On the Road to Fadom

20151104_145251Systems thinking, although one of the espoused foundations of mainstream OD is just one of many potentially valuable concepts that get severely compromised when applied with a perspective of being able to create certainty.

Two more recent examples getting a lot of OD focus right now are VUCA environments and Neuro coaching. My guess is that they will have a ‘popular’ lifespan of a handful of years and then they will fall into the background as the process of disillusionment with the inability of these things to create certainty repeats itself. Other new and promising concepts will come along.

VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Put the word environment behind the acronym and you have a catchy phrase to describe the organizational environments most of us experience daily. However since the OD world has jumped on the complexity science bandwagon, VUCA now has a ‘science’ to hang its hat on. And mainstream OD is desperate to attach itself to some kind of science to justify and legitimize itself.

Complexity science actually does have a lot to tell us about volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments. Perhaps the most important lesson is that these environments are unpredictable! It is also unpredictable in these environments to determine which variables in the environment may actually cause the outcomes we eventually see. In other words, these environments truly are VUCA and you can’t plan or design yourself out of them to some kind of certain future.

Yet, mainstream OD does exactly that. If you read up on VUCA, attend a talk or training session you will in all likelihood be given the impression you should be able to ‘figure it out’ and you will also likely get exposed to some ‘complexity tools’ to help you do just that! Again, the pathway leads to big doses of blame, shame and guilt when it doesn’t work out as it should.

I wrote a blog post a while back on this topic that you can find here.

Neuro coaching is another example. The scientific advances in understanding how our brain works and how our brain and body work together over the past number of years is extraordinary. So, much like complexity science in the VUCA example above, mainstream OD has jumped on this bandwagon as well. Now that we have some idea of what various parts of the brain do, it’s a short leap to say we should be able to control, or perhaps manipulate other brains to get what we want.  I actually heard a presenter not so long ago use the term ‘amygdala hijack’ as if this part of the brain could take over the rest of your brain and body and force it to do its bidding. No amygdala anywhere has ever hijacked anything! Certainly the feeling of anger may have a lot to do with the neural networks in the amygdala but knowing this does nothing in terms of what we choose to do with that anger. Nor does it allow you to control your amygdala. Your grandmother probably told you to count to 10 before you did anything based on your anger and that’s still good advice no matter how much we know about the neurobiology of the amygdala!

But put a little science and some cool words together, wrap it all up in the promise of certainty and you have a mainstream OD initiative waiting to happen.

OUCH! OUCH! and more OUCH!

Interestingly, this very dynamic happened with a model created by one of the people that has significantly influenced my thinking about organizations. The person is Ralph Stacey and the model is the Stacey Matrix. Stacey created this model to help illustrate the types of environments we find ourselves in and some of the characteristics of those environments using a two axis matrix, certainty and agreement.  Stacey was trying to illustrate and describe organizational environments, not what to do about them. It wasn’t long however that people began to create lists of things that should be done within the various parts of the matrix to create higher levels of certainty. Stacey subsequently distanced himself from this Matrix stating the problems with its use; using it to give the impression that you could solve this problem of uncertainty.

The problem is not with the ideas of VUCA, Neuro coaching or the Stacey Matrix; it is the overlay of this belief that we can create certainty by using these ideas. It seems we have a very strong drive or need for certainty and mainstream OD willingly and mostly without question feeds this need. Besides the need for mainstream OD to take accountability for this it is valuable to ask why we may have this need for certainty.

Where might this need come from? This is what our next posts will look at.


Systems Thinking – Being Hyper Critical

20151104_145251Before investigating what happens when systems thinking (applied where people are involved) is used to try and create certainty it is important for me to restate that I think the original contribution of systems thinking; that the relationship between things is as, or more important than the things themselves, is extremely valuable. I actually think that this premise is still at the heart of systems thinking and it is the way we have come to understand and use this premise that is problematic.

