Ralph Stacey Memorial Lecture 5/10/22

The following is the text of the Ralph Stacey Memorial Lecture which I gave at Hertfordshire Business School on Weds 5th October 2022. It accompanies the video which you will find in the post below.

The response to the lecture was give by Patricia Shaw, who co-founded the Doctor of Management programme with Ralph and the late Doug Griffin.

Welcome to the Ralph Stacey Memorial Lecture, and many thanks to all of you who have managed to get here, despite the train strike, and to the vast majority of you who join us online from all parts of the world.

I’d like to thank the Dean of the BS, Damian Ward for his support in organising this event, for Jordan Parker who has done a lot of the hard work on my behalf, and to Emma Maloney and the Events team for their support of this event which allows us to live stream, and to make the video available for those of you in different time zones or are otherwise unable to make this time. Thanks Patricia, from whom we will be hearing soon, for travelling from France to respond from the unique position of having known Ralph from early on in the development of the perspective of complex responsive processes and for co- founding of the Doctor of Management programme, which still thrives today.

I had planned to organise this lecture for earlier in the year but Ralph’s death seemed too close and too raw. A year after his death it feels more timely to consider the man and his legacy – it’s also around this time when he would have celebrated his 80th birthday. The first part of what I am going to talk about concerns my experience of Ralph, because I think understanding him and his character and motivations is key to understanding the ideas he elaborated with others, which I will explore later in the talk.

Every once in a while someone emerges in society who, because of their unique insight, is able to bring people together in a different relation to themselves, to each other, and to the world. Ralph was such a person. He developed a perspective, complex responsive processes of relating, which is an interdisciplinary weaving of insights from the complexity sciences, pragmatic philosophy, process sociology and group analysis, which has enabled us to describe the world differently with a unique vocabulary. This vocabulary enables us to, notice differently, to think and act differently, and has produced an intellectual and experiential legacy lasting more than 20 years and which continues to this day. The two obvious manifestations of Ralph’s legacy are the doctoral programme, the Doctor of Management which I now direct in collaboration with my very able colleagues Emma Crewe, Kiran Chauhan, Karen Norman, Nick Sarra, and Karina Solsoe Iversen, and a wider research community organised around our annual conference. The DMan has been running since 2000 and is an experiential doctorate, run psychodynamically, where students take what they are doing at work as their subject and object of study – they are invited to take their experience seriously and I hope we are about to produce our 76th doctoral student in the coming weeks. Occasions like this lecture, postings on our website, the recent publication of our Complexity and Management book series, including volumes on consultancy, leadership and the public sector, also brings countless others into contact with the ideas.

One of the striking things about reading the tributes on the testimonial site that I set up after Ralph died was the number of people who said they had never met Ralph, and never heard him talk, but also said that reading his work had changed their lives. This is an observation that I share as a graduate of the DMan programme myself – he changed my life too. This isn’t just to do with participation in organisational life, but for those leaving tributes Ralph and his work seems to have brought about a profound shift in their understanding of themselves and their engagement in the world more generally. Once you see the world critically and reflexively, as fluid, complex and in constant flux, as one which is radically unpredictable, it is no longer possible to switch off from doing so, even if sometimes you feel that you would like to, to make the world more certain. These are universal insights which have radical existential implications and can have a profound effect on one’s sense of identity.

If I am to take the complexity perspective seriously then I also need to point to the paradoxical and social nature or Ralph’s contribution. First the paradox of the individual and the social, yes, he was a uniquely gifted individual, and able to bring his fierce intelligence to a number of areas of intellectual discipline, initially to macro-economic modelling, where he took a particular interest in mathematics, then to strategy and organisational theory, then to psychodynamics and the discipline of group analysis. If one definition of genius is an ability to contribute prolifically to a number of different disciplines, then Ralph certainly demonstrated this. Ralph excelled analytically and discursively, which allowed him to straddle both the natural and the social sciences in his ideas.

But it is also important to note that his individual genius was refracted through his socialisation as the son of lower middle class parents who grew up at a particular time in South Africa. He emigrated to the UK because he found it impossible to live with apartheid, at a time when it was very uncomfortable to be a white SAfrican living in London particularly in the heated politics of the LSE where Ralph took his PhD. He came out as gay relatively late in life after he was married with a family. He left a high paying job in the financial world to join academia at a time when to be a member of a university faculty meant having a good deal more freedom to experiment than is the case today. It was possible for him to experiment with his teaching about strategy on the MBA, and along with teaching the conventional texts, to get his students to explore what was going on for them at work. He did so because of his own experience of trying to do strategy in a construction firm, John Laing, and in the City.

