We are in a moment of deep turmoil, with the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Army. It is always essential to avoid identifying an entire country with its regime in these moments. There’s much more to Russia than the aggressive, illiberal and imperialistic vision that Putin is trying to implement. For this reason, I’ve decided to take a short detour from the traditional content of this newsletter and into history. And will do so, showing off that many of the concepts we regularly talk of today in management discourse have been somewhat anticipated by a Russian multipotentialite Bolshevik who invented an entirely new science between 1912 and 1917.
It all started with a Science Fiction Book.
was, as Wikipedia defines him, “a Soviet physician, philosopher, science fiction writer, and Bolshevik revolutionary
”. Reading about his life, you seem to be in front of one of those renaissance-born men, capable of spreading their intellect around multiple domains. I met him first as a science fiction writer. His Red Star
(1908) is a fiction of a society on Mars that has fully embraced the principles of the Soviet Revolution. The meaning of work has changed in a society that has evolved, fighting a battle against the forces of that planet’s Global Warming
Through this novel, I discovered that Bogdanov had also been the author of a book called Tektology. He essentially has built a unifying framework for science and knowledge, anticipating the theories of Cybernetics and General Systems Theory that appeared in the West in the 50s. Despite being a personal friend with Lenin, Bogdanov’s ideas were too revolutionary. They did not match the official line of the first Soviet government, thus ending in censorship oblivion for almost a century.
What is Tektology?
Bogdanov created the work based on the ancient greek work Tecton
, which means “to build”. In his mind, he was making a science of universal building
, anticipating by almost three decades the idea of the “universal constructor
” developed by John Newmann.
The goal of Tektology is to grasp the common organisational principles that underlie all systems.
The basis of tectology is a basic idea: the isomorphism of laws governing different systems. Isomorphism means that other systems are governed by laws that, even if different because they might relate to physics, biology, mathematics, or even human systems, do have an identical structure.
The Political Vision of Tektology
In its author’s idea, Tektology is meant to be a science supporting the vision of the socialist revolution
and its concept of the new man
. This science could help unify millions of people into a single collective. How? By carefully balancing the specialisation of work
that is still needed with a central unifying theory of organisation
that overcomes the traditional models of bourgeoise society.
As he made the first attempt to formulate some general laws of organisation, Bogdanov based a big part of his meaning on a philosophical belief that observation and perception were not different. Unfortunately, this piece of thinking created irreparable attrition with Lenin, which caused Bogdanov’s vision to be considered dangerous, and condemned it to 80 years of censorship.
We can see in Bogdanov’s anticipation of themes that make up a lot of today’s discussion, including self-management and manager-less organisational model, particularly as he identifies from the beginning that the critical issue in the world of science was the segmentation of knowledge across silos.
In a functioning society, knowledge should exist without artificial walls, and organisational theory should support connecting elements, not divisions.
For Bogdanov, organisations can develop a conscience as they overcome the silos division of knowledge. This way, they can stop thinking about stereotypes, according to “a stencil” of the world. What they develop is a form of creativity and true innovation potential. Creativity becomes an attitude applicable both to theoretical and practical tasks, based on the capability to unleash people from the constraints of segregated knowledge. In this way, any building task, in the sense of Tektology, is a creative task.
He also made advances in what we today would call complexity theory, as he clearly distinguished between complexity and complication in organisations.
Complex problems can always be broken down into several specific elements or issues. Each of these can be solved (or “created” as Tektology is about building) by a person of average quality. Hence the art is in decomposing complexity into simpler terms, a lesson that modern management has often forgotten. This way, Bogdanov developed an accurate heuristic applicable to organisations and their design.
He saw that there are opposing forces in any system that is developing. These contradictions develop into a “crisis”, which leads either to a “revolution” or the system’s death. Of course, as a Bolshevik, he had a particular idea of revolution. Yet we can easily migrate this concept into a less disruptive scenario, with some of the theories of change of today. Therefore, his idea of seeing and bringing forth a revolution out of the crisis as leadership capability sounds also very contemporary.
A fourth element that anticipates visions defined many years after is that Bogdanov considered that any complex organisation should correspond to its environment and adapt to it. He talks about stable and organised complex as something more significant than the sum of its parts (and his definition resembles a lot to what we today consider an organisation). When talking about stability, he thinks about how that specific complex can preserve itself in the environment through a continuous exchange.
Another anticipatory element that we can learn from Bogdanov is the interrelation between strategy and execution. According to him, all practical activities help us gain theoretical insights into the unifying forces of the Universe. Therefore, you cannot develop insights without practice. Those who “manage” an organised system need to be practical, not only theoretical.
According to Bogdanov’s view, this is also why the worst enemies of progress are “specialists”, another anticipation of a critical need we are seeing today so clearly about T-Shaped competencies needed.
What about intentionality?
The largest chasm that exists in Nature, according to Bogdanov, is that between unconsciousness and consciousness, else defined as between spontaneity and decisiveness. Yet these are not seen as opposing elements but rather as a circulating pattern connected by self-consciousness. Each of us has to go through this every day between sleep and awakening.
Easy to see a parallel between the idea of emergence
that we have seen several times. Also, here seen not as an opposition but instead as two reinforcing forces connected by awareness
It is often easy to see anticipatory connections after so much time has passed, with more experience and 70 years of “western” systemic thinking. However, the reality is that probably some of the above ideas were only embryonic intuitions in Bogdanov’s work.
Yet it is fascinating to see how specific topics can be reconnected through the fabrics of history and still appear so fresh and relevant today. With the added value of that socialist twist that, despite the failure of the communist state system, is coming back as a question in today’s reasoning around collaboration in managerless organisations.
Hopefully, I’ve also been able to attract your interest towards a Russian person in a moment where the mental “unintentional” shortcut might be to link them all under one only label.