Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Towards a critical practice of management – a book review

leave a comment »


Management, as it is practiced, is largely about “getting things done.”  Consequently management education and research tends to focus on improving the means by which specified ends are achieved. The ends themselves are not questioned as rigorously as they ought to be. The truth of this is reflected in the high profile corporate scandals that have come to light over the last decade or so, not to mention the global financial crisis.

Today, more than ever, there is a need for a new kind of management practice, one in which managers critically reflect on the goals they  pursue and the means by which they aim to achieve them.  In their book entitled,  Making Sense of Management: A Critical Introduction,  management academics Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott describe what such an approach to management entails.  This post is a summary of the central ideas described in the book.

Critical theory and its relevance to management

The body of work that Alvesson and Willmott draw from is Critical Theory, a discipline that is based on the belief that knowledge ought to be based on dialectical reasoning – i.e. reasoning through dialogue – rather than scientific rationality alone. The main reason for this being that science (as it is commonly practiced) is value free and is therefore incapable of addressing problems that have a social or ethical dimension.  This idea is not new,  even scientists such as Einstein have commented on the limits of scientific reasoning.

Although Critical Theory has its roots in the Renaissance and Enlightenment,  its modern avatar is largely due to a group of German social philosophers who were associated with the Frankfurt-based Institute of Social Research which was established in the 1920s.   Among other things, these philosophers argued that knowledge in the social sciences  (such as management) can never be truly value-free or objective.  Our knowledge of social matters is invariably coloured by our background, culture, education and sensibilities. This ought to be obvious, but it isn’t:  economists continue to proclaim objective truths about the right way to deal with economic issues, and management gurus remain ready to show us the one true path to management excellence.

The present day standard bearer of the Frankfurt School is the German social philosopher, Juergen Habermas  who is best known for his theory of communicative rationality – the idea that open dialogue, free from any constraints is the most rational way to decide on matters of importance.  For a super-quick introduction to the basic ideas  of communicative rationality and its relevance in organisational settings, see my post entitled, More than just talk: rational dialogue in project environments. For a more detailed (and dare I say, entertaining) introduction to communicative rationality with examples drawn from The Borg and much more, have a look at Chapter 7 of my book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, co-written with Paul Culmsee.

The demise of command and control?

Many professional managers see their jobs in purely technical terms,  involving things such as administration, planning, monitoring etc.  They tend to overlook the fact that these technical functions are carried out within a  particular social and cultural context.  More to the point,  and this is crucial, managers work under constraints of power and domination: they are not free to do what they think is right but have to do whatever their bosses order them to,  and, so  in turn behave with their subordinates in exactly the same way.

As Alvesson and Willmott put it:

Managers are intermediaries between those who hire them and those whom they manage. Managers are employed to coordinate, motivate, appease and control the productive efforts of others. These ‘others’ do not necessarily share managerial agendas…

Despite the talk of autonomy and empowerment, modern day management is still very much about  control.  However, modern day employees are unlikely to accept a command and control approach to being managed, so organisations have taken recourse to subtler means of achieving the same result. For example, organisational culture initiatives aimed at getting employees to “internalise”the values of the organisation are attempts to “control sans command.”

The point is,  despite the softening of  the rhetoric  of management its principal focus remains much the same as it was in the days of Taylor and Ford.

A critical look at the status quo

A good place to start with a critical view of management is in the area of decision-making. Certain decisions,  particularly those made at executive levels,  can have a long term impact on an organisation and its employees. Business schools and decision theory texts tells us that decision-making is  a rational process. Unfortunately, reality belies that claim: decisions in organisations are more  often made on the basis of politics  and ideology rather than objective criteria.  This being the case, it is important that decisions be subject to critical scrutiny.  Indeed it is possible that many of the crises of the last decade could have been avoided if the decisions that lead to them had been subjected a to critical review.

Many of the initiatives that are launched in organisation-land have their origins in  executive-level decisions that are made on flimsy grounds  such as “best practice”  recommendations  from Big 4 consulting companies. Mid-level managers  who are required to see these through to completion are then faced with the problem of justifying these initiatives to the rank and file. Change management in modern organisation-land is largely about justifying the unjustifiable or defending the indefensible.

The critique, however, goes beyond just the practice of management.  For example, Alvesson and Willmott also draw attention to things such as the objectives of the organisation. They point out that short-sighted objectives such as “maximising shareholder value” is what lead to the downfall of companies such as Enron.  Moreover, they also remind us of an issue that is becoming increasingly important in today’s world: that natural resources are not unlimited and should be exploited in a judicious, sustainable manner.

