching body language with the intended message.  Then there are a variety of tips and tricks for cutting out vaguecommuncation and ‘weakening’ words, even from some consultants’ techniques on how to ‘cut out the mush’ of misunderstanding so that management and leadership can be offered clearly. These can sometimes be accompanied by appeals for communicators to be authentic, honest and transparent. We are invited to be good selves, clearing away misunderstanding with the purity of our intentions and honesty about ourselves. The more authentic you are, the more your authority will be heeded. Continue reading