Sunday, March 1, 2009

Approximate Aims and Nebulous Targets

Tēnā koutou katoa – Greetings to you all
Stout Street, Wellington
Tony Karrer, in his recent post Adoption Ideas, brought our attention to the post, Why Doing Things Half Right Gives You the Best Results.

In it, Peter Bregman posits the idea that organisations should aim for imperfection. “I'm not suggesting you settle for imperfect. I'm telling you to shoot for it”, was how he put his advice. Bergman heads a change management firm.

Lyotard's Postmodernism:

In reading Bregman’s post, I was reminded of a conversation I had with colleagues about postmodernism. Few were really aware of what it was. I’d only been made aware fairly recently of the existence of the term when, in 2001, Derek Wenmoth advised me and my teaching colleagues to become more familiar with postmodernism, its existence in society, in homes, in schools and what it meant to our relationship with our students. At that time, I looked on it as a way of thinking that was quite foreign to me. In many ways I still do.

Bregman’s position has strong elements of postmodernism as claimed by Jean-François Lyotard in that the sequential detail and reasons for such detail within the structure of an established process is eschewed. The so-called ‘Grand Narrative’ is cast aside. By its function as a story, it tends to cloud anomalies and unevenness that are naturally present in any community or practice, and so stands in the way of progress.

In doing this, postmodernism instead favours the situational event, dealing with each temporarily as it occurs. There is no need or call for reasoning, or what could possibly be universally acceptable or believed and neither is stability a required criterion.


But the recent conversation brought to mind analogies that helped me when I had to get my head round ways of thinking, strategies and developments that transcended the logic I was more familiar with from the twentieth century. I’ve often used these analogies, almost by way of self protection, in order to avoid the anxt of constantly trying to understand why things were happening the way they were.

The contexts for these analogies are many and varied, and it may well be inappropriate for me to tie them to one specific example; sufficient to refer to Peter Bergman’s contexts.

The analogies are to do with achieving a working success, whether it is of a small project or a larger one, such as a restructuring within an organisation, or any part of these that develops sufficient for there to be a potentially measurable outcome. Having been involved in many different projects that fit this description since the beginning of this century, I feel that, if nothing else, I have some expertise in observing the initiation, development and eventual outcomes of these.

Here is a description of the analogies, comparing the traditional approach (modernism) with postmodernism.

The Project:

To launch a projectile in order to reach a goal called the target.


The target is defined - its position and range established. The launching device is chosen and a suitable projectile with means for propelling is selected according to the target range and conditions.

Past experience with the same or similar equipment is called upon. Some allowance for wind conditions is made. Adjustments to sites are made for the range if necessary and the projectile is launched at the target.

Following successfully meeting the target, or otherwise, there may be some decision made as to how the trajectory may be improved in order to hit the target more accurately in future. What evolves from this is what may be termed a ‘sure fire’ process or strategy.


The target is defined, though its position and range may not be too definite. The launching device is selected and a projectile launched without a great deal of time spent considering such parameters as direction of aim, range or conditions.

All these minor matters are decided upon and adjusted during the trajectory of the projectile, in much the same way as the Apollo 11 Command Module was navigated in 1969.

The target is then brought more into focus. Provided there is sufficient time for trajectory adjustment before the projectile travels out of range, the target is decided upon. With any luck, the target is met.

There are no repercussions. If the target is met the project is successful. If the target is not met, a new project and strategy to hit a new target is discussed at some later date.

Ka kite anō – Catch ya later


Tony Karrer said...

Thanks for writing this up.

One thought on this - having a miss be considered a success is the most critical thing to establish upfront. In other words - this is an experiment - if we don't get there that's okay.

The Apollo project would not fall into that category.

Actually, a lot of projects don't fall into that category.

So on these, you have to define what success carefully.

Howard said...

