80 Int. J. Strategic Change Management, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2012 Copyright © 2012

80 Int. J. Strategic Change Management, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2012

Copyright © 2012 Inderscience Enterprises Ltd.

Strategic change as creative action

Donald MacLean* and Robert MacIntosh University of Glasgow Business School, Gilbert Scott Building, Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland, UK Email: donald.macLean@glasgow.ac.uk Email: robert.macintosh@glasgow.ac.uk *Corresponding author

Abstract: This paper draws attention to a nascent stream of strategy process research in which action is seen as primarily creative, rather than rational or normative. It shows how creative action theory, which emphasises the importance of embodied expression, emergent intention and social interaction, might furnish valuable new insights into strategic change. In particular, the paper highlights the importance of considering the strategist as fully embodied, intuitive and expressive. The paper draws on a novel empirical illustration to demonstrate both the potential and challenges of using creative action to reframe our understanding of strategic change.

Keywords: strategic change; creative action; emergence; intention; action- theory.

Reference to this paper should be made as follows: MacLean, D. and MacIntosh, R. (2012) ‘Strategic change as creative action’, Int. J. Strategic Change Management, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp.80–97.

Biographical notes: Donald MacLean is a senior research fellow in the Business School at the University of Glasgow. His interests lie in novel approaches to strategic management and in inter-organisational strategy processes.

Robert MacIntosh is Professor of Strategy at the University of Glasgow. He holds a PhD in Engineering and his research interests focus on the related processes of strategy development and strategic change.

1 Introduction

Those who teach or advise on strategic change face a number of recurring questions: Is planning appropriate? If so, when and how does one deal with emergent phenomena? Who should be involved in talk and action relating to strategy and change? What, if any, roles are played by emotion and intuition? Anyone examining the literature on strategic change will encounter many answers to such questions and indeed contradictory answers have been generated through ongoing research efforts within an array of theoretical silos. This generates frustration which is often expressed in terms of two related issues – the adequacy of our theorising and the relevance of our research. This paper suggests that the adoption of a new theoretical perspective may help alleviate both sources of frustration.

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In the last two decades, senior scholars have questioned the adequacy of strategy theory and have called for a dynamic theory of strategy (see Porter, 1991) in order to better address the challenges faced by practitioners. Schendel (1992) drew attention to the growing, and unhelpful, split between content and process, Hamel and Prahalad (1996) urged us to break free of limitations of existing mindsets whilst, more recently, Mir and Watson (2000) have argued for the adoption of a constructivist orientation. Dynamic Capabilities (DC) has gathered significant attention in the literature as an approach to understanding strategic change (Teece et al., 1997), though Helfat and Peteraf (2009, p.92) argue that DC research is still ‘in its infancy’.

Alongside these concerns over the adequacy of strategy theory, there are also concerns over the relevance, or otherwise, of strategy research. We have already noted that the field is still viewed as relatively young and in the comparatively recent past, scholars believed that our collective research endeavours would eventually lead to general principles of organisation (Barnard, 1976). Some continue to argue in favour of a unitary view for the field (Pfeffer, 1993) or for general causal theories (Donaldson, 2003), whilst others have argued that our theories generate rather than describe reality (Van Maanen, 1995). As a result, the relationship between practitioners and researchers is itself a subject of study (Beech et al., 2010) and there is a crisis of self-confidence over its ability to develop valid knowledge of relevance to practitioners (Tsoukas and Knudsen, 2003, p.5).

Growing concern with the relevance of management research is manifest as a stream of ruminative pieces in the literature which bemoan the fact that what we do as researchers seems increasingly unlikely to inform what they do in practice. Bartunek (2011, p.557) still finds room for optimism on the basis that new journals are appearing which attempt to bridge research and practice and produce more actionable knowledge (Argyris, 2003). Indeed, special issues on relevance remain a feature of established journals (see Organization Studies, Vol. 31, No. 9). The term actionable knowledge draws to mind Pfeffer and Sutton’s (1999) ‘knowing-doing gap’ and the implied difficulties in terms of planning and executing. In arguing the case for an ‘organic theory’ of strategy, Farjoun (2002) recently characterised the design school’s ‘sub-process’ of implementation as “… a series of primarily administrative activities (which) … includes the design of organisational structures and processes, and the absorption of policy into the organisation’s structure”. Even allowing for the academic tone of this description, implementation here sounds somewhat cerebral. This is execution without action.

