by Philip J. Streatfield, Routledge, 2001.
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Managers live with the paradox of being in control at the same time as being not in control. The author illustrates this from his own experience and emphasises the spontaneous power of communicative interaction, rather than control. Emotions must be taken into account and too much faith should not be put in measurement.
(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in May 2005)
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It has become an axiom of management development that managers should make time to reflect on and learn from their experience. Here is one manager who has done so – and to quite profound effect. In fact, his reflection on his wide management experience has led him to question some of the basic tenets of what he calls "mainstream" management thinking.
Philip Streatfield is Supply Chain Director at Entertainment UK, part of the Kingfisher Group. Previously he was Global Medicinals Supply Chain Director at SmithKline Beecham and spent eighteen years in the pharmaceutical industry involved in managing and improving supply chain activities and in managing major organisational change. In this book he reflects on his wide managerial experience to ask the question: "Who, or what, is 'in contro'l in organisations?"
The book is about the dynamic, continually changing formation of patterns of relationships in organisations, through which managers get their work done. Streatfield approaches actual management practice from a complexity perspective, understanding organisational life as primarily "informal, self-organising, and transformative" in nature. He places conversation at the centre of the way in which humans develop their sense of reality and explores how managers in particular construct their reality in conversation.
The notion that the manager is "in control" does not resonate with experience, he says. In practice, managers find that they have to live with the paradox of being "in control" and "not in control" simultaneously. It is this capacity to live with paradox, the courage to continue to participate creatively, in spite of "not being in control", that constitutes effective management.
Streatfield’s concern with these issues began when he tried to make sense of the "painful and challenging" experience that occurred when his firm, SmithKline Beckman merged with Beecham. It appeared that seemingly wise and experienced people, whom he respected greatly, had lost control of the situation. This jolted his sense of what it was that made people in business successful. Seeking a rational explanation for what had happened and prescriptions for avoiding its recurrence, he found that neither the subjective stories of successful business leaders nor the objective and prescriptive accounts of academic researchers helped him to understand his experience. His dissatisfaction with "mainstream" approaches to making sense of management experience led him to take his own experience seriously. His aim is not to produce generalisations that others can "apply" to their experience, but rather to provide stories and reflections that may resonate with the experiences of others and so assist them in their sense-making processes.
Throughout the book, the author recounts his experience as a manager at various hierarchical levels as a contrast to management literature written by researchers who temporarily join an organisation in order to describe it. The book is all the more powerful for this insider’s perspective.
The book attempts to shed light on the central question for organisations - Who is "in control"? – by exploring the ordinary experiences of life in a large pharmaceutical manufacturing organisation. It looks at the dynamic nature of the way in which managers construct meaning in their interactions with each other and proposes, as an alternative to mainstream thinking about organisations and their management, a perspective in which an organisation is thought of as "complex responsive processes of relating".
When managers are able to live with the paradox of being simultaneously "in control" and "not in control" of their business, the resulting tension opens up the potential for new patterns of meaning which carry the organisation forward. Living with both sides of the control paradox at the same time means acting on the basis of an expectation of an outcome, knowing full well that it is unlikely to materialise, and requiring one to be ready to handle the consequences whatever they may be. It involves developing effective ways of handling the anxiety of "not knowing".
Individuals have a fundamental need to feel "in control" of the situations they find themselves in, which is their way of dealing with the anxiety of not knowing. Since this anxiety is too powerful for most people to meet on their own, we project our needs for control onto our organisation in the hope that it will provide a sense of control and so defend against anxiety. For example, without the control exercised by those in positions of authority, we fear that the organisation will not succeed since it will lack purpose and direction.
Mainstream thinking about management deals with uncertainty by trying to eliminate it through the creation of powerful hierarchies supported by the generation of huge amounts of information intended to reduce unknowns and to quantify risks of potential unknowns. This leads to detailed control which stems from the belief that order and certainty can be imposed on inherently disorderly situations. Major, inexplicable changes in our organisation are experienced as powerful blows to our personal security. Increasingly, organisations fail to defend us against the anxiety provoked by uncertainty. Instead, says Streatfield, managers must find the courage to carry on participating creatively in the construction of new meaning, in spite of not knowing.
