Complexity and organisations – a conversation

Like many people I am on Linked-in and am a member of a number of groups, including Complex People. Occasionally I get ‘caught’ in a conversation that manages to either consolidate and/or develop my thinking; this was the case in the following exchange between Nicky, Sue and me.

Nicky: Is anyone familiar with the work of Ralph Stacey and particularly his interpretation and application of Complexity Theory?

Rob: I know Ralph’s work. In essence he has moved away from ‘systems thinking’ (where there is an assumption of boundaries in which a person is either an inside or outside) towards a ‘processes’ of an ongoingness. This is why he uses the term ‘complex responsive processes of relating’. It draws inspiration from Hegel, rather than Kant. This way of thinking pays attention to power relations between people, drawing particularly the work of the sociologist Norbert Elias.

Nicky: Hi Rob, yes thank you, it is a good, succinct summary. It is the essence of my understanding of his work too.

I’m using his work as a basis for researching executive coaching in organisations. I’m finding it very useful yet every now and then I come across people who consider his work too controversial and would rather shy away from using it in their research.

I’m curious about this aspect of his work. Is it really that contrary to how complexity theory is currently applied to organisational theory?

Rob: To some it is seen as controversial because it is very challenging to the ‘ways of doing things’ both in management and academia, particularly when you work through his concerns of how Kant’s work has implicitly been taken up. To others, his close attention to what ‘we’ do in organisations reconciles with our own experience. He is careful to stress that complexity science is an analogy for the process of human relating, but never the less a very powerful one.

People discuss complexity in different ways. To illustrate this with a few examples, if one takes the work of Peter Allen, using mathematical modeling he developed a concept of complexity that enabled insight as to how various populations behave over time. He then applied these insights into the realm of organisations. In his book Surfing the Edge of Chaos, Richard Pascale used complexity as a means to discuss a number of highly relevant and engaging problems and situations in organisations. In emphasizing case studies there is less attention on the theoretical understanding of complexity, particularly the tension and conflict that can exist as factors create ‘friction’ with each other. Or there is Robert Chia, with a perspective of complexity that draws heavily on postmodernism with the heritage that brings to the argument. Finally, Margaret Wheatley associates complexity with leadership and systems thinking. Here she takes a more ‘illustrative’ view of complexity with comparisons with the natural world. There is little sense of paradox and power that affects us as we make our way through organisational life. They all have strengths and weaknesses, but for me Stacey manages to help describe the ongoing struggle that people face, issues that tend to be diminished if we take a subject/observer ‘systems’ stance.

Nicky: It would seem then from what I’ve read so far and your explanation above that the value of complexity theory lies mostly in finding analogies to allow us to think about the problems from a different paradigm.

I guess therein lies a limitation as compared to more traditional systems thinking. It seems to me that very useful tools and techniques have been developed for ST through the years with real application to solving organisational problem. I am struggling to find this concrete side of complexity theory.

Rob: The best book to read is Stacey’s Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics. Part 1 is about ‘systems’ and Part 3 is about complexity as a process. In my view I would not look for a load of ‘tools and techniques’. I would say that the concrete side is about tackling in very practical ways what actually goes on in organisations and between people without going through an ‘intermediary’ of tools or frameworks. In other words, it is about paying very close attention to what happens between people and how these interactions come to affect others and so on.

Nicky: I’ve read that book of Stacey’s (took a while!) It is a well-researched, very useful reference source, if slightly slanted. I have no problem with his notion of observing ‘what actually happens’ in organisations as opposed to espoused theories and models. My concern is with how this relates to Complexity Theory.

Sue: Have really enjoyed this thread. I am both challenged by and enthused by Stacey’s work. And I agree that sometimes it is seen to be impenetrable and inaccessible in everyday organisation life. My pragmatic response is simply not to talk straight away about ‘it’ but rather to get on and do something different, informed by these stances.

Rob: Narrative is critical in this way of thinking about complexity. So, if I can take my own research as a case study you will see that they are peppered throughout the paper (have a look at pages 61, 78 and 120 for examples). By paying very close attention to those micro-interactions between people more general themes can become apparent, repeated patterns emerge; as does noticing of power relations between individuals. So, there are useful analogies with complex adaptive systems, networks, fractals, chaos etc. But the focus is on what people do, as expressed in narrative, and working with that narrative. This means looking at how the narratives relate to literature (sociological, philosophical, psychological, management etc) in the academic and practitioner fields, working in a small group to notice and work further on the narrative. This last point is important, quite often when we are immersed in the field of practice and unaware of the norms and unsaid ways of doing things (Habitus as Pierre Bourdieu and others termed it). So, where does complexity fits in? As I said, it forms a useful number of analogies to explore experience; like all analogies sometimes they are useful, sometimes not and it is important to be aware of that balance. The key for me is how we can take a person’s actual experience seriously and make a contribution to their practice and knowledge more generally.

Ref: Stacey, R (2007) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics (5th Ed), Harlow: Prentice Hall

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