A letter about Mary Parker Follett

by Albie M. Davis

Dear Podcasters,

What can I say?  Your discussion about Mary Parker Follett's (1868 – 1933) thoughts about "The Giving of Orders," with a focus on her notion of  "the law of the situation,” is such a delight.  The way you each share your thoughts and listen to one another, occasionally modifying your own thinking, after hearing and considering the thoughts of your colleagues, was like watching Follett’s ideas take form and evolve during the course of the conversation. To top off this experience, I listened to Johan’s summary last.  Sensational!

Thank you for developing such a novel and contemporary way to learn about and contribute to something as essential as how to work together in groups, whether they be families, schools, community meetings, the workplace, national governments or the United Nations. 

I first "met" Follett in 1989 in the Schlesinger Library, which was then part of Radcliffe College (for women) and is now The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.  I asked a librarian if she knew who Follett was, for I did not know if she was alive or dead.  The Librarian handed me Dynamic Administration:  The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett, and let me know that she had died in 1933.  However, when I flipped open her book and landed on the chapter on Constructive Conflict, a talk she presented before a Bureau of Personnel Administration conference group in January 1925, I thought, “She may have passed on, but her thinking is the most alive of anyone I know.”

Since your episode was so engaging, I made a few notes about what I might say if I were there. I hope you will forgive me for stepping into your exchange with the way I have come to think about “the law of the situation.”  This is a concept that has arisen slowly for me over the years, and probably will continue to change, but it is where I am today.

One of the things I love about Follett is the way in which mid-stream in her writing and talks she can modify her thinking. And another quality comes when she herself gets “swept up” in an idea.  Below is one of my favorite Follett’s trips.  I call this “The Surge of Life.”  It is from The New State, page 35.

The surge of life sweeps through the given similarity, the common ground, and breaks it up into a thousand differences. This tumultuous, irresistible flow of life is our existence: the unity, the common, is but for an instant, it flows on to new differings which adjust themselves anew in fuller, more varied, richer synthesis. The moment when similarity achieves itself as a composite of working, seething forces, it throws out its myriad new differings. The torrent flows into a pool, works, ferments, and then rushes forth until all is again gathered into the new pool of its own unifying. (NS35)

I love the phrase “the law of the situation,” however, “law” does suggest a certain static quality.  If you add up statements by Follett, it is clear she doesn’t see the world standing still. And in her third book, Creative Experience (1924) she makes it clears that:

 “A situation changes faster than anyone can report on it.  The developing possibilities of certain factors must be so keenly perceived that we get the report of a process, not a picture, and when it is necessary to present to us a stage in the process, it should be presented in such a way that we see the hints it contains of successive stages.”(CE9)

I agree with what sounded like a semi-consensus among your team: Follett only occasionally laid out a “how to” list of steps and stages.  She trusted the readers or listeners to figure that out themselves. And, it is thrilling to think that you are interested in tackling some of the challenges that face humanity in a world bursting with technological possibilities.

I admire the élan with which your team is creating your Talking About Organizations podcast, site and blog, and I look forward to your individual and collective insights into Follett and all those who shed light on how people can tap the creative energy spawned by the differences among members in a group.


With anticipation and appreciation,

Albie Davis

Albie M. Davis served as Director of Mediation for the Massachusetts District Courts from 1981 to 1999. In that role, she helped develop community-based mediation programs which trained volunteers to provide mediation services instead of taking their conflicts to court. In this role, she trained mediators as well as mediation trainers. When she left her court position to move from Massachusetts to Maine, she expanded her interests from mediation to mixed media, and began to paint in oils and watercolor, as well as serve as a conflict resolution consultant/coach for the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2013 she returned to Boston and with a three-country team, (France, Canada and the USA) co-authored and co-edited a book, The Essential Mary Parker Follett: Ideas We Need Today. Additionally, she wrote an article for the Negotiation Journal which explored Follett's influence on James E. Webb, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the period when the USA geared up to put a man on the moon. 

Get in touch with Albie via albiedavis@aol.com