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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Strategic ecosystem: Integrating constraint and opposition

Global Strategies Project

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1. Strategy limitations and dynamics

Organizations and networks tend to assume that the world would be a far better place if the bodies and strategies that oppose them did not exist. This is a necessary consequence of their specificity. However, the widespread focus on "answer production", a popular and vital moving force in society, obscures both the significance of the lack of fruitful integration between existing answers and the manner in which such solutions undermine each other's significance. Such solutions are inherently limited in that they fail to internalize the discontinuity, incompatibility and disagreement which their existence engenders, so as to "contain", whether conceptually or organizationally, the development processes they promote. This results in the emergence of new problems.

Policy swings are evident in relation to most polarized issues: centralization/decentralization, ecology/industry, labour/employers, right/left, science/culture, local/global, freedom/constraint, etc. In each case a policy stressing one extreme must eventually prove self-defeating. The swing towards a policy extreme is however essential to the healthy dynamics of an organization, provided that such swings occur within a cycle. The respiratory cycle of inspiration/expiration provides a useful analogy - especially in the light of attempts to terminate it by "holding one's breath". Each portion of the cycle counteracts the excesses or absorbs the "negative" by-products of other portions of the cycle, just as in the case of crop rotation. A cycle of this kind is self-stabilizing in contrast to monopolar or single-factor policies which are essentially uncontrolled. The violent dynamics of issue polarization can only be contained by policy cycles of alternatives over time -- the two-body problem of mechanics can only be contained by rotation.

Not only do organizations and strategies need opposition to fulfil their functions in relation to healthy human and social development, but in a healthy organization opposition to policies must necessarily be internalized. The question is then how to bring this about without tearing such a system apart or simply paralysing it. The response could be a more conscious use of alternative strategies to hold sway in different phases of a policy cycle.

2. Maturing the social system by developing strategic proficiency

The danger with any particular policy is that it must necessarily have inherent limitations in order to be practical and comprehensible to those who must implement it. When "discovered", these limitations must necessarily be ignored by its advocates, who must necessarily stress the limitations of the policy it is intended to supplant. In conventional organizations major switches in policy are usually accompanied by the rejection of those responsible for the old policy as "incompetent" or "out-of-date" and the triumphant entry of the "young tigers" to implement the new one for which they have successfully campaigned. The newcomers tend to ignore the fact that the limitations of their policy will subsequently become apparent and that they in turn will be rejected. If they are conscious of this they may well devote much of their efforts to profiting personally from their advantage.

From a developmental point of view, the advantage of policy cycles is that they enable individuals who identify with one portion of the cycle to move with it whilst they are "winning" and then to redefine and renew their approach whilst they are "losing" - having been made aware of their limitations . Lasting development results from the cycle as a whole and not simply from some particular part of it. A policy cycle also has the built in variability to enable it to respond to a changing environment.

The question is then how to enable such policy cycles to emerge within an organization or a system of organizations. In fact they are implicit in the policy struggles of any organization. The problem is how to enable the cycle to operate through a succession of phases which need to be rendered more explicit. For example, an organization could decide to further decentralization policies for a fixed period, then switch to centralization policies for a corresponding period, then repeat the cycle. Many organizations do this anyway, but only as a somewhat spastic succession of responses to external conditions or perceived incompetence (as inthe case of the French governmental switch from nationalization to denationalization). In organizations, such switches are often the only way that staff can maintain the impression that "something is happening" and further their careers by riding with (or opposing) the policy shift. Such an approach would enable planners and policy makers to explore relationships and feedback in their strategic planning. It would also give them greater insight into the "hidden agenda" of strategies used by others.

3. Supporting complexity and rigour in strategic planning

The creative challenge in organizations of the future could be to find better policy cycles, not to maintain emphasis on a particular phase of a cycle as at present. The question becomes more interesting when such cycles are perceived as having more than two phases, and even more so when a number of such cycles are "co-operating". In fact it is the interlocking of such cycles, through their mutual "entrainment", which should lead to more powerful, and stable, forms of multi-phase cyclic organization.

Buckminster Fuller's work is very suggestive in this regard, because a good way to model such interlocking is by perceiving the cycles as sharing a common centre around a sphere. In organizational terms the points of interlock between different cycles then emerge as functions and strategies which are "violently" opposed from some other interlock points, strongly supported from others, and of little importance to others. The lines of mutual support can then be modelled by the continuous network around a spherical tensegrity. Such a network is of a different quality to that of many contemporary "networks" engaged in "networking", for these are often characterized by "flabbiness". A network of the kind envisaged might be better described as a "resonance network" having an inherent development dynamic.

Organizations of this type may well exist already. It could even be argued that the powers behind any political scene cynically accept or encourage policy alternation as a way of controlling and "culling" the ambitious "hot heads" who emerge in connection with any particular policy. Such a model may indeed be an appropriate way to describe a healthy community which has emerged organically without having been deliberately designed. The problem is that prevailing perceptual/conceptual habits impede recognition of more integrated patterns of this kind.

4. Strategies as social innovations

Boulding suggests that the urban revolution and the rise of civilization may have been produced more by social invention in the field of organization than by any associated material inventions. The first of these was the specification of roles linked by a structure of communication and the second was the development of multi-layered organizational hierarchies. Given the present institutional crisis, the question is how any further innovation might be conceived. The response may well lie in rendering dynamic the static concept of role (or job "slot"). Any role could then be redefined as the intersect of one or more learning phases, conceived potentially organizable into nested levels of learning cycles by which uncertainty is more or less successfully contained.

Finally, a cyclic approach of this kind could be of great significance in the design of more effective meetings - as temporary organizations. There is much to be said for enabling the assembled human resources to interweave in a more integrated manner designed to facilitate transformations in the conceptual or organizational response to any set of problems. Here too computers could be of assistance, especially given the short time available. There is even a case for envisaging meetings in which the art of "casting" is computer assisted to ensure that the conflicting tendencies stressed by the powerful personalities assembled can interweave "dramatically" to engender a correlated set of transformative cycles - counteracting the excesses of particular forms of wisdom. Presumably the art of personnel selection, testing and management team design is moving in this direction.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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