Tag Archives: doubt

Complexity and Management Conference 17th-19th May 2019 – booking now

This year’s Complexity and Management Conference, on 17th-19th May:  What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life offers the opportunity for delegates to reflect on what it means to be critical and why it is important to be so in today’s organisations. On the first morning of the conference we have invited Professor Andre Spicer to help us get the discussion going. If you want to sign up for the conference and save yourself some money before the early bird deadline expires, then click here.

Here are a few ideas on the traditions of thought to which we will be contributing.

We have a strong critical tradition in western thought, starting with the ancient Greeks. However, the contemporary philosopher Julian Baggini has shown us how a variety of cultures have their own traditions of systematically thinking about the human condition, on the basis that, as Socrates put it, the life unexamined is not worth living. How might we lead a good life, what do we mean by truth, how might we guard against the fragility of goodness, as Martha Nussbaum expressed it?[1] Examining our lives in the back and forth dialectic of discussion is necessary if we are to make meaning and become fully human, but it can have its negative consequences, as it did for Socrates. Problematising, probing, judging comes with its own risks: we are unlikely to be condemned to death for corrupting Athenian youth, as he was, but simply asking questions can call out a strong reaction. Why might that be?

As Kant identified, to critique (originating in judgement, from the Greek krisis) involves imagination and daring:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment.[2]

Kant thought that ‘daring to know’ may require courage to take on sources of authority, so that even religion, perhaps the biggest locus of authority in his day, would need ‘to sustain the test of its free and public examination.’[3] He suggested that subjecting sources of legitimacy and authority to critical inquiry is not something to be undertaken lightly, although it is necessary if we are to liberate ourselves from ignorance. Both implicitly and explicitly, becoming critical means engaging with questions of legitimacy and power and calling into question the status quo.

But is it enough just to doubt and reason on our own and by ourselves? From a Hegelian perspective the answer is no, since Hegelians would claim that we are not just autonomous, rational individuals cognizing in the abstract, but we are socially and historically formed. More, and from a pragmatic perspective, it is not helpful to doubt everything all of the time, but we should engage first with those problems which preoccupy us.[4] To pursue inquiry from a Hegelian and pragmatic perspective means taking an interest in history. How has the phenomenon, the particular predicament we are interested in evolved over time, and what has led to what? We then try to place our  difficulties, within the larger history of social relations and their structural contradictions. This may mean drawing attention to power relationships and calling into question the legitimacy of certain ways of knowing and speaking, perhaps asking the question cui bono, who benefits? It certainly means pursuing these questions through dialectical inquiry, where an abstract notion of truth is replaced by the idea that insight arises in the back and forth or argument in a community of engaged inquirers.

And by taking part in discussion and argumentation we then find ourselves discovering that moral and political judgements in particular are plural. We might enhance our ability to see the world from perspectives other than our own. So in addition to Kant’s injunction to dare to know, we might find ourselves developing greater empathy, imagination and solidarity.

If this kind of inquiry interests you, where you engage with a committed group of peers to discuss current organisational difficulties and discover plural and complex points of view, then this year’s Complexity and Management conference 17th-19th May is the place to be. There may be no resolution to your predicaments but perhaps you will find some degree of solidarity with and from others in the complex responsive processes of relating. Dare to come!

Early bird concessions end 1st April. On Friday 17th May there is a one day introductory workshop to the ideas underpinning complex responsive processes of relating.

[1] Nussbaum, M (1986) The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] An answer to the question what is Enlightenment? 1784

[3] Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, 1781.

[4] “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy…Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” CS Peirce (1992), The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings Vol 1, Bloomington: Indiana University Press: pp28-29.


2019 Complexity and Management Conference 17-19th May

stamp_hannah_arendt-2The 2019 Complexity and Management Conference booking page is now open and can be accessed here.

The title of this year’s conference is: What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life.

On Saturday morning we are delighted to have Professor André Spicer from the Cass Business School, City, University of London to give the keynote on Saturday morning. André holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He has held visiting appointments at universities around the world. André is the author of many academic articles and nine books. The most recent are ‘Business Bullshit’, ’The Stupidity Paradox’ and ‘Desperately Seeking Self Improvement’.

On Saturday afternoon we ask conference delegates to suggest workshops that they themselves would like to run consonant with the theme of the conference, so if you would like to suggest something, then do let me know.

As usual, the event will be highly participative and will offer lots of opportunities for discussion and exploration of the key themes with other delegates. The conference begins with an inaugural dinner on Friday evening 17th May, and ends after lunch on 19th May. The conference fee includes onsite board and lodging for the duration of the conference. Early bird rates apply before 1st April 2019.

