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David Hurst delivers multimedia presentations and a range of customized experiences that will inform and inspire your people and help them learn from the past, master the moment and create the future. For a recent sample of a short keynote to the 10th Annual Global Drucker Forum see the embedded link.
The concept of management as a science has its origins in the aftermath of World War II. During that conflict the use of analytical disciplines drawn from operations research proved enormously useful in decision-making. After the war the hope was that the business use of operations research would form the basis for a science of management that used rational, evidence-based techniques and analytical methods to inform and improve decisions of all kinds.
The result was what I think of as a “Cartesian” theory of management that assumed that:
- Decision-making is the essence of management
- Decision-making is (or should be) a conscious, logical, fact-based process that depends on certain premises (rules or principles)
- Corporations think and make decisions just like persons do: if you can change the rules or principles they use, you can change the decisions they make
Managers are portrayed as a detached, objective observers in search of “facts” and using deductive logic to predict and control the performance of organizations. They achieve this via the making of decisions and the issuing of crisp, actionable instructions accompanied by the appropriate rewards and sanctions. It is highly numerate view, with the mantra that “If it can’t be measured it can’t be managed” and even “If it can’t be measured it doesn’t exist.” Thought precedes action and the highest form of thought is conscious, deliberative, instrumental ‘scientific rationality’. Thus, management is a technical practice, like engineering, that demands the application of context-free principles in the efficient pursuit of goals that are often given externally. Deviations from this normative practice are the results of a host of human cognitive biases that stand in the way of managers achieving the gold standard of deliberative rationality.
The respected management scholar, Donald Schön, began his 1987 book, The Education of the Reflective Practitioneras follows: “In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, management problems lend themselves to solution through the application of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowland, messy confusing problems defy technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest might be, while in the swamp lie the issues of greatest human concern. The practitioner must choose. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to prevailing standards of rigor, or shall he descend into the swamp of important problems and non-rigorous inquiry?”
Unfortunately, the concept of a business ecosystem has been largely captured by the high-ground dwellers in mainstream Anglo-American management. If you want to control something, treat it as an object and don’t allow it to move until ‘motivated’. With mainstream management’s emphasis on prediction and control, this is what has happened to business ecosystems. They are treated as static structures, waiting to be mapped, measured and set in motion, that is, designed by architects in lofty perches outside the system. This view of ecosystems-as-structures has mechanical appeal but little power. Missing from it are the dynamics of natural ecosystems and their capacity for generative metaphors and insights into the tensions between stability and change, the importance of scale and the workings of nonlinear causality.
Some key concepts from treating ecosystems as processes are:
- emergence, the discovery of novelty and the conditions that promote it,
- ecological succession as economies of scale assert themselves,
- attractors, especially rigidity and failure traps in which organizations can get stuck
- adaptive cycles and the roles of crisis and destruction in ecological renewal
- ecological versus engineering resilience and the dynamics of sustainability
- fitness and fitness landscapes in tension with conventional notions of goals, strategy and performance
- the power of acting one’s way into better ways of thinking and leadership as an emergent event
- the fundamental tension between continuity and change that confronts every reflective practitioner
Schön’s book was published over thirty years ago but his question remains relevant. Current counterparts to his topographical metaphors are the concepts of complicated and complex challenges. Complicated tasks, like putting a man on the moon and returning him to earth are risky, ‘high-ground’ problems that yield to engineering-technical approaches. Complex dilemmas, on the other hand, thrive in the swampy lowlands of uncertainty. How to raise thischild? How to create an enterprise in my situation? How to enable innovation in thisorganization with thesepeople, right hereright now? These messy, confusing questions require an ecological-adaptive approach tailored to each unique situation. The ‘what-to-dos’ may be generic, but the ‘how-to-dos’ are specific. History, context and narrative make every organization different.
In short, we have yet to exorcise from mainstream Anglo-American management the ghostly remnants of a positivist commitment to a values-free, analytic, explanatory, instrumental ‘Cartesian’ science of quantities, with its search for general laws. This can be achieved only by embracing and containing it within a values-laden, holistic, interpretive, existential ‘Goethean’ quest for meaning.
Surely Peter Drucker would approve!
About the Author:
David K. Hurst is a management speaker, writer and educator. His latest book is The New Ecology of Leadership: Business Mastery in a Chaotic World (Columbia University Press 2012)
This article is one in the Drucker Forum “shape the debate” series relating to the 11th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Power of Ecosystems”, taking place on November 21-22, 2019 in Vienna, Austria #GPDF19 #ecosystems
This is the video of my short plenary presentation at the 10th Annual Global Peter Drucker Forum held in Vienna on November 28 and 19 in Vienna. For all the video from the conference see: Global Peter Drucker Forum 2018 Video
Click here for my Medium article, Lead Like a Gardener!
British politics is in a real mess. Mired in the Brexit debate, its current predicament is best captured in the poetry of the Victorian writer Matthew Arnold; “Wandering between two worlds, the one dead, the other powerless to be born.” The British public, Remainers and Leavers alike, seems to be thoroughly sick of the whole topic and just want it to end. But it won’t. The UK and its parliament are caught in a social/systems trap.