Hi Ken
I look to dialogical philosophy (Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, John Shotter) not postmodernism to understand Bregman’s case. (I’ve read critiques that the anguished postmoderns were as negatively obsessed with the lack of certainty as the moderns were obsessed to trying to obtain it.) A dialogic approach looks at people as relationally responsive.
Instead of trying to solve problems exclusively by analyzing “patterns and regularities” for perfection, we must also live in “the context of peoples disorderly, everyday conversational realities. . . (where) to solve problems, our task becomes the more practical one of struggling to create new ‘pathways’ forward into the uniquely new circumstances we create for ourselves as we live our lives together”.
Quotes from the back cover of John Shotter’s book Conversational Realities Revisited
I had a mentor in college (Helmut Bartel) that once said new paradigms were only successful if they could account for the successes and the failures of the old paradigm, while moving beyond it. That’s what I think the idea of dialogic responsiveness does. In Bregman’s case we can see the failure of the company’s and Bregman’s first modernist approach and how Bregman succeeded by being more responsive to the involved people. The recent idea of closing training departments can also be read in the same terms of the failure of modernism (prescribed ‘one size fits all’ instruction based on observed patterns and regularities) for the dialogical (facilitating the ability of people to work together to solve problems in people’s everyday context).
Thanks for your post. I struggle to understand philosophy that I know is important, but I can’t alway articulate just how. I just grown by responding to your conversation and I am learning in dialogue right now. And, I think my brain is completely fried for the moment.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā koe Tony!

I agree with what you say about defining success. In the traditional (modernism), there would also be 'the pilot', which would be regarded as successful even if it didn't meet the target. The whole idea of the pilot is implicit here. You call it an experiment. It is an experiment.

But the same could apply with any pilot. My experience with present-day pilots is that they differ from my view of a pilot. Traditionally a pilot comes before implementation. These days pilots and implementation tend to run concurrently - at least, that's been what I've seen. I call them 'Clayton's pilots', since they really do not fit my traditional view of what a pilot should be.

So saying this (and I apologise for any modernistic bias I may be showing here :-) I am not attempting to say which 'pilot' is right.

Haere mai Howard!

Thank you for introducing me to dialogical philosophy. I am delighted that we can look at processes from so many different view-points. The more the better, for I firmly believe that understanding is always improved by viewing a scene from different points of view.

If I'm not mistaken, the approach you ascribe to here is one of community and its properties. I accept that analysing the attributes of community groups is a study in itself.

I like Bartel's description that you explained here too. It is not unlike much of Science theory in how it fits (or doesn't) with observation while continuing to explain (or not) observations in new frontiers and under new conditions.

I have some more reading to do to find out more about dialogical philosophy.

Catchya later

V Yonkers said...

Okay, so here's another term that I think explains this better: critical pedagogy. This was Freire's theory that we need to understand the constraints that the cultural systems put on our thinking, starting with breaking down the assumptions of what we perceive as truth based on the powerstructures of everyday life.

When we "fail", what we are really doing is not living up to the standards that has been established by our culture. First we must understand the environment that is establishing the standards (the power structures of evaluation, setting the standards, and the social system that is a result of those power structures). Then we must look at the impact of the "failure". Can we change the assumptions of what is success or failure, for example?

I have looked at this in the context of business, for example. Those in free market economies make certain assumptions about what "success" is (usually high profits, high salaries). However, isn't a company that is growing slowly, able to compete in a small market successful also? As we begin to understand powerstructures and assumptions we make, it opens up the world to new processes and understanding (think Galileo or any of the trailblazers in science).

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Varginia,

I must admit that I wasn't necessarily referring to teaching organisations or environments when I wrote this post. My analogy does not go so deep as to analyse things to any huge extent and it isn't as applicable to the specifics as Kincheloe's critical pedagogy. I believe that is really another issue altogether.

I guess it all depends on what the reader/thinker has in mind at the time they read this. I was making broad sweeps when I put into words my analogies here. But I suppose these are as applicable to changes in other social organisational establishments as they are to changes in education.

Catchya later