Harrison Owen: Public Administration in the 21st Century

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Harrison Owen

Asked to comment on the preliminary abstract for a new article, below the line at Search: public administration in 21 century, Harrison responded as follows.

I like your story line, if only because you reach a conclusion that closely parallels one of my own. Coming off a very different base, I found myself convinced that we are at the cusp of a transformative moment, caught between a control oriented, rationalistic awareness (consciousness) of ourselves and our world, verging into an interactive, self organizing consciousness. And “cusps” are always painful and disorienting, which would seem to be an accurate, albeit mild, characterization of our times.

—  extract from the end advanced here—

The real issue was that The Millennium Organization was not a “new program” – it was a profound paradigm shift. And if Thomas Kuhn has taught us anything it is that paradigm shifts are counterintuitive, painful and always the last thing that anybody in their right mind would care to do. Even worse shifting paradigms is not something you can think or reason yourself into. You can’t plan it, design it, program it, manage it, nor control it. The journey forward follows a very different route. I believe there are any number of useful approaches – but none of them come from the Old Proactive Toolbox. I think.

—read the full story—

Just words, I know, but there may be some substance. About 30 years ago I found myself thinking about Transformation in Organizations, along with (what seemed to me to be) a natural corollary – Evolution of Consciousness in Organizations. To that point, massive efforts, to say nothing of gallons of ink, had been devoted to the characterization of Transformation in Individuals, or the Evolution of Individual consciousness. That the process, no matter how described, went one individual at a time. To the extent that the species as a whole was to make any progress, this could only occur when a sufficient number of individuals took the transformative leap, thereby producing a critical mass – and suddenly we would have a species shift. I grant the logic, but I wondered whether there could be some alternatives? 6.5 billion people could take a long time, which we didn’t have. Added to that, gurus, therapists, and transformational consultants were also in short supply.

Is it possible that groups of people, let’s say organizations, go through a similar process? And if so, what would be the organizational analogues to the stages of consciousness evolution in individuals? I used a simple schema, The Great Chain of Being. As you doubtless know there are multiple other schemas, most of which are more elegantly complex (Ken Wilbur, for example) – but the good old Great Chain had the virtue of simplicity.

The tale gets a little complicated from here on out, but I share it because I think it may have some relevance to your undertaking. So if you care to – follow on for a (brief) tour around the barn.

The Great Chain of Being comes in multiple versions, but the one I found most useful is described by Ken Wilber. There are five steps. Actually there are 7, but the first is “nothing” as also the last, but “nothing” is a little hard to describe. The steps are: Body, Mind, Reason, Soul, Spirit. The notion is that as we journey along, our consciousness is focused on each level. We begin as Body – and our self understanding is pretty well limited to bodily concerns – sex, food, shelter, etc. It all works, but  our possibilities are pretty limited. You might think of the guys on the beach with a case of Bud – all saying to each other, “This is Life!” As our consciousness shifts to Mind, our world expands. Not so much about “Great Thoughts” but we do gain the capacity to think about something other than the basics. With Reason we take a major jump. You could also call this “consciousness of consciousness” The ego emerges as distinct from everything else, and “I” assume an identity – no physical changes, but my Reason provides an alternative place to sit and view the world and all other inhabitants. There is good news – I have an identity. There is problematic news – my identity occurs in separation/opposition from all other being (as opposed to connection) – as well as the (delusional) perception that “I” am in control. (“I am the captain of my soul and the master of my fate.”).

Soul brings us to reunion. Soul, as I am using it here, is not some disembodied wraith but rather the integration of Body, Mind, and Reason. Rather like Black street usage – if you got Soul, you got it all together. And the reintegration extends to the world around us. We find our identity no longer in isolation, but rather in relationship.

Spirit is the penultimate stop – The edges of separation/isolation blur out and it is all one flowing whole. Romantic tripe, perhaps – but I think we all recognize Spirit when we meet.

Short shrift for the complex journey of consciousness – but hopefully sufficient to set the stage for what I really wanted to talk about. The Evolution of Consciousness in Organizations. At the beginning, I was thinking mostly about businesses and such, but my definition of “organization” is simple (minded?). “Two or more individuals gathered together to do something.” That would cover everything from a family of two up to all 6.5 billion of us with plenty of way-stops along the spectrum.

Now for the process. I chose different words for the stages but analogous, I thought. Of course there had to be five, which were: Reactive, Responsive, Proactive, Interactive, Inspired. I was trying to capture the style of behavior at each level.

Reactive (Body) is where we all start. First day of business, so to speak. Very intense, Hot, exciting, earthy, may we say — reptilian. Life is filled with problems and opportunities which are grabbed in the moment – without a great deal of thought for the long term.  The hero is The Entrepreneur. The good news is that things are up and running. The bad news is that nobody seems to know or care about how long. But there is a single minded focus on The Brilliant Idea, even to the exclusion of customers, suppliers, or the environment at large – just the passionate “inner circle.” Continued life in this mode is possible, but totally exhausting. Somewhere along the line you do have to care about (respond to) customers, suppliers.

