9 Mallow Street London EC1Y 8RQ
In an earlier post, I talked about words and language as a model – an imperfect representation of something else that is in some way useful. Language is the basis of our own individual, internal reasoning or ‘way of thinking’ because it enables us to describe the world around and within us. We create definitions that convey the form, breadth and identity of everything. We compare and contrast, form relationships and make associations to help better understand our world and form our internal frames of reference.
Language also forms the basis of our interactions with our environment and the people within it. We use it to communicate complex social structures and our place within them, to understand and to be understood, to resolve disputes, and to provoke action. Language as a model is so powerful that words alone can move human beings to feel fear, anger or disgust; it can be the catalyst for positive change or can start wars. Through storytelling we share our experiences of the world as we see it, as well as our vision of what might be possible. Language can not only describe but also shape our reality, manipulating other peoples’ idea of the truth. But in order to do that effectively and with intent, we need to be confident that the way we interpret language is consistent with those whom we seek to influence.
Gordon Pask, eminent Cyberneticist, did a tremendous amount of work on conversations and ‘Conversation Theory.’ One important conclusion, paraphrased, is that in order to understand we must agree. For example, if we can agree the meaning and context of the word ‘green,’ I will understand what you mean when you say ‘green’. That both of us use a word ‘green’ is not enough – many cultures would include colours I see as ‘blue’ with their definition of green – we must agree on the precise meanings of words in order to fully understand. Although this sounds like a simple concept, our experience of language in a variety of organisations tells us it is not always one meaning that is assured, leading to conflicts, costs and wasted time and effort.
If we are not to assume linguistic agreement – and we should not – we must establish it through conversation. Through ongoing conversations in our social groupings over time we form our own unique languages to facilitate our lives together, building a sense of community, culture and identity for ourselves.
Christopher Alexander, a master of the architectural world, describes the notion of a ‘Pattern Language’: In a town with a living language, the pattern language is so widely shared that everyone can use it. When the language is shared, the individual patterns in the language are profound. We have, of course, our own pattern language at InnovationArts – you will be getting a sense of some of it through these blog posts – and find different pattern languages in every organisation with whom we work. Chances are you can identify a pattern language in your own organisation and see clearly how it is distinct from other organisations you’ve encountered, as well as how it differs from the pattern language of your own family and social circle.
Patterns in language are always simple – complex patterns cannot survive the slow transmission from person to person. They are also comprehensive, covering the whole of life as we know it. In this way, we are able to reflect and interact around form, scope, identity and our relationship to our environment – let’s call it ‘context’ – and take a stance as to where we fit. As a group of individuals we use language to model our ‘reality’.
Let’s come back to models. When we talk about reality, we are talking about the things we know to be true. Language, dialogue and conversation give us the potential to build and share our knowledge. But how much of our ‘knowledge’ really is the truth and how much, at best, is just a model that is good enough for now?
We exist in a constant cycle of observation, reflection and interpretation, and as we change our perspectives our language adapts. The words we use are fundamental in articulating our view of reality and in turn become a living, evolving component of the complex systems in which we operate. The opposite can also be true: when you want to change ‘reality’ and have a new beginning, what better place to start than with ‘the word’? By intentionally shaping our pattern language we can use it to achieve our ambitions – personal, organisational and societal.
By thinking about language as supporting not ‘reality’ but ‘possibility’, it will help you understand why at Innovation Arts we aim to be scrupulous in the way we use language in all our work, and the powerful role words play in influencing the possible.
Yet looking at the actual designs around us today, we still see determined and rigid solutions in which spatial composition has been the main objective. There are many speculative real estate developments, for example, which do not consider any particular client’s needs and aim primarily at a maximum amount of anonymous rental office space. The same thinking often continues inside the company, where ignorance or a wish to save money results in anonymous rooms divided into identical workplaces.
The most common approach to office space still reckons with one workspace per person whilst imposing negotiation and meeting rooms are considered separately. Many of these individual and group spaces are regularly unoccupied. Meanwhile, the budget for furnishing the office is divided between personal workplaces and a representative zone, altogether forgetting the background zone. Yet, it is common knowledge that the coffee machine is the best communication tool and that the most productive moments at conferences are coffee breaks. Why is this forgotten while filling the office plan with desks and chairs?
