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From inactivism to interactivism – managerial attitudes to planning

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Managers display a range of attitudes towards planning for the future.  In an essay entitled Systems, Messes and Interactive Planning, the management guru/philosopher Russell Ackoff classified attitudes to organizational planning into four distinct types which I describe in detail below. I suspect you may recognise examples of each of these in your organisation…indeed, you might even see shades of yourself :-)


This attitude, as its name suggests, is characterized by a lack of meaningful action. Inactivism is often displayed by managers in organisations that favour the status quo.  These organisations are happy with the way things are, and therefore see no need to change. However, lack of meaningful action does not mean lack of action. On the contrary, it often takes a great deal of effort to fend off change and keep things the way they are. As Ackoff states:

Inactive organizations require a great deal of activity to keep changes from being made. They accomplish nothing in a variety of ways. First, they require that all important decisions be made “at the top.” The route to the top is deliberately designed like an obstacle course. This keeps most recommendations for change from ever getting there. Those that do are likely to have been delayed enough to make them irrelevant when they reach their destination. Those proposals that reach the top are likely to be farther delayed, often by being sent back down or out for modification or evaluation. The organization thus behaves like a sponge and is about as active…

The inactive manager spends a lot of time and effort in ensuring that things remain the way they are. Hence they act only when a stituation forces them to. Ackoff puts it in his inimitable way by stating that, “Inactivist  managers tend to want what they get rather than get what they want.”


Reactivist managers are a step worse than inactivists  because they believe that disaster is already upon them. This is the type of manager who hankers after the “golden days of yore when things were much better than they are today.” As a result of their deep unease of where they are now, they may try to undo the status quo.  As Ackoff points out, unlike inactivists, reactivists do not ride the tide but try to swim against it.

Typically reactivist managers are wary of technology and new concepts. Moreover, they tend to give more importance to seniority and experience rather than proven competence. They also tend to be fans of simplistic solutions to complex problems…like “solving” the problem of a behind-schedule software project by throwing more people at it.


Preactivists are the opposite of reactivists in that they believe the future is going to be better than the past. Consequently, their efforts are geared towards understanding what the future will look like and how they can prepare for it.  Typically, preactive managers are concerned with facts, figures and forecasts; they are firm believers in scientific planning methods that they have learnt in management schools. As such, one might say that this is the most common species of manager in present  day organisations. Those who are not natural preactivists will fly the preactivist flag when they’re asked for their opinions by their managers because it’s the expected answer.

A key characteristic of preactivist managers is that they tend to revel in creating plans rather than implementing them. As Ackoff puts it, “Preactivists see planning as a sequence of discrete steps which terminate with acceptance or rejection of their plans. What happens to their plans is the responsibility of others.


Interactivists planners are not satisfied with the present, but unlike reactivists or preactivists, they do not hanker for the past, nor do they believe the future is automatically going to be better. They do want to make things better than they were or currently are, but they are continually adjusting their plans for the future by learning from and responding to events.  In short, they believe they can shape the future by their actions.

Experimentation is the hallmark of interactivists.  They are willing to try different approaches and learn from them. Although they believe in learning by experience, they do not want to wait for experiences to happen; they would rather induce them by (often small-scale) experimentation.

Ackoff labels interactivists as idealisers – people who pursue ideals they know cannot be achieved, but can be approximated or even reformulated in the light of new knowledge. As he puts it:

They treat ideals as relative absolutes: ultimate objectives whose formulation depends on our current knowledge and understanding of ourselves and our environment. Therefore, they require continuous reformulation in light of what we learn from approaching them.

To use a now fashionable term, interactivists are intrapreneurs.


Although Ackoff shows a clear bias towards  interactivists in his article, he does mention that specific situations may call for other types of planners. As he puts it:

Despite my obvious bias in my characterization of these four postures, there are circumstances in which each is most appropriate. Put simply, if the internal and external dynamics of a system (the tide) are taking one where one wants to go and are doing so quickly enough, inactivism is appropriate. If the direction of change is right but the movement is too slow, preactivism is appropriate. If the change is taking one where one does not want to go and one prefers to stay where one is or was, reactivism is appropriate. However, if one is not willing to settle for the past, the present or the future that appears likely now, interactivism is appropriate.

The key point he makes is that inactivists and preactivists treat planning as a ritual because they see the future as something they cannot change. They can only plan for it (and hope for the best). Interactivists, on the other hand, look for opportunities to influence events and thus potentially change the future. Although both preactivists and interactivists are forward-looking, interactivists tend to be long-term thinkers as compared to preactivists who are more concerned about the short to medium term future.


Ackoff’s classification of planners in organisations is interesting because it highlights the kind of future-focused attitude that managers ought to take.  The sad fact, though, is that a significant number of managers are myopic preactivists, focused on this year’s performance targets rather than what their organisations might look like five or even ten years down the line. This is not the fault of individuals, though. The blame for the undue prevalence of myopic preactivism can be laid squarely on the deep-seated management dogma that rewards short-termism.

Written by K

August 20, 2015 at 9:30 pm

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the management fetish

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As narrated by Dr. John Watson, M.D.

As my readers are undoubtedly aware,  my friend Sherlock Holmes is widely feted for his powers of logic and deduction.  With all due modesty, I can claim to have played a small part in publicizing his considerable talents, for I have a sense for what will catch the reading public’s fancy and, perhaps more important, what will not. Indeed, it could be argued  that his fame is in no small part due to the dramatic nature of the exploits which I have chosen to publicise.

Management consulting, though far more lucrative than criminal investigation, is not nearly as exciting.  Consequently my work has become that much harder since Holmes reinvented himself as a management expert.  Nevertheless, I am firmly of the opinion that the long-standing myths  exposed by  his  recent work more than make up for any lack of suspense or drama.

