Tag Archives: systems thinking

Management fads and the importance of critical thinking

One of the main themes of Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott’s new edition of their book Making Sense of Management is that management, and the ubiquitous tools and techniques that accompany the practice are widely taken for granted as neutral, technical and helpful. In detail, and at length, they call these assumptions into question. Further, in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Management Studies, Alvesson, with his co-author André Spicer go on to accuse organisations of practising both knowledge and stupidity management. By stupidity management they mean the way that many organisations rush into adopting the latest management fad that everyone else is taking up, simply because everyone else is taking it up. They point to an absence of critical reflection and questioning in many organisations.

It is this process, endlessly rushing towards the next big idea provoked by an anxiety about keeping up with ‘the latest thinking’, or perhaps because of (self-imposed) coercion from peers or scrutinising boards and other agencies, that keeps the management shelves of bookshops filled to overflowing, and management academics and popular writers busy (and sometimes rich). Continue reading


How the ‘ought’ obscures the ‘is’

Over the last few years I have come across a number of examples of the way in which the current managerial preoccupation with abstractions, often expressed as policies, procedures or putatively comprehensive ‘systems‘, severely inhibits managers from discussing and dealing with important organisational events which occur right under their noses. This is not to mount a case against having policies and procedures, but is a warning about the false sense of security and comfort that can arise from talking about things in the abstract rather than paying attention to organisational experience. Continue reading

It’s not about the system III

‘I have done nothing wrong.’ ‘ My conscience is clear.’ ‘I have done nothing that the rules don’t allow’. Some of these defences by MPs to criticism of their conduct are intriguing since they are so clearly not believed by many British people and provoke even more anger. It is interesting to consider why the MPs think this would be an adequate defence. What lies at the heart of such a response and why would anyone think that this is credible? Perhaps the answer is that they are not thinking, or rather not thinking enough. Continue reading

It’s not about the system

There is a temptation when encountering something new to look for a tool or a framework to work from, to make sense of the patterning of experience. Perhaps it is a defence against anxiety, putting oneself in the position of knowing something rather than risking being overwhelmed by the new. However, the difficulty of using a framework is that it then begins to shape the experience. We accommodate this phenomenon or that occurence as fitting under this or that heading. Systemic thinking is neat and reassuring. It is also reductive.

The Practce of Geometry

The challenge of working responsively is precisely and paradoxically to be aware of all that one knows, at the same time as being prepared to abandon it to adapt to what one experiences in the moment. Being open to experience leaves the door open to accepting that there may not be somewhere stable to stand, that the situation we are in may look like what we have encountered before but may be radically different. The danger of constantly relying on tools and frameworks is that we are perpetually rearranging experience to a neat and pre-conceived logic: more ‘how can I adapt what I am experiencing to what I already know?’, rather than ‘how can I adapt what I know to what I am experiencing?’

As an example,  Michel Foucault put it like this in describing the process of writing,:

‘What I think is never quite the same, because for me my books are experiences in a sense, that I would like to be as full as possible. If I had to write a book to communicate what I was already thinking before I begin to write, I would never have the courage to begin. I write a book only because I still don’t exactly know what to think about this thing I want so much to think about, so that the book transforms me and transforms what I think. Each book transforms what I was thinking when I was finishing the previous book. I am an experimenter and not a theorist. I call a theorist someone who constructs a general system, either deductive or analytical, and applies it to different fields in a uniform way. This isn’t my case. I’m an experimenter in the sense that I write in order to change myself and in order not to think the same thing as before.’ Essential Works of Foucault: Vol 3, Power, Faubion (ed), 239-240

The challenge for managers is to become, in Foucault’s terms, experimenters rather than theorists, to keep a beginner’s mind in encountering the constant flux of social phenomena.

G20 and different theories of change

Watching news reports about the G20 summit and protests I was struck by how many analogies that they offered for thinking about  theories of change.


A BBC news reporter was caught up in the protest crowd outside the RBS bank in the city just before the clashes started with the police. The crowd ebbed and flowed: ‘there’s nothing we can do about this,’ complained the reporter, ‘because we’re just caught up in the crowd and well have to go along with it.’ As the crowd surged forward some of the protesters began to stone the bank: others hung bank clearly embarrassed by what was happening. Gradually, over time, with the police responding cautiously minute by minute, the violence receded and the protest turned into a good natured street party outside the Bank of England.

In The Civilising Process Norbert Elias describes how a more and more sophisticated society produces longer and longer chains of inter-dependent people, thus constraining what it is possible for any one individual to do. It struck me that this crowd was a good analogy for why change is so difficult. We do have choices, but in general we are constrained by the ways of thinking and acting of those we depend upon, and who depend upon us. We are linked together as if by some giant elastic band. We are caught up in the habitus, mostly not even aware as the reporter was, of what we take for granted. Short term changes can manifest themselves quite quickly, and sometimes quite violently, but longer term changes take more time to show but are likely to be more enduring.

I was also struck by the difference in the thinking of Gordon Brown and Barack Obama. For Brown ‘global problems demand global solutions.’ This is a classically systemic response and understands the leader to be a systems designer who can simply reengineer, or ‘fix’ a ‘broken system’.  Change is considered to be  a wholesale phenomenon and  something which is possible to organise top down. Barack Obama, meanwhile was busy having one-to-one conversations with other world leaders directly and personally changing the nature of the conversations, or perhaps having conversations for the first time with leaders that Bush had ceased speaking to. In doing so he is creating the possibilityfor small differences, an improved relationship and therefore new ways of understanding and mutual adaptation, to be amplified over time. It is important not to be naive about what might happen with these conversations, however, as the news presenter pointed out: President Kennedy renewed personal contact with Khruschev, who was then convinced that this was a sign of weakness on Kennedy’s part which he began to exploit politically. We cannot be sure that in acting differently what we intend will definitely come about. The important point for me of the G20 summit is not the final communique, however symbolic, but the possibility for changed relationships and thus ways of seeing the world that arises out of the myriad small conversations that happen between the leaders and civil servants.

On a discussion panel a young climate change activist was arguing that it was important not to try and solve new problems with old ways of thinking, but then proceeded to propose a programme of wholesale change himself. If his comments were directed towards world leaders his ask is a big one: the very people who have struggled to the top with old ways of thinking, Gordon Brown for example, are now being asked to think very differently, or in effect to be different people. And even if this were possible all world leaders are constrained by the vast chains of interdependent people who will respond in a variety of different ways  to what they propose. The problems might be caused by a particular phase of turbo-capitalism, but we are all to a greater or lesser extent, caught up in its modalities.

This is not necessarily grounds for pessimism, however, because there may be more profound changes afoot which have yet to manifest themselves which grow out of people’s daily experience, and perhaps dissatisfaction with the way they are obliged to live their lives. As the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observed:

“True, the philosophies of atomism and instrumentalism have a head start in the world. But it is still the case that there are many points of resistance, and that these are constantly being generated … We don’t want to exaggerate our degrees of freedom. But they are not zero”