And let’s think again about who uses modern office space: It is easy to agree that working practices have changed. Today’s office work no longer consists of only data entry and processing; the linear work arrangement has become parallel and serial, meaning we should be able us to use the worker, time, and space much more intensively. In addition, work is more creative, and most of the creative work is done in changing workgroups that require a flexible use of time and space: there is no more need for physically emphasised hierarchy. And of course everyone can see what mobile phones and laptops have done to our working time and workplace. So how do we see through these changes to the new requirements? What is the new model?
In HIVE, each individual performs a fixed task in the production chain – usually from nine to five. The work does not require interaction or autonomy; the space is divided into an endless number of identical working places. Thanks to automation this past typology is disappearing or changing into DEN-type, more intelligence-requiring activity, where teamwork is of primary importance. The space planning in a den-type office is mostly open, but there is still not much personal independence. The CELL-type is used mostly for work requiring concentrated thinking (lawyers, research centres) where workers have great autonomy in using their time and in the content of their work, but few possibilities for interaction.
It is believed that as information technology develops, the independent concentration type of work and project-based teamwork will be combined in most enterprises. In the new “transactional” office, both interaction and independence will be maximised. The metaphoric CLUB is a place where people gather and communicate, while the actual work is done somewhere else. It is predicted that more and more companies will begin to work like Hollywood film teams that are formed separately for each project.
The premise of the activity setting approach is that one place – an all-purpose workstation per person -no longer suffices. Instead, people need multiple workplaces. These specialized settings span the variety of -often contradictory – office worker requirements. As tasks change, people move to various specialized activity settings. This movement is healthy, it makes jobs more interesting and encourages participation in ad hoc temporary groups and greater use of specialized costly equipment.
Robert Kelley, 1985
Because today’s workspace must be a multi-task environment, serving many clients and many different knowledge tasks at once, and because different tasks have different spatial, emotional and tooling requirements, the contemporary environment should be designed to be both flexible and capable of being divided into specialized zones. Within each zone, there may be different sub-areas, each with its own use and feel. In addition, many of these zones can expand and contract, thus, they can be configured to be larger or smaller, to be part of or totally separate from each other as the work demands.
Looking beyond the allocation of space, remember that as a form of communication our environment can be denoted as being multi-sensory; visual, aural, tactile, spatial and so on: “The will of the epoch translated into space”. An effective working environment should inspire workers, showing them that they are needed, and express the distinctive face and values of the enterprise. An office should be a place with an aura of its own. (Contrast this with the kind of anonymous “non-places”, – planes, ships, airports, supermarkets and indeed offices with which we are increasingly surrounded, where the design aim seems to be to eliminate differentiation altogether).
Several principles and design goals drive the basic layout of an environment that communicates effectively: Its image must include a spatial pattern that relates objects within it, relates the environment to the observer, and to other objects in its surrounding community; it must exhibit an architectural grammar and geometry appropriate to its specific mission and fit within the grammar and style of its location; it must control its boundaries in terms of access, light, sound, sight lines, and it must do this without presenting a defensive posture. The environment must include spatial ambiguity – the high variety that creates interest. It must include sheltered places for quiet reflection as well as open spaces for collaboration and expansive thinking. Paths, boundaries, regions, nodes and landmarks add variety, flexibility, build relationships and communication and facilitate feedback and change. To be psychologically comfortable, an environment must be physically comfortable and allow variation in the colour and texture of the furniture, levels and quality of lighting, and acoustical environment.
The evolution of our working environments is an on-going challenge; neither patchwork fixes nor wholesale redesign will suffice in today’s rapidly changing world. As people expand their horizons, so too must the environment expand its ability to serve. Individual elements must be created which can be replaced when outgrown with new elements that still complement the entire system. Frank Lloyd Wright felt the task of the designer was to design for what people can become–to stretch people to reach their potential. Today’s knowledge workers require an environment that challenges them to reach both their own potential and that of their organization whilst also facilitating that progress. The designer must see and communicate through the environment its conscious ability to evolve.
