The man in the train: Complexity, unmanageability, conversation and trust
Glanville R. (2001) The man in the train: Complexity, unmanageability, conversation and trust. In: Würtrich H. A., Winter W. B. & Philipp A. F. (eds.) Grenzen ökonomischen Denkens. Gabler Verlag, Wiesbaden: 311–352. Available at http://cepa.info/3870
Table of Contents
1. Introduction: the Man in the Train
3. Route Map
4. Cause and Constancy
5. Cause and Control
6. Control and Variety
9. The Victorian Classroom
10. Different Types of Complexity
12. Communicating in UnManageability
13. Qualities for Conversation
14. Corporate Listening
16. Loss of Trust
17. Summary and Concluding Remarks
Appendix A: A Problems of Trust: where (A Lack of) Trust has made a Difference
A.1 Prestige: fear of not getting respect
A.2 The Role of the State
A.3 Fear and Faith/Trust
A.4 Trusting Myself
This piece is gratefully dedicated to the lives, thoughts and work of Bill W and Dr Bob, and all those countless others who have followed their path: for the insights they placed in the world, and the hope they gave not only those they addressed themselves to, but also to humanity at large. They know more about trust than most of the rest of us put together.
In this article I explore, from a cybernetic point-of-view, the associated notions of complexity, unmanageability, conversation and trust. Complexity is familiarly presented as a problem of our time. I argue that, when seen through the characterisations of the cybernetic Law of Requisite Variety, complexity often leads to unmanageability, characterised by a controlling system not having enough variety to control the system it is to control. This leaves two options: to reduce the complexity of the system to be controlled (the option used by dictators controlling peoples), or to admit unmanageability. It is argued that unmanageability can be desirable in offering access to novelty. It is then argued that the primary means by which we can interact (and thus affect the behaviour of another system) should be seen as the conversation rather than encodement. (The alternative, to find another way in which to think of the system displaying complexity is also discussed.) The conditions that support conversation are explored: in particular, the implicit obligation to trust other participants in a conversation – and oneself. Trust is considered, and its benefits extolled against a background of experience in a historical context.
1. Introduction: the Man in the Train
Recently I was travelling home on a train from London which left a little before 9pm. Opposite me was a man dressed in a suit who ran through a long list of phone numbers calling each by turn and checking how each respondent’s work was. Catching him during a dialling pause, I remarked on how hard and late he had to work. He explained that although he had worked a long day at the office, as a senior middle manager he felt, in the evenings, the need to check all those he had to work with, especially those he had instructed to carry out some task, to make sure that it was being done.
At first I was impressed by his loyalty and diligence. But something niggled. And eventually it came to me that this man worked absurdly long hours, and his personal life was more-or-less non-existent, because he had no trust. It was not just a matter of identifying himself as his job (Glanville 1996a, Clare 2000). Because he would not trust his colleagues to get on with the task, deal with difficulties and (if they had a problem) call him back and ask for his advice and help, he ended up working for many hours each evening after he had left the office. This meant he interrupted his colleagues lives, extending his lack of trust into their homes because he had no faith. His lack of trust made life for him and for those he controlled absurd. We work to live, we don’t live to work! And if we do decide we live to work, we have no right to impose this reversal on others.
One of the biggest problems that faces us nowadays is the problem of managing complexity, or managing in a situation of great complexity.
There are many possible approaches to this problem of complexity, often trying to solve it by using techniques combining the increasing power of our computers and associated modelling techniques, together with different strategies and understandings of what managers do. The general assumptions are that there is a problem and that it needs solving. These approaches have to do with expertise applied to, rather than involvement with and in, the problem.
In this paper, I question these assumptions and approaches. I shall show the basis for our belief in control (management). Then I show that complexity is a result of this basis, and of our approach, and is both inevitable and beyond control. Finally, I shall show how we can resolve and dissolve the problem by thinking in a different way, and will explore some examples of this resolution and dissolution, in practice. Resolution and dissolution are intimately tied up with the concept of trust.
En route there will be a number of arguments and diversions to help sustain my position. They may seem peripheral, but they are necessary if this paper is to develop an argument rather than just a set of unjustified assertions.
3. Route Map
Because this paper ranges widely, I offer, here, an outline of the main argument, to act as a route map for the reader finding him/herself lost in what might seem (in metaphorical terms) like byways and side roads.
The main points of the argument may be summarised thus:
We live in a world we frequently describe as complex.This complexity may be seen as a product of how we choose to describe this world.In cybernetic systems, effective control can only occur when the variety (number of states) in the controlling system (at least) equals that in the system to be controlled.When the system to be controlled is vastly complex, it is difficult (impossible) to effectively control (rather than restrict) it because of a lack of variety in the controlling system.This situation gives rise to unmanageability, and systems become unmanageable.(Although complexity may be reduced by considering the system as a whole, instead of as made of parts.)Reconsidering our wish to control, we can find advantages in the non-viability of a conventional cybernetic control arrangement, i.e., in unmanageability.This applies to giving up our wish to control.Advantages include the introduction of novelty. This is an inevitable consequence.Not wishing to control (in the restrictive sense), we can benefit from the novelty potentially arising from conversational (as opposed to coded) communication.Conversation, thus, offers us a way of living with complexity. It allows us to communicate and to receive novelty through communication. Conversation depends, for its operation, on open-mindedness and listening (functions requiring generosity). These, in turn, are intimately integrated with trust, the antidote to fear.The acceptance of unmanageability may increase access to novelty, which can be encouraged by conversational communication; which depends on those positive human characteristics, generosity and trust. Which are surely more desirable than fear, greed, and daft over-simplification.
The reader should note that henceforth text, in italics and inset from both margin contains examples, amplifications, anecdotes and exemplifications taken from a wide range of concerns relevant to situations facing managers. There are also four more personal examples of Problems of Trust in Appendix A.
4. Cause and Constancy
The 20th Century has often been called the century of science – and its doing arm, technology. We have learnt to benefit from what science has brought us and we have, in turn, taken its tenets on board so that we scarcely recognise any longer that they are beliefs and profoundly form the way we understand our world.
The notion of science as beneficent has become so universally accepted that the word has become a sort of beatitude. Those studying management have suffixed the word: what they do is Management Science.[Note 1]
We have so taken science to our hearts that, until recently, to claim something was scientific was to claim it was, de facto, good. Conversely, to claim something was unscientific was to claim it was bad. Thus, the tenets – the suppositions and methods – of science (held as independent and eternal truths) have taken pride of place in society. And we have benefited from science in very many ways.[Note 2] Nevertheless, we have unconsciously and without any particular intention, subsumed into our ways of thinking certain assumptions, by a process akin to osmosis. We have built into our world views many of the beliefs of science, almost without any longer having any awareness of it.[Note 3]
What are these beliefs, especially seen from the vantage point of a cybernetician, i.e., someone dealing with and studying how we manage?
There are several. Firstly, science is concerned with isolating constants. Within any set of observations, scientists look for constants by finding relationships, of which the most philosophically fundamental is that which holds between individual instances that are seen to be the same. That is, they are taken to be a constant something. Thus, the obser‑vations may be said to be of some thing, entity or concept (henceforth, just “thing”), and may be seen as presenting necessarily partial aspects of that thing.
Strangely, these constant things are often referred to as variables, because, while constant, their values can vary. Thus, the valency of atoms (a quality derived by finding constants between different observations) is a variable, taking a number of values. So, too, are the size of your shoe and the number of germs in your phlegm.
At a basic level, then, the relationship holding between the aspect of a thing at one instance and then at the next, which constitutes identity in continuity, is philosophically profound: this is how we construct the constant objects, the identities, with which we fill our lives, as Jean Piaget has shown us.[Note 4]
Thus, objects are relationships that we maintain and hold constant. But in science, we isolate other qualities. One links the variables we have isolated together: to explain them in terms of (other) relationships. Having a collection of variables is not very interesting. Indeed, an explanation for why we have variables is to reduce the vastness of our experience to specific items we can treat as constant, without which there could be no recognition, memory, etc.
Making variables is a way of creating pattern. Yet a world full of isolated variables would be pretty confusing. Try to imagine a variable we will refer to by the word “eye,” taking a range of values (green, blue, grey, brown), but not related to the variable referred to by the word “face”! What would we do with all these variables?[Note 5] How would we avoid being completely drowned?
So we try to relate variables together. Achieving this, we have another relationship: a rule of assembly or of interconnection which, for instance, tells us eyes are components of faces but faces are not components of eyes. We, thus, establish hierarchy: which hierarchy allows us, at one extreme, to assume those objects we presume (in today’s atomic world) to be fundamental, the units of which all is made. In the other direction it leads to the assembly of wholes, including that greatest whole of all, the whole that contains all others, the Universe.
