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Wiggly Bits

Occasional food for thought, updates, and other snippets about the wiggly world of organization - and Chris Rodgers Consulting Limited…

When Common Sense Doesn't Seem to Work!

Chris Rodgers - Thursday, February 27, 2014

Much of the thinking, writing and practice about business performance, organization development and change management is based on an idealised model of organization in which, amongst other things:

  • people and groups behave rationally, within clearly defined structures, processes and systems
  • problems and events can be explained, and outcomes predicted, in terms of “if you do this, you’ll get that” logic
  • managers can design, plan and build the future
  • management ‘as a whole’ is in control of the destiny of the organization and its relationship with the wider business environment, and
  • the hidden, messier and more informal aspects of everyday organizational life are seen as being illegitimate and/or signs of dysfunction that 'proper management' will cure.
  • In attempting to realise this ideal, managers' agendas are dominated by highly detailed plans and budgets; formal processes, systems and procedures; extensive target setting; and similar tools and techniques. And, when these fail to deliver the promised benefits, poor implementation is often cited as the cause: "All we need is to do things better and get them right."

But is that all that managers need to do?

The Shadow Side of Organization

Despite the common-sense appeal of these approaches, the sought-after results frequently fail to materialise. Managers therefore need to look beyond conventional management thinking and practice if they are to get to grips with what’s actually going on.

In reality, much of the productive work (as well as the dysfunctional stuff) takes place in the ‘hidden organisation’, as embodied in its informal networks, social and political processes, underlying patterns of taken-for-granted cultural assumptions, and so on. Even though what goes on is not acknowledged – let alone discussed - in the formal arenas of the organization, these shadow themes organize much of what happens in practice.

We all recognise these shadow-side dynamics, because we participate in them all of the time. However, conventional, so-called 'common-sense' management sees such things as power, politics, ‘messiness’ and unresolved tensions as signs of organizational dysfunction, rather than as how change and performance reallyhappens. Similarly, the informal talk and interactions that account for a large part of everyday organizational life are either ignored altogether in mainstream explanations or else seen as getting in the way of the ‘legitimate’ processes of organization. In contrast, the wiggly world/informal coalitions perspective embraces these hidden, messy and informal dynamics of organization and seeks to help managers engage with them in a more active and informed way.

Crucially, these informal processes, social networks and political coalitions of the shadow side of organisations form through a process of self-organization. They are not mandated or controlled in any formal way. And yet these have a major impact on organisational performance and capability. In these circumstances, relying on "common sense" is not always sensible and "conventional wisdom" is not always wise!

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