Jul 162013

The following is the abstract of a paper given at a Research Colloquium in Oxford on Unconscious Defences against Anxiety.

The internet, like the printing press, railways and the telephone, has changed the way economies work. We are in the middle of an unfolding story that is not only changing what we understand an ‘organisation’ to be, but also changing the ways in which we experience ourselves as subjects.[1] One theme that runs through these changes is that of the loss of sovereignty, whether at the level of the person, organisation or state. We are even less able to act as if we are ‘islands unto ourselves’ than ever before, as we encounter complex adaptive behaviours, emergence and quantum effects that challenge common sense itself.

Within these turbulent environments, the ability to sustain a primary task definition of the organisation with its boundaries breaks down along with the organisation’s sovereignty.[2] Under these circumstances, the object of psychoanalytic study ceases to remain focused on the structures of affiliation to the founding acts on which the identity of the organisation rest, extending to include the acts of innovation by which its clients are responded to one-by-one.[3] ‘Boundary’ becomes the particular relation to the other client-patient-citizen and an object of psychoanalytic study itself.[4]

This paper proposes a return to Freud’s first model – his Project for a Scientific Psychology[5] – as a way of considering how we are subjected to both the structure of our unconscious and to what-can-be-said that can make sense to the other. It further proposes that this double subjection has its parallel in the double subjection that follows from an affiliation to an organisation, through the valencies by which it lends support to our self-identification. This enables us to understand an organisation to be the social formation that rests ultimately on the structures with which it is identified and through which it interacts with the ‘others’ in its environment.

To those identified with such an organisation, anxiety comes not only to warn them of possible failures to perform, but also of the possible failure of the structures of affiliation themselves, giving rise to the potential annihilation of support to their self-identification. Freud’s first model provides us with a way of approaching these two dimensions of anxiety, the potential for annihilation presenting a gap, in relation to which come opportunities for innovation.[6]

The paper draws conclusions about the forms of governance that can balance the defences against anxiety with the opportunities for innovation, and about the demands the need for this balance places on leadership.

[1] This is the argument I made in The Twitter Revolution: how the internet has changed us. Just as the Printing Revolution precipitated the crisis in delegation associated with the Reformation, so too is the Information Revolution precipitating a crisis of delegation in our own time. The difference, however, is that whereas then the crisis heralded the emergence of the complicated as the dominant form of organisation (giving science its place in the world), the current crisis of delegation is heralding the emergence of the complex as the (coming-to-be) dominant form of organisation – see the drivers of organisational scale. With this emergence, of course, come the challenges of asymmetric leadership and asymmetric design.
[2] See Leading organisations without boundaries: ‘quantum’ organisation and the work of making meaning.
[3] These acts of innovation speak of a dilemma between an affiliation to an already-insistent authority and an alliance around some new situational challenge. ‘Affiliation’ is one way of determining by what authority we are to follow. This builds on the critique of boundaries, authority and containment.
[4] See THE environment does not ex-sist: engendering ‘boundary’ as the object of psychoanalytic study.
[5] Freud, S. (1950 [1895]). Project for a Scientific Psychology. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London, The Hogarth Press. I: 283-397.
[6] A failure to pursue such opportunities for innovation derive from the unconscious valencies associated with making ‘unintentional’ errors – the opportunity is never ‘seen’!