“When you understand this stuff, there’s no going back.”
— Change Manager (and ex-HR Specialist)
What do we mean when we say that organizations are “wiggly”? And how does this affect business performance, organizational leadership, change management, and so on?
Managers: in charge but not in control
To begin with, an organization is an ongoing process of interaction. It is not a ‘thing’ that exists in some way separately from the actions and interactions of ordinary people. And people have a habit of not conforming to the assumptions of rationality, predictability, and control that still govern mainstream management thinking and practice.
Managers are particularly powerful participants in this process, of course. Their formal authority places them in charge of various activities and able to command certain things to be done. But they are still not in control of it – despite their best intentions and endeavours – because everyone else is similarly acting in line with their own interpretations, interests, and intentions.
In essence, what you get – good or bad; satisfactory or outstanding; routine or surprising – emerges from the widespread interplay of people’s everyday interactions. And this process is wiggly. That is, it doesn't operate in the neatly packaged and predictable ways that conventional management 'wisdom' suggests that it should.
Managers know this intuitively because they experience it - and participate in it - every day.But this ‘gut understanding’ runs counter to the central myth of management that if you’re not in control you’re not doing your job properly.
The illusion of certainty, predictability, and control
From this conventional viewpoint, a manager's task is to ‘catch the wiggliness’ in a metaphorical ‘net’ - getting rid of the mess, formalising the informal, and restoring order and predictability.
This has resulted in all manner of ways of imposing structures, systems and procedures on the natural dynamics of everyday organizational life. This practice is fuelled by the equally mistaken belief that managers (and consultants) can somehow stand outside the action and work on the organization ‘as a whole’.
Despite these largely unquestioned assumptions, the sought-after conditions of certainty, predictability, and control remain as elusive as ever.
The leadership challenge
From a wiggly world perspective, the leadership challenge for managers is one of blending the sensible use of formal, structured approaches with their ongoing engagement with the hidden, messy and informal dynamics of people’s everyday (largely conversational) interactions. Because it's through these interactions that outcomes emerge in practice.
We encourage, assist, and enable managers to engage with these dynamics in more active, informed, and purposeful ways.