The Deconstruction of Strategic Realities


To facilitate orientation, recall our main way of argumentation up to this point. Chapter three argued that strategy scholars are skilled in creating oppositions that govern the field in an almost unnoticed way and thus led to the establishment of dominant logics. Oppositions exist because many widely used strategic realities look for ‘origins’ (e.g., a formulated strategy in strategy process research). Yet ‘origins’ cannot be fully justified; any attempt to rationalize the purity of an ‘origin’ results in paradox. Hence, oppositions prevent the discussion of paradoxes that are unavoidably present and in consequence lead to dominant logics. Based on these insights, chapter four introduced deconstruction as a kind of metascience that challenges and surpasses the metaphysics of logocentric systems, i.e. strategic realities that in our case form ‘the text’ to be deconstructed. This text imposes an order on reality by which a subtle repression is exercised. By dismantling strategy’s logocentric oppositions, deconstruction uncovers the paradoxes that occur once a metaphysics of presence is left behind. Chapter five argued that to merely uncover paradoxes is not enough; any exposure of the impossibility that paradox brings about needs to be supplemented by remarks on deparadoxification. Paradoxes only represent necessary limits to our knowledge about strategic management, but we should not conclude the impossibility of strategic management. We concluded that this chapter’s subject (i.e. ‘The Deconstruction of Strategic Realities’) must show that strategic realities are created because of and despite paradox.


Strategy Scholar Strategic Management Strategy Process Strategic Decision Blind Spot 
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  1. 88.
    Because deconstruction argues for the irreducibility of meaning, Derrida (1995a: 118–119) has explicitly linked the problem of meaning and context to the fact that ‘the text’ represents the complexity of the world (see also Cilliers 2005: 259). Knowledge about referents always remains provisional. Luhmann (1995b: 24) gives a more formal definition of complexity: “A definition of complexity follows from this: we will call an interconnected collection of elements ‘complex’ when, because of immanent constraints in the elements’ connective capacity, it is no longer possible at any moment to connect every element to every other element.”Google Scholar
  2. 89.
    Strictly speaking, the alternatives that identify an organization do not rest in the environment. If they were to rest in the environment, the latter would be a kind of pool of all possible alternatives. Yet the environment only comes into being when alternatives are activated (when differences are made) by the organization. With regard to Derrida (2002), alternatives reside in the general text, a text that in Luhmann’s (1995b) conception of social systems is called ‘Welt’ (see also Luhmann’s [1995a] own remarks on Derrida’s conception of text).Google Scholar
  3. 90.
    The discussion of the inside/outside opposition runs through many of Derrida’s discussions. In Dissemination he writes about hymen, the virginal membrane, that stands between the inside and outside. Hymen, similar to the frame, “is an operation that both sows confusion between opposites and stands between the opposites at once.” (Derrida 1981a: 212, emphasis in the original) Hymen is an undecidable term that represents fusion but by the same token also upholds the difference between inside and outside.Google Scholar
  4. 91.
