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Fieldnotes: Organizations & Disruption, 2500 Years of “Accidents”

August 18, 2014

A couple weeks ago I shifted gears a bit and began focusing far more intensely on my dissertation’s literature review. This has been an illuminating process for sure.

While some who’ve been following my postings may find it redundant, here’s a patch from the opening sentences of my rough draft for the lit review:

This dissertation explores organizational change as it arises in event and conditions thought of as disruption. For the purposes of this study disruption is conceived as a relational process that occurs as individuals respond to events and conditions that call for strategies diverging from known or anticipated problem-solving capacities.

As the following review of the relevant literature reveals, effectively responding to conditions of disruption has been a central theme in organizational and leadership thinking since well before the industrial revolution. In fact, by looking further back we see that much of today’s organizational thinking mirrors a split underscoring much of Western thought from at least the time of the Pre-Socratics; that being the uneasy relationship between conditions of stability and conditions of so-called flux.

This literature review traces that split as it was first seen from thinkers from antiquity to present day management writings. In so doing I will illustrate how the privileging of stability and delegitimation and disregard of flux continues to inform organizational thought while calling for an even greater awareness of the lived experience of those engaged with such conditions.

It’s going to need still more tightening and focus but a key point I want to convey is that the pervasiveness of disruption is forcing a reconsideration of a split in Western thinking that occurred about 2500 years ago; that being the privileging of stability over flux.

 

Disruption, Theory of Forms, and Final Cause

 

While Plato solidified it with his Theory of Forms (everything in our world reflects a more perfect “parallel” world inhabited by unadulterated “forms”), it really became ingrained in Western culture with Aristotle.

Aristotle thoroughly rejected Plato’s two-world model and his Theory of Forms. As Aristotle saw it, there was only one world in which all phenomena was guided by the Four Causes. I won’t go into all four now except to say that “Four Causes” thinking was a way to determine if something was a genuine part of the universal order or not.

For today’s discussion, the Cause of most interest is the last, the aptly-named “Final Cause” or as Bryan Magee refers to it as, “the ultimate-reason-for-it-all cause”. So according to Final Cause, we are able to understand the reason for a thing or event by the ultimate aim it is supposed to serve. (For example, the ultimate aim of a stack of bricks may be to become a house the builders are crafting.)

 

Final Cause and “Accidents”

 

Here’s they really important point: According to Aristotle, if a thing or phenomena cannot be connected to a Final Cause, there is a very good chance it is an “accident” or aberration of the universal order and should thus be disregarded.

Ok, so let’s think about what this means for so-called disruptive phenomena. According to Aristotle, phenomena that diverges from an intended outcome cannot meet the criteria of the Final Cause and should be dismissed as an accident—totally outside the natural order of all that is meant to be.

Suddenly, it becomes a bit clearer why states of flux and disruption are viewed than less-than-legitimate in the eyes of traditional management thinking. That thinking is simply following the line of thought established by Aristotle more than 2000 years ago.

 

More to Follow

 

Now to get from Aristotle to The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, there’s just a bit more going on than what I detail here. While I won’t even attempt to cover it all, in the next few days I’ll try to fill in a few more blanks such as Descartes, Newton, our pal Frederick Taylor  (a.k.a., the creator of scientific management and the godfather of command-and-control business practices).

Stay tuned friends.

~d

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2014 6:55 am

    Hi David

    You may really want to check out Henri Bortoft’s “Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought”. Bortoft takes the line that the two world view is neo-Platonic, and that Plato himself did hold this view. Bortoft follows Gadamer’s view that “Plato was no Platonist” and that what Plato was doing as making a methodological distinction to help people understand that they could arrive at knowledge through deductive thinking, rather than always making empirical observations. Hence in Parmenides we find Plato attempting to correct people’s misconceptions about Plato’s teachings of the relationship between parts and wholes, misconceptions that Plato may well have recognised as coming about through his attempts to make a methodological and not ontological distinction. Just a little food for thought.

  2. August 20, 2014 10:16 pm

    Simon,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I will indeed check out Bortoft. I see it’s a new work and it looks intriguing. The other interesting thing is that as I read more about Aristotle, I’m getting as much–if not more–insight into Plato. I think there’s so much to glean from the early Greeks that help us get to a new understanding today.

    I really appeciate your ongoing support and feedback. It’s very helpful.

    Best,
    ~d

  3. May 18, 2015 1:18 pm

    The most useful body of work I’ve come across that addresses your perspective, David, is called quantum storytelling. “Tamara,” a journal of critical organization theory that explores quantum storytelling, has been published quarterly since 1994. It is a profound body of work, all of it academic (until my company began applying it commercially last year.) The originator of quantum storytelling is Dr. David Boje, who’s on the faculty at New Mexico State U. Quantum storytelling, along with improvisation, which contains the language of “socially mediated adhocism” needed for the shift in organizational consciousness, are, imho, key to moving from theory to practice.

  4. May 18, 2015 7:49 pm

    Hey there Mike,
    Thanks so much for your extremely helpful insight, as well as your support of my writing!

    It’s so uncanny that you should find me at this point. Storytelling and organizational narrative are starting to occupy a much more significant focus in my work–although as I’m under the gun time-wise with my dissertation, I’m not sure how much of it I’ll be able to cover in that work. That said, I’m using one of Boje’s books as a source for my methodology.

    And I’ll be sure to check out his work on Quantum Storytelling. So fascinating!

    Kindly,
    ~d

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