Complex natural systems are our model for successful, creative, evolving work environments. Our daily workspaces must be engineered to be both organic and cybernetic, adjusting to user requirements minutely and without fanfare. Those of you who have worked with us on an Innovation Arts Design Session will recognize these principles ‘in miniature’ in the temporary, mobile environments that we establish for each session. It is for all the reasons described above that we insist on creating the right environment to support the work we do with you. Our dedicated team designs each environment specifically for each client and each challenge, and over the course of the Session it will shift and evolve to guide, mirror, or lead the participants’ journey as they collaborate on the task in hand.
Architecture results from integrated acts of philosophy, art, engineering, craftsmanship and business and – when perfection is sought – allows no compromise between these disciplines. A good piece of architecture directly supports a specific concept of life and work style and acts as a physical, visual, tactile and symbolic guide for its inhabitants. Conversely, bad architecture can work in direct opposition to those inhabitants’ objectives and culture, as per the title of this post. This idea that a work of architecture can also be a productive or counterproductive tool of human economy is relatively new. What is also novel is the idea that the workplace can be an expression of living art, and that this is not only possible but necessary in today’s world.
If we are to design our workspaces with the intent of using the most effective architectural pattern language, we need to get under the skin of how everything speaks. The language of architecture is largely symbolic; specific shapes, forms and textures invoke particular meanings. Just as the expressionist movement in literature gave birth to analysis by metaphor and symbolism, so too has expressionism had its influence over architecture. The early 1920s bore testimony to this architectural influence where buildings were designed and constructed to express or symbolize their use thus aiming to integrate both form and content into a coherent, more meaningful whole, for example the Volkstheatre Project, 1921 or Einstein Tower Observatory, 1920.
In the book ‘Metaphors We Live by’, Lackoff and Johnson build a theory that we live and express ourselves in terms of metaphor. This notion will be examined in greater detail later when I will talk about what we mean by ‘Possibility’. However architecture provides some firm examples of this theory. The Renaissance movement provided this language, its masters drawing the (organic) parallels of buildings as life forms in themselves. A buiding rises up, or it lies in a particular way. It has a front and a back, a face, a silhouette, a profile. It has a heart, a nerve-centre. It has a top, a crown, related to the sky and a base, a foot, related to the ground. Windows look out. Doors open wide. Perhaps no building is more symbolic that Antoni Gaudi’s ‘Casa Batlló’ with its bone-like structure and death mask balconies symbolic of the human experience in Catalonia’s quest for independence.
The power of the metaphor here is great. As the imposing designs of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque all inspire superlative adjectives, so too are the feelings they stir in the soul. Compare this symbolism with that of most modern corporate architecture and it is little surprise they pale in significance, often inhuman, dead, faceless structures.
Intentionally or otherwise we have in recent times ignored the language of architecture in our workplaces, the timeless way of building as Christopher Alexander calls it, at the expense of functionalism. Our offices are uninspiring. That they are a mish-mash of metaphors at best cannot be denied. That they are malapropisms is probably just as correct.
So, back to the Bored Room, and our quest to bring to a powerful and inspiring voice to workspace architecture. Generally speaking, todays offices are boring places, at least from the point of view of art, design and architecture. Yet, they are precisely the places where many of us spend most of our productive time. How did we get here? Many contemporary ideas about the office date from the times of the industrial revolution, when accountants were gathered into office buildings erected next to the factories. The economic strategies that had modernised the industry were directly transferred into the paperwork. It was a simple, clear and very unambiguous procedure that followed the same assembly line principles governing the action in the factory halls. The office was a master class of simultaneity; the system functioned only when all its parts were in place – from nine a.m. to five p.m.
Alvin Toffler said in 1985 that:
“the corporate environment has changed so swiftly and fundamentally in the past two decades that structures designed for success in an industrial environment are almost by definition inappropriate today.”
Over thirty years on, and whilst those changes have done nothing but accelerate our workspaces have barely evolved at all. The time for us to take back control of our surroundings own us is long overdue.
A rich, varied environment, with ample communication, continuous learning, rapid feedback, knowledge management, and readily available tools are key to eliminating the barriers to human creativity and increasing productivity. Flexible space, open areas, new types of furniture and complex technological systems will increase the amount of informal communication that is necessary to develop communities of practice and build networks. There is inherent value in people from all levels of the organization working in close proximity to each other. In designing this new type of environment, we must go beyond incremental or even major changes to existing workplace designs. We need something unique, innovative, and totally new.
