Responding to Complexity and Uncertainty: The Agile Organisation

Over the past two decades, management consultants and academics at business schools have increasingly stressed what they view as the rapidly increasing levels of complexity and uncertainty in the environment that all organisations have to respond to and many have labelled these conditions ‘ hyper-competition’ or ‘high velocity competition’. To deal with these conditions, consultants and academics have called for organisations to become ‘agile organisations’. The ‘agile organisation’ is also described as ‘the entrepreneurial organisation’ and ‘the resilient organisation’ and the hallmarks of this kind of organisation are its high speed of response to change and its focus on the customer which calls for customized  rather than standardised offerings. The notion of the agile organisation therefore originates in the discipline of strategic management with its concern for competitive advantage; in manufacturing production systems such as Total Quality Management, Just in Time, Lean and six sigma with their concern for high quality, customized batch manufacturing; and also in Agile Software development and its concern for teams and partnerships with customers. In short, the concept of agile processes was initially primarily concerned with product manufacturing and software development and from these areas it has come to be simply applied to all other organisations including both private and public sector service providers, without much reflection on whether this is appropriate or not. So when did these developments occur and how widespread are they?

 A quick search of Google Scholar reveals that over the decade ending in 1993 there were 56 journal papers which referred to the agile organisation at some point and over the same period some 14 referred to hyper-competition while no papers referred to the resilient organisation but over 20,000 used the term ‘complexity’.  Over the rest of that decade the number referring to agile organisations rose to 442 and the number referring to hyper-competition rose to 416 while 43 referred to the resilient organisation and there were some 19,000 references to complexity. Over the first decade of this century, there were nearly 5,000 referrals to the agile organisation, about 3,500 to hyper-competition, 385 to the resilient organisation and some 40,000 to complexity. Interest in agile and resilient organisations facing hyper-competition, uncertainty and complexity is, therefore, very recent and even now not all that widespread. Despite recognizing complexity and uncertainty, however, the prescription is overwhelmingly for managers to design organisations that can successfully deal with the supposedly ‘new’ conditions. There is very little radical reflection on what the recognition of uncertainty and complexity, which has always characterized the conditions which members of organisations have to act into, means for the possibility of designing organisation in the first place. There is very little inquiry into how members of organisations have always dealt with uncertainty and complexity. This is, perhaps, not a surprising observation when one takes account of the strength of management and leadership thought collectives and the thought styles that they perpetuate. This post reviews notions of organisational agility and resilience as responses to rapidly rising complexity and uncertainty.

Rapidly rising complexity and uncertainty

Writers calling for agile organisations present rather anxiety provoking accounts of market conditions characterized by rapid change which amounts to hypercompetition. This form of competition makes it impossible to sustain competitive advantage for any length of time. Those taking this view argue that hyper-competition requires a new view of strategy. From this perspective, one firm outperforms another if it is adept at rapidly and repeatedly disrupting the current situation to create a novel basis for competing (D’Aveni, 1995). Hyper-competition requires a discontinuously redefined competitive advantage and radical changes in market relationships. Success is built not on existing strengths but on repeated disruptions. This enables a firm to continuously establish new but temporary competitive advantages. Tactical actions keep competitors off-balance. Competitive advantage is temporary and firms destroy their own and others’ competitive advantage. Organisation units and actions are loosely coupled and competition requires aggressive action unconstrained by loyalty and compassion. Successful strategies rely on surveillance, interpretation, initiative, opportunism and improvisation.

Brown and Eisenhardt (1998) use the term ‘high velocity competition’ to mean much the same as ‘ hyper-competition’ and appeal to a central concept from complexity theory, namely, the ‘edge of chaos’, which they define as being only partially structured: too much structure gives stability and too little produces chaos. When an organisation is at the edge of chaos its managers are advised to let a semi-coherent strategy emerge; one that is not too fixed nor one that is too fluid. Since agent-based modelling developed in the sciences of complexity show that a few simple structures ‘generate enormously complex adaptive behavior – whether flock behaviour among birds, resilient government (as in democracy), or simply successful performance by corporations’ and the ‘critical management issue at the edge of chaos is to figure out what to structure, and as essential, what not to structure’ (p. 12). The authors provide a questionnaire that managers can use to identify whether they are at the edge of chaos or trapped in one of the other dynamics (pp. 30–1). They give examples from their research of a company in each of these states and conclude that the only successful one is at the edge of chaos. They then give prescriptions for moving to the edge, if organisations are not already there.

Others refer to what the economist Schumpeter, writing in the 1930s, described as gales of creative destruction and claim that these are sweeping markets ever more ferociously. Consumers are demanding higher quality products and they can form online communities on the Internet and act as a major disruptive force on the market. Executives are facing unrelenting financial pressure and rapid technological change further disrupts markets. This is said to call for agile competition, which involves individualized products and services that are customer-enriching (Goldman et al, 1995), which in turn requires manufacturing in arbitrary lot sizes.

This rising complexity and uncertainty calls for new organisational configurations and operating models.

