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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Deep Time: Narrative and Immanence in Organizational Consulting

The pace of change and the resulting busyness flattens peoples experience of time. As they look to an increasingly uncertain future, predictions disappoint and surprises abound. The result is a shortening of time horizon. We often tell ourselves that we do not think about the future because we are too busy to mask a deeper explanation that we keep ourselves busy as a defense against thinking about the future. As we turn our gaze in the other direction, we increasingly dismiss history as irrelevant or even possibly harmful. Recently, a series of business anti-narratives with titles like, Control Your Destiny Or Someone Else Will (Tichy and Sherman, 1993) and Reengineering the Corporation (Hammer and Champy, 1993) offer up normative recipes for triumph over cutthroat competitors by exorcising all traces of times cycle. Forget what you know about how business should work--most of it is wrong! declares the book jacket of Reengineering.Most contemporary product and service organizations demonstrate an interest in speed that boarders on fetish. Consider this paragraph from GEs 1994 Annual Report: Speed. Todays global environment, with its virtually real-time information exchanges, demands that an institution embrace speed. Faster , in almost every case, is better . From decision-making to deal-making to communications to product introduction, speed, more often than not, ends up being the competitive differentiator. (GE, 1995, emphases in original) The lexicon of contemporary business is filled with references to the art of squeezing more activities into less time: cycle-time, up-time, down-time, lead-time, response-time are familiar concepts across industries and firms. Indeed, competing against time itself has become a much heralded form of business strategy (Stalk and Hout, 1990).No field has been left untouched by this obsession with how quickly things can be done. Both eyeglasses and home mortgages can now be procured in one hour. Discharge planning begins at the point of the hospitals pre-admission interview. Nor is the home immune from this lionization of speed. The New York Times (1996) recently declared that a new milestone had been reached in American demographics: for the first time in history, Americans bought more gas than charcoal grills. While the Times article flirted with a pop-anthropology explanation (while men historically have been societys hunters and fire-setters, barbecuing is becoming an androgynous activity), survey research, parsimony and common sense all point to a different explanation. Gas is faster. And fast, nearly ubiquitously, is defined as better. As Stan Davis (19) has suggested the ideal becomes any place, any time, no matter. Time, context, and place all become points rather than dimensionalized. We believe that this has serious consequences for leaders of our institutions and constitutes a challenge for those who consult to organizations. How do we create the space and place from which to help organizations reflect and work through their confusion? How do we reestablish the importance of history and its vitality and relevance to the present and future in organizational consultation which too often is a-historical (if not anti-historical)?In this paper, we describe a technique for establishing a working space in the course of an organizational consultation that facilitates the working through of collective transference phenomena thereby enabling a more sophisticated rational adaptation to the challenges posed by the organizations environment. This technique is a form of time travel which Gilmore and Shea (1996) recently described as a critical skill for effective leadership. It involves the ability to link past and future in present actions...(to) powerfully harness...journeys forward or back in time. [1] We first discuss alternative concepts of time, times arrow and times cycle (Gould, 1987) and argue that we have paid too little attention to historical dimensions of organizational work. When we do, we have been biased towards times arrow, linear, irreversible, unfolding sequences of events rather than times cycle which searches for deep, enduring patterns. When we are working within the paradigm of times arrow, we have been too content to stick with simple chronicles rather than thick narratives, which offer opportunities for organizations to retell their histories in ways that contribute significantly to their adaptiveness to face future challenges. Finally, we have come to regard working deeply within narratives as the beginning of a synthesis between the two frameworks for time when the stories reveal unchanging patterns across time that can serve as sources of continued organizational identity and strength.'