This requires an alternative to mainstream thinking which only makes sense in a world where it is possible to be in control. In addition to the paradox of control, it requires thinking of organisations as complex responsive processes of relating in which patterns of meaning emerge. Conversations between those working together are the primary form of communicative interaction in organisations in which transient patterns of meaning emerge. The qualities of relationships, the influence of power, fantasies and searches for new meaning, all greatly influence conversational interactions. The actions managers take flow from the meaning they make of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
This chapter tells the story of the author’s first experience of line management when he became responsible for the production of one of his firm’s products in a factory. Even at that level, where he believed that he could exercise control over product quality, he started to encounter the paradox of control. The manufacturing process was defined in detail and controlled to high quality standards, but the author found that, to understand the process, he had to work with the operators and manufacture the product together with them. He then understood how much production performance on any day depended on the detailed judgements that the operators made about each step in the process. He soon realised that he was not actually in control of the department’s performance in many significant ways, although he was in charge of it and responsible for it. He learned that developing a mutually respectful relationship with the operators was more important than specifically controlling the production process.
When the author turned to the literature on quality control for guidance, he discovered that it relies almost entirely on concepts of being "in control" and reduction of variation. It prescribes the removal of features of "not being in control", although his experience suggested that the latter was not irremovable but valuable.
The author realised that what he had thought to be very solid – his role as manager in control – was not really the situation. He had to give up the solidness of his understanding of the role to be effective at it. The nature of the knowledge required for the seemingly solid production process turned out on close inspection to be very fuzzy. The operators knew more about the production process than could possibly be recorded in process instructions and procedures. The author had to put aside his hierarchical role and, rather than keeping his distance, he had to connect more with people. Rather than using formally defined rules to keep discipline, he became part of a process of negotiation in a community in which he was given permission to do certain things that everybody thought were for their mutual good. He had to rely on the operators and their motivations for success, not the well-controlled processes that he originally thought were key.
The author found that thinking of organisations as processes of communicative action helped to make sense of his experience. He and his team could only accomplish their joint task of producing product to required cost, time and quality through the action of communicating with each other in the living present in the local situation in which they found themselves. Communicative interaction in the living present is largely spontaneous and so cannot proceed according to pre-established rules. It is the action that one person takes in relation to another and the response of that other in a locally-situated, continuous process of gesture and response. It is this process of communication that people cope in the living present with the inevitable variations of daily life. (For further insights on this perspective, the author refers readers to Ralph Stacey, Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations: Learning and Knowledge Creation, Routledge, 2001.)
The author concludes that, in the living present of actual local production situations, there are always the "unknowns", no matter how well a procedure or process is defined in advance, i.e. "known". This experience was paradoxically known (the designed procedure) and unknown (the variations around it) at the same time. Production department staff therefore had to live with the unknown, to make sense of the impact of unknown sources of variation and compensate so as to ensure that the production process as engineered actually worked. The effectiveness of the process depended crucially on operators who had learned how to cope with, or compensate for, some degree of uncertainty. In these circumstances, performance may have seemed very controlled, but actually emerged from interactions between the operators, the manager, the materials, and the processes involved.
In this chapter, the author moves to the other end of the management hierarchy to recount the events leading up to the merger between SKB and Beecham. The story about management at the highest levels is similar in many ways to the story in the previous chapter about management at the lowest level in that both reflect the paradox of control. The story of product development, marketing success, and mergers cannot be told simply in terms of intention in relation to known, predictable situations. An adequate account must include the responses evoked and provoked by others and the uncertainty and unknowability of many aspects of the situation in which people were interacting.
The author describes the background to the merger, including the story of how Tagamet, the highly successful ulcer drug, was developed. Often presented as a rational process, the author says that the drug’s development can be described in terms of intention and design, but also in terms of responses evoked and provoked by other people and events. While the process was predictable in some ways, in other ways it was unpredictable, with aspects of both the known and the unknown. It was a process of detecting and correcting deviations from the expected but also processes of amplifying unexpected developments. In other words, it displayed the hallmarks of the paradox of control.