    The outside, here, is not merely understood as the wall on which the work hangs but the general text in which the art object is created or constituted (Derrida 1987b: 61–62).Google Scholar
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    One may argue here that parergonality is restricted to the discourse about art in general. Derrida (1987b: 61), however, makes quite clear that the frame is “at the invisible limit to (between) the interiority of meaning (put under shelter by the whole hermeneuticist, semioticist, phenomenologicalist, and formalist tradition) and (to) all the empiricisms of the extrinsic which, incapable of either seeing or reading, miss the question completely.”Google Scholar
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    “Observing one’s identity leads to paradox because you have to observe yourself as something else based on the same distinction that made it possible to identify yourself.” (Vos 2002: 218) This paradox occurs because an observer cannot observe the spot behind the foundational distinction of a system by means of the same distinction. This is why every observation has a blind spot, because during an observation the distinction that enables the observation cannot be observed. Identity when observed by the organization itself is paradoxical: the organization only is itself because it uses the distinction of being itself and not being itself in order to distinguish itself. This paradox is a timeless identity, because observations of identity are paradoxical when they are extracted from time. One way to deparadoxify this situation is by means of’ simply’ starting to operate (e.g., through an As If) to postpone the question about the unity of the distinction. Of course, one could argue that a second-order observer can uncover this blind spot. This, however, does not solve the problem since the second-order observer would face her/his own blind spot.Google Scholar
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    Weick (1979: 164) argues: “The concept of an enacted environment is not synonymous with the concept of a perceived environment, even though citations of the concept would suggest that it is. If a perceived environment were the essence of enactment then the phenomenon would have been called enthinkment, not enactment. We have purposely labeled the organizational equivalent of variation enactment to emphasize that managers construct, rearrange, single out, and demolish many ‘objective’ features of their surroundings.” (emphasis in the original) Daft and Weick (1984: 288) even speak of a new type of organization: “These organizations construct their own environments. They gather information by trying new behaviors and seeing what happens. They experiment, test, and stimulate, and they ignore precedent rules, and traditional expectations.”Google Scholar
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    Organizations cannot enact any reality that they choose. People experience limits to what they enact, just as they experience limits to what counts as an As If (Smircich and Stubbart 1985: 732). First, because prior enactments act as constraints and people cannot simply forget about what they used to believe. Second, enactment is a collective process and whatever is enacted needs to be socially accepted. Individuals can introduce their enactments to other people, but whether and how they are accepted remains an empirical question.Google Scholar
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    Although Smircich and Stubbart (1985) opened a debate about the general nature of the environment in strategic management, their plea for a consideration of enactment remained largely unheard. Henderson and Mitchell (1997: 6) put in a nutshell: “[R]esearchers interested in characterizing the environment have typically been content with very simple models of the firm while researchers interested in the internal dynamics of firms have usually been content with very simple models of the environment.” Most scholars rely on models where the direction of causality is unidirectional. Ingram and Baum (1997) suggest that firms learn from their own operating experience in the market and thus shape their internal capabilities accordingly. Firms learn from their own or others’ experience in the market. Arguing the other way around, Tripsas (1997) shows how existing competences shape responses to technological change. Her work points towards the relationship between organizational competences and environmental conditions, yet it remains unidirectional in its argumentation because the influenced environmental conditions impose on the organization like constraints. Peteraf and Shanley (1997) and Ocasio (1997) discuss the interactions of competition (environment) and managerial work (organization). In fact, Peteraf and Shanley (1997) argue that the formation of strategic groups results from managerial cognition rather than ‘real’ differences in a firm’s characteristics. These groups are perceived as constraints to further strategizing. Ocasio (1997) shows that firm behavior is the result of how firms channel and distribute attention of their decision-makers. Firms enact their environment, which then imposes on themselves (see also Grimm 1996).Google Scholar
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    Fredrickson (1986: 281), for example, suggests that strategic decisions are affected by the centralization of an organization’s structure because of the cognitive limits of the central decision maker. In a similar way, Burgelman (1983: 64) argues that “[b]ecause of the effects of structural context on the generation and shaping of strategic projects, it is also possible to posit that strategy follows structure.”Google Scholar
  11. 99.
    While this study is concerned with the intersection of contingency and the future, contingency also relates to the past, because humans have infinite ways of recalling (i.e. narrating, memorizing) the past (Gumbrecht 2001: 53). Contingency also interferes with the present in the sense that our descriptions and actions could always be otherwise possible, an argument that, as far as descriptions are concerned, gained much popularity under the label ‘constructivism’ (see Czarniawska 2000; Erdmann 1999; Hejl and Stahl 2000).Google Scholar
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    Culler (1982: 86) refers to Nietzsche to show that our traditional view on causality may be misleading. Nietzsche argues that the concept of causal structure is not something given but the product of a reversal (chronologische Umdrehung). For instance, if we feel pain, we start looking for a cause, maybe a pin, and start reversing the perceptual order ‘pain... pin’ into ‘pin... pain’. I quite similar sense, Chia (1994: 788) discusses the concept of causality and talks about the ‘actionality of decision’ and the ‘decisionality of action’. The action already is in the decision and the decision is in the action.Google Scholar
  13. 101.
