Theories and Philosophies: Are They of Any Use?

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- 4 min read

There’s a couple of books on my nightstand that I’ve started, but not yet finished. Almost all books are about organizational development, happiness at work or social developments.

Next to these books, there’s a large number of articles which come in from various channels and that would easily take a full week to get through. Information, theories and philosophies abound, but does it actually help us to progress?


The books I read often give a perfect analysis of the current developments in organizations and even provide an approach on how to do it differently. But not every book goes back to the ‘Why’ question. For example, why do we nowadays have different job expectations? One philosophy I would like to share with you. I want to share it because it goes back to the patterns that underlie the changes. It’s about the ideas that Wim van Dinten wrote down in 2002 on the different ways of how people give meaning to their lives and how this determines their behaviours and judgements. He differentiates four ways of giving meaning. Every person has one or two dominant perspectives:

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Since I learned more about meaning I recognize the above mentioned perspectives more often. How that one inhabitant decides that the tree needs to be removed from the street because he is bothered by it (self-referential). And how his neighbour wants to consult with the other neighbours to get to a joint decision (social). How the other neighbour directly checks the municipality’s rules and regulations (rational) and yet another neighbour feels he has no right to speak in this matter, as that tree has been there 400 years longer than him (evolutionary).

Organizational development

In our society, the same patterns are visible. Back in the day people mainly assumed things were ‘how they are supposed to be’ (social). After WWII the hippy scene (evolutionary) was upcoming while friends and colleagues from my generation are mainly ‘looking for themselves’ (self-referential). Even though it’s not this black-and-white, the patterns are visible. At municipality Borne we are searching for how meaning can help us to do our job for the inhabitants. So not just from our comfortable rational perspective (rules, procedures, systems), but also from the perspective of the context and the inhabitants. These different ways of organizing long for people who also look at Borne’s community in such a way.

Search for happiness at work

Even though meaning should not, according to Van Dinten, be used to label people or phenomena, it is of course quite interesting to shine this light on this search for happiness at work. I mainly see the evolutionary meaning being dominant here. Seeing change as an opportunity, sharing through blogging, an open mind to what’s going on in the world. I also saw this in Perry’s blog post, in which he brings up Ubuntu (I am, because we are) when he writes about the search of Pim and Joost. But I also see the self-referential perspective in the search. It’s also about you and me and our personal happiness at work.

Are we making things too complicated?

Let’s go back to the question I asked in the beginning: do such theories help us to progress? Doesn’t it make stuff too difficult? Last week I read a Dutch piece by Ben Tiggelaar on the biggest frustration of change management expert John Kotter. His message? Don’t overcomplicate change.

Complicated models and theories can’t ever capture the complexity, so keep it clear and simple. No, I don’t believe in models or blueprints that outline the solution for organizational change. When it comes to those kind of theories, I agree wholeheartedly with Kotter. But for meaning this is different to me. It provides a framework to start the conversation. It helps to slightly better understand that fanatic inhabitant, that grumbling colleague or that friend with whom you don’t always agree. It helps to listen with empathy to another person and to discuss our needs and the way we look at the world. Without judgement, but with the realization that we are all different. And that this is of added value to every organization. What are your thoughts on this?

Anouk Mannessen is working for the municipality Borne. She deals with the organizational development of the municipality Borne towards a directing network society. Besides that she focuses on the improvement of services, information policies and new ways of working at the Twente government. As guest blogger she updates us regularly on the development of Borne.

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