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Couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on the differences of systems thinking and reflexivity. I described how the first one relies on cybernetics and the latter one on the capacity of people to assign and reflect upon the meaning they give to their particular situations. I drew from Ralph D. Stacey saying experts are able to reflect upon their experiences in a way that can be called 2nd order reflexivity.

Recently, I participated a training, which made me think further about the differences of systems thinking and reflexivity. The training turned out to be quite typical consultancy training. The training used a particular theory, which drew from systems thinking, complexity sciences, cognitive sciences and postmodern approaches. All this formed a coherent theory coupled with cybernetic tools to understand the environment, how to make interventions and how to follow up the outcomes. The training followed a cycle where the theory was introduced first and then we were instructed to do exercises, which were designed to map our own experiences and thinking to that theory. The goal was that we would come to the conclusions that were consistent with this framework all by ourselves in our small groups.

I didn’t feel very comfortable with the exercises as I couldn’t agree with some of the basic assumptions of that theory. As the days went by and we heard more about the theory and did more of these exercises I noticed I felt more and more uncomfortable. I often found myself being in disagreement with the theory, failing to reach the expected conclusion from the exercises. I found that I spent more time reflecting what was happening in the “meta-level” of training than the training topics themselves. The training provided me an example on how people might be persuaded to assume certain beliefs about the nature of reality – in fact, it was one topic of the exercises also even though it wasn’t explicitly noted. I also noticed, for example, how the trainers made their own points stronger by referring to competing theories in ridiculing ways. I don’t know about the other participants, but it really didn’t work for me.

Cybernetic Tools or Reflexivity?

What I noticed myself thinking during and after those days is how it seems that all the tools of management are inevitably in the domains of mechanistic or systemic thinking – even the ones that are informed by complexity theories (especially the ones concentrating on CAS). It seems that we inevitably need to use such tools and frameworks when we discuss with managers and OD experts as it is the dominant discourse. Failing to do so might make us look incompetent. However, my own experience is that it really isn’t mandatory to use any such frameworks as the basis of our thinking. We might decide to talk about systemic/cybernetic tools in order to make ourselves understood, but actually use reflexivity as our true guide.

Here’s a picture I used in the previous post to illuminate the differences of cybernetics and reflexivity. We can also use it to illustrate the differences between utilizing cybernetic tools and reflexivity. Let’s look at an example:

Suppose you are a manager in a large organization, which is having difficult times. You have had lots of conversations with people, seen different kinds of metrics and analyses of the situation. Clearly something has to be done, and your job is to make decisions on what it is. In a cybernetic approach you would look at the organization as a system. You see different kinds of policies, processes and boundaries that have been designed or which have evolved by themselves. When you have made yourself clear about the characteristics of the system you define a goal or purpose where you would like to lead it towards. Then you look for points of intervention. You will select some suitable framework that works with the particular organizational system and leads towards the selected goals. You define some measures that will tell you whether or not the organization is going towards the desired goals and then you design interventions to amplify the beneficial outcomes / dampen the unbeneficial ones. In other words, you have identified what kind of system you are dealing with and designed another system that regulates it – i.e. you have designed 2nd order cybernetic system.

Now, let’s look at a different example:

You are a manager in a large organization, which is having difficult times... As you are experienced manager you are able to formulate some kind of sense/intuition of what is going on. You have seen similar situations before. You know people with whom you can develop your thinking and get support whether your assumptions seem to be valid or not. You discuss the situation with them. During the years you have also developed understanding on how the politics of the organization work. So you know roughly what kind of challenges there will most probably be if you try to affect the situation in certain ways. Based on your experience and the discussions with other people, you decide your approach to affect the organizational patterns. You start discussion with relevant people and try to influence their thinking by telling what you see, what you would like to do yourself and what you would expect them to do. You see how the people react to your thinking and through dialogues you develop your thinking further together. Most probably the discussions lead you to agree on utilizing some approaches that people are familiar with. As things evolve, you try to sense whether your acts and the discussions have had any impact to the situation. You feel some anxiety as you know you can’t really know whether you are able to improve the situation or not, but you are constantly reflecting upon what is happening and what you might do next. You also know that you are just one person – you can’t really control all that is going on in a large organization. You can only do your own part and hope for the best.

The first example was written from the point of view of systems thinking. The story was easily mapped to the lower part of my picture, where the 1st order and 2nd order cybernetic systems are. The manager used also reflexivity when he was figuring out what kind of system he is dealing with and what kind of system he should build to regulate it. But otherwise he seemed to leave the “job” to the system.

The second example was written from the perspective of reflexivity. The manager didn’t really focus on using any specific tools but instead he focused on reflecting the situation by himself and with others. Within the discussions things evolved and both his and others thinking patterns were changing. They probably used some agreed approaches, but the focus wasn’t in the approach so much as it was on conversations and reflection. The second story was all about the local interactions that the manager was having, not about the abstract thinking frameworks that he might have used.

Now, I would argue that actually there wasn’t much difference between the stories. It might have been exactly the same story written from two different perspectives. The first one was written from idealized, abstracted perspective and the second one from more mundane perspective. The first story eliminated the people from the picture and concentrated on the process of what was happening. The second story was looking at what was happening in the local interactions between the people and didn’t generalize it as an abstract process.

Which one do you think is more helpful perspective to look at the story? Perhaps it depends on the context:

The first perspective seems to be more “scientific”, “high-end”, “professional”, “academic” and “advanced”. It is probably easier perspective to sell for people who have been trained in scientific thinking. If consultants or managers use such a language they can prove that they are competent practitioners of “management science”. The second perspective doesn’t really tell much about the education level of the manager. He might be a person who has been drawn into his job by his experience rather than his education.

I would argue that a manager who shows a capacity for reflexivity has better changes to succeed in his profession than a manager who is just competent in utilizing frameworks – no matter how sophisticated those frameworks are. I do think some frameworks are more sophisticated and better fit for situations than others, but they can carry only so far. At some point the manager has to rely on his practical judgment on what to do. If he hasn’t developed ability for reflexivity his practical judgment might not be very practical…

Real value of Cybernetic Tools

This isn’t to say there is no value in learning and utilizing frameworks. But I would argue that the real value of those frameworks is more on the opportunities they provide for developing reflexivity than anything else. The manager in the second story was probably quite familiar with different methodologies of strategic management. But he was experienced manager and so he knew that the real value isn’t in the framework itself – it is how people respond to it that matters. That is why he was concentrating more on the discussions and the responses of other people.

It might well be that the content of those discussions concerned the very same approach of building the 2nd order cybernetic system that was described in the first story. But the content of those discussions themselves had only secondary value for the manager, the primary value were the opportunities for reflexive processes. Expert manager (like experts in other fields) has capacity for reflexivity-in-action. This means he is capable for improvised learning in action. This feeds into the reflexive processes which enhance his abilities to use practical judgment in particular situations. And it is also important to note that he can’t do it as an autonomous individual. Everything he does and thinks is linked to the wider social processes. This paradoxically constrains as well as enables individual actions both for the manager and the other people involved.