As interesting and important as these “big picture” issues are, in the remainder of this post I’ll focus attention on management practices that impact mid and lower level employees.

A critical look at management specialisations

Alvesson and Willmott analyse organisational functions such as Human Resource Management (HRM), Marketing and Information Systems (IS) from a critical perspective. It would take far too many pages to do justice to their discussion so I’ll just present a brief summary of two areas: HR and IS.

The rhetoric of HRM in organisations stands in stark contradiction to its actions. Despite platitudinous sloganeering about empowerment etc., the actions of most HR departments are aimed at getting people to act and behave in organisationally acceptable ways.  Seen in a critical light, seemingly benign HR initiatives such as organizational culture events or self-management initiatives are exposed as being but subtle means of managerial control over employees.  (see this paper for an example of the former and this one for an example of the latter).

Since the practice of IS focuses largely on technology,  much of the IS  research and practice tends to focus on technology trends and “best practices.” As might be expected, the focus is on “fad of the month” and thus turns stale rather quickly. As examples: the 1990s saw an explosion of papers and projects in business process re-engineering; the flavour of the decade in the 2000s was service-oriented architecture; more recently, we’ve seen a great deal of hot air about the cloud.  Underlying a lot of technology related decision-making is the tacit assumption that choices pertaining to technology are  value-free and can be decided on the basis of  technical and financial criteria alone.  The profession as a whole tends to take an overly scientific/rational approach to design and  implementation, often ignoring issues such as power and politics.  It can be argued that many failures of large-scale IS projects are due to the hyper-rational approach taken by many practitioners.

In a similar vein, most management specialisations can benefit from the insights that come from taking a critical perspective.  Alvesson and Willmott discuss marketing, accounting and other functions. However,  since my main interest is in solutions rather than listing the (rather well-known) problems,  I’ll leave it here, directing the interested reader to the book for more.

Towards an enlightened practice of management

In the modern workplace it is common for employees to feel disconnected from their work, at least from time to time if not always. In a prior post, I discussed how this sense of alienation is a consequence of our work and personal lives being played out in two distinct spheres – the system and the lifeworld. In brief, the system refers to the professional and administrative sphere in which we work and/or  interact with institutional authority and the lifeworld is is the everyday world that we share with others. Actions in the lifeworld are based on a shared understanding of the issue at hand whereas those in the system are not.

From the critical analysis of management specialisations presented in the book, it is evident that the profession, being mired in a paradigm consisting of prescriptive, top-down practices, serves to perpetuate the system by encroaching on the lifeworld values of employees. There are those who will say that this is exactly how it should be. However, as Alvesson and Wilmott have stated in their book, this kind of thinking is perverse because it is ultimately self-defeating:

The devaluation of lifeworld properties is perverse because …At the very least, the system depends upon human beings who are capable of communicating effectively and who are not manipulated and demoralized to the point of being incapable of cooperation and productivity.

Alvesson and Willmott use the term emancipation, to describe any process whereby employees are freed from shackles of system-oriented thinking even if only  partially  (Note: here I’m using the term system in the sense defined above – not to be confused with systems thinking, which is another beast altogether). Acknowledging that it is impossible to do this at the level of an entire organisation or even a department, they coin the term micro-emancipation to describe any process whereby sub-groups of organisations are empowered to think through issues  and devise appropriate  actions by themselves, free (to the extent possible) from management constraints or directives.

Although this might sound much too idealistic to some readers, be assured that it is eminently possible to implement micro-emancipatory  practices in real world organisations. See this paper  for one possible framework that can be used within a multi-organisation project along with a detailed case study that shows how the framework can be applied in a complex project environment.

Alvesson and Willmott warn that emancipatory practices are not without costs, both for employers and employees. For example, employees who have gained autonomy may end up being less productive which will in turn affect their job security.  In my opinion, view, this issue can be addressed through an incrementalist approach wherein both employers and employees work together to come up with micro-emancipatory projects at the grassroots level, as in the case study described in the paper mentioned in the previous paragraph.

…and so to conclude

Despite the rhetoric of autonomy and empowerment, much of present-day management is stuck in a Taylorist/Fordist paradigm. In modern day organisations command and control may not be obvious, but they often sneak in through the backdoor in not-so-obvious ways. For example, employees almost always know that certain things are simply “out of bounds” for discussion and of the consequences of breaching those unstated boundaries can be severe.

