Reflexive Practice

Kent C. Myers; Thomas W. Cuddy

Rapid social change requires that major institutions adapt. Management professionals who are called in to help presumably know what to do, but in fact their typical ways of working are anachronistic. Many professionals tacitly assume stability and a level of knowledge that no longer exists. They devise change programs that, while consistent with cultural expectations and professional standards, are flawed from the start and may actually reduce institutional capacity to adapt. Their practices and culture were developed for a different time and are ill-suited to fluid and highly interconnected situations. The very people who are relied upon for adaptive solutions are preventing what they should be providing. Weaknesses of four familiar patterns of professional thinking are reviewed. Each puts society at risk: a rational pattern locks in optimal solutions that rapidly become obsolete a focused pattern is blind to reconfiguration options and the influence of external relationships a principled pattern fails to apprehend and develop the unique opportunities of a situation a interested pattern undercuts common interests that are already imperiled An ominous feature of these at-risk patterns is the lack of awareness of limitations or of how the professional is included within the problematic situations to be addressed. A different pattern is described reflexive practice that takes turbulence seriously and does not make convenient, traditional, and incorrect assumptions about stability, certainty, and the capacity of the professional for insight, foresight, and separation from the problem. These practitioners promote adaptive strategies appropriate for turbulent situations. Distinguishing features of these strategies include rapid generation and pruning of options, building capacity and readiness for continuous modification and reconfiguration, a greater comprehension of external changes, and reliance on mutual interaction through networks across boundaries. Examples of reflexive practice, and the contrasting failures of at-risk practices, are traced through domains where the need for adaptation is acute in national security, economics, energy, and environment. Personal characteristics and education of the reflexive practitioner are examined in greater detail. A simple survey of guests on C-SPAN illustrates the prevalence of the various types and their difference. Reflexive practice is the most appropriate pattern for thinking and action for management professionals under current conditions, and in particular when devising responses to global threats. The thinking pattern remains fallible, however, and will often violate standards and appear weak in comparison with other types. This condition will persist until professional cultures themselves become adapted to the times.

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