Wise Organizations?, Continued …

by Chauncey Bell

With the permission of the publishers of the book, Idea Group, Inc., I’m sharing this chapter in a series of postings, to see what kind of conversation it generates. Idea Group’s copyright prohibits copying the text in any written or electronic form. Please help me protect this copyright by referring people to the blog, but don’t copy the text that is here.

Part 2. What about Wisdom in an Organization?

Now let us turn our attention to wisdom in organizations per se. The first thing that we will do is to introduce several questions and foundations that we will employ for thinking with you about wisdom, mostly without resolving them.

Do you admire the way that your bank handles your questions, your supermarket manages your experience, your auto dealer handles the maintenance of your car, or the way that manufacturers of things you buy handle your questions and suggestions? We may admire the wisdom of someone in dealing with his children, spouse, or even colleagues or employees in his company, but a wise organization? Can you remember a real, sustained experience with an organization that learns from its mistakes, as Churchman dreamed? (The book in which this chapter was published is dedicated to the memory of Professor C. West Churchman of the University of California at Berkeley.)

Even those small community and fraternal organizations over which we might think we have the greatest control are often sources of epic frustration. I listen to my neighbor: “You will not believe what just happened at the neighborhood association meeting.” (Yes, I will.) Does anyone admire the way our governments interact with us? Take a deep breath and prepare yourself to stand patiently in line and wait. When, as does occasionally happen, we have the experience of someone in an organization listening carefully and acting with alacrity in response to our request, this is an occasion for a celebration. “A miracle happened!” my wife will begin a report of that rare event: an organization acting wisely.

Some institutions produce disproportionately large numbers of people adjudged “wise” in their communities. Consider, for example, the histories of the great religious institutions of the East and West, the institution of science itself, and the institution of medicine down through the ages. These are not the only examples by any means. Can you think of other examples of your own? Why does this happen? And why are these histories so uneven? Why great wisdom at some moments and behaviors that we would call stupid, self-serving, or even criminal at others?

Churchman speaks particularly of his admiration for the institution of science, and points directly at the revolutionary nature of the life of such an institution:

“The inspiration of Singer’s story was his account of the history of science, one episode after another in which complacency was shattered, by Copernicus, by Newton, by Einstein, by Heisenberg. One ‘ideal’ of progress is to create the ‘optimal’ shatterer of old tablets, a shatterer that does not simultaneously shatter all chance of further progress in the cooperative ideals. Mood plays its part in all this process: The mood of the cooperative ideals is sanguine, phlegmatic, comic; the mood of the shattering ideal is filled with despair and joy, is tragic.” (C. West Churchman, (1968). Challenge to Reason, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, p. 215.)

Sometimes organizations exhibit behaviors we call wise, and sometimes they do that over long periods of time. We can find examples of moments in which leaders set organizations on paths that produced luminous results for the people in and served by those organizations. Consider, for a big example, the founding of the United States of America. This country also provides ample examples of goofy behaviors, for example in a long history of supporting oppressive dictatorships around the world while we have simultaneously kept our borders open to new citizens and espoused freedom, equal opportunity, and governance under the rule of law.

The point of “organizations” has to do with what we can do together that we cannot do alone. Working in organizations people can do things the scope and scale of which is not possible for individual people, or even for people gathered together in other assembly. It is in what we call organizations that we human beings constitute the capacity to deliver products and services of an extraordinary variety, on local and global scales. Effective organizations create value for their clients and customers, focus on expanding possibilities for them, and demonstrate commitments to cultivating authentic styles. When those characteristics appear together, we create space for people to be wise in that culture.

Here is one source of confusion in the matter. Organizations are not human unities; they are unities constituted of and by human beings. Frequently we describe the behavior of organizations with analogies, metaphors, and assessments that are more properly applied to human beings. I will do that in this chapter. We can, with validity and to good effect, characterize organizations as existing in or having emotional states or moods.

Nevertheless, I insist that humans and organizations are different kinds of beings. The temptation to anthropomorphize organizations – to speak of them as collective human beings – is not valid, and will mislead us in this conversation. Organizations, per se, are not capable of being wise. We need to look to human beings, not the organizations in which they work, for wisdom. The central reason for this is that wisdom comes from a capacity made up of other capacities that are dependent upon the existence of human will and intellect, the emotions, and other structures, all of which require the presence of a human body. People sometimes are wise; organizations are not.

Churchman pursued the question of how an organization could learn from its experience. What does this mean? I propose that it means, for a start, that people in such an organization would continuously adjust the organization to the concerns of client/constituents and to changes in the world. The organization will be continuously reinvented in ways that encourage people to listen to each other, bring people together to be responsible for things that matter in the world, and so forth.

