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The two tributaries of time

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How time flies. Ten years ago this month, I wrote my first post on Eight to Late.  The anniversary gives me an excuse to post something a little different. When rummaging around in my drafts folder for something suitable, I came across this piece that I wrote some years ago (2013) but didn’t publish.   It’s about our strange relationship with time, which I thought makes it a perfect piece to mark the occasion.

Introduction

The metaphor of time as a river resonates well with our subjective experiences of time.  Everyday phrases that evoke this metaphor include the flow of time and time going by, or the somewhat more poetic currents of time.  As Heraclitus said, no [person] can step into the same river twice – and so it is that a particular instant in time …like right now…is ephemeral, receding into the past as we become aware of it.

On the other hand, organisations have to capture and quantify time because things have to get done within fixed periods, the financial year being a common example. Hence, key organisational activities such as projects, strategies and budgets are invariably time-bound affairs. This can be problematic because there is a mismatch between the ways in which organisations view time and individuals experience it.

Organisational time

The idea that time is an objective entity is most clearly embodied in the notion of a timeline: a graphical representation of a time period, punctuated by events. The best known of these is perhaps the ubiquitous Gantt Chart, loved (and perhaps equally, reviled) by managers the world over.

Timelines are interesting because, as Elaine Yakura states in this paper, “they seem to render time, the ultimate abstraction, visible and concrete.”   As a result, they can serve as boundary objects that make it possible to negotiate and communicate what is to be accomplished in the specified time period. They make this possible because they tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, a narrative of what is to come and when.

For the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, timelines are often used to manage time-bound organisational initiatives. Through their use in scheduling and allocation, timelines serve to objectify time in such a way that it becomes a resource that can be measured and rationed, much like other resources such as money, labour etc.

At our workplaces we are governed by many overlapping timelines – workdays, budgeting cycles and project schedules being examples. From an individual perspective, each of these timelines are different representations of how one’s time is to be utilised, when an activity should be started and when it must be finished. Moreover, since we are generally committed to multiple timelines, we often find ourselves switching between them. They serve to remind us what we should be doing and when.

But there’s more: one of the key aims of developing a timeline is to enable all stakeholders to have a shared understanding of time as it pertains to the initiative. In this view, a timeline is a consensus representation of how a particular aspect of the future will unfold.  Timelines thus serve as coordinating mechanisms.

In terms of the metaphor, a timeline is akin to a map of the river of time. Along the map we can measure out and apportion it; we can even agree about way-stops at various points in time. However, we should always be aware that it remains a representation of time, for although we might treat a timeline as real, the fact is no one actually experiences time as it is depicted in a timeline. Mistaking one for the other is akin to confusing the map with the territory.

This may sound a little strange so I’ll try to clarify.  I’ll start with the observation that we experience time through events and processes – for example the successive chimes of a clock, the movement of the second hand of a watch (or the oscillations of a crystal), the passing of seasons or even the greying of one’s hair. Moreover, since these events and processes can be objectively agreed on by different observers, they can also be marked out on a timeline.  Yet the actual experience of living these events is unique to each individual.

Individual perception of time

As we have seen, organisations treat time as an objective commodity that can be represented, allocated and used much like any tangible resource.  On the other hand our experience of time is intensely personal.  For example, I’m sitting in a cafe as I write these lines. My perception of the flow of time depends rather crucially on my level of engagement in writing: slow when I’m struggling for words but zipping by when I’m deeply involved. This is familiar to us all: when we are deeply engaged in an activity, we lose all sense of time but when our involvement is superficial we are acutely aware of the clock.

This is true at work as well. When I’m engaged in any kind of activity at work, be it a group activity such as a meeting, or even an individual one such as developing a business case, my perception of time has little to do with the actual passage of seconds, minutes and hours on a clock. Sure, there are things that I will do habitually at a particular time – going to lunch, for example – but my perception of how fast the day goes is governed not by the clock but by the degree of engagement with my work.

I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that this is the case with most people. Though our work lives are supposedly governed by “objective” timelines, the way we actually live out our workdays depends on a host of things that have more to do with our inner lives than visible outer ones.  Specifically, they depend on things such as feelings, emotions, moods and motivations.

Flow and engagement

OK, so you may be wondering where I’m going with this. Surely, my subjective perception of my workday should not matter as long as I do what I’m required to do and meet my deadlines, right?

As a matter of fact, I think the answer to the above question is a qualified, “No”. The quality of the work we do depends on our level of commitment and engagement. Moreover, since a person’s perception of the passage of time depends rather sensitively on the degree of their involvement in a task, their subjective sense of time is a good indicator of their engagement in work.

