There are just three weeks to go before the end of early bird booking for this year’s Complexity and Management Conference 17th-19th May. As for the last two years we will also be offering a one-day introduction to complex responsive processes on Friday 17th May for anyone interested in the ideas, whether or not you go on to attend the conference.
This year we are expecting a good turn-out, partly because of our speaker Professor Andre Spicer, and partly because the event is a lively and thought-provoking occasion, where we talk about what matters with no particular end in view. Book soon to ensure you secure a place.
The title of this year’s conference, What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life draws attention to the importance of making sense of contemporary organisational life in ways which call into question taken for granted assumptions.
Some of the things we might discuss at the conference, which I suggest are current pathologies of management, are set out below. None of these phenomena is new or unremarked upon and critiqued. Yet they still prevail in organisational life in ways which can lead to unhelpful behaviour in groups. They can distract from more productive ways of working which pay attention to the difficulties of getting things done together in the here and now.
First is the preoccupation with leaders and leadership as the panacea for all organisational ills, sometimes national ills. Whatever the particular difficulty staff in an organisation are faced with, then the answer is usually thought to be more and better leadership. There is a seemingly endless proliferation of concepts of the kind of leadership we might follow: distributed leadership, pure leadership, servant leadership, authentic leadership, self-leadership, imperfect leadership, and of course followership, along with many others. Simple transformational leadership is now rather dated. Leadership is probably the most fad-driven, yet niche consultancy obsession. The danger of the whole discourse is that it tends to lead to dependency and unrealistic expectations of what leaders can actually achieve, particularly when the orthodoxy of leadership individualises the phenomenon and assumes that it arises from exceptional individuals, usually men. The obverse of the overblown discourse about leadership is the disappointment we feel when our unrealistic expectations of what leaders can achieve collides with reality. None of this is to argue that leaders are not highly influential players in the game of organisational life.
Second is the prevalence of metrics, performance indicators, KPIs and other quantitative measures as proxies of complex work processes. As has been well documented elsewhere, metrics are not just attempts to describe reality but result in shaping reality, as the work is bent to meet the measures which are prioritised and rewarded. Performance metrics can sometimes lead to authoritarian management practices where the measure becomes the end of the discussion rather than the start. They can also lead to over-manualisation and proceduralisation of what might be nuanced and responsive work practices with the result that skilled employees no longer recognise themselves in their day to day activities: they become alienated from their work. None of this is to argue that managers shouldn’t be concerned about the quality of work which takes place in their organisation where quantitative measures might be one avenue for finding out.
The third pathology of management might be broadly termed boosterism, the overblown way of talking about organisational life, which tends towards the delusional. Both our speaker for the conference Andre Spicer and a previous conference speaker Mats Alvesson have written extensively about this, amongst others. An organisation I had something to do with recently claimed that their vision was to ‘deliver excellence’, comprising ‘outstanding services, world-leading products sustained by operational excellence and organisational excellence’. So, excellence, outstanding, world-leading, excellence, excellence. In many organisations it is no longer possible to just change, one has to transform. Sometimes this hyperbole is accompanied by an overweening positivity, particularly if the organisation has been caught up in the various manifestations of appreciative inquiry. The combination of inflated language and an accentuation on the positive sometimes makes it difficult to ask hard questions, to draw attention to the everyday and perhaps mundane nature of the work, and to privilege good-enough working for fear of being thought too negative. In reality most staff in most organisations are doing a pretty good job most of the time. As with the exaggerated discourse on leadership, the danger of constantly boosting both what we do and the way that we do it is the commensurate disappointment with our ordinary achievements. None of this is to argue that staff in organisations shouldn’t take pride in their work, celebrate their achievements and have high aspirations for what they do.
There are other tendencies that we might discuss during the conference weekend too: the encouragement to align and share values, for example which may cover over the necessary struggle over difference.
Hannah Arendt argued that thinking is an important activity which might help us when the chips are down. In times of great uncertainty and change, the ability to think critically together might be our most useful resource.
If you would like to think together with others about your work situation and the similarities/differences with other people’s experience, then the 2019 Complexity and Management Conference is for you.