Phenomenology and Strategy Evaluation

1 Oct

In the play Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, the protagonist, Roquentin, experiences the world around him phenomenologically. Objects in the life of Roquentin do not have any innate meaning. Objects exist independently, regardless of what meaning people give to them, they are simply things. People attach meaning to the world around them but Roquentin experiences only things. The objects in the world won’t supply any form of meaning to us and so it is up to us to create meaning. Roquentin has a realisation, staring at a chestnut tree, that unless he creates meaning in his life, he will remain alienated from the world around him.

Sartre leaves Roquentin realising that he must become responsible for himself and so is free to define himself. This freedom is both the basis for individual thinking and creativity, and also the basis for problems in creating shared meaning. If we, providing you accept at least some of Sartre’s argument, supply the world with meaning, and we all have a capacity to define meaning individually, then “getting on some page”, despite using the same phrases, words and subjects is potentially a problem. These type of meaning problems can be fatal when it comes to strategy implementation, and so, need to be evaluated with a degree of phenomenological understanding.

Any form of enquiry which involves investigating an existing problem, method, strategy has some degree of a phenomenological basis. So does an investigation which involves any new discovery. The reason for this is language. When something is named, the name it is given immediately attaches some form of meaning. A single name can have many forms of meaning to many different people. For example, the name cat could invoke multiple images with numerous meanings attached. It could invoke “my cat, who I love very much” or “next door neighbour’s cat, who I can’t stand”. The names “Corbyn” and “Trump” currently invoke very strong feelings around the world. And these feelings are attached to the way an individual makes sense of the world; they are phenomenological experiences. When you are asked to evaluate how something (let’s say a strategy) has worked, you are being asked to evaluate phenomenologically. You are being asked to test the assumptions and theories which produced a strategy against the assumptions and theories of the people who delivered, managed and experienced this strategy. In other words, when one group of people agree a meaning for the word “cat”, how well and for long does this meaning endure when the word “cat” is shared outside of this group? How often does the meaning divide?

The above argument brings us to one of the key phenomenological limitations in executing a strategy effectively- Intent (see Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007 and Klein, 2007). Person A provides person B with a task. Naturally, the communication of this task involves language. Many words in this communication had a cache of potential meanings (see Croft et al, 2004). Person A and person B may have left the room assuming they had understood each other perfectly, only to find out later, when the task has gone wrong, they had attached very different meanings to key words. In one interpretation “person A had failed to communicate their intent to person B” and in another “person B had failed to deliver the task adequately”. If you are investigating the effectiveness and performance of a strategy then you need to understand it, at least to some degree, phenomenologically. To say it another way, you need to understand the limits and varied interpretations of language, objectives, procedures and processes in relation to outcomes.

Reading

Klein, G. (2007) The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work. Currency

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Croft, W. Cruse, A. (2004) Cognitive Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Sartre, J.P. Nausea (1949) Penguin

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