Nothing happens twice, and never will. Written by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wislawa Szymborska, these lines capture the nature of contemporaneity with the imaginative precision of great poetry: unceasingly changeable, constantly renewed, unpredictable. In a word, “impermanent”. Like Heraclitus’s river, people and organisations today are immersed in processes that transform their lives instant by instant. This means that they have to be ready to change their daily work habits, methods, tools, and their ways of thinking and acting over extremely short periods of time, which is why traditional management schools have put forward countless theories intended to create corporate cultures designed for instant change, continuous training and “creative destruction”.
It has to be admitted, though, that they’ve failed so far; or at least partially. In spite of the (costly) sermons preached by swarms of consultants, experts and gurus, managers seem incapable of going beyond the often inefficient management of emergencies. The reason for this failure is simple. It must be sought in the original flaw of so-called scientific management, the persistent pursuit of a formula able to fully dominate the complexity of life and, hence, of corporations. But reality can no longer be governed by a paradigm that orders with absolute validity.
Paradoxically, the way thus becomes open to the consideration that an effective interpretative tool for understanding our contemporary world may lie in the most ancient wisdom, that of poetry. For thousands of years, poetry has accompanied and sustained human evolution thanks to its capacity to make sense of each moment of our existence. “Poetry,” said Szymborska, “derives its vital force from the world we live in, from experiences truly suffered and thoughts thought automatically. The world must be continually described all over again, because after all, it’s not the same as it was, if only for the fact that we weren’t in it at one time.”
This statement rings even truer when we understand the unique art of the Polish poet, which could be described using her own words in Advertisement:
I am effective at home,
I work well at the office,
I take exams,
I appear in court,
I carefully mend broken crockery
I know how… to endure bad news,
take the edge of injustice,
make up for the absence of God,
help pick out a nice mourning hat.
“From poetry to learning”: this is how the question is summed up on the back jacket of The New Frontiers of Corporate Culture. A Humanistic Management Manifesto, published in 2004. At that time, a group of well-known exponents of Italian culture put forward an alternative vision of what the “lifeworld” of corporations is, and how to manage it. Humanistic management is an opening to novelty that looks to the potential of information and communication technology united with disciplines that began to be used in entrepreneurial contexts only a short while ago—literature, philosophy, anthropology, theatre, film.
The Humanistic Management Manifesto responded to the need to provide a framework for different management practices, as an alternative to scientific management.
The idea of offering a selection of twenty-five poems by Wislawa Szymborska grew out of this context. They are presented in five chapters (or acts), each of which is dedicated to a fundamental issue in understanding today’s corporations: defining the identity of the individual and the group; constructing interpersonal relations; recruiting people with the skills and know-how needed to produce innovation; managing diversity and, consequently, talent; creating meaning in organisations, or what Karl Weick dubbed sensemaking.
The comments that I offer on each poem as an organisational aid are intended to build a metaphorical Web, whose crucial nodes consist of references to other authors from very diverse genres (from Plato’s philosophy to cinema based on Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction, by way of Raymond Carver’s short stories or the music of Pink Floyd) – that Alessandro Baricco might call as “barbaric surfing”, by which he means today’s tendency “to use a book to complete sequences of meaning that are generated elsewhere… to read books whose instructions for use are given in places that are NOT books.” The choice of these authors is partly logical (Plato and Shakespeare are central to Szymborska’s poetics: Bauman, perhaps the most clear-headed sociologist of our time, is Polish like Szymborska), and partly arbitrary in every way, or at least subjective. In short, each poem is used as a pretext: or as a point of departure to set out on a journey of self-reflection and, then, interpretation of the surrounding world, by reviewing personal experiences, readings, and emotions.
The way Szymborska prompts us to think firstly about ourselves, on the representation that we offer to others in both our private and professional lives compared to our truer singularity, is particularly suited to these purposes. She does it through an ironic gaze, marked by desperation and enchantment (she defines my distinguishing traits in The Sky); astonishment (I could be myself—but without astonishment, and that would mean someone totally different – In the Throng); engagement (No other sense can make up for your missing sense of taking part – Conversation with a stone). The unmistakable levity with which Szymborska’s poems lift off the illusory veil of everyday banality takes nothing away from their power: they possess what Calvino called “the lightness of thoughtfulness.” Their force is enough to set off a profound identity process, triggering intimate reactions and leading us to ask ourselves why we are having the reactions we do, thereby enhancing our awareness, which is the first step toward self-development.