Nevertheless, since many OD practitioners DO use systems thinking in the service of certainty, the OD world has to take accountability for this and the non OD world has to be hyper critical of this kind of use.

To provide an example of this mainstream use I went to one of the LinkedIn groups I follow, did a quick search of systems thinking and the first discussion that came up took me to a web site espousing systems thinking. Below is some of the text on the home page of that web site:

When Stafford Beer originally created the Viable System Model (VSM) he was seeking to develop a “science of organisation”, a set of invariant laws that could be applied to any sort of organisation of any size. So far, we have not found any organisational context in which it does not apply. It is an approach which helps us to make sense of organisations, or groups of organisations of any degree of complexity and tells us something about how they operate, why they function the way they do and what we might be able to do to change them.

When you use the term ‘invariant laws’ and state that you have not found ‘any organisational context in which it does not apply’ you are talking certainty, or at the very least, giving the impression that if you ‘do’ this type of systems thinking you will get what you want. The last sentence is much truer to the premise of systems thinking I think but all too often some version of the preceding sentences disguise that premise.

Two concepts are critical to the idea of systems thinking; boundaries and feedback. Boundaries are a real problem for systems thinking and that problem messes up the concept of feedback.

In order to have a system that you can act on, that system needs to have boundaries, some kind of limit so you can study and model it. The problem is that it is extremely hard to define a boundary to a system; and it gets worse when people are involved!

The simple example often used to explain cybernetics (a form of systems thinking) illustrates this well. The example is that of temperature control using a thermostat in a room. The boundary would be defined as the room itself, plus the heating source, let’s say a furnace. The temperature is set and if it is colder than what is set the thermostat reads this feedback and causes the furnace to come on. Once the temperature reaches the set point the thermostat reads this feedback and turns off the furnace. Simple cybernetics.

However, let’s say you want to change this system. How do you do that? Obvious, right! You change the setting on the thermostat. Duh! Except your boundary defined as the room and furnace does not contain the person changing the setting. Well, easy enough, we will expand our boundary to include the person. But how is that person deciding on what new temperature to set the thermostat? Are they being told to? If they are then we have to expand our boundaries to include the person doing the telling. If they are deciding on their own, what are their criteria? What might be the impact on others that happen to wander into that room? Might they influence the person to make another change? If so, the boundary has to be expanded again. And on and on it goes….

So what does a mainstream system thinking do? Well they do not abandon the problematic concept of boundary. No, they create second order cybernetics!

This boundary problem is inherent in systems thinking and what happens is that the boundaries just get larger and larger, the feedback loops more and more convoluted and the systems methods created to deal with this more and more complex. Eventually what often happens is a jump into the mystical. Synchronicity, Gaia, Presence, metaphysical intervention; some jump into the realm of the highly subjective. And this jump into the subjective is supposed to create certainty, if we only get it right!

Forget the gentle in ‘ferociously gentle’, this just makes me ferociously angry!

OD practitioners get very angry as well when you put this in front of them. I have been chastised, told I do not understand systems thinking well enough, I probably can’t understand the complexity, or simply ignored. I have experienced the exact same thing that happens to systems thinking when a variable is introduced that doesn’t fit; jump to the subjective and make sense of things that way. A convenient way of ignoring the problem or masking it with complexity.


I remember years ago being in a session where we were investigating and learning systems thinking, We spent a couple of hours creating a systems diagram focusing on world hunger. It was huge and we finally stopped since the variables and feedback loops seemed endless. We then asked ourselves so what is this telling us about world hunger and what we can do about it? We looked at the diagram and came to the conclusion that we had no real idea about the dynamics of world hunger or what we could do about it. At least in terms of being certain what we did would solve the problem. That should have been a big red light right then and there! But it wasn’t. After all, organizations are not like world hunger.