The characteristics of the agile organisation

The essence of the agile organisation is a perpetual cycle of reactive and preemptive behaviors and also action to disrupt industry ecosystems. So agile organisations do not only adapt, they develop breakthrough business models and so innovate. Pal and Pantaleo (2005) claim that gaining competitiveness and sustaining growth require a cohesive whole of the right vision and values, teams which are adaptive and innovative and an adaptive infrastructure. The transformation must come from the top and leadership is crucial in creating the break through culture in which agile behavior can emerge. They define a breakthrough cultures as those in which people are open-minded about change, they focus in a single-minded way on the customer, they collaborate both within the organisation and across its boundaries, and they focus intensively on goals and execution. This culture is top down, innovative; a learning organisation with a service orientation and new metrics to incentivise desired behaviour.

Agile organisations are designed using holistic methods which integrate supplier relations, production and business processes, customer relations and product use and disposal (Goldman et al, 1995). This is accomplished by deploying necessary resources regardless of physical location. Agile organisations exhibit a shift from command and control forms of management to motivating and supportive leadership characterized by trust. People need to thrive on change and uncertainty rather than simply coping with them. The organisation needs to be repeatedly reinvented. Goldman et al (1995) argue that agile organisations are strategic rather than tactical, building on customer perceived value of products and services.  In agile organisations, decision-making authority is distributed to operational employees and management hierarchies are flat and internal information flows are open to all rather than being confined to privileged managers. Teams are used as the standard form of organisation rather than simply for special projects.

Agility is dynamic, context specific, aggressively change-embracing, and growth-oriented. … Agility entails a continual readiness to change, sometimes to change radically, what companies and people do and how they do it. … Successful agile competitors, therefore, not only understand their current markets, product lines, competencies, and customers very well, they also understand the potential for future customers and markets. This understanding leads to strategic plans to acquire new competencies, develop new product lines, and open up new markets. (Goldman et al, 1995, p42).

Agile organisations require people with strong social and communication skills that enable them to function in intensely cooperative and team-based activities.

Goldman et al (1995) define agility as a system with the strategic dimension of enriching the customer, cooperating to enhance competitiveness, organizing to master change and uncertainty and leveraging the impact of people and information. Agility arises when managers give up control. Instead of organisational structures being deliberately chosen by managers they are flexible so as to allow the rapid reconfiguration of cross functional teams and resources required to meet customer requirements. Agile organisations support multiple concurrent organisational structures and optimize opportunism and this requires authority to be distributed as widely as possible so maximizing the positive impact of local decision making. Agile management principles involve formulating a clear vision, setting bold goals, avoiding micro-management and working to win universal buy-in. The agile organisation creates a culture that supports people, values thinking, learning and cooperation to solve problems.

Gobillot (2008) links leadership and the agile organization, arguing that a connected form of leadership is what is required to create agility. It is the role of leaders to make their organisations agile so that they are resilient to context change. He claims that ‘formal’ organisations, designed to complete tasks, stifle the ability of all members of an organisation to respond to the changes they sense whether these fall within their remit or not. For him, the ‘real’ organisation is networks of relationships between people within and outside the ‘formal’ organisation. This ‘real’ organisation consisting of relationships, a great many of which are informal, is robust and flexible. Great leaders, connected leaders, do not lead the ‘formal’ organisation but they do channel the vitality of the ‘real’ organisation to achieve the goals of the ‘formal’ organisation. They map and understand the ‘real’ organisation. Personal credibility in the informal networks is critical to the success of leaders who use this credibility to reconstruct social networks. Connected leaders who create social and moral connections are trustworthy and they trust others, they unite stakeholders around a common agenda and they encourage dialogue and conversations. Trust is critical to connected leaders.

Prescriptions for creating the agile organisation

It can be seen in the discussion in the previous section that there is a spectrum of descriptions and prescriptions for the agile organisation ranging from top down approaches at one end, through distributed approaches to reliance on the informal organisation at the other end.

Top down prescriptions

The transformation to the agile organisation must come from the top leaders who should:

Prepare new vision statements the right vision statement.

  1. Redesign organisational structures so that hierarchical states are replaced with agile states.
  2. Develop breakthrough business models which lead to actions that disrupt industry ecosystems.
  3. Create a break-through culture in which people are open-minded about change, focus the customer, collaborate within and across organisational boundaries, and focus intensively on goals and execution.
  4. Design new metrics to incentivise desired behaviour.
  5. Form teams which are adaptive and innovative.

Distributed action

Another approach calls for organizing to master change and uncertainty and leveraging the impact of people and information, so repeatedly reinventing the organisation. The prescriptions are:

Formulate a clear vision, set bold goals, avoid micro-management, and work to win universal buy-in.

  1. Give up control and shift from command and control to motivating and supportive leadership characterised by trust. Design management hierarchies that are flat
  2. Distribute decision-making authority to operational employees and design internal information flows that are open to all rather than being confined to privileged managers.
  3. Do not deliberately choose organisational structures but allow the flexibility that enables rapid reconfiguration of cross functional teams and resources required to meet customer requirements
  4. Create a culture that supports people, values thinking, learning and cooperation to solve problems People need to thrive on change and uncertainty rather than simply coping with them and they need to be aggressively change-embracing.
  5. Optimise opportunism and maximise the positive impact of local decision making.
  6. Use teams as the standard form of organisation. Develop people with strong social and communication skills that enable them to function in intensely cooperative and team-based activities.