A little known fact is that many of Holmes’ insights into flawed management practices have come after the fact, by discerning common themes that emerged from different cases. Of course this makes perfect sense:  only after seeing the same (or similar) mistake occur in a variety of situations can one begin to perceive an underlying pattern.

The conversation I had with him last night  is an excellent illustration of this point.

We were having dinner at Holmes’ Baker Street abode  when, apropos of nothing, he remarked, “It’s a strange thing, Watson, that our lives are governed by routine. For instance, it is seven in the evening, and here we are having dinner, much like we would on any other day.”

“Yes, it is,” I said, intrigued by his remark.  Dabbing my mouth with a napkin, I put down my fork and waited for him to say more.

He smiled. “…and do you think that is a good thing?”

I thought about it for a minute before responding. “Well, we follow routine because we like…or need… regularity and predictability,” I said. “Indeed, as a medical man, I know well that our bodies have built in clocks that drive us to do things – such as eat and sleep – at regular intervals.  That apart, routines give us a sense of comfort and security in an unpredictable world. Even those who are adventurous have routines of their own. I don’t think we have a choice in the matter, it’s the way humans are wired.” I wondered where the conversation was going.

Holmes cocked an eyebrow. “Excellent, Watson!” he said. “Our propensity for routine is quite possibly a consequence of our need for security and comfort ….but what about the usefulness of routines – apart from the sense of security we get from them?”

“Hmmm…that’s an interesting question. I suppose a routine must have a benefit, or at least a perceived benefit…else it would not have been made into a routine.”

“Possibly,” said Holmes, “ but let me ask you another question.  You remember the case of the failed projects do you not?”

“Yes, I do,” I replied. Holmes’ abrupt conversational U-turns no longer disconcert me, I’ve become used to them over the years. I remembered the details of the case like it had happened yesterday…indeed I should, as it was I who wrote the narrative!

“Did anything about the case strike you as strange?” he inquired.

I mulled over the case, which (in hindsight) was straightforward enough. Here are the essential facts:

The organization suffered from a high rate of project failure (about 70% as I recall). The standard prescription – project post-mortems followed by changes in processes aimed at addressing the top issues revealed – had failed to resolve the issue. Holmes’ insightful diagnosis was that the postmortems identified symptoms, not causes.  Therefore the measures taken to fix the problems didn’t work because they did not address the underlying cause. Indeed, the measures were akin to using brain surgery to fix a headache.  In the end, Holmes concluded that the failures were a consequence of flawed organizational structures and norms.

Of course flawed structures and norms are beyond the purview of a mere project or  program manager. So Holmes’ diagnosis, though entirely correct, did not help Bryant (the manager who had consulted us).

Nothing struck me as unduly strange as  went over the facts mentally. No,” I replied, “but what on earth does that have to do with routine?”

He smiled. “I will explain presently, but I have yet another question for you before I do so.  Do you remember one of our earliest management consulting cases – the affair of the terminated PMO?”

I replied in the affirmative.

“Well then,  you see the common thread running through the two cases, don’t you?” Seeing my puzzled look, he added, “think about it for a minute, Watson, while I go and fetch dessert.”

He went into the kitchen, leaving me to ponder his question.

The only commonality I could see was the obvious one – both cases were related to the failure of PMOs. (Editor’s note: PMO = Project Management Office)

He returned with dessert a few minutes later. “So, Watson,” he said as he sat down, “have you come up with anything?

I told him what I thought.

“Capital, Watson! Then you will, no doubt, have asked yourself the obvious next question. ”

I saw what he was getting at. “Yes!  The question is: can this observation be generalised?  Do majority of PMOs fail? ”

“Brilliant, Watson.  You are getting better at this by the day.” I know Holmes  does not intend to sound condescending, but the sad fact is that he often does.  “Let me tell you,” he continued, “Research   suggests that 50% of PMOs fail within three years of being set up. My hypothesis is that failure rate would be considerably higher if the timeframe is increased to five or seven years. What’s even more interesting is that there is a single overriding complaint about PMOs:  the majority of stakeholders surveyed felt that their PMOs are overly bureaucratic, and generally hinder project work.”

“But isn’t that contrary to the aim of a  PMO – which, as I understand, is to facilitate project work?” I queried.

“Excellent, my dear Watson. You are getting close to the heart of the matter.

“I am?”  To be honest, I was a little lost.

“Ah Watson, don’t tell me you do not see it,” said Holmes exasperatedly.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to explain,” I replied curtly. Really, he could insufferable at times.

“I shall do my best. You see, there is a fundamental contradiction between the stated mission and actual operation of a typical PMO.  In theory, they are supposed to facilitate projects, but as far as executive management is concerned this is synonymous with overseeing and controlling projects. What this means is that in practice, PMOs inevitably end up policing project work rather than facilitating it.”

I wasn’t entirely convinced.  “May be the reason that  PMOs fail is that organisations do not implement them correctly,” I said.

“Ah, the famous escape clause used by purveyors of best practices – if our best practice doesn’t work, it means you aren’t implementing it correctly. Pardon me while I choke on my ale, because that is utter nonsense.”


“Well, one would expect after so many years, these so-called implementation errors would have been sorted out. Yet we see the same poor outcomes over and over again,” said Holmes.

“OK,  but then why are PMOs are still so popular with management?”

“Now we come to the crux of matter, Watson,” he said, a tad portentously, “They are popular for reasons we spoke of at the start of this conversation – comfort and security.”

“Comfort and security? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Let me try explaining this in another way,” he said. “When you were a small child, you must have had some object that you carried around everywhere…a toy, perhaps…did you not?”

