In the previous post, I commented briefly on Ralph Stacey’s explanation of why he no longer sees his Certainty-Agreement matrix as a valuable framework for thinking about the complex dynamics of organizations. This same line of thinking underpins his criticism of systems thinking and of the related notion that there are different ‘levels’ of complexity.
Despite agreeing with the core of Stacey’s analysis and conclusions, I speculated that there might still be some value in recognizing both that complexity is inherent in every human interaction – however mundane – and, at the same time, that some of these interactions take place within a more complex context than others. Indeed, Stacey himself appeared to acknowledge that it might be possible to differentiate between situations of high and low complexity – if only with the benefit of hindsight.
So, does differentiating in this way make sense? And, if so, what would be the value in doing so?
Social objects and organizational sense making
First, I agree with Stacey that no ‘things’ exist outside of people’s ongoing interactions, whether these are spoken of in terms of systems, organizations, cultures or whatever. These constructs are what he would call “social objects” (after George Herbert Mead). That is, they don’t exist in physical form (you can’t put an organization in a ‘box’, so to speak). Instead, these reflect generalized tendencies for people to act in similar ways in similar circumstances. Stephen Billing, has a blog post specifically on this topic. And an earlier post of mine, Leading is a “doing word”, talks about our tendency to ‘thingify’ the organizational world.
However, by definition, these social objects or imaginary ‘wholes’ do affect the ways in which people make sense of things and decide how they are going to act, during their local (i.e. one-to-one and small group) conversations. As suggested in Informal Coalitions, the outcomes that emerge from these interactions include:
- new strategies, systems, processes, policies, structures and so on, that enter the formal arenas of the organization
- immediate local actions, both ‘legitimate’ and shadow-side, that people carry out in fulfilling their work roles and living their lives
- people coalescing informally around particular views of the world, with the aim of initiating, furthering or frustrating particular courses of action
- taken-for-granted assumptions, which become embedded over time
- 'overall' results, however these might be characterized by those who have the power to define what constitutes “success” and “failure”.
And these various outcomes impact on ongoing sense-making. So, for example, new structures, strategies and processes define – formally at least - who is supposed to interact with whom, about what, and how. These both enable and constrain ongoing sense making, by affecting the formal ‘logistics’ of the interactions and the power relationships that are at play. Similarly, the taken-for-granted assumptions tend to channel ongoing sense making, imperceptibly, down established patterns of thought and action.
And it is here, in relation to these ‘global’ (i.e. group-wide, organization-wide, industry-wide, societal etc) phenomena, that there might be an argument for recognizing that different 'degrees' of complexity will be implicit in the local conversational processes. To be clear here, I’m not suggesting that a nested set of “systems” exist at the group, organization etc ‘levels’, which can act in their own right. I’m just attaching these labels to suggest the differing ‘reach’ of these “social objects”.
The complexity of ordinary conversations
So, for example, a routine conversation between two or three junior colleagues will have all the characteristics of a complex social process (or complex responsive process, in Stacey’s terms). And this might well trigger an outcome which escalates – via further ‘local’ interactions – into ways of thinking and acting that have far-reaching and unforeseeable consequences. In this sense, this conversation would be no different from a ‘high-powered’ yet equally local conversation between a group of senior bankers, say. However, the latter conversation might well be influenced significantly and directly by such things as:
- diverse and conflicting interest-group agendas
- burgeoning legislative and regulatory constraints
- increasing sophistication (and reducing comprehension?) of technology, systems and processes
- greater speed, diversity and connectivity of social and informational networks across the globe
- powerful ideology about how the financial world works and the taken-for-granted assumptions that characterize this.
As such, it might be reasonable to see the latter interaction as ‘more complex’ than the former. And, in my view, this can be done without losing sight of the fact that these factors have themselves all emerged from, and are being sustained by, the self-organizing interplay of a vast array of ‘local’ conversations. Indeed, that’s how change happens!
In practical terms, paying attention to what’s happening in the ‘here and now’ of today’s conversation, might warrant placing particular emphasis on the nature and impact of this silent, ‘background conversation’. Although such a ‘conversation’ is 'going on' in the background of all interactions, it is likely to be ‘louder’, more intrusive and particularly impactful where, in the terms of Stacey’s framework, people find themselves far from agreement and far from certainty.
Also, the idea that these ‘global’ dimensions of complexity make some situations more complex than others has face validity for most people. So acknowledging this has the additional merit of starting from where most people ‘are’. This is then likely to increase their receptiveness to the idea that all interactions are complex social (or responsive) processes. And that, where people are involved, the process is neither simple nor ultimately knowable - even where conditions appear to be close to certainty and close to agreement.
So that’s where I’ve got to so far, in my efforts to put my 'gut feeling' on this into words. However, I’m more than happy for my arguments to be ‘shot down’, if the logic (of the messiness, that is!) doesn’t hold.
What do you think?