While SKB was criticised for its lost opportunity and management incompetence in failing to respond to competitors for Tagamet, the author suggests that this is a simplistic analysis and that it had much to do with the inherently uncertain nature of new product development and the impossibility of controlling competitor responses.
The literature on innovation focuses on control in which new product development is an intended and designed process in which risk is analysed and uncertainty reduced. The author believes that the main ideas presented in the literature (and especially those which see pharmaceutical companies as well-oiled machines and pharmaceutical innovations as deliberate, dependable processes) are myths. The theories are inadequate as explanations because they emphasise one pole of experience, that with being "in control" in a situation characterised mainly by stability and predictability, the known. The story of Tagamet shows that the logical and rational approach was intertwined with intuitive guesses and actions.
When the author says that, in fact, managers are simultaneously "in control" and "not in control", he is not saying that the business is out of control, but rather, that it is not controlled or controllable in the way that mainstream theories suggest. R&D should be thought of as transformative processes, particularly communication in the form of ordinary everyday conversations between researchers as they go about the personally motivated search to become more successful scientists, and between them and managers in many parts of the business. A pharmaceutical business exemplifies the complex processes of self organisation/emergence.
The fortunes of the business overall were dictated in many ways by events that were influenced but not controlled by management teams. Intentional actions taken "inside" the company triggered unintended consequences "outside" it, which in turn triggered further actions, having both intended and unintended consequences. This is a co-evolutionary process.
The "choice" open to any single organisation is highly limited – thus challenging the assumption that managers can choose strategic directions for their organisation. Such choice is limited because every organisation is in interaction with others and together they create the co-emergent dynamics of their interaction. The evolution of an industry and the evolution of the strategies of an organisation within it is not caused by the choices of individual managers in one organisation taken on its own but by the nature of interaction, relationship, co-operation, and competition between people in each organisation and between organisations. The dynamics of individual organisations simultaneously form, and are formed by, the dynamics of the industry.
A complex responsive process theory of organisations is built on a notion of causality in which the future is under perpetual construction by the interactions of people in an organisation and by interactions between organisations. The future is perpetually constructed as continuity and transformation at the same time. This theory focuses attention away from the choices of individual managers and organisations and towards the nature of their relationships with each other. It suggests that the capacity for spontaneous transformation is intrinsic to interaction itself.
The question is how the transformative co-evolutionary process occurs and what the role of intentional action is in the process. To explore how managers live with the paradox of being "in control" and "not in control" at the same time, the author turns to his direct experience of the post-merger situation at SB, describing two episodes in particular. The first concerns the formulation of three-year plans just after the merger, and the second describes how the firm went about rationalising production.
The literature on post-merger situations focuses on rational processes of planning, communication and the rapid establishment of order to remove the mess and anxiety of the merger/acquisition experience. The prescriptions aim to contain and manage uncertainty in order to deliver specified outcomes. Again, it highlights the "in control" aspect and emphasises the formal, legitimate structure and procedures. Strenuous efforts were made to communicate and lay down guidelines, as recommended in the literature, for how post-merger decisions were to be made in a rational, planned manner, putting emotion and personal ambition to one side. There was a genuine desire to restore order as rapidly as possible.
Planning as a defence against anxiety: The goal of the company’s three-year plan (1989-92) was to maintain a position in the top five pharmaceutical companies in the UK. In the event, while that goal was met, it was not achieved in the way envisaged in 1989. For example, most of the proposed product introductions did not materialise while other products did better than expected. It was therefore not possible to say that the firm achieved the goal because of the plan or that they were determining their future in the planning exercise. On reflection, the author now sees the planning exercise as a form of defence against the anxiety of dealing with the uncertainty facing them. It gave them the basis for action that they wanted to take and acted like a container for their concerns and energies. The emergent nature of our lives produces anxieties, which we need to find some way of controlling in order to act. Planning achieved a sense of control over future events in order to give confidence to those concerned so that they could act into what was really an open ended and highly uncertain future. That "felt" control and the confidence derived from it was, in the author’s view, misplaced. "We ended up trying, very efficiently, to climb Ben Nevis when the true prize lay at the top of Mount Everest on a continent we did not even appreciate existed".
