10- Postmodern Perspectives on Organizational Life

September 8, 2008

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Emily Browne, Administrator, Pacific Soundings Press, 3550 Watt Ave. Suite 140, Sacramento, California 95821.]

Theme: 21st Century Leaders Are Faced with the Difficult Challenge of Working in Postmodern Organizations

Fundamental Question

How do we lead, consult and coach within highly challenging settings that require the use of new strategies as well as the return to the old strategies and images of both premodern and modern societies?

In the previous essay on this blog I summarized the essential differences between organizations that exist and operate within premodern, modern and postmodern societies. In this essay, I focus specifically on some of the most salient characteristics of 21st Century organizations that face the complexity, unpredictability and turbulence of a postmodern world.

On The Edge

The postmodernists tell us that boundaries and edges are the primary source of activity and information in any system. Furthermore, we can best understand an organization by examining its edges and the ways in which it interacts with other elements of its environment. They encourage us to consider the edginess of the emerging postmodern era not simply as a restatement of the modern “age of anxiety” but rather as a sign of the rich potential that confronts us in our information-rich world.  Postmodernists encourage us to identify differences that truly make a difference in our world. We must discard that which is superficially interesting but transitory and determine that which we individually and collectively should attend to at any point in time. Information that is solicited from the identification of differences becomes critical to any leader or manager in a postmodern organization.

Many organizational theorists of our time are coming to recognize the importance of detecting change and difference. It is often too late to respond when change and difference is very gradual or when it is noticed after considerable delay. Delay in the flow of information and slow response-time often leaves an organization in a vulnerable position. We have only to look at the American auto industry or, more broadly, the world’s ecology to appreciate the devastating effect of delayed recognition of a problematic change.

Interplay between Order and Chaos

In considering the organizational dimension of size and complexity, postmodernists often find themselves addressing a more basic issue concerning the interplay between order and chaos. Sometimes organizations seem to make sense. The policies and procedures look right (at least on paper) and things seem to be moving along in a predictable manner. At other times, everything seems to be fragmented and chaotic. Nothing makes any sense in the organization and one wonders if the center can hold. Postmodern theorists (especially those who are studying chaotic systems) suggest that these seemingly contradictory observations are actually a result of examining the organization at different levels.

Organizations (like virtually all other systems) contain layers of chaos and order. When confronted with a seemingly chaotic and unpredictable organization, we have only to move up one level (to greater abstraction), or down one level (to greater specificity), if we wish to find order. Thus, for instance, the behavior of a specific person may begin to make some sense once we begin to examine overall dynamics in her department rather than just look at her individual behavior. Organizational theorists tell us about the deskilling of managers or subordinates that often occurs in organizations and the ways in which this deskilling contributes in some manner to the maintenance of stability in this department.

Similarly, we can move up or down levels of analysis to find chaos in an organization that seems to be orderly. The operation of a ballet or theater company, for instance, may look very orderly from the audience’s perspective. At a higher level, however, everything may look quite chaotic (inadequate funding, props that never arrive, recalcitrant performers)—just as at the level of the individual performer we will find stage fright, confusion, rivalry and other forms of non rational and chaotic behavior that are never seen by the appreciative audience. Similarly, in many large organizations, the customers (and perhaps even corporate board members) are never allowed to witness its pervasive chaos. We polish and rationalize (public relations) decisions that have been made in highly irrational ways and in complex, unpredictable settings.

Organizational Anchors and Forms

Postmodernists also have something to teach us about the mission and boundaries of the organizations in which we find ourselves. They employ rich and provocative metaphors to describe the distinctive ways in which organizations operation. Postmodernists, for instance, point to the need for anchors that provide both stability and flexibility to organizations as they negotiate with an unpredictable and turbulent external environment. These anchors exist at both the individual level (often called career anchors) and at the organizational level (often called organizational charters).

