Tag Archives: uncertainty

Now published

Just published:

Managing in Uncertainty: Complexity and the Paradoxes of Everyday Organizational Life, Routldege.

Book cover


Experiencing uncertainty

I was working with a group of managers and we had been discussing how a lot of managerial work is about dealing with uncertainty. Things don’t work

questionout quite how you planned, surprises come out of left field, and your boss, or the organisation with which you are working closely, has just decided that something else is now a priority. What you came in to do in the morning has somehow gone off course by the afternoon, but you’re still responsible for your first priority. This was the link I had been making previously to the complexity sciences: I had been arguing that small changes can amplify into big differences, and social life arises in the interplay of differing intentions. But how do you know how to respond and what to pay attention to?

I suggested that we might work together with uncertainty with the group as an experiment the next morning, if they were up for it. We would meet with no agenda as such and the only task would be for the 26 of us to sit together in a room for an hour and a half and talk about how we cope with uncertainty, making links with organisational life, and noticing at the same time how we were dealing with the task together as we were dealing with it. I was explicit about the fact that this was a group method developed by the Institute of Group Analysis as a way of paying attention to process from within the process itself. I told them that would participate with them, but that I wouldn’t be in charge. I warned them that they might find it a bit uncomfortable and anxiety provoking, but they were a group of social work managers and no doubt they would have been in situations like this before.

They said they would like to try it. Continue reading

Two perspectives on leadership

I was recently invited to fill out a questionnaire for a colleague who was being assessed for a 360 degree appraisal concerning her leadership abilities, although I did not work for her organisation. I was being invited to offer an ‘outsider’s’ perspective. To the best of my knowledge this colleague does not lead a large team, although she has a very senior position. I understand this questionnaire to be a reflection of many organisations’ preoccupation with leadership and their need to quantify and assess the leadership potential of their employees, whether they are in leadership positions or not. It is part of a much wider discourse about leadership and a widely accepted supposition that it is a critical determinant of organisational success.

This particular questionnaire comprised 40 or so Likert scale questions with four discursive questions at the end asking about the colleague’s principle strengths and weaknesses. The questions divided roughly into eight main themes. Continue reading

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

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

Five types of uncertainty

In his most recent novel The Fear Index the novelist Robert Harris tells the story of a mathematical genius Alex Hoffman, who, frustrated by his job at the Cern laboratories, leaves to set up his own business, a hedge fund. Hoffman’s innovation in complex computer modelling of financial trading is not just that he can model many variables in the constant fluctuations in international markets, but that he can model human emotions which contribute to these fluctuations. The novel speaks to the critique offered by ex-quants like the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan, that the mathematical models developed in the financial sector are highly idealised abstractions and do not do justice to the complexity and unpredictability of human life. The conceit of the novel is that there is an algorithm for human emotion, although in this case the only emotion which seems to count is fear, hence the title of the novel.

Although it is unclear from the book at what level of aggregation Hoffman’s computer simulation is operating, wittingly or unwittingly, it addresses a number of concerns of social theory. That is to say Harris sets out a theory of social action, ie financial traders are as much driven by fear as they are rational calculation, as a well as a theory of stability and change:  global social phenomena arise from the complex interweaving of the daily activities of multiple numbers of traders with amalgams of calculation and fear. As with agent-based models of complex social processes, agents are forming and being formed by the population of which they are part, both at the same time.  Fearful micro-decisions can stampede markets, which drive fearful micro-decisions. In this way Harris undercuts some of the principle assumptions of classical economics, that actors in an economy are rational atoms acting to maximise their own utility according to clearly articulated preferences. Nonetheless the novel still sustains the fantasy that the non-rational, even the irrational, can be modelled with efficient causality.

Of course there are currently many researchers working with agent-based non-linear models of complex social phenomena, but I know of none who would claim that their models are particularly helpful at predictions, rather than offering retrospective insights into the ways in which particular global social patterns have arisen. They have much stronger explanatory rather than predictive power. They may show trends and describe probabilities, but there will always be a margin of error.  Small changes in the model can amplify into dramatic and large, population-wide changes in patterns, just as seemingly large interventions may result in not much change at all. Everything will depend on the history of interactions, the context and the way the agents self-organise.

In much organisational theory, however, and with the proliferation of tools and technique, the emphasis is still on developing methods which are assumed to be able to predict and control human behaviour. They aspire to Robert Harris’ dream. Continue reading

Complexity and project management – exercising practical judgement in conditions of uncertainty

In an INGO where I was working recently one of the newer members of staff proudly told me that he was Prince2 trained. This was mentioned in relation to the conversation we were having about what he considered to be the ‘lack of systems’, I think implying a lack of rigour, that he perceived in the organisation he had just joined. As someone who once worked as a systems analyst, operating at the interface between software developers and end users, I was prompted into thinking about why my colleague might believe that a project management method originating from software development, and contested even there as to its usefulness, might also be suitable for managing social development projects. One would hardly look to the domain of IT for examples of projects which have been delivered on time and to budget, without even considering the other, obvious differences between the two fields of activity. Nevertheless, Prince2 is a good example of the kinds of tools, frameworks and methods which increasingly pervade the management of social development, and are taken to be signs of professionalization in the sector. Continue reading