Complex responsive processes in Denmark

The following post is written by Karina Solsø Iversen, who is a senior consultant at Attractor in Denmark and a student on the Doctor of Management programme at the University of Hertfordshire.

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It is a Friday night at7.30. The sun is shining outside in the beautiful garden of Roffey Park Institute which is the location for the quarterly residentials on the doctorate program (DMan) of the complexity and management research group. I sit in the lounge together with my new colleagues whom I have just met a few hours ago. This is my first residential. One of my new colleagues, Mick asks me: What are you doing as a professional? Happy that someone is interested in getting to know me I reply that I work as a consultant. He asks me what I do then. I tell him that I am a process consultant working with organizational development. He looks at me in a mischievous way and asks me once again the exact same question – what do I do then? Somewhat irritated and a bit insecure about what is going on, feeling like I am taking part in a test, I reply that I facilitate conversations between people coming from different departments, professions or hierarchies in order for them to create solutions together. Mick smiles and asks me once again what I then actually do …

A few months ago, my DMan colleague Pernille Thorup and I published a Danish introductory book on complex responsive processes. In Danish it is called: Leadership in Complexity. An introduction to Ralph Stacey’s theory about organization and leadership.

We both started on the DMan in 2012. We came from a second order systemic and social constructionist background and were interested in developing our thinking and practice. We had both read different articles and books about complex responsive processes and we both felt that this way of thinking could be an extension of the form of thinking and practice that we used to find ourselves in. Encountering and exploring complex responsive processes on the DMan turned out to be much more confronting than we expected. Whereas from the beginning we saw many similarities between our theoretical background and complex responsive processes of relating we came to realize that there were many differences in thinking as well, that faculty and our research colleagues started to notice. We felt the British tone and the culture of the program was highly critical, something that made us a bit insecure and uncertain. Coming from a Danish background we are more used to covering over conflicts rather than exposing and exploring them, and our systemic background had included working with appreciative inquiry where themes of power and conflict were not prevalent. We were both provoked by our experience – a form of provocation though that nourished our desire to understand more.

Having immersed ourselves in complex responsive processes thinking for some time people in our Danish network started asking us about what literature we would recommend. This way of thinking about organizations and management has been taken up quite a lot in Denmark – particularly at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) where Ralph Stacey, Patricia Shaw and Chris Mowles have been lecturing. Aware of the fact that only little had been written about complex responsive processes in Danish, we got the idea of writing a book in Danish which introduces the ideas of complex responsive processes thinking.

We struggled with the structure of the book. We wanted to stay with the important starting point of the work of Stacey to explore assumptions inherent in thinking and practice. As many other places in the world (I presume), people in Denmark get confused about Stacey’s work. Why does he not explicitly articulate the forms for management practice that he is advocating? Why are he and his colleagues so reluctant do make their work more easily accessible? Why are they so critical in their approach to management? Our editor confronted us with these questions, and tried to help us become more prescriptive since, she argued, this is what managers are interested in. We persisted in staying with our interpretation of the intentions of Stacey and his colleagues, intentions that over time we have come to find very meaningful ourselves. At the same time, however, it led us to discuss what we could actually do in order to write about these ideas in a way that would enable people to get to know more of this way of thinking. We wanted our readers to understand why people working with this theory are critical to the tendency to simplify, generalize and idealize certain forms of practice.

Through puzzling with these questions we decided to base our writing on two main aspirations in complex responsive processes, First, the aspiration of starting off from experience with all its ambiguity, messiness and complexity, and secondly of taking a deep and serious interest in theory in order to understand more details of our experience. Following this, the book consists of three parts. The first part is a general introduction to Ralph’s experiences and the questions that he confronted himself with, which came to guide his research. Also it consists of an introduction to key concepts and understandings, descriptions and reflections on practical implications of the theory, and finally a chapter in which we compare and contrast complex responsive processes to 1) second order systemic thinking, 2) social constructionism and appreciative leadership and 3) performance management, all of these three being theories that have gained substantial ground in Denmark. In the second part of the book we take a more theoretical approach and describe in more detail the theories both from the natural sciences and the social sciences that complex responsive processes draw on. The third and final part of the book consists of five chapters each of them written as autobiographical reflexive narratives. This is the way research is carried out in the complexity research group. These five chapters take practice as their starting point and we explore the questions that emerge from the situations that we have described narratively. We draw on theories in order to explore our experience and to develop a more nuanced understanding of the complexities that we deal with in our everyday life, and point to where one can reflect further.

