Organisational Characteristics

  • Complicatedness: Organisations are complicated systems so it is very difficult to simultaneously consider all elements and their relationships at one time. We are therefore forced to make choices about what to consider. It is possible that we consciously or unknowingly choose to leave out some factor that might be relevant. Approaches that fail to acknowledge this limitation are likely to be inappropriate.
  • Complexity: Organisations are complex systems. With complex systems we cannot predict the behaviour of the system based on our knowledge of the behaviour of the parts, i.e. the behaviour of the system is emergent. This is different from complicatedness in that it independent of our cognitive ability. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much information we have about the parts and no matter how much cognitive resources we apply to the task. Emergence is an inherent property. Approaches that ignore emergence are likely to be inappropriate.
  • Open Systems: Organisations are embedded in external environments that both shape and are shaped by it. This means that changes in the organisation and changes in its environment interact with each other. It may be useful to think about the organisation and its environment as a single co-evolving entity. Approaches that consider organisations as closed systems are likely to be inappropriate.

Individual Characteristics

  • Interpretation: Employees interpret their situation uniquely and in different ways depending on their personality, their history and the information available to them. Approaches based on the assumption of a typical employee are therefore likely to inappropriate.
  • Intent: Employees have personal goals that could differ in varying degrees from organisational goals. It would therefore be inappropriate to assume that they will act in full accordance with the latter.

Open Systems

Organisations are embedded in environments that they influence and that influence them. For instance, if a competitor introduces a new product feature, it may become necessary for the organisation to do likewise. Excessive risk-taking can invite legislative control. The problem is that it it hard to tell which aspects aspects of this interaction are relevant and should therefore be considered, e.g. should an organisation operating only in Asia consider the industry landscape in Latin America?

Ways of Thinking

In understanding why certain ways of thinking may be inappropriate it may be useful to place them in categories. Stephen Pepper suggested we use one or more of four possible types of thinking models or lenses.

  • We use the formist lens when we classify things according to shape or structure. We use the mechanistic lens when thinking of cause and effect typical of machinery.
  • The mechanist lens incorporates parts that move, but in a predetermined way.
  • When we use the organicist lens we consider systems in which outcomes are unpredictable, but within constraints, e.g. individuals within a species differ slightly but within a certain range.
  • The contextualist lens allows us to consider an unfolding event in the sense that each event has its unique context that is different from any other. With this background, consider certain characteristics of organisations and their employees.

Ways of thinking that use formist, mechanistic and organicist lenses allow us simplify organisational situations and enable us to respond, but it is clear that they are inadequate to fully understand all organisational situations.

Types of Learning

We engage to differing degrees in three forms of learning:

  • Single-loop learning involves getting better at performing a given task.
  • Double-loop learning requires questioning of the assumptions and governing values the drive behaviour. This can be very difficult not just because the person involved is not only unaware of the assumptions but also unaware of resisting the surfacing of these assumptions.
  • Triple-loop learning involves increasing awareness of systems of meaning and power that result the requirements of certain stakeholders not being addressed. This form of learning is also rare because systems of meaning and power tend to be deeply entrenched.

Much of our learning is also experiential in the sense that it is based on intervention. It is difficult to understand organisations without trying to change them.

Types of Reasoning

When reasoning we use three modes of inference:

  • Inductive: reasoning from the sample to the population, e.g. “It’s always worked in the past, so we’ll just do it the same way.” Combined with an absence of second-loop learning this can be deadly, e.g. “People resist change, so we’ll just implement this initiative top-down.”
  • Deductive: reasoning from the general to the specific, e.g. “The launch of this product will enable us to break into that market.”
  • Abductive: a rarely used mode in which we develop a plausible argument, a hypothesis to the best explanation, e.g. “It is possible the difficulties we face may be the result of  individual rather than group targets.” A century ago Charles Peirce suggested this is the only form of reasoning that results in new knowledge. It has also recently been suggested that this is largely how children explore and learn.