Acting Into the Living Present: Taking Account of Complexity and Uncertainty when Leading Consultancy Teams in International Water Projects
This thesis addresses how leaders find themselves doing something even when they don’t know what to do. It is based on my own practice as an experienced team leader and it deals with questions of action, time, identity and leadership. A classic understanding of action usually reflects an expectation of a rational means-ends relationship where actions are designed and applied by individuals to reach well-defined goals within a certain context and within a certain time. In contrast, in this thesis, I describe acting as a much more complex process, as something becoming, as a patterning of activities involving multiple actors in a continuous and complex interweaving of relationships. I describe my experience of leading a team of consultants in international development projects where I inquire into how we often find ourselves acting into uncertainty even when we are not at all sure what to do. Adopting the theory of complex responsive processes of relating, which combines insights from the complexity sciences, social psychology and process sociology, I have come to see acting in our projects as complex, unpredictable, emerging themes and patterns of dialogues between colleagues, clients and other actors, rather than as an activity undertaken by an individual such as a team leader. I do not have an outside position to acting in a project as I am fully involved in the process while this paradoxically influences me at the same time. I argue that acting is related to identity, which can be understood as a sense of self, a person’s moral self-interpretation which has a narrative structure and which is continuously being formed by (and is forming) one’s acting. I argue that my experience of our practice may be explained by the pragmatists’ understanding of acting based on actual lived experience where the means paradoxically become our ‘ends-in-view’ and vice versa, meaning that we do not just try to maintain a theoretical, future goal but move forwards towards what is practically possible, what we find useful and what makes sense in the present. Acting happens in a living present, meaning that we understand the present through our interpretation of the past as well as our expectation of the future, and we construct this living present as something that works for us when we pursue our collective aims and interests. In the process of acting, there is an arrow on time, meaning that what has been said cannot be unsaid, wherefore it is important to reflect on the perspective of ‘ends-in-view’ and to understand how acting into a situation may reveal new opportunities. The thesis contributes to knowledge within my profession as an original invitation to think differently about two aspects: first, seeing acting in a project with a much more processual, temporal and encompassing understanding where action is not located in an individual; second, understanding how acting is influenced by one’s identity, a sense of self, which is paradoxically being formed by the acting at the same time. Further, the thesis identifies sociality, being different things at the same time (Mead, 1932/2002), as a new aspect in the theory of complex responsive processes of relating (Stacey, Griffin, & Shaw, 2000), recognising its significance in the process of understanding of how novelty occurs. The thesis contributes to my practice in terms of an increased reflexivity and acceptance that a team leader cannot determine outcomes in advance; that leadership is a complex process involving many actors; and that observing ends-in-view may create new and surprising ways forward. I find that these insights can lead to an increased acceptance of how we can act under conditions of uncertainty.