Of course, the reverse is also true: our relationship with architecture is a dialogue, the communication is two way. Our events – political, cultural, environmental, also clearly shape the direction architecture takes.
The post war era engendered a new era in architecture. The Modern Movement was borne of our need for rapid, large-scale rebuilding and was founded on a solid base of extensive industrialism and economic growth. Advanced technology enabled machine production of pre-fabricated components allowing mass standardization. Need for function over-ruled the need for form and aesthetic quality; large scale blocks, scientifically designed to functional parameters were hoisted into place, literally, to the delight of governments for these constructions were not only economic in terms of land use but also in terms of construction costs.
The theory was that in order to achieve a planned economic use of land and resources, people would have to abandon their traditional habitats, and government – with the help of architects – would educate them how to live!
Just as the structures Imperial Romans erected in their conquered lands sought to suppress the indigenous population and demonstrate the might of the Empire in direct contravention of local traditions and climate; just as the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe sought to strike fear into the general population as an embodiment of Heaven on Earth; just as Renaissance Palaces sought to mirror the wealth and power of those that lived in them (and so on), so, particularly in the west, the governments, ministries and administrative centres sought to symbolise and express their own power in the new world.
This was not unique to domestic architecture and city and suburban planning, however. Our cities today are festooned with imagery of business empires and consumer capitalism. These are the loud, clear, messages of the ‘modern’ corporate building. A fine example of this is the United Nations building in NYC. The council debating chamber, where representatives of each of the nations could come together and discuss issues with a view to achieving a resolution (despite this being far from collaborative working environments as I know them to be) is completely overshadowed by an administrative tower. The tower itself is a modern day ‘Tower of Babel’, symbolism of the bureaucratic nature of political power.
Let’s step back and look at these monolithic structures – already historical relics in today’s world (even though many are still being built, taller and louder than ever). They have effectively become obsolete. From a technical perspective the Modern Movement has failed us; society is having to support building failures through their repair, renovation or demolition. Similarly, the advanced technology to support these buildings in terms of climate control, lighting and sound for example has failed us. Socio-culturally it has been a disaster. In attempting to define a new language the Modern Movement served to create the antithesis of architecture, alienating human experience and denying the freedom of choice, of individuality and, most importantly, of being alive. Regardless, their legacy messages continue to influence us as they are still a part of our everyday experience.
The wake of Modernism has brought about all sorts of similarly artistic movements; post modern, neo-vernacular, neo (neo) classical, high tech and so on. None of these seem to have evoked the richness of experience that we see, hear and feel in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, with the possible recent exception of biophilic design. Biophilia means the love of life or living systems, and the biophilia hypothesis is that human beings have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Edward O. Wilson popularised the idea in his 1984 book Biophilia.
In the context of our workplaces, from the corner office drenched in light to the plant-filled lobby, this is not a new idea, but biophilic design, whilst still nascent, is a growing discipline that takes the concept much further. It adopts a holistic approach, looking at whole systems, and evokes the idea of a biophilic space that facilitates our work – making everything easier and, in the way it communicates with us, actively improving our physical, emotional and mental health.
Anyone who has ever worked in a cubicle will understand that there is a lot to be said for this approach, and it’s a principle that we take forward with us as we look at the workspaces we build today, the ‘frozen music’ we play.
From this last definition we might infer that architecture is a discipline that uses the medium of building to communicate. The nature of this communication is experiential; we experience the structures around us continually. As a form of art it is pervasive in civilisation, inescapable, reflecting the social, political and cultural influences of the day and communicating the values thereof.
Architecture is living history; ‘stone documents’ that are ‘an expression of the utility and power of a nation’. As a creative movement, architects are heavily responsible for the form of the populated world in which we live. Some of humankind’s most amazing achievements and most beautiful creations have been crafted by architects, and indeed some of the most gruesome blemishes.
