Mark Cole and John Higgins
The use of models or methods in organisational life is often promoted as a useful means to prompt people in the workplace to get under the skin of an issue and have a meaningful conversational exchange about it.
This presupposes that the conversation is the problem, rather than the content of the conversation or its context. This is far from the case, as anyone immersed in an organisation will know. For instance, some of the backlash to remote working has noted that it’s those “water cooler” moments that are being missed out on. From a corporate perspective these are those informal and unplanned exchanges deemed to be connective, creative and supportive of innovation.
Others of us recognise the “water cooler” – or wherever it might be in your respective workplace – as a site of resistance, where we can have the unsupervised, unauthorised and heartfelt conversations we want to have about the topics we want to talk about. Neither perspective carries with it the notion that some externally crafted artefact is needed to kick start those discussions.
We were reminded of this critique as we planned an upcoming workshop on ‘Power and Voice at Work’. As we riffed about the design, we realised that we were discussing ideas that could be represented in a 2 x 2 grid, a design originally given to us by Boston Consulting Group and now the fallback position and badge of honour of any “consultant”, as they grimly grasp a felt tip and a flip chart.
We acknowledged this, openly recognising this was not somewhere that we ought to be going. And yet the allure of the simple model was too much to resist – and Mark proceeded to create a 2 x 2 grid by another name.
In order to maintain the pretence that this was not a model like any other, he did a number of things: he described it as a map; suggested those who used it would be “map-making” not “map-reading”; softened its edges and blurred its internal boundaries, by overlaying it with a weave of contour lines as opposed to a rigid frame of four quadrants.
In conversation, we decided that it would be liberating if we left the X and Y axis unlabelled, so as to invite those using the prompt to clarify what it was that they were seeking to assess or analyse. And we started to load the idea with notions related to maps, such as suggesting that people seek out lowlands and high ground.
Now it was John’s turn. Clearly, he still discerned what lay beneath this rather poor disguise that Mark had concocted was a 2 x 2 grid. So, he abandoned the rigour of the map in favour of an different sort of cartography, one that called upon an assemblage of representations from climatology and physical geography: the position of the sun; the arrival of thunderbolts; and mountains and shadows (and who might dwell at the peak or in the darkness). It was more akin to a psychodynamic pirate’s map than Mark’s somewhat austere ordnance survey version.
John’s email that accompanied this item closed with the following phrase: “Have a play if you think it’s worth it”. Rather than continue to invest time in working up this material, Mark opted for a more reflexive approach, considering instead what this experience tells us about models and methods in organisations.
This entails a return to first principles. Why is it that we feel that this sort of shorthand offers more drawbacks than benefits, despite so many consultants justifying their use in terms of the way in which they act as useful prompt for conversation. To our minds, they do…but what shadow do they cast?
At root, something like a 2 x 2 is nothing more than an arrangement of four squares: it is simplistic geometry and nothing whatsoever to do with philosophy. To give credence to such a model, people inscribe things that look vaguely scientific onto them, so that it carries the illusion of a specific type of rigour that is highly privileged in our societies. This is best described as scientism, a fetishization of scientific method that intrudes into areas of inquiry in which it is not at all suited.
Consultants kid their audiences that they’re looking beyond a simple arrangement of four squares by referring to the horizontal and the vertical in this basic diagram as the X- and Y- axes. Notwithstanding whether such a document encourages discussion amongst a collective of human agents – an essential element of connecting and organising, for sure – it actually represents a prop in the overall discourse. This taken-for-granted approach supports the belief that work in organisations needs to be done in a scientific manner, thereby relegating the relational to an afterthought in these exchanges.
Moreover, it contributes to a general narrowing of mind and critical faculties by placing the scientific method on a pedestal. This is an effect of power, wherein ‘science’ (even ‘the science’) is seen as the default position for all inquiry – and other ideas about this are, by implication, cast out as the “other”.