Ralph Stacey told the story that when he was chief strategist for a stockbroker and fund manager in the City of London, his job was to brief all the traders at the start of the day about significant financial trends in the markets. Quite soon into the job, he realized that he had very little insight about how best to advise them about what to do. He approached each new day with increasing dread, traveling from his home to the office and reading the Financial Times on the underground for clues about what he might say when he got there. Standing up in front of the traders, his managers, and the whole staff team, he found himself stumbling over what he told them. His mouth was dry, his confidence shot: all he was doing was repeating what anyone else could have said if they had read the same newspapers. He had a deep experience of impostor syndrome.

However, he found much greater insight from listening to an older trader who took little interest in financial trends but treated the whole performance of trading as a game to be studied. Instead of just relying on the Financial Times and the trade press, the trader paid as much closer attention to his colleagues and the waves of enthusiasm or pessimism that swept through them. As far as he was concerned, one of the most important clues for discerning what might play out on the trading floor was how the traders responded to each other, amplifying some trends and damping down on others, how stock prices affected traders, and thus how traders affected stock prices. The market was being created and recreated on a minute-by-minute basis through trades and responses to trades, so that it was difficult to identify the beginning and the end, the cause and the effect.

This was a profound insight for Ralph which led to his pedagogic approach of encouraging students to take their experience seriously, both on the MBA at UH, and then on the DMan.

 It was during his early career as an academic that he became involved in the Tavistock Institute and attended the Leicester Conference, an annual two week experiential learning event, which opened him up to the influence of group dynamics. Ever curious and reflective, he paid attention to what the seminal sociologist C Wright Mills referred to as personal troubles set against structural social issues with which we all have to deal, and tried to make sense of them.

So there are some constant themes here of feeling out of place, of belonging but not quite belonging, of going against the grain,  of taking these experiences of not quite belonging seriously. These are often the very same questions which bring many of the students to the DMan and our annual conference, and which inform the ways of working we have developed together.

Ralph could dwell in the contradiction of being committed to groups while being a shy man; of being a good raconteur, while never making himself the hero of his own stories in a self-aggrandising way, of being a critical management scholar while working in a largely orthodox business school, of setting out radical and ground-breaking ideas whilst being quite traditional about his views on religion, state and society. Ralph is one of the few people I have known who had a poster of her Majesty the Queen in his bedroom as a teenager.

It is also important to point out that the ideas were developed in the crucible of strong relationships and heated argumentation in the PhD group at Hertfordshire University, and in the intense friendships with Doug Griffin and Patricia Shaw at the Institute of Group Analysis with colleagues including his supervisor Farhad Dalal. The ideas originally developed led to a clutch of books at the beginning of the 2000s and continued to evolve in the community of inquiry that is the Doctor of Management programme. The main mode of learning at the DMan, based on a unique experiential pedagogy, is collaborative group-based learning, which thrives on discussion, debate and exploration.

For me what Ralph excelled at was taking his experience seriously to the degree that he could make it accessible to everybody else, and through his ability to do so, to help people to find more about themselves and their relation to the world. In articulating what was going on for him he was able to bring about a collective shift in identity, both for individuals and the group. Unsurprisingly, you can find a description of this social and paradoxical process from one of the thinkers who is central to the perspective still being developed at UH, GH Mead, who points out that a genius has a response as an individual to the same social processes as everyone else. What makes them a genius is that in coming back to themselves,  their response is uniquely creative and imaginative – they are capable, as Ralph was, of speaking in a granular way about the patterning of experience from an individual perspective which evokes something profound and universal at the same time of what it means to be human and to be in relation with others.

Ralph’s profound ability to take his experience seriously, and to turn it inside out for the benefit of others, to be so profoundly there, while not standing in the way of others locating themselves is at the heart of the key insights from the perspective of complex responsive processes, and informs the method we deploy on the Doctor of Management programme. We encourage the students to take their experience seriously, but by doing so, to decentre themselves, to persist with holding the paradox of the I and the we together.

I want to share with you four key radical ideas at the heart of this perspective to illustrate how taking experience seriously is at the heart of the method and the uniqueness of what Ralph started. Apologies to those who follow the work and already know this in some detail.

Jus to wind back a bit and repeat what I said at the beginning of the talk, that complex responsive processes of relating draws on four traditions of thought: the complexity sciences interpreted by analogy; pragmatic philosophy, process sociology and group analytic theory.