In its purest avatar, a critical approach to management seeks to remove those boundaries altogether.  This is unrealistic because nothing will ever get done in an organisation in which everything is open for discussion; as is the case in all social systems, compromise is necessary. The concept of micro-emancipation offers just this. To be sure, one has to go beyond the rhetoric of empowerment to actually creating an environment that enables people to speak their minds and debate issues openly.   Though it is impossible to do this at the level of an entire organisation, it is definitely possible to achieve it (albeit approximately)  in small workgroups.

To conclude: the book is worth a read, not just by management researchers but also by practicing managers.  Unfortunately  the overly-academic style  may be a turn off for practitioners, the very people who need to read it the most.

Written by K

July 18, 2013 at 12:17 am

Free Will – a book review

with 12 comments

Did I write this review because I wanted to, or is it because my background and circumstances compelled me to?

Some time ago, the answer to this question would have been obvious to me but after reading Free Will by Sam Harris, I’m not so sure.

In brief: the book makes the case that the widely accepted notion of free will is little more than an illusion because our (apparently conscious) decisions originate in causes that lie outside of our conscious control.

Harris begins by noting that the notion of free will is based on the following assumptions:

  1. We could have behaved differently than we actually did in the past.
  2. We are the originators of our present thoughts and actions.

Then, in the space of eighty odd pages (perhaps no more than 15,000 words), he argues that the assumptions are incorrect and looks into some of the implications of his arguments.

The two assumptions are actually interrelated:  if it is indeed true that we are not the originators of our present thoughts and actions then it is unlikely that we could have behaved differently than we did in the past.

A key part of Harris’ argument is the scientifically established fact that we are consciously aware of only a small fraction of the activity that takes place in our brains. This has been demonstrated (conclusively?) by some elegant experiments in neurophysiology.   For example:

  • Activity in the brain’s motor cortex can be detected 300 milliseconds before a person “decides” to move, indicating that the thought about moving arises before the subject is aware of it.
  • Magnetic resonance scanning of certain brain regions can reveal the choice that will be made by a person 7 to 10 seconds before the person consciously makes the decision.

These and other similar experiments pose a direct challenge to the notion of free will: if  my  brain has  already decided on a course before I am aware of it , how can I  claim to be the author of my decisions and, more broadly, my destiny? As Harris puts it:

…I cannot decide what I will think next or intend until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know – it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?

The whole notion of free will, he argues, is based on the belief that we control our thoughts and actions.   Harris notes that although we may feel that are in control of the decisions we make, this is but an illusion: we feel that we are free, but this freedom is illusory because our actions are already “decided” before they appear in our consciousness.  To be sure, there are causes underlying our thoughts and actions, but the majority of these lie outside our awareness.

If we accept the above then the role that luck plays in determining our genes, circumstances, environment and attitudes cannot be overstated. Although we may choose to believe that we make our destinies, in reality we don’t.  Some people may invoke demonstrations of willpower – conscious mental effort to do certain things – as proof against Harris’ arguments. However, as Harris notes,

You can change your life and yourself through effort and discipline – but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment, and not a scintilla more (or less). You are either lucky in this department or you aren’t – and you can’t make your own luck.

Although I may choose to believe that I made the key decisions in my life, a little reflection reveals the tenuous nature of this belief.  Sure,   some decisions I have made resulted in experiences that I would not have had otherwise.   Some of those experiences undoubtedly changed my outlook on life, causing me to do things I would not have done had I not undergone those experiences.  So to that extent, those original choices changed my life.

The question is: could I have decided differently when making those original choices?

Or, considering an even more immediate example:   could I have chosen not to write this review? Or, having written it, could I have chosen not to publish it?

Harris tells us that this question is misguided because you will do what you do. As he states,

…you can do what you decide to do – but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.

We feel that we are free to decide, but the decision we make is the one we make. If we choose to believe that we are free to decide, we are free to do so. However, this is an illusion because our decisions arise from causes that we are unaware of. This is the central point of Harris’ argument.

There are important moral and ethical implications of the loss of free will. For example what happens to the notion of moral responsibility for actions that might harm others? Harris argues that we do not need to invoke the notion of free will in order to see that this is not right – as he tells us, what we condemn in others is the conscious intent to do harm.