“I’m not sure I should tell you this Holmes  but, yes, I had a blanket”

“A security blanket, I would never have guessed, Watson,” smiled Holmes. “…but as it happens that’s a perfect example because PMOs and the methodologies they enforce are  security blankets. They give executives and frontline managers a sense that they are doing something concrete and constructive to manage uncertainty…even though they actually aren’t.   PMOs are popular , not because they work (and indeed, we’ve seen they don’t)  but because they help managers contain their anxiety about whether things will turn out right. I would not be exaggerating if I said that  PMOs and the methodologies they evangelise are akin to lucky charms or fetishes.”

“That’s a strong a statement to make on rather slim grounds,” I said dubiously.

“Is it? Think about it, Watson,” he shot back, with a flash of irritation. “Many (though I should admit, not all) PMOs and methodologies prescribe excruciatingly detailed procedures to follow and templates to fill when managing projects. For many (though again, not all) project managers, managing a project is synonymous with following these rituals. Such managers attempt to force-fit  reality into standardised procedures and documents. But tell me, Watson – how can such project management by ritual work  when no two projects are the same?”


“That is not all, Watson,” he continued, before I could respond, “PMOs and methodologies enable people to live in a fantasy world where everything seems to be under control. Methodology fetishists will not see the gap between their fantasy world and reality, and will therefore miss opportunities to learn. They follow rituals that give them security and an illusion of efficiency, but at the price of a genuine engagement with people and projects.”

“ I’ll have to think about it,” I said.

“You do that,” he replied , as he pushed back his chair and started to clear the table. Unlike him, I had a lot more than dinner to digest. Nevertheless, I rose to help him as I do every day.

Evening conversations at 221B Baker Street are seldom boring. Last night was no exception.


This tale was inspired David Wastell’s brilliant paper, The fetish of technique: methodology as social defence (abstract only).

Written by K

April 29, 2015 at 8:37 pm

Conditions over causes: towards an emergent approach to building high-performance teams

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Much of the work that goes on in organisations is done by groups of people who work together in order to achieve shared objectives. Given this, it is no surprise that researchers have expended a great deal of effort in building theories about how teams work. However, as Richard Hackman noted in this paper,  more than 70 years of research (of ever-increasing sophistication) has not resulted in a true understanding of the factors that give rise to high-performing teams.  The main reason for this failure is that:

“…groups are social systems. They redefine objective reality, they create new realities (both for their members and in their system contexts), and they evolve their own purposes and strategies for pursuing those purposes. Groups are not mere assemblies of multiple cause–effect relationships; instead, they exhibit emergent and dynamic properties that are not well captured by standard causal models.”

Hackman had a particular interest in leadership as a causal factor in team performance.  One of the things he established is that leadership matters a whole lot less than is believed…or, more correctly, it matters for reasons that are not immediately obvious. As he noted:

“…60 per cent of the difference in how well a group eventually does is determined by the quality of the condition-setting pre-work the leader does. 30 per cent is determined by how the initial launch of the group goes. And only 10 per cent is determined by what the leader does after the group is already underway with its work. This view stands in stark contrast to popular images of group leadership—the conductor waving a baton throughout a musical performance or an athletic coach shouting instructions from the sidelines during a game.”

Although the numbers quoted above can be contested, the fact is that as far as team performance is concerned, conditions matter more than the quality of leadership. In this post, I draw on Hackman’s paper as well as my work (done in collaboration with Paul Culmsee) to argue that the real work of leaders is not to lead (in the conventional sense of the word) but to create the conditions in which teams can thrive.

The fundamental attribution error

Poor performance of teams is often attributed to a failure of leadership. A common example of this is when the coach of a sporting team is fired after a below par season. On the flip side, CxOs can earn big-buck dollar bonuses when their companies make or exceed their financial targets because they are seen as being directly responsible for the result.

Attributing the blame or credit for the failure or success of a team to a specific individual is called the leadership attribution error. Hackman suggested that this error is a manifestation of a human tendency to assign greater causal priority to factors that are more visible than those that are not: leaders tend to be in the limelight more than their teams and are therefore seen as being responsible for their teams’ successes and failures.

This leader-as-hero (or villain!)  perspective has fueled major research efforts aimed at pinning down those elusive leadership skills and qualities that can magically transform teams into super-performing ensembles.  This has been accompanied by a burgeoning industry of executive training programmes to impart these “scientifically proven” skills to masses of managers. These programmes, often clothed in the doublespeak of organisation culture, are but subtle methods of control that serve to establish directive approaches to leadership. Such methods rarely (if ever) result in high-performing organisations or teams.

An alternate approach to understanding team performance

The failure to find direct causal relationships between such factors and team performance led Hackman to propose a perspective that focuses on structural conditions instead. The basic idea in this alternate approach is to focus on the organisational and social conditions that enable the team to perform well.

This notion of  conditions over causes is relevant in other related areas too. Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Innovation: Most attempts to foster innovation focus on exhorting people to be creative and/or instituting innovation training programmes (causal approach). Such approaches usually result in  innovation of an incremental kind at best.  Instead, establishing a low pressure environment that enables people to think for themselves and follow-up on their ideas without fear of failure generally meets with more success (structural approach).
  2. Collaboration: Organisations generally recognise the importance of collaboration. Yet, they attempt to foster in the worst possible way: via the establishment of cross-functional teams without clear mandates or goals and/or forced team-building exercises that have the opposite effect to the one intended (causal approach).  The alternate approach is to simplify reporting lines, encourage open communication across departments  and generally make it easy for people from different specialisations to work together in informal groups (structural approach). A particularly vexing intra-departmental separation that I have come across recently is the artificial division of responsibilities between information systems development and delivery. Such a separation results in reduced collaboration and increased finger pointing.

