Richard, this was posted by Peter Jones at the Systems Thinking Network Leadership Group on facebook ( closed group to manage Systems Thinking Network on LinkedIn and Ecology of Systems Thinking group on Facebook — but welcoming all joiners)/

I responded at some length and, I’m afraid, rather brusquely:

Sorry. I appear to have switched on ‘curmudgeon mode’ today, so I hope this response doesn’t offend.*

What I have said before, and I hope often enough, is that there is some value in this to engage developmental and context-appropriate thinking about command-and-control/simplicity to servant leadership/complexity etc. (Though the developmental and the context-appropriate often get bracketed together, to the detriment of both)

What I have said before gently and I will now say brusquely is that this is bollocks.

It misleads, it mis-characterises organisations / leadership / management, it creates a penny dreadful simplified view of history and development. And it is also likely to create a simplified and incorrect view of ‘systems thinking’.

The examples used in this article (which is a fairly reasonable representation of the genre) are pretty typical.

I hate when people argue as I’m about to from example, without giving citations, but let me say that:

- ‘command and control’ doesn’t really mean what people seem to think it means; command and control as originally specified is a complex, multi-directional management system designed to maximise discretion at the ‘front line’ and maximise strategic understanding of the organisation with a good flow of information. Well implemented command and control drove the successful growth, flexibility, and stabilisation of companies for decades, and still does. Even the Prussian army, which provided the seeds of a ‘staff and line’ management model implicit in true ‘command and control’ is quoted (accurately) as both a driver of strict military discipline and sublimination to the orders of the hierarchy AND as a driver of increased variety and capability to respond in a highly delegated and adaptive way to a truly complex environment. And yes, maybe people ‘know what we mean’ when we use ‘command and control’ to mean ‘power and control-focused management’ — but don’t confuse that with a worked-through and internally consistent management theory and practice.

- yes, Ford’s production plants contain within them the seeds of ‘don’t bring your brain to work’ reductionism, simplification, standardisation, and optimisation in a machine-like way. They also contain the seeds of sense-and-respond whole system ‘flow’ models, human empowerment and fulfilment, and dignity and a reasonable wage for all workers.

- the ‘original organisation chart’ of the Lake Erie railroad company was created in response to a train crash and is a system designed to be able to apportion blame and responsibility when things go wrong. It also demonstrates a real example of organic thinking about organisations, maximisation of discretion within clear limits, servant leadership, and dealing with ‘big data’ — the challenge of the telegraph which, for the first time, created the possibility of ‘head office’ interfering with direct orders to ‘line managers’, and converting that into a rich and meaningful flow of information to the supportive, nourishing core of the organisation to make good longer-term higher-level strategic decisions in harmony with frontline discretion. And the accompanying ‘letter to shareholders’ is one of the earlier examples of complex and intelligent enterprise architecture.

(I will cite previous arguments on this when I have the energy!)

Is ‘a focus on purpose’ new to organisations? No — ask the Catholic church, ask the Orthodox churches, ask the Jewish Rabbinate.

Is psychological safety in teams and organisations new? No — ask Petruska Clarkson’s followers, to name one slightly random example.

Is self-development and self-fulfilment new? Is ‘authenticity’ new? Is leading semi-autonomous networks new? I think you know my answer. ‘Teal’ is to ‘learning organisations’ is to ‘command and control’ as ‘clean eating’ is to ‘whole foods’ is to ‘macrobiotics’. ‘The Age of Aquarius’ probably fits in somewhere here too ;-)

Yes, there has been a lot of directive, controlling, top-down ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ over time. And yes, there has been a lot of ‘development’ — but development /from/ many points /to/ many points in different contexts, from different origins, at different times. /Ideas/ sometimes get clearer and better understood and expressed over time, yes. And they sometimes get muddled and less clear and traduced and misunderstood and misinterpreted. /Practices/ — well, let’s just say practices are hard to pin down, hard to pick up, hard to interpret, and exist rather outside of and incommensurable to the field of blogging and Facebook-posting.

I personally choose to believe that, on the whole, things are getting better for human beings around the world. They generally are for me, and most people like me, with a few shocks thrown in to remind me that nothing is permanent and everything is challenged by events. I’m not sure I would call that ‘historical’ though.

Why do we have to believe in the myth of development or progress? Let’s be clear — when we are talking about these ‘stages of development’, we are in the realm of historiography — interpreting written interpretations of the world, not the world itself — that is, if we are lucky. And there’s nothing wrong with providing a reading of history that supports a theory that might even support a practice. Just don’t ask us to swallow your reading of histories as the best account of history possible so far.

There is no new paradigm. There’s just us, and the work to be done. Isn’t that enough?

*I wrote most of this once and then managed to crash Chrome, so apologies if this reconstructed version doesn’t flow very well.
I also realise that, in making this argument, I am presenting my own reading or interpretation of history. It is just a more open and dispositional one than most I read — and it seems that the more people argue for an open, dispositional, sense-and-respond approach to meaning making (as opposed to casual), organisations, leadership etc, it seems the more causal, deterministic, materialistic they see the world as being in the development story they tell. Isn’t that interesting?

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