Relying on simple rules and the informal organisation

One view stresses simple rules where managers should:

Identify whether they are at the edge of chaos or trapped in either stability or chaos.

  1. Move to the edge of chaos by avoiding: too much structure which leads to stability and too little which produces chaos. Work out what to structure and what not to structure. Keep activity loosely structured but at the same time rely on targets and deadlines.
  2. Develop a culture which fosters frequent change in the context of a few strict behavioural rules.
  3. Create channels for real-time, fact-based communication within and across groups.
  4. Allow a semi-coherent strategy to emerge, one that is not too fixed nor one that is too fluid.

Another view stresses the informal organisation, arguing that it is the role of leaders to make their organisations agile and this involves:

Unite stakeholders around a common agenda.

  1. Do not lead the ‘formal’ organisation.
  2. Instead, channel the vitality of the informal, the ‘real’, organisation to achieve the goals of the ‘formal’ organisation.
  3. Map and understand the ‘real’ organisation.
  4. Encourage a culture of dialogue and conversations.
  5. Develop personal credibility in the informal networks and use this credibility to reconstruct social networks.
  6. Trust others and display trustworthiness to create social and moral.


All agree on the need for a clear vision and bold goals around which stakeholders unite and that this is the task of top management. This is no different to the other mainstream discussion of action required of top leaders.

  1. All agree that hierarchies should be flattened with some arguing that leaders and managers need to give up control, others that decision making should be distributed and local, others that they should replace command and control with simple behavioural rules, and yet others emphasising the informal organisation and the need for leaders to focus on this. Is this much different to previous calls for decentralisation and empowerment?
  2. All agree on the need to create a culture of open-mindedness, collaboration, and customer focus. Some call for a culture in which people thrive on uncertainty and value thinking and learning. Others call for a culture of dialogue and conversation. Again this is a standard requirement in the dominant discourse.
  3. All agree on the importance of teams, emphasising the importance of local decision-making by operational staff and some also call for optimising opportunism. Most mainstream literature emphasises the need for teamwork.


Little attention seems to be paid to what uncertainty actually means and how it problematizes prior design of structures and choices of rules to deal with it.

These writers preserve the dominant view of visions and values chosen by top managers even as they call for decision making to be distributed.

They all call for leaders to create cultures, as does everyone else, without any exploration of whether this is possible and if it is what it entails doing – according to Schein it requires coercive persuasion (brainwashing).

They ignore power relations and the techniques for disciplinary power and so present simplistic and unrealistic forms of behavior in which operatives become freed from too many rules.

On the basis of a misunderstanding of the complexity sciences they prescribe simple rules. For example, Brown and Eisenhardt (19888) take the notion of the edge of chaos across into organisations and immediately collapse it into one of organisational structure, which then becomes a choice for managers to make. The choice is to install just enough structure to move their organisation to the edge of chaos where it can experience relentless change. This immediately loses the paradoxical notion of contradictory forces that can never be resolved. Self-organisation is equated with adaptiveness and the notion of local interaction among agents producing emergent outcomes is lost. The analogy of the birds is used and then quite effortlessly coupled with successful organisations. However, flocking is one pattern for bird behavior, one that already exists. The few simple rules that produce it will not produce spontaneous jumps to new patterns. Surely, success for corporations over the long term requires just such a move to new patterns. Furthermore, a key feature of the edge of chaos is the power law. This means that small numbers of large extinction events occur periodically while large numbers of small extinctions occur. There is no guarantee of survival at the edge of chaos, only the possibility of new forms emerging that might survive. Nowhere do the authors mention this power law. Instead, they make a simplistic equation between being at the edge of chaos and success. They reduce human behavior to a few key rules and assume that these can ensure success. So, the strategic choice now relates less to outcomes and more to a few simple rules and frequent changes to keep people on edge.

There is the need for generalizations such as ‘simple rules’ to be made particular to specific, contingent situations. Those writing about the agile organisation do not explore the implications of this.

These writers do not notice the contradiction between the need for discipline in highly complex, sophisticated organisations and the need for local judgment and decision making.

They do not notice that operational staff and also managers themselves already exercise practical judgement in local situations to get the job done.

These writers do not seem to notice forms of domination and how this provokes the arts of resistance. They do not mention the difference between the public and private discourses.

They differ on just how important they think the hierarchy is with some placing much more emphasis on relationships that form, the informal organisation.

So is the notion of the agile organisation just another fad, another label for decentralization and empowerment?


Brown, S. L. and Eisenhardt, K. (1998), Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos, Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

D’Aveni, R. (1995), Hypercompetitive Rivalries, New York: Free Press.

Gobillot, E. (2008) The Connected Leader: Creating agile organizations for people, performance and profit, London: Kogan Page.

Goldman, S., Nagel, R. & Preiss, K. (1995) Agile Competition and Virtual Organizations: Strategies for enriching the customer, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Pal, N. & Pantaleo, D. (2005) The Agile Enterprise: Reinventing your organisation for success in an on-demand world, New York: Springer.

