Name: Strategic Contingencies Theory
Author: D.J. Hickson
Classification: Contingency Theories
Year: Theory was written by D. J. Hickson et al (1971)
With Strategic Contingencies Theory, a leader depends on his problem solving skills and a projective personality that is center stage. The leader his so because she or he is in demand and others cannot solve the problems the leader faces. This gives the leader bargainingpower. In that the leader cannot be replaced easily, he or she is not easily displaced, especially by popular will. Social processes depend upon the leader. Strike out the leader and the system is in danger of collapsing. The ability of one to maintain leadership in a system through problem solving relies on the interconnectedness of system units (department, divisions, etc.), social interaction, communications speed and system infrastructure integrity.
Uncertainty is a driving force in Hickson's writing. It is defined as "...lack of information about future events so that alternatives and their outcomes are unpredictable" [Hickson, p. 5]. Power comes from the ability to cope with uncertainty. Such ability reduces the uncertainty and persons and organizational units become dependent upon it for survival. Here, at a subunit level of organization, the problem solving status (in this case, the processing of requisitions) is a function of power. With all this, an organization's units are reified as persons. Such units, if highly structuralized, mechanized and with well-defined procedures can cope better and are more resilient to uncertainty. Regularity and perforce allows for a greater prediction of events. A leader plies on this, using her or his problem solving ability to impose regularity on uncertainty.
Hickson argues that if an organizational unit cannot substitute "obtain alternative performance", then it becomes dependent upon the leader for the one solution she or he presents. This extends to specialization, where if workers are confined to knowing only one subset of operations, a leader having knowledge of all the operations has great control. The greater the scope of problem solving ability, the greater power a leader has. Subunit power is a function of how many other units need that subunit. If other departments of a factory depend on a daily basis for the Requisitions Department to act, the latter has more than if requisitions were done, let's say on a monthly basis. Unit dependencies can override uncertainties in assessing how much power exists. A greater dependency may be more important than the ability to problem-solve an uncertainty. Here is where the Strategic Contingency Theory may not promote efficiency, functionality, or rationality [Hickson, p. 11]. That is, there may be cases where it should not be used in developing leaders.
Except for newly-arising groups, it may be asked what the residual effects of a previous leader are. This would affect how receptive the group is to a leader and of what type. A stark example of this is has been playing out in the Middle East, where a series of dictators have failed to solve problems and their method of rule has been discredited as a result. If problems had been solved, at least in a minimally acceptable way, the theory would suggest subsequent leadership styles of the same genre would be accepted. To its credit, this has been shown to be the case in some authoritarian settings, such as with various communist parties. Here, we must assess the degree of authoritarianism and what it ranges over. Too, there is a threshold over which a leader cannot pass without a reaction and again, the Middle East has been demonstrating this. To make a theory robust, quantifying these events would have enormous value. We also have been discussing the Strategic Contingency for large scale systems. How does it apply to small scale ones, such as a faculty senate?
Numerous factors bear close scrutiny of the Strategic Contingencies Theory. While Hickson discusses the extent of authority and the actual use of it, as well as ranges of issues influenced by exertion of authority, he doesn't settle on a definitive concept. Power is described within contexts. In a generic sense, power is the ability to make others do your will, but there are many exhibitions and manners of it: psychological, mesmeric, physical, intellectual, charisma, etc. Additionally, power and one's ability to exert it also depends upon the one conforming to a will. Certain forms of power effective in one situation may be quite effective an individual is susceptible; in others, it may make no difference. Power in one situation simply may not be power in another. There is a measurement issue, as well. To what degree is power being exerted and how effective is it? This would mean that a "before and after" situation would need description to assess a power. Hickson alludes to these problems, but one is left with uncertainty about what power really is.
As a problem besetting all theories, the context of the situation needs to be discussed, as well as system dynamics. What of the structure of the system or group to be led? Numerous structures exist and it can be asked whether a broad brushed theory, like the Strategic Contingencies theory can be applied universally. What are its dynamics? To what degree do the sub-units have independence and power? For the leader's part, when one says "problem solver", what does that mean? There are many types of problems, and it is simplistic to refer to one as a problem solver.
A uniform testing instrument does not exist to assess the predictability of the Strategic Contingencies Theory model. By subjective quantification of the vague terms, such as "power" and "problem", one almost may be able to bootstrap the desired outcome by applying convenient definitions before research begins.
Cognitive Resource Theory contravenes Strategic Contingencies Theory. The issue is what effect stress has on a leader's ability to lead using intelligence and rationality. Not only does stress affect problem solving ability, but some situations may not be amenable to problem solving strategies, such as when a group merely has to hold together. The Chilean mine disaster of 2010 comes to mind, when it wasn't so much of a question of solving problems as maintaining sanity and the will to survive. Problems always have to be solved, of course, but such is not always the dominant factor in a leader's tasking. Simply keeping a group together may be paramount.
An extension of the theory might include the role of intra-organizational power and interactions and their effect on the ability to solve problems. For example, is there a democratic process that leans towards consensus that militates against universal agreement on solutions to problems? The more independent members and/or their units are, the more difficult it may be for a problem solving-oriented leader to be effective. That is, there may be a "kick back" from organizational units or groups of individuals. The more there is, the more authoritarian the leader may have to be and less reliant upon her/his skills as a problem solver. It is situation like this that takes one to contingency theory, in general, a theory saying that the circumstances of a group and its leader determine the type and extent of leadership that may be efficacious.
Research opportunities exist where the Strategic Contingencies Theory might be quantified and tested on specific situations requiring problem solving. There might be a compare and contrast vis a vis other leadership techniques that have failed in the situation. Balkin, for example, suggests that the theory works in getting workers to accept compensation plans. The same might be applied to other problems, such as manufacturing plant arrangements, organizational arrangements, and even at national levels, as in legislative impasses. However, it appears that the greater size of an organization militates against Strategic Contingency, as there is a multiplicity of problems and personalities.
We encourage you to expand on the discussion, add to the critique or even share your vision with regards to the future applications of the theory.
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