In his book, Finding Flow, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes such engagement as an optimal experience in which a person is completely focused on the task at hand.  Most people would have experienced flow when engaged in activities that they really enjoy. As Anthony Reading states in his book, Hope and Despair: How Perceptions of the Future Shape Human Behaviour, “…most of what troubles us resides in our concerns about the past and our apprehensions about the future.”  People in flow are entirely focused on the present and are thus (temporarily) free from troubling thoughts. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, for such people, “the sense of time is distorted; hours seem to pass by in minutes.”

All this may seem far removed from organisational concerns, but it is easy to see that it isn’t: a Google search on the phrase “increase employee engagement” will throw up many articles along the lines of “N ways to increase employee engagement.”  The sense in which the term is used in these articles is essentially the same as the one Csikszentmihalyi talks about: deep involvement in work.

So, the advice of management gurus and business school professors notwithstanding, the issue is less about employee engagement or motivation than about creating conditions that are conducive to flow.   All that is needed for the latter is a deep understanding how the particular organisation functions, the task at hand and (most importantly) the people who will be doing it.  The best managers I’ve worked with have grokked this, and were able to create the right conditions in a seemingly effortless and unobtrusive way. It is a skill that cannot be taught, but can be learnt by observing how such managers do what they do.

Time regained

Organisations tend to treat their employees’ time as though it were a commodity or resource that can be apportioned and allocated for various tasks. This view of time is epitomised by the timeline as depicted in a Gantt Chart or a resource-loaded project schedule.

In contrast, at an individual level, the perception of time depends rather critically on the level of engagement that a person feels with the task he or she is performing. Ideally organisations would (or ought to!) want their employees to be in that optimal zone of engagement that Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, at least when they are involved in creative work. However, like spontaneity, flow is a state that cannot be achieved by corporate decree; the best an organisation can do is to create the conditions that encourage it.

The organisational focus on timelines ought to be balanced by actions that are aimed at creating the conditions that are conducive to employee engagement and flow.  It may then be possible for those who work in organisation-land to experience, if only fleetingly, that Blakean state in which eternity is held in an hour.

Written by K

September 20, 2017 at 9:17 pm

Catch-22 and the paradoxes of organisational life

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“You mean there’s a catch?”

“Sure there’s a catch”, Doc Daneeka replied. “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions…”   Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Introduction

The term Catch-22 was coined by Joseph Heller in the eponymous satirical novel written in 1961. As the quote above illustrates,  the term refers to a paradoxical situation caused by the application of  contradictory rules.  Catch-22 situations are common in large organisations of all kinds, not just the military (which was the setting of the novel). So much so that it is a theme that has attracted some scholarly attention over the half century since the novel was first published  – see this paper or this one for example.

Although Heller uses Catch-22 situations to highlight the absurdities of bureaucracies in a humorous way, in real-life such situations can be deeply troubling for people who are caught up in them. In a paper published in 1956, the polymath Gregory Bateson and his colleagues  suggested that these situations can cause people to behave in ways that are symptomatic of schizophrenia .  The paper introduces the notion of a  double-bind, which is  a dilemma arising from an individual receiving two or more messages that contradict each other .   In simple terms, then,  a double-bind is a Catch-22.

In this post, I draw on Bateson’s  double bind theory to get some insights into Catch-22 situations in organisations.

Double bind theory

The basic elements of a double bind situation are as follows:

  1. Two or more individuals, one of whom is a victim – i.e. the individual who experiences the dilemma described below.
  2. A primary rule which keeps the victim fearful of the consequences of doing (or not doing) something.  This rule typically takes the form , “If you do x then you will be punished” or “If you do not do x then you will be punished. “
  3. A secondary rule that is in conflict with the primary rule, but at more abstract level. This rule, which is usually implicit, typically takes the form, “Do not question the rationale behind x.”
  4. A tertiary rule that prevents the victim from escaping from the situation.
  5. Repeated experiences of (1) and (2)

A simple example (quoted from this article) serves to illustrate the above in a real- life situation:

One example of double bind communication is a mother giving her child the message: “Be spontaneous” If the child acts spontaneously, he is not acting spontaneously because he is following his mother’s direction. It’s a no-win situation for the child. If a child is subjected to this kind of communication over a long period of time, it’s easy to see how he could become confused.

Here the injunction to “Be spontaneous” is contradicted by the more implicit rule that “one cannot be spontaneous on demand.”  It is important to note that the primary and secondary (implicit) rules are at different logical levels  –  the first is about an action, whereas the second is about the nature of all such actions. This is typical of a double bind situation.

The paradoxical aspects of double binds can sometimes be useful as they can lead to creative solutions arising from the victim “stepping outside the situation”. The following example from Bateson’s paper illustrates the point:

The Zen Master attempts to bring about enlightenment in his pupil in various ways. One of the things he does is to hold a stick over the pupil’s head and say fiercely, “If you say this stick is real, I will strike you with it. If you say this stick is not real, I will strike you with it. If you don’t say anything, I will strike you with it.”… The Zen pupil might reach up and take the stick away from the Master–who might accept this response.

