I have been a fan of Ralph Stacey’s work since I first purchased one of his early books (Dynamic Strategic Management for the 1990s) almost 20 years ago. In particular, I have been attracted by his willingness – eagerness even – to challenge conventional thinking and practice in relation to the leadership and dynamics of organizations. The latest edition of his textbook on the subject, Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics, continues this tradition.
Stacey's forensic examination of the established ‘body of knowledge’ exposes its hidden assumptions and points to some of the flawed thinking and practice that these foster. This is facilitated by a richness of thinking that draws on a range of academic disciplines, not just those conventionally associated with organizational management.
Subtitled The Challenge of Complexity, the latest book continues to showcase Stacey’s radical thinking on how insights from complexity science and other writing might usefully inform our understanding of organizational dynamics. In particular, it includes a comprehensive and up-to-date account of his thinking on organizations as complex responsive processes. This provides a distinctive perspective on organizational dynamics that Stacey has developed over the past ten years or so, ably supported by faculty colleagues and alumni of the University of Hertfordshire’s doctoral programme on organizational change.
Sadly, I am not a member of that community! However, other than in one specific respect (and, of course, some of the language and presentational style), this formulation is entirely consistent with how I see the dynamics of organizational change and performance, as set out in Informal Coalitions.
As demanded by a textbook, Stacey’s coverage of the subject extends well beyond this complex responsive processes view. Here again though, his treatment of the material differs greatly from that found in other books that purport to cover the same territory. As he states in the preface,
"This book … seeks to challenge thinking rather than describe the current state of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics."
And, as in its persuasive explanation of the importance of viewing organizations as complex responsive processes, it does not disappoint on this score.
Most particularly, in true Stacey style, it does not shy away from challenging what most organizational theorists and practitioners have come to regard as self-evident; that is, that organizations are multi-layered systems of individuals, teams, departments and so on. And this critical evaluation of systems thinking is applied as forcefully and insightfully to those theories that view organizations as complex adaptive systems (based on the ‘mainstream’ interpretation of the complexity sciences) as it is to those that emanate from the more conventional schools of strategic management. The latter include the theories of strategic choice and the learning organization, as well as open systems and psychoanalytic perspectives.
This fifth edition of the textbook bears little resemblance to the content and structure of the first edition, published some 15 years ago. Even at that time, though, Stacey was pushing boundaries and challenging conventional thinking. In those days, his concern was with the excessive focus placed by strategy textbooks on the relatively ‘safe’ terrain of what he referred to as "ordinary management". He emphasised instead the challenges that managers faced in coping with the instabilities, uncertainties and contentions that are characteristic of what, by way of contrast, he called "extraordinary management". However, whilst these terms and the associated ‘agreement-certainty’ diagram (opposite) are still highly regarded and frequently referenced by managers and consultants alike, Stacey no longer uses them to describe the dynamics of organizations. And so, this central plank of the first (and second) edition of the book - the need for managers to deal with the continuing tension between ordinary (formal, rational, legitimate, programmable) management and extraordinary (informal, a-rational, shadow-side, messy) management – doesn’t feature in the same way in his current conceptualisation of organizational dynamics.
Clearly many of the ideas that are central to the current edition were seeded in those early versions and have been carried through in a different form. But it is striking how dissimilar the first and fifth editions are. Most remarkable perhaps, given Stacey’s current stance, is the absence of any reference at all to conversation in the index of the first edition. Today, of course, conversation (the complex responsive process of human relating) sits at the heart of his conception of organizations. In this regard, I recall him generously sharing his thinking on the role that conversation plays in organizational dynamics, during two full-day learning events that I attended in 1998 and 1999. Although his ideas were still in their formative stages, they resonated strongly with my own emerging conception of organizations as dynamic networks of conversations. And this undoubtedly strengthened my resolve to place conversational interaction, shadow-side dynamics and paradox at the centre of my own thinking and practice.
I’m sure that Stacey and his colleagues will continue to develop further their thinking around organizations as complex responsive processes. Nevertheless, this fifth edition of Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics is a landmark academic text. As well as continuing to offer a well-argued critique of conventional management wisdom, it provides a unique and authoritative treatise on what is a truly distinctive application of the complexity sciences to organizational leadership and change.
Other posts on the site that may be of interest, include:
- Key Influence #1 - Ralph Stacey
- Complexity and Organizational Dynamics - Does it Make Sense to Differentiate Between 'Levels' of Complexity?
- Changing the Conversations - Patricia Shaw
- The Dynamics of Continuity and Change in Organizations - An Analogy. This post references the one area in which my view of organizational dynamics differs from that put forward by Stacey (in the paragraph headed "So where do these patterns of assumptions come from?").