Ralph Stacey is Professor of Management and Director of the Complexity and Management Centre at the Business School of the University of Hertfordshire. He is also a member of the Institute of Group Analysis. He consults at many levels across a range or organizations and is the author of a number of thought-leading books and articles on strategy and complexity theory in management. His work has had a significant impact on my approach to change leadership and organizational dynamics, as reflected in the pages of Informal Coalitions.
I first came across some of Stacey’s work on dynamic strategic management in the early 1990’s. By the middle of the decade, I was particularly interested in his notion of “extraordinary management,” which I first read in a booklet entitled Chaos, Management and Economics, that he had co-authored with David Parker in 1995. Stacey’s extraordinary management highlighted many of the same shadow-side aspects of organizations that had been outlined in books I had earlier read by Gerard Egan on this subject. His comments reinforced my long-held view that single-minded pursuit of so-called “rational” approaches to management were seriously flawed – even though traditional management practices and education still seem to take rational, goal-directed behaviour for granted.
An emerging theory
At a session of the Independent Change Management Forum during 1998, Stacey spoke at length about his developing thoughts on organizations as self-organizing processes. In particular, he was interested in the patterning nature of the brain and how this, too behaved in a self-organizing way. He argued that memories were not stored but recreated each time they were triggered by particular inputs. I recall that he was not too impressed at the time by my comment that Edward de Bono had described the self-organizing and patterning nature of the brain almost thirty years earlier, in his book The Mechanism of Mind!
He admitted that, at that time, he was in the early stages of his understanding but that he was excited enough by his research to share his emerging thoughts and theories. These drew on experiences of his own, as leader of some self-organizing therapy sessions, and the recent work of a number of writers on the working of the mind. One important corollary of his developing views was his suggestion that a central aim of leadership was to detect the themes that were emerging from the ongoing conversations and to articulate these in a way which would find resonance with those being ‘led’.
A ‘big’ conversation
In April 1999, our MSc in Managing Change community invited Stacey to run a full-day session on one of our residential weeks. On that occasion, he dealt in particular with the shadow side of organizations. By that time, the various strands of his thinking were coming together in a way which is now captured in his notion of Complex Responsive Processes. He underpinned this thinking with insights from the sciences of complexity; at that stage seeing organizations as examples of complex adaptive systems. In relation to my own thinking at that time, which was crystallizing around the notion of organizations as networks of self-organizing conversations, the conversation that Stacey led was particularly influential.
Stacey, and those around him who have participated in his doctoral programme, now use complexity science as a source of analogy for human action and interaction in organizations, rather than as a description of organizational behaviour. They see language and self-organizing conversations as being the main currency of organizational dynamics.
From this radical complexity perspective, the inevitable paradoxes and ambiguities of organizational life are never finally resolved but held in creative tension. This draws on insights into evolutionary theory emerging in the natural sciences, strands of social constructionist thought and process sociology in the social sciences and various psychological understandings of the dynamics at work in networks of human relationships. The Complexity and Management Centre seeks new ways of working with these ideas, emphasizing the self-organizing potential of ordinary conversation in which people reflect together on their personal experiences.
A number of books have emerged from this research, which have been published in two series:
Both series are edited by Ralph Stacey, Douglas Griffin and Patricia Shaw of the Complexity and Management Centre, University of Hertfordshire. These are published by Routledge in London.