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The Heretic’s Guide to Management – understanding ambiguity in the corporate world

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I am delighted to announce that my new business book, The Heretic’s Guide to Management: The Art of Harnessing Ambiguity, is now available in e-book and print formats. The book, co-written with Paul Culmsee, is a loose sequel to our previous tome, The Heretics Guide to Best Practices.

Many reviewers liked the writing style of our first book, which combined rigour with humour. This book continues in the same vein, so if you enjoyed the first one we hope you might like this one too. The new book is half the size of the first one and I considerably less idealistic too. In terms of subject matter, I could say “Ambiguity, Teddy Bears and Fetishes” and leave it at that…but that might leave you thinking that it’s not the kind of book you would want anyone to see on your desk!

Rest assured, The Heretic’s Guide to Management is not a corporate version of Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, it aims to delve into the complex but fascinating ways in which ambiguity affects human behaviour. More importantly, it discusses how ambiguity can be harnessed in ways that achieve positive outcomes.  Most management techniques (ranging from strategic planning to operational budgeting) attempt to reduce ambiguity and thereby provide clarity. It is a profound irony of modern corporate life that they often end up doing the opposite: increasing ambiguity rather than reducing it.

On the surface, it is easy enough to understand why: organizations are complex entities so it is unreasonable to expect management models, such as those that fit neatly into a 2*2 matrix or a predetermined checklist, to work in the real world. In fact, expecting them to work as advertised is like colouring a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa, expecting to recreate Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Ambiguity therefore invariably remains untamed, and reality reimposes itself no matter how alluring the model is.

It turns out that most of us have a deep aversion to situations that involve even a hint of ambiguity. Recent research in neuroscience has revealed the reason for this: ambiguity is processed in the parts of the brain which regulate our emotional responses. As a result, many people associate it with feelings of anxiety. When kids feel anxious, they turn to transitional objects such as teddy bears or security blankets. These objects provide them with a sense of stability when situations or events seem overwhelming. In this book, we show that as grown-ups we don’t stop using teddy bears – it is just that the teddies we use take a different, more corporate, form. Drawing on research, we discuss how management models, fads and frameworks are actually akin to teddy bears. They provide the same sense of comfort and certainty to corporate managers and minions as real teddies do to distressed kids.

A plain old Teddy

A Plain Teddy

Most children usually outgrow their need for teddies as they mature and learn to cope with their childhood fears. However, if development is disrupted or arrested in some way, the transitional object can become a fetish – an object that is held on to with a pathological intensity, simply for the comfort that it offers in the face of ambiguity. The corporate reliance on simplistic solutions for the complex challenges faced is akin to little Johnny believing that everything will be OK provided he clings on to Teddy.

When this happens, the trick is finding ways to help Johnny overcome his fear of ambiguity.

Ambiguity is a primal force that drives much of our behaviour. It is typically viewed negatively, something to be avoided or to be controlled.

A Sith Teddy

A Sith Teddy

The truth, however, is that ambiguity is a force that can be used in positive ways too. The Force that gave the Dark Side their power in the Star Wars movies was harnessed by the Jedi in positive ways.

A Jedi Teddy

A Jedi Teddy

Our book shows you how ambiguity, so common in the corporate world, can be harnessed to achieve the results you want.

The e-book is available via popular online outlets. Here are links to some:

Amazon Kindle

Google Play


For those who prefer paperbacks, the print version is available here.

Thanks for your support 🙂

Written by K

July 12, 2016 at 10:30 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

Towards a critical practice of management – a book review

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

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

Critical theory and its relevance to management

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

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

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

The demise of command and control?

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

As Alvesson and Willmott put it:

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

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

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

A critical look at the status quo

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

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

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

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

A critical look at management specialisations

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

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

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

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

Towards an enlightened practice of management

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and so to conclude

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

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

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

Written by K

July 18, 2013 at 12:17 am

The paradoxes of organisational change

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It is a truism that organisations are in a constant state of change. It seems that those who run organisations are rarely satisfied with the status quo, and their unending quest to improve products, performance, sales or whatever makes change an inescapable fact of organizational life.

