Details of the Complexity and Management workshop, Friday 2nd June 2017

The participants who attend the annual Complexity and Management conference experience the same dynamics as members of any other group, even if it’s a temporary group. For example, one repeating theme at the conference is the established/outsider dynamic of those who have been through the Doctor of Management programme, or are currently on it, and those who haven’t. Participants who have been exposed to the programme because they are graduates, or because they are regular conference attenders are likely to talk in a way which may feel exclusionary to those who are new. Almost every year, new attendees at the conference raise the question as to whether we could have done more to make them feel welcome. There is always the ghost of the DMan-demon at the conference.

For this reason we are holding a one day introductory workshop on Friday 2nd June, to present some of the key ideas which inform the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. It is a public workshop open to all, not just those who will go on to attend the conference For those who do, it may, or may not, make a difference to the quality of their participation. The conference begins the same evening with supper at 7pm.

You can book for the one day workshop, for the workshop and conference, or just for the conference here. There is a discount for early-bird booking before April 30th. For more details on the workshop, continue reading below: Continue reading

New publications in April

Here are three new publications from DMan faculty members published this month:

Commons and Lords: a Short Anthropology of Parliament – Emma Crewe

The House of Commons: an Anthropology of MPs at Work – Emma Crewe

Managing in Uncertainty: Complexity and the Paradoxes of Everyday Organisational Life – Chris Mowles

61o5S19tTBL 71rGKydMesL Book cover

Predictability and Organisations

Yesterday, I was struck by an article in the Business Section of the Sunday Times with this heading: Directors told to predict future under new code. That I should be struck by such a heading is, of course, hardly surprising since I have been publishing books and papers for the last 24 years arguing that it is impossible to predict the outcomes of the actions  people undertake in organisations. Indeed, the paradox of predictable unpredictability of human actions is central to the theory of complex responsive processes. The fundamental reason for this paradox is that that we are interdependent individuals, not autonomous individuals. This means that every choice any one of us makes, any intention any one of us forms and every action any one of us undertakes cannot produce some direct outcome all on its own because everyone around us, indeed many at some distance from us, are also choosing, intending and acting so that what happens is the consequence of the interplay of all our choices, intentions and actions. The models of the complexity sciences also display the unpredictability of outcomes because nonlinear relationship can escalate tiny changes to produce completely unpredictable long term outcomes. Indeed, some of the models, for example, those of far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics, lead to the conclusion that the universe is fundamentally unpredictable. And, in fact, our own experience confirms these conclusions about unpredictability.


In view of all of this it is amazing how prominent leaders in the organisational world carry any giving out predictions which, of course, are never realised. Take for example the Governor of the Bank of England. A year ago now, Mark Carney took up his post as Governor of the Bank of England after some years as Governor of the Bank of Canada. The first really headline-grabbing action he took was to provide what he called ‘forward guidance’ to the financial markets. He would only raise interest rates if the unemployment rate fell below 7% and he said that this would not happen before 2016. The market did not believe him and began to price in an interest rate increase in 2015. Only a few months later it became clear that unemployment was falling much faster than expected and would probably reach that target by the end of 2013. So the Governor hastily abandoned this target and proposed to use a number of indicators of economic ‘slack’. Just as well because the unemployment rate in May this year fell to 6.6%. What is interesting is how, after it became crystal clear that neither he nor anyone else could predict any economic indicator, he rushed from one failed prediction to others just as likely to fail. He does not seem to have reached the sensible conclusion, which is to abandon all of these useless attempts to predict. Then in his most recent speech he let slip that the interest rate rise could well come in a few months’ time. Why do senior people keep making claims for the future which experience would tell them are futile?


