Friday, 26 August 2016

On "Being Unable to Continue": The Dynamics of Personal and Organisational Crisis

At some point, each of us will be unable to continue. Unfortunately, the moment does not always occur when we are in our 90s. In each case, the coroner's report details a 'cause' of death. As as result of the identification of these 'causes' of death, health programmes ramp themselves up, trying to eliminate each cause in turn: we have programmes to eliminate cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and so on.

Human biographies tell a different story about 'causes' of death. Medical science sometimes appears to want to write a biography simply as the ontogeny and pathology of a tumour, ignoring the ontogeny of the person. If we look at the biography of the person, then the moment of crisis - of Being Unable to Continue - is a moment of alignment of many constraints, of which the tumour, the heart, the diabetes, or even the irritable bowel syndrome are single factors. Alongside them is the economic hardship, the depression, the cruelty of others, losing one's job, addiction, divorce, grief and disempowerment. Being Unable to Continue occurs in any stage of life. It can lead to suicide in middle age or to the alienation which leads young people to radical groups for whom they might pledge to die in acts of violence.

In a less extreme way, Being Unable to Continue also occurs in creative work. It happens when we get stuck, when an idea which seemed so promising and exciting is left with nowhere to go. I think this aspect of Being Unable to Continue offers opportunities to study the dynamics of constraint which lie behind the crisis. These dynamics are important not just in studying individuals: organisations too have moments of crisis when they too are unable to continue: when something occurs which produces breakdown in their operations.

The causal model which seeks to identify the factors behind Being Unable to Continue is, I think, mistaken. Actions taken in the light of this kind of analysis can make the problem worse, because it introduces new constraints. What I think occurs is that the moment of Being Unable to Continue is a moment of alignment of constraints. When we are able to continue, we manage to find ways of avoiding the pathological alignment of constraints. Being Unable to Continue is a failure to maintain a vibrant counterpoint of constraint.

It is very much like counterpoint in music. In musical counterpoint, there are many descriptions of the different layers which cross each other. Each layer constrains every other, and constrains itself. From an Information Theory perspective, this constraint can be seen as the redundancy of each layer, or each description. In simple contrapuntal textures, one part may have much redundancy (for example, a repeated pattern), whilst others will have much less. As time flows, each description develops, exchanging fluctuating patterns of redundancy. The end of a piece is often the moment when the varied redundancy of multiple descriptions collapses into one, or all the possible redundancies of the different descriptions align. Interestingly, this also occurs when there are moments of transformation or climax in music.

Being Unable to Continue a counterpoint is to be unable to formulate a description which can complement the alignment of other descriptions. It occurs when the alignment of other descriptions simply exhausts the creative capacity necessary to do this. It can be avoided with the intervention of someone else who understands the nature of the crisis and the constraint dynamics and is able to intervene in such a way as to produce more possibilities for a countervailing description. In fact, their intervention changes the redundancy/constraint situation by transforming the environment such that the maximum entropy is increased (ok - that needs unpacking... but that's another post)


Scott said...

Its at the breaking point when radical change is possible, whether as an individual or organisation, provided they have the mental energy to do so. Maybe thats one of the key attributes of a crisis - does it trigger defeat, or transformation?

Mark Johnson said...

Yes, although wishing for radical change is also a constraint - be careful what you wish for! Transformation and death/defeat may be the same thing - so perhaps it's all transformation at some level. For the individual the key issue is mental energy. In a personal crisis that requires another person.