To address these twin concerns, we start with the concept of action. We will argue that the adoption of a new view of action in strategic change might better equip us when theorising. Moreover, we suggest that the ‘knowing-doing gap’ is not so much a symptom of implementation failure as a symptom of a Cartesian worldview which insists on seeing experience as the polarisation of knowledge and action. As such the term may be a source, rather than a symptom of current difficulties; our paper adopts an epistemology of action where knowing and doing are seen as the same process (Cook and Seely-Brown, 1999).

The aim of the paper is to show that the adoption of a creative action perspective on strategic change offers new insights when examining the sources of new, unexpected strategic behaviour. In the remainder of the paper, we begin by establishing a relatively

82 D. MacLean and R. MacIntosh

unfamiliar and somewhat radical philosophical platform from which to consider strategic change. The paper then presents three different views of action in strategy: rational, normative and creative. We elaborate our view of strategic change as creative action and illustrate the application of this theory before going on to evaluate its ability to deliver adequate and relevant strategy theory. Finally, the paper considers the implications of creative action theory for strategy process research.

2 Philosophical context

We begin the paper by laying out key aspects of the ontological and epistemological terrain in which our case is developed. This is important since many of the claims made later in the paper are rooted in, and should be understood in terms of, a worldview in which the Cartesian notion of thought-driven action does not hold, and the Newtonian preoccupation with equilibrium and mechanism is replaced by recognition of an essentially changeful world in which organisation and strategy are transient achievements (Tsoukas and Chia, 2002). Whilst the literatures that we draw upon may be unfamiliar to some readers, our intention is to shed new light on strategic change.

Both the split between content and process (Schendel, 1992) and the distinction between formulation and implementation (Pettigrew, 1992) in strategy are in themselves symptomatic of the deeper Cartesian fault-line which the subject attempts to straddle. The image of ‘thought-driven’ and detached strategy is of course one that characterised the field for most of its early existence. Chandler (1962) celebrated the separation of ‘strategy’ or strategising from operations: the strategist had to be free to think. The strategic thinker was separated from the ‘doer’, the strategic separated from the operational. In principle, thought processes are conceptualised as driving action, and in the particular case of strategy, one person’s thoughts are often supposed to drive another person’s actions.

This early view of business strategy encountered issues of implementation failure and scholars in response developed strategic change, process or learning approaches to strategy (Whittington, 1993). The next generation of strategy research downplayed planning and the relative importance of action was presented as having been reversed: ‘you act in order to think’ (Mintzberg, 1999 quoted from McKelvy et al., 1991). Enduring social structures such as values, norms, culture and routines began to appear in strategy research and a collective perspective on organisational action came to prominence. In this more normative view, action is something of a herd phenomenon. Each view draws attention to different aspects of action but thought-driven (rational) and collectively structured (normative) approaches differ in terms of implications for both strategy and strategic change.

A third view of action has begun to garner some attention. Both phenomenological and pragmatist traditions hold that thought or ‘reason’ needs to be understood as a fundamentally social phenomenon (Will, 1997, p.67). Moreover, actions ‘are inevitably situated actions’, in that they take place “in the context of particular concrete circumstances” (Suchman, 1987, p.viii). This context not only provides the ‘objects, artefacts, and other actors’ as essential resources but ‘gives action its sense’ (Suchman, 1987, p.179) and social meaning, whilst being constructed by that very action. Even the self is “an emergent part of the very experience it organises, contingent upon the social worlds in which it develops and functions” (Sandywell, 1996, p.261).

Strategic change as creative action 83

Clearly this is a non-Cartesian perspective on action where the situated strategist plays a key role in the conscious negotiation and creation of experience. Within this non-Cartesian view, familiar splits such as process/content, deliberate/emergent and formulation/implementation are far less definitive.

We close this brief detour by pointing out that even without due consideration of the finer grained arguments in the philosophy literature, these views should resonate with our everyday experience when cast in more familiar language. What we do and want to do depend on who we are with and who we are in biographical terms. In that sense it is evidently and obviously true that individual strategists and the details of particular settings matter.

