HBR Blog: The Mongrel Discipline of Management

A few days ago this blog of mine got published on the HBR Blog Network where it is attracting a good deal of comment. You can read it in situ as well as the comments here (as well as see the great mongrel pic HBR selected!)

Here is the blog:

Humans engage with their world in two reciprocal ways: firstly as passionate participants and secondly as detached observers. As managers we cycle between these modes constantly. It’s the mark of a great manager to be able to judge, in a complex situation, when and how to use each of them.

Detached observation requires a certain maturity. Consider that we are born into the world immersed in context. We are embodied organisms, fine-tuned by evolution to garner cues to action from our surroundings. We pay attention when we see a face and smile when we are smiled at. We learn to walk and talk without explicit instruction. From about the age of seven onward, however, we develop the capacity for perspective-taking. We learn to distance ourselves from the world and to swap our roles as involved participants for positions as distant observers.

A Spectrum of Disciplines

When we attend school and university we discover the spectrum of disciplines available to us to observe the complexity of the world and learn about it. On the “left” are the fine arts, whose methods are basically analogical. They simulate our experience of complexity using many different media: their role is integrative — to make meaning. On the “right” are the hard sciences, whose methods are analytical. Each of these right-hand fields develops its own style of abstraction to study different aspects of reality: their role is to dissect complexity and to explain. In the middle of this spectrum are the liberal arts and the mongrel discipline that we call “management”. As Peter Drucker often contended, management is neither an art nor a science, but a practice with aspects of each. Its role is both to explain and to make meaning.

Ever since Descartes, the detached, rational objectivity of the observer has been prized over all other forms of knowledge. Applied to the study of matter and things it has generated huge benefits for humankind. However, the Cartesian agenda was always an imperial one and, emboldened by its success on the right, it has marched ever leftward on the spectrum of the disciplines. In the social sciences, the program has been much less successful. In management, in particular, it is clear that people, unlike objects, react poorly if they sense they are being treated as items; their behavior becomes erratic and unpredictable. People want to be regarded as ends-in-themselves, not as instruments of another’s purpose.

Social and Technical Systems

The reality of organizations is that they are both social and technical systems, comprising both people and things. And they have twin tasks to attend to — the pursuit of “today’s business” and the creation of “tomorrow’s business”. The first task is usually more technical and the second is more social, but it’s always “both…and” and never “either/or”. The key to good management, then, is never to forget this duality; it is using both modes of engagement in dynamic situations, where our means are always threatening to run away with our ends. This, by the way, explains the enduring appeal of Peter Drucker’s writings to practicing managers. The interplay of social and technical, the organization as it is experienced and as it is analyzed, is the space where he spent his entire career.

This mongrel quality of management, always combining the twin modes of our worldly engagement, is what I want to reassert as work proceeds to bring complexity science into our realm. Complexity thinking has much to commend it, but we must never forget that its intellectual foundations were laid in the 1940s and 50s, during the era of high modernity. Then it was thought that the methods of positive science would sweep all before them: today that project has been abandoned. These philosophical changes, however, seem barely to have registered either in complexity thought or in management. One frequently finds complex human systems lumped together with inanimate ones (like the weather!) and the position of the detached observer is still privileged. This violates one of the few certainties in managing human organizations: that the blurring of task and person marks the road to ruin. The two must be kept distinct, yet joined. The role of the passionate participant must always embrace that of the intellectual spectator. The “who” and “why” of our concerns should constantly enfold the “what” and “how” of our methods. We must seek explanations, but only in the perpetual pursuit of meaning.

With maturity, a person gains the ability to detach from passionate participation in a system and rigorously observe its overall shape and workings. But the most detached observers do not make the best managers; the wise ones know that after all the analysis is done, they still have to throw themselves back into the mix. We need a hybrid vigor for our mongrel discipline of management: one that draws its energy from both the ways we engage with our complex world.
This post is part of a series of perspectives leading up to the fifth annual Global Drucker Forum in November 2013 in Vienna, Austria. For more on the theme of the event, Managing Complexity, and information on how to attend, see the Forum’s website.

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