Harris is careful to note that his argument against free will does not amount to a laissez-faire approach wherein people are free to do whatever comes to their minds, regardless of consequences for society. As he writes:

….we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can. And it is wise to hold people responsible for their actions when doing so influences their behavior and brings benefits to society….[however this does not need the] illusion of free will. We need only acknowledge that efforts matter and that people can change. [However] we do not change ourselves precisely – because we have only ourselves with which to do the changing -but we continually influence, and are influenced by, the world around us and the world within us. [italics mine]

Before closing I should mention some shortcomings of the book:

Firstly, Harris does not offer a detailed support for his argument.  Much of what he claims depends on the results of experiments research in neurophysiology that demonstrate the lag between the genesis of a thought in our brains and our conscious awareness of it, yet he describes only a handful experiments detail. That said there are references to many others in the notes.

Secondly, those with training in philosophy may find the book superficial as Harris does not discuss of alternate perspectives on free will.  Such a discussion would have provided much needed balance that some critics have taken him to task for (see this analysis  or this review  for example).

Although the book has the shortcomings I’ve noted, I have to say I enjoyed it because it made me think.  More specifically, it made me think about the way I think.  Maybe it will do the same for you, maybe not  – what happens in your case  may depend on thoughts that are beyond your control.

Written by K

October 28, 2012 at 9:45 pm

The pragmatics of project communication

with 18 comments


Much of the research literature and educational material on project communication focuses on artefacts such as business cases, status reports and lessons learned reports.  In an earlier post I discussed how these seemingly unambiguous documents are open to being interpreted in different or even contradictory ways. However, documents are only a small part of the story.  Much of the communication that takes place in a project involves direct interaction via dialogue between stakeholders. In this post, I discuss this interactional aspect of project communication, drawing on a book by Paul Watzlawick entitled, The Pragmatics of Human Communication.

The pragmatics of communication

Those who have done a formal course on communication may already be familiar with Watzlawick’s book. I have to say, I was completely ignorant of his work until I stumbled on it a few months ago. Although the book was published in 1967, it remains a popular text and an academic bestseller.  As such, it is a classic that should be mandatory reading for project managers and others who work in group settings.

Much of the communication literature focuses on syntactics (the rules of constructing messages) and semantics (the content, or information contained in messages). Watzlawick tells us that there is a third aspect, one that is often neglected: pragmatics, which refers to the behavioural or interactional aspect of communication. An example might help clarify what this means.

Let’s look at the case of a project manager who asks a team member about the status of a deliverable. The way the question is asked and the nature of the response says a lot about the relationship between the project manager and his or her team. Consider the following dialogues, for example:

“What is the status of the module? “ Asks the manager

“There have been some delays; I may be a couple of days late.”

“That’s unacceptable,” says the manager, shaking his head.


As opposed to:

“What is the status of the module? “ Asks the manager.

“There have been some delays. I may be a couple of days late.”

“  Is there anything I can do to help speed things  up?”


Among other things, the book presents informal rules or axioms that govern such exchanges.

The axioms of interactional communication and their relevance to project communication

In this section I discuss the axioms of interactional communication, using the example above to demonstrate their relevance to project communication.

In the presence of another person, it is impossible not to communicate: This point is so obvious as to often be overlooked:  silence amounts to communicating that one does not want to communicate.  For example, if in the first conversation above, the team member chooses not to respond to his manager’s comment that the delay is unacceptable, the manager is likely to see it as disagreement or even insubordination. The point is, there is nothing the team member can do that does not amount to a response of some kind. Moreover, the response the team member chooses to give determines the subsequent course of the conversation.

Every communication has two aspects to it:  content and relationship:  Spoken words and how they are strung together form the content of communication. Most communication models (such as sender-receiver model) focus on the coding, transmission and decoding (or interpretation) of content.  However, communication is more than just content; what matters is not only what is said, but how it is said and the context in which it is said. For instance, the initial attitude of the manager in the above example sets the tone for the entire exchange:  if he takes an adversarial attitude, the team member is likely to be defensive; on the other hand, if his approach is congenial the team member is more likely to look for ways to speed things up.  What is really important is that relationship actually defines content. In other words,  how a message is understood depends critically on the relationship between participants.

