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On seeing , noticing and foresight in organizations

Rositsa Shivacheva (Bulgarin an der HSG)
"Seeking Responses in Times of Uncertainty" - unter diesem Motto stand der diesjährige ISC Wings of Excellence Award. Hier der Aufsatz der Drittplatzierten Rositsa Shivacheva aus Bulgarien.
"Only variety can absorb variety"
(Ashby's law)


The idea that today's competitive organizations are those that can be described as innovative, intelligent, or flexible is increasingly widespread. However, what is meant by those words is not completely straightforward. This essay focuses on the capabilities that organizations need to develop in order to be "effective in ambiguity". It will address the questions: What is the secret of organizations that remain competitive in varying conditions? What enables them to find their way "out of the fog" ? The essay is also born out of an interest in finding in the organization itself the dynamics of accommodating variety as the theories of organization have not fully opened up this black box in their writings.

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Although the concepts of "ambiguity" and "uncertainty" have been used interchangeably in management science, this essay will make a distinction between the terms. Stemming from the Latin ambo (two) ambiguity expresses the inability to see one definite meaning of a situation, sentence, word, thought, action or person. Uncertainty on the other hand is defined as the characteristics of an event that cannot be determined and can apply to a situation that is known, clear and identifiable. In contrast, an ambiguous situation requires dealing with a reality in which nothing is permanent, or definitely true or definitely false. The organization in these circumstances is confronted with a number of different, ambivalent interpretations of events, among which it is difficult to choose, the predominance of one over the other seemingly impossible to determine.

"Fish discover water last" (Taoist saying)

The significant challenge we face in organizations today is not problem solving but problem seeing. Some of these "structural blind spots" are embedded in our thinking at such a deep level that we are unaware that they bias our perception of reality. Our security today is based on embracing the very things we fear most. What is needed instead is to see in new ways, come up with new approaches, and veer off into different directions. And this can be done only in an organization that values variance and change and knows how to use them to its strategic advantage.

At this point I remember a story of ants which Jim Harris retells in his book Blindsided. Have you noticed how ants collect food? While the majority of the ants are working efficiently and bringing food and water to the ant colony, an ant sets out to look for new resources. It takes a wavering route to the area that is to be explored. Once inside the area, the ant begins laying down a very faint scent of trail which lets it remember where it has been. This seemingly random pattern allows the ant to efficiently cover the area. As soon as the ant finds food it heads back to the colony in a straightforward route laying a different trail to let others know that this is the way to food and water. Once the new area has been identified, the colony sends out many workers to collect food using the direct route.

Many of you would wonder what the story of ants has to do with modern management and organizational studies but it provides an fascinating yet simple moral of dealing with uncertainty. The strategy of "move and explore" in a direction that you know least is critical for businesses today. How can otherwise companies take advantage of opportunities they can't see? Allowing organizational capacity to explore new areas which the firm does not currently understand will create a noticeable difference on how it perceives variance in real life. This will help firms to explore new products and services, investigate competitors, better understand customers and uncover their unarticulated needs. Unfortunately, when organizations eliminate the source of variances, they also eliminate the source of innovation. Trying to keep everything the same, they unwittingly keep out the fresh ideas on which their future depends.

"We seem to be brought up in a world seen through descriptions by others rather than through our own perception."

Many organizations find that the new environment they have to inhabit is too frenetic, too unfamiliar, too complex, too hard to get a grip on. Faced with paralyzing uncertainty, their first instinct is to try to restore some sense of control. So they turn inward and look for mechanisms that provide order, structure, and focus. The problem is that these mechanisms often put a damper on creativity. Traditional business organizations have long been managed in a manner that reduces variety. Following the common thinking that any variance represents inefficiency and thus a cost to be dealt with, these traditional companies have as their underlying goal the elimination of variety and maintenance of control. Their year plans often conclude with the following statement: "There will be no surprises."

