Introducing Performance Inquiry as a tool for performance excellence
Yogi Berra was right
As Yogi Berra and others before him have stated: “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Today, the knowledge and technology at the disposal of human societies and organizations changes at a rate which is greater than it has been at any other point in recorded history. This is profound in at least two ways:
- Human technology is transforming the planet so rapidly we act with unknowable consequences.
- The idea of building a “body of knowledge” to be passed on for the future has become an image of limited value in such a dynamic context, rather we must prioritize learning how to build capacities to face unknowable futures.
At this level of complexity, leaders can no longer expect to be able to hold onto a static knowledge base from which to sustain an organization, act toward a resolution, or design a strategy for real-world decision-making. Rather, leaders need to be able to view an enormous amount of complexity, in ways that are both conceptually aware to comprehend all the categories, structures, processes, and systems that our current view of the world entails, as well as intentionally constructed in ways that are meaningful, relevant and useful.
Our frames of interpretation breed our tools… and vice-versa
Human beings have a tendency to assume that what they “see” is in fact “what is”. When they consider how what they see influences their understanding of a situation or of reality in general, they tend to envision the process as a one-way street. However, our understanding of reality can have an important influence on what we “see”, not only as individuals but as groups as well. For example, in the first century, the Greek astronomer Ptolemy was able to put together a complex map of the variant and invariant epicycles of the planets and stars as they revolved around the earth. Because Ptolemy was a systems thinker way ahead of any other, he had succeeded in devising an ingenious explanation for the observation of retrograde movement, that is to say when the planets could be seen to move “backwards” in relation to each other. Ptolemy’s systemic genius notwithstanding, his interpretation of his observations was constrained by the fact that he was only able to imagine the view from the earth. In other words, his understanding of reality was influencing what he was able to “see”.
It took over a thousand years before someone presented a serious challenge to this view. Knowing the type of opposition this new interpretation of the data would inspire, Nicolaus Copernicus published the book which explained it just before his death in 1543. He had re-imagined the heavens from a heliocentric view, one where the planets revolved around the sun —which explained all the celestial movements observable at that time, in a simpler and much more elegant manner. Years later, in 1925, Edwin Hubble informed the world that our universe was vastly larger than our galaxy, the Milky Way. The questions he was asking, his inquiry, led him to a new interpretation of the data, including some “pesky” data most of his contemporaries deemed irrelevant. Yet even with the truth and elegance of the new model he put forward, many fiercely held onto an understanding of our universe with the earth at its centre. There was a resistance, an immunity . What we perceive influences our perception of reality, but our perception of reality also influences our ability to perceive it. To be conscious of such a continuity between subject and object, of what some term “non-duality”, is an important part of what it is to be Conception-Aware (conceptually aware?).
What does it look like when leaders apply this notion to their field of action? What does it look like when a leader practices “conception-awareness”?
One first step would be found in their consideration of the possibility that the limitation of one’s view (including their own),is responsible, at least in part, for the perceived hyper-complexity of our situation. This could open the way to an inquiry into what is our view—what are the hidden assumptions, boundaries and constraints that are on the one hand, creating all this hyper-complexity around us and, on the other hand, impeding our ability to “see” from a higher, more inclusive, more systematic yet more elegant vantage point? How is it possible to acquire a vantage point of being able to see the concept-based value stream embedded in all the salient features and objects of a system, as well as sufficient meta-design skills for building coherent and synergistic systems?
What if, through a set of rigorous rules, we can define these features and aspects as multiple objects of inquiry, we can make them accessible to inquiry?
What if in turn we can make these objects of inquiry specifiable, then we can make them assess-able and we can begin to work with them in more conventional ways?
This is the work of Performance Inquiry.
From the Implicit to the Explicit
When the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot coined the term “fractal” in 1975, he was inventing a word to name a type of detailed pattern which could be described as repeating itself within itself – which is not the same thing as saying that Mandelbrot invented that type of pattern. Fractals were everywhere before Mandelbrot expressed the nature of the pattern explicitly, but we just not seeing them. It is true that Mandelbrot pointed to the work of people like the 18th-century Japanese artist Hokusai to show that there have been individuals through the ages had understood or were using fractals in varying degrees of intellectual abstraction. They may not have had a word to capture the idea of fractals, but some nevertheless perceived aspects of the pattern form and used them. However, it appears that these were few and far between.