The postmodernists also speak of the differences between more traditional organizations that resemble maple trees (with deeply rooted identities and highly complex and differentiated structures), and some of the newer organizations that more closely resemble palm trees (with highly flexible and replicable structures but shallow root systems and short lives). The maple tree organization grows and changes very slowly, for each growth phase or change on the part of one branch on the tree ultimately requires a readjustment of all the other branches of the tree. By contrast, change in the palm tree organization is readily introduced, for each unit of the organization operates independently and need not adjust appreciably to changes in other parts of the organization. Both types of organizations make sense in the postmodern world. One must decide, however, which is appropriate to one’s own organization, or risk organizational dysfunction and death.

Spiritual Leadership

The third postmodern topic to be considered is the spiritual aspects of leadership. Leaders of the postmodern world must navigate a treacherous white water environment, which is filled with unpredictability and the need for short-term survival tactics, as well as long-term strategies based on broad visions and deeply embedded values. Leaders must be sources of integration in post-modern organizations. They serve in this integrative role primarily through the creation and sustenance of community and through serving in the role of servant to those with whom they work.

The notions of community and servanthood, in turn, lead us away from the traditional (both premodern and modern) notions of a society based on dominance, to a society based on partnership and collaboration. These styles of leadership have often been more commonly found among women than among men. The sacred model of leadership calls into question much of the traditional managerial training of leaders and many of the motives that guide men and women to seek positions of leadership in our society.

Organizational Bifurcation and Groping

The fourth theme to be addressed concerns two processes associated with institutional change: bifurcation and groping. These processes share a common emphasis on the systemic, yet often unpredictable, nature of any change process (the layering of chaos and order about which we have already written). The process of groping or bifurcation (splitting) focuses on the role played by specific, critical events (often called rogue events) or by shifts in the status of an established component of an organization (often described as self-organizing criticality).

Relatively minor change (at the right time and the right place) has a profound impact on the long-term trajectory of the organization. These minor changes can be tipping points for major organizational and societal transformations. There is unpredictability in the case of any form of planned change—especially when the change involves a transformational shift in the level at which a problem is being addressed or in the basic operating patterns of an organization. These transforming (second-order) changes are increasingly common in our postmodern world and require new modes of problem solving and learning.

Organizations as Relationships and Conversations

Conversation is the fifth organizational perspective to be considered in a unique and provocative manner by various postmodern theorists. The flow of energy or material resources is dominant in most material systems. By contrast, human systems (and organizations in particular) rely on the flow of information which, in turn, is embedded in a complex network of relationships and conversations. Some postmodernists (especially those who identify themselves as “de-constructionists”) consider organizations to be nothing more than a web of relationships and conversations. Even the structures and products of an organization are secondary in most contemporary organizations to the conversations that occur regarding these structures and products.

Stated in somewhat different terms, most people, resources and attention in present-day organizations are devoted not to the direct production of goods or direct provision of services, but to the use of verbal and written modes of communication about these goods and services. These extended conversations are required if large and complex organizations are to be held together. The center will hold in major organizations only when a significant proportion of the resources of the organization are devoted to integrative, indirect services (such as quality control, coordination, cost monitoring, planning and record keeping) rather than direct services (such as production, sales and repair). Except in small organizations, most of the time is spent by members of organizations in communicating with other people in the organization or outside the organization. We must rethink the ways in which we lead and influence the direction of these information-based entities if our organizations are nothing more (and nothing less) than extended conversations.

Story telling and narrative are central to the postmodern condition. Stories are the lifeblood and source of system maintenance in organizations. The construction of stories about organizational successes and failures is key to the processes of personal and organizational transformation, much as the role played by remnants and enemies is central to the preservation of continuity and openness in the turbulent postmodern environment. We must find ways in which storytellers, remnants of a former era and even our enemies can become honored participants in organizational improvement efforts.

Covenant and Culture

The final postmodern topic concerns the establishment of commitment and reflection within organizations. Building on the concepts of organizational conversations, rogue events and transformations, and leaders as spiritual guides, this postmodern perspective on work and its value emphasizes the role of reflection in the improvement of individual or collective enterprise. While organizational transformation often seems thunderous, individual men and women walk silently into the world of personal transformation. Postmodern conditions usually require small steps toward renewal rather than elaborate plans. These conditions also require a shift to different levels of understanding and new modes of learning.

