The flip side of provocation (of bridges and walls)

ScanccyyySometimes a word catches me and unravels. And that is what happened with ‘provocation’. A little of the detail. I met with Julian Stodd and colleagues from Sea Salt Learning the other day. Julian handed me a copy of =Q@L[equal], a magazine with the tagline ‘provocative writing for a more equal world’ – see picture. Julian writes:

=Q@L[eqaul] is a collection of ideas: a provocation and call to arms. It’ a space to reflect, to challenge.

To me there are two sides of the coin, one good the other bad:

  1. The bridge: We say or write something that jars, perhaps it is at the edge or beyond accepted wisdom. This leads to a shift in thought, there might be a striking moment as the person reconciles an experience they have had with that new perspective. Even the provocateur can be moved as they see their idea taken up in new ways; together both parties see the world differently, even slightly. And from this transformation and novelty emerges.
  2. The wall: The other side is problematic. Here we provoke others and in doing so we build walls (quite literally if we are to believe what we hear from the US Presidential Elections). Words of provocation are said and opinions become entrenched, it prevents ideas developing, it fails to build bridges of understanding. We cannot see or imagine the world differently beyond our own self interest.

The wall creates ‘otherness’, a separation between people from which identity grows often at the expense the marginalised that have little power or voice. This is a powerful dynamic that once started can be hard to stop.

The bridge on the other hand is fragile. It requires nurturing and an attention to the dynamics between people. We need to test and understand our own movement of thought and those around us as our ideas emerge. We need to accept that there will be misunderstanding and friction, but this is an opportunity for further conversation and deeper understanding. In other words, to strengthen the bridge.

It seems to me that people are becoming all too keen on building walls without looking to history to see the consequences. By the time we realise it might be too late to stop. Building bridges is hard, we need to be challenging of ourselves and other around us.

Details of =Q@L[equal] can he found here.


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. I was asked to prepare an abstract which I will share:

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 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.

The literature I have drawn on:

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,

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

Mead GH (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.

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.

The Social Development of Knowledge and Leadership

Luc Viatour /

As I have mentioned in my blog and website I am writing a book with a friend ofmine, Douglas Board, called The Social Development of Knowledge and Leadership.  Next month we will be arranging workshops and discussion to test the ideas and get feedback before we submit the final manuscript to the publisher towards the end of the year.Here is a taster of our book, if you have any comments or thoughts it would be great to hear from you.

Who the book is aimed at

The book is for people who, at a certain point in their career, are asking some fundamental questions about their leadership within the social melee in which they have found themselves. They have questions left unanswered by the formulaic advice and prescriptions offered by the many books on leadership.  It is aimed at people who want to work seriously with their own experience, not the abstract experience of others, so as to improve their own practice.  For some this may lead to a further programme of study, such as a doctorate or master’s degree, in which personal experience is going to be an important theme.  And by addressing the experience of their own leadership they will have something new to say to the community that they are a part of; in other words they will be creating practical knowledge.

Structure and inspiration for the book

The book has a varied ‘texture’ and pace ranging from narratives of our experiences to detailed argument.  This is intentional; the aim is to reflect the experience of everyday life.   In other words, life is not a clear linear passage of events presented with clarity and offering rational choice, a presentation that can often be seen in many books on leadership.  It is in the context of everyday life that leadership has to have meaning.  We therefore argue that attention should focus on the practical day to day realities that people face as they interact with others– emotionally, viscerally, and intellectually and so on.

We draw inspiration from the complexity sciences.  Drawing on the recent work of weather scientists and the natural sciences generally complexity provides an opportunity to consider organisational life as being non-deterministic and non-linear.  It allows us to raise our heads from the post Enlightenment ‘comfort’ of cause and effect, linearity and certainty.  Here we explore complexity though the power, or anticipated power, between people as they work together; not within discreet organisations but across the web of connections that they are part of, both knowingly and unknowingly.