3 Action in strategy

Most things that have been written on strategy explicitly or implicitly adopt a position on action. This renders an all-embracing review beyond the scope of any one paper. Our purpose here is simply to highlight the more obvious differences between rational and normative views before introducing a third view of ‘creative action’ based on the work of Hans Joas. Although our focus here is on strategic change, it is worth noting that Joas (1996) claims the social sciences more broadly are dominated by rational and normative approaches and that this is problematic given societal shifts that emphasise the importance of innovation and creativity. In this paper, a rational view connotes a sense in which an underlying, optimising calculation is being made, whilst a normative view implies that action is seen primarily as being both enabled and constrained by group norms.

In the worlds of practice, training, education and research, and rationality remain a highly persuasive and adaptable conceptual basis for explaining action. Not only has it increased in sophistication, but also has developed applications in virtually every realm of everyday life (Baert, 1998). The rationalist notion of enlisting the most appropriate means in given conditions for the realisation of prior intentions remains the preferred choice for many concerned with strategic change. The organisation is typically cast as a problem solving, or scientifically optimising monolith, taking decisions then acting them out with mechanical precision. This view has been underpinned by the steady stream of relatively user-friendly, quasi-economics frameworks produced by academics. From early contributions (Bain, 1956; Chandler, 1962) to more contemporary work on the resource base (Rumelt, 1984; Wernerfelt, 1984; Barney, 1991) and dynamic capabilities (Helfat et al., 2007), the genesis of strategy as applied economics lends many key contributions to our field a rational undercurrent. That said, the trend is clearly toward increasingly ‘soft’ issues creating potential overlaps with normative counterparts as we shall discuss.

Normative conceptions of action, i.e. action driven by collective norms, are also discernable in strategy and strategic change. Such contributions appear in three guises. First, in fairly cognitivist terms, concepts such as shared cognitive structures and associated routines (Argyris, 1990; Senge, 1990), dominant logics (Bettis and Prahalad, 1995), institutional logics (Reays and Hinings, 2009), shared strategic intent (Hamel and Prahalad, 1989), paradigm (Johnson, 1988) or industry recipes (Spender, 1989). The second

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guise is more anthropological and social, drawing on notions of culture (Hofstede, 1980; Schein, 1985; Johnson, 1988) and institutional fields (Scott, 1985; Greenwood et al., 2002). Finally, one can discern in the resource-based view, a move towards normative conceptions of action in its acknowledgement of organisational repertoires of embedded competences (Prahalad and Hamel, 1990; Bogner et al., 1999), routines (Nelson and Winter, 1982; Miner, 1994; Feldman, 2000) capabilities (Leonard-Barton, 1992; Helfat, 2000) and their roles in both distinguishing and configuring strategic behaviour.

Although this normative stream of research may be diverse in analytical detail, we argue that is shares a concern with organisational outputs rather than rational choices, and regards these outputs as being formed largely by established historical and cultural patterns which operate in the collective domain. The organisation is seen to be more tribal or herd-like than in the rational view of a machine seeking to optimise efficiency. By concentrating on the development of normatively grounded theories, this diverse group of scholars is pointing towards an alternative conception of action in strategic change.

Strategic choice (Child, 1972) was originally intended as a means of engaging with and integrating perspectives on agency, rationality and environmental influences but Child has since argued that the concept was misleadingly interpreted as a means of justifying a sharp distinction between organisational agency and organisational environment (1997, p.58). We concur with Child’s view that approaches which seem “irreconcilable in their own philosophical terms … may not be incommensurable when applied to the study of organizations”. (Child, 1997, p.44)

A new body of work is emerging which challenges both rational and normative conceptions of action. Scholars from a growing variety of perspectives including the emergent fields of chaos (Levy, 1994; Thietart and Forgues, 1997), complexity (Stacey, 1995; Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997; MacIntosh and MacLean, 1999), knowledge (Tsoukas, 1996), structuration (Whittington, 1992), forms of institutional theory (Mayer and Whittington, 1999) and amongst others, are focusing on strategic behaviour as an emergent outcome of co-evolving and interacting players.

A focus on interaction constitutes an attempt to introduce post-Newtonian, post- Cartesian thinking where the interaction or relationship becomes the unit of analysis and indeed as the primary source of creative phenomenon. Personal biographies and emergent patterns both create, and are created in, networks of interaction. This contrasts with the individual decision maker in rational teleology and the collective patterning of normative models.