Similarly to any movement, both scientific and artistic, architecture is a synthesis of thought and feeling and of the dichotomy of the creative process; a model of reality. This dichotomy reflects the mechanistic or organic nature of the world we live in and the parallels between architecture and business are clear. It is the very same dichotomy that pervades our discussions here: holism versus reductionism as modus operandi.
In architectural terms this dichotomy is seen at play in the traditions of Classicism and Romanticism. In classical architecture, the notion is very much about man imposing order upon nature, in romanticism man integrates with nature. Classicism is about the rational and the mathematical, romanticism is about the intuitive and the organic. Romantic asymmetry contrasts with classical symmetry. Neither of these are mutually exclusive – the one always contains an aspect of the other. Therein lies the harmonious positivity opposing models can generate; just as reductionism can provide what, in business terms, can be called a ‘bottom up’ perspective so the ‘top down’ perspective the holistic view presents is equally valid.
No finer example of these two schools of architectural thought is embodied in the work of two great 20th Century architects; Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Edouard Jeanneret, alias Le Corbusier.
Wright’s romanticism was organic in nature. His concept of Organic Architecture sought to build at one with and inspired by nature and natural forms. Each element of nature, the organic plant and animal forms, was understood in terms of its context and the relationship each had with that context with a distinct connection between form and function.
The principles of Organic Architecture were horizontality (oneness with nature as in a horizon, not verticality which implies man’s dominance over it), sympathy with the site (the merging and blending of building and landscape, blurring the division of inside and out), symbolism (in the sense of a home, this domesticity would evoke welcome, warmth and protection as well as a metaphoric heart), truth to materials (natural materials were used in their natural form) and character (as opposed to a single dominant style).
Le Corbusier’s approach was scientific and logical, each problem thought out afresh in the light of cold reason. He saw functionality to be the fundamental principle of design; “a house”, he said “is a machine for living in”. He sought reductionism as a way of abstracting the functions of the constituent parts and reason to design elements for each function. Furthermore, Le Corbusier taught architects to create more problems than could be solved to facilitate creativity; innovation through over-complication.
Styles and movements abound in the field of architecture, as they do in art and science. As scientific discoveries bore new industrialised societies, so did architecture both fuel and absorb the changes in both material, structural and cultural forms. New technologies provided new materials with which to construct allowing a greater array of innovation in design of form and function. Similarly, as Einstein added a fourth dimension through his theory of relativity, so the consciousness of space and time found expression in the forms of new architecture and new materials. The ‘futurist’, ‘constructivist’, ‘expressionist’ and ‘functionalist’ movements all came to fruition through this time.
We said that architecture was a form of communication – a ‘frozen music’ that surrounds us. Going back to our original question, then, how is architecture influential in designing our workspaces, and what are its messages as we go about our work?
As of yet, we are still to define a context – an environment – in which this all can take place. This is not a new debate in itself, but taking it out of the hands of the Real Estate and Operations teams in order to understand it as a potential source of major competitive advantage is a relatively new concept: The idea that it may also provide your organisation with a greater degree of ‘Possibility Space’, resulting not simply in success in the market place but also within the organisational community. Transformation, indeed.
Outside our individual perspective and team perspectives the next cognitive filter is that of the workspace.
Let us cast an eye back through history briefly. The organisations of the past reflected very much the formal societal structure of the time. All too often they were ‘hierarchical monoliths’ where the agenda was set by top management and implemented through the ranks by a series of management levels responsible for ‘controlling’ the organization. Both physically and metaphorically, the top management placed themselves away from the sharp end of their business, straying from the office’s ‘executive suite’ often only when the necessity arose.
Decision-making was seen as the domain of management with little input from others. The workforce was deemed to be motivated largely by money and little else. With the advent of organizational psychologists and sociologists and behavioural scientists in particular, it became more evident that such a rigorous hierarchical approach was an ineffective way of running a business.
The division between management and employee pervaded beyond the physical. It set the whole nature of corporate culture. The self-imposed isolation that management sought proved a huge barrier to collaboration, organizational learning and flexible, adaptive practices. What happened at the top was pervasive throughout the whole of the organisation itself. Often we see that humans are imitating beings: We tend to take on role models and behavioural models that suit our world and conform, so reinforcing non-collaborative, ‘silo-mentality’ behaviour. This is a self-reinforcing loop; a downward spiral of non-information sharing, mis-trust and non-alignment of purposefulness.