That said, let’s take a look at Hackman’s advice on how to create an environment conducive to teamwork.  Hackman identified the following five conditions that tend to correlate well with improved team performance:

  • The group must be a real team– i.e. it must have clear boundaries (clarity as to who is a member and who isn’t), interdependence (the performance of every individual in the team must in some way depend on others in the team) and stability (membership of the team should be stable over time).
  • Compelling direction– the team must have a goal that is clear and worth pursuing. Moreover, and this is important, the team must be allowed to determine how the goal is to be achieved – the end should be prescribed, not the means.
  • The structure must enable teamwork– The team should be structured in a way that allows members to work together. This consists of a couple of factors: 1) The team must be of the right size – as small and diverse as possible (large, homogenous teams are found to be ineffective), and 2) There must be clear norms of conduct. Note that Hackman lists these two as separate points in his paper.
  • Supportive organizational context– the team must have the organisational resources that enable it to carry out its work. For example, access to the information needed for the team to carry out its work and access to technical and subject matter experts.  In addition, there should be a transparent reward system that provides recognition for good work.
  • Coaching– the team must have access to a mentor or coach who understands and has the confidence of the team. Apart from helping team members tide over difficult situations, a good coach should be able to help them navigate organizational politics and identify emerging threats and opportunities that may not be obvious to them.

To reiterate, these are structural rather than causal factors in that they do not enhance team performance directly. Instead, when present, they tend to encourage behaviours that enhance team performance and suppress those that don’t. 

Another interesting point is that some of these factors are more important than others. For example, Ruth Wageman found that team design (the constitution and structure of the team) is about four times more important than coaching in affecting the team’s ability to manage itself and forty times as powerful in affecting team performance (see this paper for details). Although the numbers should not be taken at face value, Wageman’s claim reiterates the main theme of this article: that structural factors matter more than causal ones.

The notion of a holding environment

One of the things I noticed when I first read Hackman’s approach is that it has some similarities to the one that Paul and I advocated in our book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.

The Heretic’s Guide is largely about collaborative approaches to managing (as opposed to solving!) complex problems in organisations. Our claim is that the most intractable problems in organisations are consequences of social rather than technical issues. For example, the problem of determining the “right” strategy for an organisation cannot be settled on objective grounds because the individuals involved will have diverse opinions on what the organisation’s focus should be.  The process of arriving at a consensual strategy is, therefore, more a matter of dealing with this diversity than reaching an objectively right outcome.  In other words, it is largely about achieving a common view of what the strategy should be and then building a shared commitment to executing it.

The key point is that there is no set process for achieving a shared understanding of a problem. Rather, one needs to have the right environment (structure!) in which contentious issues can be discussed openly without fear.  In our book we used the term holding environment to describe a safe space in which such open dialogue can take place.

The theory of communicative rationality formulated by the German philosopher, Juergen Habermas, outlines the norms that operate within a holding environment. It would be too long a detour to discuss Habermas’ work in any detail – see this paper or chapter 7 of our book to find out more. What is important to note is that an ideal holding environment has the following norms:

  1. Inclusion
  2. Autonomy
  3. Empathy
  4. Power neutrality
  5. Transparency

Problem is, some of these are easier to achieve than others. Inclusionautonomy and power neutrality can be encouraged by putting in place appropriate organisational structures and rules. Empathy and transparency, however, are typically up to the individual. Nevertheless, conditions that enable the former will also encourage (though not guarantee) the latter.

In our book we discuss how such a holding environment can be approximated in multi-organisational settings such as large projects.  It would take me too far afield to get into specifics of the approach here. The point I wish to make, however, is that the notion of a holding environment is in line with Hackman’s thoughts on the importance of environmental or structural factors.

In closing

Some will argue that this article merely sets up and tears down a straw man, and that modern managers are well  aware of the pitfalls of a directive approach to leading teams. Granted, much has been written about the importance of setting the right conditions (such as autonomy)…and it is possible that many managers are aware of it too. The point I would make is that this awareness, if it exists at all, has not been translated into action often enough.  As a result, the gap between the rhetoric and reality of leadership remains as wide as ever – managers talk the talk of leadership, but do not walk it.

Perhaps this is because many (most?) managers are reluctant let go the reins of control when they know they will be held responsible if things were to go belly-up.  The few who manage to overcome their fears know that it requires the ability to trust others, as well as the courage and integrity to absorb the blame  when things go wrong (as they inevitably will from time to time). These all too rare qualities are essential for the approach described here to truly take root and flourish.  In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that the  biggest challenges associated with building high-performance teams are ethical rather than technical ones.

Further Reading

Don’t miss Paul Culmsee’s entertaining and informative posts on the conditions over causes approach in enterprise IT and project management.

Written by K

January 29, 2015 at 9:03 pm

Heraclitus and Parmenides – a metalogue about organizational change

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Organizations are Heraclitian, but Parmenides is invariably in charge.” –Stafford Beer (paraphrased)

Heraclitus: Hello Parmenides, it’s been a while!  What have you been up to since we last met?

Parmenides: Heraclitus, it is good to see you my old friend. You’re not going to believe it, but I’ve been doing some consulting work on managing change in organizations.

Heraclitus:  [laughs] You’re right, that is beyond belief, particularly in view of your philosophical position on change. So, have you recanted? Have you now come around to the truth that everything changes and nothing stands still?

Parmenides: Ah, yes I am familiar with your views on change my friend, but I hate to disappoint you.  My position remains the same as before:  I still believe that the world is essentially unchanging. The key word here is “essentially” – by which I mean that the changes we see around us are superficial and that the essential properties of the world do not change. Indeed, as paradoxical as it may sound, understanding this unchanging essence enables us to manage superficial changes such as those that happen in organizations.

Heraclitus:  I’m not sure I understand what you mean by unchanging essence and superficial change...

