Mary Parker Follett

Recently read Pauline Graham’s compilation of the works of Mary Parker Follett “The Prophet of Management“. Generally considered by a host of modern management gurus to have written the final word on many important management subjects, back in the 1920’s, when she became well known through her writing, lecturing and consulting. She is often cited (after Newton) as a giant on whose shoulders many of them stand. However she lay practically unknown and unreferenced for the following 30 odd years, as being of no significance, until unearthed in 1950’s by the guru of management gurus Peter Drucker (recently deceased).

(One of my earlier aphorisms, in the mould of reality having to be believed to be seen, is that “you have to believe in giants before you can stand on their shoulders”, but I digress.)

One aspect of her work was in “conflict management”, not only in resolving disputes (eg employers & unions) but in encouraging real differences to be aired (eg in counselling situations), where they would in general be hidden or unspoken. She says “Just so far as people think that the basis of working together is compromise or concession, just so far do they not understand the first principles.”- ie win-win integration is the aim, etc. (And for those advocates of the “False Prophets” view – she of course is not disclaiming management power to enforce its decisions, but she does remind us from where such power comes.)

Anyway, I was struck by the philosophical basis of her ideas, consistent with the agenda here …

“Progressive experience depends on relating. The ardent search for objectivity, the primary task of the fact worshippers, cannot be the whole task of life, for objectivity alone is not reality.”

“I do not see how [opposing tendencies] can be avoided whilst we see reality [exclusively] as either subject or object.”

“[Citing Edwin B Holt’s – The Concept of Consciousness] Reality is defined as some very complex system of terms in relation. Reality is in the relating; in the activity-between … subject and object are equally important and reality is in the relating of these [and] in the endless evolving of these relations. This has been the grain of gold of the profoundest thinkers from Aristotle to the present [1920’s] day.”

“Full acceptance of life as process gets us away from [controversy]. This is neither conventional idealism nor realism; neither mechanism nor vitalism.”

“We have to study a whole as a whole, not only through analysis of its constituents. The whole is determined not only by its constituents, but by their relations one to another.”

“The culture of an organisation has a momentum of its own, but an organisation is not an entity separate from it’s members. Parts and the whole are bound together in dynamic interaction. It is this dynamic interaction that must be influenced in order to bring about change in an organisation.”

“Without difference there is no progress. The value is in the difference. Common thought is not held [after removal of differences] but is produced by the integration of differences.”

“A Darwinist view of progress as evolution characterised by competition alone is too simplistic in ignoring cooperation.” [A prescient comment for the 1920’s given the later “Selfish Gene” view which drops the pure competition metaphors to the genetic level, and fully recognises the neo-Darwinian mixed competitive and cooperative strategies at the individual organism level.]

Interestingly, given the Pope’s recent warnings about “relativism”, this week’s BBC “In Our Time” discussed the topic. We should indeed all be worried by a spin on “relativism” that can be rhetorically interpreted as a wishy-washy “anything goes”. I liked the Hegelian (?) absolute-relativism idea. Very Pirsigian. A fundamental and relatively fixed (if not wholly absolute) framework in which “relations” determine reality and truth. Rebecca recently coined “Relationalism” over on MoQ-Discuss, as an antidote to the pejorative rhetoric surrounding “relativism”.

I could highlight all the key words in the Follett quotes, but I won’t; It’s not about objects, objectively distinct from subjects, it’s about

value-in-difference-in-relations,

and

life-as-process-as-dynamic-interaction, or evolution

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