Mayvin_systems thinking

A case against systems thinking and for a reflexive practice

Graham Curtis, OD Practitioner and doctoral student at the University of Hertfordshire, takes issue with organisations as complex adaptive systems and proposes a move from self as instrument to the idea of OD practice as ‘reflexive participation’.

Practitioners of organisation development often talk about the difficult art of OD as intervening in an organisational system. And often these systems are described as ‘complex’ and ‘adaptive’. In this article Graham Curtis challenges our collective acceptance of systems thinking applied to OD and the use of system-based models. He argues they offer a form of predictability that cannot be delivered and, even if the promised results are delivered, such models mask the power struggles that went on in delivering them.

Why systems thinking doesn’t work

Thinking in terms of systems gives us the idea that we can understand a cause and effect relationship between organisational inputs and outputs, thereby managing the anxiety that arises from life’s inherent unpredictability.

Even though philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that we could think of things in nature ‘as if’ they were systems, he also warned against thinking of human social interaction in terms of systems.

A better way to define organisational life is as complex responsive processes in which the individual and the social emerge together. We become who we are through our experience of others and vice versa. There is no system, there is nothing else going on but conscious human bodies constraining and enabling each other.

Ralph Stacey and other researchers working at the University of Hertfordshire argue that organisations should not be regarded as systems and instead they suggest that organisations are imaginative constructs that emerge from our everyday interaction.

‘Reflexive Practice’

If we cannot predict the outcome of any interaction or intervention, then how can we understand our practice and move away from thinking of ourselves as instruments of a system?

Graham argues we should think of ourselves as participants in the ongoing organisational complex responsive processes. It is not OD’s job to get everyone to agree: it is to help people reflect on what they are arguing about. To do this we need to think of ourselves as reflexive practitioners.

Being reflexive is a taking a step further than simply being reflective. We need to pay attention not only to what is going on between others but also what is going on for ourselves as we get involved. Bringing these processes to the attention of others can often result in difficult and conflictual interactions, people being excluded, and the emergence of uncomfortable emotions such as anger, shame and guilt. And yet, we shouldn’t shy away from the potential for conflict.

To be reflexive is to become aware of the habits we have built up over time in how we think. This is the skill of the reflexive practitioner as a participant in everyday organisational life. A way of practicing that requires us to take our experience seriously.

We can all become more ‘reflexive’ through experimenting in groups, and understanding the context we are working in. Through the development of our reflexive practice we can support the people we work with in organisations to do the same. We can then let go of the comfort blanket of systemic instrumentality, and engage in the potential for transformational participation.

To read the full article please click here.