In the modern world, boundaries (and identities defined by roles and rules) served as containers of anxiety. In the postmodern world, we must look to an inner sense of self and to an outer structure of support and community for shelter, stability and insight in an edgy and turbulent world. At the heart of this process is a search for sanctuary. Sanctuaries may be found in physical locations (a retreat or mountain cabin), within one’s local surroundings (“a room of one’s own”) or within one’s self (a moment for reflection). Regardless of its location, a sanctuary involves the creation and maintenance of temporary settings in which people can reflect on and planning for second order changes, try out small first order changes, and experience supportive and renewing community.

As we note throughout this series of essays, leaders must find commitment within the postmodern world—even within the context of faith and doubt. Each of us—whether in the role of formal leader or faced with moments of temporary leadership—must discover ways in which we make commitments and take action, while keeping a relativistic stance in a world that no longer allows for a stable ground of reference. We must often look to that which is old and that with which we disagree to find the balance and the kernel of truth that we need to navigate successfully in our turbulent and confusing postmodern world. We return to the wisdom found in virtually all premodern cultures concerning the facade of progress and the ephemeral nature of planning. While standing on the edge of a postmodern world, we must discover wisdom in the patience and persistence of premodern man. We must return to premodern perspectives regarding the sacred nature of human organizations and once again listen to enlightening stories regarding our own human history and destiny. Only in this way can we successfully tend the complex and irreversible fires of the postmodern world.


Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. 


09- The Tale of Three Organizations

September 2, 2008

[© Copyright. Feel free to link to this blog. Please ask author for permission before copying.]

[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact me at P. O. Box 70, Harpswell, Maine 04079.]


Theme: 21st Century Leaders Are Faced with the Difficult Challenge of Working in Three Different Kinds of Organizations


Fundamental Question

How do we lead, consult and coach with in widely differing settings in which organizational culture varies and organizational structures and processes vary so widely?


In my two previous essays on this blog I described the fundamental nature of societies that might best be assigned the labels “premodern”, “modern” and “postmodern”. In this essay I briefly, but systematically, review many of the elements of three types of organizations and suggest several perspectives and strategies by which the leaders of contemporary organizations can survive in and even help to co-create our emerging postmodern world. Eight dimensions are commonly used by contemporary theorists and practitioners as focal points for their investigations and analyses of organizations: size, complexity, intentions, boundaries, communication, capital, worker values and leadership. Our analysis of the emerging postmodern organization will center on these eight elements. In the case of three of these dimensions we have combined two separate, but closely related, aspects of organizational life. Size and complexity tend to be closely related. Intentions and boundaries directly bear on one another, as do capital and worker values—especially when consideration is given to shifts in each of these dimensions during the premodern, modern and postmodern eras.


In essence, we have been proposing in this essay that major shifts have occurred in each of these dimensions as our world has moved from a premodern era (based in the extraction of natural resources and craft work) to a modern era (industrial and human-service based). Shifts of a similar magnitude are now occurring throughout the world (and particularly in the Western world) as we move into a postmodern world.


Size and Complexity

We find in the premodern era the dominance of simple organizational structures (usually based in the family unit) and an emphasis on gradual growth. By contrast, in the modern era, emphasis is placed neither on the process of growth itself nor on the gradual expansion in organizational capacity, but rather on the outcome of growth, i.e. large size and an accompanying increase in organizational efficiency and market share. Organizational structures are no longer simple in the modern era. However, these structures are usually uniform within and between organizations (being bureaucratic in nature). Furthermore, these structures are compatible with hierarchically based forms of leadership and authority, and with the highly energy-intensive and technologically driven processes of mass production.


In the movement to a postmodern era, emphasis tends to be placed not on growth and largeness, but instead on keeping things small or of moderate size. Structures are neither simple nor uniform—despite the emphasis on smallness. Rather, fragmentation and inconsistency typifies the postmodern organization. It is comprised of differing organizational structures, policies and procedures. While many people view this fragmentation and inconsistency as transitional in nature—between the modern era and some new, as yet undetermined, era—there is reason to believe that this will be a much longer- term condition of postmodern organizations.






















































Intentions and Boundaries

The premodern organization typically has tacitly held boundaries (particularly between work and family life) as well as tacitly held intentions. This doesn’t mean that boundaries and intentions are unimportant; rather the intentions and boundaries are taken for granted and rarely discussed.  There was little need for an explicit definition of organizational intentions since family members primarily performed the work of the premodern organization. Furthermore, their intentions focused almost exclusively on the provision of sufficient nutrition and shelter. Furthermore, even among those working in the trades, a formal statement of intentions was unnecessary since the product spoke for itself. A system of bartering and exchange of goods and services (for example, the farmer’s market) eliminated the need for any substantial monetary system.


