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The 3 Crumbling Pillars of Modern Management

January 29, 2015


As I survey mainstream organizational practices for the past 100 years, these are the principles I see underscoring nearly all mainstream leadership models and approaches to organizational change:

1. The universe was designed as an orderly, mechanistic system where permanence and stability are the norms. Change and/or disruption is an irregular event and indicate a breakdown in the natural, intended order.

2. Valid knowledge is based on rational thought that allows for order, stability, and the control of outcomes. Any knowledge based on collective experience or emotions is flawed as it is highly subjective and contextual.

3. To be effective, human action should produce order, stability, and
intended outcomes. Such action is assured through adherance to universal rules and rational planning.

Here we can easily see the influence of Cartesian thinking and the notion of a mechanistic universe. Even with those models considered “more progressive”, such as servant leadership, or self-directed teams, when you scratch below the surface, you find these same three principles.


The interesting thing is, looking at these practices throughout the 20th century, we also see the quiet but growing emergence of a so-called “counternarrative” of organizational thinking.


The earliest, and perhaps boldest, example of this counternarrative is in the writing of Mary Parker Follett. Writing in the 1920s–a time when Frederick Taylor’s “Scientific Management” movement was in full swing–Follett’s work is nothing short of revelatory.


Taking on the notion of an orderly universe that was understood through rational thinking and implemented through proper planning, Follett believed that, to be effective, management had to acknowledge the world’s inherenent complexity. Unlike Taylor, and nearly every other thinker of her day, Follett saw the world as a dynamic, ever-evolving creative process that was demanded strategey based upon collective self-discovery.


While management practices rooted in the three constraining pillars remained the widely accepted norm not only throughout the 20th century, but well into the 21st as well, what we also see is a slow but growing infiltration of more organic, humanistic influences vis a vis Follett.


Systems theory, Senge’s Learning Organization model, and complexity-based management theory all represented efforts to introduce a more dynamic, evolving worldview modern management practices.


As we now are starting to contend with disruption on an heretofore unimaginable scale we will see the emergence of even more radical advancements in organizational theory. While the particular shape or form of these models remains unclear, there is little doubt such advancements will need to go far beyond traditional task-structuring, power-distribution practices.


Instead we will need management thinking that addresses the radical developments not just in workplace practices but in personal identity. As we thinking about what each one of us is experiencing through the tsumani of digital disruption, the need for such new thinking should be clear.


We need a new awareness of organizations and management that do far more than what the thinking in these domains has done before; we need thinking that takes on our evolving relationship, not only to the workplace, but to each other and the world at large.


This means that–by necessity–organizational thinking has to begin accomodating fundamental human processes such as our rapidly evolving relationship to dialogue, and how our shifting notions of change and causality have now created an entirely new work environment than what we could have imagined even a generation ago.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. judy permalink
    January 29, 2015 9:33 am

    The mechanistic process is not unkillable. It’s demise is just taking time. So far it appears to be an evolutionary effect despite our impatient desire for it to be a result of revolutionary thought and practice. The diversity of the managed entities, its goals and the paradigms driving management is such that progress is uneven, not generalized and often backtracks on itself. Creativity gets lost in this complex stew which to many is satiating but doesn’t awaken their need to discover new or different flavors. Unfortunately, significant change must be perceived as a necessity and a majority must recognize and hunger for it. I don’t see that hunger permeating big companies/ organizations. I wonder if the real change can happen in large entities that seem to have a taste for status quo where the simple element of size supports inertia. Perhaps a different design like that emerging from the newer smaller entrepreneurial models will set the stage for more meaningful humanistic models of management.

    • January 31, 2015 3:15 pm

      Thanks so much for your reflections. I especially like your point about evolutionary vs. revolutionary change. I can completely agree–particularly I think so much of the present shift is closely linked to the developmental shifts in our own individual psychologies.

      Another point I resonate with is the need to change to be perceived as a necessity, rather than merely an option. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of my own writing, but you couldn’t be more right. This also aligns with the developmental dimensions of these shifts, as paradigm shifts are typically not linear affairs; in fact, they almost always occur as a response to painful crisis brought about the breakdown of more traditional thinking.

      Lastly, I’m still working to figure out what size or style venue is either most appropriate or open to humanistic management. Recently I was at IBM and it’s inspiring how “Big Blue” is turning itself around to passionately embrace a rather radically progressive mindset; on the other hand a close colleague of mine works for one IBM top competitors where the staid, old-school corporate ethos is still if full force. So yes, smaller companies are probably the best seedbed, but even there self-limiting, mechanistic practices can often hold sway well past their date of expiration.

  2. Neil Davidson permalink
    January 29, 2015 10:53 pm

    Hi David

    Nice little article that resonates.

    You say:

    “We need a new awareness of organizations and management that do far more than what the thinking in these domains has done before; we need thinking that takes on our evolving relationship, not only to the workplace, but to each other and the world at large.

