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May
30 2011

The Real World Out There

Syndicated from: Getting in the Groove - Random Riffs and Random Notes

The story goes that three umpires disagreed about the task of calling balls and strikes. The first one said, “I calls them as they is.” The second one said, “I calls them as I sees them.” The third and cleverest umpire said, “They ain’t nothin’ till I calls them.” Herbert Simons, “Persuasion in Society” I don’t know why we always seem to have it that umpires are marginally literate. Blame Simons … I’m just quoting, OK? As it happens, theoretical physicists are engaged in a similar disagreement about the nature of reality. There are those who take the position that there is, independent of us, a real world out there (RWOT) and it’s their job to give an account of it. The first umpire belongs in this camp – he calls balls and strikes the way they are. (So, likely, would the second if his eyesight were better.) On the opposite side are those who argue that any description of reality has to take into account the role of the observer. In the world of the quantum we are left, as someone recently put it, with the “uneasy consequence that reality does not exist when we are not observing it.” The third umpire belongs in this camp – pitches are neither balls nor strikes until he calls them. If you have any little grey cells kicking around that you don’t mind parting with forever, try Googling “quantum” and “observer.” As you might imagine, the “reality” question isn’t going to get resolved anytime soon for either the umpires or the physicists. What does any of this have to do with organizational life? Well, gird up your loins; I’m going to tell you. For starters, when it comes to social systems, I’m with the third umpire – observers change things. (Consultants who carry out organizational diagnostic probes seem, on a fairly regular basis, to forget this.) Here’s a little story that will serve to introduce a larger matter. I know someone who doesn’t qualify as an acquaintance because I’ve known him for too long. Neither does he, for the same reason, qualify as a friend. This guy sees every encounter with other human beings as competitions – there’ll be a winner and there’ll be a loser and he’ll be damned if he’s going to lose. If you’re imagining that he regularly pisses off a lot of people you’d be right. And if you’re imagining that he sees the world as a hostile place, you’d be right on that account as well. Every time he ventures out into it, the world confirms his opinion of it. You don’t want to have restaurant experiences with people like this. There are, in fact, very few things you want to do with people like this. Well, with the exception, perhaps, of hitting them upside the head. Now for the larger matter. Organizations spend much of their time trying to make sense of the environments in which they operate and, on the basis of what they think they’ve figured out, they make plans and take action. What they may fail to notice, however, is the role they’ve played in creating these environments in the first place. What we see as a hostile and threatening presence in the “real world out there,” may have the fingerprints of our incompetence, prejudice and stupidity all over it. Like my neither-friend-nor- acquaintance, they insist on imagining that they’re discovering things in the RWOT they’ve actually had a hand in creating. It’s important, therefore, to think of environments not simply as “given” and “independent” but as “enacted” and “interdependent” as well. And it’s useful to know the difference. Well, more than useful actually; it’s crucial. Imagine, for example, that you’ve booked a band whose entire repertoire consists of polkas and Strauss waltzes into an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day. I’ll bet the Guinness drinkers weren’t hostile until the band began to play. “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.” Josh Billings Good teachers, for example, know that classrooms are enacted environments. And they employ a process known as dipsticking where they regularly check to see what students are making of what’s going on. If their students aren’t “getting it” they make appropriate adjustments that allow kids to remain engaged in their learning. Bad teachers, faced with students who aren’t “getting it,” assume that the kids they’ve been given are stupid. This, by the way, also applies to consultants and stand-up comedians, all of whom can get into serious trouble if they choose to treat environments they’ve had a hand in enacting as if they were given and independent. All this has implications for organizations that take readings of their environments in order to plan and act. In the last Random Riff I suggested that it’s possible to do the wrong thing really well or come up with a satisfying answer for the wrong question. This can happen when we seriously misread an environment and develop a plan of action for, to put not too fine a point on it, a world that doesn’t exist. To avoid the embarrassment (and the cost) of doing so, we must, as is the practice of good teachers, develop both the willingness and the capacity for dipsticking; for testing the untested assumptions we hold about the “givenness” of the world “out there.” As Josh Billings suggests, the things that can get us in trouble are the things we think we know that simply aren’t so. Put another way, we have to learn to recognize those things in our environments that have our fingerprints all over them. Coda: This adds nothing of significance to what I’ve already said, but it came to mind when I commented earlier on the diagnostic probes of observers. Several years ago I read an account given by a couple of social anthropologists of a year they had spent living with and studying an isolated community in a remote part of the world. (In this context, “remote” should be read as meaning “a long way from Harvard.”) One of their noteworthy observations – and the only one, quite frankly, that I found worthy of note – was that the children they observed didn’t play. They went on at great speculative length about this extraordinary discovery. While I have absolutely no evidence for this, I like to think that at the very moment the scholars left for home, the kids ran and got their toys out of the places they’d hidden them the day the strangers arrived.

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