Many decision makers and managers who implement change take a somewhat naïve view of the process:  they focus on what they want rather than all the things that could happen.  This is understandable because change projects are initiated and plans made when all the nitty-gritty details that may cause problems are not yet in view.  Given that it is impossible to surface all significant details at the start. is there anything that decision-makers and managers can do to address the inevitable ambiguity of change?

One of the underappreciated facets 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.

It is my contention that an understanding of the paradoxes that operate in the day-to-day work of change might help managers in developing a more realistic picture of how a change initiative might unfold and some of the problems that they might encounter. In this post, I look at the paradoxes of organizational change drawing on a paper entitled, The social construction of organizational change paradoxes.

Paradoxes are social constructs

More often than not, the success of an organizational change hinges on the willingness of people to change their attitudes, behaviour and work practices.  In view of this it is no surprise that many of the difficulties of organizational change have social origins.

Change makes conflicting demands on people: for example, managerial rhetoric about the need to improve efficiency is often accompanied by actions that actually decrease it. As a result, many of the obstacles to change arise from elements that seem sensible when considered individually, but are conflicting and contradictory when taken together.   This results in paradox. As the authors of the paper state:

We propose that paradox is constructed when elements of our thoughts, actions and emotions that seemed logical when considered in isolation, are juxtaposed, appearing mutually exclusive. The result is often an experience of absurdity or paralysis.

Again it is important to note that change-related paradoxes have social origins – they are caused by the actions of certain individual or groups and their effects or perceived effects on others.

Paradoxes of organizational change

The authors describe three paradoxes of organizational change: paradoxes of performing, belonging and organizing. I describe each of these below, but before I do so, it is worth noting that paradoxes are often exacerbated by people’s reactions to them. In particular,  those affected by a change tend to interpret it using frames of reference that accentuate negative effects. For example, employees may view a change initiative as a threat rather than an opportunity to improve performance.  Paradoxically, their perceptions may become a self-fulfilling reality because their (negative) reactions to the change may reinforce its undesirable effects.

That said let’s look at the three paradoxes of organizational change as described in the paper.

Paradoxes of performing

A change initiative is invariably accompanied by restructuring that results in wholesale changes in roles and responsibilities across the organisation.  Moreover, since large-scale changes take a long time to implement, there is a longish transition period in which employees are required to perform tasks and activities associated with their old and new roles. During this period, employees may have to deal with competing, even conflicting demands.  This, quite naturally, causes stress and anxiety.

Paradoxes of performing relate to contradictions in employees’ self understanding of their identities and roles within the organisation.   As such, these paradoxes are characterized by mixed messages from management.  As the authors state, people faced with such paradoxes often express feelings of   rising frustration with/distrust of management,  doubt (inability to choose) or nihilism (futility of choice). This paradox isparticularly  common when organisations transition from a traditional (functional) management hierarchy to a matrix structure.

Paradoxes of belonging

Another consequence of organizational restructuring is that old hierarchies and workgroups are replaced by new ones. Adjusting to this requires employees to shift allegiances and develop new work relationships. Leaving the safety of a known group can be extremely stressful. Moreover, since the new structures are rarely defined in detail, at least at the start, there is a great deal of ambiguity as to what it really stands for.  It is no surprise, therefore, that some employees attempt to maintain the status quo or even leave while others benefit from the change.

At the heart of this paradox is a double bind where a desire to maintain existing relationships competes with the realization that it is necessary to develop new ones.  People react to this differently, depending on their values, motivations and (above all) their ability to deal with ambiguity.  Inevitably, such situations are characterized by antagonistic attitudes that accentuate differences and/or   peoples’ defensive attitudes that provoke defensiveness in others.

