Strategy Execution Summit 2013: Ducks, Rabbits and Wittgenstein

In 1947, in the final years of his life when he resolved to give up lecturing at Cambridge University, the philosopher Wittgenstein introduced a theme which would come to occupy him for the next two years. In his final lectures he introduced the famous duck/ rabbit illusion, an image which allowed Wittgenstein to discuss the act of seeing.


In my previous article I discussed Goethe’s way of seeing, and it is this way of seeing which so influenced Wittgenstein. He described the phenomena as “seeing-as” – i.e. first you see the image as a duck, and then you see the image as a rabbit. But in a comment to his friend Drury, a complete explanation of this phenomena was in no way easy to arrive at. “Now you try and say what is involved in seeing something as something. It is not easy.”

On Transition Consciousness I have been writing up my explorations of both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hans-Georg Gadamer (see Key Articles for links to the articles) and it is interesting how they arrived at very different conceptualisations of language. Gadamer (in my reading of Gadamer) seemed to be saying that our thoughts and concepts of reality are limited by reality, but Wittgenstein appears to want to go far beyond language (and logic also) to draw our attention to a way of seeing which can only be experienced, and which we can not talk about (say) but we can draw attention to (show). Wittgenstein developed what he called ‘language games’ in order to explain ‘the kind of understanding that consists in seeing connections.’

David Norton and Robert Kaplan

David Norton and Robert Kaplan

In relation to complexity, innovation and strategy, it is this ‘seeing connections’ which interests me so greatly, and at the Strategy Execution Summit this year we saw many different examples of this. Probably the most important example came from Robert Kaplan and David Norton, who discussed the need for organisations to be able to understand how to measure intangible assets as well as financial assets. Having developed the Balanced Scorecard, and introduced it in their 1992 classic paper The Balanced Scorecard: Measures That Drive Performance, they then went on to develop Strategic Maps, an example of which comes from Volkswagen Brasil:

Credit: Robert Kaplan and David Norton

Credit: Robert Kaplan and David Norton

There is a huge element of ‘duck-rabbit’ in a chart such as this, especially when you consider that this is the result of many different members’ attempts to articulate their ‘seeing connections’. In a large organisation, either private or public, profit making or NGO, one of the greatest challenges is to align people’s seeing, developing coherence across departments, units and less-formal silos. At the summit there were a large number of case studies of how organisations had achieved this coherence, and of course the use of a tool such as a strategic map, and the process through which people go through in order to develop it, is vital. As Kaplan and Norton said in their presentation, the Balanced Scorecard methodology was used for the city of Barcelona, and those taking part in the process experienced a personal transformation. I would hazard a guess that in some respect, their “seeing-as” evolved and transformed. here in Brazil, it has also been used extensively by many Federal Government departments and municipalities, such as in Porto Alegre in the preparation for the World Cup in 2014.

Izabel Christina Cotta Matte, Prefeitura (Mayor's Office) de Porto Alegre

Izabel Christina Cotta Matte, Prefeitura (Mayor’s Office) de Porto Alegre

If we are mindful of our thinking and seeing, and are aware of seeing-as as a phenomena, we can catalyse the process of transformation. However, if we are rigid in our thinking, and unwilling to transform and develop and learn, the process will be painful.

Credit: Brian Robertson

Credit: Brian Robertson

One final observation I would like to make, which also builds on my previous article, is that our business strategies, and also the way in which we construct our organisations, can be inspired by organic and living systems. This is the innovative approach taken by the organisation HolacracyOne, who have developed the concept of Holacracy which they describe as the organisation’s ‘operating system’. In his excellent article What’s Wrong With Your Organizational Structure? Brian Robinson draws our attention to the three different structures of an organisation and really brings out the need to develop a dynamic way of seeing in employees:

We could say we’re sensing a gap between the extant structure (what is), and the requisite structure (what could be). When we process a tension through governance, we thus end up evolving the formal structure to be more requisite – we evolve the explicitly-captured details of who does what and the authorities and expectations at play, so they reflect a more ideal state. So while we do have a formally-captured structure in Holacracy, is it continually being refined and modified in response to tensions sensed by individuals as they go about their daily work, to reflect our best understanding of how we need to organize to most effectively get the work done.

To work in an organisation structured by Holarcracy is to therefore experience a continual evolution in processes.

Credit: Brian Robinson

Credit: Brian Robinson

In a Holacracy-powered organization, people do refer to their and others’ job descriptions regularly, sometimes on a daily basis—because they contain relevant, accurate, and useful clarity on what makes sense to do and expect. The way we actually work together (the extant structure) more closely reflects the formal structure at play, which more closely reflects what’s requisite – these three structures collapse and become one and the same. At least, for a time – but then another tension is sensed, and this evolutionary process must continue.

In discussing the future for Balanced Scorecard, Robert Kaplan noted how there is now far more use of co-creation in the development of strategies, in order to both build consensus and secure commitment. Dialogue and communication skills in our present and future leaders is therefore vital, but for me I see the dynamic way of seeing as intimately connected with language, how we express ourselves, and how we envisage our world.

I don’t know if Gadamer and Wittgenstein would have found any common ground to discuss phenomenology, hermeneutics and language were they to have ever met (and what a meeting that would have been) but one thing I know. Through studying philosophy, not just intellectually, but in a way in which leads us towards a deeper way of seeing, and a richer understanding of language, then that will help those of us who take up roles of leadership in society to help in the transformation, to one of less conflict, and more consensus and commitment, as all of us, in all our countries, have a huge amount of work yet to do to help our own organisations and communities.


David Monk (1990) Ludwig Wittgenstein – The Duty of Genius

Related Articles

Strategy Execution Summit 2013: Customer Experience, Lived Experience and Seeing the Whole System

Strategy Execution Summit 2013 Day One: The Transition of Business

Strategy Execution Summit 2013 Day Two: The Transformative Learning Journey

Holacracy – A New Operating System for Organisations – Who they are, what do they do, and why they are interesting

One response to “Strategy Execution Summit 2013: Ducks, Rabbits and Wittgenstein

  1. Pingback: What can Gadamer and Wittgenstein teach us about Big Data? | Transition Consciousness·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s