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Fieldnotes: Stabilization is the seedbed of disruption

July 26, 2014

So tonight I’m taking a few steps back to draw out and expand upon some of the ideas discussed in last night’s post.

However, I first want to thank everyone who read and responded to that piece. There were some great responses that, as usual, helped spark my thinking and helped me better see how to move more deeply into the material while keeping it purposeful and relevant.


Entities V Processes

One piece that’s becoming clearer for me is a better understanding of the distinction between entities and processes in organizational thinking. To back up a bit, yesterday I cited Hernes (2014) who wrote

 In mainstream organizational theory, organizations are commonly conceptualized as entities…adapting to an environment that changes between successive stable states. (p. 39)

A key point here is that one of the most enduring—and often unconscious—assumptions about organizations is that organizations themselves are solid, monolithic entities from which all processes arise.

Put more plainly, if I work at the XYZ Widget Company, I will most likely assume that the processes involved with working there arise out of the solid structures that are the company. It sounds silly, but I might even envision an array of “processes”—such as strategic planning, policy formulation, annual budget cycles, etc., etc.,–being churned out of the organization much like the widgets themselves.


Organizations: slower-changing configurations of relationships

But process thinking sees all of this quite differently. As Nayak and Chia (2011) pointed out

Entities such as individuals and organizations are theoretical reifications that refer to slower-changing configurations of social relationships resulting from the sustained regularizing of human exchanges (p. 285)

Quite a mouthful, no? Also, here’s where it gets a bit tricky. In one sense Nayak and Chia seem to be saying “If you think the organization exists before the process, think again buddy!”

Now at this point someone could respond, “Do you mean to say that the annual budget cycle exists before the organization? That makes no sense! How can a budget cycle exist before the board of directors even hires a CFO or builds a fiscal department???”

Here we need to step back and take a moment to think about organizations and processes a bit more broadly.


A broader view of processes

In the passage above Nayak and Chia (2011) aren’t just thinking about specific, structured organizational processes such an annual budget cycle. They are thinking on a much broader, process scale. They’re looking instead at the broader social and cultural processes that generate imbalances and needs that in turn generate certain desires and opportunities. Such desires and opportunities can, in turn, result in the creation of specific entities such as the XYZ Widget Company.

As Nayak and Chia (2011) might put it, The XYZ Widget Company is the manifestation of an idea that began and is sustained by the public’s desire to exchange their money for a high quality widget. That desire prompts sustained public action that in turn fuels dependable financial processes which the founders of XYZ were able to tap into in order to create and grow the company.

In this way, we’re able to see how the thing we think of as solid—The XYZ Widget Company—is actually a reification of arising from “sustained regularizing of human exchanges”. In short, before there was the XYZ Company, there was the process.

So allow me to quickly open the discussion a bit further on two points about stabilization:


Point 1: Stabilization – at home in temporality

First, Nayak and Chia (2011)–in carefully drawing out this notion of “slower-changing configurations of social relationships”—highlight the importance of the temporal dimension. Time, specifically seeing process as an experience that unfolds across time, is critical.

Within such unfolding, some entities move quicker and some move more slowly. Those moving more slowly are typically assumed to be the more stabilized.

(For example, I recently visited the Grand Canyon. It appeared pretty stable to me, but any geologist will confirm that those rocks are still very engaged in a process of change. It’s just a very slooooooow process.)


Point 2: Stabilization – the seedbed of disruption

Second, Tor Hernes recently wrote (2014) that

A stabilizing configuration [such as an organization] is about connecting and re-connecting elements into a meaningful whole. How connections develop and how they feed into the surrounding world cannot be determined at the outset, nor can they be fully controlled by those involved. (p. 41)

 This point is crucial. This force of uncontrollable uncertainty that Hernes refers to is the kernel from which phenomena we refer to as “disruption” burst forth.

How that happens and what we do in response are incredibly important questions that no one has yet attempted to answer with empirical evidence.

That is the research I am now planning.




10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2014 8:04 am

    Hi David, I have really enjoyed both this and your previous article too. I would like, if it is OK, to mention our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, as this very much contains guidance for getting into the process-centric view of reality.

    There are a number of concepts we discuss which can help readers to understand what is happening. The first is that I think it is really hard to really “get” the idea since the idea for the comprehension of processes, in this way of thinking, occurs in our intuition. We have to shift out of the logical- symbolic way of thinking, which is fragmented and into a more sensory – intuitive way of knowing the world.

    The second point is that if you take a phenomenological perspective, you have to go “upstream” into the coming-into-being of phenomena (to borrow a phrase from Henri Bortoft).

    The final point regards this sentence from your quote from Tor – “A stabilizing configuration [such as an organization] is about connecting and re-connecting elements into a meaningful whole.”

