Everyday Matters in the Game of Organization

Why do you think that Dilbert cartoons are so funny? Perhaps because they represent the experience of so many in the everyday life of an organization. Yes, the pointy hair boss spewing management speak and disengaged from what is actually happening, while the individual contributor  (I just picked up that term somewhere and wanted to use it) like Wally is learning to play the game and respond in humorous ways that shed responsibility and hold commitment and power at bay. And how is it that the average contributor learns to play the game of organization?

I can share a story of how I learned in an organization. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I wasn’t always the perfect employee. Let’s just say I wasn’t always respectful of authority.  In one instance I posted a Dilbert cartoon that directly quoted a statement my boss had said the week before. Turns out my boss was more astute than I gave him credit for and not so much into my sense of humor.  That resulted in an official “memo” regarding my behavior. So what I learned was that rather than make that feedback so visible, I should take care who I joked around with.  I don’t think that was the intent of the memo…but that was what I learned.

Funny things are organizations, because I’ve also learned that they are not quite what we’ve been taught. Perhaps you’ve been taught that organizations are controlled by a few at the top and if those few do the right things, set the right strategies, and communicate the right messages, then the right things will happen. Hmmm…not so much, because other stuff happens doesn’t it? Esko Kilpi’s post on organization as a process rather a structure also seems relevant here.

I like what Chris Rodgers says about the in-between-ness of organizational dynamics, where the everyday conversations created in local interactions have a powerful impact on what actually gets done it organizations, how it gets done, and the results. The Everyday Matters much more so than what managers and those in authority positions say or do. Uh oh, if that is the case, what is a manager to do? How can he or she take the “right” action?

What if we think of organizations as networks of people acting and reacting daily, hourly to and with each other, according to the rules they have about what ought to and should be. So anything a manager does is a reaction to something else, everything anyone does is a response to something, and each response elicits a response in others. We set aside the idea that change can start anew and be managed. We see change as a constant flow of action-reaction that sometimes “adds up” to a difference that makes a difference. All those individual actors (or contributors) responding in ways they have learned to respond.  Learning occurs through different identities, who I am and who I am seen as places me in a context that I am able to do or not do something. We can’t assume everyone has the same rules, or that they even should. Oh, and more importantly, those actions-reactions can’t be predicted, so no use trying to control, instead it is more helpful to become attune to what is emerging.

This means we may need to become more skilled at seeing different things. How can mangers learn to also see the patterns of interaction, rather than focus on the individual personalities? What could be seen if “resistance to change” is not see as a passive aggressive behavior within a few people, but instead a response to what has been learned and experienced before? What would it look like to engage in that response in a way that is open and curious rather than managing and controlling?

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Comments

  1. Excellent post, Joan. Thanks for the reference. And I also enjoyed Esko Kilpi’s post, which makes a similar case for seeing organizations in interactional terms.

    On a small point, I try to avoid using the word “rules” to describe people’s tendency to act in certain ways in particular situations. I know that you don’t mean it in this sense but many who set out to apply complexity theory to organizations call on managers to “set a few rules” (based on complex adaptive system modelling of systems in the natural world). In other words, it is argued that managers – who are presumed to be objective observers and controllers of other people’s actions – set the parameters within which people can then self-organize. In contrast, the ‘rules’ that you are talking about are themselves emergent outcomes of people’s interactions whilst, at the same time, helping to shape those interactions.

    Rather than ‘rules’, I prefer to think of this dynamic in terms of people’s tendency to think and act in particular ways. The more that people make sense of things and act in particular ways, the more likely they are to continue to make similar sense and take similar action going forward. This is a patterning process. And it is this that accounts for the self-organizing dynamic of people’s conversations. That is to say, conversations – through which outcomes emerge – tend to be ‘organized’ by the patterns of past sensemaking (strengthening these still further) rather than by an external agent (such as ‘the manager’ or formally applied policies, systems and procedures). At the same time, as part of the same conversational dynamics, the possibility always exists for pattern switching to occur and novel responses to emerge.

    PS There is an ‘OD’ in Rodgers. It stands for Organizational Dynamics!

    • Thanks for the comments Chris, it really helps me think about and further create understanding. I see what you mean, the term “rules” could have the meaning of something explicitly created and written, when what I am meaning to convey is how you described it – a patterning process.

      So sorry about misspelling your name, I’ve corrected!

      Cheers – Joan

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