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Effective Theory

Page history last edited by Mark 13 years, 2 months ago


Effective Theory


In an earlier chapter, I describe how Inter Pares considers the issue of scaling and growth, and suggest this comparison between BAH and UCaPP organizations:


With BAH organizations, effectiveness is measured in terms of owned or controlled resources that are deployed in the pursuit of defined objectives and goals. UCaPP organizations, it seems, feel a lesser need to control or own the means – including people – that enable the creation and dissemination of its intended effects which are based in shared values and participation in common cause.


In a contemporary context, it is appropriate to question whether the traditional construction of organizational effectiveness – having to do with access and deployment of resources, or achievement of stated goals and objectives, or combinations of both – provides the most useful guidance for a UCaPP world. One could construct a cogent and legitimate argument that critiques striving for such effectiveness constructs, writ large in the context of organizations, economies, and nations; writ small in the context of individuals seeking what they – rightly or wrongly – consider to be their personal due.


An extreme focus on instrumentality and achieving unitary objectives, often to the exclusion of other – and others’ – considerations, has perennially been critiqued for sowing the seeds of near economic collapse (e.g., Bakan, 2004; McLean & Elkind, 2003) and seemingly inevitable ecological deterioration and catastrophe (e.g., Liotta & Shearer, 2007; Lovelock, 2006) that threaten order, stability, and perhaps civilization's ability to sustain itself. Proposing Valence Theory – a contemporary reconception of the fundamental premise upon which organizations are constructed –necessitates proposing a corresponding change in our collective understanding of what it means to be effective.


Simply put, in a world that is ubiquitously connected and therefore pervasively proximate, to be truly, if not literally, effective is to be cognizant of the effects one intends to create, and actively aware of the multiple, complex effects that one actually brings about in both the social and material – natural and physically constructed – environments[1]. As effects are substantially distinct from goals and outcomes, an organization concerned first and foremost with its effects must bring a heightened awareness amidst the social and material environments in which it participates among its various and varied constituencies. This logic brings an organization to having as its primary concern, the relationships it creates, out of which intended effects emerge, followed by the goals, objectives, and outcomes towards which it strives.


Such a progression of attention priorities – from a primary focus on relationships to secondarily on effects and only then to goals – is, for conventional organizations and their leaders, not only counter-intuitive, but backwards—completely reversed from the “normal” order of organizational causality. However, in the UCaPP world, causality framed as Newtonian “action-reaction” provides only a superficial model, describing the most simplistic of human transactions. As I describe elsewhere, the UCaPP world is best understood in terms of connection, context, and complexity:


Connection matters, because it is precisely the ubiquitously connected world that has created the acceleration in communication that is driving contemporary society through this nexus period, bursting through the break boundary, and onto the other side that we now inhabit: once we have changed, we cannot unchange. Ubiquitous connectivity creates the effect of pervasive proximity, and that means context matters.


Context matters because in a UCaPP world, diverse contexts are brought into proximity and are able to interact in ways that were implausible one hundred years ago, and certainly were impossible before that. But many of these contexts often seem to be inconsistent with one another. They might appear to be paradoxical, antithetical or even contradictory when brought into immediate proximity with each other. This means, complexity matters.


Complexity matters because making sense of these multiple, overlapping contexts necessitates an analytical frame that is different from the traditional deterministic, sequentially causal, dialectical methods that have dominated the academy since the 17th century. Actions that occur in any context are far from isolated in their effects in a global system that is massively interconnected in networks that create multiple feedback and feedforward loops. Seemingly small interactions may have quite substantial effects throughout the entire system; what might appear to be substantial interactions may ultimately have quite insignificant system-wide effects. This non-linearity and non-proportionality of effect becomes especially relevant when considering interactions among social systems that are interpreted through the collective diverse histories, cultures, and experiences contributed by these multiple, pervasively proximate contexts. (Federman, 2008b)


As Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman, and Michael Quinn Patton observe, most people prefer the image of a leader in control, with a clear, intended objective in mind, striving against adversity to achieve the desired and intended outcome. But, the UCaPP world,


…is itself transforming, that is changing the innovator as he or she seeks to change the world. A complexity lens allows us to look at these interactions more closely. Control is replaced by a toleration of ambiguity and the “can-do” mentality of “making things happen” is modified by an attitude that is simultaneously visionary and responsive to the unpredictable unfolding of events…


These two perspectives – intentionality and complexity – meet in tension. If you intend to do something, you make a deliberate commitment to act to bring about change. Complexity science is about unpredictable emergence without regard for (indeed, even in spite of) human intentions. These two perspectives meet in the question … to what extent and in what ways can we be deliberate and intentional about those things that seem to emerge without our control, without our intention? (Westley, Zimmerman, and Patton, 2007)


Clearly, a new – or at least, augmented – vocabulary is needed to capture what has previously been thought of as “theories of action” (Argyris & Schön, 1974, 1978, 1996). Chris Argyris and Donald Schön provide what could be considered the iconic foundation of organizational learning—espoused and in-use theories. Espoused theory reflects actions that one would intend to take in a given situation if asked; theory-in-use reflects actions that one actually takes in that situation, relative to specific goals or objectives. Learning, according to Argyris and Schön, consists of incorporating changes to one’s theories of action in response to deviations in outcomes as perceived and interpreted by the individual.


