Ralph Stacey on complex responsive processes

This video is a very poor quality recording of Ralph Stacey giving his last exposition of complex responsive processes at the Complexity and Management Conference June 2018 before his retirement.

Apologies for both sound and picture quality.

13 thoughts on “Ralph Stacey on complex responsive processes

  1. Søren Kerndrup

    thanks very intersting, Stacey is on of my main hero’s, but could not get access to the video.
    best søren
    Den 31. okt. 2018 kl. 20.21 skrev Complexity & Management Centre <comment-reply@wordpress.com>:

  2. lkanet

    Thank you so much for providing me with this. I studied my MBA with Ralph back in the nineties and like all of my cohort found his insights and his revolutionary thinking about organizations to be fascinating and hugely helpful in understanding what was actually going on in our own organizations. It was an enormous pleasure to listen to him speak again and to remember how he taught us to think. While the immersive weekend experience with the Tavistock was literally a life changing moment it could only be understood through the following three years of listening and learning.

    I hope very much that even in retirement he can be persuaded to occasionally share his thoughts with us from time to time. If you have the opportunity would you please pass on my profound thanks to him for how he influenced my life. He may remember me as I have somewhat “stalked” him ever since.


    Andrew Finlayson

  3. Andrew Finlayson

    Ralph’s insights and research offer a compelling explanation of organizational behaviour. His ability to convey these theories in simple and understandable form are quite singular. Your efforts to make this presentation available to us are deeply appreciated.

  4. Rob FIsher

    Thanks for posting this video, it’s wonderful to be geographically far away and yet able to join in on this lecture and discussion.

    Whilst I don’t doubt the validity of Ralph’s experiences, I do wonder about the breadth of inference. By that I mean I wonder what research supports the notion that, today, [all] strategic plans are filed away and not implemented? Most of the research that I have read on strategy and implementation (and there appears limited quantitative research on the topic) provides scant anecdotal ‘snippets’ from which researchers still tend towards vast generalizations. Maybe there is more far reaching research on which Ralph draws his inferences and I have missed some compelling publications?

    By contrast to the views expressed, it’s my limited experience that some strategy is approached today with some recognition of the hazards of prediction, and in an effort to manage the tension between emergence and being prepared. One executive I worked with called some of their initiatives ‘bets’ preferring to think of outcomes in terms of probabilities (educated guesses based on analysis of patterns as distinct from throwing money towards and random possibility). Strategic choices where thought of more in relation to re-configuring capabilities as a way to engage and capture opportunities that have some likelihood of being a recurring pattern. Ralph referred to these as “intuitions”. I think that’s the wrong word as it does not fairly account for the hard work that goes into internal and external analysis and decision-making that arrives at these ‘intuitions’.

    I see value in exploring strategic management from a psychoanalytic perspective; suggesting much of our ‘tooling’ and ‘process’ as anxiety management. Yet, what I heard in this video lead me to wonder if, in an attempt to critique strategic planning, a number of steps had been taken into the domain of cynicism. Certainly there is risk of the perception of such.

    In the end, the answer to the question “why do we do strategic planning?” was left unanswered. Instead this lecture critiqued some of the missives of *past* strategic planning and did not address the other side of the coin; what could/ should we do instead?

    So, to the nub; should we plan? IMO, yes, we should plan. The raison d’être of an organisation Is to achieve what can’t be achieved by an individual, mob or group. We organise, or attempt to, so as to improve the leverage of an array of resources (the word ‘resources’ here being used in its most broad form) in pursuit of some goal(s) all the while acknowledging that these may be a wrestle between tacit political goals and the more idealised goal stated explicitly and that we cannot predict with any certainty or precision how the future will unfold.

