There is one word to portray our understanding about organization: Enormity. Organization is not a term with a single definition agreed by all people. No, it is not. There are variety of organization theories, created by great theorist came from huge variety of background. Economist define it this way, while political scientist define it in another way. Psychologists have one viewpoint, as philosophers are referring to another viewpoint. Even more interesting is how those theories can evolve through various contexts, particularly around change and future creation.
Organization is substantiated through its larger-than-life nature, its ever expanding existence in our effort of to understand it. Organization substantiate itself through its enormity.
Coincidentally, though I believe that nothing happen just by coincident, my learning experiences in exploring different concepts about organization is extremely relevant, co-aligned and mutually corroborating with my learning experiences in actual work settings.
These two types of experiences compose a blend of systemic learning. This gives a new context on the process of learning, by which organization is viewed more than just a stable system, but as an evolving and organic system. The learning process represents the maxim given by Bolman & Deal (2008): Organizations are constantly changing, and yet, they never change. In my perspective, the elaboration would be: In organization, change is the only constant. This is the core ideas I’ve explored in my work with organizations.
The three paradoxes
Perhaps, my whole conceptual exploration find its way to be profound in the understanding around organizational paradoxes. I noticed three critical organizational paradoxes I presume to be quintessential in future practices:
- rational – relationship paradox,
- challenge – stabilization paradox, and
- global – personal paradox.
These three paradoxes are not necessarily new theories, but more as results of reflection around paradoxes of group life in the organizational context. Personally, my conceptual exploration is the foundation of this reflection, and paradoxically, also the root of my bias in seeing it.
The first and most fundamental paradox is the rational – relationship paradox. This rational – relationship paradox addressed the focus of the organization, which represents the content of the system operation. I’ve learned from my experience in many group works, individuals come in with different perspectives and reasons about what should be the focus in organization. Through different processes and different length of time, these differences may reconcile in what people usually called as common ground, consensus, shared vision and so forth. Apparently, the process is rational, in which different pieces of puzzle are interlocking with each others and construct the full puzzle. The primary rules of thumbs/heuristic are the lock-and-key mechanism that connect different pieces of puzzle.
This is a simple and easy-to-perceive kind of explanation about organization process and its diverse intertwining factors.
But, this is a heuristic that potentially oversimplifying one important detail: Organization is a puzzle of human beings, and human beings are not exactly puzzle pieces with permanent shapes. Human beings are extremely organic, in terms of how they are changing through time, from a second to the next, from one year to another. In other words, organization is in fact an organic puzzle rather that a composition of pieces with permanent shapes and sizes.
In the puzzle of an organization, the pieces are continuously, holistically, and partially changing.
This reminds me about one practical caveat from Pfeffer (1992) that the social norms and generalized belief of effective management emphasized on predictability, steadfastness and economized cognitive effort. Rationality is believed to be able to simplify the complexity of relationship and change. Therefore, creating rational rules of thumbs is perpetuating in organization process. However, without sufficient awareness, it may undermine the factor of change and relationship.
Based on Kahneman’s study (2003), it is evident that human being is not entirely rational, at least not in the way we think about rationality. Perhaps to put it more precisely, human rationality is bounded, and therefore, is also relative, contingent and contextual. In the social context, it is obvious that the nature of relativity, contingency and context lies in relationships among subsystems (people, functions, interests, etc.).
Now, what makes it even more interesting, is the fact that relationship as the primary part of organizational process is rarely addressed in the portion it deserves.
In many cases, the relationship factor is reduced into merely a concept of personal relationship among colleagues, and considered to be less relevant to the core of the organizational process. However, when we were forced to discuss about the issues in group process, such as power relation, individual influence, politics, conflicts, and creative system; we can no longer avoid the fact that organizational process is essentially about relationship challenge, rather than merely rational decision making. Yet, these are the most unfavorable areas to encounter with at first, and we tend to address them only after they have bring perilous impact to organizational productivity.
It seems that our rational reasoning tends to resist or deny the essential role of relationship factor.
Piper Menke, my classmate, once said to me (I hope I quoted her correctly): “When there is no actual risk attached to them, people like the idea of change”. This suggested a realistic and important paradox to be acknowledged: Relationship is important, as long as it keeps organizational reality in the corridor of rationality. Such preposition suggests that everything will predictable, acceptable and convenient. This helps me to understand why relationships in organization is commonly espoused as a peaceful consensual and non-conflict relationships.
Relationship factor often presents us with anomalies; situation that may not according to that proposition. And, somehow, it has become a common rule-of-thumb that anomalies are not preferable to be exposed, unless there are no other way to conceal it. But, as a contrast, I learned that even in rational mathematical equations and physics, anomaly is acknowledged.