This predicament can be visualized using the ecocycle, which is an ecological/complexity perspective on how complex adaptive systems function:
Enterprises, economic, social and political, are conceived in passion, born in communities of trust, grow through the application of reason and mature in power. As successful systems mature, however, they become over-invested in the structures and processes that perpetuate their success and suppress any disruptive threats. They get stuck in a success or power trap, which sets them up for crisis and destruction but with the possibility of renewal. This is where the Brexit process is at the moment, spinning in a spiral of crisis and confusion (between stages 4 and 5 in the diagram). Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are trying to preserve the current power structure by getting back to stage 3 (Conservation) but Brexit has altered the political landscape and their efforts to do so are just keeping the system in the trap. The country needs to go forward but no one knows how.
“Warm hearts allied with cool heads seek a middle way between the extremes of abstract theory and personal impulse” Stephen Toulmin, Return to Reason
In Masters of Management (2011) Adrian Wooldridge (Bagehot columnist for The Economist and frequent Drucker Forum participant) identified four defects in management theory:
- That it was constitutionally incapable of self-criticism
- Its terminology confuses rather than educates
- It rarely rises above common sense
- It is faddish and bedeviled by contradictions
After declaring management theory “guilty” on all charges in various degrees, he identified the root problem as an “intellectual confusion at the heart of management theory; it has become… a battleground between two radically opposed philosophies. Management theorists usually belong to one of two rival schools. Each of which is inspired by a different philosophy of nature; and management practice has oscillated wildly between these two positions.” He went on to identify the two schools as scientific managementon the one hand and humanistic managementon the other, concluding that, “This, in essence, is the debate between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ management.”
It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature
It’s time to recognize our fundamentally divided nature as the essence of our humanity and that it is the practical weaving together of irreconcilable opposites that is the very warp and woof of our existence as human beings. It is not a bug but a feature of our success as a species and our ability to grapple with uncertainty by cooperating in groups much larger than the extended family. Managers and leaders must integrate this diversity. That takes art, craft, a little science, powerful metaphors and compelling stories, lots of stories.
The Engineer and the Gardener
Over the last sixty years the focus of Anglo-American management has been on means rather than ends. Many regard management as applied economics. The stress on efficiency has been very successful, at least according to the metrics it values. This engineering-technical approach, however, tends to view organizations as machines and people as instruments. The spotlight on utility and stability has led to an inability to address identity, purpose, innovation and change, especially in large-scale organizations. To do that requires an organic, ecological-adaptive approach – the earth-caked hands and patient habits of a gardener. Through this lens organizations are organisms and people are ends-in-themselves. The resulting tensions go with the job of being a manager and a leader.
Complicated and Complex Challenges
The engineering approach is not wrong. It works well in the natural sciences, but erratically in management. Complexity science tells us why. Project Apollo NASA’s program to put a man on the moon was a technically-complicated challenge. The cause-and-effect relationships were stable and understandable to engineers. On the other hand, raising children, starting new businesses or innovating in existing ones are complex challenges. The ‘components’ have minds of their own and causality has to be continually discovered and rediscovered. Complex challenges cannot be reduced to merely complicated ones, so managers are always grappling with an unknown compound of the two. When uncertainty rules ‘gardeners’ are needed.
The Individual and The Community
The engineering-technical approach to management emphasizes the role of the individual and neglects that of community, especially the role of the community in producing, not just individuals, but human beings. It privileges ‘I’ over ‘we’. There is much we can learn from the African concept of ubuntu, often translated as ‘I am because you are’. What makes us human is our connectedness with each other and the empathy that flows from that. The standard Zulu greeting is sawubona– “I see you.” The response is sikhona– “I am here.” Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. It follows then that management is always both a moral and a technical practice.
Masculine and Feminine
There is widening discussion in management about the meager representation of women at the top of business. It’s time to recognize the systemic roots of this issue in theAnglo-American management’s mono-logical mindset and heroic, ‘make-it-happen’ ethos that crowds out everything else. Engineering sounds hard, tough, masculine and predictable. Gardening has a very different feel. Gardeners care, they nurture, they tend. They realize that young enterprises and emergent strategies have to be cultivated and grown not designed and built. They understand the ecology of the situation, discerning the possibilities in this organization, right here,right now. They have to select and plant, water and fertilize, train and prune – and sometimes uproot and transplant. It’s a subtle, indirect approach, always embedded in complexity and calling on multiple perspectives to ‘help it happen’.
A Single Mind with Two Brains
After this litany of tensions and dilemmas the good news is that we humans have evolved to handle paradox. Our single mind consists of two brains, two ways of being in the world that are in creative tension with one another. One way is concerned with the familiar, the other with the novel, the one with what’s predictable, the other with what’s possible, the one with what is fixed, static, decontextualized and explicit, the other with the variable, dynamic, embedded and implicit. The mind is a loom that continually weaves a fabric of meaning, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
East and West
Gardeners and engineers, yin and yang; the Taoist polarities capture well the weaving dynamic of management. Evolution uses a dual model, with a creative dynamic between female and male, as its default for its key mission – the production, care and development of the next generation. Gender is not destiny, but both roles must be played. Why would it be any different for creating sustainable organizations and societies? As managers we need a dual-systems view; a ‘dialectic of polarity’ as Drucker called it, between the existential and the instrumental, complex and complicated. This will take a social movement, a community of practice and some gardeners who also know how to be engineers. And have the judgment to know when.