Factory rationalisation and power relations: The factory rationalisation process was affected by the rapid emergence of a pattern of power relationships between the members of the steering group and by personal factors such as individuals’ career ambitions. Each individual made sense of himself in this new context; people connected verbally but at the surface level only. The author says that they were a group of people trying to make sense of a situation characterised by the known and the unknown at the same time and trying to identify joint actions that would have very personal implications for a great many people. Their joint activity was not a rational, analytical process, although this did play a part. It was a process of communicative interaction, with aspects of power, politics and emotion. It was an activity of personal relating between individuals involving personal ambitions. Once again, the process was one of managers who were "in control" but "not in control" at the same time. One intention after another emerged in their interaction, while the gesture of one called forth responses from another at the same time.
The author says that his post-merger experience was one of participating in the social construction of new meaning, which emerged in legitimate, formal management processes, such as project management structures, and also at the same time in powerful, subtle and often conflicting processes of informal, shadow interaction. The experience illustrated the critical importance of the conversations the members of the group participated in. Most of the conversations were beyond the control of those outside their local interactions with each other and beyond the control of any one of them. The processes were unpredictable and uncontrollable in the traditional management sense. The experience brought home the very important part played by informal personal relationships, emotion, power, and politics in the joint sense making activities in which they were involved.
Networking: To further highlight the experience, the author examines the literature on management networking and finds that it focuses on mechanical, deliberate interactions with others. His experience of the post-merger situation was, however, of a messy process of relating, involving emotional conversations in which meaning arose and relationships evolved. The author puts forward the notion of the "pragmatic-actor" reflecting the manager’s skill in handling the evolving flux of experience. The manager is thereby able to sense the emergence of pattern of conversation and relationship and is able to use this sense of pattern to act effectively into it, accepting both the unpredictability and the capacity to influence what happens. Trust is important here as a quality of relationship that emerges in conversational exchanges and facilitates them at the same time.
The author says that for many people, the merger created a sense of losing control over their lives, a threat to vitally important aspects of the quality of their lives, as levels of uncertainty rose significantly. This resulted in rising anxiety and increased searching for ways to regain control over what seemed to be key aspects of their lives. Much evolved during the interpersonal interactions that took place during the merger process as each individual struggled to make their own meanings in the circumstances in which they found themselves. No amount of planning, says the author, could have reduced this "messiness", which seemed to be a necessary and natural part of developing a new sense of purpose and place with new colleagues.
The disruption and reconfiguration of relationships and informal power patterns seemed to be self-organising in nature and dependent on how people formed their relationships under high levels of uncertainty. It was up to people in many different parts of the organisation to respond in meaningful ways but people did not immediately know what a meaningful response would be. Hence, many conversations took place in which people sought to create new meanings in local situations in the living present. The evolving identity of the integrating companies emerged in the interaction between all of these local situations.
The author’s experiences described in the previous chapters led to his dissatisfaction with mainstream thinking and its avoidance of paradox. This chapter presents a perspective in which paradox is central and the organisation is seen as complex responsive processes of relating.
Mainstream literature implicitly assumes that effective organisations are moving toward a known future state, one that is already given in some way, in order to achieve some optimal arrangement and so realise chosen goals. It proposes that managers are "in control", that their choices are the cause of the organisation’s movement, and that competent managers design their organisation’s future in advance of realising it. Such assumptions did not help to make sense of the author’s pre- and post-merger experience.
