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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

What project management means to me – a metalogue

with 21 comments

Salviati: Hello Simplicio, I haven’t seen you for a while. Where have you been?

Simplicio: Salviati!  It is good to see you.  I’ve been busy learning about project management.

Salviati: That is good news indeed, Simplicio.  How are you learning? Are you working on a project?

Simplicio: No, of course not; I’m still learning. I don’t think  my boss would let me work on a real project until I’ve completed my certification.

Salviati: Certification? Now I’m really curious.

Simplicio: Oh yes, and as a part of it I’m reading this wonderful book that is the authoritative guide to project management. I’m also attending an  evening discussion group twice a week where I get to  explore the finer details of “The Book”. It’s great! We have some experienced project managers in the group who tell us stories.

Salviati:  That’s good, and I would pay more attention to their stories than the tools and techniques in “The Book”.

Simplicio: Really? Why would I want to listen to a bunch of stories about old projects? Surely it’s the tools and techniques that are more important. Stories are….well, just stories.  Half of them are probably embellished anyway.

Salviati:  May be so, but the fact is, project managers often make sense of their work by constructing stories about it.

Simplicio: What do you mean “make sense of their work?”

Salviati:  Well, despite project managers’ best efforts, things never quite go as planned: team members fall sick or leave the company; vendors do not deliver on time; users change their requirements on a daily basis…I could go on.  When these things happen, project managers need to  understand  what has happened so that they can devise appropriate responses.   They often do this by building narratives of what happened or, in simple terms, by telling stories.

Simplicio: To be perfectly honest I think the real reason things go wrong is that people  do not   follow processes properly. It seems to me that storytelling is just a means to cover up the truth, a rationalisation.

Salviati: Ah, truth. You see, Simplicio, truth in such situations is often a matter of opinion. Different stakeholders will have different views on what happened. Say a vendor is late in delivering something – the customer may see it as gross incompetence whereas the vendor will, no doubt, have a perfectly reasonable explanation. So, whose truth is the truth?  And even if you were able to answer that, does it really matter? As a project manager, you’re on the spot; you have to move ahead despite the setback. The truth doesn’t help you here, and neither does process. In fact trying to get to the truth and insisting on process may only end up exacerbating the problem.

Simplicio: Hmm, OK, you may have a point there, but are you suggesting there is nothing of value in “The Book?” Is it all just impractical theory?

Salviati:  Oh don’t get me wrong, it is necessary to know the stuff in that’s in “The Book”. But it is also important to remember that there is a gap between theory and practice.

Simplicio:  Gap between theory and practice?

Salviati:  Yes there is a significant gap between what is taught in business schools (or written in “The Book”) and the way managers actually do their jobs. The former is called espoused theory and the latter, theory in use (Editor’s note: see this article for more on espoused theory vs theory in use). Espoused theory works in an ideal world where cause-effect relationships are unambiguous, and uncertainty can be predicted and planned for. This is the sort of world that is depicted in those pretty process diagrams that people draw on a whiteboard. In the real world, however, causes aren’t always apparent and best laid plans often go awry. Managers have to deal with this. When doing so, they often improvise on what they have learnt through experience. What books and project theorists tend to overlook is that planning and improvisation are complementary facets of project work. Indeed the most compelling project management stories are about improvisation; about what people did when theory or process was no help at all.

Simplicio:  So you’re saying that theory is incomplete…

Salviati:   Absolutely! Theory cannot teach you what experience does. You see, many project management skills are tacit, they can only be learned by doing. Would you pick up a book about guitar and music theory and expect to play like a virtuoso in an afternoon… or even a month or a year?  .  So it is with project management.   But, look,  tacitness is not the only issue. Another major shortcoming of project management, as it is taught, is that it overlooks the fact that every project is invariably part of a larger system: namely, the hosting organisation and its environment. Understanding this is critical to the success of a project.

Simplicio:  I’m not sure I understand  what you mean by “a larger system”.

Salviati: Consider  the question of project failure. Many experts will tell you that the top causes of project failure are things like “lack of executive support” or “lack of user input” or even “incomplete requirements.” What these experts do not understand is that these are  symptoms rather than causes.  The true causes of failure invariably lie in the hosting organisation, not the project. For example, “lack of user input” often occurs because users typically work on projects in addition to their normal duties. It is but natural that they will therefore view projects as  burdens rather than initiatives that might benefit them in the future. The fault here lies beyond the project. These kinds of issues need to be negotiated through open dialogue between all affected stakeholders rather than via top-down decrees .

