Tag Archives: complexity

Complexity and Management Conference 7-9th June 2013 – Exploring the Cult of Leadership

‘Leadership is leadership, and talent is talent’. So said a Minister from the UK Home Office when called upon to respond to criticisms of recent government proposals to open up some of the middle management positions in the police force to applicants from business and the community. In expressing himself thus, he gave a very good example of the way in which the cult of leadership has taken hold in current discourse about the management of organisations, and is taken for granted. By implication we all know what leadership is and  can feel confident that certain individuals, particularly from a business background, are good leaders whatever the context. Leadership has become a foundational concept.

In this year’s Complexity and Management Conference we will be calling into question this blind faith ubiquitously expressed in the notion of leaders and leadership. Some of the topics we may find ourselves discussing are whether the  assumption that leadership is distinct for management really holds; whether the necessary exercise of authority in organisations can always be understood in terms of what leaders are doing; whether the concept of leadership has been so widely stretched and differentiated (servant leadership, distributed leadership, self-leadership, leadership and followership, even upwards leadership) that it has become meaningless and unhelpful. Because it is so widely spoken about, yet so little understood,  it becomes a very important topic for critical reflection.

From the perspective of complex responsive processes, and from the insights offered by our guest speaker, Professor Ann Cunliffe of Leeds University, we will be trying to understand leadership as a highly social phenomenon co-created by people as they negotiate how to go on together.

The conference attracts a wide diversity of participants every year: academics from other institutions, consultants and managers, as well as graduates and current students from the Doctor of Management programme.

If you would like to book for the conference the payment page at the University of Hertfordshire site is now open and can be accessed here: http://tinyurl.com/crm734w

As usual, there is a discount of £50 for early-bird bookers up till April 26th.

We look forward to seeing you there.



The Paradox of Consensus and Conflict in Organisational Life

Today’s dominant thought collective[i] of practitioners, consultants and academics concerned with leadership, management and other organisational matters is characterised by thought styles[ii] which, in a completely taken-for-granted way, equate success with positives, sharing, harmony and consensus. Leaders are called upon to communicate inspiring, compelling visions of desirable futures shorn of all problematic features. Followers are to be converted to sharing the vision and committing to the mission so that everyone ‘is on the same page’, ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, ‘climbing on board’, ‘on the message’ and ‘a team player’. This whole raft of idealisations is taken even further when it is accompanied by a relentless emphasis on the positive aspects of all situations. There seems to be a scarcely-concealed dread of ‘negatives’, such as conflict, and a half-expressed conviction that success can only be achieved when all share the same view, with breakdown as the consequence  of not doing this. If conflict is noticed it is immediately followed by calls for the practice of ‘conflict resolution’ or approaches which rapidly move people from anything negative to a focus on the ‘positives’. A popular example of the prescription for positive consensus is provided by Appreciative Inquiry. Proponents[iii] of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) point to how the dominant approach to leading, managing and changing organisations focuses attention on problems, deficits and dysfunctions. They argue that this approach is demoralising and ineffective in bringing about change and call, instead, for a focus on opportunities and what is working because focusing in this appreciative, positive way raises  morale and promotes generative inquiry. It is claimed that AI generates spontaneous, transformational action on the part of individuals, groups and organisations which leads to a better future. Critics[iv] of AI problematise the focus on positiveness, arguing that positive and negative feelings are intimately connected and conclude that AI is a method whose proponents show little self-reflection or evaluative critique of what they are proposing. In response, Gervase Bushe of the Segal Graduate School of Business has published a paper titles ‘Appreciative Inquiry Is Not (Just) About the Positive’.[v]  Bushe agrees that AI can become a form of repression when it suppresses dissent and focuses on the positive as a defence against the anxiety of dealing with reality. However, he then immediately goes on to say that when AI is used in appropriate ways, which he does not identify, then people do not wallow in mutual pain but tell each other uplifting stories instead, which sooth tensions and release energy. Instead of focusing on conflict, bridges are built between conflicting groups.  In his view, people who want to talk about what they do not like should not be stopped from doing so but they should not be asked to elaborate on these matters. They should be encouraged, instead, to talk about what is missing, what they want more of and what their image of their organisation ought to be. He talks about small group meetings where everyone reads the same story together. Much the same points can be made another positiveness movement called Positive Deviance which is basically an idealised form to ‘benchmarking’ and a sanitisation of ‘deviance’.

