Introduction: a book arising from uncertainty in everyday organizational life
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This book aims to describe and better understand the constantly evolving, messy reality of day-to-day organizational life rather than producing the somewhat abstract concepts, tools and techniques which are found in much management literature. It takes as its starting point some of the discussions I have come across in organizations, or about organizations, and shows how they sometimes play out in practice. This is not to say that I will not use abstract concepts, but I intend to start with organizational experience and then try to understand it. This is because when I am in organizations as an employee, as a manager or as a

consultant I encounter a mismatch between the often rather grandiose and inflated claims of much management theory, reflected in the way that many managers talk about what they are doing, and what it is possible for them to achieve practically. I am not referring just to the more high profile disasters such as the mismanagement of banks which, amongst other factors, led to the recent financial collapse from 2008. Instead I notice that leaders and managers often articulate, or are invited to believe in, rather grand ambitions for ‘transformational’ change out of proportion to their quite ordinary circumstances. They are invited to assume that they can predict and control things which even a moment’s reflection might lead them to realize are beyond their ability to do so. Managers might be asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast: that

they can ‘transform’ some aspect of organizational life, they can engineer ‘culture change’ programmes or ‘align’ their and others’ values for the good of the organization, that they can engineer a ‘world-leading’ organization, meet ‘stretch targets’ or plan in advance to be innovative. There seems to be no limit to the ambitions of what leaders and managers are supposed to be able to achieve, no aspect of human experience which they cannot control. This book attempts to explore some of the ideas behind this kind of managerial

thinking, which I find so prevalent. What kind of intellectual assumptions are needed to proceed with this way of thinking? How robust are they, and what do

they end up by excluding? Why are they so pervasive and what kind of activities do they lead to? How might we develop a more realistic account of what managers might be able to achieve and where might they focus instead? As an example, I recently sat in on a meeting where a deputy CEO was taking a

group of managers through his organization’s next five year strategy. Absorbed in the logic and grandeur of his own presentation, what the deputy CEO appeared not to notice was the variety of reactions from the staff in the audience, in particular a pronounced restlessness among some. The five year vision involved being ‘internationally renowned’ for something or other but a number of staff were experienced managers themselves. Maybe they were unconvinced by the last strategy which had a vision quite similar to this one, or had worked in other organizations which had equally grandiose vision statements, but they seemed to be uncomfortable with this kind of fantastical thinking as I was myself. Although this way of undertaking strategy based on Russell Ackoff’s idealized

design method (2006) is supposed to engender excitement and commitment in staff, it can also provoke the opposite, cynicism and boredom, particularly amongst change-weary employees. Some disgruntled staff expressed their disillusionment with quite aggressive questioning, which the deputy CEO swatted away by claiming that he knew what he was doing because he used to be a management consultant. The meeting ended finally with much muttering and shaking of heads amongst the staff as they headed off for coffee. Where a senior manager had proceeded with the intention of uplifting his

audience with an aspirational future he seemed instead to have confused many and demoralized some. This may have been partly to do with the method he had chosen which dealt in abstract, idealized terms very far removed from the daily experience of most of his audience. But it was also due to his inability to notice and respond to what was going on around him and in relation to what he was saying and doing. The greatest failure was an absence of mutual recognition: the senior manager failed to recognize the reaction and doubts of his audience, whilst many in the audience failed to recognize in the strategy and how it was being presented, with the ubiquitous PowerPoint slides, their everyday concerns. The deputy CEO cleaved to certainty, whilst some of his audience expressed their doubts; paradoxically, the greater the doubts the more emphatic his certainty. As an outsider you might have cause to worry about this organization where

some senior managers have a greater commitment to their slides and the systemic, inflated method underpinning them than the quality of participation between people. If you thought that the future health of an organization was not to be found in the logic of nested boxes, but in the spontaneous and skilful responsiveness of senior managers to what is going on around them you might conclude that there is still much strategy work to be done here, although not of the sort which relies on idealized design methodology. This book, then, proceeds from my interest in ordinary confusions and disjunctures

like these and the contradictions and paradoxes of getting things done together in organizations. It reveals my own assumption that uncertainty is an everyday

occurrence, and that contradictions and paradoxes can be a helpful resource rather than a hindrance for attentive managers and leaders. I am not suggesting, however, that they can necessarily be harnessed for the good of the organization, a common assumption I engage with critically in this volume. Rather, I am pointing to the possibility that recognizing a paradox might be the first step to realizing the limitations of much conventional management thinking: that we are entering into complex territory which requires a more thoughtful and reflective response from managers. Working with paradoxical organizational experience requires a good deal more from managers than simply insisting that you are right or ignoring what you encounter. The book is also inspired by the students and faculty of the Doctor of

Management at Hertfordshire Business School, where I teach with my colleagues. The programme has been running since 2000 and has produced more than 60 graduates, 53 at doctoral level. It is a part-time programme often attracting senior leaders and managers from a variety of organizational backgrounds and from all over the world, who want to take something which is going on for them at work as the object of their study. For a minimum of three years students spend at least 16 days a year face-to-face when the research community comes together in quarterly residentials, discussing, writing, presenting their work, discussing further, revising what they are writing, then discussing some more. They draw on a body of ideas colleagues on faculty have termed complex responsive processes of relating, some of the main tenets of which I explore in Chapter 1 of this book. Complex responsive processes of relating combines insights from the complexity

sciences and processual theories of the social drawn from sociologists such as Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as pragmatic philosophy and social theory informed by GH Mead, John Dewey, Richard Bernstein and Hans Joas. It focuses on everyday experience on the assumption that organizations, and society more generally, arise from this: there is no grand superstructure or system independent from what people do together. Complex responsive processes turns on the paradox that we form the social, just as the social forms us, both at the same time. Many of the thinkers we draw on themselves develop paradoxes extensively in

their work, and it has become a tradition on the programme to point them out and discuss them as they arise. The danger, however, is that we become so familiar with paradox as an idea that we begin to take it for granted, and to glide over it without thinking through the implications of what we are saying. This book is an attempt to pause on paradox, to defamiliarize it and to discuss it more extensively, to work through some of the implications for managers and leaders. In this vein I hope the book is in keeping with the same spirit which motivated

the original team of academics, Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin and Patricia Shaw, to develop their ideas: their concern to help enquiring managers make sense of their everyday experience and thus to become more skilful managers.