Principles and Paradigms: The Debate Continues

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Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933)

Steve Denning, with whom I have jousted in the columns of Forbes, about the nature of management paradigms, recent wrote a blog in HBR in the series leading up to the fifth annual Global Peter Drucker Forum on November 2013 in Vienna. In it he made the familiar claim that successful companies, like Apple and Salesforce, have rethought the “rules” of management and have applied new heuristics to produce these desirable outcomes. You can read his blog here. This gave me the opportunity to respond to him and outline more precisely why I find this line of argument rather unsatisfactory:

“Every time I read about new management principles replacing old, outdated ones I remember Mary Parker Follett’s cautionary comment:

‘The difficulty with all revolutions is this: the leaders think that they can substitute new ideas for old before they have changed the action tendencies, habit systems of people. As this cannot be done, revolution after revolution fails. The first thing that a normal class of revolutionists should be taught is that behaviour must be changed through experience, that it cannot be changed through the impact of ideas.’ (Creative Experience, 1924)

Our ability to catch Frisbees or baseballs depends on deeply-embedded habits that have evolved over evolutionary time. One can describe and classify them after-the-fact as “heuristics”, but one cannot implement them as such in systems that don’t have those habits. The description is an intellectual rationalization of how we catch objects in motion, not an explanation of how the catch is actually made.

Management principles suffer from the same problem; they are intellectual rationalizations of how firms have achieved desirable outcomes without offering any real understanding of the habits and processes required to produce them. Worse still, the evidence is that while the “whats” are generic, the “hows” are particular. That is, while successful organizations like Apple, Google, W.L. Gore & Associates, Whole Foods etc. seem to exhibit similar characteristics, as if they had implemented the same “principles”, in fact they each found their route to those outcomes in very different ways that depended on their own unique circumstances. It reminds one of Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

As if that were not bad enough, the focus on principles leads to a ‘from…to’ rhetoric; that we must leave outdated principles behind and embrace new ones. But organizations cannot just move from detailed command-and-control to mission-based command. Discipline is a prerequisite for freedom just as rights depend upon obligations; you can’t have one without the other. The question is where discipline should be created in large-scale organizations and how it should be maintained, not whether it should exist. Peter Drucker always argued that it had to be self–discipline rather than an imposed one, but he never elaborated on how this could be achieved. Virtuous habits may have to be imposed before they can become embodied. Indeed this is what we see in the most effective implementations of mission-based command – the inculcation (from the Latin to “trample in”) of virtuous habits at every level of the organization that, over time, become “second nature” to those who have been through the mill. For the practical effects of this in World War II see Martin van Creveld’s fine book, Fighting Power.

The bottom line is that there will be no “paradigm shift” in management thought until we have a perspective on human nature that removes the privilege that we have awarded intellectual thought and explains why it is that we seem to act our ways into better ways of thinking rather more readily than the other way around. It will acknowledge our embodied nature and the role that the body (and its discipline) and emotion play in all aspects of our behavior. It will also suggest that the rationality – practical wisdom – that we possess is of an ecological kind that allows us to use information from the situations in which we find ourselves as a guide to action – just like a dog catching a Frisbee.”

Steve Denning replied as follows:

“Thanks for these wonderful comments. As the article itself says, this is not just only about mental principles but also about *practices* that have to be lived.

Thus: “The new heuristics are not just a grab-bag of new tricks of the trade. 
They constitute a coherent constellation of leadership and management 
practices. Together, they represent… a different mental model of the way things work — a different way of thinking, speaking, and acting in the world.”

There were deep social, political and economic reasons why Mary Parker Follett’s ideas never entered the mainstream when she articulated them back in the 1920s. The context however has now changed. Understanding how and why is key.

Another key is putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. We now know more about aspects of leadership and management that Mary Parker Follett never talked about and which are central to success. It’s putting all the pieces together into a coherent constellation of principles, practices, attitudes and values that makes the difference.”

Here is my response, posted on the Harvard blog this morning:

“Systems pioneer Ludwig von Bertalanffy called this ability of open systems to reach the same outcome from many different starting positions and by many different paths “equifinality”. He used the concept to contrast open systems with closed systems, where the same initial starting conditions and paths always lead to the same outcomes. The reality of equifinality in human organizations gives us a rather different perspective on what one means by “implementation”. Instead of being seen as the execution of pre-set steps on a well-trodden path, it has to be viewed as a “feeling forward” into unknown territory guided by worthy purposes and informed by a deep understanding of human nature and the ways in which people react individually and collectively to the many situations in which they find themselves. A study of history suggests that the chances of success on such a journey of discovery are vastly improved if the people involved embody virtuous habits and share a common faith that values action in the present. In short, that they constitute a community of trust and practice that focuses on learning-by-doing and relies on what has been called deliberate practice; practice with timely, specific, visceral feedback of the kind provided in a master-apprentice relationship.”

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One Response to Principles and Paradigms: The Debate Continues

  1. lynda shephard says:

    Brilliant as always david, i totally agree….many change initiatives have failed precisely because it relied on words and concepts rather than experience and changing the entrenched behaviours in processes and procedure…

    Lynda 🙂

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