Category Archives: politics of everyday life

Exploring the complexity of conflict and organising in the time of Covid-19 – Online Symposium/Practicum Nov 28th

Just a week to go before the Complexity and Management Centre’s online Symposium/Practicum exploring the role of conflict, particularly in the time of Covid-19. There are still a few places remaining, which you can book here.

The morning comprises reflections in a large group setting to experience the significance of conflict to the everyday processes of getting things done together. In the afternoon there will be seminars run by practitioner-scholars who will invite delegates to think about what’s going on for them in their organisational setting as a way of further exploring the generalisability of their insights.

Our last post to warm us up for the event comes from Professor Emma Crewe, who teaches at SOAS and is a supervisor on the DMan programme.

When people fall apart

These days, as I bounce from one virtual room to the next, shapeshifting from my various research teams to a discussion about university finance to teaching PhD students, with no gaps and virtually no gossip in between, my energy drains away all too easily. We no longer have the ability to discern the subtle emotional signs or the cunning political tactics employed by those around us. We are becoming more ignorant of each other. I can’t say no to these conversations  in two-dimensional space because a pull towards collaboration draws me in; but often they leave me feeling empty – it is so hard to read each other and innovate together when we can’t meet, body-to-body, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. To innovate you need to move from separate, differing positions to a new relationship, understanding or action. My experience of Covid is that stuckness is more common than movement.

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Conflict and complexity in the time of Covid-19 – online Symposium/Practicum Sat Nov 28th. A few tickets still available.

There are still a few places left for the Complexity and Management Centre’s Symposium/Practicum on Conflict and complexity in the time of Covid-19, on November 28th. You can book here.

The day comprises large and small group discussion of the every-day practicalities of working with conflict in organisations. For more details on the programme, look here.

How are we as hosts of the Symposium/Practicum approaching the day in terms of our assumptions?

There are a number of ways in which conflict is understood in organisational literature.[1] The first perspective is to consider it an aberration for the high-functioning, aligned organisation which thrives on positivity and high trust. From this perspective, conflict should be overcome, or mediated as quickly as possible because it’s an obstacle to progress. As a worker in an organisation where this set of assumptions predominate, one might be invited to leave one’s bad self, or perhaps political self, at the door. This might be an idealising environment to work in where a premium is placed on charisma.

A second way of understanding conflict is to think of it as necessary to the exploration of difference as long as the organisation can optimise it to fulfil its aims. Optimising involves not too much conflict and not too little, but just enough. This Goldilocks equilibrium is achieved by managers intervening in the conflict to bring about the desired ends. The assumption here is that the conflict is amenable to intervention, that the manager doesn’t have a stake in the game themselves, and they are able to nudge the conflict into an optimised state. In this organisation the tools and techniques of leadership and management may predominate.

A third perspective conceives of organisations as a market place where lots of autonomous individuals try to maximise their interests. The conflicts arising from competing interests are mediated by contracts and social control mechanisms to maximise efficiency for the organisation. Competition between individuals is to be encouraged if it leads to greater efficiency in the organisation, if you assume that all individuals can compete equally. In making this assumption this economic perspective on conflict denies power inequalities and hierarchies. This kind of thinking often predominates in financialized organisation driven by metrics as ‘price mechanisms’.

Meanwhile, a critical perspective, and one which we adopt as a faculty group in shaping the agenda for the forthcoming Symposium, always creates the possibility for conflict because it calls into question the taken-for-granted. There is no assumption that the way things are is the way they need to be, or that they are inevitably that way, or that we should aim towards some kind of ideal of positive cooperation. There is no assumption that a manager is somehow outside of the ebb and flow of both cooperation and competition which ensues when people try to get work done together, nor that they are unaffected by it, nor that they can intervene to bring it to any equilibrium state. A critical perspective tries to take into account history and power relationships, and assumes that as social beings we are not autonomous, rational individuals trying to maximise our utility. Instead a critical perspective assumes that we act on the basis of a plurality of motivations which raise a variety of ethical questions which can only be considered in concrete situations with particular actors. At the same time there is no attempt to deny that there are broader social trends which advantage some social groups and disadvantage others, sometimes for long periods of time.

