Tagged: organization

Power, Organisations and Politics

As an observer looking at the proceedings of the SG50 celebrations, I’m curious that there has not yet been any discussion about the future. There are understandable reasons for the absence of both the youth voice and discussions about the future, and I’ll definitely be interested in how those conversations will play out.

The  reason I think, is straightforward. The atmosphere around SG50 is in a reflective phase – one that looks back at the past and celebrates the efforts of the pioneers in building this country. Certainly there is much to celebrate about, and yes, the efforts of the pioneers need to be honoured. More than that, this past – of hard work and ruggedness, gives us – the present, their future – the symbolic resources we can draw on in times of difficulty. This history that we have gives us the confidence, that no matter how difficult the future can be, we have the ability to pull through and better yet flourish.

One of the ways there can be a serious discussion on the country’s future is to be educated about organisations, power and politics. Before we understand all the other issues, we have to understand the nature of politics in Singapore, who are the organisations involved, and how they wield their power. Knowing how power is used in Singapore gives us a starting point in thinking about how to wield it responsibly, and to use it to tackle all the other issues that will affect us in the second half of the twenty-first century. And there are many. Climate change will be one – it’s effects will be global, and it will affect other countries, which in turn, will affect us. Technological change will continue, bringing about large changes in our lives, and especially in the world of work and jobs. For Singapore to continue flourishing, what matters is how we will take on these changes – and for that understanding how power, organisations, and politics will matter.

We often don’t make an explicit connection among power, organisations and politics together. We do make connections between politics and power – the common-sense understanding is that politics is the exercise of power. We often make the connection between organizations and politics – in the sense of the common ‘office politics’ that happens. Sometimes we think of organizations as exercising power – how different organizations fight for influence. Maybe this is intuitive when we think of political parties as organizations, or when we think of companies fighting for market share – the companies with a dominant market share could be said to have a lot of power in the industry. It’s how we think of Wal-Mart, or the oligopolism that happens in many industries. 

Power is relational – it  does not make sense ‘on its own’ It requires at least two people – one acting on power, and the other being acted upon. It is neither good nor bad; it just is, and it can definitely be used in either way. With this we can discuss power relations in a family, in institutional settings, in community groups, in politics, and across different countries.

Organisations can be defined as groups of people acting together for a common purpose. They might be doing a whole bunch of different things, but those different things are largely in the pursuit of goals. These goals could be, as with the military – to be able to end a war quickly; to get individuals or families out of crises. Organisations are also concentrations of power – an organisation is more influential if it can achieve its goals and exert itself on other actors. As a result, most organisations are also involved in some kind of politics – be it within organisations or with other social actors. Of course, internally, people are participating in politics – going around trying to influence other people within the organisation to get their own goals accomplished, within the larger framework of the organisation’s goals. 

All that is clear – that politics and power is all around us. It’s better that we see it for what it is and learn to be responsible about it, so that we understand ourselves and our actions better. Understanding power, for example helps in understand the relationship dynamics within a couple, or a family, or within the office, and so on. This framework helps us understand the behaviour of some groups of people relative to others. The use of power is focused in organisations, and it is through organisations that people’s collective energies can be harnessed.

Power has a visible component – the influence and the behaviour. When geopolitical analysts measure military power, they usually take a look at the military hardware – the ships, the tanks, the planes, and so on. When political pundits look at how political leaders use their power, they look at how they influence lawmakers through speeches and negotiation – persuasion. Economic power can be visible when people start talking about funding, aid, market access, and so on.

Power also works through other means. One of the most difficult ways to identity power’s operations when it becomes part of our lives – when it becomes the default setting for how we live. When that happens, it becomes difficult to tell of power’s influence, yet it is there. Notions such as “way of life” allude to such influences. That the “way of life” is often taken for granted, and not thoroughly examined would be an example of how a collection of actors have shaped our lives. That is not to say that we are all puppets being manipulated – we remain free to choose how we want to live our lives, but that our options are constrained. Another example is the ‘choice’ of consumer products that we experience in supermarkets. The reality is that consumer companies are trying to manipulate our buying choices through visions of attractive people and what they wear/eat/use. Again, the logic here is that it’s not that people are being manipulated like puppets; its just that the bulk of our attention would fall on particular products and particular brands, and might be attracted to purchase specific products. 

If nothing else, the points above just aims to illustrate that there are obvious and non-obvious ways of how power operates, and we have to pay attention to both, or even pay close attention to the latter, since they are harder to call out. We want to pay attention to power because of the way it influences our lives, especially if we want to be aware of the choice and power that we have too, as citizens and consumers trying to do the right thing for ourselves and for others. 

