I was intrigued by a couple of pages in Ian Leslie’s book on the value of “productive conflict” - which extolled a management thinker active a hundred years ago whose arguments have a powerful resonance and made me wonder how we have managed to forget the wisdom of Mary Parker Follett.
“The best disagreements, she showed the author, neither reinforce nor eradicate a difference but make something new out of it. Persuasion is a noble and necessary art and I like it when I make someone think again. But my ultimate aim is not to get you to agree with me – I want your thinking to improve my thinking; your experience to modulate and enrich my own. I want us to disagree creatively to make something new and better out of our diverse opinions that is better than either of us could have conceived of alone. That way we both win”
I had, of course, heard of Follett but Leslie’s tribute has had me exploring her writing. Interestingly, the very first essay in volume III of her Collected Papers (Dynamic Administration”) is one on “Constructive Conflict”. There is even a Mary Parker Follett Network which contains her original work – as well as commentaries on its continued relevance. One of the latter papers has a partial explanation of why she has for so long remained hidden from view
It has been hard for management studies to place Follett, historically. She was never quite forgotten, but, at the same time, the scope of her work was never fully appreciated. She was a social scientist, a practical philosopher, a lecturer- author-teacher with a surprisingly wide-ranging body of work. She was a woman.
focused on corporations, nor on factory production, like her peers, at the
height of the industrial age. Instead, she was a long-standing
manager-entrepreneur in the not-for-profit sector. She was neither an academic
(because academia would not allow her to be one) nor a consultant.
The philosophical and linguistic quality of Follett’s writing and speaking has made her work age less than that of probably any other business writer. It seems as though Follett speaks to us today very much within our own language, even after 100 years or so. This characteristic also has likely contributed to the problem of ‘placing’ her, historically
The paper then goes on to make a fascinating point -
Management science does not, as it is usually depicted, begin with Taylor and Fayol, continuing through the Human Relations movement, in the meanwhile coalescing into the classical school, and eventually diversifying into different post-classic branches. Instead, the history of management is, and has been the story of two distinct, opposing schools of thought that emerged side-by-side, at the dawn of the 20th century.
The conceptual foundations of these two parallel threads of management science were laid by two iconic, but very distinct trailblazers: Mary Follett (1868-1933), on one side, and Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) on the other. These two separate varieties of organizational philosophy have co-existed alongside each other, within management science ever since. Around the beginning of the 20th century, engineer Taylor pioneered his approach of industrial production. In 1909 this approach would be named Scientific Management. It would later evolve into command-and-control, or the dominant brand of management, which we will also call Alpha here.
Simultaneously, another, very different pioneer, a social science researcher and practitioner, Follett was fleshing out a decentralized-democratic, or Beta approach to organizing that was informed by political studies, psychology, philosophy and sociology. While Taylorism, resonated strongly in industries and corporations, early-on, and immediately gained avid followers and enemies, Follettian thinking took root somewhat more silently
Follett’s early experience was in neighbourhood (or community) work – which gave her powerful insights into democratic thinking and indeed an early little book was actually called “The New State” (1918)
False Prophets – the gurus who created modern management and why their ideas are bad for business today by James Hoopes (2003) has a positive chapter on Follett. Peter Drucker was also a great fan…