Hans Joas (1996) argues the need for a new theory, human action, in which creativity is regarded as the primary facet of human action. He has sharply criticised rationally and normatively oriented concepts of action, instead developing a theory of creative action based on a combination of insights from the traditions of US pragmatism and German philosophical anthropology. He questions the validity of approaches which assume a teleological view of intentionality, instrumental control of the body and autonomy of the individual and, in so doing proposes to move action theory onto a new philosophical footing.

As an alternative to rational and normative views, Joas devised a three-pronged theoretical framework which holds that: (a) intention is a continually emerging facet of an ongoing dialogue between means, ends and context (b) the body is the ‘source’ of personal expression and is not necessarily an instrument of the intellect and (c) identity is seen as an evolving process in social interactions.

Strategic change as creative action 85

Dealing with these points in order, first, as regards intentionality, creative action theory denies a rational-teleology concept of intention (which implies intellectually developed ends or aims are achieved in given situations by selecting appropriate means), instead seeing intentionality as an emergent part of action in which biographical and social context are of paramount importance and behaviour is not necessarily purposive in the purely rational sense.

There are significant signs in the strategy literature of a willingness to move towards this view of intentional behaviour. Institutional theory is moving towards a constructionist epistemology where repeated interaction both generates, and is generated by, fields (Greenwood et al., 2002). Structurationist accounts (Whittington, 1988; Rouleau and Junquilho, 2002) acknowledge the duality of structure as both an enabler and outcome of action so that both are seen as co-evolutionary facets of a given (inter)active context. Giddens, the author of stucturation theory, acknowledges the influence of Maturana and Valera’s (1988) autopoeisis theory in the development of his own views (Baert, 1998, Chapter 4).

Whilst most action theories assume that instrumental control of the body is by the mind, Joas’s second point is that creative action does not. The body is the ‘source’ of pre- reflexive feelings and vague impulses to action; embodied phenomena such as emotion and intuition are key to emergent awareness of those pre-reflexive drives which will become intention. Weick argues that “there is an imaginative interpretation of execution that imputes sufficient coherence to the execution that it could easily be mistaken for intention” (2000, p.62). Importantly, we can deliberately or involuntarily lose control of the body – a key part of creativity – and action is enabled by the subjective presence of a ‘body schema’ (i.e. a background awareness of the body’s configuration). Given the role of the strategist in strategic action, theoretical neglect of the nature and consequences of embodiment is something of a mystery. Whilst we acknowledge the fact that individual biographies and agendas are often decisive factors in strategic decisions, the reality of embodied and individual history of the strategist is often dismissed as a psycho-political black box, only to reappear in metaphorical form as strategy is cast as the product of the organisation’s brain with the rest of the corporation at its command. We believe that the intellectual, sensory and intuitive aspects of strategic action are the key to the development of a theory of change which is truly meaningful.

Finally for Joas, primary sociality refutes the notion of an autonomous individual and acknowledges the evolution of identity through social processes and exchanges. Language and movement are key factors in enabling development to emerge in unpredictable dynamics. This view of identity as a process which forms and reforms in social interaction is perhaps the least contentious of the three main themes in Joas’s theory of creative action. Influenced by the work of the US pragmatists, in particular the social psychology of Mead (1934), in which meaning and self-continually emerge in networks of gesture and response, Joas’s view sits comfortably with the versions of a social construction theory (Berger and Luckman, 1967) which are becoming increasing evident in the literature (e.g. MacIntosh and Beech, 2011).

The focus on the emergence of practice, meaning and identity in networks of ongoing interaction is evident explicitly or implicitly, in institutional theory (Oliver, 1992; Greenwood et al., 2002), structurationist accounts of change (Whittington, 1992), autopoeisis (Espejo, 1996), complexity theory (Brown and Eisenhardt, 1997) and discourse theory (Knights and Morgan, 1991). Stacey and his colleagues (Stacey et al.,

86 D. MacLean and R. MacIntosh

2001), also draw on Mead to develop accounts of organisational change in terms of complex responsive processes of relating, sharing Mead’s emphasis on language as the primary means by which meaning and novelty emerge.

