Ralph Stacey 10/9/1942 – 4/9/2021

I am writing to let you know that I heard from Ralph Stacey’s family on Sunday that Ralph died peacefully in hospital on Saturday night after a short illness over the summer.

Many of you who follow this site may already know a lot about Ralph and will have met him in person. For those who didn’t know him, here is a brief obituary.

Ralph was trained as an economist graduating with his PhD from LSE in 1967. He came to Hatfield Polytechnic in 1985 having worked in corporate planning for the construction company John Laing, and having briefly been an investment analyst in the City of London. In the same year that the polytechnic became a university, 1992, Ralph was made a Professor of Management.

Ralph was one of the pioneers of adopting analogies from the sciences of complexity into theories exploring group dynamics in organisations. He published his first book in 1990, and went on to write 12 in all, including a textbook which is now in its 7th Edition. Just as important as his publishing record is his founding of the Complexity and Management Centre in 1995, and the establishment of group supervision for doctoral students. He combined the group approach with the development of a conceptual framework he, Doug Griffin and Patricia Shaw termed complex responsive processes of relating, a radical critique of systems theories, into the Doctor of Management programme. As those of you following this blog will know, the DMan is still running 20 years later and has just produced its 71st doctoral completion.

He was a scholar with a global reputation and was invited to speak all over the world. He made contributions to the field of organisational theory, to the development of experience-based pedagogy, and to the thinking of the Institute of Group Analysis where he trained as a group analyst in the 1990s. Ralph ran clinical groups in the NHS as well as groups within the university of Hertfordshire, including working with management teams.

Ralph continued to have a part time role as a supervisor on the DMan programme into his mid-70s and only finally retired three years ago. Some of you reading this post will have attended the retirement event at Roffey Park and experienced the great esteem in which he was held by everyone present.

Those of you who have met him will know that Ralph was a great story-teller. Despite his genius he was self-deprecating; he was kind, generous and provocative. He was also, at times, fantastically stubborn. 

Ralph was a figure of great stature in the academic world. He was a loyal employee of HBS for over 30 years. But above all he was a great colleague, and with his immense gifts and deep wisdom he was very supportive of everyone who sought his help. Ralph helped us understand the world differently, as complex and paradoxical, and through his insights he helped us better understand ourselves. For many of us, he taught us how to think critically and reflexively.

We will be thinking of ways of continuing to discuss his legacy in the coming weeks and months.

If you would like to say something about Ralph and what he meant to you I have created a tribute page here.

Complexity and Management Online Symposium 9.30-5.00pm Sat Nov 20th , 2021

The complexity of waiting.

Your boss summons you for a meeting: she can be late, but it would be unwise for you to be. Or you pass your boss in the corridor as she is talking to another colleague: she asks you to wait while she finishes what she has to say, but the conversation goes on and on. You are doubly frustrated by having to listen to matters which don’t concern you, and by being delayed on the task you are on. Do you dare interrupt and negotiate a meeting at a later time?

These are trivial examples, but being asked to wait often reflects a power relationship, the membership or otherwise of a group, and an indication of social status. The groups of people who are likely to be made to wait the longest are the poor, the unemployed, asylum-seekers, and the otherwise marginalised, who face endless iterations of delay in their dealings with borders or state bureaucracy. Sometimes whole populations of people are asked to wait years, sometimes for generations for a resolution of their displacement and refugee status, like the Palestinians for example. There are hierarchies within societies and between societies and the length of time spent waiting is an index of powerlessness. We have recently witnessed long queues of people waiting to leave the airport in Kabul, while the majority of Afghans have no chance of leaving.

But if you have a first world passport you are unlikely to wait as long in the immigration queue as you are if you are a national of a country in the Global South. If you are a business traveller you are likely to board first and perhaps be accelerated through immigration on your arrival. Money, status, nationality, relationships with the powerful, can all make a difference to gaining access, to being let in, to avoiding bureaucratic entanglements, to getting justice. British citizens are already experiencing their change in status of choosing to leave the EU as they have their passports stamped and join the queue of ‘other nationals’.