This is an important point which we’ll return to towards the end of  this piece.

Double binds in organisations

Double bind situations are ubiquitous in organisations.   I’ll illustrate this by drawing on a couple of examples I have written about earlier on this blog.

The paradox of learning organisations

This section draws on a post I wrote while ago. In the introduction to that post I stated that:

The term learning organisation refers to an organisation that continually modifies its processes  based on observation and experience, thus adapting to changes in its internal and external environment.   Ever since Peter Senge coined the term in his book, The Fifth Discipline, assorted consultants and academics have been telling us that although a  learning  organisation is an utopian ideal, it is one worth striving for.  The reality, however,  is that most organisations that undertake the journey actually end up in a place far removed  from this ideal. Among other things, the journey may expose managerial hypocrisies that contradict the very notion of a learning organisation.

Starkly put, the problem arises from the fact that in a true learning organisation, employees will  inevitably start to question things that management would rather they didn’t.  Consider the following story, drawn from this paper on which the post is based:

…a multinational company intending to develop itself as a learning organization ran programmes to encourage managers to challenge received wisdom and to take an inquiring approach. Later, one participant attended an awayday, where the managing director of his division circulated among staff over dinner. The participant raised a question about the approach the MD had taken on a particular project; with hindsight, had that been the best strategy? `That was the way I did it’, said the MD. `But do you think there was a better way?’, asked the participant. `I don’t think you heard me’, replied the MD. `That was the way I did it’. `That I heard’, continued the participant, `but might there have been a better way?’. The MD fixed his gaze on the participants’ lapel badge, then looked him in the eye, saying coldly, `I will remember your name’, before walking away.

Of course,  a certain kind of learning  occurred here:  the employee learnt that certain questions were taboo, in stark contrast to the openness that was being preached from the organisational pulpit.  The double bind here is evident:  feel free to question and challenge everything…except what management deems to be out of bounds.  The takeaway for employees is that, despite all the rhetoric of organisational learning, certain things should not  be challenged. I think it is safe to say that this was probably not the kind of learning that was intended by those who initiated the program.

The paradoxes of change

In a post on the  paradoxes of organizational change, I wrote that:

An underappreciated facet of organizational change is that it is inherently paradoxical. For example, although it is well known that such changes inevitably have unintended consequences that are harmful, most organisations continue to implement change initiatives in a manner that assumes  complete controllability with the certainty of achieving solely beneficial outcomes.

As pointed out in this paper, there are three types of paradoxes that can arise when an organisation is restructured. The first is that during the transition, people are caught between the demands of their old and new roles. This is exacerbated by the fact that transition periods are often much longer expected. This paradox of performing in turn leads to a paradox of belonging – people become uncertain about where their loyalties (ought to) lie.

Finally, there is a paradox of organising, which refers to the gap between the rhetoric and reality of change. The paper mentioned above has a couple of nice examples. One study described how,

friendly banter in meetings and formal documentation [promoted] front-stage harmony, while more intimate conversations and unit meetings [intensified] backstage conflict.”  Another spoke of a situation in which, “…change efforts aimed at increasing employee participation [can highlight] conflicting practices of empowerment and control. In particular, the rhetoric of participation may contradict engrained organizational practices such as limited access to information and hierarchical authority for decision making…

Indeed, the gap between the intent and actuality of change initiatives make double binds inevitable.

Discussion

I suspect the situations described above will be familiar to people working in a corporate environment. The question is what can one do if one is on the receiving end of such a Catch 22?

The main thing is to realise that a double-bind arises because one perceives the situation to be so. That is, the person experiencing the situation has chosen to interpret it  as a double bind. To be sure, there are usually factors that influence the choice – things such as job security, for example – but the fact is that it is a choice that can be changed if one sees things in a different light. Escaping the double bind is then a “simple” matter of reframing the situation.

Here is where the notion of mindfulness is particularly relevant. In brief, mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.”  As the Zen pupil who takes the stick away from the Master, a calm non-judgemental appraisal of a double-bind situation might reveal possible courses of action that had been obscured because of one’s fears. Indeed, the realization that one has more choices than one thinks is in itself a liberating discovery.

It is important to emphasise that the actual course of action that one selects in the end matters less than the realisation that one’s reactions to such situations is largely under one’s own control.

In closing – reframe it!

Organisational life is rife with Catch 22s. Most of us cannot avoid being caught up in them, but we can choose how we react to them. This is largely a matter of reframing them in ways that open up new avenues for action, a point that brings to mind this paragraph from Catch-22 (the book):

“Why don’t you use some sense and try to be more like me? You might live to be a hundred and seven, too.”