This unrelenting emphasis on the positive, on harmony and consensus functions to cover over conflict, difference and real-life attitudes towards deviants because to bring these matters out into the open is to reveal patterns of power relations,  the dynamics of identity-forming inclusion and exclusion and the ideologies sustaining current power figurations. As a consequence, public discussions of organisational life take the form of a kind of rational, positive fantasy that focuses our attention on only a small part of what we ordinarily experience in our daily organisational lives. People continue, as they always have done, to disagree and subvert what they disagree: organisational life is characterised by ongoing conflict in which, at the same time, people normally manage to achieve sufficient degrees of consensus, tolerance and cooperation to get things done together. In order to understand what we are ordinarily engaged in during the course of our daily organisational lives we need to avoid thinking in terms of a duality of consensus and conflict, where we can decide to move from the one to the other, and think instead in terms of the paradox of consensus and conflict: we engage in, we are heavily invested in, organisational games displaying the paradoxical dynamics of consensual conflict or conflictual consensus. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference June 7-9th 2013

This is to give you advance notice that next year’s Complexity and Management Conference will be on the second weekend in June, 2013, Friday 7th – Sunday 9th at Roffey Park Management Centre near Horsham in Surrey, UK.

In the last three years we have hosted Prof Mats Alvesson, Dr Ian Burkitt and Porfessor Hugh Willmott. We are currently in conversation with potential speakers and will let you know whom we have secured in the near future.

As usual the conference will be informal and will involve some input from speakers as well as lots of opportunities for lively discussion in groups based on participants’ own experiences of organising with others.

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

CMC Conference 8th-10th June 2012

This is just a reminder to those of you who are considering attending the CMC conference, 8-10th June 2012, that the early bird discount finishes on Friday 21st April, i.e. in just over two weeks’ time.

The theme of the conference is Complexity and ethics: practical judgement in everyday politics and the guest speaker is the distinguished critical management scholar Professor Hugh Willmott.

UH has now set up a payment page here:

As usual there will be lots of opportunities for discussions throughout the weekend.

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.

Complexity and Management Conference 3/4/5/ June 2011

Complexity and the embodiment of power and identity in organisations

About the conference

The eighth annual Complexity and Management Conference of the University of Hertfordshire’s  Business School will take place at Roffey Park starting at 7pm on Friday 3rd June 2011 and ending after lunch on 5th 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 discursive conversation. The original purpose of the conference was to provide an opportunity for past, present and possible future participants on our MA/Doctor of Management programme to discuss their experience and ideas with one another, but over the years leaders, managers, consultants and academics who are interested in our work on complexity and emergence in organisations have also attended the event making it very vibrant and diverse.

This year’s theme

Much contemporary organisational literature is highly abstract and is replete with tools and techniques. There is very little acknowledgement that organisations arise from the interactions of thinking, feeling bodies engaged in conflict and co-operation in a particular context at a particular time. Somehow this central aspect of human experience is covered over, or denied. Does this partly arise because of the appeal to scientific method and the idea of management as science, with the assumption of the detached, objective observer? What has contributed to our suspicion of subjective experience and how possible is it to talk of ‘embodiment’ without in turn mystifying what we are talking about, or perhaps instrumentalising the body as a tool of management, in effect reaffirming Cartesian subjectivity rather than challenging it?

In this year’s conference we have decided to address what we consider this neglect of this core aspect of human relating and have invited Dr Ian Burkitt of Bradford University (Social Selves: Theories of Self and the Body, London: Sage, 2008; Bodies of Thought, London: Sage: 1999) to help us initiate our discussions on Saturday morning 4th June. In the afternoon Professor Ralph Stacey will respond to Dr Burkitt’s keynote with some reflections of his own. On Sunday morning Dr Karen Norman and Professor Henry Larsen will talk about a piece of work they have undertaken together using theatre and improvisation with groups of managers.

