The context determines what is possible

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The context determines what is possible
September 27, 2017 Patrizia Patz

Why new management or leadership tools are often ineffective

Many companies and organizations find themselves at a point right now, where familiar methods, which used to work well in the past, happen to not work anymore with the same effect. The world is changing rapidly and companies and organizations are often lagging behind, because they are not able to react fast enough to these changes. And perhaps you have already tried out new methods within your organization and therefore have gone through trainings and change processes – but with only little effect? Why is this happening quite often?

There is one important influencing parameter, which we usually forget to consider: the context. The context is the environment in which a system is embedded. The system behaves according to the influences of the context. The context like this determines typical (behaviour) patterns within the system. It also creates a certain correlation between the individual components of the system. Therefore the same component can have a totally different meaning in a different context.

Let’s look at an example: the ecosystem “forest”. This system is influenced by certain parameters, which combined build the context this system is embedded in. The parameters of the context in this case are e.g. the quality of the soil, the water or the climate. A forest in North Western Europe for that reason looks very much different from a forest in South East Asia – according to its context.

If we now would try to transform our North West European forest into a South East Asian forest, the prevalent context would put a spoke in our wheel. The context would not allow this transformation and the plants would just perish. On the other hand we can observe right now, that along with the climate change – which can be considered as an unwanted change of the context – it becomes possible for plants from distant continents to colonise in these parts. The context determines what is possible within a system and what is not possible.

This is also valid for a cultural context. Our system “society” is embedded in a prevailing cultural context. The problem is, that we usually are not aware of this context, because the influencing parameters of a cultural context are not physically measurable factors (hardware), like the quality of the soil, water or the climate. Instead the parameters consist of “thoughtware”, as e.g. assumptions, distinctions, rules and paradigms, which are considered as given and therefore not questioned by the members of the system. It is a certain kind of world-view or a prevailing doctrine.

An organization or a company is also a system, embedded in a cultural context. For a company in the modern western world the prevailing context could be described as “patriarchal capitalism with a social welfare component”. This context contains certain rules of behaviour and certain assumptions, which are leading to typical behavior patterns in the system. The main intention of corporate action in this context is to realize profits by (nearly) any means. The welfare part in this context does not include the welfare of planet Earth!

Typical assumptions, paradigms and behavior patterns in this context are e.g.:

  • Rivalry and competition are beneficial and are good for the business – it is about fighting for market shares
  • It is about winning or losing (of resources, market shares, status) – the strongest will survive
  • The market is regulated by supply and demand
  • Human work is a quantifiable resource which has to be managed
  • Hierarchy is necessary to make people meet targets effectively
  • People in organizations have to be lead, motivated and controlled to make them work effectively


We easily can observe the results of corporate actions based on this prevailing cultural context when we take a look at the conditions of our planet and of our society. What in the past seemed to have worked well for at least a part of the members of the system, is now turning out to be a direct road into a collective downfall.

Radical and sustainable changes would be necessary to leave this path and create different results – principles as sustainability, environmental compatibility and corporate social responsibility are at the agenda. The challenge is that the cultural context protects itself. That means that the prevailing capitalistic and growth-orientated context accepts only those changes, which go along with the valid paradigms. Changes beyond that doctrine, which would invalidate these paradigms will automatically call forth neglecting forces to protect the prevailing context. Therefore, if you have ground-breaking new ideas or methods and try to apply them within the prevailing context, you’re sort of doomed to fail. The prevailing cultural context does not contain the possibility of allowing new ways of behavior.

So if companies e.g. try to bring their staff to more engagement, responsibility and initiative, providing workshops and trainings, but stay with the same hierarchical pyramid structures, which are formerly designed to keep people in line, then the prevailing context of hierarchy will not supply the necessary breeding grounds for this change.

If companies e.g. try to establish Nonviolent Communication as a tool to bring more empathy into the internal and external corporate communication, but there is still the paradigm of rivalry, competition and fighting for market shares, guess what will happen with these new communication tools?

If companies want to implement the Lean Management approach, which in itself is a new context with new ways of thinking, new tools etc., but the main intention of the company is still to make profits by any means, this change will not produce sustainable results.

In a first step it would be necessary to change the prevailing context, in which the company or the organization is embedded. This can mean, that first of all you have to become aware of the prevailing context. To do this, the following questions could be helpful:

  • What is the main intention of our company/organization? And what unconscious intentions are perhaps hidden behind that intention?
  • Why do we have the structures that we have now? Who invented them and to what purpose? What are these structures good for – what are they not good for?
  • How do we define leadership and how do we live it in this organization? Why do we use exactly this leadership model? Who implemented it and to what purpose? What is the main intention this leadership model serves? What does it promote – what does it suppress?
  • How is our perspective on the market and economy we are engaged in. What are our beliefs concerning this market/economy? Which assumptions do we follow and to what actions do they lead us?


Experience shows that many companies and organizations are not conscious about their context and cannot answer these questions at first. The context has not been consciously declared, but has developed unconsciously – on the breeding grounds of what the members of the system have been provided with by society, education and prevailing doctrines. Also the company structures were often not consciously created.

Becoming conscious about the prevailing context of a company or an organization is the first step of the transformation from an unconscious and therefore partly irresponsible organization to a conscious, responsible and adult organization, serving responsible intentions. After becoming conscious about it, the next step of this transformation would be to consciously declare a new context by asking: “Which cultural context do we as an organization want to choose? As soon as the context has been declared consciously and clearly, the soil is prepared for correspondent conscious changes of behavior.

Before you try to optimize your company/organization with new methods and tools, it is really useful to first check the context and to change it, if necessary. The context determines what is possible!

Patrizia Patz


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