“Because it’s better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,” Nately retorted with triumphant and lofty conviction. “I guess you’ve heard that saying before.”

“Yes, I certainly have,” mused the treacherous old man, smiling again. “But I’m afraid you have it backward. It is better to live on one’s feet than die on one’s knees. That is the way the saying goes.”

“Are you sure?” Nately asked with sober confusion. “It seems to make more sense my way.”

“No, it makes more sense my way. Ask your friends.”

And that, I reckon, is as brilliant an example of reframing as I have ever come across.

Written by K

June 22, 2015 at 9:54 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

The dilemmas of enterprise IT

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Information technology (IT) is an integral part of any modern day business. Indeed, as Bill Gates once put it, “Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without the talking about the other.” Although this is true, decision makers often display ambivalent, even contradictory attitudes towards enterprise IT.  For example, depending on the context, an executive might view IT as a cost of doing business or as a strategic advantage: the former view is common when budgets are being drawn up whereas the latter may come to the fore when a bold new e-marketing initiative is being discussed.

In this post I discuss some of these dilemmas of IT and show how the opposing viewpoints embodied in them need to be managed rather than resolved.  I illustrate my point by describing one way in which this can be done.

The dilemmas in brief

Many of the dilemmas of IT are consequences of conflicting views of what IT is and/or how it should be managed. I’ll describe some of these in brief below, leaving a discussion of their implications to the next section:

  1. IT as a cost of doing business versus IT as strategic asset: This distinction highlights the ambivalent attitudes that senior executives have towards IT. On the one hand, IT is seen as offering strategic advantages to the organization (for example a custom built application for customer segmentation). On the other, it is seen as an operational necessity (for example, core banking systems in the financial industry).
  2. Centralised IT versus Autonomous IT:  This refers to the debate about whether an organisation’s IT environment should be tightly controlled from head office or whether subsidiaries should be given a degree of autonomy.  This is essentially a debate between top-down versus bottom-up approaches to IT planning.
  3. Planning versus Improvisation: This refers to the tension between the structure offered by a plan and process-driven approach to IT and the necessity to step outside of plans and processes in order to come up with improvised solutions suited to the situation at hand. I have written about this paradox in a post on planning and improvisation.

There are other dilemmas – for example, technology driven IT versus business driven IT. However, for the purpose of this discussion the three listed above will suffice.

The poles of a dilemma

In his book entitled Polarity Management, Barry Johnson described how complex organizational issues can often be analysed in terms of their mutually contradictory facets. He termed these facets poles or polarities.  In this and the next section, I elaborate on Johnson’s notion of polarity and show how it offers a means to understand and manage the dilemmas of enterprise IT.

The key features of poles are as follows:

Each pole has associated positives and negatives. For example, the up side of viewing IT as a cost is that the organisation focuses on IT efficiency and value for money; the downside is that exploration and experimentation that is necessary for IT innovation would likely be seen as risky. On the other hand, the positive side of IT as a strategic asset is that it is seen as a means to enable an organisation’s growth and development; the negative is that it can encourage unproven technologies (since new technologies are more likely to offer competitive advantages) and uncontrolled experimentation along with their attendant costs.

Most organisations oscillate between poles.  At any given time the organisation will be “living” in one pole. In such situations, some stakeholders will perceive the negatives of that pole strongly and will thus see the other pole as being more desirable (the “grass is greener on the other” side syndrome).  Johnson labels such stakeholders crusaders” – those who want to rush off into the new world. On the other hand, there are tradition bearers, those who want to stay put.  When an organisation has spent a fair bit of time in one pole, the influence of crusaders tends wax while that of the tradition bearers weakens because the negatives become apparent to more and more people.

A concrete example may help clarify this point:

Consider a situation where all subsidiaries of a multinational have autonomous IT units (and have had these for a while).  The main benefits of such a model are responsiveness and relevance:  local IT units will able to respond quickly to local needs and will also be able to deliver solutions that are tailored to the specific needs of the local business. However, this model has many negative aspects: for example, high costs, duplication of effort, massive software portfolio and attendant costs, high cost of interfacing between subsidiaries etc.

When the model has been in operation for a while, it is quite likely that IT decision makers will perceive the negatives of this pole more clearly than they see the positives. They will then initiate a reform to centralize IT because they perceive the positives of that pole –i.e. low costs, centralization of services etc. – as being worth striving for.  However, when the new world is in place and has been operating for a while, the organisation will begin to see its downside: bureaucracy, lack of flexibility, applications that don’t meet specific local business needs etc. They will then start to delegate responsibility back to the subsidiaries…and thus goes the polarity merry-go-round.