Later in the session we had to work on our own organizational challenge using systems thinking. Of course this was way less complex than world hunger. But the conclusion I came to was that the real challenge was not in any system I could draw or model, it was the way people involved in the challenge, perceived things, how they made choices on that perception, the power that might affect those choices and the specific contexts in which those choices might be made. In other words, I had no idea about the dynamics of this challenge from a systems perspective. If I wanted to work on it, change it, I needed to go and interact with people and move on from there.

And that was where the red light came on, even if it was very dim and still took a number of years for it to get blindingly red enough for me to put aside mainstream systems thinking in my OD work.

The interaction model is based on transformative causality. It does not predict anything.

Interaction Model

It illustrates the process by which transformative causality happens among people. It illustrates our day-to-day experience and while thinking about our day-to-day experiences it may provide some insight and perhaps some ideas for further interaction. It illustrates the tremendous complexity of transformative causality, a complexity that we all know exists. And when used it legitimizes these day-to-day experiences in a far more real way than does systems thinking.

The two primary perspectives of mainstream OD; psychological and structural or systemic lead us directly into the storm of shame, blame and guilt. The psychological perspective leads us there by telling us that we as individuals should be able to overcome anything in our way toward success and the systemic perspective by telling us we can overcome anything by designing and building systems that cause success.

I am reminded of a song lyric by the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn – If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die

I hesitate to use that lyric and song as what I am describing does not match the horror of the song but at the same time I do think we need to be very angry about what mainstream OD puts in front of us and as OD practitioners we need to be very careful about how we use the power we have.

The next post will look at a few other concepts where this dynamic is or has happened.

Systems Thinking – Being Somewhat Critical

20151104_145251In the last post it was stated that one of the ways of balancing mainstream OD perspectives required being hyper critical of current content and processes in the OD world.

Let’s look at systems thinking from a ‘somewhat critical’ perspective and we’ll work our way up to hyper critical in the next post

Systems thinking tends to be seen as one of the foundational disciplines espoused in the OD world. I was introduced to systems thinking in the early 1990’s (as many people were) through the book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. I was trained in systems thinking by Innovation Associates and used the ideas extensively.

I think one of the biggest contributions systems thinking has made to our understanding of organizations is that the relationships between things are as important or perhaps even more important than the things themselves. Systems thinking asked us to think bigger than the pieces and to try and see some kind of whole, that whole being a system.

I still think this contribution is extremely important. I also think that systems thinking has morphed into a discipline of predictability and certainty, or at least an attempt to do that in organizations. A good way to understand this is to take a simple look at kinds of causality.

Formative causality.  This means that something is ’caused’ by design. An example is that of an oak tree. Within the acorn is the ‘design’ of an oak tree. If you plant the acorn and given the appropriate conditions for growth, the acorn ‘forms’ an oak tree. The process of formative causality is tremendously complex but the basic premise is that an acorn gives you an oak tree, nothing else. You can predict that you will get an oak tree by planting the acorn. Formative causality has a strong component of predictability.

Rational causality. This means something is caused by rational thought and thus rational causality is primarily focused on humans. A person can think something, make a choice about that thinking and then cause something to happen by acting on that choice. You cannot predict what someone’s choice may be, given a specific scenario, and the more complex the scenario the higher number of choices that are likely to be available. Predictability fades considerably with rational causality.

Transformative causality. This means something is caused through interaction between people. Two or more people interact within a given scenario and choices emerge through that interaction that cause things to happen by acting on those choices. For example you may go and interact with a colleague being quite sure of what you want to do, and during the course of that interaction new ideas emerge and a different choice is made. Predictability fades further with transformative causality but the outcomes are not necessarily unrecognizable.

What has happened to mainstream systems thinking is that it is based on formative causality. In other words, what mainstream systems thinking leads you to believe is that if you design your organizational systems well enough, if you think systems well enough you should be able to predict the outcome of those systems.


Most formal organizational processes, some of the ones we have been focusing on in OUCH! are based in systems thinking, explicitly or otherwise. The premise is, if you design the process or system correctly you will get the result you want. A good strategy gives you growth, a well designed performance management system gives you good performance, a good change management plan gives you smooth change and on and on it goes.

