Category Archives: Hannah Arendt

Thinking without end

After the interview with Dawkins on BBC Radio 4 covered in the last post, the argument about evidence and political decision-making took further bizarre turns. The next day John Humphreys interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was asked to comment on Dawkins’ views. Latterly, two researchers were asked to comment further on the discussion. One worked at a religious research institute and the other for an organisation promoting the dissemination of science. As listeners to the BBC we were  led inexorably to think that the only alternative to a scientific perspective on Brexit and evidence, and this a reductive view of science, was to take a faith position. We believe in God or we believe in science. Both are metaphysical positions in the sense that you have to declare your faith in one or the other before engaging with a way forward. Continue reading

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Groundless hope

In the recent general election in the UK in May the political discussion sometimes turned on the idea of hope. Each of the political parties was keen to convince the electorate that their particular plan for the UK, their ‘vision’, was the best recipe for hope. They each promised UK citizens a better future (although the vote may have come down to people’s perception of the least worst option). Equally, the current leadership election contest in the Labour Party which has been triggered by the party’s humiliation by the Conservatives, has provoked some jostling amongst the candidates. Each has been arguing that their particular platform offers most hope particularly to the poorest in society who have been most severely hit by government initiatives which target benefits.

To a degree you can see how politicians are caught in something of a double bind. One the one hand if they fail to set out some kind of transformative ‘vision’, a promise of hope, then no-one will follow them (even if it is as simple as ‘yes we can’, or ‘change we can believe in’). On the other hand, and because we have come to distrust politicians with their grand promises, any grand narrative is bound to be met with a sceptical response. Nonetheless, each of the candidates seems to be setting themselves the impossible task of coming up with a ‘clear vision’ for the future. Continue reading

The predictable unpredictability of social life

One of the enduring characteristics of modern management theory is that it aspires to producing law-like generalisations which are the goal of the natural sciences. It craves predictive power and the legitimacy of the claim to being scientific. For this reason managers are encouraged to adopt tools and techniques, to engage in strategy and project planning, setting targets and evaluating their efforts using methods based on ideas of predictive logic and efficient causality.  Many evaluation methods arise from the same kinds of thinking and are designed to assess the fit between the prediction and the outcome. In other words, much evaluative work is undertaken to test the strength of the predictive theory – it is theory-driven rather than being problem driven, if we take the widest definition of the term ‘problem’ and are not necessarily concerned to problem solve. What happens, then, is that the capacity to predict is elevated as the most important aspect of the manager’s role and the failure to predict as a kind of failure.

In this post I will call into question the idea that social life can ever be predictable by drawing on the ideas of the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In a previous post I explored some of the uncertainties of social life identified by the analytic philosopher John Elster. Some of MacIntyre’s ideas overlap with Elster’s, although his writing predates him. MacIntyre’s claim is that the social sciences will never develop the predictive power of the natural sciences because of the unique and anticipative/responsive characteristics of human beings and because of the intervention of fate and contingency in our lives. We make our way together, he argues, in the paradox of predictable unpredictability.

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Attempts to make the uncertain certain

I was rung up the other week by someone who worked in a management team in a development organisation, which wanted to try some new initiatives in three ‘fragile states’. It had become clear to them that traditional ways of working, adopting and following logical planning instruments, were inadequate in these particular dynamic and fast-moving contexts, and they were keen to try a different approach. I began to discuss the possibility of working experimentally: with the teams already working in-country, why not start with what they would like to do. Take the first steps, reflect on it, see how it had gone, and then take the next steps. Repeat the process over again. The programme would evolve as new possibilities emerged, although it would take a good deal of discussion and judgement. Programme coherence would build up with retrospective sense-making over time. ‘Yes, but can you prove that this way of working is effective?’, my co-respondent asked.

In a recent journal article I described the way in which staff in an organisation I had a great deal of experience with had tried over time to reflect systematically on the way they were working. This involved acting with intention, but regularly being open to puncturing and questioning these intentions through discussion, reflection and involving the subjects of their intentions by asking them what they thought of the work. It often involved taking two steps forward and one step back, and seeing the process of reflection and discussion not as an adjunct to the work, but as the work itself. The staff often had to work to tight deadlines, to cut short their deliberations to meet them, so were not in any way paralysed by talking rather than doing. Talking was a form of doing. One of the reviewers of the article commented that this was all very well, but what had I actually said about working differently? What would an ideal model of working actually look like?