Whilst notions of interaction, social construction and relating may be gaining ground in theoretical terms, the relationship between qualities of interaction and products of creative action remains somewhat obscure. Strategy, as order, is an emergent phenomenon but the relationship between emergence and interaction is poorly understood and may even be beyond understanding (and control) in any detail.

In summary, we suggest that (alongside established approaches) working with a view of action as inherently creative offers a promising way of enriching our theorising of strategic change. Further, we believe that the absence of the embodied strategist in rational and normative views of strategy may explain the recurring concerns over relevance and adequacy introduced at the start of this paper.

4 Illustrating creative action

Next, we introduce an unusual empirical context as a means of highlighting the explanatory power of creative action. This situation is then enlisted as a metaphor with which to unpack and further explore the implications for other more familiar organisational situations.

During a sporting encounter, the creative urges of individuals are expressed as emergent outcomes which unfold as the game progresses through a series of interactive moves. In order to explore the basic premises of creative action we consider the simplest sporting environment featuring only two competitors, and take as our focus, the perspective of one of those individuals. The world championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974 is an unusual context in which to theorise about strategic change yet it represents a superbly accessible example of creative action and shows how the concept of creative action can explain novelty in a way that lies beyond the reach of rational and normative views. Whilst the latter tends to foreground firm-level and routine-level behaviour, respectively, here we are tyring to foreground the particularities and personalities of a specific situation.

The world title fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in 1974 ranks as a landmark in sport. Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing to be drafted into the US army and, at the height of his physical powers, was banned from boxing competitively between March 1967 and October 1970. On his return to the ring, he undertook a series of 17 bouts, which included his first professional defeats to Frazier and Norton. He arrived at the now infamous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ as the clear underdog.

The two contestants had very different boxing styles and physical attributes. Both Ali and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, stated before the fight that their strategy would be to combat Foreman’s greater strength with Ali’s speed and agility. In fact what transpired was rather different, offering an opportunity to explore our conception of strategic change.

After months of training for a strategy in which he would outmanoeuvre his opponent, Ali amended his stated strategy in a subtle but significant way. He deviated from the planned strategy and elected to utilise his speed and agility offensively rather than defensively. He attempted to throw knockout punches with a ‘right hand lead’, a

Strategic change as creative action 87

highly unorthodox tactic for a right-handed fighter. Throwing a punch with ‘the wrong hand’ is a high-risk strategy since opponents can see the punch coming from a greater distance and in throwing such a punch the boxer leaves himself dangerously exposed to a counter-attack. Such punches are therefore rarely seen in professional boxing and regarded as something of an insult when they are used.

Despite training on the basis that he would outmanoeuvre Foreman, Ali enacted a strategic change from the start of the first round. His unorthodox approach surprised many, including his own coaching team and he threw 12 right hand leads in the first round. Doubtless he hoped to surprise Foreman and produce an early victory by knockout. In the transition from the first to the second strategy, we see evidence of what Joas would call emergent intention in the remark of one commentator “I don’t think he had discussed this [throwing a right hand lead] with his trainer, I don’t think he had even decided that he would definitely try it until the first bell sounded”. (Mailer, 2000)

As the first round of the contest drew to a close, Ali’s unexpected tactic enraged Foreman, as did Ali’s continual taunts during the round. Ali often spoke to opponents during fights, goading them about his superiority, e.g. “there he was, swingin’ away and all the time I was talkin’ to him sayin’ … Hit harder George, That the best you got?”

In the break between the first and the second round, however, the realisation hit Ali that his unorthodox and high-risk strategy had failed. Worse still, it had backfired; he now faced a bigger and stronger opponent who had been angered by his insulting use of right hand leads. A genuine sense of fear about the remainder of the fight became apparent. How would he deal with his opponent? His plan had failed, but withdrawing from the fight was not an option since a combination of pride and a desire to regain the world title drove him on. Just as the bell was about to sound for the second round, Ali turned to the crowd inciting them to chant his name. As the crowd roared, his pride and defiance, an embodied expression of his identity was reinforced in a novel form of interaction between himself and the crowd.

In a state of emotional turmoil, uncertain as to how he should proceed, Ali came back out for the second round. Here, there would be no right hand leads (his strategy from round one) and the possibility of outmanoeuvring Foreman (his strategy before the fight) was fast receding. As the two fighters grappled with each other, relating and interacting with each other in the most vivid and physical of ways, Ali’s strategic behaviour took another unexpected turn.