    The undecidable nature of decisions has been discussed by a variety of authors. Foerster (1992: 14, emphasis in the original) states that “[o]nly those questions, that are in principle undecidable, we can decide.” In a similar way, Luhmann (2000: 131–132) devotes much attention to undecidability, because the undecidable nature of decisions acts as the presupposition of the possibility of every decision as such.Google Scholar
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    By contrast, on the routine level, decisions are usually less reflected upon and reached relatively quickly (Selten 1990: 652). The impossibility that the paradox brings about is thus most visible when there are non-routine (strategic) decisions that need to be safeguarded against antithetic perspectives (e.g., from critical stakeholders). A strategist, who can give no reasonable justification why a strategic move is necessary, be it in front of the supervisory board or at the shareholders meeting, not only risks her/his job but also lacks institutional support.Google Scholar
  15. 103.
    Pondering about the possibility of improvisation, Derrida (2000a: 10) remarks with a sense of irony in an interview: “The question was: ‘What is improvisation? Is an improvisation possible?’ I had to improvise of course, and I said ‘No, an improvisation is absolutely impossible’, and went on speaking for half an hour, I think. And today, I remembered this when you asked me to say something and I agreed on the condition that it would be totally improvised; that was the contract.” (emphasis added)Google Scholar
  16. 104.
    There has been almost no discussion of strategy as improvisation up to this point. Exceptions are the articles by Crossan et al. (1996) and Perry (1991) that, however, treat improvisation in a rather unconventional way without paying much attention to the convergence of thinking and action. Weick (1987a) also outlines improvisation as a’ substitute for corporate strategy’, yet overemphasizes the role of action. Improvisation does not mean to focus solely on action, as the emergent strategy perspective does, but to conceive planning (thinking) as an activity while action unfolds.Google Scholar
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    Ortmann and Salzman (2002: 221) agree with this conception and argue that “[t]he process of implementing and executing strategies, far from being less important and a mere derivation from the strategy is, instead, actually part of the process of constructing the strategy.” In a similar manner, Weick (1987a: 230, emphasis in the original) states that “[t]he thread that runs through this chapter is that execution is analysis and implementation is formulation.” Ortmann (1997: 46), while discussing the famous text of Heinrich von Kleist The Gradual Production of Thoughts in Talking, even generalizes this argument. Thinking and action are always connected in a recursive manner, and not only in strategy. This insight is also discussed in the context of knowledge. Tsoukas (2000), for example, encourages scholars to think of ‘knowledge as action’.Google Scholar
  18. 106.
    A similar point is raised by Numagami (1998: 4) who argues that “[l]awlike regularities in social phenomena are not regularities ‘out there’, but are created and recreated by human conduct, consciously or unconsciously.” Miller and Hartwick (2002: 26) even argue that generalizability is a characteristic of all management fads and suggest that “[f]ads claim universal relevance, proposing practices that adherents say will apply to almost any industry, organization, or culture — from General Motors to government bureaucracies to mom-and-pop groceries. But few management approaches are universally applicable, and attempts to implement a mismatch approach can do more harm than good.”Google Scholar
  19. 107.
