Tag Archives: complexity

Complexity and Management Conference 4-6th June 2021

This is to remind you that next year’s Complexity and Management Conference will be on 4th-6th June 2021, but with a changed speaker. We are delighted to have Professor Hari Tsoukas of Warwick and Cyprus Universities to give our key note. We are still discussing the theme of the conference, but it will be something to do with the complexity of practice. 

The conference begins @7pm on the Friday evening 4th June, and ends lunchtime Sunday 6th. We hope the event will be face to face at Roffey Park, UK but will plan to put it online if not.

A booking page on the university site will go up as usual later in January.

Conflict and complexity in the time of Covid-19 – online Symposium/Practicum Sat Nov 28th. A few tickets still available.

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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.

Complexity and Management Centre. Symposium/Practicum Saturday November 28th 2020.

Exploring the complexity of conflict and organising in the time of Covid-19.

The following is a contribution to the discussion leading up to the Symposium from Professor Nick Sarra, who is a member of the DMan faculty and a Consultant Psychotherapist in the NHS in the South West of the UK. Nick also teaches at Exeter University.

The booking page for the Symposium/Practicum will open to the public from Weds 14th October.

The potential for conflict in the clinical setting and in the time of the Covid pandemic.

Multiple narratives arise from all clinical situations. We have the narrative of the patient or those receiving care. We may also have narratives from all those involved in the patient’s life such as partners and relatives.Then again there are the narratives of the health care professionals involved and perhaps other agencies such as social workers or the police.

The increasing negotiation of these narratives in online environments adds further complexity.The compulsive tendency to keep on ‘self view’, the ability to see yourself along with others on the screen, amplifies a performative preoccupation which may lead to overly mannered gestures from participants. This sense of there being an environment of many eyes without the intimate communication of the directly experienced gaze leads to a quality of the Panopticon, the all-seeing other whose gaze  can  never directly be ascertained, but which may nonetheless always feel present.This panopticonic quality undermines the fullness of communication through the filmed theatrics, and the experience is impoverished through the absence of live bodies.

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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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Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2020

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.

Complexity and Management Conference 17-19th May: agenda

What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life.

For this year’s Complexity and Management Conference we are delighted to have Professor André Spicer from the Cass Business School, City, University of London to give the keynote on Saturday morning. André holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He has held visiting appointments at universities around the world. André is the author of many academic articles and nine books. The most recent are ‘Business Bullshit’, ’The Stupidity Paradox’ and ‘Desperately Seeking Self Improvement’.

The agenda for the one day introduction to complex responsive processes on Friday 17th May and for the conference on Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th May is here: CMC Agenda

There are still some places available, both for the one day workshop and for the conference, and you can book your place here.

Complexity and Management Conference 17th-19th May – booking now.

This year’s Complexity and Management Conference, on 17th-19th May:  What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life offers the opportunity for delegates to reflect on what it means to be critical and why it is important to be so in today’s organisations. On the first morning of the conference we have invited Professor Andre Spicer to help us get the discussion going. If you want to sign up for the conference and save yourself some money before the early bird deadline expires, then click here.

Here are a few ideas on the traditions of thought to which we will be contributing.

We have a strong critical tradition in western thought, starting with the ancient Greeks. However, the contemporary philosopher Julian Baggini has shown us how a variety of cultures have their own traditions of systematically thinking about the human condition, on the basis that, as Socrates put it, the life unexamined is not worth living. How might we lead a good life, what do we mean by truth, how might we guard against the fragility of goodness, as Martha Nussbaum expressed it?[1] Examining our lives in the back and forth dialectic of discussion is necessary if we are to make meaning and become fully human, but it can have its negative consequences, as it did for Socrates. Problematising, probing, judging comes with its own risks: we are unlikely to be condemned to death for corrupting Athenian youth, as he was, but simply asking questions can call out a strong reaction. Why might that be?

As Kant identified, to critique (originating in judgement, from the Greek krisis) involves imagination and daring:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment.[2]

Kant thought that ‘daring to know’ may require courage to take on sources of authority, so that even religion, perhaps the biggest locus of authority in his day, would need ‘to sustain the test of its free and public examination.’[3] He suggested that subjecting sources of legitimacy and authority to critical inquiry is not something to be undertaken lightly, although it is necessary if we are to liberate ourselves from ignorance. Both implicitly and explicitly, becoming critical means engaging with questions of legitimacy and power and calling into question the status quo.