Parmenides:  OK, let me try explaining this using an example. Let us consider the case of a physical law and a real world situation to which it applies. A concrete instance of this would be Newton’s Law of Gravitation and the motion of a spacecraft.  The former represents the unchanging essence while the latter represents one of its manifestations. The point is this:  the real world (as represented by a moving spacecraft) appears to be ever changing, but the underlying unity of the world (as represented by Newton’s law) does not change. If one understands the underlying unchanging laws then one has the power to predict or control the superficial changes.

Heraclitus:  Hmm….I don’t see how it relates to organizations.  Can you give me a more down to earth illustration from your work? For example: what is the “unchanging essence” in organizational change?

Parmenides:  That’s easy: the unchanging essence is the concept of an organization and the principles by which they evolve.  Consultants like me help organizations improve performance by influencing or adjusting certain aspects of their structure and interactions. However, the changes we facilitate do not affect the essence of the entities we work with. Organizations remain organizations, and they evolve according to universal laws despite the changes we wrought within them.

Heraclitus: Ah Parmenides, you are mistaken: concepts and principles evolve in time; they do not remain constant. Perhaps I can convince you of this by another means.  Tell me, when you go into an organization to do your thing, how do you know what to change?

Parmenides:  Well, we carry out a detailed study by talking to key stakeholders and then determine what needs to be done.  There are a host of change models that have come out of painstaking research and practice.  We use these to guide our actions.

Heraclitus: Are these models  akin to the physical laws you mentioned earlier?

Parmenides:  Yes, they are.

Heraclitus: But all such models are tentative; they are always being revised in the light of new knowledge. Theory building in organizational research (or any other area) is an ongoing process. Indeed, even physics, the most exact of sciences, has evolved dramatically over the last two millennia – consider how  our conception of the solar system has changed from Ptolemy to Copernicus. For that matter, even our understanding of gravity is no longer the same as it was in Newton’s time. The “unchanging essence” – as you call it – is but a figment of your imagination.

Parmenides:  I concede that our knowledge of the universe evolves over time. However, the principles that underlie its functioning don’t change.  Indeed, the primary rationale behind all scientific inquiry is to find those eternal principles or truths.

Heraclitus: It is far from clear that the principles are unchanging, even in a so-called exact discipline like physics.  For example, a recent proposal suggests that the laws of physics evolve in time.  This seems even more likely for social systems: the theory and practice of management in the early twentieth century is very different from what it is now, and with good reason too – contemporary organizations are nothing like those of a century ago.  In other words, the “laws” that were valid then (if one can call them that) are different from the ones in operation now.

Parmenides:   You’re seduced by superficial change – you must look beneath surface appearances!  As for the proposal that the laws of physics evolve in time, I must categorically state that it is a minority view that many physicists disagree with  (Editor’s note: see this rebuttal for example)

Heraclitus: I take your point about the laws of physics…but I should mention that history is replete with “minority views” that were later proven to be right.  However, I cannot agree with your argument about superficial change because it is beyond logic. You can always deem any change as being superficial, however deep it may be. So let me try to get my point across in yet another way. You had mentioned that you use management principles and models to guide your actions. Could you tell me a bit more about how this works in practice?

Parmenides:  Sure, let me tell you about an engagement that we recently did for a large organization. The problem they came to us with was that their manufacturing department was simply not delivering what their customers expected.  We did a series of interviews with senior and mid-level managers from the organisation as well as a wide spectrum of staff and customers and found that the problem was a systemic one – it had  more to do with the lack of proper communication channels across the organisation  rather than an issue with a specific department. Based on this we made some recommendations to restructure the organisation according to best practices drawn from organisational theory.  We then helped them implement our recommendations.

Heraclitus: So you determined the change that needed to be made and then implemented the change over a period of time. Is that right?

Parmenides: Well, yes…

Heraclitus: And would I be right in assuming that the change took many months to implement?

Parmenides: Yes, about a year actually…but why does that matter?

Heraclitus:  Bear with me for a minute. Were there any significant surprises along the way? There must have been things that happened that you did not anticipate.

Parmenides: Of course, that goes with the territory; one cannot foresee everything.

Heraclitus: Yet you persisted in implementing the changes you had originally envisioned them.

Parmenides: Naturally! We had determined what needed to be done, so we went ahead and did it. But what are you getting at?

Heraclitus: It’s quite simple really. The answer lies in a paradox formulated by your friend Zeno: you assumed that the organization remains static over the entire period over which you implemented your recommendations.

Parmenides:  I did not say that!

Heraclitus:  You did not say it, but you assumed it.  Your recommendations for restructuring were based on information that was gathered at a particular point in time – a snapshot so to speak. Such an approach completely overlooks the fact that organisations are dynamic entities that change in unforeseen ways that models and theories cannot predict. Indeed, by your own admission, there were significant but unanticipated events and changes that occurred along the way.  Now you might claim that those changes were superficial, but that won’t wash because you did not foresee those changes at the start and therefore could not have known whether they would be superficial or not.

Parmenides:   Well, I’m not sure I agree with your logic my dear Heraclitus. And in any case, my approach has the advantage of being easy to understand. I don’t think decision-makers would trust a consultant who refuses to take action because every little detail about the future cannot be predicted.

Heraclitus: Admitting ignorance about the future is the first step towards doing something about it.

Parmenides: Yes, but you need to have a coherent plan, despite an uncertain future.

Heraclitus: True, but a coherent plan can be incremental…or better, emergent –  where planned actions are adjusted in response to unexpected events that occur as one goes along. Such an approach is better than one based on a snapshot of an organisation at a particular point in time.

Parmenides:  Try selling that approach to a CEO, my friend!

Heraclitus: I know, organizations are ever-changing, but those who run them are intent on maintaining a certain status quo. So they preach change, but do not change the one thing that needs changing the most – themselves.