If this last perspective on conflict is of interest to you, then it would be great to see you there on the day.

[1] I found Alessia Contu’s article (2017) on Conflict and Organization Studies,  in the journal Organization Studies, April, 1–18 really helpful, although Professor Contu is not responsible for the way I have mangled some of her ideas and added my own.

Online Symposium/Practicum November 28th – now booking.

Exploring the complexity of conflict and organising in the time of Covid-19.

The Symposium booking site is now open and is available here . We will send participants a link at least 48 hours before the event begins.

Here is the agenda for the day. The Symposium/Practicum will be a combination of group reflection on organisational dilemmas in the morning, and workshops/seminars in the afternoon where contributors will bring something which preoccupies them in their workplace.

10.00- 11.00    Complexity and Management Centre colleagues start with an open discussion of some key themes, followed by small groups.

11.00-11.30    Break

11.30-13.00    Large group meeting continuing the exploration of the above.

13.00-14.00    Lunch

14.00-15.30    Practice-based seminars offered by Symposium participants I.

15.30-16.00    Break

16.00-17.30    Practice-based seminars offered by Symposium participants II

17.30-18.00    Final plenary.

As a contribution to the discussion in advance of the event, faculty member Dr Karina Solsø Iversen has written the following:

The pursuit of meaning through political action

When Corona virus struck some months back many of us suddenly found ourselves working from home in ways that we hadn’t thought was possible prior to this crisis. For me as an organizational consultant, some activities were postponed while others were moved to an online format.

In the following I will draw on ideas from the philosopher and political thinker, Hannah Arendt to make sense of some of the difficulties that I feel Covid-19 has created, and then conclude by drawing attention to aspects of this crisis, which leave me with a sense of hope.

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Online Symposium/Practicum November 28th 2020 – Conflict and Organising in the Time of Covid-19.

The Complexity and Management Centre offers a one day Symposium/Practicum on Saturday November 28th to explore the experience of conflict during a time of radical uncertainty. The day is intended as an opportunity to bring practical dilemmas to a community of engaged inquirers, to reflect together and think out loud. In reflecting on conflict at work, we will also take seriously the experience of being together in an online forum.

Why do we think it is important to focus on conflict, and how do we understand it?

A variety of contradictory patterns are emerging in organisational life in the wake of responses to the pandemic. Changes in working practices which may have been considered ideal improvements at some point in the future have happened almost overnight. Everyone has had to be very creative to develop workarounds and innovative ways of being together. The usual negotiations, objections, reflections, adjustments have gone by the board and organisations have shifted rapidly from one way of working to another. This has taken cooperation from managers and staff in exceptional times: a unified response to a shared crisis. Most schools and universities have moved teaching online in record time, staff have dramatically reconfigured services in the health sector, and managers’ ambivalence about remote working have melted away, at least for the foreseeable future. Necessity has been the mother of invention and if my own organisation is anything to go by, many people feel justifiably proud of what they have achieved. Scrutiny of micro-detail, which is one of the hallmarks of managerialism, has not been possible and managers have had no choice but to let staff get on with it.

At the same time removing the opportunity for reflection and deliberation also takes away the possibility of practising every day politics, by which I mean both the public and hidden engagement with difference and the possibility of generating plural points of view. Video conferencing is a flat medium where it is very difficult to discern what’s going on and to develop a felt sense of the other. The accidental and incidental sense-making which takes place after any meeting to decide things has to become more deliberate if it is to happen at all. Since video conferencing can be enervating, meetings can get truncated with the encouragement to become ‘focused’ and ‘business-like’. In doing so it is easy to pare away the human messiness of complex communication. Nuance, doubt, clarification of what is being proposed may all disappear. As a consequence, it has become much harder to organise in resistance, formally or informally, or to lobby to influence the outcome.

