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A Year of Not Knowing

I haven’t been writing. I’ve wanted to, but I’ve been deep in a trough of not knowing. It feels pretty awful, but I’ve been here before and I know the drill. I have to keep going and eventually I’ll come out the other side.

Writing on the internet, even if it’s just a blog, or a tweet, seems to favour the certain. Or at least it can feel that way. When I’m in the trough of not knowing, I can vaguely remember being certain, the same way I remember summer when it’s mid-February. It’s a warm pleasant memory and I can’t wait for it to return. Until then, I have to fight the convincing belief that everyone already knows everything, except for me.

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I tell myself that if I’m learning then it’s impossible to avoid these peaks and valleys. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. And I am learning. Next month I’ll return to school to pursue a Masters degree in Human Systems Intervention at Concordia, something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Now that it’s happening I’m uncomfortably aware of the vast amount of not knowing ahead of me. I’m thrilled, but it’s daunting. To manage this fear, I’ve submerged myself in my summer reading list.

This week I finished The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws and the Forerunners of Corporate Change by Art Kleiner, a wonderfully weird history of corporate management and the counter-cultural schools of thought that challenged prevailing organizational wisdom, and either changed it or were co-opted by it, on the path from medieval monasteries to the end of the 1980s.

I loved every page of this book and I would give almost anything to read a second volume that brings the history to present day (sadly Kleiner never wrote one).

What was both satisfying and unsettling was to see how far back the roots of (seemingly) current questions and contemporary issues in organizations go. Self-management, corporate social responsibility, diversity and inclusion, environmentalism, rampant consumerism and the role of corporations in society, it’s all in there, decades before I imagined it would be.

Writing in 1996 about the 1960s Kleiner says:

“As a nation, we were prepared for the collapse of capitalism or its hegemony—but not for the kind of rolling, choppy, uncertain economic growth that struck different components of society in turn with prosperity and calamity, so that no component could ever remain secure.

We were prepared for a battle over the direction of government, but not for an intensely pluralistic society, in which government was no longer the primary engine of governance, having ceded that role to corporations and interest groups.

We were prepared for race war, but not global interconnectedness, where economies were held in thrall to the imperatives of bond and currency markets.

We were prepared for giant corporations to become public enemies, but not for them to adopt an ambiguous role as public enemy and social contributor.

Most of all, we were not prepared for the speed of transactions to accelerate once again.”

Should I be comforted to know how many of our present-day concerns and challenges are ones that have long been manifested by the processes at work across our economy and organizations? Maybe.

What’s always surprising when I read classic org theory and management books is how stuck in the same eddies and whirlpools we still are. Kleiner ends his book with an exploration of how managers and organizations fought their way through the increasingly dynamic and turbulent business environment of the late 1970’s and early 1980s. He labels this period ‘The Rapids’ and describes prevailing thought this way:

“As the world spun further out of control, the fascination with control in conventional management circles intensified. Ostensibly, the goal of managers was still to return value to shareholders. But to anyone who looked closely, a more dominant “theory-in-use” was guiding managers’ behavior. If they could make it through the rapids and come out the other side (they believed), there would be clear sailing again. The sooner they found the right hook, switch, or technique, the sooner they could return to the orderly, predictable world where they knew how to function, where they experienced the joy of effortlessly being winners at their work. From the bottom of their hearts, they did not want to hear that the rapids were here to stay.”

Decades before anyone made “VUCA” a square on your HR conference bingo card, the world was apparently already spinning out of control, and everyone was holding their breath waiting for things to settle down. It may be that we’ve given up hope that will ever happen, but I suspect the leaders of 1970 might be a touch disappointed that we have neither flying cars or revolutionary management innovations to better handle this fast-changing world:

“Wow, 2019! The future! Uh, you guys are still kind of doing that whole scientific management thing? Well, at least I won’t have to sit in traffic on the freeway anymore….Wait, why are you crying?”

I don’t write this with a cynic’s voice. I think it’s clear that the pressing problems we face today are, in many cases, manifestations of the same anxieties, tensions, and complexities that have existed for decades in organizations. This could be discouraging, or it can be a cautionary reminder that none of us are immune to the overconfidence and despair that accompany the peaks and valleys of knowledge and competence. Can we acknowledge our ignorance of history and learn from past failures and successes? Or would Kleiner’s second volume of corporate management ideas from 1990 to today be filled with as many reboots as our modern-day movie theaters?

What I’m Reading


Photo by Matt Lamers on Unsplash
3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jane, this is fantastic – a great read and a thoughtful reflection. Your trough of “not knowing” sounds like my trough of “too much noise to compete.” I’ve been a business/HR executive for 40 years and have experienced every consultant fad that a leader brought back from a conference, and yet, we still have the same issues.

    I had an epiphany of “not knowing” in my graduate studies and it was exhilarating. After another decade in corporate America, I came to believe that I actually do know. It’s not complicated, it’s just hard. It means getting back to the basics of communication, respect and leadership. Yes, that’s on everyone’s walls, and they “know” it, but apparently are not willing to do what it takes.

    That’s my trough – no longer having the energy to compete with the noise.

    I wish you a wonderful graduate program, with a slight amount of envy in my voice.

    July 15, 2019
  2. Fascinating and important reminder, Jane that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr). From my perspective as a clinical and organizational psychologist, the key factor that propels and/or stalls progress is human behaviour. Our behaviour is complex, fascinating, inspiring, frustrating and confounding!

    Congratulations on initiating your Masters degree. The Faculty will be energized by your input!

    July 18, 2019
  3. Thank you Sean!

    July 18, 2019

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