Using complexity analogies as a way of exploring knowledge and practice

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngI have been asked to give a presentation to a group of doctoral students in the Netherlands on how we might use complexity as a way of understanding what we are doing in organisations. Here is the abstract that I have prepared:

Traditional management theories have a tendency to focus on general terms that might include ‘culture’, ‘leadership’, and ‘strategy’ etc and use these to create models and frameworks to explain the present and predict the future. In doing so there is a tendency towards reification, namely the way of relating to these terms as if they were fixed entities. We can trace this back in Western thought to the work of Kant.  Here the emphasis of understanding includes a dualism between people and organisations, the collapse of contradictory but ever present tensions that people deal with and a formative process of causality that implies an understanding of the future based upon the unfolding of pre-set factors.

Considering the work of Stacey and others (Stacey et al., 2000) we can challenge this approach and their assumptions. Stacey is a management theorist who uses the sciences of complexity as an analogy to explore everyday interactions between people and how these come to develop into organising themes (for which the US pragmatist philosopher GH Mead (Mead, 1934) developed the theory of ‘the generalised other’). Here we can pay attention to the dynamics between: the interaction of people as they interpret the themes they notice and experience; and, how these themes themselves come to be developed from everyday interactions of people. From the interweaving of novel and established patterns transformation is possible in a process that is emergent. Empirically the approach draws on people’s routine work collected in a series of narratives often spanning several years and critically engaged within a learning set alongside organisational literature (Warwick and Board, 2013).  This has been the approach of the Complexity Management Centre based at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, in their long running doctoral programme.  This way of studying organisations and our presence as part of them enables a richer understanding of the dynamics of reified terms, for example what we might call ‘culture’.

They have termed this approach complex responsive processes of relating (Stacey et al., 2000) as a way to draw attention to the temporal nature of the processes of which we are all participant and from which no one is separate. Rather than Kant, it is influenced by Hegel’s (and those who draw on his work) notion of process and how, in our ‘rubbing along’ with each other, novelty emerges. Issues of power and paradox are explored. Power in the sense of an interconnected mesh or figurations (Elias, 1978) of which we are all part of in known and unknown ways. And paradox to give voice to ever present contradictions faced in organisations for which reconciliation is not possible. These are factors that people face daily as they go about making decisions, trying to sense plausible next steps in conditions of increased uncertainty.

For the doctoral student or academic this forms a contribution to knowledge and practice. With respect to knowledge first-hand accounts that address issues of power and how people reflexively respond are rare particularly amongst senior groups  (Warwick and Board, 2012). When it comes to practice, the individual becomes more reflexive (Cunliffe, 2009) understanding their own place in the mêlée in which they are a part. Of particular note are the power relations within ones habitus (Bourdieu, 1990) that become available for noticing thus enabling more thoughtful choices to be made as part of the paradoxes that are present in everyday decision making.

Bourdieu P (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Cunliffe AL (2009) The Philosopher Leader: On Relationalism, Ethics and Reflexivity–A Critical Perspective to Teaching Leadership. Management Learning, 40(1), 87–101,  Available from: (accessed 21 October 2013).

Elias N (1978) What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.

  1. H. Mead (1934) Mind, Self, & Society. Chicago: Chicago University University.

Stacey R, Griffin D and Shaw P (2000) Complexity and Management – Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking? Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Warwick R and Board D (2012) Reflexivity as methodology : an approach to the necessarily political work of senior groups. Educational Action Research, 20(1), 37–41.

Warwick R and Board D (2013) The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge: A Reflexive Inquiry Into Research and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Building trusting relationships – our report

TrustOur report on trust has just been published (Donaldson and Warwick, 2016). It was a year ago when Alison Donaldson and I started our project, financed and supported by Roffey Park. Trust is an increasingly important subject in organisations, particularly as relationships are more fleeting as people go from one employer or project to another.  We were interested in taking a different tack from the routine academic examination of the subject that tends to be overly ‘thoughtful’ and analytic.  What if we were to gather a number of stories, conversations and insights from literature and use these as a way for people to connect with the whole gamut of feelings as they go about developing relationships? That is what we have done, paying attention to: vulnerability, hope, risk, disappointment, calculation, the unfathomable, the dynamic between individual and group, of power and so on. We have not come to any snappy conclusions. Instead we hope that we have come up with some useful insights and resources that people might read, discuss with their work colleagues and friends. And in doing so be jolted into noticing the development of trusting relationship in a slightly different way.

If you would like to read more about our approach and the Capturemethods we wrote a short paper titled Trust and the Emotional Bank Account for Croner-i  in their strategic HR series. Here we also outline the implications for organisational development and HR practitioners.

Over the next few months expect to hear more in terms of more workshops (for example click here) that we are running and further articles.

Donaldson A and Warwick R (2016) The Emergence of Trusting Relationships: Stories and Reflections. Horsham,  Available from:

Leadership – what an unhelpful idea (?)

