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In my Wu Wei Coaching approach I have learned to place great emphasis on reflexivity. The reason for this is that experts don’t really follow rules and frameworks but instead they have to use practical judgment in particular situations. This use of practical judgement, the expertise, is developed in reflexive processes.

You could say that in dominant way of thinking the approach of leader, organizational developer or coach is based on cybernetics / systems thinking. First the targets are defined, then some measuring devices are established to give feedback of the situation. If the feedback measures aren’t within the specified range then some interventions are designed to move those there. The problem for the manager/OD expert becomes then to ensure that not only the measures, but also the thing that is measured is within the specific range. This is where leaders might use coaches, consultants or other professionals to make sure the feedback isn’t consciously or unconsciously “gamed”.

However, that isn’t the only problem in systems thinking. In fact, the whole notion of organization as cybernetic system can be questioned. There is no “collective consciousness” or “organism” that could be steered. It is all just people cooperating and competing in local interaction. The notion of system is just built in our minds to make it possible for us to cooperate with large amount of people. As such this notion is beneficial, but at the same time it is harmful if we try to use it as something real and tangible in itself.

In fact, it is the capacity of people to engage in reflexive dialogues with other people (and in the private inner dialogue), which makes it possible to create such symbols like “organizations”. Because of this I would like to study how these two things are related – the systems thinking and the reflexivity.

Systems Thinking vs. Reflexivity

An example of simple cybernetic system would be a thermostat. The temperature of a room is measured and if it goes below the target level, heating device is turned on. When the temperature goes above the level, heating device is turned off. This is a 1st order cybernetic system. If there is another cybernetic system adjusting the target level of this first system, we call it 2nd order cybernetic system. Most common example of 2nd order cybernetic system would be a human being adjusting the temperature suitable for his own taste – but it could be also other mechanistic system.

So, both 1st order and 2nd order cybernetic system can function without any human being involved. However, human being is required in order to get into reflexive domain. When a person receives some kind of data (or a gesture for that matter), it is inevitable that he engages in reflexive process. What does this data mean for me? In this particular situation? Is this even relevant data for me? Then he might decide to do something, like turning the temperature up or down. This is 1st order reflexivity. This is what differentiates people from machines. People have no choice but to reflect upon what the gestures in the environment mean.

This reflexive process might be formalized by following some set of rules. There might be e.g. rules written on the wall by the thermostat that if the temperature feels cold turn the knob up. Or in the organizational development context you might have some methodologies that define what you should look for and how to respond when you see such and such phenomena happening. The idea here follows the 2nd order cybernetics logic. The person is seen as a part of the 2nd system that adjusts the target values of the first system. If he is a competent practitioner he can function according some guidelines that are taught in methodologies such as “Lean development”. However, as a human being he might decide not to follow those rules. In other words, he is always utilizing his practical judgment of whether or not to follow those rules. Most probably he will follow the rules if it is possible and there’s no reason to question them.

There is a significant difference when we talk about expert practitioner. He might be well aware of multiple methodologies, but he is basing his action mainly on the reflexive process of utilizing practical judgment. He might decide to follow a rule or guideline of given methodology, but only if his reflexive process suggests it is a good idea. He might as well choose to follow some other methodology or no methodology at all. This is all 1st order reflexivity, but it isn’t necessarily following a logic of 2nd order cybernetics.

Another difference of expert practitioner is that he is probably capable of reflecting on his own 1st order reflexive process. He might be capable of seeing how he is creating his own identity and the particular situation together with others. There are also other ways to interpret what is happening, and those other ways of seeing the situation also affect the data and the meaning of that data. This is 2nd order reflexivity.

Because 2nd order reflexivity deals with how we create meaning in our particular situations, and how we create ourselves in the situation, it can enhance our capacities to deal with unknown and complex situations. This can enable us to learn and improvise in situations that are new to us. Because this capacity can emerge only in 2nd order reflexivity, some level of potential for this kind of reflexivity is required for a person to become an expert.

Capacity for 2nd order reflexivity can be also developed. Easiest way to develop it is to engage in reflexive dialogues with people who already possess great capacity for it. It can also be developed with peers who have some capacity for doing it. For a person who already is capable of doing it, reflexivity can be developed also by some individual activities such as writing, thinking and practicing whatever that includes reflexive processes.

More reading:

Ralph D. Stacey, (2012) Tools and techniques of leadership and management