I think only when we had sent the last iteration to our editor, we fully realized that somebody might actually buy and read our book. This immediately caused some anxiety about how people would respond to it. First of all, would people find it relevant? Would they find it too academic? Would they find it provoking?

In our first meetings with complex responsive processes, we were both provoked by the way in which Stacey and other authors critiqued other theories about management. It has taken some time to come to understand the point of a critical practice. Calling in to question what it is that we think we are doing as professionals and giving an account of ourselves, was quite confronting and unsettling, as I tried to demonstrate in the small vignette in the intro. Thinking about organizational processes as complex responsive processes means taking an interest in and exploring the micro-details of everyday life of organizations. To me, what has been and still is an eye opener is how productive it is to confront myself with the question about what I am actually doing, and what I think about it (reflection), and what I think about my way of thinking about it (reflexivity). From this perspective, exploring the micro details of practice is a prerequisite for understanding more of the dynamics of organizational life. In the attempt to understand more of experience I draw on different theories. What appears in this form of inquiry, then, is the ability to understand how my actions are informed by theories, and what the consequences of these theories might be for my self and others. This has an ethical aspect. To come to understand the ethical implications of our actions in practice, we need to draw attention to the micro-processes of practice, in which we are puzzled about what to do.

Critiquing systemic and social constructionist ideas is a gesture in the political power game in Denmark. We have received different reactions to this. Some people feel that these descriptions of organizational life resonate very well with their experience, which leads them to become curious to understand more. Others are provoked and irritated about the fact that we as authors stay with the critical approach, which leads them to raise other forms of questions to us. We do feel though, that posing questions no matter where they come from can be a good starting point for a discussion. The first edition was sold out in 40 days and we hear that it is already on the curriculum in universities and courses for managers.

What is interesting now is how this conversation emerges over time. There is obviously an interest from managers, consultants and academics. Many are interested in how to proceed from here. How can we start taking our experience seriously together? How can I bring these forms of thinking and practice into my organization? How can we change the patterns in organizations (and society) that we find unhelpful and which tend to repeat themselves? These are questions that I find relevant, and I am wondering what answers we will find to these questions and what new questions these explorations will lead to.

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5 thoughts on “Complex responsive processes in Denmark

  1. What an impressive accomplishment whilst in the midst of completing the DMan! As a 2012 graduate of the program I can certainly say I would not have been able to do this – from either an intellectual perspective or a time perspective. I’m so impressed! Any plans to translate your work to English? I would love to be able to read it. Kind regards and congratulations! Marion Briggs

  2. I can truly recommend the book:
    Having read several articles in English about the concept of complex responsive processes, I, as a Dane, came to a point where I had difficulties in giving words – Danish words – to what was on my mind.
    Searching for Danish literature a came across the book “Mening i forandring” (Larsen and Larsen 2013) which is also inspired by the ideas of Ralph Stacey.
    I talked with one of the authors, Henry Larsen, who told me about the forthcoming book in Danish “Ledelse kompleksitet”.

    I truly appreciate the books in Danish as they act as a catalyst to put Danish words to the ideas of Ralph Stacey.
    Now I can return to the literature in English and benefit more fully from the relevant articles and books.

    This is an invitation from me to the danes to read the book !

  3. Social Automata Leadership—an article I wrote circa 1986—is based on early Santa Fe Institute (Par Bak’s 1972 Nobel on sandpiles) models of tuning interactions of populations of intelligent agents till “order for free” emerges–then pruning signal from noise–to get inventions no one person invents.

  4. Pingback: The entrepreneurial self and the social self: reflections on the 2016 CMC | Complexity & Management Centre

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