Try not to thingify

The opposite of a systems approach to organisation design and development is a 'thingifying' approach. (And many thanks to Fiona for giving me the word). This considers viewing something problematic going on in an organisation as a 'thing' to be addressed. Philosopher Theodore Gendlin explaining, another philosopher, Martin Heidegger's essay 'What is a thing?' says:

'The "thing," as we have things today, is a certain sort of explanatory scheme, a certain sort of approach to anything studied. … It is an approach that renders whatever we study as some thing in space, located over there, subsisting separate from and over against us and having certain properties of its own. It is as obvious as "that orange-colored chair over there," or "an atom," "a cell," "a self," "a sense datum," "a body."'

I come across thingifying a lot in my day to day working life, particularly in relationship to leadership and culture. If we think of leadership as a 'thing' in the definition above we reach for 'tools' to fix it. You can get any number of leadership tools. Here's one that you can use to assess your leadership skills. You score yourself and depending on your score get some ideas to improve your skills. For example if you score between 35 and 52

'You're doing OK as a leader, but you have the potential to do much better. While you've built the foundation of effective leadership, this is your opportunity to improve your skills, and become the best you can be. Examine the areas where you lost points, and determine what you can do to develop skills in these areas'.

As one of my colleagues noted 'tools can be handy', but quantifying and scoring are not going to give information on the experience of being led by someone whose score you know is 39 (or necessarily change your own leadership style and interactions if you know your own score is 39).

Similar tools exist to assess 'culture'. A commonly used one is Human Synergistics Organizational Culture Inventory. The info on it tells us that 'Quantifying and managing organizational culture is critical for bringing an organization's values "to life," supporting the implementation of its strategies, and promoting adaptation, goal attainment, and sustainability.' I made the point in my book on organisation culture that 'An organisation's culture is not a 'thing' where a label suffices to 'tell it how it is', nor is it a set of discrete elements that can be manipulated either separately or together to get a desired outcome. Nevertheless people want still want thingify culture or leadership in order to solve a problem with it.

If the problem at hand is treated only or mainly as a 'thing' little value will come from any activity associated with trying to solve it. This week's Economist has an article on immigration 'What's the Point?' It discusses a points system for work permit allocation. Immigration, treated in this way has become a 'thing'. In all the countries discussed (Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Czech Republic, Denmark, Singapore) the discovery was the same treating immigration as a 'thing' didn't work for anyone.

Given as Gendlin puts it 'The thing-model is, despite our current attitudes on getting beyond mere models by appealing to the wider context of ordinary living, still second nature to us' what can we do to over-ride our thingifying tendencies in favour of better approaches to look at leadership or culture or other similar organisational preoccupations (employee engagement, customer experience, etc)?

Heidegger (via Gendlin) offers three suggestions:

  • First is not stop at thingifying it (the organisational issue)
  • Second is to consider the attitudes, procedures, context, norms and expectations regarding the organisational issue that you have thingified
  • Third is to inquire on 'the totality of these two in interdependence'

However, taking these three steps makes addressing an issue complicated and risks alienating people who want a quick 'answer' as in 42 is the meaning of life, the universe and everything ( Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). But organisational issues are not amenable to solving through 'thingifying '– they are part of a wider system. As the immigration points people found: 'Migration systems are complicated because people are complicated'.

What's your view on thingifying? Let me know.