Did anyone plan what we observe?

When we looking at a company as a whole we see how it evolves over time. Typically what we can observe are recognizable patterns of movement. Some movements are positive, some are negative for the company. Accordingly we say that the company’s strategy is working well or not so well. By this we assume as a matter of course that the movement has been planned.

Where do we find planning?

Now, if we take the social human dimension into account, we are exposed to a huge complexity. What we start to see is how all people of the company are participating in countless and intertwined conversations, meetings and work activities day by day. As soon as we see this confusion of actions, it seems strange to believe that those activities in their entirety are planned or ever could be planned. But how does the second observation fit to the first one?

An irritating conclusion

The sociologist Norbert Elias has examined this question by analyzing societies and social groups. He comes to an irritating conclusion. Out of the many local interactions of the people involved, the orderly pattern of the larger unit is produced. In the complexity sciences the word ‘emergence’ is used for this phenomenon. It means: What the company is doing as a whole, cannot be planned and controlled by individuals or single groups. Instead, it is the emerging result of all interactions of all people involved.

This thought is extremely challenging for many people. They adhere to the idea that ‘management’ can plan and control the outcomes of a company. However, this is not possible – due to the complexity of the social world. Let us examine this a little bit deeper.

Looking at social processes there is not outside position

Understanding managers as designers of their organization builds on the assumptions that managers can stand outside of the organization and treat it as a ‘thing’. The management professor Ralph Stacey explains that such a conception is misleading. There is no such outside position from which managers could look at the organization and design it. Instead, managers are entangled in social processes like all other organizational members. Whatever they want to achieve, they have to interact with others, who have their own intentions and make their own decisions.

What management can control: bodies

But doesn’t practice prove that management has a lot of power to decide and control? To deal with this question, the work of the historian and social theorist Michel Foucault on disciplinary power in modern society is of great help. What we learn is that managers indeed exercise considerable control: by using disciplinary power. But what they control are bodies. They can move people around, split up or merge groups, and enforce certain bodily behavior. However, control of bodies is not control of outcomes and consequences.

Control and domination is subverted by resistance

This last point is vividly explained by the anthropologist James C. Scott. He shows that people who are ‘disciplined’ and dominated by those in charge often start to practice resistance. So management has a certain control on what people say and do publicly. But what people believe in, what they care for and what they do in total is beyond management control. Of course people can be in line with upper management. But this is something which emerges. No one is in the position to produce such an outcome by planning and control.

Searching for orientation

Why don’t the many interactions of people in a company lead to chaos and disorder?

It is because people want to do something meaningful and at the same time depend on others with regard to their actions. This leads to more or less coordinated movements. In those movements people look for orientation. Thus, ‘strategy’, ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ are important topics without doubt. We just need to understand that a joint strategy or vision, which is backed by many, is the result of ongoing complex negotiation processes between all people involved.

However, when it comes to orientation there is another, powerful concept to focus on: identity.