As Foreman attacked relentlessly and with genuine ferocity, Ali found himself pushed back onto the ropes. He later observed “he [Foreman] was too big for me to keep moving round him, so I said to myself, Let me go to the ropes while I’m fresh … I can handle him there, let him burn himself out”.

What became known as the ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy was an unexpected innovation. Leaning far back into the ropes, Ali deliberately allowed Foreman to rain blows down upon him for several rounds. During this phase of the fight, Ali was harangued by his coach, Angleo Dundee, for not enacting the pre-agreed strategy of outmanoeuvring Foreman. Yet Dundee, from his position as observer rather than participant, could not experience interactive relating with Foreman in the way that Ali did and in turn became somewhat removed from Ali’s immediate sphere of interaction.

As the fight progressed, Ali’s tactic of going to the ropes, which had been borne initially out of desperation, actually began to serve some purpose. Foreman began to tire from the relentless activity. By the mid-point of the fight Foreman was exhausted and Ali

88 D. MacLean and R. MacIntosh

sensed that his opponent might have punched himself out. In a dramatic burst of activity, Ali sprang form the ropes, launched one assault with lightening speed and knocked Foreman out in the 8th round.

In our view, Joas’s view of creative action offers a compelling explanation of what transpired. Figure 1 depicts the evolution of novel strategic behaviour from this example in terms of the three aspects of creative action. Clearly, what eventually transpired was not what had originally been planned and a purely rational explanation is problematic. Similarly, a normative view that Ali was simply re-enacting established routines or conforming to group expectations falls short of explaining what transpired. A more compelling view is that a sense of intention became progressively more coherent from Ali’s point of view. This emerging intentionality was specific to his interactive relating to Foreman both before and during the fight. Furthermore, the strategy which did evolve was also bound up in the biographies of the participants and the embodied expression of these biographies produced in context, at a particular point in time.

A combination of sheer physical prowess, fear, desire and necessity drove Ali to the ropes, and this led unexpectedly to a spontaneous, creative breakthrough. The physical and emotionally expressive dimensions of Ali’s own body, and the essentially improvised nature of the episode, cannot be filleted from this description of strategic innovation without the description itself losing much of its authenticity. Moreover, Ali’s interactions with the crowd, his opponent and his coach all played their roles in creating both a narrative backdrop to the encounter as a whole and to the individual moves that took place within that encounter. From this, and we would argue any other example, there is a very real sense in which the consideration of strategic behaviour is meaningless, without due consideration of its interactive dimensions.

Figure 1 Illustrating strategic change as creative action

Creative Action

Interactive Relating Goading the opponent Being impeded by opponent’s size Harnessing the crowd’s energy Being harangued by coach

Emerging Intention Outmanoeuvre becomes Right-hand lead becomes Rope-a-Dope becomes Attack

Embodied Expression Desire to win Fear and desperation at ‘failure’ in R1 Moving to the ropes Seizing his opportunity in R8

Strategic change as creative action 89

So what can one take from this illustration? First, we see clearly the evolution of strategy as the patterning of interaction and the crystallisation of these into outcomes such as the perceived failure (from Ali’s perspective) of the ‘outmanoeuvre’ strategy, or the apparent pummelling of the rope-a-dope strategy. We see also that intentional action has a place, but that, critically, such intentionality depends on adaptability for its continued existence. The sequential ends-means schema of rationalist teleology is rejected in favour of a more dialogical form of intentionality which moves in tandem with a situation which it in part creates.

We can see how patterns of interaction shift in moments of creative breakthrough and that these shifts lie beyond the realm of prediction or control. Indeed, the nature of the expressive act on which creativity centres may well be in the conscious relinquishing of control so that new forms of intentional behaviour flow in through the body.

Finally, both strategic behaviour and the meaning of what’s unfolding are (a) quintessentially bound up with who’s doing what with whom and (b) dependent on one’s perspective in the network of interaction. We told the story from Ali’s perspective and there would be a different account from George Foreman. The inter-objective creation of patterns of behaviour is an observable outcome, the inter-subjective interpretation of them is a cultural, symbolic phenomenon, and the interplay between these two dimensions is a critical part of the creation of both. To strip this interactive dynamic away is to conceptualise a world with no language, no gesture, no exchanges and a world in which the strategist is deprived of their senses.