Managing enterprise IT dilemmas

As discussed above, any option will have its supporters and detractors. For example, finance folks may see IT as a cost of doing business whereas those in IT will consider it to be a strategic asset.   What’s important, however, is that most organisations “resolve” such contradictions by taking sides. That is, one side “wins” and their point of view gets implemented as a “solution.”  The concerns of the “losing” side are overlooked entirely.

Although such a “solution” appears to solve the problem, it does not take long for the negative aspects of the other pole to manifest itself; the rumbles of discontent from those whose concerns have been ignored grow louder with time.  In this sense, issues that can be defined in terms of polarities are wicked problems – they are perceived in different ways by different stakeholders and so are difficult to define, let alone solve.

As we have seen above, however, the poles of a dilemma are but different facets of a single reality.  Hence, the first step towards managing a dilemma lies in realizing that it cannot be resolved definitively; regardless of the path chosen, there will always be a group whose concerns remain unaddressed. The best one can do is to be aware of the positives and negatives of each pole and ensure that the entire spectrum of stakeholders is aware of these. A shared awareness can help the group in figuring out ways to mitigate the worst effects of the negatives.

One which this can be done is via a facilitated session, involving people who represent the two sides of the issue.   To begin with, the facilitator helps the group identify the poles. She then helps the group create a polarity map which shows the contradictory aspects of the issue along with their positives and negatives. A rudimentary polarity map for the autonomous/centralized IT dilemma is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Polarity map for centralised / autonomous IT dilemma

Figure 1: Polarity map for centralised / autonomous IT dilemma

To ensure completeness of the map, the group must include stakeholders who represent both sides of the dilemma (and also those who hold views that lie between).

As mentioned in the previous section, organisations are not static, they oscillate between poles. Moreover, Johnson claimed that they follow a specific path in the map.  Quoting from the book I wrote with Paul Culmsee:

According to Johnson, organisations tended to oscillate between poles. If you accept the notion of a wicked problem as a polarity, the overall pattern traced as one moves between these poles resembles an infinity symbol. The typical path is L- to R+, to R-, across to L+ and Johnson argued that the trajectory could not be avoided. All we can do is focus on minimizing our time spent in the lower quadrants.

Again, it is worth emphasizing that the conflict between the two groups of stakeholders cannot be resolved definitively. The best one can do is to get the two sides to understand each other’s’ point of view and hence attempt to minimize the downsides of each option.

Finally, polarity management is but one way to manage the dilemmas associate with enterprise IT or any other organizational decision. There are many others – and <advertisement> I highly recommend my book if you’re interested in finding out more about these </advertisement>.  In the end, though, the point I wished to make in this post is less about any particular technique and more about the need to air and acknowledge differing perspectives on issues pertaining to enterprise IT or any other decision with organization-wide implications.

Wrapping up

The dilemmas of enterprise IT are essentially consequences of mutually contradictory, yet equally valid perspectives. Is IT a cost of doing business or is it a strategic asset? The answer depends on the perspective one takes…and there is no objectively right or wrong answer.  Given this, it is important to be aware of both the up and down side of each perspective (or pole) before one makes a decision.  Unfortunately, most often decisions are made on the basis of the up side of one option and the down side of the other.  As should be evident now, a decision that is based on such a selective consideration of viewpoints invariably invites conflict and leads to undesirable outcomes.

Written by K

July 2, 2014 at 9:52 pm

On the contradictions of consulting (and management) rhetoric

with 6 comments

Introduction

Successful management consultants are often seen as experts and trendsetters in the business world. The best among them are able to  construct convincing narratives about their expertise and experience, thereby gaining the  trust of senior managers in large organisations.

Have you ever wondered how they manage to pull this off?

In a paper entitled, The Invincible Character of Management Consulting Rhetoric: How One Blends Incommensurates While Keeping Them Apart, Jonas Berglund and Andreas Werr discuss how consultants, unbeknownst to their clients, often draw from two mutually contradictory forms of rhetoric to construct their arguments: rational (scientific or fact-based) and practical (action-based). This renders them immune to potential challenges from skeptics.  This post, which is based on the work of Berglund and Werr, is an elaboration of this claim.

Background and case study

Typically management consultants are hired to help organisations formulate and implement strategic initiatives aimed at improving organisational performance.  On the ground, such initiatives usually result in large-scale change initiatives such as organisation-wide restructuring or the implementation of enterprise systems.  Whatever the specific situation, however, consultants are generally brought in because clients perceive them as being experts who have the necessary knowledge and practical experience to plan and execute such transformations.