Parmenides: [shakes his head] Ah, Heraclitus, I do not wish to convert you to my way of thinking, but I should mention that our differences are not of theoretical interest alone:  they spell the difference between being a cashed-up consultant and a penurious philosopher.

Heraclitus: [laughs] At last we have something we can agree on.

Further reading:

Beer, Stafford (1997), “The culpabliss error: A calculus of ethics for a systemic world,” Systems Practice, Vol 10, No. 4. Pp. 365-380. Available online at: http://rd.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02557886

Note: the quote at the start of this piece is a paraphrasing of the following line from the paper: “Society is Heraclitian; but Parmenides is in charge.”

Written by K

August 14, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Professionals or politicians? A client’s guide to management consultants

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The general image of management consultants in contemporary society is somewhat ambiguous.  To take two rather extreme views: high achievers in universities may see management consulting as a challenging (and well paying!) profession that offers opportunities to make a positive difference to organisations, whereas those on the receiving end of a consultant-inspired restructure may see the profession as an embodiment of much that is wrong with the present-day corporate world.

The truth, as always, is not quite so black and white. In this post I explore this question by taking a look at the different types of consultants one may encounter in the wilds of the corporate jungle. My discussion is based on a typology of management consultants proposed by Mats Alvesson and Anders Johansson in a paper published in this book (see citation at the end of this post for the full reference).


There is a considerable body of research on management consulting, most of which is tucked away in the pages of management journals and academic texts that are rarely read by professionals. It would take me too far afield to do even a cursory review of this literature so I’ll not go there, except to point out that much of the work can be classified as either strongly pro- or anti-consultant. This in itself is revealing: academics are just as divided in their opinions about consultants as professionals are.  Indeed, to see just how strong the opinions are, here’s a small list of paper / book titles from the pro and anti-consultant camps


Management Consulting as a Developer of SMEs

Process Consultation, Vol 1: Its Role in Organization Development


The Management Guru as an Organizational Witch Doctor

The Violent Rhetoric of Re-engineering: Management Consultancy on the Offensive

These titles have been taken from the reference list in Alvesson and Johansson’s paper. A quick search on Amazon will reveal many more.

The pro camp depicts consultants as rational, selfless experts who solve complex problems for their clients, sometimes at considerable personal cost. The anti camp portrays them as politically-motivated, self-interested individuals whose main aim is to build relationships that ensure future work.  The classification proposed by Alvesson and Johansson puts these extreme views in perspective.

A classification of management consultants

Alvesson and Johansson classify consultants into the following categories based on consultants’ claims to professionalism and their preferred approaches to dealing with political issues:

Esoteric experts

These consultants typically offer high expertise in some specialized area. Some examples of these include IT consultants specializing in complex products (such as ERP systems) and tax experts who have specialized knowledge typically not possessed by those who work within business organisations.  As one might expect, esoteric experts have strong claims to professionalism.

One might think that such consultants have little need to play political games as their skill/knowledge does not threaten anyone within organizations. However, this is not always so because esoteric experts may portray themselves as being experts when they actually aren’t. In such cases they would have to use their social and political skills to cover up for their shortcomings. Perhaps more important, esoteric experts may also play politics to secure future gigs.

Typical clients of esoteric experts are purchasers of large IT systems, small organisations in occasional need of specialized skills (lawyers, accountants etc.) and so on.

Brokers of meaning

Brokers of meaning are sense makers: they help clients make sense of difficult or ambiguous situations. Typically brokers of meaning act as facilitators, teachers or idea-generators, who work together with clients to produce meaning.  They often do not have deep technical knowledge like esoteric experts, but instead have a good understanding of human nature and the socio-political forces within organizations.

Brokers of meaning typically do not indulge in overt politics as the success of their engagements depends largely on their ability to gain the trust of a wide spectrum of stakeholders within the organization.  That said, such consultants, once they have gained trust of a large number of people within an organization, are often able to influence key stakeholders in particular directions.  Another way in which brokers of meaning influence decisions is through the skillful use of language –  for example, depending on how one wants to portray it, an employee taking the initiative can be called gung-ho (negative) or proactive (positive).

Typical clients of brokers of meaning are managers who are faced with complex decisions.

Traders in trouble

The archetypal trader in trouble is the hatchet-man who is employed by a senior executive who wants to reduce costs.  Since the work of these consultants typically involves a great deal of organizational suffering, they are careful to cast their aims in neutral or objective language.  Indeed, much of the corporate doublespeak around layoffs (e.g. rightsizing) and cost reduction initiatives (e.g. productivity improvements) originated from traders in trouble.   Typical outcomes of such consulting engagements involve massive restructuring on an organization-wide scale, often resulting in a lot of pain for minimal gain.

The work of such consultants is necessarily political – they must support senior management at all costs. Indeed this is another reason that they go to great lengths to portray their proposed solutions as being rational.  On the other hand, their claim to professional knowledge is ambiguous as they often have to (knowingly) forgo actions that may be more logical and (more important!) ethical.

Alvesson and Johansson summarise this by quoting from Robert Jackall’s brilliant ethnographical study of managers, Moral Mazes:

The further the consultant moves away from strictly technical issues – that is from being an expert in the ideal sense, a virtuoso of some institutionalized and valued skill – the more anomalous his status becomes. He becomes an expert who trades in others’ troubles. In managerial hierarchies, of course, troubles, like everything else, are socially defined. Consultants have to depend on some authority ‘s definition of what is troublesome in an organization and, in most cases, have to work on the problem as defined. As it happens, it is extremely rare that an executive declares himself or his own circle to be the problem; rather, other groups in the corporation are targeted to be ‘worked on.

A terrific summary of the typical trader in trouble!

Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers who have been tasked with increasing “efficiency” or “productivity.”

Agents of anxiety (suppliers of security)

The agent of anxiety is a messiah who sells a “best practice” solution to his clients’ problems. This type of consultant can therefore also be described as a supplier of security who assures his clients that their troubles will vanish if they just follow his prescribed process.   Common examples of agents of anxiety are purveyors of project management methodologies and frameworks (such as PRINCE2 or IPMA) or process improvement techniques (such as Six Sigma).

Although such consultants may seem to have a high claim to professional expertise, they actually aren’t experts. A good number of them are blind followers of the methods they sell; rarely, if ever, do they develop a critical perspective on those practices.  Also, agents of anxiety do not have to be overtly political: once they are hired by senior managers in an organization, employees have no choice but to follow the “best practice” techniques that are promoted.

Clients of such consultants tend to be senior managers in organisations that are having  trouble with specific aspects of their work – projects, for example. What such managers do not realize is that they would be better served by creating and fostering the right work environment rather than attempting to impose silver bullet solutions sold by suppliers of security.

A comment

Now that we are done with the classification, I should mention that most of the consultants I have come across cannot be boxed into a single category. This is no surprise: consultants, like the rest of humanity, display behaviours that vary from situation to situation.  Many consultants will display characteristics from all four categories within a single engagement or, at the very least, exhibit both professional and political behaviours. As Alvesson and Johansson state:

Management consultancy work probably typically means some blending of these four types. Sometimes one or two of the types dominates in the same assignment. But few management consultants presumably operate without appealing to the management fashions signalling the needs for consultancy services; few altogether avoid trouble-shooting tasks; few can solely rely on a technocratic approach, and few can simply work with cooperative meaning making processes. The complexity and diversity of consultancy assignments requires that the consultant move back and forth between a professional area and a non-professional area, i.e. areas viewed as coherent with claims of professionalism, recognizing the highly floating boundaries between these areas and the constructed character also of technical and professional work. Professional work is mingled with, but can’t be reduced to, political or symbolic work.

Finally, I should also add that consultants sometimes hide their real objectives because they are required to:  their duplicity simply reflects the duplicity of those who hire them. Whether consultants should choose to do such work is another matter altogether. As I have argued elsewhere, the hardest questions we have to deal with in our professional lives are ethical ones.

Closing remarks

In this post I have described a typology of consultants. For sure, the four categories of consultants described are stereotypes.  That said, although consultants may slip on different personas within a single engagement, most would fit into a single category based on the nature of their work and their overall approach. A knowledge of this classification is therefore helpful, not just for clients,  but also for  front-line employees who have to deal with consultants and those who hire them.


Alvesson, M.  &  Johansson, A.W. (2002). Professionalism and politics in management consultancy work. In R. Fincham & T. Clark (Eds), Critical consulting: New perspectives on the management advice industry. Oxford: Blackwell,  pp. 228–246.

Written by K

May 6, 2014 at 8:30 pm

Objectivity and the ethical dimension of organisational decision-making

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When making decisions, some people follow a structured process that involves gathering data, identifying options and analysing them to arrive at a decision. Others prefer an approach in which they seek to understand the diversity of perspectives on the issue and then attempt to synthesise a decision based on their understanding. To be sure these are stereotypes and, like all stereotypes, are somewhat exaggerated. Nevertheless, most decision-makers in organisations fall into one of these categories, at least as far as their preferred decision-making mode is concerned.  Of course, people may change from one mode to another, depending on the situation. For example, a person who is predominantly an objective decision maker in his or her professional life  might not be so objective when it comes to making personal decisions.

The differences between the two approaches roughly mirrors the divide between those who believe in an objective reality and those who believe that reality, or at least our perception of it, is a subjective matter.  This is akin to the difference between CP Snow’s Two Cultures: the scientists and the artists.  At the risk of making a gross generalisation, those who have a scientific or technical background tend to fall into the first category whereas those who lean towards the arts or humanities tend to fall into the other. Like all generalisations this one is, again, not strictly correct, but I think it is fair to say that a person’s training does have an influence on what they deem as the right way to make decisions.

The physicist and polymath Heinz von Foerster  summed this up nicely when he noted that the difference between the two types of decision-makers is akin to the differences between discoverers and inventors.  The objective decision-maker (the discoverer) attempts to discover the objectively correct decision based on what he or she believes to be true. On the other hand, the subjective decision-maker (the inventor) constructs or creates the decision based on facts and opinion (or even emotion) rather than facts alone.

The conventional view of decision making in organisations – that decisions should be made on the basis of facts – does not recognize this difference.  To be sure, matters that can be decided based on facts should be made on the basis of facts.  For example, a decision regarding the purchase of equipment can (often) be made based on predetermined criteria.The problem, however, is that most important decisions in organisations do not fall into this category – they have wicked elements that cannot be resolved by facts because the “facts” themselves are ambiguous. Unfortunately, decision-makers often do not understand the difference between the two types of decision problems.  A common symptom of this lack of understanding is that when confronted with a wicked decision problem, many decision-makers feel compelled to clothe their reasoning and choices in a garb of (false) objectivity.

The above is not news to observers and scholars of organisational life – see this post, for example. However, a not-so-well-appreciated dimension to the objective/subjective debate on decision-making is that wicked decision problems invariably have an ethical dimension. I elaborate on this briefly below.

In a paper on ethics and cybernetics, von Foerster noted that the objective approach to decision making is but a means of avoiding responsibility. In his words:

…objectivity requires that the properties of an observer be left out of any descriptions of his (sic) observations. With the essence of observing (namely the processes of cognition) having been removed, the observer is reduced to a copying machine with the notion of responsibility successfully juggled away.

