Tag Archives: paradox

Strategy as politics

For those readers not from the UK, the story about the collapse of the not-for-profit Kids Company, an organisation set up to work with children and young people with complex needs in inner cities, may have passed them by. The organisation was founded by a very charismatic and telegenic psychotherapist 20 years ago who continued to be the organisation’s director. She became the darling of governments of all persuasions and seems to have been very successful at direct lobbying of senior ministers, and even the Prime Minister, for money and attention.

The organisation collapsed very dramatically and very suddenly despite the current government donating a £3 million grant, and on a weekly basis the newspapers carry stories of claim and counter-claim and mutual recrimination. These back and forth arguments resolve around the extent to which the organisation was or wasn’t well managed, did or didn’t produce good outcomes for children, had or hadn’t been audited properly, did or didn’t have an effective governing body. This post will focus on the struggle over the definition of what it means to be well managed, particularly with regard to strategy. Continue reading


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

Cricket, identity and the paradoxes of group life

So was it right that he was sacked or not?

Those of you who are not cricket fans, or not UK residents (or both) may not have heard that Kevin Pietersen, England’s best but most unpredictable and unreliable batsman, has been told that he no longer figures in the plans of those managing the England cricket team. This follows a disastrous tour of Australia where the team lost all of their matches in the annual grudge series with the Australian team known as the Ashes. (The competition is called the Ashes following England’s shock defeat to Australia in 1882, when the Sporting Times printed a mock obituary stating that English cricket had died and its ashes had been sent to Australia. Every year since then the England team has struggled to wrest them back).Image

What is interesting about the sacking is the soul-searching it has provoked in the press well beyond the sports pages. This is not just because sport, to bowdlerize Clausewitz, is war by other means (or if you like, and after Elias,  the civilising of our aggressive instincts in highly interdependent societies), but because it appeals to our sense of identity, our ‘heroic we’. Pietersen’s sacking has provoked very strong emotion in a wide variety of people, not all of them avid cricket fans. Clearly, it’s not just about the game.

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Conforming and resisting. Thinking with and within institutions

In her book How Institutions Think (1986) the social anthropologist Mary Douglas, who died in 2007, struggles with the paradox of the individual and the social. On the one hand, she argues, it is unreasonable to assume that institutions can think and act as though they had some group mind and body. These are only figures of speech, shorthand, because only individuals can think and act. But on the other hand, the institutions which we form, with their organised ways of doing things, their procedures, rules and sets of values, are one way of organising to promote specific categories of thought, certain choices, and particular values:

Our social interaction consists very much in telling one another what right thinking is and passing blame on wrong thinking. This is indeed how we build the institutions, squeezing each others’ ideas into a common shape so that we can prove rightness by sheer numbers of independent assent. (1986: 91)

One of the things that she is concerned to do in this book is to illuminate more clearly the ways that individuals come together to shape organisations, and consequently the way that individuals in their turn are shaped by the sustained processes and functioning of institutions. She draws on the work of Ludwik Fleck, who coined the term ‘thought collectives’ to describe the way that particular approaches to science become institutionalised so that it becomes impossible to think or argue in a different way. For a more thorough treatment of Fleck’s thought, see Ralph Stacey’s post here. Similarly, institutions constrain individuals in the way that the price of belonging may rely upon obedience to particular ways of understanding the world.

This brings Mary Douglas hard up against the age-old difficulty for the social scientist: how can we possibly think of ourselves in society except by using the classifications established in our institutions? For Douglas this is a necessary task to secure some degree of autonomy and freedom of thought, because institutional concerns are not necessarily our concerns:

They fix processes that are essentially dynamic, they hide their influence, and they rouse our emotions to a standardised pitch on standardised issues. …For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how the institutional grip is laid upon the mind. (Ibid: 92)

Intellectual independence, which may take the form of resistance, is particularly important in times of crisis such as we are enduring economically and socially at the moment in the UK and throughout most of Europe, and more broadly and deeply in the less developed world. Things need not be the way they are. 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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The idea of purposive transformation – instrumentalising paradox

In previous posts I have been exploring the ways in which conventional management theory tries to overcome organisational paradoxes by introducing logic models, idealisations, producing double-binds or separating the paradox out into temporal or spatial phases. In this post I will treat those scholars who recognise paradox, but nonetheless suggest that somehow it can be mastered for organisational improvement and ‘excellence’. In doing so their writing can tend towards the esoteric , sometimes suggesting that leaders and managers can develop a special skill or insight that allows them to ‘master ‘ paradox and ‘unleash’ its creativity in the organisation. Sensitive to the complexifying potential of the coincidence of one thing and its opposite, they are tempted nonetheless to suggest that it is possible to instrumentalise contradictions for the good of the company.  This is a familiar trope with many people writing about the complexity sciences, who on the one hand express an interest in uncertainty and unpredictability and on the other hand suggest that they can both be harnessed for the good. Continue reading