My natural tendency is to think holistically. I often have images in my mind, just like painting, but when expressing thoughts in words which must be strung together in discreet linear fashion, my analytical ability kicks in to take charge, not unlike the “System 1” and “System 2” I mentioned in my last entry. System 1 is intuitive, and System 2 is effortful. Indeed, it is definitely not an either/or framework!
Kenwyn Smith’s definition of organization resonates with me the most: “Organization is the collective entity based on the relations among parts, and relations among relations.” While we do need an analytical frame to better grasp some of the complicated organizational dynamics, I prefer to ground the understanding in the system framework. In system framework, it isn’t just about parts being all interrelated, but about how each part informs the others, and vice versa, and all parts live in all of us. One of the influential thinkers for system thinking is Jurgen Habermas, and he wrote:
“I consider it philosophical enlightenment when doctors learn from sociological and psychoanalytic studies to appreciate the influence of the family environment in the genesis of psychoses and the thereby also learn to reflect on certain biologistic assumptions of the tradition of their discipline. I consider it philosophical enlightenment when sociologists, directed by professional historians, apply some of their general hypotheses to historical material and thereby become aware of the inevitably forced character of their generalizations.”
He continues in this fashion at much greater length, but I think you get the gist. So, what’s this to do with organizations? Organizations are really a microcosm of the world, in which sociology, psychology, economics, politics, mathematics, biology, class, race, biases, etc., all melded together, or sometimes live side by side. To view the tension between a Hispanic female secretary and a black male boss as “only” the result of a sloppy personnel performance review filed with HR (and to assume further that each of the protagonists has no particular history with the various players in HR) is laziness, pure and simple. Okay, that may be a bit harsh. I do believe that most people, managers included, are so overwhelmed and overstressed at work these days, that often they fall back on the default of intuitive judgment provided by System 1.
It takes concerted effort to set aside some time to grasp the complicated world around us, so that when the next crisis hits, we are better equipped to use more sophisticated skills. If people in an organization seem to be in crisis mode constantly, that organization is in big trouble.
Some of these skills can be nurtured by employing Appreciative Inquiry which is based on abundancy mode and employs holistic storytelling as a major tool. If we desire to be more creative in our thinking or decision-making, why would we look for individuals, companies, or industries that are viewed as “troubled” for inspiration? Wouldn’t we be better off to seek out entities or stories that are based on successes? But most of the time, we seem to gravitate toward the negative examples as “warning” for “how not to be like them.” Scarcity mode does not give us energy. The Appreciative Inquiry (AI) isn’t Pollyanna; it’s about allowing more room for individuals to explore, and thereby giving organizations more collective skills to grow and actually achieve something. There are a few examples in my earlier entry that I encourage you to visit/revisit.
One of the tools AI uses is asking people to recall a moment of success and offer the full spectrum of the story behind this success. Though a seemingly simple tool, it allows people to express themselves fully, where the storytellers are viewed in multidimensional complexity, rather than the usual “either-or” type of brush off. Yet, there is a paradox in AI: It uses these retrospective reflective stories to encourage people to engage in forward inquiry, such as, “In what ways can we bring out-of-box creativity into our design?” Or, “Based on our skills and potentials, what do we envision as our next phase of development?” Yes, these are very generic inquiries, but we can fill in with our own specifics. The point is that using AI, organizations can learn to bring future possibilities into reality.
Having sung the praise of AI, I have to acknowledge that there is value of occasionally using “compare and contrast” method for learning as well. This is one of the strengths of Jim Collins’ popular books, such as “From Good To Great,” using data of organizations including both success and failure. We are so ingrained in our negative ways of thinking, or scarcity mode, that it’d be difficult for most of us to just jump into the AI frame. Knowing some cases of failure can help; the trick is not letting such knowledge develop into hidden fears. Knowledge is only a tool, albeit a powerful one; the real challenge is always in the doing, the how’s. In this sense, I concur with the “Knowing Doing Gap,” by Pfeffer & Sutton, in which one important lesson is about letting actions teach us; letting the doing offer knowledge. Personally, only by painting more, writing more, cooking more, or skiing more, will I gain more understanding of my own likes and dislikes, how to strengthen what I already am good at, or where to go next. And yes, sometimes, taking that step to actually do seems to require monumental effort! So, I think we need to keep peeling the onion and make “how to actually take that action step” the next research agenda.
I think one of the reasons why so many organizations are stuck, and the people within them are restricted from trying, moving about, playing, thinking wildly, even going off the program once in a while, is that they are too programmed. Organizations that adhere too rigidly to their strategic plans may inadvertently box themselves in and fail to realize their plans, and those that do recognize this trap and shelve their plans when they become obsolete or ineffective find other means to restrict their employees. When I wrote about this children’s book, Harold And The Purple Crayon, a friend asked if I could expand that theme of “explorative play while allowing solutions surface as one evolves.” I didn’t feel I was in a position to do so, until later I hit upon the theme of “arts and leadership.” While I had plenty to critique on how the academics write about this topic, I do cherish the idea. I just want to see the idea expand to include everyone who’d like to explore her creative side, other than always focusing on the managers and/or top ranking officials. After all, creativity is about process and should not be treated as a goal, and that process by nature is inclusive. But to be true to the spirit of diversity, I think those who might feel intimidated by the concept or simply do not want to be bothered with it, should feel just as comfortable and appreciated in an enlightened organization.
Hey, it’s the end of year, why shouldn’t I dream about ideal organizations?! May your organization come closer to your ideal. Till 2012,
Stay Healthy, Be Contended, Be Safe, and Cherish Your Loved Ones.
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