Organic and Mechanical Approaches to Complex Systems

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The last week a blog I wrote for the Harvard Business Review and the Drucker Forum was published on the HBR site. It brought together a number of issues that I have been talking about in the past few months and when it was posted by the HBR editors with the title “Stop Trying To Engineer Success” it attracted comment, both favourable and critical.

Some of the posts were by engineers who took umbrage at the title. Of course my criticism was not of engineering as such but of its misapplication when it is used to short-circuit essential organic processes. When faced with a complex, “wicked” problem, an engineering methodology goes like this:

  1. Find examples of organizations that have coped with this problem successfully.
  2. Reverse-engineer the reasons for their success, looking for features that they share in common.
  3. Present these shared “success factors” as rules, principles or precepts that should be implemented by all those who would emulate their performance.

Unfortunately this approach does not work and it has the effect of crushing the natural creative processes within the organization. The examples I gave were of the American effort to introduce democracy into Iraq and Kim and Mauborgne’s attempts to reverse-engineer the success of enterprises like the Cirque du Soleil with their “blue ocean” strategy. I supplemented this with an analogy from baseball from my blog of September 3.

Instead I advocated a more ecological approach:

  1. Look at other organizations to understand the contexts and processes involved – their history – not to derive precepts and principles
  2. Focus intensively on the organization at hand to understand the opportunities and challenges – the potential – inherent in the current situation
  3. Control the controllable, pre-empt the undesirable and exploit the inevitable to produce strategies that could not be anticipated by anyone

A Clash of Philosophies

One of the most persistent critics I had was someone with the pseudonym “Sakky”, who seems to be a management academic with a background in economics and quantitative methods. He took me to task for claiming that an organic, ecological mental perspective was superior to a mechanical engineering model. Despite my explanation that it was not a question of “either/or” but of “both…and” and that the advantage of an ecological mental model was that it could combine both the organic and the mechanical he demanded evidence that the ecological approach was superior. The evidence that organizations begin as organic entities and become more mechanical as they grow in size and scale is everywhere and has been documented in books like The Organizational Life Cycle by Kimberly and Miles. What The New Ecology of Leadership does is bring this venerable concept into systems and complexity framework where multiple perspectives really matter. “Sakky” would have none of this and seemed to be looking for showdown of some kind between the two approaches; you can read his various comments and my responses to them scattered throughout the HBR blog.

When he agreed that our issue was an epistemological one, my last comment was this:

I am glad that you agree that the issue is an epistemological one.

Following Guba and Lincoln in Denzing and Lincoln (1998) I suspect that we are coming from two incommensurable worldviews. You come across as some variety of positivist (who, according to G&L, privilege the voice of the “disinterested scientist”) and I am coming from critical and constructivist perspectives (which privilege the voices of the “transformative intellectual” and the “passionate participant”). As such I am critical of the current, dominant neopositivist (?) management world view for its:

Context stripping

Exclusion of meaning and purpose

Disjunction of grand theories with local contexts

Inapplicability of general data to individual cases

Exclusion of the discovery dimension in inquiry

Worldviews have to be held on faith because if there was an agreed-upon way of choosing which one was “right” this would imply the existence of a meta-worldview. Hence the danger of infinite regress and my statement that human action is founded fundamentally on faith. It’s not a question of either faith or evidence, but the recognition that facts are laden with values and theory and that all evidence exists within the context of a faith-based worldview, whether acknowledged or not. One’s worldview determines what one regards as “evidence”. An ecological perspective is skeptical of all varieties of “magic” religions, including the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” (something that “Sakky” was suggesting I could believe in) but it recognizes the role that they play in creating narrative centres of gravity in people and organizations that, once established, are extremely difficult to change.

The discussion we have been having is thoroughly in the spirit of the Drucker Forum. Peter Drucker who, with his European background, was always much closer to Continental philosophical traditions than most American management academics, many of whom could not understand why practitioners were so drawn to his writings.  This year the theme of the forum is “Managing Complexity” and it promises to be a stimulating session. These kinds of topics will be discussed both formally and informally at the meeting.

So that was the end of the discussion on the HBR blog but it continues on as a discussion in Systems Thinking World, which seems to be populated with a number of engineers who struggle with metaphors, analogies and their role in the the process we call thinking!

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