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Lead Like a Gardener! – Agile and Design Thinking Will Become Management Fads Unless We Expand Our Concept of Management
This blog is a shortened version of a full-length article Lead Like a Gardener that appeared in Medium earlier this week.
Management is notoriously faddish. Managers can reflect on a long line of management innovations that attracted huge attention, were widely adopted and then gradually dropped as management attention wandered to shinier tools.
Is Agile Different?
Management writer Steve Denning argued in a recent Forbes column that Agile is different from all the others. All of his claims have merit but I think that they are largely irrelevant to whether Agile becomes a fad or not. The determining factor is the mainstream Anglo-American management mindset. This dominant ‘Cartesian’ view of management is that it is a technical practice, like engineering, with the same relationship to economics that engineering has to physics. It appeals to an individualistic ‘CEO’ theory of mind. This is the folk theory that we have only one conscious mind and that the manager is a detached, knowing actor/agent in a knowable world, rationally calculating (predominantly) his options and issuing crisp, actionable instructions. Accordingly to this Cartesian view all management innovations are seen as instruments – tools and techniques – to be wielded by such rational actors. This view is closely associated with scientific materialism, the philosophical belief in a universe of matter and that physical reality, accessed by the natural sciences, is all that exists.
The Rise and Fall of Business Process Reengineering
The rise and fall of Business Process Reengineering is the clearest illustration of the making and breaking of a management fad. First its very name implied that one was dealing with a mechanical, engineering process. The ‘reengineering’ tag was deliberately chosen because it was ‘hard, tough and masculine’ Secondly, a feature of BPR was its violent prose penned by the appropriately-surnamed Michael Hammer. This appealed to the two most common characteristics of American managers – aggression and impatience. Thirdly, BPR’s main advocates Michael Hammer and James Champy made it clear that knowledge of a particular business was unimportant for BPR to be a success: they were talking about “clean sheet” design. That was catnip for consultants.
By 1993 60% of Fortune 500 firms claimed they had either initiated BPR projects or had plans to do so. By 1994 a $50 billion consulting business had developed around it. By early 1995, however cracks were appearing. Reengineering projects were failing badly, often making situations worse. Reduced headcount had become the main corporate goal conducted under the banner of BPR. The three founders of the movement, James Champy, Michael Hammer and Thomas Davenport, all made public apologies, confessing that in their revolutionary fervour they had forgotten about people.
The Double Bind of Management Methodologies
The fate of BPR illustrates the double bind that the developers and peddlers of new approaches to management find themselves in. To ensure that a new approach has wide appeal they will be tempted to frame it as an efficiency tool, but if a methodology is used purely instrumentally it is unlikely to be effective. If, on the other hand, the creators emphasize the counter-cultural nature of the new approach it will be unlikely to achieve widespread use. One sees some proponents of both Agile and Design Thinking taking the first option, presenting them as linear, mechanical processes – an efficiency tool to do more work in less time, and a ‘roadmap’ for innovation.
Complicated and Complex Challenges: Engineering and Ecology
The Cartesian mindset isn’t wrong: it works well in the natural sciences. In management it’s limited in its applicability. It works when applied to predictable, machine-like systems, situations where the same inputs always produce the same outputs and cause-and-effect relationships between independent and dependent variables are stable.
The Cartesian mindset doesn’t work, however, when it is applied to complex systems where parameters are unstable, agents are interdependent and cause-and-effect is non-linear. Starting new business ventures is also like that. No venture is the same and what works in one situation may not work in another. Complex systems don’t yield to engineering-technical methodologies; they require an ecological-adaptive approach. Instead of thinking like engineers, entrepreneurs have to act like gardeners. They realize that nascent enterprises and emergent strategies have to be cultivated and grown not designed and built. They have to understand the ecology of the situation, what might thrive and what might die. They have to select and plant, water and fertilize, train and prune. At other times they may have to break out the chainsaw to clear away the deadwood, uproot and transplant, make a bonfire of the debris and plant anew. As managers they realize that no two situations are ever the same; history matters, contexts matter and stories matter.