A typical consulting engagement consists of many interactions between consultants and diverse client-side stakeholders.  Berglund and Werr begin their paper with a description of an example of such an interaction drawn from their fieldwork in a large organisation. In brief: the  example describes a workshop that was aimed at redesigning business processes in an organisation. The two-day event was facilitated by the consultants and involved many stakeholders from the business.  I reproduce their description of the event below so that you can read it in its original form:

The event begins with a plenary session. The 25 participants—a selection of key persons on different levels in the organization—sit around a u-shaped table in a large room. Three consultants sit at one end of the table. One (a bit older than the others) is Ben, the project manager.

At 9 am sharp he rises and enters the stage. A nervousness is reflected in his somewhat impatient movements and way of talking. This is an important presentation. It is the first time since the ‘kick off’ of the project, that it is being delivered to a larger audience. Ben welcomes the participants and briefly introduces himself: ‘I am a consultant at Consulting Ltd. My specialty is BPR [Business Process Reengineering]. I have worked extensively with this method in the telecom industry.’ He also briefly introduces the two colleagues sitting at the end of the table. But the consulting team is not complete: ‘We are waiting for Alan, a portal figure and innovator concerning BPR.’

Ben suggests beginning the seminar with a brief introduction of the participants. After this has been completed, he remarks: ‘we clearly have a massive competence here today’. Thereafter, he leaves the floor to Ken, the CEO of the company, who says the following:

‘There are many reasons why we are sitting here today. The triggering factor has been the rapid growth rate of the market. But why should we start working with BPR? I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made—we focused on the current situation instead of being creative.’ Following this introduction, the importance of the project is further stressed. ‘The high growth rate of the market demands a new way of working . . . The competitive situation for the company is getting harder; the years when the customers just came to us are over. Now we have to start working for our money . . . The reason for this project is that we want to become the best from our owners’, customers’ and employees’ perspective.’

After this presentation, Ben takes over the floor again: ‘I have something to tell you. I want to report what we have done in the project so far . . . We have worked in four steps, which is a quite typical approach in reengineering’, he says, showing a slide headed ‘Method for Implementation’, which depicts four project phases arranged in the form of steps from the lower left to the upper right. The more detailed exploration of these phases, and the related activities occupy the group for some minutes.

Thereafter, a sequence of transparencies is shown. They describe the overall situation of the company using well-known business concepts. The titles of the slides read ‘Strategic Positioning’ (the model presented under this title has strong similarities with the BCG [Boston Consulting Group] matrix), ‘SWOT Analysis’, ‘Core Competencies’, and ‘Critical Success Factors’.

I expect many readers who work in organisational settings will be able to relate elements from the above extract to their own experiences with management consultants.

Although the case-study is dated,  the rhetoric used by the consultant is timeless. Indeed, in such plenary sessions, the main aim of  consultants (and client-side senior management) is to justify the proposed changes and convince client-side staff to get involved in implementing them.  This is as true now as it was a decade ago, the rhetoric used has hardly changed at all. What’s more interesting, though, is that their arguments taken as a whole are often inconsistent. To see why, let’s take a closer look at two kinds of rhetoric employed by consultants.

The rhetoric of reason

Consultants often legitimize their proposed actions by claiming to use “established” or “proven” methods. At the time of the case study (remember this was in the 90s), BPR was all the rage and, as a consequence, there were a number of contemporary books and articles (both in research and trade journals) that consultants could draw upon to legitimize their claims.  Indeed, many of the articles about BPR from that era delved into things such as critical success factors and core competencies – the very terms used by Ben, the consultant in the case study.  By doing so, Ben emphasised that BPR was a logically justifiable undertaking for the client  organisation.

However, that’s not all:  by referring to a stepwise “method for implementation,” Ben makes the process seem like a rational one with an “if we do X then Y will follow” logic. Of course, real life is never that simple, as evidenced by the statistics on failed BPR projects. Consultants often confuse their clients by presenting the map which is the idealised process as being equivalent to the territory that is organisational reality.

The rhetoric of action

To be sure, those who run organisations care more about results than models or methodologies. As a result,  consultants have to portray  themselves as being practical rather than theoretical. This is where the rhetoric of action comes in.

Ben’s reference to his “extensive experience in the telecom industry” and his invocation of   “Alan, the portal figure and innovator” are clearly intended to emphasise the consulting organisation’s experience and “innovative approaches” to  implementing BPR initiatives. Notice there are no references to reason here; there is only the implicit, “trust me, I’ve done this before”, and (if not that, then), “trust Alan, the portal figure and innovator.”

Ben’s spiel is backed up by the CEO;  consider the CEO’s line, ” …I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made…

The boss heard the BPR Gospel According To Alan and had an epiphany; everything just “fell in place.”

