Against Common Sense: managing amid the paradoxes of everyday organisational life

The following is the text of a talk given by Chris Mowles at the University of Hertfordshire on Friday Feb 13th as part of the MBA Masterclass series.

In this talk I try to cover four things:

I address why I think there is a problem with much contemporary management theory and explain why I think it is necessary to argue against what is taken to be common sense in management.Unknown

I introduce paradox and explain its roots in philosophy and point to how it manifests itself in the complexity sciences, as an alternative to some of the simplified assumptions and dualisms in much contemporary management theory.

I give some examples of how paradox manifests itself in everyday organisational life.

And finally I suggest some implications for managers for taking paradox seriously for what they might find themselves doing at work.

Why against common sense?

I am using the title of this talk, against common sense, to make a general critique of what we might think of as the majority literature on management, but also to highlight the meaning of the word paradox, from the Greek para doxa, or against what people ordinarily hold to be true. In using the term ‘majority literature’, I am not trying to suggest that all management literature suggests the same thing, or that all business schools teach the subject uncritically (this is certainly not the case at the University of Hertfordshire and on the MBA, for example). There is a flourishing substantial minority critical tradition in management theory.

But overwhelmingly, orthodox management journals and books assume that managers are in control, can predict and design organisational futures and organisational culture, can purpose transformation and innovation. Even when the majority literature identifies contradiction or paradox as a phenomenon, it argues that managers can control this too, often suggesting that paradox can be ‘unleashed’ for the creative good of the organisation, or can be brought into dynamic balance.[i] Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2015

Exploring our experience of everyday politics in organisations.
How do we experience power and politics in contemporary organisations? How do we negotiate conflict and compromise? There are always possibilities in the hurly burly of everyday life for us to act differently despite the fact that we are caught up in longer term social trends which constrain our ability to think and act. So what are our degrees of freedom?
This year’s Complexity and Management Conference will explore these themes and more. The conference will be highly participative, and will be based on some presentations followed by discussion in groups, drawing on participants’ experience.
Our key note speakers are Prof Svend Brinkmann of Aalborg University and Prof Patricia Shaw formerly of the Complexity and Management Group at UH and now at Schumacher College.
The registration site for the conference is now open and an early-bird discount applies to all participants who book before April 30th. The booking page can be found here:  The fee for the conference includes accommodation and food from Friday evening through to Sunday lunchtime.
Anyone wishing to put forward suggestions for discussion groups please contact me:
Looking forward to seeing you there.

Complexity and Management Conference 5-7th June 2015

Conference theme: Exploring our experience of everyday politics in organisations

How do we negotiate degrees of freedom with each other in what we can increasingly experience as regimes of disciplinary power in organisational life? How do grand schemes for whole-organisation transformation play out in every day relationships between people?

This conference will invite participants to discuss and reflect upon the every day politics of getting things done together, noticing the negotiations, compromises and improvisations which are necessary to take the next step.

Between now and then we will be posting further reflections on the topic on this the Complexity and Management blog.

The key note speakers this year are  Svend Brinkmann,  who is Professor in general psychology and qualitative methods as well as Co-director of the Center for Qualitative Studies, and Professor Patricia Shaw, co-founder of the Doctor of Management programme at UH and currently working at Schumacher College. Here is Svend’s profile page at Aalborg university and here is Patricia Shaw’s at Schumacher College: .

The conference will be informal and highly participative, as in previous years. The conference fee includes accommodation and food and will be held at Roffey Park Institute in the UK:

The booking page on the university website will be set up in the New Year.

A more detailed agenda will follow, but the conference begins with a drinks reception @7pm on Friday 5th June and ends after lunch Sunday 7th June 2015.

Participants wishing to set up a particular themed discussion in a working group during the conference should contact Chris Mowles:

Thinking as a subversive activity

While a number of posts on this blog have been dedicated to calling in to question the claims of contemporary management theory to enable managers to predict the future, there can be no doubt that much of it is dedicated to controlling employees. Or rather, there are always new developments in management theory aimed at increasing organizational efficiency and effectiveness but which have the effect of disorienting employees and keeping them permanently on the hop. Management theory is replete with suggestions for dividing, atomising, reorganising and scrutinising employees whilst denying them time to sit together to make sense of what is going on. In fact, usually they are discouraged from doing so: it is quite common to find people expressing antipathy towards meetings which might turn into ‘talking shops’, or alternatively sense-making opportunities may be described as a ‘luxury’ which the organisation cannot afford. Of course, I am not recommending that people spend more time in meetings simply for the sake of it, but I am always interested when people I am working with tell me that they don’t have the time to think about what’s going on. Continue reading

Leadership and the ‘vision thing’

Roberto Martinez, manager of Everton football club which did very well in the Premier League in the UK this season, says that he always had a vision that the team would play in the European Champions League, for which his team has now qualified. Meanwhile political pundits, and sometimes members of his own party, are critical of the fact that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Ed Miliband, doesn’t have a sufficiently clear vision. In contrast, President George Bush (père) once said that he didn’t do ‘the vision thang’.

If you search on the terms ‘leadership vision’ in any search engine it will turn up thousands of hits, consultancies, business schools, books, which claim that having leadership vision is probably the most important quality a leader can have. There are any number of proprietary tools, techniques, grids and frameworks for generating such a vision. The idea is now virtually unchallengeable.

How would I square the idea that vision is something an individual leader ‘has’ with some previous posts where I argued that leadership is an improvisational and ensemble performance? If vision really is the exceptional and innate characteristic of an individual leader, then maybe the leaders of banks and corporations really do deserve the fantastic salaries that they command. Is it really the case that some are born with visions, and the rest of us are born to be led by them. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference, 6-8th June 2014

Only one week to go before the close of the early bird rate for this year’s Complexity and Management Conference on organisational culture.

Book here.

Key note speaker: Prof Ralph Stacey

Good conversation, good food, great venue.

Can leaders change organisational culture? – alternatives from a complexity perspective. Complexity and Management Conference June 6-8th, Roffey Park. 

Early bird rate ends April 30th 2014.

Orthodox management literature contains many of the same assumptions about organisational culture: that changes in culture can be linked to organisational success and improvement; that culture is a mixture of the tangible (rules, behaviour, rewards) and the intangible (symbols); that culture can exist in an organisation and in sub-units within an organisation; that it can be ‘diagnosed’ and changed, perhaps with an ‘n’ step programme moving from existing to preferred cultures; that it is often precipitated by a leader having an inspiring vision.

For a discussion of alternatives from a complexity perspective come to the Complexity and Management Conference.

The key note speaker is Professor Ralph Stacey, one of the world’s leading scholars on complexity and management.

There will be lots of opportunity for lively discussion throughout the weekend.

Conference fees include all board and accommodation from 7pm Friday 6th to lunchtime Sunday 8th June. Book here.