Dave Snowden

A return to manege rather than menage

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Manege comes from the Italian Maneggiare meaning to handle and train horses and it’s one of the origins of the word manage in English. I was reminded of its significance when I found a blog entry from Robert Paterson that reflects many of my own concerns on Presence by Senge et all.

I came to Paterson thanks to my watch list in Technorati pointing me to a posting from Jonnie Moore who says some very nice things about Bramble Bushes in a Thicket. Blogging, and linking between blogs is very much like navigating a myriad of bramble bushes in some very interesting thickets. Jonnie quotes a key early paragraph in which Kurtz and I contrast idealistic with naturalising approaches.

In the idealistic approach, the leaders of an organization set out an ideal future state that they wish to achieve, identify the gap between the ideal and their perception of the present, and seek to close it. This is common not only to process-based theory but also to practice that follows the general heading of the “learning organization”. Naturalistic approaches, by contrast, seek to understand a sufficiency of the present in order to act to stimulate evolution of the system. Once such stimulation is made, monitoring of emergent patterns becomes a critical activity so that desired patterns can be supported and undesired patterns disrupted. The organization thus evolves to a future that was unknowable in advance, but is more contextually appropriate when discovered.

One essential point here is that both idealistic approaches (process & presence) however well motivated (and that is not in question) rely on what Paterson calls a fake intervention: the top down determination of what is right. I would add another concern to complement that. Presence is one of a number of books that take a quasi-religious tone, picking up on some of the syntax and form of the evangelical tradition. This was also present (sic) in Senge’s keynote in Vienna last year at the SOL conference.

Now I can understand this, and I can respect the passion but it also concerns me. One of the characteristics of an evangelical approach is the focus on a redemptive conversion of the individual to some form of higher understanding. This can easily lead to a form of isolation from engagement with the world. It is also heavily top down and, as Paterson points out, is over focused on working with leaders, seeking to change them as individuals so that they can direct their organisations to said higher purpose. With that comes a belief in the Guru led, wisdom enlightened Leader: an all too common theme in much management literature. Of course none of this has yet led to the extreme of the religious right. [In which respect by the way is amusing, if very scary to see the way some are turning on Bush].

These approachs to both religion and management seem to me a modern form of Manichaeism and I would argue that we see this evidenced in Presence. Obviously not in such an extreme or ridiculous form as that of the religious right, in whose regard a return to the tactics of the Albigensian Crusade is tempting. Possibly to the extreme of the Abbot of Citeaux’s advise to the Crusaders in respect of the citizens of Beziers: Tuez-les tous; Dieu reconnaitra les siens.

I think we would do well to avoid the evangelical form in management science and that can start by avoiding idealism. Naturalising approaches give us a theory to support pragmatism, and a realisation that doing lots of small things on a safe-fail basis can lead to significant evolution and change. We still need to manage, but we need to think of management in a different way. To quote the final paragraph of Brambles:

Common perceptions of the work world as machine-like and ordered, and thus subject to the rules of order, are cultural legacies of the industrial revolution that still blind us to the fact that organisations are in fact complex adaptive systems. As an example, consider the etymology of the term “manage” itself. According to Williams (1983) the English verb “to manage” was originally derived from the Italian maneggiare, meaning to handle and train horses. The manege form of horseback riding, a more involved and time-consuming form than modern dressage (which was meant to replace manege with something more accessible to the unskilled) is a similar use of the word. In this earlier meaning the emphasis is on learning with, abiding with, adapting to, respecting, and working with another complex entity: the horse and rider as coevolving brambles in a wider thicket of social traditions surrounding beauty and form. Around the early 18th century, this original meaning merged with the French term menage, or household, making it easier to adapt the meaning of the combined term manage to the metaphor of the obedient machine, to the corridors of power, and to the actions of controlling and directing. The naturalistic approach we have advocated, in effect a return to manege rather than menage, is the most effective way to achieve results in organisations made up of real people. Its practice in the generation and management of learning networks is not difficult; it simply requires us to unlearn the practices that arise from a menage directorial tradition of management theory and relearn what we already know to be true of the manege multiplex world we live in

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