30 thoughts on “Responding to Complexity and Uncertainty: The Agile Organisation

  1. Simon

    Hi great article. Are you aware of any work on the notion of agile companies in different cucltures? Specifically I would be interested in if there is any work on this in Brazil. Thanks Simon

  2. Pingback: Responding to Complexity and Uncertainty: The Agile Organisation | Driving change - Conduite du changement |

  3. Chris Rodgers

    Thanks, Ralph.

    Needless to say, I fully agree with your critique of the “agile” discourse – which could be applied equally well to others of a similar ilk. As you explain, it provides yet another example of the failure of those advocating the approach to take seriously the very charateristics of organization that they use to justify its adoption. That is, the inherent uncertainty and complexity of organizational dynamics, and the implications that these have for the credibility of the claims that they make. They also rarely acknowledge the existence – let alone centrality – of power relations and other shadow-side dynamics. And, where these everyday realities of organizational life do merit a mention, the presumption is always that adoption of the prescribed formula will render these ‘harmless’ or eliminate them altogether.

    Of course, this pattern of thinking is so ingrained in everyday management practice and consultants’ offerings that many people reading your pre-critique paragraphs will no doubt be raring to go!

    I’ve recently taken to thinking of this as ‘the curse of complexity’. For those of us who view organizations as complex social processes (or, more precisely in your terms, as complex responsive processes) of human interaction, it’s impossible to take this stuff seriously. But most practitioners lap it up. And its promised (if illusory) ability to give hard-pressed managers the ability to control outcomes and assure success is highly seductive. In short, these things sell!


  4. ben

    but i work in an organisation and I am one of the ones who has more influence than you, in fact, the current power paradigm suits me quite well – I’m winning. So just tell me why I would want to unearth and explore that power paradigm, or some of the less palatable hidden transcripts that in fact make for problems in my business… what i do want is a nice management consultant to come and help me keep things just so… not rock the boat to much, or expose anything that might be uncomfortable.

    So my question is, given that I am not alone in thinking this (as someone with some interest and power in an organisation that I don’t want stirred up) – how can engage with these excellent insights? or is it simply a case of accepting that what will be, will be and only other, more imaginative, or honest even, businesses will want to have this kind of conversation and leaving it at that?

    1. Juha Repo

      That is a fair point Ben. If your organization is working along its primary task and everybody knows what they are doing that’s brilliant. There is no need to stir things too much. However a good reality check once in a while doesn’t harm anybody as you can see in my case.

      I’m currently involved with a nation wide reform process which is drastically failing. The reality of work and the reality of management has drifted so widely apart that the whole country is in a manic cycle of development. Those in power hang very tightly on the idea of being able to control this process when its complexity suggests something different. If things continue as they have been for some time now we are looking at a outcomes that are quite far from the ones originally intended. This will harm the whole nation. So in this case I certainly hope that the people in power would show a little bit interest and understanding towards the local interaction and the effect what it has for the whole process.

      I’m an organizational consultant myself and the last two years have been quite ride for me. It seems that the traditional tools and theories of management don’t apply here and we need something else. A few years ago I was lucky to get involved with the complexity theories, complex responsive process and actor network theory to name a few. This theoretical frame of reference has helped me to understand organizations and the people in them better that through the dominant discourse of management theories.

      But going back to your writing – don’t start repairing if nothing is broken. If something is broken you might need tools from the kit labelled “For Irrational Organizations Only!”
      In my case we need the small boy from the Emperor’s New Clothes to say: “But he is all naked!”


  5. Ari-Pekka Skarp

    I have been an organizational developer for several years. My biggest jobs have been with agile transformations in the organizations. I have also worked as an “Agile Coach” helping teams to incorporate “agile practices”. Here are some conclusions from my experiences:

    1) “Agile SW development” is a concept that has it’s biggest impact on the power relations. Using the same language as Ralph, it is part of the arts of resistance. It provides very good conversational tools to tilt the power relations more towards the “teams”. It is the team that says what’s the schedule, not manager. It is the team who says how they will do the work, not the manager. In “Scrum” team is shielded from interruptions until the 2-4 week iteration is over, managers can’t touch it in that time-frame. Etc. Of course this all depends on how disciplined the people are when they follow the practices. Sometimes people talk about “water-scrum” where some of the essential practices are not followed.

    2) The other meaningful thing about agile SW development is that it challenges some of the mainstream thinking and provides more sophisticated theories. In effect these theories are utilizing systems thinking. The focus is put e.g. on “optimizing the whole” instead of sub-optimization which leads to queues. Focus is also put to social relations instead of mechanistic processes. Focus is put on how to make very short iterations that enable changing the direction fast. I see these theories to be challenging the “scientific management / Taylorism” which still seems to be dominating the managerial discourse. The thinking of complex responsive process on the other hand is challenging both scientific management and systems thinking.

    3) In theory it is easier to change the focus of development faster in “agile organizations”. This is because the processes encourage responding to change over following a big initial plan. However, in reality the daily politics / power games are the same also in “agile organizations”. People have often conflicting intentions and viewpoints and the outcome is a product of joint effort – nobody really chose what happened. It doesn’t matter what kind of processes or practices are promoted and used, the complex social interaction stays the same. Local interaction produces patterns which affects the whole population and those patterns affect the local interaction.