Simplicio:  OK, I understand the importance of taking a system-based view, but what is “open dialogue”?

Salviati:   Ever worked for a team or organization where there are some things  that can never be discussed? Ever had bosses who only want to know the good news? Most projects have many different stakeholder groups, each with their own view of the project and motivations. Sponsors, managers, project teams and users – all have their own view on a project’s objectives. As strange as it may sound, these viewpoints are  often divergent, but are never reconciled until its too late. …

Simplicio:  [interrupting] That’s crazy! Why would project managers allow themselves to get into a situation where they are managing  projects in which  stakeholders hold different views on things like scope? That is completely against what “The Book” says! According to it, things such as scope  issues should not be ambiguous at all.

Salviati: Ah, now we get to the heart of the matter! Yes, it is crazy when you think about it, but we are dealing with office hierarchy and politics, as well individual rationality. Many organisations have a blame culture – and as a result, people tend to position themselves for blame avoidance. This creates all sorts of dysfunctional behaviours, and makes it very difficult to discuss things openly. The trick – and why you need to listed to the stories – is to break down these barriers so that a group can engage in open dialogue that will bring such issues out into the open. There are ways to do this, a couple of guys have even written a book on it. (Editor’s note: Perhaps he’s referring to this book?)

Simplicio: OK, I see your point, but what about the unknown unknowns – issues  that no one can foresee at the start.

Salviati:   That’s where trust comes in. The point is, if key stakeholders have a relationship based on trust, they will feel comfortable about informing each other of potential uncertainties as they emerge. They can then work together to address the uncertainty without the usual finger pointing and blame shifting that typically occurs in organisations. They will be no better than anyone else at predicting the future, but they will be able to deal with whatever comes up because they will face it as a group.

Simplicio: Sounds good, but how does one get stakeholders  to trust one another and discuss issues openly?

Salviati:  Well, as I mentioned earlier, much of present-day project management practice operates within a cause and effect paradigm…do this and that will happen. Instead the focus  ought to be on creating the right  conditions or environment in which a group of people can collaborate and work together as a genuine team.   There’s a ton of interesting work on this – some of it dating back to the 1950s

Simplicio: Why hasn’t anyone mentioned this in our discussion group? This is really important!

Salviati: The conditions over causes argument is yet to make an impact on mainstream practice – particularly in project management. Unfortunately,  those who wrote  the “The Book” (and those who update it) seem to  be unaware that conditions are more important than causes. It is a completely different way of looking at projects, so it may take a while for aficionados of “The Book” to make the change. That said, I’m an optimist so I believe that it  will eventually catch on; it is just a matter of time …

[ Salviati’s watch alarm goes off, cutting him off mid-sentence. He  glances at it]

Speaking of time, we’re all prisoners of time, it seems. I’ve got to go; I’m late for a meeting. We’ll continue our conversation later.

Simplicio: Thanks Salviati. I’d very much like that as I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on this.

Salviati (turning to leave): Sure, I’ll be delighted to chat about it. Let’s meet on the weekend. Catch you later.

Simplicio: See you later.

[The two depart, going their separate ways]



metalogue is a real or imaginary conversation whose structure resembles the topic being discussed. This piece is inspired by Gregory Bateson’s metalogues in Part 1 of his book, Steps To an Ecology of Mind.

The characters in the above metalogue are borrowed from Galileo’s  Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems in which the character Salviati is a proponent of the Copernican “heresy” that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe whereas Simplicio favours the Geocentric view proposed by the Greek philosopher Ptolemy.

This post is a part of the first ever  #PMFlashBlog initiative which involves over 70 bloggers from  Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UK and the USA, all posting a piece on “What Project Means to Me” on their blogs @ 01:00 GMT on 25th September 2013. A complete list of participants can be found here


My thanks go out to Shim Marom for coming up with the wonderful idea of a project management flashblog  and for  the opportunity to participate in it.

I’m indebted to Paul Culmsee  for feedback on a draft version of this post and for countless conversations  over the years on  the philosophical and practical aspects of projects, organisations and systems.   Be sure to check out his blog, in particular his PMFlashBlog post which provides a practical (and very entertaining!) perspective on the “conditions over causes” principle mentioned in this metalogue.

Written by K

September 25, 2013 at 8:00 am

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