    This notion of an organisation as ‘political’ must be held in the same space and time with the notion of organisational participants who strive towards the pursuit of goals that are not self-centred, instead attempting toward common ‘good’. I have met many such people who work diligently and in the moment to do the very best that they can towards goals that they believe have been agreed. Strategic management must provide assistance to human beings attempting to organise; attempting to agree on where to spend effort; and attempting to reach for something worthwhile. The reason visioning gained so much traction is because history reinforces the notion that ideas can be worthy and can be achieved if we organise and work towards them. That does not mean that we achieve our goals all the time as equally as it does not mean that the world is so chaotic that outcomes of goal pursuits are entirely the result of randomness.

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Thanks for your considered thoughts, Rob. And by way of response, and in no particular order…

      I agree that some of Ralph’s observations can sound sweeping, and I guess this is done as much for rhetorical effect as for empirical plausibility. There is some justification to his observations in the sense that research into strategic planning measured by journal article output has dropped off a cliff. Researchers seem much more focused on what people are actually doing when they are doing strategy, how strategy is practised, rather than trying to find which particular way of doing strategy ‘really works’. As you say, it is increasingly accepted that we can’t predict the future, so why would we spend so much time pretending that we can? How we used to scoff at the Eastern bloc and their five or ten year economic plans. Of course this is not the same as arguing against planning per se, which I think our current Brexit predicament in the UK makes clear. No planning can have as big a deleterious impact as naive planning.

      Anecdotally, my institution has a strategic plan which it updates every five years. I have no idea what’s in it, I have never taken part in its production, and I have no idea whether it serves any purpose except to say that we have one.

      So there are a number of reasons why we might plan strategically: because we belong to a group of other organisations who all do it, and we want to belong as a member of the club; because our board or funders require it; because we want to appear to know what we are doing; as a defence against anxiety; as a way of getting an organisation-wide conversation going; as a way of exerting or extending a particular kind of control mediated by targets and milestones; as a way of avoiding particular conversations in the organisation.

      I would guess that the process of planning strategically is undertaken more or less naively. If you think that change comes about because the Board requires it and a group of clever senior managers plans it, then I guess that puts you in the relatively naive and realist camp. And if you plan strategically knowing that it is some kind of a hedge against the future and it’s a way of exerting some kind of agency in the face of uncertainty but you are unlikely to fulfil the plan, then that would put you more in the reflexive camp.

      However, I don’t think a critique of strategic planning stands or falls on being able to replace it with something else. I realise that you are genuinely asking ‘what should we do’, but requiring critics to have a fully formed replacement for current practice before we do something else is a traditional tactic for deflecting critique. Perhaps the first step is to see whether there is any merit in the critique and to see what transpires if one sits with that. if you start to think differently about what you are already doing, do then do something different?

      I am reminded of Hannah Arendt’s observation that a group of people coming together to decide to dispose of the future as if it were the present is a very powerful phenomenon, and leads to what is uniquely human: the ability to renew things, what she termed ‘natality’. At the same time, the moment we act in the world as though that original plan is some kind of blueprint then we are in danger of ignoring plurality, the many ways of interpreting what we have just agreed and the resistance we are likely to encounter in implementing it. The plan itself is just an ideal, and abstraction which is different from the messy business of getting the abstraction made concrete.

      Lastly, I wouldn’t contrast, and I don’t think Ralph was contrasting, acting politically with acting for the good. In order to act for the good we always have to act politically because we are interdependent and must choose between competing valuations of the good. The process of agreeing what is worthwhile is a political one, and our agreements will always burst open again in time. Again, our current Brexit predicament is a good example of what I mean – there might be a majority decision about leaving the EU, but there is no consistent agreement about what that means in practice.

      As for visioning, I’m afraid I’m a bit more sceptical about its role in the strategy process given how trite most vision statements are. It’s just my opinion, but I think the prevalence of visionary claims have a lot more to do with inflationary discourse about leadership and the supposed transformational powers of great leaders. Perhaps for another time.

  5. Charlie Colpitts

    Thanks very much for posting this. Which of Dr. Stacey’s writings gives the best presentation of his current thinking on complex responsive processes?


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s