Sh_ _ Happens – But What Causes It?

Tom GibbonsOrganization Development6 Comments

The first two words above have entered into popular language, especially organizational language within the past generation or so to describe that wide range of unpleasant and unplanned occurrences that we would just rather not have happen to us.  This graphic verbal pairing also legitimizes the very unpredictable nature of much of our experience. This pairing also encourages us to ‘get on with things’ since this is the way lots of things happen and we shouldn’t overly concern ourselves with why these things happen.  And most of us do just ‘get on with things’.   Interestingly, when we do ‘get on with things’ we often do it by thinking we should be able to do things so sh_ _ never happens.

When you look at what assumptions many of the managerial behaviors in organizations are based on you will find one assumption really stands out:

Management should be able to design organizational systems that will result in predictable outcomes.

Budgeting, planning, performance management, even compensation systems stand solidly on this assumption.  So when sh_ _ happens it must mean that either management isn’t doing their job very well or this assumption may be flawed.  It tends to be easier to blame management than re-think assumptions which are mostly unseen anyway.

The dominant thinking about how things happen in organizations can be looked at through the lens of causality and two types of causality legitimize the above assumption:

  1. Formative causality – Basically this means things happen by design; the end point is enfolded in, or caused by the design of something.  For instance the end point of an oak tree is enfolded into the acorn and when planted the acorn will produce an oak tree, nothing else.

  2. Rational causality – This applies primarily to humans, in that we can make conscious choices about what we will do that are not necessarily aligned with any design of what we should do or what might be predicted.  We are the cause of our end points due to rational choice.

The assumption above is based on rational causality.  Management will make choices on how to design their organization and if done well the rest of the organization should operate from the first type of causality, formative, and unfold as predicted in the design.  It feels good and competent to believe an organization runs this way.  The problem is the rest of the organization is populated by humans just like management so they operate from the foundation of rational causality too, not formative causality. They make their own choices about how to respond and thus, sh_ _ happens.

The so what of this is that our typical response is to try and plan better, budget better, manage performance better etc. still using the same thinking that caused us problems in the first place.  This is a downward spiral to higher stress and tension, more work, more blame, more second guessing and not much more improvement. 

The challenge is to bring the reality that sh_ _ happens into our assumptions about how things happen and let it affect the way we budget, plan, manage performance etc.  This is not easy because we now have to admit things will happen that we cannot predict and this is not at all comfortable.  What would the assumption above look like if we incorporated the reality that sh_ _ happens:

Management should be able to designs organizational systems interactions that will hopefully result in management’s intentions becoming a reality, and this will not be known until those interactions take place predictable outcomes.

So maybe it is a bit scary to base our behavior on this assumption but is it not what management really does?  And when sh_ _ happens we can spend less time trying to manage it out of existence and get on with things in ways that acknowledges this actually is part of what happens.

Over the course of the next year we are going to be investigating some of these core questions of organizational life as part of our subscription initiative.  We will be planning conference calls, writing and publishing articles, and exchanging ideas with other subscribed Network Members to move our thinking forward to help improve organizational life at its very roots; the way we think about it.

Stay tuned……

6 Comments on “Sh_ _ Happens – But What Causes It?”

  1. Hi there, It is great to see others picking up on Ralph Stacey’s work, although you do not mention him in this post.
    I would disagree that management designs interactions. This is coming from rational causality and is not a part of the idea of novelty emerging from interaction.

    Yes, managers often attempt to design interactions, however interactions cannot be designed, because you cannot design the response of the other person. You can use influence techniques and power relations are always a factor in every interaction but nevertheless each interaction has the possibility for a surprising outcome (e.g. agendas going off track). And each interaction also has the possibility for the familiar to result from it. Managers however much they try, cannot design the interactions, they can only participate in them, with intention.

  2. Thanks for the comment Stephen. As is mentioned in some of Stacey’s work, misunderstanding within the process of interaction can be a source of novelty. I would certainly agree that management cannot design the outcome of an interaction but they can design the occurence of an interaction and this was how the word ‘design’ was intended in this blog entry.

    It could be said, for instance that I ‘designed’ the possibility of this interaction, through the writing of this entry. I did not, and could not design your response as you say. Perhaps an illustration of the type of ‘design’ that I think is still very important to be done in organizations but using the word in a different way.

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  4. Thanks for a great post. It is perfectly aligned with my approach for process management that considers businesses as complex adaptive systems that emerge from user interaction and cannot be designed. Therefore it makes no sense whatsoever to do process design! Only the interactions that HAPPENEND are relevant and not the ones that are wanted.

  5. Thanks for the comment Max. I visited your web site and there does seem to be alignment with this post and what you are doing.

    As for complex adaptive systems, I am always leary about direct transfers of the learning from work in that area to human interaction, but the concepts, when interpreted into human interaction can be quite valuable I think.

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