If management is understood as a discipline which tries to control things, to place things under one’s hand (manus), then the concept of complexity poses something of a dilemma. The phenomenon one is trying to control is, by very definition, uncontrollable. This doesn’t prevent thinking about it, describing it, noticing its effects, positing what might or might not be helpful in dealing with it. But the question is when these attempts to identify, clarify and name tip over into hubris and begin to suggest that a complex world isn’t really so complex, or can be managed, or with particular tips and tricks, subdued to the will of the rational manager. Complexity is assimilated as another novel and/or fashionable real world phenomenon which will succumb to management science and clear thinking. Complexity is something a manager acts on rather than acts in.
The idea of acting on is the other route to taming complexity, to suggest that sometimes the world is complex and sometimes it isn’t, and it is up to the manager to decide. I will come back to this way if thinking later when I discuss some of the intellectual assumptions which are revealed in VUCA discussions about complexity.
The coining of the concept of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) as a way of introducing complexity helps us investigate how radically the idea of a complex world challenges that notion that we can predict and control. And noticing how the concept is mobilised and described by particular traditions of thought gives us insight into how management discourses sustain and renew themselves, sometimes consuming everything in their wake. Continue reading →
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 in 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 →
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 vague 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 →
Performance, the act of performing a dramatic role, or piece of music, a display of over-exaggerated behaviour (‘you’ve made a bit of a performance of that’), or simply the act or process of accomplishing a task or function, is a preoccupation of contemporary management. These days we are all concerned to improve performance. But how would we know if we had so improved? The first recourse for many contemporary managers is to reach for performance indicators, sometimes known as Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs. These are quantitative indicators, things we can count and match against prereflected targets for improvement or aspirations for the good. In a school these might be exam results, in a university journal articles written, and in a company selling products, sales figures. Sometimes there is an expectation that these figures can only increase: being static or decreasing might be seen as a failure, as we ‘improve our performance’ endlessly into an idealised future. As one UK government minister is reported to have said without any sense of irony: we want to increase performance until all schools in the UK are above average. Although of course, every school aspires to being outstanding. Continue reading →
Transformation, a marked change in form or appearance, is one of the most widely used words in contemporary management vocabulary after leadership and delivery (future posts). Quite often it is used in conjunction with leadership: everybody knows since Burns and Bass that leaders are transformational and managers are transactional. It goes without saying. Linking transformation to leadership is another blast of air into the already over-inflated concept of leadership given that most leadership activity involves humdrum, every day tasks and conversations. It creates anxiety for leaders and unrealistic expectations from those they lead.
The idea of transformation is part of the charismatic tendency in management thinking and talking and fits well with other alluring, quasi-religious ideas such as vision and passion. It is no longer enough just to change something, or even to try and keep things the same, forgetting that there are many social traditions and practices which persist because they serve us well, there must be a commitment to transform them. The promise of transformation feeds into what one might think of as the anxiety narrative about change, which we can’t achieve completely enough or quickly enough, as other competitors catch us up and pass us by, particularly the Indians and the Chinese.
Implied in the rush to transform things are a number of assumptions about the role and capabilities of leaders and managers, time, and valuations of the good. Continue reading →
Trajectory (trans meaning across, jecto meaning to throw), the curve that a body such as a planet describes in space, a path or line of development similar to the same, is a word which is frequently used in management speak. It is what Lackoff and Johnson (1980) refer to as a ‘metaphor we live by’ in the sense that it makes intuitive, cognitive and bodily sense. It’s a spatial metaphor
with an implicit understanding that we launch our project or plan, and it rises in a gentle curve of our plotting towards an end point we have preplanned. Like physicists or rocket scientists, we can steer the vessel, the organisation or the department, in a calculated way. The appeal is also to engineering science and cybernetic systems thinking.
A document I read recently outlining a strategy had the word ‘trajectory’ peppered through it a number of times and it made me wonder about what else was being communicated. The course of the trajectory was unsurprisingly ‘upwards’, towards a better, improved position for the organisation. The metaphor implies calculation and control, as well as an ability to predict in advance what ‘better’ and ‘improved’ is going to mean. It fits broadly within the ‘life as a journey’ metaphor, where we have a destination and/or a ‘direction of travel’. It also carries with it implicit inclusion/exclusion criteria. If we want to reach the same destination, the improved position, then of course we need to travel together on this trajectory and get on the same bus/train/rocket. Otherwise we might get left behind, or we might reveal ourselves to be the kind of staff members who don’t want to travel in the first place, in which case we might not belong on the team. Anyway, who would set themselves against improvement, refusing to travel to a better destination? It’s rare to find people who want to be left behind.
So the word trajectory does a lot of work. It conveys simply the idea that managers promoting the strategy are in control and can make predictions about how things will turn out: if the calculations have been done correctly, then we will definitely arrive on the moon. It is deterministic, plotting one course. The metaphor makes instinctive sense that we can’t make any changes unless ‘we know where we’re going’ and have a ‘destination’ in mind. And at the same time it arouses a degree of anxiety about being included or excluded, along with the everyday anxiety of all travellers about showing up on time, so we don’t miss the train/opportunity.
What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.
Margaret Thatcher Sunday Times, 3 May 1981
I worked with a group of senior managers in a higher education establishment to help them think about their ways of working while they discussed strategy. A pattern emerged in discussion about current difficulties and in anticipation of future changes that drew on ideas of an education marketplace, and which drew forth economic language. Managers were concerned about ‘buy in’ to plans and strategies, they worried about brand, they were anxious about their students’ customer experience, they wondered how they would act if their institution were a supermarket, a supermarket like John Lewis for example. They were anxious about competitive threats from the Chinese, they wanted to make business cases for change, they were concerned about their products. Education needed to be as flexible as possible so that students could consume whatever, whenever they wanted. They were worried about student satisfaction. These notes of market vocabulary were the clearest melody, although there were also contrapuntal themes opposing them – some argued that being business-like isn’t the same as being a business. Continue reading →
My colleague Nick Sarra and I were asked to work with some practicing managers and leaders in what is usually described as a ‘fragile state’ in Africa. The country has been plunged into conflict for decades, and this has had a profound effect on social relations and the ability to get things done. Conflict still breaks out sporadically, making parts of the country off-limits, potentially reactivating the tensions which still exist between groups living elsewhere in the country, especially in the capital. The government struggles to provide basic services, so the country is dominated by international aid agencies, development organisations and the representatives of international governments who each have their own sets of policies, procedures and priorities. This becomes visible the moment one steps off the plane: the airport car park is full of 4x4s, each sporting its own logo, and often there to meet, or disgorge development workers with their wrap-around shades and desert fatigues. Without the agencies this country would not be able to survive, but at the same time it feels a bit like an occupation. Continue reading →
Recently I have been involved with a team of researchers in researching so called ‘transformational change’ in a not-for-profit sector. I suspect the research has been commissioned on the understanding that transformational change is something which senior managers choose, and can, to a degree control. We are at the beginning of the research but the process itself has thrown up interesting insights into research methods , but also how the idea of transformation is framed and understood by our commissioners, and by the respondents. This helps us researchers understand the term anew too, but makes it no easier to think and write about. Continue reading →