Toggling Between Two Worlds: Making Sense of Organizational Change (abridged)

“And twofold always. May God us keep

From single vision and Newton’s sleep.”

William Blake

This is a summary of a longer article I have just posted on Medium to mark forty years since the publication of my first (and only) article in the Harvard Business Review. That article, Of Boxes, Bubbles and Effective Management, outlined the transformational experience our corporation had been through after it had been acquired in a wildly overleveraged buyout on the eve of a steep recession. We had gone insolvent almost overnight, but owed the bank so much money that it was their problem, not just ours.

I told the detailed story of what had happened, how we had muddled through, dealing with our challenges and what the implications of our eventual survival and success were for management. I approached this task by balancing a then-popular ‘hard’ management model with a ‘soft’ counterpart. This allowed a Taoist ‘yin-yang’ interpretation of our experience. For to me it seemed as if we had switched from a hard, ‘yang’ structure to a softer ‘yin’ process, although not in any unilateral, unconditional way. It had been like a figure-ground reversal with crisis as the catalyst. It was as if the conventional organizational hierarchy had been turned upside down:

The Taoist yin-yang symbol suggests that the ‘yang’ component never went away. Rather, it was held in abeyance for use only in situations that demanded it[1]. Whether you would need it or not all depended on the context.

My opening proposition in the article was, “Two models are better than one.” The bottom line after another four decades of experience, reading and research since then is that I don’t think that we can make much headway in management (or politics and the social sciences for that matter) unless we find a way to reconcile science with the humanities in a new synthesis. In the longer article I suggest that an ecological sensemaking framework shows the way ahead.

Why We Need Two Models

In The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus (1996)[2] John Micklethwait (former editor-in-chief of The Economist, now of Bloomberg News) and Adrian Wooldridge (Former Schumpeter columnist for The Economist, now Bagehot columnist) 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, they went on to identify the root cause of the problem as an “intellectual confusion at the heart of management theory; it has become not so much a coherent discipline as 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.” They went on to identify the two schools as scientific management on the one hand and humanistic management on the other, concluding that, “This, in essence, is the debate between “hard” and “soft” management.”

We Are the Battleground

It’s time to identify this “intellectual confusion” as a feature of both humans and organizations, not a ‘bug’. It’s time to recognize that our fundamentally divided nature is the essence of our humanity and that it is the practical weaving together of apparently irreconcilable opposites that is the very warp and woof of our existence. The roots of this split are in the need for living creatures to be able, in real time, both to focus on a task at hand and to remain aware of peripheral threats, to live simultaneously in two ‘worlds’[i]. These two tasks must be performed together, yet they demand different kinds of attention and different contexts (the one individual and the other collective). The result is an asymmetrical split-brain architecture that goes a long way down the tree of phylogeny. This suggests that it must have significant survival benefits.

This split, this fundamental duality, spirals through our existence as individuals, families, communities, organizations and societies and throughout our history as a species. It has grown in complexity as our languages, cultures and institutions have grown more complex. Like the twin arms of a double helix it also coils through philosophy in general and the history of management thought in particular. Here the dualities are familiar: exploitation and exploration, calculation and judgement, individual and team, performance and learning, detachment and immersion, mechanical and organic and so on and on.

That’s why we need two models in a Taoist yin-yang relationship to understand organizational change and make sense of our experience.

Reconciliation in Ecology

There will always be a tension between the scientific and the humanistic, but there need not be a battle. We can render the tension creative rather than destructive if we can frame it in a higher-level understanding of the dynamics of life in a real world.

This will mean challenging the assumptions of mainstream Anglo-American management about the nature of reality and what is means to be human. These aren’t ‘wrong’ but have been pushed too far and taken into areas where they don’t belong. They claim to be universal when everything is dependent on context. They appeal to our systemizing mind, while ignoring the empathizing one.[ii] The mainstream doesn’t care. This is where a dual-process theory of cognition and emotion helps with its both…and approach, rather than either/or. It can embrace and contain the mainstream and keep it in its proper place.

This is how we can connect management practice, which is always singular and unique, with theory, which describes the world in terms of rules, generalizations and universals. It is how to approach the debate between ‘relevance’ and ‘rigour’ that has plagued the management academics for so long.  It is to handle paradoxes and dilemmas like these that evolution has equipped us with bicameral minds, minds that can focus while still retaining peripheral awareness and ‘toggle’ rapidly between the two modes of perception. In management we can think of it is as instrumental search for truth (to earn a living) conducted within the quest for purpose (to live our lives).

Forty years ago I called the two worlds ‘boxes’ and ‘bubbles’. My recommendation to managers then was that “You have to find the bubble in the box and put the box in the bubble”. That is still good advice.

The table, “A Dual-Process, Ecological View of Management”, expands on this idea by showing some of the key management polarities in a different format: an individual, instrumental search for explanation (right side) conducted within a collective, existential quest for purpose (left side). The central barrier between the left and righthand columns is permeable with infinity loop/adaptive cycle connectors to emphasize the nature of the ‘dancing’ ecological balance between the two that plays out in space and time. At the organizational level the challenge for managers is to toggle between the two modes as the situation demands, keeping the enterprise in the adaptive space, the ‘Goldilocks Zone’, between the extremes.

The journey continues….

[1] People at Gore & Associates call this ‘hierarchy-on-demand’, when the formal hierarchy, instead of being permanent, becomes contingent on the situation.

[2] The Witch Doctors was updated by Adrian Wooldridge in Masters of Management (2011). The major conclusions were unchanged.

[i] McGilchrist, I., (2009), The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

[ii] Baron-Cohen, S., (2009), “Autism: The Empathizing-Systemizing (E-S) Theory” The Year in Cognitive Science, Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1156: 68-80.

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