The relationship is defined by how participants perceive a sequence of exchanges: A dialogue consists of a sequence of exchanges between participants. However, the participants will punctuate the sequence differently. What the word punctuate means in this context can be made clear by referring back to our example above. If the team member feels (from previous experience) that the manager’s query is an assertion of authority, he may respond by challenging the basis of the question. For instance, he may say that he had to deal with other work that was more important. This may provoke the project manager to assert his authority even more strongly, thereby escalating discord…and so on. This leads to a situation that can be represented graphically as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Illustration of exchange

The important point here is that both participants believe they are reacting to the other’s unreasonableness:  the team member perceives groupings 1-2-3 , 3-4-5 , where his challenges are a consequence of the “over-assertive” behaviour of the project managers etc. whereas the project manager   perceives groupings 2-3-4, 4-5-6  etc., where his assertive behaviour is a consequence of the team member’s “gratuitous” challenges. In other words, each participant   punctuates the sequence of events in a way that rationalizes their responses.  The first step to resolving this problem lies in developing an understanding of the other’s punctuation – i.e. in reaching a shared understanding of the reason(s) behind the differing views.

Human communication consists of verbal and non-verbal elements: This axiom asserts that communication is more than words. The non verbal elements include (but are not limited to) gestures, facial expressions etc. Since words can either be used or not used, verbal communication has an binary (on/off) aspect to it.  Watzlawick refers to verbal communication as digital communication (and yes, it seems strange to use the term digital  in this context, but the book was published in 1967).  In contrast, non-verbal communication is more subtle; a frown may convey perplexity or anger in varying intensities, depending on other expressions and/or gestures that are used.   Watzlawick termed such communication as analogic.

In the context of our example, the digital aspects of the communication refer to the words spoken by the team member and the project manager whereas the analogic aspects refer to all other non-verbal cues – including emotions – that the participants choose to display.  The important point to note is that digital communication has a highly developed syntax but lacks the semantics to express relationships, whereas analogic communication has the semantics to express relationships well, but lacks the syntax. In lay terms, words cannot express how I feel; my gestures and facial expressions can, but they can also be easily misunderstood. This observation accounts for many of the misunderstandings that occur in project and other organizational dialogues.

All communicational interchanges are either symmetrical or complementary, depending on the relationship between those involvedSymmetry and complementarity refer to whether the relationship is based on equality of the participants or differences between them. For, example the relationship illustrated in figure 1 is symmetrical – the PM and the team member communicate in a manner that suggests they see each other as peers. On the other hand, if the team member had taken a submissive attitude towards the PM, the exchange would have been complementary. Seen in this light, symmetrical interactions are based on minimization of differences between the two communicators and complementary relationships are based on maximization of differences. It should be noted that one type of interaction is in no way better than the other – they are simply two different ways in which  communication-based interactions occur

Communication can be improved by strengthening relationships

In the interactional approach to communication, the relationship between participants is considered to be more important than the content of their communication.  Unfortunately, the relational aspects are the hardest to convey because of the ambiguity in sequence punctuation and the semantics of analogic communication.  These ambiguities are the cause of many vicious cycles of communication – an example being the case illustrated in Figure 1.

Indeed, the interactional view questions the whole notion of an objective reality of a particular communicative situation.  In the end, it matters little as to whose view is the “right” one. What’s more important is the recognition that a person’s perception of a particular communicative situation depends critically on how he or she punctuates it. As Watzlawick puts it:

In the communicational perspective, the question whether there is such a thing as an objective reality of which some people are more clearly aware than others is of relatively little importance compared to the significance of different views of reality due to different punctuations.

In their book, they also point out that it is impossible for participants to be fully aware of the relational aspects of  their communication (such as punctuation) because it is not possible to analyse a relationship objectively when one is living it. As they put it:

… awareness of how one punctuates is extremely difficult owing to another basic property of communication. Like all other complex conceptual systems which attempt to make assertions about themselves (e.g. language, logic, mathematics) communication typically encounters the paradoxes of self-reflexivity when trying to apply itself to itself. What this amounts to is that the patterns of communication existing between oneself and others cannot be fully understood, for it is simply impossible to be both involved in a relationship (which is indispensable in order to be related) and at the same time stand outside it as a detached, uninvolved observer…

The distinction between content and relationship is an important one. Among other things, it explains why those with opposing viewpoints fail to reach a genuine shared understanding even when they understand the content of the other positions.  The difficulty arises because they fail to relate to each other in an empathetic way. Techniques such as dialogue mapping help address relational issues by objectifying issues, ideas and arguments. Such approaches can take some of the emotion out of the debate and thus help participants gain a better appreciation of opposing viewpoints.

To sum up

The interactional view of communication tells us that relationships are central to successful communication. Although traditional project communication tools and techniques can help with the semantic and  syntactical elements of communication, the relational aspects can only be addressed by strengthening relationships between stakeholders and using techniques that foster open dialogue.

Written by K

October 7, 2011 at 5:14 am

%d bloggers like this: