Fieldnotes: Organizational Disruption as Dialogic Process
Tonight I want to go just a bit further in discussing a more inclusive and interactive approach to organizational process.
As you might recall, I recently have been reading John Shotter’s eye-opening piece “Understanding Process From Within: An Argument for ‘Withness’-Thinking”. In this article, Shotter builds upon Tor Hernes’ notion of an endogenous orientation (‘caused by factors inside’) to organizational process.
(If you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about you might want to start here.)
‘Withness’ Thinking and a Dialogic Relationship to Change
In his vision for a more reflexive approach to organizational process, Shotter argues that an endogenic orientation should consider each participant—and that includes researchers and/or managers—as fully integrated components of the process experience.
Shotter refers to this participatory stance as being in a position of “withiness”. He points out that the key feature of this position is that each participant assumes a “dialogic” relationship with the events and conditions encountered.
He explains that
Withness (dialogic)-talk/thinking occurs in those reflective interactions that involve our coming into living, interactive contact with an other’s living being, with their utterances, with their bodily expressions, with their words, their ‘works’. (p. 600)
(As an aside, I’ll say I really love this concept of the dialogic. It opens all kinds of creative possibilities for managers and those working with group process.)
If you’ve not previously heard the term “dialogic”, the concept originated with Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary scholar. Bakhtin introduced the idea to suggest a state of being focused on an engaged and reflexive relationship with social structures and processes. For Bakhtin, a dialogic relationship stood in contrast to a monologic relationship, which—as that word suggests—describes the kind fixed, unidirectional orientation commonly associated with Cartesian thinking.
So, while Shotter does not speak to disruption per se, his writing clearly suggests that by adopting a dialogic orientation towards events and conditions we might be inclined to label as “disruption” we afford ourselves of access to an otherwise elusive flow of insight and intuition.
Shotter suggests this with his assertion that by adopting a “withness” orientation, we enter into a dialogic relationship with people and events and gain access to an intuitive knowing that helps inform our actions and interactions with people and events.
In detailing this, Shotter writes that
…such moments can only become available to us if we stay in the living motion, not so much in locomotive movement, as in a dynamic interactive, expressive-responsive relation with the others and othernesses in our surroundings. For…if we can enter into living, dialogically structured relations with the others around us, and allow them to call out spontaneous reactions from us from within the unfolding dynamics of such relationships—a kind of understanding that is utterly unavailable to us if we adopt only a monological approach to them and treat them as dead forms. (p. 599)
Empirical Support for Generative Process
Scholars Brad MacKay and Robert Chia recently provided empirical support for these ideas in their article “Choice, Chance, and Unintended Consequences in Strategic Change” (2013).
Inspiring by the thinking of French process philosopher Henri Bergson, MacKay and Chia concur that the experience of disruption, far from being an unwelcome and distracting deviation from predetermined norms and outcomes, is better thought of as a generative process—or creative evolution—best leveraged through a mindset that more fluid and reflexive.
MacKay and Chia write that
[f]rom this…worldview, organizational life is better characterized, not by deterministic natural selection, nor by strategic choice, but by an interactive process of creative evolution (Bergson, 1911/1998); choice, chance, and environmental circumstances interact to produce both positive and negative unintended consequences that influence organizational outcomes in the most unexpected of ways. (p. 209)
Their findings indicate that when managers adopt an open and collaborative stance toward the “chaotic, complex, fluid, sometimes random, frequently messy and often surprising” (p. 226) ambience of contemporary organizations, they are better able to respond to uncertainty and productively respond to unexpected or unintended conditions.
However, like many of the authors I’ve been turning to lately, MacKay and Chia, point to the need for much more research in order to uncover more detail about practices and mindsets that will help organizations to make practical use of this thinking.
Given the density of this material, and the cognitive leap it asks us to take, tools and protocols for practical application are critical if this theory is going to be translated to daily practice and, hopefully, create enduring benefits.