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I’ve been involved in lots of discussions concerning my blog post “There Is No Organization!” The most difficult question this observation presents for many of us working in organizational development, coaching and consulting is: “What is it that we are doing then?“. If we believe that “organization” is just some kind of abstraction, constructed in social interaction and residing mostly in our imaginations, how can we then “develop” and “change” these “organizations”? And Why should we do that?

You Can’t Change Even Yourself.

I’ve been working as a coach for several years and I have been trained in the areas of process consultancy and counseling within the framework of systemic family therapy. I have worked in “organizations” and I have provided counseling for clients in different fields of work. Many of my clients have been psychotherapists or working in some other areas of couseling. I’ve also been a practitioner of meditative work for more than 10 years. My practices have included different sitting meditation techniques as well as some more moving practices such as Yoga, Yi Quan and Qi Gong. I have also trained professionals to use these things with their clients. So you could say I’m quite familiar with the whole “transforming people, yourself and organizations” business.

But what I have learned during these years is that this whole notion of “transforming people, yourself and organizations” comes from mistaken viewpoints. This notion makes mistaken assumptions on causality, mistaken assumptions of individuals and mistaken assumptions of what “organizations” are.

When people talk about cultural changes, they often say: You can’t change others, but you can change yourself!. The assumption is that if people would just agree that “we” need to change, then they would make effort and “change”. And as the result of all these individuals changing their “mindsets” an “behaviors” the “organizational culture” would change. Coaches, consultants and OD experts all provide various strategies to do this.

However, I will challenge this whole idea of “transforming oneself”. In my view this is the same old idea that has been promoted for centuries in different spiritual traditions. These traditions argue that they have found the means to teach people practices to find their “true self” or something like that. Only the context has been changed to organizational culture – the assumption stays the same. In my view, all this comes from mistaken assumptions made on individuals and causality, and more recently, on organizations. In reality you can’t transform organizations – you can’t change even yourself.

No autonomous individuals to be changed

Changing oneself would imply a separate being, a personality which is more or less independent from other people. That indipendent person would be able to select some desired, optimal personality and reach that with will-power and some other strategies. This is mistaken assumption in many levels. First of all, the assumption on causality is false. Secondly, our personality is highly relative and depends on the context. The only way we can “see” ourselves is by taking the perspective of others. “Me” is nothing more but the assumption of how other people see us.

I can’t change myself because “myself” is a social process. It doesn’t reside in my brains. It doesn’t reside inside my skin. It doesn’t reside in my name and ID tag. “Myself” is a social process where many identities are emerging and transforming all the time. “I” is the reaction we take towards this social process. In some sense we are always potentially changing and maintaining that social process by responding to it. But this change can never be designed and fully controlled, because there is no separate identity that could do that. Our identity comes from that very same process. We can try to control our reaction (“I”) towards that social process – towards “me” – but that can’t be fully controlled either. It can’t be fully controlled because it is also a result of that social process.

There are meditation techniques that help to “abstract” our reaction from this social process, by focusing to the different aspects of it. We can gain clarity on how we usually react in different contexts and that can change our responses. We can also learn to see our reactions more clearly as they occur. However, we can never stop that process, not if we are to maintain our self. If we would be able to draw away from that process, it would mean a severe psychological problem. We wouldn’t be able to function in this social world.

So, in effect, we can only hope to get more control towards our reactions to the “me”. If we succeed in it, it will have effect on the “me”. Other people will see us differently and we will notice that difference. We could also try to change our perception of how other people see us without actually gaining more control towards our reactions. The change in our perspective would also have some effect to how we actually function. So it is possible to affect “me” as well as “I”, but we are not the only ones who are affecting them. All the other people with their different intentions are also part of that process. This is the paradox we always have to deal with – we are individuals only in the context of social process.

No Organization to be changed

There are no separate entities or beings called “organizations”. “Organization” is a dynamic process, patterns of behavior that we can see. It is like the wind we feel on our cheeks. We can call that wind “Harry the Hurricane”, but there really are no Harry and there never was. It was just something temporal we perceived and named. “Organization” is also a temporal process, it doesn’t exist on it’s own. (I wrote about this more in depth here: “Organization – Now You See It, Now You Don’t“.)

If we accept that there is no separate being, an organism or system that we could work with, we can see that organization can only be patterns of behavior between people. These patterns are emerging from the local interaction – that is, the interactions between the people cooperating. If we want to change these emergent patterns which we call “organization”, have no option but to work with the people. As we saw, it isn’t really a viable option to think that we could change all those people. We can’t change even ourselves. And on the other and, whenever we engage in conversations with other people we are changing also, regardless of whether we want or not.

So, our best hope is to affect these interactions between the people. But those interactions don’t really exist on their own either. They are similar to organizations – patterns of cooperation emerging from the local interaction (and causing that interaction at the same time).

What the hell are we doing then?

It would be easy to draw a conclusion that since we can’t control the “transformation of people, organizations or even ourselves”, there’s no point to even try. That is a mistaken viewpoint too. The point is, we are always affecting ourselves, the other people and the local interaction where the patterns of cooperation (“organization”) emerge. We do have different tools that we use here. For example:

  • We can build alternative narratives of what is happening. This can change our responses to the social process.
  • We can develop psychological tools to gain more control on how we respond to different situations. We can e.g. become sensitive to notice how we usually respond.
  • We can gain more insight on how we see ourselves, which can change our perspectives on “me”.
  • We can look at the patterns of cooperation and gain insights of what is happening in the groups of people – this can enable us to respond in more skillful ways.

So in my view we are always participating in the processes where we are “transforming people, ourselves and the organizations”. We can also develop more skills to do this. These skills are the skills of transforming how we see others seeing us (= the “me”), and how we respond to this perception (= the “I”). With experience, we also gain more insight on how the patterns of cooperation usually develop in human groups (= the “organization”), which enables us to develop strategies on how we play our own part in that process (= me-I dialogue).

However, we are completely social beings. There are no separate, autonomous individuals. Everything that happens is a result of joint effort. Even if we would have developed our skills to exceptional levels, we can’t escape the social processes we are emerging from. All the people participating in these processes are affecting it. They are also “transforming us, theirselves and other people”. They have also their own agendas, strategies and tools that they use to affect whatever it is they would like to see happening. Because of this we can’t really predict what will happen. The outcome is most probably something that none of the individuals would have selected by themselves.

This is also one of the core principles of Wu Wei Coaching: there can be no predefined end-states or interventions for the coaching.