But even the privileged have been unable to avoid the uncertain waiting that has afflicted us all during the pandemic. We have been locked down, endlessly waiting, for a resolution, a way out, for hope for the future. In a neoliberal age which privileges action, agency, the constant remaking of the self, we have all experienced, more or less, what it means to have our ability to plan our lives profoundly curtailed. Moreover, we have come to think of ourselves as infinitely networked, speeded up, able to gratify our desires instantly. In contemporary organisations and in normal times we are constantly speeding towards an idealised future. Instead, during the last period we have got used to living with the kind of radical uncertainty that populations in the majority world have long been used to. We are thrown back upon ourselves knowing that our plans are highly contingent on circumstances beyond our control.

In large groups and small, the Complexity and Management Symposium will consider the complexities of waiting, of dwelling in uncertainty. The day will comprise a mixture of small and large groups in the morning and workshops in the afternoon presented by Symposium delegates. If you have an idea for a workshop you would like to present, then please write to me at c.mowles@herts.ac.uk.

I will set up a booking site in the next few weeks on the UH website.

Looking forward to seeing you there.

Prof Hari Tsoukas’ key note speech at the June 2021 Complexity and Management conference

This year we held another highly participative conference to discuss the complexity of practice. In order to help us frame the day, we invited Prof Hari Tsoukas of Cyprus and Warwick Universities to give us his thoughts on complexity and practice, which you can watch below.

In the meantime, the Complexity and Management Conference is planning an online symposium for Saturday November 27th 2021, another date for your diaries.

Update- Complexity and Management Conference 4-6th June 2021

Whatever happens we still intend to go ahead with The Complexity and Management Conference 2021 4-6th June – The Complexity of Practice, with Professor Hari Tsoukas as our key note speaker. So will the introductory workshop on complex responsive processes of relating on Friday 4th June.

Previously we have been planning either for a face-to-face event, or to go online. However, it seems most likely that some will be able to make it and others will be prevented from coming. So to allow for both modes of participation simulataneously we are now organising for a hybrid event.

If you would still like to attend the conference in person the University booking site is open here. You will be asked to pay a deposit and then pay a second time to make up the full fee. In the event of our going online we will refund you the second payment of £700.

Those wishing to attend virtually for the in-person conference, a means of participation which will be available for Saturday 5th June only, will be able to book on the same site from next week onwards. The fee for virtual participation is £100, the same as the deposit for the conference. You will be able to live-stream Prof Tsoukas’ talk and participate in breakout discussions and afternoon seminars in virtual mode.

The Friday introductory workshop will not be available online unless everything is online. In other words, it is not being offered as a hybrid event.

Hope to see you there one way or another,

Do write if you are unclear about your options c.mowles@herts.ac.uk

Complexity and Management Conference 4-6th June 2021 – booking now.

The Complexity and Management Conference 4-6th June 2021 – The Complexity of Practice, is open for booking now. Here is the booking page.

This year we are delighted to have Professor Hari Tsoukas, who is well known to many of you,  as our key note speaker. Hari is Columbia Ship Management Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Cyprus and Distinguished Research Environment Professor of Organization Studies at Warwick Business School. He is best known for his contributions to understanding organizations as knowledge and learning systems, for re-viewing organizational phenomena through the lens of process philosophy, for exploring practical reason in organizational contexts as well as the epistemology of reflective practice in management, and for bringing insights from Aristotelian, Wittgensteinian and Heideggerian philosophy to organization and management studies.

The staging of this year’s conference is no less an uncertain undertaking than last year’s. So we are organising for a face to face event, but at the same time preparing to go online. This means that the booking page requires you to make two payments. The first is a deposit (£100), and the second (£700) is to top up the payment to the full conference fee amount (£800). Should the face to face event be cancelled and we move online, we will refund you the top-up amount (£700) and keep the deposit as payment for the online event. This is the way the university best copes with refunds and it will save you going through the whole process again.

The event will, as usual, be highly participative and deliberative. If face to face, the conference begins on the evening of Friday 4th June with complementary drinks and gala dinner, and ends after lunch on Sunday 6th June. The conference fee covers all board and lodging for the event at Roffey Park Institute, Horsham UK. If we move online the conference will be just Saturday 5th June from 9am till 5.30pm.

There are limited places, so book early to avoid disappointment. I will send out an agenda early May once it is clear what kind of event we will be staging.