    This means that–by necessity–organizational thinking has to begin accommodating fundamental human processes such as our rapidly evolving relationship to dialogue, and how our shifting notions of change and causality have now created an entirely new work environment than what we could have imagined even a generation ago.”

    I am actively pursuing this at present, at several levels – a small farm trying to shift from present to future paradigm resilience; a group of concerned activist/supporters of asylum seekers/refugees/ soon-to-be-displaced peoples (due to sea-level rise); and a whole catchment of frustrated Education for Sustainability players, some of whom are increasingly aware that BAU is insufficient, but which cannot do it themselves from inside the existing system/s.

    Key to all of these is ‘finding identity’ and many of the individuals are on self-declared self-discovery ‘journeys’ – once this stage is reached, the next challenge is in helping others to find each other and co-design anticipatory ‘collective’ identity – i.e. not just ‘who must ‘I’ become to be authentic and anti-fragile’ but beyond that to ‘who must WE become in these changed and changing circumstances’.

    The more you know of compounding global systemic crises and the systemic drivers the more urgently the task presents; and yet it cannot be rushed, for it depends on finding, connecting and working with those that have already found a level of personal capability and maturity above the norm to step, and enabling them to the next stage, collective self-realisation.

    As you said:

    “Follett saw the world as a dynamic, ever-evolving creative process that was demanded strategy based upon COLLECTIVE self-discovery” – i.e. WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and WE need to increase the rate at which we facilitate emergence…

    Thanks for the prompt to reflect on a current snapshot of who I am becoming – not who I yet fully am. I am merely a switchboard operator trying to respond to the lights that I keep seeing, plugging the connections in, and helping the dialogue to start in emerging systems context 😉

    • January 31, 2015 3:50 pm

      Hello there Neil,

      From one switchboard operator to another, I resonate with where you’re at as well–particularly the process of collective discovery. Mary Parker Follett had a lot to say about this and I hope to feature more of her thoughts in the near future.

      One idea of hers I think is particularly relevant here is her philosophy of ‘circular response’. In her book “Creative Experience” she describes it as follows:

      I never react to you but to you-plus-me ; or to be more accurate, it is I-plus-
      you reacting to you-plus-me. ”I” can never influence ”you” because you have already influenced me; that is, in the very process of meeting, by the very process of meeting, we both become something different. It begins even before we meet, in the anticipation of
      meeting…Every movement we make is made up of a thousand reflex arcs and the or-
      ganization of those arcs began before our birth.
      (pp. 62-63)

      This obviously puts an entirely different spin on how to work with groups focused on a collective purpose, a spin I think we’ve yet to come to terms with.


  3. February 2, 2015 12:02 pm

    The last century let first movers get ahead with size and technology that allowed mass production, distribution or communication. In that paradigm, commoditization and conformity were factors for better ROI

    this wasn’t the best, just a step in progress. Now we’ve accelerated the rate of progress using principles at were always better for leading people and have enough tech to make things more transparent.

    Managers trained in the 20th century paradigm that work where these remnants of the conformity paradigm still function (big institutions) love to hear that a new process will allow them to stay in power and retain most of their structure. We’re hearing oxymoronic phrases like “change management”.. I can’t think of a better sign that someone is out of touch with reality.

    The king of the hill likes being on top of the hill. He’s not going to step down. Disruption is necessary.

  4. February 8, 2015 9:27 am

    Great post, David. The dominant discourse in management/leadership theory for most of the past hundred years has clearly been built on the Cartesian/Newtonian view of the universe. Universe – and human organization – as machine, has been the central metaphor. This has resulted in a chronic pattern of failed change efforts. The universe, as Meg Wheatley eloquently explained in “A Simpler Way” evolves through what she called “tinkering.” We must learn, understand, try, reflect, adapt, and repeat. Complexity is not some aberration that must- or even can- be “eliminated” “harnessed” or any of the similar words pedalled by many consultants.

    For decades, the dominance of the Newtonian/Cartesian viewpoint has resulted in what I call the Single Biggest Mistake. We too-often treat the complex, as if it were simple, or technical. We do this because of the Persistent Presumption that the causal link between the actions we take, and the results we will get, are prospectively known or knowable. Of course, that just isn’t so. Yet we set goals; we “benchmark” and try to do what others do, in a vain hooemof getting what they got; we blame others for failing to achieve what we told them to achieve… In complex challenges.

    As long as management and leadership remains shackled by fear (of failure; uncertainty; embarrassment; even success), we’ll be unable to fully adapt to the dynamics of our ever-changing world.

  5. February 20, 2015 9:35 am

    The recent book “Not Knowing – The Art of Turning Uncertainty Into Opportunity” is pretty interesting. Very well researched and written, you’ll recognize many of the references.


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