Here’s another pair of glasses with which to look at organisations. It can be used either together with the Essential Balances or with the Productive Paradoxes, or on its own. For those new to my “glasses” metaphor, here’s a quick intro.
The Glasses Metaphor
As I’m sceptical about the usefulness of methodologies, frameworks and best practices when it comes to social species, my preference is to work with habits and instead of using models, to use organisations directly as the best model of themselves.
The best material model of a cat is another, or preferably the same, cat.
N. Wiener, A. Rosenblueth, Philosophy of Science (1945)
What I find important in working with organisations is to break free from some old habits, by changing them with new ones. And most of all, cultivating the habit of being conscious about the dual nature of habits: that they are both enabling and constraining; that while you create them they influence the way you create them. Along with recipes and best practices, I’m also sceptical about KPIs, evidence-based policies, and all methods claiming objectivity.
Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him. Involving objectivity is abrogating responsibility – hence its popularity.
Heinz von Foerster
Instead of “this is how things are”, my claim is that “it’s potentially useful to create certain observational habits”. Or – and here comes the metaphor – the habit of observation using different pairs of glasses. “Different” implies two things. One is that you are always wearing some pair of glasses, regardless of whether you realise it or not. And the other is, that offering a new pair is less important than creating the habit of changing the glasses from time to time. I prefer “glasses” to “lens” metaphor and here’s why. Glasses have indeed lenses and lenses are meant to improve the vision or, at any rate, they change it. Quite often, the glasses I offer bring surprises. Where you trust your intuition, you might see things that are counter-intuitive, and where you’d rather use logic, they might appear illogical. It’s not intentional. It just often happens to be the case. The first reason I prefer glasses metaphor to just lens is that glasses have frames. That should be a constant reminder that every perspective has limitations, creates a bias, and leaves a blind spot. Using the same glasses might be problematic in some situations or in all situations, if you wear them for too long. And the second reason is that glasses are made to fit, they are something designed for our bodies. For example, they wouldn’t fit a mouse or even another person. This has far-reaching implications, which I’ll not go into now.
QUTE stands for “Quantum Theory of Enterprise”.
Quantum, as it is inspired by quantum mechanics, with focus on the method of questioning rather than the answers, with an understanding of multiple potentialities, context dependence, and the impact of measurement. Yet, it’s rather inspired than drawn from, as neither there will be any attempts to prove analogies, nor the arguments will be guided by an analogy hypothesis.
Theory should be understood in Maturanian terms:
We human beings propose theories as systems of explanation of what we distinguish as happening in what we observe or do in the realization of our living. Theories are systems of logical deductions that we propose in order to follow the consequences that would arise in a particular situation if we transformed everything in it around the conservation of some set of basic premises that we choose to adopt – either because we accept their validity according to some logical argument or, a priori, because we like them.
QUTE uses Enterprise instead of organisation for three main reasons. First, it is not only about things that are organisations but also to those that have an organisation. Second, as organisations can be defined in terms of their distinction of and coupling with the environment, the horizon is beyond organisations. And third, from the definition of Enterprise in The Law Dictionary, I like “purpose”, “incorporated or not”, but also the implication that it is transient. Being transient is somehow close to the Weick’s concept of “impermanent organization”:
To depict impermanent organizing is to presume that people have agency, that there is an ongoing dialectic between continuity and discontinuity from which events emerge, that humans shape their circumstances, and that minds and selves emerge from action.
