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.
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.
Today I read much more deeply into how process thinking could unfold within organizations. The work today helped me realize a crucial distinction that, if followed somewhat courageously, could help to open an entirely new way of being within organizations and responding to the disruptions that are an increasingly common part of daily our experience.
For those of you reading along you already know that the last few days I’ve been contrasting a substance-thinking approach to organizational experience with a process-thinking perspective. (For those with no idea what I’m talking about, you may want to check out this and this.)
Returning, as I’ve been lately, to Tor Hernes’ great new book A Process Theory of Organization, the author draws the distinction between two very different approaches to understanding organizational processes. Hernes refers to these approaches as exogenous (meaning ‘caused by factors from the outside’) and endogenous (‘caused by factors inside’).
Process: An Outsider’s View
Briefly put, an exogenous orientation is the far more common view of organizational processes. It asserts that all components within organizational processes are the product or response to factors that are outside the domain of that process.
As an example, think of a process that involves the hiring of a new CEO; from an exogenous orientation, this process would be understood as, say, the result of ongoing financial difficulties that, in turn, led to the board of directors firing the former CEO, and appointing a committee to install a replacement.
In such a view, the process per se is seen as a separate phenomenon from the factors that initiated it.
Process: An Insider’s View
Now, on the other hand, an endogenous orientation takes a very different approach. An endogenous perspective–while acknowledging that certain events or influences may be considered external to the process—is aware that such separations as illusory.
From an endogenous perspective, all the factors that influence a process are in fact an integral part of it; and, conversely, the process is also an integral part of them. There is no separation.
With this in mind, consider what Tor Hernes has to say on the matter:
To state an endogenous view of process implies simply saying that all is in the process. ‘It’s all in the game’, as gangster Omar Little says in the television series The Wire. According to an endogenous view, processes are analyzed without assuming the direct influence of an external context. This implies, of course, not a rejection of the importance of context, but it considers context to be important only as it is responded to, and hence converted into experience. (p. 48)
It’s All Connected
So, back to our example of hiring a new CEO: Someone viewing this hiring process—with all its ups and downs, revelations and disruptions—and doing so from an endogenous perspective, would be keenly attuned to that process as an integral extension of all the actions that preceded it. That includes the financial difficulties, firing, related board actions, and the like.
It is all inter-connected in a myriad of ways that we can never fully appreciate or even perceive. (As I’m now starting to see, this perspective much also include all the so-called “disruptions” related to the experience. Obviously, that is a topic I’ll be exploring in a great deal of detail later on.)
John Shotter: Process Thinking & Intuitive Insight
So after I got a general understanding of process from both an exogenous and endogenous orientation, I shifted gears a bit and starting reading a piece by communications scholar John Shotter. Shotter’s 2006 article “Understanding Process From Within: An Argument for ‘Withness’-Thinking” lends some absolutely game-changing dimensions to Hernes’ ideas of an endogenous approach to process.
There’s not enough time or space to go into Shotter’s whole thesis now, however to quickly sum up his main point it would be this: If Hernes’ says ‘Nothing is outside of process’, Shotter appears to add ‘and that includes all each one of us too!”
In other words, Shotter rejects any insinuation that we are can in any way be detached participants in organizational processes. Shotter’s point is that we are not only part of the process, but the process is also part of us. He goes on to claim that even more importantly, by tuning into our reflexive relationship with process we open ourselves to a deep level of intuition that can help us to anticipate and strategize in the face of the inevitable ambiguities that await.
To quote Shotter:
…instead of thinking about changes in a living, indivisible state of affairs from the outside…we can begin to think in accord with their changing nature from within our living relations with them. For, if we can allow ourselves to be spontaneously responsive to the temporal unfolding of their expressive movements, then we can, of course, find that same unfolding movement within our own bodily-felt experience.
Clearly, there is a lot to digest here—especially if we begin to think not only about the experience of disruption, but also of our role in responding to it.
In the next few days, I’m going to continue my reading of both Herne’s book and Shotter’s article along with a few other pieces.
I’m sure that process will provide a few answers and many intriguing questions.
Clearly I’ve not been writing or posting nearly as much as I did earlier in the summer. The reason is that I’ve been spending a great deal of time reading and wrapping my head around some very important—and game-changing—material on process philosophy and its role in organizational thinking.
For a while, I feared I was losing important momentum (and I was) and heading down a path that would prove a fruitless distraction (and I was not). The exciting part about reading this work is that it has opened me to ideas that clarify and cohere the entire thesis.
In essence, for my dissertation process philosophy has now become the organizing “glue” uniting the disparate strands of my argument (complexity, disruption, narrative, relationality, phenomenology, etc., etc.) into a single cohesive whole. That’s really cool.
But to make it all fit I’ve got to rethink each piece of the puzzle from a process perspective. That’s what I’m trying to do now.
Process thinking via Hernes, Nayak & Chia
With that, I’ll share several recent passages that have proven quite thought-provoking. The first is from an amazingly great new book called A Process Theory of Organization by Tor Hernes, Ph.D. Hernes is a process-thinking organizational scholar from Copenhagen.
The subsequent two passages are from Drs. Ajit Nayak and Robert Chia from their chapter “Thinking Becoming and Emergence: Process Philosophy and Organization Studies”.
A point emerging from these thinkers—and I think it’s an important one—is that our notion of ‘disruption’ is predicated on a view of the world that pre-supposes predictable outcomes and continuity. Hernes points out that such a view of the world assumes that “substance” is “real” and “primary”–meaning it exists prior to anything we may later consider a “process”.