Ralph was one of the pioneers of taking the complexity sciences as a source domain for thinking about social life and the dynamics of stability and change. There isn’t the time to go into this in depth, but some of the characteristics of complexity models, which are computer-based, is that they are informed by non-linear equations. Rather than producing strong predictions, they demonstrate qualitative changes over time. A meteorological model would be a good example of this, which produces forecasts on the basis of probability rather than certainty.  But as social researchers we are still left with the task of working out what to do with these models, which are, after all merely programmes running on computers. There is a tendency in management, an instrumental discipline, to grab any tools going and to press them in to service. Ralph was determined not to do this, but to cleave to what he saw as the radical implications of the complexity sciences, and to borrow from philosophy and the social sciences to make them practical for understanding social life.

I am going to set out what I see as four radical insights offered by complex responsive processes in its unique fusion of natural and social sciences. It offers:

  • A radical interpretation of complexity that doesn’t suggest it can be controlled or managed in any way.
  • A radical framing of the self as thoroughly social, of selves as interdependent.
  • A focus on the struggle over inclusion and exclusion, through the negotiation of power, politics and valuations of the good.
  • A radical focusing on experience and the practice of getting things done with one another, rather than abstractions, wholes and systems.
  1. Complex responsive processes articulates a radical interpretation of complexity (and life) – we cannot control the uncontrollable. There is no god’s eye view, or unique perspective which can sum up everyone else’s perspective, nor can we know for certain how to intervene for the good.

There are other schools of thought in organisation studies which cleave to a similar view, not least some traditions within the critical management and process schools, but perhaps unique amongst those informed by the complexity sciences, we at Hertfordshire work with the idea that whatever happens, does so as a result of what everyone is doing together, which has the quality of being ‘predictably unpredictable’. And this includes, the leader/manager/consultant/researcher. The perspective is not anti-management, or anti-leadership, but it does deflate the claims that, say, leaders, or consultants trained in a particular method, have a unique insight into the human condition, and challenges the idea that they stand separate from what is going on. This makes it problematic to claim that you can design organisations, or culture, or bring about transformation in a particular way. Even if well motivated, we cannot know that our interventions with others will make things better. Complexity cannot be unleashed, or embraced, nor is it necessarily a good thing or a creative thing. There is nowhere to stand to claim that a situation is simple, complicated, complex or chaotic. Where human beings are concerned, our interactions and the sense we can make of them, are always complex, plural and open to revision.

Our experience cannot be hammered into the shape that we already have in mind. Life surprises us, should surprise us if we want to hang on to what is vital about trying to get things done with other people, if we are not to treat each other as mere instruments to fulfilling organisational requirements . We cannot guarantee being innovative in advance. Organisational life is just as Churchill described history, one damned thing after another, never finished, never still.

Ralph was always radical in his interpretation of the insights from the complexity sciences.

2          The selves that are interacting are radically social – we are who we are because of the groups we belong to. This is not a denial of individuality, but an explanation of how individuality arises.  The I and we are two sides of the same coin.

One of the biggest affronts to what I think of as orthodox management thinking, which assumes a manager who can propose and dispose unproblematically, is that we are more formed than forming, more shaped than shaping. We are not rational, cognitive beings cut off from each other and calculating our responses. Rather we are caught up in the game with others, often unreflectively.  Rather than choosing our management or leadership ‘style’, it’s much more likely that the circumstances we find ourselves in, the group we find ourselves managing or leading, calls out a particular response from us. Our sense of self is tied to how others perceive us: we become ourselves through and with others because of the context and time, and because of the way we were formed by the groups we were born into. Although we have our unique genetic disposition we are social through and through and interdependent with others.

From a complex responsive processes perspective I think there are two ramifications from the assumption of the thoroughly social self, which are different from what one might learn from more orthodox management education. The first is the requirement to develop group-mindedness: the questions uppermost in the mind of the researcher-manager informed by a complexity perspective are: ‘what does this group require of me now’. ‘Who are we, and who do we think we are becoming?’ This last observation is something I learned from Doug Griffin.. Notice that, although the manager or leader might have a different role, they do not stand outside the group for which they are responsible.

Of all the things which students on the DMan are exposed to I think they get a profound training in becoming more skillful in noticing the patterning of groups.

The second is the importance of the reflexive self, the ability to notice how one is thinking and relating to others. I think of this as a kind of decentering of the self – to do exactly what Ralph was excellent at doing, that is, paying attention to our own experience ad trying to make sense of it, but then calling our interpretations into question critically: to learn to think about how we are thinking and the assumptions that we bring to bear to understand the world.

3          The games of games we find ourselves playing in organisations involves negotiating power relationships, struggles over ideology and valuations of the good.

Going back to the original insight, which Ralph drew from complex adaptive systems, that whatever happens in organisations does so as a result of what everyone is doing together. Highly social, interdependent selves need each other, and struggle over who is to be included in, and who excluded from the group. This interdependence implies power relationships, where power is neither a ‘good thing’ nor a ‘bad thing’, but merely a function of all relating which may enable and may constrain. It’s impossible to get anything done, to produce knowledge, without power.