The facade collaboration, illusion of stability and the seek for harmony
This is where the second paradox, the paradox of challenge and stabilization, comes into context.
The critical question around this paradox is: What is the actual positive collaboration? I’ve learned that some people misinterpret group-think and extreme consensus as collaboration; a facade collaboration. When facade collaboration happens, every differences are seemingly reconciled in consensus, but creativity may not necessarily emerging. The facade collaboration is our instrument for stabilization. The actual collaboration requires emergent differences and ability to continually adjusting.
The history of great changes ever happened in the world gives us poignant examples that challenge, instead of stability, is necessary for creating the future and inviting systemic collaboration. Challenges comes from differences, and those challenges are fertile soils for creating new ways of thinking and doing, new leadership and culture. Overemphasize on consensus limits the space for differences, and threatening the authenticity of relationships; which eventually will create unstable systems. Contrary to what seemingly to be the common sense, extreme consensus create an facade collaboration and illusion of stability, while suppressing the inner force to refresh the system and change it. Extreme consensus will only delay the change, and by suppressing it, it is actually evoke more massive instability.
Hence, letting differences to continuously emerging and challenging in relationships will support people’s adjustment to a process of change; which obviously will create future organizational sustainability, a creative form of stability.
The personal – global paradox is the next context in which organizations are operating in.
What I refer as global here is not merely about planet earth, the big world and the internationalism. The works of change makers we learn from history compelled us to see how we are interrelated in this concept called as humanity. Leadership is universal and attached in everyone, because everyone can make a difference to the world, whether it is big or small thing. It is not about how we can do some charity to help others who are in need. It is about how we see ourselves as subsystem of a larger system called as human kind.
Basically, what individual do affecting the community and the society. In the current world, societies define the global interaction. Organization is one type of those societies. Currently, this complex process of defining global interaction is occurring in increasingly high paces. The world has become more interconnected and intertwining, and it has become increasingly important to be able to see the whole. The presence of system in organizational setting is no longer obscure and subtle. System is not only a word for top management or top tier leaders. It is actual for CEOs as well as for costumers, or for janitors, or even for an investors on the other side of the world.
In current organizational context, everyone should consider everyone else, while each individual and partial subsystem has each particular responsibility. In the same context, organizations should consider everything beyond themselves. Therefore, being global and systemic is factual challenge, rather than just ‘another options’. The paradox of rational – relationship, challenge – stabilization, and global – personal has forced organization to find a fine balance on everything. The paradoxes force us to create harmony, not stability within paradoxical dynamics.
The practice: Possibility and constraint
For most people, this is overwhelming.
Understanding the global system is not merely a topic in history, geography and tourism. It is becoming fundamental for everyone’s livelihood. It corroborates with the popular expression: The world as they know it, has change. Oscar Wilde’s critique, “Society exists only as a mental concept; in the real world there are only individuals”, is becoming so important to ponder on. People are witnessing that it is becoming increasingly difficult to isolate themselves in what they commonly called as ‘personal boundary’.
In social context, classifications are increasingly invalidated, since everything seems to blend into something larger, and everything becoming so transient. For those who are not used to dealing with differences, this is a challenging moment.
The possibility is there, and the constraint are pervasive. The leading figures in today’s world progress are people who can attune with the harmony and transform the possibility to overcome the constraint, and the message is clear: No matter in what situations people are live in, change and new reality is possible.
And how these will impact practices in organizations?
For a start, I think the idea of organizational effectiveness measured by partial indicators of productivity needs to be reframed into the idea of organizational harmony measured by process balance and systemic creativity.
I believe that the future needs our ability to be rational and relational, and create the living harmony out of both. The rhetorical question, though, is this a change process we should create, or a change process we should adapt to? Michelangelo once said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”. Is the ‘blank canvas’ moment an opportunity to fill the blankness, or an opportunity to ‘listen to the source’ and let it rebirth through colorful paints and brush movement?
*Special note: I found this among some papers I made when I was in graduate school. Somehow, I want to share it here.
Bolman L.G. & Deal, T.E. (2008). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, choice & leadership. San Fransisco, Josey-Bass.
Kahneman, D. (2003). A perspective on judgement and choice: Mapping bounded rationality. American Psychologist, 58(9), 697-720.
Pfeffer, J. (1992). Managing with power: Politics and influence in organizations. Boston, Harvard Business School Press.
Scharmer, C.O. (2007). Theory U: Leading from the futures as it emerges. Cambridge, The Society of Organizational Learning Inc.