Creating an Organization That Can Tackle The Unknown

Brad C. Anderson

Knowledge is required but insufficient for wise action. To act wisely, we must understand the context in which we operate. Our understanding, however, is often limited and flawed. How do we create organizations capable of managing uncertainty well?

The following sections present some ideas to begin answering this question. It first explores means through which to develop an organization’s capacity to engage in collective reasoning. It then introduces an approach called appreciative inquiry, whose intent is to provide a framework for organizations to address exceptionally challenging problems. It then discusses the importance for organizations to adopt an experimental mindset when dealing with situations with no clear solution.

Let’s kick things off by returning to the concept of collective reasoning.

Developing an Organization’s Capacity to Engage in Collective Reasoning

Chapter IX discussed the power of collective reasoning to bring multiple perspectives together to create a more vibrant picture of our operating environment and develop innovative solutions. Doing this well requires more than putting a diverse group of people in the room and letting them debate. Indeed, merely putting a diverse group of people in the room and shutting the door may well lead to bitter arguments and animosity.

To tap into the power of collective reasoning, an organization must develop certain structural elements and foster appropriate actions and attitudes. The following sections describe these structures, actions & attitudes in more detail.

Structural Elements of a Group Engaged in Collective Reasoning

Various structures facilitate an organization’s ability to use and integrate the knowledge distributed across its members. Once an organization develops these structures, it can:

  • Deepen an assessment of the operating environment in which your organization exists.
  • Develop innovations or integrate knowledge to exploit.
  • Implement and spread innovations throughout your organization and beyond.

These structures include the following five elements.[1]

1. Creating Credibility

To engage in collective reasoning, individuals must consider the other people they are working with as credible participants in the process. They must also find the task they are working together on as credible use of their efforts. The following steps are ways to achieve credibility

  • As discussed in Chapter IX, you can achieve this credibility by using the form of rationality the organization considers legitimate (e.g. bankers favoreconomic rationality, scientists technocratic rationality).
  • A person’s credentials are also an important signal of credibility. For example, we would consider a chartered accountant a more credible source for tax information than a registered nurse.
  • A group leader can give the process of collective reasoning credibility through the creation of clear strategic mandates and action agendas for people entering the group.

2. Stimulating Diversity of Thought

Collective reasoning’s ability to tackle complex issues comes from the confrontation and a combination of different forms of knowledge and rationality. By putting different rationalities in dialogue, people can challenge each others’ unquestioned assumptions and broaden perspectives. By finding creative ways to link different knowledge together, we develop innovations.

Some approaches to achieve this include:

  • Group leaders can stimulate diversity by increasing the breadth of categories into which the organization categorizes knowledge–that is, bringing together a broader array of people with different perspectives and rationality.
    • For example, if your organization is a bank, and everyone in it is a banker, consider how bringing in a non-banker would broaden your perspectives.
  • Then, the leader can focus the group on finding links between these different perspectives.
    • For example, a group might look for connections between an engineer’s technical knowledge and the sales person’s knowledge of customers to enhance its products’ attractiveness.

3. Investing in Communication

Collective reasoning occurs when people with different perspectives engage in dialogue. Facilitating this discussion requires investing in communication.

Though the challenges to communicating are prevalent when participants work in different locations, even people working in the same building may have difficulty engaging in fruitful discussions. The following steps provide ideas to manage these challenges.

  • Identify specific people to whom you will assign the responsibility of fostering the development of your working group. These people will liaise with and build the network of individuals participating in the collective reasoning process.
  • These people you identify will have the responsibility to use their contextual (cultural) rationality of the organization to develop appropriate mechanisms and tools to support communication within your collective reasoning team
  • These people you identify will also have the responsibility to use their social and emotional intelligence to close the differences between different group members and create a unified vision of the team’s goals.

4. Developing an Extended Network

Collective reasoning requires that you have a network of individuals possessing different perspectives and knowledge willing to work with you. Thus, to create an organization proficient in collective reasoning requires the development of these networks.

When creating this network, consider these four sources of participants.

  • Local internal include people from within your organization in your geographic area.
  • Local external include people outside your organization in your geographic area.
  • International internal may only exist in geographically disperse organizations (e.g., multi-national organizations, governments, etc.). This network includes people from within your organization but working in a different geographic location from you.
  • International external include people outside your organization working in a different geographic location from you.

5. Providing Appropriate Tools for Communication

Facilitating dialogue between people with diverse backgrounds who might work in different areas of the organization and, possibly, the world requires the use of appropriate communication tools. Even if the team is close together and meeting face-to-face, you need to think about how you will capture the key insights from those meetings and make them accessible to everyone involved.

The following considerations are essential for developing effective communication systems.

  • What are the communication needs of your group?
    • You will need to facilitate dialogue between people. Will this be done face-to-face? Online? Video conferencing? Others?
    • What tools will people need to have this discussion? Will you need projectors to display data charts? Whiteboards to write down ideas? Others?
  • How will you record the insights developed through your discussions and then make those insights available to the team?
    • When dealing with complex problems, the ideas generated through collective reasoning can quickly become numerous. When you consider where you will store these insights for the team, you also need to consider creating a system that will allow people to navigate your repository of information to find what they are looking for.
  • What communications and IT resources does your organization possess? Some organizations may already maintain sophisticated IT systems with knowledge management capabilities. Other organizations may have no resources at all. You will need to consider what tools you can use and how you will fill any deficits.
  • What communication tools does your team have the ability and comfort to use? You may have the most sophisticated IT system in the world, but if people on your team lack the training to use it, then the system is useless. How will you close the gap between the tools you have available and the tools your team can use?
  • How will you facilitate the exchange of knowledge between different areas? For example, the accounting department of a company knows certain things about the organization. The human resources department knows different things about the company. What system can you create that will allow human resources to know what the accountants know and vise versa?

The above sections identified structural elements an organization needs to engage in collective reasoning effectively. In addition to structures, people must undertake relevant actions and adopt appropriate attitudes to engage in collective reasoning. The next section identifies these actions and attitudes.


Key Takeaways

  • Developing the capacity to engage in collective reasoning: Structural elements
    • Create credibility
    • Stimulate diversity of thought
    • Invest in communication
    • Develop extended networks
    • Provide appropriate tools for communication

  1. De Meyer, A. (2007). Strategic Epistemology--Innovation and Organizational Wisdom. In E. H. Kessler & J. R. Bailey (Eds.), Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom (pp. 357–374). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.


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Creating an Organization That Can Tackle The Unknown Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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