Certain relationships are not assembly relationships. These are “actions,” which lead to the relationship of cause and effect, the primary action mechanism by which science attempts to account for our Universe: This Causes That. A causal relationship is a statement that something always happens: it involves us abstracting from a history of observations to find a constant action relationship: and then proposing this will continue to maintain in the future. If water eventually boils every time I apply heat, I can (and do) claim that the application of heat causes water to boil: there is a causal relationship, although we usually also require that the mechanism of the cause is clearly stated. Whenever I apply heat to water (for long enough) it will boil. And whenever you do so, the same will happen. It will happen regardless of where we do this.[Note 6] This discovery can be extended and refined: the application of heat causes the temperature to rise, causing water to boil. So whenever I apply heat to anything it will get hotter (the temperature will rise). I have a generalised causal mechanism: add heat and objects will rise in temperature.
Note that this process is essentially the same as that used in creating identity in constant objects. It involves isolating a potential constancy and then generalising by taking past occurrences and claiming future validity. The fact that there is no necessary causal connection between past behaviour and what might happen in the future (as Wittgenstein 1961, amongst others, tells us) does not dismay us, but does lead to Popper’s idealistic notion of “Conjectures and Refutations” (Popper 1963) – idealistic because, while it is desirable that we keep the tenuous nature of scientific explanation in mind, this is not what we actually do. Rather, we become very conservative about it (Lakatos 1970).
It might be argued that the activities I have described as what scientists do are not exclusive to science. Regardless, they are examples of the benefits of that greatest of philosophical tools, Occam’s Razor, telling us to look for pattern (to explain more with less): [Note 7] for we are pattern makers, and through pattern making we learn to live in our world. And they reflect that it is we who do this explaining, the position taken by Alan Turing in devising his remarkable test for Artificial Intelligence (1950).[Note 8]
Science is based in us finding pattern. In particular, the pattern of constancy that gives us the relationships by which we construct the identities of objects, things, entities, variables. And the pattern of constancy that gives us cause: the relationship of action that when some action is taken, there will be a determinable consequence.[Note 9] It is this ability to predict (or restrict the imaginable) which gives science its power. It allows us to test (and improve) explanations, and, when these fail, build the new. Technology is science in action, building and inserting into the (physical) world that which science predicts (a test we strongly believe science will not fail). This notion of cause, based on the notion of relationship, behind which is the relationship of constancy, that (of all scientific beliefs) we have so strongly taken to our hearts, and provides the root concern of this paper.
5. Cause and Control
To pursue my claim about cause within the (management) context of this paper, I shall translate the term. Another way of talking about cause is to talk about control (Glanville 1995, in press a). When the action of one thing creates a predictable change in the behaviour of another, we say cause has been shown. But, equally, when the action of one thing creates a predictable change in the behaviour of another, then the first thing has controlled the behaviour of the second.[Note 10]
According to Norbert Wiener’s original characterisations, Cybernetics is concerned with control and communication: “Cybernetics – Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine,” as he called his book defining his view (1948). The contemporaneous Josiah Macy Conferences (1946 to 1953), where Cybernetics was “worked out” and applied, talked of “Circular Causal, and Feedback Mechanisms.”[Note 11] In the context of this paper’s cybernetic base, cause is to be understood as a particular example of control. We should therefore consider control and what is involved in it, if we wish to understand causality-as-control.
Thus, a manager, operating within a traditional top-down structure, who orders that all cars are to be painted black, is controlling the behaviour of the workforce and the ordering of the paint so it’s monochrome can be said to cause the cars to be black; just as the management culture that requires all (male) workers to wear dark suits, white shirts and ties (corporate man from IBM) controls the behaviour of the workers in regard to what they wear, thus causing them to dress as corporate man; just as the selection of products to be manufactured, of services to be offered, and of means of the creation of these products and services is controlled by managers who cause the consequent actions.
(Of course, for such control to work as cause, the compliance of the “managed” is required. But, in general, this is not only assumed, but a reasonable assumption. The early example in this paper mainly start out from such somewhat old-fashioned, top-down management premises: we will move into some alternative structures later, in demonstrating the argument of this paper. )
Control looms large in our thinking. We talk about controlling ourselves, about controlling the Universe, and about managing and regulating. We live in a world in which control (and, therefore, cause) is both desirable and effective. We gain power and influence from and in/through control. We believe we can make things perform according to our desires and wishes.[Note 12] We believe the world is better when we are in control. We believe in control.
6. Control and Variety
In order to control, whether other humans or the behaviour of a mechanism or machine (anything treated as behaving predictably), we build a model of that which we wish to control. WR Ashby, whose early characterisations of cybernetic systems are so precise, apposite and beautiful, brought to our attention, with Roger Conant (Ashby and Conant 1970) that “Any Good Regulator of a System must be a Model of that System.” A viable model has a one-to-one relationship with what it models (the system, as I will call it here): that is, each state that the system can take is represented by a corresponding state in the model, and all these states are similarly linked in both system and model. The (salient aspects of the) system are contained within the model such that a one-to-one relationship holds between system and model. (Of course, the model is also a system: the word model is used to emphasise a dependency relationship (Glanville 1997).)
The importance of the one-to-oneness in the relation between system and model is encapsulated by Ashby in his “Law of Requisite Variety.”[Note 13] There are several statements of this law. The one I shall use here is:
for any one system to control any other without restricting it, it must have at least as many states (as much variety) as the system it is to control. Only under these conditions can the controlling system have/be (or is) a viable model of the controlled system, to control it effectively.
Ashby’s Law indicates that the way we understand the concept of control may create problems. Control is a word full of negative overtones: we think of dictators controlling the peoples of nations. Control may have overtones of restriction, but that is not how it should be understood in the context of this paper. Cybernetic control does not restrict in the manner of the dictator. It regulates: that is, it does not in principle disregard or exclude various states a system might take, although it alters the likelihood that it will take them. This subtle difference might be indicated thus: controlling shapes the behaviour of the controlled system so it performs according to the aims (goals) of the controlling system. Frequently, this means that control is exercised to maintain stability in a varying, fluctuating and unpredictable environment. So control directs (restricts) in actuality, through the action of controlling, but it does not preclude in principle. It maintains, in the model, all possible states observed in the system, although it does not necessarily use them all or use them in the same way as the system.[Note 14] When the control system does not have the required number of (homomorphically mapped) states, frustration is inevitable, as is inflexibility and non-adaptability.
The Law of Requisite Variety tells us that the controlling system (which manipulates the model of the controlled system) must have at least as much variety as the controlled system, otherwise it will restrict the behaviour of the controlled system: that is, it will make it, in principle, impossible for the controlled system to take certain of the states it might need or wish to take, were it master of its own goals.
It would appear that, for a very complex system to be effectively controlled, the model used by the controlling system must itself be at least as complex as the controlled system. This presents a difficulty: the variety of the world is vast, but the variety we can imagine manipulating is vastly less vast! [Note 15]
We should note that, in our attempts to control, we often express a lack of trust. For instance, if we cannot trust the future, we can so restrict the world that it becomes predictable. Thus we control the outcome of the world-as-machine. Prediction is a way of controlling the future; and we are brought up to expect it. Similarly, when we cannot
trust colleagues, we often express the accompanying fear by setting up ways of behaving for them to follow: their behaviour becomes controlled (by us). This is an expression of a lack of trust. No matter that we describe these actions in other ways (e.g. improving efficiency), they indicate a lack of trust.
Consider, for example, the traditional role of the doctor and other hospital staff. On many occasions, a nurse’s knowledge is adequate to make what the doctor would think of as clinical decisions: indeed, often the nurse is better equipped to make these decisions than the consultant doctor. But, in one of the most autocratic and paternalistic systems yet devised by mankind, hospital doctors totally control their patients’ treatment while other staff are granted at best very limited responsibility. As a result, treatment is often less effective than it might be. In response to this, the British Government (for instance) has recently moved to enable nurses to prescribe and administer certain medications. The system as it is ignores the wisdom of the nursing staff, who, as a result, are often dispirited as their chance to help creatively is dismissed. Although the situation is improving as we learn to revere doctors less, and become unprepared to be treated as meat, the behaviour of staff in hospitals is still dominated by rules and controls that virtually remove all the variety from staff other than consultants. It is very difficult for these consultant doctors to listen to or imagine trusting the nursing staff Substituting manager for doctor and workforce for nurse, we see somewhat discredited management practice in action.
Another example of rule dominated behaviour that removes initiative and trust is the combative approach to industrial relations in which the management “us” is set against the workers “them.” This maintained even in those countries that were purportedly run by (or for) the workers. It is hard to imagine an arrangement less designed to promote initiative, creativity and responsibility in the work force than the old “communist” factory, totally top-down controlled; and the distrust between the two parts in this sort of industrial set up is legendary. It is in reaction to this extreme that so much management theory of the last quarter century has been developed, sponsoring, for instance, small autonomous teams within the single organism that is taken to have been the source of the remarkable post second world war Japanese economy.
It can be argued (as I like to do) that the situation regarding control is not quite as indicated above, because control is normally circular, not linear. As already remarked, the Macy Conferences, in which the ideas of Cybernetics were paraded were concerned with Circular Causality.