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 blog  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.

You can download the conference brochure here: Complexity and Management Conference brochure

Contact Chris at  c.mowles@herts.ac.uk or Angela Digby a.m.r.digby@herts.ac.uk  for payment details.

Rethinking management from within the practice of management

This post will try to engage with some of the ideas that Ralph has set out as a way of keeping the discussion going and as a further invitation to anyone else to join in. Of course, the thoughts below are only what struck me from his post.

Without actually using the word in this piece, I think Ralph is pointing to the ideological nature of the dominant discourse. By claiming that a lot of management is practised according to taken-for-granted assumptions which are unreflectively taken up there is an implied ideological hold. The dominant managerial discourse becomes pervasive by being taught in a variety of different edcational contexts and is replicated every day  by managers who are graduates of business schools as well as by consultants who have been similarly educated.  It permeates daily practice.

In trying to understand how the dominant discourse comes to dominate, how it becomes ideological, I have found the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s definition of ideology helpful when he says that ‘ideology is the mask worn both by the dominant orders and by order itself.’ So this helps explain something about the taken-for-grantedness of many of the management concepts which are so pervasive. In order to join the management club, to play the game, it is a requirement to demonstrate a fluency with the concepts and language of the contemporary management discourse. More and more management graduates make the game more widespread and pervasive. This leads to a kind of isomorphism: organisations which carry out very different types of work, be it public, private or voluntary sectors, begin to look and sound alike. A facility with the concepts allows for the kind of mutual recognition which enables more and more people playing the game to locate themselves in it, to find a way of participating with each other and to be successful in the game. If one begins to talk about management differently it can appear as though one is not taking the game seriously, or even that one is calling the game into question. There follows the charge of somehow being  ‘anti-management’, an accusation that I have heard on more than one occasion levelled at the body of ideas we are calling complex responsive processes of relating. The moment one has a stake in the game it becomes much harder to call the game into question, as participants on the DMan course discover. Continue reading

Why we need to re-think leadership/management in the ongoing crisis of investment capitalism

The vast majority of textbooks, business school programs and research projects around the world, most professional management and leadership development programs in organizations, most management consultants and people in organization, including senior executives, all talk about how organizations should be governed, all making the same taken-for-granted assumptions. There is a dominant discourse in which it is assumed, without much questioning, that small groups of powerful executives are able to choose the ‘direction’ that their organization will move in, realize a ‘vision’ for it, create the conditions in which its members will be innovative and entrepreneurial, and select the ‘structures’ and ‘conditions’ which will enable them to be in control and so ensure success. The problem is that to be at all effective these activities rely to a significant extent upon the ability of powerful executives to know enough about what has been, is now and will be happening around them. Executives are supposed to know what is going on because they are supposed to be avoiding emotion and personal politicking so that they can make roughly rational decisions on the basis of the ‘facts’. If they cannot do this then, on the basis of dominant thinking, they must simply be pursuing only their own interests and gambling with society’s resources.

However, recent and current economic developments are making it clear that executives of large corporations and their management consultants, as well as politicians and their advisors, are far from sure of what has been happening and they simply do not know what is now happening, let alone what will happen in the future as a consequence of the actions they are taking. The contrast between the dominant thinking and our experience is striking. While people and their ongoing messy daily political interaction are absent in the dominant discourse, or feature simply as obstacles, they are the central aspect of our experience. In the dominant discourse uncertainty plays a very minor role and leaders know what is going on; in our experience, neither leaders nor anyone else really knows what is going on and few pay much attention to what they could know about, namely, what they are actually doing to live in uncertainty. In thinking in the dominant way, we are covering over the complexity and uncertainty we actually experience in our ordinary, everyday lives in organizations and we are positing capacities of foresight in leaders which they do not actually possess. Continue reading