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‘The arts of life…turn out to possess their own special methods and techniques…Bad judgement here consists not in failing to apply the methods of natural science, but, on the contrary, in over-applying them’.
Isaiah Berlin, Political Judgement
Ever since the European Enlightenment reason has been regarded as the hallmark of our humanity. The French philosophes argued that it was the power of abstract thought that separated us from animals. Only reason promised a certainty that could free us from the tyranny of tradition, dogmatic faith and arbitrary rule.
Reason and rationality
There was, however, not a single Enlightenment. While the French took Descartes as their model and focused on the supremacy of his rational method, the English and Scottish Enlightenments emphasized its limits. For the British the essence of human nature was a moral sense of right and wrong and a natural empathy for others. For them reason meant reasonableness, not rationality. These different perspectives have led to radically different understandings of change in social systems, exemplified by the clash between the conservative Edmund Burke and the radical Thomas Paine and their differing views on the French Revolution. Burke saw it as an unmitigated disaster, a destruction of community and tradition that heralded the age of ‘economists and calculators’. Paine, on the other hand, cheered it to the echo.
American politicians have never quite figured out which branch of the Enlightenment they belong to. Jefferson and Hamilton took opposite sides and, despite his conservative views, even Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting Paine’s aphorism that ‘We have it in our power to make the world over again’. The divisions continue to this day. Conservatives, like Burke, are aghast at the thought of intellectuals trying to design and build what can only be grown, while the followers of Paine espouse progressive agendas to make the world anew.
American management, in contrast with politics, has never been in much philosophical doubt. One can track the roots of this confidence back to the 19th century influence of French thinking in the United States Military Academy at West Point, the nursery of so many early management pioneers. When the business schools were reformed in the late 1950s, Anglo-American philosophy was in a tight, analytic orbit. Academics aspired to make management a science in the mould of economics. Scientific rationality was seen as the only true knowledge and the scientific method as the only valid form of inquiry. Thus management was deemed to be a technical practice involving the application of theory. Organizational change was viewed as a rational, top-down, outside-in process, a perspective that reached its peak in the re-engineering craze of the 1990s. Even today, to be told that one is ‘rational’ is taken as a compliment and deviations from scientific rationality are described as ‘flaws’ and ‘biases’.
Language is rooted in metaphor. In their popular book, Metaphors We Live By (1982) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed the pervasive role that our embodied experience plays in our understanding of how the world works, or might work. We excel at grasping how one abstract object or experience is like another, more concrete one. Thus happy is ‘up’ as in “I feel up”, while sad is ‘down’. Sometimes the meaning has to be determined by context. When I say, “It’s all downhill from here,” it means that things are going to either get worse or get easier. Whatever the case, this perspective suggests that our minds are primarily analogical rather than analytical and that we think in frames before we think in facts. It’s the frames that determine which facts matter and what they mean.
This use of metaphor is particularly important when it comes to understanding cause-and-effect in complex systems i.e. interactions where causality is non-linear. If one wants to understand anyone’s view of causality in an organization look at the metaphors they use. The dominant frame in Anglo-American management theory and practice is that of the engineer, the manager as a lone, detached observer looking at a complicated machine whose workings are understandable, at least in principle. Objectivity and scientific rationality, prediction and control are the order of the day and the role of the manager is that of an actor/agent in a knowable world, rationally calculating (predominantly) his options and issuing crisp, actionable instructions backed up by sanctions and incentives. The mind of the manager is idealized as factual and forensic, rather like that of the hyper-logical Mr. Spock in Star Trek. I will call this view the ‘Cartesian Framework’ in honour of the debt it owes the French rationalist philosopher René Descartes, but it could also be called ‘Newtonian’ for its dependence on classical physics.
