Category Archives: politics of everyday life

Complexity and management conference 8-10 June 2012

There are still a few places available for the CMC conference entitled Complexity and ethics: practical judgement in everyday politics where the guest speaker is the distinguished critical management scholar Professor Hugh Willmott.

There will be a variety of fora to have lively discussions about ethics as well as opportunities to explore the similarities and differences between complex responsive processes and critical management studies.

To book please access the payment page here.

Values and Norms: insights from Norbert Elias (Part 2)

In my first blog in this series, I introduced a research narrative from “Max” about conflicts that were arising as three teams came together in a newly merged organisation.  These arose as the values and norms of those involved were being renegotiated in their interactions with each other.  I introduced some ideas from Norbert Elias (1996) as a way of making sense of what might be happening in the narrative.

Max’s narrative also highlights another point made by Elias about norms and the way they are portrayed by some writers and how they conceptualise norms in a highly idealised manner, allowing the reader to see only those functions which they wish them to have and block the perceptions of those functions that they do not wish to perceive. So for example, the norm in Max’s narrative regarding not exposing disagreements in meetings, whilst serving some desirable functions, at the same time may block the potential to explore different perspectives in a way which could lead to something novel and creative to emerge. (Noting this too is not a panacea – as any norm suggesting conflict of this kind is “a good thing” which can only lead to positive outcomes is to misunderstand what Elias is pointing to. Something new and different does not always mean it will be better, and of course the judgement on this will vary from differing perspectives of those involved.) Thus any norm will have within it the same paradoxical features to which Elias is pointing – so a shift to a norm that encourages open contradiction and conflict in meetings as a generalised rule could at the same time block some of the benefits arising from failing to disagree, such as the ability to maintain a sense of civilised order and conduct in a way that enables groups to try to listen to each other. Continue reading

Values and Norms – insights from Norbert Elias (Part 1)

I was recently reviewing a research narrative in which Max, the researcher, was describing what was happening in a health care organisation that was undergoing an organisational merger. Max had responsibility for leading a programme of work aimed at improving the care of patients with diabetes. This involved redesigning their treatment pathway to improve their disease management and reduce what were regarded by the organisation’s management as unnecessary and expensive admissions to hospital, which it thought could be better managed in the community. This work required him to bring together clinicians and managers from three former organisations, one of which he had worked for prior to the merger. His research interest is in exploring the concept of “transformation” and the narrative describes a series of meetings he is having with staff about the work. These meetings are proving difficult, because it is clear from what is being said that the groups from the three organisations have strong “we” identities arising from their former organisations and are all involved in stigmatising gossip based on their prejudices about each other. Max finds himself defending his former organisation when this is being criticised and also feels surprised and uncomfortable when it begins to appear as though the perceived source of the problem- the hospital- may not be the only cause of the problem – as he and his colleagues had formally perceived.  He describes vividly the detail of a very difficult meeting in which one of the influential Doctors loses their temper and refuses to co-operate with colleagues from one of the other former organisations on the grounds that what is being proposed could compromise patient care. Max describes the frustration and anxiety this raises for him and others – including a discussion with his manager Carl, in which he is told that “failure is not an option”. Continue reading

Taking the perspective of the airman and the swimmer – reflections on the ethics of organisational change

In order better to understand the unique flow of social life, Norbert Elias argues, we must adopt the perspective of both the airman and the swimmer. Unlike many objects in nature which are relatively unchanging, society is riven by tensions, disruptions and explosions. ‘Decline alternates with rise, war with peace, crisis with booms’. These disruptions are driven by the interweaving activities of highly social, interdependent people like ourselves competing and co-operating to get things done. Elias argues that it is only from perspective of the airman that we are able to gain some detachment, a relatively undistorted view of the order of the long course of historical changes and the way we are forming and are formed by them. These long-term historical trends are extremely hard to resist even by very powerful coalitions of people or groups. However, there is nothing inevitable about our actions and reactions to the processes in which we find ourselves participating. But only by adopting the perspective of the swimmer, who is obliged to take action in the moment itself, is it possible to see how varied are the different pressures that are brought to bear on the particular circumstances in which find ourselves acting, in order that we might create opportunities to bring about outcomes of a different kind. Continue reading

On feeling safe – paradoxes of group life

A frequent complaint to be heard in many group situations is the remark ‘it doesn’t feel safe here’.

So common is this utterance that I wanted to give some time to exploring its implications for the dilemmas we face in working with groups of all types.

The remark is most likely to be heard openly voiced in the experiential setting of training and psychotherapy groups . However I suggest that it is a common phenomenon in the politics of all groups, often expressed more covertly as an internal dialogue or within a subgroup, which configures before and after meetings.

The questions raised through this complaint are therefore also relevant to the politics of the workplace as well as to the challenges of experiential group work. The remark concerning safety in the group setting is often spoken with a tone of admonition as if responsibility for feelings of safety lay elsewhere and outside of the participation of the speaker and often, although not exclusively, with some figure of authority such as a course leader, therapist, chairperson or parental imago.

The implication is that if only the ‘feeling of safety’ prevailed that full and uninhibited participation in the group’s activities would ensue. Continue reading

On Being Managed. Ethics as conflictual process.

In going about my work doing organisational consultancy for the healthcare community,I have recently been struck by increasing references to managing as some kind of self evident right as if the term itself was incontestable and represented a quasi divine ordering of things reminiscent of the feudal .

Last week I was asked by managers to engage with three separate 
situations in which this right was apparent at the outset of the conversation.

In the first I was told,

‘nobody in this day and age can say that they don’t need to be managed’.