    I was also fascinated to see the argument that good leaders would see the “real organization”. What is organization anyway? I was just making a blog post on “There is no Organization!” ( It became the most popular post I’ve made so far – more than 300 views in less than two days. It seems that people are truly looking for some kid to shout out that the Emperor has no clothes…

  6. Russ Briggs

    For Juha: You may want to investigate a methodology called Design Structure Matrix (DSM) modeling. Originally adopted to simplify complex structures, the methodology is now moving into the main stream, and being applied to numerous product, organizational and process design challenges across a wide variety of industries. DSM identifies hidden dependencies that can cause bottlenecks, leading to cost and schedule overruns and project underperformance. One of the interesting side-effects of a DSM analysis is its ability to identify structural pathogens that have been allowed to exist for so long they now form an integral part of the infrastructure, and, as such, have to be tolerated and designed and worked around because changing them is not an option. Good luck with your program!

  7. Glenda Eoyang

    Ralph, thanks for this lovely summary of the “state of the art” and thanks even more for the conversation it has sparked. I agree that these superficial and dogmatic uses of complexity in the context of human and organizational behavior are unhelpful at best. On the other hand, I think there is potential for deep and important learning for individuals and organizations emerging from nonlinear dynamics, and I think you do, too. I’d like to focus there with three questions that are key to the work we do in human systems dynamics. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    1) What is the role of radical variability in complexity? When no two situations are the same, how can we make any kind of pronouncements about what leaders or their organizations “must” do?

    2) How can we capture the complex relationships between the part and the whole in human systems? (Even as I write this, I remember that you don’t believe in systems, so I’m not sure if or how you think about a whole these days, and I may be starting from a place that isn’t a good one for you. Curious about your thoughts.)

    3) What does a complex understanding of uncertainty do to our conception of time, and therefore of productive work? Radical surprise blows a hole the concept of time as a line, doesn’t it? What are we left with?

    I’m sure my own assumptions are woven through these questions, and I don’t imagine that you share all of them, so I’m especially curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

  8. Pingback: The growing recognition of the interconnected and interrelated complexity issues faced in business

  9. Chris Mowles

    Thank you for your questions Glenda.

    In answer to question 1, I understand complexity to mean paradoxical patterns of movement over time and paradoxical patterns in space that are regular and irregular at the same time, stable and unstable at the same time, predictable and unpredictable at the same time. This means that we have to talk about regular irregularity (fractals), stable instability and predictable unpredictability. In other words, there is not simply radical variability, there is also continuity. Taking this insight into the human sphere it means that the patterns we form in our interaction with each other display continuity and change at the same time. Each situation we encounter is not radically different from the ones we have just encountered but nor is it exactly the same as those we have just encountered. Human interaction takes the form of evolving habit – the habitus in which we live. It is because of this that we can make some kind of prediction of consequences of some kinds of actions. This does not entitle anyone to conclude that leaders “must” do this or that but it does enable us to exercise practical judgment about what it is sensible to do and this practical judgement may enable us to suggest what kinds of actions effective leaders might take – but such recommendations are highly tentative.

    In answer to your question about parts and wholes, these concepts have a long history. Aristotle talked about the whole being more than the sum of the parts over 2,000 years ago and over 200 years ago the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, presented a worked out theory of systems as a regulative idea or hypothesis that might add to a better understanding of organisms. However, he argued that human action could never be considered to be a system because that would reduce autonomous individuals to parts. For Kant, a system was simply a concept that might enable us to gain greater insight into some phenomena but we could only ever think of a phenomenon ‘as if’ it were a system. However, first order systems thinkers forgot this caution and treated human interaction as actually constituting a system – for some this system was mechanistic but for others it was organic, even alive. Whatever the system concept, however, it is still just a way of thinking. Second order systems thinkers returned to Kant and said we can only ever think of human interaction ‘as if’ it constitutes a system. So for me it is not a matter of whether I ‘believe in systems’ for there is nothing to ‘believe’ in. The only question is whether a particular way of thinking is useful or not. I argue that systems thinking is not a useful way of thinking about human interaction because it abstracts from ordinary human bodily interaction and is easily reified. In systems thinking human bodies, human power relations, human emotions, human spontaneity and just about every other human attribute simply disappear and soon we are ascribing mystical properties to thes system. So I prefer to think of human interaction as responsive temporal processes of communication, power relating and ideologically based choices of actions. For me, a whole is an imaginative construct, the sense of unity in our experience and it expresses ideology – this is not about parts but about ideology.

    As to the third question, I think the paradox of predictable unpredictability does not sit easily with the linear view of time in which the past is fixed, the future is to be predicted and the present is just a point separating them. St Augustine of Hippo argued for a more complex view of time around 450AD. G. H. Mead set out a similar view. For him there was only ever the present but in the present we are giving accounts to each other of what has been happening in the past and on this basis forming expectations of what will occur as we act. In the present the story we tell about the future is conditioned by the stories we tell about the past and what we expect for the future can change the story we tell of the past. In this way we keep rewriting history and our expectations for the future therefore change the meaning we ascribe to the past and vice versa. But it is important to note that as we move from present to present we are iterating the habitus which gives us dynamic continuity (tradition) but also radical surprises.