There are many theories on leadership and in the book we give a brief overview of some.  It can be tempting to be weary of the variety and the ease by which people offer a view into this crowded space without criteria to judge one idea from another (criteria that exists with knowledge).  However, for us, leadership is both important and meaningful, whatever the complex and ambiguous edges.  Between those moments of ‘significance’ (such as a presentation to the board) and the ‘routine’ (such as 1:1 with a member of staff) there are differences that can matter, differences that can be recognised as leadership.

Instead of offering models or frameworks we emphasise the importance of the essentially contested nature by which we all have to get along with each other.  It is here that acts of leadership are made in the context of unique situations that people find themselves in.  The leader, in paying attention to their own practice with others, becomes more aware of the connections, interconnections, the impact they have on others and the practical effects they have.  It is here that the complexity sciences form a useful analogy.


For knowledge to count as such there is a tendency to privilege the abstract, detached and universal.  This can be at the expense the continually contested nature of ongoing human interaction in which logic, ‘common sense’, anxiety, fear and hope all play out as people face those multiple and ambiguous choices in everyday life.  To us, all of this is important, not just the logical, post-hoc interpretation of the detached observer.  And it is in the rigorous process of working with one’s experience, as expressed in narrative, as part of a group process that valuable insights and knowledge can be gained.

The interaction of leadership and knowledge

As a leader engages in a process whereby they consider carefully their own experience new insights become apparent to them.  Once apparent they have a choice to act differently and in doing so new patterns of interaction occur.  At a practical level this might include meeting with different groups of people, engaging in different types on conversation or challenging the ‘way things are done’.  From this both the leader and those they interact with start to notice what has been hidden by a veil of familiarity that is shared amongst the group.  A familiarity often termed as ‘culture’.  It is in this process that both the leader can change and develop, but also create knowledge for the group.  And it is also our argument that these insights will be of value to organisations and to academics.

In practice

The importance of narrative has already been mentioned.  This is in the context of what we have termed immersed reflexivity.  A group of people, or learning set, is formed and with the support of a facilitator they draft narratives of important events.  These are written close to the time of the event so as not to lose the ambiguous choices and the emotion that can quickly dissipate when a person looks back in hindsight.  These narratives are shared with the set and discussed.  Areas that seem obvious, ‘clear cut’, or not worth a mention are noticed by set members and form a focus for conversation.  In noticing these and acting differently (which can in itself be a risk that needs to be carefully managed) at work relations change as do the interactions and power dynamics.  This becomes available for further discussion.  It is here that the opportunity arises to compare experience with accepted knowledge.  This might include those unsaid customs within an organisation’s culture and the accepted wisdom reflected within the professional press or in academia.

It is here that both the development of leadership and the creation of knowledge coincide.

Where we draw our inspiration from

These include: the complexity writer Ralph Stacey; the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu, Norbert Elias and Sudhir Venkatesh; the philosophers George Herbert Mead and Gilbert Ryle.

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

Coping with the end of reductionalist leadership in a complex world – insights from complexity and social movement

The King’s fund in the UK is an important think tank commenting on UK health policy.  Last week it published its thoughts on leadership and engagement.  As part of this the King’s Fund commissioned a report from the Centre for Health Enterprise at Cass Business School in London of which I am part.

Following a comprehensive literature review, heavily influenced by complexity sciences, we came up with seven essential criteria that are important to consider in an increasingly complex world, these were:

  • Go out of your way to make new connections.
  • Adopt an open, enquiring mind-set, refusing to be constrained by current horizons.
  • Embrace uncertainty and be positive about change – adopt an entrepreneurial attitude.
  • Draw on as many different perspectives as possible; diversity is non-optional.
  • Ensure leadership and decision-making are distributed throughout all levels and functions.
  • Establish a compelling vision which is shared by all partners in the whole system.
  • Promote the importance of values – invest as much energy into relationships and behaviours as into delivering tasks.