In the second and third situations I was offered the explanation that team difficulties were caused by,

‘not being used to being managed’

and that

‘they have got away with doing their own thing for far too long’.

Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 8th June 2012

The June 2012 Complexity and Management Conference entitled: Complexity and ethics: practical judgement in everyday politics now has a payment page here.

The leaflet for the conference, which includes a programme and a form for those wishing to pay by cheque can be downloaded here:  CMC June 2012 Conferencev2.

2012 Complexity and Management Conference

Complexity and ethics: practical judgement in everyday politics

from 7pm on 8th June to 2.30pm on 10th June 2012


(For location see Roffey Park website)

About the conference

The ninth annual Complexity and Management Conference will take place at Roffey Park starting at 7pm on Friday 8th June 2012 and ending after lunch on 10th June. This event is a very informal conference where prepared papers and presentations are minimal and serve the purpose of introducing themes for discussion amongst conference participants.  In organising this conference we seek to maximise the possibility of conversation. The purpose is to provide an opportunity for leaders, managers, consultants and academics who are interested in our work on complexity and emergence in organisations, as well as past, present and possible future participants on our MA/Doctor of Management programme, to discuss their experience and ideas with one another.

This year’s theme

The financial crisis has provoked a great deal of discussion about fairness, reward and the ethics of management. This is a welcome change from the usual focus on managerial instruments, tools and techniques which can often crowd out ethical concerns. But at the same time as the inadequacy of the way our organisations have been run has been made very stark, so has the inability to engage in ethical discussion. It is clear that leaders and managers are largely at a loss as to what to do and how to behave, and sometimes even how to begin discussing ethical questions. Everyone is feeling their way forward in the struggle over whose narrative of events predominates, and are relearning how to engage with each other in discussions of the good and the right. There are very few models which will be of any use to help navigate unique and highly uncertain times. This makes a complexity perspective, complex responsive processes of relating, particularly relevant to this theme.

In this year’s conference we will be drawing on both complexity and critical management traditions in trying to make sense of the situation we find ourselves in, particularly in relation to the theme of ethics. We are delighted to have Professor Hugh Willmott from the University of Cardiff, (Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies (with M. Alvesson and T. Bridgeman), Oxford University Press; Critical Management Studies: A Reader (ed. with C. Grey) Oxford University Press; Introducing Organization Behaviour and Management (ed. with D. Knights) London: Thomson) accept our invitation as  keynote speaker, who has chosen as his topic:

The Financialized Corporation: Moorings Lost and the Crises of Legitimacy

There will be parallel sessions following the keynotes, where conference participants will be able to explore themes which have struck them as being important in conversation with others. Between now and June we will be uploading posts on this site to talk to the theme and to provoke discussion in advance of the conference. Anyone wishing to put forward ideas for parallel sessions is welcome to do so.

We will be posting more details about the conference soon including how to pay.

Reflexivity and experience

In previous posts discussing tools and techniques, Ralph has been drawing attention to the way in which the practice of management becomes reduced to instrumental rationality. One way of taking up insights from the complexity sciences in organisational terms is, similarly, also by using a two by two grid to decide if what you are dealing with is simple, complicated, complex or chaotic. So, simple means the domain of the known where cause and effect are well understood; complicated is the domain of the knowable, but with multiple sometimes competing components and where expert knowledge is required; complex is the domain of the unknowable where patterns are only discernible in retrospect, and chaotic is where there are no discernible patterns or order. The manager or leader should then decide which of these four quadrants they find themselves in and behave accordingly.

Aside from the difficulties arising from this loose interpretation of the complexity sciences, as usual with these matrices and frameworks it is assumed that it is the rational, autonomous, choosing manager standing outside the situation they are evaluating, who determines which quadrant s/he is in and takes the appropriate action. Under the guise of being rationally purposeful, this way of thinking appears to me to be radically subjective and splits thinking off from action, and the manager/leader off from those they manage. We have not moved very far from assumptions of predictability and control which are present in much contemporary management literature. Continue reading

Further thoughts on the tools and techniques of leadership and management

In this blog I hope to develop some of the points made in previous blogs on the tools and techniques of management. What is generally meant by the term ‘tools and techniques of leadership and management’ is ways of applying instrumental rationality to solve problems and control outcomes. In fact, in an ambiguous and uncertain world none of these tools and techniques can do what is claimed for them but they do constitute the techniques of disciplinary power which enable leaders and managers to control the bodies and bodily activities of
people in the organization. All of these tools and techniques take the form of rules, procedures and models. However, there is a difference between competent performance, on the one hand, and proficient, expert performance, on the other.
The difference is that following rules, procedures and models may produce competent performance, but proficient, expert performance requires moving beyond the rules, procedures and models. Management tools and techniques of
instrumental rationality may promote competence but the development of expertise is beyond them. Experts are unable to articulate the rules governing their performance because they simply do not follow rules; instead, as a consequence of long experience, they exercise practical judgment in the unique situations they find themselves in. Through experience they are able to recognize patterns, distinguishing between similarities with other situations and unique differences. The patterns they recognize are the emerging patterns of interaction that they and other people are creating. In other words, they are recognizing the emerging themes in conversation, power relations and ideology reflecting choices. The key resource any organization must rely on is surely this expert interactive capacity in the exercise of practical judgment
by leaders and managers. If we cannot identify rules, procedures and models  as ‘drivers’ of expert practical judgment, does it follow that we can say nothing about practical judgment and have to leave it as a mystery?

I do not think there is anything mysterious about the exercise of practical judgment and we can inquire into the exercise of practical judgment and explore whether it is possible to identify any ‘techniques’ of practical judgment. Continue reading