At the recent ODN Europe conference I was lucky enough to attend Rob Farrands’ session looking at the question ‘What is an organisation?’
We began by exploring the prevailing modes of organisational thinking: organisation as machine, and organisation as reluctant animal, where there’s little room for the humans within to make decisions for themselves - in which they seem merely to be ‘moved about’ as parts. Then a model of the organisation as human itself, made of other humans - a model where reason and language have more scope, and accountability becomes an important notion.
For Rob, though, “An organisation is first and foremost a world.” When we step into a cathedral, for example, some possibilities exist in a way that they do not in the world outside: having a conversation with a higher deity, considering people as either good or evil. When we leave the cathedral and walk down the road to a merchant bank, other, rather different, things become possible.
Given that Rob comes from a Gestalt background, I assumed we were heading straight into territory familiar to me - organisation as emergent phenomenon - and I was really looking forward to Rob’s take on it. But the e-word never came. “These worlds,” Rob said, “call to us, in different ways.” And with that, he set off down a completely unexpected path.
Take our homes, for example. At home, he said, we move around without conscious attention - there is an embodied familiarity about it. We know it, but our connection with it is a bodily one: we move about with purpose and motive, but not reason. Rob describes this - beautifully I think - as moving with “engaged agency” rather than with reasons or causes, and he proposes that most of the time that’s exactly what we do inside organisations, too. Mostly we’re simply in the flow of experience. Responding rationally to events is something we like to think we do, especially at work, but rarely actually do.
Rob illustrated this clearly for me when he spoke of our homes being inhabited by people who are no longer there - the imprinted presence of children who have grown up and gone, the memory of a family member who has died. Anyone who has experienced systemic constellation work will understand this immediately - the persisting influence of those who have long left the system. And of course this is how we experience organisational culture - it’s just how things are, full of assumptions and taken-for-granted practices that we barely notice.
The embodied perspective that Rob speaks from I find extremely attractive - perhaps because in my own life I’ve valued my rational thinking self above anything else. And I have seen “engaged agency” at work in Cocomotion, when people understand, not-quite-rationally - or not only rationally, let’s say! - what we are doing, and just do it. So what Rob said next about rational thinking and its role in organisational illness was riveting. I’ll cover that - and our own experience of such an illness - next time!
More info: www.figure-ground.co.uk