Lhip MarI supervise a student who is researching leadership. At our recent meeting he presented his latest review of literature: theories, writers, frameworks, competencies, gurus and the like. The more articulate he was, both in what he had written and in conversation, the more impoverishing it seemed. I will explain: the work of this student was excellent, my criticism is aimed at how we (practitioners, scholars, anyone interested in the subject) talk about the subject. And by impoverishing, I mean how those frameworks, theories, inventories rarely pay attention to the rich, hard to fathom, conflicting and textured activities as we go about leading. So, here are some ideas.

What if we were not to talk about leadership? Instead we could pay attention to the network of relationships we are all part of. If I am in a leadership role and want to effect some sort of change what might I do? For those immediately around me it might help to get to know them, what makes them tick and what irritates them. For those in other departments or organisations the question might be the kind of gestures (policies, strategies, and speeches) might that be helpful to allow them to interpret what is on my mind. All quite traditional leadership fare and I could go on.

But each of us is being affected by those around us, none of us has a completely free hand (except those who live on an island whose population is one). We are being constrained and enabled by those explicit and, more often, implicit expectations of those around us. Sometimes it will be our boss and she will make her expectations very clear. Others are subtle, they may be political and deep seated cultural factors. Others, we may never fully know about.  By this I mean events that occurred years or decades ago that have affected the culture and whose myth is still taken up in local decision making. Also, of acquaintances of acquaintances that have influenced those around us. Very quickly our field of vision disappears. The task we are hoping to achieve might also be unclear and throw up new dilemmas and all within a shifting context.

For the newbie these might only be made obvious in making mistakes, of walking into glass walls before finding the handle to the door. These are all issues of power as we act in a network of relations.

The picture I am painting is of something that is not fully knowable, but at least we can come to understand it in some useful tentative way. We might enquire, be reflexive about our practice, talk with others, try to make sense of events, disrupt things and see what happens and so on. And from this our knowledge develops as does our practice and we become more expert. And this affects the knowledge and practice of those around us too.

To do this what might we have to attune ourselves to?  Well the following springs to mind: the emotions of ourselves and those around us; how people relate to each other; feelings of doubt and hope; imagination of what might be achieved or lost; how people relate to logic and so on. These are fuzzy, no discreet SMART objectives here. Some relate to the present, others to how people imagine the future and create these in the context of the past. They relate to individuals that can form patterns of behaviours in groups.

All of what I have described is uncertain, explorative, emergent, contextual and requires all of our senses and wit. So where does the bold overly assertive explanations of leadership come in? I think there is a problem, particularly those recipes that dull the senses with overly confident theories of success, or siren calls of certainty. There is better news for those that sparkle our interest to be enquiring and reflexive.

So here is an idea. Let us talk and write about those textured patterns of relations that we are part of, particularly as we are endeavouring to bring about some improvement. Let us do so with enough humility to enable the reader to imagine herself in that picture in a way that she can relate to the challenges that she faces on a day to day basis. In doing so we might pay attention to acts of following and leading; in other words the networks of being human.

The purpose of purpose

Capture blogLately I have been turning my attention to the subject of ‘purpose’.  My friend Pete Burden and I are busy drafting a paper for a conference dedicated to ‘Organisations with Purpose’; in short what might our response be to corporate scandals and a lack of ethics in business.

It seems that people are all too happy to craft a few crisp words about what they want an organisation to be and to label this as a ‘purpose’, into the mix you could add ‘vision’, ‘mission’ and the like. Now I know that people hold strong views on this, carefully drawing distinctions between them. All well and good but that does not interest me right now. Instead I want to focus on how we might pay attention to these words in the face of conflicting and confusing situations we find ourselves in, often with little information. In other words the entanglement between pre-thought gestures of ‘purpose’ and the messiness of life.

It was Michel DeCerteau, the French Jesuit monk, social scientist and philosopher as well as meticulous commentator on the mundane of routine life who pointed out:

The characteristically subtle logic of … ‘ordinary’ activities comes to light only in details. And hence it seems to me that …, as its bond to another culture is rendered more explicit, will only be assisted in leading readers to uncover for themselves, in their own situation, their own tactics, their own creations, and their own initiatives (DeCerteau, 1984, pix).

What I think he is getting at, in the introduction to his book The Practice of Everyday Life, is how relevant and the interesting people’s accounts are as they try to navigate their way around day to day challenges and opportunities they face. A short account, well written or told, captures attention and puts us in the melee, allowing us to run through the dilemmas faced. In other words, although each of our stories is dripping with context and is unique, we can imagine ourselves there, facing those issues. And it is this that has worth in terms of developing our practice.

Like the Roman god, Janus, who looks both ways into the future and the past, it seems that we need a similar knack when it comes to purpose.  In short, to develop the ability to both communicate in snappy soundbites and to talk richly of how we bring those to life in our daily work. A friend reminded me of Wittgenstein’s (1969) later thoughts when he noted:

Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself (para 139).