Responsive (Mind): the Responsive Organization is a welcome (although sometimes painful) relief. Simple systems take the place of frenetic, mad activity.  You might even want to think about things! The heroes are Mom and Pop, as in a Mom and Pop Store. It ain’t elegant but customers are served, suppliers do their job as welcome associates, and business gets done. But there is little to nothing when it comes to planning, in fact “future” seems to be an unknown word, except as it might be “more of the same.” As long as the world holds steady (unchanging) no problem. But having some sort of plan might be helpful…

ProActive (Rational): ProActive saves the day! Rational to a fault, Planning is everywhere, and Control is the name of the game. No longer wandering in the wilderness of a changing world, that world is grabbed by the collar, conformed to the plan, and brought under control. No surprises! But there is a down side. We might call it “Corporate Hubris.” Everything must be subject to the Plan – the world, markets and all employees. And virtually any tactic or strategy is OK – so long as it produces results, predictable results. After all we have to keep “the street” happy. Of course, those at the Top are free to enjoy the vision of their domain – from the 99th Floor. This is separation/isolation with a vengeance – but sooner or later the “impossible” happens. The world fails to conform to the Plan! Horrors and pain – and obviously, Fire the planners. But after multiple iterations, the same thing happens. Could be that noble isolation is not such a cool idea?

InterActive (Soul): The InterActive Organization takes the fire of the Proactive Organization, the community concern of the Responsive, and the Rational capacity of the ProActive – and gets it all together – not only within itself, but of equal importance – with the surrounding world. In a word, this is a fully functional, conscious, self-organizing system which understands that meaningful and productive life demands a carefully tended symbiotic relationship with the environment. The good news is that a full, productive life is possible. The bad news is that Control, a we thought we had it is delusional.

Inspired (Spirit): We are some distance from that happy status – so there is not too much to say. But we may have some glimmers of things to come.

But a critical question is, Where are we now? And I suggest the answer is that we are in that totally uncomfortable, and very painful position between paradigms. We (whoever we is/are) know that the grand old ProActive Organization is not working. And we are scared to death of taking the leap into the InterActive way of being. Loosing (our perceived) sense of Control is more than we can contemplate. So we sit on the fence and commiserate. We long for the good old days – back to Normal. We attempt any number of “Quick fixes” – but nothing is working.

And the truly BIG question is – How do we get from here to there? Not without some pain, I suspect. And the question I would ask you, Robert, is the same. How do we get from Here to There? You have framed the situation nicely, I agree. But I am not too clear about your future steps. But I do have some suggestions. But before I get to that – some clarification…

First of all – to concede the obvious – What I have offered to this point is, at best, a quick sketch. And there is more if you want. My first book, Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations (written in 1982 and published in ’87), represents my first effort. It is no longer in print, but you can finds a PDF version on my website. An updated version of all this came out under the Berrett-Koehler imprint with the title, The Power of Spirit: How Organizations Transform.  Still available, so far as I know.

Now – Back to the central question. How do you get from here to there? I think I know how your DON’T do it.  This knowledge came from watching the response to another book I wrote,  The Millennium Organization. This was a shorter effort in which I tried to eliminate most  of the “esoterics” and concentrate on the practicalities of fully engaging what I took to be the emerging organizational life form – The Interactive Organization. To add pizzazz I called it The Millennium Organization in deference to the new millennium which was then on the horizon. The book was hardly a best seller, but it did have a certain currency and some small number of corporations decided to seize the moment and move to the future – They intended to become a Millennium Organization. At first take, I was delighted – author’s pride and all of that. But then I learned how they were going about  the business.

Not surprisingly they utilized all the “very best management practices.” In short they started at the top with an executive dictate, followed by careful planning, training designs and implementation protocols. However, the harder they tried, the further they got from their objective. The Millennium Organization had become one more “program to be implemented” – following such things as “worker participation,” Quality Circles, to name a few. Understandably they were using the only tools they knew, all of which had evolved out of their current organizational consciousness as a good Proactive Organization. Unfortunately it was those tools, and that mindset, which had gotten them into trouble in the first place. The old adage turns out to be true – If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got. Or something.

The real issue was that The Millennium Organization was not a “new program” – it was a profound paradigm shift. And if Thomas Kuhn has taught us anything it is that paradigm shifts are counterintuitive, painful and always the last thing that anybody in their right mind would care to do. Even worse shifting paradigms is not something you can think or reason yourself into. You can’t plan it, design it, program it, manage it, nor control it. The journey forward follows a very different route. I believe there are any number of useful approaches – but none of them come from the Old Proactive Toolbox. I think.

Anyhow – back to the question. How do you get from here to here? The vision you offer is marvelous, but I think the (potential) readers may want something more.

Goodness that was a long trip around the barn. I confess to some genuine enjoyment, visiting some old thoughts and places, and hopefully there might be something of utility for your adventure.

Greetings from the Great State of Maine (currently in the clutches of a mad, tea party Governor).

Harrison