He came back. He didn’t say anything.
But it was obvious that something had annoyed him.
He went to bed in his clothes.
He put his head under the covers.
He curled up his legs.
He’s forty, but not right now.
He exists—but no more than in his mother’s womb,
beyond seven hairs, in the shelter of darkness.
Tomorrow he’ll give a talk on homeostasis
in metagalactic cosmonautry
For the moment he’s all curled up, sleeping.
These lines show how poetry (Szymborska’s, but the observation holds true in general) gives us access to experiences of (self-)recognition in a more immediate manner than other narrative tools. Even when poetry adopts filmic, theatrical, or even journalistic techniques, it is naturally suited to making us become aware of our most hidden, irrational, ambiguous, and contradictory experiences.
At the same time, it’s impossible to overlook the fact that Szymborska frequently makes use of the sleight of hand offered by photography, so as to extract fragments of reality from their usual context through a specific point of view (comic in Family Album, tragic in Photograph from September 11, moving in Laughter, grotesque in Hitler’s First Photograph…), focusing on them and drawing a meaning out of them that is often surprising or unexpected, or in any case, never banal. More generally, the type of poetry she writes that favours short, concise forms is similar to photography because both presuppose a strict, predetermined limitation. In the case of photography, as Julio Cortázar has commented, it is imposed “by the diminished field that the lens takes in and also by the way the photographer uses this limitation in an aesthetic way.” From this perspective (as well), Szymborska reverses the traditional poetic canon that ever since Homer has preferred its poets to be blind, thus possessing a superior vision. She sees us perfectly. We’re the ones who are blind.
The pictures taken by Fabiana Cutranothat accompany the poems are intended to give us back this peculiar visual capacity. The photography assignment was completed entirely in London, the European city that reflects the impermanent multiplicity of contemporaneity more than any other, with its staging of human beings mixed up and confused with manikins, but also its street performers, who play out the theatrical conception of life that is typical of Szymborska, and her reading of life as an unfolding of “sit-coms”. The reader is invited to use them as a tool for lighting up the intellectual journey starting from each of the twenty-five poems. It’s a bumpy path at times, but one that always winds between humanism and management, especially in regard to key issues like: irony as a tool for demystifying the prescribed meaning of reality; the obsession of scientific management for control and its incompatibility with all forms of sociability; the dark side of liquid modernity, well represented in the proliferation of what Marc Augé calls non-places. And this is where the difference between scientific management and humanistic management lies, between those who would like to reduce people to an army of depersonalised clones, marionettes, robots versus those who appreciate diversity, creativity, genuinely human talent. The scientific manager, unlike those who have undertaken a sentimental education inspired by the values of humanism, sees the work life as a crossing between anonymous offices: non-places, in fact, like department stores, underground stops, the luxury boutiques often depicted in Fabiana Cutrano’s photography, which are juxtaposed in other shots with soulful places like Portobello, Hyde Park or Brick Lane. A wholly human depiction of life is only offered in these pictures, even when decrepit manikins or gas-masks are portrayed: what we find in non-places is the human form, but without a soul, of dolls decked out in the latest fashion; the undistinguished mass of people who crowed the escalators of the “temples of consumerism”, as Bauman calls them; the bright lights of stores that reflect flashes of existential meaninglessness.
While pausing along these twenty-five paths, the reader will find personal statements from managers, artists, and intellectuals in the form of observations on the starting poem. These provide practical instances of confirmation and a definitive seal of approval for the possibility of finding original points of view that may be useful to inspire a renewed management practice. Coming from figures who play leading roles in very disparate fields (from politics to filmmaking, from philosophy to music), equally from senior managers and entrepreneurs who are actively involved in corporate life, their contributions demonstrate the need to rediscover the humanistic roots of our living in association and of our ethically responsible industry procedures.
But the book does not end with this. Each chapter, ideally, closes with a final section: one in which the reader can write about his or her own life, both personal and professional, having acquired a new mode of reading, through poetry.
Humanistic Management 2.0
- Origins of Humanistic Management in Italy: the ockhamist organization
- Agip Library
- The Shakespearian Company
- The Humanistic Management Manifesto
- Nothing twice. The Management seen through the poetry by Wisława Szymborska
- The Humanistic Management chair
- The In-Visible Corporation
- Web Opera
- Postmodern Alice
- Founder & CEO of Humanistic Management 2.0
- About Marco Minghetti
- Selected Excerpts
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