Category Archives: politics of everyday life

Complexity and Management Conference June 2015 – themes and agenda

At the Complexity and Management Conference this weekend (5th-7th June at Roffey Park) we will be discussing a variety of themes concerning power and politics in organisations. As a small contribution to the discussion I offer the following:

There are two managerial tendencies in contemporary organisations which in my view work against the exploration of difference, and cover over the opportunity for collective reflection.

The first is the increasing prevalence of instrumental reason in the shape of rhetorical appeals to ‘what works’, or what ‘adds value’ or is best for effectiveness and efficiency.  This is not to argue in favour of inefficiency or ineffectiveness, or allowing employees to do whatever they want, but if we start from the premiss that there is no one best strategy, then all options about what employees might do together to improve organisational outcomes will bring with them advantages and disadvantages. It depends when the evaluation is made, and who is judging.

If the future is uncertain then we can never be sure what will work and what will not until we try something together, and even then we may disagree about what we find. So it may be worth exploring the merits of different courses of action and tolerating dissent, disagreement and contestation before we embark upon something.

The second tendency can arise as a direct result of the first, that there is a lack of shared experience of deliberating together, and therefore a greater reluctance to consider it. All kinds of reasons are given for not thinking together: because there isn’t time, because it will open a can of worms, because it will be just a talking shop, because it’s a luxury we can’t afford, because we’re an action-oriented organisation. In effect what then happens is a closing down of opportunity to seek different perspectives which prevents bringing about what Hannah Arendt referred to as ‘enlarged mentality’, the possibility of experiencing human plurality. The ability to consider the perspective of others was of prime importance to Arendt, since it enables us to decentre ourselves and avoid narcissism, as well as preventing tyranny where there is only a hearing for one point of view.

Another aspect of deliberating together in public, particularly when we are face to face, is that the intimacy of being together obliges us more actively to find ways forward. But confronting each other with our differences can be painful, and it isn’t always easy to do.

These are some of the themes we will be struggling with, more or less painfully,  on the weekend, and here is the rough agenda for the discussions.

Look forward to seeing you there if you have registered, and if not we will try and post some reflections on what happened afterwards.

New publications in April

Here are three new publications from DMan faculty members published this month:

Commons and Lords: a Short Anthropology of Parliament – Emma Crewe

The House of Commons: an Anthropology of MPs at Work – Emma Crewe

Managing in Uncertainty: Complexity and the Paradoxes of Everyday Organisational Life – Chris Mowles

61o5S19tTBL 71rGKydMesL Book cover

Complexity and Management Conference 5th-7th June 2015

This is just to remind you that if you book your place for the Complexity and Management Conference June 5-7th before the end of April you get a £50 early-bird discount. The link to go to the university booking page is here:
The theme for the conference is:
Exploring our experience of everyday politics in organisations.
Our key note speakers are Prof Svend Brinkmann of Aalborg University and Prof Patricia Shaw formerly of the Complexity and Management Group at UH and now at Schumacher College.
Looking forward to seeing you there.

Against Common Sense: managing amid the paradoxes of everyday organisational life

The following is the text of a talk given by Chris Mowles at the University of Hertfordshire on Friday Feb 13th as part of the MBA Masterclass series.

In this talk I try to cover four things:

I address why I think there is a problem with much contemporary management theory and explain why I think it is necessary to argue against what is taken to be common sense in management.Unknown

I introduce paradox and explain its roots in philosophy and point to how it manifests itself in the complexity sciences, as an alternative to some of the simplified assumptions and dualisms in much contemporary management theory.

I give some examples of how paradox manifests itself in everyday organisational life.

And finally I suggest some implications for managers for taking paradox seriously for what they might find themselves doing at work.

Why against common sense?

I am using the title of this talk, against common sense, to make a general critique of what we might think of as the majority literature on management, but also to highlight the meaning of the word paradox, from the Greek para doxa, or against what people ordinarily hold to be true. In using the term ‘majority literature’, I am not trying to suggest that all management literature suggests the same thing, or that all business schools teach the subject uncritically (this is certainly not the case at the University of Hertfordshire and on the MBA, for example). There is a flourishing substantial minority critical tradition in management theory.