Now back to the newspaper article which tells a similar story. The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) commissioned the Liberal Democrat peer and former chairman of the insurer Aviva, Lord Sharman, to lead an expert panel to revamp the going concern test for organisations since the current test had failed to pick up the vulnerability of the banks in 2008. After months of deliberation and a number of rounds of consultation they produced their recommendation of a new corporate governance code for one last round of consultation. They will recommend that Directors be required to tell investors how long they think their company will remain viable: they must declare that their companies are viable for the foreseeable future and the foreseeable future has to exceed 12 months. So a group of eminent people spend months, and no doubt a lot of money, to come up with a recommendation which simplistically assumes that the future is predictable when in our experience it clearly is not. Even more interesting is the response of investors and trade bodies. For example, John Moulton, the veteran venture capitalist who runs Better Capital, said: ‘It is madness. No company will be able to come up with the right answer’. The panel says they will consider this point. So the great and the good continue to formulate policies on the basis of some very dodgy assumptions, which they never reflect upon, while those they are trying to protect make clear their knowledge that such protection is impossible. It looks like some who make a great deal of money do not operate on outdated assumptions.


Why are we so caught in a way of thinking that denies our experience? I think it is because the great and the good constitute a ‘thought collective’ in the terms of Ludwik Flek. In a previous blog I talked about Flek’s conclusion that we all belong to some thought collective and each of these collectives is characterised by a thought style. To question such a thought style is to risk exclusion from the thought collective. And it is not just policy makers and leaders of large organisations who are trapped in a ‘thought collective’. Some of the most effectively policed thought collectives are to found in academia where journals control what can be published and business schools continue to teach students all kinds of misleading ideas about predictability and the use of tools and techniques.

The Paradox of Consensus and Conflict in Organisational Life

Today’s dominant thought collective[i] of practitioners, consultants and academics concerned with leadership, management and other organisational matters is characterised by thought styles[ii] which, in a completely taken-for-granted way, equate success with positives, sharing, harmony and consensus. Leaders are called upon to communicate inspiring, compelling visions of desirable futures shorn of all problematic features. Followers are to be converted to sharing the vision and committing to the mission so that everyone ‘is on the same page’, ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, ‘climbing on board’, ‘on the message’ and ‘a team player’. This whole raft of idealisations is taken even further when it is accompanied by a relentless emphasis on the positive aspects of all situations. There seems to be a scarcely-concealed dread of ‘negatives’, such as conflict, and a half-expressed conviction that success can only be achieved when all share the same view, with breakdown as the consequence  of not doing this. If conflict is noticed it is immediately followed by calls for the practice of ‘conflict resolution’ or approaches which rapidly move people from anything negative to a focus on the ‘positives’. A popular example of the prescription for positive consensus is provided by Appreciative Inquiry. Proponents[iii] of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) point to how the dominant approach to leading, managing and changing organisations focuses attention on problems, deficits and dysfunctions. They argue that this approach is demoralising and ineffective in bringing about change and call, instead, for a focus on opportunities and what is working because focusing in this appreciative, positive way raises  morale and promotes generative inquiry. It is claimed that AI generates spontaneous, transformational action on the part of individuals, groups and organisations which leads to a better future. Critics[iv] of AI problematise the focus on positiveness, arguing that positive and negative feelings are intimately connected and conclude that AI is a method whose proponents show little self-reflection or evaluative critique of what they are proposing. In response, Gervase Bushe of the Segal Graduate School of Business has published a paper titles ‘Appreciative Inquiry Is Not (Just) About the Positive’.[v]  Bushe agrees that AI can become a form of repression when it suppresses dissent and focuses on the positive as a defence against the anxiety of dealing with reality. However, he then immediately goes on to say that when AI is used in appropriate ways, which he does not identify, then people do not wallow in mutual pain but tell each other uplifting stories instead, which sooth tensions and release energy. Instead of focusing on conflict, bridges are built between conflicting groups.  In his view, people who want to talk about what they do not like should not be stopped from doing so but they should not be asked to elaborate on these matters. They should be encouraged, instead, to talk about what is missing, what they want more of and what their image of their organisation ought to be. He talks about small group meetings where everyone reads the same story together. Much the same points can be made another positiveness movement called Positive Deviance which is basically an idealised form to ‘benchmarking’ and a sanitisation of ‘deviance’.