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CMC June 4-7th 2020 to move online

In the light of the Covid-19 crisis we have decided to cancel the 2020 Complexity and Management Conference as a face-to-face event. This is partly due to the fact that on current trends the pandemic will be at its peak in the UK in May/June, and probably across Europe too, and partly because the uncertainty has already begun to affect the numbers of people booking. Every year probably 50% of our delegates come from overseas, and a good proportion of UK delegates and overseas delegates are consultants who are preparing to lose almost all of their business over the coming period. I have had a number of people write to me on the one hand expressing their desire to come to the conference, yet on the other acknowledging that they cannot commit the resources to doing so given how much they are going to have to retrench.

We do intend to hold at least a one-day event online – we think it is important to do something in response to the new times we all face. The conference is, after all, supposed to be about the idea of collaboration, which is something to think about whether we meet face to face or not. And we are a research community interested in making sense of the experience of acting in conditions of uncertainty. For these reasons we need to respond in some way by finding alternative opportunities for making meaning from what we are all going through, the complex responsive processes of acting into this particular set of unpredictable circumstances.

We are investigating how we might host online discussions and other inputs. We are also thinking about whether we can offer the one-day workshops planned for the Friday as online events.

So if you are still interested in participating, please don’t fill up your diaries with anything else, at least for the Friday (if you have signed up for the workshops) and Saturday.

I have written to those of you who have already signed up for the event letting you know that I have triggered a refund from the university.

I will write to you soon with our ideas for hosting an online event, or series of events.


What does it mean to be critical? – the paradox of the private and the public

‘…the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives.’

C Wright Mills, Appendix to The Sociological Imagination.

In previous posts we have considered what it means to be critical. To bring one’s critical faculties to work can be unsettling for oneself and for others because it begins to reveal, and perhaps pick away at, power relationships. Perhaps Kant was the first philosopher to observe that to use one’s critical judgement involves subjecting authority public privateto scrutiny and come face to face with the exercise of power. What we take to be given, taken for granted, which is one of the ways that power works in society, may suddenly appear to be less so. And there may be a cost in denaturalising the way things are done around here particularly if the dominant ethos in the organisation is appreciative, or sets great store by ‘alignment’. The cost might be to exclude oneself or to make oneself vulnerable. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2020

This is to give you advance notice that next year’s Complexity and Management Conference will be 5th-7th June 2020, at Roffey Park, speaker and topic to be decided.

Complexity&management Conference – 17th-19th May: end of early bird booking 1st April.

What kind of experience can you anticipate at the Complexity and Management Conference 17-19th May at Roffey Park entitled: What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life.  And what might you expect if you sign up to the one day workshop on Friday 17th May? Early bird booking discounts end 1st April 2019 – so book here.

Starting with the one day workshop, you will have a chance to explore the relevance of complexity thinking for your work, drawing on an intellectual perspective which has been developed over a 20 year period. There will be two seminar sessions exploring the key ideas underpinning the body of ideas called complex responsive processes of relating, but in the main you will have lots of opportunities to think with others about what’s going on for you in your organisation. It is time and space to take your experience seriously. Participants from previous one day workshops have


found that it has prepared them better for  the conference,  although the workshop can be stand-alone too.

Meanwhile the conference, which begins with an inaugural dinner on Friday evening 17th at 7pm, is not a conventional academic event. You are very welcome to come and present a paper or a particular dilemma from your work during the workshop sessions on Saturday afternoon. But otherwise the only requirement is to come and participate fully with others to explore together why it is important to think critically in contemporary organisational life. In many ways the confer

ence itself is acounter-cultural event: there is time to reflect with no particular end in view apart from making meaning together, what the philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to as thinking without a bannister.

Conference fees, board and lodging are all included in the price. The conference ends after lunch on Sunday 19th May.



Complexity and Management Conference 17th-19th May – booking now.

This year’s Complexity and Management Conference, on 17th-19th May:  What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life offers the opportunity for delegates to reflect on what it means to be critical and why it is important to be so in today’s organisations. On the first morning of the conference we have invited Professor Andre Spicer to help us get the discussion going. If you want to sign up for the conference and save yourself some money before the early bird deadline expires, then click here.

Here are a few ideas on the traditions of thought to which we will be contributing.