Expanding Mindsets; Doing, Knowing and Being
The Cartesian mindset is baked into Anglo-American management theory and practice. As a result it overused and misapplied.
How does one change one’s mindset? Of course the Cartesians have an answer – all it takes is a conscious choice, like an engineer selecting welded connections over riveted ones. But this ignores that fact that ‘mindset’ is a multi-layered concept. A mindset can be as shallow as the selection of an explicit model or as broad as a worldview and as deep as a philosophy of life. At these deep levels a change in mindset demands a change in identity, an existential change in a way of being. Changes here take compelling experiences, not intellectual choices.
It Will Take a Social Movement Plus Much More
Expanding the Anglo-American management mindset will take a social movement plus much more. We are looking at a complete re-assessment of the theory and purpose of the corporation and its role as an organ of society. To make the situation even more difficult this reassessment of the role and purpose of the corporation will challenge the hegemony of the philosophy of scientific materialism and the scientific method as the only valid form of inquiry into the human condition. The universe may be made matter but we humans live in a world of significance, a world of ‘what matters’. Here history, context and narrative all matter. Once this is accepted the limits on the context-free, scientific method become clear and the importance of the liberal arts in general and the humanities in particular become recognized as valid forms of inquiry into the context-dependent human condition.
There Will Be Significant Opposition
As if all these requirements were not demanding enough, there will be significant opposition to this new, broader view of the human mind, the role and purpose of the corporation and the task of management. This opposition can be expected from both the management academy as well as mainstream management consultants, neither of whom have any interest in revising their view of management as an engineering and technical practice.
The only support for this model will come from management practitioners because it captures the reality of their experience, especially those in privately-owned companies and the not-for-profit sector. Managers in small and medium–sized companies can also be expected to be supporters. The management in large public companies may be more ambivalent. It is well established that successful organizations become more mechanical as they grow in size and exploit economies of scale. As such, the engineering-technical approach is more widely applicable to them than to any other class of business. The focus on quarterly reporting and short-term results argues against an ecological-adaptive approach that may take a long time to show results.
Leading Like a Gardener
The core to this challenge is the Anglo-American management mindset with its macho ‘make-it-happen’ management identity. Gardening has a much more feminine feel; gardeners care, they nurture, they tend. They are cooperative rather than competitive. It’s a subtle and indirect approach always embedded in a systems view and calling on multiple perspectives to ‘help it happen’. Certainly there are activist moments when gardeners must train and prune, uproot and cut down but these activities are always contained within the larger view.
But changes in identity are possible. In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (2015), , General Stanley McChrystal explains how the confrontation with Al Quaeda in Iraq (AQI) posed a complex challenge rather than one of the complicated situations that his task force had been designed to handle. Their hierarchical structure and formal communication and approval processes were totally unsuitable for this encounter with an elusive, resilient enemy, whose organizational network morphed continually. McChrystal realized that he had to change the task force’s culture and ways of working into those of fast, flexible network that could match AQI’s for agility and speed of decision-making. The result was something he called ‘shared consciousness’.
What McChrystal’s account makes clear, like those of others who have been through similar experiences, is that it takes a compelling experience to expand the engineering mindset into an ecological one. Only when a situation’s demands are so pressing, unambiguous and anxiety-inducing can deeply embedded habits, one’s identity, one’s way of being, be changed. Only then can individuals truly set aside self-interest and collaborate with their peers in common cause. Where such experiences come from is as varied as the situations in which people find themselves. Mass conversions of this kind typically take place in the aftermath of some great event or crisis. But that’s what it’s going to take if agile and design thinking and other management innovations are not to become management fads and we are to develop a more sustainable approach to management and learn to lead like gardeners.
This is the immense new task of management, both in theory and in practice.
‘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.