But overwhelmingly, orthodox management journals and books assume that managers are in control, can predict and design organisational futures and organisational culture, can purpose transformation and innovation. Even when the majority literature identifies contradiction or paradox as a phenomenon, it argues that managers can control this too, often suggesting that paradox can be ‘unleashed’ for the creative good of the organisation, or can be brought into dynamic balance.[i] Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2015

Conference theme: Exploring our experience of everyday politics in organisations

How do we negotiate degrees of freedom with each other in what we can increasingly experience as regimes of disciplinary power in organisational life? How do grand schemes for whole-organisation transformation play out in every day relationships between people?

This conference will invite participants to discuss and reflect upon the every day politics of getting things done together, noticing the negotiations, compromises and improvisations which are necessary to take the next step.

Between now and then we will be posting further reflections on the topic on this the Complexity and Management blog.

The key note speakers this year are  Svend Brinkmann,  who is Professor in general psychology and qualitative methods as well as Co-director of the Center for Qualitative Studies, and Professor Patricia Shaw, co-founder of the Doctor of Management programme at UH and currently working at Schumacher College. Here is Svend’s profile page at Aalborg university and here is Patricia Shaw’s at Schumacher College: .

The conference will be informal and highly participative, as in previous years. The conference fee includes accommodation and food and will be held at Roffey Park Institute in the UK:

The booking page on the university website will be set up in the New Year.

A more detailed agenda will follow, but the conference begins with a drinks reception @7pm on Friday 5th June and ends after lunch Sunday 7th June 2015.

Participants wishing to set up a particular themed discussion in a working group during the conference should contact Chris Mowles:

Leadership and the ‘vision thing’

Roberto Martinez, manager of Everton football club which did very well in the Premier League in the UK this season, says that he always had a vision that the team would play in the European Champions League, for which his team has now qualified. Meanwhile political pundits, and sometimes members of his own party, are critical of the fact that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Ed Miliband, doesn’t have a sufficiently clear vision. In contrast, President George Bush (père) once said that he didn’t do ‘the vision thang’.

If you search on the terms ‘leadership vision’ in any search engine it will turn up thousands of hits, consultancies, business schools, books, which claim that having leadership vision is probably the most important quality a leader can have. There are any number of proprietary tools, techniques, grids and frameworks for generating such a vision. The idea is now virtually unchallengeable.

How would I square the idea that vision is something an individual leader ‘has’ with some previous posts where I argued that leadership is an improvisational and ensemble performance? If vision really is the exceptional and innate characteristic of an individual leader, then maybe the leaders of banks and corporations really do deserve the fantastic salaries that they command. Is it really the case that some are born with visions, and the rest of us are born to be led by them. Continue reading

On organisational culture change

There is a great deal of discussion in contemporary organisational life of the need to ‘change the culture’ in organisations. This is a way of talking that assumes that organizations do have discrete cultures and that they are manipulable, although the discourse can have it both ways with the term: on the one hand culture is known to be symbolic, intangible and abstract, on the other it can be the object of conscious and rational redesign and reframing. A good example of this way of talking about organisational culture can be found in the 4th edition of the eminent management scholar Edgar Schein’s book Organizational Culture and Leadership[1].

Usually a prime role is assumed for leaders or senior managers in making the changes to organizational culture because they are considered to have the necessary abilities and skills to diagnose what is wrong with the current culture and to design a better one: one which fits better with the environment. Schein states this very explicitly in his book: ‘In this sense culture is ultimately created, embedded, evolved and ultimately manipulated by leaders’ (2010: 3).  As a result of their leaders’ efforts, employees will be obliged to commit to a fresh set of values, or reaffirm an existing set which are thought to have become moribund, as well as demonstrating a suite of required ‘behaviours’ or new procedures. The new values and procedures are then set ‘at the heart of everything we do’, are vigorously communicated and disseminated and form the basis of widespread training programmes for staff, and are then subject to regimes of inspection and performance management. Such change programmes can consume weeks and months of organizational time and resources.

The whole process is a good demonstration of the systemic assumptions behind organizational realignment: values, behaviour, systems, procedures, training, communication and quality regimes are all supposed to line up and fit over each other and form a coherent whole. The emphasis is on integration, stability and alignment. It is a huge reduction of the complexity of what is at stake when attempting organisational change.

