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The Engineer and The Gardener: Management Science Versus Complexity Science

 

 

Map of the Complexity Sciences (Brian Castellani)

Management Science

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.

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Wading Through the Swamp – the Radical Power of Ecosystems-as-Processes

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

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Lead Like A Gardener: The Movie

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! 

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BREXIT: A Study in Complexity

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:

Slide1

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.

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The Engineer and The Gardener: the Central Tension in 21st Century Management

Hurstcomplexitygraphiccomp

“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:

  1. That it was constitutionally incapable of self-criticism
  2. Its terminology confuses rather than educates
  3. It rarely rises above common sense
  4. 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.”

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The Ecology of a Social Movement: The Quakers and Social Reform – Public Talk RSA London December 7 2018

williams-view-of-coalbrookdale iron bridge

The Iron Bridge at Coalbrookdale

On Friday December 7 2018 I will be at the RSA’s Rawthmell’s Café 8 John Adam Street, London, speaking on the Ecology of a Social Movement, using the Quakers of the First Industrial Revolution as my example. They were an astonishing community of commercial and social entrepreneurs who had an influence out of all proportion to their small numbers. They featured in my book, Crisis & Renewal (1995/2002) and I have blogged about them before.

In this multi-media presentation I will outline an ecological model of change and use it to explore the Quakers experience, their origins in the turmoil of the English Civil War, their rise to commercial and social prominence in the 18thand early 19thCenturies and their subsequent decline.

The event will be held on The Steps, the mini amphitheatre that is part of the new Rawthmell’s Café at the RSA. I will look forward to seeing you there!

 

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Lead Like a Gardener! – Agile and Design Thinking Will Become Management Fads Unless We Expand Our Concept of Management

Master Gardeners Tilling the Soil

Master Gardeners Tilling the Soil

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.

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Management Needs to Return to Reason

balance-stones

Zen Stones

‘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’.

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Cattle, Slaves and Automobiles: Driving Dangerously With Management Clichés

Cattle Drive

Texas Cattle Drive

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.

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Management: a Noble Practice

Slide1

Management as a Noble Practice

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.

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