Much current literature on management and strategy still describes strategy work as a linear, top-down, management-based, rational, logical, structured and planned change activity with clear and predictable goals. It is described as an activity in which individual managers are addressing key questions and implementing an important, management-based plan. By using the right tools and techniques, skilled managers can transform plans into reality through good leadership and systematic rollout. This way of thinking about leadership is based on an understanding of leaders as rather powerful, knowing, heroic individuals who can stand outside of their organization to plan an ideal future, and who are equipped to make employees follow their instructions in order to reach desired goals.
In this thesis I research into my experiences of what is happening in an organization, taking seriously the experience of developing a new strategy. It is an organization working in the public sector in Denmark which is right now trying to find a strategy and its way through a series of ‘wicked problems’ not easily handled. Through the use of autobiographical narrative-based inquiry and a focus on everyday local interactions between people working together, I research into what is ‘really’ going on in strategy work. Drawing on the theory of complex responsive processes of relating and reflexivity, I describe and analyse the interactions in our leadership team’s efforts to change the organization’s strategy. In doing so themes of power, power games and power differentials, politicking and some of the paradoxes in management – such as inclusion/exclusion, local interaction and global patterning, unpredictable predictability, and conflict and cooperation – are investigated.
The complex responsive process perspective views organizations as patterns of interaction and conversations between people working together. By analogy from complex adaptive systems models, sociology, psychology and philosophy, it argues that generalizable population-wide patterns emerge in unpredictable ways through exactly these local complex interaction and interplays of peoples’ intentions, thoughts and actions. This leads me to propose generalizable new contributions to knowledge about strategy work.
Examining my own experience, I problematize the ‘heroic’, individualistic, view of what leaders do when working with strategy, preferring to see strategy as a co-created activity that emerges in complex and paradoxical interactions between people in the organization, in the leadership team, in daily cooperation with employees, and through the interface with customers. The understanding of co-creation here being that together we co-create our social life and our social life is co-creating us, our selves, our personalities at the same time. This inseparable paradox of the individual and the group, of the one and the many is investigated. Finally, I suggest that strategy work is inseparable from the everyday messy conflictual power games of organizational life, and that leaders – through actively engaging in ongoing conversations and co-creating meaning – participate in developing new understandings of identity and culture. In talking with one another about what it is we are doing, in influencing and being influenced, and reflecting on this, we are already changing what is going on; this itself is strategy work.
The narratives show that to work with strategy effectively, we need to negotiate our intentions in convincing ways through forming strong power alliances. Taking experience seriously also demonstrates a close connection between power, ethics and action, and that it is impossible to decide the ‘good’ thing to do before acting. Developing reflexivity, both as an individual and in collaborative work, is a prerequisite for working in an ethical way, aware of our mutual interdependence.
Finally, the thesis describes some of the consequences of taking experience seriously as a strategy. It has changed the way our staff understand what they are doing, and is beginning to change the kind of assignments we take on, and how we deal with them. One spin-off has been producing two books (with more to come). We also have new and more reflexive contacts in business and knowledge-creating environments, such as universities and business schools. The thesis shows a number of results from working with strategy in this way.
This indicates that the act of taking your experience seriously in itself implies a kind of transforming causality, and hereby a strategy of change.