Category Archives: Ralph Stacey

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

Exploring our experience of everyday politics in organisations.
How do we experience power and politics in contemporary organisations? How do we negotiate conflict and compromise? There are always possibilities in the hurly burly of everyday life for us to act differently despite the fact that we are caught up in longer term social trends which constrain our ability to think and act. So what are our degrees of freedom?
This year’s Complexity and Management Conference will explore these themes and more. The conference will be highly participative, and will be based on some presentations followed by discussion in groups, drawing on participants’ experience.
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.
The registration site for the conference is now open and an early-bird discount applies to all participants who book before April 30th. The booking page can be found here:  The fee for the conference includes accommodation and food from Friday evening through to Sunday lunchtime.
Anyone wishing to put forward suggestions for discussion groups please contact me:
Looking forward to seeing you there.

Complexity and Management Conference, 6-8th June 2014

Only one week to go before the close of the early bird rate for this year’s Complexity and Management Conference on organisational culture.

Book here.

Key note speaker: Prof Ralph Stacey

Good conversation, good food, great venue.

Can leaders change organisational culture? – alternatives from a complexity perspective. Complexity and Management Conference June 6-8th, Roffey Park. 

Early bird rate ends April 30th 2014.

Orthodox management literature contains many of the same assumptions about organisational culture: that changes in culture can be linked to organisational success and improvement; that culture is a mixture of the tangible (rules, behaviour, rewards) and the intangible (symbols); that culture can exist in an organisation and in sub-units within an organisation; that it can be ‘diagnosed’ and changed, perhaps with an ‘n’ step programme moving from existing to preferred cultures; that it is often precipitated by a leader having an inspiring vision.

For a discussion of alternatives from a complexity perspective come to the Complexity and Management Conference.

The key note speaker is Professor Ralph Stacey, one of the world’s leading scholars on complexity and management.

There will be lots of opportunity for lively discussion throughout the weekend.

Conference fees include all board and accommodation from 7pm Friday 6th to lunchtime Sunday 8th June. Book here.


Complexity and Management Conference June 2014

This is just a reminder about the Complexity and Management Conference (June 6-8th, Roffey Park, UK) with the title:

Can leaders change organisational culture?

alternatives from a complexity perspective.

Prof Ralph Stacey is the key note speaker.

We will be setting up a payment page on the university website in early February. As usual there will be discounts for early bird bookers. Fees for the conference will include all meals and board, and the conference is residential.

Complexity and Management Conference: June 6th-8th, 2014

Can leaders change organisational culture?alternatives from a complexity perspective.

Whenever there is an organisational crisis, conventionally we come to explain what is unfolding in terms of failing leadership and/or inadequate organisational culture. This is a way of speaking about culture as a thing a discrete organisation ‘has’. It is assumed that culture exists within organizational boundaries and is a thing identifiable, manipulable and improvable by leaders and senior managers, sometimes even by politicians; it can be commanded, shaped and optimised, often at a distance. There are all manner of diagnostic tools and techniques available in management and organisational literature for analysing a deficient organizational culture which can then be remedied by taking a number of steps towards prereflected ends. There may even be metrics for measuring whether the culture change has successfully taken place in the transition between the current imperfect reality, and the often idealized prediction of what it ‘should’ be. During culture change initiatives there is often a grand appeal to values and the symbolic imagination.

This year’s Complexity and Management Conference will complement last year’s treatment of leadership by enquiring into the theme of organisational culture. We will discuss the extent to which the concept, in migrating from the discipline of anthropology, has been instrumentalised and trivialised. To what degree does the attempt to rationalise social life bring about organisational irrationality: the exact opposite of what is intended? If another way of thinking about culture is as the habitus, to what extent can this be manipulated and improved by anybody?