His experience suggested that his organisation was moving toward a future that was unknown in very important respects and that he and his colleagues as people were moving toward personal futures which were also unknown to them. The author says that he was participating with other managers across the organisation in a process in which their own and the organisation’s future was under perpetual construction by them in interaction with people in other organisations. It was what groups of people were doing together in many different places across the global organisation that was constructing the future. And what they were constructing together was nothing les than the identity of their organisation and of their own identities. It was their actions, up and down the hierarchy, and across the geographic spread of the organisation, which were sustaining and transforming the identity of their organisation and, thus, its difference from others. The movement of the organisation was fundamentally paradoxical in that it both sustained its identity and, at the same time, transformed it.
The complex processes of joint, co-operative action encompassed the daily production of known products and the development of new ones, as well as the regular procedures of budgeting and the major discontinuities of mergers and factory rationalisation. All of these co-operative activities were made possible by the ongoing communication between the people who were the organisation. In other words, it was all about people talking to each other. Co-operative joint action of all kinds was made possible by the ongoing processes of communicative interacting and the continuous process of people relating to each other.
It is these processes of ordinary, everyday communicative interaction that constitute complex responsive processes of relating. The process of perpetual construction of an organisation’s future, as the continuity and transformation of its identity, is one of communicative interaction, in the living present, between humans and the context they find themselves in. The cause of the movement towards an organisation’s known-unknown future lies in the detailed, self-organising process of bodily communicative interaction as it forms and is formed by itself at the same time. This included plans and rational, quantitative analyses but these cannot be equated with decision-making, nor did they cause the evolution of the organisation. They were only tools in wider processes of communicative interaction which were essentially to do with power.
Instead of defining managers in terms of rational analysts who put emotion and the struggle for personal survival to one side, we can understand effective management as the quality of courage to carry on participating in the creation of personal and collective meaning in spite of the anxiety and helplessness engendered by the loss of direction.
Local interaction in the living present: From the complex responsive process perspective, sense is made of organisational life by attending to the ordinary, everyday communicative interacting between people at their own local level of interaction in the living present. Top management can make gestures of great importance but the responses will emerge in local situations in the living present where an organisation’s future is being continually constructed. It is these continuous interactions of gesture and response that the future of the organisation is constructed as the continuity and transformation of its identity.
The author draws on the complexity sciences to suggest that it is the intrinsic self-organising/emergent properties of interaction itself which make it possible for a large, global organisation to function without a blueprint. The ongoing process of communicative interaction, the endless gesturing and responding between people who are different from each other, may be thought of as self-organising relating, having intrinsic patterning capacity.
Power relations: The phenomenon of power pervades communicative interaction; it excludes some communicative actions and includes or enables others. As they take turns in communication with each other, people both enable and constrain each other at the same time. Communicative interaction therefore establishes power differences. The very process of turn taking/turn making, which is the central process of conversation, makes the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion an inherent property of human interactive communication, because when one person takes a turn, others are at that moment are excluded from doing so. Exclusions can be felt as very threatening and can lead to anxiety which in turn disrupts collaboration. However, without disruptions to current patterns of collaboration and power relations there is no emergent novelty.
The conversational life of an organisation: The future of an organisation is perpetually constructed in the conversational exchanges of its members as they carry out their tasks. Some conversational processes are patterned by habitual, repetitive themes – people are "stuck" and their conversation loses the potential for transformation. Other conversational processes have a dynamic characterised by continuity and spontaneity at the same time. Such conversations feel lively, fluid and energetic but also have a feeling of grasping at meaning and coherence. Transformative potential arises in conversations when participants are diverse (e.g. cross-functional teams) – it is in their struggling to understand each other in fluid, spontaneous conversational exchanges that people create new knowledge.
This chapter relates the author’s experience of participating in a project to develop performance measures (Project Dashboard). The assumption underlying the project was that successful performance depends upon first identifying what successful outcomes would be, identifying the key actions required to produce those outcomes, measuring and monitoring the outcomes of actions taken and finally taking corrective action to stay on the path toward the pre-defined and successful outcomes. The trick is to find the right indicator; staying in control is the aim.