Discussion

The short case study illustrates how consultants shift back and forth between two essentially incompatible modes of rhetoric when speaking to clients: a rational one which assumes the existence of objective management models and a normative one which appeals to human behaviours and emotions. This enables them to construct narratives that, on the surface, seem plausible and convincing, and more important, are hard to refute.

Although the rhetoric of reason refers to an idealised world of management models, its power and appeal  cannot be overstated. As the authors state:

The belief in experts and their techniques is firmly anchored in the modern belief in rationality. In our culture ‘the notions of ‘‘science’’, ‘‘rationality’’, ‘‘objectivity’’, and ‘‘truth’’ are bound up with one another’. Knowledge is power, and formalized knowledge is praised as the only legitimate form of knowledge, offering hard and objective truth in correspondence to reality.

Indeed, consultants play a huge role in the diffusion of new knowledge and models in the wider business world, thus perpetuating the myth that management models work.

On the other hand, consultants must show results. They have to portray themselves action-oriented and hence Ben’s attempt to establish his (and his organisation’s) credibility via credentials. This mode of rhetoric downplays scientific-rational thinking and highlights  wisdom gained by experience instead. As the authors state:

The chain of argument usually goes like this: merit always prevails over privilege; management knowledge is often contrasted with scientific, theoretically informed knowledge, which is regarded with suspicion by managers; and a persons’ track record and ‘hands-on’ experience is regarded as more important than expertise in general management skills acquired through extensive education.

Another facet of the rhetoric of action is that it emphasises the uniqueness of each situation. This is based on the idea that things in organisations are subject to continual change and that the lack of a stable configuration and environment makes it impossible to employ management models. The implication being that the only way to deal with the mess is to create a sense of collectivism – a “we’re in this together” attitude. The  concept of  organisational culture plays on this by portraying an organisation as this unique, wonderful place in which everyone shares the same values and deep sense of meaning. As the authors state:

The management literature discussing corporate culture is filled with religious and magical metaphors of the leader stressing the less rational sides of the organization, emphasizing the role of ceremonies, rituals, sagas, and legends (to mention only a few), in creating a system of shared values in the organization.

Seen in this light, the CEO’s references to Alan’s epiphany-inducing presentation, the “competitive situation,” and the need to “start working for our money” are attempts to generate this sense of collectivism.

The foregoing discussion highlights how consultants and their allies draw upon incompatible modes of rhetoric to justify their plans and actions. This essentially makes it difficult to refute their claims: if one tries to pin them down on logical grounds, they can argue based on their track record and deep experience; if one questions their experience, they can point to the logic of their models and processes.

…but we are all guilty

Finally, I should emphasise that management consultants are not the only ones guilty of using both forms of rhetoric,  we all are: the business cases we write, the presentations we deliver, the justifications we give our bosses and staff are all rife with examples of this. Out of curiosity, I re-read a business case I wrote recently and was amused to find a couple of contradictions of the kind discussed in this post.

Conclusion

In this post I have discussed how consulting rhetoric frequently draws upon two incompatible kinds of arguments –rational/fact-based and practical/action-based. This enables consultants to present arguments that are hard to refute on logical grounds.  However, it isn’t fair to single out consultants: most people who work in organisation-land are just as guilty of mixing incompatible rhetorics when attempting to convince others of the rightness of their views.

Written by K

August 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm

The paradox of the learning organisation

with 14 comments

Introduction

The term learning organisation  refers to an organisation that continually modifies itself in response to changes in its environment.   Ever since Peter Senge coined the term in his book, The Fifth Discipline, assorted consultants and academics have been telling us that a learning organisation is an ideal worth striving for.  The reality, however,  is that most organisations that undertake the journey actually end up in a place far removed  from this ideal. Among other things, the journey may expose managerial hypocrisies that contradict the very notion of a learning organisation.  In this post, I elaborate on the paradoxes of learning organisations, drawing on an excellent and very readable paper by Paul Tosey entitled, The Hunting of the Learning Organisation: A Paradoxical Journey.

(Note:  I should point out that the term learning organisation should be distinguished from organisational learning: the latter refers to processes of learning whereas the former is about an ideal type of organisation. See this paper for more on the distinction.)

The journey metaphor

Consultants and other experts are quick to point out that the path to a learning organisation is a journey towards an ideal that can never be reached.  Quoting from this paper, Tosey writes, “we would talk about the fact that, in some ways, the learning organization represented all of our collective best wishes for Utopia in the workplace.” As another example, Peter Senge writes of it being, “a journey in search of the experience of being a member of `a great team.”  Elsewhere, Senge  suggests that the learning organisation is a vision that is essentially unattainable.

