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Archive for June, 2012

Here we are at the final post in this series and the last of my grand list of six principles, and thus we are also at the concluding thought on the topic.

The question is, “what’s a metaphor?”

A metaphor is most commonly defined in terms of a literary device, a figure of speech whereby one thing stands in for another. The connection between those two things is deliberately not literal, as meaning is drawn by a comparison and by an underlying truth usefully is conveyed in the juxtaposition. Metaphors are also often thought of as optional, a way of adding colour to conversation. They are a routine device (part and parcel, in fact) in poetry, literature and instances where rhetoric is used to evoke emotion or call to action.  It doesn’t take too much effort to realise that we use analogy, simile and metaphor very frequently (just listen to any news broadcast, for example, and begin counting). In their book “Metaphors we live by” Lakoff and Johnson investigate the ways in which metaphor plays a very large part in our everyday language. Metaphors dominate and shape our discourse on business and management.

One could stop there, at words, but Lakoff and Johnson go on to note that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Bateson would perhaps agree to a point, but Metaphor is a paradoxical form of communication found not just in human communication. For example, any instance of “play”, whether among  humans or animals, relies on an intricate, convoluted (to describe) relational series of messages and meta-messages (messages about messages), signals as signals. It would not be play if it only had literal meaning. This is so embedded in communication that we have to tend to miss that para-language, the non-verbal elements of communication such as body language, timing and intonation, is at a higher level to the words we use. The facial expression and intonation of one person as they say the words “I’m going to kill you” to their best mate is what lets the other know whether to laugh or run, and is no different a pattern to the meta-message of the wagging tail on a dog as it bites another and says (so to speak) “let’s play”. Behaviorists have a problem here, as metaphors are not acts or actions. “management”, therefore, is not an action or a behaviour. it is the meaning ascribed to a set of actions and we commit a fallacy if we equate the name with the thing it names. “This is management” (or, if you prefer, “this is leadership”) and  also “this is reflection” are both names for sets of actions, not actions themselves.  “This is reflection” is a mental frame and it is one with almost infinite meta-levels of regress, endless loops of (mostly unconscious!) context-markers. This is brilliantly demonstrated in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which Shakespeare’s play-within-the-play is carried at least two further levels down, causing both humour and existential distress for the main characters, for whom reality is a shaky concept.

Framing and reframing might be another way of describing this, and these are now familiar concepts used – often in a flattened, simplified way – in cognitive  and spoken therapy, counselling (NLP being one well-known example) and coaching.   Metaphor is easy to spot and impossible to define, except perhaps in contrast with what it stands against; the literal and the prosaic

The principle in the title is not “use metaphor” but “use the logic of metaphor, so we need to establish what is meant here by the ‘logic’ of metaphor. Bateson used  the term “abduction” to explain this, a form of reasoning originally coined by the American Pragmatist philosopher C. S. Peirce at the turn of the last century. Peirce used abduction as a sort of reasonable inference of predicates in reaching a practical conclusion, which may then be further explored via another form of reasoning. In Bateson’s writings, abductive logic was contrasted with inductive and deductive forms using the three syllogisms below.

"Men are Grass"

Induction, deduction and abduction

The syllogism on the left represents induction – a weak prediction based on regularity of past and present observation, true only until contrary case is found. The centre syllogism is a deduction – the formal, logical necessity of “if X, and if Y, then Z must be so. This form of logic encourages linear hypothesis building and testing and has been very successful in the natural sciences, and occasionally useful in the social ones. The third syllogism is Bateson’s “Men are Grass” and is an abduction, where the agreement is of the predicates (in this case “die”). As with induction, abduction is meant to explore using prediction, but in a non-linear, poetic way. The more predicates one can find (analogies or cases that look similar) the better the pattern and the closer one is to an insight into the pattern of patterns.

This whole question could usefully and playfully be re-phrased (as Gregory Bateson suggested) “what’s a meta for?” If the essence of a metaphor is the playing around with messages from different domains and different levels, is this of any importance or use in management practice? I think it is. Gregory Bateson’s daughter, Mary, in Angels Fear provides one clue how when she writes “one can use an imagined identification with another person to enhance one’s own understanding of an idea or event by asking, how would so-and-so see this?” This is the essence of using dialogue as a way of seeing, as a kind of logic of metaphor in order to gain better self-awareness. In some way, reflection must be about this – a bewildering and dazzling set of possbilites between the internal and the external.

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For three reasons, it feels as though this particular point has a bit of a minefield to cross to reach you.

First, whenever we ask “what is the purpose of business?” (which by the way on most MBA courses is seldom), there is a temptation to throw back an answer that leaves us none the wiser. If the answer is “to make a profit”, or “grow”, or “create shareholder value”‘ then it would surely be a fairly easy task to continue the interrogation beyond this illusory end-game of naming  abstractions by asking “and what is the purpose of… (e.g. profit, etc.)”. If such a ‘thing’ as money were really the purpose of business, it would surely be, ultimately, a hollow one. Of course, a danger here is that the question may be mis-heard as “what’s the purpose of your business?”, thus restricting the response to one element of the system only and isolating the business or organisation from its environment. In ecology, the unit of survival is not the individual (or even the population) it is the organism and its environment. You can’t consider one without the other.

It has to be considered that there’s another possibility; that the purpose of business may be such a given, a taken-for-granted, or so lost in history that we are just unable to see it.

Secondly,  when we come to pose the question “what is Personal purpose?”, we are in danger of straying into areas of philosophy that have remained contentious for as long as this enormous question has been around. If this has eluded great thinkers, academics and learned scholars for millenia,  what chance have we got?

Thirdly, what do we mean when we say that two things should align? The dictionary offers three meanings for this word, “to arrange in a line or to be parallel”, “to move or adjust to be in proper relationship or orientation with”, and “to ally with a cause”. Which one is it?

