Society and the Analytic Mindset
As you may know by now, I assert that effectiveness of knowledge-work organisations is a function of their several “collective organisational mindsets”. In other words:
Effectiveness = f(mindset)
The collective mindset of any organisation is profoundly yet imperceptibly influenced by the collective mindset of the wider society within which it operates.
All Things are Connected
In “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”, David Bohm talks about cosmology and the nature of reality. I’m not going into that today, but I mention it just to illustrate that the idea that all things are connected is a recurring theme across many disciplines. It is a common idea in Eastern philosophies, such as Zen, with the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination” (Pratītyasamutpāda). That all things are connected is an idea profoundly at odds with the reductionism inherent in the Analytic Mindset.
The Analytic Mindset does not exist in isolation, in the minds of individuals or even groups. Rather, the Analytic mindset exists as part of the fabric of all our lives, and of organisations and society both.
Let’s take a look at how that came about.
Ackoff defines the Analytic Mindset as:
“Breaking things down into parts, on the assumption that understanding the parts individually allows understanding of the whole.”
~ Russell L. Ackoff
For centuries, indeed millennia, this point of view has been at the heart of the Scientific Method.
“In the analytic tradition of Aristotle there are all the logicians and a large part of the physicists of today. Galilei, Copernicus, Newton and Einstein are thinkers of the analytic tradition. A large part of Western culture and technology is founded in this [way of thinking].
~ Carlos Cirne-Lima
Ever since Sir Isaac Newton (some may say, ever since Aristotle), society has come to believe that the Analytic way of thinking is the best way, indeed many might say the only way, of looking at our problems.
“Regrettably, most of us still cling to the truths of 17th century science, fostered primarily by the teachings of Sir Isaac Newton. Although very helpful in catalysing industrial and technological advances, this worldview has severely constrained many aspects of our humanity and impoverished our life experiences.”
~ Mel Schwartz
Yet modern science – and traditions other than Western reductionism – offer us alternative ways of thinking and seeing the world and its challenges.
The Three Steps of Analytical Thinking:
- Take “it” apart
- Understand what the parts do
- Assemble the understanding of the parts into an understanding of the whole
Science Has Moved On
In her excellent book “Leadership and the New Science” Margaret Wheatley writes:
“In science, the beginning of the twentieth century heralded the end of the hegemony of Newtonian [analytic] thinking.”
~ Margaret Wheatley
She then goes on to talk about what she calls “Newtonian despair” – the feelings of fatigue and impatience brought about by trying to tackle interrelated, inter-twined (“wicked”) problems as though they were separate, and amenable to independent resolution.
I see this “Newtonian despair” everywhere I look, from the issues facing individual software developers and teams, all the way to the wicked problems facing governments and societies, globally.
Much of society’s collective mindset is shaped by folks’ formative experiences within the education system.
“The current system of education was designed and conceived for a different age.”
~ Sir Ken Robinson
Education, since the inception of compulsory public education for all some one hundred and forty years ago (UK), has prepared pupils as either smart, intellectual “executive” scholars and academics, or for a productive (and compliant) role as cogs in the machines of the industrial revolution. (See e.g. Sir Ken Robinson’s animated RSA presentation).
Into the Workforce
“The system of education is modelled on the interests of industrialism and in the image of it.”
~ Sir Ken Robinson
By the time folks finish education, they have learned through experience – and osmosis – many of the fundamental assumptions integral to the Analytic mindset. They then join the workforce, where these same assumptions have “flourished” and compounded since the very dawn of the industrial age.
The Analytic mindset has a near monopoly in the corporations and government bureaucracies of our “modern” world. And like the monkeys with the banana, folks working in these organisation have little or no knowledge of the original conditions that led to the rules and procedures to which, and by which, they find themselves bound.
Some psychotherapists attribute “the epidemic of anxiety, depression and general disconnectedness that engulfs us [society]” to the “analytic, reductive and mechanistic” worldview.
“There is no objective “organisation”. The “reality” we experience does not exist “out there”… it is co-created through our acts of observation, what we choose to notice and worry about.”
~ Karl Weick
The Analytic mindset is so ubiquitous, pervasive and common-place in society, and thus in our organisations, that folks rarely if ever even notice it, let alone question it.
Organisations do not operate in a vacuum. They recruit people from society at large, thus importing a bias towards the Analytic mindset with every new hire. Some organisations, like Zappos, recognise this explicitly and take great pains to try to offset this bias. These new hires may have been in the workforce for some time – having absorbed the Analytic view of work from their previous work experiences (most organisations see the world of work through an Analytic lens). Or they may be new to the world of work, yet still steeped in the Analytic mindset via their experiences at school, and through popular culture (films, TV, books, newspapers, conversations, etc.). In any case, with each new hire into a Synergistic-minded organisation, the synergistic view can be diluted, eventually reaching a tipping point where the organisation reverts to an Analytic perspective. I’m sure you can think of high-profile examples where this has happened.
Rarely do the folks caught in these regressions (a.k.a. reverse transitions) recognise what is happening to them and their organisation. In most cases, the progressive, effective folks bemoan the loss of the “soul” of their organisation, and sooner or later quit for pastures new. (Before quitting, these folks’ engagement and commitment generally tail off precipitously).
And every day, popular culture and the pontifications of vested interests and self-promoting analytic thinkers, executives, consultants, authors, etc. serve to reinforce the Analytic world view, and confound other mindsets, in thousands of organisations across all domains of business. charity, the military, the Church, etc..
Swimming Against the Tide
For organisations making serious efforts to better themselves and improve their effectiveness, the Analytic mindset is like a continuous ebb tide, slowing down their progress towards a different, more conducive view of the world of work, and continuously dragging them back towards the mean (sic) Analytic mindset.
In all fields of organised endeavour, the subtle, imperceptible bias of the Analytic mindset, simply by virtue of its near-ubiquity, causes a continual “reversion to mediocrity“. Without recognising this phenomenon, organisations of every stripe risk erosion or collapse of their hard-won right-shifts of effectiveness and mindset.