    I hope this clarifies the assumptions I am making sand indicates why I think hype about agile organisations is facile and basically unhelpful.

    Ralph Stacey

  10. Glenda Eoyang

    Yes, this is helpful, thanks. A couple more reflections.

    I am assuming continuity as one of the many possible and simultaneous states that are included in “variability.” Without it, we would be without any way to make meaning or relate to self or others. The roles of memory and imagination continue to be significant in our work. So, practical guides to action are not just possible, they are necessary even in the midst of uncertainty. Still, as you say, the dogma of “best practices” is a trap. This distinction may seem subtle to some, but as you point out, it is of critical importance for real leaders dealing with real complexity.

    I agree that some systems thinking approaches (e.g., systems dynamics) strip out reality in favor of simplicity or mystery, but I don’t believe it is necessary or that all do (e.g., soft systems, open systems, human systems dynamics). That may be a conversation for another day. Let me rephrase the question, if I might. Individual people take intentional action. Communities take intentional action. What is the relationship between the one and the other, or the other and the one in your view?

    Time as a process of perpetual meaning making matches my understanding and experience exactly. It also puts to the test another management icon–strategy. From this vantage point, useful strategy stops being data collection analysis and forecasting and becomes perpetual, shared meaning making coupled with adaptive action.

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness in this response and much of the rest of your work. Glenda

  11. Chris Mowles

    In your comment, Glenda, you say: ‘Individual people take intentional action. Communities take intentional action. What is the relationship between the one and the other, or the other and the one in your view?’ Your question relates to the much discussed relationship between agency and structure which can also be expressed as the relationship between the individual, on the one hand, and the group / society, on the other. The dominant discourses in the fields of psychology, sociology and organization / management all reflect an unquestioned assumption, most clearly formulated by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant some 250 years ago, of the autonomous individual. According to this view of the individual, each individual is autonomous in the sense of choosing his / her objectives and choosing rational / moral courses of action to achieve them. These autonomous, closed individuals (agents) relate to each other across an existential chasm to form atomistic groups and societies (structure) which have come to be understood, against Kant’s advice, as systems which exist outside the individuals and act back on them to affect their actions. In my view, these twin assumptions of autonomous individuals and systems, which are rarely questioned, lead directly to the unsatisfactory way in which organisations and their management are understood in the dominant discourse. Another thought tradition, however, takes a very different form. The process sociologist, Norbert Elias, argues very persuasively that individuals are not, and never have been, autonomous. Individuals at all times and in all places are interdependent – we can accomplish nothing on our own. Elias holds that there are not two phenomena, one being the individual and the other being the group, but only one phenomenon, namely, interdependent people, the individual being the singular of this phenomenon and the group / society being the plural. As they relate to each other, interdependent individuals form figurations of power relations in which they include and exclude each other from particular grouping. Power and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion are thus the most important themes in this alternative discourse. Elias insisted that thinking of societies as ‘wholes’ or ‘systems’ simply created a mystery in order to solve a mystery. The founder of group analytic psychotherapy, S. H. Foulkes, was influenced to some extent by Elias and Foulkes took the view that the individual is social through and through. The American pragmatist philosopher, George Herbert Mead, took much the same view when he argued that human individuals could only exist in human societies and human societies could only exist through human individuals – it is impossible to have one without the other and neither can, therefore, be regarded as prior or prime. In a thoroughly worked out way of thinking, Mead showed how the basic social act is communication, taking the form of the conversation of gestures in which the gesture of one evokes responses from others and at the same time evokes much the same responses in the body of the gesturer. Mind and society then take the same form: society is the public, vocal conversation by individual bodies with each other while individual mind takes the form of private, silent conversation of a body with itself. The process, namely conversation, is the same. Here, too, individuals do not exist at one level while societies exist at another – all that exists is human bodies conversing with themselves and each other and in conversation they form patterns of meaning as the basis of all that they accomplish together. Whereas the dominant discourse takes a dualistic view of the individual and the group / society, the alternative of complex responsive processes of conversation and power relating takes a paradoxical view of individuals forming groups / societies while at the same time being formed by these groups / societies. Moving to an alternative discourse thus focuses attention on what we actually do in organisations, namely, converse and form power relations by means of which we accomplish whatever we accomplish together. This view avoids second order abstraction from our ordinary experience as found in the dominant discourse based on the assumptions of autonomous individuals and social systems. Finally, from a complex responsive processes perspective, individuals form and act upon intentions and these many individual intentions play into each other. It is this interplay that the patterns which we call outcomes emerge. No one can control this interplay, hence the fundamental predictable unpredictability of social life. Since communities are patterns of relationship between people and do not exist as things, it follows that communities cannot form intentions, decide or act, only interdependent individuals can. The complex responsive processes perspective avoids reifying and then anthropomorphizing communities.