Paradoxes of organizing

The fact that organisations consist of people who have diverse backgrounds, motivations and interests suggests that the process of organizing – which, among things, involves drawing distinctions between groups of people based on their skills –   is inherently paradoxical. The authors quote a couple of studies that support this contention.  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…”

As illustrated by the two examples quoted in the prior paragraph, a manifestation of a paradox of organizing is that the (new) groups created through the process of organizing can accentuate differences that would not otherwise have mattered. These differences can undermine the new structures and hence, the process of organizing itself.

As the authors suggest, paradoxes of organizing are an inevitable side effects of the process of organizing.  The best (and perhaps the only) solution lies in learning to live with ambiguity.


In the end, the paradoxes discussed above arise because change evokes feelings of fear, uncertainty and doubt within individuals and groups. When such emotions dominate, it is natural that people will not be entirely open with each other and may do things that undermine the aims of the change, often even unconsciously.

An awareness of   the paradoxes of organizing may tempt one to look for solutions. For example, one might think that they might be resolved by “better communication” or “more clarity regarding expectations and roles.” This is exactly what professional “Change Managers” have (supposedly) been doing for years. Yet these paradoxes remain, which suggests that they are natural consequences of change that cannot be “managed away”; those who must undergo the process of change must also suffer the angst and anxiety that comes with it.   If this is so, the advice offered by the authors in the final lines of the paper is perhaps apposite. Quoting from Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi’s book Finding Flow, they state:

Act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes any difference . . . It is this serious playfulness, this combination of concern and humility, that makes it possible to be both engaged and carefree at the same time.

…and that is perhaps the best advice I have heard in a long time.

Five blogs I read regularly

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I have to confess I don’t read many blogs. My excuse is that work leaves me with little time to write and even less to read. So I have to ration out my reading time, most of which  goes into making inroads into the pile of books and papers I have collected over the years.

Nevertheless, there are a handful of blogs that I make it a point to read every week. Here they are, in strictly alphabetical order:

Better Projects: Craig Brown’s short and insightful posts delve into the foundations of project management theory and practice.  My favourite posts from his blog are this one on questioning the utility of a very popular project management methodology and this one about how respect for individuals can make life easier for both employers and employees.

Cleverworkarounds: Paul Culmsee is one of those rare people who is as much at ease writing about technical matters as he is with the softer stuff. He weaves wonderfully entertaining stories as he explains and educates. If you have not read him before, head over to his blog and check out his recent series explaining the mysteries of SharePoint performance. Don’t be put off by the title, it’s a worthwhile read for anyone who has ever asked the question, “Why is that system so slow?”   Another brilliantly entertaining and educational piece is this one on Monte Carlo simulation.  (Full Disclosure: Paul is a good friend of mine and we’ve co-written a book)

Herding Cats: Glen Alleman is a highly experienced project manager who has worked on mission critical projects involving manned spaceflight (among other things). His no-nonsense posts on risk management and the use and abuse of statistics in project management have educated and inspired me to write on these topics. My favourite posts on Herding Cats include Statistics and  Misrepresentations of Knowledge and Uncertainty and Risk.

Quantmleap:  Shim Marom is a kindred spirit who writes about many things interest me and that I write about (but he does it much better than I ever can). He can pack into two paragraphs things that would take me twenty. A couple of must-read posts from his blog are: A Letter to a Young Project Manager  and  Don’t be afraid to connect with your touchy-feely side.  Shim’s posts on the softer side of project management provide a counterpoint to Glen’s process and technique oriented articles.

Tim van Gelder: A philosopher by training, Tim van Gelder helps individuals and organisations improve the quality of their thinking and decision making. I learn something from each one of his posts.  Check out this post on why opinion polls are of dubious value and this one about a serious gap in business intelligence systems.

These blogs offer terrific insights into how organisations, projects and systems work, or should work.  Each of them has influenced my thinking and given me a fresh perspective on what I do and write about.

