The importance of the complexity sciences for management and leadership

I want to continue with two more postings about the deepening crisis of leadership and ethics, and thought that I would put this up first for those who might not be familiar with the how we are motivated by the complexity sciences in our research on managing, leading and organizational change at the University of Hertfordshire as opposed to others who are directly importing concepts from the complexity sciences into understanding human social interaction.  Richard Bernstein makes the point in his recent book The Pragmatic Turn that thinkers like Mead and Dewey were far ahead of their time.  We would argue with Bernstein that the time is very much now and further argue that the complexity sciences have made an important contribution to opening the way to rethinking the uniqueness of human communication and local interaction.  This is very different from those who seek universal laws of complexity which can be applied, continuing the instrumental rationalism of the currently dominant paradigm.  The natural sciences, including many of those appealing to the complexity sciences, face the challenge of rethinking their metaphysics of the laws of nature as an important key to a radical shift in how we think about ethics in the social sciences.  The following is taken in part from the preface to Ralph’s Stacey’s recent book Complexity and Organizational Reality, which works out in detail some of the main ideas we will be presenting in these blogs posts.

Most management consultants and people in organizations, including senior executives, the vast majority of textbooks, business school programs and research projects around the world, most professional management and leadership development programs in organizations, 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.

This dominant discourse rests on the claim that there is an organization and management science and that it is appropriately based on sciences of certainty. Despite the massive increase in numbers of professionally educated managers and the millions of pieces of research done, there is, however, no adequate scientific evidence base for the dominant prescriptions for managing and leading organizations.  The key requirement of the sciences of certainty, an evidence base for the prescriptions, is lacking.

 If we are to turn to science, then we should move from thinking in the engineering terms of the sciences of certainty to ways of thinking indicated by the sciences of uncertainty, the sciences of complexity.  This should be done in a way which avoids the error of directly applying the natural sciences to human social interaction.  What the sciences of complexity offer are important analogies which must be interpreted in terms of political science, sociology and psychology.

 At the University of Hertfordshire we are doing research as a professional doctorate program in which students draw on analogies from the sciences of uncertainty, the complexity sciences, to explore their work in the framework of a theory of organizing as complex responsive processes of relating in which leaders and managers participate, along with all other organizational members.  This perspective shifts attention to the organizational games we are all preoccupied with, in which we are all perpetually constructing the ‘organization’ as patterns that emerge in our ordinary local interaction while at the same time the patterns of organization are perpetually forming our local interaction. What Ilya Prigogine first described as self-organization in the complexity sciences, becomes central to our understanding of organizations, management and leadership.  It is this local interaction which takes the form of ordinary, ongoing conversation. It is in these ordinary conversations that patterns of power relations emerge not just in the local interactions themselves but across populations. These patterns of power relations take the form of figurations of inclusion and exclusion which confer identity on people.

 The sciences of uncertainty, complexity, are the basis then of developing a radically new perspective on effective leadership and management.  This is a new paradigm of thinking about our participation in interaction with others in reflective and imaginative ways, making us more aware of the potentially destructive processes we may get caught up in. It is in this practice that leaders emerge and are recognized as those who have the capacity to assist the group in acting into the unknown.  Unpredictability and uncertainty are at the core of thinking about complexity. Those who emerge as effective leaders are participants, among others, in the ongoing politics of daily life.  These politics include the negotiation of the ethics of the goals the group sets itself to achieve, whether they be deemed morally good or destructive of the broader social context.

 The sciences of complexity provide a basis then for moving away from a narrow focus on management as being a matter of making the right decisions, meaning identifying and following rational, analytical techniques and using the right tools to make decisions which optimize outcomes. It implies a different sense of time; we understand the importance of the present in which we are entering into robust political conflict to construct the future within the constraints of our context and past history. It represents a move from a narrow instrumental paradigm of organizing processes to a basis for researching the ethics of conflictual participation in the politics of everyday local interaction.

 The Complexity Research Group of the Business School, University of Hertfordshire

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6 Replies to “The importance of the complexity sciences for management and leadership”

  1. I agree with the sentiments expressed, having followed complexity for some years. However, there is much work to do to change the current paradigm. Uncertainty induces fear and has no positive pyschological purchase. Where systems and processes already exist, no matter how imperfect, leaders are more likely to be followed if they give the appearance of knowing the territory (certainty) and have solutions to move through it safely and allow their tribe to prosper. Even the imperfect, retrospective case study approaches to communicating ‘how to’ solutions provide a comparative framework for an individual – not to follow blindly – but to test his/her own experiences and respond accordingly. I would like to see examples of how complexity science as applied to management produces better results and outcomes – for staff, customers, suppliers, shareholders and other stakeholders. Otherwise I will begin to suspect that it lacks practical application and utility.

  2. The argument being made seems to imply a need for consensus among groups, rather than a top-down know-it-all leadership approach to business and community.

    I wonder how that would work in practical use. Taking the university model, which is predicated upon the current paradigm of dictatorial top-down leadership, I cannot fathom a successful campus operation that transitions the current model to the one implied in the above thesis.

    The progress of any group will inevitably invoke the question: “Where are we going?”

    The goal of the group isn’t necessarily settled by consensus, especially in the context of entrepreneurship, investments and risks. Even the entrepreneur who is the founder of a company will find him or herself ousted once the large-scale venture capital investment enters the scheme. The game changes. The goals change. The direction and purpose of the company changes. No longer is there a flexible creative search for a successful business model. Once found, the shift is toward execution, streamlined and profitable.

    The company shifts from customer-oriented to company and shareholder-oriented behavior. What is good for the company isn’t necessarily good for the consumer. Goals shift in a top-down approach. At the bottom of the pyramid are creative talented people whose perspectives and ideologies do not line up with the leadership. The door closes and they are locked out of the boardroom. The purpose of the serfs is to execute the strategy concocted inside the boardroom. As the leadership assesses the strategy, their goals look inward toward making the company grow along with profits. Plateaus attract fear and downward slopes invoke panic.

    The driving forces are inherently greed and pride. These are natural human instincts. The science of uncertainty and complexity isn’t welcome in the boardroom, where the game of winner-takes-all and “crush thy neighbor (competition)” is being played ruthlessly.

    That game is paramount even within the university construct. Perhaps there is where the game originates?

  3. I find very interesting the discussion here.
    I am an Italian manager trying to understand something more about theory of complexity and its implications for organizations.
    I suggest an Italian book that has recently been translated in English. It is from Alberto De Toni and Luca Comello and its title is Journey into Complexity. You can find it on Amazon.

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