Balancing normative and ‘edge’ roles in turbulent environments


We return now to the issues raised by the first blog in this series: what is involved in the doubling of the Harold Bridger’s double task (Bridger 1990)?[1] In order to compete effectively in turbulent environments, a corporation must be able to surrender sovereignty in the way it relates to its customers’ contexts-of-use. This surrendering of sovereignty is necessary if the way in which the corporation creates and captures value in relation to any one customer’s context-of-use has to be particular to that customer relationship (Boxer 2014). This faces the person(s) directly responsible for that relationship with a doubling of their double task(s), a doubling in which they must be able both to create the organizational context within which value can be created and captured for that customer, and be able also to then execute the roles defined by that organizational context. The challenge presented by these turbulent environments is that this doubling of double tasks has to be scaled across the multiple customer relationships of a corporation.

An example of this challenge arises where the safety of the customer is of concern in the clinical relationships supported by a healthcare system. ‘Safety I’ can be defined as the absence of failure to follow existing policies and practices according to normative role definitions aka ‘doing things right’. Suzette Woodward distinguished this from ‘Safety II’, defined as “the ability to succeed under varying conditions so that the number of intended and acceptable outcomes is as high as possible” (Woodward 2020: p43) aka ‘doing the right thing’.[2]  Safety II includes the double task considerations of Safety I, but requires the role to be understood as an edge role in which there is a doubling of these double task considerations: the Safety I considerations have to be derived from how Safety II is to be achieved.[3]

The previous four blogs[4] have been exploring why socio-technical open-systems thinking is not sufficient to make sense of what it means to ‘surrender sovereignty’ in this doubling of the double task.  The blogs have argued that corporations must instead be thought of as living systems in which adaptation becomes a general property of the corporation.  For this to be possible when facing a turbulent environment, the roles of a corporation have to acquire ‘edge role’ characteristics. This blog explores what this means and what kind of challenge ‘edge roles’ present, a challenge to the relationship to governance as an external authority.

Corporations as living systems

The distinguishing characteristic of corporations as living systems is their ability to take up a particular way of being in relation to three asymmetries:

  1. An ontic asymmetry between the technologies available to a corporation and the uses to which those technologies are put in its products and services.
  2. An epistemic asymmetry between the way the corporation is organized and the solutions made available to its customers through the way it makes meaning.
  3. A relational asymmetry between the way the corporation defines its products and services and the way customers actually experience the use of its products and services within their contexts of use.

A corporation thought of as a socio-technical open system is defined only in terms of the first two asymmetries, the third asymmetry being implicit in the way its external governance imposes a relationship between the first two.  Socio-technical open systems deal with the relational complexity arising from the third asymmetry by means of the Faustian Pact its leadership makes with its employees.  This Pact says to the employee: perform in terms of the accountability criteria that we have defined normatively for your role, and so long as you meet those criteria, you can do whatever you need to do to satisfy the customer’s expectations, whatever you do remaining your concern alone.

This kind of contractual relation is the hallmark of a professional role, a relation that can range from being highly abusive of the individual all the way through to paying huge bonuses (both extremes leading to burn-out). It is apparent in professional roles such as those of bankers, lawyers, architects, doctors, nurses, salesmen, installers, designers and entrepreneurs. In each case, the critical understanding needed of the particular nature of the customer’s, client’s or patient’s context-of-use is left to the individual. This Faustian Pact extends to the relation between Governments and Corporations, the effect at that level being that what happens within the citizen’s context-of-use continues to remain the concern of the citizen-individual alone.[5]

Under these conditions of employment, it is the individual who seeks to be adaptive, in effect building personal equity from what is learnt.[6] The problem created for the corporation (and government) by this Faustian Pact, however, is that its leadership has no way of learning what the employee or subcontractor is learning about the situation of the customer. Not only that, but it also enables leadership to turn a blind eye to what forms of collaborative organization are needed to address opportunities requiring a span-of-complexity greater than that of individuals.[7]

This limitation confronting the external governance of a socio-technical open system becomes apparent with the doubling of the double task[8]. The ‘edge role’ characteristics of a role emerging with this doubling of the double task mean that the role of the corporation too is questioned (Boxer and Eigen 2005).  It is the point at which the effects of a strategy ceiling have to be confronted, the ceiling above which it is currently none of the individual’s business to question leadership’s assumptions. The Faustian Pact is thus the necessary means of keeping a strategy ceiling in place (Boxer and Wensley 1996).