Models and messes in management – from best practices to appropriate practices

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Scientific models and management

Physicists build mathematical models that represent selected aspects of reality. These models are based on a mix of existing knowledge, observations, intuition and mathematical virtuosity.  A good example of such a model is  Newton’s law of gravity  according to which the gravitational force between two objects (planets,  apples or whatever) varies in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between them. The model was a brilliant generalization based on observations made by Newton and others (Johannes Kepler, in particular), supplemented by Newton’s insight that the force that keeps the planets revolving round the sun is the same as the one that made that mythical apple  fall to earth.   In essence Newton’s law tells us that planetary motions are caused by gravity and it tells us – very precisely – the effects of the cause.  In short: it embodies a cause-effect relationship.

[Aside: The validity of a physical model depends on how well it stands up to the test of reality.  Newton’s law of gravitation is remarkably successful in this regard:  among many other things, it is the basis of orbital calculations for all space missions.  The mathematical model expressed by Newton’s law is thus an established scientific principle. That said, it should be noted that models of the physical world are always subject to revision in the light of new information.  For example, Newton’s law of gravity has been superseded by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.  Nevertheless for most practical applications it remains perfectly adequate.]

Given the spectacular success of modeling in the physical and natural sciences, it is perhaps unsurprising that early management theorists attempted to follow the same approach. Fredrick Taylor stated this point of view quite clearly in the introduction to his classic monograph, The Principles of Scientific Management.   Here are the relevant lines:

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…

From this it appears that Taylor’s intent was to prove that management could be reduced to a set of principles that govern all aspects of work in organizations.

The question is: how well did it work?

The origin of best practices

Over time, Taylor’s words were used to justify the imposition of one-size-fits-all management practices that ignored human individuality and uniqueness of organisations. Although, Taylor was aware of these factors, he believed commonalities were more important than differences.  This thinking is well and alive to this day: although Taylor’s principles are no longer treated as gospel, their spirit lives on in the notion of standardized best practices.

There are now a plethora of standards or best practices for just about any area of management. They are often sold using scientific language, terms such as principles and proof.   Consider the following passage taken from from the Official PRINCE2 site:

Because PRINCE2 is generic and based on proven principles, organisations adopting the method as a standard can substantially improve their organisational capability and maturity across multiple areas of business activity – business change, construction, IT, mergers and acquisitions, research, product development and so on.

There are a couple of other things worth noting in the above passage. First, there is an implied cause-effect relationship between the “proven principles” and improvements in “organizational capability and maturity across multiple areas of business activity.”    Second, as alluded to above, the human factor is all but factored out – there is an implication that this generic standard can be implemented by anyone anywhere and the results will inevitably be as “truly astounding” as Taylor claimed.

Why best practices are not the best

There are a number of problems with the notion of a best practice.  I discuss these briefly below.

First, every organisation is unique. Yes, much is made of commonalities between organisations, but it is the differences that make them unique. Arguably, it is also the differences that give organisations their edge. As Stanley Deetz mentioned in his 2003 Becker lecture:

In today’s world unless you have exceptionally low labor costs, competitive advantage comes from high creativity, highly committed employees and the ability to customize products.  All require a highly involved, participating workforce.  Creativity requires letting differences make a difference.  Most high-end companies are more dependent on the social and intellectual capital possessed by employees than financial investment.

Thoughtless standardization through the use of best practices is a sure way to lose those differences that could make a difference.

Second, in their paper entitled,  De-Contextualising Competence: Can Business Best Practice be Bundled and Sold, Jonathan Wareham and Han Gerrits pointed out that organisations operate in vastly varying cultural and social environments. It is difficult to see how best practice approaches with their one-and-a-half-size –fits-all approach would work.

Third , Wareham and Gerrits also pointed out that best practice is often tacit and socially embedded. This invalidates the notion that it can be transferred from an organization in which it works and to another without substantial change.  Context is all important.

Lastly, best practices are generally implemented in response to a perceived problem.  However, they often address the   symptoms rather than the root cause of the problem. For example, a project management process may attempt to improve delivery by better estimation and planning. However, the underlying cause – which may be poor communication or a dysfunctional relationship between users and the IT department –remains unaddressed.

