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The paper in question is Peter Keen's "Information Systems and Organizational Change". This is considered a classic paper in software engineering, I'm studying it right now for a retrospective on a project that has been difficult. The paper is about why the implementation of MIS (management information science) systems can be difficult from a sociological and political science perspective.

The passage I'm confused by is as follows (bold emphasis mine):

4. Pluralism: The Need to Mobilize

Political science views organizations mainly as groups of actors, often with conflicting priorities, objectives, and values. (Allison [1]) The management literature generally assumes far more commonality of purpose. The Down- and-Out approach relies on this. Up-and-In evades the problem by limiting the scope of the project and hence the number of actors involved; it fails completely if consensus is not impossible. The more the organization is viewed as a set of loosely coupled units (Weick [72]) where joint action rests on negotiations (Strauss [67]), the more any strategy for implementation must emphasize the need to mobilize coalitions, to provide the necessary support for an innovative proposal. Obviously that process is based on political rather than economic rationality. The corollary of this argument is that lack of attention to the constraints on change imposed by pluralism in organizations will result in failure.

Everything makes sense except the bolded part. It seems, if we simplify the double-negative, that he means to say that if consensus is possible between the pluralistic groups, then the Up-and-In approach will fail. I do not see why this is so. It does not seem self-evident from my careful reading of the text why this would be true.

Here is a link to an online copy of the paper (I hope this is allowed): http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.83.3441&rep=rep1&type=pdf

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I'm sure that this is just a typo. It should read

it fails completely if consensus is not possible

instead.

Consensus being impossible is hardly a good thing for a project.


Having worked as an editor before*, I can say that this is certainly an editing mistake. If the author really wanted to say "impossible" here, then the sentence is at least very unclear and the point should be more emphasized and it should be explained why reaching consensus is undesirable in that case. It's bad style to hide important surprising statements behind double negatives (or triple negatives.)

I cannot imagine how an editor can agree and say "yeah, reaching consensus is bad for up-and-in projects... sure.. everyone will understand" - the rest of the text (as far as I checked) appears well-edited, so I'm sure there was an editor for this text.

However, when you read a paper multiple times, it is possible that you don't see all the mistakes anymore, because you "understand what the author is trying to say anyways". Editors have to fight this impulse, but these kind of mistakes happen, especially for complicated sentences, or for sentences with multiple negatives.

*) editing German texts. I don't edit English texts.

  • This makes a lot of sense, I proposed an edit to your answer that I hope you will approve of, but as it stands it does look like an reasonable assumption, so I've marked your answer as the accepted answer unless a new more compelling answer comes along. – neener neener Sep 23 '18 at 21:55
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    @neenerneener: Thanks for "accept"ing my answer. I just looked up the difference between "not possible" and "impossible". According to the answers on this question, the differences are small (depending on who you ask), but I think "not possible" is a better approximation of Peter Keen's intent. IMHO "impossible" leaves space for the question "what if consensus is possible, but the project leader was just unable to reach it?" – Michael Sep 24 '18 at 7:12
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    Whereas with "not possible" the simple fact that consensus has not been reached proves that it is "not possible". Thats because "impossible" seems to be a stronger statement. (Except for those who say that "impossible" and "not possible" is the same, but then, there is no reason to change it.) – Michael Sep 24 '18 at 7:12
  • The only reason I preferred "impossible" was that it seemed less different from the original line that contained the error. However, I could see an argument for editing it either way. In both cases the ambiguity is resolved. Thanks again for helping me to understand this. – neener neener Sep 24 '18 at 22:16

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