Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Superlative Task

One can hardly contemplate the passing scene of civilized society without a sense that the need of balanced minds is real and that a superlative task is how socially to make mind more effective.
~ Chester Barnard, The Functions of the Executive, 1938, p. 322.

While some might say that group facilitation is just an ordinary task, I believe that group facilitators tend to think of it as an important task, or even an extraordinary task. But who among us has the chutzpah — the self-righteousness — to assert that group facilitation is a superlative task? Better to turn to a venerated and impartial authority who can issue this bold proclamation!

Chester Barnard is such a person, a preeminent mid-twentieth-century corporate executive often called the "father of organization theory." His classic The Functions of the Executive was required management school reading for many decades following its 1938 publication. Though still in print, Barnard's occasionally impenetrable prose has limited the use of his book to only the more rigorous graduate programs, replaced elsewhere by more recent and easily-read authors. Nonetheless, Barnard still challenges us with pertinent ideas that have retained, if not increased, their relevance. In the concluding paragraph of this renowned book, Barnard highlights four very salient points.

Society is increasingly complex and organizations are more elaborate.

Even more true than in 1938, the idea that society is increasingly complex now is accepted axiomatically. Organizations are greater in number, size and geographical scope. We are more dependent than ever before on elaborate technologies and the equally elaborate organizations that create and rely on them. We are interconnected and interdependent; yet distinct and diverse.

The increasing specialization necessitated by such a society brings with it a diversity of methods and purposes that may be inconsistent and foster misunderstandings.

To manage our complex, technological world people must be specialized — in roles, expertise and skills. This makes effective communication, sharing of knowledge, and interpersonal understanding more difficult. This difficulty occurs not only at the level of substantive issues but also at the underlying levels of method (how people think about issues) and purpose (why they think about them). Misunderstandings occur between individuals, of course, and even more crucially between large groups of people.

What is needed are balanced minds that integrate feeling with reasoning, sense the net balance, and perceive the parts as well as the whole.

The difficulties brought on by the effects of complexity and specialization can be addressed. How? By incorporating the views of multiple stakeholders with diverse interests and perspectives; perceiving the specific parts of the system, as well as the system as a whole; and clarifying the expected results and desired ends. We need to integrate analysis and intuition, facts and values, objective and subjective, thinking and feeling.

Meeting these challenges — which will help groups to be more effective cognitively and socially — is a superlative task.

To meet these challenges we must be address the intellectual, analytical and cognitive demands of the situation. This is necessary but not sufficient. At the same time, we must help groups engage interpersonally, politically, emotionally and spiritually. As group facilitators we must, in Barnard's words, strive "socially to make mind more effective."* Toward this accomplishment we devote ourselves as group facilitators. Working together, we aim to strengthen our understanding — in organizations, communities and societies — of group facilitation, a superlative task.

* Here is the full quote:
One can hardly contemplate the passing scene of civilized society without a sense that the need of balanced minds is real and that a superlative task is how socially to make mind more effective. That the increasing complexity of society and the elaboration of technique and organization now necessary will more and more require capacity for rigorous reasoning seems evident; but it is a super-structure necessitating a better use of the non-logical mind to support it. "Brains" without "minds" seem a futile unbalance. The inconsistencies of method and purpose and the misunderstandings between large groups which increasing specialization engenders need the corrective of the feeling mind that senses the end result, the net balance, the interest of all, and of the spirit that perceiving the concrete parts encompasses also the intangibles of the whole.
Barnard, Chester (1938). The Functions of the Executive: Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (1968). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

This essay first appeared in Group Faciliation: A Research and Applications Journal, Issue 3, 2001, published by the International Association of Facilitators.

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