Jan 072014

The theory of the enterprise developed based on a largely static and ‘closed’ ontology. This meant that the top management of such an enterprise was assumed to be committed to a form of mental model aka Thirdness, reflecting founding assumptions and constraints established by them within the context of their communities of interest. This form of Thirdness authorised a particular way of composing asset structures appropriate to top management’s (top-down) definition of primary task, well described in terms of the boundaries associated with open systems thinking[1] and the dictates of pursuing sustainable competitive advantage.

Innovation involves enabling this ontology to give way to different ontologies rooted in different processes and values[2]. This means that the asset structures have to be decomposable and capable of re-composition within different mental models[3].  Innovation that does this is disruptive.  This blog considers the effects of such innovation on an individual’s double subjection when it takes them ‘outside’ their existing forms of Thirdness.

Going ‘outside’ existing forms of Thirdness
In the turbulent environments identified by Emery and Trist[4], the failure by an enterprise to accept disruptive innovation prevents it from engaging in the kinds of dynamic adaptation demanded of it by these environments – resisting the situational resistance of the client-customers demanding change, or counter-resisting.  Dynamic adaptation involves adopting new perspectives on the nature of competition as dynamic specialisation [5] and it involves innovation becoming part of the ‘normal’ way of doing business instead of being left to a separate world of ‘entrepreneurs’[3]. This means that the forms of existential anxiety precipitated by the going ‘outside’ existing forms of Thirdness – the underlying driver of counter-resistance – have to become the new  ‘normal’.  In turbulent environments, the effect of counter-resistance is to block dynamic adaptation.

Going ‘outside’ existing forms of Thirdness is not just a matter of working across boundaries under conditions in which the dominance of the vertical over the horizontal can no longer be assumed [6]. For relations across such boundaries to be effective, shared mental models have to emerge in the inter-subjective spaces ultimately able to sustain social institutions[7]. From the perspective of the subject of the enterprise, these will involve subjection to new forms of Thirdness[8].

Spanning Disjunction
Both hierarchical and community systems may be characterised by the ‘Thirdness’ implicit in the way they cohere, even though the source of the mental models in each case may be different. Thus with hierarchically-defined roles, the source of Thirdness will ultimately be the founding assumptions and constraints of the enterprise to which those working for it are subjected ‘vertically’ through their employment.  With community organisations, however, the shared mental model is more likely to have emerged from individuals engaging with a situation in which two-way co-creating is taking place ‘horizontally’, so that the shaping assumptions and constraints emerge from the situation itself. A potential disjunction arises between these, therefore, derived from the disjoint nature of their respective sources (i.e. founding origin versus present situation)[9].

One perspective on this potential disjunction is to be found in the inter-subjective approach used by Susan Long, which argues that these disjoint forms of subjection ultimately reflect gendered forms of identification[10]. Another perspective is to be found in writing about ‘treatment resistance’.  This form of resistance arises, for example, as a consequence of a therapist rigidly holding to procedure, as though the basis of staff authority was synonymous with the form of Thirdness appropriate to a therapeutic session, instead of working with the patient to build a shared Thirdness emerging from their working alliance in the patient’s situation[11].  The patient’s resistance is situational resistance, and it evidences this disjunction in which the therapist’s rigid holding-to-procedure constitutes counter-resistance.

Within the context of an enterprise, a similar potential disjunction may be found in the study of disruptive innovation in which values and processes are introduced that disrupt those of the existing enterprise[12]. An existing enterprise will conserve its established ways of doing things in the same way that the therapist might conserve existing ways of engaging in a therapeutic process: in conserving its own forms of Thirdness, the enterprise excludes other forms, restricting the possible forms of relationship it can sustain with potential customers. The enterprise is conserving the vertical relation to its founding assumptions and constraints (‘counter-resistance’), while ‘situational resistance’ appears on the side of the customer-client as demands for change.  The disjunction corresponds to two forms of resistance, therefore, the employees insisting on their roles and the client-customers insisting on their needs.

Counter-resistance is always on the side of the supplier-provider

Ontological assumptions are made every time a signifier-signified relation is asserted within the context of some form of Thirdness. Double subjection means that in addition to the socially recognisable forms of metonymy and metaphor through which these signifier-signified relations are organised, there are also the ontological assumptions and constraints imposed by an unconscious lexicon[13].  We can therefore approach disruptive innovation in terms of three kinds of disruption to an existing form of Thirdness that are cumulative in their effects:

  • First comes a breakdown in a signifying relation, so that what was previously felt to be a ‘true’ signifying statement about what-is-being-experienced is no longer experienced as true.
  • Second comes inter-subjective disruption, in which what was previously felt to be a shared organisation of relationships between signifiers defining an inter-subjective space is no longer experienced as shared, thus changing what is felt to be true.