Whether face to face or online, the afternoon of Saturday 5th will comprise seminars presented by conference delegates emerging from some aspect of their work related to the conference theme on which they would like to convene a discussion. If you would like to convene such a seminar, please contact me.

On Friday 4th June, whether face to face or online, there is an introductory workshop to the ideas which inform the Doctor of Management (DMan) programme, a perspective we term complex responsive processes of relating. The workshop too will be very participative and discussive, drawing on delegates’ every day experience at work.

Looking forward to seeing you there, one way or another.

Complexity and Management Conference 4-6th June 2021

This is to remind you that next year’s Complexity and Management Conference will be on 4th-6th June 2021, but with a changed speaker. We are delighted to have Professor Hari Tsoukas of Warwick and Cyprus Universities to give our key note. We are still discussing the theme of the conference, but it will be something to do with the complexity of practice. 

The conference begins @7pm on the Friday evening 4th June, and ends lunchtime Sunday 6th. We hope the event will be face to face at Roffey Park, UK but will plan to put it online if not.

A booking page on the university site will go up as usual later in January.

Exploring the complexity of conflict and organising in the time of Covid-19 – Online Symposium/Practicum Nov 28th

Just a week to go before the Complexity and Management Centre’s online Symposium/Practicum exploring the role of conflict, particularly in the time of Covid-19. There are still a few places remaining, which you can book here.

The morning comprises reflections in a large group setting to experience the significance of conflict to the everyday processes of getting things done together. In the afternoon there will be seminars run by practitioner-scholars who will invite delegates to think about what’s going on for them in their organisational setting as a way of further exploring the generalisability of their insights.

Our last post to warm us up for the event comes from Professor Emma Crewe, who teaches at SOAS and is a supervisor on the DMan programme.

When people fall apart

These days, as I bounce from one virtual room to the next, shapeshifting from my various research teams to a discussion about university finance to teaching PhD students, with no gaps and virtually no gossip in between, my energy drains away all too easily. We no longer have the ability to discern the subtle emotional signs or the cunning political tactics employed by those around us. We are becoming more ignorant of each other. I can’t say no to these conversations  in two-dimensional space because a pull towards collaboration draws me in; but often they leave me feeling empty – it is so hard to read each other and innovate together when we can’t meet, body-to-body, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. To innovate you need to move from separate, differing positions to a new relationship, understanding or action. My experience of Covid is that stuckness is more common than movement.

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Complexity and Management: Online Symposium/Practicum November 28th – now booking.

Exploring the complexity of conflict and organising in the time of Covid-19

The Symposium booking site is now open and is available here . You can see the agenda for the day here.

The following is a post by member of DMan faculty Professor Karen Norman which speaks into the theme of the conference:

Exploring the complexity of conflict in organising in the time of Covid: washing our hands of a problem?

Infection prevention and control (IPC) in hospitals is essential at the best of times, but especially so in a time of Covid. From my previous experience as a Board Director responsible for Infection Control in hospitals, I understand the challenges facing staff in maintaining high IPC standards. In 2003, I was involved in a national initiative to reduce the incidence of hospital acquired Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Auereus, (MRSA) bacteraemias, because 9% of hospital inpatients had infections acquired whilst in hospital,[1] equating to100,000 incidents a year, costing the National Health Service (NHS) around £1 billion (N.A.O. 2000)[2]. The term ‘hospital acquired infection’ sits uncomfortably with me, given Florence Nightingales’ founding values that hospitals should ‘do the sick no harm.’ A significant causal factor in their spread cited was the poor hand hygiene of the health professionals when caring for patients. Thankfully, progress has been made in recent years, with the hospital I refer to in this blog meeting their target of zero cases of avoidable MRSA in the last year. But what I have noticed amidst the intense discussions we have been having of late with regard to stopping the spread of Covid, is how similar problems are re-surfacing to those we faced when reducing the spread of MRSA, most notably with regard to compliance with ‘best practice’ as set out in our IPC policies and procedures. I share the following narrative to help think about why implementing corporate values such as ‘patient safety’, or ‘doing no harm’ might not be so easy as people seem to think.

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Conflict and complexity in the time of Covid-19 – online Symposium/Practicum Sat Nov 28th. A few tickets still available.

There are still a few places left for the Complexity and Management Centre’s Symposium/Practicum on Conflict and complexity in the time of Covid-19, on November 28th. You can book here.