Consider that simplest of technical control devices, the thermostat. We have learned to think the switch on the wall controls the heater. But the heater equally controls the switch, causing it (as we say) to turn on and off as a result of the heat delivered to its environs. Some find this counter-intuitive, for it means that in, for instance, the automated factory the robots control the central computer just as the central computer controls the robots.[Note 16] The control is circular: each (sub-)system in the loop controls the other. Which we name the controller is a matter of convenience, interest or convention.
It is not so different with people – under normal conditions. We discuss as more-or-less equals. Even in the lecture theatre, seemingly a situation in which one person has control over many, competent and entertaining lecturers assess the messages (expressed through body language etc.) being sent them as the audience completes the communication loop of circular control: adjusting their performance accordingly.
There is a wonderful story of BF Skinner, the behaviourist psychologist. The story (hopefully not apocryphal) has it that his students determined, in one of his lectures, that when he moved to the right they would smile, while when he moved to the left they would frown. Skinner, of course, ended up leaning on the right wall. And the students? Do not forget them, for they too are in this loop. They ended with smiles frozen on their faces, the rictus of death.
Thus, in controlling something, we, too, get caught up in its behaviour. In the case above, the students are trapped into smiling by their wish to manipulate Skinner into the right hand corner (thus demonstrating a behaviourist behaviour). Is this the behaviour they really wish to exhibit? This phenomenon is not limited to experimental psychology. Managers, wishing to control some behaviours of a workforce, find their own behaviour changes as it becomes affected by the manipulations practised to affect these changes. In psychological terms this is known as co-dependence, and can lead, when over-strong, to damaging behaviour. We get caught up, controlling X in the behaviour we are using to control X Thus, circularity is not always benign, even if it is much more in evidence than we may think.
Perhaps the most remarkable examples of circles in which we get caught up are conversations – so long as both (or all) participants can both listen and utter. Under these circumstances it no longer makes any sense to talk of controller and controlled (an important lesson for managers, and a strong argument for the notion of management as co-regulation rather than control): what control there is is circular, existing between all con- versants, within the conversation. [Note 17] This is what gives the conversation its identity and autonomy.
Circular structures are neither good nor bad. They can be either, and therefore can be dangerous – as can linear structures. What is important is to recognise that such circular structures are common, and even all- pervasive.
We do better to consider control as circular. When control appears linear, we may take it as a special, simplified case, with a weakened return link: and we have learnt through Occam to prefer the more general account.
So what happens to the Law of Requisite Variety, when each system controls the other? If the variety of a controlling system must be at least as great as the variety of a controlled system, but each system controls the other, the variety of each can only be equal. “At least as great as” must, in circular causality, be replaced by “equal to” if the whole circle is to be controllable, each constituent controlled by the other.
To many of us, we seem to live in a world of vast and increasing complexity. Certainly, most current accounts of our world enthusiastically and emphatically accept this. As systems get larger, they get more parts which can connect in yet more ways giving increasingly more potential states. All these mores tend to act together exponentially, so we deal not with multiples, but exponents, in a “combinatorial explosion.” This rapidly reaches what Bremmermann calls the “transcomputable.” (See footnote 15.)
As it happens, it takes very little combinatorial explosion before we reach numbers exceeding, by many orders of magnitude, the estimated number of atoms in the universe.[Note 18] We might assume that each minimal piece (bit) of information we want to store needs somewhere to be stored (a location to be attached to), which might be an atom. As soon as we involve an operation (such as an exhaustive search) needing us to store more bits than there are atoms (locations), we have attained the transcomputable: we can’t calculate it because we don’t have enough atoms on which to store all the numbers (i.e., to give them unique addresses)!
What is important is not the absolute accuracy of these figures – the numbers we are using are intended not to be absolutely accurate, but to indicate the possible, to show magnitude – but the consequence that, as we describe the world in this way, we reach a limit to the possible (much more rapidly than we might expect). To give some sense of scale, it only takes an exhaustive search for 4 possible potential combinations of chemical elements which might theoretically make compound materials, to exceed the calculable capacity of the entire known universe over all of calculated time, even computing at a very fast rate.
Transcomputability scotches any attempt, practicably to match the variety of many systems that we might want to control (as required by the Law of Requisite Variety). Yet we cope with variety and control.[Note 19] How can this be?
9. The Victorian Classroom
Before we answer this question, consider an example of how we have handled the imbalance of variety between controller and controlled traditionally.[Note 20]
A normal classroom is full of pupils who we will assume to have about the same intelligence/intellectual potential and mental capacity as each other and their teacher. (This is not to say the their capability is equally honed and tuned.) The number of mental states (the variety) of each may be taken to be roughly equivalent (of the same order of magnitude). When no constraint is applied, the total variety of pupils is that of the teacher, exponentiated to the number of students in the class. In effect, the variety of the teacher is minuscule in comparison to the variety of the class taken as a whole.
Consider, then, the organisation of a school class in Victorian Britain (and elsewhere). The pupils sit in rows at desks, facing the teacher. They may not talk to each other, or communicate in any other way. They remain silent until the teacher requires a response. At that point, some raise their hands, and one is invited to speak. This pupil is taken to represent the class, to speak on behalf of all.
To emphasise the lack of difference between them, pupils wear uniform, have strict codes of personal appearance (e.g. length of hair) and are restricted to single sex. They look the same. And the teacher, with all the attributes of power, is on a raised platform, above the pupils.
Mike Robinson (1979) has provided this analysis, which shows how to destroy creative, active participation by the pupils. The collection of pupils have their individual identity and interconnectedness removed so they may more easily be treated as one: which one has the same mental capacity as the teacher. Remove the connection, remove the individuation, and you reduce the variety, simplib, ing it so the class, embodied as the chosen, all-purpose pupil has no more variety that the (one) teacher.
Although we used a classroom as our example, such restriction can surely be found in other fields, such as an office? How often are workers treated as a uniform workforce? How much recent management theory is concerned with how to manage such a body to benefit from the creative contributions each individual might make, the creativity and individual worth of each, rather than flattening them into the same uniform body? While this sort of variety destruction (in the controlled) is no longer generally seen as desirable, it remains all too familiar.[Note 21]
In this example of how we often cope with a variety imbalance, we can see that the whole arrangement is set up to our great disadvantage.
Yet, in spite of this and other similar examples, we do cope: we can handle these variety imbalance problems. How can this be?
There are, I believe, at least two answers. These answers are possible because we have alternatives in how we choose to construct both our ways of describing and our understandings, so that we may not only solve problems: we can also re-solve them and dissolve them. For no description, no understanding of a thing (event, abstraction, concept or whatever) is that thing (event, abstraction, concept or whatever).
10. Different Types of Complexity
In talking of complexity we have more-or-less assumed it can be considered atomic. It, like information and the number of atoms in the universe, can be determined by multiples of minimal, well-defined units. These minimal units (atoms) are invariant: that is, they are to all effects and purposes, what science calls variables. Multiplication of these “atomic” units leads to the vast (number) sizes that constitute the combinatorial problems of complexity. Even if we claim we are not using an absolutist minimal unit, we are thinking in terms of (identical and repeatable) parts, and enough of them that their combinatorial possibilities soon become enormous.
When we want to control some system, we do so because we want to modify its behaviour to fit our own aims (goals), suggesting we are looking for an element of intentional and effective choice: our aims; our determination and description of the states.
In response to this problem of the vast numbers associated with complexity, I wish to propose, firstly, that there is more than one type of complexity. This is borne out in our talking of parts and of wholes. Although, given our atomist approach, we are used to thinking in terms of isolating parts and then putting them together to form our wholes, these wholes have an existence in their own right, separate and apart from the parts. That is to say, we identify and recognise wholes. I recognise you as a person, a human being. I do not, generally, recognise you as a collection of organs, and cells; even less as molecules/atoms/quarks etc.. By a similar token, I recognise cells, for instance, as wholes. We recognise wholes, which we may than cast in the roles of parts. Parts are, as I have sloganised them, just wholes in roles.[Note 22]
Thus, the measure of an individual human being as constituted of millions of cells and billions of atoms, is a way of seeing and of counting that inevitably leads to large numbers, whereas the measure of that same individual human being as a recognisable whole leads to a very small count: the whole is one, is you.[Note 23]
In saying this, we need not deny that wholes may be made up of parts. What, however, we do insist is that these parts are, in their own right, wholes: that a whole is the name we use for the identifiable, the recognisable, and its relation to other wholes making it appear to take the role of a part.
If I can identify it, it is one. This is the argument of the Gestalt (Kohler 1947).