    The danger is in the way some systems thinking “re-connect elements”. There is a danger of ending up with a counterfeit whole and not an authentic whole, since in the phenomenological and organic way of comprehending wholeness, “the whole” is an active absence which comes to presence in the parts, and thus you encounter the whole as it expresses itself through the parts.

    You can read our introduction and first chapter from Holonomics via this link here:

    This article “Into the Phenomena” is also relevant here:

    In chapter 5 of Holonomics we discuss the difference between “BELONGING together” and “belonging TOGETHER” in relation to the construction of systems models. This is where we bring together the phenomenological way of comprehending wholeness into systems thinking. This organic comprehension of wholeness comes from Goethe’s work on the metamorphosis of plants and also colour, and I especially see the way in which Goethe comprehended the organisational principles in nature – natural dynamic systems always in a state of coming-into-being – of real help in helping us understand this process perspective in organisations.

    Some of my current work is taking this perspective into the evolution of brands and brand strategy. See for example the quotes about nature in this article:

    I hope this post has been of interest. I always look forward to hearing your latest thoughts.

    • July 27, 2014 5:52 pm


      Thanks so much for your comments and feedback. It means so much to me that you find this work of interest.

      Wow, thanks also for all the great information. I think I had heard mention of your book but had not, until now, checked it out in earnest. It looks so intriguing and soooo relevevant to my own work. I’m on the Floris Books site now and will read the preview material.

      I could not agree with you more that a process way of thinking requires a developmental (my word) leap. In no way could–or should–it be construed as rational extension of the kind of Newtonian or atomistic thought that continues to pervade so much of social, economic and organizational thinking. It really requires a cognitive shift that opens us (or, if truth be told, “breaks” us into being open!) to a dialogic relationship with the world.

      I also agree–enthusiastically–with your comments about a phenomenological perspective. I was especially drawn to your point that sensing the whole calls for “an active absence which comes to presence in the parts”. This, too, I believe speaks to a more dialogic relationship with the world at large.

      Thanks too for your insights about Goethe’s work. I was not aware his thinking on organizational principles in nature. I’ll be sure to check out the related links you posted. I know already that I will find much there that will help.


  2. July 26, 2014 10:23 am

    Hmm doesn’t it seem like something is still missing? As I understand this it might fit into an expanded idea of systems theory with an emphasis on the processes between and among the various levels being of greatest interest. What I read here seems to suggest that the arising structures in the organization are the result of “stabilizing”. What is this? This is where the interesting stuff might be. What causes it? It seems to me that it is caused by an intensification or specification of process, Which involves interesting feedback loops in order to maintain the stabilization. It also seems like you can’t avoid things like intentions as part of the feedback. It reminds me of physics in which at its base everything is energy which really means flow movement and information.

    • July 26, 2014 2:09 pm


      Thanks so much for your comment and questions.

      I absolutely agree with your comment about energy being at the base of everything. I think eventually that’s where this work is going to end up. (At least I hope so.)

      Now, if I read your first point correctly I’d have to say that at one time I would have agreed that process is a dimension of systems thinking but now I see it a bit differently. In an Industrial-Era world–where knowledge forms were assumed to be fixed and predictable, the “system” was considered primary, the ultimate configuration of knowledge. Those assumptions, however, revealed some appreciable limits when our world became less dependent on Industrial routines and more dependent digital knowledge sharing.

      At first there was explosive growth in knowledge content. That was cool. But then something unexpected happened; we began to see not just new content but new knowledge forms that did not fit preconceived ideas about knowledge or process. Ralph Stacey probably does a better job than anyone of explaining this. He points out that a very early example of a new knowledge form was complexity thinking. (Now, it’s gotten even more sophisticated than that.)

      Here’s a link to Stacey.

      So if process is viewed as falling under the domain of a system, then what happens when the knowledge generated by that process is of a more sophisticated form than the knowledge used to conceptualize the system in the first place? In practice, what’s going to happen is that processes outside the logic of the system tend to be dismissed or commandeered to fit the dominant logic.

      The following paper talks about that in nice detail. It also goes a bit into the the relational dynamics through which the flow of process is temporarily stabilized.


      Another point of yours I heartily agree upon is that the interactive stabilizing processes ARE where the most interesting stuff lies. While my actual study will hopefully provide more conclusive details, I’m starting to believe that system destabilization is–quite paradoxically–the relational hub of how we as a species interact to create the stabilizing systems and structures we’ve come to think of as “real” and “solid”.

      Thanks again Tom. Talk to you soon!

  3. Tom permalink
    July 26, 2014 5:49 pm

    This is really cool. Mind blowing really, Sort of developmental systems theory. I heard a very similar discussion by Daniel Siegel (The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are) regarding mind as a relational organ and that all of what we consider the work of the brain is really a relational (or process) expression. I really think you are on to something that could allow for much more strategic input into organizations (or whatever).

    As a therapist I wonder how beliefs (stabilized thought patterns) and trauma inform such a process since they are so integral to psycho dynamic structuring. The developmental component is also interesting in this regard.