As with previous years we are also offering a one day introductory workshop on some of the key ideas informing the perspective of complex responsive processes on Friday 17th May.

Hope to see you there.

Doubt as a form of enquiry

In the last post I discussed what the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey referred to as the quest for certainty. I have been arguing that the discomfort that people feel if something isn’t completely nailed down in advance often prevents them from dwelling long enough with experience to work experimentally. There is rush to define, to plan out in advance, to idealise and to make certain and this is likely to prevent innovative ways of working to which organisations aspire. I have been making an alternative argument that without improvisation, spontaneity and risk there can be no innovation.

Dewey was interested in experimentation and argued that traditions of thought, such as mainstream philosophy, have conventionally been suspicious of the bodily, the temporal and the experiential, instead preferring Plato’s fixed and pure forms. We are generally encouraged to discover pre-existing ‘truth’, rather than dwell in the messy reality of experience. However, he himself was much less interested in knowledge as a pure and static expression of truth, and more committed to knowing as a form of active enquiry, the idea of constantly opening up experience to further experience. I think this idea of constant doubt and enquiry is especially relevant to managers who are thinking about how to deal with the ever changing patterning of experience in organisations that they have to deal with on a daily basis. Continue reading

Why reflect? Managing without foundations

There is a struggle going on in the UK at the moment between the talking therapies, counselling, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and the government. The government would like to regulate those offering therapy and get them to become members of the Health Professions Council, the main regulatory body of all health professionals except doctors and nurses, who have regulatory bodies of their own. The government’s preferred intervention for the public’s mental health is cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT, which as the name suggests is based in behaviourist theories of human action. The effectiveness of CBT is more demonstrable and therefore more scientific, the government would claim, because changes in behaviour are observable, and therefore measurable. In order to regulate the talking therapies the governement has produced draft legislation which describes some hundreds of rules which an encounter between those seeking therapy and those offering it would be required to meet. Without such explicit rules and standards, the government would argue, there is no way of objectively regulating what is going on.

Supporters of the talking therapies have responded with indignation. Their arguments are that the encounter between therapist and those seeking therapy is an improvisational and exploratory conversation, the outcome of which is not specifiable in advance. The therapeutic relationship is not necessarily a problem-solving relationship: it may not primarily be about trying to stop smoking, or having panic attacks in public, but it is a relational journey of joint discovery, although ‘problems’ might be ‘solved’ along the way. Exploration may simply lead to more exploration, questioning to more questioning. The ‘outcome’ will arise out of the quality of the relationship of those embarking together on the conversation.

The arguments for  talking therapies and what they might mean for human development and learning are similar to some of the arguments for reflective and reflexive practice that I have been setting out in this blog, arguments which can sometimes be reduced and made simplistic. For example, recently the Broker online magazine summed up a paper I had written by putting forward the idea that my conclusion was simply to recommend reflection, reflection, reflection. But why reflect, and what kind of working method does it imply? To make sense, reflection requires a little more reflection itself.

Reflection in the professional domain is not directly intended to give rise to therapeutic outcomes, although this is not to say that these do not sometimes happen. The case for it is similar to that being made by supporters of the talking therapies in the UK, however, that is intended to be open ended, improvisational and undertaken with no particular end in view. In this sense, unlike most management methods which are taken up in organisations, it does not aim for optimisation: there is no abstract quest for the ideal system, or ways of working based in ‘best practice’. There is no ‘broken society’ waiting to be fixed, as the leader of the opposition in the UK would have it. Reflection dwells upon lived experience with the intention of intensifying it, and in doing so the reflector can sometimes come to understand themselves and their relationships anew: they become reflexive. The kind of knowledge that is most likely to arise from reflective practice, both individual and collective, is self-knowledge, rather than the instrumentalised understanding that one can sometimes derive from knowledge-oriented writing that somehow all knowledge is action or problem-oriented.

Reflection is not necessarily inclined towards answers, solutions and conclusions, but rather to doubt, questioning and uncertainty. This is in no way a despairing uncertainty however, simply one which implies further openness to experience. It assumes that things are mutable, ever-changing, without permanent foundations. In this sense there is a profound discipline here, and a dialectical method of never being satisfied with answers that would close off further questioning. Being open to new collective meaning-making  is a recognition of our inter-dependence and the otherness of others. In reflecting with others we are using our conscious and self-conscious capacity which is what most distinguishes us as being human, our ability as GH Mead said, to take ourselves as an object to ourselves.

Reflective and reflexive practice will incline us towards doubting the very instruments of management that have become so ubiquitous in organisations that we have come to take them for granted. In order to respond to the new and the unexpected, our inevitably changing circumstances, we may want to explore instead managing without foundations.