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Fieldnotes: Organizational Disruption as Dialogic Process

July 31, 2014

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.


Dialogic Disruption

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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2014 10:28 am

    Great post, David… I really want to talk with you more, about disruptive patterns and experiences. This is at the heart of my ongoing thinking and writing with Denise Easton. We have published a paper, “The World According to FLUX” in the Journal for Quality and Participation” (July 2013). We have likewise been studying the patterns and dynamics of disruptive experiences, and the capacities people and organizations can develop, to improve responses and outcomes. We observe response to significant disruptive experiences, as following a common form of patterning. Domains of emotion, knowledge, sense-making, and trying promising options. Choosing how we interact with our world.. Our stance drawing onnthese domains, and expressing them through our engagement, expectations, and responses to our lived experience. I am especially interested in learning more about monologic as opposed to dialogic stances. Looking forward to reading more of your thinking and work, and meeting to talk sometime soon.

  2. August 4, 2014 9:23 pm

    Hey Bruce,

    Yes, I hope we can connect soon. Much of where I think my own work is headed (because it’s only a guess at this point) is starting from how we perceive and “construct” this phenomena we call “disruption”.

    When I started the process theorists (Robert Chia, Hari Tsoukas, & Tor Hernes) I started to realize that when viewed through a process lens (rather than a Newtonian, substance lens) anything we might call “disruption” can be seen as just another moment in the moment-to-moment unfolding of events. From this view, the only difference between “disruptive” and “normal” events, is that “normal” events aligned with our socially-construction “image” of what the future should be, while “disruptive” events did not.

    In other words, this means that responding to “disruption” is more about human beings coming to terms with a shifting paradigm of the future, rather than encountering a quantifably unique type of event.

    From this perspective, your approach of drawing on “emotion, knowledge, sense-making, and trying new options” appears very much to be headed in a similar direction. Very exciting.

    Interestingly, the point about monologic and dialogic engagement has sparked rich comments and emails from several people. I’ll be writing more on it for sure. I do think the concept is important for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that–from my thinking anyway–it pulls front and center the issue of cognitive development and personal identity.

    In short, dialogic engagement is only possible if we see personal identity and the self as something that exists in a continual state of flow and rescripting. Any notion of a “fixed” self–or even a “temporarily fixed” (key tenets of Cartesian thinking) force us into a monologic relationship with events. The work of Robert Kegan, particularly his book “In Over Our Heads” helped expand my awareness in this direction.

    Take Care!

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