Simply correcting the deviation represents what Argyris and Schön call single-loop learning. However, such learning often acquires aspects of defensiveness that compromise the overall effectiveness of both the learning itself, and the organization. Potential defensive corrections might include compartmentalizing theory-in-use from espoused theory when there are inconsistencies between them, or willingly remaining ignorant of salient data that would expose the incongruities. Many defensive responses involve suppressing “bad news” through intimidation or other power and control mechanisms. Some individuals might simply change their espoused theory to correspond to their theories-in-use and actual behaviours, or introduce marginal changes to theories-in-use so that they are technically consistent with espoused theories. The overall idea is to protect and preserve extant theories-in-use so as to avoid embarrassment or other disruptive consequences (Argyris & Schön, 1974, 30-34; see also Argyris, 1994).


Double-loop learning not only corrects behaviour relative to nominal objectives; it also encourages reflection on the pertinence and validity of the means employed to achieve the objectives, thereby informing and possibly modifying theory-in-use. Double-loop processes seek contextual information beyond direct behaviour-response data, and expand the domain of potential operational choices. These processes necessitate sometimes difficult reflection on an organization’s self-observed behaviours, and the ability to cope with incongruities, paradoxes, and tensions between competing polarities, in an effort to “walk the talk,” as it is popularly described (Argyris & Schön, 1996).


Both single- and double-loop learning presume the type of controlled and directed intentionality that is often effective when confronting either simple or relatively complicated situations on one’s path towards a specific objective or outcome. The context of Argyris and Schön’s theories of action approach is often a relatively focused and contained human system—a conventional, bounded organization, even considered in the context of a larger, structural “ecosystem” (Hinings, 2003). Whether considered in terms of Castells’s (1996) network enterprise or as a contingent, emergent, Valence Theory entity, a complexity view of organization becomes limited within the confines of the more deterministic grounding of Argyris and Schön’s otherwise useful model. Members’ own conception of the boundaries of their respective organizations limit their ability to negotiate the tension of organizational intentionality and environmental complexity.


The apparent inconsistencies inherent in that tension are perhaps best navigated by considering a third learning loop based on considering the effects perceivable within an organization’s purview as the organization’s strange attractor[2]. An organization can act on a holistically anticipated set of intended effects through a process often called feedforward. Its actions can be monitored and combined with comprehensive environmental sensing that especially includes contexts that might otherwise exceed the assumptive domains of the organization’s conventional, purposeful concerns. The sensing, fed back into future anticipations based on the emergent properties of the complex environment, creates new feedforward loops. The combination of holistic feedforward, and environmentally sensed feedback tracking the trajectory of effects in the organization’s environment, creates the third learning loop.


Effective [sic] theory enables an organization to incorporate its own lived experiences, and both prior and ongoing learning, contextualized by its effects on other organizations and constituencies that are so touched. In valence terms, these effects are the measures of the valence relationships that connect one individual or organization to others. Just as a traditionally conceived organization measures its effectiveness through resource acquisition and deployment, or achievement of prescribed outcomes and objectives, a valence organization measures its effectiveness by how well it anticipates, perceives, and adapts to the complex, emergent changes resulting from the effects it creates through the interactions among its valence relationships.


Sensory Revision


One of the key descriptors I use for characterizing traditionally conceived organizations is primary-purposeful. In such a characterization, an organization’s mission – its goals, objectives, and sought outcomes – become the idealized, overriding concerns of its members. There is a discourse (e.g., Bass, 1990) – and a corresponding discursive critique (Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996) of such an organization – which maintains that members should be systematically encouraged to take on the organization’s mission as their own. The fragmentation of an organization’s overall objectives, and the delegation of the component fragments, are characteristic aspects of the annual “objective-setting” exercise for this study’s most-BAH organizations—Organizations M and A.


By “primary-purposeful,” I mean that the organization’s goals and objectives – and by extension, those of its subordinate members – are paramount, usually placed ahead of any other considerations. In other words, the purpose is primary. Thus, any secondary or tertiary effects that the primary-purposeful organization creates in its respective social and material environments tend to be more-or-less ignorable by its management – externalized with respect to fiscal responsibility, if possible, but almost always considered subordinate to the organization’s primary purpose, that is, its mission. If, somehow, those effects might impinge on the attainment of said purpose, they quickly come into focus and become higher priorities.