The variable that gets lost in all this is that where people are involved, formative causality is hardly at play at all. Even rational causality is not nearly as important as transformative causality in organizations!

Organizations operate from transformative causality and it is firmly founded on unpredictability and uncertainty. For the most part, mainstream systems thinking is at odds with how organizations actually function!

That last statement is not at all popular in OD circles. But lets look at what happens when you try really hard to make systems thinking, as it now tends to be used, ‘work’ in organizations.

That is the next post and I’ll call it hyper critical….


Balancing and Paradox

20151104_145251You may have noticed that in the last two posts I have used the word balancing. I have not used the word balance and have not mentioned finding a balance. This is because balancing is a verb whereas balance is a noun and finding balance gives the impression that some end point can be discovered if we look well enough. If we were to think we could ‘find’ a balance, some kind of end point we would be falling into the same OUCH! producing dynamic as we have right now, as we tread along the left edge of our field, quite immersed in the psychological perspective of organizations and working within those organizations.

So what might balancing be like?

As we walk along this field that has been mentioned in the last two posts, with the chasm of determinism (psychological) on the left and relativism (social construction) on the right we are always moving along; new situations and contexts, new people, new things to consider, new things to entrench. At times we will move further to the left side of the field and at other times to the right. We will constantly be balancing the psychological perspective with the social construction perspective and since those two perspectives are so different we will find ourselves living in a never ending and irresolvable paradox.

At an individual level this paradox rests between two polarities:

  1. We, as an individual are the most important thing in our world and as an individual we can create certainty in our lives by making the right choices.
  2. We, as an individual are one of countless variables affecting our world and as an individual we live in constant uncertainty and our choices don’t really matter since any other variable is just as important.

Kind of feels a bit like an OUCH! doesn’t it!

However, I don’t think we have really given ourselves much of a chance to consider what this paradox might feel like at all, especially in mainstream OD, since in essence, point 2 does not exist! At least it does not exist in the mainstream content we are exposed to in terms of how we understand organizations and people within them.

Go and try to find a book, article, keynote speaker, podcast, video or anything else focused on organizations that seriously considers point 2.

And yet, each one of us experiences point 2 time and time again in our organizations and in our organizational lives. In our very real and day-to-day experiences point 2 absolutely exists. It is very likely that our day-to-day experience in organizations is much more like point 2 than point 1!

Balancing therefore begins with an acceptance of point 2, which in effect is nothing more than accepting, seriously accepting the reality of our day-to-day experiences in organizations.

This may not be comfortable, but it is real. And it acknowledges the reality of our experiences rather than making us feel guilty or inadequate because of them.

What this also means, is that due to the current and mainstream psychological perspective about organizations, balancing requires us to be hyper critical of mainstream OD content and processes. To demand an explanation of why and how this content and these processes will actually create what they espouse.

After taking these steps it may certainly feel like you are alone in the dark with no clue which way to turn to find a sense of security and purpose. So balancing also means acknowledging that in each and every moment we do have choices available to us, and we can certainly make those choices, to the very best of our wonderful abilities; and see what happens.

Balancing is recognizing that the feeling of being alone in the dark is quite normal as well as the fact that we can choose which direction to go, fully realizing that once we make that choice of direction, we may still find ourselves alone in the dark, or we may find a place much more hospitable.

When I work with people on strategy I emphasize a perspective that I think captures this idea of balancing within the context of strategy. I ask each person to hold on as tightly and rigorously as they can to what they think is right, and also to be prepared to let go of what they think is right as soon as other perspectives emerge. In order to take this perspective you have to be very focused and accepting of the reality and legitimacy of what is happening in the present.

The last few posts have looked at the balancing of the psychological perspective with that of social construction. The next posts will look at the other mainstream perspective of OD; structures and systems, and the balancing perspective of interaction.