Let me give an example, taken from calculation. Without access to a mechanical calculating aid, many have difficulty with multiplication. In an experiment, I asked a group to multiply together 3, 3-digit numbers and to time themselves doing this. But I asked them to use two different ways of multiplying. Firstly, to do a rough reckoning, and then to do a precise calculation by long multiplication. (I also finally asked them to calculate using a calculator). The results were interesting. Typically, the rough reckoning method took less than 5 seconds, whereas long multiplication took over 30 seconds. (Multiplying on the calculator took more-or-less the same time as rough reckoning because most of us are slow at entering numbers into a calculator.) The rough reckoning results were within 5% of the “correct” result. The long multiplication results were mostly correct but occasionally quite wildly out.[Note 24]
My point is not to report the statistics of the results, but to indicate that there are alternative yet effective ways in which to consider how to handle the problem of manipulating numbers we see as complex. The example should be seen as a metaphor. Long multiplication is a metaphor for handling through parts: numbers are felt to be complicated and difficult when made up of many parts (so the number 384 is made up of 384 parts (units), involving 3 orders of magnitude). Rough reckoning is like taking the numbers as wholes, dealing with them as simple. The difference in outcome resulting from the different ways of conceiving is slight – in strictly numerical terms – especially given the many sources of “human” error. For many purposes (e.g. keeping tabs at a supermarket checkout), the approximation of the rough reckoning may be quite adequate.[Note 25]
In the case of rough reckoning, above, I trust my ability to approximate, and to allow for my approximations. In long multiplication, I trust the procedure. Using a calculator, I trust the mechanical embodiment of the procedure and the power of symbols. However, in the case of both long multiplication and the use of the calculator, I need a sense of what is correct, if I am to truly trust my result is free from operational errors: which sense I must derive from myself (my rough reckoning). In some fields this is known as a sense of scale, without which, tremendous errors can and do flourish.[Note 26]
In the case of rough reckoning, I describe the numbers so they are simple wholes, in comparison to the complex numbers I conceive when I do long multiplication. The variety is different in each case because I have defined the numbers in different ways.
There is an alternative to working up from quasi-absolute parts: learn to identify the wholes we need to deal with in any particular situation, and then work with them – as managers do with divisions, focus groups etc.. But this, while central to the general argument about how to handle complexity, is an aside taken from the main line of this paper.
Let us return to the notion of variety in relation to control. We have understood that Ashby’s Law (of Requisite Variety) requires that, for us to be able to effectively control another system, the variety in us (as controllers) must be at least as great as the variety in the system to be controlled. For circular systems (i.e., cybernetic systems with feedback loops), this requires the variety in both controller and controlled to be the same. The requirement comes about because we wish to control (in the good sense of regulate) the behaviour of some system so that it will perform “better” – i.e. more according to our aims/goals: and we allow, in the case of circular systems, that the goals are shared – as is the notion of control.[Note 27]
In the example of the classroom we saw a reduction in the variety of the system to that of the component with the lowest variety (the solitary teacher),[Note 28] in turn leading to a removal, in the name of control, of all sorts of potential. Surely we do not generally want this sort of reduction.
Could we then consider this in another way? If, instead of trying to control we accept that we are confronted, so often in the world we live in, by variety far greater than we can ever hope to muster. In other words, we can only control by reducing the system we wish to control to the level of our own relative impoverishment. (This is, of course, what how authoritarian systems work.) If many of the systems we relate to cannot be controlled effectively, maybe we should reconsider our approach.
Instead of us (acting in the role of controller) reducing variety to our own level in that which we wish to control, we can open ourselves to the richness in variety in the other system, allowing this to introduce possibilities (states constituting variety) that were completely outside our own, prior, limited conception (Glanville 1997, 1998).
The problem of creating enough variety to effectively control another system, or to get into a shared circular relationship of mutual control, disappears when we consider that the nature of our world, so rich in variety, is to be essentially uncontrollable: that is, when we welcome unmanageability rather than fighting it we learn to live with and benefit from our condition – that our world is unmanageable. In this way, we can use the variety on offer to expand our own range, which is tantamount to increasing our creative potential, and hence our creativity.[Note 29]
What would this mean?
It would not mean that we had to give up all possibilities of control, although purists might choose to see it this way. Rather, it would mean trying not to plan, [Note 30] over a long time span and against each and every contingency, preferring to cope with disturbances locally, immediately and at small scale: to modify our behaviour rather than planning projectively to remove the unpredictable (the unpredicted) – that is, the uncontrollable – way into the future.
But why should we leave ourselves open to the unpredictable (the unpredicted), [Note 31] rather than managing it out by excluding possibilities, as in the classroom example?
The answer is simple.
Firstly, we cannot remove the unpredictable. There will always be something new, something outside our previous experience and our imagining, something we did not expect. This is what unpredictable means. There are contingencies we cannot pre-conceive and/or rule out, which may always, therefore, engender surprise.
Secondly (and resulting from the first), when we accept that the world is unpredictable, that the variety is too great for us to effectively control without restriction, we are left open to the new. There will always be events outside our experience and our imagining, whether stemming from other people or from the physical (or any other) world.[Note 32] Hence, our world’s unmanageability is a source of novelty. In this light, being out-of-control hardly seems to matter. And this, when we are prepared to see it, gives us creativity.
We might consider many examples of ways of benefitting, in industry, from welcoming unpredictability. Many come from the computer industry, where rapid development is currently essential.
The example I give is of Sinclair Electronics.[Note 33] Sinclair’s company was notorious for the employment conditions of its engineers, who were given the top floor of his factory, filled with pinball machines, coffee lounges, videos, and whatever else they wanted. The only condition was that when they had an idea, they worked on it. Sinclair’s belief was that the variety of extraneous activities would encourage inventiveness, and, for a time, his company was a major producer of desktop computers (before IBM and Apple set industry standards), and enormously successful. There are many other examples of such “inventoria.”
A second example can be taken from the military. While normal military units are designed on the variety removal model (see elsewhere), elite forces such as the SAS and SBS work without uniform, the constructed courtesies of rank, or any such encumbrances. These troops, in contrast to the more normal ones forming the major part of armed forces, are required to show initiative, independence and resourcefulness, and are responsible for deciding what actions to take. Major decisions are group decisions with all having equal say. This is a force where the individuals are trusted, with the result that their performance is outstanding.
12. Communicating in UnManageability
Control requires communication, as Wiener’s book title affirms. In a world dominated by the concept of control, the intention is to communicate the wish of the controller to the controlled, in a clear manner, producing the change in behaviour of the controlled required by the controller. (I am ignoring problems arising from uncertainty as to where the controller is, as in circular systems.) Cybernetic systems are systems in which messages are passed so that the behaviour of some elements changes under the influence of others (i.e., there is at least the potential for communication).
Cybernetic communication was initially assumed to be through some form of encodement (as per treatments in Information Theory).[Note 34] I have argued the basic weaknesses of this approach, and will not repeat myself.[Note 35] What is unquestionable, in the context of this paper, is that, if the situation does not accord to Ashby’s Law (if there are more states in one part of the control arrangement than in the other), we cannot encode the communication effectively: restating the crux of the argument, there are states in the one part that the other cannot have. Under these circumstances, it is in principle not possible to communicate.[Note 36]
Thus, when faced with unmanageability, our notion of coded communication turns out to be inadequate. If coding were the only way we could communicate, we would have come to a full stop.[Note 37]
An interesting example of the coding concept in explicit linguistic use is the Whorf (or Whorf-Sapir) Hypothesis. Benjamin Lee Whorf was a linguist and insurance company employee who noticed that, amongst some Native American Tribes, there was virtually no fire risk. On examination, he discovered that these people had very large vocabularies in which to describe the various states and conditions of a fire, which, he argued, meant they had much more control over the fire and thus were much less likely to let the fire get out of control and burn things. A parallel to this can be found in the extensive vocabulary of some of those inhabiting cold countries with words for snow and ice conditions (according to WR Mead, the Fennologist, the Finns have a vocabulary of 46 words with which to describe states of snow).
In these cases, the variety of the states of language (measured in terms available) is increased in the (relatively) enriched vocabulary. The notion is that each user can map his perception onto the terms available – although the Whorf Hypothesis was also used to propose the view that language limited our thinking. However, it appears that both are true: the relationship between a language’s vocabulary and what can be thought by users of that language is complex: language both limits and enables: while forming thought it is also formed by thought.
However, it is hard to argue why there should be just so many terms, or that people using these terms see the world the same. Consider, for instance. The difficulty with which even experts communicate about colour. And then consider how the defining into fixed terms exclude certain options, so that colour as defined on computers excludes certain colour values: hence the increase from 8 to 16 to 24 and now 32 and 64 bit colour definitions.
And it is certainly so that the description of an activity using such quasi atomic terms can lead to great restriction in ways of handling it, so that our ways of acting become trapped in the (terminological) vocabulary of our description. To use problem solving terminology, the solution space is confined by the definition of the problem space.
There is, however, a way other than coding in which to consider communication, another mode we can and do use. This is a dialogical approach epitomised in the conversation. One of the greatest of the original cyberneticians, Gordon Pask, spent much of his life working on “Conversation Theory,” and its two generalisations, the ProtoLogic Lp, and the Interaction of Actors Theory.[Note 38] Pask’s work is extremely theoretical, intended to allow the mechanisation of certain processes in communication so humans can better communicate among themselves, and with/through machines. We do not need to be so technical. Pask’s notion of conversation is firmly based in everyday life. When we converse, we need at least two participants, although they might both be in one body as when “I talk with myself’.[Note 39] When we converse (hold a dialogue, discuss, etc.), we need not assume coded communication. In respecting each participant as individual, we recognise each thinks differently. Phrases such as “Let me put it in my own words” indicate that we make our own constructions and meanings.