The theme of the 2017 Global Drucker Forum to be held in Vienna later this year is “Growth & Inclusive Prosperity – The Secular Management Challenge”. Dictionary definitions of prosperity mention a condition of being successful or thriving, especially economic well-being – a desirable accompaniment of living. What’s the essence of living then? Three Viennese psychotherapists came up with three distinctly different answers:
• Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) claimed that it was the ‘will to pleasure’
• Alfred Adler (1870-1937) argued that it was the ‘will to power’
• Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) contended that it was the ‘will to meaning’
All of them have a kernel of truth, for it’s difficult to imagine humans flourishing without each of these incommensurable components, although the mix would be different for every person. Perhaps they are stages in life. When one is young it’s mostly about pleasure; in adulthood our focus is on power and control and in old age we become makers of meaning. But we are always concerned with all three.
One suspects that Peter Drucker would have supported Frankl’s emphasis on our quest for meaning. Frankl wrote that meaning could be found in three contexts that were close to Drucker’s own experience:
• Through significant work and achievement
• Through relationships, love and caring
• Though suffering and courage in times of adversity
Once again, all three are surely necessary for a meaningful life. Frankl stressed the importance of the individual sense of responsibility that has to emerge from these experiences, the responsibility to accept the different tasks that life sets for every one of us and to find answers to the problems that we face. Echoing Nietzsche, he writes, “He (who) knows the ‘why’ for his existence, … will be able to bear almost any ‘how’”, which reminds one of Drucker’s thoughts on the primary responsibility of leaders to continually articulate the mission and purpose of their organizations.
In the early hours of Wednesday November 9 2016 I was as bemused as everyone else. Donald Trump had won the presidential election and would be the 45th President of the United States. The last polls I saw had given Hillary Clinton about an 80% chance of winning and none of the commentators had seen an upset coming. As a Canadian, however, I thought that the Americans had an awful choice to make and in the end the man I wanted to lose had beaten the woman I wanted to lose…. After my initial shock wore off I started to think through what had happened and what is likely to happen from an ecological/systems perspective.
Back in March I wrote about the ecodynamics of Donald Trump. I said that it was helpful to look at society and its institutions, not as static systems, but as ecological processes. From this perspective successful social institutions are conceived in passion, born in communities of trust, grow through the application of reason and mature in power. Here they tend to get stuck in systemic traps, structures that conserve the habits that made them successful, but render them inward-looking and insensitive to the changes that are going on outside. In his book, The Rise and Decline of Nations economist Mancur Olson describes how, over time, vested interests and rent seekers clog the system and prevent meaningful change. When this happens, as their familiar narratives break down, societies often reach for outsiders, radicals on the fringes, who offer either new narratives or the revival of old ones. Trump’s narrative is the latter, the promise to “Make American Great Again”, and restore an era of growth and prosperity last seen in the 1950s and 1960s.
Over the decades organizational culture has devoured hundreds, if not thousands of strategies. One of the most recent examples is the case of Wells Fargo, where culture not only ate a long-standing, apparently successful strategy but last week also consumed its CEO, John Stumpf, who resigned under enormous pressure. The headline story in the business section of news in the past few weeks has been that over the past five years the bank has fired 5,300 employees (10% of whom are branch managers or higher) for opening new accounts without the customer’s permission. Apparently this was the unintended consequence of an aggressive strategy focused on cross-selling: if a customer has a checking account why not sell them a car loan together with credit card, mortgage and wealth management services? With the profit margin on straight lending squeezed by low interest rates, cross-selling has become the modern mantra for bankers and even used to justify mergers and acquisitions for the cross-selling opportunities they present. Objectives and targets for cross-selling were embedded into Wells Fargo’s performance management system and ridden herd on by layers of hard-driving executives. At the top was Carrie Tolstedt, Senior Executive Vice President of Community Banking, known to some within the bank as ‘the watchmaker’ for her obsessive concern with detail. An investor briefing on the business reveals a mechanistic model of the economics of retail banking with the profitability of cross-selling on clear display: customers with eight accounts with Wells Fargo are five times as profitable as those with only three (the industry average). The so-called “Gr-eight initiative” was the bank’s internal goal of selling at least eight different financial products to each customer.