If we look closely at any moment of organizational reinvention, we will see that one or more people are speaking, guiding the institution into a new future. We may call these phenomena one of the attributes of ‘wisdom in organizations.’ When this happens repeatedly over time, if we look closely we will see that the institution has organized itself around a set of rules and practices embodying the rules (sometimes set out explicitly in documents of its governance, and more often embodied in a common sense shared by those responsible for the organization) that govern its operation by (1) specifying who will occupy certain roles of responsibility in which they promise to take care of the future of the organization, and (2) specifying who will declare those roles obsolete over time and see that they are changed. I think that families often are more reliable than traditional business organizations for taking care of these particularly important roles over long periods.

We speak about “wisdom” in many contexts, especially in ethical and spiritual domains, in spiritual, religious, and community leaders, in the arts and the helping professions, in commerce, and even in politics. We also find people speaking of “wise” executives, salespeople, or even sometimes criminals – people in roles in which the purpose of their actions is the economic, political, or social benefit they derive from their actions. When we ascribe wise behavior to those in such instrumental roles, we have crossed a line. We can ascribe wisdom to players in instrumental roles, but we should be careful when we do so. Is the experienced salesman ‘wise’ in recommending to us options on a vehicle when he will sell it to us and then take a profit from the sale? Remember that the slang name for members of certain criminal gangs is ‘wise guys.’ Wisdom is deeply connected to ethics; we will explore this more carefully later in the paper.

I will not deal with the kind of ‘wisdom’ that is merely synonymous with ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent.’ Significantly, organizations that are structured or managed in ways that do not encourage (or permit) relationships among its people that are more than exclusively instrumental (e.g., relationships that are not connected to the purposes of the business) will be unable to produce any but the shallowest kinds of ‘wisdom,’ or, being wise in such organizations will simply not be relevant.

Inevitable Goofiness

Over time, all organizations become rigid, fall out of touch with the worlds they were constituted to serve, and behave in goofy, or sometimes even criminal fashions. As time passes, every organization accumulates rigidities and practices that lead, inexorably, to these kinds of behaviors. How does this happen? (If we look closely, we will see that organizations that are successful over long periods are periodically reconstructed, sometimes noisily or even violently, sometimes quietly.)

One of the central mechanisms for accumulating rigidity has this remarkably simple, and apparently benign structure of action:

1. Something goes wrong.
2. Those responsible act to repair the situation.
3. At the same time, those responsible put in place mechanisms to prevent the same error from happening again.
4. They do this with rules, new procedures, changes in roles, and so forth.

Ronald Heifetz points well to the heart of the matter in Leadership Without Easy Answers:

“Living systems seek equilibrium. They respond to stress by working to regain balance. If the human body becomes infected by bacteria, the system responds to fight off the infection and restore health. … These responses to disequilibrium are the product of evolutionary adaptations that transformed into routine problems what were once nearly overwhelming threats. Looking backward in time, we marvel at the abundant success of these adaptations and the breadth of exploited opportunities. Yet we tend to notice the successes and innovations more than the failures. By definition, the successes survive while the failures disappear. The roads of evolution are strewn with the bones of creatures that could not thrive in the next environment.” (Ronald Heifetz, (1996). Leadership Without Easy Answers, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 28.)

Organizations accumulate rigidities as a consequence of the same thing that underlies their capacity to function as a place for generating wise behavior – they are made up of human beings. What happens in an organization is a lot like what happens when a patient of modern western medicine has a bunch of prescriptions: the remedies begin to interact badly with each other and produce second- and third-order “side” effects. In organizational life, if we look carefully over time, we will see that as time passes the majority of our prescriptions are dealing with the unintentional side effects of other, previously applied prescriptions.

The general situation in human organizations is the same as the case of medicine. The behaviors of the people in the organization are habitual. When we install repairs and modifications to avert future occurrences of an error, if we look carefully, we will see that the conditions that led to the error are often preserved, so that the difficulty will arise again, but next time in new clothing, so that we will not recognize it. Over time, the accumulation of “a propensity to goofiness” in organizations is inevitable, and periodic reconstruction is required.

Organizations and Authentic Ways of Being

One of Churchman’s central questions, repeated often in his work, concerned the interplay of the parts of a system and ‘the whole system’, understood as a unity. Let me start a new approach to this question. In this chapter we will come back to this question repeatedly, asking first the question, ‘who is observing the unity, and on what basis does he or she interpret that as a unity?’ At this moment I want to start this process by introducing the notion of authenticity, which I take principally from the the interpretations of Hubert Dreyfus about the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger was convinced that it is impossible for human beings to make good sense of our lives except in the context of a process of continuous reinterpretation of our entire situatedness in the worlds in which we dwell. I think this is more than analogy to the question that Churchman posed; it is a foundational distinction. The question, as I said a moment ago, is this: who is observing the unity? Those who are considering a system and its relationship to ourselves, our work, and our worlds – that is, ourselves – cannot make sense of who we are as observers and speakers unless we have a very specific kind of understanding ourselves. In the process of ‘constructing’ that understanding, we must have avoided exactly the same trap that Churchman fears – the decontextualization of ourselves – not at the level of the system, but at the level of the individual human beings who are conceiving the system, and of the individual human beings who will be the ‘beneficiaries’ of the system.