We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgements by learning rules: we are taught judgements and their connexion with other judgements. A totality of judgements is made plausible to us (para 140).

The question is: for those of us that have been involved in crafting an organisation’s purpose, how much time have we given to enabling those richer conversations to occur to make connections between hoped for ‘purpose’ with the routines of everyday life. And then how those routines of conversation might be sustained to nurture any growing sense of purpose.


DeCerteau M (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shotter J (2005) Understanding Process From Within: An Argument for ‘Withness’-Thinking. Organization Studies, 27(4), 585–604.

Wittgenstein L (1969) On Certainty. Anscombe G and von Wright G (eds), New York: Harper Torchbooks.



Putting the student at the centre of their learning (what a novel idea)

A few days ago I had an email from a friend of mine, Laura, asking me to do a video describing my ‘learning curve’ on a self-managed learning (SML) MBA programme I completed some 10 years ago. My video along with a few others was to be used to introduce the concept of SML to a client she was working with as part of a leadership development programme. By way of explanation SML is an approach to personal development where the individual decides: what their learning needs are in light of what you want to achieve; how you might go about finding this out; the study that will be needed; and, the evidence required. In qualification programmes this is written down and formally assessed that it is of the right level for the award, for example Masters level. All of this is carried out as part of a learning set supported by an experienced facilitator. This approach was pioneered by Ian Cunningham and others in the 1990s. In filming the video, which I have attached, it occurred to me how increasingly important it is to put the individual central to their learning, particularly in an ever uncertain and complex world where learning to learn becomes vital. That sounds obvious, but look at most universities or colleges. Courses are laid out with their learning outcomes, methods of assessment, duration, curriculum content, the amount of time with the tutor, reading lists and so on; all arranged into a number of modules, which are mostly compulsory. Does this sound like the learner is at the centre of their learning? Or is it a product of an education production line? And then there are more subtle aspects. In the production model the lecturer is seen as delivering their knowledge whilst the learner is there receiving and absorbing the insights only to digest and repackage them as part of an assignment. However if the learner was at the centre of their education they would be creating that knowledge with that lecturer and others in a way that was meaningful and challenging to them.

What I have described may not suit everyone and there is an important role for education as we currently know it. But it seems increasingly important to look for additional approaches to education particularly where those individuals are having to learn flexibility and take personal responsibility for their learning in a changing and complex world.

Cunningham, I., Bennett, B., & Dawes, G. (Eds.). (2000). Self managed learning in action: putting SML into practice. Gower.

Let’s be more challenging of the of conventions in education

Why is anonymity important when a lecturer marks a student’s work so as to ensure ‘objectivity’?  Where I work all students have a six-figure number and it is this that appears on their work rather than their name. Before I go on I know it is important to mark fairly and that marking involves a degree of objectivity. But I think this is worth a closer look. I work in a small University where we know the students well and their work well so perhaps this question is a bit more acute for me. Forget the marks for a moment the important work is in the feedback, carefully crafted comments aimed at helping the individual student to improve. Now to give good feedback it could be argued that it is important to know the person. After all you don’t coach someone to the anonymous grill of the confessional box – it is a frank conversation where knowing the individual is key to finding the important factors for development that they can take forward. Over the years the importance of anonymity seems to have gone unquestioned without considering its downside – an unchallenged social orthodoxy. Or as GH Mead (Mead, 1934), the pragmatist American philosopher of the early 20th century, would call it a ‘cult value’. This seems to be one of many orthodoxies that not only go unchallenged, but are rarely noticed. From my experience most of what we learn comes to mistakes, serendipity and conversation rather than design, objectivity and measurement; features of what passes as education in recent times.  Let’s be a bit more challenging, of the orthodoxies in education, including anonymity, and there are plenty more, for example the idea of ‘learning outcomes’, how assessment skews what should be learnt, how we overly value the intellect etc.  I’m not saying they have no worth, but we need to be more careful as to how they affect our practice as educators, for good and bad.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, Self, & Society. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Ordinariness of failure and why this is so important

Blog 3This week I had a great conversation with Toby Lindsay. Toby is looking to do a PhD and we were discussing his various options. The subject of Toby’s interest is: why do enterprises fail, using his own vivid experience as a source of the research. Businesses fail every day, it is an ordinary event and one that carries much hurt. However airport bookshops are littered with the stuff of success, heroic stories often ending up with a few insights neatly packaged for the newbie entrepreneur.  Actually, more can be learned from mistakes, particularly when explored in detail as to how people made decisions in the shifting context that they had to cope with. There is very little about entrepreneurial failure, even less that takes the experience seriously from an individual’s view with all the confusion of hurt, sensemaking and recovery that goes on. Failure offers the learning for future success which is why these ordinary and upsetting events are so important. Thanks Toby for allowing me to share our conversation.