This approach reflected ideas to be found in the performance measurement literature (including such approaches as Total Quality Management, the Balanced Scorecard and Economic Value Added) which presents prescriptions based on a linear view of causality. Most of these approaches to performance management collapse the paradox of organisational life to the pole of "being in control" and ignore the other pole of the paradox, that of "not being in control".
In Project Dashboard, whose aim was to implement a balanced scorecard type measurement system, the author was surprised to find that, instead of people concentrating on the performance measures, they wanted to spend more time talking about the organisation’s new leader and his motives and behaviour. It seemed to the author that he was engaged in a rolling conversation with people who were trying to make sense of their world in the context of the new leader. The task of developing and implementing the performance measures became almost incidental; the real project seemed to be a group of people trying to make sense of what was happening.
Once again, conversations assumed a central importance in developing the meaning of what he and his colleagues were doing. In the course of talking about performance measures, they addressed many issues that were evolving in the emerging business situation. An important aspect was how power relations were shifting, what people felt about this, and how they were responding to these shifts. The theme of performance measures immediately triggered many other themes related to performance in its wider sense and quickly linked to themes patterning many other conversations concerned with supply chains and logistics. This was an ongoing process in which it was not possible to identify the beginning or the end but from which meaning emerged in the known-unknown of the business context.
This experience, says the author, again demonstrates that it is the countless ordinary conversations taking place in many local situations that managers display the courage to cope with not knowing. It is in these conversations, as new meaning is constructed in the not knowing, that novel intentions emerge. In our organisations, in many small ways that we do not notice, the identities of our organisations and of ourselves are subtly transformed. The complex responsive processes are conscious and unconscious communicative interaction and power relations, in which people, in their relating to each other, construct meaning in their ongoing acting.
In the end, Project Dashboard cannot be said to have found the "right" measures by which leadership could steer the business. It was not a waste of time, however. The conversations between participants were part of a process from which emerged initiatives to develop supply chains as the basis for a reorganisation of the business. In this process, meaning emerged in the known-unknown of the business context and in spontaneously self-organising conversations.
These meaning making conversations were the basis upon which people were able to undertake joint collaborative action. Mainstream management thinking focuses on management as an activity of controlling events and suggest that when they appear to be uncontrolled this represents management incompetence. A complex responsive process perspective, on the other hand, focuses attention on management as courage rather than control – the courage to live in the paradox of inevitable certainty and uncertainty at the same time. It is through the ordinary human courage of continuing to participate meaningfully, despite not knowing, and not being in control, that managers get things done.
Here, the author provides a short account of a budget meeting for a supply chain initiative, as a microcosm of the entire project. This meeting exemplifies being simultaneously "in control" and "not in control". It was in ordinary, everyday encounters between managers that the shape of the whole supply chain reorganisation developed.
Each person arrived at the meeting considering the others to be more or less competent (although each had their own individual anxieties about their reputations, credibility and career prospects). They vested in each other the notion that each was "in control" of their part of the project; each had an implicit expectation that when another promised to deliver, they would do so. Those higher up in the hierarchy also implicitly assumed that this team was in a position to control the project and its outcomes. The expectation was that projects tightly managed to deliver on time and to budget would improve the business. However, the paradox of control was revealed by the pattern of conversation at the meeting. Instead of being a logical, clear and straightforward management exercise, the meeting displayed all of these characteristics and their opposites at the same time.
The budget meeting was a messy experience in which people had to work with ambiguity, little information, and not knowing totally what they were doing or what the impact of what their decisions would be. In their formal capacities and roles, the managers signed up to deliver their parts of the project, although each left the room with different perceptions of the project. A mainstream perspective would see this lack of a shared meaning as a problem. However, the complexity sciences argue that it is micro-diversity of this kind that is essential for the emergence of new meaning. It an example of self-organising social processes in management and highlighted the emergent and dynamic manner in which those involved make sense of the world in which they are working, a world they are co-creating in their conversations.