We have a strong critical tradition in western thought, starting with the ancient Greeks. However, the contemporary philosopher Julian Baggini has shown us how a variety of cultures have their own traditions of systematically thinking about the human condition, on the basis that, as Socrates put it, the life unexamined is not worth living. How might we lead a good life, what do we mean by truth, how might we guard against the fragility of goodness, as Martha Nussbaum expressed it?[1] Examining our lives in the back and forth dialectic of discussion is necessary if we are to make meaning and become fully human, but it can have its negative consequences, as it did for Socrates. Problematising, probing, judging comes with its own risks: we are unlikely to be condemned to death for corrupting Athenian youth, as he was, but simply asking questions can call out a strong reaction. Why might that be?

As Kant identified, to critique (originating in judgement, from the Greek krisis) involves imagination and daring:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment.[2]

Kant thought that ‘daring to know’ may require courage to take on sources of authority, so that even religion, perhaps the biggest locus of authority in his day, would need ‘to sustain the test of its free and public examination.’[3] He suggested that subjecting sources of legitimacy and authority to critical inquiry is not something to be undertaken lightly, although it is necessary if we are to liberate ourselves from ignorance. Both implicitly and explicitly, becoming critical means engaging with questions of legitimacy and power and calling into question the status quo.

But is it enough just to doubt and reason on our own and by ourselves? From a Hegelian perspective the answer is no, since Hegelians would claim that we are not just autonomous, rational individuals cognizing in the abstract, but we are socially and historically formed. More, and from a pragmatic perspective, it is not helpful to doubt everything all of the time, but we should engage first with those problems which preoccupy us.[4] To pursue inquiry from a Hegelian and pragmatic perspective means taking an interest in history. How has the phenomenon, the particular predicament we are interested in evolved over time, and what has led to what? We then try to place our  difficulties, within the larger history of social relations and their structural contradictions. This may mean drawing attention to power relationships and calling into question the legitimacy of certain ways of knowing and speaking, perhaps asking the question cui bono, who benefits? It certainly means pursuing these questions through dialectical inquiry, where an abstract notion of truth is replaced by the idea that insight arises in the back and forth or argument in a community of engaged inquirers.

And by taking part in discussion and argumentation we then find ourselves discovering that moral and political judgements in particular are plural. We might enhance our ability to see the world from perspectives other than our own. So in addition to Kant’s injunction to dare to know, we might find ourselves developing greater empathy, imagination and solidarity.

If this kind of inquiry interests you, where you engage with a committed group of peers to discuss current organisational difficulties and discover plural and complex points of view, then this year’s Complexity and Management conference 17th-19th May is the place to be. There may be no resolution to your predicaments but perhaps you will find some degree of solidarity with and from others in the complex responsive processes of relating. Dare to come!

Early bird concessions end 1st April.

[1] Nussbaum, M (1986) The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] An answer to the question what is Enlightenment? 1784

[3] Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, 1781.

[4] “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy…Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” CS Peirce (1992), The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings Vol 1, Bloomington: Indiana University Press: pp28-29.

2019 Complexity and Management Conference 17-19th May

stamp_hannah_arendt-2The 2019 Complexity and Management Conference booking page is now open and can be accessed here.

The title of this year’s conference is: What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life.

On Saturday morning we are delighted to have Professor André Spicer from the Cass Business School, City, University of London to give the keynote on Saturday morning. André holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He has held visiting appointments at universities around the world. André is the author of many academic articles and nine books. The most recent are ‘Business Bullshit’, ’The Stupidity Paradox’ and ‘Desperately Seeking Self Improvement’.

On Saturday afternoon we ask conference delegates to suggest workshops that they themselves would like to run consonant with the theme of the conference, so if you would like to suggest something, then do let me know.

As usual, the event will be highly participative and will offer lots of opportunities for discussion and exploration of the key themes with other delegates. The conference begins with an inaugural dinner on Friday evening 17th May, and ends after lunch on 19th May. The conference fee includes onsite board and lodging for the duration of the conference. Early bird rates apply before 1st April 2019.

As with previous years we are also offering a one day introductory workshop on some of the key ideas informing the perspective of complex responsive processes on Friday 17th May.

Hope to see you there.