The illustration provided by this boxing match highlights three distinct but interpenetrating practices on the part of the strategist: (a) the intellectual process of crafting, recognising, holding, adapting and abandoning certain intentions and aspirations; (b) the embodied phenomenon of sensory engagement with the world in all its physical, psychological and spiritual richness; and (c) the social processes of interconnecting with others and creating, or perhaps negotiating, context.

This is not to suggest that rational or normative views hold no explanatory power. Indeed paradigmatic diversity might catalyse dialogue as readily as it allegedly places unnecessary limits on theoretical developments in our field (Alvesson, 1987) under the guise of incommensurability (Burrell and Morgan, 1979). For example, a normative view may offer a more complete explanation of behaviours as the output of training, routines and sporting norms. Likewise, the rational view helps understand those instances before and during the fight where there are attempts to gain control. The original outmanoeuvre strategy may be best understood in terms of an instrumental body at the beck and call of an optimum-seeking mind which has evaluated strengths and weaknesses before arriving at an advantageous configuration. However, we argue that only the incorporation of a view of creative action allows us to explain the totality of the fight.

5 Evaluating creative action

We have shown how creative action can be used to explain strategic change but of course, we recognise that our choice of empirical setting is atypical for organisational research. Hence, we now turn to demonstrating the value of creative action as an

90 D. MacLean and R. MacIntosh

alternative way of approaching the issue of strategic organisational change. In the context of this paper, the Ali fight is not about boxing; it is about perspective. The fight allows us to draw attention to the micro-level actions and interactions as they coalesce into strategic patterns. Our contention is that understanding strategic change in organisational settings may require that we increase the attention paid to the detailed interactions, key episodes and, critically, the biographies of those involved in the action. In that sense, the illustration of the fight has simply allowed us to put more substance into the framework of intending, expressing and relating.

Having already argued that rational, normative and creative theories of action might work together to explain strategic change, we now look to the literature for guidance on what would represent a more comprehensive and dynamic theory of strategy. Senior scholars periodically call for new work to move our field forward, often in relation to perceived blockages or problems (e.g. Schendel’s (1992) observation about the process- content split). In a limited number of cases, scholars move beyond broad ranging calls for change to offer criteria which new theories should satisfy. Three examples would be Porter’s (1991) call for a dynamic theory of strategy), Pettigrew et al.’s (2001) exposition of the challenges in studying organisational change and Johnson et al.’s (2003) plea for an activity-based view of strategy. In Table 1 we have constructed a single, consolidated set of criteria from these three contributions and we use this to evaluate the contribution of creative action.

We have already argued that rational or normative views of strategic change offer certain insights both in our unusual illustration and in strategic change in organisational settings more generally. Using Table 1, we now consider the merits of viewing strategic change as creative action.

The first criterion demands that any new theory be able to explain macro phenomena from micro actions. In the case of the Ali fight, we would argue that the interplay of interactive relating, embodied expression and emerging intentions set out in Figure 1 provide a means of linking the moment-to-moment experience of the fight to a grander strategic narrative. Not only have we shown that the outmanoeuvre strategy was supplanted by the use of right-hand-leads, then rope-a-dope, but also we have shown how and why these changes took place. In so doing, the creative action explanation links processes to outcomes very clearly (dealing with criterion 4) and offers genuine insights into the source of unexpected or novel strategic choices (criterion 5). The emphasis here is clearly on strategising as a verb rather than on strategy as a noun, or as Fredericks describes it “from strategizing as lived experience, as opposed to reported experience” (2003, p.142). We would also observe that the distinction between micro and macro seems somewhat less helpful than the notion of interactions and their patterning.

The second criterion asks that due consideration be given to the roles of history and chance. Again, the explanation of the fight from a creative action perspective highlights the importance of the biographies of both fighters. The unusual venue for the fight, the fact that Ali was attempting to regain his title and many other quirks are taken into account and embedded in an explanation of strategic behaviour that is essentially creative. In admitting the role of the crowd as well as the perceptions and expectations of the media, creative action accommodates a view of strategic change as both endogenous and exogenous (criterion 3).

Strategic change as creative action 91

Table 1 Consolidated requirements for an adequate theory of strategy

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