The process of interaction in ordinary conversation (turn taking and turn making) is the source of pattern and order in what otherwise seems like a messy experience. That pattern is paradoxically regular and irregular at the same time and takes the shape of themes that form the interaction at the same time as they are formed by the interaction. Although the meeting was called to deal with a specific, "legitimate" problem (a budget overrun), personal ambitions and interpersonal rivalries also formed aspects of the process. They were not openly expressed but unofficial "ideologies" formed shadow aspects of the interaction. The interaction between various patterning themes also supported or threatened current power relations. Even routine, rational activities are patterned not simply in terms of formal, conscious, legitimate themes, but also those themes that are informal, unconscious and shadow.
To sum up, the final chapter compares mainstream and complex responsive processes perspectives on the nature of management. The author says the latter resonates more with his own experience and therefore provides a more useful way of making sense of that experience. The central notion of mainstream thinking (including systems theories), that of the manager being "in control", is much more problematic than is usually assumed because managers are both "in control" and "not in control" at the same time.
The key question then becomes how organisations operate effectively and maintain an orderly state of affairs if their managers are not simply "in control". From the perspective of complex responsive processes, it is self-organising patterns of meaning that maintain a sense of order and therefore a sense of control as managers go about their daily activities. Intentional, goal-oriented acts emerge in the conversations of managers at a local level and those conversations function as patterning, meaning making processes. These communicative interactions constitute the way in which managers, individually and collectively, maintain their sense of self and their defences against anxiety.
The author says that his experience has been of always participating with others in the "paradox of intention and evoked responses at the same time, of communicatively interacting with others at all times in the known and unknown at the same time". What he and his colleagues were doing cannot be described as "muddling through" or as an inferior kind of decision-making. The apparently messy processes of communicative interaction are not a second best but, rather, the only way we know of living with paradox. The very dynamics of organisational life call for the kind of complex responsive processes of relating described in the book. It is in these processes that the dynamic is created; they only appear messy and less competent from the perspective of mainstream thinking on management.
From the complex responsive process way of thinking, management skills and competencies lie in how effectively managers participate in those processes. They provide a way of thinking about what competent managers actually do to live effectively in the paradox of organising, and what they do is continue to interact communicatively, especially in the medium of conversation, in spite of not knowing and not being simply "in control".
An organisation is self-organising processes in which intention and meaning emerge and anxiety is lived with. These interconnected processes across an organisation generate collective emergent outcomes that cannot be traced back to specific actions. Processes of change and performance achievement emerge in the self-organising patterns of meaning in which each individual struggles in participation with others to maintain a sense of self in an uncertain world. The distinctive competence of the manager is the skill of participating effectively with others in processes in which new meaning potentially emerges in the midst of the meaning destroying changes encountered. It cannot simply be a rational procedure but must always involve emotion and will always have unconscious as well as conscious aspects.
The defining feature of management is not simply being "in control", but rather the courage to be carrying on participating creatively in spite of "not knowing".
This book would be a useful addition to any MBA reading list as it provides a counterbalance to the many texts that emphasise the rational, controlled aspects of management.
Philip Streatfield turned his reflections into a doctorate on which this book is based. However, coming as it does from the wide experience of a seasoned manager, the book is more than an interesting academic perspective on management. It has some important messages for managers at all levels. It should in particular reassure them that the seeming untidiness and messiness of managerial life is part and parcel of the process of moving the organisation forward and that they do not have to "know" everything (although the paradox of control should not be an excuse for inadequate analysis). Streatfield’s concept of managerial courage certainly puts a different gloss on the notion of the "heroic leader".
The problem is that there are few organisations in which it is legitimate for managers to suggest (or admit) that they are not fully in control. Opening organisations (and shareholders) up to this way of thinking would call for a big change in organisational culture.
Streatfield also reminds us that language and interaction are at the heart of being human, that they are central to co-ordination in organisations, and that they cannot be divorced from moods and emotions. His book would profit from some further elaboration on how to improve the quality of conversation in organisations and ensure the conversational proficiency of managers (including the skills of active listening). Perhaps he will address such questions in his next book. It would certainly be interesting to know how his understanding of the paradox of control influences his approach to his current managerial role.