A Framework for Thinking in General – Part 4: Contextualism

Thus far in this series we have explored three of Stephen Pepper’s World Hypotheses. The formist approach helps us simplify the world through classification; the mechanist approach uses the machine as the metaphor to help us understand cause and effect and the organicist approach uses the living organism as the metaphor to help us understand complex adaptive systems. However, there are some systems that behave in ways that cannot be explained using any of these three metaphors, i.e. those that involve human beings.

Systems that involve humans are different in two ways from those that don’t. First, each of us is the product of a unique sequence of historical events that has shaped the way we see the world. This means we may all be in the same situation, but each of us sees it slightly differently. Because we gather experience with time, we might also interpret the same situation differently at different points in time (see Isaac Lidsky’s TED talk on this topic here). Second, each of us has a unique set of goals that shape our perception. It is also possible that we are not fully aware of our goals and even if we were, that we don’t openly articulate them to others. The result of these two factors is that at each moment in time, our experience of that moment and the way we choose to behave is unique and impossible to replicate. Pepper’s fourth worldview is contextualist because in order to establish the validity of a statement or experience, we must first fully understand its context in that particular instant. The metaphor for the contextualist world view is therefore the evolving moment in time.

You may have experienced a situation like the following. A project team meets at a post-implementation review to find out why there are issues with a project. Each participant has a different take, depending on their background and experience. One thinks the sponsor isn’t taking responsibility for the outcome of the project, another thinks the project manager hasn’t set up the project properly or didn’t escalate a risk to the sponsor soon enough, a third thinks there is insufficient technical knowledge available to solve the problem and so on. Any of these might actually be true, but to validate the statements we would need to know everything about that project at each critical point in its life-cycle. That’s very difficult, if not impossible, given the typical organisational environment. In addition, each participant could have different expectations of the outcome of the review. Thinking back to a previous post about motivation, someone with a descriptive bent might focus on uncovering how the project progressed. Someone with a bias towards explanation might look for cause and effect, e.g. whether the project was set up correctly. Someone with an instrumental purpose might be thinking of developing expertise within the team to successfully deliver projects or the impact on the team’s credibility with the sponsor. Finally, someone with a normative orientation might be thinking about how to do the right thing by the project manager, the sponsor and the organisation at large.

To support their claim to knowledge and their recommended course of action, each member of the group must rely on their unique experience of the event – which as we have seen is conditioned by their unique history and intent. So how might someone adopting one of the four worldviews see the project? Someone taking the formist approach might suggest a comparison between the project and an idealised model such as the one described in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) and point to gaps as the cause for failure. Someone taking the mechanist approach might suggest that the way the project was initiated determined its fate – ‘tell me how a project started, and I will tell you how it finished.’ The person taking the organicist perspective might consider looking at how the project evolved through its lifecycle and whether principles of project management such as those described in the PRINCE2 framework were followed. Someone taking the contextualist perspective might suggest that even if the structural factors and the principles were in place, the success or failure of the project can only be explained by the circumstances in which it was conceived, initiated and implemented. This is not to suggest that that contextualist worldview is superior to the others but rather that each should all be used as appropriate for the situation.

All of this is known and part of the practitioner and scholarly discourse in management. But the typical manager is probably most comfortable with the formist approach. A few might take the mechanist, cause-effect perspective. Fewer would have the background and knowledge to adopt the organicist approach and those that understand the contextualist perspective are likely to be quite rare. Given that organisations are complicated and complex, and involve human beings, restricting oneself to the formist, mechanist or organicist approaches would result in an incomplete picture. It is possible then that this is one of the reasons why we find it so difficult to implement sustainable organisational change.

As an interesting aside, the contextualist view has implications for the gold standard for scientific validity, the ability to replicate a result in a different, but identical, environment. What we look for in science are general principles: the more widely applicable, the better. In the organisational context replication is possible only under very controlled conditions, which means any conclusions from such an analysis would at best be valid only in a limited range of situations. Given this perspective, it would be useful to reflect on the likelihood of sustained improvement from the transfer of best practice from one organisation to another!

So, if knowledge is incomplete in the absence of a full understanding of its context, is it all possible to explore organisational phenomena in order to develop conclusions that meet the scientific requirements of validity and explanatory power or range? In the next post we will look at one aspect of strategic alignment, the alignment of strategy, as the basis for understanding how we can answer this question.

If you are interested in learning more about organisational alignment, how misalignment can arise and what you can do about it join the community. Along the way, I’ll share some tools and frameworks that might help you improve alignment in your organisation.