The day comprises large and small group discussion of the every-day practicalities of working with conflict in organisations. For more details on the programme, look here.

How are we as hosts of the Symposium/Practicum approaching the day in terms of our assumptions?

There are a number of ways in which conflict is understood in organisational literature.[1] The first perspective is to consider it an aberration for the high-functioning, aligned organisation which thrives on positivity and high trust. From this perspective, conflict should be overcome, or mediated as quickly as possible because it’s an obstacle to progress. As a worker in an organisation where this set of assumptions predominate, one might be invited to leave one’s bad self, or perhaps political self, at the door. This might be an idealising environment to work in where a premium is placed on charisma.

A second way of understanding conflict is to think of it as necessary to the exploration of difference as long as the organisation can optimise it to fulfil its aims. Optimising involves not too much conflict and not too little, but just enough. This Goldilocks equilibrium is achieved by managers intervening in the conflict to bring about the desired ends. The assumption here is that the conflict is amenable to intervention, that the manager doesn’t have a stake in the game themselves, and they are able to nudge the conflict into an optimised state. In this organisation the tools and techniques of leadership and management may predominate.

A third perspective conceives of organisations as a market place where lots of autonomous individuals try to maximise their interests. The conflicts arising from competing interests are mediated by contracts and social control mechanisms to maximise efficiency for the organisation. Competition between individuals is to be encouraged if it leads to greater efficiency in the organisation, if you assume that all individuals can compete equally. In making this assumption this economic perspective on conflict denies power inequalities and hierarchies. This kind of thinking often predominates in financialized organisation driven by metrics as ‘price mechanisms’.

Meanwhile, a critical perspective, and one which we adopt as a faculty group in shaping the agenda for the forthcoming Symposium, always creates the possibility for conflict because it calls into question the taken-for-granted. There is no assumption that the way things are is the way they need to be, or that they are inevitably that way, or that we should aim towards some kind of ideal of positive cooperation. There is no assumption that a manager is somehow outside of the ebb and flow of both cooperation and competition which ensues when people try to get work done together, nor that they are unaffected by it, nor that they can intervene to bring it to any equilibrium state. A critical perspective tries to take into account history and power relationships, and assumes that as social beings we are not autonomous, rational individuals trying to maximise our utility. Instead a critical perspective assumes that we act on the basis of a plurality of motivations which raise a variety of ethical questions which can only be considered in concrete situations with particular actors. At the same time there is no attempt to deny that there are broader social trends which advantage some social groups and disadvantage others, sometimes for long periods of time.

If this last perspective on conflict is of interest to you, then it would be great to see you there on the day.


[1] I found Alessia Contu’s article (2017) on Conflict and Organization Studies,  in the journal Organization Studies, April, 1–18 really helpful, although Professor Contu is not responsible for the way I have mangled some of her ideas and added my own.

Online Symposium/Practicum November 28th – now booking.

Exploring the complexity of conflict and organising in the time of Covid-19.

The Symposium booking site is now open and is available here . We will send participants a link at least 48 hours before the event begins.

Here is the agenda for the day. The Symposium/Practicum will be a combination of group reflection on organisational dilemmas in the morning, and workshops/seminars in the afternoon where contributors will bring something which preoccupies them in their workplace.

10.00- 11.00    Complexity and Management Centre colleagues start with an open discussion of some key themes, followed by small groups.

11.00-11.30    Break

11.30-13.00    Large group meeting continuing the exploration of the above.

13.00-14.00    Lunch

14.00-15.30    Practice-based seminars offered by Symposium participants I.

15.30-16.00    Break

16.00-17.30    Practice-based seminars offered by Symposium participants II

17.30-18.00    Final plenary.

As a contribution to the discussion in advance of the event, faculty member Dr Karina Solsø Iversen has written the following:

The pursuit of meaning through political action

When Corona virus struck some months back many of us suddenly found ourselves working from home in ways that we hadn’t thought was possible prior to this crisis. For me as an organizational consultant, some activities were postponed while others were moved to an online format.

In the following I will draw on ideas from the philosopher and political thinker, Hannah Arendt to make sense of some of the difficulties that I feel Covid-19 has created, and then conclude by drawing attention to aspects of this crisis, which leave me with a sense of hope.

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