Have you ever heard of quantum storytelling? It is a new way of viewing organization development. Led by David Boje, of New Mexico State University, and Tonya L. Henderson, a scholar-practitioner with Gly Solutions, a group of authors from Europe and the USA collaborated to produce a collection of readings that explore human organizations using quantum physics inspired concepts. Their book is titled Being Quantum: Ontological Storytelling in the Age of Antenarrative. The title is a mouthful itself and bears some explanation before its utility becomes apparent. So let’s unpack it.
The authors explore being in and doing things within organizations from a deep philosophical standpoint. Several authors build on Karen Barad’s book (Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, 2007) to consider time, space, and matter as a combined process of “timespacemattering” and consider everything we do as a co-creative effort. Using this lens we see everything (objects and organizations alike) as part of a dynamic, unfolding process where nothing happens in isolation. Even when we believe we are acting alone, based on individual motivations, we are unwittingly influenced by a host of people and circumstances that can be quite far reaching.
Traditionally, we tend to examine organizations using methods and tools that place artificial boundaries around any given situation. In a quantum-inspired approach, the conscious act of bounding the systems we study is called making an “agential cut.” This is something that must be done with the understanding that when we draw a box around a system or a problem, we are actively picking one of many possible perspectives, just one way of seeing things.
With a host of pop culture references to quantum physics and its admittedly spooky side, bringing this term into the world of organization development has its risks. Yet the effects of quantum physics on modern thought are undeniable. As entanglement, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (acceptance that one cannot precisely measure the velocity and position of a particle in the same instant) and other perplexing concepts have gained acceptance, they have also ushered in an increase in openness to the counterintuitive among intellectuals. This loosening of our collective skepticism blends with the effects of the information age and globalism to create a volatile and exciting new world for organizations.The post-Newtonian worldview gains acceptance Click To Tweet
These ideas are an indispensable part of what many scholars call the post-Newtonian worldview. In simple terms, the current generation and its progeny see things a little differently than the old-school manager’s mindset would have it. In a traditional frame of reference, organizational problems are viewed from a mechanistic perspective. We tend to see groups of people performing specific tasks as if they were parts of a larger machine, the corporation. We analyze problems in a reductionist fashion, examining particular functions and considering each division of a company as if it were a discrete entity, even when working on interdepartmental issues. We diagnose discrete problems, turn our managerial attention to the parts of the organization that exhibit clear symptoms, and problem solve from a purely practical standpoint.
Fluidity needs new tools
So what’s wrong with that? Whether we like it or not, the reality of the human organization no longer lends itself to using the tools that worked for the managers of generations past. Oversimplification causes us to miss important information. In a world where social and economic globalism rules the marketplace, where expert information is available to anyone with a laptop, and digital communications make the notion of privacy passé, one can not simply draw a box around an organization or a problem and disregard external influences. Taylorist (2001) notions of one right way to do a job, along with the efficiency cult that followed, were meant for a simpler time when the marketplace was less volatile, and workers’ expectations and level of education were less sophisticated.
Today, the uber-connectedness of the world’s cultures, organizations, and individuals requires an approach to organization development that emphasizes adaptability above all else. In fact, the most important core competency for any organization may very well be flexibility in the face of change (Worley, Hitchin, & Ross, 1996). The butterfly effect of complexity theory is rippling through organizations and transferring the effects of seemingly insignificant acts among them and across the globe with dizzying speed. To survive, organizations must be flexible. This realization drives us away from tactical, specific solutions and toward placing our emphasis on corporate governance: mission, vision, and guiding principles. This is where organization development shines, helping organizations develop meaningful governance and actionable goals that are not so rigid as to prevent adaptation. It leads one to loosen the reins a bit, trusting the horse to know the way home.The most important core competency is flexibility in the face of change. Click To Tweet
It’s important to note that this approach is not new. Effective military units have long adapted to changing conditions on the battlefield by having troops imbued with a good understanding of the commander’s intent. A clearly communicated strategy that is global in nature and principle-based allows leaders at all levels of an organization to adapt to changing circumstances rapidly and confidently.
Organizations as processes
In practical terms, this approach is about changing how we look at things. Instead of boxes on an organization chart, buildings with walls, and isolated groups of people, we now consider organizations as processes. Before, we considered processes to be the tools of effective organizations, but in this new view, organization is what happens when processes bring people together. That means that instead of viewing organizations as finite, clearly defined things; we have to consider each organization as an organic, living, breathing, changing process unfolding in time. That can be a lot to swallow for the traditional manager, but it offers a perspective that allows you to constructively embrace change.Organization is an organic, changing process unfolding in time. Click To Tweet
Once we adopt this mindset, there is still the question of quantum physics and its implications. Some concepts apply here, many of which are explored in the book, but I will offer one example to make the case. Let’s consider the idea of indeterminacy or uncertainty. The original argument between Bohr and Heisenberg had to do with measuring the position and momentum of a particle at the same time and whether attempts to observe these things changed them. It was a scientific argument, probably not intended to impose any sense of reality in the context of social systems. When we begin to ask these kinds of questions, we start to think about their implications…
In organizations, the implications of thinking this way are quite real. Consider the effect of observing the actions of a group of people. The famous Hawthorne experiments showed how observing a group of workers as part of an efficiency study drastically changed the social dynamics of their factory and the way they worked (Roethlisberger, 1941). While it is certainly not the same as changing the velocity/position of a particle by observing it, the similarity in our thought processes as we consider both issues is undeniable. The intent is not to usurp ill-suited principles from scientific thought, but to accept science’s profound effects on how we experience the world. These effects are part of our evolution as a species and demand a more evolved way of considering organization development.
