Responding to the situation

This is a post in my organizing “between and beyond” series. Other posts are here. The purpose of this post is to reflect on Responding to the Situation, which is one of Malcolm Parlett’s Five Explorations1 of Whole Intelligence2 in Future Sense. Here is my review of the book.

Future Sense by Malcolm Parlett

Responding to the Situation is the first of Malcolm Parlett’s Five Explorations. It embraces all the others.3

Malcolm Parlett arrived rather unexpectedly at the Five Explorations in his working life. At first, he saw them as independent of each other. Later, he realized that the boundaries between them are fluid, and that Whole Intelligence cannot be sensibly divided. Each Exploration provides a different perspectives on the whole.4

Several guiding principles are central to Malcolm Parlett’s thinking:5

  • Human beings never exist in isolation. We need to think as ecologicst.
  • We are all members of Humanity. While each one of us is unique, we also share commonalities. Moreover, we are all dependent on the biosphere.
  • People want to discover, or develop, their Whole Intelligence. Life and competence is expanded and expressed in many ways.

Malcolm Parlett assumes that:6

  • The study of intelligence by psychologists has been limited.
  • Whole Intelligence includes the intellect but is a broader concept.
  • One way to grasp what Whole Intelligence entails is by noting its absence.
  • It’s necessary to learn more about Whole Intelligence and how to support it.

The aim of Responding to the Situation is to move to greater ACCOMPLISHMENT. This has relevance for all of us as we move in and out of different life situations.7

Situations are basic to all life, as are our responses. The basic question is what needs to happen in order to respond intelligently to a situation? Responding to situations investigates how people and groups organize to make things happen — or, alternatively, fail to grasp what needs to happen.8

There are several aspects to understand about responding to situations:9

  • Responding is an ordinary part of life.
  • Responding requires skillfulness.
    • We need to be able to regard the situation as a whole. There may be similar situations, but each one is unique.
    • We need to discern what kind of action to take — or not to take. Our responses change the situation. Situations change, constantly.
    • We need to carry through the required steps. What we need to do may emerge immediately or later.
  • Responding is inevitably personal.
    • It is never a simple mechanical process or adaptation.
    • Even when compliance is enforced, we have our own attitudes.
    • Self-organizing emanates from deep within us.

Responding — how we engage, avoid, approach, hesitate, or grasp what to do — is many-layered.10 It is impossible to neatly separate the responding and situation. We become part of the situation in our responding.11

We are not machines. Responding is related to what is important to ourselves at the time. Changes both in our own meaning making, and in the situation, can make a difference. Both are often changing at the same time.12

There are two incompatible paradigms which are in opposition. Situations change, often rapidly. Such unpredictability and variation is a fact of life. This is in direct opposition to detailed frameworks, specific protocols, and standardized processes. These are the priorities of technical rationality.13

Human judgement is of critical importance for Malcolm Parlett. Technical rationality, on the other hand, tries to reduce the element of human judgment as much as possible. The aim is to systematize and quantify whenever possible.14

Malcolm Parlett asks whether the understanding of the subtle complexities of the organization’s relationship to its environment are lost? Are there ways that professional expertise is lost by the requirement to follow prescribed procedures, or to document every step taken?15

Parlett proposes that our competence to deal with non-standard situations may be weakened by assuming that problems can be handled best by reductionist methods and orderly built systems. He thinks that we forget seeing situations in their complex entirety.16

Disregarding unpredictability runs up against the facts of situational variability and the subtle nature of our response making.17 Malcolm Parlett suggests that abstracting the complex actuality of a situation both has its gains and losses.18 The difficulty is that the losses are hidden.19

Responding with Whole Intelligence involves taking a wider and longer-term view.20 Contextual constraints are almost never straightforward.21 The absence of whole thinking is particularly serious in institutions where hierarchical management and decision-making is taken for granted. It may be an enormous error in history that there’s so much reliance on single individuals or elite groups.22

If people are able to respond, they are more likely to want to be responsible. If people are given opportunity to grow through power sharing and decision making, they become more engaged and resourceful. Given the chance to make a real difference, people are more than willing to respond to the situation.23

Responding to the Situation is directly related to organizing. Responding is personal, requires skill, and is part of life. Technical rationality is a way of responding, but is limited to predictable quantifiable situations. It cannot cope with all the subtleties and uncertainties in real life. Technical rationality abstracts away the actual complexities of people and their responding. Whole Intelligence is absent when we are only seeing our abstractions, rather than the actual situation. Whole Intelligence is furthermore absent when only the few are relied upon responding. Responding with Whole Intelligence is subtle, depends on the whole situation, and involves a wider long-term view.

1 Malcolm Parlett, Future Sense: Five Explorations of Whole Intelligence for a World That’s Waking Up (Matador, 2015), pp. 27–54.
2 Ibid., pp. 9, 16–21, 27, 86.
3 Ibid., p. 55.
4 Ibid., p. 28.
5 Ibid., p. 15.
6 Ibid., pp. 24–26.
7 Ibid., p. 55.
8 Ibid., p. 56.
9 Ibid., pp. 57–59.
10 Ibid., p. 59.
11 Ibid., p. 64.
12 Ibid., p. 66.
13 Ibid., pp. 67–68.
14 Ibid., p. 69.
15 Ibid., p. 71.
16 Ibid., pp. 71–72.
17 Ibid., p. 74.
18 Ibid., p. 76.
19 Ibid., p. 77.
20 Ibid., p. 83.
21 Ibid., p. 84.
22 Ibid., p. 88.
23 Ibid., p. 89.

Related posts:
Organizing in between and beyond posts

Published by Jan Höglund

Jan Höglund has over 35 years of experience in different roles as software developer, project manager, line manager, consultant, and researcher. This is his personal blog where he shares his reading, book reviews, and learning.

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