    Franck (1992: 636) describes this problem by referring to the problem of the frame-axiom. For instance, “if I paint my house red in situation S1, then the color of the house in situation S2 should be red. The activity, rearranging the furniture, that I conduct in situation S2, results in situation S3. Which color does the house have in S3? Of course red, since rearranging the furniture does not alter the color of the house. Though, logically this possibility remains. That is why I would need a frame-axiom stating that rearranging the furniture leaves the color of the house unaltered. However, where are the limits of this frame axiom? From a formal-logical perspective, rearranging furniture could change everything I know about the world. Hence, if I want to describe this situation, I would need a limitless number of frame-axioms.” (Franck 1992: 636–637, translation A.R.).Google Scholar
  20. 108.
    Ortmann (2003a: 207) remarks that the discussion of rules and resources actually contains a double-paradox. They not only provide generalized principles for specific contexts but at the same time are also thought to be generalizable within the scope of a corporation (i.e. applicable to all occurring contexts), although not beyond the corporation (as this would cause an imitation of the competitive advantage). Thus, strategic rules and resources offer uniqueness as a general concept. In the words of Ortmann and Salzman (2002: 224): “the’ search for strategy’ as an ideal, general way to uniqueness is a paradoxical undertaking, hopeless insofar as it is aimed at generalizable singularity.” Ironically, we face a situation in which most strategic rules and resource-concepts promote uniqueness (viz. ‘make your corporation special’) but offer general prescriptions (viz. ‘that is how everybody needs to do it’). For instance, generic strategies are supposed to be valid ‘inside’ all organizations, but are supposed to also provide a distinct and unique competitive advantage ‘outside’ the firm (see also Vos 2005: 367).Google Scholar
  21. 109.
    Giddens sets up this paradox as well by arguing that “no course of action can be said to be guided by a rule because every course of action can be made to accord with that rule. However, if that is the case, it is also true that every course of action can be made to conflict with it.” (Giddens 1984: 21) Yet he also resolves this indecision by suggesting that this paradox holds only as long as we think about codified interpretations of rules. If rules are procedures of action, aspects as praxis, one looks at their constant enactment and reproduction in social practices (that includes modification and manages to get by without perfect replications). Wittgenstein (1967: 81) remarks in a very similar sense: “This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it.” Barnes (1995: 202) remarks, “nothing of the rule itself fixes its application in a given case, [...] there is no ‘fact of the matter’ concerning the proper application of a rule, [...] what a rule is actually taken to imply is a matter to be decided, when it is decided, by contingent social processes.” (as quoted in Tsoukas 2000: 109, emphasis added)Google Scholar
  22. 110.
    With regard to organizational rules in general, the study by Orr (1996) reveals the impossibility of conceiving rules as determining their own application. In his ethnographic observation of field service personnel repairing office machines, he points out that such work is resistant to rationalization, because the necessary expertise cannot be easily codified in rules. While observing the work of service personnel, he realizes that the documentation, which is supposed to help the technicians, “is composed of representations, which inherently afford multiple interpretations and uses, and instructions, which require interpretations by their users in the context of their application. As Suchman writes, following Garfinkel, ‘Indexicality of instructions means that an instruction’s significance with respect to action does not inhere in the instruction, but must be found by the instruction follower with reference to the situation of its use (Suchman 1987: 61). [...] There is also a certain amount of resentment of the diagnostic procedures; as one technician told me, technicians like to think they have more on the ball than just following directions.” (Orr 1996: 110)Google Scholar
  23. 111.
    To speak about the ‘proper name’ of a strategic rule or resource is interesting. The word ‘proper’ comes from the Latin proprius and has the meaning of ‘one’s own’. To refer to a strategic rule’s or resource’s proper name thus means to acknowledge its ‘own character’ (that which identifies it). Yet, as Derrida (1977: 111) remarks, the identification of propriety requires the existence of signifying elements that are shared with others (and are thus improper). One can only identify propriety by giving reference to its impropriety (that which makes the proper identifiable for everybody).Google Scholar
  24. 113.