Back to the book title. Ontology focuses on deep, underlying principles that tell us what it means to exist in a particular situation. Storytelling with a view toward examining the principles behind systemic behavior patterns is a step in the right direction. The approach takes us beyond examining the superficial events and entreats us to consider the meaning behind actions, especially repeated, scalable patterns of action. Why do that? It helps us to understand system-wide problems that are likely to recur instead of merely treating their symptoms.Stories reveal ways of being in an organization Click To Tweet
Professor David Boje sees storytelling as the currency of organizations. For him, the exchange of stories among people reflects the true nature of social systems, revealing their intrinsic values, culture, and the nature of their operations. When we collect stories, we can get at the underlying principles of operation within any social system. For example, in my doctoral study, I asked several nonprofit executives to tell about the repeating patterns they saw in their work environments. Their stories revealed eight interconnected themes that amounted to simple rules for functioning in their shared professional network. One man talked about the tendency of individuals and organizations to promise publicly more than they could deliver – a problem that siphoned donations away from organizations and disappointed clients in need of services. The problem was seen as repeated, scalable and having a community-wide effect.
Stories reveal underlying principles that characterize ways of being within any organization or social network. They help us to focus on principles and high-level concepts that support flexibility when it comes to day-to-day tactical concerns.
Likewise, when making a theoretical point, it helps to use stories as illustrations. Being Quantum is full of ontological stories. For example, Mike Bonifer of Game Changers, Inc. gets us to consider different ways of thinking about time in organizations with a story.
When I was growing up (this is not true in 2016), the county line dividing Pike and Dubois Counties was also the time zone line dividing the Central Time Zone and the Eastern Time Zone of the U.S. I realized that by stepping back and forth across a fencerow on our farm that marked the County Line, I could literally step back and forth in time. One side of the fence: It’s 6 PM. Quitting time. The other side of the fence: 5 PM. There’s still work to do. By jumping back and forth between time zones, I can liberate myself from the constraints of time. What time is it when I’m in the air? It’s jump o’clock! I can age an hour in a second. I can go back in time and re-live an hour of my life over again. When I stand with one foot in the Eastern Time Zone and one foot in the Central Time Zone, what time is it?
Bonifer helps us to think about time as something more than a mere 24 hours in a day as he shares stories of his youth and his father’s legacy. This is one of many examples in the book, where we use a story to introduce a new way of thinking or explore a complex topic. Ontological storytelling is both instructive and serves as a path to discovery.
“The Age of Antenarrative”
What does it mean to be in the “age of antenarrative”? The term “antenarrative” is not a common practitioner vernacular. Antenarratives are bets on what a situation and its implications are before someone authoritatively steps in and makes sense of what is going on. It precedes the “official” interpretation. An antenarrative exists in the space of uncertainty before there is a management-approved story line.
In a post-Newtonian world, where the situation is constantly changing, antenarrative is indispensable: the story changes faster than an “official leadership-approved message” can be crafted. If we view human systems as emergent patterns of organizing, they are seen as ever-changing, shifting, and difficult to contain. Under these circumstances, antenarrative is as close to a momentary glimpse at certainty as one is likely to get. It is the best we can do when it comes to sense-making in systems that shift faster than we can wrap our heads around their current state.
Why read this book?
Being Quantum is not a how-to book, nor is it a guide to quantum storytelling theory. Instead, it is a collection of forward-looking perspectives of organization development. You may not agree with everything, but the book will give you new ways to think about human systems. We believe it is an important work for those who seek a richer understanding of today’s organizations and tomorrow’s problems.
For me, viewing organizations and their processes through a quantum-inspired lens is a natural fit. The main thrust of my research is helping people identify scalable, repeated patterns in organizational life and use that information strategically. I like to encourage people to zoom in and out to consider what’s going on with themselves, others, and the ecosystem in any given situation. When we think in quantum storytelling terms, we make a series of agential cuts at different scales to look for patterns in a co-creative unfolding of events. The ideas in Being Quantum offer several ways to look at the “timespacemattering” of organizations, making us more attuned to what is really going on.
- 1. Are you aware of how you draw a box around a system or a problem, actively picking one of many possible perspectives?
- 2. How can you see organizations as processes?
- 3. Could you consider each organization as an organic, living, breathing, changing process unfolding in time?
- 4. Can you recollect stories of your organization, that reveal underlying principles that characterize ways of being in your organization?
- 5. What repeatable and scalable patterns can you observe?
- 6. If they need change – how could you influence those patterns?
Dr. Tonya Henderson is a consultant, speaker, and author. She edited the book Being Quantum with Professor David Boje. Tonya Henderson can be reached through her consulting firm: www.glysolutions.com/
Quantum Storytelling provides an approach to organizational change based on interconnectedness, embeddedness, and entanglement – edited by David Boje and Tonya L. Henderson
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Marcella Bremer is an author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this blog and ocai-online.com.