The metaphor of a journey seems an apt one at first, but there are a couple of problems with it. Firstly, the causal connection between initiatives that purport to get one to the goal and actual improvements in an organisation’s capacity to learn  is tenuous and impossible to establish.  This suggests the journey is one without a map. Secondly, the process of learning about learning within the organisation – how it occurs, and how it is perceived by different stakeholders – can expose organisational hypocrisies and double-speak that may otherwise have remained hidden.  Thus instead of progressing towards the the ideal one may end up moving away from it.  Tosey explores these  paradoxes by comparing the journey of a learning organisation to  the one described in Lewis Carroll’s  poem, The Hunting of The Snark.

Hunting the Snark (and the learning organisation)

Carroll’s poem tells the story of ten characters who set of in search of a fabulous creature called a  Snark.  After many trials and tribulations, they end up finding out that the Snark is something else:  a not-so-pleasant creature called a Boojum. Tosey comments that the quest described in the poem is a superb metaphor for the journey towards a learning organisation. As he states:

Initially, when reflecting on personal experience of organizational events… I was struck by the potential of the dream-like voyage of fancy on which Carroll’s characters embarked as an allegory of the quest for the learning organization. Pure allegory has limitations. Through writing and developing the article I came to view the poem more as a paradigm of the consequences of human desire for, and efforts at, progress through the striving for ideals. In other words the poem expresses something about our `hunting’. In this respect it may represent a mythological theme,a profound metaphor more than a mere cautionary moral tale.

There are many interesting parallels between the hunt for the Snark and the journey towards a learning organisation. Here are a few:

The expedition to find the Snark is led by a character called the Bellman who asserts: “What I tell you three times is true.” This is akin to the assurances (pleas?) from experts who tell us (several times over) that it is possible to transform our organisations into ones that continually learn.

The journey itself is directionless because the Bellman’s map is useless. In Carroll’s words:

Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!

Finally, the Snark is never found. In its stead, the crew find a scary creature called  a Boojum that has the power to make one disappear. Quoting from the poem:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

The journey towards a learning organisation often reveals the Boojum-like dark side of organisations.  One common example of this is when the process of learning surfaces questions that are uncomfortable for those in power. Tosey relates the  following tale  which may be familiar to some readers,

…a multinational company intending to develop itself as a learning organization ran programmes to encourage managers to challenge received wisdom and to take an inquiring approach. Later, one participant attended an awayday, where the managing director of his division circulated among staff over dinner. The participant raised a question about the approach the MD had taken on a particular project; with hindsight, had that been the best strategy? `That was the way I did it’, said the MD. `But do you think there was a better way?’, asked the participant. `I don’t think you heard me’, replied the MD. `That was the way I did it’. `That I heard’, continued the participant, `but might there have been a better way?’. The MD fixed his gaze on the participants’ lapel badge, then looked him in the eye, saying coldly, `I will remember your name’, before walking away.

One could argue that a certain kind of learning – that of how the organisation learns – occurred here:  the employee learnt that certain questions were out of bounds. I think it is safe to say, though, that this was not the kind of learning that was intended by those who initiated the program.

In the preface to the poem, Carroll notes that the Bellman there is a rule  –  Rule 42 – which states, “No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm,” to which the Bellman (the leader) added, “and the Man at the Helm shall speak to no one.” This rendered communication between the helmsman and the crew impossible. In such periods the ship was not steered. The parallels between this and organisational life are clear: there is rarely open communication between the those steering the organisational ship and rank and file employees. Indeed, Tosey reformulates Rule 42 in organisational terms as, “the organization shall not speak to the supervision, and the  supervision shall not speak to the organization.” This, he tells us, interrupts the feedback loop between individual experience and the organisations which renders learning impossible.

(Note:  I can’t help but wonder if Douglas Adams’ famous  answer to the life universe and everything was inspired by Carroll’s rule 42…)

In the poem,  the ship sometimes sailed backwards when Rule 42 was in operation. Tosey draws a parallel between “sailing backwards” and unexpected or unintended consequence of organisational rules.  He argues that organisational actions can result in learning even if those actions were originally intended to achieve something else. The employee in the story above learnt something about the organisational hierarchy and how it worked.

Finally, it is a feature of Rule-42-like rules that they cannot be named. The employee in the story above could not  have pointed out that the manager was acting in a manner that was inconsistent with the intent of the programme – at least not without putting his own position at risk. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of learning, though of a rather sad kind.

Conclusion

Experts and consultants have told us many times over that the journey towards a learning organisation is one worth making….and as the as the Bellman in Carroll’s poem says: “What I tell you three times is true.” Nevertheless, the reality is that instances in which learning actually occurs tend to be more a consequence of accident than plan, and tend to be transient than lasting. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Snark may turn out to Boojum:  people may end up learning truths that the organisation would rather remained hidden.   And therein lies the paradox of the  learning organisation.

Written by K

June 4, 2013 at 9:23 pm

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