Yet, every big trend starts as a small, one-of-a-kind blip on the screen, easy to overlook and easy to dismiss. Only those paying close attention to the variance will see it, and only those predisposed to thinking that turbulence can be positive will see its strategic potential. We see in order to acquire knowledge about this world and a significant part of this process is the scanning of one's environment, often for weak and ambiguous market signals. Nonetheless, "the first step of any intelligence process is not to scan, but to notice" and it is the task for visionary leaders is to create an environment where novelty is noticed and embraced, not feared. On a tactical level, this means establishing mechanisms for finding new information and ushering it into the organization, and then putting that new information into the hands of people who can best make sense of it.

"Accept ambiguity and uncertainty: It's like driving a car at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way".


It is increasingly difficult to make precise predictions of future trends and developments. Therefore, companies and organizations have to unlearn the idea that there exists a single predictable future. Instead they have to include alternative options in their calculations of how influencing factors will develop. Sam Overman says: "First is appreciation, not distrust, of chaos and of uncertain". Modern theories of creativity have begun to incorporate many of the characteristics of this thinking, such as considering multiple realities, exploring playful combinations, seeking out interesting contrasts, developing useful metaphors, and discovering emergent properties. Based on a counterintuitive notion - using variety to react to ambiguity - it offers a process for turning change into a productive force that, properly managed, can lead to innovation and ongoing renewal. It recognizes that variances can be the building blocks for the future, it sees that information and ideas lying on the periphery of sight of the organization are the source for creativity and innovation, it embraces change as the ideal way to meet the challenges of a complex world.

"The key to achieving competitive advantage isn't reacting to chaos; it's producing that chaos. And the key to being a chaos producer is being an innovation leader".

Organizations must begin to think of variances as building blocks of the future.The role of variances in a turbulence-driven organization is to generate turbulence. The different ways of doing and thinking and seeing contribute to the energetic, vibrant, dynamic atmosphere in which creativity can thrive. Noticing the weak signals in the distance helps the astute organization to recognize the once unrecognizable. Learning to do so ahead of the competition provides the strategic advantage that can ensure survival.

What becomes immediately clear is that organizations that consciously decide to tune in to these far-off, fuzzy, intermittent signals get critical information faster than those who wait for it to arrive in a neat, orderly bandwidth. By the time the trends are obvious, the competition has noticed and has already begun retooling. Consciously and purposely opening up the organization's boundaries to allow new information means a shift in organizational mind-set, away from focusing solely on what is inside the organization today. It is no longer enough to concentrate on making the current product better or cheaper or faster or shinier; leaders need to open up their thinking in all ways, even if some of what comes in seems strange or murky as to what to do with it. Rejecting variety and novelty because they seem strange, or setting up barriers to protect against the "disruption" of outside forces, puts the organization at immediate risk of becoming outdated and left behind in the marketplace. By broadening the field of vision to take in the valuable lessons and messages that reside outside the organization, or that lie buried in recesses within the organization, companies pave the way for coming up with innovative new approaches, for going off into a different direction.

References:

Ashby, W.R. (1964) An Introduction to Cybernetics. London: Methuem.
Baumard, P. (1996) Organisations in the Fog: An Investigation into the Dynamics of Knowledge. In: Organisational Learning and Competitive Advantage. London: Sage.
Chakravarthy, B. (1997) A new strategy framework for coping with turbulence. Sloan Management Review, volume 38, No.2: 69 - 82.
Doctorow, E.L. (1975) Ragtime. Plume: CA
Fink A. and Schalke, O. (2000) Scenario Management - an Approach for Strategic
Foresight. Competitive Intelligence Review, volume 11 (1): 37-45.
Foerster, H. v. (1972) Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception. Instructional Science 1 (1), 31-43.
Foerster, H. v. (1997) Wissen und Gewissen. Versuch einer Bruecke: Frankfurt.
Harris, J. (2002) Blindsided. Oxford: Capstone Publishing Ltd.
Herzberg, F. (1987) Innovation: where is the relish. Journal of Creative Behavior 21(3): 179-192.
Overman, E.S. (1996) The new sciences of administration: chaos and quantum theory. Public Administration Review, volume 56 (5): 487-91.
Dieser Artikel ist erschienen am 23.05.2003