Space and Time
We can talk about Space and Time only using language. Most of our thinking is also restricted by language. The affordances of language for talking about Space and Time are shaped by our structure, life and history. It is paradoxical that from one side we have difficulties to imagine Time as another dimension, and not so different in nature than Space, but at the same time, we can only talk about Time as if it’s Space. We draw time as distance, we travel in time, time is long and short, and we fear that the end is near. Lakoff and Johnson provided plenty of strong arguments that we are missing a concept of time in itself. Our understanding of time is relative to other concepts such as space and motion. Not only that, but the perception of time has fixed spatial orientation for most cultures. We think and talk about past as being behind and about future as being ahead of us. This fixation is reinforcing and being reinforced by other habits, such as forecasting by extending the past to infer the future. There is not much we can do about talking of Time in terms of Space apart from being conscious about it. But we can mentally reverse the arrow of time and start thinking about time as flowing in the opposite direction, from future to present to past. This is what the Quantum Approach to Time and organizational Change (QATC) applies. This theory invites us to look at the future as potentialities collapsing into the present by the particular selection of the context. The authors of QATC not only provide an elegant application of quantum mechanics in social sciences, but also a powerful thinking tool that overcomes many of the limitations of conventional organisational thinking.
Before doing the exercise of mentally reversing the arrow of time, let’s start with an easier one. As we are now used to do a lot of zooming and panning with our computers and mobile devices, this would help start using the QUTE Space-Time glasses right away. A possible movement in enterprise space would be to go mentally from organisation to organisation or from one function to another in the same organisation. We can call this enterprise space panning. But we can also follow the fractal dimension. We can call this enterprise space zooming. That doesn’t necessarily mean to follow the hierarchical structure as there are organisations now that are quite flat but still show fractal properties. We can imagine this zoom-in movement as making a step to the next embedded system that has an internally maintained way to distinguish itself from its environment. Conventionally, that would be a movement from division to department to unit to team to individual. Between team and individual there can be other social identities, some transient, some longer-lasting. We can move in enterprise time in a similar way. For example, looking at all changes in a billing process would mean to look at the history of changing the way billing was done in that organisation. Depending on the preferred sensitivity, we can distinguish a different number of changes. Let’s say we see 7 big changes. Then, if we zoom in to see only the last change, we may count the number of instances of the billing process since the current structure has been implemented. Let’s say 3 thousand. And then we can zoom in again to review an instance, its start and finish, overall duration, durations of the instances of each process step, accumulated waiting time and whatever else is of interest. This is an example of enterprise time zooming. But just as with space, there is also enterprise time panning. We already do that by comparing different future scenarios. However, these scenarios are often an extension of the path from past to present by changing some variables. Then we are often surprised when we see totally unexpected, discontinuous change. In other words, it’s easy to imagine different trajectories calculated by the same kind of function, but difficult to imagine one drawn from an entirely different function. And then, even if we do, what will it be a function of? Аnd if we eventually find out, what will we do with these arguments without having a historical data? This is where we need to take out some constraints to imagine possible futures, to understand the interaction of processes and constraints that enact the present, and to look at the past not only for what happened, but also for what might have happened.
Once we know these four basic ways to use the QUTE Space-Time glasses, we can start using them.
The Space-Time glasses can be used together with the Autonomy-Cohesion glasses. Working in organisations can be looked at as a triple loss of freedom. It is about where you want to be, what you want to do and how you want to do it. An easy way to understand pathologies of insufficient autonomy is to look for a tight coupling of what and how obscuring the way. The distinction between why, what and how is a crude one but to be useful, it’s important to understand it’s relativity. Whether it’s the why, what or why, would depend on how we look at it. Here’s where the Space-Time glasses become handy. In Enterprise Space, taking a traditional hierarchical structure, we can easily see that the what for a certain level in focus is the how for the level above, and the why for the level below. Respectively the what for the level below is the how for the level in focus. In the time dimension, we can see the why, the what and the how replacing sequentially each other in the network of decisions. And this is the case regardless if we look at the organisation as a whole or if we take the work of an individual person. At the time of taking a decision, it’s a matter of choosing what, enabled but the choice made previously, which is the why from the current perspective, and was the what back then. Once what is decided, it needs and enables how, which will be the next what and so on.
Speaking of decisions, the distortion of Autonomy-Cohesion balance is related to what type of decisions are taken, where and by whom. In space, the autonomy of a team or a department from the decisions of the structure they are part of, is just as important as that at the lower or higher level. And then, it’s equally applicable in the time dimension, for example to rules, as they are based on decisions made earlier, possibly by people that those affected by the decisions don’t even know.
