Adaptive Action and Schroedinger’s Cat

Two articles particularly caught my eye this week. Both are well worth a read.

The first, by Lisa Gill, begins by quoting Margaret Wheatley who suggests that:

“I realised I had been living in a Schroedinger’s cat world in every organisation I had ever been in. Each of these organisations had myriad boxes, drawn in endess renderings of organisational charts. Within each of these boxes lay “a cat,” a human being, rich in potential, whose fate was determined, always and irrevocably, by the act of observation.” 

Schroedinger’s cat, of course, refers to the controversial thought experiement related to quantum physics, designed to debunk the idea that in some instances we don’t know the outcome in a situation where there are multiple possible outcomes until we “open the box” and take a look. The debate about this is continuing but the big question remains.

To what extent does our way of observing or measuring something determine what kind of result we will get? 

If you like the Big Bang Theory here’s an amusing take on Schroedinger’s Cat (you need to watch to the end).

When I read this I was reminded of a question I had been asked in a conversation the previous day, about why there is so much emphasis at the moment on 360 degree feedback, particularly in public sector organisations. Reading this quote and Lisa’s article led me to wonder about the impact of our “observing” in this particular way and raised a number of questions:

  • How is observing in this way constraining what we can think about people’s competence, or otherwise?
  • To what extent does the nature of our observing determine the kind of outcome we will get?
  • What are the constraints on our observing?
  • How are the outcomes to be understood in context?
  • What other observations could we make? How might they give us an alternative perspective?

The second article, by Dr. Mee-Yan Cheung-Judge, on OD Practitioners and Complex Change, describes a 5 day “laboratory” she and a colleague designed and ran in which they sought to help practitioners experience how to work in an “infinite game” situation.

The idea of an infinite game comes from a book by James Carse in which finite games, that are predictable with defined boundaries and agreed goals and rules about how to succeed, are contrasted with infinite games, with open systems, unpredictable boundaries and unclear or non-existent rules and ways of doing things.

Here’s how Mee-Yan describes what had happened by Day 2 of the laboratory – it’s worth quoting in full:

We saw, first hand, how the unpredictable and complex situation has managed to raise the level of anxiety in a short time, which in turn impacted upon group dynamics (competition, attitude towards authority, the balance between task and maintenance….etc) while the ability of the group to accomplish the task fell significantly. Most delegates felt a level of disorientation that rendered them a bit paralyzed. Instead of choosing to scale up their self-organising ability, they regressed to “please tell us more”, “please explain more”. What surprised the delegates themselves was that in the face of uncertainty, instead of deploying their energy in doing creative work to get themselves out of the sense of stuck-ness, they regressed back to the paradigm that “only if we know more, change could be managed, and we must try harder”. 

Following an extensive de-brief with participants and what sounds like a considerable amount of soul-searching he suggests that four questions are important:

  1. How do we teach complex change to clients? I’ve written about this previously.
  2. How do we help both OD practitioners and clients to trust the simple methodological implications from complex change enough to play with them? Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Keith Johnston’s book, Simple Habits for Complex Times is well worth a read on this.
  3. How do we make teaching complex change and working with complex change less challenging?
  4. How do we help all of us to accept that we (OD practitioners) can no longer ride on the identity of being an expert?

It is these last two questions that particularly interest me because they raise this issue of how we relate ourselves to a situation, not so much this time through out way of observing, but through the orientation or action logic we bring and what anticipations this generates.

If, for example, our “teaching” comes from an expert orientation or action-logic it will take a particular form. Likewise, if we orient ourselves to a complex “infinite game” situation from an expert or perhaps even an achievement perspective then the form of our response might be not unlike that of the participants in the laboratory, seeking to find our own form of “control” by developing more and better expertise or needing a greater level of “blueprint” or guidance about what needs to be achieved than is available.

If our orientation or action-logic is more in the realm of re-defining, however, it might be more likely to be characterised by a focus on collaboration, sharper awareness of context, a heightened sense of the contingency of particular actions and a greater awareness of owning a particular perspective while remaining open to it changing in the light of experience. We are also more likely not just to be tolerant of diversity but to engage with difference as a resource for understanding. If we adopt such an orientation and it guides our anticipations we are much more likely to notice and be open to the striking moments that can generate new possibilities. The downside to this is, of course, is that in doing any of it we will almost inevitably challenge group norms and can easily be disregarded or considered something of a maverick.

… those of us who have a need to know and are used to play[ing] a role in predicting what is going on for our organisations and clients will find ourselves paralyzed when we have neither the power of prediction nor the ability to hold onto certainty and be in the know. This impact can be disproportionally tough at the intrapersonal level as our professional identity as an expert and the relevance of our professional beings are being called into question. 

It seems to me that this represents a significant developmental question for most of us who seek to lead and support organisations as the challenges they face become increasingly complex. I doubt it will be a challenge that can be addressed within the confines of much of our existing thinking about leadership and organisational development.

In her article Lisa Gill proposes three things that might help an organisation avoid having a Schroedinger’s cat problem:

  • Using alternative tools to liberate people’s potential. Lisa suggests having a look at liberating structures. To explore this more deeply it’s worth exploring Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s work on deliberately developmental organisations.
  • Creating a culture of psychological safety and learning. Lisa suggests reading Amy Edmondson’s book on Teaming. For a sneak peak see this video or a short HBR article on the three pillars of a teaming culture.
  • Presupposing that people are inherently motivated and want to improve. This, of course, is based on the well known idea of the pygmalion effect. For me it also raises the issue of how we orient ourselves to a situation and what action-guiding anticipations that orienting generates.

More later on other things that might also be useful ….