In a conversation, messages need not carry and communicate coded understandings. Instead, we each construct our own understandings from what we hear, as others do from what we say.[Note 40] When you tell me something, I make of it what I can, and then repeat what I heard/understood back to you in words reflecting my understanding. If you consider this close enough to your original understanding, you may conclude that you communicated to me. Successful communication depends on listening.[Note 41]
Since the understanding of each participant is different (although, in a sense, shareable), there is a natural movement in the conversation as each of us inevitably injects something not of the other.[Note 42] Conversation is a mechanism for the inclusion of the new (made up, in this case, from what the other has to offer, but I do not). This novelty comes from the fact that, being unique and different, each is effectively unmanageable to the other. We are also, as I have demonstrated, mathematically unmanageable when faced with a group of people, rather than one-to-one.
In an interview in the Listener magazine, the deeply influential linguist Noam Chomsky explained that the word freedom and its Russian translation were not really equivalent at all. For an American, freedom is based in individual right; for a (communist ear) Russian, freedom was always within the context of the state – freedom to serve the state. Chomsky argued that mutual understanding between the USA and the Soviet Union was impossible because there were no translations of critical terms.
The assumption behind this is of absolute meanings encoded in words. This concept has been developed through, for instance, lexicography, and its assumption leads to stalemate. To move beyond this we have to negotiate, accepting all the while that meanings are personal and not transmitted. Failure to do this by one side or the other can lead to many disagreements that become intransigent, as has so often happened between management and organised labour.
The extraordinary difficulty of dealing in code is shown in such as instructions for playing games, and legal documents. Their convoluted and incomprehensible text comes about because clarification and negotiation are not considered possible.
Conversation is a mechanism for communication that requires us to build our own understandings of what is presented to us, rather than having to decode ready-packaged meanings (Glanville 1996b). Conversation is a mechanism for the introduction of novelty, that is, of transcendence – going beyond our own limitations – and for coping with the unmanageable.[Note 43]
13. Qualities for Conversation
In the publications emanating from the many years of work Pask and his colleagues put into conversation, and in endless meetings and discussions with them (Pask was my doctoral supervisor), I am unaware of any discussions of what a conversation requires of its participants in terms of attitudes to the conversation and the participants. I was myself unaware that this was an area worth thinking about until recently when I came to write an appreciation of Pask’s work.[Note 44]
In order to take part in a conversation there are, I argue a number of qualities we must assume and demonstrate. Of these, the most important ones – and those most related to the arguments in this paper – are open-mindedness, the ability to listen and generosity.
Unless we learn to listen, we will never hear what the other in a conversation offers us, merely imposing our own views, which is not conversational. We have to listen in a positive way, not trying to belittle, but trying to hear what the other wishes to communicate (their understanding) so that we can build a decent equivalent of it – before we come to judge it as better or worse than our own. This is open-mindedness. And unless we are open-minded, we have no chance to listen in a positive way. All we have is prejudgement, which excludes and is therefore anti-conversational (Nichols 1995).
And, finally, unless we are generous, we belittle others, and do not help them beyond their difficulties in forming and expressing their ideas – so we respond in a dismissive manner, often before they have even finished their attempts. We need to assume that our fellow participant is making an effort and has something to say, and that conversation is worthwhile, otherwise a conversation cannot hope to work. We must believe in conversation: that it is a worthwhile act, beneficial to us (and in which others can also benefit). That is, the very act of conversation requires generosity of us.[Note 45]
In a sense, open-mindedness and the ability to listen are products of the notion of generosity. To be open-minded is to be generous. To listen to the other (without imposing one’s own view) is to be generous. Thus, the key quality for us to participate in conversation is generosity.[Note 46]
14. Corporate Listening
Some companies have great difficulty hearing what is said to them. In part, this is because of the way they are structured (whether by intention or default). Many show this through poor and highly restrictive feedback loops. Some are also imbued with a sense of fear. But some companies also realise they do not know how to listen to their customers.
Consider service industries. They have to provide either services people want, or services that create a market (people learn to want).
Remember what happens when customers begin to distrust a product, no matter that it may be for a spurious a reason. The product has serious problems. Examples range from the contamination of Perrier water, through the Tylenol razor blade episode, to Concorde. In no case was the company at primary fault, but they all had to react quickly and, in the case of Concorde, may never recover.
In practice, companies often resort to questionnaires to find out what customers want. But there is a basic flaw in this method, no matter how much the pollsters show us subtleties and refinements: questionnaires are only capable of asking and asking within the concept set of the asker. Everything contained within the response is initiated and framed by the questions. No matter how hard a company may try to listen through responses to a questionnaire, what the questionnaire is concerned with must always be driven by what the company thinks and asks, not what a customer may wish to say.[Note 47]
So the company cannot actually listen to the wishes of its customers: all it can listen to is the customer’s responses to its suggestions, i.e. the company’s ideas of what might be done. Everything is framed within the terms and the call of the company. Far from listening to the customer with an open mind, the company excludes any concerns or interests which are not part of the agenda the company puts forward.
Many companies find it very hard to listen, which disability often leads into intransigence (they are not alone in this).[Note 48] Yet nowadays many companies need to listen very carefully because the changes they face make the context they are working in unmanageable. They need listening as part of the conversation, to admit the variety customers brings. To restrict (as questionnaires do) the responses given to the questions the company can think of is to attempt to control the unmanageable. To learn to listen is to be open to suggestions and thus to creativity. I hope the parallel to earlier work in this paper is clear.
As an example of intransigence and not listening, we need look no further than Northern Ireland. I am not qualified to comment on or judge the history of this dispute. But what is apparent is the “screaming” of the “interested” parties and their unwillingness to listen with any sort of open mind. This follows though as a matter of trust, and what is noteworthy at the moment is the way that those involved in the peace processes waver in their efforts to trust, and the frailty of the trust they establish: when the trust goes, the sides take up arms again (see the next section).
This sort of response is familiar, however, in far less extreme situations. When a worker is not being heard by his manager (or vice versa) there is a similar problem. The worker’s commitment drops off as does the quality of his work and his involvement. There is then a breakdown: the manager accuses the worker, already feeling unvalued by the management, so that he feels even worse. Again his work suffers, in a circle of positive feedback.
And, of course, an industry that doesn’t listen to its customers and its staff (as well as to its investors) will soon lose its market share. The example of the “arrogance” of the British High Street clothing chain Marks and Spencer (who, for instance, believed they need only accept a credit card issued by themselves) has lead to the fall of a British institution to the point where it has been so seriously damaged that many doubt it can regain its former place in the market.
We have seen that, when we try to control the world, we quickly and inevitably become frustrated. We cannot envisage every contingency and we find it very difficult to reduce variety so that we can control it effectively and without distortion. (The few examples that might be said to be successful on a massive scale, for instance, fascism, have seriously damaged not only the people who were controlled – but also the controller.) It seems extraordinary that we continue to try to control in this traditional way, especially when we see the impoverishment it brings us. The lesson developed here is that the complexity of the world (that which is not I) is vast; vastly vaster than any complexity we can imagine. We cannot control it, and therefore complexity, effectively, asserts unmanageability. Faced with the essential unmanageability in which we find ourselves, our options are to try to restrict (which we have argued is infeasible without vast variety reduction) or, accepting, to learn to benefit from this condition. We benefit when we see the result of unmanageability as a gift bringing new insights, new experiences, life beyond our imaginings (no matter how wild they may be). But to do this we require trust. We need to trust that what will become available to us is good; the people we work with wish to work with us; and we all wish to interact constructively together. We trust events, we trust the future and we trust others even though it may be hard for us to do so: and it may take time for others, previously untrusted and/or distrusted, to learn to act in trust. There is, in principle, no option but to trust.[Note 49] Fortunately, trust (like distrust) is contagious. I will expand on this in the next section.
A colleague in a senior academic position wanted to give his staff presents. It was impracticable for him to chose individually for each staff member, given the circumstances, and would have been a very complex operation even if the circumstances had been easier, so he bought enough presents to go round and placed them, wrapped, in a lucky dip. Out of a group of 60 people, only 2 picked presents they did not like: and those 2 had presents the other wanted, so they swapped. The point is that a lucky dip is a device for opening the mind: the question in the mind of the dipper is not so much “Will I get what I want?” as “What surprise is in store for me?.” The difference in approach of the dippers made it possible for the senior academic to give presents in such a way that their selection by the lucky dippers opened up their minds to the possibility of something unexpected but lovely. Thus he managed to avoid the problem of trying to match presents to people, arguably gaining more satisfaction in his staff than if he had tried matching presents to people. This was possible because he trusted in the outcome, in spite of it being outside his control.
(In effect, when working this way, we are saying that it is not what I want which is important, but what I can come to have found I wanted, after the event! This is how designers work (Glanville 1981, 1999).)
Trust is, furthermore, the antidote to fear. Unless we trust, we live in perpetual fear. And fear is a far worse experience than the occasional let-down which happens when someone we trust abuses or cannot live up to that trust.