It would be good to think this was all in the past, but in reality we do still live in an era when the division between management and employee is the norm. Although corporate cultures increasingly tend to encourage openness and honesty, there is much room for improvement. In fact, the majority of organizations around the globe still conform to this type of monolithical structure. And this type of sectarian workspace design is still prevalent.
Perhaps one of the greatest inciting events workplace design was the advent of the ‘information age’: New forms of enterprise emerged, and with them new kinds of workers and new styles of workplace. We were presented with a notion of alternative office spaces containing what seemed like elements of bar culture, primary school, artistic workshops, sound studios and so on, where the cool kids got to play as they worked. For many this was considered a frivolous exercise in an attempt to ‘out-cool’ the competition but others took a more open mind, asking what they could learn from this revolution and how it could benefit their own business, an inquiry that led – for a small minority – to the conclusion that alternative environments may in fact be necessary in order to build and maintain a creative competitive advantage in today’s world.
Other pressures, too, have contributed to the shift towards reconsideration of how our corporate buildings support the work done therein. Technology, in particular, has fuelled this area of debate. Workers are increasingly mobile; the advent of laptops and telecommunications means that teleworking is now a reality; in fact the number of teleworkers worldwide is expected to hit 200 million by 2020 and many knowledge workers rate the ability to telework – at least partially – as a high factor in their employment choices. There are obvious implications of this trend, from a practical reassessment of the building capacity required and how it is used, through to revision of leadership models.
Of all the tools an organisation has at hand day in, day out, the work environment is the most prevalent. An organisation may spend millions every year designing, building, implementing or custom-ordering Information Technology systems but fail to see that outside itself – that is the agents of the system – its potentially biggest liability and source of both productivity and efficiency (as architects have been crying out for years) lies with the design of the physical environment in which these agents (co)operate.
Attitudes are changing, slowly, but the connection between the workspace and organisational learning, play, creativity and sustainable innovation is still not always made. One reason for this is because we need to draw on more refined principles and ideas of architecture, a discipline not generally understood by business professionals and one which we will explore in subsequent posts.
“How you organise the future has an awful lot to do with what you do with it … an optimist tends to have a pretty good future and a pessimist has a pretty bad one, but interestingly they can have exactly the same thing happen to them”.
Since this book was first written, the world is a very different place, in fact arguably it is one that is not only more tolerant but also more supportive of individuals and groups striking out on their own. Bolles, who regularly updates his book, more recently commented: “Four areas, in particular, have changed. First, jobs today are temporary; you don’t know how long your job is going to last. Thirty years ago, before the onslaught of downsizing and such, you could count on spending your working life at the same job. Second, jobs today are really seminars; change is happening so rapidly that you’ve got to pay close attention and learn. Third, today’s jobs are adventures; you never know what’s going to happen next. And fourth, you must find job satisfaction in the work itself; your self-esteem must come from doing the work rather than from some hoped-for promotion, pay raise, or other reward – which may never materialize. Fortunately, that dim outlook is not universally true: Some organizations appreciate, praise, and celebrate their employees, but not as many as there once were – especially not when an organization has more than 50 employees”.
Interdependence makes a case for a very different type of organizational perspective and one surmised in the idea of a ‘corporation of one’. In real terms this means we, as individuals, are our own venture, responsible for our own lives, our own ‘ways of working’ our own ‘brand’ and our own integrity – if to nothing else then to the brand we ourselves have chosen to create.
In that sense, it is a lot more about individual possibility and creating a present – and future – to live in to. Just as the corporate boys create brands evoking dynamism, agility, creativity, beauty, safety, professionalism (just take a look at some of those brands out there) we too are our own brands. Already. The only significance in doing this beyond the realm of the traditional employment contract is that it is we that are responsible for making it work. There is nowhere to hide. It’s make it work or compromise yourself. It is putting yourself on the line. More so than you ever will have to do in a large company.
Corporation of one forces us to continually reflect upon where we are – like a cybernetic loop – and monitor that position with our own desired end-state always in mind, taking on responsibility for our own learning and development and constantly re-evaluating what we are best at and what we enjoy doing the most.
