All knowledge is provisional

‘All knowledge is provisional’.  I read the sentence last week and instantly wrote it in my notebook, and have been pondering it since.  It rings true and I feel a certain face-value in it.  Or maybe it is apposite for me at this point as I learn that everything I knew about baby rearing is being up-ended by everything my daughter knows about it.

I read the sentence in Henry Marsh’s auto-biographical book Admissions. Curious about the sentence, I looked it up and found it a topic of philosophical debate.  Many philosophers, including Popper, Dewey, Rorty, picking up on it.  … Another field for me to explore!  But, meanwhile, I’ll take the phrase as it is.

Marsh is a neuro surgeon and in the book, he looks back on his almost 40-year career in the field.   He reflects on his continuous learning, what he’s taught to others,  how the field has changed during his time in it, and why he is of the view that all knowledge is provisional.

Obviously in neuro-surgery there have been massive technical advances, and to continue to be expert has meant he has had to keep on learning.  And also teaching.  Part of Marsh’s role of consultant neuro-surgeon is to teach trainees in the field how to do it.  He tells several stories of his careful and thoughtful teaching methods – and the successes and failures of them.

This led me to return to a question I’d read earlier in the week in Work magazine (for a  reason, unknown to me, not readily available to read on-line).   The question asked in one of the articles was, ‘How can we help leaders to be better teachers?’  It’s a good question.  I don’t know how many leaders are good teachers.  But from my observation, not very many and maybe it’s for the reason the article suggests:  leaders want to control what people learn rather than giving people the freedom to learn for themselves.

But maybe it’s because they don’t see their knowledge as provisional.  Maybe leaders can only be great teachers if they are also great learners, who, as the Work piece says,  ‘approach work with humility and the desire to learn’.

It’s not just hierarchical leaders who need to be great learners in order to be great teachers – and with this, better leaders.  Thought/expertise leaders need also to work to the principle that all knowledge is provisional and put their learning energies into expanding their field – not sticking with what they ‘know’.  That’s where Marsh is interesting.  He is a leader of neuro-surgical teams, he is an expert in his field, and he believes all knowledge is provisional.  In his book he demonstrates that he is a learner as much as a teacher.   (See 9 reasons why great teachers make great leaders).

Turning to organization design – what in that field is provisional knowledge and where will (or should) organization designers be putting their learning energies during 2018?  Here are three suggestions:

  1. Picking up and testing Rob Cross, Chris Ernst and Bill Pasmore’s ideas put forward in their article A bridge too far? How boundary spanning networks drive organizational change and effectiveness, in which they put the point of view that,  ‘Twenty-first century challenges can’t be solved with 20th century change methods. Unfortunately, many leaders are still relying on top-down approaches in the face of current crises. Problems are complex, interconnected, and not easily managed by people separated by levels and silos. Promising advances are taking place in accelerating change by activating hidden social networks in organizations, systems, and cultures and enhancing their boundary spanning capabilities. Leaders who activate these networks greatly expand their organization’s capacity to manage change, since change efforts do not rely on vertical channels alone to adapt to emergent issues.’
  2. Working through, and applying, the concepts of ‘self-managing’ teams that aim to flatten hierarchies and give local autonomy, as described in Lee and Edmundson’s article Self-Managing Organizations: Exploring the Limits of Less-Hierarchical Organizing.  They conclude their article:  ‘A growing number of organizations are seeking ways to organize less hierarchically in the hopes of becoming more innovative, nimble, and enriching places to work. A select few are not content to simply experiment within the contours of the managerial hierarchy, but aim instead to radically depart from it. The time is ripe for renewed and focused research and theory to better understand and guide these efforts. Despite the varied streams of organizational research that relate to the theme of less-hierarchical organizing – from both macro and micro perspectives – none adequately captures the distinction between radical and incremental approaches. We hope that by more clearly delineating a specific and extreme class of efforts to organize less hierarchically, we can encourage and guide future research on this important phenomenon.’
  3. Assessing the theories underpinning systems thinking and design thinking and seeing whether, beyond the hype, there are practical, valuable, and durable applications of a conceptual framework that unites the two as proposed in the article Systems & Design Thinking: A Conceptual Framework for Their Integration.  Their conclusion?  ‘In today’s business world Design Thinking and Systems Thinking are being considered disjointedly. Specifically, the role of ‘design’ in either approach is not transparent.  For all of us the challenge remains how the ‘design thinking’ community can learn from the ‘systems thinking’ community and vice versa.  We believe that systems thinking should be intentionally integrated with design thinking to enhance the chances of creating the right designs.’

What organization design knowledge do you think is provisional?  Where should organization designers be putting their learning energies to expand the field and teach others about it?  Let me know.

Image: Hypothesis