Process thinking, on the other hand, holds a very different understanding of the world. From a process perspective, process is what is “real” and “primary”. This means that anything considered stable and solid emerges from process, rather than the reverse.
So from a process perspective, disruption in an organization is just part of the process out of which that organization itself arises and is constituted. (Mind bending, no?) From this way of thinking, we might say disruptions are not the aberrations; the aberrations, in fact, are the solid entities—such as the organization itself—that are socially constructed in order to facilitate action and sensemaking.
Changing patterns of relationship & event clusterings
So with this in mind, Tor Hernes writes:
In mainstream organizational theory, organizations are commonly conceptualized as entities…adapting to an environment that changes between successive stable states….From a process perspective, the focus is inversed: it is stabilization, and not change, that needs to be explained, because the world is continually changing and organizing consists of attempts at stabilization to create a predictable world amid multiple possibilities. (p. 39)
Then, in describing a process perspective, Nayak and Chia (2011) write:
…social phenomena are not be construed as solid entities with state-like qualities. Individuals, organizations, and societies are deemed to be epiphenomena of primarily fluxing and changing patterns of relationships and event clusterings. (p. 284)
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)
That’s taken a while for me to get my head around; actually, that process is still going on. I’m particularly intrigued by this notion of “changing patterns of relationships and event clusterings”. That seems like a very important area meriting further exploration. Later on, that is.
But now, the greater question at this point arises…So what???
Yeah, so what? I mean, it’s all very interesting, but is there really any meaningful practical application of any of this? Or is this just all some kind of hoity-toity navel gazing??
The truth is, I don’t know. But I’ve got a hunch.
I believe that there is practical application—potentially a lot of it–and it is most likely already in play. At least, that’s what I am hoping to find through my research. At this point, I’m moving forward on the premise that within organizations we’re already engaging in process-based responses to disruption—but we don’t know it. It’s something we don’t think about too much because we haven’t yet given it names and labels.
All over the globe, these process-based actions and routines are “just what we do” day-in, day-out to work together, respond to disruption, and get the job done.
My hope is that by learning more about this “just what we do” action, we can then start to draw it out further and develop it into more sophisticated approaches that help us all move more easily forward.
More to follow. Soon.
Ok, so remember how I used to write nightly about my research??? No? Me neither.
Well, it’s been a bit longer than I would prefer, but the method literature I’ve been reading talks about periods of low output being a part of the process and where incubation/integration happens. So that smoke you’ve been seeing ?? It’s me incubating and integrating. (Good thing I have a vacation coming up.)
Happily, the writing gears are cranking again and I’m thrilled to feel the momentum vibe creeping back in. Tonight was a little over 1000 words. Much of that was recapping or summarizing the key themes addressed so far. In addition, after reading Edgar Schein (thanks Rebecca!) I’ve also gotten a much better idea about exactly how organizations silence any influences that would want to veer from the traditional linear, Newtonian thinking. (But more on that later.)
For now, here’s how it is all shaping up,starting with this important quote from C. Robert Mesle:
…the world is not finally made of “things” at all, if a “thing” is something that exists over time without changing. The world is composed of events and processes. (Mesle, pg. 8)
While this is a simple enough premise, if applied to the deeper aspects of how we think about the world and ourselves in it, the implications can be quite startling. This is particularly the case in organizations.
With this notion in mind, here where my thoughts are headed:
• In most organizations, the approach to change and/or disruption is not effective and often exacerbates problems.
• This disconnect arises because organizational thinking is generally based on a way of seeing the world that no longer fits the rapid, continual pace of information flows and knowledge creation.
• Typically, this thinking is based on a mechanistic, Newtonian view of the world.
• In organizations, this thinking is experienced as the asumtion that explicit strategies are needed to stay on course and meet challenges, and that the source of this strategy is leadership–specifically, the superior knowledge and ability of appointed leaders.
• As Crevani, Lindgren, and Packendorff point out “the basic reason behind the dominating view that ‘leadership’ is to be found in the qualities and the doings of individual leaders is the modernist notion of stable, distinct material entities as building blocks of reality (p. 2)
• Our challenges demand a process approach, but not just a process perspective (Crevani, Lindgren, Packendorff). What is demanded is a new process-oriented way of viewing the world and the human beings in it. In short, organizations need a process ontology.
• But this need creates it own set of challenges.
• Trouble arises because to reconceive the world from a process perspective challenges the West’s fundamental assumptions about human beings and the world.
• Schein calls these kinds of deeply held worldviews our basic assumptions.
• Schein says that when basic assumptions are challenged we experience an uncomfortable sensation of cognitive instability.
• In order to avoid cognitive instability, strong resistance and defensiveness take over.
• Within an organization, this creates resistance to any thinking—such as process thinking–that challenges a Newtonian-based substance view of the world.
• Process based thinking calls us to focus on the mundane micro-enactments (aka, the daily conversations and relationships) that people regularly engage in.
• To study this we have to look at what happens between individuals when they are responding to change and disruption.
• As Crevani, Lindgren, and Packendorff point out “If we want to take leadership research beyond the leader-centered heroic tradition, we must…try to redefine leadership into terms of activities in between people in interaction, and study what is being accomplished in that interaction without becoming preoccupied with what formal leaders do and think.
~Goodnight dear friends…
Tonight’s Sonic Fuel