    Ralph Stacey

    1. Glenda Eoyang

      Thanks, Ralph. I agree with you entirely that the atomistic individual and the anthropomorphized group are harmful misconceptions. Of course I take a different path into exploring this question–one that avoids (I hope) the either/or framing above. We acknowledge system boundaries as merely “quotation marks” that we (singular or plural) put around experience to make it easier to make meaning and take meaningful action. Still, it is quite helpful to see your perspective so succinctly laid out.

      You state:
      “Power and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion are thus the most important themes in this alternative discourse.”

      I agree strongly with this, and use boundaries beyond individual (calling them groups) to help decision makers and action takers navigate their in/exclusion challenges.

      The self-referential nature of these conversations is forever interesting. In this exchange, we are exploring our agreements, putting words to our differences, and I expect that the conversation is informing the work of our network of HSD Associates. Thanks, and I look forward to the next time I see you. G

  12. Ari-Pekka Skarp

    Interesting discussion. I have been engaged in similar discussion with some OD people in LinkedIn. There seems to be assumptions that it is either helpful or even necessary to utilize “systemic abstractions” when talking with managers about what is happening in people groups.

    I think that when we are talking about “organizations”, we are already constraining our perspectives to think about some kind of system that exists outside of the individuals as a separate entity. When we reify this “organization” by e.g. defining it’s boundaries, we are fixing our perspectives even more – and at the same time we are always deviating more and more from our actual experiences..

    (some thoughts about this: )

    So my question is that is it really necessary to use these “training wheels”, or could we just concentrate what is happening around us in the relationships we are engaged in? What kinds of dialogues are we having and with whom? This is what I am doing in supervision/counseling with clients and they usually find it very useful. Why wouldn’t it be possible to concentrate in these things with our “regular” organizational life?

      1. Ari-Pekka Skarp

        I think our experiences are very valuable for us. We can’t help but perceive the world within our experiences. I have also experienced how the meaning is continuously under negotiations. New experiences (e.g. dialogues) have the potential of transforming the meaning of my past experiences.

        When I have engaged in dialogue with different people I have often found that what I used to think isn’t applicable any more – the new way of thinking transforms the meaning of what happened in the past. In solution focused coaching there is the concept of “reframing”. With the help of the coach, the client explores different ways of perceiving the past experiences. What happens sometimes is a tremendous shift in the meaning of those events. That can lead to great variety of new ways of functioning (thinking/acting) that weren’t possible before.

        I don’t know what are the experiences that you are referring to, but from my own experience I have found it very important for myself to be open to the new meanings that are emerging. Sometimes I have had to abandon my old perceptions in order to move on and develop my thinking further… (This has happened for me e.g. in discussions with Ralph & others within the dialogues around complex responsive processes.)

      2. Glenda Eoyang

        Thanks. I don’t think I made myself clear. Let’s use a particular example. I am making a keynote address. There are 1,000 people in the audience. As I design my “complex responsive process” I simply do not have the capacity to engage individually with each of them. What should I do?

      3. Ari-Pekka Skarp

        Ok, now I understand better. G.H.Mead talks about the “generalized other” that we create in order to deal with a group of people which is too big that we could relate with all the particular others at the same time. He doesn’t suggest we should form such thing, he just argues that we do.

        I try to elaborate on this topic on the forementioned blog post. I think it is this process that is used to create “organizations” and such things. This process is reified with drawing boundaries, giving name tags and other personal characteristics for the group.

        In my view we can’t help but do this, but it is also possible to draw away from that and see it more clearly. Then it becomes possible find new ways of thinking/acting. If we don’t draw away from these ideas, it also enables some things and constrains others, but then it is more fixed. If we can draw away, we can always reinvent the group and our own functioning as part of that group.

        I suppose it could be useful exercise to reflect upon what kind of “organizations” we are assuming in our minds, but that should not be confused to “designing” those organizations. Otherwise we risk more and more to think that they really exist somewhere outside of us. An expert coach/counselor might be able to hold these views separate also in the process, but it is really hard. For most people impossible, I think.

      4. Glenda Eoyang

        Thanks. Yes, the capacity to see multiple, equivalent, non-contradictory boundaries is key for me to adaptive meaning making and action taking. I agree that getting locked in to one boundary or set of boundaries as defining reality is constraining at best and blinding at worst. On the other hand, it is another kind of constraint and blindness not to acknowledge that useful boundaries can be created and transcended at will. We try to capture the multiple, massively entangled, and nascent boundaries through the uber-variable Container (C) in the CDE Model. It is very difficult for people to recognize the wide diversity and variability of the C, but it is a real paradigm shift when they realize they can choose and choosing informs action. We play with many ways to help people transcend the chains of “given” reality. One I like best is to ask, “So, how’s that working for you?”

      5. Ari-Pekka Skarp

        Ok, I see. What you describe here seems to me to be quite similar to some coaching techniques where the client is advised to look at the situation from different angles. He could e.g. try to describe it from some other persons (like his colleagues, bosses, etc) perspective. That can lead to new possibilities in the thinking. So I think in that sense it might be a good approach to define the boundaries as a game for thinking from different perspectives.

