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Ralph Stacey 10/9/1942 – 4/9/2021

I am writing to let you know that I heard from Ralph Stacey’s family on Sunday that Ralph died peacefully in hospital on Saturday night after a short illness over the summer.

Many of you who follow this site may already know a lot about Ralph and will have met him in person. For those who didn’t know him, here is a brief obituary.

Ralph was trained as an economist graduating with his PhD from LSE in 1967. He came to Hatfield Polytechnic in 1985 having worked in corporate planning for the construction company John Laing, and having briefly been an investment analyst in the City of London. In the same year that the polytechnic became a university, 1992, Ralph was made a Professor of Management.

Ralph was one of the pioneers of adopting analogies from the sciences of complexity into theories exploring group dynamics in organisations. He published his first book in 1990, and went on to write 12 in all, including a textbook which is now in its 7th Edition. Just as important as his publishing record is his founding of the Complexity and Management Centre in 1995, and the establishment of group supervision for doctoral students. He combined the group approach with the development of a conceptual framework he, Doug Griffin and Patricia Shaw termed complex responsive processes of relating, a radical critique of systems theories, into the Doctor of Management programme. As those of you following this blog will know, the DMan is still running 20 years later and has just produced its 71st doctoral completion.

He was a scholar with a global reputation and was invited to speak all over the world. He made contributions to the field of organisational theory, to the development of experience-based pedagogy, and to the thinking of the Institute of Group Analysis where he trained as a group analyst in the 1990s. Ralph ran clinical groups in the NHS as well as groups within the university of Hertfordshire, including working with management teams.

Ralph continued to have a part time role as a supervisor on the DMan programme into his mid-70s and only finally retired three years ago. Some of you reading this post will have attended the retirement event at Roffey Park and experienced the great esteem in which he was held by everyone present.

Those of you who have met him will know that Ralph was a great story-teller. Despite his genius he was self-deprecating; he was kind, generous and provocative. He was also, at times, fantastically stubborn. 

Ralph was a figure of great stature in the academic world. He was a loyal employee of HBS for over 30 years. But above all he was a great colleague, and with his immense gifts and deep wisdom he was very supportive of everyone who sought his help. Ralph helped us understand the world differently, as complex and paradoxical, and through his insights he helped us better understand ourselves. For many of us, he taught us how to think critically and reflexively.

We will be thinking of ways of continuing to discuss his legacy in the coming weeks and months.

If you would like to say something about Ralph and what he meant to you I have created a tribute page here.

Complexity and Management Online Symposium 9.30-5.00pm Sat Nov 20th , 2021

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 c.mowles@herts.ac.uk.

I will set up a booking site in the next few weeks on the UH website.

Looking forward to seeing you there.

Prof Hari Tsoukas’ key note speech at the June 2021 Complexity and Management conference

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.

Update- Complexity and Management Conference 4-6th June 2021

Whatever happens we still intend to go ahead with The Complexity and Management Conference 2021 4-6th June – The Complexity of Practice, with Professor Hari Tsoukas as our key note speaker. So will the introductory workshop on complex responsive processes of relating on Friday 4th June.

Previously we have been planning either for a face-to-face event, or to go online. However, it seems most likely that some will be able to make it and others will be prevented from coming. So to allow for both modes of participation simulataneously we are now organising for a hybrid event.

If you would still like to attend the conference in person the University booking site is open here. You will be asked to pay a deposit and then pay a second time to make up the full fee. In the event of our going online we will refund you the second payment of £700.

Those wishing to attend virtually for the in-person conference, a means of participation which will be available for Saturday 5th June only, will be able to book on the same site from next week onwards. The fee for virtual participation is £100, the same as the deposit for the conference. You will be able to live-stream Prof Tsoukas’ talk and participate in breakout discussions and afternoon seminars in virtual mode.

The Friday introductory workshop will not be available online unless everything is online. In other words, it is not being offered as a hybrid event.

Hope to see you there one way or another,

Do write if you are unclear about your options c.mowles@herts.ac.uk

Complexity and Management: 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 . You can see the agenda for the day here.

The following is a post by member of DMan faculty Professor Karen Norman which speaks into the theme of the conference:

Exploring the complexity of conflict in organising in the time of Covid: washing our hands of a problem?

Infection prevention and control (IPC) in hospitals is essential at the best of times, but especially so in a time of Covid. From my previous experience as a Board Director responsible for Infection Control in hospitals, I understand the challenges facing staff in maintaining high IPC standards. In 2003, I was involved in a national initiative to reduce the incidence of hospital acquired Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Auereus, (MRSA) bacteraemias, because 9% of hospital inpatients had infections acquired whilst in hospital,[1] equating to100,000 incidents a year, costing the National Health Service (NHS) around £1 billion (N.A.O. 2000)[2]. The term ‘hospital acquired infection’ sits uncomfortably with me, given Florence Nightingales’ founding values that hospitals should ‘do the sick no harm.’ A significant causal factor in their spread cited was the poor hand hygiene of the health professionals when caring for patients. Thankfully, progress has been made in recent years, with the hospital I refer to in this blog meeting their target of zero cases of avoidable MRSA in the last year. But what I have noticed amidst the intense discussions we have been having of late with regard to stopping the spread of Covid, is how similar problems are re-surfacing to those we faced when reducing the spread of MRSA, most notably with regard to compliance with ‘best practice’ as set out in our IPC policies and procedures. I share the following narrative to help think about why implementing corporate values such as ‘patient safety’, or ‘doing no harm’ might not be so easy as people seem to think.

Continue reading

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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Working in groups – an overview of themes from the 2017 Complexity and Management conference.