    Schütz (1964: 285) gives the following example: “Strictly speaking, each experience is unique, and even the same experience that recurs is not the same, because it recurs. It is a recurrent sameness, and as such it is experienced in a different context and with different adumbrations. If I recognize this particular cherry tree in my garden as the same tree I saw yesterday, although in another light and with another shade of color, this is possible merely because I know the typical way in which this unique object appears in its surroundings. And the type ‘this particular cherry tree’ refers to the pre-experienced types ‘cherry tree in general’, ‘trees’, ‘plants’, ‘objects of the outer world’.” (emphasis added)Google Scholar
  25. 114.
    This insight is interesting with regard to the recent development of a dynamic capability view. According to dynamic capabilities, it is not a competence per se that renders competitive advantage but the way it is actualized with regard to changing market conditions and organizational circumstances. Teece et al. (1997: 516, emphasis added) define such capabilities as “the firm’s ability to integrate, build and reconfigure internal and external competences to address rapidly changing environments.” Thus, dynamic capabilities represent firms’ ability to empty competences and to refill the latter according to varying contexts. For instance, while product-related knowledge can be classified as a competence, an organization that possesses dynamic capabilities develops routines to reconfigure this knowledge as markets emerge, collide, split, evolve, and die (Eisenhardt and Martin 2000: 1107). That is why Zollo and Winter (2002: 340) identify dynamic capabilities with the organizational manifestation of learning; they constitute an organization’s systematic method for modifying its underlying competences. Notwithstanding these conceptual advantages, there are also critical aspects that become evident from the perspective of a deconstructed resource/application opposition. First, whereas Teece et al. (1997) tell us what dynamic capabilities are, they tell us nothing about how firms reconfigure their competences. Second, it remains unclear how firms develop dynamic capabilities (Helfat and Peteraf 2003: 997; Moran and Ghoshal 1999: 409). Eisenhardt and Martin (2000: 1107) still conceptualize such capabilities as ‘given’ and argue that one can identify them quite easily. In fact, they argue that “dynamic capabilities can be duplicated across firms” so that a ‘best practice’ exists which all firms can use as a benchmark. If dynamic capabilities are generalizable across firms, they exist in an a priori manner, but not with regard to the specific lifeworld of an organization. The development of competences is as much based on situated learning as the development of the development of competences. If learning is situational, the learning of learning cannot be generalizable.Google Scholar
  26. 115.
    Other possibilities that put a more practical twist on strategy as quasiexperimentation are: to foster the development of communities of practice (Wenger et al. 2002), to make managers aware of the need to disregard existing defense routines (Stacey 2003: 113), and/or to teach managers that arguing and debating are not an obstacle to the development of strategy content (Weick 1995: 185).Google Scholar
  27. 116.
    The literature on stories and storytelling in organizations is diverse and cuts across a variety of sub-fields (e.g., HRM — see for example Denning 2001; consulting — see Boje 1991b; and change management — see Czarniawska-Joerges and Joerges 1988). It is thus surprising that stories have not made their way into the strategy discourse yet (for laudable exceptions see Barry and Elmes 1997 and Hardy et al. 2000).Google Scholar
  28. 117.
    Speaking with Aristotle (1962), we can be even more precise: the filling of strategic rules and resources is not only a matter of praxis but peoples’ practical wisdom (phronésis) within this praxis. Practical wisdom is about knowing what is good for humans in general and competently applying this knowledge to particular circumstances (Oliver et al. 2005; Tsoukas and Cummings 1997: 665). In terms of strategy, phronésis implies that it is not enough to know about strategic rules and resources, but to have the ability to put them into practice in concrete situations. Phronetic strategizing highlights case-based knowledge and practical rationality, leading to a concern with fine-grained contextual factors that occur in situ (Wilson and Jarzabkowski 2004: 16). We find a similar treatment of practical wisdom in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, where Kant refers to the power of judgment (Urteilskraft) as “not merely the capacity to subsume the particular among the general (whose idea is given), but also in reverse, to find for the particular the belonging generality.” (Kant 1996: 22, translation A.R.)Google Scholar

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