Talk by Ralph Stacey

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

hooray – assignment in – now I can start blogging again.

Last week, University of Northumbria had Ralph Stacey up to do a talk.  He’s a Professor of Management at University of Hertfordshire.  I’d heard of him because of the books he has written about complexity and management.

His latest book is Complexity and Organizational Reality: the need to rethink management after the collapse of investment capitalism (Routledge, 2010).  The topic of the talk was very similiar – Uncertainty and the need to rethink management after the collapse of investment capitalism.

So rather than have my scribbled notes hanging around on a bit of paper, I thought I would blog about his talk and my reflections.

I liked him instantly – he spoke without notes, without the prop of powerpoint slides – and was really authentic as he spoke.  It’s kind of disappointing that the talk was cut short because there was a room booking following on.  I could have listened to him for ages.

To start with Stacey covered some familiar ground.

The dominant discourse in management is based on a ‘rational’ way of thinking. We believe that leaders can “choose” what will happen next; what values the organisation will live by; and, how the organisation will work.  But the evidence is no-one can choose – the banking crisis is the most obvious example – no bank CXO predicted or chose what happened there.  So that dominant discourse is problematic but it is only ‘at the margins’ that people are questioning it and worse still business schools keep reinforcing it.

The origins of this dominant discourse lies in the traditional natural sciences – sciences founded on certainty, timeless laws, simplistic causality and we just thought that the more we knew the better we could be at controlling and predicting.

But now we know the simplistic causality relationship does not work – so why do we think that managers can continuing “choosing” the outcome?

Stacey believes, and I agree, that we need a different way of managing – one that is founded on the notions of uncertainty.  We do need inquiry but not based on linear models.

So one day, Stacey found out about non-linear dynamics.  This provides insight into the fact that you can say what you are going to do but you cannot predict the outcome.  We simply cannot predict or forecast what will happen – this is contrary to the dominant management discourse.

So Stacey’s interest has been in using the sciences of complexity to gain insight into human action and organisations – he really emphasised the “gain insight” bit.  He said that in the early days he ‘was wrong’ because he said they were one and the same.  It is more like a metaphor.  This idea is familiar to me – if I re-state Stacey’s words in terms I am familiar – what can I learn about human action and organisations if I look at them as if they are complex systems?

So the first insight he outlined was chaos as a metaphor for human action.

As an aside we need to get used to paradox – things can be irregularly regular or regularly irregular. Reductionist thinkers tend not to like paradox but we need to get used to it.

So when they looked at modelling weather patterns they found that a particular input had an unpredictable output – it became known as the butterfly effect.  So you can model weather, these are deterministic models but you do not know the cause of any particular event – causality is a very different thing.  This makes prediction impossible.  Well actually things are unpredictably predictable and predictably unpredictable.  If we apply these ideas to human action as a metaphor we need to think differently about planning (because we cannot predict) about leadership (because we cannot choose or control).  All we are doing is dealing with the interactions as they happen.

He paused here for questions.  I did not get them all but one of the things I remember him saying is don’t assume that this means it doesn’t matter what you do because actually what you do matters much more that you think.

Someone asked why he thinks we carry on thinking the way that we do.  He said was that our current procedures are defenses against anxiety, against the unknown – people will resist when we attack those defenses.  He also said that in questioning taken for granted views we threaten people’s identity.  And, most importantly the different, new way of thinking affects patterns of power in an organisation – if leaders cannot choose and control then do they really deserve such larger salaries? 😉

He really pushed the point – we have to reject this simplistic way of thinking.  We must inquire into our own experience.  We need critical mindedness – realise that everything is underpinned by theory – theory is a tool – question whether the tools are good enough.  There is not a single ‘truth’ – all these are are our explanations of what is happening – and these change with time (this reminded me of Foucaults work around discourse)

Then he went onto his second insight which we introduced to explain why it matters what you do.  He explained complex adaptive systems which is a way of modelling phenomenon at micro-level – agent based modelling.  So you have a large number of agents interacting with each other.  Each individual agent is only interacting with a small proportion of the whole – it is interacting locally – the agents adapt and respond to each other at that local level.  The local interaction is referred to as self-organisation but Stacey has found that managers worry at this idea because it is too much like anarchy!  It is not that agents can do whatever they like, they do what they do as result of patterns shaped by local experience.  Even though it is all local interactions that are still coherent patterns across the whole – no plan or blueprint – the pattern emerges from local interactions.  Emergence does not happen by chance, it happens because of what the agents do and don’t do.

A sociologist, Norbert Elias, wrote in 1939 about the civilising process which is largely about self-organisation and emergence.  Individuals and groups are always making choices, doing something to get what they want.  It is the interplay of all of these intentions that give patterns – the patterns can be good or could be harmful.  All life is political, we are always negotiating to get what we want but often don’t get that.  In organisations there is political play all the time.

So the important thing is to understand the local interactions and take an informed ethical view of the interactions.

Then there were questions again.  Fortunately someone else voiced what I was thinking – we need to change the dominant discourse… it was the same impatient feeling that I have felt at stages in studying systems thinking and practice.  He replied really calmly.  Can we change the discourse – this was not said in a helpless or resigned way, so I was a little suprised.  He said that what he knows is that the more insightful he can become, the more opportunities he can open up.  He said that organisations do function on transcripts other than the dominant discourse – behind the scenes – and it is worth paying attention to those other transcipts.

So someone asked him whether he was working with a critical social theory perspective.  He said he wasn’t.  What happens comes from many many local interactions.   If you accept that then have to have a more modest view of what it is possible for you to do for good.  Can only work in your own local interactions – and if things do change you will never be able to claim the outcome!

As I walked away, I reflected most on this last bit.  During TU812, we have been taking a much more critical, ethical stance.  Maybe it is because course authors have been interested in large scale societal issues such as resource management or poverty or international development.  Stacey’s focus is more about organisations and management so he seemed less urgent about it all.  But I still think he has a point, if you accept that it is useful to think of human systems as complex adaptive systems then you also have to accept that the difference you make is only in your local interactions.  What happens is the emergent property of all those local interactions.  Societal “good” things do come about from these local interactions  – otherwise we’d still have slavery, women wouldn’t have the vote and we would not have civil partnerships.  I guess it just seems a bit slow and not radical enough sometimes.

Share what you think...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.