The keynote speaker in June next year will be Professor Ralph Stacey. Ralph is well known to many regular attendees at the CMC, but for those unfamiliar with his background he has worked in the construction industry, as an investment strategist in the finance industry, as a management consultant, a group therapist in the NHS and for the last 25 years as an academic. He has published many books and papers including Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: the challenge of complexity to ways of thinking about organisations and The Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management: Meeting the challenge of complexity. Ralph will explore culture from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating between people who enact and re-enact culture in the present, interpreting the past and in anticipation of the future.

Next year’s conference will be informal and highly participative, as in previous years. More details will follow in the New Year: the conference fee, when we agree it, will include all accommodation and food. It will be held at Roffey Park Institute in the UK: .

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

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

Responding to Complexity and Uncertainty: The Agile Organisation

Over the past two decades, management consultants and academics at business schools have increasingly stressed what they view as the rapidly increasing levels of complexity and uncertainty in the environment that all organisations have to respond to and many have labelled these conditions ‘ hyper-competition’ or ‘high velocity competition’. To deal with these conditions, consultants and academics have called for organisations to become ‘agile organisations’. The ‘agile organisation’ is also described as ‘the entrepreneurial organisation’ and ‘the resilient organisation’ and the hallmarks of this kind of organisation are its high speed of response to change and its focus on the customer which calls for customized  rather than standardised offerings. The notion of the agile organisation therefore originates in the discipline of strategic management with its concern for competitive advantage; in manufacturing production systems such as Total Quality Management, Just in Time, Lean and six sigma with their concern for high quality, customized batch manufacturing; and also in Agile Software development and its concern for teams and partnerships with customers. In short, the concept of agile processes was initially primarily concerned with product manufacturing and software development and from these areas it has come to be simply applied to all other organisations including both private and public sector service providers, without much reflection on whether this is appropriate or not. So when did these developments occur and how widespread are they?

 A quick search of Google Scholar reveals that over the decade ending in 1993 there were 56 journal papers which referred to the agile organisation at some point and over the same period some 14 referred to hyper-competition while no papers referred to the resilient organisation but over 20,000 used the term ‘complexity’.  Over the rest of that decade the number referring to agile organisations rose to 442 and the number referring to hyper-competition rose to 416 while 43 referred to the resilient organisation and there were some 19,000 references to complexity. Over the first decade of this century, there were nearly 5,000 referrals to the agile organisation, about 3,500 to hyper-competition, 385 to the resilient organisation and some 40,000 to complexity. Interest in agile and resilient organisations facing hyper-competition, uncertainty and complexity is, therefore, very recent and even now not all that widespread. Despite recognizing complexity and uncertainty, however, the prescription is overwhelmingly for managers to design organisations that can successfully deal with the supposedly ‘new’ conditions. There is very little radical reflection on what the recognition of uncertainty and complexity, which has always characterized the conditions which members of organisations have to act into, means for the possibility of designing organisation in the first place. There is very little inquiry into how members of organisations have always dealt with uncertainty and complexity. This is, perhaps, not a surprising observation when one takes account of the strength of management and leadership thought collectives and the thought styles that they perpetuate. This post reviews notions of organisational agility and resilience as responses to rapidly rising complexity and uncertainty. Continue reading

More thoughts on Critical Management Studies

In the last post I began to outline some of the similarities and differences between complex responsive processes and critical management studies (CMS) following Hugh Willmott’s keynote at the CMC conference. I have chosen to engage with Alvesson and Willmott’s book Making Sense of Management, while at the same time as recognising that CMS is a broad church and that this book is a primer in CMS. Nevertheless, in this post I will continue the discussion.

Complex responsive processes shares with CMS a critique of the individualising tendencies of modernity and argues instead for a radically social view of human beings and their activities. However, I think this is different from what Alvesson and Willmott term ‘radical humanism’ as an alternative.  From our perspective we would side with both Mead and Elias in arguing that human beings are social through and through: there is no society without individuals and no individuals without society. Following Mead, mind, self and society all arise in social processes involving other social selves and our increasing abilities to take the attitudes of others to ourselves. This is not to deny any individuality but to emphasise how individuality is only possible in relation to other socialised individuals: i.e. society makes individuality possible. Continue reading