I want to continue with two more postings about the deepening crisis of leadership and ethics, and thought that I would put this up first for those who might not be familiar with the how we are motivated by the complexity sciences in our research on managing, leading and organizational change at the University of Hertfordshire as opposed to others who are directly importing concepts from the complexity sciences into understanding human social interaction. Richard Bernstein makes the point in his recent book The Pragmatic Turn that thinkers like Mead and Dewey were far ahead of their time. We would argue with Bernstein that the time is very much now and further argue that the complexity sciences have made an important contribution to opening the way to rethinking the uniqueness of human communication and local interaction. This is very different from those who seek universal laws of complexity which can be applied, continuing the instrumental rationalism of the currently dominant paradigm. The natural sciences, including many of those appealing to the complexity sciences, face the challenge of rethinking their metaphysics of the laws of nature as an important key to a radical shift in how we think about ethics in the social sciences. The following is taken in part from the preface to Ralph’s Stacey’s recent book Complexity and Organizational Reality, which works out in detail some of the main ideas we will be presenting in these blogs posts.
Most management consultants and people in organizations, including senior executives, the vast majority of textbooks, business school programs and research projects around the world, most professional management and leadership development programs in organizations, all talk about how organizations should be governed, all making the same taken-for-granted assumptions. There is a dominant discourse in which it is assumed, without much questioning, that small groups of powerful executives are able to choose the ‘direction’ that their organization will move in, realize a ‘vision’ for it, create the conditions in which its members will be innovative and entrepreneurial, and select the ‘structures’ and ‘conditions’ which will enable them to be in control and so ensure success.
This dominant discourse rests on the claim that there is an organization and management science and that it is appropriately based on sciences of certainty. Despite the massive increase in numbers of professionally educated managers and the millions of pieces of research done, there is, however, no adequate scientific evidence base for the dominant prescriptions for managing and leading organizations. The key requirement of the sciences of certainty, an evidence base for the prescriptions, is lacking.
If we are to turn to science, then we should move from thinking in the engineering terms of the sciences of certainty to ways of thinking indicated by the sciences of uncertainty, the sciences of complexity. This should be done in a way which avoids the error of directly applying the natural sciences to human social interaction. What the sciences of complexity offer are important analogies which must be interpreted in terms of political science, sociology and psychology.
At the University of Hertfordshire we are doing research as a professional doctorate program in which students draw on analogies from the sciences of uncertainty, the complexity sciences, to explore their work in the framework of a theory of organizing as complex responsive processes of relating in which leaders and managers participate, along with all other organizational members. This perspective shifts attention to the organizational games we are all preoccupied with, in which we are all perpetually constructing the ‘organization’ as patterns that emerge in our ordinary local interaction while at the same time the patterns of organization are perpetually forming our local interaction. What Ilya Prigogine first described as self-organization in the complexity sciences, becomes central to our understanding of organizations, management and leadership. It is this local interaction which takes the form of ordinary, ongoing conversation. It is in these ordinary conversations that patterns of power relations emerge not just in the local interactions themselves but across populations. These patterns of power relations take the form of figurations of inclusion and exclusion which confer identity on people.
The sciences of uncertainty, complexity, are the basis then of developing a radically new perspective on effective leadership and management. This is a new paradigm of thinking about our participation in interaction with others in reflective and imaginative ways, making us more aware of the potentially destructive processes we may get caught up in. It is in this practice that leaders emerge and are recognized as those who have the capacity to assist the group in acting into the unknown. Unpredictability and uncertainty are at the core of thinking about complexity. Those who emerge as effective leaders are participants, among others, in the ongoing politics of daily life. These politics include the negotiation of the ethics of the goals the group sets itself to achieve, whether they be deemed morally good or destructive of the broader social context.
The sciences of complexity provide a basis then for moving away from a narrow focus on management as being a matter of making the right decisions, meaning identifying and following rational, analytical techniques and using the right tools to make decisions which optimize outcomes. It implies a different sense of time; we understand the importance of the present in which we are entering into robust political conflict to construct the future within the constraints of our context and past history. It represents a move from a narrow instrumental paradigm of organizing processes to a basis for researching the ethics of conflictual participation in the politics of everyday local interaction.
The Complexity Research Group of the Business School, University of Hertfordshire