Taking this model of perspective, where employees are not dependent on a company, but exist as interdependent individuals in a complex, adaptive system, what are the implications for the organisation of today?
In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow developed a model known as the ‘Hierarchy of Needs and Objectives’. The assumption behind the model was one of linearity – one cannot progress to the next level until the current needs and objectives had been satisfied. His model is comprised of five orders of needs and objectives that human beings seek in life.
The lowest order need in the model is Physiological. This refers to the promulgation of life and includes, therefore, food, water, shelter and reproduction, also referred to as sex. The next order need is safety, referring to security and protection from danger. Next is the social need: We are social beings and as such need social interaction. Cybernetics also gives us the notion of the purposeful system, which can mean family, community, organisation and so on.
The next order need is esteem. This is concerned with the need for recognition individuals have in themselves and in their behaviours. It implies that humans seek positive experiences (and therefore concurs with a view held by cybernetics: the view that systems do not purposefully seek to impinge upon the desired state of others). The final order is that of self-actualisation. This is the human desire for a sense of purpose.
Critics of this model rightly demonstrate the weakness of the underlying assumption that, as a linear approach, progression is deemed a systematic response to the realization of previous orders. The model also assumes that there is no regression in position. Yet we are all aware, especially in recent years, of how our need to feel safe and secure can frequently be at the forefront of our minds, challenged by our unstable external environment. Also, conversely, how culture can flourish even in wartime situations, or in environments such as refugee camps, where people reach ‘up’ to the arts even when their physiological needs are far from being met. You may well have seen the tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Maslow, where these days even before their physiological needs are met, many modern humans have an even more pressing need – the need for WIFI (cue groaning and rolling of eyes)…!
Maslow’s model may not be quite ‘right’ these days, but it is, I believe, useful, and modern evolutions give it further potential.
We are frequently engaged by clients seeking to understand, address and embed the values of their organisations. One of the tools we might propose early on in our approach to these kinds of values projects is a Barrett survey. Concerned with how the values and cultural traits of an organisation are perceived from within that organisation, Barrett evolved Maslow’s model for his own purposes. In the Barrett model, we find seven levels of consciousness, from survival, relationship and self-esteem – which roughly mirror Maslow’s physiological, safety and social levels – through transformation and up to internal cohesion, making a difference and service. Unlike in Maslow’s model, an individual or organisation does not progress through these levels; rather it is a spread of values across the spectrum that shows a healthy balance.
Whatever models we choose to apply to Complex Adaptive Systems, be they individuals or organisations, they need to be appropriate for the situation. Now we’ve gone back to basics, which still give us a solid foundation, it’s time to look at the challenges the modern business world throws at us.
For many years leaders have wrestled with the discomfort of giving up management-style control in order to reap the benefits of achieving mastery in personal and organisational leadership. Leaders have looked to various theories which offer possible ways to ‘safely’ approach this ideal. For example:
Considering the X, Y and Z theories in the last post, and applying them in the practical sense, we could conclude that at a deeper level of understanding, there is no ‘one best way’ to influence people; it is largely a consequence of a number of different elements. Situational Leadership defines these as being the amount of guidance and direction (task behaviour) a leader gives, the amount of socio-emotional support (relationship behaviour) a leader provides and the readiness level that followers exhibit in performing a specific task, function, or objective.
The concept defines four leadership styles: Telling, Selling, Coaching and Delegating. The ultimate aim is to be able to reach the level of organizational maturity where delegation is pervasive. Hersey and Blanchard, the proponents of Situational Leadership, argue that when we take on a new task we all begin on the ‘dependent’ end of a continuum from fully dependent to fully independent. Then, each of us will move up the maturity scale at different speeds, depending on our experience, our abilities, our sense of self-worth, and the responses we get from our leader. At each stage, the leadership style to be employed can be determined by two points of view: the worker’s ability to do the task and the worker’s willingness to do the task.
J. Stacy Adams identified that workers are in a constant process of observation of the fairness of the outcomes of their own work compared with the outcomes of the work of their perceived peers. In this sense the worker defines his or her value based on a notion of equity with the organizational environment, implying a strict relationship between the two. Where there is little or no discrepancy, the worker perceives equity and is therefore satisfied. Where there is discrepancy, there is a perceived negative equity and the worker then actively seeks to restore the imbalance. This may take the form of negative action such as a drop in performance or a psychological or physical withdrawal from the status quo.