The goals, objectives, and quantifiable outcomes expressed as mission come from the organization’s vision, a statement of where and how it sees itself, often expressed as a sort of reflexive outcome. As with mission, organization members are strongly encouraged to adopt the organization’s vision and values as their own. However, the encouragement can be regarded with some cynicism: Gee, Hull, and Lankshear observe, “fast capitalism requires total commitment on the part of workers/partners[;] this commitment is not necessarily reciprocated in many of the ways that might seem necessary for engendering that commitment in the first place” (1996, p. 35).


Among the consequences of my contention – that an organization’s expression of its purpose shifts from outcomes to effects in a UCaPP context – is the necessity for a corresponding transition of an organization’s dominant sensory metaphor as the source of its collective impetus. Vision – especially when conveyed by a charismatic and inspiring leader – drives purpose and transforms a statement of mission into impetus. Notwithstanding the power of a transformative vision, it is important to realize that, as a sensory metaphor, vision is inconsistent with UCaPP conditions and thus, with the reality of the contemporary world.


Vision is the only human sense that operates at a distance—indeed, distance and separation are required for vision to operate. There is a corresponding detachment that necessarily imposes itself on the vision creator and holder, as de Kerckhove (2002) originally describes in the detachment of context from text that occurred with the introduction of phonetic literacy, and I trace through the rise of visual culture throughout history (Federman, 2007). Thus, in a world that experiences pervasive proximity, a sensory metaphor that contradicts proximity is hardly appropriate, let alone useful. Rather, as our most proximate sense, tactility – the sense of touch – may well provide the most useful and appropriate guidance for contemporary organization.


Tactility is an expression of effects. It is, therefore, consistent with both effective theory as an extension of Argyris and Schön’s theories of action, and with Valence Theory as a foundational theory of organization. Adopting tactility as the sensorial guiding ethos encourages the characteristically UCaPP culture of inquiry by replacing the obligatory and prescriptive vision statement – an imperative to unswerving action towards accomplishing a purpose – with a tactility question: whom are you going to touch, and how are you going to touch them, today?


A tactility question is at once both personal and corporate, individual and collective. It draws first from an individual’s values, using those to inform a negotiated place from which the collective values of the organization emerge. In a sense, the organization aligns its values with those of its members, not the other way around. It is not that a primary-purposeful – most often BAH – organization has a well-defined, guiding purpose and a UCaPP organization does not. In fact, the respective purposes of successful UCaPP organizations, such as Unit 7 and Inter Pares, tend to be very clear and well-focused. They also tend to be emergent, and therefore, any given organization’s purpose may take on a contingent nature. In other words, the UCaPP organization’s purpose tends to evolve over time based on the complexities of the contextual circumstances, and their specific interactions with those constituencies that become enmeshed with them.


Described another way, a UCaPP organization’s purpose continually emerges from the complex interactions among experienced and perceived effects that the organization enables throughout its environment, relative to those it intended. Those intentions are the answers to the organization’s tactility question, the expressions of its members’ collective values. Effective theory enables the Valence Theory-conceived organization to negotiate the polarity tension between intentionality and complexity.


[1] I would happily include psychological and spiritual environments as well in an admonition to active, mindful awareness. However, this call for organizations to develop an active awareness of complex manifestations should be both a sufficient challenge, and a necessary restorative for the next generation (or two) of organizational philosophers and practitioners.

[2] Complex systems are often described in mathematical terms using Henri Poincaré’s topological approach. In mathematics, and particularly in topology, solutions to sets of nonlinear equations are often depicted as sets of curves drawn through an n-dimensional phase space, where n represents the number of variables in the equations. A point that “travels” along one of these curves defines the state of the system at any time; its movement over time is called its trajectory—a concept is most easily imagined as a point moving through physical space relative to reference axes of length, width, and breadth. At any time, the “state” of the physical system can be defined in terms of the point’s position; its path through space is the trajectory. Similarly, in a complex system, there would be more dimensions, each dimension, or variable, referring to a parameter that uniquely defines an aspect of the system being described. The trajectory of the point is called an attractor, with three topologically distinct forms: point (a system that eventually reaches stable equilibrium, representing the end of change and growth; i.e., death), periodic, meaning a system that has regular oscillations between two states, and strange that applies to chaotic systems such as those characterized as exhibiting properties of complexity. Strange attractors tend to create distinct patterns of trajectories for a given system, although the precise location of a point in phase space at a particular time cannot be accurately determined. This means that the system is non-deterministic – its future state cannot be accurately predicted from its past state(s). Substantial changes in the type, shape or existence of an attractor, corresponding to substantive changes in the nature of the defining parameters (e.g., contextual ground of the system) is called a bifurcation point, and marks a state of instability from which a new order of greater complexity can emerge (Capra, 1996).


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