In his 2003 Becker lecture, Stanley Deetz illustrated this point via the following fable:

… about a company formed by very short people.  Since they were all short and they wanted to be highly efficient and cut costs, they chose to build their ceiling short and the doorways shorter so that they could have more work space in the same building.  And, they were in fact very successful.  As they became more and more successful, however, it became necessary for them to start hiring taller people. And, as they hired more and more tall people, they came to realize that tall people were at a disadvantage at this company because they had to walk around stooped over.  They had to duck to go through the doorways and so forth.  Of course, they hired organizational consultants to help them with the problem.

Initially they had time-and-motion experts come in. These experts taught teams of people how to walk carefully.  Tall members learned to duck in stride so that going through the short doors was minimally inconvenient. And they became more efficient by learning how to walk more properly for their environment. Later, because this wasn’t working so well, they hired psychological consultants.  These experts taught greater sensitivity to the difficulties of tall members of the organization.   Long-term short members learned tolerance knowing that the tall people would come later to meetings, would be somewhat less able to perform their work well.  They provided for tall people networks for support…

The parable is an excellent illustration of how best practices can  end up addressing symptoms rather than causes.

Ambiguity + the human factor = a mess

Many organisational problems are ambiguous in that cause-effect relationships are unclear. Consequently, different stakeholders can have wildly different opinions as to what the root cause of a problem is. Moreover, there is no way to conclusively establish the validity of a particular point of view. For example, executives may see a delay in a project as being due to poor project management whereas the project manager might see it as being a consequence of poor scope definition or unreasonable timelines.  The cause depends on who you ask and there is no way to establish who is right! Unlike problems in physics, organisational problems have a social dimension.

The visionary Horst Rittel coined the evocative term wicked problem to describe problems that involve many  stakeholder groups with diverse and often conflicting perspectives. This makes such problems messy. Indeed, Russell Ackoff referred to wicked problems as messes. In his words, “every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess

Consider an example that is quite common in organisations:  the question of how to improve efficiency. Management may frame this issue in terms of tighter managerial control and launch a solution that involves greater oversight.  In contrast, a workgroup within the organisation may see their efficiency being impeded by bureaucratic control that results from increased oversight, and  thus may believe that the road to efficiency lies in giving workgroups greater autonomy.  In this case there is a clear difference between the aims of management (to exert greater control) and  those of workgroups (to work autonomously). Ideally, the two ought to talk it over and come up with a commonly agreed approach. Unfortunately they seldom do.  The power structure in organisations being what it is, management’s solution usually prevails and, as a consequence, workgroup morale plummets. See this post for an interesting case study on one such situation.

Summing up: a need for appropriate practice, not best practice

The great attraction of best practices, and one of the key reasons for their popularity, is that they offer apparently straightforward solutions to complex problems. However, such problems typically have a social dimension because they affect different stakeholders in different ways.   They are messes whose definition depends on who you ask. So there is no agreement on what the problem is, let alone its solution.  This fact by itself limits the utility of the best practice approach to organisational problem solving. Purveyors of best practices may use terms like “proven”, “established”, “measurable” etc. to lend an air of scientific respectability to their wares, but the truth is that unless all stakeholders have a shared understanding of the problem and a shared commitment to solving it, the practice will fail.

In our recently published book entitled, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, Paul Culmsee and I  describe in detail the issues with the best practice approach to organisational problem-solving. More important, we provide a practical approach that can help you work with stakeholders to achieve a shared understanding of a problem and a shared commitment to a commonly agreed course of action.  The methods we discuss can be used in small settings or larger one,  so you will find the book useful regardless of where you sit in your organisation’s hierarchy. In essence our book is a manifesto for replacing the concept of best practice with that of appropriate practice –  practice with a human face that is appropriate for you in your organisation and particular situation.