The restriction of others to what we can imagine ultimately also restricts us. We become trapped by and within the limitations of our imagination. Those who enslave others become, themselves, enslaved, for the enslavement of others leads to an equal enslavement of the self.
16. Loss of Trust
Trust is a wonderful quality. Having it, it grows and it flows to others. If you trust others, they feel better and they work better. When you don’t have it, lack of trust also grows and flows to others, and is immeasurably destructive not only of people and the relationships between them, but also of the work they do.
My experience is mainly (but by no means exclusively) in teaching university students and staff to become more creative. I have found that those I work with generally perform to the level I lead them to believe I expect of them. When I show them I trust them, and I expect them to perform as 1 trust them, they surprise themselves by performing much better than they had thought possible.[Note 50] Trust pays dividends.
Measuring, testing and suchlike (which, however, may also indicate that we are not to be trusted), may help locally with unmanageability, but the problem of unmanageability always looms. Yet society seems determined to destroy trust. This leads to consternation and loss of morale. When people succeed in an environment where trust has been lost or thrown away, they become fearful of what will happen if they fail. They live in fear of the next time, the future, the unknown. Some companies have programmes which expect every member of staff to produce more, each year. This has also become the norm in teaching in the UK; and teachers who feel squeezed dry are commanded, year on year, to squeeze themselves drier: blood from a stone. This may lead to the man on the train syndrome. In the end, the 24 hours available in the day are not enough. Workforces, when they feel distrusted and exploited, become surly and create difficulties for management and, more importantly, for the success of their companies.
Loss of trust is very difficult to cure. From our individual life experiences, many of us will, sadly, have had experience of the loss of trust, and the pain it causes. The generalised mistrust that accompanies this can last a lifetime. The answer to how to handle loss of trust is, of course, not to loose it in the first place. But since we can and do, with or without intention, we are left trying to act to rebuild trust. This is a “Catch 22,” since you have to trust to trust: i.e., to (re-)build trust you have to build trust.
The nature of trust is that we have it until it is lost.[Note 51] Then we have fear: that trust will be lost again as well as because we are not trusted. And so we have no trust. The fact that it was lost once is enough to remove it from our menu of attitudes. All we can do is this: each of us that wishes to work in trust must continue to behave as if trust was there. We know it may be broken, we may be abused. But we, at least, retain our trust and integrity: and slowly many of those who have lost trust regain it.[Note 52]
How do we engage those who have lost trust in this endeavour? Through conversation. Merely to enter into conversation is to initiate the creation of shared trust.[Note 53] To converse, to engage in conversation even if only to make a point, is to turn away from those ways of being, relating and attitude that thrive on fear. In conversation, and in our willingness to engage in the trust of conversation, we open the door for trust to re-enter. To agree to converse is to open the door to trust: for conversation is predicated on trust, generosity, open-mindedness and listening.
Conversation is not the only way. Some people become so unhappy living in fear that they decide to live in trust regardless. Such Pauline conversion is possible and fruitful to those who can make it. It is akin to the change in attitude which allows addicts[Note 54] – beaten into submission – to determine to change how they behave.
Yet we retain a tendency to persist in using approaches that remove trust, to continue to act and to sample approaches in which we attempt to control what is essentially uncontrollable. There are certain questions, and there are certain ways of asking questions, of directing them, which preclude certain answers, or render them inaudible, incomprehensible – or which set our minds in such a mode that we cannot understand in a way that might help us.
Acting thus, we miss the benefits, the joy and potential richness of unmanageability, opening horizons and giving us new insights and discoveries. These are, surely, not matters of numbers and accounting. But they are what make us human, different from other species: and any management that fails to recognise this, from the slave drivers of ancient Egypt to the production line of Ford and Turner, to the distorted re-engineering and downsizing of today takes away from the very quality of the life that we work to live.[Note 55] This is no argument against efficiency, but it is an argument against the poverty of the way we think of efficiency, i.e., of the factors we in and exclude. We may not have to face a radical “total realignment.” Management, after all, is often about finding an appropriate balance.
17. Summary and Concluding Remarks
We have often dealt with complexity through attempts to control it, along the way reducing variety in the complexity until it matches the variety we can muster. We thus gain manageability at the expense of simplification and loss of variety. Along with this we may generate fear – loss of individuality and misunderstanding.
When we trust, when we can enter into conversation (when we can listen with generosity) we gain the benefits of unmanageability. We can then reconstruct the relationship between complexity and control to our advantage. And, gaining these benefits, we have a way of looking at complexity and control that is beneficial, i.e. unmanageability. We also have a technology and method for engaging with and in complexity that is supportive of these benefits – conversation. And when we enter into conversation, we build trust.
Appendix A: A Problems of Trust: where (A Lack of) Trust has made a Difference
A.1 Prestige: fear of not getting respect
I remind the reader of the section 9, “The Victorian Classroom,” in which I introduced Mike Robinson’s analysis of the limitations and conditions that allow the (Victorian) classroom to work.
In some schools, a different type of classroom (and teaching) arrangement is used. This arrangement is founded in a different understanding of the role of the teacher, who becomes less an expert instructor and more a facilitator.[Note 56] Groups of students talk together, working on shared tasks, with the teacher visiting the groups and both encouraging and steering (a very cybernetic role!).
Many teachers have problems with this arrangement. Teachers are as tied up in their jobs as any other group, no matter where in the world you look. They, too, suffer from the confusing belief that their job is who they are: it defines them.[Note 57] For these teachers, the loss of authority associated with accepting the commitment of unmanageability is a serious matter – a loss of self. Teachers are (justly) proud of what they (selflessly) achieve: they are experts in their fields, they are teachers transmitting knowledge. As those who have been in therapy know, pride can be very dangerous. It often hides fear, and it certainly mitigates against an open mind. Teachers (especially those who identify themselves with their jobs) can become very rigid in their approaches. The “respect” the Victorian teacher expected had little to do with performance, a lot to do with pride and power.
Under these alternative conditions, change is difficult. In the “facilitation” type of classroom, teachers have no option but to accept unmanageability. They are no longer controllers. Subject Expertise is not of primary importance (although it may be very valuable): their job is no longer instruction: it is to allow unmanageability space, and to facilitate the interaction (conversation) between the pupils. To achieve this, the teachers must trust. They must trust (and believe in) the situation. They must trust their students – that they will perform well.[Note 58] They must trust their colleagues and support systems, including their employers.
And they must trust themselves – which may be the hardest of all.
Consider the example of a university design school teaching through a collection of specialisms. Students appear and are “programmed” through a course by the expert teachers. However, it is realised that design is no longer best thought of as a collection of specialisms (for instance, in multimedia photography and graphics come together with movie and sound: and remember, sound was traditionally taught in the conservatories). The decision is made to teach a generalised design course, with special studies and focuses, making the course more “unmanageable.” But this decision is difficult to put into practice: expert teachers are afraid that they cannot work without the protection of their expertise they will lose their prestige. They find it impossible to trust colleagues, the work situation, and, most of all, themselves. This lack of trust undermines the project: We are afraid we will not survive in the unmanageable.[Note 60]
Yet the job of a teacher is, in essence, to become unnecessary. At the end of every successful class or course, the teacher should no longer be needed. In fact, the teacher’s job is not even to teach: it is to confirm that the student learns, and to help them in this undertaking. This is primarily a listening, rather than speaking, action. One (but by no means the only) way of doing this is by knowing and telling. But there is no necessary logical connection.
A.2 The Role of the State
I doubt anyone would seriously argue that the countries of the European Union operate as democracies.[Note 61] There are flaws and there are differences, but by and large the different nation states understand that there is a will of the people, and that government should be through this will. Yet there are strange differences. One concerns “Identity Papers” (personal ID).
The British have historically had no ID cards or documents – which can lead to complications, and which other Europeans find incomprehensible. Every time a British Government suggests introducing such documentation, it is resisted very strongly. Why? What is the advantage of not having ID?
The cynic would point out that not having ID leads to abuse of trust. But this is an exact reflection of what cynicism is: an undermining of trust. When the British go to get married, sign a birth or death certificate, or even vote, there is no paperwork to take with them to “legitimise” them: there is no ID. Questions are asked to establish who you are, but there are very straightforward and no checks are possible. My interpretation is that the assumption is that you are to be trusted. It is the state’s job to trust its citizens, remembering its structural subservience, in a democratic society, to the people. Of course, there is abuse. People invent personalities, passports are issued to non-existent people, bigamy occurs, there is fraud. Nor is the government is any better than the people.