This unrelenting emphasis on the positive, on harmony and consensus functions to cover over conflict, difference and real-life attitudes towards deviants because to bring these matters out into the open is to reveal patterns of power relations,  the dynamics of identity-forming inclusion and exclusion and the ideologies sustaining current power figurations. As a consequence, public discussions of organisational life take the form of a kind of rational, positive fantasy that focuses our attention on only a small part of what we ordinarily experience in our daily organisational lives. People continue, as they always have done, to disagree and subvert what they disagree: organisational life is characterised by ongoing conflict in which, at the same time, people normally manage to achieve sufficient degrees of consensus, tolerance and cooperation to get things done together. In order to understand what we are ordinarily engaged in during the course of our daily organisational lives we need to avoid thinking in terms of a duality of consensus and conflict, where we can decide to move from the one to the other, and think instead in terms of the paradox of consensus and conflict: we engage in, we are heavily invested in, organisational games displaying the paradoxical dynamics of consensual conflict or conflictual consensus. Continue reading

Responding to Complexity and Uncertainty: The Agile Organisation

Over the past two decades, management consultants and academics at business schools have increasingly stressed what they view as the rapidly increasing levels of complexity and uncertainty in the environment that all organisations have to respond to and many have labelled these conditions ‘ hyper-competition’ or ‘high velocity competition’. To deal with these conditions, consultants and academics have called for organisations to become ‘agile organisations’. The ‘agile organisation’ is also described as ‘the entrepreneurial organisation’ and ‘the resilient organisation’ and the hallmarks of this kind of organisation are its high speed of response to change and its focus on the customer which calls for customized  rather than standardised offerings. The notion of the agile organisation therefore originates in the discipline of strategic management with its concern for competitive advantage; in manufacturing production systems such as Total Quality Management, Just in Time, Lean and six sigma with their concern for high quality, customized batch manufacturing; and also in Agile Software development and its concern for teams and partnerships with customers. In short, the concept of agile processes was initially primarily concerned with product manufacturing and software development and from these areas it has come to be simply applied to all other organisations including both private and public sector service providers, without much reflection on whether this is appropriate or not. So when did these developments occur and how widespread are they?

 A quick search of Google Scholar reveals that over the decade ending in 1993 there were 56 journal papers which referred to the agile organisation at some point and over the same period some 14 referred to hyper-competition while no papers referred to the resilient organisation but over 20,000 used the term ‘complexity’.  Over the rest of that decade the number referring to agile organisations rose to 442 and the number referring to hyper-competition rose to 416 while 43 referred to the resilient organisation and there were some 19,000 references to complexity. Over the first decade of this century, there were nearly 5,000 referrals to the agile organisation, about 3,500 to hyper-competition, 385 to the resilient organisation and some 40,000 to complexity. Interest in agile and resilient organisations facing hyper-competition, uncertainty and complexity is, therefore, very recent and even now not all that widespread. Despite recognizing complexity and uncertainty, however, the prescription is overwhelmingly for managers to design organisations that can successfully deal with the supposedly ‘new’ conditions. There is very little radical reflection on what the recognition of uncertainty and complexity, which has always characterized the conditions which members of organisations have to act into, means for the possibility of designing organisation in the first place. There is very little inquiry into how members of organisations have always dealt with uncertainty and complexity. This is, perhaps, not a surprising observation when one takes account of the strength of management and leadership thought collectives and the thought styles that they perpetuate. This post reviews notions of organisational agility and resilience as responses to rapidly rising complexity and uncertainty. Continue reading

“Wishful thinking combined with hubris”

Last summer a group of economists at the London School of Economics felt impelled to write to the Queen in response to her question posed the year previously when she was on a visit to the university as to what had caused  the banking collapse.

The letter explains that there was a ‘psychology of denial’ affecting all those concerned, and in a touching note of humility drawing attention to the fact that many very intelligent people were caught up in this collective denial, the letter goes on to explain that “it is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris”.

“Everyone seemed to be doing their own job properly on its own merit. And according to standard measures of success, they were often doing it well,” they say. “The failure was to see how collectively this added up to a series of interconnected imbalances over which no single authority had jurisdiction.” (my emphasis added) Continue reading