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22 January 2023

Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) 2: The Role of Imagination in Organizing Knowledge, Karl Weick

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Today’s offering is a short but powerful article by Karl Weick- who wrote the “Drop your tools” article and the “Mann Gulch disaster” article about smokejumpers in Montana for those of you familiar with a favorite design primer we use. Weick is a fantastic source for deep organizational study, design, innovation, and ‘knowing in action’ as he often frames his variation on reflective practice. His book “Managing the Unexpected” is a short but powerful book I will put a review up for in the weeks to come as well.

This Weick article is available here at Taylor & Francis, and yes, it is behind a paywall. I am sorry about that, but many readers have access to libraries (especially all DoD military and USG folks… just contact your local base librarian and they likely can email you this PDF pronto). Others are students or otherwise able to access university systems. There are many ways to get the digits and this one is worth your effort.

Let’s get to the article!

In this short, 8-page article, Weick frames how imagination impacts the organization of knowledge across a group, unit or some community of practice and how it shifts from greater structure (and loss of imagination) to increased abstraction (flux, ability to improvise further). This is a tension between organizational clarity and confusion- but in complex reality, there rarely is the certainty and order we seek in how we clarify knowledge. Sometimes our analytical zeal masks our subjective desire to force reality into the conceptual frameworks that reinforce our institutional beliefs that are often wildly outside the mark of what reality is doing under our analysis.

Weick uses the NASA shuttle disasters as one of several metaphoric device in this article (he also uses terror organizations, Shakespeare, and bureacracies), and indeed, he was a primary consultant to them for organizational change after the Colombia disaster. He explains up front:

The complex relationships among organizing, knowledge, and imagination can be illustrated in the context of the disintegration of the Columbia space shuttle over Texas during mission STS-107. Eighty-one (81.7) s after the Columbia shuttle was launched on January 16, 2003, blurred photographs taken during the launch showed that debris of some sort had struck the left wing with unknown damage. (Weick, p.446)

Wieck goes on to frame this disaster with:

NASA was unwilling to drop its bureaucratic structure, and as a result, choked its capability for imagining. Here is what I mean. NASA had institutionalized a simple but central distinction that shaped their activity of imagining. They distinguished between problems that were ‘in family’ and those that were ‘out of family’ (CAIB, 2003, p. 146). An in-family event is ‘a reportable problem that was previously experienced, analyzed, and understood’ (CAIB, 2003, p. 122). The problem in the Columbia accident was that top management treated the debris strike as ‘almost in family’ (CAIB, 2003, p. 146). The strike was treated as close enough so that it could be treated as essentially in family. Once this interpretation was adopted at the top, it was easier to treat the insistent requests by engineers for further images as reflecting engineers’ professional desires to learn more rather than any imperative for mission success. (p.446–447)

Weick then shifts to the importance of language, and of meaning and interpretation- how humans socially construct reality and their words come with objective, tangible considerations tangled up with the tacit, intangible, abstract as well. He distinguishes between “fancy” and “imagination.” Imagination brings together entirely dissimilar concepts, sometimes for the first time and the sorts of associations that appear shocking, surprising, invigorating, and always the basis of innovative thinking. Fancy is the assignment of different terms in a formula-like, non-imaginative manner of putting A plus B to make a new thing that has A/B characteristics, but itself is not really anything but what A and B were before the combination. Weick uses Pegasus for this:

Pegasus is a combination of two ideas, wings plus horse. In this static compounding of ideas, neither idea changes nor interacts with the other. They are simply stuck together. (p. 448)

Weick then addresses how bureacracies orient toward thinking in fanciful ways and not in imaginative ways. He offers in this article one of his most powerful and best known concepts, where we do not remember the past to imagine the future, but the opposite. I use this regularly in my work and every time I explain this to a class (whether cadets, SEALs, or a group of General Officers), the jaws drop.

To increase the imagined in bureaucracies is tough because they tend to be dominated by fixed categories, definite objects, rigid assembly rules, and routines that embody memory. All of these predispose to fancy rather than imagination. Bureaucracies see what they have seen before and they link these memories in a sequential train of associations. In a potentially dangerous reversal, people in bureaucracies tend to imagine the past and remember the future. (p. 448).

Weick then goes on to beautifully frame how organizations go about constructing knowledge through shared narratives as they attempt to make sense of what went wrong, and correct something. Often, the “something” corrected is tied to what that institution permits to be on the operating table, and Weick focuses on what is purposely denied from being placed there. In his conclusion, he offers the following:

Organizing is a battle of sorts between structuring that fosters naming the thing and losing the whole, and structuring that keeps the whole but loses the names that stir others to actions. Names (and variables) encourage unimaginative associations. To design imagination into organizing, we need to slow the upward movement from perceptions toward the naming that begins to compound our abstractions. And we need to hasten the downward movement away from reifications back toward perceptions that can be renamed with labels that are imperfect in new ways. When we move in either direction, either away from the certainty of an impression or away from the certainty of a reification, we move toward greater uncertainty and toward fuller imagining. We find ourselves engaged, not in uncertainty absorption, but in uncertainty infusion. (p.451)

This is a wonderful, short but deep thought piece for you to apply to how an organization deals with uncertainty, change, emergence, and the tension between ‘we knew that worked yesterday well’ and ‘tomorrow appears to be moving toward something unusual that is chipping away at whether that thing really did work as we thought yesterday”. Organizational knowledge is, just like human consciousness… squishy, paradoxical, and decidedly human. I love anything written by Weick and recommend not just this article, but all of them (and his books). Taking a small group, seminar, or workshop through a 60 minute exercise using this article as the primer (have them read it before) is a fantastic, powerful technique in breaking an organization out of institutionalized, bureaucratic non-thinking to explore deeper challenges. For off-sites, OPDs, or “vision statement collaborations”, you can’t find many more articles that fit this in terms of brevity, focus, clarity and depth (except for other Weick articles!).

Enjoy reading it, and follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Medium for what will be dozens of more article suggestions and commentary in the months to come.

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