But the question is this. Would you rather live being trusted by your government and know that sometimes abuse occurs (and perhaps hoping to educate abusers to be more trustworthy), or live accountable to your government and without trust. In the end, an arrangement such as the British have can only survive through trust. Surrounded by a culture in which governments chose not to trust the people they serve, and a culture in which trust is derided, this understanding is in decline. State sponsored lack of trust, which has already brought much damage to Europe this century, will win because we establish procedures and attitudes which undermine trust at every step as well as being the easy-to-apply simplification which feeds the appetite for power. Some – an increasing number, if we believe the media and the government – individuals work to destroy trust. But, most of all, it is government which sponsors, promotes and practises a lack of trust: a lack that is reflected in and reflects an ethos in which trust is all too frequently rejected in management.[Note 62]
A.3 Fear and Faith/Trust
I hope you, the reader, will permit a couple of personal anecdotes. My intention in including these stories is to illustrate how I learnt of the value of trust, in one case from writing this article. And, thereby, to emphasise the involvement of the author, the observer, the reader: trusting is, like observing, an action that requires someone to do it. To trust is to be present, to be involved, to be a person, to be.
I first learnt, explicitly, about the power of trust when, at one stage in my life, I lived in great fear. Every time I took a business trip away from my workplace, I found myself returning with mounting terror and panic. I had no idea what to do about this. Yet I had done nothing wrong, and was away on business beneficially and legitimately. So I asked a counsellor, who told me that the opposite of fear was faith. Faith and trust are united. Since what he said made sense, and since I was at my wit’s end, I determined to have faith. I found it easier not to specify what I trusted (so I didn’t have a grammatical object for this verb). I just had faith. I trusted. When I felt fear rising, I told myself I trusted and everything was going to be OK. I found the fear subsided, and stayed away. I also found that I didn’t need that job, and could leave it and the atmosphere that generated fear and paranoia: and I have remained free of that fear since. Had I not been shown this relationship, which became my way of dissolving my problem, I doubt I would be writing this today. I would have lost myself. I recount this story because it shows it is possible to decide to trust, and to succeed. All I needed were wise and generous words, a wish to listen (an open-mindedness) and a willingness to practise faith/trust.
The assumption of trust can greatly facilitate our ability to work and to be.
A.4 Trusting Myself
While writing this paper (over an extended period), I was to give a workshop in a field new to me and to an unknown group. Because it was a special opportunity and prestigious, I put a lot of thought into what I was going to do, sorting through ideas, communicating with the sponsors and making copious notes. I was afraid I would make a mess of the job. However, I had noticed that my public presentations were less clear and dramatic when I used notes, a practice I had allowed to grow over recent years while I had lost confidence that I would remember and cover all salient points. I talked best of all when my response was spontaneous: an instant lecture given because the situation called for it.
A couple of days before the workshop, I realised I was not trusting myself. Then it occurred to me that, when I gave spontaneous lectures, I trusted myself: while giving lectures with notes showed me I did not trust myself. I thought about the workshop material: material I have worked on, in some cases, for a quarter century, and which I know like the proverbial back of my hand. I should be able to give the workshop standing on my head, if I trusted myself to do so.
I ceased preparation. I gave the workshop without notes, trusting myself to get it right. The organisers told me, afterwards, that the workshop was a great success, a model of clarity. And they were astounded that someone could do a day-long workshop without notes!
I would not have thought to act in this manner if I had not been writing about trust for this volume, and realised how contradictory it was that I did not trust myself. Exploring trust brought this to mind; applying trust (in myself) contributed to the good outcome.
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The current, and specialised, meaning of the word science is relatively recent. However, more general meanings associated with the older Latin root (scientia = knowledge. sciere = to know) seems to be regaining ground. The meaning of science when used in Management Science must surely be the older one (science – systematized and formulated knowledge; the pursuit or principles of this. Oxford Reference Dictionary), although the word’s use in this paper is generally the more recent one. It is important to keep these distinct meanings in mind, when reading this piece.
The fact that we have also suffered disbenefit is a relatively new discovery that gives force to a cybernetic (or systems) approach: that simple cause-and-effect is a limited and fairly poor explanatory mechanism. See, for instance, Vickers (1983).
Gregory Bateson writes beautifully on this subject. In a presentation subtitled “Metaphor and the World of Mental Process” made shortly before his death, he discusses the metaphors we have been caught in, and the new metaphors we need to discover, metaphors based in a non-classical – and hence less causally driven – logic (Bateson 1987).
The psychologist and genetic epistemologist Jean Piaget (1955) brings to our attention that, when we observe the world (initially as babies) we have to learn to distinguish (what we will come to call) objects in the world, and then to find a commonality in the distinctions we draw (our observations) that render, to our perception, objects constant. The world, as we perceive it, is our construction. This understanding is the basis of a significant body of work which develops concepts of what a world we perceive this way might be, and the status of our knowledge thus derived. It is am important, a crucial development, for it allows us to consider a world in which we are actively involved, as we always are when we talk of our perception or our understanding. This position is referred to as (radical) constructivism and is particularly associated with Ernst von Glasersfeld (1990). This paper is not the occasion for extensive argument concerning the constructivist position. For a summary, against the background of second-order Cybernetics (the Cybernetics of observing systems), see Glanville in press c.
For an attempt to bring together a constructivist position and a more conventional understanding of science (and of scientific realism), see Glanville in press a.
The boiling temperature of a liquid is also affected by pressure. The descriptions I give are sometimes simplified in the service of brevity and focus.
Having great care not to exclude important and appropriate richness and variety: a tricky problem of judgement and experience.
Turing’s test is, in my opinion, really the only sensible test for intelligence yet devised. Recognizing that we do not know how to define, let alone measure, intelligence, Turing proposed a test in which (to summarise briefly and crudely), if you don’t know whether you are interacting with a computer or a human, you must attribute to the machine – if this is what it is – those qualities that you would attribute to the human (in this case intelligence). In this understanding, intelligence, or any other quality that we are looking for, is attributed by the observer, rather than being taken to be a property in the observed. Interestingly, many of those who worked in Artificial Intelligence dismissed this test: no doubt because it rather undermined what they were selling!
Although all this is done by observers, the tradition of science has been to downplay and ignore this and to present findings as if the observing was not done by an observer-agent at all. Thus, science has frequently been able to present itself as being beyond the area of belief.
Some might require that an explicit mechanism is demonstrated in order to explain the cause-effect relationship. I would argue that we can never have that: we have an explanation, and an explanation cannot be the mechanism. This becomes clearer when we remember our essential ignorance: in effect, we are always faced with Black Boxes, which we “whiten” by comparing observations and testing the generalisations we make from these comparisons. (This way of describing the Black Box, in complete contrast to that of behaviourist psychologists, is a consequence of considering not what we want to get from the Black Box, but what it offers us when carefully examined. For an extended examination of this way of looking at Black Boxes, see Glanville 1979, 1982.)
The Macy Conferences published proceedings (edited by Heinz von Foerster) for several, but not all, of their meetings. These are very difficult to get hold of However, an interesting account has been written by Steve Joshua Heims (1991).
And we are inclined to think our desires and wishes are good, or at least justifiable – usually without justification.
Ashby states it, somewhat cryptically, as “only variety can destroy variety” (Ashby 1956)
The way Stafford Beer describes control, as helping a system maintain stability in a fluctuating environment, is a slightly restricted version of the concept as it is used here. (E.g. Beer 1972, 1975.) However, Beer’s notion of effectiveness in control is crucial.
This point depends upon developments of an argument first put forward by Hans J Bremmermann (1962), who determined the computational potential of the earth. Many in Cybernetics have used Bremmermann’s constant (the limit of transcomputability) as a way of scaling the possible: for instance, Ashby (1964), and Beer (1970). I have developed the argument about the value of unmanageability in several papers. This point is further explored and elaborated later in the paper.
Some attempt to resolve this by talking about greater and lesser energies. But we are talking organisation and form, not physics.
It is comparatively simple to estimate this number. The number of the smallesthydrogen – atoms in a given volume determines its temperature, since temperature depends on the rate at which atoms bump into each other, which in turn depends on the number present in a given volume. Since we believe we know the mean temperature of the universe, and we can have a good stab at its size, we can easily determine the number of atoms it contains.
Consider this point in the light of Heifetz’s (1994) discussion of “Leadership without Easy Answers.”
The way in which trust is undermined in this example will, I believe, sadly be immediately apparent to each sympathetic reader.
If you doubt this, consider, as an example, the process of induction into the military. Those being inducted are treated as identical mechanisms, performing identically, in a stimulus-response fantasmorgia. They are trained to be the same, and to respond identically to “orders” (i.e., they destroy language by treating it as code). To achieve this end, recruits are abused and generally treated as worthless, sub-human trash.
The business of dealing with wholes (gestalten) forms the basis of most of my work beginning with my PhD (Glanville 1975) and the experiments I carried out into how we perceive (architectural) space (Glanville 1977, 1980). It is also the organisational form taken by the autopoietic systems that have been so influential (Maturana, Varela and Uribe 1972).
The same argument works at whatever scale we wish. Thus, the universe, consisting of our extraordinary, but nevertheless simply calculable vast number of particles, is one. A crowd of 50, 000 people at a football match is one. And a tiny particle materialising in a cloud chamber for a minuscule fragment of a second is one.
The calculator results were correct except when they were massively in error (due to miskeying, which the experimental subjects didn’t register). It is no surprise that the subjects of the experiment believed the calculator was accurate, even though it was not always. See Glanville 1984.