In the modern era, boundaries are quite clear, while statements of intention have tended to remain rather unclear or inconsistent. In modern organizations, clear distinctions are made between the places where employees work and where they live, relax, and worship. We know when we are entering and leaving a modern organization and often define this organization by its sheer existence rather than with regard to its specific intentions. Thus, in the modern era, large organizations can buy up other organizations with relatively little regard for the compatibility of organizational intentions, and can diversify their enterprises primarily with regard to monetary or market gain, rather than with regard to some founding purpose or cause. In many cases, the mergers and acquisitions have resulted in impressive short-term financial gain and even in the rebirth of organizations that have been poorly managed or become stagnant. Longer-term consequences, however, have often been much less positive or even destructive to both organizations.


Frequently, the absent of a clear statement of intentions in modern organizations has been hidden behind the facade of fiscal accountability. The organization exists to produce a profit for the owner or the shareholders. Such a statement of intentions in the modern world heightens confusion or inconsistency in the identification and maintenance of long-term goals and sustaining values. While profits are often essential to the existence of a modern organization, they should not be the reason for its existence. Furthermore, profits rarely provide sufficient guidance to steer the leaders of modern organizations through the increasingly turbulent waters of our emerging postmodern world.


Postmodern conditions have precipitated a crisis with regard to both intentions and boundaries. In order to survive, most postmodern organizations have formulated clearer statements of intentions, in part because they usually no longer have clear boundaries. As specialty shops in postmodern corporate and human service malls, these organizations must find distinctive niches and become more adaptive in the manner in which they market, produce and deliver products and services. The leaders of organizations in the postmodern world repeatedly must re-examine their intentions, for the world in which they operate is constantly changing and demanding new and different products and services. Without a clear sense of intentions, these organizations soon splinter or become aimless vagabonds or scavengers that feed destructively on other organizations and segments of our society.






























































Oral forms of communication were dominant in the premodern world. Small, simple organizations allowed men and women to freely communicate face-to-face with one another. A strong sense of community and homogeneity of interests and values minimized the need for written documentation. With the emergence of industrialized and highly specialized modern organizations, there came an increasing need for written communication (contracts, letters of agreement, recordings of transactions and so forth) as a substitute for direct interpersonal contact. Rather than seeing and listening to another person, one reads her memorandum or written proposal. Other visual modes of communication also prevailed: television, film, graphics, and icon-based computer programs.


The postmodern world tends to be orally based—and in this sense more closely resembles the premodern than the modern world. In the postmodern organization we call each other and leave voice messages, rather than writing letters. We eliminate our secretaries and clerks, and seek to reduce paperwork. The Internet provides an opportunity for information and spontaneous communication to take place that seems more like extended conversation than a formal office memo. As computers are made available with even greater capacity and speed, we are likely to find that the written e-mail is replaced with the visual e-mail, making this mode of communication seem even more like face-to-face conversation.


In the postmodern era, short-term, face to face meetings, ad-hocracy, task forces and temporary systems have replaced long-standing bureaucratic structures that were dependent on written rules and the documentation of policies, procedures and program ideas. In this orally based world, gossip and story telling take on new relevance and appreciation, as does the interplay between communications and relationships. Words intermingle with nonverbal expressions of concern or happiness. People learn how to quickly bond together in temporary groups and then just as quickly disengage so that they can move on to different groups and different projects.


