All of us are choosing something, even if we appear to be doing nothing. In a way, living the default is to support existing power structures. This is why asking for a change in the power structures is tiring and difficult. When people are habitualised into supporting an existing power structure and ways of life, asking others to change it is almost the equivalent of changing a habit – and habits of course, are very difficult to change. Asking others to change the assumptions they don’t usually question is tiring – for both the person advocating for it, and for the person being asked to change it. 

Social change, as a result, is very difficult, and often doesn’t last. When people don’t have the patience or don’t see the point of doing something different, very often they fall back to what they knew before – and hence reversions do happen. When politicians advocate for change, and do so inspiringly, be cynical. I guess this is why Obama was so exciting and now, so disappointing. Promising change and acting on them are obviously two very different things, especially when the resistance to change can be so high. 

So dramatic changes don’t work, and can be dangerous. What works are, no surprise – small incremental steps, pursued consistently over time, or moderately sized changes pursued during crises and gradually maintained and added on. The difficulty with this is with sustaining the effort over time. That’s why crises are significant – they provide legitimacy for change-advocates to say that current directions don’t work, and people rally around the need for change, and willing to change their habits. What happens after the moment of crisis, is something else. 

I’ve introduced how organisations, power and politics are linked together, and I’ve shown how power is both obvious and non-obvious. I’ve also described a little about how power and politics relate to organisational change. Very broadly speaking, these notions of power are important in discussing how social and political changes might happen, how people might participate in power structure, and what to watch out for to tell if things are changing in any particular direction. All of these will help us to think more clearly about the dynamics that will shape Singapore’s future.

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Books I’m Going Through

I thought that this post would be a good opportunity to talk about the fields of academic inquiry that I’m covering. Another good reason for this post is that I’ve been spending time away from reading, and I’ll need more time before I get back to the substantive topics at hand.

So, what books am I reading?

By sheer dumb luck, I  chanced upon the field of organizational sociology – the study of human organizations and what happens inside them. As a result of that, I’ve also had the chance to go through the literature on institution theory – the norms and social practices that form and last, of which organizations are a subset of. This is institution theory as its most abstract. For example – marriage, handshake, the limited-liability company, the public service – would all constitute institutions, but some are also organizations. By this definition, all organizations are institutions, and some institutions are also social practises. The intellectual landscape for this has been covered to great detail ever since the end of the WWII. The same authors who describe the phenomenon of organizations also tend to cover what happens inside them. There has been considerable amount of literature on decisions-making, and a strand of this eventually became what we know today as artificial intelligence, in an attempt to model and improve cognition processes, both human and otherwise. Some of the major names in this field include, Chester Barnard, Herbert Simon, Paul DiMaggio, Walter Powell, Lynne Zucker, W. Richard Scott, and others.

The other streams that I’ve been pursuing comes from futures studies. Futures Studies examines the premises and possibilities of alternative futures. As people and organizations, we are constantly looking ahead and making plans to prepare for the future. We develop resources and capabilities to anticipate future demands. The timescale varies largely, obviously, but it’s a large part of what we do everyday, whether we realise it or not. Futures Studies looks also at the assumptions of how we think about the future, and examines critically the way we look at them. Scenario Planning has been one major tool used by practitioners of futures, and there are others. In this series of posts, I think about futures studies and how they are applied to make better decisions within organizations. I might stray off to think about alternative futures for Singapore and the world, but I won’t say much here, because that’s also my day job. There’s Jim Dator at Hawaii University at Manoa, and Sohail Inayatullah who’ve been developing the intellectual foundation for futures. On the practice side of thing of things,  there’s the Shell-GBN group consisting of Pierre Wack, Kees Van Der Heijden, Peter Schwartz, and Adam Kahane who’ve been active in developing and communicating insights from their practises at Shell and outside. Singapore has been a major user of scenario planning for a while and developing as a node for futures in the Asia-Pacific region.

There is one other major field that I’ve been looking at, and has been the one other discipline that I’ve been trying to develop my knowledge of, and that’s the entire field of complexity theory. There are no real definitions for it, but I use it loosely to include studies of classical chaos (small changes in initial conditions have big effects later on), networks and graphs, cellular automata, and system dynamics. The whole field describes interactions – how simple global rules can yield tremendous variation and structure in the final outcomes. The definitive examples for complexity includes the Game of Life, Schelling’s Segregation Models, the artificial societies of Joshua Epstein. And then there’s System Dynamics, a field that was born out of attempts to describe interactions within organizations and project management and which then later gave rise to studies about the global system of the environment and human systems. For the first part of complexity that I’ve describe, Thomas Schelling, and Joshua Epstein were the authors of the models I’ve mentioned. For an introduction to chaos and complexity theory there’s James Gleick’s Chaos, and numerous books on complexity including Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity a Guided Tour. The intellectual foundations were established at Santa Fe Institute by W. Brian Arthur, John Holland and others, and leading thinkers today include Geoffrey West, Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, Luis Bettencourt, Cesar Hidalgo, Ricardo Hausmann. University of Michigan, and Northeastern University are leading centres today, although many graduate programmes also use complexity methods in their analysis.