    For me another area of interest is the idea that even the presupposed originating structures (for me states and traits, for you perhaps people?) are really just relational or process at a different level. So one way of saying this is that nothing exists except relationship or process (I kind of see them as the same thing). Another way of saying it is: everything that we perceive as existing is constructed of process. So now we have several words that seem to mean the same thing: process, relationship, energy, consciousness and maybe even God. Oops I hope I haven’t gone too far. It seems to make sense, but it does seem to suggest that we don’t know what process really is.

    Lastly I think there is a missing link regarding perception. The mind perceives units and then interacts with these units as if they exist.This is both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Perhaps some of what is destabilizing is just the flux of reality which exists below our perceptions of thingness.

    • July 27, 2014 4:59 pm


      Thanks for this.

      I like you idea of developmental systems theory. Maybe someday that can be a new chapter of my explorations.

      I also you appreciate mentioning Daniel Siegel. You’ve mentioned him to me before but, unfortunately, I’ve not taken the time to do more than an extended glance. However, his point you mention, about the brain being a relational organ is quite spot on with other authors I’ve spent more time with.

      One of those is Kenneth Gergen. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him or not. He’s a scholar out of the Philadelphia area. A psychologist by training, Gergen is one the key proponents of a way of viewing the world called social constructionism which basically says that all meaning we attach to any form of lived experience is constructed through relationship. (On the flipside this view also holds that no part of lived experience has meaning without a basis in relational engagement.)

      Here’s one of Gergen’s most recent books that talks a lot about that. In fact, I might bet that Gergen and Siegel are making a lot of the same points–just from different disciplinary orientations.

      As you might guess because of my work, I too think a lot about how beliefs, developmental issues, and trauma impact this notion of stabilization. Actually that topic is a whole PhD in itself! The only thing I can say–and I tend to think you’d agree–is that trauma must have some way of “freezing” certain dysfunctional stabilization patterns in place such that the individual is continually affirmed in their view that “this is the way the world is.”

      Also, your point that “nothing exists except relationship or process” is one I’m lately becoming to believe in very strongly. Regarding relationship and process being one and the same, as I read more of the key process philosophers (i.e., Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson) I find that same point coming up a lot. Also your point–which I tend to agree with–that relationship, process, and God being part of the same construct is very interesting because the two main applications for process philosophy are (a) organizational dynamics and (b) theology!

      Lastly, I also agree with your point about perception. The thing that REALLY excites me about the research I’m working on is the possibility of opening up a new kind of conversation about organizational dynamics such that we actually start to tune into a whole world phenomena that, now, exists under our radar. Cool stuff!

  4. July 27, 2014 4:13 pm

    I’m still struggling with operationalizing process so your thoughts and the various comments are insightful

    I think some of the dynamics you mention (stabilization seeds disruption) can also be seen coming out of D.S. Wilson’s multi-level selection theory. There you’ve got tension between a group level of selection and an individual level of selection (amongst others). From a process view: tension between processes that seem groupish or processes that seem individualistic. As group behaviour and norms stabilize, cheating options &/or rewards (freeloading) tend to grow (not part of the theory, but well observed & studied). So the dynamics you may be talking about have a chance of arising simply from two (strange?) attractors.

    Social phenomena can be inferred to arise out of the complex dynamics of that tension’s operation. Perhaps because multi-level selection is such a reductionist theory (genes are the unit of measure), operationalizing it or similar organizational dynamics in terms of process is fun but challenging.

    Though, the best lesson I’ve gotten from multi-level selection theory is to look at its history and resist functionalistic thinking (causes behind things – say “energy” minimization). Functionalism was the undoing of its previous,70’s era, formulation. Luckily process (as I understand it) is particularly good at eschewing functionalism.

    • July 27, 2014 5:16 pm


      Thanks so much for your comments and I’m glad some of this work is helpful–particularly since I’m still sorting it all out myself!

      I’m not familiar with Wilson’s work, but what you write makes a lot of sense, especially about the tension between group and individual process.

      Also, your points about functional approaches are well-taken. Currently I work as a behaviorist in the field of developmental disabilities where the functional analysis of client behaviors is still considered something of a gold stardard. On the one hand, a functional approach can–in certain cases–offer some useful information, but–like you suggest–I think it carries significant limitations.

  5. July 28, 2014 12:08 am

    I’m not sure if it relates but in nlp one of the properties of trauma has to do with how the event is stored in consciousness. Essentially the event is removed from time. It exists like a bubble that continually cycles back on itself so it never completes. Of course this is in terms of how it is coded I the mind not in “reality”. One treatment is to break open this segmentation in time which frees the person from the suffering. I just have a feeling that this relates to process through time and of course the issue that all of this is an internal not an external phenomenon


  1. Fieldnotes: Organizational Processes & Insider Intuition | gonna.grow.wings

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