Capital and Worker Values

Land and other natural resources (for example, gold, oil, and timber) are the dominant and most tangible forms of capital in the premodern era. Ancestry and reputation are two less tangible, but equally as important forms of premodern capital. The divine right of kings prevails. The Catholic Church has emphasized property and prohibited the use of money to make money, hence one could not charge interest on a loan. Thus, an emphasis was placed on property rather than money. Workers, in turn, tended to focus on shelter, food and water—and quality of life. They readily conformed because they looked outside themselves for the essentials of life. They looked toward people in positions of authority to provide both guidance and sustenance and asked for little in return.


The modern forms of capital, by contrast, have been money and buildings. Reputation and ancestry have become less important. The new wealth and new bourgeoisie is more liquid and more volatile. Rich men come and go. This new form of capitalism was supported by Calvinistic doctrine and by the Protestant churches that became more dominant and influential (at least in middle and upper classes) during the modern era. One’s worldly success (as manifest in the non-conspicuous accumulation of monetary wealth) is a sign of one’s predestined salvation. Thus, poverty is considered in some very basic sense to be sinful and a sign of one’s damnation, as is laziness and a questioning attitude about the dominant social order. This Protestant Ethic has dominated European-American notions about the meaning of work and capital for several centuries.


Modern workers no longer owned the business in which they worked, nor did they have a close familial (paternal) relationship with the person who did own the business in which they worked. Workers were now confronted with large, faceless corporations in which responsibility for worker welfare was absent or at best diffuse. As Marx suggested (at the start of the Modern era in Europe), workers were now alienated from the profits for which they toil. They no longer “owned” the products and services they were employed to provide. Thus, the primary motivators for workers in modern organization concerned assurance regarding job, wages and health. Modern workers wanted three things: job security, adequate pay and benefits (a living wage) and a safe work environment. They often unionized in order to obtain assurance in these three areas.


The new capital of the postmodern era is information and expertise. Approval (and its inverse, shame) are components of the new capital. Values of the postmodern worker compliment this new capital. Emphasis is placed on three motivating factors: the meaningful of the work, the ability to influence the work environment and the quality of interpersonal relationships among those working in the organization. The three modern motivators (job security, wages and safety) are still important. They must be addressed in a satisfactory manner prior to addressing postmodern motives. However, assurance regarding job security, wages and health is no longer sufficient. Increasing attention is given to the meaning of work and to recognition derived from colleagues and one’s boss(es) regarding the quality of one’s work. Quality of Work Life programs and Social-Technical Systems dramatically increase worker involvement in the design of production systems and even in daily decision making regarding purchase of equipment, composition of work teams and increased worker safety and security. The new values of the postmodern worker begin to border on the spiritual domain, as greater meaning, purpose and ownership is sought in one’s work and affiliation with an organization.
























































Leaders in the premodern era tended to be great men and women who were selected for their character and education. Great men not only led organizations, they also influenced history and established societal values. Leaders were either born to greatness or provided with an elitist program of liberal arts and mentorship. They tended to exert authority through a paternalistic concern for the welfare and proper education of those who depended on them. By contrast, the more democratic modern era tends to emphasize structures, processes and procedures that ensure the appropriate expression of leadership and influence. Events and structures—not great people—determine the course of modern history, and values are identified as products of the system and bureaucracy rather than as products of any specific individual(s). Emphasis was thus placed not on identifying or producing a great leader (as in the premodern society), but on constructing a great system. Those who head modern organizations typically define themselves as managers rather than leaders. They were to manage and be worthy stewards of the great system that had been created by other people (the nameless and faceless designers of bureaucracies). Modern authority is expressed through the autonomy of rules, regulations, roles and organizational structures.


The postmodern world has called both the premodern and modern notions of leadership into question. The postmodern leader is neither inherently great nor is she merely a product of a great system or bureaucracy. Greatness in a postmodern society involves interaction and great alignment between potentially great people and a potentially great system.  The postmodern leader can be found at any level of an organization. Individual leadership can be effectively exerted and will be influential if applied at the right time, in the right place, in the right manner, and with regard to the right problem or goal. This contextual model of leadership requires careful consideration of both individual and organizational character and style. It also requires a tolerance for ambiguity, recognition of the need for one to learn from his or her mistakes, and a clear sense of personal aspirations. It is ultimately spiritual rather than secular in nature.