So what has changed over the last few years to make this more important?  There are a number of reasons, but here I would like to look at one – social movements, which has been the subject of a previous post.  Here we stated:

The past five years has redefined the place of social movements, earning them a new place in papers like this, simply because the world of social media technologies has emerged so rapidly and with such powerful effect that social movements have almost unfettered and certainly uncontrollable power. The timeline for social movements has been rewritten. Mobilisation is now achieved in a shorter time than that required for differences and conflicts to emerge. The social movement exceeds critical mass long before fragmentation begins. In a world of instant, viral communication to a staggering proportion of the target population, the spontaneity of action and the lack of structures have reversed the power balance, so that social movements can form, mobilise, gain headlines and have powerful impact before organised systems are even aware of any opportunities or threat. (p14).

Not only have the rules of the game have changed, the boundaries of the ‘pitch’ have gone.  Whereas leaders used to think about a defined remit of their activity (for example boundaries of a single department or organisation) they now need to be far more aware of the entire ‘ecosystem(s)’ of which they are part.  In this case I’m thinking of the general public, patients, staff, the other organisations that come to affect the ecosystem, education, social care and many more.  In other words, there is the end to the illusion of certainly.  However, this is not to say that randomness takes its place.  There is a form of order, but not in the sense of comforting reductionalist predictability.  By reductionalist I mean that a problem can be separated and understood from its component parts allowing wider conclusions to be drawn on the whole.   However, useful insights can be made in considering the entire dynamic entity as it continually emerges and develops.  And it is here that the above bullet points are important.  This is why I have used a photograph of eroding sandstone as a metaphor for this post.  Although it is random in the sense of each grain of sand and the exact formation of the pattern there are predictable themes that do emerge, from which further thought (and in our actual case) action can be taken.

This brings me onto my final point –how should these seven bullets points be used?  Firstly, not as a point by point list, or like some instruction manual akin to assembling a piece of flat pack furniture.  That reductionalist approach would run counter to my argument.  Instead, I would suggest that they prompt conversation between people as to how they are jointly making sense of the developing and emerging world that they are a part of.   To have these conversations regularly and to share stories and experiences that makes sense to them and those that don’t.  Also, it enables people to explore their ability to become more intuitive of the emerging dynamic.  In this way the above bullet points become a prompt to conversation and joint understadning and not a constraint.

Reference: Welbourn, D, Warwick, R, Carnell, C and Fathers, D (2012) Leadership of Whole Systems, King’s Fund: (Accessed: 29.05.2012)

The Social Development of Writing – the Unexpected Impact of Rosa Parks

A good friend of mine, Douglas, and I are writing a book called The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge. In essence we are writing about the importance of reflexivity in developing one’s own leadership practice and in doing so how this has something to say in the field of knowledge.

We are deeply in the process at the moment. For me thinking never stops. I am seeing connections between the different sections and chapters that I had not envisaged. As these new connections emerge I am aware that they are both forming and are being formed by our original ideas in quite a transformative ways.

I am also making connections with other aspects of my working life. For example, I have been asked to give a brief talk on complexity and social movements (eg the Black Power movement in 1960s America). Without this loose connection the life of Rosa Park, the individual who refused to give up her seat for a white person on a bus in Alabama which resulted in enormous social change and challenge to traditional power relations, would not have featured.

Yet I suspect this will be a key strand to our book. A strand that illustrates the venting of pent up tension that had built up over the decades and generations in a predictable (ie the events were likely to happen at some point) and yet unpredictable ways. And, is still playing out today in many different avenues of people’s lives. Was my interest in Rosa Parks in relation to our book coincidental or an act of ‘un-thought’ planning?

As I reflect on this now it seems to me to be an example of the social process of writing and how it ‘never leaves’ when in that deep and active phase. And this is a point that we are making in the book, leadership and knowledge are all activities that we are all engaged in as we ‘rub along’ together in organisational life; these are not subjects to be explored from a distance; but instead as part of an active process that we need to notice. Connections that instantly seem important to us need attention and are worth the effort to be explored. Sometimes their importance to us may dim, or they may come to shine; this is the subject of further work. In that light they might come to be of great importance to us as individuals, within the stories of an organisation say, or, in the case of Rosa Parks, to a generation and beyond.

Whether the brave acts of Rosa Parks will feature in our book when we send it to the publisher I don’t know; but at the moment my instinct is – yes; an instinct that I will continue to pay attention to and notice.