(Note: I build a substantial portion of my interpretations about the behaviors of humans and organizations on the work of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Anthony Kenny. Heidegger is particularly difficult. I use Hubert DreyfusBeing-in-the-World as my guide to the Heidegger of Being and Time. I have found Lawrence Vogel’s The Fragile “We”: Ethical Implications of Heidegger’s “Being and Time” particularly useful in picking my way through the ethical thicket presented by Heidegger’s interactions with National Socialism during the time of Hitler. By the measures philosophers use to assess each other’s importance, this controversial 20th Century philosopher is one of the most important philosophers of all time.)

We understand ourselves well, Heidegger tells us, only in the midst of our worlds, and not abstractly . As we conduct ourselves in our worlds, we are ‘thrown’ (taken, or swept away, by our normal ways of being) to inauthentic ways of being. Ironically, those inauthentic ways of being provide us with signals inviting us to construct ourselves authentically.

There are two principal inauthentic ways of being. The first is ‘falling’ into normal everyday busy-ness – coping with our anxieties and problems by ‘throwing ourselves into’ (the idiomatic expression is no accident) activities that are familiar to us from our histories and experience, activities that we hope will suppress or tranquilize our anxieties, because we remember that they have worked for us in the past. The second is becoming frozen in fearful patterns of conforming to accepted everyday behavioral norms. Can you see that organizations – with all of the kinds of pressures that we tend to find there to follow rules, not rock boats, not offend people, and so forth, are very often effective places for producing inauthentic ways of being? In contrast, authentic being confronts, in a public way, its anxieties and concerns, and invents new ways of being and acting in the midst of the messes of everyday life. You can see examples of this characteristic in each of the “wisdom examples” I gave at the beginning of this chapter. Can you think of examples from your own life?

Heidegger characterized humans as having a way of being the central focus of which is the issue of being: “…to work out the question of Being adequately, we must make an entity – the inquirer (sic) – transparent in his own being. The very asking of this question is an entity’s mode of Being; and as such it gets its essential character from what is inquired about – namely, Being. This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of being, we shall denote by the term ‘Dasein’ .” (Emphases from the original translation. Martin Heidegger, (1962). Being and Time, Translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, New York: Harper & Row. In the German, as written by Heidegger himself, the word ‘Da-sein’ means literally ‘being-there’. In the English translation that I have used, the word is not translated but presented in the original German, as, the translators surmise, the term “… is already so familiar to the English-speaking reader who has read about Heidegger, that it seems simpler to leave it untranslated ….”)

Working in modern organizations may not be a healthy practice for building the kind of observer who can help Churchman with his inquiry. Most of us cannot avoid working in organizations of some size; none of us can avoid interacting with organizations. John Kotter concludes that training as a manager or executive in a (Western) corporation is not good for building wisdom. (He speaks of leadership, but if you listen carefully, you will see that what he calls leadership is a kind of wisdom-on-the-hoof.)

“For the vast majority of people today, including most of those with leadership potential, on-the-job experiences actually seem to undermine the development of attributes needed for leadership. …managerial careers in many corporations produce individuals who are remarkably narrow in focus and understanding, moderately risk averse, weak in communications skills, and relatively blind to the values of others. They produce people who know little about competitive business strategies, who have limited credibility, and who know more about how to play games with a budget than how to celebrate the real achievements of their people. …

“Four characteristics of managerial careers seem to be particularly important in producing these [negative] results. First, these careers usually begin in centralized and specialized hierarchies and, as such, in jobs that are narrow in scope and tactical in focus. … [Second,] promotions in many firms are almost entirely up a narrow, vertical hierarchy. … [T]he knowledge and relationship base of successful people is often extremely narrow; they understand only one aspect of the business and only one group of people in their corporation. … [Third,] moving through jobs every twelve to eighteen months, these people rarely have an opportunity to learn anything in depth, and never see the longer-term consequences of their actions. … [Fourth, and] perhaps most damaging of all, … all too often, people are rewarded almost exclusively for short-term results. As a result, most individuals focus on the process that produces those results – management. This is especially true for ambitious young people. Because of this, they learn little about leadership. Since developing the leadership potential of others is also not a short-term activity, senior executives are strongly encouraged by such reward systems not to invest time in such an activity. The overall result can be devastating.” (John P. Kotter, (1990). A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs From Management, New York: The Free Press: A Division of Macmillan, Inc., p. 119ff.)

The question and reflection that I would like to bring to the reader at this moment in the conversation is this: It is easy to understand why someone could be interested in ‘knowledge’ or the cultivation of wisdom; why, on the other hand, is the cultivation of wisdom and knowledge not a mainstream concern in organizational life today?

Stay tuned. More to come.

Click to go to the next installment.

© Copyright Chauncey Bell, 2003-4. All rights reserved worldwide.
Copyright © 2005, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.


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