When Mandelbrot described fractals, the pattern and its qualities, he was finding order in what appeared to be chaos, and by doing so, he was making the invisible visible. By making the implicit explicit, he would help countless others to suddenly perceive forms that previously had been invisible to them. Critics reduced Mandelbrot’s work by claiming his only true contribution was to help computers draw pretty patterns. Others came to understand he had found a way to mathematically express a fundamental type of pattern found in nature and that using these ideas was powerful in helping them to perceive specific patterns whose existence they had never suspected or to design new solutions to problems in their field. Performance Inquiry seeks to build on this principle of making the implicit explicit in such a way that leaders can build a more complete and comprehensive view of their operations and design.
The Generative Systems Model: The G5 and Performance Inquiry
Our interpretations guide the narratives we build for meaning-making. Therefore the quality and complexity of our narratives depend on the quality and complexity of our interpretations which are also related to the quality and complexity of the data we are able to gather and consider. The genesis of Performance Inquiry stems from the experience of the difficulties that come from trying to fit observations into views which cannot properly account for or accommodate them. The need for a more comprehensive framework for meaning-making was making itself felt. A fruitful collaboration between Jean Trudel and Bonnitta Roy resulted in a new framing of data from organizations in terms of one or more of five generative processes, the G5. These are development, construction, evolution, emergence, and autopoietic enactment. To think in terms of generative process means to see structural parts as arising from processural wholes. Each of these generative processes are discrete and non-reducible and entail unique internal dynamics, give rise to unique types of structural organization, and operate in fundamentally different ways. Together, Trudel and Roy began to envision a view of organizations and human action that has the capacity to work with, through, and across multiple process narratives.
Performance Inquiry switches back and forth between calling the G5 generative processes and, alternately, human narratives. This is intentional, because we do not want to privilege either the subjective aspect of the G5 as only a human narrative nor do we want to privilege the objective aspect of the G5 as only an objective phenomenon. Rather, we want the leader to understand the G5 as generative processes in which the subjective and objective interpenetrate. In this sense we might say that generative processes autopoietically enact both their subjective and objective aspects or, alternately, we can say that we choose to see the G5 through an autopoietic narrative in which subjects and objects mutually enact each other. It is important that the leader be able to stretch both ways in order to understand fully what we mean by the G5 and generative process. This is another key feature of the new view we are proposing. This both/and orientation integrates the objective bias of conventional enterprise architecture with the subjective bias of developmental models popular within the integral community. We want to extend this integration to both the “constructive” narrative/process—which is primarily relied upon by objectivist “enterprise architects”, as well as to the “developmental” narrative/process—which is primarily relied upon by subjectivist organizational consultants. In addition, we most certainly do not want to introduce either an objectivist nor subjectivist bias onto the notions of evolutionary, emergent, or autopoietic processes. This notion of the interpenetration of process and narrative is crucial to understanding the innovative view which has given rise to Performance Inquiry.
This new view of organization and human action is based on two fundamental working hypotheses:
- The 21st Century Organization is a complex hybrid (human and non-human) organism that enacts multiple hybrid objects through five generative processes.
- The ability to align a particular “organizational” process with one or more of these fundamental five generative processes and to synchronize with their characteristic set of imperatives is key to creating a self-sustaining, ever-advancing, boundlessly innovative enterprise.
By re-framing each of the organization’s problematic situations in terms of each of the G5, we can begin to build a platform in which the multiple streams that are compelling the situation will reveal their relevant features and key aspects. Performance Inquiry employs a re-framing methodology to achieve this in a manner which can be specified by rules thereby becoming specific objects of inquiry, objects that can be assessed, creating a continuous feedback-feedforward cycle that is generative of human understanding and can also inform action.
The framework’s purpose is for creating capacity in the process for being generative. Its “technology” enables coherence in context, which is how Performance Inquiry defines generativity.