From the supply-side perspective of an existing form of Thirdness, to avoid such disruptions would be to avoid errors of  ‘correspondence’ and ‘coherence/consistency’ respectively[14], which would constitute the ‘conscious’ errors in unintentional errors and unconscious valency.  The third kind of disruption is the one that leads to existential anxiety, the avoidance of which would be to avoid the third kind of ‘decidability’ error, corresponding to ‘unintentional’ error, in which the subject is no longer clear what-to-do in response to a demand:

  • Third comes ontological disruption, in which the unconscious lexicon of object-relating behaviours is invalidated in some way. This third form of disruption is to the kinds of entity that constitute the underlying world itself, to the kinds of interaction these entities have among themselves and to how the entities and their interaction modes change as a result of these interactions[2]. It is this form of disruption that is most associated with existential anxiety because it leads to the feeling of ‘not knowing where to start’.[15]

What happens when disruptive innovation challenges an individual’s double subjection by taking them ‘outside’ their existing forms of Thirdness?  Errors of this third kind, through staying within what is consciously known, constitute unintentional errors. Such errors, in defending the subject against anxiety, resist aka conserve the subject’s identifications. While the first two of these errors may be consciously resisted through holding on to existing forms of Thirdness, resisting the third ontological disruption is most problematic because it is unconscious, disrupting the very forms of Thirdness that currently give meaning. Defenses against anxiety thus constitute counter-resistance, and the forms they take include repression, exclusion, expulsion and attacks against other forms of Thirdness on the basis of their political in-correctness![16]

What is the alternative response to ontological disruption?  By adopting an ethic that we can see modeled in the pursuit of extreme sports: to engage in the work of mastering a medium through mastering fear. What is at stake in situational resistance is courage.[17]

[1] Social defenses against anxiety emphasise the use of such Thirdness as a container. The emerging difficulties with this understanding of the organisation of an enterprise are described in what is happening to boundaries, authority and containment?. An account of how these defenses arise is given in Getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of Thirdness as an effect of unconscious valency. This understanding of organisation considers resistance on the side of the supplier-provider through its conservation of identity, contrasting this supply-side resistance with demand-side situational resistance. See Situational Resistance: challenges to the supply-side conservation of identity. Identifying ‘true’ resistance with the demand-side in this way renders supply-side resistance as counter-resistance.
[2] Lane, D. A. and R. R. Maxfield (2005). “Ontological uncertainty and innovation.” Journal of Evolutionary Economics 15.
[3] Foss, N. J. and P. G. Klein (2012). Organizing Entrepreneurial Judgement: A New Approach to the Firm, Cambridge University Press.
[4] Emery, F. E. and E. Trist (1965). “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments.” Human Relations 18: 21-32.
[5] Hagel III, J. and J. Seely Brown (2005). The Only Sustainable Edge: Why Business Strategy Depends on Productive Friction and Dynamic Specialization. Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press.
[6] Boxer, P. J. (2013a). Leading organisations without boundaries: ‘quantum’ organisation and the work of making meaning. ISPSO Conference. Oxford, UK.
[7] Long, S. (2006). “Organizational Defenses Against Anxiety: What Has Happened Since the 1995 Jaques Paper?” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies 3(4): 279-295. p285
[8] Described further in Thirdness, also see Murphey, M. G. (1993). The Development of Peirce’s Philosophy, Hackett Publishing Company. and Benjamin, J. (2009). “A relational psychoanalysis perspective on the necessity of acknowledging failure in order to restore the facilitating and containing features of the intersubjective relationship (the shared third).” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 90: 441-450.
[9] This is the third dilemma of affiliation versus alliance – see the diasporic way.
[10] Benjamin, J. (1988). The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination. New York, Pantheon Books.  I take up this issue of gender in THE environment does not ex-sist.
[11] Muller, J. (2011). Why the pair needs the third. Treatment Resistance and Patient Authority: The Austen Riggs Reader. New York, Norton Press: 97-120.p98.
[12] Christensen, C. M. and M. Overdorf (2000). “Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change.” Harvard Business Review(March-April).
[13] This unconscious lexicon is the . -complex of unconscious valencies through which conscious constructions are constrained by processes of unconscious symbolic equation. See getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of Thirdness as an effect of unconscious valency
[14] Judging errors from within a particular form of Thirdness, like conducting science from within a particular paradigm, is to define ‘error’ from within an existing form of discursive practice – see what is happening to ‘boundaries, ‘authority’ and ‘containment’? –   but not from the place of the disruptor.
[15] It is this kind of disruption that is associated with paradigm change, resistance to which is through the pursuit of degenerative research programmes. See also Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago. and Lakatos, I. (1970). Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes. Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 91-196.
[16] See footnotes [1] and [2] in getting caught ‘inside’ particular forms of Thirdness as an effect of unconscious valency. The success of these forms of counter-resistance transform turbulent environments into vortical environments – see must we fall into the vortex?
[17] An insight into what this is about in the context of climbing is to be found in ‘Extreme Alpinism: climbing light, fast and high’. By Mark F. Twight and James Martin. The Mountaineers: Seattle 1999 “Mark has climbed with many of the world’s best alpinists. During his apprenticeship he learned the open secret that at the edge of the possible, the rules and techniques of climbing become quite different from the nostrums aimed at beginners. Mark and his partners have tested the conventional wisdom and modified if when they found it wanting.” and “To climb through fear, to point fear up instead of down, you need to maintain the desire and strength, the will and discipline, to go until the end of the pitch. If you are scared, reinforce your confidence by biting off what you know you can chew. Successfully swallowing it will encourage you to take another bite, another pitch. Try to keep sight of the long view. Any time your mind can accept a bigger bite, go for the top in one big gulp. Preserve your drive. Don’t sketch around or get psyched out or consider lowering off to relinquish the lead. Trust in your skill, and give yourself up to the action.