Positive equity, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. The role of the manager in this situation is to identify, understand and take appropriate action to stem negativity and build positivity; this means re-establishing and building ‘willingness’ through dialogue and, if appropriate, matching perceived value.
Victor Vroom’s 1960s theory states that an employee’s ‘Motivational Force’ is dependent upon three concepts: Expectancy, Instrumentality and Valence. Expectancy is the belief that the worker’s effort will result in the achievement of the desired performance goals (the desired end state of Cybernetics?). Instrumentality is the belief that should these goals be achieved a reward will be given. Valence is the value the worker places upon the value of that reward.
This provides a closer match to our understanding of situational leadership: if a worker is to be motivated, he or she not only has to believe the performance measure (or ‘task’) is achievable but that, once achieved, the reward will be of an appropriate value.
In OB Mod, the motivation of workers is said to be a direct result of the external consequences of that workers behaviour. As such, behaviour can be seen to be reinforced according to a continuum of consequence, the poles of which are positive and negative.
Positive Reinforcement implies strengthening a behaviour through the application of a pleasant consequence. Negative Reinforcement implies strengthening a behaviour through the removal of an unpleasant consequence. Within this continuum also lies a neutral consequence which is said to lead to an extinction of behaviour through no reinforcement at all and a punishing consequence which, again, is said to lead to an extinction of behaviour.
The above theories are all interesting models which in the past have provided leaders and managers with a set of tools to understand and maybe develop their own mental models. However, they all share something in common: a very pragmatic way of managing and one that is not necessarily appropriate in the world of today.
The term cybernetics was coined in 1947 for a new discipline that had emerged out of research into the control of physical systems. Norbert Wiener and colleagues chose a name adapted from a Greek word meaning ‘steersman’. This, it was felt, would invoke the rich interaction of goals, predictions, actions, feedback and response in systems of all kinds: mechanical and physical systems, but also biological, cognitive and social systems, abstract intelligent processes and language. Wiener’s own simple definition for cybernetics was this: Communication and control in the animal and the machine.
Cybernetics is neither holist nor reductionist. Rather, it takes the philosophical perspective that the whole can be analysed as a set of components within the context of their organisation. It is that organisation which will account for interactions between components, and the way they in turn affect the system.
One of the most fundamental concepts of cybernetics is its approach to equilibrium and change. Cybernetics takes the position that an entity behaves in a way to keep certain conditions as close to a desired state as possible – an equilibrium – and then seeks to understand the actions required to maintain these conditions. This understanding is also fundamental when applied to a system’s effort to effect change by moving towards a goal (or new equilibrium).
These efforts will be composed of, for example, observing or perceiving, organising observations, comparing these organised observations to the desired state (which is a function of memory) and taking corrective measures should the gap between current and desired state be too large. A further role of the memory may also be to record previous corrective measures used and the context in which they were taken.
The ability of the system – be it the human body or a complex enterprise – to observe, make comparisons and decisions and then be in action is the very essence of ‘steersmanship’ and hence is cybernetic.
As you can see, the implications of cybernetics touch on the most philosophical questions of our work: observation, interpretation, meaning and understanding. They touch upon who we are, where we stand in the face of reality, what decisions we make and how we make them.
In business (and in life) we like to think we make decisions based on our knowledge of a situation, yet cybernetics’ epistemological approach – where the observer and the observed are both seen as parts of the same system – suggests that our perspective, and our behaviour, cannot be separated from the system itself. Cybernetics forces us to consider what the limits to our true knowledge are and we understand that our reality may be nothing more than a self-maintained mental construction to help us get along: A mental model. And as we’ve said before, (and will likely say again!) “all models are wrong. Some are useful.”
Cybernetics puts human perspectives and behaviours at the heart of any attempt to model the complex system of an enterprise. Since humans are capable of developing their own goals and desired states the implication is profound: We can define organizations as being purposeful systems of purposeful components – people. Thus by understanding more about the motivations of the people we will come to know what truly controls the system we desire to shape.