Objectivity…and other devices [such as rules and processes] are all derivations of a choice between a pair of in-principle undecidable questions [See Note 1] which are:

“Am I apart from the universe?”


“Am I a part of the universe?”

Although von Foerster may be accused overblown rhetoric in the quote, he raises a critical question that we all ought to ask ourselves when confronted with an undecidable issue:

When making this decision, am I going to avoid involvement (and responsibility) by hiding behind rules or processes, or am I going to take full responsibility for it regardless of the outcome?

An honest answer will reveal that such decisions are invariably made on ethical grounds rather than objective ones. Indeed, the decisions we make in our professional lives tell us more about ourselves than we might be willing to admit.

[Note 1] 

An undecidable question is one that cannot be decided on logical grounds alone – a wicked problem by another name. See my post on wickedness, undecidability and the metaphysics of organizational decision making for more on this point.

Written by K

January 9, 2014 at 9:53 pm

On the decline and resurrection of Taylorism

with 8 comments


A couple of years ago  Paul Culmsee and I wrote a post on the cyclical decay and recurrence of certain management concepts. The article describes how ideas and practices bubble up into mainstream management awareness and then fade away after the fad passes…only to recur in a morphed form some years later.

It recently occurred to me that this cycle of decay and recurrence is not restricted to good ideas or practices: ideas that, quite frankly, ought to remain consigned to the dustbin of management can also recur. Moreover, they may even do better the second time around because the conditions are right for them to flourish.  In this post I discuss  how the notion of scientific management, often referred to as Taylorism, after its founder Fredrick Winslow Taylor, has ebbed and flowed in the century or so since it was first proposed.

Taylorism and its  alleged demise

The essence of Taylorism  is summarised nicely in this quote from Taylor’s monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management:

This paper has been written…to prove that the best management is a true science, resting upon clearly defined laws, rules and principles, as a foundation. And further to show that the fundamental principles of scientific management  are applicable to all human activities, from our simplest individual activities to the work of great corporations, which call for the most elaborate cooperation. And briefly, through a series of illustrations, to convince the reader that whenever these principles are correctly applied, results must follow which are truly astounding…

According to standard storyline of management, Taylorism had its heyday in the first few decades of the 20th century and faded away after the notion of the worker as an individual emerged in 1920s.  In his wonderful paper, Understanding Taylorism, Craig Littler summarises this mainstream view as follows:

From 1900-20 Taylorism provided the dominant ideas about the worker and worker motivation. But money was not enough and  ‘a great new ideas was taking root. The view of the worker as an individual personality emerged strongly around 1920 to command the stage.’ From 1920-1940 the worker was seen as a psychological complex, but then ‘Psychological Man’ (sic) faltered and sociology entered industry: Man (sic) had neighbours!

In short, the official story is that Taylorism was declared dead, if not quite interred, some ninety years ago.

But as we shall see, its ghost still haunts the hallways of the modern, knowledge-based corporation…

The ghost of Taylorism

The standard storyline views Taylorism as a management ideology – a set of ideas that guide management practice.  However, as Littler tells us, it is more instructive to see it primarily as a means of organizing work, in other words as a management practice. As Littler tells us,

If we look at Taylorism as a form of work organization then we can proceed to analyse it in terms of three general categories: the division of labour, the structure of control over task performance, and the implicit employment relationship.

To elaborate: Taylorism emphasised a scientific approach to enhancing worker productivity through things such as time and motion studies. In practice this lead to a  rigid fragmentation and division of labour coupled with time/effort measurements that enabled top-down planning. Although these efforts were focused on increasing production by improving worker efficiency, they also had the effect of centralising control over task performance and skewing the  terms of employment in management’s favour.

…and its new avatar

Even from this brief summary one can see how Taylorism sneaks into the modern workplace. As Martha Crowley and her co-workers state in the abstract to this paper:

The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen an erosion of job security in both manual and professional occupation…employee involvement schemes in manual production and the growth of temporary employment, outsourcing and project-based teams in the professions have influenced working conditions in both settings…these practices represent not a departure from scientific management, as is often presumed, but rather the adoption of Taylorist principles that were not fully manifested in the era of mass production.

Indeed, there is a term, Neo-Taylorism, that describes this newly resurrected avatar of this old ideology.

The resurrection of Taylorism is in no small part due to advances in technology. This is indeed an irony because the very technology that gives us “cognitive surplus” (if one believes what some folks tell us) and enables us to inform the world  about “what we are doing right now” also makes it possible for us to be monitored at the workplace in real time.  A stark manifestation of this the call centre  – which Phil Tailor and  Peter Bain refer to  as an electronic panopticon and, in a later paper an assembly line in the head.

Of course, one does not need to work in a call centre to see Neo-Taylorism at work;  the central ideas of scientific management permeate many modern workplaces.    The standard HR cycle of goal-setting, review and performance evaluation, familiar to most folks who work in organisation-land,  is but a means of evaluating and/or ranking employees with a view to determining an appropriate reward or punishment. This often does more harm than good as is highlighted in David Auerbach’s critique of Microsoft’s stack ranking process: there is nothing more effective than the threat of termination to ensure a compliant workforce…but engendering team spirit and high performance is another matter altogether.

Concluding remarks

To conclude: the resurrection of Taylorism is no surprise. For  although it may have become an unfashionable ideology in the latter part of the first half of the 20th century, its practices and, in particular, the forms of work organisation embodied in it live on.  This is true not just in industry but also in the academic world. Indeed, some of the research done in industrial engineering departments the world over serves to burnish and propagate Taylor’s legacy. Taylorism as an ideology may be dead, but as a management practice it lives on and flourishes.


Thanks to  Greg Lloyd for his pointer to David Auerbach’s critique of Microsoft’s stack ranking process.

Written by K

August 28, 2013 at 8:44 pm


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