Decisions are even more interesting to look at if we put the Productive Paradoxes glasses on. Then we look at organisations as social systems. According to Luhmann’s social systems theory, organisation are made of and constantly reproduced by a network of decisions. Decisions are paradoxical in their nature. They are paradoxical in three ways. First, decisions have an inherent contingency. They are neither impossible nor necessary. Every decision could have been decided otherwise. Probably the most concise formulation of this paradox was made by Heinz von Foerster: “Only those questions which are in principle undecidable, we can decide”. The others are simply calculations. The second paradox is that once a decision is made, it is only a potential decision until it is chosen as a decision premise by a subsequent decision. At the same time, this subsequent decision can only be made if the potential decision happened as a communication event. In that sense, if at a moment T1, a communication event represents a potential decision A, it enables decision B, which, when taken at moment T2, produces the previous decision A, taken at moment T1, by selecting it as its decision premise. If A is not used as a decision premise by some subsequent decision, it would simply be regarded as “organisational noise”. Decision A enables and is produced by decision B and by the same pattern, A produces its premises backwards and B enables subsequent decisions. The third paradox is that what is regarded as decision, is also a decision. The deparadoxizasion of decisions is the driving force of the organisations and it happens both in space, by the functional differentiation, and in time, by postponing one of the conflicting elements.
Decisions are the main tool to handle complexity and absorb uncertainty in organisations. Looking at this process with the Stimuli-Responses glasses on, we can easily see other tools for variety attenuation. But there are some that are not so easy to see unless we also put the Space-Time glasses on. One such tool is what Brunsson calls “organisational hypocrisy”. Organisations need to meet the demands of various stakeholders and these demands are often in conflict. Meeting conflicting demands might be impossible in space but is somehow made possible in time. Let’s imagine three groups of stakeholders, which are happy with X, Y, and Z respectively. If the organisation talks X, it makes the first group happy, but then by deciding Y, it makes the second group happy, and later on, when doing Z it will make the third group happy.
Hypocrisy is a way of handling conflicts by reflecting them in inconsistencies among talk, decisions, and actions.
And last, following QATC, we can overcome some of the limitations of the prevailing thinking on conceptualising of time, the nature of change, the reliance on existing practices and the usefulness of performance measurement. QATC suggest using probability waves (aka wave packets) as a metaphor for organisational processes. There are many possible outcomes since the future has many potentialities. The analogue from quantum mechanics is the superpotentiality state “in which many possibilities are in an indefinite state but have the potential to occur when influenced by a specific context”:
when conjoined with a particular context, this superpotentiality state will collapse because of experienced constraints to create a specific experienced reality, much like an electron appearing in a defined position in space upon measurement
Dord, Dihn, Hoffman
Using the QUTE Space-Time glasses, we need to see the time flowing from future to present, so that the particular state (on one of the many paths, see enterprise time panning above) is selected, or rather – enacted – by the particular configuration of organisational unit, context and technology (understood broadly). Most of the potentialities are not directly experienced and can be seen as something that might have happened through retrospection. QATC proposes to use counterfactual thinking to examine what could have been different. This is very similar to Luhmann’s use of contingency to indicate “neither necessary nor impossible”. According to QATC counterfactual thinking can help “to understand how a present is selected from many different potential alternatives that once existed in the future, rather than how the past leads to one future state”. The particular interaction of constraints and processes in an organisation, make certain potentialities develop more than others. Those that develop more form attractors that channel processes in definite and consistent ways. This is what we see also using the Stability-Diversity glasses and is highly relevant for maintaining the Exploration-Exploitation balance (see Essential Balances in Organisations).
I hope this is enough, for now, to start observing organisations with this pair of Space-Time glasses. Give them a try and share your findings. There is more to elaborate on its application for decisions, change “management”, trust, detecting weak signals and dealing with uncertainty. It would be interesting, now drawing more from relativity theory, to check if and how the Space-time curvature increases with the size of organisations. And then beyond (yet always within) Space-Time, QUTE can bring useful perspective on emotions, communication, measurements, best practices, and power.