Systems Dynamics deserves its own portion, and its lack of attention is only because it’s a mainstream topic in engineering. Of the many contributions of Systems Dynamics, the one that’s brought the most attention is arguably the World Model for the Club of Rome, which focused attention on the degradation of the global environment and the possible overshoot and collapse in the global economy and material conditions later on. Donella Meadows was one the most important advocates for systems thinking. Jay Forrester developed the programing environment for Systems Dynamics and the creator for the first models before Donella Meadows and is one of the most important pioneering figures for Systems Dynamics.

This has been a whirlwind tour of the thinkers that I’ve gone through. I’m trying to think through in small steps their relationships to one another. The central thread that runs through all of them is in trying to get a firmer grasp on the difficult terrains that we as individuals and organizations find ourselves in. Organizations, Futures, Complexity and Systems are all pieces in the puzzle, and there are other pieces as well. I haven’t talked about participatory methods, social/power structures, information systems, cognitive biases, and behavioural economics – just to name a few.

I don’t know what the end-result is, and this I guess is an example of generative complexity, where the building blocks can lead up to strong and beautiful structures.

Containers and Myths

Before I talk about change-making, I feel that there is a very strong need to articulate the assumptions that exist in our society and organizations. All change-making happens in the container, and we ought to think about what’s in the container before thinking about changing the content, or break the container altogether. Since people will always be in some sort of container (institutions and organizations), I’m going to think about what’s in the container – the assumptions and ideas that cause everything else to work. (I am using metaphors very loosely here, apologies.)

What are the prevailing assumptions today in most of our organisations? With these articulations of assumptions, I am not yet imposing value judgments on them – but when I do, I try to defend them.

One is that certainty is possible.

Two is that a lot of rewards are based on a zero-sum vision of the world.

Three is that rational thought is the only mode of cognition there is.

These three assumptions form the the bases of the world we live today, at least in the organization context. Working lives in bureaucracies start and end with these three myths. I call them myths because they are the building blocks of all the stories we tell one another at work. As the charisma and powers of heroes fuel the stories in older times, so in present day, certainty, zero-sumness and rational thought are the building blocks of the stories of our time.

Certainty is possible
There are people out there who think that there exists only “one correct answer”, or who think that there is only one vision of the world. They dismiss all other possibilities except their own.

That’s not true. Yet people and organizations strive to attain greater certainty. A whole industry – Intelligence – in both economic and security domains suggest that people pursue certainties in their environment. These are noble pursuits but ultimately unhelpful given that the real world is much more contested. Even if it’s desired, Objective Truth-finding would have to go together with the ability to deal with multiple truths.

Certainty is not possible – there will never be enough information to find out how an outcome will be; there is never enough time to go through all of that information to decide in time. Living with uncertainty is the only way there is.

Rewards are zero-sum
Is the gain for someone at work necessarily a loss for another person? If the rewards are limited, and if there can only be one winner, then the answer has to be, “yes”. Then again, if people are competing for different rewards, then the answer is, “no”. Is there a right answer to all the problems an organization has to solve? Certainly no. In an ideal world, people get to define themselves and establish unique roles for how they want to contribute to teams. But then, the cruel realities of poor HR policies can get in the way, and de-motivate people from the best of themselves.

If societies are driven to think that rewards are limited, and not everyone can win, perhaps the outcome is an individualistic society. When people can come together that the benefit of one adds to the benefit of others, then perhaps we can have people adding to one another.

Rational thought is the only acceptable mode of cognition
Defining “rational thought” is tricky. What I’m trying to get to here is the logic of thinking that suggests that all problems can be solved, and that optimal solutions are possible for most situations. That by following a linear train of thought, one can arrive at most answers. While this is true in many cases, there are also classes of problems where solutions cannot be arrived via deductive means. There certainly are very strong resonances with “Certainty is possible”.

The other neglected consequence is that everyone thinks that they are the most rational people, and that everyone else is irrational. Therefore, people should come round to my side of the argument, and all other perspectives are wrong. This extreme is most evident in authoritarian leaders who dismiss the opinions of others.

How are these three maxims related to change-making? I suggest that these three maxims are the way the world works – from a psychological, and epistemological point of view. These views are still dominant, and undergird the way how our education, economy and society turn. Understanding that they are the myths of our time is crucial in thinking about how change can proceed.

In the next post, I want to talk about “indicators”, and how the idea of “indicators” is very central to the three qualities mentioned here.


Made slight edits in the sentence on Intelligence.