This is not to deny, for a moment, the importance of exact calculation in the many contexts in which this precision is appropriate. However, seeing things as wholes need not lead to inaccuracy. In fact, seeing the whole is, of course, the ultimate in accuracy.
A recent example is NASA’s failed Mars Lander, which crashed rather than landing softly on the surface of the planet. This occurred because the American engineers, using European software, did not register that the units of the software were metric, and used, instead, imperial measures. An earlier example which was, fortunately, less disastrous, was the design of the airframe of the Vickers Viscount, the first airframe to be calculated on a computer. Here (according to the late Robin McKinnon- Wood), the engineers left a zero off a number, with the result that the airframe was only a tenth as strong as it should have been. Fortunately there was plenty of redundancy in the calculations. Maybe if the zero had not been omitted, the aeroplane as calculated would have been too heavy to fly.
See Glanville 1982, 1994a.
As in all systems, the performance of the whole is determined by the performance of its weakest component.
See Glanville 1994b.
I am using plan, here, in the projective sense used by psychologists and by the Anonymous movement. There is nothing wrong with thinking about future paths, as long as we do not come to believe these paths will be followed. They may be. But it they are not, if the world behaves according to Murphy’s Law, then planning (i.e., projection) is bound to fail and may lead to extra conflict because we have counted on the world ‘s events occurring according to our plans.
We should keep in mind that a description (of a thing) is not that thing, and, analogically, an explanation is not a mechanism. There is therefore always an essentially non-definable difference between the two. In other terms, as Bateson (1970) reminds us, the founder of General Semantics, Korbzybski insists the map is not the territory. See also Borges (1998), whose story “On Exactitude in Science” tells us of a people who made a map so accurate, that they laid it over the landscape, taking the map up once a year to examine the landscape, until they tired of this and took the map as the landscape. At this point, of course, either the map is the territory, and it needs a new map, or we enter into the traditionally “forbidden,” but intensely cybernetic world self-reference.
As I see it, our world(s) are constructed. We cannot know what is given without being present in receiving it! See Glanville (in press a).
For those unfamiliar with his case, (Sir) Clive Sinclair started by designing high fidelity in modular kit form, and moved, in the late 1970’s to producing very compact and (briefly) successful desktop computers. His choices were often bizarre (he favoured floppy tape drives to discs) and later crashed producing the notorious town transport, the C5 tricycle.
Information Theory is the colloquial name given to work stemming from Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) “Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Information Theory is based in notions of coding and probability, and developed the “bit” as a unit. It has been essential in the development of contemporary communications and, therefore, computers. Note that information theory was contemporaneous with Wiener’s formalisation of Cybernetics. Furthermore, both came out of MIT. The two approaches have often been put together, sometimes even confused.
A fuller version of the argument may be found in Glanville 1996b.
This makes it easy to understand difficulties in communicating across languages, cultures, even relatively small groups: each has states the others do not have and cannot model. The encodement based brainwashing training of the military (see footnote 21) is a way of handling this problem, as well as generating the stimulus- response behaviour required from troops to form an effective fighting machine.
Incidentally, that enormously complicated object, the InterNet, which is a communication device, itself generates such complexity that it is inherently unmanageable, which affects how we may sensibly think of it. Complexity may lie also in communication. See Glanville 1997.
See Pask, G and Cullen, S 1982 Microman. I have chosen this example as opposed to any of Pask’s many papers because it may be easier to access both in libraries and also in the form of expression chosen.
Note the difference in terms used to describe conversation from those used to describe coded communication, especially the use of inclusive terms, such as participate, and the way that they are contained within the language: that is, the language is its own metalanguage. See Glanville 1996b, in press b.
Although I am writing in terms of (and in) words, conversations do not need to be oral or even verbal. We converse very successfully, for instance, using body language.
For a wonderful and enlightening exploration of the importance of listening and our weakness at doing it, see Michael Nichol’s “The Lost Art of Listening” (Nichols 1995).
There is much more to conversation than the mechanism of sharing messages and making meanings. For instance, the topics we discuss and whether they are actually shared or not, and the loss of the self in the action of conversing so that we get completely caught up in the conversation.
Thus, conversation generates novelty through a structural aspect of its way of working. Most other means of novelty generation operate by applying variation to what exists. The conversation works exactly because the conversational participants are not the same and variation is therefore built in.
See Glanville in press b.
We create and enjoy delight in and through conversation.
An interesting discussion of what we have called the qualities of a conversation, in the context of management, can be found in Harkins (1999), who also emphasises the importance of listening. Clearly these ideas are of the moment.
Even “Please add your own comments in this space” is inserted into and set up by the company forming the questions.
In certain ways, “The Market” does not encourage listening except in the crudest way. Using this mechanism, which apes Darwin’s “Natural Selection” of putting up many different variants, with only the more appropriate surviving, the tendency is for the company to suggest and wait for a response, rather than for it to engage in conversation with its customers in developing new possibilities. Of course, these two are not exclusive and there are companies that are outstanding in the market because of their corporate listening skills. I refer to a bias, a slanting, a direction of viewing.
See Glassman and Fields 1996 for an account of similar complexity handling in small enterprises. They are also excellent on listening.
However, there is a problem of transference. If the students depend on their teachers for their motivation and aspirations, when the teacher leaves standards drop. I have experienced this as a teaching professional. The difficulty is to get them to take on the teacher’s standards as their own. This problem of transference of motivation is familiar in psychotherapy, where it takes the form “only you can do this: do it for yourself’. (My solution was to teach by inertia: to oblige the students to take the lead and hence to the responsibility for setting the standards, of motivation and aspirations, on their own
Think of how generous and compassionate children can be. This is the principle under which Froebel worked, and from which the “Kindergarten” grew (see footnote 56 for further elaboration).
Waiting can also help. In our ability to respond very fast through the use of computation and networked communication, we have for the moment forgotten the benefit of buffers! The experienced manager knows how often doing nothing leads to a problem going away, solving itself, or dissolving.
The psychotherapist Graham Barnes, who works with nations, companies and social groups, as well as individuals, insists that what is important in the development of understanding (and trust) is to keep on talking. What is dangerous is not disagreement but the refusal to talk (Barnes 2000, personal communication). I interpret this thus: keeping talking leads to conversation leads to trust. President Clinton’s relative success in brokering negotiations is perhaps due, in large part, to his determination to keep rivals talking. Certainly, keeping talking helps remove the adversarial intransigence that so characterises conflicts.
A characteristic of addiction is that the addict lives in fear. See Anonymous (1939).
In contrast and as opposed to the Calvinist extreme, great breeder of workaholism, where we have reversed the order of things: we live to work rather than working to live.
This development seems to own most to the educational practice and theory of the Swiss-German educator Frederich Froebel who, in the 1830’s, developed his notion of the Kinder Garten as a place for children to grow in, the idea being that the child knows how he/she needs to grow, and the teacher’s job is to spot the clues the child gives and to support the child in his/her actions. Thus, the teacher is not directing, but (in the phrase I have used as a teacher) leading from behind. Froebel’s ideas are close to those of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and are the origin of some of Maria Montessori’s notions, though she was prepared to be much more prescriptive.
We introduce ourselves as our jobs! See Glanville 1996a, also Anthony Clare’s book “On Men: Masculinity in Crisis” (Clare 2000).
All my teaching experience shows me they will. A students’ performance is strongly influenced by the expectations that they come to believe their teacher has of them. This experience has also become familiar in recent work concerning motivation and leadership in management. See also footnote 50.
They need to work in a situation in which this trust is valued, not dismissed and liable to be undermined. This experience, too, has become familiar in recent work concerning motivation and leadership in management.
I often find it is easier to address a group of people through an example taken from a different background, from which they can build the bridge of metaphor relevant to their own experience. Teachers may be taken as a metaphor for many, perhaps even all of us. I do not think it is difficult to see similarities between the position of the teacher and that of the manager.
In spite of the debacle surrounding European responses to the unfortunate success of the Freedom Party in Austria; and the older problems associated with terrorism in, for instance, Northern Ireland and the Basque country, where civil liberties are often suspended.
A fascinating example of the moment (November 2000) is the US Presidential election debacle. Not so much the mess that has emerged from how votes were cast and counted in Florida, but the revealing of the reason for the creation of the Electoral College to which each state elects representatives, who are then free to cast their votes for President not as the electors wished, but as the representatives think fit. This strange arrangement (according to broadcasters on the BBC and a Times article of 9 November 2000) was instigated because the founding fathers of the United States (who had sent Thomas Jefferson abroad to be Ambassador to France, thus exiling their wisest member) did not trust the ordinary people-for whom they had created their Republic, with its principles of freedom, equality and fraternity-to vote wisely enough: so they invented the Electoral College just in case the people got it wrong wrongly.Another interesting aspect of this election was the predictions of the news media concerning outcomes (especially in Florida), which were taken as facts and used as the basis for asserting the winner of the election long before the votes were even in, let alone counted. This is a massive and blatant example of the news media constructing the future.
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