So one element of the equation appears too concrete, another too abstract, and their constellation ambiguously either one of linear or relational arrangement (systemic or political). Yet if we are to take this whole Personal Development thing seriously in a management context, we have to find a way of making sense of it. Naturally, I think the preceding four principles of PD help frame an answer in the following ways:

1. Business, commerce, trade and the like are ideas that only exist in context of other things. The purpose of business is therefore a social matter, and its purpose cannot be decided at the level of the firm, by management or shareholders alone, nor in splendid isolation at the level of politicians and legislators. I would suggest that the purpose of business is not any end point or a thing at all but rather it is a process. What’s more, given that we’re all in this together (in a finitely-sized and resourced world), a sustainable process that concerns itself with social good. Anything else is just selfish and short-sighted. Of course, at the level of the organisation, the other answers (making money, creating wealth etc.) are important things but they only make sense when placed in service to this greater purpose.

2. Personal purpose is certainly experienced at the psychological level, emergent from (and part of) the social, and which I would suggest is the highest level of knowing available to us. We would need transcend the self in order to do away with the need to ask the question, so in the main we probably need to keep and open mind and keen eye on our beliefs about our purpose and see where we get. If the individual (psychologically, not biologically) is explained by values at the level of the social, then there must be a close relationship between our core values as experienced by us individually and the purpose of business (as outlined above).

3. Alignment is to be understood in terms of constellation, a matter of dynamic, relational positioning and repositioning of elements in a system.

In conclusion, then, this 5th principle, “Align your Personal purpose with the purpose of Business”, is not a call to toe the corporate line or slavishly put aside personal values in the pursuit of the company’s vision. It’s actually a challenge to think at another, higher, level, to begin to see the pattern of relationship that must necessarily be how these things are connected.

        “Warriors are not what you think of as warriors.  The warrior is not someone who fights, for no one has the right to take another life.  The warrior, for us, is the one who sacrifices himself for the good of others.  His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenseless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children, the future of humanity.”  ~ attributed to Sitting Bull (with thanks to Finn Jackson for drawing my attention to this quote)

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With so much written about systems thinking in management and leadership over the last twenty years or so, people may feel that this principle is bordering on the cliché. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is now almost a truism, and certainly the language of systemic thinking has been increasingly and uncontroversially used in discussions of Organisational Development, in certain views on Leadership, and in one guise or another in operations and production management for at least two decades, if not more.

I would argue, though, that this apparent application has been more one of vocabulary than of fundamental principles. What’s more, the appetite for the topic of complexity has frequently been faddish, second-hand and poorly thought-through; a handy bandwagon for those with a book to sell, a seminar to fill or a paper to publish. This is not a rant; it has always been so and probably (sadly) always will be. So let me explain how I think that a systemic view is essential to the nature of Reflection, Personal Development and for management practice, and in doing so argue that this is still a fairly radical, exciting idea.  

Thus, the fourth PD principle, and one which (I trust) follows logically from the first three, is “Practice Awareness of the whole, not the parts.”

Since the 1980s, the predominant interpretation of reflective learning in management has been via an analytic approach, of what many would call ‘the scientific method’ of measuring cause and effect, just redressed in the clothes of humanism. This is not new, nor is it always the useless thing to do. It is, in fact, the defining pattern of thought from Renaissance times to the present day, a process characterised by Russell Ackoff as a three step process of analysis;

1) take it apart,

2) try to understand what the parts do, and

3) assemble understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole.

In modern business education it is the same – management is broken down into its parts because the assumption is that knowledge of the parts taken separately allows integration into an understanding of the whole.  Analysis permeates corporations, which are divided into parts, which are then aggregated into the running of the whole – an analytical process.  Business Schools also have curricula separated into parts, which vie with one another in silos of analysis, which occasionally leads to academics vigorously defending the grounds for their view, their models and their theories entirely in relation to the views, models and theories of other competing domains. People, too, are units for and of analysis. Their personalities, traits and characteristics can be measured, their roles assessed and their actions studied in isolation to see how they work.

By contrast, in systems thinking every system is contained in and defined by its function in a larger system. Explanations always lie outside the system, never inside it.  Where analysis takes you inside the system, synthetic thinking contrasts the three analytical steps by:

1) asking “what is this a part of?”,

2) then explaining  the behaviour of the containing whole, and finally

3) disaggregating understanding of the containing whole by explaining the role or function of what I’m trying to explain.

We tend to think of ourselves as individuals, more or less free agents operating more or less effectively, making conscious choices alongside others who are (more or less) in a similar situation of individual free-will and choice. In Personal Development, a systemic approach means setting aside, at least temporarily, certain parts of our training, thinking, or education. Where problems just seem to be repeating themselves, or a more piecemeal approach to change doesn’t resolve things, or the issue just isn’t clear, seeing PD from a systemic point of view can very liberating, with surprisingly rapid insights and results.

Elsewhere in this blog I have posted about systemic coaching, and I have come to the conclusion the basic principles underlying this approach work equally well when applied to Personal and Professional systems. This is easy to say and difficult to talk about since the dynamics that work within a system are best understood when experienced (phenomenologically) yourself.  The invisible ordering forces of a system or whole which are listed below (and the descriptors) are taken from John Whittington’s excellent new book on Systemic Coaching & Constellations:

Acknowledgement (this is the first principle of PD in my list, and here refers to “standing in the truth of the current situation”)

Time (“what comes first has a natural precedence over what follows”)

Place (“everyone, and everything, has a right to a different but unique ad respected place in the system”)

Exchange (“a dynamic balance of giving and receiving is required in systems”)

Seeing the order from the outside…?

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