Mark recalls hearing an OD “guru” at some conference or other, offering vague observations supposedly drawn from practice, portentous nostrums about organisational life, and prescriptions as to how such work really ought to be done. In discussing his particular take on the infamous OD “diagnostic” (if you’re an adherent of OD’s trendier version, you refer to this activity as “discovery”; realistically, in the context of business, it’s fundamentally the same thing), he described how to craft a survey. In a nod to scientism, he felt obliged to argue that, whilst most of questions would be qualitative and textual, it would be worth throwing in at least one that required people to make a numerical rating, so as to give you some numbers that would make your final report palatable to all, especially those transfixed by numbers for their own sake.
Craving certainty in the face of complexity
We hope you will be able to restrain a yawn as we light upon the threadbare notion of it now being a “VUCA” world. This overworn concept is raised here to underscore the faddishness of so many of these notions, as the soi-disant thought leaders, business school sages, and professional services consultants constantly conjure nothing out of nothing.
But why is this notion particularly galling? Simply, it presupposes a shift in the nature of human experience, from a halcyon time when things were appealingly simple to one where we’re having to accommodate to complexity. Indeed, the term VUCA is often mobilised in order to suggest that this complexity is in some way manageable in some traditional way, when a more nuanced engagement with the world has always been demanded by the fact that we have always faced complexity, no matter how simple our life has been seen to be.
The craving for certainty is deep seated, particularly amongst managers and leaders in organisations. Yet complexity reminds us that the certainty after which we chase is illusory. But models and methods serve to promulgate the illusion that simple responses can address the complexity that we face.
Imposing and Enclosing
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.
Lastly, these models and methods have a two-fold effect. On the one hand, they impose a particular vision of the world and framing of the issue. To borrow from MacNeice, they are offered as sunlight – but it is an illumination that hardens quickly and cannot capture what people need to explore.
This imposition comes from the author of the model at hand, rather than from a collective and cooperative inquiry. Even where we sought to create greater freedom in terms of the 2 x 2 that John and I ended up inadvertently trying to develop on voice and power – changing it from a frame to a map, leaving the naming of the X-axis and Y-axis to those who are seeking to connect and converse – the imposition remained.
These models can be said to serve the needs of those trying to lead groups engaged in some workplace inquiry, rather than the people with whom they are working – where the act of leading is best seen as the achievement of a corporately acceptable outcome. The models and their typologies are stations on a journey towards an outcome that the consultant – explicitly or tacitly – has in mind for the end of the exercise and in keeping with their contract. In that sense, they steer the conversation rather than remove the constraints on the exchanges that would otherwise be happening.
This leads us to the secondary observation where we see models as enclosing discussions. They aim to focus people in on an agreed topic rather than encouraging an expansive perspective on the world. Hence, this act of enclosing has the consequence of closing off the idea of approaching the inquiry through criticality and reflexivity, those two key elements of human agency. And this enclosure also promotes the idea that any significant issue is best addressed by “chunking it down” into defined pieces, which flies in the face of sophisticated systems thinking.
Throwing the 2 x 2 window out of the window
We have drawn two provisional conclusions from this experience. First, we need to pause in order to notice (and critique) our reasoning rather than merely go along with what is commonplace and familiar. The 2 x 2 grid haunts every corner of organisational discussion and so ends up simply blending into the corporate décor. We need to cleave to one of our main precepts, namely that we should critically interrogate everything – particularly that which is so naturalised as to seem almost unnoticeable. This is part of our overall intention to let texts and documents – in the widest possible – unravel as we work with them.
Second, we should celebrate the active process that led us to call a halt to our unthinking direction of travel – and pushed us to talk again about our critique of models and methods. We undertook this through dialogue – and, as the maths teachers at secondary school used to bark – we need to show our working, which has been the intention of this article.
Even as we concluded the editing of this piece, we ended up in a conversation about whether we should share the modelling that we had developed. On reflection, this demonstrated for us just how pervasive this type of approach to the world can be – and how we need to defend against lapsing into simple solutions and shorthand at every single step of the way.