So what shall we do?

Ralph Stacey Posted by Ralph Stacey.

Ralph Stacey is a professor of management at the Business School of the University Hertfordshire and also a visiting lecturer at universities in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Malta. He is an active consultant to top management teams in major companies and the author of a several books on management and organization.

After a series of workshops in Australia a colleague observed to me that the perspective of complex responsive processes is very good at taking apart the dominant discourse on....

After a series of workshops in Australia a colleague observed to me that the perspective of complex responsive processes is very good at taking apart the dominant discourse on management. It does so systematically and methodically, and although making no claims to be the only school of thought which takes a critical stance towards instrumental management theory, it appears to offer nothing in its place. As my Australian colleague observed, ‘so what do you leave people with. What should they do?’

On the plane on the way back I was reading Adorno’s The Jargon of Authenticity[1], because the term ‘authenticity’ comes up such a lot particularly in relation to leadership, and had done so again in Australia. In the book I came across this quotation which Adorno uses from an existentialist novel by Gottfried Keller called Der Grüne Heinrich, which I don’t think Adorno draws on in any exemplary way because he finds it too dismissive, but it did have some resonance for me, at least the second half of it:

‘There is an old saying that one should not only tear down, but must also know how to build up; a commonplace constantly employed by cheery and superficial people who are uncomfortably confronted with an activity which demands a decision from them. This way of thinking is in place where something is superficially settled or is denied out of stupid inclination; otherwise, though, it is unintelligible. For one is not always tearing down to build again; on the contrary, one tears things down eagerly in order to gain free space for light and air, which appear as it were, as though by themselves, wherever some obstructive object is removed. When one looks matters right in the face and treats them in an upright manner, then nothing is negative, but all is positive, to use the old saw.’ (quoted in Adorno, 2003: 31-32)

What Keller is pointing to, although in a very pejorative way, is the discomfort we feel, I have felt, when the scaffolding of my thinking is taken away. And I consider myself neither cheery nor superficial. But the point of doing so, of being critical, is to free up thinking, not to paralyse it, although this is precisely what happens because of the way we have been schooled. And of course the tools and techniques we have learnt may well be partially useful to us in alleviating anxiety, even if for nothing else. The point of critique, though, is to create the ‘light and air’ that Keller evokes, to create an opportunity to do something different which is not fully dictated to by previous ways of thinking, which are sedimented in management tools. But this demands much more of us. What does this situation require from me, and from us?

I think John Dewey was referring to something similar in Art as Experience where he talks about the way we rush into action without reflection. Dewey’s intellectual project was to constantly encourage us to inquire into the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves, and not to assume automatically that the way we have solved previous problems will help us in our current predicaments. He bemoans the drive towards battering down a problem with an existing solution:

‘Zeal for doing, lust for action, leaves many a person, especially in this hurried and impatient environment in which we live, with experience of an incredible paucity, all on the surface. No one experience has a chance to complete itself because something else is entered into speedily. What is called experience becomes so dispersed and miscellaneous as hardly to deserve the name. Resistance is treated as an obstruction to be beaten down, not as an invitation to reflection. An individual comes to seek, unconsciously even more than by deliberate choice, situations in which he can do the most things in the shortest time.’ (1934: 46)[2]

Dewey is pointing to the importance of not rushing into another form of action out of impatience, nor to cast around simply for similar ways of doing what we have already failed at. In organisations where there is such an emphasis on ‘delivering’ things, there is often no time to dwell in the necessary experience to work out with others what to do, to reflect upon doing things differently in ways which we co-construct.

It’s worth noticing that Dewey also goes on to say that the opposite problem is being passive and just receiving experience without acting.

‘Some decisive action is needed to establish contact with the realities of the world and in order that impressions may be so related to the facts that their value is tested and organised.’ (1934: 47)

So it would be a mistake to understand Dewey as encouraging us to reflect simply for the sake of reflecting; it is not an end in itself. For him the ideal is to act, but to reflect on the action in relation to the context of experience, to reflect while we are acting.

To stop and ask: ‘what does this new situation require of us’ is a way of acting, of trying to find ways forward. It is not merely a negative approach which tears down and puts nothing in its place. It does demand a lot of us, though.


[1] Adorno, T. (2003) The Jargon of Authenticity, London: Routledge Classics.

[2] Dewey, J. (1934) Art as Experience, Chicago: Chicago University Press.