Introducing Mary Parker-Follett

I mentioned Mary Parker-Follett to Euan Semple in a comment on one of the posts linked below. Rather than pollute Euan’s blog with some tangential detail, I thought I’d write a longer post here and simply trackback to Euan’s blog.


My agenda takes in some mystical & pragmatic, monist metaphysics, which can seem a million miles from agendas to do with organizational behaviour and business integration in these times of explosive growth in internet connectivity and social media. That is we live in times where every individual and organization has immediate, ubiquitous, mediated and un-mediated connectivity – McLuhan’s global village writ large. And we’re talking about “organizations” of any kind from family and social groups, clubs, societies, tribes, businesses, states, institutions, nations, their authorities, managements and governance on any local to global level. These are constituencies of “us” growing in scale and in overlapping multiplicity. Organizational behaviour has always been basically some kind of social anthropology – how we humans interact and how those interactions are based on what we believe about the world and each other’s actions, communications, motivations and beliefs, within those many constituencies we inhabit. Social media are as old as society itself.

So what’s new ? The immediacy, speed and ubiquity of the communication medium. And that’s all. But, as David Gurteen tweeted recently:

“There is more to life than increasing its speed” – Mahatma Gandhi

And, picking up on another recent David Gurteen link – to a quote from Jonathan Zittrain – that immediacy, speed and ubiquity has succeeded in removing any time and space between “too soon to know, and too late to do anything about it”. So we are still humans, our behaviours are still anthropology, but our “game theory” for the best response to any situation is increasingly pre-emptive and reactive, with little opportunity to validate and reflect. Instant wisdom required. Unless you have the courage to take a stand and moderate the processes with a little time and space, we may continue to believe we are being rationally objective in making scientifically sound “evidence-based” decisions based on best available information. But without that moderation or inter-mediation, the objectivity of that information, and the moral clarity(*) of the motives of those delivering it, must at least be doubtful.

Our own objectivity becomes highly overrated, or at least illusory. I risked mentioning “mystical” in the opening paragraph, because it is almost heretical to argue even slightly against scientifically-sound objective rationality. But the illusory nature of our objectivity is not a new concept either. [Insert a million philosophical footnotes to Plato.]

At this point the story diverges as many ways as our agendas dictate. “That’s subjectivity and relativism for you”, the scientists scream 😉 . Now, we’re not talking metaphysics, moral philosophy, evolutionary psychology or philosophy of science here; we could be, but we’re not. There is a thread of thought that is common to many pragmatic paths we could take here. That is, where objectivity is poorly grounded, the alternative is NOT subjectivity. That just substitutes one set of doubtful entities and causal motivations for another. The real alternative is integration between subjects and objects. Relationalism rather than relativism.

Mary Parker-Follett

So to close out the pre-amble and get to the point – Mary Parker-Follett; I came to this subject from the business management / organizational behaviour angle, not some mystical, metaphysical, philosophical, ethical or epistemological trip.

Mary Parker-Follett was a management consultant before there were people known as management consultants with MBA’s back in the 1920’s / 30’s. She was widely-published, widely-travelled and lectured with reputation and credibility at the time, but fell into oblivion until Peter Drucker cited her as the giant on whose shoulders any decent modern management consultant stands. Cited also by Charles Handy, Tom Peters, Warren Bennis and others. Her speciality was arriving at agreements and actioning decisions where there was complexity and/or conflict. Avoiding characterising problems simplistically as Outcome-A vs Outcome-B, Us vs Them, Subject vs Object, and recognising the true value of seeking integration of common interests, by encouraging positive interaction between participants and reducing the focus on distinct objects, objectives and objections.

Win-win as we’d say these days. An ever more relevant approach as more and more issues get reduced to voting in real-time for or against one or other strong position / opinion. (eg: Julian Assange is a freedom-fighter / hero / criminal and government institutions are immoral / confused / defenders of freedoms. Speak truth, freely to power; fine. Don’t start with the explicit presumption that power is immoral, or you’ll get the response you deserve. Or alternatively see Slavoj Zizek’s “Empty Wheelbarrow” take on the “War on Terrorism”. Do me a favour.) Life’s just complicated enough not to be forced to choose in a false-dichotomy between two unthinkable downsides.

Another of her messages is that integration is never a complete solution or end in itself. “Unity does not exist, only the process of unifying”. Integration is more a verb than an object. And so on.

Anyway, I discovered MPF long after I’d done my management education, and long after I’d started the “What, Why and How do we Know?” epistemic & ethical philosophy trip. I read and posted my summary of her work that effectively summarised her “practical philosophy” in quotes of her own statements of principles, after seeing the Peter Drucker citation, and the fit was obvious.

MPF on Wikipedia,
MPF Foundation Summary,
These days there is also an MPF Network on Ning.
Join-up if she interests you.

(*) Moral Clarity … I’m not suggesting people are generally immoral or incompetent. Far from it. In my experience, young or old, parental or childlike, naive or experienced, objective or subjective, people are 99% morally driven and as intelligent and thoughtful as they can be in the decisions they take. Hacktivists and Presidents alike. It’s simply that the more detached and inter-mediated we are by technology alone, the less sure any of us can be about how much trust we can actually place in the content of our logic; our moral logic.

Also published on Medium.

4 thoughts on “Introducing Mary Parker-Follett”

Leave a Reply