Macrovisions and micromanagement

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Much has been written about leadershipmanagement and the difference between them.   The former is associated with creating a shared vision and strategy for the future whereas the latter has administrative and bureaucratic connotations. Most organisations  celebrate leadership but consider management to be little more than an operational necessity.

In view of the exaggerated rhetoric regarding leadership it is of interest to ask how it is actually practiced on the ground.  This question was investigated by Mats Alvesson and Sven Sveningsson in a brilliant paper entitled, Good Visions, Bad Micro-management and Ugly Ambiguity: Contradictions of (Non-) Leadership in a Knowledge-Intensive Organization.  In this post I elaborate on one of their key conclusions:  that there is a gap between  the espoused view of leadership and its practice.

Leadership in theory

The emphasis on leadership in management theory  has lead to the widely accepted notion that leaders matter and that their actions can affect organizational performance and effect change in a positive way. Moreover it is also assumed that it is straightforward to identify leadership qualities in people as these manifest themselves through a set of well-defined behaviours and attitudes. In other words, leadership is a stable and robust concept. The main aim of the authors was to find out how well this theoretical conception of leadership holds up in the real world.

The case study and research methodology

The authors conducted a detailed study of how managers in a knowledge-intensive organisation viewed and practiced leadership.  The study consisted of extensive, multiple interviews with managers at different levels in the company (from the CEO to project managers) supplemented by observations made at management meetings.  Two rounds of interviews were conducted. In the first round, the authors asked the interviewees what their jobs entailed. Most responses centered on vision, leadership and strategy.  However, when asked to elaborate on their responses, most managers described their day-to-day work in terms of administrative and bureaucratic managerial procedures. This pointed to a gap between espoused leadership and how it is actually practiced. In the second round of interviews, the authors attempted to gain some insights into the reasons for the gap.

Macrovisions: the espoused view of leadership

The authors observed that when asked questions about their jobs, most managers spoke of leadership and how they practiced it. Big picture topics such as vision and strategy – what I call macrovisions –  were recurrent themes in their responses . Most managers claimed that their job was to articulate such macrovisions while leaving the details of day-to-day operations to their subordinates.  As examples, consider the following responses from interviewees:

A strongly knowledge intensive work as ours build on independent and active employees who has (sic)  the ability to take their own initiative.

This is consistent with modern themes of worker autonomy in decision, particularly in knowledge-intensive organisations such as information or biotechnology.  Reinforcing this, another manager said:

 I try not to interfere too much in operations. That would be wrong in every way, no one would benefit from that, but I am available if anyone has an operative question, otherwise it’s more me trying to make myself unavoidable in strategic issues but avoidable in operational issues.

Yet another manager spoke of macrovisions in the following way:

And if you provide the big picture, if there is a sense that these [minor decisions] are in the context of the wider strategy and it is not just, bang, bang [shooting with finger from the hip] we shoot this one and now we shoot that one, and now we gallop off in some other direction; if it fits a bigger picture, then I think we can manage. But that is where leadership comes in I think, we need to provide that context and the picture and the overall direction, to say “we are not here in the middle and you cannot [be allowed to] ride off in just any direction.

Macrovisions thus appeared to provide a broad framework within which employees had the freedom to make decisions that were broadly consistent with the organisation’s strategy.

Again, it is important to emphasise that managers were not specifically asked about visions, strategy or leadership, yet their responses invariably alluded to these themes.  The responses suggest that most managers in the company viewed leadership rather than management as their primary role.

This was consistent with the overall management vision set by senior executives.  As the authors put it:

The expectations formulated by higher-level senior managers and made explicit by the CEO on various occasions, is that managers should refrain from detailed management

Indeed, some managers spoke of managing details in derogatory terms. Consider the following response:

Requesting detail which is of no value to your personal job or position, and that can be detail about a specific office, budget thing through to really me going down to the project level and saying, “Well, how are we doing on that project and I really want to know”, so it is about the ability not to do that, and delegate and trust the people.