A book recently published calling for radical change in the NHS is a refreshing attempt to explain why ‘culture change’ in organisations is likely to be highly problematic. [2] Instead of assuming that whatever we might mean by the term culture is contained within one organisation, even one as big as the NHS, Ballatt and Campling, an ex-senior manager and psychotherapist within the NHS, explain why the institution reflects much wider conflictual social processes, as well as provoking profound questions about what it means to be human. That is, they try to bring together society-wide trends in social patterning in the UK and beyond in terms of their impact on changes in the NHS, and they wrestle with the profound human difficulties and dilemmas involved in professionalising the often spontaneous and improvisational human response of caring towards another human being in need. Though written specifically about the NHS, I think the book also raises important questions for anyone thinking about what is involved in processes of organisational change and echoes some of the themes from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. There are some key differences, however, which I will also explore below. Continue reading

Trust in Organisations

A search of Google Scholar indicates that books and journal papers to do with trust, organisations and leadership numbered a few hundred per annum during the 1960s, jumping to the low thousands during the 1970s, and approaching 10,000 per annum in the 1990s. During the early years of this century the number of publications has numbered around an average of 40,000 per year. These numbers indicate a major increase in, and concern about, the presence and role of trust in organisational life, including the exercise of leadership. In this note I want to give a brief indication of how this issue is approached in the management literature and how it is approached in the sociology literature. To aid in the comparing and contrasting I will draw on Hosmer’s[i] classification of four different approaches to understanding trust:

  • Trust as an optimistic individual expectation, focusing on expectations that others will perform in competent and morally correct ways.
  • Trust as an interpersonal relation, focusing on the dependence of the trustors on the trustees to respect the trustors’ interests. The relationship is one of vulnerability for the trustor.
  • Trust as a rational decision to  do with protecting one’s interests made after risk analysis or a calculation in terms of economic transactions costs (which I will not cover in this note).
  • Trust and social structure. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference, 7-9th June 2013

Exploring the cult of leadership: alternative ideas from relational and complex responsive processes perspectives.

During the past 10-15 years there has been a proliferation of leadership programmes run by business schools, consultancy companies and training organisations. Leadership development is routinely offered to employees throughout organisations, private and public, irrespective of whether staff lead, or intend to lead others or not. It is a prerequisite to have had leadership training and to aspire to leadership positions for organisational advancement, or even to take up an ordinary career. Many of these programmes draw on a host of contradictory books and journal articles which continue to be produced in large numbers. In the UK and throughout North America and Europe, and even in the developing world, there is no avoiding the discussion of leadership in contemporary organisational life. Leadership, and aspiring to be a leader, have become a cult value.

And yet the more that is furnished in the way of leadership literature and development programmes, the less clear it is what we are actually talking about. Current discussion of leadership tends to veer between depicting failures of leadership, often attributed to weak individuals or failing ‘systems’, or idealising conceptions of the leader-as-hero.  The first approach covers over what people are actually doing with each other at work, while the latter calls out the possibility of a commensurate degree of disappointment when our leaders are revealed to have feet of clay. As the Harvard professor Rakesh Khurana (2007) put it when he reflected on the sorry state of leadership scholarship in his book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands:

‘From a scholarly perspective, then, leadership as a body of knowledge, after decades of scholarly attention under the social sciences research lens that the Ford Foundation found so eminently promising, remains without either a widely accepted theoretical framework or a cumulative empirical understanding leading to a usable body of knowledge. Moreover, the probability that leadership studies will make significant strides in developing a fundamental knowledge base is fairly low.’ (2007: 357) Continue reading

Thought collectives and the role of critique

As a way of adding to the discussion started by Ralph in the last post I want to offer some observations, additions, and questions to the idea of the thought collective and thought styles. I would like to reflect more on the stable instability of thought collectives and the way that they are at risk from transformation from within and from without. I want to suggest that they may be powerful and enduring, but they are never rigid being subject to their own ruptures. Although thought collectives undoubtedly try to exclude patterns of thinking which do not conform to a particular orthodoxy, and can sometimes do so with some violence as we will explore below, this orthodoxy often has its own indeterminacies and internal contradictions, and challenges to it are likely to occur regularly and in every day ways both from ‘within’ and from ‘without’. Together the gesture of critique and orthodox response incorporate each other and produce a movement through which other ways of theorising are made possible.

I want to expand further on how the processes of domination and resistance are mediated by power relations and will draw on some of Foucault’s thinking to inquire into the social relations of ‘truth telling’. That is to say, as well as considering the way that orthodoxies dynamically maintain themselves by excluding and denying, it is also important to think about how resistance is mounted, and by whom. Having done this I will question whether the discussion pattern that Ralph points to between systems theorists and their critics could ever thought to be ‘stuck’, although it may feel that way from a synchronic perspective, what I referred to in a previous post as the perspective of the swimmer. Continue reading