The example of the TEF framework

Figure 1 shows the Transforming Experience Framework (TEF) that uses socio-technical open systems thinking (Long 2016). The approach centers on what we are referring to as a normative role, defined as the overlap between the experiences of being a person, being in a system and being in context. The definition of role here is normative because its existence is to serve the purpose of the system as defined by its leadership.[9] To the extent that this purpose is dynamic, the TEF framework approaches this in terms of adaptive leadership and followership that is external to the definition of role itself:

Figure 1: Adapted from The Transforming Experience Framework (TEF) (Long 2016: figure 1.1, p5)

The experiential/existential framing of the overlapping experience of person, system and context is described by the TEF in terms of the experience of connectedness and source. This connectedness may be approached ‘inside-out’ or ‘outside-in’:

“The TEF framework centres round role because it is within roles that decisions can be made and actions taken. Persons take up roles and act from within their constraints – both explicit and tacit or implicit. However, the traditional egocentric way of seeing persons at the centre of all things can be challenged through the framework. The challenge comes from looking not from the “inside out” (person to group), but from the “outside in” (seeing the group and context first).”(Long 2016: p5)

The definition of the source of this connectedness is that from which connectedness originates or can be obtained, by means of which energy or a particular component enters a system. In considering the source of this connectedness, the TEF description goes on to say:

“In terms of spiritual source, God, a deity, or even natural forces (e.g., Gaia) may be the source. In more secular terms, source may come from an overall purpose beyond individual egos – a communal purpose or a historical, cultural dynamic.” (Long 2016: p9)

The reference to integral theory in Figure 1 thus adds the ‘individual-collective’ distinction to the ‘inside-outside’ distinction, spanning all four of Ken Wilber’s quadrants[10].
What this TEF framework does is to place the sovereignty of the system as external to the system as experienced by the role, the exercise of that sovereignty being identified with the “adaptive leadership and followership” in Figure 1.  If we want to think of the system as ‘living’, therefore, so that the place of adaptation becomes a general property of the system itself, we need to make all three asymmetries part of how the system itself is understood. This leads to a different understanding of ‘leadership’ as needing to be defined in relation to the desire of the system rather than to that of its leader (Boxer 1998).

Adopting a living system approach

We can think of a corporation as a living system by identifying the three circles in Figure 1 with the three asymmetries, as show in Figure 2 and Table 1. This allows us to hold the distinction between the normative role of serving the purpose of the system and the edge role of exercising adaptive leadership and followership as both being part of how the experience of role is understood:

Figure 2: A modified TEF centered on the system per se as a living system

This extends the three-way distinction between person, system and context to add what is on either side of the ‘cut’ in each case[11]:

  • Person – the epistemic asymmetry between a particular (localized) way of embodying and a (non-localized) way of espousing, corresponding to the distinction between a theory-in-use as distinct from an espoused theory.
  • System – the ontic asymmetry between particular ways of behaving (decoding) and the available ways of structuring the relationships between behaviors (encoding), corresponding to the distinction between bottom-up and top-down definitions of behavior.
  • Context – the relational asymmetry between an organization defined by its own particular dynamics (the thing itself) and a structural-coupling with an ecosystemic context defined by multiple interacting entities (relationship to environment). Here the correspondence is with the distinction between the affiliative culture of an organization and an alliance formed around the situation of the customer.

Table 1 lists what is on either side of each ‘cut’ using the ‘up’ and ‘down’ arrows. The doubling of the double task is most apparent here in the context ‘cut’: while the context in which the normative role is defined is ‘the thing itself’, the context in which the corporation is taking up a role is the relationship to the environment.

Table 1: The three asymmetries held in relation to each other by the corporation as a living system

On the basis of these three asymmetries, we can relate each of the four causes to ways of describing a corporation in terms of its capabilities (the ‘what’ material cause), operations(the ‘who-for-whom’ efficient cause), organization (the ‘how’ formal cause) and strategy (the ‘why’ final cause), each cause corresponding to a corner of the quadripod shown in Figure 3[12]. (‘What’, ‘how’, ‘who/m’ and ‘why’ are used as shorthand references to the four causes.) Table 2 shows how the distinctions in Table 1 are applied to each of the causes:

Table 2: The quadripod for the corporation as a living system

Figure 3 shows the quadripod at the core of Figure 2 without the three asymmetries (hence the ‘up’ and ‘down’ arrows). The red normative Role1 is the relation of formal-cause Organization (the ‘how’) to material-cause Capabilities (the ‘what’), specific to the way the corporation is defined as a distinct entity. The green Edge Role2 becomes the relation of efficient-cause Operations (the ‘who/m’) to final-cause Strategy (the ‘why’), specific to the value-creating relation being engendered between the corporation and its environments. The blue thick arrows between the causes in Figure 3 are the dependency relations on either side of the epistemic ‘cut’ made by the Person and the orange arrows are the dependency relations across this ‘cut’.