It is still the case that in most organisations discussions about power are hard to have. Mostly we are encouraged to leave our ‘politics ‘at the door, to align, collaborate and ‘be our best selves‘. Complex responsive processes suggest a much more grown-up understanding of power, one which is less naïve. It is our need of each other for recognition, for reward, for co-operation, for respect which leads to the fluctuating dynamics in organisations in which we all participate.

The Vice-Chancellor made a joke to one of our graduating students recently when congratulating her on her doctoral completion, with a thesis which alluded to power struggles in organisations. He asked her: was it difficult to find an organisation with power struggles going on?

And if discussions about power are hard to have in organisations, then they are equally difficult  to write about . We cannot do so without getting into ethics, one of the constant themes of deliberation on the Doctor of Management programme. It would be a travesty not to write about the struggle over inclusion and exclusion and at the same time it has the potential to do harm to those involved. If we accept Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the role of politics in social life it is through the public exercise and discussion of power that we become visible to each other in our uniqueness.

4          The focus on experience, on practice turns the focus away from abstractions, wholes and systems. Instead we pay attention to human bodies interacting with each other in the here and now, interpreting the past in anticipation of the future.

I am not going to explore this in depth because I know that Patricia wants to do so in her response to what I say. But it remains a radical approach to organisational research to consider management as a practice, rather than a science, and to continue to pay attention to the complex responsive processes of staying in relation.

Right to the end of his life Ralph remained engaged, involved and curious. We invited him to the July residential of the DMan in July 2021 when we were still trying to recover from Covid with some students present and some joining remotely. We found him on great form, still reading (about the history of the Catholic church) still able to participate skilfully in an experiential group, even though it was online. To give you a flavour of what he was like as a person , here is an excerpt of some Whatsapp messages he sent me from his last stay in hospital where he was on a ward with older people much like himself, but also so unlike him:

Then much of the time a few patients keep loudly kicking off. Sometimes a kind of hysterical group contagion spreads with a number all trying to leave and nurses trying to cope with the chaos. As you know I can’t help interfering so I became a kind of group therapist talking some down gently and telling others to shut up and stay in bed. Foulkes was right. Put the sick together and they heal themselves.   I think the nurses came to regard me as a sick honorary nurse. I have now been transferred to a ward for the less sick and so far it is saner. In the sick ward I also experienced what leadership in practice really is. One of the really obstinate old codgers with dementia insisted on getting out of bed on his own, collapsed, struck his head and suffered a huge heart attack during which his heart stopped. The nurse immediately gave him cpr. But here within minutes about six doctors arrived and the first immediately assumed control in a most impressive way. A consultant arrived a minute later but made no attempt to take control simply following instructions. But they were all making suggestions at the same time so leadership was simultaneously individual and group with no overt appeal to hierarchy which was nevertheless clearly there. A film of that would be far more use on a leadership course than Henry V. Anyway the old boy came to shouting. ‘Get off me. You’ve the wrong bloke’. He continued to be my client with nurses asking me to deal with him. I felt like throttling the old bugger. Perhaps you can tell I am in dire need of some escape from here.

Even with all this he commenced his nonsense after a brief interlude of peace. At this point I demonstrated how well trained I am by completely losing it telling him to shut up and shouting how stupid and selfish he was. Of course that didn’t help much but our skilful young nurse brought him down. He was later to refer to her as my granddaughter. He then insisted on coming over to apologise for disturbing me. By this time I had managed to recover some capacity for thinking so pompously undertook to forgive him if he made an act of reparation. He found this puzzling probably because he was not a Roman Catholic. So I gave him a little lecture on Melanie Klein’s cycle of schizoid attacks followed by depressive guilt prompting reparation followed by forgiveness. As his act of reparation I asked, not for 20 Hail Marys but a promise to stay in his chair until the authorities arrived with conclusions to their investigation. He promised, I forgave him and now simply remind him that he is a man of his word. Such is an ordinary night in Larch Ward in the wilds of Barnet. I am grateful Harold Behr is no longer my supervisor because he would probably defrock me. I

Right to the end, whether on his local allotment or in his last weeks in hospital, Ralph was fully engaged in social life, which intrigued him. He was never so alive as when things were kicking off.

He leaves us with a lasting legacy, a body of ideas which we are still developing, a thriving community of inquiry which continues to produce good academic work which challenges business school orthodoxies and lasting memories for those who knew and loved him.

Ralph, we still miss you.

2 thoughts on “Ralph Stacey Memorial Lecture 5/10/22

  1. Pingback: Transduction – leading transformation – Issue #66 – chosen path

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