Coming out at the end of November and turning on 7 types of complexity: thoughts about complex selves, complex action, complex knowledge, complex communication, complex authority and complex ethics, all arising from complex models. A plea for management humility along the way.
The complexity of waiting.
Your boss summons you for a meeting: she can be late, but it would be unwise for you to be. Or you pass your boss in the corridor as she is talking to another colleague: she asks you to wait while she finishes what she has to say, but the conversation goes on and on. You are doubly frustrated by having to listen to matters which don’t concern you, and by being delayed on the task you are on. Do you dare interrupt and negotiate a meeting at a later time?
These are trivial examples, but being asked to wait often reflects a power relationship, the membership or otherwise of a group, and an indication of social status. The groups of people who are likely to be made to wait the longest are the poor, the unemployed, asylum-seekers, and the otherwise marginalised, who face endless iterations of delay in their dealings with borders or state bureaucracy. Sometimes whole populations of people are asked to wait years, sometimes for generations for a resolution of their displacement and refugee status, like the Palestinians for example. There are hierarchies within societies and between societies and the length of time spent waiting is an index of powerlessness. We have recently witnessed long queues of people waiting to leave the airport in Kabul, while the majority of Afghans have no chance of leaving.
But if you have a first world passport you are unlikely to wait as long in the immigration queue as you are if you are a national of a country in the Global South. If you are a business traveller you are likely to board first and perhaps be accelerated through immigration on your arrival. Money, status, nationality, relationships with the powerful, can all make a difference to gaining access, to being let in, to avoiding bureaucratic entanglements, to getting justice. British citizens are already experiencing their change in status of choosing to leave the EU as they have their passports stamped and join the queue of ‘other nationals’.
But even the privileged have been unable to avoid the uncertain waiting that has afflicted us all during the pandemic. We have been locked down, endlessly waiting, for a resolution, a way out, for hope for the future. In a neoliberal age which privileges action, agency, the constant remaking of the self, we have all experienced, more or less, what it means to have our ability to plan our lives profoundly curtailed. Moreover, we have come to think of ourselves as infinitely networked, speeded up, able to gratify our desires instantly. In contemporary organisations and in normal times we are constantly speeding towards an idealised future. Instead, during the last period we have got used to living with the kind of radical uncertainty that populations in the majority world have long been used to. We are thrown back upon ourselves knowing that our plans are highly contingent on circumstances beyond our control.
In large groups and small, the Complexity and Management Symposium will consider the complexities of waiting, of dwelling in uncertainty. The day will comprise a mixture of small and large groups in the morning and workshops in the afternoon presented by Symposium delegates. If you have an idea for a workshop you would like to present, then please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will set up a booking site in the next few weeks on the UH website.
Looking forward to seeing you there.
This year we held another highly participative conference to discuss the complexity of practice. In order to help us frame the day, we invited Prof Hari Tsoukas of Cyprus and Warwick Universities to give us his thoughts on complexity and practice, which you can watch below.
In the meantime, the Complexity and Management Conference is planning an online symposium for Saturday November 27th 2021, another date for your diaries.
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.Continue reading
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. 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.
 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.
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.
11.30-13.00 Large group meeting continuing the exploration of the above.
14.00-15.30 Practice-based seminars offered by Symposium participants I.
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.
‘…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 to 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
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.