But is it enough just to doubt and reason on our own and by ourselves? From a Hegelian perspective the answer is no, since Hegelians would claim that we are not just autonomous, rational individuals cognizing in the abstract, but we are socially and historically formed. More, and from a pragmatic perspective, it is not helpful to doubt everything all of the time, but we should engage first with those problems which preoccupy us.[4] To pursue inquiry from a Hegelian and pragmatic perspective means taking an interest in history. How has the phenomenon, the particular predicament we are interested in evolved over time, and what has led to what? We then try to place our  difficulties, within the larger history of social relations and their structural contradictions. This may mean drawing attention to power relationships and calling into question the legitimacy of certain ways of knowing and speaking, perhaps asking the question cui bono, who benefits? It certainly means pursuing these questions through dialectical inquiry, where an abstract notion of truth is replaced by the idea that insight arises in the back and forth or argument in a community of engaged inquirers.

And by taking part in discussion and argumentation we then find ourselves discovering that moral and political judgements in particular are plural. We might enhance our ability to see the world from perspectives other than our own. So in addition to Kant’s injunction to dare to know, we might find ourselves developing greater empathy, imagination and solidarity.

If this kind of inquiry interests you, where you engage with a committed group of peers to discuss current organisational difficulties and discover plural and complex points of view, then this year’s Complexity and Management conference 17th-19th May is the place to be. There may be no resolution to your predicaments but perhaps you will find some degree of solidarity with and from others in the complex responsive processes of relating. Dare to come!

Early bird concessions end 1st April.

[1] Nussbaum, M (1986) The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] An answer to the question what is Enlightenment? 1784

[3] Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, 1781.

[4] “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy…Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” CS Peirce (1992), The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings Vol 1, Bloomington: Indiana University Press: pp28-29.

Ralph Stacey on complex responsive processes

This video is a very poor quality recording of Ralph Stacey giving his last exposition of complex responsive processes at the Complexity and Management Conference June 2018 before his retirement.

Apologies for both sound and picture quality.

Complexity and Management Conference (CMC) 8th-10th June 2018 – Taking Complexity Seriously.

Here are the outline arrangements for next year’s CMC, which is held to mark the retirement of Ralph Stacey after more than 30 years at Hertfordshire Business School.


The conference begins as usual on Friday 8th June evening at 7pm and finishes after lunch on Sunday 10th. The conference fee covers all board and lodging, and the theme  this year is:


Taking complexity seriously – why does it matter?

A more detailed agenda for the conference will follow, but in outline:

  • Ralph Stacey will give the primary key note on Saturday morning 9th.
  • For the afternoon keynote slot there will be a variety of break-out sessions suggested by conference delegates and informed by the theme of the conference.
  • Chris Mowles will respond to themes which arise during the conference on Sunday morning .

On Friday 8th, there will be a one day introduction to complexity and management for those who have not yet come across the ideas  similar to the one we ran this year.

The one day workshop will be run by Ralph Stacey, and Chris Mowles. You can see a list of their publications on this blog.

The one day workshop on the 8th June will require participants to bring examples of some of the dilemmas they are facing at work. The workshop will start at 9.30am and will cover the following.

Session 1         Some key insights from the complexity sciences for thinking about    managing organizations. Ralph Stacey

Session 2         Participants discuss these ideas in relation to their practical experience at work.                        Plenary.

Session 3         Some key theories from the social sciences: power, process and communication.  Chris Mowles          

                        Q and A.

 Session 4         Experiencing uncertainty live: reflective group to consider the dynamics of this particular group in relation to the theories which have been explored during the day.

A booking site for both events will be uploaded onto the University of Hertfordshire website in early January 2018.

Accommodation for the one day workshop is not included in the fee, but separate arrangements can be made with Roffey Park by those delegates who will need to arrive the night before.



Complexity and Management conference 8-10th June, 2018 – Roffey Park

This is to give  early notification that next year’s Complexity and Management Conference will take place at Roffey Park between 8-10th June 2018.

The conference will be held to mark the retirement of Ralph Stacey from the university and from the faculty of the Doctor of Management programme.

There will be more details in the autumn to give more details of the conference topic and the other key note speakers in addition to Ralph.