This section of the site provides additional information for those managers and organizational specialists who wish to explore our view of organizational dynamics and change leadership in more depth.
Although it outlines the theoretical basis and guiding principles on which our practice is based, we ordinarily do not refer to this explicitly in our consulting work. Instead we have made the theory and practice more accessible to practising managers and other practitioners, by developing the “wiggly world” and “informal coalitions” concepts and terminology. We have found that these resonate strongly with our clients.
Our basic proposition is that,
everything that happens organizationally arises from the complex social process of everyday human interaction.
Set out below are a number of brief statements that expand on this basic proposition and identify some of the more important implications that flow from it. In-depth explanations of these can be found in a number of the Publications referred to on this site as well as via the read more links on this page.
The material is set out under the following headings:
- Core Principles – How we see the world
- Implications - Challenging mainstream assumptions
- Taking Action
Core Principles – How we see the world
Organization as a Process
- Organization is an ongoing process, not an entity or system made up of parts and wholes.
- This process is in constant flux.
- Organization as an entity is an imaginary construct - itself an emergent outcome of the complex social process of human interaction!
Organization as a Social Process
- Organization is a social process, in which interdependent people ‘get together and make things up’.
- Through their everyday (essentially conversational) interactions, people continuously make sense of what’s going on and act into this emerging future.
- They do this both consciously and unconsciously; in formal settings and informally; and for ‘organizationally legitimate’ reasons or other purposes.
- These sense-making–cum-action-taking interactions take place (and can only take place) in one-to-ones and small groups (i.e. ‘locally’) – whether in person or at a distance.
- The phrase “sense-making-cum-action-taking” signifies that thinking, feeling and acting are intertwined and inseparable – that is to say, it is an embodied process.
- The dynamics of interaction reflect the power relations that exist at that specific time, in those specific circumstances, and within that specific relationship.
- And the process is necessarily political. That is to say, interactions always reflect differing – and potentially competing – interpretations, interests, ideologies, identities, idiosyncrasies, interdependencies, and inclusivity (both existing and sought-after), etc.
- As interdependent people participate in this ongoing interactional process, they coalesce informally around particular (socially constructed) themes that resonate with them, both to sustain their personal frame of reference (through which they seek to maintain all of their important relationships in a positive state); and to gain or maintain a sense of inclusion.
Organization as a Complex Social Process
- Organization is a complex social process. That is to say, the process is self-organizing and the ‘outcomes’ emergent. This complexity is also reflected in its inherent paradoxical dynamics.
- ‘Organization-wide outcomes’ (however defined) emerge from the widespread interplay of ‘local’ sense-making-cum-action-taking conversations - and come to be recognised as such through this same process.
- This process is self-organizing. It cannot be controlled by any one individual or group of individuals.
- People are both enabled and constrained by their interactions with everyone else with whom they interact - both directly and indirectly. So nobody can simply do as they please, however powerful they might be in terms of their formal authority.
- What we speak of as “the organization” is perpetually (re-)constructed in the currency of these local interactions. It does not exist in any way ‘outside’ those interactions.
- The more that people make sense of, and act into, the situations they face in a particular way, the more likelythey are to continue making similar sense and acting in similar ways going forward. That is to say, characteristic patterns of interaction (“organizational culture”) simultaneously form, and are formed by, this ongoing, self-organizing, patterning process.
- The patterning of interactions enables people to go on together in their day-to-day interactions, by creating expectancy (i.e. a sense of ‘everyday predictability').
- However, this tendency to reinforce established patterns of thought and action makes escaping from those culturally familiar patterns more difficult.
- At the same time, the asymmetry of the patterning process means that pattern switching can occur and novel patterns (insights, behaviours, etc.) can emerge spontaneously – making the overall process unpredictable.
- Strategies, structures, management and information systems, rules and regulations, and so on – as well as custom and practice - similarly emerge and become established through this ongoing conversational process.
- From our complex social process perspective, these trappings of organization represent ‘imprints of past conversations’. As such, they have a continuing effect only to the extent, and in the ways, that they are taken up in people’s current interactions.
- Some of these ‘imprints’ are very enduring (e.g. physical structures, cultural patterning) and ‘carry forward’ the power of past participants into present interactions (albeit moderated by the ways in which these are perceived, interpreted, evaluated, and acted upon now rather than then). Others are more ephemeral and limited or non-existent in their effects. This is irrespective of whether or not these continue to exist as physical artefacts.
- The paradoxes of organization are endemic and unresolvable.
Implications - Challenging mainstream assumptions
A number of implications flow from the above principles, all of which run counter to conventional management ‘wisdom’ and a systems-thinking view of organizational dynamics. Amongst these are the following:
- The reality of organizational life, that people experience every day, arises solely from their own and everyone else’s participation in it. There is nothing going on ‘outside’ those interactions.
- ‘Organizations’ and systems don’t act; people do.
- Individual identities arise through the same complex social process through which organization is enacted – it is misleading to talk in terms of separate ‘levels’ of organization (such as individual, team, and organization).
- ‘Outcomes’ emerge from the complex social process of everyday human interaction, even in the midst of a so-called “command and control” regime.
- Links between cause and effect are untraceable, making the notion of evidence-based practice problematic.
- Small changes can have large, unpredictable effects.
- We talk to ourselves all of the time (i.e. we think). And sometimes we involve other people. However, we’re always participating in a social process, even when we are alone.
- Most of the conversations through which organization is enacted, and from which outcomes emerge, take place in the absence of the relevant line managers.
- Co-creation is not a design choice. Every conversation is a co-creation forum.
- Managers are involved participants, not external objective observers of other people’s actions.
- Managers are both ‘in control’ (i.e. in charge) and ‘not in control’ at the same time.
Meaningful progress depends on the willingness and ability of managers to:
- understand and engage more insightfully with the complex social reality of everyday organizational life.
- avoid the lure of simplistic, “if you do this, you’ll get that” prescriptions.
- in the words of Prof. Ralph Stacey, accept that "Managing and leading are exercises in the courage to go on participating creatively despite not knowing".
- shift the emphasis of their communication towards more active and informed participation in the local sense-making-cum-action-taking conversations through which outcomes emerge, rather than viewing their role as one of ‘getting the message across’.
- provide real vision – i.e. helping people to ‘see better’ in the light of actual events.
- recognise that, in their formal leadership roles, they can’t not communicate - everything that they say and do – and everything they don’t say and don’t do – ‘sends messages’ to people about what’s really important, how to behave, and so on.
- seek to build active coalitions of support for what they judge to be organizationally beneficial changes.
- lead change in line with the informal coalitions change-leadership agenda.
- accept that, while they can act with deliberate intent in pursuing a particular agenda, neither they nor anyone else can say with certainty what will emerge in practice.
Theory into practice
We help managers and organizational specialists to understand these dynamics and to recognise them in their own experience of day-to-day organizational reality. When managers have a raised level of awareness - and a 'new language' to talk about what's actually going on - we help them understand the implications of this for their own and others' leadership practice.
As described in the main pages on this site, we pursue the above by using the easily-grasped concepts of informal coalitions and the wiggly world, rather than describing the dynamics in the language of complexity.