In short:  most managers felt that their work involved articulating and implementing macrovisions rather than practising micromanagement.

Micromanagement: the practice of “leadership”

A natural question arising from the above is: how did managers actually practice leadership? What are the things they did in their day-to-day work that exemplified leadership?

To answer this question, interviewees were asked what they did in their day-to-day work.  Strangely, most managers reverted to themes they had described in uncomplimentary terms. For example, when asked to elaborate on how he practiced leadership, one manager said:

There are many different ways of working. I think that as a manager here one has to implement significantly more directive ways of handling people, that is, that you say to people that you will spend the next month occupying yourself with this development, I want you to learn about this. I think that you have to have a much more directive way of handling of people in these operations.

This was not an isolated case;  another manager said:

I do get involved from a technical viewpoint, I expect, obviously my knowledge is still developing here, but I expect to understand quite consciously what the group is doing.

Yet another manager, when asked about the leadership tools that he used, referred to things such as budgets, recruitment etc. – things that are usually concerned bureaucratic, administrative procedures. There was little if any reference to activities that one might associate with leadership.

There is thus a clear gap between what the managers professed to practice and what they actually practiced. In the authors’ words:

…the responses brought forth aspects of managerial activities obviously quite far removed from most understandings of leadership in contemporary management literature and also from the more ‘grandiose’ ideas on the subject that they also claim to believe in and base their work on. Managers therefore talk of themselves as leaders without doing much that clearly and strongly refers to ‘leadership activities’. The case study exhibits the contrary: the activities of managers are more closely related to what is understood as micro-management…

Indeed this view was confirmed when the authors spoke with lower level managers. A project manager said:

Perhaps there’s a dialogue about that (leadership) that doesn’t really percolate down to those in production and it tends to become reactive. And micro-management, there’s a will to know too much in detail, when perhaps they should really be working with empowerment, that people are able to take responsibility, to send responsibility for the budget to me and have faith that I take responsibility for my colleagues, and all the positive talk such as “we are going to be the company of choice”, how are we going to realize all that, there’s too much administrative detail going through my superior.

…so much for all the talk of leadership.

The rhetoric and reality of leadership

From the above it is clear that we have a paradoxical situation:  managers believed they were being leaders when they are actually weren’t leading at all. The question is: why did this happen?

The authors offer a number of speculations for this, which I briefly outline below.

Firstly, leadership qualities are generally seen as desirable. Management literature and education tends to place leadership at the pinnacle of managerial practice. Consequently, there is considerable pressure on managers at the middle and senior levels to display these qualities.

Secondly, there is the issue of identity; how managers see themselves. Like those described in the case study, most managers would like to view what they do as leadership rather than “mere” management or administration. As a result, they may unconsciously describe what they do in the flattering language of leadership rather than the mundane terms of management.  However, as the authors stated in the paper, “Leadership talk and fantasies seem to leave a thin spray of grandiosity on the ‘leaders’” Clearly,  this may be of more use in bolstering managerial self-esteem than anything else.

Thirdly, managers often have to deal with conflicting agendas and requirements. In the case study managers were expected to display leader-like behaviour. However, at the same time, they were held responsible for specific and very tangible results. To deliver on the latter, they often felt they had to keep track of the details of what their teams were doing and step in when things were going wrong. There was a continual pressure to get involved in detail while maintaining the illusion of being leaders.

Another point that the authors do not mention explicitly is that middle and frontline managers are often expected to lead without being given the autonomy to do so.

It is likely that some or all of the above factors lead to a divergence between the rhetoric and reality of leadership.


The central message of the paper is that the concept of leadership is an idealization that is often compromised in practice.  Most people who work in organisations will not find this surprising: managers are generally  aware that their day-to-day work has little in common with the  rarefied notions of leadership promoted by management schools, while  others are likely to have worked with  micromanagers  who are masquerading as macrovisionaries.

Written by K

October 20, 2011 at 7:35 am

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