        However, I have only seen CDE-model being used as a managerial tool to design human systems. F.ex. Mike Cohn uses it in his book as a tool for the manager to draw boundaries that will form a system which then controls the employees to behave and work in certain ways. When it is used like that, then it assumes Formative Causality which really can’t be applied to human groups…

      6. Glenda Eoyang

        I don’t know Mike, so I can’t comment on his work. I can say that my intention, the way I teach, the way I serve clients and do research depend on the fact that containers are multiple and massively entangled. One pattern (and its associated containers) might be foregrounded for the purposes of meaning making or action taking in one moment. Even then, you are aware that other patterns–near and far–are influencing your focal pattern constantly. You can see to see some of the models and methods we use to support people as they interact with emergent reality in this way.

        You’re right. It is very difficult to change the ways people see the world and how it works–that is what I am trying to do, and I assume Ralph is doing the same. Given the open, high dimension, nonlinear nature of the reality I see, I’m not surprised that such a complex problem space leads us to different solution spaces. What does surprise me is when some specific solution pretends to be absolute and exclusionary of any others. Containers are, after all, multiple and massively entangled.

      7. Ari-Pekka Skarp

        The book I was referring to is Mike Cohn’s “Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum. (2009, p.228)”.

        Thank’s for the link to your pages, seems to be lots of interesting stuff there.. 🙂

        I haven’t really been involved with how you use these concepts in HSD, so I might be totally wrong here. However, I did read you dissertation few years ago and how I understood it (at that time) was quite similar to what Cohn describes in his book. It provided ways to understand and structure the organizational patterns and it also gave some ideas of how to control those patterns. For me this inevitably leads to a conclusion that organization is seen as system that is controlled by systemic laws. If one gains knowledge of those systemic laws, he can more effectively control what is happening.

        Here’s an excerpt from your web page:
        “Because the three conditions are massively entangled with each other, it is only necessary to shift one to bring about change in the other two. For example, when I make a container smaller, generally the differences become more significant, and the exchanges happen faster. It is critical to remember, however, that, while you can anticipate the change you might trigger, you can neither predict nor control just what that change will be. HSD practitioners and professionals who use the CDE model to help them understand and influence the dynamics of their systems use Adaptive Action to enable them to respond appropriately when unexpected consequences arise.”

        So for me this seems that you are thinking of human organization as a system, that can be influenced by gaining knowledge of the systemic laws. However, you do say that the outcome is unpredictable. But then again you continue to describe another framework that gives the practitioner again the ability to gain control over the systems dynamics.

        I find that to be quite conflictual statement. Why not to just say: ” It is critical to remember, however, that, while you can anticipate the change you might trigger, you can neither predict nor control just what that change will be.” and leave it to that?

  13. markdownham06

    I am very interested in Ralph Stacey and especially in the meta-textual elements of his thinking – ironically his texts are full of fascinating ‘internal dialectics’ which is why I like reading them – he has a similar psychology to experimental test pilots….there is a very simple question that everyone should ask Ralph Stacey: “is the Complexity & Management Centre an Agile Organisation?”…and the answer? “Absolutely”…and that is what I mean by the internal dialectics of his material….he has a very precise idea of what constitutes an authentic ‘Agile Organisation’ – but to see that you have to read his work through a certain hermeneutical grid….using Positive Deviance, Disruptive Innovation, (Shadow Organisational) Reverse Mentoring and (Reverse) Change Leadership….

  14. Pingback: Postmodern Organizations – Agile Protest Wave « Fractal Sauna

  15. Sascha Reimann

    Interesting article. I am about to join the DMan community and I currently face a lot of questions what this programme is about, what complexity-driven organisation science (COS) delivers (added value?) and in how far it responds to the shortcomings of traditional organisation science which I would like to identify with the models of especially Taylor (Scientific Mgt), Weber and Fayol etc. Being in the beginning of my studies, I currently see COS as the response to static-mechanistic views of organisations – an organisation chart is maybe exactly the best description of what I mean with mechanistic, as it can be easily confused with a circuit diagram and people drawing these charts may have exactly that understanding of organisations. “Agility” is maybe a good headline for everything COS might develop as practical guidance for management, on the other side, there are a lot of other buzzwords for this philosophy, like grass roots leadership, dynamic capabilities and even “delegation”, “empowerment”, intrapreneurship, delayering and so on. In how far is the “Agile Organisation” different?

  16. Markus Fietz (@markusfietz)

    Thanks for the great article (that I found somewhat serendipitously). I agree that the concept of complex responsiveness (many interdependent interactions – formal and informal) is often treated simplistically in the context of organizational ecologies. The linear ‘analyze-plan-implement’ approach is so ingrained into almost all professional and management education and practice that it continues to dominate the way organizations are structured and managed. The ecology around the ‘analyze-plan-implement’ approach is so extensive and interlinked that changing it will be a challenge. However, the success of organizations such as Google will help chip away at the status quo.

    I think that one of the key elements to becoming more adaptive and responsive is to encourage and facilitate the development of patterns, routines and capabilities that enable learning and action to co-evolve at all levels of decision-making. In the words of Donald Schoen, we need to enable “the situation to talk back”. In this way we can purposefully evolve with context. My feeling is that four capabilities are central to this co-evolution – observation, interpretation, design and experimentation.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s