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The Star Trek Syndrome Published: Sunday, September 21, 1997 By: Dr. Manuel Angel Morales

Everyone admits that the future is basically unknowable, particularly in the case of intelligently courses of action. Our experience is that this prospect makes many people uncomfortable, and they then ease their discomfort by assuming that even innovative futures are nonetheless approximately knowable. The traditional argument inside conference rooms is that one can at least make reasonable assumptions about the long-term future. We raise the perspective that this conventional interpretation is a soothing fantasy that distracts attention from, and weakens the resolve to deal with, the real world. Instead of sidestepping the issue of unknowability, professionals in general must learn to face it lead on. That means accepting that you really don`t have a clear picture what the long-term future holds for institutions in general, making elusive assumptions are only mild possibilities. It means accepting that no one can be in control of an organization`s long-term future and that securing uniformity by damping out differences between people is harmful. It also means sustaining contradictory positions and behavior within the same set of institutions: organizations can have budgets and hierarchies with power concentrated at the top, yet individuals and teams lower down in the structure can pursue new ideas in relative freedom without having to keep justifying what they are doing to those higher up. In this new way of thinking about management a key conceptualization is that of sustaining, rather than trying to solve, this paradox of control and freedom. This is what Hampden and Turner argue for in Charting the Corporate Mind From Dilemma to Strategy.

The new mind-set means positively using instability. Organizations that allow people to go far down the road of developing a product or service before involving formal leaders are bound to exhibit creative instability. But instead of regarding such a dynamic instability as unfortunate, unintended consequence of innovation, the idea is to provoke it. Thus, it could be desirable to incorporate other key actors from other organizations specifically to create alternative cultures. The purpose is to induce creative, healthy tension. Change agents will use instability, pressure and even crisis in a positive way to generate new perspectives and provoke the continual questioning and organizational learning through which unknowable futures are discovered and created. This new approach to management may be less comforting than the old one, but is far more dynamic and useful in turbulent times. It is the approach required to lead managers, leaders and professionals away from the illusory goal of permanent and stable equilibrium and allow them to cope with limited or boundary rationality as the unknowable future of innovative organizations. Such a paradoxical condition, as brilliantly stated by Ralph D. Stacey, points to the coexistence of the knowable and the unknowable.

On the one hand, organizations face normal puzzle-solving management in which the basic framework is given and constant, making good sense to use quantitative analysis to identify solutions to problems and apply systematic, formalized types of planning and implementation. In this case the traditional mind-set is perfectly valid. On the other hand, in the same organization, it is necessary to practice framebreaking management in which managers should conflict, question, learn, and make new discoveries. Again, this is the fundamental paradox of organizations: the structure and behavior appropriate for normal stable management have to coexist with the informality and instability of the extraordinary form of management that is necessary to cope with the unknowable. This is the Star Treck syndrome, placing great tension on successful organizations and that tension is a creative source of organizational change, transformation and development.

In the 1980`s Shell conducted a survey of how long business organizations survive. The survey revealed that corporations live about half as long as individual human beings. The point is that your organization probably will die before you do... In the same line, a look at the Financial Times top 100 or the Fortune 500 over any recent five-year period will show how dramatically the listing change. Conventional management thinking nourishes dominant maps of business success based on highly questionable assumptions about the nature of organizational reality, about patterns of behavior generated by interaction between people in organizations. It sees successful dynamics as intentional patterns of behavior that are regular and stable. This traditional proposal is valid only in the assumption that the behavior of an organization is predictable in principle. If it were not, it could hardly be intended, made regular or stable. Predictability and intention are possible only if there are direct, clear-cut connections between cause and effect, if a specific action in specific circumstances dependably leads to specific outcome.

The great mathematician, L.A. Zadeh in Probability Measure of Fuzzy Events, has developed computer algorithms for suggesting that no system as complex as human beings can be dealt with traditional quantitative analytic techniques. The basis for his contention is what he labels the principle of incompatibility. This principle says that as system complexity increases, our ability to make precise and significant statements about the system`s behavior diminishes until a threshold (presumably fuzzily defined) is reached. Beyond that threshold, precision and significance are nearly mutually exclusive. The full implication of this principle is not realized until a corollary principle is shared: the closer one looks at a real-world, and at an organizational problem, the fuzzier its solution.

The challenge is to understand the qualitative patterns of behavior that organizational interventions produce. Order through the installation by the designing mind is replaced by order emerging from instability through a process of muddle-through learning and self organization.


Copyright 1997 QBS, Inc.
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