The direction of the arrows between the causes indicate how they are dependent. Organization is dependent on both Operations and Capabilities, and Operations are dependent on both Capabilities and Strategy. In contrast, Strategy is dependent only on how the Organization is defined and Capabilities are dependent only on Strategy. The normative Role1 can thus be defined wholly in terms of accountabilities and responsibilities ‘internal’ to the corporation, while the Edge Role2 must be defined by the way it anticipates the direct and indirect effects of the corporation’s behaviors within the environments with which the corporation is seeking to create and capture value:

Figure 3: The quadripod for the corporation as a living system

Here, then, is a way of describing the tension between the normative and edge definitions of a role as a general property of all roles defined by a corporation that is competing within a turbulent environment. At the level of the individual thinking about their role, ‘person’, ‘system’ and ‘context’ become the three views of the quadripod, ‘person’ representing an architectural view holding the epistemic constant, ‘system’ representing the internalist view holding the relational constant, and ‘context’ representing the externalist view holding the ontic constant. The doubling of the double task thus involves relating these different views across different individuals. Whether or not this is possible, enabling both roles to be adaptive, depends on the strategy ceiling of the corporation[13]. The next blog addresses the way different levels of strategy ceiling reflect different ways of establishing the relationship to governance to an external authority.


[1] This will involve making a structural distinction between a normative role and an ‘edge role’ – while the normative role presents the individual with Harold Bridger’s double task of holding the tension between the personal and the normative role (Bridger 1990), the ‘edge role’ doubles this double task in also having to hold the tension between the interests of the organization per se and those of its customers.
[2] The issue of when ‘doing things right’ is not ‘doing the right thing’ is pursued further in the Ethical Dilemmas blog.
[3] Safety II involves minimizing errors of intent (not understanding what is needed aka wrongly diagnosing a problem), while given a diagnosis, Safety I involves avoiding errors of execution (doing things wrong) or errors of planning (combining the wrong things) on the basis of that diagnosis. See (Boxer 2018; Reason 1990; Committee on Quality of Health Care in America 2001)
[4] (i) going beyond 2nd epoch socio-technical open-systems thinking, (ii) what might it mean to ‘surrender sovereignty’ using biological metaphors?, (iii) The three asymmetries necessary to describing agency in living biological systems, and (iv) Triple articulation and the quadripod of a living system identity.
[5] The limitations inherent to using votes as the only way to influence how a Government uses Corporations is one of the reasons why democracy falls into disrepute.
[6] By ‘personal equity’ I hear mean know-how accumulated from experience that may or may not be of value to others.  For example, in the case of doctors it may lead to improved reputation and potentially higher forms of remuneration, whereas for the nurse, while it may greatly add value in the life of a patient, in may well not.  This brings us back to the issues that surround the use-value x exchange-value dialectic and how this relation differs on either side of the production x consumption dialectic.  See ‘The dialectics implied by the Q-sectors’.
[7] This problem becomes particularly acute in the role of prime contractors delivering complex systems of systems that, in order to be useful when deployed, have to be able to interoperate collaboratively with other systems of systems ‘in the wild’ (Boxer 2012).
[8] This doubling of the double task is not only an issue at large scales but impinges even at the level of the individual, being one of the disruptive effects of social media (Boxer 2013).
[9] Organizational Role Analysis (ORA) (Reed 1976) contrasts the ‘normative’ role (the point of view of what ‘ought’ to be, defined in terms of accountabilities and responsibilities within a system with its roles and boundaries) with the ‘existential’ role (the way a role holder experiences the role itself) and the ‘phenomenological’ role (in which the role is described from the point of view of the proverbial fly-on-the-wall).  ORA thus explores how an individual experiences a ‘normative’ role and how that role is ‘performed’ in practice.
[10] The resultant four quadrants of Interior-Individual/Intentional, Exterior-Individual/Behavioral, Interior-Collective/Cultural and Exterior-Collective/Social being defined as a comprehensive approach to reality at any level of definition of entity (Wilber 1983). As such it appears based on an implicit relational ‘cut’ that separates out that ‘entity’ with its circular causality that is the characteristic of the internalist view.
[11] These ways of defining the three asymmetries are those described as dilemmas of ignorance in (Boxer 1999).
[12] Note here that the way the word ‘strategy’ is being used is not in the commercial sense of achieving a major or overall aim, but in the military sense of achieving the object of war (von Clausewitz 1968[1832]: p241). Strategy is thus not defined here in terms of outcomes but in terms of direct and indirect effects within the customer’s context of use. ‘Operations’ is also used here in the military sense to describe the means of achieving particular aims – what is typically referred to commercially as tactics.
[13] The presence of a strategy ceiling may also be understood as the basis of counter-resistance to the efforts by edge-role holders to do ‘more’ for the customer.  Under these conditions it is the customers and their advocates that are resisting while counter-resistance seeks to conserve existing ways of doing things. See (Boxer 2017). This counter-resistance, based on the assumptions remaining implicit above the strategy ceiling, form the basis of the way authority is exercised by a corporation’s sponsoring system, including whether or not its exercise is understood as being ‘external’.


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