I was supporting an organisation think about how they might assess work they were doing in East and West Africa where they had made an explicit commitment to their donor that they would focus on what they thought would be sustainable ways of working. That is to say, instead of providing services or materials as such, they would support local stakeholders, central and local government officers, local organisations, politicians and local councillors to work out what their problems were and what they wanted to do about them. The staff in the organisation I was supporting were clear that they had expertise to offer, but the problems were not theirs to ‘solve’. They would support, cajole, facilitate, discuss, offer training if necessary or seed initiatives. But since the inception of the programme the relations with the donor had changed, partly owing to a change in personnel in the donor. Now the donor required ‘objective evidence’ that this way of working produced results, and that these results would be transferable elsewhere. Exactly which kinds of ‘instruments’ were they using to encourage local discussion, and how could they be validated?

In each of these three examples I would argue that there is an illusory quest for certainty. Continue reading

Strategy as co-created narrative

Despite the fact that the literature on strategic planning has diminished considerably in the last fifteen years or so, still most organisations do it. So argues a recent article in the Journal of Management Studies by Jarzabkowski and Balogun. It has become what GH Mead would term a social object, and in terms of the social game of organisational practice lots of people do it because lots of people do it. Strategic planning still has its academic adherents, but probably the scholar who has done most to drive a stake through its heart is the Canadian academic Henry Mintzberg. With his two books The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and  Strategy Safari the second written with two colleagues, he has done more than most to call the practice into question.

Equally Ralph Stacey, from a complexity perspective, has argued that strategic planning must serve some other purpose than being a means of predicting and controlling since they so signally fail to do so in an unpredictable world.  Most organisations seem to get by despite their strategic plans rather than because of them. At his most laconic Stacey has considered strategic plans to be like an organisational rain dance.

So what is going on in organisations when people are trying to plan strategically and what kind of thinking do they get caught up in? Continue reading

Violence in organisations

I recently submitted a book for publication and went through the usual delays while the chapters were sent out to reviewers. The reviews came back mixed, broadly two in favour, two against and one indifferent. One reviewer in particular, a declared academic teaching in a business school, had difficulty with what I was writing about and the way I was writing about it. The flavour of what I wrote can probably be gleaned from previous posts. S/he took exception to the fact that I was critical of the ubiquitous grids and frameworks that compete for space in the market place, was despairing that I was not prepared to tell managers what to do, and was scathing of the literature that I drew on, in particular philosophy and sociology. S/he deemed what I had written to be more worthy of a sociology department than a business school, and probably not even that.

One particular phrase in one of the chapters seemed to irk her/him. I had described an incident when a group I was facilitating took such exception to my encouraging them to negotiate what we might do next in the workshop that they turned on me and began to question my professionalism. What kind of a facilitator was I if I couldn’t keep to the agreed timetable and ‘deliver the outputs’ that we had agreed? There was an enormous amount of anxiety about ‘delivering the outputs’ even though we were to spend four days together and noone was quite sure what the outputs might look like at this early stage. Thereafter I felt so cowed by the experience of being ganged up upon that I spent the next three days asking my contractor on a regular basis what she wanted me to do and how she wanted me to do it. I did my job mechanistically, without any joy or imaginative engagement, but in order to complete the contract and survive. In the book I described this as a form of  organisational violence. Continue reading

On models and scaling up

I was recently sent a proposal by the designers of a project who intended to demonstrate a particular approach to undertaking development work in a geographical district in a developing country, and if it was successful they then intended to ‘scale up’ the model to other districts . This was, they said, in order to overcome the piecemeal approach of just working at village level, which led to uneven development. The models embraced both the technical and the social – technical in terms of engineering solutions, but social in the way that they intended to work with different groups to encourage them to commit to the engineering solutions. The idea of modelling assumed that the same outcomes were possible with standardised approaches to both objects and people.

One of the difficulties that this presents is of assessing the effectiveness of the models in their own right as distinct from the organisation’s staff taking up these models with other, local people. The premise seems to be that if the models ‘work’ then anybody can take them up elsewhere with the same effect. This, of course, is the basis of scientific thinking as it implies to the natural world. A method is generalisable if anyone can apply it with the same results. However, if  effectiveness is in good part due to both the quality of  thinking about method (models) but also the calibre of the people who are working and the quality of the relationships  they are forming  with others to help them work, then there is no separating out the contextual from the generalisable. Success will arise from a whole host of local and national factors, while the idea of ‘scaling up’ implies that it is the generalisable factors which are the most important.  What is emphasised, then, is abstracting from the context and the privileging of the general over the particular. Continue reading