This year’s Complexity and Management conference invited delegates to think about groups. In my response to the three previous speakers, Martin Weegmann, Nick Sarra and Karina Solsø Iversen I asked delegates to consider the importance of groups against a backdrop of an increasingly individualised age, where identification with groups, whether they be communities, trades unions, social movements or other vehicles of collective identification seem increasingly difficult to maintain. This is a phenomenon remarked upon by a wide variety of sociologists in different countries, for example by Robert Putnam in the United States in his book Bowling Alone[1], and to which I drew attention in last year’s conference summing up here. Last year I talked about the way in which we are invited to become ‘entrepreneurial selves’, a trend which Foucault was one of the first to identify as an inevitable consequence of the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism[2].

Screenshot 2017-06-10 15.35.57

Although this is a very powerful way of thinking, this isn’t experienced everywhere the same as I think the two contrasting pictures of train carriages show,  no matter how strong a global trend it is.

Screenshot 2017-06-10 15.33.58

But the phenomenon which Elias in particular described, where we are invited to think of ourselves as closed off from one another is widespread and amplified by modern technology and social media. Our devices are helpful for communication but may also amplify the tendency towards a sense that we are monads: technology can increase individualising and alienating social tendencies which are already emerging, as Sherry Turkle documents in her book Alone Together[3]. It is in this context that groups and groupwork become so important. Continue reading

Working in groups : what practical difference does it make to take complexity seriously?

Complexity and Management Conference 2017 – 2nd– 4th June: Roffey Park Management Centre

Human beings are born into groups and spend most of their working lives participating in them. Groups can be creative and improvisational, transforming who we think we are, and they may also be destructive and undermining. They hold the potential for both tendencies.

Many employers emphasise the importance of teamwork, yet employees in organizations are often managed, developed and assessed as though they were autonomous individuals.  And although many organisational mission statements include aspirations to be creative and innovative, it is a rare to attend a  meeting without a particular end in view, where participants feel able to explore the differences and difficulties that arise when they work together.

Meanwhile organizational development (OD) literature tends to idealize, and assumes that the best kind of organizations are those where staff ‘align’ with each other and learn to communicate in ways which bypass power and politics. They are offered step-wise tools and techniques to help them communicate with ‘openness and transparency’, so they can speak the truth and understand each other harmoniously. Conflict and power struggles are then topics that are avoided or ignored. The danger of the individualizing and idealizing tendencies in organisations is that they may leave employees feeling deskilled and unconfident about how to work creatively in groups.

At the 2017 Complexity and Management Conference we will discuss practical ways of working in groups, which assume that human interaction is necessarily imperfect, ambiguous and conflictual, and this contributes to the complex evolution of organizational life.

Keynote speakers this year: Dr Martin Weegmann, Dr Karina Solsø Iversen and Professor Nick Sarra

Martin Weegmann is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Group Analyst, who has specialised in substance misuse and personality disorders and is a well-known trainer. His latest books are: The World within the Group: Developing Theory for Group Analysis (Karnac, 2014) and Permission to Narrate: Explorations in Group Analysis, Psychoanalysis & Culture (Karnac 2016). He is currently working on a new edited book, Psychodynamics of Writing.

Karina Solsø Iversen is graduate of the Doctor of Management programme and an experienced consultant working in Denmark. Karina’s consultancy work is based on the practice of taking experience seriously as a way of working with leadership and organizational development. She has co-authored a Danish introductory book to the theory of complex responsive processes of relating, which has gained a lot of attention in Danish communities interested in complexity. Karina is also an external lecturer at Copenhagen Business School.

Nick Sarra is a Consultant Psychotherapist working in the NHS and a group analyst specialising in organisational consultancy,debriefing and mediation within the workforce. He works on three post graduate programmes  at the School of Psychology, Exeter University and is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hertfordshire.

Further details from c.mowles@herts.ac.uk. Booking begins early 2017.

Can we ever be clear with each other?

Over the past couple of months I have come across Gervase Bushe’s Clear Leadership method being promoted by a number of OD practitioners and institutions, so I thought it would be worth spending a blog post discussing the ideas that he puts forward and to offer a critique from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. By inquiring into this set of methods I am interested to know if there is anything genuinely knew in what is on offer.

Clear Leadership – the basics

Clear Leadership is a set of tools, techniques and practices which promise to change the culture in organisations. They help turn organisations away from management methods more suitable for outdated notions of command and control management, which do not promote collaboration, and into flattened organisations where genuine partnership and collaboration are possible. A student interested in learning to exercise clear leadership can do so in a four day course, and the methods  can then be cascaded throughout their organization.

What are the basic premises of Clear Leadership? Firstly, Bushe argues that it is not possible to create organisations where genuine partnership and collaboration can take place without changing the leadership culture. Secondly, changing the culture means clearing away the ‘organizational mush’, by which Bushe means the inevitable miscommunications and misinformation that is generated in any organisation by people making up stories about each other which are not true, and thus creating distrust. They do this because they are frightened to say what they are really thinking about each other, or they do so unskillfully by making judgements and putting others off. He adduces research to claim that four out of five conflicts in organizations are due to people making things up about each other: ‘people need to be able to get conflict out in the open, uncover the real level of alignment or lack thereof, get clear about what everyone really thinks, feels and wants, and clear out the mush.’ [1] Continue reading

The entrepreneurial self and the social self: reflections on the 2016 CMC

Here are a series of articles which illustrate the way in which business vocabulary has entered into our way of talking about ourselves and our relationships:

This is from Forbes magazine and suggests you treat yourself as a product and a brand.

Screenshot 2016-06-14 12.38.12

This is from the Wall St Journal and shows a family who have pinned a mission statement to their fridge and have agreed targets for each other.

Screenshot 2016-06-14 12.44.19

Continue reading